Becoming a “legitimate” academic: Disciplinary straightening devices and the imperial archive

This post is a summary of an article by four professors—friends who went to graduate school together—that was published in a recent special issue of Language, Culture and Society. The special issue was titled “Language, Epistemology, and the Politics of Knowledge Production.” The four professors’ article is about the ways in which people who try to do critical, anti-colonial, socially just work become disciplined not to go that far because of professional requirements. This can be seen in ethical dilemmas at all stages of the academic career, from doctoral thesis writing to seeking tenure to post-tenure. Between them, the four friends tell one story at each career stage, then conclude with a reflection of what can be done.

Cushing-Leubner, J., Engman, M. M., Ennser-Kananen, J., & Pettitt, N. (2021). Imperial straightening devices in disciplinary choices of academic knowledge production. Language, Culture and Society, 3(2), 201-230. https://doi.org/10.1075/lcs.21001.cus

Cushing-Leubner et al. begin with a quote from a famous applied linguist, Angel Lin: “Can a spider weave its way out of the web that it is being woven into, just as it weaves?” (Lin, 2015). They extend this quote to mean that “all academic scholarship production and its processes are birthed from, and serve, an epistemology of hierarchical social configurations (Rivera Cusicanqui, 2012/2019; Mignolo, 2009), which serve empire maintenance and expansion” (pp. 202-203). It’s worth defining at the beginning what “empire” is: in this article, empire is the centuries-old dominance of powerful states over less powerful ones, politically, economically, and, as a result, academically (in terms of culture and knowledge production as well). 

The “imperial archive” is another term defined at the start. An archive is a library, electronic or physical; it can be distributed across oceans. “Through the imperial archive [i.e., libraries and repositories of academic scholarship published in books and journals that are subscribed to by universities around the world, but ultimately produced in Inner-Circle English-speaking and Western countries], academic scholarship production offers an alternative to the reality of brutal biophysical empire expansion [e.g., factories and sweatshops, child labor, mining, agricultural slavery worldwide] through the unifying myth that those within and coercively gathered by empire’s hold are instead united by the project of information creation, documentation, tracking, and reification” (p. 204).

When people are socialized into academia—that is, when they enter apprenticeship as Masters or Doctoral students, graduate with PhDs, get Postdoctoral or Assistant Professor jobs, work towards tenure, and advance to Associate Professor and then Full Professor, they have to meet expectations of legitimacy, i.e., that their work is of quality, that it is valuable to the discipline, that they deserve to pass their comprehensive exams and PhD dissertation defense, get an academic job, and get promoted through the ranks. These tests of legitimacy are “straightening devices”—they make certain actions impossible because we academics end up “straightening ourselves and each other towards legitimacy in academia” (p. 203). Our aspirations become bound up with the interests of the imperial archive.

How do we disengage from the archive? By “interrupting aspirational desires for contributing to the formation and reconstitution of the colonial archive” (p. 204). That is the authors’ main argument, which is expounded in the rest of the article.

Background of the situation

Universities—especially those in the centre of academic knowledge production, i.e., Inner Circle English-speaking countries and Western Europe—like to display their partnerships with Indigenous, local, displaced and refugee communities because it legitimizes them morally, even if such work “is often in tension with the demands of knowledge production by and for this archive” (p. 204). Again, academic scholarship production offers an “alternative reality” to the fact that political and economic exploitation is happening, by creating the unifying myth of information creation and documentation. 

Academia is a very competitive profession. Ten PhD graduates exist for every entry-level Assistant Professorship, only some assistant professors become tenured, and a small number of tenured people become famous. At every level, the stakes get higher, and more money and fame is involved; life gets better and better, materially speaking. But to climb the ladder, health and sanity are compromised, and people with disabilities and women (who have to care for children/elders) are severely disadvantaged in devoting the hours necessary to work. This work (research, teaching, service) is “funded through our employment with the state… as well as through public-private partnered grants” (p. 204). Whoever devotes themselves to the archive becomes increasingly legitimized and famous, by producing scholarship in the interests of government-university-corporate-nonprofit partnerships.

