On ‘Service Learning,’ Precarity, and Building the Urban Commons with, against, and beyond Universities
An adjunct discusses her experiences with using ‘service learning’ in classes to engage students in militant co-research and community organizing. Such projects can build radical relationships across universities, public schools, and marginalized communities, but require a lot of work – the challenge of building ‘the urban commons.’ Such work must also grapple with the dangers of recuperation in academia. Beyond the university, she discusses her engagement with urban commons in neighborhoods, such as through co-operatives. What kind of advantages and disadvantages does the flexibility of adjunct labor offer? From the position of precarious work and life, how can we organize for mutual aid across our workplaces and communities?
‘Service Learning’ with Students as Militant Co-Research
CW: Could you tell me about your background, particularly how did you get into radical organizing around universities?
Maude: I grew up in a pretty political family, and in a neighborhood where there was a lot of political stuff happening. I’ve worked on organizing stuff since high school, and then at college. When I came back to my hometown after college, I started getting involved in questions, basically these welfare reform and immigration reform laws that had been passed under Clinton and that were really punitive. I got involved in a group in my neighborhood founded by social workers who were trying to address the effects that those laws were having on their clients’ local, immediate lives. We started doing this organizing in our neighborhood, and that led to us organizing a neighborhood radio station, which I’m still very involved with. We are ‘undocumented but not illegal.’
Organizing specifically around university stuff is relatively new to me, since I’ve been at grad school [a large public university in another major US city]. I actually haven’t done a whole lot of organizing around university specific issues, even though I think that stuff is really important. It’s more that I’ve tried, through my teaching, to do work with organizations that I think are doing important work. It’s more like doing a militant research project with my students and this one organization, but I haven’t framed it as ‘militant research.’ It’s more been just ‘community-based research,’ and I guess I’ve done that because I’ve wanted the university to approve my classes and to be able to teach them.
CW: Could you say more about the classes you’ve taught and what that community-based research entailed?
Maude: This is where the co-optation/recuperation thing comes in. At a large, wealthy, private university, where I’ve been adjuncting since I’ve moved back here, service learning has become this really big thing for them. They have this whole office of ‘civic engagement,’ and they really want to brand the university as the kind of place where this stuff happens. So, they’ve got this service learning initiative, and instructors can apply for grants to design and lead service learning classes. Twice, I’ve applied and received about $2000 to $2500 on top of what I’ve received for adjuncting. The pay for adjuncting for someone without a PhD is $3400 for a class, so this is a pretty big bump up. There’s this sort of incentive to do it, but, of course, I already wanted to do it anyway. I think it’s good that they’re paying you extra, because there is extra work to do this kind of class, though that sets up a certain dynamic. And, then, the fact that it’s couched and framed as ‘service learning’ sets up another dynamic, which I try to interrogate with my students. We think about, what does ‘service’ mean?
We work with this community organizing group here called Community First, and I have done various kinds of work with them over the years. One of their campaigns that I think is really important—and really geographic—is this public property campaign. What they are doing is looking at all this property that the city has decided to sell off, and they are very concerned with the city’s selling all of this property to developers at below market rates, so it’s not like the city is getting as much as it could out of this property. Under our school system’s chancellor for a couple years, the city closed 23 of its public schools (which is a huge percentage of the city’s public schools). I don’t know that it’s always wrong to close a public school, but the way that it was done made people extremely upset. So, for the class, I talked to the director of Community First and said ‘I want to do a service learning project with my class, what would be useful for you?’ And she said, ‘something around the closed public schools.’ So, basically what we did as a class was to design a research project to try to figure out who owns all these school properties now, and how are they being used? Part of it was to create an inventory of all the public schools that are being closed, map them, go out and do field research, photograph them all, and conduct surveys in the neighborhoods where the schools were closed to find out what kinds of uses people would like to see those empty properties put to.
It was a hard class to teach, but it was incredibly rewarding for my students because they felt like they were doing something real, which they were. And, they got to work with this rad community organization. We went out and surveyed together with them one Saturday, and that was really nice. So, it wasn’t just us doing this work for them; it was more us collaborating with them, and that’s what I find can be really hard. I really love the idea of students doing research that supports radical work, but I also love the idea of students doing research with community members who are instigators of that research idea. There are a lot of logistical difficulties, as part of it, in terms of getting college students together with non-college students, with their schedules.
CW: How did you try to structure that collaboration into your class?
