Who are the radical academics today?

  1. 1.  University of Melbourne, Australia


This brief article suggests radical scholarship needs redefinition in the reality of contemporary university life. It must include the conduct of research that supports justice; greater relevance and engagement outside the university; and more attention to  "…the ethics by which and toward which knowledge is produced", meaning the maintenance of sound personal ethics in everyday life. To be rude, selfish and unduly ambitious demeans any remaining progressive agenda in today's universities.  

Radical scholarship today

We can usefully redefine what radical scholarship is in the contemporary period where universities are financially challenged, and altering their roles considerably. This is my task in this short paper. Is it possible to hold to radical ideas and to support social and environmental justice as a scholar and academic, and to thrive within the university environment? In the 1950s and 1960s it was hard, and many radicals lost their jobs or worked outside the system. Today, the situation is very different and there are hundreds of Marxists, socialists, radical environmentalists, and critical scholars that thrive within Western universities. This means there are multiple aspects of being 'radical'. These include having a vision and personal politics, adapting radicalism to a changing audience and to different media in the internet age, and maintaining some agility in a rapidly changing political economy while critiquing the system.  I concentrate on three aspects particularly pertinent to scholarship. The third of these is relatively new in such debates. I think we need to break down 'radicalism' in the university context into three areas.

The first is conducting externally-focussed research to promote and support justice. The ‘external’ mission (i.e. dealing with issues outside one's immediate academic demands and surroundings)  for a radical scholar, has evolved  since the 1960s. The period has seen the decline of state socialism and the rise of neoliberal regimes that seek the maximization of utility, rather than equality. The work of radical scholars, opposed to free market capitalism, has its roots in several traditions of thought, particularly political economy. But in practice it includes supporting the vulnerable, environmental causes, justice in many forms, attacking corrupt political and economic institutions, and exposing hypocrisy particularly in capitalist regimes.

The reaction to McCarthyism in the US in the early 1950s (the second Red Scare with accusations of communism in US life), the civil rights movement, anti-War protests, and the other liberative social movements of the 1960s aided the introduction and acceptance  of radical ideas towards the end of the decade. These included  Marxism and feminism, that have worked their way into the universities where they have stayed and enriched them (Casenave 1988). This tradition is ongoing, strong, and while perhaps too concentrated in producing academic outputs (ideas in books, journals etc.) rather than in creating "spaces of hope" and better policy in society itself, it still has great relevance. A generation of radical scholars have practiced what Paul Robbins calls "wielding the hatchet" - exposing the darker secrets of colonialism, capitalism, greed and inequality. As geographer Alastair Bonnett (2011) says, since the 1960s "radicalism has survived by becoming institutionalised. This has allowed academic radicalism to become culturally self-sufficient, with little need to seek popular approval." One thinks of scholars like Noam Chomsky, Don MitchellHenry Giroux and David Harvey, the latter still an unrepentant Marxist and yet the most highly cited individual in his discipline of human geography.  The strength of their messages about the arms race, the hypocrisy of western governments, capitalism and environmental violence is combined with erudite scholarship. Giroux and Harvey have - sometimes against criticism - offered visions of how the world could be, not just how it shouldn't be. These messages and arguments, and the people who produce them, only endanger their careers if they hit too close to home – for example if they attack potential university funders and key figureheads, which can include industry and government. Otherwise, these and hundreds of other radical scholars tend to pursue successful academic careers.

Alistair Bonnet again (2011): "Institutionalisation does not mean evisceration. But it does have consequences. One of these is having to dance to the tune of an increasingly managerial academic culture."  In my own discipline (geography), this is most certainly the case. Radical geographers publish, obtain research grants (this is the dancing part!), and proceed up the academic hierarchies quite nicely. Many get serious accolades. Those mentioned above, and others like them, rarely had their careers blocked because of their beliefs or actions, and neither did they divert away for long periods into activism. This is because as Don Mitchell says, the academic metier is generally limited in its practical engagement, unless you choose to interpret it in radical and practical ways as a few, like the pro-poor economist Jean Dreze, have done (Mitchell 2008).

