Interview with Alison Hearn with the background of the Québec student protests.
Quebec Student Uprisings: The University is Ours
ClassWarU: The Quebec student uprisings are awesome. Has any of that affected Toronto?
Alison: There have been a lot of solidarity rallies. In fact I'm going to one tonight. They do this thing every night in Quebec now, it's called the Casseroles, where they go out in the street and bang on pots and pans, and that started to happen in the wake of the introduction of this law, Law 78, which is incredibly repressive and outlaws demonstrations. It was brought in response to the student strikes and the demos they were doing, and it just ended up enflaming the general public, so there have been a lot of solidarity rallies. I think in Ontario now, with the Canadian Federation of Students—a union, which started as a student solidarity network—I think the goal is to try to put structures in place around tuition fees and, not call a strike, but basically start to build in the same way they did in Quebec. The events in Quebec took years to build, the kind of infrastructure that was there and the student union movement took a long time, at least a couple of years if not longer.
CW: Did you meet people who have been involved in organizing that in Quebec?
Alison: Yeah, we hosted a conference here, The University is Ours, and a few people came from Quebec. It was great. There were five of us who ended up being the core of the organizing, and what was great about it was that we didn't meet in person at all until the day before the conference started. We did everything over Skype, and put it all together in an ad hoc way. People from all over the world showed up—from Czech Republic, Mexico, UK—it was really inspiring. We had always wanted the conference to be about actual organizing and activism, rather than just more dire pronouncements about the state of the neoliberal university, which a lot of us have spent a lot of time doing. There were some amazing exposes, such as one from two guys from Michigan, Brian Whitener and Dan Nemser—I think they're both involved in Occupy Student Debt—they did an unbelievable political economy of the way that money moves through universities in the States and the way universities are serving this sort of laundering function for corporate money, and more generally as sites for the circulation of finance capital [read it here: "Circulation and the New University"]. There were some incredibly eye-opening critiques, but there was also a real emphasis on building networks and talking about how to turn the critique into action, and there was a whole busload of kids from Quebec who came. The whole last afternoon was dedicated to talk about the Quebec student strike, and a couple of the leaders Skyped in from Montreal and talked to us about their model and why they thought it worked. It was really inspiring and, for an oldster like me, it felt so energizing. I felt like that too in Minneapolis [at the Beneath the University, the Commons conference in 2010], but that felt like the beginning of something, and arguably you could say that with what happened in Occupy, Quebec, the demos in Chile and Europe, it feels like something is moving. But, I'm always wary of getting too excited.
Becoming Radical amidst the Wilderness of Precarious Life and University Occupations
CW: How did you get involved in radical thinking and organizing around universities?
Alison: I started grad school in 1985, for my Masters degree at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. I got involved with the TA union, but I wasn't super involved. I was my group rep for a year, but I wasn't actually as radicalized at that point. What started to happen at that point was that I started to ask questions. Grad school culture seemed so bizarre to me that I began to write a little about it, to interrogate what was going on. But, I still was invested. I was a young student. This was something I guess I thought I would always do, even though it was always the path of least resistance for me to go to grad school—I couldn't figure out what else to do. I have to confess that I haven't ever really been a full-on organizer. I've been more of a critic and a little bit of an agitator in the classroom. It always seemed clear to me that if you were going to situate yourself in any institution, you should understand that institution, and you should ask questions about it if there are things about it that are troubling to you. I think it was tied up with my decision to pursue grad school and a life in the university. It just seemed, like, 'why wouldn't you interrogate your working conditions?' I think I always did see it as work; I didn't romanticize it overly. I think a lot of academics have this really romantic idea about what they're doing—'the nobility of pedagogy and scholarship.' And I understand where all that came from, and I'm not immune to that—I mean, I still love a beautiful library. I still love to go to old universities and feel that kind of medieval grandeur of 'knowledge for knowledge’s sake,' which I actually love the idea of, but have always been clear eyed that that wasn't what was going on in the university.
I think that radicalization came for me as a result of being a very long-time in the wilderness. What happened was that I got my Masters, I started a PhD program, and then I got married and I had kids. I moved back Toronto with my husband, and wrote my comps and had a second kid, and then my marriage melted down. And I felt like I was in the wilderness. I didn't have any money. He was an aspiring comedy writer. He moved to LA and ended up making huge amounts of money, but at the time was sending me no money. So, I was experiencing the sessional life, but with two small kids to raise on my own. I was driving everywhere, teaching a bunch of different classes, and working as a research assistant. What happened was that the project I was working on as a research assistant ended up as a book, which I co-authored, about interdisciplinarity. It was nothing that I'd ever studied before. I'd looked a little at the history of the university in the early days. But, being hired and forced to learn about disciplinarity, and then interdisciplinarity and the structure of knowledge in the university, really opened my eyes, and really set me on a path where it was both intellectually fascinating but also politically enraging. In a paper called “Interdisciplinarity / Extradisciplinarity,” I talk about how interdisciplinarity at that time (in the early 90s) was the total buzzword of the university. But, all I was seeing was departments being closed—classics and small philosophy departments—and all sorts of things being rationalized under this rubric of interdisciplinarity. Then I started to read more about these kinds of changes. I think what happened was that I was so many years in the wilderness that I never thought I would finish my dissertation: two kids, no money, working all the time, and also away from my academic department. I just thought, 'oh forget it, I'm going to be a waitress at Red Lobster, and that will be okay.' Even though I always kept my hand in, it always seemed unlikely that I would get done, and I felt a lot of resentment about that, and I felt a lot of personal strife.
And then, finally, after ten years, my ex was making money and he asked to have the kids for a year, and I thought, 'okay, this is my window to get done.' Thankfully, I had friends at SFU who gave me a research job, so I went back and wrote. Of course I didn't write anything about the university. My thesis was about discourses of the masculine in feminist theory. But, you know, whatever! I should also say that I got involved in union work as a part-time instructor in the CUPE Local 3908 at Trent University where I was teaching at the time and I was the grievance officer. So I started to get involved in union work in the university as a part-timer, and of course became extremely familiar with the shit that goes down for part-time workers. Another major moment was that I was involved in the story in the documentary film called “Whose University is It?” (watch a clip of the film here).
