Learning to be silent and stand by: accompaniment training to support our immigrant friends

The word friends was included without quotes in the title of this post because the unadorned word properly reflects the core values of community, solidarity, advocacy, and recognition of humanity expressed at an accompaniment training held at New Sanctuary Coalition, an interfaith/nonfaith group fighting for immigrant rights, in midtown Manhattan this past Monday. Accompaniment as defined by the presenters is a form of “advocacy for others without confrontation,” a way community members can stand in solidarity with immigrants who are facing different kinds of hearings and check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Something I loved about the presentation was the emphasis on seeing this form of advocacy not as a savioristic enterprise – volunteers are not there to “save” or “speak for” the immigrants who are going through these difficult experiences. Attempting to do so is a means by which to silence, to pave over the extraordinary efforts that are already taking place in immigrant communities, where the battle has been taken up by families, houses of worship, schools, and other centers of strength and communion in the fight for the right to live with dignity. We are simply standing with them, with our friends and neighbors. According to the presenters, judges in the New York City immigration court system have said that the presence of accompaniment volunteers is “critical” to the decision-making process regarding whether an immigrant defendant will, for example, be issued a bond or given more time to find an attorney if they don’t have one. Essentially, the paradox emerges that judges are more likely to be fair if they see that an immigrant defendant is surrounded by community members, e.g., volunteers, especially older White women, like many of those in attendance with me tonight.


Source: Reuters / Kyle Grillot

I will be signing up to participate in various accompaniment days. We can’t take pictures inside the courthouses and of course cannot speak of specifics of the experience. That won’t matter, and in a way, the dignity involved in not trying to speak or get attention or command authority, which those of us with power in this country by nature of our skin or bank accounts or language or status unconsciously assume as a birthright, will be beautiful. I’ll be standing alongside my friends and neighbors, using my Spanish when I can, my Whiteness and my privilege as a grad student with a flexible schedule, and my anger, sorrow, and energy to do my part in helping save our entire community.

Crying us a river: the New York Times’ lament of the poor education of detained migrant children

The expression “cry someone a river” according to Wiktionary has two definitions:

  1. (idiomatic, often sarcastic) To weep profusely or excessively in the presence of another person.
  2. (idiomatic, usually sarcastic, by extension) To try to obtain the sympathy of another person by complaining or sniveling.

I’ll focus on the first definition. The New York Times published an article on July 6th entitled “In a Migrant Shelter Classroom, ‘It’s Always Like the First Day of School.'” The article discusses the ongoing challenges in the education of migrant youth being held in detention centers for days and weeks at a time, mostly from the perspective of their teachers and those who visit to monitor for human rights compliance and violations. According to the article, the teachers who attend to the education of these children are working with limited curriculum (educational programming), resources, and training (some are not certified to teach), and they lament this. The author of the article likewise laments this state of affairs, citing a troubling example of a human rights worker who visited one of these detention facilities:

At Berks County Residential Center, an ICE facility in Pennsylvania, there are two classrooms, one for children aged 2 to 11 and another for children 12 to 18, according to Eleanor Acer, of the nonprofit Human Rights First. Ms. Acer, who has visited the center several times, said that the wide age span left the older children in each group bored, and that much of the instruction was done through computers and worksheets.

She added that some teachers were unable to communicate effectively in Spanish, and that classes cycle through the curriculum every two weeks, meaning students who stay longer repeat the same material.

“The impression is that they are not really taught much of anything,” Ms. Acer said.

This of course is a terrible situation. The odds are stacked against the teachers and, much more importantly, the students in these classrooms, who have been struggling with trauma, abuse, stress, inappropriate medication with psychiatric drugs, and, of course, a senseless and inhuman incarceration experience that does not see any immediate resolution, in spite of a federal judge’s order that children be reunited with their parents (which apparently isn’t even possible for some children, whom the Trump administration has lost track of). All of us in education shake our heads at such insurmountable odds, at the injustice, at the loss of opportunity to learn and grow of these children, of the potential damage this may cause them in future educational contexts and, by implication, in future opportunities after school.


Source: https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/We-Protect-ICE-Trump-Tells-Rallying-Crowd-as-Thousands-of-Migrant-Children-Await-Reunification-20180708-0007.html

But here’s the thing: Those of us who work with immigrant youth in public schools, particularly in large urban centers like New York City, see a version of this same story in our public school system every damn day. It is an ongoing injustice that we do not have the resources (including classroom space, materials, support staff, etc.), the sort of dynamic, flexible curriculum that can support and include all of our diverse learners, including newcomers (recently arrived immigrant students) and students who are categorized as SLIFE (students with limited or interrupted formal education), or the consistent training and support that teachers working in our cities’ public schools require to educate fairly, justly, and appropriately.

