Monday, April 27, 2009
Flamboyance: The Queer Survival of Black Feminism
Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Dedicated to Pauline McKenzie and Andria Hall
May I begin with an invocation?
This instant. This triumph. Black feminism was never meant to survive. This instant. This triumph. This is ritual. This instant and this triumph. Black feminism was never meant to survive. But here I am. Here we are. That is the queer thing. In 1981 by the time I was in my mother’s womb every explicitly black feminist organization in the United States was defunct, and the black women’s writing publishing trend was effectively over. Some say that black feminism went academic, went textual. Some say black feminism went new age, got touchy feely, stopped taking to the streets. Some say black feminism is anachronistic, useful only as a referent, a supplement, a precedent for something else. Black feminism (remember) is how we got this idea of interlocking systems of oppression, demarginalizing the intersection. But I have not heard anyone talk about the Combahee River Collective here. I have not heard us lift up the name Kimberlé Crenshaw yet at this conference about Radical Intersections. Hmm. It seems, black feminism was never meant to survive. And the queer thing is, here we are.
This is how I make my body legible to ancestors who I cannot choose or name. This is how I make my work accountable to swallowed rage in the mouths of people who were not invited. This is how we commune with the forgotten, reframe the possible, this is how we remember that we don’t know where we come from. This is makeshift reverence for pathways that do not meet, a time space that is not continuous. This is what her hand writing has to do with my slow breathing. This is what her late nights have to do with my early mornings. This is what his bitten tongue has to do with my declaration. This method is survival as performance, speech as meditation, memory as clothing, ocean as audience. This room is full of something that I will name black feminism. Tell me when it starts to burn.
Flamboyant. First an architectural term describing the construction of castles with framing blades, the colonial understanding of flowering trees, the Oxford English Dictionary remembers that flamboyant meant many things before it meant us, those of us who do not know better than to hide our brilliance, the transformative ones, burning like hell as we walk the earth. This meditation examines the way that black feminism survives in the queer bodies of work, bone, muscle and breath that remain, invoking the little known work of the Flamboyant Ladies, a performance group created by black lesbian feminists Alexis De Veaux and Gwendolyn Hardwick in their living room. This presentation situates the forgotten work of the Flamboyant Ladies, who created radical t-shirts, performance pieces, salons and a full day presentation about the impact of the nuclear moment on black communities in the 1970’s as a haunting, illegible precedent for the more contemporary work of UBUNTU and BrokenBeautiful Press, two initiatives based in Durham North Carolina that similarly use embodied poetics to respond to systemic violence, against women of color in the wake of the Duke Lacrosse and Dunbar Village cases and the torture and sexual assault of Megan Williams.
Seeking an embodied poetics of queer intergenerationality, a relationship between ancestors, elders and youth that survives by rejecting the social reproduction of oppression, rejecting the assumption that queerness and intergenerationality are mutually exclusive especially given the mandate that some of us are criminalized when we reproduce life and create family, this piece takes Flamboyance, that dangerous, queer stance, as a trajectory for the livelihood of feminism, taking seriously the (often cancerous) impact of the unceasing labor of and punishment for radical feminist work on the bodies of queer elders and ancestors including De Veaux, Hardwick, and collaborators, June Jordan and Audre Lorde. This is a work towards healing and survival. Healing and survival are queer methodologies for oppressed communities because we were never meant to survive. This is a collaborative offering of our bodies across time to the intergenerational work of performing, and making possible, the world we deserve.
The Flamboyant Lady Should Not Exist
Flamboyant Ladies co-founder and radical black lesbian feminist Alexis DeVeaux explains, “By the time Reagan came to power, opportunities for black women writers and artists, began to dry up in drastic kinds of ways. Publishers say ‘we have enough black books.’ The NEA becomes explicitly conservative.” Black women artists cannot support themselves with grants and publishing contracts from a lustful consuming public fascinated by the glamour of the self-articulation of black and feminine subjectivity. The novelty has worn off, it is no longer interesting that someone can be a woman and a black person at the same time. In fact by 1981 the Moynihan’s matriarchy thesis has become law and the danger of black women has become apparent. Reagan has by this time, coined the term welfare queen, that black woman who threatens the new neoliberal economic order by the criminal act of bearing black children, expendable and expensive drains on an increasingly anti-social economy, that black woman who threatens the logic that flesh and labor have differential values by loving black children as if they were priceless, that black woman who threatens the anti-social norms of late capital by raising children that will not consent to the terms of the economy, this crazy black woman who lives as if housing, and education, and food were community concerns. That crazy black woman, with the nerve to survive and to wear bright colors, big hair and a loud mouth while doing it. She is a problem.
