Carving Compassion, Camouflaging Antagonism & Building Cooperative Alternatives – an Interview with Anna Feigenbaum
Dr. Anna Feigenbaum gives her thoughts on radical teaching and organizing within and beyond the university. Against education that tries to transmit radical politics to students, she recommends an approach that starts with students’ experiences and works with them through the difficulties and challenges they face—and witness—in their everyday lives. Revolutionary pedagogy can be embedded in art and creativity, engaging students through playful, reflexive and collaborative projects. Rather than getting caught up in puritanical self-flagellation over what cannot be achieved, struggles can be seen from a more ecological perspective, one that works both inside and outside institutions simultaneously: chiseling the university’s walls while building cooperative alternatives.
Radicalization in Montreal Student Organizing
CW: How did you come to be involved with radical organizing and pedagogy around universities?
Anna: The first thing I got involved in was the graduate feminist group at McGill University. At the time I got involved it was just a lunch meeting, but we ended up becoming much more. I think that was a lucky coincidence of who was there at the time. This group that was meant to be a kind of feminist reading group turned into one of the bastions of engaged grad student activism. We put pressure onto the more formal graduate union, and we got involved with the TA union, sitting on committees and bringing forward motions around such things as corporatization. In 2005, the major student strikes happened in Montreal, the precedent to what we’re seeing now. We ended up forming this group with some of the people who worked at QPIRG (Quebec Public Research Interest Group) called GRADE – The Graduate Association for Decorporatizing Education. That ran for about two years. We did a kind of ‘rad grad’ orientation: new students workshops, trainings, and radical tours, modeled on the one that QPIRG ran for freshmen. We did a few events throughout those couple years, such as a cabaret. We were a small collective, and we had a fall-out between liberals and radicals—your traditional story of left groups infighting. So, we didn’t last very long, but for a time we were a kind of pressure group pushing that sort of radical edge onto our post-graduate society.
CW: How did GRADE relate with the grad union?
Anna: Some of the people in GRADE were part of the Post-Graduate Student Society (PGSS), sat on it and had votes on it. So, they would put forward motions and give talks at their meetings. They ran parliamentary style. We were kind of a pressure group or a lobby group in relation to them. When strike votes were going through PGSS, we would be pushing the agenda of those. At McGill, there’s maybe 200 or so radical grad students, so you knew everyone. QPIRG, the union, and the radical contingency of PGSS all worked together. We did a union drive to try to unionize sessionals around that time (2006). These things were tied around tuition hikes and all this corporatizing of McGill that was crystallizing at that moment.
CW: Could you say a little more about the corporatizing that was happening at McGill?
Anna: I remember the tuition thing being huge. That’s one of the things that people really struggle to understand about the student protests in Montreal now, because the tuition is relatively very low. But, in the student movement in Quebec you have this really radical contingency arguing for free education—that this is a public good. That’s still very alive in Quebec. That was new to me; as an organizer I found it very interesting to see how strong that was. So, on the one hand, you have this very pragmatic protesting happening around tuition hikes. But, then, you have this much broader debate happening around, ‘what is the nature of education, and public education?’ That’s where you get the arguments against corporatized education. McGill is this kind of money house with tons of funding from big defense companies and tons of connections with all sorts of corporate institutions, and institutions like the World Bank.
There was also a group that we worked with at Concordia that was unmasking all these connections. So, we were also doing some of that work of exposing corporate connections. We organized a protest with that group when there was a World Bank conference at McGill, and we organized some events around that.
We focused on the way these two issues are coupled together: on the one hand, free education and the ways in which the corporatization of public education changes what we think the place of the university is in society, and, on the other hand, ties with corporations. I don’t think we were doing this very coherently. It was more one of these pragmatic collective formations, where ‘nobody is doing this, and somebody needs to do this,’ and so a bunch of people who wanted to do it got together and did it.
CW: As a grad student group, did you have links with undergrads as well?