The Times mentions that HHS requires that the schooling provided for detained migrant children “[take] into account their ‘linguistic ability’ as well as ‘cultural diversity and sensitivity.'” For god’s sake: Our education system doesn’t do this now. We do not support our Brown or Black or immigrant students in public schools now, preferring to focus on individualizing, psychology-based strategies like mindfulness and resilience/grit which make children responsible for “resolving” their challenges while ignoring the structural issues that non-White, lower-income children experience like poverty, unstable housing, disproportionate policing and punishments in and out of schools, and other issues derived from systemic racism, xenophobia, and marginalization. We do not recognize that the slashes our country’s leaders have made to the education budget at the federal level and policy mandates that maintain our myopic, maniacal focus on testing punish our public schools, their teachers, and our students, all the while justifying moves to privatize and militarize. The following quote rings so hollow when we consider the state of affairs most children of color, immigrant children, and poor children experience in the day-to-day now in our public schools:

“You can only imagine the children surrounding them, how that impacts their education.”

Cry me a river. Yes, these migrant children are facing bald myriad injustices, but the reality is that their situation, lamentable though it absolutely is, is an extreme version of the same story of heartlessness, blindness, exclusion, and marginalization that millions of children in U.S. public schools face right now. We who are U.S.-born, and especially those of us who are White, should recognize that while these are not crocodile tears per se, the professing of ignorance will not do.

I’ve made my point, but I have to mention the last kick in the pants that shows up in the paternalistic final quote included in the article, taken from Ms. Baez, one of the teachers who work with the young people:

“The kids are very responsive, very glad to be in school learning and very eager to learn English.”

Well, what the hell else would they do? These children are prisoners. They are desperate for stability, for human contact, for stimulation, for any hope that correct and obedient behavior will get them out. And we can’t forget that our public outcries for this to stop, forceful and beautiful though they are, have many more lives awaiting their calls for justice.

The threat of blindness: the problems with merging education and labor

Something that has gotten little attention in the news lately is the fact that under discussion is the merging of the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Education at the federal level, a conversation that was apparently inspired by businesswoman and First Daughter Ivanka Trump. The fact that this momentous change is under consideration is understandably obscured by current news about the separation of asylum-seeking migrant parents and their children at the Mexican-U.S. border, which results in illegal incarceration, trauma, and the destruction of family units. Important to our thinking is the consciousness that this seemingly recent stage of of politics which is drawing our attention (and, perhaps, morbidly creating an opportunity for broad, ecumenical, supra-political unity on what amounts to violence and abuse) is in reality part of a much longer history of dehumanization of immigrants coming to this country seeking work, succor, or opportunity.

According to CNN, the proposed merger is part of a major government overhaul, which Secretary of Education Betsy Devos claims to be a means by which to “reduce the federal footprint in education and to make the federal government more efficient and effective.” As Devos has argued publicly since her appointment in early 2017, states and individual municipalities should have control over what happens in their schools, overlooking the fact that the federal government continues to exert influence through funding policies as well as constitutional protections of student’s civil rights, including protection against discrimination (see here, herehere , and here for more information about this ongoing tension).


By Lexicon, Vikrum [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney stated that this merger “makes tremendous sense. Because what are [these departments] both doing? They’re doing the same thing. They’re trying to get people ready for the workforce. Sometimes it’s education. Sometimes it’s vocational training.” Essentially, Mulvaney is articulating a shift that has been taking place in educational thinking in our country over the last several decades, a progression which included Ronald Reagan’s pledge in 1981 to eliminate the Department of Education in a time when “big government” received increasing criticism. Reagan’s pledge, unfulfilled though it remained, referenced his and other conservatives’ ongoing push to make education a process of job training, a position illustrated in his public speeches in the 1960s in which he argued that “taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” (That Reagan was a mediocre student and didn’t seem to care about his own schooling is perhaps a separate conversation.)

