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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Across the Freeway from the MLA: Notes on the Counter-conference

. . . actually more like tweets, organized around themes not presentations and slighting all sorts of good stuff from a full Merrifield amphitheatre at Loyola Law School:
  • The country has so many problems that need solving and yet many of us are having to spend all our time fighting for a decent wage and benefits.  We have to do it, we have to make sure they respect our profession. But with everything else that needs doing in the country this is such a waste! (Maria Maisto).
  • The public money for higher education isn't coming back, no matter how much we protest (AAUP president Cary Nelson).  I pressed him on this, given the fact that the student fee-hike protests of November 2009 are probably what kept Arnold Schwarzenegger from continuing cuts in the following year.  Cary said yes but it's not springing new money, and won't. It's a waste of time to go to the statehouse.
  • Federalize public higher education.  Cary said this would cost $60 billion, a drop in the defense bucket.  Argue it on fundamental principles: higher education is a fundamental right, it should be free, it should create no debt. . .
  • The new dominant faculty feeling is Fear.  "Fear now dominates the academic world.  Amazingly it has conquered arrogance as the main faculty emotion."  
  • Faculty have become dormant and passive again.  They are forfeiting the chance to make alliances with staff and students, and the window is in danger of closing (Joshua Clover).
  • New Faculty Majority.  Fear is there, but can and is often overcome.  We need to educate the public on the reality of contingent labor, and have been doing this (Maria Maisto).  On unemployment in Ohio one can make more money than teaching 3 courses as contingent faculty.
  • Grad student majorities: it's a fractured profession, where most grads can't aspire to the financial or professional conditions of their professors.  In this context the most important educational experiences were often, in grad school, not the most important professional experiences. (Annie McClanahan).  A kind of deprofessionalization needs to take place. This may overlap with an ongoing activism focused not only on unionization and labor conditions but on democratization. This means in many cases actually struggling against national unions which have often on campus been undemocratic and top down (Annie McClanahan). 
  • Grad students are the future of the profession.  If their issues aren't addressed, the profession will resemble the condition of being a graduate student (Jasper Bernes)
  • Management: given unequal power and unilateralism in so many university administrations today, progress requires "the credible threat of disruption" (Joe Berry).  Strikes are a tactic, and have to be part of a continuous process of tactical innovation, as they were in U of Illinois battles for tuition remission security among other things (Kerry Pimblott). The only thing that has made lasting differences in working conditions for most university employees has been union contracts (Bob Samuels).
  • Organizing as an educational practice: both are produced by enormous amounts of labor, both are collective collaborative activities and both produce people who have agency and who can organize all sorts of new things including further campaigns (Pimblott).
  • Progress.  Contingent labor has in places been successfully organized. People are feeling that now.  It seems like a movement. In five years things will be significantly different in a positive sense (Maisto).
By my count all but one of the speakers teach at public universities, and that was certainly true of the audience, many of whom were from state and community colleges around the country.  Jeff Williams provided the great service of giving a name to what many of us have been doing on the research side. Comparing it to Critical Legal Studies, he called it Critical University Studies (CUS).  This is one new discipline which was invented and is overwhelming practiced by faculty from public universities.

Thanks all for your excellent work and for a very promising afternoon. To be continued . . .


Unknown said...

Chris--Nice to meet you in the lobby of the Biltmore. Thanks so much for this coverage of the "counter conference" which I was unable to attend. Just a note on unions, strikes, and fear: While I was a unionized member of the University of Canterbury (NZ) faculty we fought for two years against a debilitating "restructuring" imposed by executive management; action was always rendered toothless by the fear of especially the *senior professoriate* who would not stand up to the VC. I still believe if they had done there would be a very different College of Arts at the University of Canterbury, one in which I (and many others who left) could have remained.--
Erin Mackie

Catherine Liu said...

I wish I could have been there, that said I would like to add my two cents belatedly. I totally disagree with calling whatever we are doing "Critical University Studies." It immediately calls to mind for constituencies with whom we want to make common cause -- like research profs in other disciplines and schools like math and physics memories of the science wars. It does not win hearts and minds in a public that is also suffering. It looks and sounds like the routinization and institutionalization of activism and critique. What will help us organize our efforts to resist the structural changes taking place in federal and state funding of higher ed? I would take a look at the use of student loans for for profit universities. I would look at all middle class students and student loan debt burdens from a historical point of view, building on Chris' idea that defunding public higher ed is part of the war waged by haves on the rest of the US population, middle and working classes combined. Do we need a monikor like Critical University Studies? No. We need to defend the kinds of autonomy, aesthetic and political that all workers should enjoy. I'm not a great organizer, I do a lot reading, writing and research, but if I had to play the movement's spin doctor for a moment, I would drop Critical Anything Studies for a rhetoric upon which we can start building solidarity with parents, students, workers, contingent faculty, staff etc.

Chris Newfield said...

Erin - it was good to meet you and in Biltmore cavern of all places. The silence of the senior faculty is a disturbing mystery, and in my weaker moments I ascribe it to a generational laziness and selfishness that overtook 60s folks awhile ago: they've never fought much within the institution in my 20 years in it. This is related to Catherine's comment. Catherine, your point is well taken, but the audience for the CUS label would be administrators and faculty, who are looking for a systematic approach with the coherence of a rigorous research program as opposed to what, without intellectual organization, seems instead like a purely political movement and not deserving of institutional attention or support (even if they agree with the content).

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