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Last week I went to Macquarie University to the Everyday Multiculturalism Conference [Day Two on Cronulla] to present a paper on the Cronulla Riots. My paper was on bonding processes for groups of young men and localism - a territorial process of surfing.

Key to the day was the involvement of community groups, as well as academics. In fact, the organisers copped a bit of flak for the language being used in the call for papers. It was suggested that the general public wouldn't be able to take part in the dialogue if the material to be presented wasn't made accessible enough.

On the day I found myself struggling with the abstraction that kept being put forward in the papers, and obtuse language being used to address the issues arising out of December 11, 2005 and its aftermath. While some papers, such as the opening address of Greg Noble, tried to make sure everyone would feel comfortable at the conference, many of the other papers didn't. There was repeated reference to dense academic theory and abstraction. Just backing, say the work of RW Connell or Emmanuel Levinas, up to the event and using it to explain what happened doesn't work. (In fact Connell is wrong about gender, but that's another post) Such a tactic distances us from what happened, the people involved and says: 'the evnt is interesting to my work and career'.

Theory IS important to analysis, and new langauge has to be used to unpack diffcuolt events. However, there is a time and place for it. Nothing was learnt by some speakers from the attack on the organisers [who tried to set up the community academic engagement from the outset]. I overheard a lot of comments asking what the hell the speaker meant and what planet they were from. Some people were polite about it, others were not. In the sessions, it often felt as if the speakers were talking 'about' Cronulla rather than engaging with it. Many papers felt very 'academic' and pretty far from what happened. All nice in theory, but so what? What were the speakers going to do with the material politically? How were their lives affected? What could be done on the ground?

In the afternoon there was a special session by community workers from Cronulla and other suburbs that were implicated. The speakers were very clear in the way they spoke - too many powerpoints but - yet simplified what were important areas, like racism etc. They also were pretty passive aggressive against the academics present, and some even challenged the academic analysis by refuting some of the confusing questions asked of them. I felt that the community workers still had the old 'ivory tower' opinion of academics.

What happened was that there was far too little to and froing in discussion as people had their guards up, so to speak.Future collaborative work was put in jeopardy.

We need to address the disjuncture between the theory we use as academics, the way we analyse things, and what the community wants , and quickly. I can't really blame the community and general public because they came along to the conference in the understanding that the talks would be in everyday langauge. But they weren't. Hence the frustration that bubbled along.

As academics we need to be situated in our talks, and work hard at translating the theoretical material so that others have access to it and the opportunity to debate it alongside us. It's not easy and can be very draining and expose us to critique more. Particularly when we are the work. We have to work twice as hard to make our work theoretically sound, but also very accessible. Our ocmmunity engagement needs to be very visible. Not to blow our own horn so to speak but to evidence our solidarity with community work and be seen to be 'putting ourselves politically on the line too' (in ways the public understand to be political). In this way we won't alienate the very people who would like to work alongside us and we would like to work with.

I know academics do community work all the time, but something was missing at the conference. Soething that demands us to revisit when we want to engage in very public debates and speak in ways that allow others into the work we do.

NB: Crossposted at blownglass

Comments

Clif,

Beyond the specifics of the day, with which I am not familiar, you seem to be making a number of general points here, which for the most part I agree with. Firstly, you suggest that academics need to properly address the context in which they present their work. This point cannot be faulted: it seems self-evident that a paper will need to be tailored to its audience and successfully negotiate the space of its delivery.

Your criticism of the method of "backing up" a theory to an event is also an important point, and one which I agree with. However, suggesting that such an approach communicates careerism is less than generous. I suspect you are really trying to make a theoretical point stemming from insights gained during your own empirical work, rather than really making this observation. One could equally say (falsely, I think, but with equal basis) that a certain kind of publicly engaged work is also a 'career move'.

My only real objection to this post is the imperative that you present as part of your argument: I would call it the 'urgency imperative'. Within the context of the example you are discussing, I agree that the problematic of addressing non-academic audiences has to be dealt with, with some urgency. In general, however, academic work is not necessarily about addressing issues in a small time-frame. If it has a specific value, it is not in its theoretical vocabulary, but in the level of disengagement and distance it is afforded from its objects. Which is not to say that academic work is ever able to operate in a total vacuum, but urgency is so often deployed against it in this way, when urgency is simply not the modality of academic work.

If anything, I would suggest that intellectual generosity is not only lacking on the side of academics, but that there is also a kind of a priori objection to academic work operating in Australian public culture. I think that this situation actually requires reflection, rather than urgent intervention. Perhaps - and I'm sure you'll agree with this - those organising the next event of this kind also need to reflect on how they address both academic and non-academic contributors, well in advance.