Note that “discipline” (n., field) and “discipline” (vb., to discipline) are homonyms. The authors state: “disciplinary straightening devices are used (and taken up) to straighten scholarship that may move outside of or against the imperial archive” to reshape it “as intelligible to the academy (and thus the archive and its singular aims)” (p. 204). For example, let us say that someone wants to write their doctoral dissertation in Cree, or Mandarin, rather than English. Or they want to create a doctoral dissertation in the form of a piece of theatre in English, rather than as a 300-page essay. Now that form is unintelligible to the imperial archive and its singular aims, to promote an English-centered, text-centered academy. It’s like feeding a computer a piece of information and getting the response “error… does not compute.” What happens to this PhD candidate? After much arguing and pleading with their professors (who will act like concerned parents), the person may eventually go ahead and do whatever kind of doctoral dissertation they want… but THEY THEMSELVES will be taken as UNINTELLIGIBLE to the imperial archive, and their work’s audience will be substantially limited. They will have a hard time proving their legitimacy.

As the authors explain using three narratives, disciplinary straightening is experienced by people at various stages of their academic career (pp. 206-207):

  • PhD student: Formation of research and scholarship trajectories (i.e., academic “training” through dissertation),
  • Non-tenured professor: Movement through the probationary period (i.e., tenure and promotion), and
  • Tenured professor: Claiming relevance in the field (i.e., sustaining research and scholarship trajectories).

Case 1: Mel’s PhD dissertation dilemma

Mel (Prof. Engman) was a white woman researching an Ojibwe language classroom for her PhD in Spring 2016 as part of a project to better understand the work of Indigenous language teachers who were still learning their languages as they taught them. She found that the teacher, the colleague whose class she was observing, “was not relying on the practices that language education literature recognized as ‘good language teaching.’” That is, there was “too much scripting, too much teacher talk, too much English” and not enough immersion (p. 208).

This is a rather unfair criterion, as Mel points out, because it measures indigenous language education according to benchmarks set by colonial languages like English, French, and German. How can languages still in the process of being revitalized, with few fluent speakers, and little to be found in these languages in the media (even though there are valiant grassroots initiatives in this area), give rise to “immersion” classrooms rife with “communicative language teaching”? Mel “perceived the situation as having two options: (a) proceed as planned (and betray my colleague), or (b) abandon the dissertation altogether” (p. 208).

Trying to help, her colleagues said, “Well, why don’t you just count things?”, i.e., keep analysis neutral by counting general behaviour patterns? Mel therefore came up with the following field notes:

Cushing-Leubner, Engman, Ennser-Kananen, & Pettitt (2021), p. 209

Fortunately, she was able to resolve the dilemma in a third way, one that required a new frame of mind:

Ultimately, I continued to learn from my colleague and from her practice, as she helped her young bilingual students to develop in significant (extra-linguistic [i.e., beyond one language]) ways (e.g., through observation, collaboration, consensus building, experience, story). My over reliance on the existing archive and its instruments had oriented my original view of the classroom in such as way as to obscure my view of the teacher’s expertise. I thought language revitalization was aided by fluency in structural linguistic concepts when, in fact, this language-as-object orientation prevented me from seeing how this skilled teacher facilitated a plurilingual classroom atmosphere that resembled extended family structures (building on existing relations among some of the young people and adults in the room). There was intimacy and trust, and identities were allowed to be dynamic, fluid, and emergent as academic content mixed with talk of Fortnite strategy and snaring rabbits. (p. 209)

In other words, people can be English-dominant plurilinguals and Ojibwe users and authentically Ojibwe, and the language classroom was accomplishing what it needed to do in terms of benefits to the community. Thus, “the dissertation objective changed to focus on the social relationships in the classroom and the ethical project of reclamation (rather than language instruction)” (p. 210).

Mel’s case shows a familiar graduate student dilemma: When the data does not fit the theory, how can you pass? If the dissertation reflects negatively on friends/colleagues, what do you do? This does not mean we cannot be constructively critical of one another’s practice, but we also might ask: “Under what criteria are we judging each other’s practices? Do we need to redefine what the criteria are?” Getting past her criteria (received from the academy) allowed Mel to come up with Option C. When she pushed back against the criteria, she was able to see and document the quality of her colleague’s work.