The second dimension is about increased relevance and engagement (Stoddart 1975). Michael Burawoy, the Berkeley sociologist, theorised that sociology can no longer restrict itself to the academic realm. He begins by noting "The dialectic of progress governs our individual careers as well as our collective discipline. The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channelled into the pursuit of academic credentials." (Burawoy 2004: 5). The same could be said of many disciplines. He offers an alternative.    "Public Sociology endeavors to bring sociology into dialogue with audiences beyond the academy, an open dialogue in which both sides deepen their understanding of public issues. Working with the public rather than studying them, liberates the academic discipline and provides new and progressive avenues for change". He includes students as part of the public constituency. Somewhat predictably, in the university "...advocacy of public sociology has generated much heat in many a cool place". Indeed it has (Watts 2001 and Clive Barnett's comments on 'British critical geography' in 2013).

The debate about relevance and application of scholarly ideas is something I treat in a forthcoming book, but the gist of the argument is that, following Burawoy, it is perfectly possible to pursue classical scholarly work ("professional" in Burawoy's terms) while doing much more - working with constituencies outside the university completely, designing initiatives together, and committing to practical rather than only to 'in-theory' concepts of justice. This does not demean the academic profession, and indeed outside certain rather goal-oriented academic Departments, this can and does occur across the social sciences. But if engaged and public work does not result in referred outputs and lucrative grants, it again troubles the neoliberal university model where we use metrics to judge the faculty based on research output. As geographer Dick Peet said frankly, a lack of research output can put a radical scholar in trouble with the university and imperil jobs (comments at the Association of American Geographers meeting, 2013). But a focus on engagement is quite radical in its own way, and its practitioners do not have to be fomenting revolution to be deemed 'radical'.  This point is debated, however (Castree 2000).

The third dimension of radicalism today is one that scholars are far less anxious to talk about. It is about "…the ethics by which and toward which knowledge is produced" (Michael Coughlear, EAnth listserv,  February 25, 2013). Almost all scholars are nested within departments, within universities. Their practices in this space can be radical, politically conservative, helpful to others, or selfish.  We are no longer in the situation where radical scholars feel constantly hounded, oppressed, marginalised, and attacked in the university (at least not in western countries, in those with relatively liberal employment regulations). We need to redefine what radical scholarship is in this context. A radical scholar is a term that now includes something more than a certain type of scholarship, I think.  It is also about rejecting conformity with the behavioral norms that neoliberal, cash-strapped universities have forced upon us. It is about solidarity with those in the university sector that are oppressed - e.g. low wage, those threatened with dismissal, and the thousands scraping a living on adjunct status. But it is more than that - it is also about doing what the neoliberal search for cash tends to marginalize - teaching, helping others, niceness/goodness, and selflessness (Cahn 2010, Martin 2011). I almost never see these latter behaviours linked to radical scholarship - commentators think that workplace ethics is a separate issue and comes from a different tradition from academic radicalism.

On this latter point, I find some of my colleagues in the higher education sector (at research institutions) are so driven by publication and research (some of it radical, of course) that the other things that are required in our contracts – teaching and service, including reviewing the work of others, supporting younger scholars, working in the community etc. – are avoided or certainly marginalised. This, of course, leaves much of that work to other people prepared to step up (usually those with the shorter cvs and the nicer and more helpful dispositions), or to adjuncts. Every time a teaching/research faculty member gets a higher research percentage in their contract, or refuses to do something that they are best placed to do, others have to cover the work (permanent people in some cases, poorer paid adjuncts in others). So, while teaching brings in far more money that research in almost all cases in university departments in the social sciences (despite being less prioritised or ‘prestigious’) and doing it is for the greater good and for that of the students, it sits in the second tier of responsibilities among many radical scholars.  This is not universally true, but my experience since 1995 has been in research universities, where it almost always is true.