Regarding the self-evident: Nah, it mustn't have been self-evident to tailor one's work to the audience, otherwise I wouldn't have this situation.

Regarding 'careerism': My point was that's what was communicated to some people present - and they told me so. So there's a need to unpack why that would be communicated and not the disengaged modality of academic work you point to - probably because people don't 'get' that disengagement.

Reflection is valid, and of course its needed. But the community workers don't get the time to 'reflect' like many of us do. Hence,why they probably don't get this mode of analysis. So best we begin explaining it and why its necesary/valid.

Regarding Urgency:
I didn't say the issues about Cronulla had to be solved quickly - is that what your saying I meant? I know that applying a time-frame to academic work is stupid. Why would you think I was suggesting that? The structure of my post?

My 'urgency imperative' was to hasten about setting up more opportunities to exchange work and operate alongside community groups. This way we can get stuck into working out 'together' how to overcome the blockages that seem to repeatedly come up and hinder cooperation and promote misunderstanding. It's not the academic work that I'm hastening but the practical stuff.

This may involve getting out to community centres and being on the ground there, and probably vice versa too. We need to be seen and heard in their turf and they need to be seen and heard on ours, so to speak.

regarding Generosity: I know there is a lack of generosity on the part of many in the Australian public. My mates are first hand experience of that.Jeez, I've literally copped punches in the mouth regarding this. But why is this the case?

I reckon it's because for a long time some in the academy in Australia have spoken AT the public and ABOUT them, and continue to do so. So they're pissed off at us 'academics' and so continue see us as disconnected from them. Not a good platform to build from I'm thinking. I can't do anything about their attitude unless I make some clear moves so they see my effort to include them.

So I'm asking what am I going to actively do now about building the bridges and to increase the flow of information both ways?

[Aside: As far as 'publically engaged' work being a career move, I'm doubtful regarding it being so anyway for an 'academic career':) In fact, it probably works against people for not being 'rigorous' or for being too involved, or whatever. A friend of mine was attacked recently for writing a trade publication for 'the masses'. Much of this work is not DEST measurable also, as far as I know]

Having been a community worker before I was a PhD student, this tension is familiar to me! (and there I go drawing on Personal Experience!). Anyway, I can write a more considered post on this later but for now I imagine that, as Adam says, "those organising the next event of this kind also need to reflect on how they address both academic and non-academic contributors". I know this to be practically a very important thing in order to have these conversations across the 'academic' and 'community work' audiences who have different vocabularies and dispositions because they do different (though related) work. Also there's a conference coming up which might be an opportunity to think this through a bit more, too which you probably all know about: 'New Racisms: New Anti-Racisms', URL http://www.usyd.edu.au/news/93.html?eventid=1346

Clif,

What I object to most in the original post is the part where you say "All nice in theory, but so what?" and devalue what you argue is a distance from the events, from political action, from "the ground" itself. I'm sorry, but I think that most academic work is grounded just fine, even as it does construct a kind of reflexive distance, and that just because there is a sense of urgency in the community doesn't mean that researchers should switch to some totally different mode of address. Unless, of course, they participate knowingly in a forum where that will be required of them, which I think was your initial point.

In your response you also offer an explanation of anti-intellectualism:

"I reckon it's because for a long time some in the academy in Australia have spoken AT the public and ABOUT them, and continue to do so. So they're pissed off at us 'academics' and so continue see us as disconnected from them."

I find this narrative unconvincing. "About": of course, in a way. But "at"? Where and when are academics given the press time to genuinely piss people off with their alleged failings? I think what is more prevalent is a certain mobilisation of an image of intellectuality that is deployed in aid of all kinds of different agendas.

To address your aside - and aren't they always where the meaty bits end up? - I would point to the part of my response where I use the word "falsely". I think both trajectories are equally prone to the 'careerist' characterisation in different contexts, and that this characterisation is almost always a false, spiteful accusation.

*sigh* This debate is being made into a larger one that I am not comfortable with, and that is taking my original post well out of its context. I thought I was clear in not blaming anyone, although I do think the academics had a responsibility at the conference because there is a time and place for theoretical work.

My comment 'nice in theory, but so what?' was in the context of the conference and not an attempt to devalue other modes of academic work. I think that is being placed upon my shoulders. There was no point telling the session I was in to practice Levinasian Ethics if they don't know what it is and how to practically pursue it.

My explanation of 'anti-intellectualism' draws on what has been said to me, and is a reflection of being alienated and violently assaulted for my intellectualism. And I am pretty tame as an intellectual because I'm not too cluey and tend to speak and write in pretty basic ways. I don't understand a lot of what is written and said at Uni even though I've been here for years so I guess others who don't have the training must have problems too.