Anna: At both Concordia and McGill, QPIRG was really the hub of Anglo-radical organizing. It’s also where things like No One is Illegal would meet, and where the anarchist bookfair was organized. It was very practical. They had money, paid staff, photocopier machines, and couches in the rooms so you could sit together. A lot of undergrads were involved in the PIRGs and those other community organizations that are often packed with students, especially in the transient kind of Anglo community that Montreal has. So, you had a lot of informal interactions with students through those other kinds of activist engagements. ‘Rad Frosh’ was organized by QPIRG—the paid staff as well as the volunteers. So, a lot of the tighter organizing came through QPIRG.
There was a big issue around closing the sexual assault center. For that, we worked with the student union. There was a year, maybe 2007, when the undergrad student union was radicalized. Often it was not.
CW: Moving ahead now, what have you been involved with since grad school?
Anna: I have done a lot of anarchist free school stuff in London. I haven’t organized any, but I gave workshops. London is not so good at sustainable free schools, but has a lot of people who get together and organize one-offs. So, there’ll be one that lasts for a summer or a week. At that time, there were some neat things happening. Some young art student types were occupying rich people’s mansions in expensive neighbourhoods and creating free schools there. So that was more like T.A.Z. [temporary autonomous zone] stuff—they came for a little while and then left. I think there was one called the Really Free School.
I was also in this group called the Feminist Activist Forum. That was around in 2007-2009. We would do workshops around the country. Then, I started working at a small, liberal arts institution. Teachers have a lot of freedom there in what they teach and how they do it. So, it was a great place for working on pedagogy stuff.
Against the Transmission Model of Radical Education: Start with where your Students are at
CW: Could you say more about your pedagogy? What sorts of radical pedagogy have you tried?
Anna: I actually started teaching in undergrad, when I TA’d my first class. And then I started TA’ing pretty early on in the PhD. I TA’d feminist theory. Then, I started teaching women’s studies. Women’s Studies is a place where the whole curriculum is more amenable to critical content. A large portion of the students know what they are getting themselves into. I taught there with a heavy-stick kind of approach; not like, ‘we’ll beat radicalism into them,’ but ‘we’ll show them the inequalities and injustices in the world, and they’ll be converted to this radical way of thinking.’ That worked okay because a lot of the people who choose to do Women’s Studies want that kind of transformative experience. They’re expecting that from you. But there are maybe a quarter of the students for whom that didn’t work at all.
Then I taught a couple classes that weren’t radically political in their formation. And that heavy-stick approach really didn’t work. In one of the classes I actually got into trouble for something I’d done with them. I had a reprimanding meeting with the department chair about ‘anger management.’ That kind of anger around students’ political ignorance and that kind of demanding of criticality backfired in this situation. Then I taught a media studies class for the first time, and again got some bad teaching evaluations. I just didn’t feel engaged with them as I was teaching the class. That made me re-think, ‘what’s the best way of reaching the students who aren’t already game, who aren’t already involved in these new ways of thinking?’
I’d read a lot of bell hooks; she was very formational in my early teaching, and she still is. I’d read one piece where she talks about respecting the pain of your students as being real pain. With these kinds of transitions of consciousness comes a lot of real fear and anxiety. I took that to heart and started to think about how we might re-structure that kind of transformative or radical education around this notion that there’s a lot of pain in uncovering systematic injustice. Whether it’s linking up with your life or linking things in other people’s lives together. So, I started to take a much more kind of cultural approach—still using the ‘personal is political’ stuff from Women’s Studies, but with an approach that looks, from the outside, like a more innocent way. For example, ‘let’s make a graph of how much we use our mobile phones in a day.’ Then, you start from these kinds of innocuous activities and tasks, using various forms of questioning about their own lives. To start to unearth that critical stuff, rather than coming in with the kind of critique that you want them to have. So, there’s very little transmission model of radical teaching left in me, and a lot more activities, hands-on stuff, a lot of Platonic dialoguing.
CW: Do you find that’s been working well for you?
Anna: Yeah, I think teaching at a small liberal arts college has been amazing. A lot of the students there are really international, many have lived in multiple countries, a lot are quite wealthy, but the kind of race/class/gender paradigm is really different than in your standard American university. Our wealthiest kids tend to be from the poorest countries, and the poorest kids are from the richest countries. A lot of the Middle Eastern and African kids are the wealthiest, and a lot of the white kids from the States are from more working class families and are on scholarship. So, you can’t just work through those things in the same way that you can in the national context of the US, where race, class, and gender play out according to certain kinds of post-colonial narratives. The narratives are mixed up with each other in more complicated ways, and that opens up more opportunities for creative pedagogy—for using that hybridity of cultures as a starting point.
