How To Change: Learning, for example

How do we learn from change? How do we learn to change? These repeated but slightly different questions seem at the heart of the emerging difference between the academic assessment of the Occupy movement and its own internal process. Today Critical Inquiry published three intriguing essays about Occupy, written about the 2011 moment. Yesterday, I learned a good deal from Occupy University about how to create a successful “learning encounter.” The two are noticeably different and yet intersect.

The Critical Inquiry pieces (paywall protected) are by W. J. T. Mitchell, Michael Taussig and Bernard Harcourt. All distinguished figures to be sure, an amazing team to have backing Occupy, yet all three are white men of a certain age (as is acknowledged). While each essay movingly describes, and often quotes, the experiences of students and occupiers, it’s a shame that at least one of these people wasn’t given space to report back for themselves.

It’s not at all that the writers are not aware of the dilemma of doing academic work about Occupy. For Mitchell, one problem was simply that

it threatens to drown the researcher under a tsunami of material.

Anthropologist Michael Taussig resolved that issue by writing a moving account of last O13, the first attempt to evict OWS that failed because so many turned up to support the occupation. Yet even the span of one night raises difficult questions:

So how do you write about it? In such circumstance of dissolving norms, effervescent atmosphere, invention and reinvention, what happens to the ethnographer’s magic—as Bronislaw Malinowski called it—and that old standby of “participant observation”?

Is that magic strong enough?

Am I clear here? I don’t think so, and I think this is the problem of writing surprise and writing strangeness, surely the dilemma and sine qua non of ethnography. As soon as you write surprise—or, rather, attempt to write it—it is as if the surprise has been made digestible, so it is no longer surprising, no longer strange.

Each writer has interesting and provocative ideas: Mitchell saw Occupy as a new iteration of the revolution as “empty space,” as proposed by Michelet. Harcourt sees it as a new phenomenon he calls “political disobedience” that “resists the very way in which we are governed.” Taussig understands the mic check as a way to “come to grips with trauma,” using “the cultic expression of magic,” reminding me of Rebecca Solnit’s description of the occupations as a response to disaster.

There is for all that a certain tension in finding a place for what Occupy has tried to do within the established forms of academic practice. There is a seemingly deliberately retro list of theoretical references –Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Heidegger, Nietzsche. In short, all the Very Serious Germans–plus Foucault. But no Marina Sitrin, David Graeber, Rebecca Solnit, Zapatista writings and so on. Thus the diligent sub-editors at the University of Chicago changed Harcourt’s “stack takers,” the organizing of people to speak at a meeting, into “stocktakers,” a commercial counting of inventory.

Theory, in the American university, now serves as authority. It brooks no gainsaying other than more theory in response. Occupy has tried to resist authority and to be a leaderless movement. Bernard Harcourt, the legal scholar, takes this problem seriously and gets it right when he says:

[T]hose who theorize the Occupy movement—anyone who is trying to understand the movement, as I am here—cannot speak with authorial voice on behalf of or for the movement, since they are, at the moment, outside the movement.

What, then is the “author” who is part of the claim to authority to do?

Occupy University have been working on this for the past year. When I had the pleasure of doing a learning encounter with them yesterday, I saw a number of ways in which they have brought movement practice into the practice of learning. In this format, while there is a speaker in the conventional way, time is not limited to the standard hour. After I spoke to some images, we sat in a circle and a facilitator took over the discussion.

The facilitator controlled the flow of conversation and I was allowed to step back, rather than engage in the standard Q and A. The practical result was that this part of the evening, usually a test of the speaker’s authority in academia–can they withstand the questions or not?–became the main event. It took most of the time and generated more of the ideas and all the discussion. By the end, there was a joint ownership of the topics under discussion. I know this sounds a bit idealized, but it really was my sense of what happened.

