Interviews with Academics #7: Professor Jane Anna Gordon on “Mastery”

Professor Jane Anna Gordon is a political theorist at the University of Connecticut. Her most recent work is “Statelessness and Contemporary Enslavement” (Routledge 2020). pwip spoke to her about coming to and navigating political theory and her work on creolising the canon.

pwip: Do you have any advice to pass on, especially to minority undergraduates or graduates studying political science? How would you recommend that students navigate the balance between passing their degree and studying the canonical figures they’re being taught and also trying to find resources to learn beyond the curriculum?

It is not that women couldn’t or didn’t write political theory. Instead when they did, what they were saying was unwelcome as it challenged the hegemony of those who held power.

Professor Gordon

Professor Gordon: Many racialized communities are told either explicitly or implicitly that members of their community didn’t do philosophical or political theoretical work. One of the first and most important and easiest ways to respond to that fallacy is to say that it’s just not true. There’s no human community that didn’t engage in philosophical reflection. We know this because, sadly, we can point to work being ripped off from folks who supposedly never contributed that is ascribed to people we have learned to expect to be its source. I think the question of capability is very important. It is not that women couldn’t or didn’t write political theory. Instead when they did, what they were saying was unwelcome as it challenged the hegemony of those who held power. In the historical and political thinkers class we explore how it is that work that was written, published, and read is repeatedly erased and how that must be done over and over and over again to convey the supposed truth that the communities from which you’ve come don’t do this work. Erasure is a political process and feat. The absence is not because there was no intellectual production.

If you treat political theory or political philosophy as world-building, then it’s a completely different endeavour and one that often needs the very people who have been marginalised.

Professor Gordon

The second thing is to really distinguish between the intellectual and the academic.  The former is a broader category that is not exhausted by the latter. This is why I think about the questions of canon in the way that I do. There are ways of introducing fields that really are prohibitive, that drive away exactly the people who should be flooding toward these areas and remaking them in their own image. There are ways of teaching fields that connect so immediately to the lives of people and to the kinds of processes that they’re trying to name. It’s also really essential to consider whether you treat fields as open or closed. A lot of the way that we teach is about and aimed at mastery, but the only way you can ever master something is if you treat it as a closed entity. You can master a language if you treat it as a closed thing, but language is never a closed thing. The same is true for a field. If you treat political theory or political philosophy as world-building, then it’s a completely different endeavour and one that often needs the very people who have been marginalised. Many of the core arguments in the Black Lives Matter movement draw on the black radical tradition. A lot of my students feel very well equipped to understand and participate in what’s unfolding around them now because of the very texts that they’ve studied. That should be an experience that follows from taking more courses in political theory.

Being in the academy can be really, really difficult. Having a very clear sense of what it is that you’re actually committed to and having that remain your anchor enables you to be much more focused in your work.

Professor Gordon

It’s very rare that there isn’t a faculty member or advanced graduate student who doesn’t share the interests of more junior students that may not be represented in the curriculum. There is a philosophy of education course at the University of Connecticut that was created by a group of graduate students from across degree fields. They came up with a reading list of all the works that they thought they needed to be able to do their work rigorously that weren’t being covered in their courses. They then would ask that a faculty member be the instructor of record for bureaucratic purposes, giving the faculty the option of how they would participate.  What they’re doing both in creating and leading their own course and trying to name and fill crucial gaps actually led some faculty to be more responsive, centering some of those texts and themes in the development of their own courses. My sense from working with more than my share of graduate students is that being in the academy can be really, really difficult. If you’re not in touch with the existential motivations that brought you there, it’s so easy to fall off course. What may motivate you may be themes and figures that are absent. Having a very clear sense of what it is that you’re actually committed to and having that remain your anchor enables you to be much more focused in your work. When I went to graduate school, I had two stepchildren and two very small children and I commuted five and a half hours each way each week. I remember when I was called to say that I’d been admitted to the programme, my daughter, who at the time was very little, had cried or laughed or something in the background. The person who’d called to tell me that I’d been admitted asked me what the sound was. When I said, “Oh, that’s my daughter,” he said, “You know, graduate study is a very serious undertaking.” I said, “Yeah, I’m aware of that”. It’s interesting because I actually completed my degree faster than any of my peers. Part of the reason why is that it was so clear to me what I was doing there. I find that existential anchoring is completely indispensable.

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