Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Politics of Academic Standards

We have hardly said enough about the decisive roles academic standards have played in the production of knowledge and more specifically in the directions of Black Studies. Mike Sell's Triple Front essay, which I've been re-tracing, addresses the ways that a focus on so-called academic integrity and standards was central to the rise and fall of African American Studies programs on university campuses.

During the mid and late 1960s, writers, thinkers, and activists associated with "black arts movement" organizing, and later Black Studies programs, highlighted the bodies of knowledge and contributors regularly excluded from typical college curricula. They also addressed the limits of the regular Eurocentric curricula. The results and processes of their efforts gave activism and activists a special place in the hearts and minds of large numbers of people during the 1960s and 1970s, and on many occasions, black activists and activist experiences gained positions in the academy.

But after a while, let's say after the concern with meeting student and community intellectual and academic demands began to subside, scholars and university officials utilized the idea of "'academic integrity" as a way of dismissing activist faculty members or diminishing Black Studies programs. Sell notes that "‘academic integrity’ was deployed as an ideologically neutral discursive framework, despite the fact that it was anything but ideologically neutral."

One of the big assumptions with that position was that "activist experience is not academically valuable,” a position that is, as Sell notes “absurd.” Whatever the case, that assumption served to dislocate Black Arts and Black Studies efforts in favor of the typical "meritocratic nature of academic hiring and promotion." Ultimately, concepts about "standards" were introduced as a way "to police inter- and intra-academic boundaries."

Paying attention to these issues is worth considering when and if we seek to account for how large numbers of Black Studies Programs lost their activist and grassroots edges.

Or beyond that, a consideration of how the deployment of academic standards can be used to diminish African American intellectual activity or progressive efforts seems worthy our more of our attention.

What do you think?

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