activism

Violet

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from RC Tolman papers. Photo by Meg Rosenburg (@trueanomalies). Used with permission.

 

                         Half hidden from the eye!

 

The poets know that rage and sleeplessness are close bedfellows. Modernism didn’t invent this relationship, though its poets may have articulated the connection most clearly. Yeats’s 8-line poem “The Choice” imagines that to choose perfection “of the work” (as opposed to “perfection of the life”) is to inherit “A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark” — “heavenly,” perhaps, because the rewards (if any) of such work are of the spirit, not entailing earthly reward at all. In Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle to his father (a poem featured prominently in one of this year’s blockbuster movies, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar [2014]), rage is posited as the last refuge of the living, the force that spiritually if not temporally and biologically divides life from death. The imperative of Thomas’s famous refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” is a call to resist Sleep in the name of Rage. That both poems are written in antique, heavily patterned forms — Thomas’s villanelle, Yeats’s Ottava rima — may tell us something about how modernism handled rage, or about how rage can be handled in poetry at all. Form may contain rage and give it an “appropriate” outlet. But form also gives rage (raging) a voice.

2014’s Summer of Rage, punctuated by Gaza bombings and several police murders of unarmed black men, found me in a rage along with many others in this country and abroad — in a rage, and mostly sleepless. When Ferguson, Missouri erupted with the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, the protests were nightly. So too were the arrests, firing of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, use of LRADs in civilian neighborhoods — every civil rights abuse and instance of State violence imaginable, all being played out evenings in middle America, available for view online (but almost exclusively there). And I could not sleep. Someone on Twitter called my time spent on that platform, tweeting and mostly retweeting news from Ferguson, a vigil. I was grateful for a term that gave to my actions what felt like an unearned dignity and purpose. There didn’t seem to be any purpose in my activity. It was sleeplessness merely, fueled by rage — tears, and rage.

I met Violet in that period of uncontained, formless rage. In those late summer nights she was virtually the only Institute employee I would encounter on campus. Around 1 am she would appear on the hallway where my office is located; she would work there an hour or two before moving to another floor in the building. She found me bewildered, horrified, distracted, raging, indisposed. She found me; we spoke briefly, and she moved on. She looked like she knew what I was doing even if I didn’t.

From a few conversations in August I gleaned a few facts about Violet. She lives in a suburb 30 miles away from campus. Like most MIT employees, she pays for own parking — despite the fact that most employees have long left campus by the time her shift comes around. Her job was to dispose of waste in the offices, classrooms, and hallways, polish floors, and perform other light maintenance tasks. Over the course of a decade or so, the Facilities staff that sees to Building 14 (“the Humanities building” on campus) has been rolled back. Five janitors used to work the building. Today, two do. On their shoulders fell the daily cleaning and maintenance of a building with over 142K of useable square feet.

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4th floor, Building 14, MIT

I wonder how many readers who work in higher education — and if you’re reading this blog, chances are reasonably good that you do — can name a janitor at their college or university. If you can’t, as I suspect most university employees and affiliates can’t (and as I couldn’t until August), it may be because the janitors and their labor are all but invisible. Perhaps you met or became acquainted with a member of your university’s janitorial staff because you once found yourself sleepless and burning the midnight oil on campus, as I did. Whereas custodial staff at law firms, investment firms, and many other corporate offices work afternoons and evenings or throughout the day, university janitors often work nights as a matter of course. At MIT, this arrangement is codified on the Facilities website as a basic amenity provided by the Institute to its faculty and researchers: “Most cleaning is conducted during evening and night shifts to minimize potential disruptions.” University janitors, paid to make waste and various messes disappear, are made and paid to disappear themselves.

Adjunct professors have been called “spectral figures” on campus, and with reason. They are visible to the students they teach (during class hours, at least), but invisible to virtually every other campus community, and excluded from the possession of rights and privileges that other members of the community enjoy. With janitorial staff one is dealing even more obviously with a largely invisible population, similarly deprived rights and privileges granted to others on campus. The rare moments when these underpaid forms of campus labor are made more visible to the wider community are typically in periods of labor dispute. And how visible the existing conditions of janitorial or adjunct labor become will often depend to a high degree on the engagement of students, others on campus, or the general public.

If you doubt the efficacy of student activism mobilizing for a cause on campus, I wish you would read about the Justice for Janitors movement participated in by Harvard students and members of the Occupy movement on behalf of Harvard janitors in 2011-12. Justice for Janitors is a decades-long movement of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), with major successes in L.A., Houston, and elsewhere. In November 2011 Harvard janitors employed by UNICCO (one of the largest employers of custodial staff in the area) voted to strike. With the help of students and other community members the janitorial staff won a new contract with support for child care, tuition assistance, and four weeks paid vacation time, among other benefits. Wayne M. Langley, President of SEIU Local 615, which represented the striking employees, represented the decision as a remarkable victory for the 99%: “With the help of the students at Harvard, janitors were able to close the gap between the rich and the poor, a success that should be nationally replicated.” At an Adjunct Action event I attended in Boston in April 2013 (Adjunct Action operates under the SEIU), the renegotiated contract on behalf of Harvard janitors was pointed to as a success story that the adjunct faculty of the area should wish to emulate.