The intersection is not a radical sexy place of queer and salient knowledge production at this point. The intersection is the place where June Jordan, Gwendolen Hardwick and Alexis DeVeaux have guns pulled on them by the New York City police occupying black neighborhoods in Brooklyn. That intersection has much more in common with the intersection that Crenshaw actually described, the traumatic scene of a violence that neither the law or the existing anti-oppressive theory could fully address, than with the logic of accumulation that we use to market ourselves as increasingly complicated scholars in an academic industrial complex primed to consume our difference. So maybe what these black feminists created at their particular juncture has something to teach us, now.
I never knew that waking up every morning with a new idea and ironing it on to a t-shirt for two years was an apprenticeship. I didn’t know that navigating the issue of socially transformative childcare with the idea that queer folks should dance and prisons should be abolished forever was a vigil I participated in towards the survival of my elders, I didn’t know that enacting healing as performance with a women of color led group of survivors of gendered violence was much older news than I could have imagined. I thought that I and we were, to quote Essex Hemphill, “making ourselves from scratch.” Our stories are not recycled and distributed on the wings of capital, so I became an eclectic priestess, ritualizing cotton, stickers, and the word yes. Experimenting in community with how our needs became analysis. I had no idea that I was an initiate in a practice called black feminism because the mode of black feminism that I practice, that we practice in my community is the forgotten, unpublished part of the story. But here we were speaking the lines, setting the scene, dancing the navigation home.
This is the only way I know how to tell you about the experience I had one day in the files of the African Ancestral Lesbian Archive, files of an archive that no longer exists, held in the all volunteer run brownstone of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. My hand brushed across a flyer, a woman and then that same woman printed twice, partially hidden by the other’s hair, because it was big hair wild hair familiar hair, from my standpoint. Huge earrings, and full open mouths, the Flamboyant Ladies were hosting a performance in their living room to benefit “No More Prisons” a campaign by women to stand in solidarity with women in prison followed by a “women’s only” party with free childcare. I didn’t breathe as I turned to the next sheet with those same mirror image women thanking a community for supporting the daylong festival and t-shirt making initiative they had held about the question of how the anti-nuclear movement impacted black communities in the United States. I found an invitation to a traumatic (playing on the term dramatic) mythic performance designed to ignite healing by examining the sound, feel and timbre of embodied oppression. Alexis DeVeaux who held writing workshops and instigated public performances and self-published anthologies in her living room laughed on the phone when I finally got up the nerve to call her up and ask her how and why she did everything, but I nearly cried, because she was never meant to survive. And I had never expected to make sense.
Alexis DeVeaux uses the language of survival to describe the tactics that she and other black feminists who created their own alternative means of production used during that time period. “We did what we had to do to survive, if white publishers wouldn’t publish us, we would publish ourselves our resistance to being completely silenced was to be deeply creative. We are going to be here.” Looking at the work of the Flamboyant Ladies, an eclectic and radical black feminist performance group that has been almost completely forgotten by black feminist scholars and performance scholars alike, and meditating on the queer way in which that work survives, unintentionally and often unknowingly in the lives of some other, loud, belligerent creative, underfunded radical black women who came late to the game of black feminism, we have the opportunity to meditate on survival as a performance. Survival as a queer echo, a manifest lust in the bodies and work of those of us, who were never meant to survive. I think that this examination is especially crucial in this political and economic moment, which like the Nixon and Reagan eras is characterized by the gutting of social services, the channeling of huge amounts of public funds to the private sector and of course military interventions around the world in the name of so-called democracy. If we would survive, in any material sense, we must take heed of the strategies enacted by these earlier social actors.
