The moment before you are served up to an audience as the attraction for the next hour is always a stressful time. Worried about whether you will be as cogent and articulate as planned and wondering if the technology will work properly is enough to occupy yourself during the verbal introductions and formalities. But during the last year of speaking engagements, I’ve faced an additional unexpected twinge of nervousness. It happens when the person describing my biography utters the words, “Sara is a scholar-activist.”
As I watch the room and see people shift in their seats, with some academics offering a slight smirk or scowl, I sometimes rethink the decision to amend my online biography to begin in this way. I rise to talk, usually about college affordability, wondering if my credibility has eroded as the phrase was spoken aloud. But I have found that as I move through the talk, as I describe the powerful ways societal inequities have reshaped the role of higher education over the last forty years and how opportunities for students have suffered, I become increasingly convinced again that I want to bear the label.
Scholarly activism is not advocacy. Let me say that again, since in my experience people have trouble hearing this. I am a scholar-activist, but not an advocate. The difference is critical. An advocate begins with a core and guiding goal—not a theory—and pushes for changes to achieve that goal. In contrast, a scholar-activist begins with a set of testable assumptions, subjects these to rigorous research, and once in possession of research findings seeks to translate those findings into action. With much respect to my colleagues working in advocacy, I much prefer the latter role since I often have more unanswered questions than clear goals, prefer to turn to data rather than personal beliefs when thinking through policy options, and find that actions are more effective when guided by research.
But for some reason, despite numerous calls (both internal and external) for more scholars to become engaged in discussions about real life problems, many in the academy continue to downplay the work of scholars who act on their findings. Those who instead study a topic, reach conclusions, and place their results into a journal without doing anything else about them stand in higher regard. This strikes me as a major limitation of social science as a field, and one that threatens our future.
A public agenda of scholarly activism brings the lessons of scholarship into the real lives of communities. It challenges even the most extroverted academic to become clearer about her ideas, more thoughtful about how she communicates them, and wiser about how she evaluates the merits of research. It is far more difficult to be a scholar-activist, in my experience, than note to be one. It takes time, energy, emotional labor, and a thick skin. It is usually an unpaid gig.
Last year I not only rethought my biography but also acted more boldly than before, opening a translational research laboratory focused on making college affordable. The Wisconsin HOPE Lab builds on my last decade of research and the studies of many academics around the country. Our mission is to conduct rigorous research that can in turn guide action. Not only that, but our core operating budget allows us to engage directly in that action, helping colleges and universities, policymakers, and community groups to make changes to their practices in order to diminish inequality. As a sociologist, it is a great relief to move beyond teaching and writing about social stratification and finally get my hands dirty to ameliorate the conditions themselves. What I learn from doing leads to new research ideas, lends shades of grey to my current theories, and helps me identify appropriate partners for the next stages of my work.
Here is an example. Over the past six years my research team has spent a great deal of time learning about the struggles that some students from low-income families face when it comes to affording enough food. We explored this issue, first revealed in interviews, using surveys and more interviews, and then turned to administrative data to see if and how policies and practices about living costs at colleges and universities might play a role. We initiated two scholarly papers on the topic, both issued as working papers this fall. In addition, in June we convened a workshop of policymakers and practitioners to talk about how they are addressing food insecurity on their campuses, what challenges students face, and what unanswered questions they have. This led me to connect with Clare Cady, a practitioner who leads the College and Universities Food Bank Alliance. Clare’s presentation at our workshop made me aware of the significant institutional challenges that can occur in addressing food insecurity on campus; this expanded the thinking I had engaged in while previously studying the sites involved with Single Stop USA, another nonprofit. This affected how I am now working with student groups locally in Madison to bring a food pantry to our campus, and how I have spoken with reporters about the findings of our research. It also affected how I have worked with and advised an undergraduate who has spent much of the last five years homeless while attending UW-Madison. In turn, she has taught me about the ways that students can be isolated from the numerous services provided on and off campus; dimensions of the next stages of my work that will receive more exploration. Indeed, attempting to act to create the changes that the work of my Lab reveal are needed has helped me develop the next stage of the research.
These are the thoughts that flicker through my mind now when the formal introductions commence and I am yet again announced as a “scholar-activist.” I am working hard to embrace with pride this role and this life, in the hopes that many others will follow in my footsteps.”