I designed a lot of the pedagogy for teaching there, for teaching that particular student body. I’m a bit nervous about how that’s going to translate back—I’ll be teaching at a big State University in the US next year, and then I’ll be teaching at a British university with a lot of kind of middle class white British students. And I don’t think it will all translate. I think you need different tactics for different student bodies. I think that teaching homogenous student bodies is a very different thing from when you are teaching in a much more diverse kind of classroom. It’s student-centered pedagogy: giving students hands-on activities and tools for working through their own lives, but also centering the way that you do your curriculum around the student demographic that you’re working with.
CW: Have you had any opportunities to bring radical movements into the class or to try to connect students with any radical organizing outside of the class?
Anna: Yeah, I’ve done the classic move of bringing in guest speakers to talk about these kinds of things. That always goes well, as long as the speaker is good. Students really like speakers who talk about life experience rather than academic research. So, bringing in fun and engaging people is useful. Once in our Women’s Studies class, we brought our class to a demo, but only a few turned up, so I wouldn’t say that was very successful. I co-taught that class with a friend. We had a lot of reservations about doing that, in the sense: what is your accountability or responsibility if you bring them with you on a demo? What if something happens to them? Are you there as their protector? I think there were a lot of ethical questions that we hadn’t thought through, and I think it wasn’t until we had the experience when we were like, ‘we’re not sure what the best practice is for doing that.’ And it depends on the situation.
Last fall, I wasn’t living at Occupy in London, but I was helping to run an art space there, for a couple weeks, at its peak. I brought the students there and I gave them this media ecology assignment where they had to find out about all the different aspects of the camp that were communicating with the media, and they had to make a little map. That worked out super well. They were so glad I had brought them there. That time, again, it was all voluntary. Also, at the Occupy in London, the police were pretty hands off after the first day. It was not an un-safe space. It was such a public area; people were going to the Cathedral still. So, it was a great space to introduce people to what action and protest can look like. Some students who were super nervous about being in a protest space just didn’t come, and some only stayed for a few minutes, but they came. I had them meet me at Starbucks, which was a great tactic, because there was a Starbucks practically in the camp. I knew that that would make them comfortable, because it was something that they knew, something that wasn’t radical. So, we started there, and we just kind of went together; they could go off or they could stay near me. That was great. I think every one of them thanked me for bringing them there.
[pic of Occupy London protest camp via Guardian]
I think that is one of the amazing things about protest camps. Rather than taking students on a march or a demo where there’s this very kind of scripted character that you perform, the protest camp is this convergence space of all sorts. It felt very different to take students to a protest camp than it did to take them to a demo. But, there was also six years between these two experiences.
Camouflaging Anti-oppressive Pedagogy and Adapting Techniques
The other thing that I tend to do: I bring a lot of activist practices into my teaching. So, a lot of my exercises have come out of my participation in facilitation training and anti-oppressive training. I bring a lot of that into my classroom. For one of my classes, I taught them consensus decision making. They had to do their final project using working groups and all with the consensus process, and they had to present something back to the group: they did a mock creative resistance.
CW: Are there any particular anti-oppressive activities that you’ve found to work well in classes?
Anna: One year I tried to do the privilege exercise, and I didn’t think that that went well, in part because the class was too big, and in part because those kinds of exercises are disconnected from students. It’s like you’re trying to transmit it into the class. So, I never use something without adapting it, without kind of camouflaging it. One of the larger projects I’ve done is in a cultural theory course. We met twice a week: once a week we’d do the formal academic stuff, and the other day I took a bunch of the kind of prompts that you do for thinking through cultural diversity. I took some of them from anti-oppressive training materials and then I took some of them from memoir-writing workshops, and I kind of mashed it all up. Then, each week, they have this prompt that’s about thinking through their own lives. So, sometimes it’s about thinking through exclusion or something like this. One that I do is using Gloria Anzaldúa’s ideas of borderlands—on how we inhabit multiple spaces—and they have to draw a map of the ways in which different cultures they have grown up in rub up against each other. Then, we all share them with each other and we have discussions about what came out of the exercise.