CW: Can you say a little about the subject of that film?
Alison: What happened was that I was working as a part-time instructor at Trent, and at that point I was on a three-year contract to work full-time. So, it was a bit more stability. They hired a new president of the university. As you know in Canada the universities are publicly funded, provincially funded: the federal government gives money to the provinces, but the provinces add money of their own and decide how much money they're going to give to universities. Of course that funding had been cut from the late 70s onwards; the amount of funding given to Canadian universities was eroded, year-after-year, and as a result universities were basically starving for funds. This was the beginning of where they started to seek more private investment on campus, where we started to see buildings getting named after corporations, and tech-transfer offices, all the stuff we take for granted—the commodifcation of research—all of that stuff started to happen in earnest here in the late 80s, early 90s. In Ontario, at the time we had a very conservative government led by an idiot named Mike Harris, who basically decided that he was going to try to make up some of the shortfall by having a competition for funds amongst universities in what he called the ‘super-build’ fund, which was basically for infrastructure. As Brian Whitener and Daniel Nemser's presentation at the University is Ours conference points out, this is one of the ways you can plow a lot of money through the system and spread it around to private interests: you have to hire contractors and engineers, you put it out into the economy, you build these fancy buildings, but you get an impoverished student body and faculty. At Trent, the new president decided to compete for the superbuild funds and, in the process, to close one of the founding colleges of the university. So, there was a huge kerfufl about that.
First of all, Trent was built on a college model. That was part of its pedagogical mission, which was that you have colleges at which people live, study, eat with their profs—an Oxford/Cambridge model. I went to Trent as an undergrad. When I started there in 1979, people had just the year before stopped wearing gowns—profs would wear gowns to lecture in and you would wear gowns to Sunday dinner. There was the Senior common room and the Junior common room—all of these vestiges of the older college model. So, closing one of the founding colleges was actually not just a monetary decision but an educational decision. What happened was there was huge pushback. When the president brought it to the senate of the university, the senate voted against the plan and sided with the students and everyone else. The president said, 'screw you, I don't care what you say, I'm taking it to the board of governors anyway'—which she did, and the board of governors passed it. Then, there was a building occupation. I was really right in the thick of this, as a contract employee, I put my ass out there—but that was nothing compared with what the students did. They really risked a lot. And the president ended up busting them, and the cops raided them at two in the morning, and they were put through really traumatic strip searches. But, as with most events like that, it also had this incredible upside, which was that the community and the students opposed to it really bonded together, and there was an incredible proliferation of teach-ins and community building that came out of it. So, that was very radicalizing for me. That was when it all started to gel for me.
But, it was also incredibly disheartening. Because, what ended up happening was that a couple of professors took the Trent board of governors to court, and claimed that the president, when she overturned the will of the senate, had violated the university act. Universities are brought into being by a provincial act in the legislature. The act stipulates that the university should function with a bicameral model of governance: the senate and the board of governors are two prongs of our legislature—you can't just shut down one and go to the other. The president basically ignored that. Some profs took her and the board of governors to court, and ended up losing in a split decision. The judges who agreed with the board of governors said that it was a financial decision only, and the senate has control over pedagogical, educational issues. So, that was a watershed moment for all universities in Canada, because it effectively obviated that system of bicameral governance. Now there's a precedent, case law that says that the board of governors is always right, because there's basically no issue in the university that cannot be claimed as a financial issue. So, you couldn't claim that the the university’s educational or research mission is in anyway distinct from financial concerns; now all educational and research concerns are always already financial or economic concerns. Here the logic of the university is completely subsumed to the logic of capitalist accumulation. So, that was a really important moment, and I think what we've seen since then is that, since 2001, the university senates are like these weird vestigial leftovers from another era when the students, faculty, and staff could actually have a say on how the university is run. Now they're just procedural; they're just this leftover ritual. Senates have no real power or meaning anymore. So, after those events, I left and I ended up getting a job at Northeastern in Boston.
"Universities Aren’t Even Universities Anymore": From Faculty Autonomy to Organizing Ground—Department-by-Department and Class-by-Class
CW: I was reminded of what you wrote in “Interdisciplinarity / Extradisciplinarity” about the constituent paradox at the heart of universities, their tension between serving external needs for the authorization of wider society while needing internal authorization through serving an educational mission. Do you see that paradox having been deadened or pushed to one side?
Alison: Yes, that idea of the university being inherently paradoxical has worked so well for me to think about it (and that's Derrida's idea). Definitely, in this case, that's exactly what was going on, and that's what's going on now. I don't even think that universities are universities anymore - honestly, given what I know about how they're funded and how they're run. Especially, given the things I've been reading about what's been happening at Berkeley, McGill and my own university, Western and numerous other places in terms of the explicit ‘securitization’ of the university, and the repression of dissent that's happening seemingly everywhere. They're not universities; they're research institutes for private interests. It's true that we have academic freedom still, in name. When I was at Minneapolis three years ago, I would have argued to hold onto the university as some kind of site that we needed to defend or occupy, and I would still say that we need it now as a launching ground for organizing. But, I really think I've changed my mind in the last three or four years, because, first of all, I've seen some really incredible initiatives that have happened outside the university. Also, because I've been really active in my faculty association, which is unionized, and had some really exhilarating experiences with them but also some deadening, awful experiences with them. The university I teach at tends to have a big proportion of fairly right-wing people. It has a heavyweight business school, a seriously right-wing medical school and law school. Those dudes, they're members of the union, and they love the union when it can work for them, but most of the time they don’t want anything to do with it – in fact they actively disparage it. We have a board, and there are members on it from every faculty, and we tend to get the most progressive people from the business and medical school, but they don't even want to use the word 'union.' We just lost a vote to join the national organization of faculty unions because there was a screed written about it saying that that would mean we would be affiliated with laborers—steelworkers and autoworkers—and they're not like us. I mean, this incredible, myopic classism on display! It's very depressing. So, I think the ship has sailed. The diagnosis is in. The current university in Canada is tainted beyond any hope of rescue. But, I do think that we can still use it as the Quebec students have used it: as an organizing ground to launch other kinds of social critique and social activism. But, I think the idea of autonomy within the university, the idea of what a senate represented, which was that we govern ourselves, and that we have autonomy in our governance—that's long gone.