This was not a new battleground for Harvard students in 2011, the year of Occupy. Harvard was the scene of similar protests for janitors almost a decade earlier: at a protest event in 2002, four Harvard students were arrested in Boston while defending janitors’ rights (story). At MIT the Justice for Janitors movement had some supporters too; see for instance this 2002 editorial in MIT’s student paper, The Tech. But without the concerted support of students, faculty, and other campus community members, there may be no pressure to stop employers and administrators from treating people like the waste they are paid to remove.

Postscript: I’ve meant to write this piece since those late August days — took some notes that I can’t find now; found myself coping with crisis; lost time; lost more. I return to the task as one who is bent to no apparent purpose but to fulfill a promise made to oneself and to no other. I haven’t seen Violet since late August; my last communication with her was a note left on my office door in early September.

violet
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Notes on resistance

irritated about extreme outrage

sign at the Stewart-Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, 2010 (image source)

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A note by way of foreword, or forewarning. As I write on my “about” page, I am no expert in any of the subjects I blog about here. I write and publish these posts feeling confident in and not even particularly bothered by the probability that someone has written before and much better about the subjects I’m blogging about. Where that proves to be the case I actually do hope you let me know, though I can’t promise I’ll read or follow up (ars longa vita brevis and all that).

I think of this condition of motivated ignorance (more or less) as not accidental but rather essential to my blogging; it’s why I’m interested in writing (blogging) about one topic and not another in the first place. If a subject impels me to serious thought but doesn’t immediately and entirely reveal itself — no matter for these purposes or to me at this stage if my intuition is correct or not — I’m more likely to make a blog post of it. Another way of saying this is that for a topic to eventuate in a blog post it has to hold my attention at a middle distance — neither so short that I get tired of thinking about it after reading a few articles/writing a few sentences, nor so long that I end up mired in mounds of material and with an unwanted book project on my hands. (I’m thinking of an excellent talk I heard Marjorie Levinson give recently at the NASSR 2014 conference in Bethesda, MD, about a middle-distance mode of analysis as essential to understanding a literary genre such as lyric, if not the workings of genre as such.) The sheer volume of excellent “Bartleby” criticism I encountered in thinking about and writing this post threatened to tip it into a much longer project than I anticipated…I feel lucky to have escaped in under 3000 words.

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My aim for this blog post is simple: I want, as briefly as possible, to relocate the concept of resistance from the domain of the will to that of the (predominantly negative) affects. By rethinking the basis of political resistance I want to (re)claim as acts of resistance some mundane responses of irritation, aggravation, or intolerance — negative affects, “ugly feelings” as Sianne Ngai calls them, none of them especially lovable — occurring regularly in daily life and on the same spectrum, I argue, with more easily recognizable forms of political defiance. I hypothesize that resistance — like intolerance, to which it’s related — is not in the first instance a principle or creed or program, or even necessarily a fully formed idea. Rather, resistance is more in the character of an autonomic affective event, a somato-sensory occasion accompanied by at least minimal acknowledgement (perception) of the event. In the political sphere, resistance is not an action, necessarily, but the acknowledgement of a strong negative feeling — which feeling and/or acknowledgement may, but needn’t be, acted on. This acknowledgement almost always begins in rejection, a recoil or radical estrangement from circumstances judged to be intolerable. “Intolerance” is thus fittingly another name for this mechanism of rejection and recoil.

I describe resistance as springing from intolerance, essentially founded on intolerance, and want to explain what I mean in light of the fact that intolerance is not generally recognized as being among virtues the left seeks to cultivate. Indeed insofar as tolerance is among the core values of liberalism (and has been at least since Locke), intolerance is typically charged to the right as the sign of a benighted hostility to difference. Part of this blog post comes from my suspicion (intuition, strong feeling, whatever) that intolerance is a more interesting and politically productive response than that. (I’m obviously inspired here by Sianne Ngai’s effort in Ugly Feelings to “recuperate negative affects for their critical productivity” [3] — and at the same time share her caution against romanticizing these feelings too.)

…Now I’m almost too embarrassed to turn to this text in discussing political resistance, knowing as little as I do about it, the author, the scholarship, etc. But none of these limitations held (or ever holds) Žižek back, so:

Consider what is (in the U.S. at least) the canonical literary case for thinking political resistance, Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) and its hero’s famous phrase, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby’s action is inaction, or as the narrator labels it, “passive resistance.” Beyond being an obvious and persistent source of trouble to the narrator of the story, Bartleby is troublesome to the principle of narrative as well, at least so far as fictional narratives are typically understood to feature characters who either act or are acted upon. An inert force at the center of the story, Bartleby occupies virtually the entirety of the narrative without becoming any more intelligible (to the Lawyer or to us) than he was from his first appearance in it.