Maude: The class met once per week for the seminar. In the first meeting, I just introduced the seminar. The second week we all went to the office of the organization and met with the executive director and talked to her about what it was that she really wanted out of the project. Then, when we were designing the survey, we had a bunch of feedback from them on it, as to how people would like to see the schools we used. On the actual day that we went out surveying, we went out and did the surveys together with members of the organization and members of locally elected neighborhood councils (our city has this system of locally elected neighborhood councils; they’re public offices but they’re unpaid—a small-scale level of democracy that’s supposed to ensure that people’s voices are heard). At the end of the semester, my students did a final presentation of the research to the staff and board members of the organization. Over the course of the whole semester, there were only three days where my students were working directly with the organization. I would have liked to have had a lot more interaction. I thought about how maybe in the future I would have a class that meets in the office of the organization, or meeting off-campus, so that at least every week in that space we could work with people who are working there.
CW: I’m wondering about the students and how they experienced the class, and about what their backgrounds were. Did you face any resistance from students?
Maude: It was actually a small class—only 9 students—so it was easier to manage. I definitely had two students who did disagree, fundamentally, with Community First’s analysis of the public property issue, and thought, ‘the city should be able to sell the property off, and should have that kind of flexibility, and this is how a market system works, etc.’ To be honest, I also had some issues with Community First’s analysis of the issue. I felt that they could have done a better job making their argument about why this property needed to stay in public hands. So, that was tricky for me as an instructor; I agree with them on all the fundamental issues. But, I felt that they could have made their analysis better in some ways. Yet, I also felt that’s not really my place—they’re doing all this work and I’m just kinda coming in to do this one project. Anyway, the way I dealt with it with the students was that I kind of chickened out. I said, ‘look, we’re doing this project with this organization, this is what they want from us, and we’ve agreed to do it. So, we’re just gonna do this research for them.’ We went into this knowing that we were in this kind of client model, and if we’ve agreed to take this on, we’ve already made this commitment to them, so if we disagree with their politics, that’s too bad, basically.
CW: Did you face resistance from the students over that?
Maude: No, they got that, because the more conservative type students are business majors or international relations majors, and they get the ‘client-provider’ thing, because that’s kind of how they’re being trained. So, it’s ‘just go in and be professional, and do the work.’ But, for me, it’s hard, because I want to be fostering a more radical critique of the whole thing. That’s one of the main challenges, I think: working with students who have a real resistance to that. On the other hand, some of my other students were very turned on by the whole thing, and were really excited by what this organization was trying to do, and were really offended by the fact that there are all these vacant public school buildings, just rotting, and that they had been these kind of centers of their community before. But, to me, that’s one of the biggest challenges for thinking about any kind of radical pedagogy: working with students who aren’t coming from that perspective at all.
CW: Do you feel that it was a radicalizing experience for the students—both the ones who were conservative and the ones who were already down with the politics of the organization?
Maude: Unfortunately, I think that radicalizing might be too strong of a word. One element of the class that was eye-opening for them was doing this particular work, but another element of the class was taking them into the city—that experience of going into neighborhoods they’d never heard of before, of working with city-dwellers who’d been working on these issues for a long time. I required them to go to these community meetings in the evenings and observe them. Those kinds of experiences of being in the city together with regular people was, not radicalizing, but changed how they think about where they live.
CW: Stepping into a little more theoretical register, thinking about the urban commons—and the work necessary for reclaiming, maintaining, and expanding commons—have you thought about the work that you and your students did in the class as a kind of reclaiming of the commons, or getting students involved in work around the commons with that organization?
Maude: I do think that this organization’s work on the public property campaign is very much about this. They don’t really use the term ‘commons’; they talk in terms of public property. But, my interpretation of how they’re talking about it is very much thinking of it as a commons. What they’re saying is, ‘it’s not just for the state to decide on and regulate. It’s our property, of the people who live in the city, and we should be able to determine what happens with this property.’ I think if I were to teach the class again, I would probably use the commons framework. But this was a few years ago, and I wasn’t really thinking about the commons. That could potentially make it a more radical course, to use that kind of framework instead of ‘public property.’ Thinking in terms of the commons requires people to shift their understanding of what they mean by ‘property.’ I think that if I were to do the project that way, thinking in terms of how much work this stuff requires, it would become clear pretty quickly that it requires a lot of work—to try to collectively self-manage, not just these individual spaces or lots, but to try to have some collective control over this whole city full of vacant property that could be put to use by community members. I think what’s really crazy is how the city that owns all this stuff doesn’t have a really accessible database of it, and there are a lot of ways in which the city seems not on top of it even though they own it.