Two questions to address are these: how are we defining schooling, and how are we defining education? What is the purpose? Yes, schooling prepares us to emerge into and participate in the adult world, but this is so much more than work. True, we have moved through different eras of educational approach and philosophy, ranging from Taylorism (a.k.a. industrial education or a factory model of education) to John Dewey’s view of education as a laboratory for democratic thought and exploration. We have employed schooling to serve political as well as economic purposes, as a buttress against perceived threats of nuclear war and a preemptive strike against losing our place as a world superpower. There has never been a single unified vision of what schools should do,  how teachers should teach, or how children best learn. I would suggest that healthy and impassioned debate about this should continue on as long as schools exist.

Instead, I hold and hope that education itself – not schooling, that embattled and ever-changing space where children adopt ways of thinking that adults approve of (yes, this is a radical stance, but not necessarily a leftist one!) – can survive the neoliberal, market-friendly restructuring that threatens from the highest office. Education is the means by which we encounter – note, not “become” – our thinking selves, our feeling and knowing selves. We explore abilities, take chances, find heroes, start fires, and trip and swing and, damn it, learn. Grow. I take a radical view in stating that I believe that education takes place in many places and spaces: at home, in religious centers, with siblings and grandparents, on playgrounds, when we travel, when we suffer loss. Schools may purport to act as a locus for such experiences, which urge excitement of the mind into spaces of new becomings, but it is education itself that accompanies all of us as we become our human selves and grow into possibilities.

These possibilities may include ways of participating in work, but they also include ways of participating in society as democratic subjects and human beings living together in a shared political community. If we reduce education to job training, they we lose the opportunity to explore and understand so much about our reality. We begin to accept our current state of affairs as what is “right,” “normal,” and “unavoidable.” We begin to lose sight of the fact that this time is only one of many shimmering off the back of collective humanity. And in a time of great pain, anger, fear, and abandonment, we cannot afford to go blind.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”: Mr. Rogers, the separation of immigrant families, and the complicated notion of “love”

Last night I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a biopic about the life and work of Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister and TV personality known to people of my generation as the host of PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers donned his iconic cardigan sweaters and talked to the audience through the camera in every episode, welcoming children into his world of puppets, imagination, music, and conversation about being a kid and being human. Along with Sesame Street, this was my earliest memory of television, and, after remembering this experience through the movie last night, a precious one.


Screenshot from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Focus Films, 2018)

I didn’t realize how intentional the work of Fred Rogers was, in terms of his commitments to children and their development, as well as to helping them understand a confusing, sometimes cruel world, as well as their feelings and reactions to it. Rogers believed that children should feel as though they were special just as they are, and that a neighborhood, as he framed his show and its unifying theme, should be a place where you feel welcome, and safe, and accepted. This posture was affectionately termed “radical” by some of the team that supported his work, and indeed it continues to be today. Indeed, in public schools, we define “specialness” according to test results, conformist behavior, and eyes-on-the-prize thinking which make the experience of being a young learner a question of educational management rather than exploration, contestation, and becoming oneself at one’s own pace. Some of these tensions have existed in schooling for generations (see critiques here, here, and here), to be sure, but the pervasion – perversion? – of neoliberal values in our schools has changed education in the United States fundamentally, if not irrevocably.

Rogers, who died in 2003, held the unshakeable perspective that children should be guided by adults in approaching the world in safety, reassured that the grown-ups would take care of them, and that each the way each person, young or old, experienced this world was valuable and important. A beautiful quote from Rogers is as follows:

Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.

A beautiful and moving idea, one which the filmmakers suggest was rooted in Rogers’ faith. It was with this ethos in mind that he explored topics related to the Vietnam War, racism and segregation, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and, much more recently, 9/11. 

Interestingly, Rogers was a lifelong Republican, which makes me wonder how he might respond to our current cultural and political environment. While a living expression of the deep power of care and commitment to one’s fellow human, he was, like all of us, a limited individual with his own experiences and commitments upon which he built his world. This made me wonder how he might address, or even think about, the recent stories that have emerged in the news about immigrant parents being separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended using a now-critiqued citation of the Bible. Rogers might well have spoken out against this blatant cruelty, trauma, and violence being inflicted on families and children, some of whom are toddlers, and called upon the U.S. government to consider the lasting impacts these actions would have on the young people who are taken from their parents, put in detention, and relocated to foster families or relatives’ care. Yet I also wonder: would Rogers’ political conservatism generated complication and controversy for him?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Rogers would have thought these terrible events excusable or even tolerable. I suspect he would have been appalled. Yet I can’t help but suspect that this would be complicated for him, like all of us. Would he, like many of the members of our society today, feel even slightly differently were these U.S.-born children, especially White, English-speaking children?

