Author Archive for Cinthya Ammerman

“How to not let corporate university steal your heart”

Last week I attended a two-day symposium that I helped organize for Native American Studies graduate students. Our keynote speaker, Dr. Dian Million, had advice for us: “you have to get strong and fight” she said, “this fight is about how to not let corporate university steal your heart.”

Her advice was well timed. In our Mellon Public Scholars seminar we have been discussing how higher education reflects, reproduces—and sometimes subverts— social hierarchies such as race, gender, class, and sexuality. The essays in Presumed Incompetent reveal that the demographics and culture of academia is distinctly “white, hetero-sexual, and middle- and upper-middle-class. Those who differ from this norm find themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, ‘presumed incompetent’ by students, colleagues, and administrators.” But how or more importantly, why, has academia come to reflect and reproduce these hierarchies?

Dian Million told us, “it’s called ‘disciplines’ for a reason…universities are training students to replicate dominant ideologies.” Authors of Presumed Incompetent note that when an academic woman of color does not behave according to expectations, they are often punished with subtle or blatant micro-aggressions. These issues are not confined to one university or department; they are symptomatic of a structural problem. Higher education is modeled after the worldview of a specific demographic. Reinforced by the ‘objectivism’ of scientific rhetoric, we are led to believe that their worldview is the epitome of truth and knowledge.

In The Reorder of Things, Roderick Ferguson traces the birth of the interdisciplines (African American Studies, Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, Native American Studies) to the “ethnic and women’s movements” of the 60s. These movements were absorbed into U.S. higher education, and the academy became “a capitol of archival power, training state and economy in its methods of representation and regulation.” The academy became a resource for the institutionalization of difference, effectively turning knowledge and power into what Foucault terms biopower. In other words, the interdisciplines became a way to manage dissent not through overt repression, but through people’s self-regulation.

How do academics self-regulate in this era of the corporate university? Faculty and staff feel pressured to act as service providers who need to please rather than educate students. Students play the role costumers who are there to buy ‘the commodity of credentials’ rather than to learn. The corporate university fosters an ultra competitive environment as graduate students vie for grants to cover increasing university costs and compete for decreasing tenure track positions. Competition and the tenurecentric dream, to borrow Karen Cardozo’s term, are often internalized and naturalized.

Feminist economists J.K. Gibson-Graham showed how capitalocentrism prevents us from seeing the diversity of economic arrangements outside of capitalism. Drawing from J.K. Gibson-Graham, Karen Cardozo’s term, tenurecentrism, shows how our obsession with tenure track prevents us from acknowledging the diverse opportunities for careers of the untenured faculty majority. Alt-ac and post-ac services are making some of these opportunities accessible, but Cardozo argues that the terms ‘alt-ac’ and ‘post-ac’ imply that they are fallbacks. Cardozo is suggesting that graduate students and faculty need to maintain an alt-ac mentality from the beginning.

Scholars of Native American Studies will tell you that indigenous peoples had a diversity of economies of their own, and that these economies were centered not on capital, but on relationships…to the land, to humans and other-than-humans. Our research and careers in Native American Studies are founded on honoring these relationships. Authors of Presumed Incompetent call for us to “recognize and honor the connections among body, mind, culture, and spirit—connections that are denied by the rationalist and masculine-dominated culture of the academy—to survive and thrive in a hostile academic environment.” Acting on our worldviews and honoring our relationships, I feel, is the biggest act of subversion that can come from the interdisciplines.

The answer to Dr. Dian Million’s question of “how to not let corporate university steal your heart” isn’t simple. It has to do with us becoming aware of how we perpetuate hierarchies in our work and in our pursuit of the tenurecentric dream. It has to do with us acknowledging the diversity opportunities for us to put our work into action. The answer has to do with us honoring our connectedness and relationships outside of the academy through opportunities such as public scholarship.

Why Am I Here: Aspiring to our Collective Well-being

Beneath the daily sensationalist headlines of the political spectacle there are also news of communities struggling against environmental degradation, inequality and oppression. Occasionally, trending articles pop up on our newsfeeds: “Teens Sue U.S. Government Over Climate Change,” “Indigenous Leaders Are Being Killed Because They Want the Right to Live.” Before we allow the information to sink in, we move on to the next article in our feed.

My work as a graduate student in Native American Studies, centers on the defense of mother earth and indigenous land rights in Central and South America. When I tell people what I do, the follow up question often is: “so why is this important—why is it relevant?” Understandably, for many people who are inundated with the minute details of our country’s political-economic contest, things that don’t figure prominently in the mass media are, well, unimportant.

Our privilege often affords us the ability to conduct ourselves in ways that don’t take our environment and others into account. Homes, closets and pantries filled with products made available to us through resource extraction and exploitation. Mining, damming, land grabs, monoculture plantations, often at the expense of the genocide and dispossession of indigenous peoples who have found themselves in the way of ‘development’.

It is a well-known fact that much of the earth’s biodiversity is located on indigenous territory, and that indigenous knowledge is a key contribution to how we can live harmoniously with our environment. Many indigenous peoples are at the front lines of an intensifying battle against environmental degradation. A battle we are all part of, because if they lose, we all lose. Let me pause here to say that I’m not advocating for a return to an idyllic, “uncontaminated” past, I’m simply suggesting that we become alert to the struggles of indigenous peoples.

The Mellon Public Scholars Program has given me the opportunity to work in Guatemala with a Q’eqchi’ Maya community organization for land defense and integrated development. The organization has asked for support in visibilizing their efforts to reclaim land and sacred sites, revitalize their ways of knowing, and their ongoing struggle to hold corporations accountable for ecocide. This work entails creating a website and informational videos for them to share with the world, and identifying additional resources to support them in their mission.

I carry myself as a public scholar because I understand that my well-being is tied to the well-being of others. My research is not my own, it is not my property nor the property of an institution. This research is part of a collective struggle for survivance that begins with our ancestors and expands beyond us to the future generations. To be a public scholar is to acknowledge that scholarship can and should be used for the benefit of all, human and other-than-human.