Who We Will To Be

Field Notes from the Front Lines

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Shadows are strangers waiting to be met, gazed into, get lost in. Some may catalog lectures. Others watch our rage rise.

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I imagine a man mopping the floor with my face. When he’s done, I spit in his.

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My mother buys me potted flowers to see if my heart can grow beyond my son. I kill them every time.

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White is an arrogant color. Taunting. It will kick you when you’re down or tangle you in a bed sheet.

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Somehow it all comes together without our understanding.

Open Letter to Christopher Kennedy, #Badmin

Inside Higher Education‘s current article about the University of Illinois-Champaign’s decision not to renew adjunct James Kilgore reprints an inflammatory statement by Christopher Kennedy, Illinois Board of Trustees Chair. In The News-Gazette, Kennedy declared that adjuncts are not worthy of academic freedom (full quote below). You and I both know that this is not true.

Tell him what you think: UIBOT@uillinois.edu. I did.

Mr. Kennedy and fellow trustees:

I am an outspoken adjunct advocate working with the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education and a faculty member at Columbia College Chicago. Needless to say, I am deeply disturbed by your statement that adjuncts are immune from academic freedom. Let me refresh your memory: “We’re not reacting to public pressure. If this was an issue of academic freedom, we would stand up for it. This is an hourly employee who doesn’t have tenure. It’s completely different.”

Actually, it is not different. Academic freedom is a right awarded to all faculty, regardless of full-time or part-time status. Considering that 2/3 of faculty across the nation are part-time, how can you, in good conscience, promote the fact that only 1/3 of faculty are “true” faculty who are worthy of basic rights in the classroom? I see no sense in your assumption, and neither will the AAUP.

Recently, an adjunct faculty member at my institution, Iymen Chehade, was reprimanded after a student complained that he was sharing Palestinian narratives in the classroom. Without proper protocol, the university automatically responded by removing his fall semester sections. This, of course, caused an uproar in the community, and his situation became known across the globe. A grievance was filed with our part-time faculty union, P-fac, a petition for reinstatement of his courses garnered nearly 7,000 signatures, and perhaps most importantly to Kilgore’s case, the AAUP ruled that his academic freedom was, in fact, violated. You may read the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s article (which has a link to the AAUP ruling) here. You might also be interested to know that AAUP has a One Faculty initiative dedicated to removing the kind of ideology that harms the majority of faculty.

With your statement, you have secured your role as #badmin, or an administrator who acts against the interests of his community. You have also made our shit list. I’m sure the public shame that will result from your short-sighted statement will be enough to make you think twice about the role of faculty within the university.

Enjoy the backlash. It’s already begun.

You Can Shoot the Cop in the Head

Nato 2012

What is the cop in the head? Is it that which cannot hear the subaltern speak? Is it something that grows and learns, or is it shibari bound by law and regulation, power and control? One of its faces bashed a semicircle into a man’s top teeth with a billy club and rammed the railing into my girlfriends at NATO, May 2012. Is it possible to prevent him from swinging the club, declaring the gavel, embodying the dominant codes, the ideology? How did he get to be in power?

What have you done?

Who hurt you?

Grad Advisor Ken ™ comes with a supply of red pens and a permanent frown. Press the button to hear Grad Advisor Ken deliver such wisdom to Barbie as “I need an update on your progress,” “I don’t think you’re ready to defend yet,” and “This is nowhere near ready for publication.” from Graduate School Barbie (TM)

One of the cops in my head is my thesis advisor, Eastern Illinois University, 2004. Have you considered not getting a PhD? It’s a lot of work, he said in the same way he said “Sammy Rosenstock always sounded to me like a men’s warehouse owner, ‘Hey! I can get it for you wholesale!’.” In a thick Boston accent with his hands gesturing from his pockets, setting me beside his con man, my idol Tristan Tzara, in a prison cell.

How have your guards abandoned you? Did you forget to listen? Tell me what ghosts grind your teeth at night. I wonder if they look like mine. But let us not dialogue with our persecutors (Refusons le dialogue avec nos matraqueurs.) Let’s talk to each other.

Fieldnotes from the Front Lines: MLA Subconference 2014

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Columbia College Chicago, Polar Vortex 1: We’re legally occupying a South Loop, non-profit private arts school lecture hall on Michigan Avenue because of urgency and necessity. I’m awake. Jolted by Panel 1’s lines of flight, it’s not hard to be: 1) Here’s how to find grants to develop classes for prisoners, 2) Wisconsin incarcerates 10% of its black men, and 3) The instructor knew her job was done when the students taught each other. The Q&A? The school-to-prison pipeline.