Ironically for a story with such a profoundly arid main character, “Bartleby” has proven extraordinarily fertile for thinking the politics of resistance. The significance of the character and of Melville’s “Story of Wall-Street” to the Occupy movement in NYC and worldwide is well known and was well documented at the time (see for instance here and here). The bizarre career and influence of “Bartleby” has been just as prominently marked in contemporary fields and industries associated with the scrivener’s profession. No other literary work has remained so indelibly attached to the institutions of literary production and consumption. Melville’s title alone has spawned two major companies representing these spheres of literary consumption and production, respectively: bartleby.com, a massive, post-scribal electronic archive of the world’s classic literature, and Scrivener, the word processing program designed for authors.

How we read Bartleby’s peculiarly inert force in Melville’s story, and thus the unique power of his passive resistance, will of course depend to a great extent on how we read the declaration “I would prefer not to.”  Here is how Leo Marx describes Bartleby’s famous phrase in his influential 1953 essay [JSTOR link], by most accounts a watershed for modern readings of Melville’s story:

“‘Prefer’ is the nucleus of Bartleby’s refrain, and it embodies the very essence of his power. It simply means ‘choice,’ but it is backed up…by will.” (621)

Marx reads in Bartleby’s phrase, in his preference “not to,” an exercise of choice backed by the faculty of will — choice and will implied here as granted by nature to autonomous human beings, and to a minimal degree at least protected by law. Standing at the head of a mighty stream of modern criticism on and political appropriations of Melville’s classic tale, Marx unfolds from Melville’s story and from Bartleby’s famous phrase all the nascent terms for understanding political resistance in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. Choice, will, agency, reason, defiance — these are qualities we typically ascribe to acts of political resistance; even today these terms seem to structure our understanding of politically resistant action and personhood.

But though choice and will are undeniably compelling and commendable qualities, they are explicitly not the terms Bartleby offers to describe his act of resistance. That these are not Bartleby’s terms is plain from a brief early exchange with the narrator [for the text of Melville’s story see the version freely available online at bartleby.com]:

“I would prefer not to.”
“You will not?”
“I prefer not.”

Žižek’s 2006 assertion [pdf article link] that Bartleby’s phrase needs to be taken literally is both eminently commonsensical and obviously also a gesture in sympathy with the unsettlingly radical conservatism of Bartleby’s quiet protest — both in general and in this particular case against the Lawyer’s slippage from “preference” to “will.”

In “Bartleby,” the scrivener’s “I would prefer not to” is precisely not an expression of willful action and heroic defiance. Instead, the story invites us to think of resistance as taking origin in some poorly defined and understood though powerfully and clearly felt affective response. Resistance is in this sense something closer perhaps to an instinct or a “gut reaction” than to a considered opinion or belief. Bartleby’s paradoxically negative assertion is founded on a judgment, as civilly expressed as possible, of disaffection, distaste, disgust. Intolerance of this sort is typically understood as a form of protest at the bodily level, a physical aversion to and rejection of certain objects or stimuli, food or noise or light, etc., as in the widely reported condition of lactose intolerance. “Intolerance” and related terms — disgust, revulsion, aversion, resistance — is often applied to forms of jointly physiological and ideological response. These autonomic operations of the limbic system, spasms of amygdalic or epiglottal refusal and recoil, cut across and communicate between these separate domains.

What I want to emphasize here is resistance’s orientation in the regions of the gut, linking the mundane complaint of lactose intolerance (say) to more vividly particularized forms of resistance and recoil such as Cayce Pollard’s aversive physical reaction to certain brand logos and icons in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. Following Ngai’s lead, Aaron Bady observes the “peculiar communicative efficacy of negative affect” in “Bartleby.” What gives these ugly feelings their peculiar efficacy is that they communicate with perfect clarity and precision without the subject’s ever once appearing compelled to make them intelligible. As with complaints of the body, one may not know the cause of upset but know very well from the fact of upset that something is deeply not right.

Physicians describe digestion as an autochthonous system of the human body, operating synchronously but not isomorphically with the workings of the brain and central nervous system. The gut-mind is capable in other words of “thinking” and delivering with clarity and authority conclusions that the mind-body may not (or not yet) be able to reach. The connection of these kinds of autonomic somatic response to Melville and “Bartleby” is not far-fetched: Ralph Savarese has a 2003 article [article pdf link] illustrating in “Bartleby” and “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! (another story from 1853) Melville’s extensive engagement with contemporary medical texts that tie the pains of dyspepsia and other digestive complaints to the social ills of modernity. Resistance, like intolerance, is a potent reminder that while some things can be swallowed or stomached, some things simply can’t.

Of course, too much trust in judgments issued from a subjective point of view leaves one open to charges of solipsism based either on ignorance (as in the case of intolerance) or on the unexamined privilege of those who enjoy the liberty to consult, speak for, and act on their own feelings. Charges of snobbery, egotism, or privilege-blindness may be true enough in these circumstances, and are in any event inescapable when judgments are made from a partial (particular, embodied, human) standpoint. The Lawyer early on compares Bartleby’s behavior to that of “the meddlesome poet, Byron” — the implication clearly being that Bartleby’s resistance, his “prefer[ence] not to,” is of a lordly character, aristocratic in temperament and behavior, as if directly patterned after the mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know poet himself.