CW: Yeah, I really like this idea of seeing the university as an organizing ground. Do you feel that, along with your pessimism about the idea of the university, do you also have similar pessimism about the ability of faculty to take the lead on using that organizing ground?
Alison: I feel really optimistic about that, actually. One of the amazing ways that the Quebec student strike was organized was that they did direct democracy. They have these umbrella organizations, but there were assemblies that were held, and they did it faculty-by-faculty, and sometimes department-by-department. And every week they would have an assembly, and everybody in, say the geography department at McGill, would get together and discuss the merits of staying in the strike or not being in the strike and discuss the issues, and there would be a binding vote. There was a great piece posted on Recomposition about this (“Snapshots of the student movement in Montreal”): somebody from New York went up and hung out and they've written a whole description of the way the Quebec student strike works and how they've organized. It's a very useful description of the organizing steps they took. What struck me about what they've done and is so amazing and sort of simple is this idea that you wouldn't go to the student union. Like, if we had to go to the Western Ontario University student union where I teach, those guys are run by right-wing business school dudes. There's no way we'd get anywhere. But, if you go department-by-department or faculty-by-faculty, and you use direct democracy, you have a whole group of people there, and students and faculty alike are there, and there are just more political possibilities.
In a way, it harkens back to older forms of the university, which were organized around certain ways of knowing, or disciplinary boundaries (which should never be written in stone and were never immune to outside influence, but were there for scholarly reasons too). So, I love that idea of basically getting rid of, or overlooking, student unions or universities. You could incorporate them, but you do direct democracy department-by-department or faculty-by-faculty, or even class-by-class. I feel very optimistic about it; Bill Readings' metaphor of 'the ruins' is more salient now, in a certain way, to me than ever—because the institution is totally ruined, in my opinion. There are things I would never ever do; like, I would never be an administrator. I've sat on senate, I might consider doing that again, but it was just too depressing. But, you still have, as Readings says, the classroom. So, in the margins of the ruined edifice, the kind of infected administrative edifice of the place, you've got this opportunity, and it's called: a class. It's the classroom. Nobody's coming into that classroom and telling you what can happen in it. At least not yet. And, I have tenure, which at least for now protects me, as long as I'm 'performing' and I'm 'getting good evaluations,' and I'm producing research, nobody can discipline me, and yet, I can go into these classes, and do my job, which is to teach and to facilitate collective learning and thinking. It's challenging. There are a lot of issues and problems that can arise, but I feel totally optimistic about that possibility. That's now how I see what I do. I went around moaning for quite awhile about how I wanted to quit. And there are still days when I want to quit, because so much of the job of a professor now is just like being middle management in a corporate setting, and it’s alienating and icky. There are so many contradictions in the job too. But, overall, I feel way more energized about the possibilities than I used to feel.
Connecting Pedagogy with Organizing: Complexities of Context, Authority, Labor, and Student Resistance
CW: Your discussion of the classroom as a space of opportunities for organizing is a good segue to talking about radical pedagogical approaches. I asked a question to Marc Bousquet in a conference a few months ago, and he was pessimistic about faculty having any power or leadership in these movements, and then Chris Newfield, who was in the audience, said that the classroom is a space we can use, and we should think of ways we can create opportunities for students to use that time, rather than disciplining them, to allow them to organize.
Alison: I think there's a tension between this older ideal of 'what does a scholar do, what does a teacher do,' and the idea of enacting some kind of radical politics in the classroom. Many academics, including people in my field of media and cultural studies, would really look askance at being overtly political in the classroom. It's this idea of objectivity that infuses so much of the discourse. It's an undercurrent that's always there. Even if you're talking to people who are post-structuralist or feminist scholars who have forever argued about the non-sensicalness of objectivity, they would still say that in a class you have to occupy a sort of neutral space. In a certain way, I agree with that, in so far as you facilitate. You don't want to play your hand overtly, because, first of all, students decide that that's who you are, and they end up mimicking you, because they are focused on jobs and grades. They are a product of the neoliberal U too. They're not coming in with their minds open; they're coming in with these sets of pressures. They don't even know what a university is or has historically been. I tend to spend time talking about the university as a specific kind of cultural site, sometimes really explicitly. For example, in my grad class, which is a theory class, the first book they read is The University in Ruins. The first thing I want to do is to say, 'you're in a fucked up place. What the hell are you doing here? Why are you here? Know yourself. If you're going to be in grad school, know what the realities are for you.' Other people have taken issue with me, because it's like, 'you're pulling the rug out from under them, you want to encourage love of learning and scholarship, so why would you disabuse them of this idea?' But, I think, you've gotta talk about why you're there. If you're there because you love to read, write, and think, then you've gotta say that! And you've gotta know that you're reading, writing, and thinking within sets of institutional parameters that are going to do their fucking best to keep you from actually putting your critical insights into action.
CW: This seems like an antidote to a problem that you diagnosed with the professoriate generally, in your piece on "Exploits in the Undercommons." That piece resonated with me a lot. You talk about how the tenured stream professoriate tends to disavow the undercommons and repress any kind of recognition of the segmentation of the labor force, and that as part of their own working conditions. How do you see your approach to making those labor conditions—both of teachers and of students—an object of discussion and analysis, as an important part of organizing?
