Sometimes I feel that it would be useful to be an anthropologist. I’ve spent the past day oscillating between organizing two different kinds of horizontal learning projects, one with Occupy, the other in academia. It would be great to be able to analyze why and how the projects get constrained. So here’s my amateur take. Both are trying to work horizontally with different sets of constraints. In academia, there are some financial resources but a lot of vertical bureaucracy. In Occupy, there is the possibility to do whatever we want but it all must be done in the gaps of people’s personal and professional lives. It’s not as simple as Occupy: good/Academia: bad. The question in both instances is really: why do we do all this anyway?
Yesterday was the beginning of OWS Summer Reboot. If that sounds a little familiar, there was indeed a similar process back in January. If the sense then was that different groups needed more autonomy within the architecture of the movement, now people are concerned that we lack co-ordination. Without a GA or spokescouncil, and with announcements of events coming over Facebook and other social media to which not everyone has access, it can be hard to determine what’s going on–as we shall see!
There was an impressive run-down of all the activities people are involved in now. OWS may not have the mass movement of Quebec but there is so much interesting work happening. Facilitation broke these activities down into breakouts and there was one on education and the student movements that I attended. While some of us had been involved for a long time, there were also people from Occupy Latin America (yes, I know it’s already been occupied but these people are from there, can we move on?) and Canadian students brought in by the recent events.
The result was a great meeting in which we talked about connecting all the different actions going on around our areas by means of a hemispheric emphasis and talking about education as a whole from K-21 (ie kindergarten to grad school). In practical terms, we discussed an aggregating website to pull together all the different threads of education activity, and it turns out OWS Tech Ops has already made tools we can use. We decided to hold assemblies to begin a discussion as to what values we place on learning as we go forward. There’s been so much negative talk about debt and unemployment that it sometimes can feel unclear why we do this at all. And then we want to start planning for September so that when the school year begins we have plans in place.
Everyone left with great enthusiasm for the new project. I had a flashback to the moment when back in September I went to the Liberty Plaza information tent–there was one! next to the Red Thing–and asked where the Education meeting was, and the slightly scary looking person gave me excellent directions to 60 Wall Street. Only eight months ago, it feels a lot longer. Anyway. We all then went off and organized three separate events for this Sunday in Washington Square Park. A mad round of emails and calls later, the assemblies were consolidated for 12pm Sunday and it’s going to be very interesting. There’s some serious co-ordinating and web work to be done to prevent this kind of organizing chaos from recurring–it was not a disaster but it took a lot of time, which is a resource most of us don’t really have.
My academic project on the current state of visual culture is a participation event, meaning a conference that emphasizes participation over papers, no keynotes, lots of short presentations, workshops and discussions. There are sessions on debt and academic labor and a general assembly, none of which would have happened before the Occupy movement. There’s training in digital skills, which, as we can see, we definitely need.
The real question hovering over us is more substantial. For a long time we got credit, or gave ourselves credit, for being “interdisciplinary,” which is not that hard to do, and even more so for being “political.” This usually meant saying things hostile to the Bush administration that troubled them not very much at all–again, this is self-criticism, yes.
Now we face a dual challenge. On the one hand, conservatives have started open calls to shut down departments that don’t send students into well-paid jobs. This is close to government policy in the UK. At the same time, debt model of financing has become unsustainable and immoral. On the other hand, we need to be taking part in the messy, horizontal discussion of what we now mean by politics and by education, a conversation in which our hard won credentials don’t count for much. We’re going to need some humility and openness, qualities not often associated with academia. Nonetheless, the thousands that are demonstrating across the hemisphere believe in the value of what we do, and it’s time to reclaim that from the bureaucrats.
Will either of these projects work? Watch this space over the next couple of days.