But the charge of egotism seems somewhat beside the point here too, in Bartleby’s case as in Byron’s. After all, the stomach may function as the condition of mindedness — as Virginia Woolf famously remarked, one can’t do anything properly if the stomach isn’t satisfied and in good working order — but is not itself “minded” at all. Many of Byron’s protagonists, his Childe Harold and Don Juan and Sardanapalus, are epicurean characters for whom bodily and especially stomach upset is the marker of deep-seated political complaint, even or perhaps especially in circumstances where it is only peripherally perceived in these terms by the complainant. The hero Sardanapalus says, ” I hate all pain, / Given or received.” Whether this position can be made a basis for substantive political action is a question held in suspension and openly debated to the play’s tragic end.

For Byron (as later, in Savarese’s account, for Melville), the monism of body and world is principally inscribed through the digestive organs. Indigestion is Byron’s figure for the body that registers and reacts against social ills and excesses, including those of the individual. In a late canto of Don Juan, indigestion gives the lie to the philosopher George Berkeley’s fantasy of “universal egotism”:

For ever and anon comes Indigestion,
(Not the most ‘dainty Ariel’) and perplexes
Our soarings with another sort of question (11:1-13)

Byron does not disclose *what* question or what sort of question, exactly, proceeds from indigestion; in putting the stomach and mind in a relationship of continued mutual “perplexity”, though, he makes clear that our mental “soarings” remain responsive and ultimately answerable to thought’s material ground.

I’m fascinated by but not especially invested in declaring a side in current philosophical debates about whether powerful emotions such as disgust have a propositional content or depend on prior ideas or beliefs. (For a good summary account of these debates, adjudicating carefully between opposing viewpoints, see Carolyn Korsmeyer, Savoring Disgust, chapter 1.) Like Ngai, I’m interested to think in more pragmatic terms about how everyday responses of disgust, recoil, and intolerance could be more widely reclaimed for political thought and action. To ask how irritation, exasperation, and intolerance might give new energy to political resistance is to revisit more explicitly the agenda of an older generation of critical theorists too. Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance,” his contribution to the volume A Critique of Pure Tolerance with Robert Paul Wolff and Barrington Moore Jr. (1965), closes with the extraordinary assertion that the left should make available for politics not less intolerance, but more. Where the ideology of tolerance fortifies rather than upsets the status quo, Marcuse reasons, the cultivation of informed and “militant” intolerance is an essential facet of resistance. Marcuse calls in the 1968 postscript to this essay for “minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which toleration destruction and suppression.” Marcuse finds this militant intolerance to be an action of the minority, heroic virtually on that basis alone. It is an exercise of political will, the expression of an irresistable impulse to seek freedom wherever people are unfree.

Affect theorists have in the last decade made considerable progress toward understanding how a range of everyday, mostly involuntary affects including anger, dissatisfaction, and depression might differently ground a politics in theory or practice. The more recent work of Ngai and others enters productively into dialogue with the tradition of left cultural criticism to which Marcuse’s work obviously belongs. (See, in addition to Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint; Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness; Ann Czetkovich’s scholarly-activist work on depression as a public and political feeling; Rei Terada’s work on a condition she calls “phenomenophilia,” the perverse attachment to transient perceptual phenomena, in Looking Away). More in line with this recent work, my notes here don’t make a call to action outside the potentially momentous acknowledgement of many actions already underway — forms of resistance more voluptuary, intolerant, and far more widespread than one might expect. Think of the most everyday revulsions and distastes — the daily irritations, effusions of biliousness, splenetic episodes — that punctuate a normal day: rush hour traffic, terrible drivers, oblivious pedestrians, the press of bodies on the street or public transport; interminable lines; bosses, toadyism, manipulators, assholes generally; some idiocy or other on the internet; frustration at one’s own body and physical appearance (often a submerged complaint against the fashion and beauty industries and the impossible standards they support). Think of all the things one would prefer not to do, and surely wouldn’t do if not doing so didn’t (as it did for Bartleby and many Occupiers) carry the threat of certain punishment and reprisal. The condition of being repelled by the world is not an exception any longer, but the rule — “Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit.” The consensus generated from this great seething irritable mass may be the unacknowledged (possibly unacknowledgeable) ground for more particular individual acts of resistance and rebellion that are more readily identified as acts of political resistance and disobedience, whether civil or not.

 

Postscript:
This book comes out in October, and while on social media the title will doubtlessly inspire a lot of cheap jokes at Žižek’s expense, I’m curious to learn whether it has anything to say about the embodied politics of the “recoil” I describe here.

A better professional organization

@felixfardo cloudcrew airships

#cloudcrew photo credit: John Harkey (@felixfardo)

I’m going to engage in some blue-sky thinking here. I am not a policy wonk, and this is not a policy document of any kind.

A response to the Modern Language Association (MLA) task force report on graduate education, co-authored by a group of 10 humanities scholars and published this week in Inside Higher Ed, draws attention to the limitations of the existing proposal. Proposals to shorten the time to degree and to welcome new engagements with digital technology are hardly controversial, of course. But the recommendations of the task force, like many of the activities of the MLA, do not a thing to meet on their own ground the gross inequalities of academic labor conditions in the profession.