Women in Kashmir burning their electricity bills, 10-18-12

As a result, the conversation was more interactive and engaged than is often the case in academia. Several reasons for this engagement seemed clear. It was a very diverse group, especially in terms of national origin, which allowed for a range of perspectives on debt and the global social movements, rather than referring mainly to OWS. At the same time, people active in the movement here used the encounter to be self-reflexive and critical of their own practice. When there was an opportunity to speak, care was taken to see if someone who had not yet spoken might want to do so. What began a little hesitantly opened up into a space in which Bedouin, German, Palestinian and Indian experience was being cross-referenced.

There were those who touched on theory–Jameson and Rancière for cognitive mapping and the division of the sensible respectively–but I really felt something else was emerging here. This was not a naive or unschooled room of people, in an art foundation in Manhattan. But there was a sense that we were trying to reach a little further, not to score points, but to learn how to learn. I got too involved in following and listening to take proper notes. And that in itself reminded me of being in the park in the first days that the Critical Inquiry team were writing about, when for a long time, I just wanted to be there and be part of it.

What’s (Higher) Education For, Anyway?

Another day, another rash of student debt horror stories. At the end of this op-ed, another suicide in which student debt was a key factor. NYU, where I teach, recently received permission from New York City Council to begin a massive expansion that will cost over $4 billion by most estimates. Although no budget has been published, 60% of this cost is estimated to be coming from student tuition, which is to say, debt. It’s time to start countervisualizing against the debt factory.

US universities were built up as bulwarks of knowledge and propaganda during the Cold War. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite, in 1957, this effort moved into high gear. It was widely held that “It is upon education that the fate of our way of life depends,” to quote one widely discussed essay of that time.

The G.I. Bill brought huge numbers of veterans into the university system. Some 50% of University of California students in the 1950s were veterans. Think tanks produced endless papers like Higher Education for American Democracy (meaning as opposed to Soviet Communism). All this culminated in the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which stated:

an educational emergency exists and requires action by the federal government. Assistance will come from Washington to help develop as rapidly as possible those skills essential to the national security.

All this is simply to say that we should not be attempting to restore this lost university of the military-industrial complex but instead seeking to abolish the debt-financed university and reconstruct another form of higher education.

This university will not be skills-based in the sense of vocational training. Even by the logic of capitalism, this doesn’t work. For example, when I was undergrad director in the Art department, I had a stream of students wanting to know how to become animators. The answer was simple: acquire good traditional art practice in a four-year degree. The studios want people who know what they’re doing visually but they train them in software, which changes too fast for universities to keep up.

Looking towards a possible future in which we don’t live to work, and we don’t work to repay loans, we would do well to think about how to inculcate a breadth of historical, cultural, critical and scientific vision as part of learning. Current university practice encourages and rewards intense specification, producing humanities scholarship that is so tightly focused that even other humanities faculty don’t read it, let alone assign it to students. Scientific journals come “bundled” so that the majority no-one wants to read have to be subscribed to as well as the few popular ones.

If the global social movements should have taught us anything, it is the need for a shared and extended understanding. Learning takes place best in non-hierarchical small groups and having so-called “smart” classrooms full of technology may be as much an impediment to that learning as a help. At the same time, there’s a place for the large audience teach-in (lecture) because, of course, some people know more than others. The question is always how to enable the learner to make use of that knowledge for themselves.

All this is the fine print. The real question is still the one that panicked people in 1957: what future do we want to make? David Graeber has recently lamented the collapse of the Jetsons/Star Trek vision of the future. Bifo has published a book called After the Future that takes the Sex Pistols’s mantra “No Future” as a diagnosis.

Perhaps we need to go back to the future. In the Central and Western Pacific, there has been a resurgence of traditional navigation, using the stars and waves to set a course, in handmade boats. Voyages of 1500 miles are routine.

