Review in Socialist Studies

Reconsidering Knowledge
Feminism and the Academy

Edited by Meg Luxton and Mary Jane Mossman  

The book, and the lecture series at York University that spawned it, were conceived as an opportunity to look back on the themes and ideas put forward in a publication called Knowledge Reconsidered: A Feminist Overview, that was produced by the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) in 1984. As Mary Jane Mossman (my colleague at Osgoode Hall) and Meg Luxton explain in the Introduction, the CRIAW publication, and others like it, came in the context of a developing understanding in Canada and the United States that feminist knowledge had ‘perspective transforming’ elements and therefore, instead of being simply ‘tacked on to the curriculum’, it should instead transform it from within. It would do so, according to the authors in this collection, in part by completely destabilizing the notions of an ‘objective’ or ‘normative’ perspective on truth (14-15).

In looking back over the decades since the publication of Knowledge Reconsidered, the Luxton and Mossman volume covers topics such as the emergence of women’s studies programs (and their re-casting in the 2000s as gender studies or women’s, gender and sexuality studies programs, up to their contemporary dismantling in some universities); the interdependence of theoretical and empirical advances in fostering transformative teaching and learning; the (re)definition of the university’s role in a ‘new knowledge economy’, including the trends towards clientism and a customer-service mentality that have pervaded not just teaching, but now also research climates in most universities; the possibilities for a transnational feminism that is ‘location specific but not necessarily location-bound’; and the importance of historical studies of women’s resistance and feminist empiricism.

The feminist agitations over the 1970s and 80s that fundamentally changed the landscapes of universities are celebrated, and yet the editors allow questioning of the depth of this transformation. Overall, their claim is that the production of feminist knowledge is not a project that should be confined to the university; it must be a common project of connection and collaboration between feminist academics and community activists and organizers. But this, in our present climate, is a tall order.

In her chapter, ‘The University on the Ground’, Janice Newson puts her finger on a dynamic those of us working in universities over the past decade intuitively ‘know’: that economic and political influences once shut out of academic program development are now routinely infiltrating - at the same time as universities enthusiastically seek to reach their tentacles outwards into new domains of ‘community’, enterprise and governance.

This is not all negative, of course, as initiatives to get universities to engage in meaningful ways with the communities they are located in, or are mandated to ‘serve’, can be transformative. But the slick talk of engaged scholarship has an oily element, a slippery surface on which it can be impossible to get traction. For example, as M. Jacqui

Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty argue in their chapter, ‘Cartographies of Knowledge and Power: Transnational Feminism as Radical Praxis’, the energetic pursuit of ‘academic-community’ partnerships and ‘offices of community relations’ can reinforce the academy/community divide (‘at the same time masking the creation of the divide’) and ‘normalize the spatial location of the academy as the epitome of knowledge production’ (46). In this context, it is difficult for those of us who do want to maintain connection with activist communities, and genuinely engage in a collective project of research and action that transcends the university’s hallowed halls, to determine how to react to the official university’s now ubiquitous, but shallow, endorsement of that goal.

How can we begin to cultivate circumstances through which activists and scholars can collaborate to define ‘imperatives that do not rely on the academy for self-definition even as the academy summons them, and reifies them in that summoning…’(47), in the midst of all of this glossy talk of ‘partnering’? The ‘communities’ the official university has in mind of course, may not be the ones that come immediately to mind to scholars who consider themselves ‘engaged’.

Instead, they include often, as Margaret Thornton shows in her chapter ‘Universities Upside Down’, private sector corporations or industry associations. ‘It is somewhat paradoxical’, she argues, ‘that the resources of public universities are now being used for the private good of corporations…’ (84). This dynamic is also sharply gendered, as the volume makes clear, because the techno-preneur, who can easily be slotted into a role producing useful knowledge with a commercial purpose, squeezes out those of us toiling mainly in critique, an aim ‘currently depicted as feminized and dispensable’ (87).

The deliberate underfunding of post-secondary education by neoliberal governments, according to Thornton, forced universities to enter the market, justified fee hikes and prompted the ‘questionable liasons’ with industry. All of us caught up in this system, meanwhile, are expected to ‘defer to those above, …tak[e] responsibility for those below, [and]…disciplin[e] the self in terms of the new norms’ (89). In this respect

Lorraine Code’s comment made in the context of her analysis of the challenge to epistemological orthodoxy inherent in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) can be applied to the dilemma facing all of us teaching in universities today: ‘it is implausible and indeed careless to assume without question that knowledge transcends the circumstances of its making’ (21).

The authors, collectively, call for renewed commitments to the creation of feminist knowledge and ‘continuing resistance to efforts to negate its radical critique, both within and outside the academy’ (20). The collection is an important resource for feminist academics, and the space it opens up for theorizing engaged scholarship and critically assessing its possibilities and potential pitfalls, is welcome.

— Nadine Scott, Osgoode Hall Law School, in >Socialist Studies (Volume 9(1), Spring 2013)

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