I am far from the first to observe that the disconnect between the activities of the MLA and the lived realities of the profession has become increasingly stark (this recent blog post by The Good Enough Professor makes the case succinctly and well). The standard institutional response to such complaints is that adjunct hiring and other such issues, while undoubtedly important, do not fall under the control of the MLA and/or do not form a central part of its mandate. On the one hand, the rationale for this view is entirely plain. That the MLA carries out certain functions and not others is certainly unobjectionable. The MLA has no authority over hiring decisions; it cannot re-open tenure lines that have been closed or “restructured” by university administration. It cannot reverse trends in academic hiring that plague the academy as a whole. On the other hand, if a scholarly organization does not take concrete steps to improve the working conditions of those who pay dues and attend annually and at considerable cost its national convention, what exactly does it do? If the support of instructors teaching languages and literature at all professional ranks does not fall within the purview of a scholarly organization purporting to represent these educators, of what use is the organization today?

While the MLA enters into lengthy, disputatious, and ultimately fruitless discussions over whether to issue a resolution censuring Israel’s denial of entry to scholars seeking to work at Palestinian universities, various other organizations, autonomous and mostly leaderless movements unburdened by bureaucratic protocols and the necessity of executive compensation, have sprung up to serve functions that the MLA does not or cannot do. It may simply be the case that the existing organization is insufficient to protect the interests or even to represent accurately the contemporary academic workforce in higher ed literature and language instruction.

Imagine, then, a professional organization that served and supported its constituents directly. Groups like the Adjunct Project and the New Faculty Majority were created to represent and advocate for the overwhelming majority of literature and language instructors today. As more and more adjunct unions enter into collective bargaining agreements with universities, these cross-institutional alliances serve an invaluable purpose in representing the interests of adjunct faculty and facilitating communication with the general public.

The last of the proposals by the IHE authors is “direct action” — “strikes, protests, and other creative forms of organizing and outreach.” The possibilities are many here, of course; I want in closing simply to suggest one kind of organizing and outreach activity that might at minimal cost materially improve the lives of those who teach language and literature. Some time ago, a few colleagues and I — @prof_anne, @readywriting, @occupyMLA, @shanteparadigm, and some others — set to imagining a StrikeDebt-style direct action of some sort for and by adjunct professors and their advocates. One of the most potentially fruitful ideas to come from this discussion was that of a time bank that could be participated in by faculty and staff within a university community, or regionally across institutions, as a work in mutual aid. With sufficient buy-in from a coalition of university employees at all professional levels, a range of professional tasks could be exchanged without money —

  •      substitute teaching to cover for sickness or conference travel
  •      guest lectures or class visits
  •      reading and commenting on work
  •      editing and proofreading
  •      printing and copying, and so forth

— to say nothing of the many nonprofessional tasks for which time exchanges have been used for decades. Time could be “donated,” of course, and one can perhaps imagine a system in which the value of one’s hours were inversely proportional to wages for labor in real life, so that graduate students and adjunct instructors would for a change receive an advantage on this market.

From adjunct unions to other forms of direct action on the part of students, teaching staff, and university employees, we see that organizing and outreach works. If the MLA is not the professional organization we want or need, perhaps we need to invent another (or many others). MLA will continue to produce editorial content, and host, at significant expense to most conference-goers, an annual conference for those with sufficient institutional support to attend. I expect that the functions of representation and advocacy will come increasingly from other organizations: unions, advocacy groups, etc. The MLA may of course assist in the formation of these new collectives, and would I hope be invested in promoting and supporting them too. Otherwise, teachers of language and literature (at all professional levels) should start preparing for a future without the MLA.

All carved up

Global geopolitics and unequal distribution of the world’s resources, conveyed with the same simple and powerful visual figure. Images represent two contemporary events of global significance: the Napoleonic Wars and the World Cup, 1805 and 2014.

ImageJames Gillray, The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures [William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte] taking un petit souper… (1805) (wiki)

ImagePaulo Ito (2014), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (source)

On MOOCs, and telescopic philanthropy

012814i-poverty-by-tract

Every reader of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House will remember the character Mrs. Jellyby, a woman whose “telescopic philanthropy” leaves her domestic life in disarray. Mrs. Jellyby is devoted to the cause of the people from a village in Africa, “Borrioboola-Gha.” With eyes that look as if they “could see nothing nearer than Africa,” Mrs. Jellyby is so preoccupied by this imaginary faraway place that she utterly neglects the world around her. 

Mrs. Jellyby has been on my mind lately in connection to a question about the measure of responsibility that institutions as well as individuals have to serve and support their local communities. The question of what institutions and individuals may owe to their surroundings resurfaced for me when the Community Development Department of Cambridge MA released its report on poverty in the city last month. The results, based on census data for the years 2009-11, are not encouraging. The report shows, among other things, high degrees of poverty among black and Latino/a residents of the city — slightly higher than the national average in both cases. Poverty in Cambridge is densely concentrated too, with a significant percentage of the city’s poor clustered in only six census tracts in the city. North Cambridge, where I live, contains almost a quarter of Cambridge’s poor (see figure). Another significant area of poverty is concentrated on the perimeters of the Kendall Square technology hub near MIT, in Area IV and East Cambridge. Cambridge is sometimes depicted as an enclave of political progressivism even within the left-leaning state of Massachusetts. But the data on poverty in the city effectively dismantles any such illusions about the “Peoples’ Republic of Cambridge,” showing the presence of deep economic and racial inequality within its borders. 

