A Scholarship of Resistance: Bravery, Contingency, and Higher Education

A Scholarship of Resistance: Bravery, Contingency, and Higher Education

Higher education needs more bravery. Digital pedagogy, or any experimental critical pedagogy, is necessarily dangerous, often with real risks for both instructors and students, much of which can be valuable for learning. But when we experiment with our pedagogies, we confront an establishment that can be hostile to anything new — an establishment that often punishes rather than rewards innovation — that increasingly enforces the standardization of curriculums and classroom practice. With approximately three-quarters of all classes being taught by contingent faculty, any deviation can trigger a non-renewal, leaving the critical pedagogue on the outside looking in.

At the memorial service for Aaron Swartz, friends and colleagues of the open movement pioneer reflected on his contributions (as Tim Carmody reported for The Verge):

‘We talk about how extraordinary he was, but actually, he wasn’t,’ said friend and former partner Quinn Norton, rejecting the emerging portrait of Swartz as an ‘internet saint.’ ‘He was scared and self-conscious. He could be funny, and greedy, and petty, and loving, and curious, and hopeful, and strange,’ she said. ‘But in a culture that is ruled by fear, he learned and taught me that trying is more important than being afraid.’

Lee participated recently in a Twitter chat about “play” in the Freshman Composition classroom, during which there was this exchange:

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In December 2012, Hybrid Pedagogy hosted a #digped chat about The State of Higher Education and Its Future. During the Twitter discussion, Jesse tweeted: “We need more tenure-track & full-time faculty willing to advocate for their colleagues & students. #highered needs more bravery.”

Within a couple days, the tweet had been retweeted 41 times and favorited 10 times, which is telling, calling attention to the need for not only adjunct faculty, but full-time faculty, to rise up in active resistance. The best pedagogues take risks, and we need curriculums, hiring practices, and protections for contingent faculty that encourage those risks. In A Creature of Our Own Making, Gary A. Olson describes (among other things) the “gotcha” politics and incivility that now plague academia. He outlines how a culture of secrecy has sown the seeds of distrust and discord, but he fails to adequately address the proliferation of adjunct labor and discounts a call to reform graduate education in the humanities. Adjuncts and those of us calling for a radical reimagining of what goes on in the classroom are invisible until we aren’t. And then we must confront those who would seek to silence us, administrators and occasionally even our tenured and tenure-track colleagues. To say “trying is more important than being afraid” is, in fact, a radical act in today’s academy. When speaking publicly about any number of issues, particularly online, we run the risk of earning scorn (at best) and hostility (at worst). Melonie Fullick has an excellent rundown of some of the more recent examples of academics being publicly punished for speaking out critically on issues facing higher education, issues compounded by the “Presumed Incompetence” of female academics of color. Many of us are afraid. Students are afraid of ballooning debt, a stagnant economy, and the economic uncertainty that awaits them upon graduation. They may resist radical acts of pedagogical defiance because they labor under the burden of these fears. And passive acceptance has been inculcated into many by a K-12 system that rewards conformity and punishes those that would dare challenge the totalizing forces of the system. The result? An exodus from the classroom of dedicated teachers, many of whom are the outliers most willing to take pedagogical risks. With a #postac movement gaining momentum, pointing to paths outside higher education, the best teachers will be increasingly drawn elsewhere. Those of us who stay need to lay siege to the ivory tower from within. During another Twitter discussion, Jesse tweeted: “Higher education pushes out the exact wrong people. Those wrong people are about to rise up. We need more right leaders of wrong.” (The ensuing conversation storified.)


Educators need advocates and need to be advocates. We can’t just notice the problems, but must take specific action to solve them individually and institutionally. There are various stakeholders in this conversation (including students, administrators, and faculty), various folks we need in the room as we make and implement strategies for resisting the spread of business models for education that rely insidiously on contingent labor. And full-time faculty must be willing to take risks in support of their adjunct colleagues and students.

We must work together, and not just from a place of politics or administration. This is as much about how we are made professionally vulnerable by the corporatization of education, as it is about how making ourselves even more vulnerable — by taking risks and being honest — will help us find a way forward. We need to actively ensure that academia is a safe place for contingent faculty to speak openly about their professional lives without fear of losing their livelihood. We need to gather together in number so our pedagogies and politics can be safely laid bare.

From its beginning, one of the goals of Hybrid Pedagogy has been to create these sorts of conversations, which build bridges across systemic divides in education, making connections to facilitate productive action. In Pete Rorabaugh’s interview with Josh Boldt, founder of the Adjunct Project and one of the members of our founding editorial board, Boldt defines activism as a sort of scholarship. He offers: “Digital scholarship is new. It will take time. Empowered adjuncts, also new. Acceptance of both will take time.”

 

Initiatives like the Adjunct Project or #PhDchat offer non-traditional parallel structures that directly confront traditional academic systems. There are others who are brave. Scholars like Aaron Bady (blogging at The New Inquiry and himself a PhD student) use their platform to promote and share the posts of other marginalized voices in academia. A group of teachers in Seattle are refusing to administer standardized tests to their students. Even in the face of retribution. Even though they are being called cowards. Their act of defiance, of bravery, has sparked a movement. In Quebec, for the second spring in a row, students have mobilized to voice their disapproval, nay, their refusal to accept the “new normal” of shrinking state support for public higher education. Their protests last spring brought down the government. Will they do it again?

We need a movement in higher education, led by both educators and students, to resist changes forced upon us that we know make education worse, not better. Our work in the humanities is a scholarship of resistance, predicated on our being humans, not mere cogs in a machine. We need to support (financially, politically, and emotionally) the faculty most passionate about teaching and learning, while making alliances across disciplines and between community college teachers, K-12 teachers, contingent faculty, tenure-track faculty, academic staff, and students. The current hierarchies and political economies are becoming, more and more, at odds with a humanist ethic. We must make higher education viable for the digital age in ways that value the work of teaching and learning. The bravery we need right now is to champion the people doing that work.

Trying is more important than being afraid. So be brave.

[Photo by VinothChandar]

About the Authors

Lee Skallerup

Lee Skallerup Bessette (@readywriting) blogs at College Ready Writing. She is what is generally known as a generalist, loves words, and swimming.

Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) is Director of Hybrid Pedagogy and Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of Liberal Arts and Applied Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an advocate for lifelong learning and the public digital humanities. His personal site can be found at jessestommel.com.

One Comment
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  1. Lauren says:

    Agree completely. Seems to be no room for people like me in academia, and I can’t sacrifice livelihood to rail against system as an adjunct. Would love to be teaching full time. Forced to opt out.

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