Malcolm's Reviews > Transforming the Ivory Tower: Models for Gender Equality & Social Justice

Transforming the Ivory Tower by Deborah Gabriel
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it was amazing
bookshelves: academia, activism, feminism

I read a great piece in, of all places Cosmopolitan, just recently called ’Don’t Just Read About Racism—Read Stories About Black People Living’ that made the case for finding ways to get inside, as much as possible, other people’s experiences. My scholarly and professional training is in anthropology and history, so in my professional work I am used to that challenge of crossing cultural and experiential boundaries to explore other people’s lives, but Nic Stone’s Cosmpolitan piece reminded me of the importance of that effort at understanding, or at least empathy, as a political act, as well as a technique of scholarship and a literary or aesthetic encounter. I say this not out of some desire assert my cultural cred or hipness, but to remind myself that even in the absence of a regular pay cheque my relationship (as an academic) with the Ivory Tower is structurally and experientially profoundly different from the Black women whose stories make up this impressive collection.

Woven through this collection are powerful tales of action in University settings to challenge and disrupt the comfortable world of the maintenance and preservation of a potent regime of cultural power. There are five essays, three interviews, and several shorter reflections by each of the contributors on their engagements with the project. Some of the cases discussed I knew something of: I recall being aware in Australia in the mid-1990s, while working in a project to recast state approaches to Child Protection Services and especially to make them more responsive Indigenous communities, of the ‘issues’ surrounding structural racism in British social work education that Josephine Kwhali builds her discussion around. Similarly, I can imagine the mentoring and emancipatory research projects Elizabeth Opara and Ima Jackson discuss, not in any detail, but how the ‘establishment’ would find them threatening despite professed commitments to inclusion and community engagements. Equally, I can envisage what’s involved in the community outreach, engagement and networking programmes Virginia Cumberbatch discusses, mainly through my knowledge of other similar schemes, and some sketchy (and admittedly shallow) knowledge of Austin and the University of Texas.

Other cases are less obvious, and given my current interests much more intriguing, but much as I’d like to know more about the detail of the work Deborah Gabriel has done on curriculum, the BARC collective’s work on anti-racist practice in business management programmes or Aisha Richards’ work challenging Whiteness in arts education, the content of the work is not the issue here. These pieces are stories of the experience of struggle, are stories of working in and defiance of systems and regimes of cultural, structural and economic power in higher education. They are discussions of what’s needed in order to prevent challenging and disruptive work, with deeply transformational objectives, from being appropriated as a ‘brand marker’ or ‘USP’ by the very institutions that required and continue to require transformation.

In this, these essays and interviews work exceptionally well. They reminded me of work I was involved in years ago running training programmes for young activists (importantly run by young activists; it’s not something I could really do now, in my increasing dotage) where perhaps the most important part of the residential sessions were the discussions those of us running the events had and led about our ‘becoming activists’. This kind of reflexivity is crucial, if for no other reason, all too often when we’re embedded in struggles and structures much of what we do becomes ‘second nature, becomes stuff we’re no longer conscious of.

Equally importantly, these kinds of discussions (I was reminded as I reflected on that long-ago) work are important reminders that we never stop being students of practice. That came home explicitly in this collection in the interview with Shirley Anne Tate, whose work in this area has been ground-breaking in the UK over the last 25 to 30 years: it is a rich, theoretically and conceptually sophisticated discussion grounded firmly in practice and self-care, and full of expressions of continually learning. Crucially, also, as much as I can work out, it is not just the content that points to transformative potential but also the process of writing and production that appears to be very much a collectivist practice, led by Gabriel as the editor.

Yet through it all I was reminded that I’m not the primary audience – a late middle aged white bloke with the word ‘professor’ in a title (even if is an honorary title, and associate, not full). This is primarily aimed at members of the academic community whom that community excludes from power and full membership, whose work grounded in their worlds is not recognised as of standing in that academic world, and whose attempts to challenge and disrupt academia exacerbates their marginalisation.

These essays and interviews are designed to provide advice for practice and survival, for struggle and success, while for those of us who see ourselves as allies these are life stories of the kind Nic Stone urges us to read to enhance empathy, build more understanding and perhaps be better comrades. On both counts they seem to me as if they should succeed. Highly recommended.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
July 18, 2020 – Shelved
July 18, 2020 – Shelved as: academia
July 18, 2020 – Shelved as: activism
July 18, 2020 – Shelved as: feminism
July 18, 2020 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Deborah (new) - added it

Deborah Dear Malcolm, thank you for taking the time to write such an honest and meaningful review. Although the book is not directly targeted at senior, White male academics, I have found myself, like IT1, engaging in meaningful discussions with allies like yourself, seeking to better understand our oppression as Black and Brown women, and their role in that process, through White privilege. Coincidentally, I am currently in the process of engaging in a reflexive, analytical, conversation with a White, male professor and we will be publishing this autoethnographic 'research' in the next edition of Media Practice and Education (Vol 21:3) as an editorial feature. I hope you will find it as insightful as I have found your review!

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