Social change theory and intellectual activism

Somewhat haphazardly and unconsciously at first, but during recent years with direction and intention, I have used my WISR doctoral program to develop an approach to social change work that I have labeled “intellectual activism.” Intellectual activism involves the application of ideas and research towards marshalling social change, with a heavy dose of exchange with and among scholars, practitioners, and the general public. It calls into play the pairing and blending of sometimes seemingly opposite, but often complementary, perspectives and concepts.

Scholar practitioner mode

The intellectual activist operates in a scholar practitioner mode, and each role informs the other in an ongoing interaction of research and practice. Here is an excellent description of the term:

The term scholar practitioner expresses an ideal of professional excellence grounded in theory and research, informed by experiential knowledge, and motivated by personal values, political commitments, and ethical conduct. Scholar practitioners are committed to the well-being of clients and colleagues, to learning new ways of being effective, and to conceptualizing their work in relation to broader organizational, community, political, and cultural contexts. Scholar practitioners explicitly reflect on and assess the impact of their work. Their professional activities and the knowledge they develop are based on collaborative and relational learning through active exchange within communities of practice and scholarship. (Charles McClintock, “Scholar Practitioner Model” in DiStefano et al. 2007, p. 393)

This conceptualization imagines the ideal of an integrated practice of research and reflection, and application and action. I have found through personal experience, however, that this is easier said than done. Good scholarship often requires time and a place to think, reflect, write, and rewrite. It means being away from the phone, email, and other everyday distractions. Good practice often requires an attitude of engagement. It may mean being accessible by phone or email.

Intellectual activism frequently calls upon an individual to be in scholarly and practitioner modes simultaneously, as the real world is not set up to accommodate cycles of deliberate reflection followed by deliberate action. Depending on one’s personal flexibility, this may be difficult. When I am in “scholarly” mode, I meander, think, and rethink. The writing may come fairly easily, or it may be an excruciatingly painful and slow process. Once I have sorted through these ideas, however, moving into practitioner mode is fairly easy. I know what I want to say, I am pretty good at boiling down complex ideas (at least those I understand!) into understandable prose, and a different sort of energy kicks in.

However, when I am attempting to operate simultaneously in both modes, I am sometimes less effective in each. I feel tugged in two, seemingly opposite, mental directions. It leads to feelings of stress and distraction, as well as anxieties that both scholarship and practice are being improvised “on the fly.”

In any event, both the scholar and practitioner modes are necessary parts of intellectual activism. Building one’s base of ideas and knowledge lends understanding, insight, and, frankly, authority. Taking action allows one to put these ideas into play, refine and revise them as necessary, and hopefully participate actively in achieving positive change.

One example of how I have tried to operate in scholar practitioner mode is the drafting of anti-bullying legislation. Some 10 years ago, I began researching and analyzing potential legal protections for workers who had been subjected to severe workplace bullying. I concluded that many of these workers were not adequately served by existing employment law. I presented my findings and the outline of a recommendation for a workplace bullying law in a long law review article that was published in 2000.

It then dawned on me that I actually should draft a proposed workplace bullying law. This may seem like an obvious next step, but it is the culture of legal scholarship to move rather incrementally. For a junior law professor to be not only suggesting, but actually drafting, a comprehensive bill on a “cutting edge” topic of law that someday might be introduced in a legislature could be regarded as somewhat presumptuous. But relative anonymity has its benefits: I figured that I had little to lose by giving it a try. So I went to work and came up with the first version of what since has been dubbed the “Healthy Workplace Bill.” It has served as the primary template of workplace bullying bills introduced in 12 legislatures since 2003.

The Healthy Workplace Bill was not drafted in a vacuum. My initial draft was circulated to several experienced employment lawyers, and their feedback was incorporated into subsequent drafts. Even recently I did a moderate revision of the basic bill language after a very useful exchange with a legislative committee attorney in a state legislature.

This tweaking and revising have been in response to interactions with practicing lawyers, not other law professors. Here, then, is one of the critical benefits of operating in scholar practitioner mode. Ideas can be tested, and revised, based on feedback from those in the practice community. As my commentary on the role of public intellectual in this chapter will further develop, an effective intellectual activist interacts with the public to learn and grow. Ideas developed and sealed in an Ivory Tower may or may not work well when unleashed upon the real world. This ongoing process of feedback and revision is consistent with the directive of Plan, Do, Evaluate, discussed immediately below.

Plan, Do, Evaluate

Intellectual activism involves planning, doing, and evaluating. My introduction to this mode of thinking came in the early 1990s, when I taught in the Lawyering Program at New York University School of Law, an intensive, full-year skills course for first-year law students. The director of the program was Anthony Amsterdam, a civil rights lawyer and law professor who is celebrated within the legal profession for (1) crafting and pursuing a national litigation strategy against the death penalty in America; and (2) developing innovative approaches to clinical legal education through both simulation training and live-client representation.