The Canoe House, Guam

The people who sail and steer these boats take a considerable personal pride in the accomplishment, as well they should. It also offers a sustainable and zero-emission means of transport. In islands where climate-changed sea-level rise is already a daily reality, this is not just anachronism, it offers ways to resolve how to continue island life. It’s the direct opposite of the jet-pack vision and it’s not practical for everyone of course. Nor did the Sputnik lead to a viable space-flight system, it now turns out.

I don’t mean that we should all start teaching canoes or canoeing, although there is a great course at Michigan like that. I think we need to start deciding what kind of future we can imagine, what kind of future we want and how we might get there from here. A learning practice that embraced that kind of countervisuality to the military-industrial complex might even be worth working for.

Welcome to the Garbage Can University

In the last few days, a coup at the University of Virginia (UVa) and a report on the mass exploitation of the part-time academic workforce have made it clear that the US university system has come apart at top and bottom. All that’s left is the middle, endlessly putting itself into debt to stay in these increasingly dysfunctional institutions. Welcome to the garbage can university. There’s garbage at the top, rubbish pay at the bottom, and people treated like garbage in-between. And the masterwork of the new Interim President at UVa is on, yes, garbage cans.

First, UVa. This is unbelievable, even by the messed-up standards of university administration. Out of a clear blue sky the Board of Visitors (i.e. the Trustees) simply fired the current President Teresa Sullivan. The email trail dug up by student journalists at The Cavalier Daily, and pursued by the online daily Inside Higher Ed, shows what was up. Board members were so taken by a mediocre  Wall Street Journal piece of hype about online courses that they felt they had to expedite removing Sullivan. Here’s what got them salivating:

Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)—as has happened in every other industry—making schools much more productive.

The sleight-of-hand that will not have escaped your attention is to transform education, which is a public good, into a private industry. Rather than create a well-informed citizenry, this manufacture can be quantifiably more “productive.”

Perhaps most telling is what the Board did next. Sullivan, an expert on work and debt, was replaced with the Dean of the Business School. What use could a university have for the author of As We Forgive our Debtors : Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America? Or The Fragile Middle Class : Americans in Debt? Interim President Carl Zeithaml, former dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, is the third author of Barriers to Corporate Growth (1981). That really tells you all you need to know. Except that Zeithaml wouldn’t make tenure in most places with that publication record. Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot his recent essay “Garbage Cans and Advancing Hypercompetition.” My mistake. What could possibly better summarize the current American university than that?

At the other end of the academic pay scale, we learned today from the Coalition on the Academic Workplace that the neo-liberal revolution has fully succeeded. Composed of 26 scholarly societies like the College Art Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the  Modern Language Association, the Coalition began from this starting point:

According to data from the United States Department of Education’s 2009 Fall Staff Survey, of the nearly 1.8 million faculty members and instructors who made up the 2009 instructional workforce in degree-granting two- and four-year institutions of higher education in the United States, more than 1.3 million (75.5%) were employed in contingent positions off the tenure track.

Rightly, the Coalition saw its responsibility as trying to learn more about the conditions of these workers. Their survey received over 30,000 responses, with 20,000 from self-identified part-time faculty/instructors. The conclusions are stark:

◆ The median pay per course, standardized to a three-credit course, was $2,700 in fall 2010 and ranged in the aggregate from a low of $2,235 at two-year colleges to a high of $3,400 at four-year doctoral or research universities.

◆ Part-time faculty respondents saw little, if any, wage premium based on their credentials.

◆ Professional support for part-time faculty members’ work outside the classroom and inclusion in academic decision making was minimal.

◆ Part-time teaching is not necessarily temporary employment, and those teaching part-time do not necessarily prefer a part-time to a full-time position. Over 80% of respondents reported teaching part-time for more than three years, and over half for more than six years.

It is in this context that we need to discuss the assertion that labor costs are too high at US universities. It is in this context of systematic impoverishment of part-time faculty and instructors that students and those who support them should discuss the value of the tuition being paid for these courses, which now amounts to over $40,000 per year at all the top-ranked private institutions.