So first let us remember that performance is not a stable mode of social reproduction, in fact, like the criminalized black mother, performance can be policed, paid, begged and pleaded with the re-establish the terms of the status quo, but it cannot never be trusted to do so. Homi Bhabha makes a famous distinction between the performative and the pedagogical in the imagination of the social and political unit of the nation reminds us that performance is queer, that is non-reproductive, and as we know the vast majority of performances remain undocumented, like classrooms, moments of possibility that you either witness, hear about after the fact, or miss completely. I have never seen any of the performances of the Flamboyant Ladies, and I never will. And before I was born all the black feminist organizations had fallen apart. And Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Gloria Anzaldua, Barbara Christian, Pat Parker…so many of my strongest feminist ancestors who would barely be elders by now are dead. Never meant to survive. But the queer thing is they do, and that survival is performative and it is happening right now. This performance of survival, the survival itself, protests and makes visible the conditions that make it unlikely, but it also threatens those conditions with the fierce reminder that, as Wahneema Lubiano has said, “Power is never complete.” This form of survival demands a queer rethinking of time and space, a queer reframing of body and memory, a diasporic inhabitation of the temporality of trauma, that our gaps in knowing, our post-dispersion decalage does not mean that our herstories are not everywhere waiting. This is research and it is also ritual because it requires action and faith. Does it burn? This is your part:
Consider the flame. Flickering. Transformative. Changing shape. That heat. That glow around those of us that, according to every story that keeps this anti-social society together, should be burning in hell. What is your flamboyance? That which keeps your flame alive, that which lives on you, bright through you that power had intendend to incinerate. Where on your body, where on your lips, where in your fingertips, where in your hair, does the blackened narrative emerge? What hollowed out remnant do you dance in now and what is the significance of what your longing remembers? Consider the flame. What cannot be forgotten even when it is not known? What will not destroy us even when we are flagrantly ourselves? What will we create instead?
This instant. This triumph. In you, something queer survives.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Introducing Habit Forming Love,
They say it takes 21 days to form a habit…so on March 4th 2009 I embarked on a journey to love myself, my community and my chosen romantic partner intentionally, bravely, loudly and proudly. And now I am ready to share the results with you! In addition to teaching myself how to love, by transmitting my love via internet video I was also teaching myself how to make simple yet effective at home videos using my computer, my phone and very basic editing software and how to make those videos internet accessible.
This experiment has taught me so much. I have emerged less self-conscious about my own face, more confident about the miraculous vitality of love in all of its forms and more adept at using online video as a tool for self-expression, affirmation and community education.
The three focus areas of my project were
(Go to www.loveforself.blogspot.com to see the whole 21 day process)
(Go to www.habitforminglove.blogspot.com for the whole 21 day process)
and Romantic Love
(Sorry loves…the whole process is for Julia’s eyes only wink!)
Browse the “life” “love” and “community” sections of this site to see some of my more detailed reflections on each process and more examples.
One of the most important things that this process taught me is that even an analog girl in a digital world can make compelling, effective video. I don’t have to be perfect to carry the message of love that my ancestors are speaking through me and the video doesn’t have to be perfect to carry it’s message. The magic is in the medium. Try it yourself, and email email@example.com if you want to share!
love (is a habit),
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
Peace family. As I continue to think about "women's work", political division, art, community and sustainability, I am critically looking at these terms-feminist and womanist and how they create/define/conflate/re-iterate power, everyday "happenings" and creative performance dynamics among Black women.
The Working Our Rainbows Series is an at-home, mobile device, on line lecture series devoted to Black Women in Performance Studies. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to host a lecture!
This weeks lesson:
1. Watch Staceyann Chin's performance of "Feminist or Womanist".
2. Read Revisiting "What's in a Name?": Exploring the Contours of Africana Womanist Thought
Nikol G Alexander-Floyd, Evelyn M Simien. Frontiers. Boulder:2006. Vol. 27, Iss. 1, p. 67-89,131-132 (25 pp.)
I will email the essay if you would like.
3. Write a letter to yourself answering some or all of these questions: 1. Am I a feminist? 2. Am I a womanist? 3. How do I identify politically, culturally, socially?
