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

CAUTION: THIS IS NOT A HOW-TO.

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.

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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?

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.

bourgeois struggle

Today I was suddenly overcome with the feeling of being overly bourgeois. Of course, in an empirical sense, that’s just true and there can be no debate. I’m a college professor with a PhD and a steady income. What I’m really concerned about is being so wrapped up in my own concerns and my comfort to the exclusion of noticing the discomfort (oppression) of others. Probably this is a worry caused by suddenly having too much time on my hands (how bourgeois).

I know though, or I think I know, from experience that it’s important for me to hold myself responsible to this concern. Very few other people will. In fact, if this isn’t just a response to too much (bourgeois) time on my (soft) hands in my (single family) house, it could be because I just emailed one of the few friends in my life who does actually hold me accountable to the meaning of militancy.

The email involved a lot of guilt on my part. My friend is someone I met doing fieldwork in Buenos Aires, where I haven’t managed to return for a full two years, my longest period of absence since I first started my research there in 2008. It’s important to me that my research and militancy in Argentina is actual committed militancy and not just a temporary relationship that serves my academic needs, and when I fail to prioritize contact with my compas there it becomes harder for me to convince myself that this is the case. On top of that more general guilt, I also hadn’t emailed this friend directly in a very long time, which always makes me feel bad (and since I have a lot of friends and write few emails, I feel this guilt a lot).

As an excuse and in order to catch up, I explained to my friend that the last year has been a really big one for me: I finished writing the dissertation we’ve talked so much about, got my PhD, moved to a new town, and began life as an assistant professor. I lamented that I did not have much news to report in the way of struggles or movements I’ve been involved in here in the United States. Now, most of my friends would understand this, and would start immediately pointing out how many classes I’ve taught this year and how overwhelming it has been (and they wouldn’t be wrong: in the last year I taught 7 classes, 4 preps, and 3 new preps, for those of you keeping score). But I know that this friend is not going to do that. She is going to be disappointed in me, or at least be unimpressed with my excuses and wish that I was doing more with all my yanqui privilege. My biggest fear is that she’s going to feel I’ve confirmed her suspicion that I have settled into the identity of bourgeois professor who feels that writing, researching, and teaching are activism (which they are not—maybe I’ll post about that another day).

bourgeois prof

One of the things I love about this friend is that her presence in my life helps me resist becoming precisely this kind of non-militant academic. I wish that more of my friendships kept me accountable in this way, and I wonder why they don’t. Is it too hard to point this out to one another? Is it a devastating critique to suggest to your friends that they ought to spend a little more time out in the streets (or practicing liberation in covert spaces), especially when your friends are academics who know what a difference that time could make? Academia is full of people who talk the talk but rarely walk the walk. I myself often point out that fact about people, but I rarely hold friends and colleagues accountable for it to their faces.

I suspect my feeling (particularly) bourgeois is related to my disconnection from other militants. Militants, after all, are by definition people who do actually hold each other accountable to the necessity of struggling for a better world. Academics do not do this. More often we help each other find reasons why we are too busy doing other things.

In my case, I have in fact been filling my time with meaningful pursuits, many of which I know are really important for the pursuit of lifelong militancy rather than the more intense brand one can usually only sustain for a few years in their 20s. But I am also suddenly faced with a feeling that I’ve been very focused on myself and unconnected to the struggle for liberation, and it’s time to change that. It’s true I’m in it for the long haul, and it’s true that I live in a smallish town where barging in with a new idea for radical struggle without first understanding the local terrain could make it impossible for me to do much for the next 10 years. But it’s also true that if I never get started, if I never get committed (or recommitted, again and again), I may just get more comfortable. And more removed from those compas and militants who will push and inspire me.

3.8, 3.91, 4.01, 3.9

That is my evaluation. My teaching evaluation for 4 sections of strategy. In this popularity context, I am an almost-4 out of 5. That’s good. That’s great. I’m safe. No longer in the at-risk-of-being-asked-to-take-pedagogy-classes category of loser-teachers, the ones talked about with sighs and head shakes – she’s-great-but-can-sometimes-be-hard-to-get-along-with. Thank God I’m no longer in this talked-about set. It can beat you down, this exposure and this number, so clean and stark like a blade…a 2 out of 5- God! people must really hate you, you unlikable bitch.

I dare you to be a woman, an Asian woman to boot, and survive intact with a 2 out of 5 on likeability; anything is preferable, I’d even prefer ‘slut’ to ‘unlikeable.’ Last year by chance, an admin-glitch, students evaluated me before I taught the class, and guess what these numbers were – 3.5/5. The average teaching evaluations in the department are 3.00 – so Yes! On average, students prefer our absence to our presence.