My point is this: Even if a person believes that they are doing good in the world, their political alliances and the narratives that support them condition their way of enacting this good. It is, ironically, this reason that supports the rise of the testing regime in this country as a means to avoid leaving any child behind. The creators and users of these tests truly believe they are helping our children. And the nativists and White chauvinists in power today truly feel that they are protecting their country. We can love, and we all should do our best to do so as inspired by Fred Rogers’ life and work, but we also must remember that to love does not mean to love blindly, universally, or without tradeoffs. 

By Rhododendrites [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

The gravitational forces of public institutions: community-building for more just policing in New York

Being a student in one of the two largest public university systems in the country is an amazing experience. CUNY is powerfully connected to its complicated history with New York City, and there are few people who are not proud to study or teach there (or both, as many of our graduates continue on as professors at one of our campuses across the five boroughs). This history is activated in our collective actions as we stand alongside immigrant rights activists in downtown Manhattan, fellow demonstrating students fighting for the right to unionize, our masters students whose tuitions may rise in top-down decisions from school leadership, and many others.

Last week, I encountered two examples of how public institutions of higher education generate the centripetal forces that pull people from our communities together to fight for a common cause, like gentrification, unfair housing policy,  our city’s role as a sanctuary, and, like these two examples, the policing of Black and Brown communities which has terrorized families, perpetuated fear and anxiety, and resulted in the senseless death of far too many people. The first was a station set up on 5th Avenue with an information booth and colorful signs draped down its sides. It had been set up by the New York Civil Liberties Union.When I asked what was happening, one of the organizers told me that the signs were actually stickers that people could pull off and attach to a postcard that would then be mailed to the mayor’s office to articulate the community’s concerns about policing in New York and how it could be changed in the name of a more just system. Below is the flier the NYCLU provided with the same images:

 

I made my choices, added my postcard to the pile, and thanked the organizers doing this great visible-izing work in an area where they knew they’d get good support: CUNY students, professors, staff, and community members.

The second example of these amazing community forces flowing through CUNY showed up in a flier I found inside our building, one of hundreds that paper our hallways and bulletin boards:

A plain-language discussion of how gentrification and institutional racism are reinforced by police profiling of communities of color, the flier offers real solutions, resources, and contact information for all of us to become a part of community-based change by building relationships between residents, joining cop-watch teams, seeking mediation, and getting information on how to provide first aid.

These texts are living, continuing a dialogue in which we speak truth to power and give care to each other. So proud to be a part of this place.

Solitude and “co-being”: connecting Russian and Rilke in becoming a scholar

In the fourth year of doing a PhD, different people come up into, and against, different feelings. Some become more invigorated, generating an ever-so-slight fullness of smile, a growing sense of purpose, of voice. Others seem bogged down, sagging under the weight of hours staring at one’s silly words, uncertain that anything will ever come of all of this fuss and pennilessness. Still others — many of us, myself included — traverse the space between these two poles, sometimes full up with both feelings and plenty more besides (like loneliness, acid reflux, 3rd-grader-ish pride, shoulder pain, delight at being in limbo and relatively unaccountable, unresolved desire for unspoken engagements, and so on). It’s an ambiguous, profound, alien time, much like childhood, in that no one can really track where you’re headed, as you stumble and clamor and climb up trees and over hills.

I attended a student working group with my advisor and several other of her advisees tonight. One of the group members presented his work, terrific research on social workers and the tension between their values and the structural and political realities that constrain and delimit ethical engagement with their practice. During the talk, the presenter offered the Russian word sobytie, which he translated to mean “event,” and connected it to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, philosopher of language and literary critic. Our advisor, who is from the former Soviet Union, offered more information about the word, stating that its literal meaning is “event,” yet it can be broken down into the elements so, meaning “co-,” and bytie, meaning “being,” and that “co-being” in Russian means that one’s existence is a shared ongoing experience. She explained that there are many Russian words like this, which begin with the prefix so, thus embedding the idea that communalism is a fundamental part of being human. An illuminating example of the fact that language can contain so much history, so much social vision, in a single word.