Teaching offers one forum capable of imparting some radical and challenging ideas - e.g. a forensic analysis of corporate behaviour or the capitalist state. But 'writing time' is what faculty always complain is lacking, not teaching time. In addition, writing academic tracts that are narrowly read and often inaccessible behind paywalls is part of the old publishing order that will hold back debate and marginalizes the social sciences (I develop this here - academic publishing decisions also have a social conscience).

'Service' is a North American term that encompasses the glue that holds universities together. Some of this is best done by academics - from sitting on committees to recruiting students.  It also includes refereeing the work of others to enable publication, and generally assisting students and fellow faculty (despite these things being less prioritised for individual advancement). Avoiding these things is not comradely, but depends on your stage of career. The new managerial class in universities - those who are not coming through the academic ranks but sit in judgement over them - are often annoying to radical scholars. But in order to sideline these people and reduce their power, the radicals actually have to do a fair bit of that work themselves. You will actually see some radicals in top university positions, as Department heads and even Deans, and this is a good thing. "Being oriented to helping is a counter to the usual self-interested preoccupation with workloads, status and personal advancement, and is likely to contribute to a greater sense of satisfaction" (Martin 2011: 54).

The problem, to sum up this third point, is that many full time research/teaching academics like me are hired to do a multi-task job, but spent a lot of time preferring to escape from certain tasks to focus more on others (usually on research – my evidence from 20 years of conversations and observing). They are also part of a system that generally facilitates and even rewards this. Universities do ask for teaching as well, for its financial contribution and potential alumni satisfaction, causing junior people to work very long hours on teaching and research. So a radical scholar that is good at both can actually go very far. The question I raise is whether it is ethical if they have to push anybody out of the way to do this. Focusing on personal advancement in the university sector is not actually radical or helpful when it has negative effects on others

Inger Mewburn from ANU on her blog writes about the problem of academic "assholes". These are the selfish people. You know who they are.....it is all about personal status maximization for these guys, and  "Some ambitious sorts work to cut out others, whom they see as competitors, from opportunity" she saysSince the neoliberal research university prioritizes research performance and grant income, above all else (followed by teaching) and if that is what you do, some find it tempting to act in a cut-throat and non-collegial way to protect their research area or their time. And in most circumstances they get away with this, especially if their research  fame is established - basically you will not get fired to being rude and unpleasant. Especially if protected by tenure. Some people in university cultures are just guilt free and unpleasant in this way, as an article in the THES 2013 says.

There are other options too - think of Ted Trainer in Australia as well as Jean Dreze in India, both of whom keep one foot in the university sector while pursuing radical and exemplary lives outside of it. As a child of the 60s radical movement, Ben Wisner, pointed out to me (6/4/13), the argument needs to recognise life stages - early career scholars have to scramble to an extent, while a middle career stage, perhaps with family, may necessarily involve less activism and more do-able research and teaching tasks. The need to do everything drops away at retirement (Cazenave1988).


Academic radicalism is now situated in an altered social context from the period of its formation. In the context of the mainstream neoliberal university today, assisting others in and outside the sector and doing your share, is actually progressive, even radical. While research and writing is a vital part of what we do, and it provides the evidence needed to support social change, it does not make you a progressive or radical scholar to behave unpleasantly while carving out the time and space to do it. This hurts others, or leads you to ignore them or any sense of obligation to them. This is the case even if your substantive research is ‘radical’ or progressive  in its content. If you are rude and selfish, drop the radical label. You don't deserve it.

