[sixties-l] Where Have All the Tenured Radicals Gone?

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Thu Jul 20 2000 - 21:37:44 CUT

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    > Where Have All the Tenured Radicals Gone?
    > Robert D. Johnston
    > Robert Johnston is assistant professor of history at Yale University and
    > author of a forthcoming book on middle-class radicalism in Portland, Oregon.
    > When I arrived to teach in Yale's history department in the fall of 1994, I
    > was excited about a number of things. Not the least of them was the idea
    > that I would be teaching in a department that honored politics, especially
    > my kind of politics. The faculty exemplified a connection between scholarly
    > inquiry and radical visions. David Montgomery, for instance, was a
    > preeminent labor historian and a scholar who insisted on the primacy of
    > class in human relationships. David Brion Davis had produced a stunning and
    > eloquent critique of capitalist hegemony, in The Problem of Slavery in the
    > Age of Revolution. Nancy Cott was among the leading feminist historians of
    > our time.
    > These and many other professors had trained graduate students who had
    > produced prodigious amounts of wonderful-and plenty of
    > left-wing-scholarship. Indeed, as a relatively mild and gentle populist, I
    > was wondering how soon it would be before I would be taken to task for
    > being an insufficient leftist in the city that had housed one of the nodes
    > of the Radical History Review collective.
    > I soon found that the graduate student union struggles at Yale had twisted
    > the political environment in strange ways. No longer would I have to worry
    > about being insufficiently leftist. Indeed, my tenured radical colleagues
    > were almost all, with very few exceptions (David Montgomery being the
    > primary one), viscerally opposed to GESO-the Graduate Students and
    > Employees Organization.
    > This was primarily a matter of chatter until the end of the fall 1995
    > semester, when GESO staged its well-known grade strike (discussed fully in
    > Cary Nelson, ed., Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis). Then the
    > rage against GESO truly poured out, led by my distinguished senior
    > colleagues. It's not as if the history department was worse than others in
    > this regard; indeed, in mild (and ineffectual) ways, history professors
    > tried to contain some of the worst excesses of administrative hostility and
    > vindictiveness toward union members. If anything, post-colonial literary
    > critics were even more retrograde on the labor question than left-wing
    > historians.
    > Why Does It Matter?
    > I want to explain here the opposition, hostility, or even apathy to union
    > organizing in the places you'd least expect it. Regarding apathy, many of
    > us found that we simply couldn't get those few senior faculty who were on
    > "our side" to do much, if any, of the nitty-gritty grunt work of
    > organizing, when it came to offering support for GESO and for the other
    > Yale unions that went out on strike during the 1996 spring semester.
    > Indeed, left-wing faculty sometimes had the most hostile reaction to the
    > idea of graduate student unions. On one occasion, one of my senior
    > colleagues-echoing sentiments I heard elsewhere numerous times-blurted out
    > that "during the '60s I was involved in real politics. I helped occupy the
    > president's office at my college in order to bring the Vietnam War to an
    > end. What these kids are doing now is simply the revolt of the pampered,
    > pretending that they're exploited."
    > Beyond an insulting-and fairly constant-use of terms such as "kids,"
    > "children," and "juveniles" to describe thoughtful adult graduate students,
    > it was clear that such a reaction indicated just how personally threatening
    > graduate student unions were to senior faculty. What was it, then, that
    > caused such good leftists, or at least liberals, to come to such
    > conservative conclusions about the most pressing political matter on campus?
    > I am still not sure that I have the answer to this mainly political, but
    > partly psychological, question. Material reality explains a good part of
    > it: graduate students do most of the hard work of teaching, which otherwise
    > regular faculty members would have to do. Or, if one prefers explanations
    > based on power and status, it is readily apparent just how easily tenured
    > professors at places like Yale get sucked into an extremely close
    > identification with the institution. This goes well beyond the kind of
    > loyalty that an institution needs in order to run effectively. Rather, it
    > involves a sense that the tenured faculty own the institution and, as in
    > most large-scale organizations, the most valuable kind of property is
    > control. Graduate student unions interfere with the sense that tenured