The disgrace of all this has been realized in Quebec. CLASSÉ point out that state support for public universities has fallen from 87% of the budget to 71%. That’s a level no US public institution can now dream of receiving. And that’s why they are on strike: because they can see where they are going–a world of essays on garbage cans, garbage level pay and garbage universities. And they want none of it.


How to do horizontal learning: two projects

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.

Horizontal learning: a report back

One last word from higher education before it’s time for Summer Disobedience camp and other fun activities. Throughout the course of 2012 so far, I’ve been engaged in a variety of endeavors to promote horizontal learning. Always in my mind as I participate in these projects is Augosto Boal’s concept of “thinking as action.” How’s it going?

In January, I posted about the way in which a group of us had set about trying to render a “class” into a workgroup. We set three forms of activity: actions, close readings of selected writings, and thematic weeks. We later added a guest visitor to that agenda. Of the three, clearly actions are most distinct from standard higher education practice, except perhaps in performance practice or tactical media classes, which are hardly standard fields. Perhaps as a result, the weeks where we went on the March 1 education march or May Day events felt most compelling.

The sense of liberation that we had during actions highlighted the constraints of our modern seminar room, a windowless chunk of carpeted square footage dominated by an imposing computer console containing a thoroughly mediocre machine. It wasn’t until we had a meeting outside during the freakishly warm March in New York that we realized that this alienating effect was exaggerated by the way the room made us form a very wide circle: close circles work much better. Sometimes it’s the little things that make the difference.

One of the most effective choices we made was to have students work in small writing groups. Although the groups were chosen randomly, they came to have very different sensibilities. Each group determined how they would approach the action days, how they would work on a final project (collaboratively or not) and also formed discussion groups within the formal meetings. Increasingly, these groups became the engine room of the project as a whole. That is, after all, what people pay for at the Ivies (that and the one percent networking).

Meeting time was allocated according to a consensed agenda, based on a proposal drawn up by two facilitators. Every group member did this at least once, most twice. Everyone reported some reluctance to do it and then a strong sense of empowerment having carried it out. While the agendas varied notably week by week, as the Spring wore on, it was clear that there was more and more desire to spend time in the smaller groups, so much so that it was hard to get people to stop work and report back to the collective.

So lots of positives. Let’s note also that trying to functional horizontally in a vertical institution is complicated. Some participants felt that they benefited from what I, as the instructor of record, had to say and wished for more of that. I responded that I in turn felt my comments were far more effective once I had a strong sense of where people were with the material and so the usefulness of my interventions was in fact a consequence of the way we were working. We did agree during that discussion, however, to be sure to begin meetings with a conversation about the terms we were going to use that day.

As time wore on and the other non-horizontal classes were gearing up for term papers, the anxiety level notably increased and people stopped referring to their projects and started talking about finals. It took a lot of one-on-one and group interventions to stop the panic. Normally what this means is that people then like my class but write their thesis/dissertation on a topic from a seminar where a long research paper was required. In this instance, I don’t think that will happen (although it’s not an issue for me) because of the wider context in which Occupy and the political are so central.

More pointedly, can there be horizontality when one person is being paid to attend/teach and the others are (mostly) paying to attend/for credits? To pose the question is to answer it: not perfectly, no. In prefiguring a different approach, you can perhaps take steps in the right direction. It helped I think that we had discussed and agreed on the syllabus, so that we didn’t seem to have a week where the topics and materials weren’t of interest. It helped more, again, that many of the group were also active participants in the movement so felt that they had equal standing. There were one or two who felt unsure about this but did feel able to say so.

Now the school year is over. The group has reconstituted itself as an affinity group and we meet in Washington Square Park weekly for discussion, reading, walks and actions. I’m particularly pleased that it’s not just the usual suspects: the most skeptical person in the group is still active. Where does this go? I have no idea. I’m not worried about it either.

