Losing the Tenure Track, Finding Activist Scholarship

By Julie Shayne

My first job out of graduate school (2000) was at a Southern private school. As Californians, the South could never feel like home to my now husband and me. So, in 2006 I resigned without another job waiting.[1] We then moved to the Seattle-area where I eventually landed at the University of Washington Bothell as a Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Prioritizing geographical quality of life allowed me to realize it wasn’t just the South that was a bad fit but the tenure track was as well.

Being off the tenure track allows me the opportunity to pursue my work without the pretense of political neutrality. At my previous institution I worked in a largely quantitative department where qualitative research was presumed less credible and tarnished by author biases. To counter that, those of us in similar situations are forced to overcompensate by couching our research in the facade of neutrality. In contrast, claiming my politics means I use the cultural capital and scholarly spaces available to me to stake claims about social justice and publish in ways that advance those claims. A feminist activist scholar, from my perspective, is one who explicitly claims and attempts to advance a social justice agenda within the spaces of higher education we occupy. In that capacity, I feel I work for social justice by 1) documenting hidden histories and 2) using my scholarship and teaching as an indicator of allyship to my students-of-color; especially Latinas. From a Latin Americanist feminist studies perspective, one of our most important political tasks comes from our documenting the contributions women, queer, feminists, and the marginalized more broadly, have made to Latin American history. Erasing women from history marginalizes them in the present, thus denying full citizenship to activists who reshaped their countries. Furthermore, by documenting and teaching these histories we are telling our Latina students that they matter; we stand in the front of the class as their allies.

Julie Shayne, Taking Risks
“Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas”

My commitment to documenting and teaching said histories motivated me to edit my newest book, Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas. I wanted the book to be a collection of stories of feminist/women’s agency and resistance in the Americas, and thus archives for social justice focused educators to use in our classes. Thus, I decided to explicitly articulate the political nature of my agenda and frame the book as activist scholarship. I co-authored the introduction and conclusion with Kristy Leissle and we read up on the literature about activist scholarship, working to situate this book in earlier discussions, especially those of senior colleagues who made advances to make sure off-track and non-tenured faculty could follow suit.[2] We reflected on our own work and I asked all of the contributors to do the same, elevating the connections we knew were there but we had yet been able to articulate. Taking Risks’ contributors are a trans-American group of artists, writers, and activists outside of academia, and scholars from the social sciences, humanities, and area studies covering a wide range of work from the Juárez femicide, to sex workers in Brazil, and beyond. Additionally, we discuss independent libraries in Cuba, writing as activism, Venezuelan community media, video archives in Colombia, Chilean exile feminists, memory activism in Argentina, rural feminists in Nicaragua, and domestic violence organizations in Texas. We reflect upon obstacles we’ve confronted as we prioritize socially relevant research questions and we rely on activists as our “experts” and their stories as our “data.”

As feminist activist scholars, we have all heard that this sort of research is not “objective;” it’s too “applied.” We do not refute this, per se. We are story listeners; our work is politically motivated. In Taking Risks the story tellers are Gramscian “organic intellectuals.” Similarly, we make explicit our political motivations as solidarity activists. Claiming our politics, we believe, advances social justice by allowing us to serve as on the ground allies. For us, “applied” scholarship means of value to those we “study.” Our retelling of activists’ stories lends cultural capital and institutional support while expanding their pool of potential allies. One of my favorite quotes in the book comes from anthropologist Victoria Sanford. She says,

It is not uncommon within the academy for lived experience to be dismissed as unscientific or not relevant to real,     objective scholarship. This is completely backward, because it is the academy that needs to be relevant to the reality of lived experience. Advocacy and activism do not diminish the validity of one’s scholarly research. On the contrary, activist scholarship reminds us that all research is inherently political—even, and perhaps especially, that scholarship presented under the guise of “objectivity,” which is really no more than a veiled defense of the status quo.”

(In Taking Risks, pg. xxi).

I have always believed this to be the case, but it took leaving the tenure track to be able to pursue a project which I framed around this very sentiment.

[1] I wrote an essay about this decision titled “Mother’s Day” which you can read here.

[2] For example, Engaged Observed, edited by Victoria Sanford and Asale Angel-Ajani (Rutgers, 2006), Engaging Contradictions, edited by Charles R. Hale (Univ of CA, 2008), and Activist Scholarship, edited by Julia Sudbury and Margo Okazawa-Rey (Paradigm Publishers, 2009).

Julie Shayne is author/editor of three books: Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas (editor), They Used to Call Us Witches: Chilean Exiles, Culture, and Feminism, winner of the Pacific Sociological Association’s 2011 Distinguished Scholarship Award, and The Revolution Question: Feminisms in El Salvador, Chile, and Cuba. She is a Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell and Affiliate Associate Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies & Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Washington Seattle.


3 thoughts on “Losing the Tenure Track, Finding Activist Scholarship

  1. There is nothing wrong if you prefer activism instead of research. The question is: how much of your scholarship is driven by your priors and how much by actual observation of the reality? Perfect neutrality in the production of knowledge is impossible, but should be the aspirational goal of academia. Research and activism are very different beasts.

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