Learning, unlearning, pausing

Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan on strike. Image source. We stand in solidarity with GEO and encourage you to pay solidarity dues to the union if you can.

We are incredibly appreciative of all the scholars who shared their expertise and ideas last week during the two-day #ScholarStrike. We highlighted a few of the talks that we found useful on our Twitter account during the two days, and we are excited to check out more on the Scholar Strike YouTube account over the course of the next few months. 

As the Carleton term starts and we both start our first terms of online teaching, we’re committed to keep learning about racial justice and abolition. At the same time, we are also committed to continue reflecting on what we will need to unlearn–ideas that have been ingrained in us as residents of a White Supremacist capitalist society. And that definitely takes time and effort. 

We are going to take a break from blogging for the duration of the term to ensure that we have time to focus on our teaching and on our own learning/unlearning.


We are still open to publishing guest blog posts, though, so BIPOC folks, definitely send us an email at dosprofx@gmail.com if you want to publish something.

Our statements in support of #ScholarStrike

Image description: Gray and white “Scholar Strike for racial justice” banner

Adriana

Away from email 9/8/2020: In solidarity with the national #ScholarStrike

September 8 and September 9 I will interrupt my normal teaching and administrative duties at Carleton College to participate in the national #ScholarStrike. The strike has been organized by academics across the country as one way to call attention to the ongoing state violence being waged against Black communities and other communities of color in multiple forms, including police brutality; disparities in access to healthcare and health outcomes, most visible these days in the disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black and Indigenous communities, immigrant communities, and other marginalized communities; and the longstanding educational debt owed to Black children and communities. Demands for justice in Minneapolis and beyond following the police murder of George Floyd have led to renewed calls for racial justice and equity on Carleton’s campus this summer–you can view demands by Black students and organizations here and demands by Carleton alumni here

On Tuesday, I will participate in departmental conversations intended to address the question of how we, as English scholars and teachers, might name and dismantle the way colonialism and imperialism and white supremacy have shaped our aesthetic and cultural values, our canons, our pedagogical tools. 

On both days, I will take the time to educate myself further on racial justice and abolition using the  collection of teach-in videos created by those participating in the Scholar Strike. Those videos are available to everyone. We cannot change our institutions and our communities without taking the steps to educate ourselves. I plan to tweet out about what I’m learning. 

In addition, I will be donating the equivalent of two-days pay to three different organizations recommended by the Carleton Ujamaa Collective : Snap for Freedom, Community Justice Exchange, and the UndocuBlack Network. 

Thanks to Anita Chikkatur’s work, this away message contains a lot of links which I hope you will use to join me in educating yourself more about these issues that affect deeply members of the Carleton community and communities in Northfield, Twin Cities, Minnesota, and beyond. 

Finally, due to my participation, my email response may be delayed. Let me encourage you to follow #SCHOLARSTRIKE on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and to engage with the teach-in occurring on the Scholar Strike YouTube channel. 

Scholar Strike is meant to disrupt the everyday routines of academia, and to show solidarity with other workers striking for Black lives, particularly the athletes of the WNBA and NBA. On these two days, in a variety of ways, academic professionals are disrupting the status quo and refusing to stand by while racism and violence devastate Black Americans’ lives and communities.

Adriana Estill

Anita

Away from email 9/8/2020: In solidarity with the national #ScholarStrike

I will be refraining today from teaching and administrative duties at Carleton College to participate in the national #ScholarStrike. The strike has been organized by academics across the country as one way to call attention to the ongoing state violence being waged against Black communities and other communities of color in multiple forms, including police brutality; disparities in access to healthcare and health outcomes, most visible these days in the disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black and Indigneous communities, immigrant communities, and other marginalized communities; and the longstanding educational debt owed to Black children and communities. Demands for justice in Minneapolis and beyond following the police murder of George Floyd have led to renewed calls for racial justice and equity on Carleton’s campus this summer–you can view demands by Black students and organizations here and demands by Carleton alumni here

Scholar Strike is meant to disrupt the everyday routines of academia, and to show solidarity with other workers striking for Black lives, particularly the athletes of the WNBA and NBA. On these two days, in a variety of ways, academic professionals are disrupting the status quo and refusing to stand by while racism and violence devastate Black Americans’ lives and communities.

As an educator and a scholar, I believe that individual learning and change is an important part of working towards changing institutions and societies. Today, as part of taking part in the strike, I will be spending time educating myself more about racial justice and abolition, including learning from the collection of teach-in resources created by those participating nationally in the Scholar Strike as well as reading about what justice might look like in a police/policing-free society. 

I will also be donating the equivalent of two-days pay (nationally, it’s a two-day strike) to Juxtaposition Arts, which “is a teen-staffed art and design center, gallery, retail shop, and artists’ studio space in North Minneapolis.

I’ve included a lot of links in this away message in case you want to join me in educating yourself more about these issues that affect deeply members of the Carleton community and communities in Northfield, Twin Cities, Minnesota, and beyond. I also encourage you to follow #SCHOLARSTRIKE on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and to engage with the teach-in occurring on the Scholar Strike YouTube channel. 

