Fieldnotes from the Front Lines: MLA Subconference 2014
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.