CW: Did Community First find your students’ involvement to be helpful for their own projects?
Maude: Yeah, they found the report helpful. They used it in their campaign. One thing I’m trying to figure out is how to work on things more sustainably across the school year. One of the challenges of teaching in a university setting is the time restraints. I would love to be able to do a multi-year project with them that had different groups of students each semester kind of locked into it. I still really need to learn a lot about how to design courses in such a way that they can really work for doing something in the world, because so much is always changing with what the group needs, so it’s hard to set something out for a four-month plan and to just do it. Things come up in the middle of the semester and then the group wants something new, and then it’s more work for my students.
Working within and against the Academic Recuperation Machine
CW: In what ways do you see your work in the university recuperated through the academic careerist system?
Maude: What struck me about that was this whole ‘service learning’ thing. I’ve personally financially benefitted from it, because my classes are service learning classes. Service learning seems like this trend in higher education now. Potentially we can do a lot with that trend, and make it work for us, as people who are trying to do work with communities outside the university, because it gives us a way to do that that the university understands. It gives the university an explanation for why we’re leaving campus for whatever we’re doing. We can make a special request for a class to meet at a certain time and place because it’s a ‘service learning’ class. But then, the whole concept of service learning can be pretty patronizing too. For most of my students service learning is like, one afternoon a week you volunteer at a homeless shelter or you tutor kids at a poor, stereotypically impoverished, all-black elementary school and then you write about your experiences and process them, and it’s very much a ‘service’ kind of thing as opposed to a ‘collaboration’ kind of thing where your actually working with people as equals. This ‘service’ thing is dangerous because it reinforces the stereotype of the city as ‘this beautiful city but it’s got these totally dysfunctional black people in it who we have to go help.’
I did this other service learning project with a public middle school class where my friend teaches, and so we were doing a bunch of neighborhood research approaches. My students were all shocked that these kids were multi-racial and came from different classes, because their understanding of the city’s school system as this totally degraded place that is all black and all poor and totally fucked up. We did this work in the public school that didn’t fit that stereotype at all, and my students were shocked that this is a real public school. I do think that the whole ‘service learning’ concept is a way that work gets recuperated, but I also think of it as an opportunity for us who, as instructors, want to go outside of the class and do work that’s relevant.
CW: Do you have some suggestions for ways of avoiding that potential recuperation?
Maude: One is to be really clear with the students at the beginning of the semester about what service learning is, and to interrogate the concept, together, with them, and to talk about how there are different ideas of what this thing could be; it could be top-down or based on collaboration with people, as opposed to just helping people in some way. I suppose that would be the way to do it: to have discussions with students about this.
CW: Have you tried to include discussion about the university structure with your students—about their own positionality within that structure?
Maude: I did a bit, not so much at my current university but when teaching in grad school, in the Fall of 2008 and Spring of 2009. The economic crisis hit, and that public university was raising its tuition. Those students were an extremely different crop of students from the crop of students at this very expensive university where I teach now. I was teaching a city planning class and we were talking about participation and planning and that sort of turned into a discussion about participation in your own education and in this institution where you go: to what degree are you able to participate, what prevents you from participating, and how do we make change here? Because they were really concerned about the tuition increases, that led to discussion in a couple of those classes. That was really great, and I’d like to do more of that at this private university too, but I don’t know if I’ll be teaching there, so… And it’s easier to do that in a public university in some ways, with working class students. It should still happen in a private university setting, with middle and upper class students, too, though it’s harder for me as an instructor to care about it as much in that setting of privilege.
CW: I think it would be interesting to try to make some connections between the service learning that students are doing on the public schools and the wider institutions of education, including private universities.
Maude: Yeah, I had one group of students in a class, a group of public high school students who were taking a class at this private university for free, because they were in an ‘early college’ program. That was an amazing group of kids to work with, because they had a consciousness about inequality in the city, and because of their bizarre position in the university as students taking classes for free in this expensive university, and making connections between public education in the city and access to college was great to do with them. Talking about tuition, loans, and that kind of thing was a great experience. I would like to do more with making those connections between public K-12 education and issues of access to higher education. It’s a huge issue in this city: 25-30% of kids don’t graduate from high school. What’s happening to them? Not to say that college is the be all and end all; there’s other ways to live besides going to college. But, to not even have access to education… There’s a woman who lives in my co-op who’s in this classic situation where she’s a low-income, woman of color, who has a kid, and she’s attending this private for-profit university where I don’t think she’s getting a high quality education, and it costs lots of money, and it’s just sick! I don’t know if she’s taken out loans or what, but I just feel like, when she tells me about the classes she’s taking, the tests she’s given, and it just doesn’t sound like a quality education. It’s screwed up.