Anita Chikkatur

Faculty organizing efforts: Reimagining our collective role

Egq1ro4X0AEty81Image source. Please note that the photo is from a satirical site…though it’s not that far off from some safety “solutions” we’ve seen! Image description: lecture hall with a teacher up front and students sitting in individual plastic bubbles.

As we approach the end of summer, we wanted to gather a few stories and links that speak to the importance of faculty organizing amongst themselves and with other workers at their institutions to do the important work of re-imagining these spaces. Institutional shortcomings in many areas, including the limits of faculty and staff involvement in decision-making structures and the limits to institutions’ ability to listen to students and alumni calls for racial justice, have been highlighted starkly both by the challenges due to COVID-19 and by the responses to the ongoing uprisings in response to racist police brutality and violence. Of the many conversations faculty at Carleton have been having in small groups, in ad-hoc faculty meetings, and in various online venues, one has been the potential for having better ways to organize a more united front when it comes to financial and other important decisions at the college. We (Adriana and Anita) have been inspired by our colleagues at other colleges and universities who have organized themselves this summer to push back against their institutions’ financial and pedagogical decisions. We highlight here a few of their efforts. 

This story in Jacobin Magazine, written by Marquette University professors describing a protest by workers and students on the university’s decision to hold face-to-face classes, ends with this stark claim: “And without a faculty union, administrators and trustees are accountable to no one for the damage they’re doing.”

This article by the co-chairs of the Middlebury College chapter of the American Association of University Professors argues that “once-in-a-lifetime crisis requires that we break from the old orthodoxy of austerity and reimagine a university that works for the common good.” The authors delineate three lessons we can learn from the current moment by using “the critical thinking skills and values we champion” by shifting our practices and policies towards building more just institutions. We also want to highlight the helpful document prepared by Middlebury’s AAUP that was endorsed by a majority of their faculty: VALUES & BUDGETARY PRINCIPLES FOR “A FINANCIAL FUTURE FOR ALL OF US.”

Vanderbilt AAUP writes: “By pitting educational mission, public health and faculty governance against one another, the administration jeopardizes the safety of our community. This approach compromises the ability of faculty, students and staff to teach, learn and work effectively.”

Please share with us stories you’ve read about faculty / university workers as a whole organizing in order to make claims on their institutions and build better futures. We’re ready to be further inspired!

 

Two Hemispheres, One Call for Action: Chile, The U.S., and Social Protests

Image description: Sticker in Minneapolis of Negro Matapacos, the Chilean “riot dog.” Image source

Continuing our occasional series on “changing our imaginations”–inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective who, talking in particular about abolishing the police, said, “They’ve ruined our imagination and told us that policing is the issue [solution]. We need to change our imagination. We have to change what’s possible”–we are excited to publish this post by our colleagues, Vilma Navarro-Daniels and Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo about the symbolic and substantial parallels they see between protests in Chile in October 2018 and ongoing racial justice protests in the U.S. this summer. They call for us to recognize and build on the solidarities expressed by protestors as we reimagine a better world across national and linguistic borders. You can find Dr. Navarro-Daniels on Facebook, Twitter, or email her at navarrod@wsu.edu. You can find Dr. Lugo-Lugo on Facebook, IG (@crllugo), or email her at clugo@wsu.edu.

Vilma Navarro-Daniels and Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo, Washington State University

Souls in pain know no borders.

Isabel Allende, My Invented Country

When it is genuine, when it is born of the need to speak, no one can stop
the human voice. When denied a mouth, it speaks with
the hands or the eyes, or the pores, or anything at all.

Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces

On October 18, 2019 (18-O), Chile began a protest movement that shook Latin America’s Southern cone. The anti-government protests often focused on the police, who are seen as the violent extension of the government. The song composed by the collective “Las Tesis” (The Theses) and titled “Un violador en tu camino” (A Rapist on your Way) made its way around the world, with the line “and the rapist is you,” which the women in Chile performed in front of police precincts while pointing literally at the cops and figuratively and the courts, and the state.

Close to eight months later, the United States has also been experiencing a series of protests, in the summer of 2020, which has also focused on the role of the police as the violent extension of the government, in this case, perpetrating violence against people of color and more specifically, the Black population in the country. In fact, the protests began after a series of murders of Black folks in the hands of the police and White civilians, galvanized by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The movement, growing under the umbrella Black Lives Matter, began to ask, firmly and without pause for one important thing: the defunding of police departments around the nation.

As context-specific as the Chilean protests were, and as context-specific as the protests in U.S. cities also are, it has become apparent that fighting the government and its fascist responses in Chile has prescient points of similarity to the fight against the government and its facist responses in the United States. There is an unquestionable connection between the Chilean social movement, October 18 (18-O), and the U.S. demonstrations in the aftermath of the assassination of George Floyd. The frames and narratives of both movements, their symbols, how they have evolved, the way mainstream media has criminalized civil disobedience, and the response of their detractors all point to a moment in history shared by the citizens of both countries.

