Friday, October 21, 2016

Listening to voices of the poor: Academic freedom and policy making

The work of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) has applied the tenets of the CCA to work in communities across the global margins.

The poverty and communicative inequalities projects that are carried out by CARE reflect the overarching theme of the CCA, theorizing the communicative constructions of poverty in the global mainstream, and creating spaces for the voices of the poor in these mainstream and elite platforms through collaborations in solidarity with the poor.

Comparing the discourses of poverty in mainstream  and elite networks with discourses of poverty as voiced by those living in poverty across countries offers a conceptual framework for examining the ways in which communication of/about poverty works in mainstream/elite constructions, the gaps in these constructions, as well as the possibilities of transformative change when  these stories are grounded in the accounts of the poor about their lived experiences.

Essential to this work then is a commitment to empirically work in contexts of poverty. The CARE team and I spend countless hours conducting participant observations, in-depth interviews, focus groups, surveys etc. to arrive at the empirical constructions of experiences of poverty. A CARE project is minimally a product of two to three years of rigorous, field-based empirical work, with strong CARE projects spanning over a decade.

However, more importantly, the communicative turn of actually listening to the voices of the poor ensures that we spend many hours collaborating with advisory board members, shaping our research instruments, reflecting on them, and most importantly, undoing and redoing them when and where necessary. The actual lived experiences of collaboration in academic-community partnerships teach us about the mechanisms of communication that work toward generative frameworks that address the needs of the poor as envisioned by them. In this sense, a well conceived culture-centered project becomes one of the poor, turning the tools of research into the hands of the poor, and working through these tools to challenge the misconceptions around poverty that circulate in the mainstream.

Reflecting this overarching tenet, the "Voices of Hunger" projects that have been carried across seven countries spanning North America and Asia reflect the value of stories from the margins as shared by the poor in challenging the overarching stereotypes about the poor that are often misguided and factually incorrect.

Of course, the sanctity of culture-centered projects rests on the pillar of academic freedom. Moreover, the usefulness of the projects depend upon their ability to engage with policy making. The voices of the poor often offer vital lessons that policy makers ought to pay attention to. Take for instance the narratives of the poor in our fieldwork in India that point to ways in which the Aadhar card, an ID system implemented across India to supposedly streamline the delivery of public services actually fails to deliver these services because of faulty technologies, inaccess to technologies, and the interplays of poverty and technology inacess. As a result, those who are the poorest are often the ones that are being unserved. This narrative emerging from the grassroots not only interrogates the power of a monolithic story, but more importantly, offers a framework for redoing policy. Such lessons are only enabled by a sufficient commitment to academic freedom. Academic freedom enables the inconvenient but empirically grounded stories to emerge. Academic freedom offers in this sense of the CCA an opportunity for thus ultimately developing policy frameworks grounded in the lived experiences and struggles of the poor.

Because the narratives of and by the poor fundamentally disrupt the dominant assumptions held by elites, the power of the work of culture-centered approach lies first and foremost in keeping intact these spaces of academic research that are anchored in a steady commitment to authenticity and truth. Rather than telling stories of and by the structure, framing these stories in symbolic artifacts that appeal to the elite, culture-centered stories engage empirically the very bases of these dominant narratives.

The CCA has worked, however contingently, across global spaces because the tenets of academic freedom retain the spaces in academe where this work has been carried out and where it continues to be carried out. It is after all, an overarching commitment to the broad ideas of academic freedom that makes possible the continuous search for truth, grounded in the lived experiences of the have-nots in a highly unequal world.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Social impact: Accountability to communities

Universities live in communities. Universities breathe in communities. Universities are legitimized because communities afford them the legitimacy.

The work we carry out as scholars therefore is founded upon the fabric of community life. Based on the taxes paid by everyday citizens. And much more importantly, on the goodwill of communities that give universities land, trust, legitimacy.

Yet, it is often the community, the immediate context of University life, that remains ignored in objectives, mission statements, and statements of strategy crafted by University leaders.

For a large number of faculty, university life goes on, walled from the everydayness of the communities we live in. Disconnected from the spirits of community life. And ever so alienated from the spirits, ebbs, and flows in our immediate communities.