Free/libre/open university: the new direct action

Last night was the debrief for the fabulous May Day Free University of New York. Everyone had clearly had a great time and wanted there to be more such events. It was also the beginning of a realization that a free/libre/open university can be a new form of direct action in the crisis of neo-liberal education.

Horizontal Pedagogy Workshop at Free U. May Day

In the software movement, distinctions between free, libre and open source have become standard. “Free” implies here freedom of use and not necessarily free of charge. “Libre,” the French for “free” is used to imply without cost. “Open” means that the source code is available to all, so that they can hack it to their own ends.

The Free University was an amalgam of free/libre and open. It was free in that anyone could attend or participate and there was an open call to offer classes. It was free because no supervision over content or method of engagement was practiced. It was free of charge to attendees. Costs were incurred nonetheless, ranging from web hosting to paper for signs and the food that was provided, defrayed by the Occupy movement and all those who donated funds to the May Day appeal. Yesterday, organizers announced that a “how to do a Free University” kit was being made to be posted online, so it was open in that sense.

The University did require a great deal of donated time, labor and expertise. For  some of those who are exploited members of what is becoming known as the New Academic Majority–adjuncts, staff, contingent labor and graduate students–there was some ambivalence about being asked for yet more free labor. People recalled that the original Free University had collapsed in disputes over money and a contingent from Occupy University cautioned over the difficulties they had had in organizing.

Yet hundreds turned out on May Day, over sixty classes and events were held, and afterwards the mostly grad student organizers  clearly felt that their contribution was worthwhile.The question might be not so much how to sustain the Free University but why has the desire for such a project become so powerful within and without the Occupy movement?

Education has become a vast source of revenue but also a mass generator of debt. As a result, as one organizer put it yesterday, in events like the Free University, education is a form of direct action. In the outsourced “high talent service industry” (to quote NYU President John Sexton) that education has become, any free/libre/open provision creates a dual power system. It is being sustained for the time being on dual purposed donated time and resources because the very size of the edu-factory means it cannot be duplicated. At this first stage of the new direct action education, it is most important to sustain the actions.

Let’s review briefly how recent changes in education have produced this strong sense of need from K-12 to PhD.

Recent education “reform” at K-12 level has extensively benefited private corporations, such as the UK-based Pearson. The company has £2.5 bn of revenues in education and turns a handy £493 million profit on them, up 9% in a recession. Recently, there were controversies over a Pearson-designed English and Math grade-school standardized tests for 8th graders that contained unanswerable questions. While these questions were invalidated, it’s harder to measure the unsettling effect caused and these days, test scores are critical for students and teachers alike. Most recently, trainee teachers have refused to submit to a Pearson evaluation forcing them to edit hours of teaching down to ten minutes, skills that have nothing whatsoever to do with education.

At higher education level, the difficulties in the Cal State system with simultaneously rising tuition and decreasing places are exemplary of the new bottlenecks in gaining even employment-driven qualifications. In a desperate move, students have begun a hunger strike in support of their call for a tuition freeze. The devil is in the details. One striker

a sophomore majoring in deaf studies, said she is taking only one required class this semester because she was unable to enroll in any others.

While this might seem like a marginal field, the reporter did not mention that Cal State Northridge, where the student is enrolled, is the U. S. center for A.S.L. and Deaf Studies. Interpreters and Deaf culture literate administrators have made mainstreaming of Deaf students and workers possible. If you can’t take Deaf Studies at more than a course a semester even at CSN, the field will wither, closing avenues of access, employment and opportunity for Deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing people alike.

For people who make it through higher education with advanced degrees, hoping for a career in teaching, even the pool of adjunct teaching is now drying up, leaving very few options.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported today that over 30,000 PhD graduates are now claiming food stamps, while nearly 300,000 do so with Master’s degrees. Need we add once again that there is now one trillion dollars in student debt?

In short, the tuition-driven, privatized and outsourced model of higher education is as broken as the neo-liberal economics on which it is based. Perhaps the desire for the Free University is the first sign of a widespread rejection of both concepts. In any event, let a thousand Free/libre/open universities bloom!