Amazingly, there are two Chilean symbols captured by photographers in the U.S. protests: the Mapuche flag and the Negro Matapacos (Black Cop-Killer), a black mongrel dog that became famous after having been seen in many street demonstrations for years. He was (and still is) the Chilean riot dog. Although the dog passed away, his spirit seems to be still present, encouraging the people of Chile (and obviously abroad) in their fight for dignity and justice. Stickers depicting Negro Matapacos were seen on some light poles in front of a police station in Minneapolis. And protesters were captured on camera waving the Mapuche flag in the U.S. street demonstrations.

Another important point of intersection is the stories of George Floyd and Gustavo Gatica. Floyd was a Black man killed by cops in Minneapolis by kneeling on his neck for more than 7 minutes. Gatica is a 21-year old Chilean college student who was left blind after police officers in Santiago mutilated both of his eyes by shooting the same type of rubber-bullets used by U.S. cops. Floyd’s “I can’t breathe,” which he kept saying as the cop’s knee put pressure on this neck, is eerily similar to Gatica’s “I can’t see,” after the cops shot at him with rubber bullets.

Race has also played a role in both sets of protests. As mentioned earlier, in the U.S., the protests have been framed through the Black Lives Matter lens. The Chilean protests have also acquired a specific racial component after the murder of the indigenous Mapuche leader, Camilo Catrillanca, who like George Floyd, was killed by the police. This particular murder has been viewed  as a galvanizing element in 18-O.

It is clear that in both Chile and the U.S., mainstream ideologies support the interests of the ruling classes at the expense of the interests of the people. In all this, there is one more connection: Chile was one of the main laboratories developed to implement the neoliberal policies that sustain the U.S. economy.

Returning to the song turned street-performance, “A Rapist On Your Way,” the song makes explicit reference to police abuse of power, in this case, abuse against women. And we are reminded of a White police officer in Oklahoma who raped multiple Black women in a short period of time. He did that because he could. (A study found that police officers in the US were charged with forcible rape 405 times between 2005 and 2013.) In both Chile and the U.S., the police force, which is supposed to serve and protect civilians, becomes the “armed wing” of the government, the economic powers, and the ruling class. It becomes a weapon against the very people that they make an oath to serve and protect.

The similarities and parallels between the still-unfolding events in Chile and the U.S. register continuities and convergences in the history of both countries. The synchronicity of the protests and the similar messages by the protestors tell us that as Isabel Allende proclaims in the opening epigraph, “pain knows no borders,” and as Eduardo Galeano points in the second epigraph, whether in the northern or the southern hemisphere, “no one can stop the human voice.”

May these synchronicities allow room for solidarity and understanding.

P.S. (from Down with Brown): We’d love to have folks do guest blog posts for us around the theme of “changing our imaginations.” So BIPOC folks interested in doing so, hit us up at dosprofx@gmail.com! 

“Privileging the urgency over the process”: How (not) to respond to demands for institutional change

Image description: Screenshot of a Zoom call with Adriana, Ainsley, Anita, & Halah

In response to the racially disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the racial uprisings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police officers, Black students and organizations at Carleton College issued a call for action to the college to implement anti-racist programs, organizations, and spaces for Black students, faculty, and staff. 

Over 2000 college alumni signed an open letter to the college both in support of the student demands and with their own demand for the college to develop a 10-year plan for racial equity and equality. This letter was officially made public through a Twitter campaign on Monday, August 10, 2020. 

Within a few hours, Carleton College sent out a response to this open letter. Many of the alumni who signed the letter, especially the nine organizers, were disappointed by the response. 

We wanted to provide a space for some of those alumni to talk through why this response was so disappointing and we wanted to do it as a conversation. And that is how we arrived at our first ever video-podcast-blog post, featuring Ainsley LeSure (Class of 2005) and Halah Mohammed (Class of 2014) who took the time to chat with us and provide their wisdom and insights. You can check out the conversation here.

We want to say a huge thank you to Ainsley and Halah for joining us. We had a lot of fun and learned a lot as we close-read the response and worked through how it missed the mark and what could have been done differently. 

We hope you take the time to listen to the conversation, especially if you thought the Carleton response was fine. You’ll get insight into how our readings of institutional messaging can be shaped by past relationships, current conditions of trust, and, of course, deep, sustained attention to language.

Language matters

Image source

When Anita was a college student, she went to dinner at a white friend’s house. During dinner, the conversation turned to talking about the proper terms to refer to groups. Her friend’s dad insisted that it was okay to call Asians/Asian Americans “Orientals” because it was okay to say that when he was growing up. Anita and her friend tried to convince the dad that while it may have been “okay” at some point, the term was now offensive and that he shouldn’t use it. The dad wasn’t convinced then…but Anita hopes that perhaps he has come to rethink his stance since then. 

