Performing Plurality in Academia

Some experiences are like a key: they open a door, though the view might be an unsettling one. One of our students did a masterful degree in an environment as speech-heavy as academia – while having a stutter. His success was mainly of his own making. He prepared himself and his surroundings before he started speaking.

Despite this ultimately positive example I realized how little the academic system accommodates for those who are not as well-prepared. The experience illustrated how little space and visibility students with dysphemia have in our dynamics of discussion, even though most academic institutions have equality clauses anchored in their statutes. The little space these students have is characterized by structural as well as on-the-ground issues: for example, how to adapt oral exam situations accordingly tends to be left to the people involved in the exam.

Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

This experience nurtured my sense of urgency to engage more thoroughly with the many ways in which academia is structurally unfair and contributes to the inability to speak up.

I do not want to invoke the authority of personal experience to make a claim about something much bigger. However, I do want to share the sense of urgency and invite us to perform active plurality in academic systems. I use this opportunity to remind myself and my colleagues that power-relations shape knowledge production and distribution. While we witness a heightened debate about these topics right now, many scholars, amongst them Boaventura de Sousa Santos, remind us that there is a need to continuously evaluate the epistemological injustice exercised in academic practice.

  • Who gets a platform?
  • Whose research methods and knowledge systems do we draw on?
  • Whose epistemic agency is systemically oppressed by ascriptions and -isms targeted at bodies, race, social position, gender, sexual orientation or cultural heritage?
  • How to create academic richness by making knowledge production and distribution more creative, open and inspired?

Scholars do have to follow rigid rules if they want to be part of today’s knowledge production and communication. We are part of a creative industry. We are encouraged to transfer our findings in high-level outlets, speak to important audiences, have select forms of acknowledgement on our CVs. We exist and work within that system of rules. Thus, not only scholars, but also these rules are productive. They order what counts as success and define what we (get to) know.

Some of these rules and standards have become well-tested indicators of research quality. Our challenge is nonetheless to re-evaluate them, to bring these rules and standards into the realm of the actionable and to ensure that they do not become too narrow in defining what counts as quality. Our task is to allow for different forms of knowledge production and communication to be successful in academic systems.

This is not an original argument or invitation. The democratization of academia is a long-standing discussion. It requires reflection and action at levels as deep as the structural and organizational. In On being Included Sara Ahmed reminds us that we need to find a balance between anchoring diversity in the “blood stream” of an institution, making it habitual to take account of people’s specific histories, at the same time as to self-assess regularly. Otherwise, we risk letting diversity work end up in the “non-performative”, to let it sink into the territory of well-regulated, but forgotten themes. The challenge is here to bring the structural together with the performative level. In that respect, Sara Ahmed asks us to take seriously the pragmatic strategies that are exercised already. These include strategies of figuring out who can speak up for diversity, strategies of turning “the tangible object of institutional resistance into a tangible platform for institutional action” (Ahmed 2012: 174), of remaining mobile, of speaking to all employees. There is also the necessity to collect lived experiences of systemic disadvantage, to evaluate these experiences and to act on these insights.

Another crucial part of performing plurality in academia draws on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality. In applying her framework to scholarly environments, we can see that here, too, voices are repressed on multiple levels, which I named above. Indeed, she sees the need to name these many different levels of repression, to acknowledge how they intersect and characterize unique situations of disadvantage. Thus, when I now write about different forms of performing diversity I do not attempt to flatten diverse challenges into one, or to compare incomparable situations. Rather, I want to underline that knowledge production and knowledge communication are situated activities that need engagement at many levels. I will mention a few concrete examples below.

Performing plurality in scholarship is also a discussion about the poetic. An invitation to break with structural boundaries, widen platforms and hear the diverse voices in scholarship is not easily based on the notion of inclusion alone, as inclusion defines itself against that which it excludes. We learn this from queer theory that has produced some of the most progressive contributions about moving beyond the politics of binaries. Even using the first personal plural is complicated when speaking about diverse academia. The related Special Issue in the journal Style illustrates that the disparate meanings of “we” – such as being-with, the trans-subjective, the diverse group, the intra-group, the intentional “we” – can too easily be misread and reduced to the unspecific. As you will see, even using the diction of academia or scholarship is difficult as it delimits knowledge production to the academe while scholars are dependent on many different informants and forms of knowledge production. The terminologies I use in this text are already charged. Indeed, when not brought to the realm of reflection and action terms such as diversity and openness and their related statutes further embed rather than dismantle structural unfairness. Thus, I do invite us to bring the language of diversity and plurality back into the realm of action.