I live in a neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city and am so not entirely surprised by the information revealed in the report. But the report is sobering and important for making the extent of the problem plainly visible. It seems to me impossible that residents of Cambridge could meet news of a crisis of this extent with complacency. The city council is taking the information seriously, and I hope that other communities in and around Cambridge do the same. The report points to a matter of urgent concern for the city, necessitating concerted action. 

What can Cambridge’s universities do to serve their city and local communities in the midst of a crisis of widespread poverty? What can and does the university in general do to address problems of poverty and vast income equality in its neighborhoods? In posing these questions I am reminded that universities in Massachusetts enjoy tax exemption on grounds that “citizen education [i]s an essential governmental function.” When addressing what universities specifically do to support the communities of which they are a part, university administrations often reply, as does the University of Massachusetts Treasurer’s Office on the website linked above, that institutions of higher learning serve their communities most effectively as hubs for citizen education.  

One form of educational outreach for which Harvard and MIT are now widely known, of course, is their development of online learning initiatives including MOOCs. As edX president Anant Agarwal recently affirmed, “Improving global access to high-quality education has been a key edX goal from day one.” Massively open online courses are often remarked on for their potential in facilitating global outreach (or more pessimistically, cultural colonialism) by elite institutions of higher education. A New York Times story this fall, “The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator,” gave an in-depth anecdotal account of how a Mongolian child who participated in MITx’s electrical engineering MOOCs did so well that he subsequently obtained admission to MIT. The article presented MITx and related endeavors as poised to serve as a global farm system for unrecognized talent from poor communities worldwide. But HarvardX researcher Justin Reich observed in a blog post that the “boy genius” in question had in fact enjoyed the considerable advantages of a supportive network of adult mentors around him, which prepared the ground for his academic success and recognition by MIT. The inspiring story of a Mongolian village boy whose life was changed by MOOCs, plucked from obscurity by one of the world’s leading educational institutions in science and technology, was partly fictional. 

I have been saying for a while now that I would like to see MOOCs do more to include in their outreach efforts those populations nearest to them as well as those farthest away. In a blog post last year, I proposed that MOOCs might be involved in a broader effort to strengthen local and community ties:

[I]n addition to the flat, global learning community ritually invoked as the audience for MOOCs, we could benefit from thinking locally too. How can the online course format make possible new relationships not only with the most far-flung remote corners of the earth but with the neighborhoods and communities nearest to campus? Can we make MOOCs that foster meaningful links with the community or create learning communities that cut across both the university and the online platform?

In thinking about how the energies and educational resources of elite institutions might be brought more fully to bear to one of the most urgent issues facing the city today, I would not be understood to seek an exclusively technological solution to complex problems; nor do I mean to suggest that such a solution exists. It’s not impossible that blended learning environments created with the purpose to engage the local community would be ultimately ineffective in addressing the problem of poverty in the city. Indeed we could find to be truth what some have already suspected, that the MOOC is a fundamentally ineffective medium, the modern equivalent of Mrs. Jellyby’s ceaseless letters on behalf of Borriobhoola-Gha. But simple one-sided philanthropy of this order will clearly not be enough. A mission of outreach and engagement with the local community would obviously require a greater investment than the bequest of iPads to students in chronically underfunded school districts, or the introduction of One Laptop Per Child in impoverished regions of the globe. I remain interested in how the digital medium, so long conceived as enabling a flight from materiality, might play a role in creating learning communities and engaging residents on the streets where we live and work. Poverty is a matter of shared concern, for which collaborative and creative thinking of local communities is urgently needed — “by any medium necessary.”

A little thing

UCR Fund Recipient

So much has been written already about the recent online beef between Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka), the adjunct faculty member, higher ed blogger and journalist, and the historian Claire Potter, aka “Tenured Radical” (@tenuredradical); I am not eager to add one thing more. The occasion of the Schuman-Potter dispute was the revelation on Rebecca’s blog that the English department of the University of California at Riverside would not contact those it intended to interview for its tenure-track position (in American literature before 1900) until January 3, less than a week before the MLA convention in Chicago. Schuman wrote the blog post about this news that went viral; in response, Potter wrote the blog post attempting, somewhat peremptorily, to shut down the controversy as an isolated and irrational instance of academic “rage.”

I objected then, as I do now, to the personal and somewhat condescending terms of Potter’s assessment. I understand anger at a broken system to be more than “merely” personal. In response to this flare-up, Chuck Rybak, Timothy Burke and others have issued sensible calls for solidarity between adjuncts and those on the tenure-track. As these bloggers observe, both populations of university employees are subject to the same forces at the hands of university presidents; both populations too make a small part of a much larger trend toward the casualization of employment in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The dispute between Schuman and Potter has quieted down in the meantime, though a general climate of dis-ease remains in the run-up to the MLA convention. How could it not? The deep inequities of a broken system show more dramatically these days. What faith can we bestow in a “profession” that (as quite a few perceive it) has disappeared in all but name? Why do we ask job-seekers and adjunct faculty to defend institutions that have shown them no favors? What loyalty to the preservation and maintenance of tenure can we expect from those who have been systemically excluded from participation in it?