We wanted to explore in this post the same kind of reluctance and resistance that we see popping up in various ways around labels and terms that sees new or newly-popular language as a sort of performative wokeness that accomplishes nothing. In recent months, “white privilege” has come under attack and “Latinx” has been a controversial term since it began being circulated.* There’s a sort of knee-jerk skepticism about new language in cultural criticism–the “well, it’s just political correctness” discourse–that often seems to market or mask itself as a “holier than thou” or “smarter than thou” take. This push back seems particularly pointed when this new or newly-invigorated language comes from attempts by young people to change how we talk about identities and groups. We explored this topic before on this blog when we discussed gender identities and pronouns in our two-part conversation with our colleague, Tegra–you can check out those posts here and here

Challenges to vocabulary, dress, music, and ideas perceived as arising from youth cultures, especially when seen as originating from youth from marginalized groups, are, of course, not new. 

Social media exacerbates all of this, we think. We’d love to hear from sociolinguists or social media scholars to confirm our hypothesis: that we see and hear more resistance to new cultural studies language because platforms like Tumblr, Twitter, and TikTok have made it possible for young people to communicate quickly and effectively with each other about their needs, desires, and beliefs–and some of those needs are about being seen and heard the way they want to be seen and heard. In other words, if new language in academic circles is about emphasizing and experimenting with a new frame of knowing (which may or may not prove effective), new language that comes from the ground up (generally teens) emphasizes their right to be recognized in particular ways,  Part of what we see as the resistance is that in the age especially of social media shifts in language seem to happen more rapidly and diverse, often radically opposed opinions more easily occupy the same “virtual” public space.

We are sympathetic to the feeling of being overwhelmed by the ever evolving language and shifting consensus–it can be difficult to “keep up” and especially for us as teachers. We often feel pulled in so many directions as we attempt to create inclusive classrooms while pushing for institutional changes around racism and White Supremacy. We are also sympathetic to  critiques that these kinds of debates perhaps distract us from the kind of structural shifts that need to occur. However, at least in our experience, academics who are critiquing these kinds of language correctness are rarely doing the work of pushing institutions to move towards reparations and redistribution of wealth and resources. Instead, their complaints seem to evince a resentment of having to do the work of learning and admitting that we perhaps don’t know it at all. 

* Adriana recommends reading Richard T. Rodríguez’s excellent “X Marks the Spot” in Cultural Dynamics 29.3 (2017) for incisive insight into how Latinx has been used and what it can exclude. The essay finishes: “Some may feel that embracing Latinx is simply a trend. I, however, want to champion the X as drawing attention to and not overshadowing nonbinary and gender neutral and nonconforming individuals. But to do that, we cannot simply use Latinx without acknowledgment of its discrepant gender politics, nor can we map it on to people’s lives, histories, and bodies uncritically. For if the X is to simply become something to which anyone can easily lay claim, we will need to aggressively pose the question: Why adopt it at all if the ultimate goal is to cross out any traces of queer assertion and affirmation?”

Diversity Rhetoric Obscures Structural Inequities

Image source. Students at UC Davis being pepper-sprayed at a 2011 campus protest.

After we published our post last week, an article by Cathryn Bailey came across our laptops that echoed some of our arguments about how the work that faculty do and the positions we hold at colleges tends to make us less able and willing to see ourselves as workers. Bailey takes this structural critique and argues that “It has perhaps never before been more obvious that the fissures that underlie the academic labor crisis are connected to broader concerns about diversity, inclusion, and social justice.”

Bailey makes a strong case for why the academic labor crisis and universities’ inability to make progress on social justice stem from the same structures that focus on individual efforts and rewards rather than on institutional change.

We highlight here some of the passages we found particularly insightful.

“It is perhaps when the class politics underlying academic employment are most naked that institutional propaganda about individual behavior, often couched in terms of civility, is most prevalent. Employment pressure, for example, makes faculty members ever more reluctant to speak openly about supposedly controversial matters or issues that test the bounds of ‘civility.’”

“Rhetoric swings predictably between the ‘we’ and the singular ‘you,’ which helps disguise the systemic nature of the problems. ‘Our’ campus community is set forth as a beacon of tolerance and multiculturalism. A communal ‘we’ takes credit for the mythic image of the university viewbook as an inviting Benetton ad. Yet when faculty members or students raise complaints—even those that point to long-standing patterns of discrimination or abuse—they are likely to be framed and handled merely in the very particular terms of individual rights and victimization.” 

“At other times, administrators who sing the praises of diversity goals, initiatives, and strategic objectives frame structural inequities as being only about particular individuals. A quite specific complaint by a faculty member of color—for example, that his diversity-focused sabbatical proposal has been unfairly dismissed—may be met with feel-good assurances from a dean or vice provost echoing the institutional diversity statement. Such polite responses effectively close down discussion. What response is available when the dean warmly replies that ‘the University of X values everyone’? Institutional accountability becomes clouded over in a puff of rhetorical rainbow smoke that disguises the constraints faced by actual individuals, especially those from marginalized groups, who are struggling to thrive. In its attempt to sidestep blame, avoid controversy, and appease aggrieved constituents, the administration’s ‘civil’ and ‘reasonable’ conduct upholds the status quo’s inequities.”