With pragmatic strategies, intersectionality and disparate meanings of “we” in mind I want to remind us of initiatives that actively seek to diversify scholarship.

Diversity in knowledge production

A natural place to start evaluating the diversity in knowledge production is with the researcher.

Our task is to broaden and acknowledge the diversity of subjects that conduct, co-constitute and contribute to research, which also concerns methodologies. Research is never conducted alone, but it is at the very least enabled by many different people, texts and things that we sometimes forget to give credit to. Getting access to sites, interviewees or colleagues’ time, using specific equipment and methodologies, receiving peer review and feedback are not a given. Not only do all of them deserve acknowledgement, but we also need to identify who has access to these tools and who has not. The last point underlines the call for actively giving platforms to different subjects and methods to produce scientific insight. Sandra Harding’s book on objectivity and diversity, for example, invites scholars to rethink the scientific criterion of objectivity via the values of plurality, indigenous knowledge production and social justice.

Another way of enhancing diversity early in the research process is by embracing unusual research foci.

For some, this may mean to move their view from the spectacular to acknowledging the relevance of everyday objects, routines, or practices “in minor key”. To others, it may mean to address groups of informants that break the patterns of classic sampling. I had a great experience with interviewing kids to broaden research on surveillance and secrecy – a field that is usually dominated by other groups of informants. Other disciplines have begun to involve children as co-researchers, which requires extra care and dedication. This and, for example, involving hard-to-reach communities in research projects may take more effort, but also brings new voices and perspectives to established research fields. At times it turns out that the hard-to-reach are not hard to reach after all, but are rather underrepresented due to research traditions and other structural reasons.

A very different avenue for diversity in knowledge production is to crowdsource research tasks.

Some projects already set positive examples of citizen science, for instance by inviting anyone to spot and cut out cell membranes, or by asking citizens to record their regional Nightingales’ dialects. These activities can create new research communities at the same time as they can diversify datasets. Not any project can and should involve crowdsourcing – especially when participants end up paying disproportional or hidden costs, whether they take the form of invested time, discrimination or shared information. When it is done with care and acknowledgement crowdsourcing and co-production can be a way of giving enthusiasts without formal training a platform in knowledge production.

Scholarly visibility, invisibility and knowledge creation are influenced by our citing practices.

Over the past decades debates around electronic citation indexes, impact factors or the economization of research have increased, where structural advantages and exclusions reproduce themselves if they are not reflected about. The Cite Black Women Collective and Rigoberto Lara Guzmán’s blog post on how to quote young female tech scholars of color make concrete suggestions for citing in a fair manner. We cite not only to demonstrate that we navigate relevant literature and that requires a balance of citing new voices and established names. Referencing ideas is also about actively giving credit to their originators. It is thus crucial that more and more disciplines reflect about the origins of the ideas they quote and build upon – and whether these ideas exclude minorities’ points of view.

Yet, in this common effort to reflect about the concepts we cite, we need to give each other space and time to learn. Referencing practices also mark scholarly disagreements, for example by citing those that we argue against. This needs to be done with care, too. Especially the diverse fields of critical scholarship, which I count myself to be a part of, need reminders to exercise critique that does not ostracize, reinstate the peripheral or produce victimization. Inspiring are here Rita Felski’s suggestion to move away from detectivist critique that merely uncovers and accuses, as well as Donna Haraway’s frameworks of kin and companionship to shape academic critique, which also concerns our referencing practices.

