On “Choosing Sides” in an Academic Debate: The More Precise, the Better

An amusing remark on academics, itself attributed to several different academics, goes something like this: In academia, disputes take on such huge proportions precisely because the stakes of them are so small. Whether this observation is or is not true, I have found that its general sentiment is passed down to undergraduates, if inadvertently so. Of course, there are pedagogical reasons for instilling this impression; when we are learning about debates on a given subject within a discipline, it can help to read the most absolute positions on either side, if only to distill the terms of argument.

But the impression that such debate must necessarily be black and white, and must be of great intensity, can be daunting to accept as an undergraduate writer. Who am I, I wonder to myself, to so totally challenge the work of an established academic researcher? Even if I might disagree with their broader argument, have they not done far more research than I have? Relatedly, what if their research offers some quite usable background information– am I not just a little hypocritical to use it while arguing against the position it was intended to support? Or, what if I agree with smaller asides or observations by the researcher, but not the thrust of their whole argument? In a word, need the division be so absolute within the scholarly conversation? 

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A Summer of System Change

Selecting candidates for the fellowship isn't exactly easy - just ask panelist Shanti Raghavan (pictured)
The Ashoka India Selection Panel. Selecting candidates for the fellowship wasn’t exactly a serene process – just ask panelist Shanti Raghavan (standing).

“Sorry Kavi, I don’t think they’re a fit for our fellowship. Their proposals are not system-changing”.

I received this disappointing message countless times this summer while interning at Ashoka, a global non-profit organization committed to the spread of social entrepreneurship. Working out of the India office in the beautiful city of Bangalore, I was responsible for interviewing recently-nominated social entrepreneurs interested in Ashoka’s fellowship program. The program helps connect these select individuals with other fellows, resources, and tools to help further their work in the social space.

Every candidate I had championed was rejected on the basis of this lack of “system change” in their envisioned work. This confused me because each of these candidates was immensely successful in their field. Furthermore, their repeated denial was personally frustrating because when I talked to these candidates, I became personally tied to their work. One particular instance stands out to me. About a month into my internship, I had to reject a candidate who was educating adolescent village girls on gender equality issues through group-based discussions she secretly held in their college dorms. A day after I sent my report to my supervisors, I was unnerved to see the “not a fit” email in my inbox.

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