Category Archives: academia

Maria Avila, Building Collective Leadership for Culture Change, book cover

Maria Avila et al., Building Collective Leadership for Culture Change: Stories of Relational Organizing on Campus and Beyond

Maria Avila is a great community organizer in the tradition of the Industrial Areas Foundation. I often assign her writing to introduce students to principles and strategies for organizing. For instance, this fall, our undergraduates read chapters of her Transformative Civic Engagement Through Community Organizing.

Her latest book is Building Collective Leadership for Culture Change: Stories of Relational Organizing on Campus and Beyond (Cornell University Press, 2023), which she wrote with contributions from Aixle Aman Rivera, Joanna B. Perez, Alan P. Knoerr, Kathleen Tornow Chai, and Philip A. Vieira and a foreword by George J. Sánchez.

This book reflects Maria’s turn to organizing in and from academia. After working in organizations in Chicago and Ciudad Juarez and organizing intensively in neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Albuquerque, she earned a PhD and held positions at Cal State Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) and Occidental College. She says she has used “parts of [the IAF organizing] model to guide my work” in academic jobs “and throughout my doctoral and postdoctoral research” (p. 34). Building Collective Leadership is about being “a civically engaged scholar and organizer,” one who “work[s] with others to create a more democratic, collaborative culture in academic institutions where I work, and in the communities with which I partner (p. 52).”

The model that Maria employs has five very practical components (pp. 38-9).

She starts by “conducting relational one-on-one meetings with people I think might be interested in my work, to learn about people’s self-interest through sharing personal and/or professional stories.”

One-on-one meetings are fundamental to the IAF approach and have a particular character. They are two-way conversations that explore connections between the discussants’ personal values and interests and shared or public issues. These meetings create relationships that are assets for public work. They are not simply friendly and private, nor are they transactional–trying to get another person to do or agree to something. They are the first step in deciding together what we should do.

Maria then invites people who have resonated to her work to join “projects I am working on, based on their interests.” She creates spaces where these people can share their “personal and professional stories,” make and execute plans, and reflect. She educates others about the organizing methods that she has learned and has helped to develop, and she organizes discussions (based on readings) about relevant methods, such as “participatory research in action, narrative inquiry, community organizing, and civically engaged scholarship.”

Building Collective Leadership describes such processes at generally increasing scales. Chapters 1 and 2 are mostly about Maria’s own background and research. In chapter 3, she and her colleagues Kathleen Tornow Chai and Enrique Ortega describe one-on-one interviews and intensive group discussions within CSUDH’s College of Health, Human Services, and Nursing, which shifted the culture of that academic unit.

In chapter 4, Aixle Aman Rivera and Ray López-Chang discuss a partnership involving Maria and a Los Angeles Unified School Board district that changed its office culture and daily practices. In chapter 5, the focus shifts to regional organizing across Southern California and a project to build an intercollegiate chapter of the national network known as Imagining America, which emphasizes the humanities and arts. Chapter 6 describes a particular Imagining America research project that connected CSUDH to student-led and community-based groups. Chapter 7 discusses a reform of the curriculum at CSUDH, when civic engagement was built into the General Education requirements. Importantly, this effort involved community partners from the start.

The book reflects many voices, sometimes in the form of co-authored narratives and sometimes as explicit dialogues among participants. Quite a few of the contributors use the opportunity to criticize prevailing norms and systems of US higher education. For example, CSUDH professor Joanna B. Perez contrasts her “parents’ teachings of humility, community, and service” to “the egocentric and competitive nature of academia” (p. 188). Maria aspires to act “in a relational and hopefully more humane way than what the competitive and siloed academic culture tends to allow” (p. 223).