Alison: For me, it kind of has to happen. You have to know your context. In a small seminar class with ten incoming Masters students, there's a lot of space and time in that class for us to work through ideas and, for me, to be sensitized to people's varying reactions, and to really try to work with them. I wouldn't do it, like, in the big second-year media theory course with 300 students that I teach. In that class, I wouldn't do it overtly. For example, a couple years ago, our university faculty association (UWOFA) almost went on strike, which would have meant 1500 faculty out and would have shut down the university. We were three hours from walking out. We had our picket duty, our strike office; we were ready and due to walk out at seven in the morning. They ended up settling the contract at four in the morning. We had all kinds of people, including the students, on our side, because it wasn't about money, it was about maintaining respect for academic freedom. The administration wanted to have the ability to fire people post-tenure if their performances were deemed ‘bad’ for a few years in a row. It was interesting, because you can have right-wing folks in the business school or law school who wont give the union the time of day, but if you threaten their tenure, they're in a rage and willing to come out on strike. People got behind that strike because, we had right on our side, and because the principles – tenure protects academic freedom - that we were fighting for resonated even with people who had different politics than ours. People who had devoted themselves to the idea of the academy, of the university, and who might be spouting neoliberal ideology wherever they could still believed that academic freedom meant something. And, they also had tenure and didn't want to lose their jobs. When that was happening, in the lead-up to the strike, we worked really hard on communications and on mobilizing students to our side, because we knew if we were going to go out we had to have the students. I had this platform in this second-year class to talk about these issues in the classroom if I wanted to, but I didn't. I made a strategic decision not to address it, except when the strike was imminent. I didn't want the students, first of all, to know how involved I was in the union and in the communications. If the students wanted to know, they could have found out—they might have seen me on an info picket. But, I wasn't going to bring it into that situation. Some of my colleagues went into their classes and ranted about the administration wanting to do this or that. At that moment I decided not to do anything, except when I said, 'if we go on strike, then this and this will happen, in terms of the class, and not to worry, you'll be supported, etc.' Then, I said, 'do people have questions?' And some did have questions, and I answered those questions, as did my TAs. At that moment, where I actually had a platform for something that was imminently political I didn't want to use it. At the time, I wasn't sure why I made that choice, but it just didn't feel right to me. I wanted whatever was going to happen to happen, and I didn't want to use the students as a pawn in some political game. Yes, we needed to get them on side, but they needed to make their decisions outside the classroom. In the classroom, I have authority, and I didn't want to abuse that authority by trying to mobilize them to my side in that particular political moment. It is about education; we need to lead to people to the facts, and then we have to respect them if they decide to take a different position, ultimately.
CW: Do you feel, in this situation, thinking about the context of it, that there was something about the difficulty of students empathizing with the position of faculty as tenured faculty? If you can hypothetically think of yourself in that position when you were a part-time faculty member in more precarious working conditions, do you feel it would have been easier for you to talk about your working conditions and organizing around them with students?
Alison: Yeah, I think so. I might have taken a different position if I wasn't a tenured faculty member. I think one of the things that I was sensitive to was that the students were feeling already that they were pawns. Whenever there's a strike the students always say, 'we're taking the hit, we're pawns in the game, we end up having to pay.' I didn't want to exacerbate that. One of the things that I try to do when I talk about these issues in the classroom—and I do teach an undergrad class called the History of Student Resistance (see the syllabus for this class here). The first time that I did it, the first half of the class was looking at certain moments through history of student agitation or student resistance. The whole second half was on contemporary student resistance and student debt movement, including stuff that was happening in California. It was on the heels of the Minneapolis conference, which really inspired me, and we read some of Marc Bousquet's book [How the University Works], and that was a total eye-opener for students. The issues of student debt and the student worker really resonated with these students. Just as faculty walk around with this bubble identity in their heads of being scholars and academics who aren't like the steelworkers or the busdrivers, the students walk around with this idea in their head—some of them anyway—that they're unique as students and they're aspirational. And when I say to them that you have more in common with that dude who served you coffee at Tim Horton's than you do with me, in terms of your life conditions as students, they're like, 'what? No way, because I'm in school, and I'm going to move on and get a job...' This is like the situation described in George Caffentzis's piece, "University Struggles at the End of the Edu-Deal," and that one blows their minds.
So, in a class like that where the topic is labor conditions and student labor, I would have talked about the strike in the context of that. But, not in the context of a huge class that's not about that. And, in a moment that was very politically dicey for all of us, I didn't want them to feel they were being exploited, because God knows they already exploited enough by the university administration and banks etc. They don't know they are; they think they hold all the power; they think the university is organized around their happiness—which of course it seems to be with the student-centered learning thing and their teaching evaluations—but they don't also understand the way they're being leveraged for profit everywhere they turn.
CW: Could you talk a little more about your classes that are more explicitly focused on universities and student resistance?
Alison: They've been amazing. I've taught the student resistance one twice. It's part of a media and the public interest stream in our undergrad program. These are students who are already oriented toward social justice issues. It's a kind of specialization oriented around communications and media for NGOs and public entities. Of course we wanted to call it 'media and social justice' but we weren't allowed to because it's too 'politically inflamatory.' Both of these classes have been really moving experiences to me. The first time I taught it, the students decided amongst themselves—there were about 25 of them—that they wanted to do an action. I said, 'that's great, you want to do an action, I'm not going to be involved in it. I'm going to end class twenty minutes early for several weeks, and I'm going to go get coffee, and you guys are going to do your thing.' I just took myself right out of the equation. And they did it; they did a really funny, pointed action. There wasn't really anything pressing or political happening on campus at the time. As I’ve mentioned, the school that I teach at tends to be a very conservative school. To get anything happening there is kind of amazing. The student union has incredibly strict rules about communicating on campus. Every poster that you put up has to be approved and stamped by the front office, and you can only do it in certain places. So, they decided they were going to do a mass postering campaign with just the class number on it, which was 3952. They did a mass blitz, putting up posters all over campus that just said '3952' on them. They stuck around to see how long the posters would stay up. That's what they ended up doing. Somebody wrote up something about it in the school paper. They got a little bit of attention for it, and everyone was like, 'what the hell is this? What is 3952?' And I don't think anybody ever really found out. They loved the idea that noone could figure out where the hell this was coming from. I think they did two iterations of it, two weeks apart, exactly at the same time on the same day. That was great. They didn't get graded for it or anything. In fact, figuring out assignments for the class was hard. I did get them to do a research essay on one of the student movements that they had examined. And they also did presentations. I tried to keep the scholarly component.
