It was always going to come back to Patti Smith, my friends. Another line in this song says that the people have the power “to wrestle the world from fools.” How desperately we need this to be true right now.
Before we start this week, ICYMI we had a guest post on the Detox last week from LT&I’s own Jamie Drozda, with a personal reflection on the value of access. Check it out if you haven’t.
What a weekend to be writing the last words on this year’s Detox.
This isn’t the first time world events have gotten worse over the course of an iteration of the Detox — the initial Detox in 2020 lost pretty much all its follow-up programming due to the immediate needs of the pivot to online and my own early Covid exhaustion — but I did not have “the globe comes as close to the brink of nuclear war as it ever has in my lifetime” on my bingo card for this year. And of course the crisis in Ukraine doesn’t erase the violence of the ongoing pandemic or the voice in the back of my head that keeps wondering if we’ve had enough snow this winter to stave off another terrifying fire season (does it work like that? who knows).
It’s a lot, my friends, and if you were to nope out of the task of fixing our colleges and universities right now, I would not blame you.
I also have to believe that all these injustices are interconnected, and that if, for example, we make our institutions more accessible for more people, we will broaden the base of people who can join — and lead — the necessary global fights against imperialist aggression, pandemics, and climate change. If we help students to see the dangers of surveillance in their institutions — and empower them to fight against it — we are creating global citizens who can challenge and resist technological incursions into their lives that reinforce inequities and harms. Wresting control of our institutions from the disaster capitalist ghouls who seek to remake colleges and universities in their own image is urgent work, not in spite of the injustices and violences we are living through, but because of them.
We know we are tired in the depths of our bones. We also know we want to build a better institution: one with truly shared governance undertaken by a deeply engaged community; one where we care about student learning over compliance; one where our classrooms are where we teach, not where we count clicks and assign value to them; one where broad accessibility is the priority; and, one where harm to our most marginalized learners is minimized, and where preventing harm is everyone’s job. That’s where we want to work and learn; that’s the mission we’re here to defend.
I promised a toolkit in this final post, and a sense of what resistance can look like. Sometimes I think the most helpful way to think about this work is to recognize that every choice we make every day is part of the larger constellation of resistance, which I get sort of sounds exhausting. I promise, I get that. And I don’t think we can possibly fight every fight or be ready for a fight every second of the day. But taking the “every day, every choice” approach also means that every day has myriad opportunities to challenge the status quo, to start a difficult conversation, to ask a question no one else is asking. I find that hopeful, because it means that when you do step back, or opt out, or take time to breathe, the next opportunity to make the small connection that sparks the change is just around the corner.
Here are the moves that I think should be in every post-secondary reformer’s toolkit:
Find your people. We do this work in community. Always. No one can have this fight alone. It’s especially important to figure out who within your institution you believe you can trust to fight for the same ideals as you. It’s also really important to figure out who is open to learning more. It won’t, unfortunately, be everyone, and while I am going to advocate in the very next paragraph for always having the conversation, you are going to need space to rest. When we do this work in community, we recognize the range of necessary skills to do the work and also the importance of sharing the load.
But it’s also important that we look to who is doing the work and question our own biases and assumptions. This cannot be just another realm of service where the most marginalized academic carry the heaviest weight. People with tenure, in particular, need to look at how they make use of their institutional power — but more on those folks in a minute.
Have the conversation. Every conversation, every time. I talk a big game on the internet, but this has been difficult for me to implement in my practice because I am (surprisingly?) conflict-averse. Here’s an example: a faculty member wants help setting up their Moodle exam, and they want 30 seconds per question with no ability for the student to flip through the exam. I used to have this conversation gently, sharing resources about the length of time most students need to read and why students might prefer to move freely through the exam. Those conversations were often fruitful, but I shied away from naming the rot at the core of this kind of pedagogy: ableism. It’s ableist to align reading speed to assessment (unless it’s a speed reading course). I still have the conversation gently, but I have learned to clearly name the harm: that surveillance tool you’re asking about is racist, and here’s the data; the assumption you are drawing out of your analytics doesn’t account for marginalized students, and here’s why that’s harmful.
We are trained not to name the harm. We live in a society where it often seems like the accusation of racism is worse than the actual act of racism being commented upon, because we think of racism and sexism and ableism as individual acts of evil instead of the social fabric we were all raised within. Training yourself to name the harm, without accusation but with clarity, is hard. It’s also the only way we make the harms explicit, and change will not come without that step.
