The Al Jazeera podcast Degrees of Abuse is the result of a two year investigation into British universities and the institutional handling of sexual harassment complaints. It features the case of geographer Dr Ian Shaw – who, in his words, researches “political violence and how we can work together to build better worlds”, and who denies any and all wrongdoing (Davies et al, 2021). Listening to these two particular episodes was unsettling: it made explicit wider issues and problems that have long existed in academia (including on one’s own disciplinary turf of geography) and it implicitly raised a bigger question. Does a generalised academic culture effectively provide cover for, and fuel even, the abuse of power? The women featured in this podcast are courageous. I hope their courage is not in vain. It is the responsibility of all of us who consider ourselves to be progressive academics to foster a movement for change, but what does this mean when/if the perpetrators of abuses of power are themselves ‘progressive academics’ and part of a generalised culture and structures of power one seeks to challenge and resist?
The words of bell hooks, from her book Teaching to Transgress, are helpful here in offering an explanation for the potential disconnect between REF-rewarded minds and everyday academic bodies and, more specifically, of the incongruity of what a progressive academic might do and how they might be:
“I learned that far from being self-actualized, the university was seen more as a haven for those who are smart in book knowledge but who might be otherwise unfit for social interaction. Luckily, during my undergraduate years I began to make a distinction between the practice of being an intellectual/teacher and one’s role as a member of the academic profession. It was difficult to maintain fidelity to the idea of the intellectual as someone who sought to be whole – well-grounded in a context where there was little emphasis on spiritual well-being, on care of the soul. Indeed, the objectification of the teacher within bourgeois educational structures seemed to denigrate notions of wholeness and uphold the idea of a mind/body split, one that promotes and supports compartmentalization. This support reinforces the dualistic separation of public and private, encouraging teachers and students to see no connection between life practices, habits of being, and the roles of professors. The idea of the intellectual questing for a union of mind, body, and spirit had been replaced with notions that being smart meant that one was inherently emotionally unstable and that the best in oneself emerged in one’s academic work. This meant that whether academics were drug addicts, alcoholics, batterers, or sexual abusers, the only important aspect of our identity was whether or not our minds functioned […].” (hooks, 1994: 16)
Spaces of spiritual self-actualization have, of course, also been sites of abuse; a movement for change requires something other than simply mindfulness and yoga. But the point here I think is that the systemic orientation and reward for one aspect of an academic’s identity (and productivity) nullifies the contradictions of an academic’s being. The powerful insight of bell hooks is that academia is an institutional asylum of emotionally destructive behaviour. Part of the journey towards academic self-actualization involves creating and sustaining spaces of reflection and dialogue that Degrees of Abuse helps open up.
I hope the testimonies of the Degrees of Abuse podcast stay alive as an impetus for transformation. The observation of hooks below poignantly resonates:
“[…] I listen to students express the concern that they will not succeed in academic professions if they want to be well, if they eschew dysfunctional behavior or participation in coercive hierarchies. These students are often fearful, as I was, that there are no spaces in the academy where the will to be self-actualized can be affirmed.” (hooks, 1994: 18)
Progressive geography, if it is to mean anything meaningful and worthy of its name, requires a radical overhaul of incongruent spaces and selves that are complicit with abuses of power. Progressive geography could, at its best, offer itself to shaping spaces in the academy for congruent self-actualization and wellness. This will entail open, honest and difficult conversations.