Cornel West — Public Intellectual Labor versus Academic Labor

I laugh to myself when I hear some academics agree with Michael Eric Dyson’s assertion that Cornel West has not produced any significant scholarship in years and that somehow makes Cornel academically unproductive. What have many of these critics produced? Perhaps a dissertation followed by a book at most. Who really reads their book? Perhaps an auntie, two friends, and fifty persons on the publisher’s subscription list.

These academics understand well that it is difficult or impossible to balance academic scholarship production, mentor young academics, mentor fans, serve on college committees, regularly accept local and international speaking engagements from which the college benefits, take care of family, take care of physical body, attend to mental health, and consistently serve the community as a grassroots activist. Cornel West balanced all these things and excelled. Yet these academics continue to point out that he has abandoned academic principles.

What do they mean? I don’t know. For what is the purpose of academic utility if it devalues the relationship of scholarship productions and accessibility to everyday people. If regular people do not understand how to enact fancy theories in academic productions in order to mobilize change, what does that say about the goals of academic labor?

Parts of the culture of higher education so annoys me—the snobbery, the laziness when it comes to engaging everyday people, the cowardice as it concerns the need to boldly articulate political positions without dodging behind other people’s quotations, and the tunnel-vision mindset that only values the production of consistent scholarship.

Some of these academics will tell you that it is not their passion to engage with everyday people. They argue that scholarship production by itself is intellectual activism. By expanding the notion of activism to include themselves, these scholars benefit by adding it to their CVs, resumes, and interview revelations. All in all, it makes their academic portfolio looks diverse: they have been eating bread and butter with the common folk, thus remedying their elitist-privilege guilt.

Observing this widespread 21st Century intellectual hustle, I can’t be mad, because academia, like many other corporatized spaces, is a hustling ground, purporting to be a venue of moralizing knowledge access, and a philanthropic service space. But that won’t stop me from wondering—how can they truly investigate the people they attempt to theorize without a commitment to engage those people frequently?

I, for instance, notice some academics claim they are studying people of color. Hearing their conversations, you realize they have an interest in issues of color that are written in books but not necessarily people of color. Indeed they can tell you everything about Rigoberta Menchú, Indira Gandhi, Junot Diaz, and James Baldwin. Yet they have no friends or close associate who are people of color. They have never visited or slept over in a community of color. And they make no commitment to understand the everyday, unwritten, sociologies of people of color. They suffer no guilt; because, in their heads, they are occupying spaces of color in archives and books. What more do you want them to do?!, they are perhaps saying now.

Nevertheless, the system of tenureship and professorial awards, in many cases, rewards academics who skillfully deploy all these annoying characteristics I highlighted. Many college professors are the finest when it comes to digging through archives and synthesizing theories to formulate published research-paper sociologies that affect lives. But many of these same ones are horrible at teaching, they have no intention to address their pedagogical disabilities, they consistently score low on teachers evaluations, and they do not have the skills and just don’t care about mingling with everyday people with grassroots access.

The problem is that as early as my community-college-education years, I realized such professors often are the department bulldogs, the gatekeepers of tenureship for other scholars who are not only doing research but are also bringing their message to the public in the way Cornel does. This is one of the many reasons I decided to do doctoral studies. I wanted to learn about what these professors know and be able to translate new knowledge to people with grassroots access. Do I regret my decision to do doctoral studies? Absolutely not. I am having the fun of my life, but things need to be said.

Cornel’s methods might not be always polite to or respectful of those who value political strategies different from his, but shouldn’t public-intellectual labor be respected as academic labor? Yes, Cornel has said some nasty things about Michael Eric Dyson, who has the right to return the literary nastiness. Dyson’s The Ghost of Cornel West and his supporters’ views, however, have made us aware of their lack of appreciation for academic labor whenever it shares a physical space with peoples who have grassroots access.

Posted in Politics Education, Race Matters, Uncategorized

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