A friend of mine (she’s a very serious person… let’s call her Rosemary for the sake of argument) recently posted an ultimatum on Facebook. Following a number of exchanges that had started off as sincere and well-meaning interventions, but had become increasingly confused, bitter, and nonsensical, she suggested that if “I can’t have a serious conversation on Facebook without misunderstanding, I will leave.”
Another friend (an equally serious person, but in an academically cynical kind of way… let’s call him Arthur) suggested that the only valid response, in true Facebook style, would simply be the comment “*waves*”, followed by a sarcastic, winking smiley.
I restrained myself from following his advice, and suggested to Rosemary, that she might be trying to use Facebook for a purpose that it wasn’t originally intended.
Between us, Arthur and I pointed out that this was the ‘Internet’ after all – a place where text bites are king, where points are made very quickly, or by allusion and tongue-in-cheek suggestion rather than by involved explanation, and where any extended form of text is likely to be read as the product of a kook or, at very best, someone delusionally dogmatic.
Rosemary’s response was perhaps predictable. She went quiet. Then, after a few days, she surfaced again with an attempt at another inappropriately well-meaning and very sincere conversation.
This time, I did post something sarcastic, but added a note (just in case she missed the point) saying “In the spirit of our last exchange, this is the kind of comment I was talking about.”
Her response? “I accept your sarcasm in the spirit it was intended.” And… then she carried on as before.
Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem – except for one thing: Rosemary is an activist… but is now just starting a PhD with a view to moving into academia… and appears to be doing so without an appreciation for how the skills required to navigate academia differ from those required to navigate activism.
How do I know this? Well, on a previous occasion, having submitted a paper to a journal and having received negative feedback about the quality of the argument and the tone of the paper – her reply wasn’t to take the advice and reposition the paper for an academic audience, it was to criticise the peer reviewers for a lack of solidarity.
Don’t get me wrong. I do think that academia can be a place where activism and objective critique rub shoulders, and where theory and praxis are entangled – but getting those things to work together requires a shift. And those who cannot understand how tomake the shift from activism to academia struggle, particularly when asked to do more than simply write stirring texts, and move into the politics of departmental reviews, REF submissions, funding distributions and the rest.
Those unable, or unwilling to learn those academic skills seem to view the idea that learning to be an academic is tantamount to betraying the activist cause – when actually, learning to be an academic might be the thing to best promote and move forward that same activism, but in a different way.
I don’t carry any responsibility for Rosemary, I’m not her supervisor, I’m just her friend – but I am professionally close to others who struggle with this… and it really pains me to see these deeply committed people frustrated.
I don’t think that medium and message are mutually exclusive… But it does take skill to blend them in such a way that activism and academia don’t just look at each other and think that the other is taking the wrong things all too seriously.