‘So you’re an activist?’: How Graduate public scholars navigate university spaces


Many graduate students in the arts, humanities and social sciences are interested in doing activist scholarship. This work is often taken up by students from groups that are underrepresented in academia, particularly students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students from low-income backgrounds who enter into university spaces that have historically not welcomed them. As these students seek to create scholarship that can benefit their own communities and others who face marginalization in society, they must confront structures designed around a limited, traditional notion of what scholarship is. However, graduate students must navigate university structures that impede this community-oriented work. Based on our research doing 31 semi-structured interviews with graduate students who do public scholarship, we identified barriers to community-engaged work, spaces that facilitate public scholarship, and strategies through which scholars navigate doing activist work while in graduate school. We found that power differentials between faculty and graduate students impacted experiences and found that programs that were founded upon activist principles (like Native American Studies) provided supportive environments in which activist scholarship was the status quo. We also found that graduate students use various strategies to do public scholarship, including code switching, seeking community support, and participating in labor organizing. Based on our research and our own experiences as public scholars, we offer our recommendations for what we believe needs to be done to positively change the culture around public scholarship in academia.

California Sociological Association Meeting
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