4. If you were talking to Alice Walker right now, what would you say to her about womanism? 5. If you were talking to Clenora Hudson Weems right now, what would you say to her about womanism? 6. If you were speaking to Audre Lorde right now, what would you ask her about hybridity? 7. If you were talking to your mama right now what would you ask her about herself?
Hit me up on facebook or respond on my blog here!
Peace and performance!
Ebony Noelle Golden
Saturday, April 04, 2009
Leveraging the Academy: Suggestions for Radical Grad Students and Radicals Considering Grad School by Chris Dixon and Alexis Shotwell
Suggestions for Radical Grad Students and Radicals Considering Grad School
by Chris Dixon and Alexis Shotwell
Romanticized, demonized, celebrated, denounced -- among activists in the United States and Canada, academia is all of these things. It is a gate-keeping institution that shapes and is shaped by relations of power and privilege. It is a site of intense struggle: those who are structurally excluded battle for access, while those who study there fight for affordable and relevant education, and those who work there demand dignity, respect, and living wages. It is a place both where people develop radical politics and transformative visions and where people seclude themselves in insular, disconnected ivory towers. These contradictions are stark. Yet radicals have tried to make use of the academy. Since the 1960s, in particular, graduate school has become an attractive pathway for many activists, but also often an isolating and depoliticizing one. This is still true today, as radicals active in a variety of movements are choosing to go to grad school.
The questions bound up in this choice are urgent ones: How might activist grad students concerned with fundamentally transforming this society make sense of the university? How might radicals involved in the university relate to it, evading its pitfalls and exploiting its openings? And most importantly, how can the space of the university be made useful for building broad-based radical left movements? We aim to approach these questions by offering some suggestions based in our own experiences of ambivalently occupying the university as graduate students with the hopes of using it to advance political work.
We are fortunate to be thinking about these issues from a site that has shown us many of the possibilities and perils of the academy. We are both graduate students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the History of Consciousness department. UCSC has a distinguished history of student, worker, and faculty struggle. During our tenure there, this history bloomed into vibrant coalitional work linking low-wage workers in union struggles with direct-action counter-recruitment manifestations, rank-and-file militancy in the teaching assistant union, and lively struggles around access and retention for traditionally marginalized students. Being at UCSC also taught us a lot about how much work is still to be done in university settings: we witnessed deep racial divides among UCSC's activist communities, "radical" faculty unwilling to step up to support low-wage immigrant workers, and a troubling tendency to forget even recent campus organizing history.
Our trajectories also shape our thinking on these matters. Chris, currently in the fifth year of his PhD, came to grad school out of a long engagement with anti-authoritarian politics and direct action organizing. Alexis came to grad school with a background in feminist politics and community radio and has just completed her doctorate. Both of us worked on rank-and-file organizing with and against our own union (UAW Local 2865), struggled in solidarity with campus service workers as part of a student-worker coalition, participated in counter-recruitment work, assisted with immigrant justice organizing, and worked on an annual Disorientation Guide. We engaged in many of these activities through a political collective made up of six grad students.
Our experience of doing political work as grad students is obviously partial. We don't think we have definitive answers. But we've tried to approach our work experimentally, and we'd like to share some results. Our hope is to open some conceptual terrain for expanded discussion and imagination about academe as a resource for change. We know that, as individuals, graduate students can and do play important activist roles outside the academy. In fact, we think that sort of work is vital. However, we want to examine some of the ways that we can do political work in university settings as well. We address these thoughts primarily to radical grad students and activists considering grad school, but we believe they are relevant for anyone concerned with making use of the academy to further movement-building and social transformation.
But First, a Reality-check
Graduate school shares some characteristics with what we hear about boot camp: humiliation, arbitrary rules, a pervasive anxiety about one's self-worth, dictatorial superiors wielding life-changing power, and grinding routines designed to wear down one's ability to resist. In short, grad school often creates exhausted, insecure, status-conscious people who distrust their own judgments and are thus more susceptible to the prevailing norms and styles of the academy. Perhaps the most pernicious norm is an individualistic and isolated mode of intellectual engagement, cutting grad students off from the very work that we think they are uniquely situated to take up.