These critical reactions fuel the desire for change. Speaking for myself, I think that higher education deserves criticism. But I also observe that people who effectively use relational organizing methods within institutions, such as universities or government agencies, often demonstrate underlying care, affection, and loyalty for those institutions and their people (including their leaders). In the terms defined by Albert O. Hirschman, they opt to use “voice” rather than “exit” because they are loyal. The missions, histories, and particular roles of entities like a Cal. State public university inspire them.

I say this because I think that community organizing is effective when there is some alignment between the organizer and the institution. When that is completely absent, it is better to organize outside the institution.

If you are a socialist, you should not take a job at a bank, thinking that it has a lot of money and you can organize from within to distribute the money to the people. You will be endlessly frustrated. You would be better off organizing pressure on the bank from outside–from governments, unions, or social movements–or possibly trying to build some kind of cooperative alternative to a bank that can compete with it effectively. Likewise, if you are a true libertarian, you should probably not become a civil servant, unless you are willing to treat your job as Ron Swanson does and gain your personal satisfaction elsewhere.

(To complicate the advice of the previous paragraph, I acknowledge that you might be a little bit of a socialist or a mild libertarian and still think that you can be helpful working for a bank or a government program. Or you might feel you have no choice: there is nowhere to work except at organizations you despise. But in the latter case, you should try to get out of this bind as soon as possible.)

If you do basically appreciate an institution, such as a university, then organizing within it will sometimes be frustrating and will sometimes fail, but it can be deeply satisfying. You will be able to use mission statements and official policies as resources, since you want to reduce the gap between public promises and actual performance. You will find some programs, funding streams, offices, and positions that are useful for your cause. You should be able to identify allies, since other employees (and students) will be drawn to the organization for similar reasons as yours. One-on-one interviews can reveal such shared motivations. If you’re fortunate, your work will be rewarded by colleagues and even supervisors, since you are fundamentally committed to their common purpose. I think it’s OK to acknowledge your love for an institution that you critically engage.

To be an effective organizer, you do not need positional power: the ability to tell subordinates what to do. Aman Rivera and López-Chang note that their purported positional power as city officials was often illusory, anyway (p. 109). (On the other hand, if you happen to hold a high office, Maria’s methods can still be useful for you). You do need hope, relationships, and good strategies. Building Collective Leadership exemplifies all three.

Activism and Objectivity in Political Research

I agree with the main argument of Michael L. Frazer’s “Activism and Objectivity in Political Research (Perspectives on Politics 2023, 21(4), 2023, pp. 1258-1269). Objectivity is usually a red herring. What we need is “active engagement with inconvenient evidence.” Frazer uses the word “evidence” to encompass both empirical data and conceptual or normative arguments. Evidence is inconvenient if it complicates or challenges our prior beliefs.

As Frazer argues, engagement with inconvenient evidence strengthens both research and activism. Therefore, the valuable question is not whether activist academics should or can be objective, but how any kind of thinker should engage with inconvenient evidence.

People who are both scholars and committed activists have the advantage that they know what they stand for, which can help them recognize which evidence they should wrestle with because it’s inconvenient. However, their engaged stance may make them resistant to such evidence. In contrast, a highly detached scholar may be less aware of implicit assumptions that need to be challenged, yet more comfortable exploring diverse views. I happen to value both kinds of colleagues.

I would add that scholars can be activists in many different ways. For example, I have served on about 30 non-academic boards or committees that make collective decisions. Sometimes in these deliberations, I present inconvenient evidence. This can be my particular contribution as an academic–someone who has the time and scope to explore a range of ideas. On the other hand, sometimes I hold back because I am sensitive to group dynamics and I believe that the organization has value even if I can’t completely endorse its current theory-of-change. Besides, tact is a virtue.

Sometimes I refrain from publicly expressing views that would challenge the public stance of a group to which I belong. On the other hand, involvement with a group may make me aware of current assumptions that I then want to study critically. In such cases, being an activist scholar actually promotes my engagement with inconvenient evidence. But I may choose the slower and quieter medium of academic scholarship or a seminar room to explore complications, so that I don’t disrupt the immediate needs of a group. Exiting and publicly disagreeing always remain options.

