As the semester comes to a close, I find myself having more and more reflective conversations with colleagues and students about personal, career, and academic goals. Whether talking about thesis plans or sharing our deepest and most sacred raisons d'être, the end of the academic year provides multiple opportunities, sober and otherwise, to take a moment and think about where we've been, where we are, and where we want to go.
Thanks to my background in cultural studies, the political consequence of my work is always at the top of my research agenda. Academic research should not be a mere accumulation of facts; each search for knowledge should be politically conscious and have overtly political goals. Personally, my research goals include articulating and highlighting misrepresentations of women in media productions so that a) more people will be aware of these processes of marginalization and make critical consumer choices and b) the raised consciousness will lead to more political activism in general.
Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague who is making a similar crusade for increased science literacy, specifically regarding climate change. We are both interested in how best to provide a vocabulary to individuals so they are able to access different types of knowledge; people can only interact with and subvert or reject knowledge if they have access to it. If we are to achieve this goal, our projects cannot live solely within academic journals. We must share our findings with our friends, our family, and the general public through conversations, public events, and social technologies. Producing work that is simultaneously approachable and rigorous is essential to this process.
On a more practical level, I see the same goals in the stats class I TA. We are teaching these undergrads what the "+/- 3 points" means when they see it on the news, what requirements must be met to be able to make generalizations from statistics, and other concepts that help them better understand the data that is used as "evidence" for legislation and other very real policies. Through this comprehension they can make more intelligent decisions about what information to take with a grain of salt.
This argument begs some theoritical grounding. Marxist (/Marxian) theorists discuss the important role of the intellectual in a capitalistic society. The mass, as individuals busy with mundane responsibilities, requires the presence of intellectuals to create “an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields.” These intellectuals help to foster class consciousness, which leads to political action. The idea is also an inherently feminist one, (minus the elitism of the critical theorists). Consciousness-raising groups have been inducing individual and community acts of resistance to patriarchy for centuries.
In a perfect world, public education would produce citizens who are not only conscious of their agency and ability to confront the inequalities of their political realities, but also utilize that agency to create a more egalitarian and empowering society. Our ideal political systems may amount to ethereal utopias, ultimately unrealizable, but that does not devalue the importance of striving for such an ideal. And I think that's the fundamental answer to the constant, nagging "so what?" question of research. It may be corny, but I'm doing this to make the world a better place, inch by inch. And I know I'm not the only one.