Anna, the protagonist of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, plays a peculiar game to pass the time. She invented it as a child, but now, at age forty, playing the game has become a means to piece together her fragmented sense of self. Lying on the floor, she tests the limits of her imagination by recreating her bedroom, object by object, from bed to ceiling, extending this exercise to her house, the backyard, the street and beyond, all while trying to hold the first images in her mind. The game’s difficulty is and has been a source of exhilaration for Anna. “Sometimes I could reach what I wanted,” she reports, “a simultaneous knowledge of vastness and of smallness.”
I’ve been obsessed with “the game,” as she calls it, since my first reading of The Golden Notebook. It is an exercise in cultivating place consciousness—the antithesis of the uprooted sense of self that global capitalism fosters—and a beguiling effort to unite the structural with the particular. The player’s task is an impossible one: visualizing each detail without losing sight of its relation to the whole. To the extent that Anna is able to put together the pieces, the promise is that she achieves a sense of unity within her own fragmented self. But if her divided identity is a product of her shattered political, social and economic reality, the game itself holds revolutionary potential. A few decades later, the promise of place consciousness had made its way into the speeches of the revolutionary and organizer Grace Lee Boggs, who had come across the term in Arif Dirlik’s writings. If global capitalism excels at treating people and places as expendable and at bolstering our universalizing tendencies, we need to be attuned to the lived reality of racialized and gendered people who are exploited or abandoned by the system on the ground. More than a flight to Mars on Elon Musk’s space shuttle, we need to anchor ourselves exactly where we are.
Just a decade ago, a trend consumed the imagination of university administrations, drawing fawning media coverage: the rise of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). 2012 was declared the Year of the MOOC by the New York Times. Ivory Tower, the 2014 documentary about the crises of higher ed, which MOOCs were apparently exposing, was featured at the Sundance documentary competition. High costs of tuition, pundits argued, would pave the way to a tech utopia of free education, delivered online to students around the world. But, not unlike other techno-utopian gimmicks that have fallen short of their predicted impact, placeless universities have not redefined education. MOOC ventures have consistently run at a loss for years and have failed to proliferate as a legitimate educational alternative, even during a global shutdown. Despite an ongoing media effort to save them, it’s hard to imagine how they could reconjure whatever appeal they may have once had in the post-pandemic world.
It seems ironic now that in 2013 Thomas Friedman devoted his New York Times column to a Harvard/MIT conference on online education, citing a “compelling” talk that compared the traditional university with “the General Motors of the 1960s, just before Toyota used a technology breakthrough to come from nowhere and topple GM.” Instead of paving the way for a tech utopia, the rising costs of tuition and growing inaccessibility of higher education have triggered a different change: trade unions established place-based networks of organization at new campuses. What Friedman and his clique didn’t know then was that the pertinent GM comparison was to the organization of GM workers by the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the 1930s.
In 2012, rank-and-file workers at Harvard came together to form a union. By 2015, UAW organizers arrived at Harvard, and the process of steadily building lists of workers in every department, lab and building, and the collection of authorization cards, began. Today, UAW, joined by organizations including Service Employees International Union (SEIU), UNITE HERE, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), Communications Workers of America (CWA), American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), are organizing academic workers up and down the precarity ladder: undergraduate and graduate-student workers, adjunct faculty, postdocs and tenure-line faculty. UAW alone represents over eighty thousand academic workers out of more than 1.7 million. Most recently, seventeen thousand student researchers at the University of California system filed for the recognition of their union (which you’d only know if you were reading Labor Notes). The disruption that governs higher ed today is not technological innovation, but labor action.
To plan a labor action is not unlike playing “the game” from The Golden Notebook. When I played it in the early years of my Ph.D. program, I would picture myself sitting in my desk chair on my Turkish blanket in my dusty office, then zoom out to hold in my imagination Emerson Hall, the philosophy building. Beyond that, my simulations would grow patchy. It wasn’t until I walked across the halls of Harvard’s twelve schools as a union organizer that I could handle even three iterations of place-based imaginings.
Now, after years of organizing, a union election, several direct actions and a month-long strike, student workers like myself can attest to an impressive level of detail about our workplace—from the location of heat pipes that the Harvard campus police feared we might tamper with (freezing undergrads to win a contract was not part of our plan) to the managerial structure of practically every university department (who can hire and fire whom). We mastered the physical layout, the power structure and the logistical workings of the university, which had increasingly become an exploiter of our labor. Expected to keep our heads in the clouds traversing intellectual landscapes, instead we got busy mapping our surroundings.