It feels good, like a reunion or an avatar of the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education, here at the MLA Subconference, which is less a shadow conference than a think tank in a borrowed room filled with ABDs, new PhDs, adjuncts, a scattering of undergrads riled up to read from private university budgets, staff, a couple TT, many low-wage workers, Fight For 15, the IWW, and anti-eviction organizers from across the nation and beyond on deck and ready to roll. Oh solidarity!

One of the Subconference organizers, Laura Goldblatt, tells us how she lived through the hunger strikes at the University of Virginia. We witness the fire of Jean d’Adjunct, AAUP’s own Marcia Newfield, 78, who testifies that she will never retire in a way that shrouds my stomach with ice as I imagine the flames clawing her legs. But Lucia Pawlowski (University of St. Thomas) calms me when she tells us how building one big union has helped struggles at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. There’s no danger of getting tangled up in theory here. Radical direct action is necessary, as Jacob Glicklich (U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) reminds us, not only to disrupt and end unethical practices by isolating appropriate targets, but also to build debt-free alternative schools like the Global Center for Advanced Studies that actively encourage mixing praxis with radical theory. I am learning to believe that coincidences don’t always matter (thank you I Heart Huckabees), but I still get schizoanalytic shock in these times. I hear echoes of the May ’68 slogans all over again. If I had Catholic guilt, I’d crush a rosary between my palms with anticipation.

Look around—it’s happening. It’s way okay to say l’événement. As an adjunct in a dead end job, I’ve given up hope that the admins doing wastefully what the faculty could do like our own ghost provost ironically-surnamed Love (everyone says Why is she still here? when she appears) will stop calling my students consumers and learn that they’re, well, people. Our new president said that increasing diversity on campus is high on his list while he prepped for yet another tuition raise, which at $23,884 means that students will pay 3.3% more than last year. I worry that it’s a sum beyond anything that me, the nouveau poor, could earn in a lifetime, much less the generation now entering college or my son’s, the one beyond. What might that mean for diversity?

I turned down a job working with admissions in summer 2012 as a cultural ambassador whose initiative was to collect wealthy Chinese students for our revenue. This seemed ethically questionable, especially as I had the option to teach at-risk students (many from our own South and West side lower-income neighborhoods), so at that time I did.

But the Bridge program—whose awkward mission asked faculty to play good cop/bad cop and assess students’ ability to succeed in college (cough cough, retention) rather than prepare or unschool them to transition into a foreign environment (culture, even, perhaps)—was cut over a year ago. The college chose to raise admission standards and wash their hands of the matter altogether. So what is this if not high noon. Hear the death knoll for diversity. That’s no drought, that’s ablation.

Your cohort Bret Hamilton (Columbia College Chicago) knows this. He’s downloaded, shared, and is studying his private school’s IRS 990 tax forms and bond issue statements after a tip from the finance panel on finding a more detailed portrait of individual institutions’ budgets. “The university must be a center for positive radical change,” said Laura G. You are Not a Loan (OWS, Strike Debt, et al). It’s all coming together. You can choose to fight against or you can hack out a new way if you can imagine. As long as you give a damn.

At the open bar, there’s free beer, all good stuff. No six buck granola bars to be seen. MLA Subcon organizer Lenora Hanson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) was happy when Revolution Brewing agreed to donate cases to our cause. “Good to see they’re not in name only,” she validated as we hustled flats of Anti-Hero from the van to the elevator.

Because I’m awkward in crowds, I approach a striking woman to take her portrait and ask what she’s fighting for, my general mission for everyone in the room. She’s so deep in animated discussion that she doesn’t notice me, and I’m nearly smacked in the face by her colorfully tattooed arm as she proclaims “Deterritorialization!” in the panoramic 8th floor administrative lounge overlooking Grant Park and The Horse, proving yet again that truth is more amazing than fiction.

As I meet each beautiful idealist, creative thinker, or critical organizer, I discover old hopes that I feared were dead: free education, living wages, free exchange of provocative ideas, joy, academic freedom, the end of capitalism, unshackling theory from praxis. I overhear someone say, “I would much rather be having sex and writing bad poetry.” But neither kinky sex nor “join the revolution, fall in love” sex are revolutionary events. A revolutionary event requires us to revisit past struggles in order to bring any potentially desired outcomes and consequences back to the playing field, RCB teaches me via Badiou. Daniel Singer’s mantra from the introduction to Prelude to a Revolution: France in May 68 says something similar: The lesson from May ’68 is that a revolution can happen in a first-world, capitalist country. The reverberations still echo from the sewers. You can feel them like the trains in your backyard or the el track outside your class window. They’re alive and well. It’s our time.