The second time I taught it, they all did amazing presentations. The other part of it was that they had to get involved in a student group on campus, whether they wanted to or not, and then they had to do a write-up on the student group. It was in the fall term when all those demos were happening in England, after the Brown report, when they'd raised tuition by huge amounts, and there were huge demos and occupations happening everywhere in Britain. A couple of the students had friends who were at Leeds at the time and who were involved in the demos, and they organized to have them Skype in. So, we had a couple of sessions with some organizers over in England. These classes overall been incredible experiences. Both for me and for the students, they were enlivening and inspiring. And at the same time, a little unsettling, because we didn't really know how to be with each other in the classroom. In a way, the students wanted it to be a regular class. They wanted there to be regular structure, papers, and assignments, and for me to come in and lecture, which I did a couple times, especially when I was presenting some of the historical material. But then I gave way to presentations and seminar through the rest of the class. I think it just felt a little unnerving for some of them. In the evaluations I had, most people loved it, but a few were like, 'I didn't like it because I didn't know what was expected of me. What is this course good for?' A few comments like that. And it challenged me pedagogically, too. But, I loved it, I had to really stop myself from talking a lot of the time. I had to change who I was in a certain way. And, I still feel as though I haven’t gotten it quite right yet – maybe, within the context of the neoliberal u, that isn’t even possible.
Building Relationships across Divisions of Workers and Students: Age, Culture, and Power in the Academic Capitalist Rat Race
CW: Speaking of those challenges, thinking about these classes and how you'd like to do them better in the future. You mentioned before department-by-department organizing. For these classes where you're bringing radical pedagogy and creating space for students to learn about radical organizing, what are the obstacles you face in connecting classroom organizing with other kinds of organizing, particularly with respect to building relationships between students and teachers?
Alison: I always say that there's no job that teaches you more lessons about generational difference than being a prof because every year you're a year older and the students are the same age. For me, I've watched myself recede into middle age. I started teaching when I was 28 and I'm 51 now, and it's been a long, slow process of watching successive generations of students. Where I started off having a ton in common with my students, even in a field that I teach, media studies, which is kind of hip to the pop culture scene. And then, thankfully, I had my kids who kept me sort of plugged in. But, it's hard, and I see it with a lot of my colleagues, not to fall into that trap of, like, 'oh they're a foreign species, like an alien, I don't know what those kids are into now. I can't keep up.' I succumb to that a fair amount, because I feel a little baffled, and with the way technology has changed the way people socialize.
CW: On that question of differences or gaps between young people and older people, do you see this as kind of a division of culture? Are there ways to bridge that culture through developing some kind of common working class culture?
Alison: Yes, I think there are ways to bridge the culture. In Quebec, now, a lot of profs went out with the students. I haven't seen anybody write about that, but I know that there are a lot of professors who support the students. Now, with the manifestations every night, there are all kinds of people in the streets, galvanized by Law 78, which enraged people.
I think there are a couple of things that keep this bridging of generations and statuses and interests from happening. But it’s important to remember that in a classroom, we're all bound together; we're all in the same boat. If the students' lives suck, our lives as profs suck as well, obviously not in terms of financial issues, but in different ways. I got a taste of how differences can manifest and be exacerbated in the neoliberal u recently. I am the Coordinator for the media studies Grad program. I work in a non-departmentalized faculty, so we don't have departments, and the governance of the faculty is very top-down. The position I occupy has no power, really. Basically, my job is to oversee any problems with the grad program, to recruit grad students, and basically to be the point for conflict mediation. Our grad students in the media studies program tend to be quite radical. Our program overall is a little pocket of radicalness in this very conservative university. So the grad students got their knickers in a twist about the fact that we have these recruitment events every year and we ask them to attend to talk to potential incoming grad students. And, they decided this year that they were going to boycott recruitment because it was labor they weren't being paid for, and because they have some other issues with the program, mainly that there wasn't enough money for conference travel, and there weren't enough faculty supports. They felt that there were too many grad students and we didn't have enough resources for them, so they wanted us to accept no more graduate students. Politically, I agree; we shouldn't be accepting graduate students, because there are no jobs. Ethically, it's not right. But, on the other hand, I'm like, 'well, why do you guys get to have an education and other people don't get to have theirs?' So, the students basically took this decision, they didn't come to talk with me in the first place about ways to address the problems they were having; they just got together, decided they were going to do this strike, and then made this announcement. I heard about it through back channels that this was going on. A couple of the grad students who I know came and said, 'just so you should know, the grad students are going to boycott recruitment.' Well, frankly, I was relieved because I hate recruitment. It's a ton of work and I think it's stupid, and I definitely would have supported the students if they had chosen to come to talk to me about their concerns. So, I went to talk to Nick, who is my associate dean, my boss, and he said, 'let's cancel recruitment.' I said, 'yeah, let's give the money that we were going to spend bringing people to campus to incoming students as entrance scholarships.' So, that's what we did.
But, then the grad students got mad, because we took away their leverage. And, I was like, 'dudes, you don't need leverage. My door is open. Nick's door is open. Just come in and talk to us, because we're on your side, and you probably couldn't have more sympathetic program directors than us.’ So, I ended up calling a meeting with them, because they didn’t seem to want to ask for a meeting but I knew they were upset. And I was upset because they were just assuming that Nick and I were administrative enemies and were overlooking what they knew about our political commitments. So, we have this meeting, Nick and I are there, they list their grievances, and I'm like, 'okay, let's talk about what we can actually accomplish for you. Can we get more money for conference funding? Can we do this or that? And I tried to point out that their grievances are my grievances as well, only in a different form. They are talking about stretched resources, and I'm the stretched resource! I said ‘you're struggles are my struggles!” I'm working all the time, more hours than I'm supposed to. So, we're all connected and experiencing stress and dehumanization at the hands of these overarching administrative logics.