On top of all this, being a graduate student is genuinely hard. We plunge into an area of study because we feel some passion for it, we spend years learning its vocabulary and methods, and we try to formulate research projects that will sustain our passion while allowing us to survive. Frequently our families of origin, and our non-academic friends, don't understand what we're doing, why we're doing it, or why it would be worthwhile. And even unionized grad students don't make much money, so we often come out of grad school with big debts and slim job prospects.
These features have been exacerbated by the neoliberalization of the university and the increased casualization of its workforce. That is, universities are increasingly run on a profit-making model, and a rapidly growing number of university employees are part-time, sessional workers with few rights. Campus workers -- from custodians and dining hall workers to clericals and non-tenure-track faculty -- are doing more labor for less pay in more precarious circumstances. Marc Bousquet has beautifully analyzed the place of graduate employee labor in this context. In "The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible," Bousquet argues that the grad school system isn't primarily about producing PhDs for an imagined market in tenure track jobs. Rather, it is aimed at extracting teaching labor from not-yet-degreed graduate student employees, who will too often later become part of the casualized adjunct pool.
These challenging circumstances also point to opportunities. Each site of exploitation and misery in the lives of grad students is also a site for struggle. And because there are so many of these sites, grad students are uniquely positioned to help build connections among widely varied communities. Graduate students are workers: as teaching assistants, instructors of record, lab assistants, and research assistants, we can struggle for workplace justice and in solidarity with other workers. Graduate students are teachers: as teaching assistants and instructors, we can enact liberatory pedagogical methods, introduce oppositional knowledge and histories, support marginalized undergraduates in their university education, and more. Graduate students are students: as learners and researchers, we can help develop ideas that are relevant for changing the world. And graduate students are located in academic institutions: as members of university communities, we can participate in broader struggles to de-militarize university research, support outreach and retention, challenge funding and curricular priorities, fight sweatshop sourcing of food and university-branded clothing, and more.
Many grad students are uniquely situated in one other way: we come to grad school with movement backgrounds and activist commitments or develop political commitments through grad school. We should be nurturing and drawing on these experiences and commitments, perhaps with the help of some of the following suggestions. These things not only help to leverage the academy for changing the world, but can also help combat some of the soul-destroying features of academe we talked about above. Indeed, it is precisely this work that in itself changes the grad school experience from something like boot camp to something meaningful and politically useful.
Suggestion One: Understand the Academy as a Nexus for Organizing and Capacity-building
The university is by no means the most important site of social struggle today. Though radical ideas sometimes show up in academic discourse, they almost always originate elsewhere. Still, in the spirit of recognizing where we're located and trying to work from there, we think it is important to appreciate features of academe that make it ripe for political work. For one thing, though we can rightly critique the ivory tower, we can just as easily understand how universities are situated in dense webs of interconnection. The university, in fact, is a nexus through which systems of power manifest. For example, universities frequently replicate frameworks of access based on race and class. Organizing efforts for outreach and retention programs, or for various "ethnic studies" departments, are vibrant challenges on these grounds. Similarly, many universities are connected in significant ways to the military industrial complex; campaigns to keep recruiters off campuses and to demilitarize university funding are making crucial interventions in military-university relationships. Universities are also major employers and buyers of goods and services; pro-union, living wage, and anti-sweatshop struggles on campuses can thus have important catalyst effects. Because universities also concentrate a large number of energetic, exploratory young people in one place, there is a lot of potential for mobilization. In many ways, then, the university is an appropriate site for organizing, and political work there can have broader effects.
One especially significant effect of organizing in the university is a different kind of education, one that students gain not primarily through classrooms or books but through activism. Many undergrad activists develop skills and analysis as they work in student organizations, plan events, actions, and campaigns, face hostile administrators, contend with apathetic peers, try to understand and describe the systems they seek to change, experiment with organizing techniques, write and design flyers, websites, and publications, and engage in many other aspects of activist work. This is capacity-building: growing the sensibilities and competencies to do movement work. And graduate students can help in this process. We can share our own experiences as organizers (mistakes included). We can spark reflection and long-term strategic thinking. We can share our resources for political education. We can encourage student organizers to take care of themselves. We can use our positions to help student activists navigate tensions between their academic and political work (not necessarily mutually exclusive). We can ourselves remain (or become) lively, engaged participants in social struggles.