Labor, not love or loyalty: Our relationship to our employer

Image source

“If ever there were a time to remember that professors are workers and that universities are workplaces, that time would be now. Administrators believe your job is worth dying for as they cynically use the bodies of employees to pad their bottom line.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Last fall, as part of her sabbatical, Anita had the chance to enroll in a course called “Working Class History” through the New Brookwood Labor College. The New Brookwood Labor Collegestrives to address racial, economic, and social imbalances of power by educating workers into their class. During the first class, Anita and her classmates, most of whom were union members or union organizers, discussed what “working class” meant. They talked about how class definitions were not about how much income you earn, but about how you earn your income. It’s about workers who work for someone else.  It’s about you creating profits for others. It’s about the exploitation of your labor, in the Marxist sense, and not just about how you are treated by your boss. A nice boss is still a boss.

Anita thought about this first class discussion this summer as we entered a phase of the fall planning at Carleton where there seemed to be a lot of decisions being made that had implications for faculty and staff health and safety without the full participation of faculty and staff. While we are concerned about the staff at Carleton and their ability to prioritize their health and safety and still keep their jobs, we will focus in this post on faculty because we feel like we can speak from/to that position since we occupy it. 

Recent conversations among the faculty about the fall planning process have included more direct discussions about faculty positionality as workers. While these discussions come out of particular frustrations about the process of decision-making this spring and summer about fall term planning, we were struck by how it was the first time the two of us have been part of discussions at the college where faculty members are identifying themselves explicitly as “workers” and administrators as “bosses.” 

There’s definitely something about working at a private SLAC that insulates faculty from thinking of ourselves as workers. This post reflects our attempt to work through what these factors are. But first, as we thought about all the reasons for why faculty generally do not foreground their positionality as workers, we thought it might be useful to reflect briefly on what has influenced the two of us to see ourselves that way. 

For Anita, a huge influence on her thinking about labor and economic justice was the fact that both of her parents were part of unions during their time living in New York City; her dad is still a member of the TWU Local 100, New York City’s public transit union and her mom was a member of District Council 37, New York City’s biggest public employee union. She remembers going to union rallies with her parents. While as a teenager she could not have articulated well why she thought collective organizing and bargaining was beneficial, she vaguely understood that, for example, she and her brother had access to a fuller range of healthcare benefits, including access to braces and glasses, because of her parents’ unions. 

Adriana thinks she was probably influenced by her parents’ labor precarity in her 20s (both lost their jobs during the economic downturn in the early 1990s) and by her general attention to the structures of academia in the last ten years. In working through the way race matters in academia, she has read broadly in Critical University Studies, an area of inquiry that, in analyzing and critiquing the neoliberal turn of universities, stresses the importance of thinking about the condition of adjuncts and what that says about universities.

Our top six list of why faculty at a SLAC don’t easily think of themselves as workers

1.

Universities have large populations of adjuncts and grad students who face precarious work conditions in academia, and both groups have been doing incredible labor organizing in the past few years (see, for example, the COLA campaign at the UC schools). The situation is different at Carleton: as an undergraduate-only college, we have no grad students and we tend to have far fewer adjuncts than large research universities do. From her time on the committee that is concerned with faculty equity issues, Anita recalls a conversation with non-tenure track faculty with long-term contracts talking about how they were mostly satisfied with their labor conditions. In addition, as a private school, our salaries are not publicly available which makes it difficult to know about disparities in pay and benefits across ranks of faculty, let alone the differences between staff, faculty, and administrators. Comparisons with visibly unequal institutions that are more clearly exploiting their grad students and adjunct faculty helps to produce a sense that we work at a relatively equitable institution where we don’t need to advocate for ourselves.

2.

Small colleges in small communities tend to promote the idea that our participation in the lie life of the college makes us a family member rather than a worker.* There’s a certain level of “sociality” expected from faculty that often includes evening and weekend social events. We have had many discussions about the social demands of our jobs as professors, which includes both the relationship-building work that we see both as necessary in certain contexts and as unnecessary remnants of a bygone era where all the professors were married men who lived within walking distance of the college with wives did not work outside the home who welcomed students in their homes with elaborate home-cooked meals [or at least that’s what Anita was once told by an older alumnae in response to the fact that she did not live in Northfield]. 

The actual degree of sociality required to create learning environments that are humane and safe enough for students to take risks is debatable. But we see many colleagues (and ourselves, well, at least Adriana!) baking brownies to bring into classes, holding office hours in the evenings or weekends, hosting department events at our homes, inviting students over for dinner… And students are told and sold on the promise that being a student at an elite, small, liberal arts college means they get these kinds of relationships–family-like–with us. Faculty are not just purveyors of content expertise, but facilitators of individual growth and communal care and consideration.