“Why this number, ‘Quality of professor?’” you may ask. It seems perverse. Why not what they actually learned, why not a pre and post-test to see if they learned something from class; it’s simple enough to do online. I don’t know why. It is just not done. Meyer and Rowan say that it is ceremony and myth – all of academia – assessment decoupled from practice. It makes sense then why things are so difficult for me here – if the primary aim is ceremony and legitimation, then a skinny brown Indian woman, in need of legitimation herself, is not the best person for the job.

After 5 years in the trenches of clawing my way up from 3.2 to 4.01, I’ve finally lost all the idealistic nonsense that filled my head about this job being one where I can REALLY-MAKE-A-DIFFERENCE. 90% of the class cannot survive 5 minutes without checking their phones. Plus, these are the clear-eyed practical ones who chose business as their major, they understand how the world works a lot better than I do, and aren’t here wanting for me to REALLY-MAKE-A-DIFFERENCE in their lives. They are the customer and what they want is good packaging and paiysa-vasool.

Maybe there is some point to teaching something else, things like physics or math or gender studies….but what is the point in teaching business? – it seems more efficient just to have extremely selective criteria (so you weed out based on certain types of IQ and on class and generational wealth), charge high fees (to make doubly sure of the weeding), get people to spend time together (so they get a network of other-people-like-them) and then give them the stamp of a big-10 school. Why go through all this trouble – like in INSEAD, a colleague, another PhD, a woman, an assistant professor teaching strategy, went through the usual hazing process, and in her class, a student walked out and then walked back in naked. Students who can make a teacher cry win the weekly betting pool – it is all in fun of course, and is meant for bonding, a noble goal.

On my good days, I give myself pep-talks – “Don’t think on the 70 cell-phone obsessed zombies in your class; Instead meditate on that one girl who was mostly silent in class, but turned in the most brilliant memo with hours of additional analysis, and then came to office-hours and asked the best questions and showed you how she put together all the data she collected. Think on her. Don’t be discouraged by the students who showed up to 2 out of 4 sessions, turned in a crappy memo with nice graphics and a whole lot of talk about brand image, and then emailed you demanding why they haven’t got an ‘A.’ Instead remember the Indian girl who came to you on the first class as if she’d just sighted a unicorn; delight and thoughts clear on her face – “My God – are you real? You are the business strategy teacher?!” I remind myself to stingy-store away these incidents, to take out and look at and admire and remind myself that there is some larger purpose to all this pain.

On my bad-days, the days when persistent magical thinking (example, the world is really a fair place and good things happen to those who work hard, or content really is what ultimately matters) clears, I instead remember the fruitless-pointless hours improving content. I remember snippets of wisdom that white men with teaching awards sometimes slip up and reveal: “teach right after a 2/5 – you’ll look good in comparison,” “teach the internationals, the Chinese are the best, Spaniards, Indians, anyone but the French for whom no one is more than a pas mal 3”, “never show vulnerability,” “answer questions with many words (it doesn’t matter which)”, “don’t provide grades/feedback until you’ve been evaluated,” “end class early,” and the best-one-yet, “show them who’s boss – tell them they are stupid if they make a stupid comment.” These words were perhaps well-meaning but make me feel foolish and don’t help – a brown woman who says nothing and tells people they’re stupid?! – I’m not into professional suicide, at least not yet.

Of flags, privilege, and family

A few days ago my brother changed his Facebook profile picture to the confederate flag. I am not sure what to do in the wake of this small, harmless, heinous, ugly action. I am torn between my identities as an antiracist activist, an antiracist educator, a sociologist, and a sister. Not to mention a friend. Am I a bad person if I continue to allow a person in my life who openly proclaims racist attitudes?

As you might imagine I am not exceptionally close to my brother. We are almost a decade apart in age and have never lived in the same house. We are different in lots of ways. Example: he never went to college, I am a college professor. We have other things in common, like we both talk unstoppably and are pretty loud about it. And we both hate cops, although my brother has spent some time in jail while I’ve never been. I love him because he is my brother but if blood ties were socially meaningless we would never even speak to each other.

So I could detach from my brother; it would not even be that hard. I could stop sending him cards or asking my dad about him and I could be curt and polite when I see him on visits to other family. We had that kind of relationship for several years and no one would really say anything if our relationship became that way again. I wonder if maybe that is my moral obligation. Maybe I am cheating, relying on my white privilege, when I leave my antiracist politics at the door in order to have a relationship with my brother. Relegating these deeply held beliefs to a set of political opinions like who I vote for that I can just set aside for a while in order to have a conversation about gardening with someone who will only disagree with me about anything else. I do not know if it would be so easy to relegate my antiracist beliefs if they were actually about me instead of just my friends, or if they were about my partner or my children. Why do I even want to have a conversation with someone who flies a confederate flag even though he knows it symbolizes the belief that some human beings are not, in fact, really human beings?