Today’s universities come in different sizes and stand in different relationships to the communities they are in. Compare the mind-boggling size of Texas A&M, with over seventy thousand students and about five thousand faculty, to an institution like Williams College, with about two thousand students and fewer than four hundred faculty members. Many universities, big and small, are the primary employer in town. And in large urban areas like New York City, as universities expand in an effort to grow more profitable, they displace the local residents.
Despite these variations, most institutions avail themselves of a consistent workforce structure. Unlike K-12 schools, they employ a majority nonacademic workforce, with administrative employees increasing in percentage year by year. Much decision-making is relegated to this managerial team, just as in hospitals. Cash flow comes from state and federal grants, intellectual property, tuition and contributions from the endowment and donors. Competition with peer institutions affects how much money a university can raise (non-alum donors are lured in with prestige) and what it will spend its money on (most donations are earmarked for vanity projects). Even when the university’s expenses are geared toward growth, it is awarded a tax exemption by default. More and more, universities are choosing to spend money on marketing, expansion and renewals, diverting these funds from fair pay for workers and, as a result, increasingly relying on precarious academic positions and subcontracting. To understand today’s university is to understand these essential facts to map the cash flow, the logistics and the location of the workers who actually make it work. Only with this knowledge can we ensure that the university puts people over profit.
When COVID-19 arrived on the university campus, it decimated 650,000 jobs, but it also found more organizers than had existed when the 2008 financial crisis hit. The response to the crisis that followed was consequently quite different. A new generation of more progressive and more cash-strapped academic workers were running established unions, organizing new ones or otherwise ready to participate in collective action. My union, the Harvard Graduate Student Union, was already mired in a lengthy first-contract fight, but we successfully mobilized the university community to campaign for and win emergency financial benefits for graduate students and prevent several waves of staff layoffs in coalition with the other campus unions.
This was a big win in an incredibly hostile environment, but Rutgers University faculty pulled off something even more impressive. Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the labor union representing academic workers at the university’s campuses including tenure-line faculty, part-time faculty, postdoctoral researchers and graduate workers, voted in the first ever work-sharing program at a university alongside four other campus unions. The agreement was a people-centered alternative to cost-cutting: full-time faculty agreed to be furloughed for one half-day every week for ten weeks in exchange for funding extensions for graduate students, overturning the hiring freeze and a no-layoff guarantee for staff.
This truly historic act of solidarity did not come out of nowhere. Just two years ago, in 2019, Rutgers AAUP-AFT, a fifty-year-old union local, had mobilized its members for what would have been the first strike in the school’s history; they settled on a contract that won pay equity for female faculty and faculty of color, twenty million dollars for diversity hiring, academic-freedom provisions for social media and commitment of green-card sponsorship for non-tenure-track faculty, in addition to significant pay increases for its lowest-paid members. Each of these provisions in their contract was groundbreaking within our sector. When the pandemic hit, by organizing across jobs as part of the Coalition of Rutgers Unions (comprising nineteen union locals and over twenty thousand employees including physicians, firefighters, custodial staff and administrative staff, as well as academic workers), labor organizers at Rutgers had already put in the work to map their campus, build relationships and create consensus amongst workers. Importantly, they had prompted the high-wage workers to imagine what it would mean to have an equitable and just workplace, even if it meant a pay cut for them.
Things didn’t go as well for many other campaigns. The New School AAUP chapter demanded an end to layoffs and a top-down restructuring of university staff to stave off a budget shortfall, uniting the university’s unions under the New School Labor Coalition. Elsewhere, a campaign saw over three thousand academics across the world representing five hundred institutions sign an “Academic Solidarity Letter” committing to decline invitations from schools that have not extended contracts for graduate employees, lecturers and other contingent academic workers. To date, faculty at the New School have not announced any wins, and the organizers of the Academic Solidarity Letter have not yet announced whether the picket has been maintained into 2021.
It became apparent in places where university workers are either organized less cohesively or not at all that the workers—even if they won small victories—did not receive the support they needed during the pandemic. Meanwhile, administrators with million-dollar paychecks were taking symbolic pay cuts in a misguided attempt to demonstrate solidarity. Unlike the workers at Rutgers who were able to use their collective voice to overcome austerity politics, many campaigns tested their organizing structure, diagnosed their weaknesses and celebrated humble wins. The silent proportionality clause of the organizer’s mantra, “when we organize we win,” asserted itself all too clearly. The more ambitious the asks, the more organization was necessary to prevail.