The first thing I do at the start of the term is have them read a couple pages from bell hooks’ Critical Thinking, and then we have a discussion in week one about what critical thinking is and why it’s important. In the next week, we do a listening exercise, which comes from consensus decision-making and anti-oppressive training. We talk about how to listen, how to synthesize other people’s thoughts, how to look for overlaps and commonalities in experience, how to productively come to difference and ask questions. That works really well. Then, we do this thing called the ‘six word memoir,’ in the second week. You have to write down answers to all these categorical, socio-economic questions. There’s stuff about race and also about how we identify ourselves sub-culturally. It’s a memoir exercise, and you just do six words to answer each category. And then we just go around the circle and everyone has to read them (though they don’t have to read something if they don’t want to). That’s amazing because it’s all about self-identification, but also about the ways that others categorize us. Some people take these really creative approaches to the assignment and say quirky things. And other people use standardized terms ‘I am African-American’ or ’White’ or whatever, or they will even write down, ‘people call me this, but I think of myself as …’ And then we talk about all the different ways that people have chosen to categorize themselves, and about the difference between how we self-define and how others define us and what that means. And then, unearthing, or unpacking, from there. That series of three exercises (critical thinking, listening, and memoir sharing) really set this mood that carries through the whole class—this nice place of difference being something we learn from together.
Again, this is not a straightforward, ‘here’s our anti-oppressive exercise, and I’m going to hand you cards, you’re going to be a Muslim woman and I’m going to be a drug addict in jail, and then we’re going to try to imagine that we’re these kinds of people.’ I do think those kinds of exercises can be interesting, and I have friends who have used them and they’ve worked. But, for me… I also teach media and communication stuff, so couching it and camouflaging it as art, as creativity, as these kinds of personal processes, I’ve found that really useful.
***For more on these classroom activities and others, including syallbi, assignment templates and worksheets, check out Anna’s blog, We-Thinking the Classroom***
In addition to my own classroom practices, I’ve gotten really involved in the last few years in communities of people who care about teaching. They’re not necessarily radical pedagogy people, but they’re doing innovative learning stuff. You can poach from them, and select the content that you want. Those spaces have been amazing, because it’s people who are really good at teaching, and who really care about teaching.
I’ve found that a lot of my friends who are into the content of radical pedagogy are not necessarily good teachers. They don’t necessarily like their students. They’re not necessarily engaged reflexively in their teaching practice. So, I’ve found that I’ve developed as a teacher more by being with people that don’t necessarily share my politics but that share my passion for teaching. I learn different things in those different communities. The ghetto of ‘radical but effective teaching’ is very, very small. But I don’t think that’s the only place to look for teaching resources. In the UK, there’s a big open education resource movement. They’re doing all sorts of neat stuff, especially in media studies. There’s lots of people there doing great stuff with technology and collaboration, some of which I find inane, because they’re not teaching any ethical or social justice content. But that, to me, is for us to bridge.
Spaces for Autonomy: Chisel the University’s Walls while Building Cooperative Institutions Outside
CW: What are the biggest sorts of obstacles that you see to anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian teaching and organizing in universities?
Anna: The question for me is, what’s possible in the university that you’re in? Trying to preserve as much autonomy and space for innovation in our own classes as possible is, I think, a surmountable obstacle. But, again, it depends a lot on what kind of department you’re in, what kind of manager you have, what kind of institution you’re at. I think, if you can find that place where you’re able to do the content but without it being something that the students can run up to a chair and say, ‘this person’s making me learn… whatever.’ It’s that kind of camouflaging of what you do. I don’t know if that’s a compromise or a strategy, but there’s a little bit of freedom left there, in our individual teaching methods.
On the institutional level, what it is to be part of a department, what it is to work with colleagues in an ongoing relationship, I think that unionizing has to happen, or at least collectivization around grievances and concerns. At base, knowing your rights… I’m amazed by my colleagues who just don’t know their rights! There are all these borderline illegal things that can be going on, and people don’t even know. I didn’t even know I started looking it up, and it was so empowering just to know what the labor laws are. And there’s all sorts of great materials on that, but if you don’t have a union, you don’t have someone who’s handing that material out, or posting that material.