As a civil rights lawyer, Tony argued the case of Furman v. Georgia before the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1972 led to the temporary halt in executions across the country. He has long been considered the architect of the legal fight against capital punishment. Even today, well into his 70s, he maintains a grueling schedule of writing and reviewing appellate briefs on death penalty appeals across the country. Lawyers representing Death Row inmates regularly fly in to consult with him and to run through mock oral arguments in preparation for presenting their cases to state and federal judges.

As a legal educator, Tony has been a leading voice in supporting clinical education. Perhaps his signature contribution to this effort is his development of the Lawyering Program, which combines instruction in legal research and writing (a staple of the first-year law curriculum at any law school) with an ambitious series of simulation exercises that introduce students to the skills of interviewing, counseling, negotiation, and advocacy. Many of the simulation exercises are videotaped and extensively critiqued in small group tutorials.

At NYU, Tony introduced the Lawyering Program as a first-year elective. In the mid-1980s, it became a required course for all first-year students, and a growing number of schools have adopted this model. I taught in the Lawyering Program from 1991 to 1994 and served as a program co-coordinator during my last year.

The basic mantra of the Lawyering Program is Plan, Do, and Evaluate. Too many lawyers do too little planning, and even more neglect to properly evaluate their work. Consequently, they are less effective at the “doing.” This is not a blanket criticism of lawyers. A busy practitioner in any profession or trade often experiences time pressures that can make it easy to downplay planning and evaluation. It is not always easy to follow the lessons I am preaching, but I continue to see the wisdom behind them. They are especially compatible with the idea of intellectual activism and the dual mode of scholar practitioner.

Furthermore, it bears emphasizing that good evaluation leads to more thoughtful planning. Effective evaluation can be a painful process, like a football player watching tapes of a game in which he performed very poorly. However, like the football player watching those videos, the intellectual activist benefits and learns from this evaluative process.

The importance of this cyclical process is underscored in reference to workplace bullying. For example, it is more or less accepted that we have not developed ideal, in-house workplace bullying policies and protocols for employers who wish to adopt them. Although a growing number of employers are including workplace bullying policies in their employee handbooks, there is no consensus “best practice” on what to put in them. Thus, it remains necessary engage in this cycle of planning, doing, and evaluating until the most effective approaches become evident.

Pedagogical and andragogical public intellectual roles

(This section is drawn largely from Yamada, 2009b.)

The practice of intellectual activism involves operating in a public intellectual role. One cannot be a change agent without finding outlets for the exchange of ideas and information. However, borrowing terms from higher and adult education, it is important to distinguish between a “pedagogical” public intellectual mode and an “andragogical” one. The standard-brand public intellectual operates in the pedagogical mode. The “pedagogical model assigns to the teacher full responsibility for making all decisions about what will be learned, how it will be learned, when it will be learned, and if it has been learned (Knowles et al. 1998, p. 62). Granted, the ty pical milieu of the public intellectual - the print and electronic media - may suggest that the “student” has some degree of choice in the manner and means of her learning and (obviously) does not face a final examination at the end of the article or interview. Regardless, the “teacher” retains virtually complete control over the content and mode of its delivery. In terms of outcomes, the public intellectual seeks mainly to inform, and at times to persuade, her audience.

Notwithstanding differing political ideologies, subject areas, and media outlets, the tie that binds most contemporary public intellectuals is that they deliver information and opinions drawn from their expertise. Books (usually non-fiction), op-ed pieces, and media interviews (print and electronic) are their typical venues. Public lectures and keynote addresses may add to the mix. In most instances, public intellectuals have limited opportunity (and, often, equally little desire) for ongoing exchanges with her audience. A letter to the editor, an unsolicited email, or perhaps a question or comment during the “Q&A” portion of a talk is usually the extent of the active feedback. Thus, the public intellectual’s role is like that of a college lecturer who is addressing a group of students in a large hall.

It can be a particularly good thing for someone to operate in this pedagogical mode. We should be pleased when individuals who have extensively studied a topic share the fruits of their intellectual labor in an accessible manner. The world benefits from the dissemination of specialized knowledge and insight gained through the blending of intelligence and hard work. A thoughtful book, lecture, blog post, or op-ed column promotes understanding, stimulates thinking, and nurtures an open society. Although the typical public intellectual delivers her work in a more or less instructional and directive format, so long as means exist to preserve it, it can be the catalyst for learning and discussion months or even years after its original appearance, even if the author herself is not present.