But no campaign is lost if it can sustain the composition of organizers who learn from their experiences and stay committed to the collective knowledge-production mechanisms of a people-powered movement. Power, as geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore noted, “is not a thing but rather a capacity composed of active and changing relationships enabling a person, group, or institution to compel others to do things they would not do on their own.” A seasoned organizer knows this and works hard to make sure that every action seeds the ground for future campaigns, building leaders and weakening targets.
But there’s a less obvious takeaway that’s worth drawing out from Gilmore’s conception of power: what it means to be without it. Those who lack power are hopelessly atomized, failing to build the relationships that might enable them to achieve more than they could on their own. Seen in this light, many academics, even when they have tenure, lack power precisely because they are not part of active collectivities. They are inactive, and therefore politically impotent, advancing only individual products and processes.
Those of us who have walked a picket line, brought others out to it or led a chant know what’s gained by forming and acting as part of a collective. We have all been transformed by circling a building or a building’s entrance for miles, raising our voices in unison, taking a risk for the common good. Strikes are radical education, the converts will say, because striking workers spend their days consumed by the meaning of their labor, what it means to reclaim it and how the collective can coordinate in their commitment to a shared goal. They are also incubators of potent images that build place consciousness: a field trip from area schoolchildren to the picket line solidifies the university’s relation to K-12 education; the sudden arrival of a police detail clarifies the relation between law enforcement and strikebreaking; a vote taken at strike headquarters about whether to turn away a ten-million-dollar equipment delivery manifests strategic points where workers can assert power.
On my campus, where the faculty are not organized and activist scholars are few and far between, practically everyone in our organizing committee dreaded being on the faculty outreach team. It was uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing to converse with unorganized academics over matters of organized action. We learned that the ability to teach Marx in a classroom does not translate into knowledge of what a strike is (teaching off-campus is not respecting a picket line, a work stoppage is a work stoppage). Decades of academic training may not enable a professor to recognize that reporting their non-striking students is the same thing as reporting their striking students (scabs are not owed protections, they’re already protecting their self-interests and betraying others).
One challenge many faculty members faced was lack of practical knowledge. Almost invariably, we found faculty unable to think outside of the framework for individual action when asked to act in solidarity with student workers. They asked to change words on petitions already emailed out to hundreds of signatories, questioned campaign demands that they would not have advocated for and grew reticent about any request that might come at any cost to them.
But a deeper clash of perspectives was also at play in these conversations. To many, the question that drives class struggle—Which side are you on?—remained an abstraction. They hoped there would be a side that was no “side”—a place of neutrality, a non-place. Their abstracting impulse was egged on by the rhetoric of “academic and research integrity,” a savvy dog whistle that every provost and dean confronting a union drive has mastered. Administrators take pains to frame what they ask of faculty as “neutrality” and what they’re resisting as the infringement of labor into the rarefied world of ideas. Caught between the grit of the union’s binary rhetoric and the pomp of the administration’s idealistic pronouncements, and without their own roots in organization, faculty sway toward the administration. Still, it was helpful to speak frankly: Are you with us, or are you with the boss? There was no other option—the non-place of disinterested adjudication was engulfed by the conflict.
When movements outside of the university risk unrest within, university administrators rush to make statements. But making a statement should not be confused with taking a stand, which requires that your words are rooted in the place they’re spoken. The pandemic’s early days, for instance, were marked by a social upheaval that moved university administrators to write long albeit canned expressions of solidarity; after the uprisings subsided, a more personal, placeless politics quickly returned to campus. This ideology of placelessness directly impedes racial justice at universities. “By placing the emphasis on prejudice rather than on power, we lose the ability to see how race does its work in our society, how it systematically skews opportunities and life chances along racial lines, how it literally as well as figuratively ‘takes place,’” observed the scholar George Lipsitz. To say that academics and administrators contribute to capitalism by amassing cultural capital and bolster it by merely complaining about its effects is an understatement: they actively inflict harm on the most vulnerable on their campuses.
Today, faculty privilege prejudice over power by asking students of color (over whose lives they hold immense power) to sit on diversity committees and task forces to testify to the prejudice, harassment and discrimination in their education. The committees are often undemocratic—they do not take votes on measures they generate—and they do not have power to effect lasting changes. These rooms are where the opportunities for students of color are systematically skewed as they are deprived of power and valuable time, and not paid a fair wage for their work. By continuously prioritizing, facilitating and enabling these bureaucratic structures at the expense of organizing themselves, faculty across universities have become agents of exploitation.
