Pracademvists. Turning academia on its head

“Where is the METHODOLOGY??”, she yelled and screamed at me.

I wasn’t exactly sure how to react to this screeching, hysterical white woman who had taken it upon herself to humiliate and talk down to me, between mouthfuls of her lunch, in front of her two male colleagues, who sat quietly throughout my ordeal.

I chose not to engage with this display of brazen arrogance and high-handedness. And that was the end of my very short-lived career in teaching in higher education in Pakistan. Or anywhere.

I will not divulge too many details of this event. But suffice it to say, this was a newly established elite private university in Pakistan, which prided itself on its bold new approach and extensive liberal arts curriculum. It also prided itself on hiring white academics to teach in a country most of them had never even visited before. But this story isn’t about white fascination that non-white countries have and how we beholden ourselves to them. Though that is an important part of a larger story which includes education.

This is about how we view education and its (ir)relevance in today’s warped and conflicted society. The “methodology” in question, which spurs this discussion, was for a course I had designed on a particular subject for consideration by the university, which was deemed to be inappropriate by the lady in question. More so because she claimed she was the “scholar” on the subject and I did not seek out her “assistance”, in the course design, as I was but a lowly, non-academic practitioner who had no right to express my own way of imparting the subject matter.

And herein lies the age-old tension between academics and practitioners. We hate each other. But that is what the system has been designed to do. 

I was never a fan of theory during my days as a student. I studied it because I had to and it was valuable knowledge. But I never understood its application to daily, practical life. Particularly in my field of global development. More so, when I graduated from a foreign (white) university and chose to begin my career as a field researcher in a non-white country (thankfully my own).

During my career as an NGO employee, consultant and researcher, not once did I apply any of the development theories I had learned. Not Marx, not Weber, not any of the development theorists, not one. I never denied the existence of that knowledge, but I never really used it either.  My knowledge came from those who I worked and interacted with. Ordinary people. And within that, I ended up devising my own “theories” (read understanding) of what development, politics, economics and society was all about.

But the resistance of academia to use this knowledge, or to be open to any other form of knowledge beyond theoretical frameworks, is mind boggling. Reality isn’t just about theory. Its about practise. And likewise, the resistance of higher education institutions anywhere in the world, to employ those with applied practical knowledge of subjects, is equally mind boggling. Coupled together, these two aspects make higher education, in my view, irrelevant to students, especially those who want to change the world for the better.

Added to this redundancy in academia, is the new wave of activism that is taking hold in many countries. Not just among students, but among communities in general. The need to speak up and fight for a particular cause is growing more and more popular. Be it climate justice, women’s bodies, global health or land rights, citizens are becoming more vocal in their resistance, translating it into a new form of knowledge altogether. Knowledge that is real, raw and real-time.

While there has been on-going discussion on building a bridge between academia and practise – the so-called “pracademics” – there is now this third aspect that binds knowledge together. What I term – for lack of a better term – “pracademvists”.

The idea is not to push out one or replace the other. It is to combine these different avenues of knowledge as education. The issue is not that only one can be relevant but that all have their equal place in creating well-informed individuals who can go out into the world with more realistic options. And they do overlap. Just like a Venn diagram. We need to know something about history, past thinkers, and how they view society, to be able to see how society really lives and how people in that society react to decisions made about their lives.

We will never know the commonalities and differences between these different elements unless we all make space for each other at the same level. And that should be what education must be really about. My view of the subject I wanted to teach as a practitioner, was obviously different from how an academic viewed the subject. But who says there can’t be two different ways of looking at the same thing? Who says that “scholarship” has to be approached for approval to teach. Indeed, who made the rule that only a PhD can teach? (Another road block is the fictionalized position of a “Professor of Practice” in academia. I often think that with my range of experience, I have at least two PhDs under my belt, but higher education still doesn’t take me seriously because I don’t have a degree that supposedly authorizes the epitome of knowledge).

As a non-academic researcher I always ask, why do we need a theory behind a methodology? Why can’t we instead present a lived historical experience of a process to define our approach? Indeed, why do we even need a methodology at all sometimes (I can sense the white scholar lady breathing fire). This is not denying the importance of theory, but the existence of an alternative. Why doesn’t academia believe in alternatives? In a hypothetical world where I have the option to teach on equal footing as a practitioner, I don’t want to be forced to assign students a reading list, as most course curriculums dictate. Instead, I want them to pick readings of their choice and explain why. Why should I be forced to fit in a pre-determined square? (And if you like this idea please give it credit).

One of the reasons why our future generations are finding it hard, I feel, to connect with reality, is because they are not exposed to it during their time as students. Courses designed by academics choose to incorporate this reality under the guise of guest lectures, or a field visit or two. But you can’t impart knowledge if you have not faced the consequences of your subject first hand. If you want to introduce a course on civil resistance movements, why can’t a member of that movement teach it? Not as a visiting whatever, but actually someone who is perpetually part of that movement, out on the streets every day, as much as they are in the classroom. And someone who can be viewed on an equal footing as those who have chosen teaching as their career?

And who says academics can only teach? Or that practitioners can only practice and activists can only protest? Each one of us can also do the other. If academics can be consultants and policy advisors, why can’t practitioners teach? If practitioners can implement programs, why can’t activists also do the same, if they want to? And vice versa? Why do we insist on compartmentalizing ourselves? That isn’t education. It’s a power trip.

I envision a world where institutions of higher education do not discriminate against their Faculty – because discrimination it is – based on their theoretical prowess or degree culpability. I envision a campus where theoreticians, practitioners, and even hard-core activists, move seamlessly together. Where there is no discrimination based on who is “qualified” to teach and who isn’t. Based on the value of what each can bring rather than only one. Where we are just guides and not Professors (practice or otherwise).

The “pracademvist” is just one iteration of our changing landscape. There will be other forms of knowledge that will eventually also blend in. Indigenous knowledge, community knowledge, political knowledge. We must incorporate these different forms into our understanding of education and we must let them all breathe in the same space (and receive the same status, salaries and benefits). Letting them exist in silos will only dilute the power of knowledge further. 


One thought on “Pracademvists. Turning academia on its head

  1. Pingback: Activist or Academic or Both? The Quandary of Scholactivism for the Minoritised in the Ivory Tower | Foluke's African Skies

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