Building the Urban Commons Beyond the University
CW: Do you think any of your students went on to be involved in radical organizing beyond the university after the class?
Maude: Yeah, one of my students was involved with trying to start a food co-op on campus. She started to get involved over the course of the semester that she was in my class. She was very excited about all this stuff: the idea of a food co-op and of the work that we were doing. I don’t know how much my class really influenced her thinking, but she got a lot of out it. There was another student who, at the end, was interested in volunteering with Community First and who got really interested in the larger issues. And then I had one student who was just super committed to the whole project and worked really hard on it. So, maybe three out of nine had a profound experience with it. It’s so weird, when you’re in this position of power above students, it’s hard to know what they’re really thinking and what they’re saying, because they want you to like them.
I’m also very interested in thinking about learning situations that are outside of the university. How can I do more things that set up intellectual spaces that are outside the university?
CW: Have you had any experience with that?
Maude: Nothing that’s super formalized, but I’ve been organizing music shows in the basement of my co-op building, and those have gone really well. My longer-term goal is to do other kinds of events down there too. Music shows are easy, because I’ve done it a lot in my life and it’s pretty easy to get people to come out to hear music. But, I want to eventually do things in the space that are more tied to radical things in this city’s history. There’s so much interesting stuff, and I don’t know how much people would really come out for it, but I’d like to try to start having a space that’s a place where people can present research that they’ve done or where they can have discussions around different issues. There are some good films that I know of from the documents on community policing attempts in the late 60s after the riots. We could screen that film and have a discussion with people working on incarceration issues now. Trying to think of ways to have a free space for learning, but that’s all free in a socially and culturally oriented sense.
CW: Would you see that as an institution or a tool for building urban commons?
Maude: Yeah, totally. I feel very fortunate in living at this co-op where the president of the board is an amazing woman, and she and I have really hit it off. She and I have been doing things such as organizing a sidewalk sale where people could come and sell their stuff. We’re taking over space in a certain way—the sidewalks outside our building—creating a more sociable space, people getting to know each other, and building community through just hanging out together. That, to me, is really important, and I see that as the absolutely necessary basis for any kind of commons. I definitely see these kinds of spaces—where people come together to learn and to get to know people in their neighborhood better—as having so much more potential for what can come out of that, once people start building those relationships.
Precarious Work and Life: Organizing and Mutual Aid across Communities
CW: We’ve been talking about both your involvement in university organizing, particularly in your classes, and also your involvement in neighborhood-community building. Do you see any connections or ways of interweaving those two kinds of organizing? The one obvious way you do it is by working with Community First. Have you tried to engage in any organizing that connects between your housing co-op or other sort so organizing you’ve been involved in your neighborhood or the wider city and your classes?
Maude: I’ve definitely thought a lot about it. One of the projects I’ve gotten involved in during the past year is with a group of folks who are interested in incubating new workers’ co-ops here in the city. I’d love to teach a class that connected really explicitly with that. I don’t think it would matter what university I was teaching that class at. I do have a real fantasy of connecting the city’s public university with the workers’ co-op group, because it is a land-grant university. There’s this mission inherent in the university’s structure to do cooperative extension, but they don’ really do it. I’d love to have a formal relationship with them, because I think this co-op extension is potentially pretty radical, and I’d like to learn more about the history of that, nationally. There’s real potential to connect them with groups trying to promote workers’ co-ops in the city.
The other thing that I’ve thought a lot about and would really be into is: Community First does these empowerment circles, which are study circles in which people learn about a particular issue. A recent one was about proposed changes to public housing regulations, meaning that the amount tenants have to pay each month would go up. This week, I worked with a group of tenant organizers who are in town to do some research in local archives about the history of tenant organizing in the city. I’d organized the papers of this group that did tenant organizing for 25 years. So, I went with these tenant organizers to the archives to help them find good stuff, so they can put together an exhibit on the history of tenant organizing here. They’re pretty radical folks, and I was helping them find visuals that they can blow up to use in their event. Since Community First does these empowerment circles, I was thinking it would be cool to do more research and education work with Community First members outside the academic institution but working on these targeted projects, such as tenants’ rights history. It would involve getting together with folks who are interested in learning a certain thing, and doing it together. It would be outside the context of the university, although [Big Private University] has historically offered classes for free to community members around community stuff, so there’s possibly potential for doing something like this through which people could get college credit (but I don’t know how important that is to folks). I’m into thinking creatively about how to do this teaching and learning outside the university, or with more specific connections between the university and these other groups.