I cop, here, to a specific kind of privilege — people don’t usually find me angry, even when I am; they find me very pleasant. They certainly never find me threatening. This can be operationalized for the cause as a kind of weaponized gentleness. This used to really bother me; I’ve spent most of my career feeling like I wasn’t taken seriously, probably because I often wasn’t. But I also recognize that for lots of people doing this work, their ability to have the conversation is tempered by the way they are perceived, either because their skin colour makes people read them aggressively or their disability challenges certain social norms. This comes back to the need to find your people, and the importance of community. I will have the difficult conversation because a whole host of other privileges — my whiteness, my heteronormative presentation, my abledness — makes it possible for me to do so.
Use your voice to ask critical questions (and recognize your position). For those who have the institutional power to do so, asking challenging questions is the most important reason to be in the committee room or sales pitch or articulation meeting. It’s also imperative that those with job security and other privileges do this work for people who don’t. Here’s where I call out tenured folks in particular: to whom much is given, much is expected. The whole point of tenure is security and freedom to speak. But part of the problem with the way tenure is enacted is that enculturation to the norms of the institution — or, in other words, learning to put up with a lot of shit — is part of the price of admission. This can leave even folks who were once idealists jaded about the possibility of change. And given the austerity climate we are all working within, tenure can sometimes feel not all that secure, really.
But here’s the thing: I don’t care. I don’t really mean that. I do care, very much, that people feel safe and secure to speak freely in the roles they inhabit. But if tenured folks are feeling their speech is restricted, what does that tell us about precarious faculty, non-faculty staff, excluded positions, etc? If you have the most security in your institution, regardless of how you feel personally, you had a moral responsibility to speak, especially if your security is further insulated by whiteness, ablebodiedness, heteronormative presentation, and other protective factors.
It’s also worth thinking, especially for precarious folks, about where your voice is valued if it isn’t valued within your institution. Here’s where the work can look really different for each of us. Does your scholarly association have a stance on surveillance technology? Is your licensing body demanding parameters for exams that are inaccessible? Can you use your voice in those spaces to advocate for change or educate about harm? You likely have authority somewhere that can be leveraged for the cause, even if that isn’t part of your institutional role.
Draw your lines and control what you can control. If you have academic freedom in your role or at your institution, use it to draw the lines around what matters to you. Establish classroom practices that are in line with your accessibility values, and hold on to the flexibility of the pandemic teaching moment. Your institution may have an agreement with a whole host of vendors, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily need to have a place in your classroom. And remember, just because the analytics are offered to you does not mean you need to look at them. However you draw those lines for yourself, I hope you’ll go one further and explain them to your students. Let them know the ethical choices around the tools you use or the policies you invoke. Help them to have the vocabulary to ask questions about what is imposed upon them in other courses or by the institution. To put this in the classiest terms possible: I hope you will oppose educational cop shit, and I hope you will take the time to educate your students about educational cop shit too.
Use the limited tools at your disposal. I report all vendor emails as spam, now. It’s unlikely that I will learn about something meaningful and new from a vendor’s sales pitch. Most of these emails are wildly predatory and play on either instructor overwork or burnout (or both). Regulations define unsolicited sales emails as spam and I treat them as such. This feels tiny, small, and futile most days, given the scope of the battle we are fighting, but I also recognize that these sales emails are often how vendors get a foothold with unsuspecting faculty — so flagging them as spam for the IT folks to handle and maybe block could actually have an impact. This is an example of recognizing that the tools we have access to may be deeply limited, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make use of them. It’s not enough, but it’s not nothing.
Stick it out. We’ve talked this month about how governance is failing and collapsing all around us. This is not the moment to step away. I know you’re tired: I really, truly do. It was my goal this month, though, to convince you that in spite of everything, it was worth it for you to stick it out and stand your ground. I hope I have succeeded.
I want to know what’s in your toolkit for radical, collective action. Please share it in the comments, consider writing up your thoughts in a guest post, and/or remember we have one last chance to come together virtually to chat Detox this Friday, March 4. I hope you’ll make it out.
We’re at the end, now, of the 2022 TRU Digital Detox. The work, of course, is only just beginning. I’m grateful to you for investing your limited time in these conversations, and I can’t wait to see how you change the world. In their Manifesto for a Post-Critical Pedagogy, Naomi Hodgson, Joris Vlieghe, and Piotr Zamojski write:
It is time to put what is good in the world — that which is under threat and which we wish to preserve — at the centre of our attention and to make a conceptual space in which we can take up our responsibility for them in the face of, and in spite of, oppression and silent melancholy.Manifesto for a Post-Critical Pedagogy (2017), 19.
Let’s put aside our own silent melancholy for all we have witnessed and experienced, and all we will continue to witness and experience, and take up our responsibility to build a better future for everyone. I maintain that if this crisis cannot move our institutions towards ethics and equity, access and care, nothing ever will.
I fear the latter. I hope — and work — every day for the former.