When we see the university as a nexus for struggle and capacity-building, we expand opportunities for social transformation.
Suggestion Two: Work with Undergraduates
What successful grad student organizing we did included significant work alongside and with undergraduate activist groups and involved bridging a pervasive grad-undergrad divide. In general, grad students rarely get involved in student activist groups -- as though "student" means "undergrad." Frequently, grad students are scared of large groups of undergrads, feel silly and awkward engaging with undergrad organizing, or feel like we're older, superior, and in a different place in our lives. And often undergrads don't think of inviting grad students to meetings or actions because we're perceived as disengaged and disinterested, or just intimidating. Sometimes these sorts of worries are accurate; addressing them can even be useful on both sides, since they involve broader questions about being welcoming and legible. It is true that graduate students and undergraduates are frequently in different places of their lives and will sometimes have different organizing priorities and internal cultures. But undergraduate student organizers are often the major motor of campus struggle. Also, with few exceptions, they're really fun.
Graduate students can contribute substantially to the campaigns and political work in which undergrads are involved. In 2004, for example, a student-worker coalition at UCSC initiated a year-long organizing campaign in support of low-wage and predominately Latino/a campus workers. As part of this coalition, graduate students made weekly classroom announcements about upcoming events and the ongoing campaign; wrote and distributed informational materials; drafted and circulated petitions and letters; helped to write press releases; used our access to faculty to advance organizing objectives; agitated with our union to get support for the coalition's goals; and mobilized grad students and other members of the campus community for pickets and direct actions. We've also seen grad students effectively supporting undergraduate work by helping with student publications, mentoring individual undergrad organizers, and providing some institutional memory. But we don't have to just play support roles; we can also initiate campaigns and work as full partners in ongoing organizing. In order to do any of this, however, grad students must build real relationships with undergraduates on a basis of equality and respect. This usually requires facing up to some of the ingrained teacher-student hierarchies we tend to manifest.
When collaborative undergrad-grad organizing happens, it is powerful and energizing.
Suggestion Three: Organize Grad Students
Organizing grad students, as the saying goes, is like herding cats (for all the reasons we talked about in our "reality check"). And often active grad students get isolated and drained by working hard in ineffective or retrograde institutional structures, or by immersion in the political infighting and posturing typical of many academic departments. And yet, it is not impossible to organize grad students in ways that sidestep these dangers and advance positive change. Institutional positions and good departmental cultures can have important activist potential, particularly if they are connected to broader organizing.
Probably the single most common vehicle for organizing grad students is around workplace issues. After all, the main thing we share as grad students, other than doing lots of research, is our wages and working conditions as teaching and research assistants. Such organizing usually results in an attempt to form a union. Sometimes these efforts win formal union recognition by university administrations, often not. (Sometimes, as in the case of New York University, grad students win recognition and the university repeals it through legal machinations; that fight is ongoing.) If you are not a member of a union, it is definitely worth organizing to form one and have it formally (legally) recognized. If you are part of a union, you'll face different challenges. Most unions big enough to run university organizing campaigns follow a business union model, usually resulting in formally democratic structures that are not in fact very responsive to popular rank-and-file initiatives. These unions also tend to resist any response to workplace injustice other than contract enforcements narrowly defined. Opportunities for solidarity work are likewise narrowly understood. In short, a TA union itself is a site of struggle. It's important for us to fight collectively to improve our working conditions, but we can't stop there.
We can work with and against our unions in ways that hold true to the ideal of worker solidarity and challenge a business union model. For example, we have been inspired by grad students at York University in Toronto, who have brought their union (CUPE Local 3903) under robust rank-and-file control, in line with participatory democratic functioning, militant solidarity action, and broader social justice work. Even if our union is really messed up, we can follow Local 3903's example and form "flying squads," in which grad student workers actively mobilize to support other unions' pickets and other community initiatives. At UCSC, we developed a graduate student solidarity network to organize and mobilize grad students to join other workers, on and off campus, for labor actions, and to address some of the failings we saw in our own union. Over the last two years, this network has developed into a kind of reform caucus, UAW Members for Quality Education and Democracy, which seeks to support labor struggles and draw connections between workplace conditions and accessible, quality education. This is an example that we think resonates with many other rank-and-file initiatives and aspirations, not only in the graduate student union realm.