Case 2: Nicole’s working-towards-tenure publication dilemma

Mel’s colleague Nicole (Prof. Pettitt) worked in a mid-size public university at a U.S. town that was undergoing “deindustrialization” (that is, economic decline, presumably as the factories that used to be thriving were moved to other countries). The population was racially diverse, but neighborhoods were segregated based on ethnicity. The white population had a lot of working-class, economically struggling people too. 

The university, which was predominantly white, focused on promoting “critical” scholarship focusing on the struggles of white, working-class folk: “Despite the racial makeup of Youngstown… nearly all of the students/future teachers were white. None of them identified as Native or Indigenous to the lands where Youngstown was built” (p. 213). In a paper, Nicole (herself white) wrote: “What colonizing assumptions… do I bring to my work as an ELT [English Language Teaching] teacher educator in Youngstown? In what ways do I convey that teacher candidates here need to be ‘fixed’ to be better educators of emergent bilingual students? What local knowledges do I fail to acknowledge?” (p. 213). 

When she submitted the article for peer review, a reviewer asked her to rethink the term “colonizing assumptions”… “if the racial and historical dynamics of colonial contexts” did not apply (i.e., it was within the U.S.). Nicole could have argued against this reviewer, in that colonialism is rife within the U.S.—slavery, against indigenous people, etc.—but she did not for several reasons:

  • First, it was simply easier to delete “colonizing” from the sentence, i.e., “What assumptions do I bring to my work…”, with the sentence reading much the same.
  • Second, and related to the first point, she wanted to get the article published because she needed a certain number of articles to get tenure, within a relatively short period of time, which made her want to make the process as efficient as possible (“I had recently received counsel from a more senior scholar to lean into the pragmatics of academic production…”; p. 213).
  • Third, she explained: “I had nearly withdrawn the paper a few weeks earlier as I attempted to re-balance workload and health concerns during the early days of COVID-19” (p. 213). Nicole had a disability; she thought, “If I didn’t stop computer work soon, I won’t be able to carry out activities of daily living, such as cooking, laundry, or taking out the trash” (p. 214). Indeed, she often asked help from others to ease her physical, cognitive, and emotional loads—but during this time, she was living alone and far from family, making finding help difficult.

Nicole’s dilemma highlights struggles of the non-tenured, early-career professor: to publish quickly, get into as few fights with reviewers as possible, be as efficient/fast a worker as possible, often with limited in-person support networks, i.e., we often have to move far away to the most prestigious university that will accept us at each stage in our career, all alone or alone except for our spouse/children. While relocation is a personal decision, having a disability is not within a person’s control, and people cannot escape responsibility for their children/elderly parents (if they have not moved away from their family, or if their family has moved with them). Therefore, even though universities (as corporations) state that they have no prejudice against hiring people with disabilities or women regardless of family status, university workloads and operations make it doubly or triply difficult for people with disabilities and women with families to meet the same criteria for tenure and promotion.

As “promotion… plays off of multiple precarities: personal, material, professional, intellectual, social, and physical” (p. 216), Nicole resolved her dilemma less happily then Mel did: “The pressure to contribute to the imperial archive—which opens the doors of tenure, sealing Nicole’s legitimacy in the academy—wielded a literal ‘physical press on the surface of [her] body… demanding that the bones of her spine straighten (impossibly) to function in ways that allow her to produce on specific timelines, already incongruent to meaningful study” (pp. 214-215). Note the phrase “already incongruent to meaningful study”—even academics without a disability may sacrifice the depth/breadth of their reading or the time they spend getting to know a research site and participants, or time spent transcribing and analyzing their data thoroughly, to meet such deadlines.