This is a long story, but to get back to my point, which is this idea I'm trying to hammer home: One of the students was like, 'you're the first line of defense for the neoliberal U.' And it took a lot of composure on my part not to laugh, given how long I have worked on diagnosing and condemning the neoliberal u. I just asked why they wanted to sit there and re-inscribe the lines between us. I definitely get what they were saying, I understood their frustration, and I said, 'look, you guys want to organize outside of the University, you want to organize demos, go ahead! I'll help you. I'm with you.' But, I said, 'we're here, so let's figure out what we can solve for you in the short term that make your life a little bit more comfortable.' Actually, in the end, I have no power; Nick holds all the purse strings. But, I said, honestly, don't divide us. The logic of the university does that enough, politically we can’t afford to do it to ourselves. Overall though, I have a hard time making this case. Most of my faculty colleagues are invested in the division, because 'they worked their way through the ranks, goddamnit.' And this is the point about disavowing the undercommons. 'They did the work. They clawed their way to the tenure line. They got past the tenure line. And they're not going to give that up.' I'm like, 'you're fucked at the tenure line if people below you are also fucked. We're all connected.' The whole system is working to extract as much labor from us as it possibly can, as capitalists do, and we're in academic capitalism. So, if we don't reach out to each other and talk about the commonalities between us, we're all sunk.
CW: This is an interesting example of relationships being build across the divides.
Alison: Unfortunately, in this case, I don't know how well it worked. Because the students seemed really invested in making us the monsters, in us being 'bad.' And, as someone with tenure privilege, I do find it hard to figure out the best ways to deploy that privilege in the service of others who are struggling within the university – beyond teaching that is.
CW: I'll push you on this a little bit more. In one of your pieces, you talk about the managerial culture (drawing in Marc Bousquet). As a tenured professor, you have to take on certain managerial duties. So, in a way, even though you and Nick and other radical professors in your department have created a kind of radical pocket in the university, do you think that there are still some ways that, internally to your own subjectivities, you have to embody that managerial capitalist role?
Alison: Yes, I totally agree. And, for me, it was a lesson learned. I think, before, I used to contend that 'you gotta walk the walk. If I want to create an academic community or a scene in the university that I can endorse, then I have to put myself out there. I can't just sit and take pot shots from the sidelines. If I really want to create a good community in my faculty, I've gotta do the service work, I've gotta sit on the committees, I've gotta put myself in a position like this (as coordinator of graduate studies). You've gotta be it, and try to make the university that you want inside the university.’ But, what I've learned from this little example that I've talked about is that you do end up getting overwritten or overdetermined by the sort of structural position. So, no matter who is occupying that position and how good their politics are, in the end, they are completely compromised by the demands of the structure. I've seen Nick and many other good people struggle with it, and I know that many of them count the minutes until they can get out. And I'm also counting the minutes until I can stop being the media studies coordinator, which is in a month or so. You're in a conundrum, because on the one hand, you think, you want good people in the position so they can be sensitive to the problems, but on the other hand, those positions are so structurally overwritten by the kind of determinations coming down from on high, and from these logics that you oppose, inherently, that it's just an impossible position to occupy. You have to make a choice. I know a lot of people in mid-level university administration who are good people, whose politics would align—maybe they're not as radical as I am, they want good things to happen—but in the end it really does come down to saying, 'I'm sorry, I can't carry this. No matter where I turn, I'm being an idiot to somebody somewhere.' It's not the kind of governance that I want to endorse, enact or embody.
So, another contradictory position that I occupy right now is that I have a chair, and the chair is named after a corporation—the Rogers Chair (Rogers is a big cable company here). It's a floating chair; it floats around the department; everybody will eventually get it; you get money with it. So, I have it for two years, and I'm at the end of my first year. Well, one of things I did with the money is that I held a series of three events that were called 'What is FIMS (Faculty of Information and Media Studies) and is it working?' And I had these assemblies, essentially, that were not faculty council assemblies and they weren't any kind of governance assemblies. The issue was: we never get a chance to talk about what our faculty means and what it does. We have a lot of chances to evaluate each other and to evaluate programs—the undergraduate program, the library science program—but we never get chances to evaluate what the hell the faculty is. So, I did it purposefully, to lay the groundwork for an alternative kind of governance structure that was based on an assembly model. But, first I thought people needed to come and talk about what their experiences were inside of the faculty. So, the first event featured faculty members, the second event had students from all the programs, and the third featured staff and sessional workers. I should have had administrators; it occurred to me afterwards that I should have invited the dean, the associate dean, and the dean of research to come and talk about how it felt to administrate. Anyway, so, those sessions actually led to the dean taking up the mantle and holding a series of sessions all through the spring about aspects of the life of the faculty, and we just had a big retreat where we determined that we were going to change the governance structure of the faculty. Whether that actually happens, I don't know. But, I tried to do something to try to kick-start some of that critical examination. I would like an assembly model—for us to assemble every month and talk about shit – and to govern ourselves that way, instead of via a representative council as we have now.
Grappling with Contradictions of Faculty Authority: Hippy-dippy Pedagogy, Authoritarianism, or Ethically Responsible Teaching?
CW: In that kind of assembly model where you're being open and communicating about your positions as faculty and your work conditions, in those discussions, could you or have you been explicit and intentional about these sort of compromised, contradictory positions that you find yourself in?
Alison: It's challenging, and no, I wasn’t and wouldn't have been as explicit. Because, and maybe this is the right way to do it, people are very sensitive to any kind of criticism of what they are doing. In our faculty especially, everybody trips all over themselves not to insult anybody else. In a way, that might be a good thing. I try to encourage people to speak their minds and not to be afraid of confrontation that might arise. But, the reality is that there are a lot of people there who had something to lose from speaking out—you know, like, their jobs. I started with tenured profs purposefully, because I knew tenured profs could say anything they wanted, and they did; they said a lot of controversial stuff. But, the staff, for example, are in a very different position. Many people pointed out the structural differences between the groups who were speaking, and that some groups have more freedom than others to speak. So, it's very challenging. The problem in our faculty is that there's too much power in the hands of two people: the dean and the associate dean. And that came out and that's now going to be addressed, but the problem is that people conflate the position with the person. As I learned in the situation with the grad students, it’s really hard to hear people criticizing the way they've been doing their jobs – it was hard for me - because they are good people and they put all their energy into trying to do the best job they can. But, as I learned, in those administrative jobs, there's going to be shit coming at you 24 hours a day. You have to have a really thick skin. But, I think that even for people with really thick skin, it's hard. People conflate the job with the person. It's dicey.