You can have academics spend their entire career in communities and yet be completely disconnected from community life. You can have academics who don't really see the community they live in, residing in their walled spaces.

The conversation on social impact is an invitation to fundamentally transform this alienated elitism of university life. The social impact conversation must begin by considering the immediate community and context that constitutes the University. The conversation on social impact then has to begin by considering what is the role of our missions of teaching and research in contributing to community life.

To turn to communities as entry points for conversations on social impact then suggests a necessary restructuring of university life, of what we value, and of the metrics that we use in evaluating our work. The turning toward community suggests the necessity of reworking benchmarks and criteria that begin by considering the role of knowledge in contributing to community life, in improving the lives of citizens, and in addressing the felt needs of communities we are embedded in.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Social impact and its role in Universities

Social impact has secured its legitimate place in University conversations across global spaces.

In the face of the global challenges we face, Universities both feel the pressure from taxpayers as well as see an opportunity in generating knowledge directed at addressing social impact.

Some form or the other of the rhetoric of social impact is a part of the branding strategy of most Universities today.

Yet, I worry that the conversation on social impact often ends up in empty sloganeering, devoid of accountability to the various stakeholders that a social impact conversation would hold the University to.

Slogans such as "We change the world," and "Making a difference" are so widely used that "change" and "difference" have become commonplace words, devoid of meaning and value, and devoid of mechanisms for holding Universities accountable to these slogans.

In other words, like bad advertising campaigns, they have become selling propositions, often signifying "feel good" emotions but disconnected to difficult and fundamental questions of value of university life.

For a large number of Universities, the rhetoric of social impact is far removed from a commitment to generating knowledge that makes a difference. For most universities, academics have been trained to feel comfortable in the ivory tower, to disconnect themselves from the everyday threads of community life.

For the high priests of academia, elitism serves to both produce as well as maintain power. More importantly, the power of academia as a site of knowledge production is reproduced through this fundamental disconnect from community life.

Modern universities thus are often in spirit antithetical to a commitment to social impact.

To commit to social impact is first and foremost to change the way we think of our work as academics, to transform what counts as academic work, and to find ways of valuing impact across the various spaces of academic life.

For a University to move toward committing to social impact calls for a continued commitment to opening up the processes of production of knowledge to communities, establishing frameworks of accountability in local, national, regional, and global community frameworks. In this sense, the conversation on social impact also democratizes universities by setting up parameters for evaluating academic life that are grounded in the day-to-day elements of everyday life of communities, societies, eco systems.

And this is precisely where the conversation on social impact is difficult, essentially threatening to the status quo of academic life.

As elitist structures, Universities have historically worked on setting up walls and barriers. To commit to social impact then is to first and foremost break down the practices of elitism that safeguard and perpetuate academic privilege.

Now this transformation in academic life is threatening to the status quo, to the usual way of doing things.

A University that commits to social impact thus has a long and difficult road ahead of itself.

The journey ahead begins with undoing the Brahminical elitism that forms the basis of academic life.

A socially committed University has to begin by actually committing itself to this arduous journey of undoing what it has known to be the basis of academic life. This means it has to align its values to social impact. This fundamental transformation of values then must be reflected in every layer of University life, in the practices of academe, and in the ways in which evaluations are carried out in academe.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Your White Progressivism

When your White status quo
Wants to internationalize
Under your oh so
Progressive banner
I shudder.
At the thought of
Your pox, malaria, syphilis, cholera
That you will bring
With your civilizing mission.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Individualized faculty performance: When unbridled meritocracy breeds selfishness

As a faculty member who has been teaching for almost two decades, I recall the many times I have felt so lucky to have the mentorship and support of senior colleagues.

Senior colleagues have thoughtfully provided feedback on my paper, with line-by-line edits, the paper entirely marked by notes in pencil. Senior colleagues have observed me teach, make mistakes, built up my spirit, and shown me strategies of teaching large and small lectures. Senior colleagues have taken me aside and given me advice on various aspects of academic life. To all these senior colleagues, I owe much of my academic survival.