I realize I’m answering more about what spaces I think are possible! The obstacles, I think, are sort of obvious. It’s a corporate structure that doesn’t care about you. The university does not care about your wellbeing. That’s not its priority. All the relations have been monetized. To me, there’s no dream of, like, the other university where that doesn’t exist. That’s what these institutions are. It’s more about what are the spaces and ways of surviving, and what are the best practices for working within them? I think that’s about what we do in our classroom, how we deal with our colleagues.
It’s obviously very time consuming, as you know, to be involved in union drives. And I think that that’s a real concern. Like, how much do we organize within the institutional arena vs. organizing outside—and it’s incredibly exhausting to try to do both. I was excited to get involved in this political group that was starting, butwhen I started doing union stuff, I just couldn’t do both. I couldn’t be at that many meetings and try to make something work in my own workplace, while keeping up my teaching and home life. So, I think that there’s a real tension around time and energy.. You can maybe change your working conditions, but I don’t think we’re at the imploding and taking over of the university and turning it into something new stage… I don’t think we’re anywhere near there. To me, in both the classroom and in your working conditions in the university, the walls are pretty enclosed. It’s about chiseling.
To me, it’s about how much energy goes in and how much energy goes out. So, I think there are those internal obstacles, and the biggest obstacle is just the amount of time and energy that the university takes from your life. When things are messed up in your workplace, it’s really hard to still have energy to put elsewhere. Then, I think what some people do is to try to be in the university as little as possible and to poach as many resources as they can from it. But, to do that, you have to be in a privileged position within the university, because you have to be able to get them to fund you and still not hate you when you’re not doing any of the service work that you’re meant to be doing. You certainly don’t have the ability to do that when you’re a graduate student or an adjunct or part-time worker—at least not for any sustained amount of time.
I think if we really want a different education institution, we need to build it. You can build a space in the university, but that university owns that space; it’s not yours. You can start a center, but at the end of the day that is the institution’s; it is not yours. When the institution wants it closed, it’s closed; that’s not up to you. So, I think it’s really dangerous to be trying to continuously carve spaces out of the university. I think you can’t carve sustainable alternatives that are going to fund you within the institution. I think, that if we really want alternative education systems, we need to make them with business plans and waged workers outside of the institution. But, that means engaging with all sorts of existing government and capitalist structures. You can’t start a business without doing that. And, I think that gets a lot of people nervous. But, that’s where I find myself going, as I age!
CW: Do you have any ideas for how we radical academics can help each other make more time and energy for us to do radical pedagogy and organizing, both inside and outside universities? You mentioned creating our own alternative institutions; do you see those as a way to help us make more time for that?
Anna: I think that all these free schools and that stuff are great, but they run on volunteer time, and volunteer time is the energy we have left over after we’re done making our wages. Or, we’re in a particular kind of situation where we don’t really need wages. Or, we live on lots of very, very cheap wages, which is only a possibility for some people in very certain ways. So, I think that if we want sustainable initiatives, we have to be finding ways to fund them, and to wage people. So, say, a person’s only got a part time job in an institutional university, but then they’re able to make ten grand doing the logistical coordinating for this free school, because the free school has subscribers and sustainers that enable it to exist, that are about working toward sustainability. I don’t like that it necessarily needs to be monetized, but I think that the reality of the world we live in is that if we do want to create our own kinds of cooperative and communal structures—that can sustain people—then either we need wages, or we’re going to be constantly on this cycle where we’re trying to increase our volunteer time to do these projects that tend to not be able to last for more than a limited amount of time. It seems like we’re yearning for something that’s not just a temporary autonomous zone. It seems that there’s a collective desire in radical communities to have things that are more sustainable, to be building things that actually nurture us and that offer real alternatives, and I just don’t think that that can happen unless we create our own cooperative business structures. There’s models, there’s people doing that, there’s little bits of that everywhere. We need to grow those, to make them bigger. Then, of course, you run into the whole, ‘it will become another institution.’ But, there are fundamental differences between cooperative business structures and capitalist ones. So, I think, figuring out, what is it that we want out of this communal, cooperative structure that we don’t see in these other ones? Most Universities are non-profits, but they don’t function in that way. So, why is that?