    > faculty know what is best for the institution-and can decide on what is
    > best without the substantive input of those below them.
    > Many professors seemed to take genuine glee in watching the administration
    > crush the grade strike, and the anti-union rhetoric at the Yale College
    > faculty meeting where the strike was discussed was venomous. The senior
    > administration (which consisted exclusively of regular Yale faculty
    > members) firmly upheld the right-indeed, it was suggested, even the
    > obligation-of faculty members to include reports of students' union
    > activities in their letters of recommendation, even after the American
    > Association of University Professors (AAUP) and other professional
    > associations rebuked this action as a violation of academic freedom.
    > Rarely did one hear outright anti-union sentiment; indeed, many of the
    > anti-GESO faculty had been fairly prominent supporters of Local 34, the
    > clerical and technical workers' union, during its strike for recognition in
    > 1984-1985. Instead, the special nature of graduate student status was
    > emphasized. Unions were for factory operatives or coal miners; graduate
    > students were privileged would-be members of the elite. More respectfully,
    > distinguished scholars discussed how important it was to create a
    > semi-sacred cultural space outside of the dictates of both market and
    > modern organization. Graduate education was one of the last places in our
    > culture where a non-pecuniary apprenticeship mode of vocation could be
    > preserved.
    > On the surface, these are compelling arguments, especially if one has
    > already taken for granted that the general decision over these issues
    > should be made by faculty members or administrators, not by the graduate
    > students themselves. Yet, it was ironically GESO, with its strong stand
    > against casualization, that was most effectively combating the real forces
    > that were undermining "traditional" academic relationships. Even the most
    > virulent anti-union senior faculty at Yale bemoan the replacement of
    > full-time faculty positions with part-time work, but none of them has a
    > plan to staunch the flow. One would at least think that if this was a
    > genuine priority for them, they would be more willing to engage in a
    > dialogue with the one institution at the university that has brought this
    > fundamental issue to the table. That they didn't and don't is testament to
    > a fundamental flaw in the way they look at the world.
    > Where to from Here?
    > As things look now, there will be more efforts to organize graduate
    > students and adjunct professors in the near future. For those embarking on
    > an organizing campaign, I share the following thoughts. Graduate student
    > organizing will almost certainly not get anyone hit over the head by the
    > "boss-man," but it can jeopardize student-faculty relationships, affect
    > chances for academic jobs (although GESO activists have done remarkably
    > well on the job market), and create personal and professional tensions in a
    > variety of relationships. Graduate students, in all likelihood, will be on
    > their own-or, as is increasingly likely, have the federal government and
    > organized labor, but not the senior professoriate, on their side. (If
    > forced to choose, though, I'd choose labor and the feds.) It should be
    > noted that coming to grips with political isolation can be empowering. It
    > undercuts one of the most detrimental qualities perhaps inherent in the
    > hierarchical nature of graduate education: We (the tenured faculty) know
    > better than you (the graduate students and non-tenured faculty) because we
    > are older, have been around the block more, understand the world better,
    > and because, in the end, we're smarter. Such paternalistic and patronizing
    > assumptions are often, if not generally, untrue in the world of humanistic
    > education, where each generation has to unshackle itself from its elders
    > just as much as it has to learn the extremely valuable wisdom that our best
    > sages should-with humility-hand down to us. And it's certainly untrue in
    > the world of university politics, where the cold brute facts of power and
    > institutional prestige operate just as coldly as in the real world.
    > So, where have all the tenured radicals gone? The radical impulses of the
    > New Left generation survive, and it is certainly worth trying to bring them
    > around during an organizing drive. But if, or rather when, they don't come
    > around, it's time to cut bait. It's better to speak their language-of
    > democracy and equality-while making clear that you take these terms more
    > seriously than they do, serious enough to make higher education
    > institutions imbibe them.
    > <http://www.socialpolicy.org/SU00/johnston.html>

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