There is an alternative path. It’s not an accident that some of the most prophetic voices of our day are geographers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore and other activist scholars who display the immense place consciousness that comes from having been a part of local organizations. Place consciousness is not only theoretically sound—it’s also politically potent. Like participants in the indigenous and environmental movements, who have long been attuned to place, we can look around us as academic laborers and notice that today, nothing short of collective bargaining creates binding decisions and builds democratic organization that can be directed toward the advancement of racial justice.
AAUP, founded in 1915, only began to pursue collective bargaining in 1971. (Albert Einstein and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were both founding members of their faculty unions.) As I write this essay, academics in several universities in Turkey are organizing with their unions to demand legislative change to restore the right to elect university presidents and have more control in their workplace, largely mobilized by a government with increasingly threatening authoritarian tendencies. It’s not surprising that the threat of militarism and fascism can lead academics to cling to the tools of collective bargaining or legislative reform. What remains unclear is whether anything else can provoke the same zeal and sustain the same dedication.
After all, the allure of placelessness has never been stronger than today, when American universities can appear to be stages on which highly intelligent, articulate characters commentate on revolutions past, present and future, all while detached from the communities that surround them. More and more, these scenes are projected over digital media, which does not occupy physical space. Satisfying as these expressions may be to scholars, acting at these placeless, higher levels of organization instead of acting locally is inimical to the project of restoring democracy from the bottom up. It is thus inimical to building power from below. Placeless academics cannot act on the structural, as it shapes their production, by effecting the particular, as it commands their individual actions. Even if they become interpreters of activism, their voices—so long as they speak only for the individual and not for the many—will have limited practical value. Being political is not solely an issue of content—a poetic or spiritual analysis can have more political import than political speech. Being political means exercising practical potency.
Unions like Rutgers AAUP-AFT (which has won a work-sharing program), HGSU-UAW (which has introduced key language about power-based harassment in its contract), NYU’s GSOC and the University of Michigan’s GEO 3550 (who have gone on strike over abolitionist demands) and the University of New Mexico’s faculty union (which has been a driving force in winning state labor-law reform that includes a card-check provision), are at the forefront of today’s social-justice unionism. Teachers in Chicago, Los Angeles, West Virginia and Oklahoma are already fighting for issues that impact entire communities, ranging from sanctuary campuses and police-free schools, to caps on charters. They have shown us how much we can achieve when we are place-conscious.
Social movements animate social-justice unionism. But the reverse also needs to be made true. Activists in social movements should take their cue from social-justice unionists in joining their ranks to form unions of workers, tenants, unemployed, debtors and place-conscious civic organizations that unite around demands and devise strategy. They should then use these unions to become politically potent organizations instead of paddling alone against global capitalism’s crushing waves. As Arif Dirlik wrote in his seminal essay on place consciousness, “Places are an indispensable point of departure for such a challenge” to global capitalism. What we stand to gain, he ventured, by affirming claims of everyday life and work—from eviction protection to workplace reorganization—is a full-fledged attack on the abstract systems that deprive us of sociality and social power.
In the upcoming months, the masses will once again become the leitmotif in academic discourse. Their devastation, resilience, potential for spontaneous action, upward or downward mobility, nihilism, agency or servitude—all accentuated by the catastrophic past years—will inevitably come up as academics come out of their pandemic cocoons and try to account for what happened and what it all means. Even if that discourse purports to speak for the public interest, its shelf life is disappointingly short. No speaking engagement, no new volume, no new symposium can travel the distance traversed by the thankless groundwork of organizing the unorganized. Challenging capitalism and militarism or demanding abolition can only be done by increasing the power we as ordinary people have where we’re placed in society. Our task might be far-reaching, but our places are distinct. To imagine revolutionary change where we are, at the university, would be to begin at a place like Rutgers, holding in our minds what workers there have done—building solidarity, joining in coalitions, training for actions, bargaining and winning—and recreating it everywhere. The power of organizing is simply: when organizing begins locally, it can grow outward democratically. People amass power from the locus at which they are the agents of change and transfer it to the margins, where it allows them to stand in solidarity with leaders elsewhere.
For better or worse, academics are stuck at the university. But so long as we see universities as placeless and academic freedom as an individual freedom that has no place, we will be agents of extraction and bystanders to social harms that our own institutions inflict on others. Controlling our institutions is not enough to change the fact that education and intellectual work function as nodes of domination and control, but it is a step we cannot skip over. We need to put ourselves in the university to put the university in its place.
Art credit: Greg Colson, Six Intersections (Schools), oil, enamel, and graphite on wood and metal, with objects, 32 x 32 x 21 inches, private collection, Seoul, South Korea, 2004. Courtesy of the artist.