I have begun to think about where ‘radical and critical’ geography sits in all of this. I have mentioned some of its key figures above. Among people with secure teaching and research jobs, I actually think we should redefine it to include dimension two and three (radical internal) rather than just dimension one (radical external).  So I think doing your teaching and service commitments while fully employed, and engaging more widely as well is actually radical, in a neoliberal university. But there are very few examples. You can do ‘radical’ research as part of your job for sure, but the other side of this is retaining commitment in the workplace while you are actually doing that work. If personal radical research projects went slower because of the publically engaged nature of scholarship or a lack of ‘writing/research time’,  I think this would illustrate a greater commitment to social justice. To change the status quo, which discourages people from being nice and radical at the same time, we need better leadership and new norms. We need institutional recognition that working hard on other things is equally as valid as research and revenue-raising through research grants. This means redefining the criteria for academic promotion, for those who are eligible (many are not).  Although I am not a great supporter of the tenure system in North America because it is exclusionary (Batterbury 2008), a fourth criteria could be added to tenure criteria - some measure of  goodness or collegiality (the current three are research, teaching and service).  This is discussed on InsideHigherEd, at https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/06/14/collegiality-experts-advocate-its-role-\npersonnel-decisions . The suggestion is not unproblematic (watch candidates for promotion, who have been told to do more service or to help others, suddenly step up, then drop these activities once promoted!). Outside the constraints of the 6 year-to-tenure model in America there is more freedom to redefine the criteria for advancement and to embed these as an ongoing process through annual reviews, not as a year-6 hurdle. We actually have a weak version of this at my own university in Australia, where there are multiple criteria of performance assessed annually including 'engagement', and a workload model in place.

This does not exhaust the discussion. There is much more to say about radical teaching initiatives for example, and 'occupy' campaigns (Eva and Jones 2011). In the meantime, avoid the assholes, radical or not (and they usually are not) if you can!  Dick Peet suggested to me (AAG meetings, 2013) that when Dick Walker finally achieved tenure at Berkeley in 1982 was a moment when radical geography entered 'the US academy', if not the mainstream, in a more obvious way. He is right - Walker himself said "Leftists had never gotten tenure at Berkeley before my peer group, the 1968ers, came along. Michael Burawoy, Michael Reich, Ann Markusen and I were all up at the same time and we were the first to break that barrier" (Walker 2012).  But the shift from 'outsider' to 'insider' was for many people not so obvious  - I wonder if it was simply a transition aided by civil rights, the Vietnam war, and other global movements in which radical positions moved more to the centre (this was stressed by several people at the AAG meetings in 2013). 

Despite the numerous objections to expanding the definition of scholarly radicalism to include personal behaviours, I think it is a worthy aim. "To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing" (Raymond Williams 1921-1988).


Batterbury, S.P.J. 2008. Tenure or permanent contracts in North American higher education? A critical assessme\nnt. Policy Futures in Education 6 (3) 286-297.


Bonnett A.. 2011. Are radical journals selling out? Times Higher Education Supplement.  3 November 2011.


Burawoy M. 2004. For public sociology American Sociological Review 70 (Feb.): 4-28.


Cahn SM. 2010. Saints and Scamps: Ethics in Academia. Rowman & Littlefield.


Castree N, 2000. Professionalisation, activism, and the university: whither 'critical geography'? Environment and Planning A 32(6) 955 – 970.


Cazenave, N.A..1988. From a committed achiever to a radical social scientist: The life course dialectics of a “Marginal” black American sociologist. The American Sociologist 19(4): 347-354.


Eve M.P. and  Jones S. 2011. Angry young academics: striving for more than consumerism. The Guardian 15 June.


Martin B. 2011. On being a happy academicAustralian Universities' Review, 53 (1): 50-56.


Mitchell D. 2008. Confessions of a Desk-Bound Radical. Antipode 40: 448-454.


Stoddart, D.  1975. Kropotkin, Reclus and ‘Relevant’ Geography. Area: 188-190.


Walker, R. 2012. From the Age of Dino-Sauers to the Anthropo-Scene: Reminiscences of life in Berkeley\n Geography, 1975-2012. Retirement talk, Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley, April 25, 2012


Watts, M.J.  “1968 and all that…” Progress in Human Geography 25: 157-188.