That I survived in the academy and did so somewhat well is a product of the countless hours and unpaid labour these colleagues put in. They did all this with a smiling face, with compassion, and with care in their hearts.

The increasing privatization of the University in recent years and the ascendance of the privatized logic however is breeding a different kind of self-serving academic.

For this self-serving academic, university life is all about beating the performance metric so they can earn the next bonus or the next accolade. Success is narrowly defined as self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. Often at the cost of others.

For senior faculty in this individualized system, junior colleagues are seen as competitors, to be harshly evaluated, to be compared with, and to be put down.

Faculty members no longer want to share their lecture notes and PowerPoint slides with junior colleagues. After all, it is the job of the junior colleague to come up with her or his own lecture notes and PowerPoint slides. The irony is particularly rich when one recognizes how the careers of these individual faculty members ride on the generosity and kindness of other senior colleagues who have unconditionally shared syllabi, notes, slides, assignments, grant proposals, authorship, datasets etc.

Leave aside sitting through classes and giving feedback, faculty are incentivized perversely to think of junior colleagues as competitors. Rather than come from a framework of solidarity and love, for these faculty in an individualized performance-driven system, the performance is one of harsh evaluation. The performed subjectivity of senior scholars or want-to-be senior scholars in this sort of a privatized system is one of holding up criteria when evaluating junior colleagues without ever turning the harsh light of the criteria on their own scholarly record. As long as you can trick the system to look good on certain metrics, you have succeeded.

Unfortunately then, what goes on in the name of meritocracy in such instances is mediocrity, garbed in individualized and selfish notions of performance metrics.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Intimate Sites of Violence in Yuppie Indian Cyber Cities

The Cyber sprawl of Yuppie hi-tech Cities across India is intimately marked by violence.

Cities such as Noida, Ghaziabad, Cyberabad, and Bangalore narrate stories of violence, both in the expressions of everyday forms of violence that are narrated in the mainstream, and more powerfully so in the everyday forms of violence that remain hidden, tucked away under the glossy images of smart, green cities advertised in the brochures seducing non-resident Indians (NRIs).

Often these sordid stories of violence narrated in the Yuppie media and shared in Yuppie networks, scripted as tales of rape, robbery, and murder obfuscate the violence of class, caste, and displacement that remain hidden from the everyday narratives of a Yuppie culture and the mainstream media that caters to this culture. The enunciation of violence, what gets talked about and what doesn't, is a reflection of the overarching violence of social class and inequality written into the Yuppie City. The telling of these stories enunciate the anxieties of the elite, while simultaneously rendering invisible the profound loss and everyday emotional labour borne by the city's poor.

Violence is the foundation of Yuppie hi-tech cities in India, that have been designed and implemented through displacement. The usurping of farming lands, displacement of farming communities from these lands, and the disenfranchisement of the landless laborers that often tilled these lands are forms of violence that are routinized into the everyday assumptions of the mainstream. These displacements are carried out often through everyday acts of violence, realized through tools of threats, coercion, rapes, and murders. Land mafia, developers, and city planners work hand-in-hand to legitimize the violence of displacement as necessary for growth, and simultaneously render invisible these forms of violence. In the mainstream media of Shining India, these stories of violence are not newsworthy as they don't draw in the audience of Yuppie viewers, and thus are not ratings-worthy.

The poor, dispossessed from their sources of livelihood in a rapidly-displaced agrarian economy settle in make-shift colonies at the peripheries of IT-cities, tucked away beyond and behind the seductions of clean greenness. The manicured lawns, glass buildings, and paved highways make invisible these shanty towns. The everyday work of urban planning and city construction works incessantly to make invisible these warts and moles of the city, carefully sculpted into zoning, urban development, and slum rehabilitation policies.

Even as the poor in the peripheries of the IT-city are displaced further and further from their sources of livelihood, other poorer classes of India, displaced from their sources of local livelihoods in a neoliberal economy, migrate to the peripheries of the IT-cities. They settle in the shanty towns in the periphery, seeking to find informal and unskilled work in the city, hoping to sell their labour to eke out a living. Their labor forms the backbone of the private infrastructures of Yuppie life in the hi-tech cities.