Of course, this is all still labor. Just because this work is affective and relational does not make it leisure, or our “own.” But because it is affective work, both the institution and its workers can forget to “count it.” Care work is historically undervalued and unpaid in a capitalist society, and in our case, this kind of work can be viewed as personal and individual, rather than being a part of the structural conditions under which we labor.

*lie was a typo… or maybe a Freudian slip. We’ve corrected it but left the original so that both lie and life can live on here.

3.

Because we are a small workplace, there is a kind of personalization where we fail to see structures because we are thinking about the particular individuals who occupy the positions of hierarchy. The fact that we get to address the Dean of the College or the President by their first name hints at a particular kind of intimacy (going back to that “family” rhetoric) that often obscures the hierarchical structure of decision-making.

The personalization of the structure also means that we can mistake the moments where we are seen and helped as individuals as indications that labor conditions are good. What we mean is that personal relationships and their relative health can make us overlook structural problems, perhaps because we don’t experience a problem or because we trust that the particular individuals in positions of power are doing their best. 

4.

Carleton has norms of departmental and faculty autonomy for curricular issues. What this means is that, even though there are pressures for pre-tenure faculty to conform to certain departmental and college norms, we do not generally have to get approval for our syllabi and pedagogical styles. Most recently, as the college delayed informing faculty about what our fall term would look like, faculty felt strongly that they should have autonomy to choose their mode of teaching (e.g online, in-person, hybrid). The administration has allowed faculty this autonomy. 

This arena of autonomy can obscure or overshadow the moments when we have less input into decisions. We’ve both been in conversations where concerns about decision-making structures and processes get short circuited by the line “but at least we got to choose our teaching mode.” In other words, this particular area of autonomy and control can make us feel like we employ ourselves and we have choices and autonomy about our laboring conditions, even though there are many other decisions being made–not by faculty– that will impact our teaching contexts. 

5.

Related to the promotion of our small, elite SLAC as a family, there is an incredible amount of messaging at Carleton about how “special” the college is. While we tend to think of this kind of marketing as being aimed at students, it is, of course, being consumed by faculty as well. And we get our own booster speeches at the top of every faculty meeting. We are told how especially dedicated and wonderful we are, how we are one of the “top” undergraduate teaching institutions, and how our work and dedication to our students and the college is much appreciated. Having colleagues in all kinds of institutions, including ones that have far fewer resources such as community colleges and tribal colleges, the two of us don’t really believe the hype. Are Carleton faculty dedicated? Yes, and so are all of our friends and colleagues who are teachers. But at Carleton, we also have access to an incredible level of human and materials resources. 

This pervasive discourse of how “special” Carleton elevates our labor to something remarkable and essential, which serves to slow or stall critiques of working conditions because “critique” is made to look interruptive, rude, or antagonistic. Within this framework, recognizing our labor and collective organizing to better our working conditions is an affront to the institution who values us and our specialness. Institutions demand loyalty and pretend to give “love and appreciation” as a way to obscure the fact that we are laborers, laboring for an institution with entrenched hierarchies of who holds decision-making power, especially over financial matters. 

6.

Lastly, our own sense of our identities as being highly educated and credentialed can get in the way of seeing ourselves as workers. PhDs can feel like credentials that set us apart from other workers. For faculty who come from working class or lower middle class backgrounds, becoming a professor offered social mobility and stability. At a college like this, the PhD serves to make us “special workers” deserving of special benefits. 

An example. Both of us remember how ten or so years ago the faculty had discussions about whether the “tuition benefit” (basically, certain college employees can get financial support from the college to pay for their children’s college tuition) should be expanded to all staff, including hourly paid staff. While many faculty spoke in support of the proposition, we can remember some faculty members talking about how their PhDs made them “nationally competitive” and therefore the tuition benefit would attract the “best faculty”–as opposed to thinking of the tuition benefit as a benefit that should be available to all children, regardless of how and how much their parents happened to get paid by the college. In the end, tuition benefits are still only accessible to faculty and certain groups of staff. 

These differences in salary, benefits, and status, along with a governance structure that tends to silo faculty and staff interests and concerns (for example, while faculty have faculty meetings and a “Faculty Affairs Committee,” staff have their own informational structure) means that there are few spaces where we can focus on issues that we all might have in common as employees of the college. We both had conversations with our staff colleagues about how frustrating the fall planning process was because of the separate meetings for staff and faculty, as if we didn’t have common concerns about our health and safety and about the viability of the plan to bring back 85% of our students. 

While the immediate concerns about the lack of faculty power in shaping the college’s fall plan has brought to the forefront our position as employees, like all other employees at Carleton and beyond, we hope that these concerns shift more fundamentally our sense of ourselves and our willingness to organize collectively as laborers, drawing inspiration from workers’ rights campaigns within and outside of academia.

Unfinished Stories

Photo credit: unknown. Photo description: Adriana’s mami holding a sign “Rise” in the middle of a crowd of protestors, trying to help rewrite the nation’s stories.

Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective who, talking in particular about abolishing the police, said, “They’ve ruined our imagination and told us that policing is the issue [solution]. We need to change our imagination. We have to change what’s possible.”

