Author's Roundtable 2: Response from David Morris

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by David Morris (English)

The following comments are informed by several positions I’ve occupied at UI. I’m a seventh year grad student in English. During my time here, I’ve taught seventeen courses and assisted for five more. I’ll be on the job market next year. I was heavily involved in negotiating the 2006 GEO-UI contract, and I’ve been sporadically involved in the GEO ever since, especially in health care access and quality on this campus. I’ve spent lots of time thinking about my experiences with the GEO since 2006. So in my capacity as grad student, contingent teacher, job candidate, and skeptical activist, I want to offer a few observations on points that I found particularly useful in Frank Donoghue’s book. Most of my comments address the intersections of labor union discourse and academic labor organization, noting some of the strengths and limitations of this convergence.

At the end of chapter one of The Last Professors, Professor Donoghue illuminates factors that have prevented professors from organizing for administrative influence and better working conditions. While the book contains some criticism of AAUP and labor-union like organizing, it seems to hope for faculty organizing of a basically labor union style. We see this in Professor Donoghue’s focus on labor as an organizing concept, noting that professors often do not view what they do as labor in the economic sense. Adjuncts and grad employees have historically had better luck organizing. I want to point out, though, that around many issues—academic, community, employment—there has been successful organizing and activist work enacted by coalitions of people at various academic ranks. There’s a habit in certain quarters of academic unionization—I’ve seen it in the GEO and especially in its parent organizations, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and American Federation of Teachers—to adopt the organization and mobilization strategies and the rhetoric of national unions like Service Employees International Union which represents an array of service professions. This model relies heavily on numbers of rank-and-file union members and on the legislative power of the parent organization. While this model has its uses, it’s somewhat less than ideally democratic, and often ends up mimicking the kind of top down corporate structure of governance it would seek to combat. To a certain extent, it requires ideological near-uniformity at mobilization time—or, at best, it ignores its own diversity. I’d like to suggest that organizing around issues, organizing at micro levels for faculty, adjunct, and grad influence in higher administrative decisions, and organizing for diverse purposes are still effective methods. This requires us to rethink what we mean by solidarity among academic laborers, and to recognize assemblages instead of monolithic organizations. This allows for diversified methods, diversified goals, and diversified rhetorics among people who share common interests in quality education and research measured outside of corporate criteria.

Professor Donoghue’s demand in chapter 4 for a new, compelling defense of the humanities implicitly demands that we consider the extent to which uniform defenses are necessary or even desirable. In other words, the question we face when defending the value of the humanities is not just “what message do we have?” but, is it necessary to have just one and to “stay on message” with it? In chapter 3, he suggests that to combat accusations that the humanities are impractical, “humanists tend to produce one manifesto after another in defense of the intrinsic good of critical thinking. Instead, I believe that humanists first must use the tools of critical thinking to question the widespread assumption that efficiency, productivity, and profitability are intrinsically good” (88). This argument reminds us that a critique of corporate values must be sustained, piercing, and public, unlike the critiques many of us do make on occasion (often while rolling our eyes) lamenting the philistinism of students, administrators, or faculty in non-humanities disciplines. I’d like to add two observations to this argument. The “manifestos” “in defense of the intrinsic good of critical thinking” appear in various places, but often in front of specific audiences. The way we defend the importance of the humanities ought to vary depending on the audience; what we tell each other ought not necessarily to be the same as what we tell public school boards, state legislators, and administrators--for two reasons. First, while I don’t particularly like ends-justifying-means arguments, I find a limited compulsion to be particularly sincere to some administrators. If making the Matthew Arnold-type arguments about the enrichment of the whole person works on an audience, I’m going to use it. Second, and more importantly, I’d like to suggest that it wouldn’t necessarily be desirable to have a single voice—or a single organization representing all of us—articulating a monolithic, totally coherent and consistent defense of the humanities that goes beyond specific occasions. This would tend to belie the diversity of approaches to humanities research and education.

I advocate, in other words, trying to come up with models of organizing that accommodate diverse assemblages—of activists, of organizations, of disciplines, of methods, of goals. I’ve been encouraged in the last few years to see people within the GEO doing just this. Members and staff have made great strides at bringing together campus organizations with diverse memberships and goals around specific issues. Ideological and methodological uniformity are unnecessary, as diverse methods and approaches can all work toward generally similar goals—whether they are in support of contract organizing, better services for international students, non-discrimination, etc. Active membership in GEO has grown under this approach.

There are limitations to this model—it tends to be messier, and it can appear organizationally weak as compared to, for example, city of Champaign government or UI administration. I leave Professor Donoghue’s book, however, with hope for the future of the humanities driven in part by the successes of diverse models of organizing. Despite a series of insults from administrators over the past two years—including threatened tuition waivers, crummy contract proposals, not always sincere efforts in making the campus more diverse, and a maddening focus on “branding” of the university—and despite the dark diagnoses and predictions of The Last Professors, I also see hope in this: Organizing academic labor involves a sometimes messy assemblage, one that suffers setbacks and rarely wins clear victories, but the corporatization of administration also involves a messy assemblage, one that suffers setbacks and rarely wins clear victories. It’s difficult not to view administrative-market assemblages as monolithic, extremely well-organized, and omnicompetent. They are none of these things, as the recent failure of UI’s “global campus initiative” and the somewhat ignominious demotions of the President and Chancellor suggest. Structurally, it probably doesn’t matter that White and Herman are gone—the machine will continue to run. But it does remind us that the march of corporate HR-style administration isn’t unstoppable, even given the potent market forces described by Professor Donoghue.


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