As a PhD student, it often feels that our “co-being” is diminished, as we tell our friends and family (and ourselves) that we’ll have to talk later because this paper is due or a presentation is impending. We are lonely, but we know it’s a loneliness that is relatively temporary (only 5-8 years or so) and in fact is required to discover the trees and hills we want to climb. I also think, though, that there is something transformative about this solitary life. It is a life of learning, and one where the companionship that bubbles up along the way features sharing of brilliant, thrilling dialogues and the hardest questions you’ve ever faced. Bohemian-Austrian Romantic Rainer Maria Rilke encapsulates this beautifully:

I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.


By Unknown – http://www.zeno.org/Literatur/M/Rilke,+Rainer+Maria, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7279454

This is a comforting notion. It’s a bit extreme, I’ll admit — there are people I care very much about who are not on a quest to chart unseen worlds or pen unwritten words — but I like the idea of companionship in the tender, sometime darkly-lit explorations we do as doctoral students. It makes the mental calluses, the hiccuping sleep, the yawning uncertainty of the future, seem a bit more tolerable. It reminds us that exploring is a good way to make a life.


Source: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/2007/10/rilkes-ninth-elegy.html (artist unknown)

 

“Still Living Undocumented”: Immigrant stories, and what lies beyond

Last night I watched “Still Living Undocumented,” a film by Tatyana Kleyn about the continuing story of three undocumented people working, praying, and fighting for the permanent, lawful ability to live in the United States, with my students at City College in Harlem. The story picks up from the last film from 2012, “Living Undocumented: High School, College, and Beyond,” which features several Dreamers and students at City College pursuing their degrees and looking ahead to a variety of futures. The young people in both films are energetic, bright, clear-eyed, and inspiring. They have struggled to build a life that walks the knife-sharp edge of liminality, meaning “existing in a state of being in between, of non-belonging,” a way of being which has certain implications in legal, social, educational, and political terms. DACA allays the stresses of living this way, but because it both requires renewal and faces attacks from the current administration, it cannot be a permanent solution.

This second film expressed both more seriousness and less certainty, as well as more clarity in terms of what next steps stand before those of us who support actions by our government to ensure that undocumented youth can join the country that they have known since they were small as citizens. The post-screening panel discussion (below) opened up a conversation with the young people featured in the film, along with the movie’s co-creators and producers.

Jong Min (second from the left) is one of those individuals. The film ended with his story, a risky move because it is less positive than the other two, and yet an important one. Jong Min had missed the opportunity to receive protection under DACA, without which he won’t be able to continue his education (he can’t get scholarships to support him) or get a job. He works at his parents’ store in Queens. The other two students (one of whom is a former student of mine) have done better, continuing to create new paths for themselves and sharing these triumphs with the filmmakers. Yet it was Jong Min’s story that really caught my attention. There is no answer for him. He is unprotected, and he has had to accept that his life’s dreams are slipping away. He’s in his late 30s, and many of the possibilities, the plans that U.S.-born people take for granted as a simple question of “working hard enough” (the perennial nod to American meritocracy and its embedded prejudices against people of color, the poor, people with disabilities, Indigenous people, and others), are simply fading away. When the moderator of the panel asked Jong Min what he had learned, how his life had changed, over the five years between the first movie and the second, he thought carefully, and answered drily, “Not much.”

After questions went on for a few minutes, the conversation turned back to Jong Min. He was asked about final thoughts, and he paused thoughtfully before admonishing the audience:

We need to move beyond the stories.

The moderator responded professionally and politely, but I think there was a powerful message here. Telling hard stories is important, but it is only one piece of this puzzle, and at its worst and laziest (not the case with these important films), it often keeps “those poor immigrants” in an objectified role of receiving benevolence, rather than as active contributors to U.S. politics and society.

For those of us who are lucky enough to be U.S. born, we have to move from being audience members to being community members, true companions in the struggle to make changes to protect DREAMers. This means putting ourselves at risk, of course, in financial and sometimes even political terms. But good things are happening, and the fight is far from over. Grassroots actions and coalitions across communities have emerged across the country. Activism has generated palpable change and shifted public opinion. New questions are being asked, new creative actions are taking place, and new challenges are being met with the force of the will of the people. We are increasingly discovering our ability to resist, insist, and persist, in all the ways we’d expect, and in all of the ways yet to be discovered.