This post is an updated  version of Adriana’s talk at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Carleton in 2017. We thought it was worth publishing now because of the focus on working towards our dreams even/especially while living in a daunting reality. It showcases Adriana’s persistent optimism, even in the face of anxiety and grief. 

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In his Farewell address, President Obama invited those listening to act as “anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy”; almost four years later, it is more clear what that meant and means for us, how we are all a part of the unfinished story that is this country. We all understand now, so deeply, so gutturally, so painfully that the United States of America that we thought existed, maybe not on the ground, but at least in the world of theory, available in founding documents… that the United States of America has never yet been. Obama, then, was asking for us to be the guardians of something still to come, still to be born, still to be imagined into being.

The burden of working towards a dream might already be clear to you–after, all, how are we supposed to be guardians of that which does not yet exist?, but I want to underline it anyway. First–history does not serve as a blueprint, but it does offer necessary red-ink-comments in our margins that might help us do thoughtful, substantial edits. In the New York Times (2017), historian Khalil Gibran Muhammed writes: “The Dr. King we choose to remember was indeed the symbolic beacon of the civil rights movement. But the Dr. King we forget worked within institutions to transform broken systems. He never positioned himself as a paragon of progress. Nor did he allow others to become complacent.” Muhammed worries particularly about the way individual markers of progress serve to simplify history and create a narrative of progress that is so very seductive. (After all, if progress is in process, am I needed? There’s been a black president, isn’t racism over?) Muhammed’s concerns are not unjustified, given that even in the comments section one of the most “liked” comments applies the “we must stop harping on the past in order to move on into the future” logic that imagines we can fix structural inequality and racism without examining its roots. Indeed, as our friend Kevin Wolfe would say (miss you much!), this logic imagines that racism and inequality are curious and singular deviations from the beautiful commands of our founding propositions, instead of emerging from them. The challenge is obvious for those of us who take seriously Muhammed’s call to “judge transformation by how our institutions behave on behalf of individuals rather than the other way around”: our attention to history only helps to the degree that it is clear-eyed and strong-hearted, willing to battle the myths that sustain this country’s most dangerous lies: that we have always and we continue to prioritize justice, equality, and liberty for all.

The second burden of working towards a dream is that it has no end. That protest sign that we’ve seen on social media–”I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit?”–get ready to see it again, and again, and again. I don’t mean to disillusion you or to disappoint you, but rather to steel you for the road ahead: the destination is not yet written; we cannot yet imagine the fitting close to this story.  Martin Luther King Jr. warned us that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. It’s long indeed. As Anita Chikkatur and I wrote in November 2016, “You have to really put your shoulder to the wheel to bend the arc of the moral universe.”  So, right now, as we stand and sit and walk and run and kneel and march and close our eyes and feel called into action, it’s important to know this long arc so that you can keep going, knowing that it is unlikely that you will see the fruits of your labor. 

How do you keep going? How do you not get exhausted and shift back into complacency? I want you to think of cultivating a muscle within yourselves–your resistance muscle. Like any muscle, it needs to be flexed regularly; it needs to be trained; it occasionally needs rest in order to work harder. This muscle profits from alliances, from listening, and from risk-taking; it requires the attention of truth-seekers, visionaries, and organizers. At the heart of it, this resistance muscle needs love and narrative.

Yes, narrative. Let me talk about why narrative matters. One way to think about this problem of not having a blueprint, about not knowing exactly where we’re going, is just as I’ve started to do so, in the language of maps, a spatial metaphor for figuring out the necessary social, political, and economic reorganization to come. I think a more sustainable metaphor, when talking about our own participation-our calls to action- is narrative. In a talk he gave at Carleton in 2017, psychologist Corey L.M. Keyes talked about the markers of mental health; hearing two of them, “purpose” and “autonomy,” the inner literary critic in me couldn’t help but rescript what he was saying just a tiny bit. Purpose and autonomy grow in us as we feel like the story we’re living makes sense, that our part in the story matters, and that you have some degree of control over your part in the story.

 Lin-Manuel Miranda’s amazing musical Hamilton (now streaming! But this isn’t a commercial! Also like all art, it has problems!) is all about narrative–indeed, the character Hamilton as imagined by Miranda is so very sensitive to the purity and perfection of the narrative of him that he torpedoes it. There’s a lesson there for all of us as we begin to own our roles in this grand story about this country, this moment, the future: do not invest yourself in idealized heroes or perfect narratives. Be humble as you sketch your part in the story; be forgiving as you look back and wish you’d taken other steps; appreciate your fellow sojourners who also work to build the story. 

Of course, the true hero of Hamilton–my preferred role model today–is Eliza. In the final song, “Who lives who dies who tells your story,” all the other characters moan and lament, “when you’re gone who tells your story,” She’s the one who changes the mood and direction of the song, forcefully responding: “I put myself back in the narrative.” In many ways, so many of us have imagined ourselves beyond and on the edges of the national narrative. It is high time we write ourselves back into the story. The more that we work on inserting ourselves into this story, asking ourselves, as Eliza does, “when my time is up, have I done enough?,” the more we can feel our strength, be ready for the long haul, glory in the small victories along the way.