Showing 3 Reviews

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    Jenny Pickerill
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    This is an original and thought-provoking paper. In essence Simon argues that to be 'radical' in academia today necessitates operating in a collegiate, supportive, 'good' way inside the academy just as much as it requires writing radical work and being involved in radical activities beyond the University. This is an important argument because in an increasingly neo-liberal educational environment many academics are failing to have any sense of collective endeavor inside institutions. Rather many supposedly 'radical' academics decline to do their share of teaching and admin/ service, leaving it to others. As Simon accepts judging how academics are collegiate and 'good' is problematic, but I read this paper as a call for both acting in, and respecting others attempts to, a collegiate, support way in our departments. Acts which are too often undervalued.

    I would add that in Simon's listing of radical scholars it would have been nice to have had at least one woman noted, such as Katherine Gibson or Jane Wills, and tied to this that it is often women who bare the greatest burden in departmental administration and teaching loads. I am not suggesting that helping others and selflessness is a gendered quality at all, but too often women's academic careers are not valued in the same way as men's and therefore women are more perceived as 'available' to undertake admin and service.

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      Simon Batterbury

      Thanks! In a forthcoming revision I have taken on board the paper about to come out in ACME by Mountz et al. which discusses "slowness" and offers a feminist critique of academia.

  • P1040098
    Paula Hanasz
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    Simon Batterbury claims that radical scholarship must evolve with changing times (just as the times can and should change with radical scholarship). He argues that there are three avenues for today’s radical academic:

    1. Conducting research that promotes and supports social justice;
    2. Increasing relevance for and engagement with non-university institutions and networks; and
    3. Behaving ethically within academia.

    Implicit in Batterbury’s argument is a call to arms for us all, as scholars, to practice what we preach – and to do so outside of, as well as within, academia. As such, I read Batterbury’s paper as having a normative agenda, though he makes no such claims.

    This article is highly engaging and well written. For someone like me, who is completing a PhD and contemplating what my next career move should be to maximise my research impact, this paper is essential reading. Moreover, as someone interested broadly in environmental justice issues, an article like this helps me frame my own personal politics by asking whether the scholar in this field has a personal duty to act according to the ideological underpinnings of their research. For me the answer to that question has always been a resounding yes, and in that sense I am the choir happy to be preached to. At the same time, I have never thought of myself as engaged in anything radical, let alone scholarship, and so the very idea that I might be a radical scholar is, well, rather radical for me! Or maybe I’ve misunderstood what constitutes a radical scholar?

    That questions brings me to my only quibble with this paper – and it is a minor one. Batterbury aims to redefine radical scholarship, yet fails to define what the term still means or has meant. He does point out that “there are multiple aspects of being 'radical'. These include having a vision and personal politics, adapting radicalism to a changing audience and to different media in the internet age, and maintaining some agility in a rapidly changing political economy while critiquing the system.” But I am left unclear which of these points have previously defined radical scholarship versus how Batterbury redefines it now. Are his three dimensions completely novel, or are they well-established and he gives them a contemporary interpretation? Does an academic have to fulfil criteria on all three dimensions equally if they are to be considered radical scholars, or only on one?

    In the piece it seems implicit that radical scholars traditionally study aspects of justice (social justice, environmental justice, etc.), inequality, and power. But how extreme (vis-à-vis the status quo) do those scholars’ ideas or personal politics have to be to count as radical? Or is it only in the act of applying scholarly thought to the real world that the radical scholar emerges?

