You would think after all the years of interdisciplinary academic programs being developed that we would have reached a time when we weren’t still so divided. But we are. We are stuck in our silos at the expense of social justice. Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about, and then I’ll talk about why I think it’s such a problem. Oh, and by the way, if you’ve read the “Silo” series by Hugh Howey (starting with the novel Wool), then you’ll be able to visualize the problem I’m talking about.
I attended Netroots Nation in Detroit in July 2014; this conference is considered the biggest progressive conference of the year. It was amazing, and I learned about various progressive issues, activist strategies, and more. However, I didn’t meet one other college professor, of any discipline. And I only met a few K-12 teachers. Almost everyone there was either a blogger, journalist, activist, and/or political candidate, and they all seemed quite invested in social justice. Where were the scholars, the college professors, and the K-12 teachers?
In April 2014, I attended a conference at Yale Law School called “Re-Envisioning Race in a ‘Post-Racial’ Era: New Approaches in Critical Race Theory.” All of the panels and presentations were inspiring and informative. The audience was almost primarily law faculty, law students, and practicing lawyers, even though anyone who follows current events who doesn’t have a law degree would have gotten so much out of the conference. Where were faculty, grad students, and undergrad students from other academic disciplines? Where were the high school teachers? Where were the activists unaffiliated with an academic institution?
We are doing such a disservice to the cause of social justice by cutting ourselves off from conversations and interactions with like-minded people who could teach us something valuable. We seem to congregate in conferences with people who have similar graduate degrees or similar positions. I’m certainly not discounting the value of that. For example, many of the classes I teach are composition, and it’s very helpful for me to spend some of my professional development interacting with other composition instructors at community colleges in order to share best practices for achieving our common goals. However, that can only be a piece of my professional and personal growth, only a small piece of the larger project of social justice. We have to think less about what discipline we’re in or what our job is and think more about what larger social problems we want to come together to discuss, analyze, and at least begin to resolve. How can we possibly know if the solution we come up with will work if we are only sharing it with people who have the same graduate degree as we do, who have the same type of job we do? I need to be able to talk to people outside of the discipline of English and even outside of academia altogether to know if my solutions even make sense.
Much of my blog (and my book project) is devoted to stereotypes that divide us, that keep us separated, that prevent us from coming together to form coalitions. I’m trying to raise awareness about those stereotypes so that we can dismantle them and build coalitions around common interests. I think something similar is going on here when it comes to divisions between academic disciplines and divisions between scholars and activists. We’re divided, for various reasons, some of which are not ill-intended, but the result is the same. We don’t come together across disciplines, across careers, to discuss the concerns that we share.
However, I did notice that as soon as the news from Ferguson spread across the country in August, it seemed that there were connections being forged across disciplines, across all types of communities. We can’t lose that momentum, and we can’t wait until a tragedy of that scale to make it happen. We have extremely serious problems that we need to tackle, from systemic racism to economic inequality to homophobia to climate change. We need to think about developing more issue-oriented conferences, open to anyone who is interested, that can foster dialogue and prompt change. I’m looking forward to attending Facing Race in November, where I hope to experience just that.
Until then, I’ll be sharing my ideas at UCLA Law School’s Critical Race Studies conference later this week on the 20th anniversary of Cheryl Harris’ law review article “Whiteness as Property,” which has had a tremendous influence on my thinking. It prompted me to envision a conversation between Harris and Joyce Carol Oates, particularly through Oates’ 1980 novel Bellefleur. While I don’t think that literary scholars are engaging enough with critical race theory, and I’ve been trying to change that, I’m hoping that I can inspire critical race theorists to see the interdisciplinary connections with literature, so we can begin to emerge out of our silos and work together for justice.