However, there is a second mode of being a public intellectual, one that I will label as andragogical. Definitions of andragogy abound, but the conceptualization that best fits this discussion was formulated by the Nottingham Andragogy Group, defining it as “an attempt to assist adults to become the originators of their own thinking and feeling” (Brookfield, 1986, p. 100). The group identified 12 features “essential to the andragogic process”: “a nonprescriptive attitude, issue-centered curricula, problem-posing, praxis, continuous negotiation, shared responsibility for learning, valuing process, dialogue, equality, openness, mutual respect, and integrated thinking and learning” (Brookfield, 1986, p. 100).

The inspiration for my model of the “andragogical” public intellectual is the late John Ohliger, a pioneering and iconoclastic adult educator, writer, and activist. John was a different kind of public intellectual, one whose methods were more facilitative than instructional, more andragogical than pedagogical. Although he spent a number of years teaching at traditional universities, much of his most compelling work was done without a full-time academic affiliation. His most dramatic break with the academy came in 1973, when he resigned his tenured position as an adult education professor at Ohio State University. In the years that followed, he engaged in many activities related to adult learning. Chief among these was co-founding and directing Basic Choices, a small non-profit think tank devoted to exploring social and political alternatives, which served as his base of activity. He also co-founded the WORT public radio station in Madison, Wisconsin. He hosted the “Madison Review of Books,” a WORT radio program that invited members of the public to conduct on-air reviews of books of their choosing; and taught on a part-time and visiting basis at several universities, though he would never again be a permanent faculty member.

The “Ohliger Method” of being a public intellectual was intensely personal, involving plenty of individual outreach, networking, and intellectual exchange. In addition to pursuing an active intellectual life in the Madison community, Ohliger maintained a voluminous correspondence with dozens of independent scholars, activists, academicians, and lifelong learners across the country, first through the Postal Service and then via email. In this pre-Web era, many came to him through word of mouth, while others tracked him down after reading some of his work. Some discovered Ohliger and Basic Choices through listings that he placed in periodicals such as Factsheet Five, the legendary review of “zines.” More than a few of these exchanges ripened into close friendships, including in-person visits with Ohliger and his wife Chris Wagner. My own association and eventual friendship with John were forged in exactly this manner.

Since his death in 2004, John has been described much more often as an adult educator than as a public intellectual. After all, ABC's “Nightline” never sought to interview him, The New York Times never invited him to write an op-ed piece and typing his name into Google will yield only a modest number of “hits.” But Ohliger’s personal, intellectual interactions with members of the public, in ways that often led to ongoing associations and friendships, made him a truly unique public intellectual. Ohliger carried out his work in a largely andragogical mode, and thus he stood as an important counterpoint to the dominant paradigm of a public intellectual. For much of his life, he was an independent scholar and intellectual activist, working through various media to encourage public dialogue and raise important questions about society, learning, and current events. His approach was personal, interactive, and engaging, not hierarchical, directive, and detached.

To be an effective intellectual activist, it is useful to operate in both pedagogical and andragogical public intellectual modes. With workplace bullying, I have found the pedagogical mode to be very useful in introducing the topic to interested readers and listeners. For example, I have a short, standard talk on workplace bullying that I adapt for different audiences. It covers a basic definition of workplace bullying, frequency and common types of bullying behaviors, profiles of bullies and targets, the human and organizational costs of bullying, and potential responses. Based on feedback I have received, it has proven to be informative and useful to people.

However, I also have learned from, and been able to help people through, operating in the andragogical mode. Interactive exercises, roundtable discussions, informal conversations and feedback, and email exchanges have all been valuable learning experiences for all parties involved. Much of what I know about the effects of bullying behaviors has been obtained through these interactions. I also have been able to help people operating in this more facilitative mode.

Social change and individual change

Do we create a false dichotomy by using the terms “social change” and “individual change”? The work I have been doing concerning workplace bullying has led me to believe this may be so. So much of the “social change” work we have been engaging in—such as public education, law reform advocacy, and organizational counseling—is designed to effect change at the individual level. Ultimately, if individual behaviors and lives do not change for the better, we cannot achieve social change in the aggregate.

I believe that America’s social culture of the last half of the 20th century encouraged this false dichotomy. In the 1960s, social change movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and the environment were prominent elements of our popular culture. As these movements waxed and waned during the 1970s and 1980s, society turned its attention to individual change and fulfillment, with a strong emphasis on self-help programs and activities. We see this line still drawn today, distinguishing between “political work” and “personal growth.” All too often, it leads to “political” people not thinking enough about individuals, and “personal growth” adherents not thinking enough about the political implications of their work. Ideally, the practice of intellectual activism, while focusing on social and systemic change, understands the importance of individual experience and change.

With regard to workplace bullying, there are many illustrations of this social change/individual change dynamic. Treating workplace bullying as an issue of employment relations, workers’ rights, and public health frames it as a “social change” topic. But ultimately it boils down to individuals. We want workplace bullying to permeate sufficiently the world of corporate America so that a single human resources director will assist an individual employee who appears to be enduring a horrible course of mistreatment at the hands of a co-worker. We want the mental health community to be so aware of workplace bullying that if a bullied employee seeks counseling for what he is experiencing at work, a therapist will understand his plight.