    This last question is partly answered in Batterbury’s point about the first dimension of contemporary radical scholarship – that it needs to have an ‘external’ mission. This section of the paper is well-researched and lucid. But the discussion of the second dimension, that of external engagement, is weaker and lacks mention of personal politics and to what extent scholars ought to bring their academic ideologies into the domestic realm. Batterbury does in the final section of the paper talk about the behaviour of the scholar as it applies to relations within university colleagues. But that is not what I am getting at. I mean, does a radical scholar also have to behave according to their research ideologies in the home? Can a scholar of environmental justice be considered radical if they do not engage with external organisations, but do, for example, ride their bike everywhere, consume only locally sourced, vegetarian food, and wear fair-trade hemp instead of mass-produced cotton? In other words, can an academic’s consumer behaviour define their radicalism as much as their scholarship does?

    Batterbury does say that “a focus on engagement is quite radical in its own way, and its practitioners do not have to be fomenting revolution to be deemed 'radical'” so I would like to hear his views on whether contemporary radical scholarship can or should extend into the personal lives of academics. As a scholar of freshwater governance, is there a particular onus of responsibility on me personally to take short showers, replace my flushing toilet with an EcoSan one, and reduce my meat consumption, if I am to be considered a radical academic?

    Perhaps these questions are answered in the forthcoming book that Batterbury mentions. Or perhaps I make a moot point. After all, Batterbury might have no intention of making normative claims, or maybe he sees personal behaviour as lying outside the scope of radical scholarship – but if so, that should be clarified in further iterations of this paper.

    Batterbury’s third dimension of contemporary radical scholarship is that of behaviour within university systems. It is here that we finally get a better sense of how Batterbury defines contemporary radical scholarship in opposition to previous understandings of this concept: “A radical scholar is a term that now includes something more than a certain type of scholarship, I think. It is also about rejecting conformity with the behavioral norms that neoliberal, cash-strapped universities have forced upon us.”

    To me this is one of the most interesting – and radical! – points in the whole paper, and one that I personally would like to see expanded into an article of its own. I am not suggesting that Batterbury contribute further to the already expansive ‘quit lit’ in the academic blogosphere that bemoans the apparent lack of job opportunities for bright young scholars (a trend I believe is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst: http://thesiswhisperer.com/2014/04/30/what-if-i-never-get-a-job/) But I would be very interested in reading an expanded discussion of how the current paradigm of university funding affects ‘radical’ research and what it does to numbers of radical scholars.

    The seeds of this discussion are strong. Batterbury states that radical scholarship today “is about solidarity with those in the university sector that are oppressed - e.g. low wage, those threatened with dismissal, and the thousands scraping a living on adjunct status. But it is more than that - it is also about doing what the neoliberal search for cash tends to marginalize - teaching, helping others, niceness/goodness, and selflessness.”

    His point about the inherent worth of niceness in academia is well made. But a further exploration is missing of what it means that there are ‘thousands scraping a living on adjunct status.’ How exactly does the casualization of academic labour affect radical scholarship? Does the uncertainty of where the next contract is coming from force scholars to toe the line and be more conservative in their research so as to increase the chance of follow-on work? Or does it make them eager to stand out with more radical thinking? Perhaps the neoliberal university system actually encourages engagement with the wider world (Batterbury’s second dimension of contemporary radical scholarship) by limiting permanent academic positions?

    Lastly, it would be interesting to read Batterbury’s take on the declining value of academic work in Western society (or at least in Australia). Does it push radical thinkers and doers into non-academic sectors? And if so, is that such a bad thing?

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      Simon Batterbury

      Thanks. I have indeed written another article, focusing this time on how senior scholars can initiate change. I did not write much above about adjunct issues - they are covered a lot elsewhere. A revision is in progress.

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    Alyssa Brian

    Radicalism is merely a reflection of the inner characteristics of all men; to have something to no end, objectify its information, and fold it for their restricted knowing of objective according to the Essay Help UK. I do believe radicalism is unavoidable, even if it is indicated in the tiniest of methods. Each individual thoughts performs the same way, though some might discover information simpler to come by. 

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      Nida Amber

      it is totally different from late 1950s and 1960s.many radicals lost their job in that years but now they are getting jobs becoming assignment writers , not only this there are multiple aspect of being a radicals.


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