Working as guards, nannies, domestic workers, gardeners, cleaners etc., the poor struggle to make a living at the seams of the city. Working as day-labourers at construction sites, they form the backbone of the cities. Their everyday work is the work of cleaning up, of doing the shining for Shining India.

How this work is paid for or not paid for, however, depicts the violence of/in the city. Without union representation and without access to collective bargaining, the unskilled poor working in these sectors of the neoliberal economy have no social protections, no health insurance, no workplace insurance, and often no access to pathways of bargaining for a decent wage. Working in an informal economy, with no labour representation and no accessibility to collective mobilization, they often struggle with poor pay, long hours, and no workplace guarantees. For the informal labour in the yuppie city, there is no safety net.

There are no leave policies and no days off during the week. From Monday to Monday, seven days a week, 365-days a month, the work carries on. The state offers no protection to these workers in its informal economy.

Add to this everyday assault on the poor the attacks on basic human dignity that is experienced on a day-to-day basis. For the Yuppie, the poor must be rendered invisible. The work of making the poor invisible is the work of ritualized symbolic violence.

The Yuppie-IT cities are built on dreams of a shining India. For the yuppies living in these cities, the poor are an unwanted but necessary paraphernalia. Necessary to take care of their children, do the domestic chores, and carry out the everyday work. Necessary to keep the appearance of the manicured lawns and the gyms equipped with the latest equipment. Necessary to do the dirty work so the city can shine.

Unwanted as the sight of the poor disrupt the shining make-believe worlds the yuppies aspire to live in. The air-conditioned lobbies, lifts, and hallways, the decorated gardens, and spiffy swimming pools are carefully managed to keep out the sites of the working poor. Separate elevators for the maids, gardeners, and the many vendors that serve the city demarcate the spaces of the poor from the spaces of Yuppie comfort. Housing management develop policies of strict gate-keeping to render pure the spaces of Yuppie life, free from contamination by the poor. Swimming pools, gym areas, gardens are quarantined, outside of the reach of the poor.

Elaborate rituals of demarcation mark the bodies of the poor. In the intimate spaces of homes, separate utensils are kept for the domestic worker. The narrative of "hygiene" marks spaces of purity, uncontaminated by the poor. The rituals of boundary formation in everyday life mark the inside and the outside, carrying out the structures of caste in deeply internalized ways. The forms of communication further reproduce these boundaries. The lower caste poor, the domestic worker, the gardener, the guard, must be kept in check, must be disciplined and controlled. The worker must be managed. However, reflecting an inverted world that exists in opposition to the fun IT and finance-work-spaces emulating US-work cultures, the managerial discourses of domestic worker management are devoid of articulations of fundamental worker rights, protection from harassment at workplace, and access to workplace grievance policies.  The violence of everyday abuse is normalized.

The violence in intimate spaces of Yuppie cities is a concoction of India's caste structure, adapted to the workings of class-based inequalities and normalized in a narrative of growth, aspiration, and opportunity.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

"She is difficult:" Whiteness and norms of civility

A normative response that often seems to circulate within our discipline when referring to brown critical feminist scholars is: "She is difficult."

The "She is difficult" trope works to signal the potential trouble a department might be inviting when it hires a brown critical feminist scholar.

The trope works as heuristic universal, as a signifier to mark the body of the "unruly brown woman."

It does so by circulating norms of civility constituted in White privilege. Communicative processes and forms that thus challenge this white privilege fall outside of the norm, as the abnormal.

Incivility, as a tool of the oppressor, works fundamentally to shut out interrogation of the Whiteness of the structures we inhabit.

Rather than interrogating the structures of White privilege that reproduce this privilege, norms of incivility often work unequally on the bodies of brown women. More so, these norms work on bodies of brown women who question the oppressive logics of a White patriarchal structure.

The label "She is difficult" thus often works to shut out the interrogation of the Whiteness and patriarchy that is integral to our disciplinary formation.

As a trope, "She is difficult" shuts out difference.

Paradoxically, it does so under the guise of multiculturalism and inclusive climate.