Learning Outside/Outside Learning

Occupy in Union Square

Yesterday I had the privilege of presenting at the first Open Forum at Union Square. Open Forum was a daily event at Liberty Plaza during the encampment in which an invited presenter would talk at 6.00pm. It was interestingly different to do it at Union Square and to think about the ways in which learning outside and outside the official realms of learning have changed in this intense movement time.

When you presented at Liberty, you usually did it on the stairs on the East side of the Plaza, not least because the drummers often made the West side a talk-free zone. The unusual architecture of this space, designed to be overlooked or at best passed through on your way somewhere else, gave it an oddly private feel. When you stood on the steps and looked down at the group, it felt intimate, whether it was a few dozen as it was when I did it, or when it required two relays on the human mike as it did when Angela Davis was there. The policing came to reinforce that sense of separation, as cops would require people at street level to move on, meaning that if you wanted to be part of OWS you had to step into the Plaza.

Union Square is very different. It’s flat and open but also well-used as a venue in its own right. Yesterday there were a group calling for Free Tibet and an assembly of mostly African-American young people using a subcultural dress code that was very striking but not legible to me. So you present in a circle that is constantly changing as people come and go, stay for ten minutes and leave, as well as those who intended to be there. You’re open to the city in a different way, meaning that I could use a nearby Bank of America tower as a prop but also that the inevitable police sirens very much intrude. In short, it’s the difference between Zuccotti/Liberty as a proscenium space and Union Square as a theatre in the round.

As much as I regret Liberty Plaza and loved being back there on March 17, there’s also a sense in which Union Square feels more grown up. Liberty was like our own private space, literally and metaphorically our bedroom, whereas Union is downstairs, a public space. There’s also a new openness. We were talking about student debt. Two people present were working on projects about debt. One young man, who didn’t tell me his name, did tell me that he was “six figures” in debt for his Columbia degree. That would not have happened last September.

It’s still absurdly policed, so that we were told that you can’t put cardboard on the pavement now. Some Occupiers are now sleeping on the streets outside banks and have made a sign detailing how in the case of Metropolitan v. Safir, the U.S. District Court covering New York City ruled that

the First Amendment of the United States Constitution does not allow the City to prevent an orderly political protest from using public sleeping as a means of symbolic expression.

It has, at least for the time being, stymied the cops.

There is a dynamic to being outside in this hyper-policed city. It’s given expression by the Trayvon Martin case. If Trayvon had been in a car, Zimmerman would never have attacked him. Just as a woman in public in the nineteenth century was literally called a “street walker,” so is anyone on the street automatically a criminal suspect to the policing mentality. We are supposed to stay in our gated communities, in our buildings, or in our cars and not be outside.

In the Politics and Visual Culture Working Group, we’ve noticed this as well. When our meetings are outside, whether in a park or as part of an action, there’s a very different and more vibrant dynamic then when we are in an NYU classroom. Just to reinforce this, NYU’s new expansion plan calls for 70,000 sq. ft. of classroom space–underground, in what is now a parking garage, with access only from a security-controlled building. The institution tells its debtors to park their minds and pay their bills.

It’s going to be warm this weekend–get outside!


Abolition (Free, Open) Education

If debt refusal becomes a point of self-affirmation, what then happens to education? The tactical answer is the common sharing of education in non-hierarchical institutions, as part of the strategic goal of creating free public education from pre-K to PhD. Yet this goal of abolition education since Reconstruction has always been undermined by debt. What’s so important, I think, is the emerging possibility of discussing this as a collective failure rather than as a set of individual problems.

Abolition education was forged by Reconstruction. Du Bois highlighted the complementary actions of the newly elected South Carolina Convention in ending imprisonment for debt and creating free, public education. While they complained mightily about their “loss” from the abolition of slavery

usury laws had been repealed by the planters in 1866, and interest rates rose to 25 and 30 per cent. Banks commonly charged from 18 to 24 per cent.