I think, what a lot of friends of mine are working on now that I find inspiring is really thinking about how we might start to build bigger things with the positions that we’re in now. We have a lot more social capital, and some of us more financial capital than we did ten years ago, when we were undergrads. So, thinking about, how do we get some research funding to study, you know, how we might make a cooperative? And, then, through that, using research for building things, getting research funding to actually build and make things that can be handed back over to communities. How do we actually use resources from these institutions so we can build this other thing for our communities?
On a small scale, being in that graduate feminist group was the greatest thing, because there was this place where you could go, and when shitty stuff was happening you could talk about it, have a drink, have a laugh, and eat good food with people whom you have affinity with. That was an amazing way to survive grad school. When people go off and get jobs—if they get jobs—after they finish their PhDs, you really lose that. It’s hard to find, sustain, and build those kinds of radical friendships, which are so important for preserving energy and time, and for getting excited about projects. Trying to find a number of people to just sort of survive.
A few months ago, when things were bad at work, one of the older feminist women , sent us this email that was like, ‘I think we as women in the department should meet, and we should have a chat.’ We had this amazing long meal at someone’s house, and it was like, why did it take until a moment of crisis to do that? And after we did that, it was amazing: when something bad happened to one of us, we would send a personal email to each other and say, ‘okay, I just want you guys to know that this is happening.’ It was just so empowering. How did we not learn to see those connections before the moment of crisis? How do we learn to not just look for people who resemble us when we’re looking for affinity?
Puritanical Self-Flagellation isn’t the Only Answer: Alternative Networks as Foundations for Resistance
CW: In thinking about creating alternative sorts of institutions, one big challenge they face is to avoid being marginalized and creating a kind of radical ghetto, and not having any impact on changing the normal institutions. I think of universities as big social organisms that have a lot of different people in them: undergrads, maintenance workers, clerical staff, etc.—all sorts of relations of hierarchy, inequality, exploitation, and oppression. I wonder if you have any thoughts on ways that the alternative radical institutions could have some kind of re-engaged impact on those universities that we’re both escaping and trying to expropriate resources from?
Anna: I don’t think that everyone can do both of those things simultaneously. If you want to have radical politics and be in the institution, then you help organize within the institution. Not that it has to be exclusive, but if you’re in the institution, I think it’s important to take up the struggles of the working conditions of the people around you. I don’t necessarily think that you can build alternatives that are going to fight these causes in some imagined or distant future. Building alternatives is not the antagonistic gesture. The antagonistic gesture comes from within; at this point in time, it comes from people who are doing that organizing from within.
The model of ‘proliferate alternatives’ says we just keep making the alternatives and the alternatives become so attractive that it pulls people away. But practically, these free schools and similar initiatives are going to need food and shelter and sanitation and all of these big infrastructural things, and if you are going to really build that alternative university, in any kind of sustainable way, you need to think about all the divisions of labor that happen in a university and create new systems that work in a very different way. I do think that TAZ alternatives can proliferate, but I don’t think these alternatives alone can address the immediate problems of people’s institutional lives. The TAZ alternatives are meant, almost, to seduce away from. But, unless they’ve built the infrastructures and the relationships they need to be ongoing, that’s only short-term relief.
I think because we often feel like, ‘if I make project y, then I’m not going to be working on issue x…’—we end up doing a splattering of projects in our voluntary labor time that only fill stop gaps and provide temporary nurturance, rather than sustainable infrastructures. We also sometimes end up spending a lot of time whining about how everything that we do is not enough or is going to make us sell-out or lose integrity. We have this kind of puritan vision, and we just get trapped or frozen, because we think, ‘oh, I don’t want to just organize in the institution because, then, I’m not building these radical alternatives. But I don’t want to just go build the radical alternatives, because I won’t be changing the institution.’ And, instead of actually doing either of those in a kind of committed and systematic way, we just do little bits of ineffective things on both sides, or we become frozen and we sit around with our friends and we drink in a squat and complain about how neither of those things is going to change the world. So, it’s also that we lose energy when we torture ourselves with this puritanical self-flagellation, of like, ‘I can’t make the difference I want.’ Yeah, we can’t, but what is the thing that feels good, and what is the thing in which you have good people around you that want to build with you? I’ve got friends who’ve come up with some interesting models of how we might have exchanges between different projects. They are asking, what are ways that we can get on with tasks within and outside of institutions, and all the while be building those relationships, such that when it’s time in the world for other forms of resistance we’ll have those foundations?