Belonging to groups involves literal accountability. I could be removed from a committee. A fiduciary board assesses staff and makes decisions about personnel and budget. Speech in this context has tangible implications and raises many ethical considerations.

The situation is very different if one’s activism consists mainly of addressing public audiences as an individual writer or speaker. Forcefully saying simple things may attract the most attention, but fame is a lure and temptation. I often wish that public intellectuals would be more humble and less certain.

We may also be hired to play a role within an organization, whether that is an academic entity like a university or a nonprofit or government agency. Then we are responsible for the effects of our public speech on our colleagues and students or clients. The organization may need to engage with inconvenient evidence, but introducing difficult ideas may not be timely or appropriate for a given employee. For instance, when you have positional authority over someone else, it can be wise to hold back one’s skeptical thoughts.

I would start with a view much like Frazer’s–and I appreciate his literature review–but I would then explore what “engagement with inconvenient evidence” means for people who play various roles in various social contexts. Often the genuine virtue of intellectual humility is in tension with other valid needs, and the question is how to negotiate those tradeoffs. To make matters even more complicated, many of us play multiple roles, and we fall on continua rather than within discrete categories. For instance, one may be more or less open to inconvenient evidence of various types while spending various amounts of one’s time and energy performing various functions in settings as diverse as a department meeting, a lecture room, a team writing a grant proposal, a community meeting, a political campaign, and a protest action. Both the ethical and epistemic issues are quite diverse and hard.

See also: making our models explicit; analytical moral philosophy as a way of life; du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; Civically Engaged Research in Political Science; Henry Milner, Participant/Observer: An Unconventional Life in Politics and Academia

spammy academic invitations

I am getting an average of more than one invitation to contribute to a journal every day. They are generally dubious, and some are deliciously so. These are among my favorites from the past two weeks:

Dear Doctor. Levine Peter,

Hope you are doing good…!

This is a reminder mail as we have not received any response from your end regarding manuscript submision.

The  Journal of Clinical and Medical Images (ISSN 2640-9615) (IF – 2.6)” is pleased to submit your valuable research to our esteemed journal.

Dear Levine Peter

We hope this letter finds you in good health and high spirits. It gives us great pleasure to cordially extend our invitation to you to attend the IPHC 2024 event. …

Greetings Levine P,

We have genuinely emailed you quite a lot of times but received no response, so we’d like to try once more as courtesy.

The most recent issue (New Edition) is missing one article. Could you please aid us by putting forward an article to this edition of the Journal of Pulmonology and Respiratory Research

Dear Doctor,

Hope you are doing well.

As you being eminent author in the field who have contributed excellent work. With an immense pleasure, we would like to request to help us release best quality articles for the Upcoming issue of the journal.

Dear Dr. Levine P,

Wishes for the day!

We are excited to announce the Call for submissions, an engaging platform for researchers, academics, and industry professionals to share their latest findings and insights. This invitation is dedicated to promoting open access to knowledge and fostering collaboration.

We invite you to contribute your expertise by submitting your research papers on diverse topics within Emergency Preparedness. This is an opportunity to showcase your work to a global audience and be part of meaningful discussions on the latest trends and advancements.

Hi, Doctor,

Greetings from “Current trends in Internal Medicine”

We have gone through your recent publications, have found them interesting, and are of Superior Quality. We would be grateful if you can submit your next paper for our volume-7, issue-04.

We are looking forward for a long and productive relationship with you.
Hoping for your positive reply.
Have a nice day.

core curricula without the concept of the West

This post is prompted by Stanford’s new Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) requirement. Stanford makes no claim to present something called “Western Civilization” in chronological order. Instead, it assigns texts about common themes from diverse sources. I basically want to endorse this approach (which is not unique to Stanford).