“Adjuncts: Underpaid, Overworked and Mobilizing on International Women’s Day” (article for Left Voice)

I just published an article for Left Voice, a progressive news source where several of my friends and colleagues from the GC collaborate to dig in to news that affects us as workers, students, citizens, and human beings. So proud to offer my services again! Here’s the link, and here’s the text below…


In “Living a Feminist Life,” Sarah Ahmed claims that “to become feminist is to kill other people’s joy; to get in the way of other people’s investments.” (p. 65) While suggesting a somewhat sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek tone, this line also resonates with the reality of what it is to review, resist, reject, and re-envision the structures, relationships, and histories that generate our now and our tomorrow. To become aware of our current state of affairs – and to act on this awareness, in solidarity – is to get in the way of an established way of thinking about how we define what is ethical and possible in our labor and our politics.

The International Women’s Strike, taking place this week on March 8th in demonstrations across the globe, is an example of this rising collective get-in-the-way-ness that is challenging some of our most venerated institutions and traditions. As a political strike, rather than a strike for bread and butter demands, it is asking questions that in the past have been dispersed across different groups with distinct agendas. These questions address workers’ rights, reproductive rights, immigrant rights, housing rights, even the right to mobilize ourselves, but are not limited to these areas of focus. The International Women’s Strike, writ large, is a call to action against a state of affairs that has normalized tenuous and unjust living and working conditions, a call that asks all of us to consider the ways in which our society shushes our political voice and consciousness by working us harder and harder and separating us one from another. The Strike on March 8th is, as Tithi Bhattacharya reminds us, vital to our current state of affairs because “for the first time in many, many years we are seeing questions being raised about what it means to be a worker in this country.” Bhattacharya suggests, in no uncertain terms, that it is our lived experiences as laborers, increasingly characterized by rising inequality, anxiety, and precarity, and our ability to fight back to regain our dignity and self-determination, that are at stake. We are, she claims, opening a conversation about “a wider world of better living” in the global actions on March 8th.

Such questions invoke thinking about public discourse and our national narrative. Put the phrase “U.S. worker” into Google and you get images of men in hardhats, working with large machines to produce cars, steel, buildings, roads. This reflects a default view of labor in this country which is masculinist, nationalistic, and heteropatriarchal, grounded in a narrative that locates worker rights within certain male-dominated spaces, industries, and geographies. Under such a rubric, women’s labor become ancillary, a support role, an afterthought. This doesn’t mean that women have not made great strides in labor equality, education, and political representation. Far from it. But when we think of “labor,” of “workers,” we still tend to project a very specific set of images and ideas. Other forms of work which do not conform to this narrative, and the bodies that rise to produce it, are often invisible-ized, misunderstood, devalued, denuded, depoliticized. This is the case with immigrant labor, with domestic labor, with emotional labor and other forms of un(der)compensated, unrecognized work. These work activities are usually feminized, downplayed, seen as the purview of female-bodied, Brown and Black, and/or immigrant people, yet they are in fact necessary to the successful running of the global capitalist machine. As political philosopher Nancy Fraser argues, the un-recognition and exploitation of feminized labor as an aspect of social reproduction, which perpetuates unequal social arrangements over time and space, is the “backstory” which makes capitalistic accumulation possible.

One of these subsets of feminized labor is adjunct work in higher education. Adjunct professors, lecturers, and instructors are part-time, at-will laborers who fill in the gaps created by the budget shortfalls that plague the institutions of higher education. As I stated in an article I wrote in December 2017, those of us who work in this capacity make up half of the teaching faculty in these institutions across the country, yet tend to be poorly compensated and struggle with a lack of job security as well as visibility and respect. Ironic is the fact that adjunct faculty take on important responsibilities including structuring important coursework for undergraduate and graduate students, advising and supporting these individuals, and contributing to the curricular materials and the ongoing needs of the departments where they teach. In an analog to Fraser’s discussion of how capitalistic relations require unrecognized, un(der)compensated labor to support official production activities, an argument could be made that adjunct labor is a “backstory” to the officially recognized and rewarded full-time faculty, supporting the latter’s existence by covering courses that are inconvenient and/or unstaffable at a low cost. This is, indeed, understood to be “the way things are.”

There is an affective, relational dimension to this. As adjuncts, we simply don’t “get in the way.” We are of service. Generally, we do this out of love for what we do. We are grateful to be able to support our students and our departments. But gratitude is a tricky thing. When I think about my work as an adjunct professor, I am similarly grateful to have worked with graduate students for the last three years. The majority of these individuals are public school teachers in New York City, and it brings me joy to think that my energy, my hours spent, my creativity, and my scholarship contribute directly to the health and strength of our city’s schools and the young people who attend them. So this begs the question: if I’m more often satisfied than not with this work, why would I interrogate how adjunct labor functions in the context of higher education, and dare to question on what conditions adjuncts should be working? (It should also be said that daring to do such a thing may have real consequences as to my future hireability as a full-time professor.)