CW: Do you think the faculty could gain more protection and more courage to speak about this kind of stuff through a kind of department-by-department organizing approach that you were talking about earlier? Say, if you as a tenured faculty were able to develop organizing relationships with the grad students and undergrads in your department, say, to organize with them so that they would have your back if you were to take some kind of more militant position?
Alison: I think what happened in Quebec was that those assemblies were student-run assemblies. I think faculty members were allowed to be there. They might have decided on a case-by-case basis whether faculty could be there. So, it's easier if it's just students. And so, I think, actually, the challenge of doing something like that, where it would include faculty, staff, and students, really would be—and this is where Marc Bousquet is right on a certain level—you do kind of have to shut up and let the students lead it. But, I think, again, it's always about strategy. You have to assess the situation. There are times when faculty speaking out, say, in the California situation, a well-timed bon mot from Judith Butler can do a certain kind of work for the struggle. You don't want Judith Butler to always be the person who is talking. It's just that she has a reputation she can deploy. It can be used strategically. But, ultimately, and especially at the level of decision-making, that's gotta be direct democracy, always. But, getting to a situation where people trust each other enough to speak, and the faculty can keep their mouth shut and let the students, especially undergrad students, drive the boat a bit, that's challenging too, because people feel they've earned their authority.
I think my issue was that I've never really been comfortable with authority. I remember the first time I taught a big class, and I was 28, and walking down the stairs of the lecture hall going to the podium—I'll always remember that—going 'oh my god, you're a grown-up, remember you're a grown-up,' trying to talk myself into a sense of authority. Over the years, obviously, I've gradually come to accept that I know things in a delimited area. And I always say that to my students: 'I'm not holding myself above you. We have an obligation to each other in a classroom.' And I say this in all my classes: 'just in the limits of this room, we're in a relationship, and I don't hold myself above you, but I do claim in this little space here to have knowledge I can impart to you. And, I also pledge to you that I will try to facilitate as best I can your questions and concerns and your knowledge as it’s growing. But, beyond that, who am I? I'm just some Joe Schmo you pass on the street. I'm no better than you, no worse than you. This is our agreement in the class, and that's how it goes.' In terms of organizing outside of the class, because these structures and hierarchies are so sedimented, the faculty have moved through them and are invested in them. The students are invested in them too. The times that I've really tried to disavow, to get rid of, my authority in the classroom have not gone so well. For example, I did a grad class one year where I decided I wasn't going to give out grades until the final mark. And the students hated it; halfway through they were complaining about me to the dean because I wasn't giving them grades. I had always made it clear to them—they had weekly writing assignments with a ton of feedback from me—'if you want to know how you're doing, come and see me and I'll tell you how you're doing.' They're so grade-a-holic, and, to be fair, they needed some kind of anchor or orientation too, so they want the authority. There's a way in which that's what they're paying for. It's challenging.
CW: Going back to the question of obstacles and limiting conditions we face, it seems that students coming into your classes with habits and dispositions that they've picked up from their previous decades of education—they've become accustomed to grades and accepting teachers' authority.
Alison: Yeah, and that's why doing a little deconstruction off the top, by asking 'where are we? What are we doing here? What is the history of this place?' I found that to be useful, because you get them to start thinking about those habits of mind. If you get them to start actively thinking about them and to take them apart a bit, that loosens them up to thinking about other ways of being in the classroom.
CW: Thinking about this challenge of building relationships of trust and mutual obligation with students in the classroom, have you thought of ways that you could facilitate building those relationships through bringing your own research into the class. It seems that one way that the usual hierarchy of teacher and student operates is through teachers seeming that they are there to transmit knowledge one-way rather than opening themselves up to learn through the process of teaching. I wonder if you could see your own involvement as a teacher, simultaneously also seeing yourself as a learner, and do a co-research project with the class. Earlier you were talking about how you've learned a lot pedagogically through teaching these classes, have you thought of teaching in this way?
Alison: I always say to students that I hope to learn from them. As I was listening to you, I was hearing the voices of many of my colleagues in my head around this whole 'I'm going to learn stuff from you too' pedagogical model which is very sort of 1960s, hippy-dippy, 'we're all in it together' thing. That resonates badly with a lot of my colleagues because it reminds them of previous eras, and in my own experience, a lot of the professors who do that aren't good scholars. So, let me unpack this...
There are a couple of things at work: one is that there's this older sort of model of 'everybody in it together' pedagogy inherited from the 60s that a lot of my colleagues react against. Experience has shown them that many of the people who do it are usually not that great at it, or at their jobs. It's actually kind of a code word for 'I'm not really that interested in ideas or research and so Im just gonna let you guys work it out for yourselves and sit here and rap while I'm in the classroom.' In other words, this model can work to excuse poor scholarship and poor teaching. Of course, it doesn’t always do this, but I have seen it in action. Don’t get me wrong, I'm all for students directing the curriculum, especially in a grad student setting. But the prof has a central role to play in terms of guiding students, and they should be actively doing this.
The other piece of this is what I often hear from colleagues of mine who are maybe not totally onside with the kinds of critiques I engage in, and who subscribe to a far more formal structure of apprenticeship through the system – they are wedded to the fact that they've actually accomplished and achieved a credential and a standard of scholarship that they want to be recognized for. I think part of their resistance to a co-research-y, ‘learning from students’ model is connected to the de-professionalization and de-skilling that is happening to faculty as a result of the neoliberal U. Faculty feel so threatened and de-professionalized in their jobs that when they're faced with grad students demanding that they teach something or do something, or with undergrads saying, 'you've got to learn from us,' or “you need to give me this grade’, they just feel even more alienated and disrespected. So, it's this bizarre situation where, in a lot of ways, my colleagues are right to feel resentful: they are being de-skilled, they are being de-professionalized, but it’s not the students’ fault. A lot of the time, I would say professors’ anger or frustration with students is misdirected.
