Academic Generosity, Academic Insurgency

During the summer of 2019, funding for the University of Alaska was slashed by the state legislature. With 41 percent of the annual budget, or $130 million ...

During the summer of 2019, funding for the University of Alaska was slashed by the state legislature. With 41 percent of the annual budget, or $130 million, proposed to be cut, the university faced a reduction in services and programs. Responding to public outcry, the Board of Regents changed course, approving a three-year budget reduction totaling $70 million, which will affect programs and staffing. This decision reveals, at the least, a troubling lack of awareness about how public higher education institutions strengthen the workforce and improve quality of life in their regions.

As a professor at a public regional comprehensive university, I have seen firsthand the significant contributions that our universities make to our local communities: creating educational opportunities for underserved student populations, contributing to local economic development, providing cultural heritage leadership to surrounding communities, and offering access to information to the general public through our libraries. These are indispensable services that public universities are uniquely poised to offer.

But at a moment when the value of higher education is under attack in the US from conservative opinion and persistent defunding from legislators, how can we recover this value?

“We need to restore the basis of critical thinking,” Kathleen Fitzpatrick argues, “by regrounding public discourse in listening, in generosity, in community.” Fitzpatrick’s book Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University is one important step toward recovering the lost value of the university. However, equally as crucial is recognizing that the strategies of “generous thinking” for which Fitzpatrick advocates have a long history as insurgent tactics deployed by scholars of color in order to survive within universities.

“Academic insurgency” is a term I use to describe a particular mode of scholarly praxis, one that takes academic work (e.g., scholarship, teaching, and service) and orients it toward the public and community engagement (e.g., activism, partnership, and collaboration). In practice, academic insurgency emphasizes interdisciplinary scholarship; experiments with genres of writing; engagement with multiple audiences, both inside and outside universities; and attention to the relationship between theoretical knowledge and its practical effects on communities that have experienced marginalization.

These tactics are insurgent in nature because they operate within what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney term “the undercommons.”1 This is a space where the subversive intellectual can, as Moten and Harney write, “sneak into the university and steal what one can,” in service of our communities. Scholars of color challenge, reimagine, and reinvent scholarly practices to survive and, in doing so, transform universities.

My current book project traces a lineage of academic insurgency in the US. Beginning with the genre of professors’ protest literature, in the late 19th and early 20th century, I follow the career trajectories of a range of intellectuals of color (including Ida B. Wells, Girindra Mukerji, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Fred Ho, Wilma Mankiller, and Chela Sandoval). I then trace the development of academic insurgency through movements to establish black and ethnic studies departments in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, as well as through the emergence of Third World and postcolonial feminisms in the 1980s and 1990s. Finally, I consider how new modes of humanities research (such as digital humanities, public humanities, and mobilized humanities) in areas such as postcolonial, African diaspora, indigenous, Latinx, and Caribbean studies represent contemporary forms of academic insurgency.

Recognizing this genealogy is essential to properly recognizing the accomplishments of scholars of color: transforming higher education into an instrument of social justice and creating space to envision new futures for communities of color. This genealogy also demonstrates that the strategies of academic generosity have always been used as survival tactics for scholars of color.

Scholars of color challenge, reimagine, and reinvent scholarly practices to survive and, in doing so, transform universities.

Academic generosity has received greater critical attention of late as an intervention in higher education, particularly in Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking.

At the heart of Fitzpatrick’s argument is her keen articulation of what “generous thinking” is and how it should be practiced by scholars and scholarly communities today. She describes it as “a mode of engagement that emphasizes listening over speaking, community over individualism, collaboration over competition, and lingering with the ideas that are in front of us rather than continually pressing forward to where we want to go.” Such generosity is essential to connecting higher education to multiple communities and encouraging those communities to recognize higher education as a public good.

In this regard, Generous Thinking builds upon recent pointed critiques of the state of public higher education in the US, including, in 2016, Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them and Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier’s Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education. Such books have emphasized the need to restore funding levels for public universities to pre–financial crisis levels, an issue which is certainly pressing.

But Fitzpatrick offers a markedly different tactic: imagining universities and communities engaging each other through “nonmarket relations of care.” Academics can demonstrate this nonmarket caregiving, she argues, through a range of practices: reimagining reading, promoting open access to knowledge, and rethinking modes of writing and reading to facilitate public engagement.

Such outreach across divisions between the university and multiple publics is a form of generosity that makes the value of higher education legible. Thus, in a political environment marked by continued austerity for public goods, Fitzpatrick’s proposal has tremendous potential. Her work, which clearly demonstrates how to think generously in the academy, can help make the case for increased public investment in higher education.

One might argue that such calls for generosity are inadequate—a neoliberal response to a failure of public investment and increased privatization in higher education, or a demand for individual action, rather than a change in economic and political policy. Fitzpatrick recognizes this challenge: “Thus elementary school bake sales rather than full funding for education. And thus a wide range of activity among nonprofit organizations … that serve to fill needs left behind by a retreating state.” And while her prescription for concrete actions does include change at the level of the individual academic, she also demands change at a structural level that emphasizes the need for substantive engagement between universities and communities.

Moreover, Fitzpatrick maintains that scholars who embrace a generous stance—as an affective dimension of engagement—have the potential to clearly demonstrate how higher education is, in fact, a public good. Communicating to wider audiences is, of course, the first step for collective action.

But where are the scholars of color in such formulations? Largely unspoken in the discourse that has emerged as “critical university studies”—a field in which the work of Fitzpatrick, Newfield, Fabricant, and Brier is essential—is the fact that scholars of color have been engaged in such critiques for a long time; for far longer, in fact, than previous genealogies of critical university studies would indicate.