When I created an Indiegogo campaign to help send to MLA those chosen by UCR for an interview, I wanted a way to contribute to a heated conversation then passing without participating directly in it. I created the campaign to show my support for Rebecca, a writer I greatly respect and admire even where I disagree with some of her opinions. Admittedly, I created the campaign from a sense of anger too, much less at UCR than at Potter’s attempt to rationalize and shut down criticism of its practice. (It took virtually no time to establish an account with Indiegogo and create the campaign — certainly less time than it took Tenured Radical to write a seemingly disinterested follow-up post on the importance of preserving social media etiquette.) Above all, I created the campaign in a gesture of solidarity with graduate students and adjuncts on the academic job market.

To date, 27 people have contributed more than $800 to this hastily-produced campaign. (I chose the fundraising goal more or less arbitrarily; that the campaign is not likely to reach the established goal is I think no indication of its having been a failure.) Contributions came from friends, colleagues, and strangers; from the tenured, junior faculty on the tenure track, adjunct faculty, and graduate students (some of them on the market themselves). Contributions came from academics from fields outside English, and from non-academics as well.

Some may think the gesture misplaced, or mean-spiritedly directed at UCR on account of a technical error. To the latter objection: I am not personally acquainted with anyone in the UCR English department. At the end of the day, moreover, I am glad and grateful that UCR has a tenure line open at all, and that they choose to interview for a specialist in “old” material (being a person who works on such material myself). I wish them the best of luck in their search.

That a fundraising campaign targeted to assist those interviewing at one school does not solve larger problems with the academic job market seems obvious, and somewhat beside the point. I am delighted that the contributions received will help one candidate who has stepped forward at least. But the campaign does not pretend to solve anything so much as its gesture intends, in a small way, to make visible the extent of the problem.

Many thanks are due to the contributors to this campaign — you know who you are — and to those many of you who helped me get the word out about it. I want particularly to acknowledge the assistance of Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya), Lee Skallerup (@readywriting), and the inimitable Rebecca Schuman.

“Simple and complex and kind of magical”: the rolling jubilee

Strike Debt red square

[T]he event is neither substance nor accident, neither quality nor process…And yet it is not something immaterial either; it is always at the level of materiality that it takes effect, that it is effect…Let us say that the philosophy of the event should move in the at first sight paradoxical direction of a materialism of the incorporeal.

– Michel Foucault, “The Order of Discourse”

The Rolling Jubilee, a project of Strike Debt launched November 15, 2012, celebrates its one year anniversary today.  Its founding on this day marked the first year anniversary of the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park.  The anniversary of the movement has been widely and justifiably celebrated this week, here and here and (by one of its architects, Astra Taylor) here.

Reviving the Judeo-Christian tradition of Jubilee, in which debts were periodically canceled for the community, the Rolling Jubilee represents an innovative and highly successful project in mutual aid. Astra Taylor calls the Rolling Jubilee concept “simple and complex and kind of magical.”  Working through the secondary debt market where “distressed,” unpaid loans are bundled and typically bought by banks and collection agencies for pennies on the dollar, the Rolling Jubilee has, with $400,000 in donations, purchased and canceled nearly $15 million in medical debt.  The money travels from unknown benefactors to recipients whose distressed debt happens to be included in the bundled loans that are purchased by the Rolling Jubilee.  By these means, almost 2700 people so far have had their debt burdens lifted.

Like most or all charitable projects, the Jubilee concept is simple at its core. Part of what makes the Jubilee “complex and somewhat magical” has to do with the advanced nature of the market systems in which it participates. With origins in ancient religious practice, the Jubilee intervenes in the complex credit mechanisms of 21st-century financial markets. Most charitable acts , moreover, involve a simple donation from one hand to another. But it is difficult to say precisely where or in what event the Rolling Jubilee consists (this is one reason why it is a Rolling Jubilee, defined by its ongoingness). Is it in the collection of donations from thousands of people? in the purchase of bundled debt from the banks? in the notification of those whose debt has, at random, been abolished?

This last stage, in which the beneficiaries are notified that (a portion of) their medical debt has been canceled, is often taken to be the highlight of this complex process. (To mark their anniversary today, the Rolling Jubilee has announced another major debt buy, in Austin, Texas.) The letter that Strike Debt sends to debtors on this occasion bears a simple subject line: “Balance Abolished.”

