the university is and is not a good base for struggle.


A few weeks ago I promised this post, and I want to start out by saying very clearly that I am not arguing that academia is the perfect activist career, or that it is an activist career of any kind. Academics do sometimes make this claim. Colleagues have at various times said that “teaching is my activism now.” I do not agree. While I think there is a role for activism in academia (and find it to be a good place for me), I don’t think anything about academia is inherently activist and I disagree that teaching in an institutionalized setting is in and of itself activism. Even more radical forms of university teaching are not actually the same as activism. That seems to be committing the same fallacy as believing that activism begins and ends with “awareness.” But making people “aware” of a social problem, no matter how important that may be, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with changing that problem or encouraging people to act. And it certainly doesn’t lead directly to any kind of collective action (usually just the opposite) which is likely to be the only way such problems will change. Good education encourages more engagement than that, but I feel strongly that it is no substitute for engagement itself.

OK, so being an academic doesn’t make you an activist. In fact, as Bodhi and Potato have been pointing out vividly, academia compares to other work environments as “same shit, different pay scale.” There are, however, some things about it that make it, for me, an excellent base for struggle. One is that while it compares poorly to non-jobs like being active in the struggle, it compares well to other jobs one can do in the capitalist economy. It’s not-for-profit, so while I may be participating in maintaining many forms of inequality (my classes, like most other college classes, certainly contribute to the reproduction of race-class-gender inequality), I am participating much less explicitly and directly. I am not aiming to increase anyone’s profits and everyone has to at least give lip service to having an interest in a more altruistic and intrinsic value to the work. I like that.

Even better, parts of my job can be successfully combined with things I’d do anyway as an activist, reducing the conflict I feel between how many hours a week I need to work in order to pay my rent and the time I can spend on activist projects. For my dissertation research I spent a lot of time participating in a movement as a member and doing the work of that movement. I’m now beginning another research project, and I’m hoping with this one to engage my students in some community activism and to use the format of a class to gather some useful data for community activists. I’m still ambivalent about whether the publication of this research constitutes activism, but the fact is that I can do grassroots work in my community and count those same hours as research instead of logging two separate activities in the same constrained time frame.

Some other advantages: (1) academic freedom–what’s left of it–prohibits my employer from firing me for my activism (unlike in the private sector); (2) I can use other job duties like reading and keeping abreast of advances in my field to keep myself informed in ways that make me useful to the wider community in which I participate as an activist; and (3) I remain in touch with young college activists, who are energetic, have a few fresh ideas, and most importantly are much less cynical than my own cohort.

Of course the most ethical thing to do is quit my job and join the struggle full time, amassing no possessions or career of my own. However I have found that very few people are able to sustain this attitude over any length of time, and in the long run it seems like having some slightly less committed folks engaged for decades in meaningful community work challenging power is probably better than having totally committed people who give up completely in a few years. This is what I meant by the “pursuit of lifelong militancy”; the university provides me with a salary and enough stability to reduce the possibility of burning out as an activist while placing those things in less competition with activism than they would be in most jobs. At this job, my responsibilities will not continue to increase if it seems like I have “too much time” to spend in the community (although the side-glances of my colleagues might increase and that is more true if I am not white). But I feel that academia complements my activism most of the time, especially the less invested I am in my prominence and success within it. Perhaps that’s whyacademia is so deeply under attack in the US today. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have found this base for myself. It’s not a bunker apart from racism, classism, and sexism, but I think it can be a haphazard lean-to in the capitalist storm.


end of the summer

This week, I’m stressed out and anxious. I’m trying to get a writing project finished before I leave town in 36 hours. I’ll be gone for a 4 day weekend, back for 3 work days, and then gone again for another 4 day weekend. My 9-month contract begins again 14 days from now. In lieu of a blog post this week, I’m choosing to provide a random list of some things—mostly work-related–that are on my mind. (Sure it’s self-indulgent, but I’m hoping that some of you or at least my friends who read this will be interested to see how the contents of my mind mirror or differ from yours.)

  • edits needed on my book proposal
  • the article that is almost done that I have still not submitted
  • whether my co-author for said article is not responding to my emails because he’s mad I haven’t done the revisions I promised or whether he’s just busy
  • whether or not the dress I bought in 2008 still fits me well enough to wear it to the wedding I’m going to this weekend
  • what shoes to wear with the dress since the wedding is in a gravel lot
  • how many hours of work do I have left on my sample chapter?
  • is my book project doomed to become like my article project?
  • wtf have I been doing all summer?
  • summer is for enjoyment, why am I wasting the end of it worried all the time about work?
  • the book I want to read before I teach a class on the same subject
  • the novel I want to read to enjoy the end of my summer
  • is it OK that I apparently didn’t mean the deadlines I set for myself in my pre-tenure review?
  • the active learning activity I was going to submit to TRAILS
  • how do other people always seem to get so much done?
  • my syllabi for the fall–no stop that, if i think about that it will mean the real end of my summer writing projects!
  • cleaning off my desk… both of my desks
  • is it too late to drop everything, max out my credit cards, and go to the beach before the semester starts? or is it just early enough to start planning that for the winter break?
  • will I ever have another full blown research project after my dissertation?