I'm suggesting I need to look for a way out of this impasse and if I have to take the steps by working harder and making my work and other work more accessible then so be it.

I do think I am going to take the steps. I feel like I can get upset all I like about my modality not being appreciated but then I remain at a stalemate. I need another answer.

If others don't want to adapt their modality all well and good, I did not intend to tell them to, hence the personal tone of my comments and posts.

I know I wrote 'the event is interesting to my work and career'. This was again in the context of the conference and was an attempt to channel some of the sentiments I picked up on. I think it genuinely reflects misunderstanding rather than spite.

This larger debate is something that you obviously have been thinking about for a bit and I am now having to explain myself. And its made me feel very uncomfortable. It is not a debate my post was aiming to address.

Clif,

I appreciate that I have taken your post somewhat out of context, but I was really only interested in the wider implications of how you talked about those events, and can otherwise only agree with the points you make. I think your injunction to those giving papers at the conference, and at any event with non-academic constituents, asking that they think about their audience and about how the effects of their modes of delivery are potentially off-putting, is a very important point indeed.

I'm sorry that you feel that I am burdening you with too broad a debate, when your intentions were only to discuss the context itself. I don't think anybody will think less of you if you don't want to continue the discussion at this point. I was only concerned about the way that some of what you wrote mobilised a way of talking that is almost ubiquitous, and, I feel, not really very useful in itself.

I think that the agenda that you have taken up can be separated from that rhetoric, however. It actually seems to be a more complex pedagogical project than the tone in which it was voiced suggests.

I am concerned that you have twice described violent anti-intellectualism as an aspect of your life, and a hazard of your work. This is something that I have never really experienced, and I can appreciate that those experiences affect your priorities. My experience of anti-intellecutalism is limited to its articulation in the media, and occasionally in very 'civil' social situations. Perhaps that explains my own wariness of certain ways of talking, and also my failure to recognise the importance of some kinds of public communication.

'that some of what you wrote mobilised a way of talking that is almost ubiquitous, and, I feel, not really very useful in itself'

yeah, not useful at all. And I don't like it as much as you. But it's a sentiment I come up against almost on a daily basis. And it needs to be answered.

So what are the answers? I have to be able to 'do' something about it on this daily and everyday basis. And the dialogue with community organisations and bettering the accesibility of my work are the best tactics I can think of at the moment.

A debate about the merits of this modality is something worthwhile, but how to literally cope in the meantime?

hi all,

my first time posting here, so hopefully it'll all go well.

I wanted to relate a teaching experience I had earlier this semester. As you may know, I teach an undergrad unit, Cultures of Masculinities. After the introductory lecture a male student approached me and asked if the course was 'feminist'. He told me that he was a committed masculinist and that he had struggled in other courses in which one J Butler appeared in the set reading list. I replied that disagreement with any particular argument or reading is fine, but that students are expected to engage with those ideas. (ie disconnected ranting can't pass muster)

Afterwards, I thought about how my reply might sound like a cop-out with a 'pedagogical' response to what at first blush looks like a 'political' question. But more on that later.

Week 2: On the menu is Sedgwick's concept of homosocial desire and homosocial bonding. The next day the avowed masculinist (well, I'm assuming it's him) posts a comment on a forum page of 'Dads on the air', a father's rights community radio station based in Sydney. He commits himself to reporting on what the Dep't of Gender Studies thinks about men. The tone of his post about Cultures of Masculinity is set early. He comments about Sedgwick's ideas:
'Homosociety and Power: How males force society to look at itself as male-centric, and why fathers aren't as capable of looking after their kids as their mothers.'

What's interesting about this comment, I think, isn't that he got it wrong. (I didn't say anything even closely resembling those comments.) But why - or how - did he get it wrong in this particular way? The instructive point for me, then, has been the realisation that it is because this student is engaged in a conversation with 'committed' others, he's not able to engage in dialogue with, say, Sedgwick. Returning to the question of pedagogy I raised earlier, however, I wonder if the emphasis on engagement can highlight (for the student) what it is that his political investment blinds him to? I hope so.

Anyway, his post was the catalyst for a number of other posts which attacked gender studies courses on masculinity and men. The author of one such response ended up complaining to the Sex discrimination office at Sydney Uni.

As the legal entity for such an accusation the School replied to this complaint, but I was involved in drafting the response. This was a useful exercise because it got me thinking about what it is that a course like Cultures of Masculinity does and why it matters. While I'd like criticisms of what I do to be less paranoid and hostile in advance of my actually doing or saying anything, the whole episode was a reminder that gender is something people think and feel very strongly about. So what we do is important (and risky) because it interrogates those thoughts and feelings.

Hey Michael,

You may want to post this as a standalone piece

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