Back in 2022, I had the honor of presenting at Prefiguring and Resisting Tech: Towards Just Transitions organized by Lilly Irani, Bonnie Fan, Sarah Fox, Vera Khovanskaya, and Esther Choi. They asked speakers to prepare a provocation in response to the question of “What are false solutions offered to the problems of technology and liberation?”. This was mine:

In talking about false solutions, it would be easy to talk about technosolutionism, about the idea that technology will save us, but frankly, others have done it already and better than I would. I want to talk about “academic” work.

I write this in my liminal roles as a contingent academic laborer and as an unrepentant advocate who is also a full-time employee of a university. (And not just any university, but Harvard, which occupies a larger space than it deserves in reflections on the academy.) These roles make who the “we” is in “academics” tricky. Although I hope it will be contextually clear what group the pronoun “we” refers to, I have purposefully flagged where I felt conflict in myself about which group I belonged in.

I’ll start, as lawyers interpreting a text unfortunately often do, with the dictionary. In particular, the definitions for academic as an adjective. There are two worth noting:

  • “having no practical or useful significance”
  • “conforming to the traditions or rules of a school (as of literature or art) or an official academy : CONVENTIONAL.”1

From my experiences with advocacy, I know that parts of these definitions are false. Scholarship and the work of academics has tremendous practical or useful significance. But I did not learn this from my professors or my academic “peers”. The organizers I have had the pleasure to work with—they know their theory. The abolitionists I know believe in archives. Many independent scholars I read spend far more time engaging with core texts than the tenured academics I work with, although certainly there is some selection bias in those numbers. I know the way in which I move in the world has been changed by scholars and theorists, from Dean Spade2 to Sara Ahmed3 to my honored colleague, Sarah T. Hamid.4

Yet, we do talk about academic work as “having no practical or useful significance.” Why?

It would be easy to dismiss this as anti-intellectualism. But in my experience, academics themselves are quite invested in the idea that academic work doesn’t matter. Many times, activists who critique academic work take it far more seriously than the academics who produce it. They believe that it matters. What do they (we) know that we (they) don’t?

If I were to theorize, it’s not necessarily what we as academics don’t know, but what we tell ourselves. Universities run on the lie that academic work has no practical significance, even as grad students are told that the “life of the mind” is a thing to aspire to.

We must believe that our work doesn’t matter because if ideas truly matter, how are we supposed to politely disagree? We want the ability to get along at a faculty meeting, “need” to be able to get tenure (for those for whom that is an option). We benefit from being able to eat dinner at the department chair’s house without letting the pain get too thick as we know that there is a direct line between their scholarship and the incarceration of our comrades or the removal of our rights. We have to convince ourselves that a barrier exists between ideas and reality, that somehow, even if we aren’t, our colleagues are air gapped from the world by the proverbial “ivory tower.”

My frequent co-author Maggie Delano helped me articulate this core tension: academics devote our lives to producing ideas because we know that ideas matter, yet to admit that they matter would require changing everything about the institutions that nominally determine the value of our work. The boundaries of academic discourse and the cordiality due to colleagues force us into this double bind. We are not “conforming to the traditions or rules” if we name the consequences of the positions that others hold, if we get upset, or if we implicate ourselves in the work.

A couple of weeks ago, I was proofreading a draft publication. Below my bio was the conflict of interest section, where I declared no conflicts of interest. The paper was about how sex markers show up in the medical system. It is true that no one paid me to write it, and yet, perhaps I was conflicted. Conflicted by my desire to receive adequate medical care as a transgender person, which meant that I took a position consistent with that goal. Conflicted because I know the stakes. Because, in the words of the renowned professor Lorgia García-Peña, “I do not [balance activism and academic work.] My rebellion - my social justice work, scholarship, and teaching - are intrinsically linked. I see my academic work and teaching as liberatory practices.”5

We are all conflicted, but only some of us admit it.

Dismissing academic work as unimportant serves ourselves and our career ambitions. It is how some of us attempt to limit the cognitive dissonance of being in community with those who hold ideas antithetical to our existence. Believing that work does not impact the world is how those of us with institutional affiliations preserve the ability to get along with colleagues who promote theories that end (and sometimes begin) in violence and fascism.

Academia offers a false solution to the problem of technology and liberation so long as we cling to the notion that academic ideas are separable from impact. That the ivory tower is a tower, and not the source of a waterfall or a pile of spent nuclear rods at the bottom of the sea.

What would it look like if we took both our and others’ academic work seriously? How would it transform our relationships to our colleagues, to students, to tenure letters? And most importantly, how would it transform our relationship to the world?

  1. Academic, Merriam-Webster,

  2. Dean Spade, Be Professional!, 33 Harvard J. OF L. & Gender 71 (2010). 

  3. Sara Ahmed, Complaint! (2021). 

  4. Sarah T. Hamid, Community Defense: Sarah T. Hamid on Abolishing Carceral Technologies, Logic Magazine,

  5. Lorgia García-Peña, Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color (2022).