Certainly, Newfield, Fabricant, and Brier offer important analyses of racial disparities that are exacerbated by the defunding of public higher education. This insight is particularly critical in light of the disproportionate levels of student loan debt born by black and Latinx students.2 And Fitzpatrick further recognizes the important work of coalition building done by the women and students of color who demanded changes in higher education in the 1960s and 1970s. She also notes that women of color working in academia experience overwhelming demands for extra service, with students of color seeking them out for advice and mentorship.

Race has also been foregrounded in recent contributions to the field of critical university studies. For example: Roderick A. Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (2012) examines how interdisciplinary programs, such as black studies, have challenged power dynamics within the universities and the state, but have also been appropriated by them; Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) uncovers the paradox of undertaking diversity work within academic institutions, where diversity discourses function as substitutes for real institutional change; and Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (2013) reveals the complicity of elite universities in the United States with slavery.

Equally important, yet subject to little critical attention, is the longer history of how scholars of color have transformed universities through their engagement across the boundaries between university and community. The notable exception is Stephanie Y. Evans’s Black Women in the Ivory Tower, 1850–1954: An Intellectual History (2008). Evans sheds light on the important work of Mary McLeod Bethune, Anna Julia Cooper, and others in improving postsecondary education, particularly for other black women. Evans’s groundbreaking work further demonstrates that the boundaries separating universities and communities have historically been porous for black women in higher education.

Lavelle Porter’s new book, The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual (2019), which examines representations of black academics in cultural production, is a touchstone as well. Porter’s book articulates the range of expectations placed on black scholars, in the contexts of both university life and university–community relations.

Academic insurgency draws on this body of work to articulate a long record of practices by scholars of color that forms the unrecognized basis of strategies for saving higher education advocated by scholars like Fitzpatrick. Scholars of color must be recognized for their valuable work—including their innovative modes of reading and writing, engagement with multiple publics and communities, and commitment to public intellectualism—that has not borne market rewards.

Recovering this long history of academic insurgency practiced by scholars of color is essential to realizing Fitzpatrick’s vision for a transformed university.

A quintessential example of the insurgent academic—one whose work demonstrates the qualities of Fitzgerald’s generous thinking—is African American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois. Committed to fostering the production of knowledge about African American life and decolonization, Du Bois’s career typifies academic insurgency: his agile, multimodal, and multidisciplinary approaches to scholarship crossed the boundaries between academic and general publics to promote social justice and equity.

Du Bois’s devotion to such interdisciplinary work can be seen in his vow, on his 25th birthday, “to make a name in science, to make a name in literature and thus to raise my race.”3 He recognized the importance of interdisciplinary interventions in racial inequalities and of blending humanities and sciences. Du Bois first tried to put the interdisciplinary exploration of African American life into practice at Wilberforce University, in the mid-1890s—where he aimed to “build a great university”—but he found his attempts to create a sociology course stymied.4 He would go on to have success with this goal at Atlanta University in the late 1890s, where he fostered “systematic and conscientious study of the American Negro.”5 Later in life, in the 1940s, Du Bois would put forth an ambitious set of recommendations for the revitalization of historically black land-grant universities.

By taking advantage of the insights of multiple disciplines, he made the case—using multiple modes of communication—for the humanity of African Americans. Perhaps most significantly, Du Bois realized that transforming the university required recognizing that knowledge production is not exclusively the domain of the university. This is the very generosity for which Fitzpatrick calls.

Even before he left Atlanta University (to which he would later return), in 1910, to serve as editor and founder of The Crisis for the NAACP, Du Bois experimented with communication channels that bridged multiple audiences and gave voice to writers outside the academy. His periodicals The Moon Illustrated Weekly (1905–6) and The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line (1907–10) were two important examples of this work.

Du Bois further recognized that academic writing genres had limited audiences and, consequently, that experiments in genre were essential for the transmission of knowledge to multiple publics and communities. This is why Du Bois’s own writing spanned a dizzying array of genres: pageants, short stories, plays, fables, and novels. Du Bois was, quite certainly, among the avant-garde of generous thinking.

And Du Bois is just one of many scholars of color who embody these insurgent—and, indeed, generous—practices in the undercommons of the university. These scholars have worked within and beyond the constraints of their employment to improve the circumstances of their communities.


Is College Worth It?

By Mitchell L. Stevens

Recovering this long history of academic insurgency practiced by scholars of color is essential to realizing Fitzpatrick’s vision for a transformed university. As forerunners of generous thinking, these scholars offer important models for the generous approaches to reading, writing, and community engagement that Fitzpatrick proposes.

Indeed, scholars of color have a centuries-long history of being called on to be disproportionately generous—to students, to communities, and to the institutions that merely tolerate our presence while appropriating and erasing our contributions. Proponents of generous thinking must recognize that these contributions are at the center of the practices necessary for recovering the value of higher education as a public good. Once they have done so, we will be better aligned to work collaboratively to save the university.


This article was commissioned by Carolyn Devericon

  1. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013).
  2. Mark Huelsman, “The Debt Divide: The Racial and Class Bias Behind the ‘New Normal’ of Student Borrowing,” Demos, May 19, 2015.
  3. W. E. B. Du Bois, “Celebrating His Twenty-fifth Birthday,” in Against Racism: Unpublished Essays, Papers, Addresses, 1887–1961, edited by Herbert Aptheker (University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), p. 29.
  4. W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1920), p. 18.
  5. W. E. B. Du Bois, cited in David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography (Henry Holt, 2009), p. 235.
Featured image: Detail of W. E. B. Du Bois (center) in a group photo of the 20th Class Reunion of the Class of 1890 on June 28, 1910, in Tempest Knob. Harvard University Archives, HUPSF Class of 1890 (PA 1)