When I came up through grad school, I idolized my profs. It never would have occurred to me to say they were wrong, that they assessed me incorrectly, that I should get a better grade. If they gave me an adjudication that said I wasn't good, I'd just work harder. That was the logic that was in place when I was coming up. Then, I get into the position finally and I'm being squeezed from both sides. I have students from below telling me I should give them better grades and what the hell am I doing, I'm not being attentive to their needs. And from above I'm being told that I've gotta pass students no matter what because we've gotta keep the cogs moving through the system. This puts so many of us professors in a bind, where we are asked to adhere to standards, but when we try to do that, we get pressure not to fail anyone from both above and below. So, my question is, if the standards don’t mean anything anymore, then what, exactly, are professors meant to be doing?
I'm always in this double consciousness where, on the one hand, I want to insist that the standards mean something, but on the other hand, the system has made them so illogical and so ridiculous, why even bother playing by those rules?
CW: This reminds me of something you wrote, about the paradox of the university, particularly about disciplinarity. Have you read a piece by Joan Scott called "Academic Freedom as an Ethical Practice"? She makes a similar argument as yours, about seeing the academic freedom of professors as legitimated through external authorization but seeing that tied up with academic's internal development of disciplinary norms. Then, she sees academic freedom as this ethical practice of grappling with the tensions of having to engage with these different audiences while developing standards. I really appreciate your talking about this reaction that faculty have against this kind of popular education approach of seeing ‘students as teachers too’ and that we're just there to facilitate mutual learning. It seems like that sort of reaction presents a challenge to anybody who wants to do radical pedagogy and militant co-research in the classroom, a challenge for us to develop professional, respectable approaches with our own kind of disciplinary standards. This is something that I've tried to learn, but I haven't really had teachers for it, and I've only learned through meeting other people who are doing it. There are only a few pieces written explicitly about doing this kind of research, such as by the Colectivo Situaciones and the Counter-Cartographies Collective.
Alison: There were a couple folks who came to the University is Ours conference, particularly Chris Dixon and Alexis Shotwell. They work on this terrain as well. I don't know if they do co-research, exactly, but they certainly do radical pedagogy. The problem, for a lot of academics, with the co-research model, is that they're not radicals. They want to protect the integrity of their scholarly work and their professional associations. I'm thinking of a colleague I have in English. He doesn't see the university as anything worthwhile either, but that's where he gets paid. For him, all of his efforts go into his professional association, the community of scholars who all work on the same area, so the conference issues and the journal publications, for him that's the inviolable site, that's where he puts all of his service. The university, he doesn't give a shit about that. And I think a lot of scholars feel that way. They're employed there, but they're not bound by it. This has to be recognized. There are a lot of scholars in the university who see teaching as an unfortunate consequence of what they're really doing, which is their own research and participating in the circulation of knowledge beyond the boundaries of the university. Another tension that's always existed is that those people who focus on teaching in the research university, who are good teachers, are always seen as somehow lesser. There's a kind of informal economy of reputation or status, where if you are a really good teacher you must be a shitty researcher. Or, if you're an administrator you must be bad at both teaching and research. This is the kind of secret, informal economy of reputation that goes on.
CW: Thinking about how so many professors just aren't radical and don't care about what the university is for, this reminded me of how you started your piece on interdisciplinarity with how universities were originally founded by students and students defined what norms of learning were observed and what got taught. I wonder if there's a way that, through us radical teachers organizing with our students through our classrooms, maybe on a department-by-department basis, students could take the kind of groundswell and momentum, and build a movement that would push non-radical professors to take more seriously these questions about what the university is for.
Alison: Yeah, that's definitely possible. My feeling is that, like this colleague I'm talking about in English, he's a political guy, he's on the Left. I think that if there were these alternative modes of organizing that didn't go through regular institutional channels, I think he would be open to that. I'm using him as an example because there's a lot of ways in which he's very intransigent on a lot of radical issues. What I'm trying to say is that there are a lot of profs out there who just want to do their work; they don't see their work as overly political. They see it as contributing to knowledge. They do it because they believe it has relevance to the world at large, and a lot of people in the sciences may feel that they are helping to extend human life or improve people's conditions of life or fighting poverty. Even if they don't have socially progressive values, they clearly think that what they're doing is contributing something to someone somewhere. And, I think organizing has to involve making space for people to articulate that. If you're in the sciences, people don't usually ask you, 'what is the relevance of your research to the world?'—especially because people are so specialized and cut off from each other. If you're a math geek and you're doing theoretical math at a high level, you've got a really small community of people you're talking to. But, clearly in your own head, you're thinking that what you're doing has connections to something somewhere. Maybe some people would just say, 'I do it because i like it.' I think there are very few spaces for individuals in the academy to talk about the relevance of their work, and how they see their work as fitting into the grander scheme. I think if you gave people a space to talk about that, it would probably be pretty transformative.
CW: Do you feel like university branding is one of the limiting conditions on creating those spaces?
Alison: I write about branding in my other line of research too. I write about self-branding,,reality TV and social media. For me, the concept of the brand is one of the most pernicious offsprings of neoliberal capitalism, or 'promotional capitalism,' as I call it; it really functions in similar ways to the original brands, for example, on cattle - it's a form of controlling and corralling and containing creativity and asserting ownership. So, I think university branding is a very big symptom and a material effect of neoliberal logics, which is eating up a lot of money that could be going other places. It reveals the degree to which universities have lost sight of any kind of regulatory ideal that might be internally generated. The title of that piece is "Through the Looking Glass." I really think the university has just fallen right through, and they've become enamored with something ephemeral, ridiculous, and empty.
I don't know if university branding overtly militates against the possibility of organizing. I think that organizing will happen in spite of it. I just think that branding is a stupid sideshow money-suck, symptomatic of how much the university has lost its way.