CW: I really like your idea of how some people can kind of rise out of the normal institutions and create alternatives while some people can stay within and struggle within. Thinking about this kind of division of struggle, or division of labor, are there models for how we can have exchanges between the folks working on the different sides? Talking with grad students, with the academic job market being so shitty now, it’s often not really a choice for whether they stay in or not. They’re often pushed out of academia. I often find that many former grad students who were radical get pushed out, and it’s pretty sad when they lose connection, losing their sense of relation with their former radical academic comrades.
Anna: People who go into the institution or people who go and do some other jobs?
CW: Both, really. Are there ways we could be more intentional about maintaining relationships with people who are pushed out of the academic job world and with people who purposefully rise out of it, leave it, but who want to still be radical intellectuals?
Anna: So, two pragmatic things there. One, for the exchanges, I turn to my friend Dru who helped start the Media Co-op in Canada, which is an increasingly successful actual business plan for self-sustaining media production. They have this whole open source business program (so, if you know anyone who is trying to start a media co-op…). He’s also designed a business plan for how we would finance an alternative university. He used to run a free school, every summer, for a week. In his vision, you just have a small staff of kind of site maintainers, like two or three people. And, you have small cohorts of students. They don’t get a normal university degree. They get a one-year kind of degree in ‘cooperative entrepreneurialism’ or something, a degree in how to make more cooperative alternative structures. They all do skill shares, and everyone does all the tasks. You have like a researcher and a community activist in residence and then you just rotate in for a month at a time, with different visiting people to run different kinds of intensive courses. Those people could be anyone, people with part-time jobs, folks on institutional leave. And you give them a place to live. You do it like an artist residency. You give them a little stipend and a place to live. I think this plan is a fairly ingenious start toward thinking about how to actually make a sustainable, small-scale alternative university. There are also some folks in the UK working on these kinds of more sustainable alternatives. A project in Lincoln has just launched and there’s a conference in December at Oxford to talk through ideas and plans for establishing alternative universities.
For the other thing, my friend Jamie Heckert is doing this project now where he’s interviewing people on open source publishing projects [read the first roundtable on publishing here]. He was talking with one of his interviewees about how England’s radical spaces all know of each other but aren’t really networked together. So if someone came over to give a radical talk, even though there are all these social centers and a few bookshops still left, and all these radical people in universities, we don’t have any system to say, ‘Here’s your tour. Go there, stay with this person, go here…’ And we should! That’s a really easy way to sustain independent researchers that doesn’t take a lot of work. It takes only, say, ten people that subscribe to the project, that are willing to be the coordinator of that city. This is an actually doable thing. So, then, we were saying, let’s set up something like that. I have a friend, Tim Gee (he wrote Counterpower), who just did a US book tour from the UK and was on Facebook, saying, ‘does anyone know where I should stay in Boston?’ And it made me think, there should be some pre-existing network of people to tap into for this. Jamie was also saying it would be fun to travel in small groups, to do it like how bands tour together, to travel in packs. So, say there’s this group of people who are launching their poetry collection, and they’re going with this person who’s launching their political comic book or whatever, and you do the tour thing together. I like that as a very-easy-to-put-together model about how we can sustain independent scholars. We can help enable you to choose (or be forced not) to work and still be part of a scholarly community.
CW: It would be nice to have something like that alternative education institution. If, as contingent academics, we just got jobs every other year, we could have something to do in the years in between.
Anna: Yeah, it seems to be a good plan for dealing with precarity.
About the interviewee: Anna Feigenbaum is an academic and writes for the blogs We-Thinking the Classroom and Protest Camps. Follow her on Twitter: @drfigtree.
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