Affecting change from the ivory tower

Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda '17

Why should your education end with your BA? For many, the prospect of entering the job market implies distancing oneself from academic environments and moving onto more practical career paths. As indicated by the large proportion of students who go on to acquire PhDs, some Swatties never truly leave the university environment. As we speak of a “Swat bubble,” some may perceive this as never entering the real world. What does a life in the ivory tower actually represent, and how can individuals make a difference?

I personally recognise its appeal. It provides direction and certainty: BA-MA-PhD-Assistant Professor-Associate Professor-Professor, to use Swarthmore job titles. Although employment is scarce, the single-track nature of the practice makes it appealing to some. By building relationships with faculty here, interested students can get an idea of what kind of life they’d be leading; the Swarthmore Honors Program and senior theses provide insight into what further study may look like.

“I like to talk to professors about their own careers and interests — they definitely have wisdom to share about the academic life,” said Karen*.

Karen is considering entering academia, but isn’t very certain — the aforementioned difficulty of finding employment remains daunting to her.

“I know securing a job in the humanities, my area of interest, is getting increasingly hard. Overall the lack of certainty in the field — in finding a job at a place you enjoy, in getting tenure, etc. — makes me uneasy,” she said. “Also, academia’s competitive nature doesn’t really appeal to me.”

To Professor of Anthropology Farha Ghannam, academia wasn’t on the table until she obtained her master’s diploma (she’d sifted through interests in law and journalism before getting to it). She attributes her change of heart to the specific nature of hierarchical relations within her field. She understands the relative importance of social status and knowledge versus financial status in academia as an indicator of worth.

“In graduate school in anthropology, success is very much linked to finding a job in academia,” she said. “A joke that I have with a lot of my students is that I think it’s because academia is very high in symbolic capital but not so much in material capital. We invest so much into these symbolic aspects that we think ‘oh, you know, it’s the only way to succeed.’ So I think that desire got cultivated in the Foucauldian sense.”

Ghannam is now glad for her decision to enter academia. She values the mutually beneficial nature of professorship, complimenting Karen’s appreciation of faculty wisdom.

“I’m hoping that my work as a teacher is fundamentally about change, learning from the students and teaching them, learning to look at things in a new way,” she said. “If you are allowing people to see other possibilities through teaching, or through publication, then you are really potentially able to offer spaces, potentialities for things to be done differently, for change to be instituted.”

Since Ghannam’s area of speciality of the Middle East, issues remain with how her research can stay attuned to this region in spite of her physical separation from it. She sees no other way than to return to Egypt (her current locus of research) every summer, and interact with the communities hands-on. In going back to Cairo, she’s able to experience those things that make her research more genuine.

“I tried, in one of my books, to describe how a child learns to cross a very busy street in Cairo,” she said. “I tried to describe that. But there is nothing that teaches you as much as being there, as crossing that road.”

Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies Alexandra Gueydan-Turek felt similarly. A French native and specialist of francophone North Africa and postcolonial theory, she returns as often as she may to conduct field research. Basing herself in a U.S. institution has, however, been a double edged sword. On the one hand, France was unable to cater to her academic interests due to its reverence of its literary canon, now outdated in the contemporary francophone world.

“The major literary outputs right now are mostly authors who are not coming from that ex-colonial center,” she said. “That was a freedom that was allowed, actually encouraged, in the United States.”

However, travelling back to Algeria or Morocco with an American affiliation means that she is at times met with hostility, due to the negative associations these places have with the West. These issues, to me, epitomize one of the main qualms I associate with academic work: the freedom to create knowledge we deem helpful and useful, whilst also being associated with a structure of power which shapes our discourse to fit the West. To Gueydan-Turek, the key has been to try and use her work as a means of repairing small elements of this broader, U.S.-based discourse:

“I hope that with my scholarship I can correct certain trends of neo-orientalism that I perceive as coming back in full force,” she said.

In this sense, Gueydan-Turen hopes to affect change within the specific field of discourse she has access to. Her role is one that, for now, serves to better others in her domain.

The students I interviewed had few doubts as to the social roles academics are capable of. Karen does not see working in a university as different from another environment with regards to the change that can be affected.

“No matter what I do or where I am, it’s going to be my responsibility to make meaning for myself. I feel like my ability to make positive impact ­­— whatever that looks like — has less to do with where I am than on my own drive and intention,” she said.

Sarah* went further than this: to her, further study provides the means necessary to contribute to society in ways she would not have been capable of otherwise.

“I want to go into academia because I do not feel that I have gained the proper tools (social skills, real skills) to help others otherwise,” she said. “So if I can inspire others to action by being an academic that would be my way of contributing to society.”

Overall, all those I spoke to felt strongly that university work allowed people to make meaningful contributions to the world around them. If so, why stop now?

* Students’ names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

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