As Nicole legitimized herself as an academic, she secured her economic well being. In so doing, she strengthened the imperial archive’s legitimacy, and was received as a “legitimate” researcher by academic peers (yet she, also, needed to receive them as legitimate when she reviewed others’ work). Anyone deemed “worthless” to the legitimation of the imperial archive and unable to legitimate others working for the imperial archive is, of course, erased from the imperial archive. This is why our family and friends make sacrifices for us, understanding enough of the situation. Nicole (Dr. Pettitt) and her co-authors suggest that we scholars can be self-critical, but not really entirely decolonizing or indigenizing, due to our aspiration for inclusion in the imperial archive and the work we do for it (p. 217).

Case 3: Hanna’s claim-to-novelty editorial dilemma

As a tenured professor, Nicole and Mel’s colleague Hanna (Dr. Ennser-Kananen) was editing a book with chapters contributed by other scholars. The volume was funded by the Academy of Finland to develop the field of applied language studies at her university. The book included a chapter co-authored by Hanna and a colleague in Mozambique. It compared data (focus groups, interviews, policy documents) from Finland and Mozambique to understand parents’ choice of whether or not to enroll their children in bi/multilingual education. 

When she framed the chapter/book theoretically, reviewers offered two main critiques. First, they kept on demanding “What is new?” about the theoretical framework, New Materialism. Second, with regard to the chapter, which she presented at a conference, a white European senior colleague in the audience challenged why she had chosen a “white framework” for the cross-national data including an African context. Reflecting on this experience, Hanna rejects the first criticism, but thinks seriously about the second one:

“What is new about this?” is a common question of gatekeeping in the academy. The gates of the colonial archive open only to those who produce what is recognized as novelty. Such novelty exists on a fine line of being similar enough to archived knowledges in order to be recognized and different enough to be considered worthy of archiving.As editor of a book, [my] task was not mainly to discover and present something truly novel (if this were even a possibility) but to discursively construct novelty around an idea in a way that would be understandable and acceptable to the (fellow-)keepers of the imperial archive. (p. 219)

If Hanna were to take the demand for novelty to heart, she would not only be pushing herself but her co-authors and collaborators on the book to do the same. Indeed, she admitted that she had read a great deal of dense literature painfully over the summer at the expense of family time, looking for something novel (pp. 220-211). On the other hand, Hanna and her co-authors point out that the search for something “novel” makes researchers willfully blind to work done by postcolonial or indigenous authors, which may be traditional and timeless and not novel, and was NEVER part of the imperial archive. Hence, to the archive, it is TOO novel, i.e., unintelligible to the archive and its singular aims.

This brings us to the second criticism: “choices are being made about which literatures are worth the effort of engaging” (Rosiek, Snyder, & Pratt, 2020, p. 3). Hanna produced the theoretical framing from the European context, and her Mozambican colleague delivered the data to be framed in that way. Even though they interpreted the data together, “this general dynamic over legitimized European epistemologies and designated author collaboration as a relationship that works for and under the auspices of the imperial archive” (p. 221).

Hanna and her colleagues argue that the point of meaningful academic work is not so much novelty, real or discursively constructed, but work that pushes back against the singular aims of the imperial archive, for example, its epistemological racism (Kubota, 2020) and its capitalist workings—which make people sacrifice human relations and personal wellbeing for their individual ambition and promotion.

Struggling against straightening devices, recognizing “myths of choice,” and re-orienting ourselves

In their discussion and conclusion, the authors quote the words of queer theorist Sara Ahmed, who wrote about “straightening devices” in society as disciplinary measures towards social conformity. Ahmed writes: 

What does it mean to be oriented? … We have our bearings. We know what to do to get to this place or that. To be oriented is also to be oriented toward certain objects, those that help us find our way. These are the objects we recognize… They gather on the ground and also create a ground on which we can gather. Yet objects gather quite differently, creating different grounds. What difference does it make what we are oriented toward? (Ahmed, 2006, p. 543; my bold)

