knowledge trajectories

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a class. A very long time. I’m sitting in on a methods class, as I have no real experience conducting social science research. Up to this point I’ve been picking it up as I go, theoretically, but now something a little more formal is necessary.

As I was sitting there, listening to discussion on a branch of research within social science that is relatively foreign to me, I looked around the room wondering where this knowledge was going to go. Where will these theories go? What will this research about this one seemingly obscure thing, or that seemingly obscure thing do? What is it’s purpose? What are we doing in these ivory towers?

The academy is an interesting place. Universities are institutions where so much knowledge is pondered, created, recreated, reconfigured, broken down and built back up, and so on. Students come to learn, professors and researchers come to teach and conduct research. But then what happens? In higher education, we write papers, take exams, get graded. We hypothesize, we theorize, do field work, do experiments, write theses and dissertations. We carry out studies and write papers and publish them in obscure journals only those in our field (or in closely related fields) read. They’ll read it, agree with or debate it, try to do something similar or different and publish that. (That’s typical in science.) Or, in other fields, we write an article, or a lit review, a book review. Or we’ll write a book that may or may not reach far outside of our fields, to our expected audiences. The contents will be shared amongst colleagues, disseminated in classes for students to read, put out there for scholars to debate.

It seems that most of this work, most of this knowledge is created/recreated and disseminated, but only as far as the walls of academia. There it circles around from researcher, to professor, to teacher, to student. The student who is often being trained to become a researcher and/or teacher (i.e. the undergraduate researcher or the grad student), who does research, publishes their work, etc. The knowledge is confined in the academy, where only the privileged can access it. Case in point, you typically have to have university affiliation to access academic journals online or check things out of the university library.

Additionally there is the issue of knowledge validation. Many people have knowledge or possibly have ways to conduct research and create knowledge (or pass on the knowledge that has been passed to them through family, community, history, time), but it is only considered legitimate after the university deems it so. To do that usually requires getting into the university.

I find this really interesting in terms of who has access to academic knowledge and how that knowledge is used. I think about this often, one reason being science education.

In higher ed science there is much discussion (via articles and national reports) about the need for more people of color in math and science in higher education/academia. Without getting into the reasons why people often feel this is important (for the reasons often irk me and could be the topic of it’s own post), there is much discussion on possible solutions. Many of them include ways to get kids into the “STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) pipeline,” literally streamlining kids into STEM at early ages and ensuring that they remain on that path all the way until they get their PhD and a professorship.

I’m all for more people of color in STEM fields (although the language of the “pipeline” makes me somewhat uneasy – every time I hear it I am reminded of the cradle-to-prison pipeline), but what do we do when we get there? One of supposed outcomes of us getting there, it is suggested, is that this will increase the knowledge-base of all persons of color, helping everyone make better decisions about the world around us (i.e. thinking about things “scientifically” and/or more critically). Ok, yes. But how does that work if the aim is to get us obtaining PhDs and doing research or teaching in academia? How does that knowledge get disseminated? The skin tone of academia may change, but won’t that knowledge still be wrapped up in the university?

I feel like universities are so disconnected from communities at times, even the communities they are situated within, physically. Here, I suppose, I am making the assumption that universities and the learning that goes on within them should at some point get back to the community…On the one hand the disconnect may just be from a scientist’s perspective, where it is, at times, hard to place that research in a broader, human context. But I often wonder about the social sciences and humanities as well. How often does that work, that research, get to the people? How often do those theories become practice? How often does that work get used to improve the lives of people, of communities? How often does that work make a difference outside?

When I was an undergrad, I wanted to grow up to be a college or university professor. I wanted to teach. But more than that, I wanted to be a positive influence. I worked with younger kids relatively often, typically youth of color in science and/or environmental programs, who had little science/environmental science exposure in school and/or who didn’t attend the greatest schools. The programs were often college-focused, or with the intent to expose youth of color/low income students to the multitude of options out there. One of the common trends was that most of them didn’t think much about science, nor saw themselves doing science because when they thought of scientists, they thought of older white men. Working with these kids, and remembering that I was one of them in their situation when I was their age always made me wonder how I could make a difference to them. I liked to think that them just seeing me made a small difference, as I was typically one of the few people of color amongst the “scientists” or mentors.

So, I thought that with being a professor my sheer existence in academia would make a difference to older students. As an undergrad, and later as an early grad student, I rarely ever saw myself reflected in my field of biological sciences, or in science in general. I thought that my becoming a professor would mean one more woman of color in (science) academia. That students simply seeing me at the podium, in the lecture hall, at the front of class, wherever, would make a difference.

To some extent I still believe this. I have recently felt the strength and power that comes from seeing almost all of myself (black, woman, queer, PhD-holding person) reflected, not in my field specifically, but in an academic setting. For. the. first. time. ever. (Granted, I’ve probably interacted with some and just not known it. In fact, this has been alluded to by others to whom I’ve mentioned this. However, show me black/woman/queer/PhD in science and I’ll probably faint.) There was so much power there that I feel more certain of the impact my presence could bring.

But where would this difference really be made, and to whom? Would it just be to the kids who mad it to college? Doesn’t knowledge deserve to be shared, spread, taken up and put to good use by everyone? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do with it?

It is this that I think about. It is this that makes me waver back and forth on whether I should stay in academia. It is this that leads me to look beyond academia strictly. Yes, I think my presence as a woman of color in a science field would prove helpful to many students. But what about the people outside the privileged institution of the university? What about our communities?


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