But I guess there’s the rub: family is not socially meaningless. It is, as Bodhi just reminded me, the place where I’m from. Family and home form a core part of me, I guess, even if it’s a part I’m ashamed of and sometimes repulsed by. I wonder if that’s why I never feel more impotent as a teacher, sociologist, and activist than with my family.

I am proud of the success I have engaging university students to think about white supremacy in 2015 and in their own lives, but I worry how I can convince anyone in the broader world of anything if I can’t even convince my own family, the people who supposedly love me best. My family are some of the few people I interact with who have truly divergent views from my own, not counting students who are directly subject to my authority. They are one of my few chances to preach outside the choir. When I can’t do it, when I know it’s useless, I feel like a complete and utter failure.

Worse, I know that any descendants of slaves who might look at my Facebook page and see that flag will know that I am not the kind of white person that can be counted on. I often feel proud of my relentless efforts to remain close to my family and that they are part of my integrity as a person. But I guess right now I stand (ambivalently) for family, but also for racism, and what kind of integrity is that?

Normal

I spend a lot of my life in drag. I am starting to wonder if we all do, or if at least many of us do. I don’t necessarily mean that I spend a lot of my life passing as a man or performing on stage lampooning gender stereotypes, of course. I just think I spend a lot of time looking at my closet and wondering who it is I want to be today. I think through what meetings, tasks, or activities are planned for the day and then I think through which version of me, which persona, will be most comfortable and most powerful (sometimes those are the same and sometimes they are opposed) moving through today.

Kate Bornstein says that drag is: conscious, self-referential, performance, sexy and/or political and/or self-protective, not all about gender, for an audience, and for a reason (from My New Gender Workbook). She adds that

“We do drag to climb up from under the crushing oppression of race, age, class, religion, sexuality, looks, disability, mental health, family and reproductive status, language, habitat, citizenship, political ideology, and humanity. We do drag to be the best within any of these spaces of regulation—or as close as we can get to being the best. Or we do drag so that those who arethe best in those spaces will like us. Or we do drag so we don’t stand out as the freak we think we are” (2013, p 200).

This is similar to a more generic phenomenon that sociologists might call performativity (and in fact Bornstein is drawing on Judith Butler here too), but it differs in that it is more conscious and thus, I think, more controllable than our typical ideas about performativity.

Reading this section of the book, I felt like this was a revelation that described an experience I’ve been having most of my life when it comes to getting dressed for almost anything. (Unfortunately the students in my class did not have the same reaction to the reading and I stopped just short of blurting out this embarrassing confession to a room full of young people just beginning to understand that “some people” may not have a clearly binary gender identity.)

The best example of what this process is like for me is “cool guy professor,” my most conscious drag persona. A “cool guy professor” wears jeans, usually expensive, well-fitting ones. He often wears t-shirts, but usually under a blazer. The ensemble is topped off by some expensive, stylish loafers. The best part is that cool guy professor wears brown corduroy jackets. This is an androgynous or even butch style, but I wouldn’t say it is too butch since when I do it the jeans, blazers, and oxford shirts were all actually made for women (a change from my earlier tastes). I was careful to select only traditional oxford shirts with a traditional collar, but the shirts were fitted. In other words, the clothing doesn’t necessarily accentuate my feminine figure but it certainly doesn’t hide it.

“Cool guy professor” is a direct attempt to increase my feeling of authority in the classroom, developed when I was a graduate student teaching for the first time. But since reading Bornstein I’ve realized “cool guy professor” is only the most conscious drag persona in my closet. He’s not alone by a long shot. I’ve been working with “indie rock girl,” “record store slouch,” “girly girl,” and a bunch of nameless others for years now. Only I never thought about it as “drag” before.

The big question mark here for me is whether this process is evidence of something conservative psychologist types would call a “confused gender identity.” Liberals might more affirmingly call this a transgender identity, but either term seems to hearken to a relatively essentialist idea that some people (cis people) are comfortable with the sex they were labeled at birth, and others (trans people) are not. But couldn’t this process also just be the logical result of a non-essentialist take on gender and a sharpened observation of performativity in the mind of someone who is hyper-aware of her own thoughts anyway? Speaking in terms of theory, there is no such thing as a sex/gender binary outside of social construction (the best thing to read if you don’t believe me is Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work). If we buy that, I think we must also buy Bornstein’s idea that we are all transgendered fitting ourselves into a binary universe (or rejecting it). Is this harder for some of us and easier for others?

Is my experience marginal, the minority experience, or is it eminently, deeply normal?