Shared readings provide the basis for focused conversation that can encompass disagreement. I also see an argument for choosing works that illuminate the ideas, values, and institutions that have become globally dominant in the wake of European imperialism, which we can assess both critically and appreciatively. However, I cannot see a legitimate rationale for selecting authors and texts that are labeled “Western.”

Important lines of influence have always crossed any border that would demarcate the West, which has itself been deeply diverse. The word “West” sometimes names the countries where the majority populations are seen today as white, but that is an indefensible basis for selecting sources. A tenable justification would have to explain how something called the West is both internally consistent and intellectually distinct (whether for good or ill); and I don’t see a basis for that.

It’s true that some works from non-European regions extoll community and denounce individual selfishness or advance holistic and integrated metaphysical views. These texts are taken as evidence that “the West” is uniquely materialistic, dualistic, and individualistic. But authors from traditions like Buddhism would not have taken the trouble to argue so forcefully against materialism and selfishness if those values had been limited to people thousands of miles to their west. Their elaborate and sometimes urgent arguments to their own compatriots provide evidence that the values labeled “Western” have actually been widespread in many times and places. Meanwhile, Europe has produced powerful voices for mysticism, communalism, and deep ecology.

I’ll quote a passage from Leo Strauss, not to criticize him individually (even though I once published a roman-à-clef about him), but as an illustration of a view that I think was commonplace not long ago:

All the hopes that we entertain in the midst of the confusion and dangers of the present are founded, positively or negatively, directly or indirectly, on the experiences of the past. Of these experiences, the broadest and deepest—so far as Western man is concerned—are indicated by the names of two cities: Jerusalem and Athens. Western man became what he is, and is what he is, through the coming together of biblical faith and Greek thought. In order to understand ourselves and to illuminate our trackless way into the future, we must understand Jerusalem and Athens.

Leo Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Introductory Reflections (Commentary, June 1967)

One premise here is that modern European ideas derive from two main sources, classical Greece and ancient Judaism. Perhaps Strauss also thought that the resulting ideas were good or true, although I suspect his own view resembled the deeply skeptical argument that he attributes to Nietzsche in the same article.

Regardless of Strauss’ ultimate position, my focus here is not the claim that it’s valuable to understand the intellectual history that flows from “biblical faith and Greek thought.” I object to following that history only through European countries and their colonies.

We might envision Athens as a label for a set of contesting ideas that emerged in the Greek classical period, and treat it as node. We might likewise use Jerusalem as the name of a node that represents the various strands of ancient Judaism. Some thinkers of the Hellenistic period connected these nodes, forming the basis of Christianity. For example, when John writes (in Greek), “In the beginning was the logos,” he combines these two sources.

Zooming out from those two nodes, we can identify many influences on both. The Hebrew Bible describes a people who were profoundly connected to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Greek thought drew on the same sources, plus South Asia and perhaps Scythia. For example, Pyrrho of Elis may have been a Buddhist and was certainly influenced–as were several other Greek philosophers–by his travels in India.

The nodes labeled Athens and Jerusalem then radiated influences on many periods and places. Leo Strauss was an expert on the ways that Greek philosophy and Hebrew scripture shaped classical Islam. One center of medieval Islam was Spain, from which Greek and Jewish ideas and texts spread to Catholic Europe. The first people to depict the Buddha in statuary were Indo-Greeks, while Catholic monasticism may be modeled on India’s bhikkhus and sanyasis. Examples of such radiating influence could be explored endlessly.

It is then very odd to name the zone that was influenced by Athens and Jerusalem as “the West.” The influences of Greece plus ancient Judaism extend, for example, to predominantly Muslim Indonesia, which lies at the east end of Asia. Jerusalem is also in Asia, and Athens is far to the east of (say) Marrakesh. Until the 1800s, the word “west” referred to a compass direction and bore no other implications. The first use that I can find that clearly defines the West in terms of culture–or race–is from 1892, around the apogee of European imperialism. By the way, one reason that the phrase “Western civilization” then became prevalent was a deep anxiety about the condition and prospects of Europe, especially following the First World War.