I would respond to this unasked question with another question: Is it ungrateful for the teachers in West Virginia, who no doubt care deeply about their students, to be striking in demand of a pay increase and more reasonable health care premiums, an ongoing movement which is inspiring similar actions in Oklahoma and other parts of the U.S.? What about the strike by lecturers, librarians, and other workers in over 60 institutions of higher education in the U.K. for stable pensions? Is getting in the way of the marching drum of dehumanizing capitalist accumulation and progress ungrateful…or ethical, real, and just? This is also a question of history, and how we contribute to it as active members of society. The strike in the U.K. is the biggest strike in its history, as these brave individuals refuse to accept what they are calling the “casualization” of staff and challenge their consignment to future poverty. They are writing history, recognizing that the only way change can be made is if collective action can emerge to contest the inequitable, extractive conditions in which they have been working and claim new possibilities.

Is it getting in the way to ask that the way be made together? Is it getting in the way to disrupt the status quo political economic arrangements that have benefited the few on the backs of the many, especially women, people of color, immigrants, and/or other the members of the precariat, for so long? Is it getting in the way to demand that all people’s joy, all people’s investments, should comprise our present and our future? On March 8th, I will march with colleagues and friends in downtown New York. I will yell until hoarse, and I will get in the way. I would not dare to tell my students that I did anything but.

“Tell us what to think”: the Florida shooting and media’s subtle shushings

I watch PBS Newshour sometimes when I’m waiting for DemocracyNow! to come on in the mornings. The reporting on PBS is well-intentioned though influenced by corporate and wealthy sponsors in order to make up harsher and harsher cuts in government support over the years. It’s a decent source of information, a more polished, slightly more toothless lens through which to look at the world.

Yesterday was the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. 17 people were killed and 15 were injured. According to many sources, there is one shooting every 60 hours in this country. The shooter was a 19 year old who had been expelled from the school and apparently had a pattern of domestic violence, stalking girls at school, and White nationalist comments online. This was definitely an individual who had been under suspicion for the potential for violent behavior, though he was not stopped in time. This is a profoundly shocking loss for the community and families in Parkland.

In discussing this, Judy Woodruff of PBS leads the story with the following:

Given this tragic pattern, one could throw up his hands and think there’s nothing to do. But we have to believe, for the sake of our children, there is a way through this. How do we think about it?

She echoes this question with the program guests:

What would you suggest we start to think about now?

What is one way we should be thinking about this right now that could move us forward?

I understand our collective need for discussion, for problem-solving, but this approach troubles me. Something about asking how we should think reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s alleged deep suspicion for newspapers, which he argued told us what to think about the world’s goings on. Though they give important information we couldn’t otherwise access, media representations do tend to urge us to move in certain directions in our thinking – and even to suspect our own abilities to think critically about our reality and our ability to influence it.

In terms of the shooting in south Florida, the way of framing this conversation typically involves making a list of shootings – Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Virginia Tech, the Pulse Nightclub, Columbine, San Bernardino, Tucson, Colorado – and then asking about how and why the gunman did what he did. Conversations about mental “illness” tends to emerge as a go-to point of focus (though I’m grateful for work like a recent article by Dr. Jonathan Metzl, who argues against demonizing people with emotional or psychological disabilities and challenges for mass shootings), and the stories tend to become individualized, discussing the personal path of the shooter or shooters to this destructive endpoint. We tend not to look at the systemic problems that give rise to easier access to guns, and more lethal ones at that, for more than a moment. Or rather, we tend to be shepherded away from such thinking. This is happening through our country’s leadership as depicted through the media as well. The President, for example, refused to comment on gun control questions at all in his address about this tragedy yesterday, and Alex Azar of the Department of Home and Health Services claimed that mental illness would be a target in this debate.

Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow! made a great point in her reporting: that most mainstream networks on the left and the right have set up the terms of debate for us, terms which do not generally include a serious discussion of the influence of NRA money on government decision-making. Metzl added to this critical position by starting from a truly ethical perspective:

Why do we need so many guns in the first place? What kind of society do we want to live in?