Nonetheless, South Carolina committed itself to creating public education by means of an annual levy on all property and a poll tax. The reason was clear: for the first time, those without property were making decisions. Twenty-three out of 47 white delegates and fifty-nine of the 74 African-American delegates paid no income tax. In our own time of millionaire representatives and billionaire financing, this seems scarcely credible.

The “free common school system” was in place by 1868 and made permanent in 1870. Perhaps not entirely by coincidence, Wall Street financiers refused to back South Carolina bonds in 1868. Finally, with interest rates of between 15 and 20 per cent, bonds were issued, driving South Carolina into over $20 million of debt by 1871, at least half of which was payment of interest, a situation enabled, wrote Du Bois, by the

financial graft of Wall Street and its agents, made possible by the slander and reaction of the planters.

Debt has never been a separate question to public education in these not-so-United States.

On my way downtown for an Occupy meeting today, I looked up at the subway ads–no less than four for-profit “colleges” were advertised at my end of the car. These institutions like ASA College, Professional Business College and the Grace Institute are outside the research universities discussion about humanities versus STEM subjects: all degrees are vocational. That does not mean they are cheap: ASA expects tuition to be about $12,000 a year and total costs to be about $30,000 a year, according to its own website.

While this debt is, then, being imposed on people as a structural requirement for work, we still can’t ask people to renounce the formal structures of education: it’s going to be a process. Much of that might involve rethinking how we got here in the first place. Today I saw a discussion between the artist Deborah Kass and the young artist Amy Lincoln that highlights these issues:

Ms. Lincoln: …I don’t like the stereotype, the bohemian idea. We’re definitely very career-oriented. You have to be serious about spending time in the studio. You have no free time. You never have the day off…I know a lot of people who have to work a lot because they’re paying off a $30,000 student loan.

Ms. Kass: I didn’t get an MFA. I didn’t have a student loan. We expected our parents to pay for college.

Ms. Lincoln: We all got MFAs and the art market was booming. You could get picked up by a gallery at a student show. We had really high expectations. Now, there is so much angst over, “I want to be showing at such-and-such gallery, and this curator called but then I never heard back….”

Ms. Kass:I didn’t have any expectations. What you expected didn’t exist yet.

For all her debt, Lincoln sells work for between $300-700 in Bushwick where she lives. There’s no disgrace in that, far from it, and it’s interesting that in the short discussion, Lincoln doesn’t question her choices.

By contrast, J, the PhD student who I mentioned yesterday as being saddled with scary debt, wrote to me:

I used to have trouble sleeping at night because I was afraid that they would bring back debtors prisons … and hating myself for having taken out loans. It’s taken me a while to wrap my head around it and to decouple the value and necessity of education from the burden of the debt, and to see that debt structurally.

Here we see the full wisdom of the OWS slogan highlighted by McKenzie Wark: “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.”

Interim tactics: consider learning, or teaching, at free, open institutions like The Public School, OWS’s own OccU, or following courses by using free syllabi provided by institutions like MIT. If you teach, allow people to audit, sit in, podcast and live-stream. If you write, make it available free by open access means (you can publish it as well, of course, if you can find a press that will give you rights to your own work: and good luck with that).

I know people can’t learn how to be doctors like this and that’s why this is a tactic. Let’s also remember actions like those of the South African Students Movement in 1976, who refused to participate in the apartheid school system and set in motion the collapse of the regime. At the same time, many individuals deprived themselves of education to make things better for others.

So it is heartening to see the success of Chile’s high school students who did not walk out but occupied their schools:

“The assembly is the control center,” Cristóbal explains. “All students participate and at times it’s open to teachers. We have watch duty and volunteers come in to make meals. Teachers teach, but they also learn from the students. At the beginning we had classes subject by subject, but later we saw that parceling out knowledge wasn’t the real way to learn, and we all got together for each subject.”