Studying a canon of works that relate to Athens and Jerusalem has value. For one thing, it’s an opening to discuss extraordinarily diverse and contesting ideas. But defining its scope as the countries where most people have had white skin is untenable.

See also: the history of the phrase “the West”; Europa was an Asian woman, and other thoughts on the definition of Europeto whom do the ancient Greeks belong?Jesus was a person of color; The lack of diversity in philosophy is blocking its progress (in Aeon)

Graph: Web of Science citations by language, data from Bordon ans Gomez 2004

English dominance in academia

On a recent quick trip to a smallish European country (Czechia), I was reminded of the dominance of English in broad reaches of academic life.

We Anglophones have the privilege of being able to travel almost anywhere and enjoy rich discussions in our native tongue. This also means that English idioms and conceptual schemas are hugely influential, while specialized vocabulary can lag in other languages. And most of the world’s people face an additional burden when they try to use research: it’s mostly in English. As a Quebecois scholar writes (Lord 2023):

«Cette internationalisation de l’enseignement présente également quelques défis, importants notamment celui de préserver une culture nationale en recherche et un accès à la recherche scientifique dans les communautés locales.» (“This internationalization of education also presents some important challenges, notably preserving a national research culture and access to scientific research in local communities.”)

In many countries, citation counts are used to assess individual scholars and whole universities. That method is always problematic, but an additional problem in most of the world is that papers published in English–and in English-language journals–almost always have higher counts. In fact, controlling for other factors, English is statistically related to the number of times an article is cited (Di Bitetti & Ferreras 2017).

Two Spanish scholars (writing, not surprisingly, in English) calculate the trends captured by the Web of Science from 1980 to 2000. I present their data in the graph with this post. Overall, English represented 84.5% of all articles in 1980, rising very smoothly to 95.9% in 2000. Spanish–which has more than half a billion native speakers–is invisible on my graph, with 0.3% of all articles in 2000. (Bordons & Gomez 2004). The authors don’t calculate Chinese or Hindi.

In countries whose languages were never widely spoken, university life was always conducted in one or more foreign languages. Latin yielded to French or German, before shifting to English after WWII. But even languages that have hundreds of millions of speakers and/or international prestige seem endangered today in academia. Bordons and Gomez calculate that 59% of articles by French authors, and 62% by German authors, were written in English in 1980, rising to 89% and 90% (respectively) by 2000. I haven’t found more recent statistics, but that trend would lead to an English monopoly if it continued.

These data come from Web of Science. Although that database includes humanities, social sciences, and law, it tilts to the STEM fields, as do all citation counts. My own humanities and social science articles from the last few years are sole-authored publications that required many weeks of my work, and they will not receive any citations for quite a while. Being cited requires another scholar to read the piece, write an article that cites it, and then navigate a publication process that can take years. In contrast, I was part of two public health publications in 2022, along with co-authors. Each required hours of work from me. Just months after appearing, they already have 19 published citations between them. STEM simply involves a much higher volume and faster pace, basically swamping the humanities in numerical terms.

I mention this point about STEM because any data about publications will likely underestimate the humanities, where the written languages are probably more diverse. I find that when I want to know about specific works of art or literature, Google Scholar will often yield results in languages other than English. Nevertheless, English is dominant in academia as a whole, and its share appears to be growing.

References: Lord, F. R. (2023). La communauté universitaire sous tensions: analyse des dynamiques de communication et de gestion entourant la création d’une université (Doctoral dissertation, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières); Di Bitetti, M. S., & Ferreras, J. A. (2017). Publish (in English) or perish: The effect on citation rate of using languages other than English in scientific publications. Ambio, 46, 121-127; Bordons M and Gomez I. 2004. Towards a single language in science? A Spanish view. Serials 17: 189–195