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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

 

New Year’s Resolution: Be human (+ an insomniac) first, then a PhD student

It’s been a month since I wrote, which is a much longer break than I’d anticipated. I’ve decided to write about something which is not terribly inspiring or creative, but rather which is real to me and has been for several months. I’ve been struggling with insomnia since early October, a piece of information which usually divides listeners into two camps: those who kindly sympathize, and those who have been there. Those in the latter camp tend to reflect, with a slow shake of the head and perhaps even a baggy-eyed “me, too,” compassion through their own membership in a group of people who are hidden among us.

We insomniacs – and to be clear, I’m a new member, at three months of difficulty staying asleep and counting – are a motley crew, and there seem to be many reasons why this plague of nocturnal glazed ceiling staring and doze-y thinking strikes and brings a new sufferer into the fold. Stress and anxiety seem to be major contributors to the onset and perpetuation of insomnia, as do major life changes. A simple key word search including “PhD” and “student” and “insomnia” will reveal page upon page of sites discussing how grad students flail around managing the cognitive output, pressure to perform, and anxiety about their future prospects all while trying to appear confident. I found, in a simple survey full of sampling bias (my participants were my acquaintances and friends), that many PhD students I know have struggled and continue to struggle with this issue.

A great irony of being an insomniac grad student, for whom anxiety is situationally likely and normalized as “just what we go through,” is that the insomnia effects its own cause. For PhD students, our ability to concentrate, to take in large blocks of knowledge and analyze and synthesize like little cognitive processing bots, is quite central to our success. So once the cycle of insomnia took hold, my ability to focus, let alone read and process this reading meaningfully, withered…and I got more anxious about my insomnia. Funny. Not so funny.

What’s even worse is that as a fledgling scholar, I found plenty of fuel to add to the fire of anxiety and stress in my already-sleepless brain. I tend to look up research to understand the phenomena I cannot explain. Within the first two weeks, I found connections between insomnia and all of the following: heart attack, shortened life span, bad skin, depression, and a whole host of other health problems.

By Mikael Häggström – All used images are in public domain., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6716058

Great. Not so great. What bothers me about the way this is talked about is that there are lots of people who have lived their whole lives with occasional, even self-inflicted bouts of insomnia. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg apparently has fought for equality between the sexes and many other progressive stances on U.S. legal decisions during periods of little sleep. I’m certainly not lionizing the notorious RBG, or anyone else – apparently, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, and Salvador Dali thought fighting sleep was beneficial – for doing this, but I like to think that not sleeping for a while is not the worst thing that could happen to me.


Isaac Newton. By William Blake – William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=198284

Well, it’s 2018 and I am very much still figuring out the insomnia with the help of several professionals and nonprofessional supports. People love to give advice: drink tea, take baths, drink alcohol, try reading, try smoking a joint, listen to classical music, and on and on ad nauseum. But I can’t blame them. I’ve been drawing late at night, which has helped, or at least helped me to feel a little more human.

Smelly Girl has a lot to talk about late at night. Maybe I’ll start to listen and see if she can help me remember that this PhD thing is, at the end of the day, just one chapter of my story, and not the end of the world.

Our educational ecology: adjunct professors and our role within our communities

I was invited by Left Voice to publish a version of a speech I gave yesterday at the Graduate Center’s rally for better compensation and conditions for adjunct professors (like myself) who struggle with precarious labor conditions yet comprise the majority of labor in higher education across the country. The link to the story, entitled “Our educational ecology,” is here. My main point: Exhausted adjuncts directly influence the experiences of their own students, some of whom (like mine) work in public schools as New York City Teaching Fellows…which means our work together influences the education of our city’s kids. If this isn’t enough reason to review the unstable and stressful conditions under which we and other adjuncts work across the country work, I don’t know what is.


​Image from March 23, 1995 CUNY walkout from Slam! Herstory Project

Protesting the GOP tax bill: yet another attack on public higher education

Today I and my classmates at the Grad Center are joining forces with students from NYU and Columbia in a Walkout to protest the Republican text bill, which will tax tuition waivers and reduce our already small incomes as graduate assistants and teaching fellows. (For those of you who don’t know, adjunct professors like myself comprise over 50% of the country’s faculty, meaning that many college students today work with us.) My own grad students at City and Hunter Colleges, New York Teaching Fellows who study full-time while supporting NYC public schools, are in a similar situation. They will likewise see their incomes reduced by these cuts, painful for people many of whom are supporting families. All of this is taking place to ensure that money flows into the pockets of corporations, while the national deficit is poised to increase by over a trillion dollars.

Education is one of the central tenets of a democracy in which people contribute ideas and work together to make a better and more equitable society. This is an attack on our communities of scholarship, but also on our communities of working people with aspirations for their children to make a good life. Our institutions of higher learning stand to lose thousands of already struggling graduate students who simply cannot afford to stay and imposes a greater burden on those who do, compelling us to borrow more money to survive while working long hours as adjuncts and contributors to scholarship.

Today we marched in Union Square to protest this inhuman attack on our institutions of higher ed. We work very hard to serve our universities and our communities. It is time to stand together and fight for the rights of all students to a good education and become educated citizens in a country who must not forget us.

Education is a right

Just got home from teaching at City College, where I work with public school teachers developing their pedagogical practice and scholarship as grad students in the City University of New York, arguably the oldest public university system in the country (rivaled only by the University of California). I am a teaching fellow in the same system, and teach at City in exchange for my ability to do a PhD at no cost.

A rare thing to consider, nowadays: that education be considered something everyone should have a right to. Education is becoming increasingly commodified, rarified, costly, and competitive. This gets me down when I think about the pressure in the 21st century to value education solely as job preparation, not as a space for creativity, exploration, political inquiry, and inspiration. A banner on the wall at City reminded me that this was not always the case, at least not in New York City.

Here’s hoping the city that never sleeps continues to inspire and excite the imagination of the rest of the country.

The intellectual’s desperate need for self-parody as a Professional Smarty Pants

After the inspiring first class of Introduction to Dialectics with Stanley Aronowitz this weekend among many seasoned thinkers and established intellectuals, I felt the need to reflect on the experience of being a Professional Smarty Pants and my socialization, for better or worse, into this motley group. I’m increasingly convinced that self-awareness is in desperate need in academic circles, by which I mean awareness of the fact that we have inherited a tradition of righteous soap-boxing that should, frankly, be laughed at now and again.

Here are two examples. First, an old comic short from Monty Python entitled Philosopher Football, in which the Germans play the Greeks and Confucius is the referee:

And second, a Vanity Fair video of Kate McKinnon, one of my favorite Saturday Night Live players, improvising a PowerPoint presentation to a rapt audience:

My takeaway: It’s okay – in fact, it’s probably good – to see what you’re doing as ridiculous now and then. It means that you know that all of this work as a Professional Smarty Pants is only a square on this huge Tron grid called life.