by Christian Anderson, City University of New York
Last semester I spent one night a week sleeping on the floor in a small, windowless student office at my university. I had an adjunct teaching load that included one class which met on Thursday evenings and another that met on Friday mornings. Since I commute two hours each way to get into the city to teach, I reasoned that it would make more sense to hunker down and sleep in an office than it would to spend four additional hours and transportation costs to get back home on Thursday nights. I wrangled up some old bedding, figured out how to use the cushions of a small vinyl couch to make a mattress, and that was that.
This arrangement turned out to be less than ideal, but I kept doing it anyway. Security guards did sweeps at night to make sure everyone was out of the building. To avoid them, I needed to be locked in the office, lights out, by the time they started at 10pm. There was also a cleaning woman who came at about midnight. We learned about each other when, in a moment of mutual horror, she walked in on me lying there under my pink sheet on the first night. Maybe she took pity – she never mentioned me to the guards. In any case, this was a recipe for a restless night.
I am not suggesting that I endured any real hardship here. I didn’t. But in that space between the security guards and the cleaning woman I often thought about the increasingly problematic landscape of contemporary university life and questioned what people like myself – lying there and perhaps even romanticizing my own self-exploitation at that very moment – were really doing about it.
The litany of complaints about the neoliberal university is painfully familiar. Intellectual community strangulated by “excellence”, adjunctification, “self-funding” initiatives, tuition hikes, the commodification of ideas, and on and on. Radical geographers might know better than anyone about the big structural forces – surely beyond our control, right? – that are driving these insidious shifts. We may even vow to “resist” them to the best of our ability. But is that the whole story?
To take just one little example of something that everyone seems to loathe but that nobody does anything about, how about the avalanche of reference letters that are prematurely requested by search committees just so they can have them on hand should a candidate warrant further consideration? Every professor I know spends waaay too much time writing these. Is that structural? Certainly, everyone feels time pressures and no search committee chair wants to have to spend time soliciting letters at a later stage in the search. But this is clearly a situation where a time saving for a small number of individuals is purchased at the expense of a much larger amount of time needlessly taken from others. So why does this still go on? What would it take for the people who produce the values at the heart of the university – students, teachers, researchers, and scholars – to really change things (especially solvable problems like this), to go beyond identifying issues and collectively organize for something different?
Ultimately these kinds of issues are about something a lot greater than the well-being of academic workers. The university could and should be a common, a collective resource for a better future, and this is what is really at stake in decisions about how time and energy are spent. As Meyerhoff, Johnson, and Braun (2011) suggest, the debt, instrumental thinking, and competitive individualism that academic time is increasingly channelled toward is doubly problematic because there are so many better things that this time could be used for. The alternative to the neoliberal university is the university as a common, and fighting for this means framing struggles over the use of time in common. In this context, initiatives like the Community Economies Collective and the Autonomous Geographies Collective (2010) are crucial. These efforts are not about an ethic of resistance so much as an ethos of expanding what university life is about and experimenting with collective knowledge production through collaboration in common with new publics.
I would like to think that this Antipode blog space could be a resource for these kinds of conversations and struggles. Culum Canally’s recent post about complicity through grading is a great start – a provocation, and one of many potential kernels to organize around (see Kean Birch’s post on exploitation in the academy also). We shouldn’t underestimate the power that this could eventually produce. As Hawkins, Manzi, and Ojeda have shown in their ongoing feminist project ‘Lives in the making: Power, academia, and the everyday’, when we are open about our struggles – about the numerous failures, frustrations, infuriations, indignities, and obstacles that we all experience – we can better understand that we are not alone, that we share much in common, and that we could and should collectively organize around this common to expand it and (re)produce a different kind of university.
This means you. If you have a story to tell – about your own nights spent sleeping on the floor, as it were, or about a solution or hopeful example that you would be willing to offer – please post it as a comment to this thread, anonymously if you like, or consider sending it in as a guest post of your own ([email protected]). It would be great to make visible all the different experiences that are taking place out there, figure out how to connect them, and see what kind of struggles we could get up to.
Autonomous Geographies Collective (2010) Beyond scholar activism: Making strategic interventions inside and outside the neoliberal university. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 9:245-275
Hawkins R, Manzi M, and Ojeda D (ongoing) ‘Lives in the making: Power, academia, and the everyday’ – a longitudinal qualitative study, in five year intervals, tracking the experiences of a cohort of scholars from early career through their life course in academia.
Meyerhoff E, Johnson E, and Braun B (2011) Time and the university. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 10(3):483-507