Activism in the Woke Academy

Earlier this year, the Review of Higher Education released a supplemental issue in response to the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) 2018 Conference Theme: Envisioning the Woke Academy. Issue editors D-L Stewart and Lori D. Patton joined us for a Q&A about how the issue, titled Activism in the Woke Academy: Scholars Review the Last Half-Century, came together and how they hope the issue will resonate in the field.

What was the process of turning the 2018 ASHE conference theme into a special issue of the association's journal like?
We first thought together about what the central story of the ASHE conference theme, "Envisioning the Woke Academy," was. What we realized as we considered this was the role of activism in pushing change and transformation in higher education in the U.S. and across the globe since 1968. From there, it was easy to see how activism and equity would be good fodder for a special issue of RHE.

How important is it for academics today to be "woke?"
If we consider "woke" to be the commitment to and a process of remaining critically conscious - which we both do - then the importance of that lies in how we, as academics, want to position ourselves relative to the academic enterprise. The academy is not naturally a tool of liberation and empowerment. On the contrary, it was founded in and supported by systems and structures of oppression. If academics are "asleep" to that reality, "asleep" to the multiple ways that we can collude with that oppression, then we will not be agents of change or transformation. We are instead engaging in academic sleepwalking. Really, it's only important for academics to be "woke" if academics want to dismantle and disrupt the systems and structures of oppression that guide the academy. 

What is it like putting an issue together on a topic like this when the news cycle seems to move at lightning speed?
That certainly is a challenge. However, it's important to remember that issues of oppression and inequity have a certain consistency in how they are manifested and propagated. It's less about trying to respond to a specific incident in the news cycle, than it is recognizing the pattern and speaking to that pattern. What can we learn from our history to address the things that are happening now? In what ways have people previously come together to respond and push for critical transformation at both the micro and macro levels? 

What did you learn in putting this issue together?
It was a privilege to learn up close the critical, transformative work that's happening in our field. People are deeply engaged in this scholarship and their findings have clear and present relevance to current and future discussions of policy and practice in higher education. 

How do you hope others will use this issue as a springboard for their own work?
I would say that we hope others will do 3 things: 1) deeply explore and consider the various theoretical frameworks that can guide scholarship on activism and equity; 2) take what could be called an ecological approach to institutional engagement in issues of equity that account for students, staff, and local off-campus communities, as well as faculty and administrative staff; and, 3) allow themselves to be provoked to action within their own spheres of influence in research, teaching, service, and policy work.