I want to contribute a commentary on media’s role in how we might think collaboratively about our present and future: What kind of society do we live in that we need the news to start even the basic thinking about yet another mass killing of children? It’s almost as though we have a collective mental block, a cognitive blank in the face of what seems inevitable.

This is the problem. It’s absolutely not inevitable that these shootings happen. I do not pretend to have an answer for violence writ large in this country, for why people may find themselves drawn to hurting others. However, I think we need to resist the storytelling approach to framing these painful events that depoliticize the broader context in which shooting violence takes place. Individual stories have their place, but we have to remember the structural reasons that possible-ize such violence that are obscured in “these difficult times.” Plainly put, the NRA lobby is paralyzing our lawmakers, and our democracy, through the use of money as political speech. They have spoken for us about gun use and possession, even though the majority of Americans favor new legislation for gun control that requires background checks and bans the purchase of semi-automatic weapons (see here). And behind this potent influence on our government is a White nationalist, patriarchal discourse that shushes all questions, lulls us into inertia.

I’m not saying, don’t read the newspaper or watch the news. I’m saying, be ready to ask more questions before sinking into the warm bath of “maybe tomorrow will be better.” Because it won’t. Not without serious collective action against the forces of White patriarchy and violence that fetter our government and feeds whispered responses into its well-oiled message machine.

Comedy and crossing borders: Eddie Izzard and standup’s post-Westphalian potential

Let’s start with the $5 word in the title of this post: “post-Westphalian.” Westphalian thinking refers to the notion that each nation-state has sovereignty over everything that happens within its borders. The term comes from the Peace of Westphalia, ending religious wars in Europe in the 17th century. It tends to show up with political scientists and philosophers, as well as people who work in immigration and citizenship questions. It also, apparently, shows up on awkward dates with Harvard mathematicians, but that’s a story for another time.

Eddie Izzard is an Emmy-award-winning British transgender comedian. They (I am selecting the gender-neutral pronoun they, as I don’t know how Izzard identifies) came into my world in the 1990s with Dressed to Kill and really impressed me with their incisive, irreverent, playful retelling of historical events, religious homilies, and current social norms that just don’t make sense. Silly characters and anthropomorphism abound, all seeming to spring directly out of Izzard’s nerdy, brilliant subconscious. One of my favorite bits is the infamous “Star Wars Canteen” routine (excerpted here), where Izzard plays the roles of Darth Vader and an employee on the Death Star:

IZZARD: There must have been a Death Star Canteen yeah? There must have been a cafeteria downstairs, in between battles, where Darth Vader could just chill and go down:

[Darth Vader] I will have the penne a la arrabiata.

[Cafeteria worker] You’ll need a tray.

[DV] Do you know who I am?

[CW] Do know who I am?

[DV] This is not a game of who the f**k are you. For I am Vader. Darth Vader. Lord Vader. I can kill you with a single thought.

[CW] Well, you’ll still need a tray.

[DV] No, I will not need a tray. I do not need a tray to kill you. I can kill you without a tray, with the power of the Force, which is strong within me. Even though I could kill you with a tray if I so wished. For I would hack at your neck with the thin bit until the blood flowed across the canteen floor––

[CW] No, the food is hot, you’ll need a tray to put the food on.

[DV] [pause] Oh, I see, the food is hot! I’m sorry, I did not realize. Ha, ha, ha. Oh, a tray for the–yes. I thought you were challenging me to a fight to the death.

[CW] A fight to the death? This is canteen, I work here…

And on it goes. Here’s the full clip.

Izzard recently appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and spoke about what comedy is in the 21st century. They and Colbert spoke about the powerful force of comedy to connect us to our humanity, to create good will and love among strangers and across borders. Izzard spoke of their touring and doing standup in four languages:

Comedy exists all around the world. Sense of humor is human, and not national. That’s the interesting thing. Because people say, “Ah, the French have this, and the Germans don’t have this,” it’s not true, it’s actually all around the world.

Izzard goes on to describe their choice of internationally meaningful topic – human sacrifice – and then continues on with the interview (here).

Am I suggesting that comedy can topple nation-states and erase the historically reinforced boundaries between them? No. I’m saying simply that the impulse to laugh is, like language, deeply human, even if we have different ways of experiencing it. It’s nice to find something that we all share as a species, in a time of division, especially between Us and Them, when Them often ends up being groups of immigrants, people of color, and trans and queer people. In painful, disorienting times, could this shared something be better than a few belly laughs about our own all-too-serious and often absurd reality?