It is also important to nurture lively political communities among grad students beyond the limited goal of a single campaign, strike, or event. Union culture, for example, requires much more than just mobilization and meetings; it needs a sense of comradeship, a collective practice of caring about what happens to other people. In our experience, when people work together on specific projects over time, they come to trust each other personally and politically. This trust is essential to grounded political community. The tightrope we walk here, of course, is difficult as cliquishness and insularity often result from close organizing ties. And so we think it is important to create structures that people can easily access without already being linked to existing social-political networks. One experiment we tried in this vein, still ongoing, is a non-university-based email listserv for communication among radical grad students at UCSC; we called it "radgrads." At the beginning of each school year, an announcement goes out on the grad email lists, explaining the purpose of radgrads and inviting people to join it. The list serves as a vehicle for informing grad students of events and campaigns on and off campus, a site for discussion among students from very different departments, and occasionally a means for organizing social events and in-person discussions. We've also seen the success of, for example, a women-of-color grad research and action collective and queer grad groups in creating supportive institutional cultures for political work.
When grad students come together, we are formidable.
Suggestion Four: Question Professionalization and Individualism
Perhaps one of the starkest differences between undergrads and grads is that while the university is often a place of politicization for undergraduates, it is more often a place of depoliticization for grad students. Aside from time and money pressures, two of the main depoliticizing forces we encounter are professionalization and individualism, as they are engrained in academic culture. Professionalization is the process of learning and adopting the "rules of the game" of academic life. Usually, these are middle- and upper-middle class coded ways of talking, dressing, and socializing. They have historically been most comfortably deployed by men, and they are very white. Professionalization includes a set of academic behaviors and accomplishments, like publishing papers, presenting work at conferences, applying for grants and fellowships, and successfully conducting a job search. Individualism is a trait that fits neatly into academic professionalization; individual achievement and brilliance are highly praised, almost defining characteristics of academe. Academics are supposed to live the life of the mind, immune to bodily needs and relational connections. Thus, genuinely collaborative work is not taken as seriously as solitary genius, even in the sciences, and we are expected to diligently pursue our individual "careers." As a result, academic life is often deeply isolating, both in terms of how we conceptualize our work and how our work process is structured.
It might be tempting to throw professionalization out entirely. After all, it brings together many of the most rage-inspiring aspects of academic culture. We call for a questioning of professionalization, however, because there are many people who come into the academy from working-class backgrounds, or who are racialized, or fat, or otherwise inappropriate in the ivory tower's halls. For these grad students, a careful investigation into the norms of professional life will be key to infiltrating and surviving academe. That is, professionalization can be worth pursuing. Even for the relatively privileged, understanding professionalization is important in refusing to internalize its imperatives. At the same time, we think it is crucial to develop alternatives to professionalization. In particular, a prevailing myth supporting the professionalization imperative is the idea that every worthy PhD student should expect to land a tenure-track job. But this has never been the case. And as universities shift more and more teaching onto contingent labor, it looks very likely that it never will be. As graduate students, we must imagine life beyond the tenure carrot and the adjunct stick. There are, as far as we know, no maps laid out for this work, but we think it's worth exploring.
Collaborative work, in our experience, offers a way to simultaneously challenge professionalization and refuse depoliticization. This alternative to the individualist model can be practiced among academics and also with and among activists outside of academic contexts. For those engaged in movements, this mode should be familiar. Activist intellectual work is often collaborative; it seeks clarity and refinement through the process of conversation and collaboration. We noticed the promise of this kind of approach in our political collective, particularly as we wrote a social-economic analysis of our university's priorities and practices. In general, we found working collaboratively as graduate students outside of academically sanctioned settings to be both challenging and exciting. Often in our lives as grad students we relate to one another as colleagues, interlocutors, or rivals, but usually our work is our own. Politically-motivated shared work is a powerful antidote to these relationships. In our case, we also discovered that it gave us more ground to stand on in our broader organizing work. We experienced this, in a different way, when we assembled an all-graduate-student affinity group for street actions in San Francisco after the ground invasion of Iraq in 2003. Integrating these sorts of approaches into our academic work can have similarly profound effects. And more fundamentally, such approaches can challenge and change the ways we presently think about our day-to-day work routines and ourselves as intellectuals.