Letting critique be guided by an affirmative tone also concerns peer review processes – a part-hidden arena where exclusion and inclusion are powerful experiences and can take quite a personal form. While review and scrutiny are necessary elements of knowledge production and rejection needs to be a real option, I was inspired by peer-review processes that have given room to discussion between peer-reviewer and author. Other journals have engaged editors that work as mediators in the review process. Some journals – upon mutual agreement of reviewer and author – even adopt a non-blind format to encourage focus and a moderate tone of conversation in the review process. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Yet, it is necessary to document when systemic discrimination happens in peer review processes, but also to think more generally about dynamics of exclusion, inclusion and diversity in review processes.

Diversity in knowledge communication

Giving platform, as well as hearing and addressing diverse voices also extends to research communication and the discussion of our findings.

While the maxim “Nothing about us without us” originated in the policy sphere, it is equally true for research communication and debate. Often enough, research communication settings – such as public debate or seminars – still lack representation of the researched groups. Sometimes, including the researched communities into a research communication turns out to be difficult. We can meet this challenge with reflection and use these situations as a reminder to challenge the systems we work in to be more diverse.

Academia’s focus to publish research insights in recognized academic channels is strong and in many cases it is a remarkable achievement to have made it through the extensive quality checks of academic outlets. This should, however, not stop us from making our findings accessible to other publics, too. Communities that have received our attention are journalists and policymakers whom we write briefs and reports for and for whom we consult.

There are, however, many more audiences than that. In line with the abovementioned methodologies, we need to get better at making the work visible that is enabled and done by our informants. It should be a standard to give them insights into the information they provided and access to the research results. Beyond that, we should more actively write for them, too.

Thus, our attempts to adapt knowledge communication in ways that allow results to actually reach informants is key. And it can be fun: I was lucky enough to receive support to collaborate with a kid’s book illustrator to make a brochure of my key findings on surveillance and children that was given to all kids who participated in the project.

Diversity in knowledge communication can also mean to broaden the ways in which we teach and reach out to students.

Teaching platforms and interactive designs have been vividly discussed for many years and teaching prizes are awarded. Teaching landscapes begin to change where pedagogical debates are taken seriously. Making teaching more diverse may mean to start adopting interdisciplinary approaches, for example, of teaching Law via the Arts. We need teaching institutions that have it in their “blood stream” (Ahmed) to provide for those who have additional challenges in academic environments. Thus, a different, important step forward is to address the hearing impaired by having live translators at seminars and – if possible – teaching sessions. We also need colleagues who acknowledge students’ unusual or non-intellectual trajectories into academia and who let their students teach academia new perspectives on achievement. Here, too, it is crucial to ask students who benefit from the diversification of academia to evaluate the efforts undertaken.

As we see from the names, links and references in this text, performing diversity in academia is a debate with a history. Each of the points I mentioned above already inspired their own research field. Many more examples could be quoted here. Performing plurality in academia is also a debate to be had in the present and future.

Rendering knowledge creation, communication, work with students, and academic working environments more diverse is an ongoing activity. More can be done to redefine rules and standards of what counts as quality. Like many did before, I invite us to reflect and act about the many dimensions of diversity in academia – without flattening them into one type of challenge. Positive engagement and dedication take resources in a field where time is scarce and attempts at providing platforms and giving voice may fail. In the same way in which failure is a part of any learning process, academics need to allow themselves to fail and to learn when trying to perform plurality. I am myself still failing to reflect and act at the right points in time, but I am also profiting from the room I am given to learn.
If we want to render a broader variety of knowledge and scholarly communities visible, academia does not necessarily need a revolution, but dedication. It needs dedication to a definition of excellence that is non-exclusive, plural and diverse.

This change has to come from us. Thus, for myself, I consider this text a portal. It is a first formulation of an invitation to action that can grow over time. My hope is that it can contribute to an evaluation of the epistemological legacies of the disciplines I am a part of – not least Criminology – and the geographic situatedness of my work whether that is Norway, Scandinavia or Europe.

  • I would like to thank Joshua Kwesi Aikins, Atle Bekken, J. Peter Burgess, Rojan Ezzati, Tatanya Valland and another reader who would like to remain anonymous for their inspiration and help while formulating this text. I cannot do all your comments justice, but I can continue trying.
  • Mareile Kaufmann is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oslo, Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law. 2016-2019 she was a Senior Researcher at PRIO.
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