A Day in the Life of an Adjunct

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6:50 a.m. My son wakes, looks at me, and raises his leg to ask me to help take off his night AFOs. I undo the three velcro straps for him even though one of his occupational therapy (OT) goals is to do it himself.  We’re always crunched for time in the morning, and I want to make sure he’s on the bus in time for his Extended School Year (special ed, multi-needs only) program that starts today.

7:00 – 7:50 a.m. I heat water on the stove for his oatmeal. I help him in the bathroom. I help him get dressed. I give him his iPad to mess around with while I’m busy in the kitchen and get him into his activity chair. I clean the thermos from last night for his breakfast. I mix up his breakfast with the Vita Mix because he eats homemade-blended formula via a g-tube that he’s had since he was 8 months old. I feed him and give him his meds while he watches Neil Young’s Heart of Gold on fast forward because he has just discovered the hilarity of quadruple speed. I pack an extra change of clothes, a notebook, a folder, crayons, pencils, Dynavox (communication device), Diastat (emergency seizure medication), monoject syringe (for g-tube emergencies), diapers, wipes, and the rest of his breakfast and food syringes in his backpack. I go outside to take his wheelchair out of the car. I come back in for him, and as we’re walking out the door, we see that the bus is already waiting for us.

8:00 – 9:00 a.m. I print out all the required documents for my trip to the DHS office to apply for food stamps, because we’re down to $185.26 for the rest of the month. ComEd bill (unpaid), lease agreement (to show rent), bank statements (to show his SSI monthly payments), old paychecks (4/30/13 and 5/15/30). I won’t be paid again until the middle of October. I’m ashamed to admit that my parents are paying my rent until then, but I’m grateful for their help.

There are no classes this summer since the Bridge program was cut, so I am unemployed until fall. I realized as I checked the box that asks if I am employed “No” on the DHS form last night that it’s true. I have four classes lined up for fall, but absolutely no work right now. This is par for course for those of us teaching part-time in the university. “What are you going to do for summer work?” we ask each other as the spring semester winds down in our generic adjunct office we share with the graduate students who are taking our classes without receiving a tuition waiver.

9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. I drive to the DHS office in Melrose Park and discover that the lot is blocked off. There are at least 50 people waiting outside and cop cars prevent us from turning in. I waste another half hour looking for parking, at one point pulling into a lot next to a strip mall where two men are nailing a WARNING: Tow Zone placard up on the nearly-rotten wooden fence.

“Hey, know where I can park for DHS?”
“Nah. You for FEMA? That flood relief thing?”
“No. Just applying for food stamps. Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow?”
“It’s going on all week. Don’t park here – they’re towing everyone away. That’s a $250 fine. You don’t want that.”

Finally I ask the cop by the DHS office for tips on where to park. “25th Avenue, near the Family Dollar.”

Walking along the cracked sidewalk near the taquerias and pizzerias, all kinds of folks are trying to figure out the situation. People backing in, rolling down their windows, yelling to the passersby. “Don’t park here!” women advise into each other’s rolled-down car windows, cigarettes waving in their hands.

As I turn the corner into the DHS lot, I pass by the cop car blocking the entrance. “Lieutenant was killed last night,” the officer in the front seat says. Folks are waiting outside the office with lawn chairs, standing in groups, and facing the front of the building’s entrance which is blocked by another officer.

”Let me help you,” says a guy in a bright yellow IDHS vest.
“I just have a food stamp application.”
“Disaster relief?”
“No. Just food stamps.”
“Put it in that folder over there. New applicants. Use an envelope to keep your information private.”
“And then what?”
“We’ll call you in a week for an appointment.”

As I’m leaving, a teenage girl in braids, a hot-pink sweatshirt and jeans rests her weight on one leg, takes a drag off her cigarette, and looks at me. The man in the folding chair rests his head along the top. In the strip-mall parking lot, a tow truck hauls away a ‘90s Cadillac. Driving away, I’m blocked by an unmoving train.

Road blocks.

Barricades.

10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. At home, I reflect a bit on the scene and type it up on WordPress before I hit the books. I reread and take notes on “Chapter 5: Infancy” for my Language Development course because I haphazardly did the chapter review without reading the whole thing to get the assignment in on time. My life is crunching time and multitasking. I’m an unemployed English instructor. A single mother of a child with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, the same kind that Christy Brown (My Left Foot) had. A lover of a fuck-up single father who can’t pay his rent. A speech-language pathology student (yes, I’m leaving academia because it doesn’t pay the bills). I’m every failed woman staggering through the mess of her fuck-up life.

Thank God I still know how to smile.

My man texts me from the middle of sorting through the garage to clear out all the junk from his life. He’s moving up here to be with me after living 35 years downstate. I don’t know how the hell you’ve done it, I tell him. “Got the UHaul rented, both parents up here, calling the trash people about extra pickup, calling landlord about giving me three days to get it done. I’m doing it.❤.”