“You are so different from other _______!”

has been one of the most common compliments I receive. The blank could be anything like women, Asians, Chinese, immigrants, nerds… I used to thrive on this compliment—of course I am not one of THOSE women who are shallow and stupid and soft and don’t know how to drive or THOSE Chinese who spend 70 (sex-less) hours a week in the lab while others go out and have fun. But you know what, I AM a Chinese woman. Back in China, I had never been singled out for being different from other Chinese (or more precisely, Han) people (well, I cannot think of a place where I am not singled out for being a SPECIAL, i.e. independent, intelligent, rational, strong…, woman—hurray!). Turns out only in a world where I am inferior does it matter whether I am unique. And my uniqueness only counts positively when I also conform to other not so unique expectations—I have to be pretty and thin and sexy to be a good bitch/weirdo, otherwise, I am just a bitch/weirdo (which I claimed in the first draft of this blog is fine by me but in reality, may make me quite uneasy and I doubt in that case the opening sentence of this blog would have contained the word “compliment”). (I can probably discuss my internal contradiction of transgressing certain [middle-class] social norms while conforming to others in another blog, so let’s focus on the point of being “different” in this one.)

Sociologically, this probably isn’t that surprising: we are all measured against standards set up to fit the dominant groups and hierarchy is most effectively maintained when members of disadvantaged groups internalize such standards and strive to single themselves out as exceptional individuals (and of course the power to define which exceptional individuals are the worthy ones still lies beyond their control). My awareness to this tendency is probably a result of years of training in questioning the status quo and numerous conversations with friends who are equally if not more critical. I write these “unsurprising” facts down because however much I theorize them, they continue to exist and disturb me every day. My struggle in this case lies in how I and other “unique” individuals who have gained a place in a system that is not designed for us maintain our places without losing ourselves to the game. Or is it just a fantasy to stay and not be co-opted and become one of the token Asian faces (or worse, one of those who trample on those underneath her to get up)? Is my concern over livelihood only a coward excuse for not giving up my privileges and embracing the real fight? How should I guide my students from disadvantaged backgrounds without either making them into parts of a monstrous machine that chews up people like them or leading them into a bloody battleground where they are doomed to lose?

overly bourgeois

When our friend potato first suggested the idea of this blog, it inspired me and gave me an outlet for the accumulated stress and defeat of navigating within Western academia for the past 15 years – it gave me a place to express my deep sense of disappointment with this world, and feel affirmed and less alone within this small group.

But at the same time, I am ashamed of my own posts and don’t want anyone to read them. My concerns are small and egocentric, and ultimately petty and pointless (a spoiled child whining about a toy that could feed a village). The academic life (at least the version of it that I’ve seen so far) seems designed for irrelevancy. And if I stay here for another 5 years, I will end up fat and bloated – continually fed on grand ideas but with no useful outlet to exercise them; obsessed with pointless fights about race-class-gender that should have been resolved several centuries ago.

My very wise friend’s last post expressed perfectly this persistent sense of discomfort and went to the heart of the matter. It also raised the intriguing possibility that there might be a way to usefully marry academic life with activism. How can one do this? What are good models for this? I would love to hear thoughts/stories on how this might be possible.

Final Presentation Day

For those who wonder how racism and sexism work in academia (Yes. There are many such who think this. One of my colleagues, a Polish guy, a white one with a feminist wife, a liberal-progressive with Marx and Foucault to cite….all this and the firm belief that education is the one place where race-sex-class don’t matter). For all such friends, let me give you a snapshot, a freeze frame, selected moments of my day:

Final group presentations are today and the next group should be good – it has my three most engaged students, the ones who sit in front every 8 am class, Julie, Carla, and Tarun-the-Indian-IIM-guy-with-kind-eyes; the fourth is less-known, a Jonas. I don’t remember him in class except for once when he sat in the back and said many things. So this Jonas, this little-known one, goes in and out of class while the previous group is presenting, picking up and dropping off what looks like a fancy suit. It’s rude and against class rules but I let it go for now. Then it is their turn, and in walks Jonas in the fancy suit playing the role of Jean-Messier, the swaggering ex-boss of Vivendi who bought this water business to its knees with acquisitions left and right. So our Jonas/Jean-Messier toots his horn and says he will turn things around, and waves in Julliet-Carla-Tarun, and then sits back and gives them leave to start. Varun has 6 slides of analysis into each of Vivendi’s many wrong-headed moves with many numbers and figures, and Jonas/Jean-Messier doesn’t have time for this plodding Indian, and interrupts “Get to the point Man, I don’t have all day.” So Varun wraps up with facts summarized-simplified, and then Juliette and Caroline, pretty and dressed-up, gesture and laugh and wake the audience up again, adding lightness and giggles, and then hand over to the seated Jean-Messier, who gives the two-line summary of all that has gone before.

These scenes play out before me – all of us, actors on a stage, playing out our given roles – the good Asian worker bee, plodding but sure and necessary, the pretty wallpaper white women, light and inconsequential, and of course, the boss – the one who just needs to show up in white skin and a suit. Over and over, unthinking, sleep-walking, like some horror-comedy-zombie-movie come alive. Would Tarun have got away with playing Jean-Messier who-does-no-work but has “leadership qualities”? Would my smart young women have? And yet, they are in earnest – these three my hard-working students, playing their God-given roles to perfection with no quibbles, no angry foul-smelling protests tearing up the perfect rhythm of this pointless play.