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Matthew Yglesias asked in an article for Slate whether the money that went to abolishing the distressed debt would not be better given as cash to the needy.  Setting aside questions about the financial efficacy of its model, however, it is not difficult to perceive that the Rolling Jubilee operates on an altogether different principle than that which Yglesias proposes as a potentially better alternative.  For the abolition of debt is neither a gift nor a charitable donation, not exactly.  Debt abolition “merely” removes an pre-existing obligation.  Something has not been given, therefore, so much as it has been taken away; more precisely, what is given is the taking away, the removal of a debt burden.  In the YouTube video that Strike Debt produced to promote the campaign, one of the participants in the Rolling Jubilee describes its action in these terms: “Instead of collecting on the debts we buy, we’re going to abolish it. Poof.”  As Auden famously describes the action of poetry, then, the event of debt abolition “makes nothing happen.”

As a teacher and scholar of poetry, I encounter many instances of this strangely agencyless agency, both in the poems we read and in the minds of those who engage with them.  Maybe I am attracted to the Jubilee because it operates in a similar way, “simple and complex and somewhat magical.”  Maybe I am attracted to both for the way that they make visible something about the occult and insufficiently understood nature of events themselves.

In “The Order of Discourse,” Foucault describes the event as having effect on both material and immaterial planes.  Just as the historical event must be seen at once as a singular phenomenon and as part of processes of much longer duration, so does the event considered in itself appear to be a divided and contradictory thing — something not entirely present as positive substance, but whose existence and material effects are beyond doubt.  It is for this reason, Foucault insists, that “the philosophy of the event should move in the at first sight paradoxical direction of a materialism of the incorporeal.”

The Jubilee is consistent with an understanding of the event as operating on jointly material and incorporeal planes, with effects (however obscure) in both domains.  Perhaps we cannot say exactly what it is; but it is not nothing either.

That the Rolling Jubilee “makes nothing happen” is often adduced as a point against it. Those skeptical of the Jubilee model observe (here, for instance) that the amount of debt abolished does not come close to any statistically significant figure; it is not so much as to make a dent in the nation’s multi-trillion dollar debt burden.  Not amounting to much, the event of debt abolition is, however, not nothing. The Rolling Jubilee has so far relieved a debt burden for thousands of Americans.  Perhaps more important than this, the disappearing of debt has made widely visible as never before the secondary debt market and the predatory mechanics of debt collection.  “[S]imple and complex and kind of magical,” the Jubilee is an exemplary (historical) event in that regard.  As the movement marks its one year anniversary, I am eager to see what nothing it has still to make happen.

You can donate to the Rolling Jubilee here.

November 15, 2013

A brief dispatch from Boston’s Adjunct Action Symposium

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Yesterday I attended the Adjunct Action Symposium (the symposium theme, “Higher Education in the New Economy”), held at the Boston Public Library.  This was the second such event in 2013; the first was in April, under the high ceilings of Boston’s JFK Library.  The crowd was somewhat smaller than in Spring, but still big enough at its peak to fill a large conference room in the basement of the Library.

The atmosphere at this event felt somewhat different to me from the last time. If in April the room was suffused with the exciting sense of possibility, with new connections made and plans being hatched, yesterday’s meeting was quieter and more focused. Begun in the wake of the April meeting, union organization is now well underway at several Boston-area campuses. At Tufts, adjuncts won a recent resolution to organize by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Bentley, a four-year business college in Waltham, also recently voted on a resolution, though the outcome there was less promising:  the resolution to unionize on campus lost by 2 votes (98 for vs. 100 against).  With some 1400 adjuncts, Northeastern University was described by someone as “the jewel in the crown” of adjunct organizing in the Boston area – which probably also explains why Northeastern administration has hired the union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis to prevent a union from being formed on its campus.

One hears a litany of all-too-familiar concerns at these events: about the economic burdens of adjunct life: the exorbitant cost of living in the Boston area; the skyrocketing cost of health insurance; the challenge to keep groceries in the fridge and bills paid. The pressure of student debt is a persistent topic of concern (as it obviously is too for the vast majority of the students that adjuncts encounter in the classroom). Adjuncts want, most immediately, more pay – a livable wage. They want space on campus in which to work. They want benefits, of health insurance especially, and a budget for essential work-related expenses (such as computers and support for their maintenance and repair). They want job security: renewable contracts guaranteeing long-term or consistently longer-term employment; advance notice for teaching appointments. They wish, most broadly, for equality: a role in faculty governance; a stake in the curricular or operational decisions of the department; the respect and support of their tenured peers. 

As pressing as are the bread-and-butter issues of economic survival as an adjunct, one hears more at these events about the considerable emotional burdens of life as a contingent faculty member: the exhaustion of the “road scholar” who has to divide his or her time between two, three, or more different schools; fear and anxiety associated with the precariousness of the economic situation, of employment at will; feelings of shame, the persistent sense of not having succeeded at what is essentially a lottery, not primarily a system that rewards merit; uncertainty about how to deal with the material conditions of one’s own employment – whether (for instance) to speak frankly to the students about the contingent status of one’s employment; feelings of invisibility – to administration, to tenured faculty and to each other. “Adjuncts are spectral figures,” Doug Kierdorf, a historian at Tufts said, often disconnected from the life of the university. These are symptoms hardly unique to contingent employees of the university, of course, but they are felt as acutely by this group as by other members of a growing contingent, casualized, just-in-time labor force in America and elsewhere in the world.