Critically approaching professionalization and developing collaborative means of doing activist intellectual work opens surprising and liberating spaces.
Suggestion Five: Build Accountability to Movements into Research and Teaching
The question of accountability is a crucial way to frame and understand our work. We can approach it, among other ways, in terms of how knowledge itself is produced. Veteran activist and academic Richard Flacks nicely illustrates this, recalling that a central slogan among radical sociologists in the late sixties was "knowledge for whom?" The question remains pressing, and it begs another: Accountability to whom? One way to answer this question is think about the communities that validate and thus structure our scholarship. With whom is our work in conversation? To whom is it accountable? How are the answers to these questions related to each other?
Some of us have managed to find ways of sustaining political relationships with activists in a variety of movement contexts. Often, these relationships even become an inspiration for or the focus of our academic work. This is good and useful. But there are many open questions about what accountability is and how we should enact it. Of course, in this case, accountability would involve explicit negotiation with research "subjects" and some account of how the research will come back to the community. But such a mode of accountability will always be dissatisfying and partial -- it will always fail. In general, we think of accountability as involving far more than a basic attention to research ethics. It is a relationship that orients our attention, commitments, and research questions. When academics think of ourselves as standing in solidarity with movements as equal participants in struggles for social transformation, our relationship to what work we do, how we share it, and for whom we're doing it might fundamentally change. This is how we understand accountability.
Issues of accountability are also central to teaching. After all, most of us will teach, sometimes a lot, during graduate school. It is not uncommon to have the chance to design and teach one's own class, and almost everyone works as a teaching assistant at some point. There is no way that we can overview here all of the useful work on radical pedagogy -- work on canons, how knowledge is formed in relation to power, how we can use the classroom as a place to teach for liberation, and how our teaching selves can be fully integrated and present beings. There are excellent and important resources out there. But we do want to note the difficulty of bringing activist commitments and sensibilities into the classroom. Teaching is the some of the most fulfilling work either of us has done. It is also the most challenging. We have encountered both of these most strongly when we have tried to directly bring our political commitments into our teaching. And so we maintain that teaching is immeasurably strengthened when it is accountable to movements. In our experience, this means facilitating ways for students to not only think critically about the world but to develop means of actively engaging it. It means finding ways to both support and challenge student activists. It means challenging social hierarchies as they manifest in teaching spaces. It means seeing even very politically problematic students as utterly worth working with. It means understanding the classroom as a space that is densely interwoven with the rest of the world.
Developing accountability in our research and teaching helps us make genuine contributions to movements.
Toward Discussion and Collective Strategizing
When we started graduate school, we were searching for models for how to do activist intellectual work in the academy while also sustaining strong connections to movements. We were able to identify individual professors and grad students who seemed to be successfully navigating some of these tensions, but we found little in the way of explicit discussion and collective strategizing. And so, in the last several years, we have tried to build some of our own models, always incomplete, at the same time that we have attempted to develop political practice appropriate to our situation. Perhaps the hardest part has been finding ways to generate the discussion and strategizing that we couldn't find but urgently need. We have been fortunate to participate in a lively political community at UCSC, but we have always felt that activist grad students in many other places would have crucial insights to offer to these conversations. In our view, we especially need discussion that evades political posturing and realistically engages with the question of sustainable organizing in unsustainable circumstances. We hope, then, that these suggestions might help spark serious and ongoing reflection and dialogue. We hope too that they might serve as a support of some kind for radical grad student activity. Grad students, as we have argued, are in a unique structural location where political work can have powerful effects. We must develop ways of collectively sustaining and strengthening that work. Doing so will help move us from ineffectiveness and isolation to meaningful and strategic activist intellectual work. It will help us leverage the academy for movement-building.