Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sacrifices on the Altar of Academia

I am so pissed off about this that I'm having trouble even clarifying exactly what I'm angry about. It's just so encompassing.

While looking or some help on an independent research project that dealt with people inside of Tibet, I was given the name of a professor at my university. We'll call her Ms. R.  Ms. R. has worked frequently as a researcher in an occupied region that is frequently a war zone. Kidnappings, torture, bombings and shootings are very commonplace. Since I was specifically looking for someone who would understand the sensitivities of dealing with a place like Tibet and working with people inside of Tibet, she seemed like a good bet.

We talked for a while to discuss my goals and I brought up, at the very beginning, that I don't want to be a university professor. My goal is not in academia. (If you can't tell from the rest of this blog, we here at OT have some issues with how academia deals with Tibet.) As our conversation continued and she heard about my own political experiences in Tibet and Tibetan communities in exile, she kept putting pressure on me to publish a book based on my research and experiences.  I explained that:

  1. I had no interest in being in academia, as I had already told her several times
  2. If I published, I would very likely be preventing myself from going back to Tibet and doing any meaningful work in Tibet.
  3. (And by far the most important): Try as I might, I cannot guarantee the anonymity of my sources.
It's one thing to do a research project for a school on a non-political topic, it's another to publish research and experiences as part of a book dealing with Tibetan politics.

She kept putting the pressure on: how I needed to publicize the normalization of terror and fear in Tibet, the intimate aspects of life that the Chinese government were effecting, all of these issues which she felt I could write a good book about.  When I tried to explain that I was concerned for the safety of my friends in Tibet, her response floored me:

"By publishing this, you will get the word out and bring attention! It will do so much good!"

Really? Stop for a moment. How many people, outside of academia, read academic publications? Yeah, there are some, but not a heck of a lot. Is it going to make a difference? And even if it does, do I have the right to decide on behalf of the people I know in Tibet that their safety is an acceptable risk? Absolutely not.

But it really sickens me, the idea that when academics publish something, they are helping. Yeah, they are putting out information, which will generally be used in a self-affirming circle of more research and more publications by people sitting in nice, ergonomically designed chairs in offices in the ivory towers of universities. It's a paper to make your name look good on your CV.  Does it actually help anyone?  I'm pretty damn skeptical of that. If I, or anyone, has the ability to travel in Tibet and actually do meaningful work with communities to try and provide some benefit, should I throw this all away because "that would make a great paper"? And even more, does any academic have the right to decide on behalf of their sources that this publication is for the "greater good", and justifies the sources being sacrificed on the altar of academia?

She told me her stories of her time in her research location like a classic western explorer: glorifying all she saw and wrote, justifying it by peppering it with stories of drinking tea with families and how the community let her talk to them. This was then followed by harrowing tales of police kidnappings and tortures of local people, of of which she was able to escape after a few hours of questioning and a plane ride to a neutral country.  What about her "friends" who invited her over for tea? Did they escape that fate? Does she really think that this book that she has published, that is for sale through an academic press for more than a hundred dollars, is being ready by people who will actually do something?  Who will protect her contacts on the ground?

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