CW: Along the lines of how to do these teaching and learning projects outside the university, I feel that one tension we face is about the funding. Universities have all this funding for teaching and learning projects, and we can tap into that. Thinking about how you have grappled with the tension of working as a kind of precarious contingent adjunct teacher while trying to do radical teaching both within and outside the university, have you thought of how your being a part of a housing co-op has helped you cope better with that precarious working condition?
Maude: My partner and I have definitely made an intentional decision to keep our living expenses as low as possible to do the kind of work we want to do. But, living in our co-op isn’t actually that much more affordable. Sure, it’s more affordable than if we had a mortgage on a three-bedroom house. The relative affordability of it has enabled us to not have to work full-time, for now. Also, even more than the affordability of it is the stability, and just knowing that we’re here and nobody is going to make us leave. Our city has very good tenants’ rights laws. But, there is something psychological about ownership, even if it might be totally fabricated. I know it’s total bullshit but I do have that feeling because I’ve been inculcated in this idea that homeownership is a stable thing, but of course when you look at foreclosure and all it’s no more stable than the next thing. But, there still is this feeling, like, ‘okay, we’re good here, we know how much we pay every month, and that’s set.’ The affordability and the stability of it have been good for not feeling pressured to have to get a full-time job. Part of buying into this place was knowing that, if we can afford it at this stage in our lives when we’re severely underemployed, maybe someday we’ll make more money and know that at least we can afford this at a pretty low-level of income. It’s freeing in a way, and I’m happy with it.
Regarding precarity in general, I think in some ways being an adjunct allows you more flexibility for designing these kinds of courses. It depends on the university, but at the university where I’m adjuncting, the oversight on the classes where I teach is extremely variable. I feel that I can come and do pretty much whatever I want. I’ve often had the opportunity to say ‘I want to teach this class,’ and then to teach it. Of course, being a full-time professor would give me a lot more time to design stuff and to feel that I was being compensated for it. I suppose, ideally, being a full-time professor you’d have just as much freedom in terms of what you were designing. With an adjuncting gig, they’ll let you teach the class and they’ll stick you in there as if it’s some weird elective. Whereas if you’re full-time, there’s probably certain classes that you’re expected to teach. In some ways the precarity might make it easier, but in the end I don’t think that’s good. I get frustrated too, thinking that if I had a more steady gig, that would allow me to develop longer-term relationships with these groups who I want to do these classes and research with year-after-year. It’s frustrating that I never know semester-to-semester if I can continue that kind of work.
CW: Do you have any supportive relationships with other precarious academics or teachers in your area for supporting each other in radical teaching and organizing?
Maude: Not at all! I have one friend at the school where I’ve adjuncted, and she’s great. We’ve had a couple of conversations but never anything trying to set up any real kind of support system for ourselves. My friends don’t tend to be academics in this city. I did start a sort of reading group of people doing research on this city, but most of them are tenured faculty and not in my position. So, I barely have an academic community here, and that makes any kind of organizing around academic stuff hard, because it’s not like my good friends are doing it. I feel pretty isolated in my position.
CW: This interview now was instigated from a discussion [at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference in NYC] about how we could create resources for each other with us being mostly precarious academics in different cities. Do you feel that we could create some sort of supportive network across our different grounded local places? Do you have any ideas for how we could support each other?
Maude: I think that would be great. I think a lot of the support I would need would be in relation to the particular institution in which I’m teaching. I’m part of a union at this institution (one of the few institutions where the adjunct labor is organized in this country). So, you would think that I would have more connection with fellow adjuncts here. That’s something I could definitely follow-up on. Its being unionized is one of the draws to me of teaching there.
There’s stuff like sharing syllabi and teaching methods, but that’s not necessarily specific to us being precarious workers. What I really need is health insurance. As a precarious worker, that is the far overriding thing that I need. That’s kind of boring to try to organize around. I can buy it through my union, but that’s really expensive. If I were to get involved in my adjunct union, maybe there would be ways for me to connect with other adjunct organizing efforts.
This interview with Maude Ontario (a pseudonym) was conducted on May 24th, 2012.