Disciplinary depth and cross-disciplinary depth

The intellectual activist needs to balance disciplinary depth against cross-disciplinary breadth. Disciplinary depth offers an opportunity to make signature contributions relating to a specific expertise. Cross-disciplinary breadth helps to ensure that one’s work will connect with that of others and will not succumb to tunnel vision. Both perspectives are necessary in order to be an effective change agent.

My forays into the worlds of psychology, organizational behavior, business management, and related topics, combined with the deference sometimes (erroneously) extended to me as a generic “expert” on workplace bullying, have led me to speculate that developing a complementary career in counseling or organizational consulting might be in the offing. For example, the fact that I may know more than the average person about, say, the effects of bullying on organizations, has led to fancies about marketing myself as a consultant to employers in fields I am familiar with, such as law offices, public and non-profit organizations, and universities. These imaginings have been fueled by positive feedback to short talks about workplace bullying that I have delivered in such settings.

Ultimately, however, my work on this dissertation has called to mind the words of another prominent Enlightenment thinker, essayist Alexander Pope: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again (Pope, 1765)” Pope wisely understood that a small amount of knowledge about a given topic can cause us to believe that we have more expertise than we actually possess. At times in the process of working on this dissertation, I have fallen into that trap.

Fortunately, after trying to “drink largely” into subjects such as organizational psychology, “sobriety” of judgment has prevailed. I now understand that even with additional academic training, I would be starting close to the beginning in terms of understanding and proficiency in a new field. Furthermore, I have reminded myself that I would not want to become the kind of consultant who takes “a little learning” and tries to sell it as expertise, later billing the unwitting client for an unwise expenditure of funds.

Thus, much of my work following the completion of this dissertation will return to the law and the legal system. I want to build on the work I have done on the legal implications of workplace bullying. This is my area of expertise, it is where I have made a signature contribution as a scholar and an advocate, and there remains much important work to do. However, the most significant difference between now and, say, ten years ago is that my work will be greatly enhanced and improved by those multidisciplinary insights that I have gained from other professional and academic disciplines. Hopefully, I can share these insights through my work with lawyers, judges, and policy-makers, as well as the general public.

Mainstream and alternative

Intellectual activism often involves straddling a precarious line between the mainstream and the alternative. Ideas too disconnected from the mainstream may be the fodder of enriching discussion within a certain group, but they may never receive a serious hearing from a broader constituency. Too much immersion in the mainstream, however, may well co-opt meaningful alternatives, or even cause one to be oblivious to their possibilities.

Questions of mainstream versus alternative often relate to one’s institutional affiliations. In the context of intellectual activism, this may include advocacy and political groups, trade and business associations, media outlets, government agencies, and educational institutions. “Alternative” groups can help to propel a change agenda, but “mainstream” groups often must ultimately be a part of achieving social change objectives.

The tensions between alternative and mainstream have been very much a part of my education and advocacy efforts concerning workplace bullying. My initial affiliation was with Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, whose homebrewed Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (later to morph into the more mainstream sounding Workplace Bullying Institute) was the first North American initiative dedicated to addressing this problem. I remain affiliated with the Nanties and their work. Fortunately, however, as workplace bullying has started to enter into the vocabulary of American employment relations, more mainstream institutions, including corporations, universities, labor unions, conventional media, and now state legislatures, are taking note. This means that workplace bullying is starting to emerge from its niche status and beginning to enter into the mainstream of our discussions about work and workers. We are not quite there yet, but during the past decade the progress has been palpable.

Action research and intellectual activism: Sides of the same coin?

Especially in view of my affiliation with WISR, it may be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy that the practice of intellectual activism as outlined here is very compatible with the practice of action research as it has evolved during WISK’s institutional lifetime. Action research has been characterized as being “exploratory,” “reflective,” engaging, “inquisitive,” “collaborative and participatory,” “emergent,” “concerned with the ‘bigger picture,’” storytelling, values-oriented, experiential, interactive, and personal [from a seminar handout by John Bilorusky and Cynthia Lawrence, “Introduction to Action research Seminar Series,” Nov. 6, 2002] These qualities are very much a part of my conceptualization of intellectual activism.

Indeed, as we consider these two terms and compare their essential qualities, it may be that the main difference between them is one of syntactical emphasis, with “action” modifying “research” and “intellectual” modifying “activism.” It is not my intention, however, to pick sides here as to what is the best term. After all, quarrels over naming and labeling should be reserved for the most mainstream of academic institutions.

Additional resources

Dr. Yamada has since developed and published his ideas on intellectual activism, scholarship, and social change in two law review articles and a book chapter (Yamada, 2010; Yamada, 2016; Yamada, 2019).

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