I have bolded part of Ahmed’s quote because it shows where we DO have a choice. As Cushing Leubner, Engman, Ennser-Kananen and Pettitt (2021) explain, we can reorient ourselves by critiquing the fantasy of a good life… “a fantasy of the empire and its grips as legitimate” (p. 223). People serve empires because their lives are made good and their identities legitimated by the institutions of the empire, but always at a cost. Even after a cost-benefit analysis is done and you still figure the benefits outweighed the costs in your case, this does not make the empire legitimate for everybody, everywhere. The four authors highlight that our own “fraught commitments” (i.e., personal conflicts with the imperial archive) can help us to “dis-orient (Merleau-Ponty, 2002) from imperial alignments and towards orientations of refusal (Mungwini, Creller, Monahan, & Murdock, 2019; Simpson, 2007; Tuck & Yang, 2014) and resurgence (Simpson, 2017) ” (p. 223; my bold).

Cushing-Leubner et al. therefore “call for an intensified pursuit of decolonizing and humanizing practices of identifying, negotiating, and disseminating knowledge beyond academia, in rejection of and unconcerned with the legitimacy of the archive” (p. 223; my bold). Our employment is “not a romance and not worth dreaming about as a romance” (p. 224). It is not a utopia. It is always problematic; it may be decolonizing and anti-colonial in some ways, but it will never fully get there. “What it does will rely on what we do and do not do, what we succumb to and resist, what we are able to imagine and collectively create, what we desire and what we keep safe” (p. 224).

The authors explain at the end of their paper that they missed each other greatly during COVID-19, as four friends far-flung throughout the world. What does the final, polished article not show? “Ten requests for extensions, eleven missed deadlines, childbirth, mothering of children… through a global pandemic and its closures, state violence where we live, contentious labor union negotiations and a faculty strike, being children of aging parents with no access to vaccines against COVID-19, aging parents across oceans… depression, anxieties, physical pains, illnesses, losses, mourning, and increasing messaging to carry on” (p. 225), for the good fight, not for the imperial archive.

Finally, Cushing-Leubner et al. conclude that we academic researchers have to:

  • Be wary of myths about the scarcity of knowledge—the idea that authority, validity, and legitimacy in knowledge are scarce commodities and must be competed for, “claimed, proven, and territorialized” (p. 225). In fact, knowledge is abundant, if we go beyond the knowledge recognized by the imperial archive and its singular aims.
  • Be wary of the myth that time is likewise scarce: “that there isn’t enough of it, that it’s possible to use it wisely and to waste it,” and that we need to read the right things, network with the right people, as if “what determines wisdom… [is] based on what commodities your thoughts and relations can produce” (p. 226).

Drawing attention to refusal and reclamation, they urge us to “reject time in its many straightenings and to instead live and seek to understand what we are able to create collectively, what we desire, and what we keep safe” (p. 226) from academic empire-building that co-opts our material desires and ambitions, and even our decolonizing aspirations.

References

Kubota, R. (2020). Confronting epistemological racism, decolonizing scholarly knowledge: Race and gender in applied linguistics. Applied Linguistics41(5), 712-732. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amz033

Lin, A. (2015). Preface: Can a spider weave its way out of the web that it is being woven into, just as it weaves? In H. Zhang, P.W.K. Chan, & K. Kenway. (Eds.), Asia as method in education studies: A defiant research imagination (xxi–xv). London: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). The phenomenology of perception (trans. Colin Smith). London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203994610

Mignolo, W. D. (2009). Epistemic disobedience, independent thought and decolonial freedom. Theory, Culture & Society26(7–8), 159–181. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276409349275

Mungwini, P., Creller, A., Monahan, M.J., & Murdock, E.G. (2019). Why epistemic decolonization? Journal of World Philosophies4(2), 70–105.

Rivera Cusicanqui, S. (2012). Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: A reflection on the practices and discourses of decolonization. The South Atlantic Quarterly111(1), 95-109. https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-1472612

Simpson, A. (2007). On ethnographic refusal: Indigeneity, “voice,” and colonial citizenship. Junctures9, 67–80.

Simpson, L.B. (2017). As we have always done: Indigenous freedom through radical resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K.W. (2014). R-words: Refusing research. In D. Paris & M. Winn. (Eds.), Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities (pp. 223–247). Newbury Park: Sage Publications. 

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

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