So. Narrative–your approach to the national version of it–matters. And love matters. I’m talking of the love that Dr. King hints at when he says, “Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity.” Dares to love. Dr. King points out that love is, indeed, difficult, because it asks us to engage in “understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men.” For King, daring to love during struggle and sacrifice makes possible–indeed, it is the only way–to “create the beloved community.” “Love is the most durable power in the world,” he proclaims. Solange adds to that, “what’s love without a mission?”

Yeah. We’re not talking about romantic love or some anemic, anodyne love. This cannot be a touchy-feely love. This has to be an angry, justice-driven love, a commanding love, a requiring love. It is a get-up-and-shout love and a do-you-see-me-now love. To create the beloved community, we need to be able to imagine it into existence, to be able to see and care about our neighbor, our enemy, our kin. We need to love, so as not to fall into tactics of exclusion, division, and separation. It’s important to know that love is not easy. If it ever feels easy, you’re probably not doing it right. Don’t shy away from this kind of hard, daring love–it is a love that helps us re-imagine the terms of our story.

You might be asking right now, “love seems hard. How does it keep my resistance muscle from getting tired? Why is hard love sustaining?” My answer is as follows: I do not love institutions. Or corporations. Or policies. I love people. Institutions, corporations, policies will never return your love. Demand from these entities justice, equity, fair measures and processes. Love is different. Love people, without expectation of return. Love fully, knowing they may not be able to. Love honestly, letting your light shine. Love people, because loving them makes you a better, stronger, wiser person. 

Imagine Ourselves Out of Existence

Image source

Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective who, talking in particular about abolishing the police, said, “They’ve ruined our imagination and told us that policing is the issue [solution]. We need to change our imagination. We have to change what’s possible.”

We wanted to build on our last post which focused mainly on the radical possibilities of curricular change that responds to the current moment. This post comes out of the many conversations we’ve had with several friends (thank you Meredith, Thabiti, Wendy, Pao, Todd)  and out of what we’ve been learning from the many BIPOC intellectuals and activists we follow on social media. We’re grateful to all of them for encouraging and allowing us to dream big about what’s possible if we are willing to change our imaginations.

In this post, we want to talk about how one part of changing our imaginations is shifting our listening practices and being open to fundamentally shifting our routines as institutions, even routine practices that we see as “good” and perhaps even contributing to lessening inequities on our campuses. Because reimagining and rebuilding requires being able to see that the normal that we had before the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings did not actually work for everyone. It just worked for enough of us that we were able to believe and trust that it worked for all. What we need to do now instead is to listen differently to the voices of those for whom the old normal did not work, rather than thinking that we just need more of the same normal. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor puts it, the pandemic “is a radicalizing factor because conditions that have been so dire, now combined with the revolts in the street, might lead one to believe that not only is society unraveling, but it might cause you to question what foundation it was built upon in the first place.” 

What we mean by “more of the same normal” is, for example, when students complain about feeling marginalized because of their class status on Carleton’s campus, we tend to imagine that we can fix it simply by giving students more financial aid, instead of thinking about the fundamental claim they’re making about Carleton’s status as an elite school in relation to the economic inequities in U.S. society. The problem with this easy fix is that those in power can then sit back and imagine that their job is done, while continuing to maintain the structures that keep those students feeling marginalized. What would it mean instead if, as we listen to their needs and worries, we introduce them to classes that tackle racial capitalism and the histories of working class movements? What if we invite them to see how their experience at Carleton is not unique and is, in fact, echoed at elite colleges across the nation? (See, for example, the myriad Instagram accounts started by Black students in predominantly white colleges and high schools.) By listening differently to our students who feel marginalized, we might also be able to see them as they are and their experiences as they are, rather than as who we imagine them to be and who the college wants to mold them into.  

Fixing it through financial aid is how we imagine our mission currently–to be an engine of opportunity for individual students. But what might the college look like instead if we imagined ourselves as an engine for societal transformation? 

What if all of us and all of our institutions took seriously that no individual action or effort “can mitigate 400 years of racial plundering” in this country, as Nikole Hannah-Jones says in her recent article about reparations? What if Carleton and other institutions took seriously that their wealth and their ability to provide financial aid is inextricably linked to these 400 years of racial plundering? 

Ultimately, we don’t have all the answers, and, in one blog post, could never gather all possible answers out there together. Our goal is to simply underline how vital it is to listen to the voices, experiences, communities of our students who are marginalized without assuming that we already know what to do to respond to them. How might their dreams for a different future help us reimagine our future, even if that future is one where places like Carleton don’t exist?

Perhaps it is our job at this moment to imagine ourselves out of existence.

P.S. We loved this article by poet Dionne Brand about this notion of the “normal” so do check it out if you haven’t come across it yet.