12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. “He’s the most popular kid at school,” the bus aide says as he wheels my son onto the wheelchair lift. “Everybody calling him by his name, rubbing his head, saying bye. The teachers love him.”

My son, unenthused, gestures toward the garage for his trike.
“Not now, babe. We’ve got to get ready to go see Bridget.”

We go inside and he chooses to camp out at the table while I finish his lunch. I feed him, chat with him about his school day, and then we get in the car to go to physical therapy (PT).

1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. In the waiting room, my son lifts up his shirt to tell me he’s hungry as we wait for Bridget to come out.
“I just fed you, babe. You can eat again after PT. I don’t want you to feel sick while you’re working.”

Bridget comes through the door, raises her arms, and says “Hi! Who got a haircut? It’s not Ethan. Not Mom. Not Thai. Is it Finn?”

My kid grins, looks at me, then puts his hands on the armrest to say “I’m ready! Drive me in!”

Bridget gets the ankle weights that she’s just started using to help him with heel strikes and his proprioception, or the sense of where his body is in space. She puts them on him and they take a long walk back and forth through the gym.

“His steps look great!” she says. Then he scissors. “I should know to keep my mouth shut. Every time I compliment him, he starts scissoring.”

She asks about our weekend, about school, about daily stuff. We chat while Finn smiles through his walk, trying hard to heel strike instead of step first on the balls of his feet. “Does he have a bar to hold onto while he gets dressed?” she says. “I’m always thinking about what to do when he’s taller.”

“Our house is pretty small, and our bathroom is tiny, but it works for us right now,” I say, aware that it sounds like an excuse although it totally isn’t. “We do have a bar, though, and Dad has a lot of space. I can talk to him about it.”

“Have you ever worked on just standing with him?” she asks.

“All the time, in the bathroom especially. He’s always trying to stomp or walk when he should be holding still.”

“Let’s do that. Here,” she says, talking to Finn. “I’m going to count to 10 and you’re going to keep your feet on the ground. 1, 2, 3, 4,” she says, and he raises his right foot. “Oh, let’s try that again! 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” she says, and he looks at me, concentrating really hard and grinning, but keeping his feet down and his body still. “6, 7, 8, 9, 10! Wow! Great job holding still!” she says. I’m impressed.

He does it three more times before therapy ends. I can’t for the life of me figure out why he did it then and not the hundreds of times I’ve tried before, but I’m glad that he’s finally doing it.

2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. “You’ve had a long day, so we’re going to read two stories and have a nap,” I tell him, taking off his tennis shoes. “Pick which two you want, and I’ll get your food.” When I come back, he’s chosen two Piggie and Elephant books, and is sitting up happily flipping through them. We read them and lie down without sleeping for the next hour, cuddling, wrestling, and enjoying our little rest.

3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. When our alarm goes off, he juts up, ecstatic. I help him off the bed and he crawls into his room to play with his cars until it’s time to go to his Dad’s. I give him his alone time. He’s begun requesting it, and I can understand why someone who needs so much one-on-one attention would crave it, so I’m always happy to let him be. He needs to decompress, to chill in his own world without the influence of others.

4:00 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. I drive him to Dad’s, where his 37-week-pregnant stepmom answers the door with a smile. “Your sister’s asleep,” she says to Finn when we get into the quiet apartment.

When I get home, my boyfriend calls. “It’s weird,” he says of cleaning out his garage. “The only thing that bothers me about it all is that I don’t have time to write it down. Everything has an energy. An emotion attached. Everything in disarray.” He’s a working-class poet who writes sentences so clear that you barely even need to read them once to understand what he’s saying. His eyes are spot on. The man can see. And he’s two papers and a creative thesis away from his M.A. in English, which I imagine will do for him no better than it’s done for me. It’s a total crapshoot with everything working against you.

I tell him that I’m going to take a short rest and that we’ll talk soon. I’m beat. My body feels like it’s been crumpled in a fetal position for days. I have no idea why. I pass out with the intention of sleeping for a half hour and wake up nearly two hours later, still feeling like shit.

6:30 – 9:00 p.m. I finish my notes from Chapter 5 after I wake up and promise my girlfriend in D.C., the only other member of the Single Mothers’ Video Chat and Drinks Club, that I’ll video chat with her later. I cross the chapter off my list, along with “DHS,” “Bank – proof of SSI deposit 5/31/2013” and look for more things to cross off.  “Coconut milk” means a trip to the store, so I head there to pick it up along with a bottle of 3 buck Chuck.

“I’m glad you brought your bag,” the checker tells me. “A girl told me that she forgot it the other day because she’s in love. If that’s the only problem you’ve got, that’s wonderful,” she says.