The high school system is the key to an abolition education in the Americas. Here in New York the high schools are more segregated than they were before official desegregation. There was official celebration last week when admissions to the city’s selective high schools produced a class that is 6% African American and 8% Latin@–in a majority minority city. Behind that failure lies the still-greater disaster of data-driven quantification of education as a standardized test score result.

From Chile to South Africa and South Carolina, the impetus to a free, open public education is clear and elusive at once. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Arizona has banned the teaching of Paulo Freire’s classic The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. We might want to begin by re-reading it, assigning it, making free copies of it, and discussing it at Occupies everywhere.

J 29 Can’t Pay! Won’t Pay!

OWS occupied a square for a day this afternoon in Washington Square Park. The fountain was encircled with tables from working groups, the Octopus puppet and the drummers were there. It was quite like old times–from two months ago. Not wanting to be left out the police arranged their own gathering on the North side of the square but failed to consense on an action, so Occupy Town Square went ahead.

In the fall, I was active in Occupy Washington Square Park, so it was nice to be back in the Square. The Education and Empowerment working group did a great job–there were protest song teach-ins, walking tours of corporate interests around the Square, books from the OWS library: and in a collaborative effort with Direct Action and the Performance Guild, we performed scenes from Dario Fo’s 1974 classic play Can’t Pay! Won’t Pay!

The performance project came about from a discussion at the Occupy Student Debt Campaign when we were looking for a slogan for the launch. I suggested “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay” and I quickly had to disavow any originality. It seemed that I finally found something I could do for Occupy–remember things that happened long before most of the activists were born. Fo’s play was first written and performed by himself, his wife Franca Rame and the theatre group Collettivo Teatrale La Comune in 1974.

It was based on the auto-reduction movement in Italy, in which women and men refused to pay price increases in shops, increased rent and other price hikes, while their own wages were stagnant. These actions were part of the operaismo or worker’s power that has been so influential in academic circles of late via Paolo Virno, and other Autonomia writers.

The play is still performed worldwide from debt-destroyed Ireland to supposedly-booming India:

Irish production

From Bangalore

When Greek citizens started to refuse to pay new road tolls and other imposed tax increases, the parallel was noticed at once. Now actively described as the “I Won’t Pay” movement, it’s likely to grow in size now that Germany is demanding that a European Union commissioner be imposed to run the Greek economy. In the US, any such movement is seen as a moral failing on the part of the debtor, rather than a social crisis in which unreasonable prices and interest rates are imposed on citizens.

So Can’t Pay! Won’t Pay! is a play whose time has once again come. In the scenes performed today, Antonia and Margherita describe how a group of women banded together to refuse to pay increased prices in the supermarket. Then Margherita’s husband, Giovanni, a play-by-the-rules middle-of-the-road type reports his amazement that his workmates refused to pay for the mediocre food at increased prices in the works canteen. Any investigations into the identity of the mediocre “actor” playing Giovanni today will be summarily dismissed;) So in two short scenes issues of striking, price refusal and feminism were raised.

Giovanni and Antonia in the Nora Theatre production (Boston, 2008)

While the play felt a little dated and the UK English translation lost people in places, the good-humored little audience watching enjoyed the rehearsal and stayed around to discuss debt refusal and other issues.

In this group were two mothers who are being pursued by Citibank for student debt incurred by their children, which is being repaid, only not fast enough for the bank’s liking. We heard about a popular refusal of mortgage debt in Hungary, where debtors deposited bricks outside the Parliament building. Thousands participated, prompting the government to allow a revision of foreign currency mortgages that had been very popular (as in Iceland) before 2008 but were now ruinous.

Can’t pay? Won’t pay!


Tools and “the master’s house”

After another day of discussing open access and open peer-review, I come home to find Oakland looking like Tahrir Square on livestream. How do we evaluate our tools, on- and off-line, as the situation changes and as the state becomes more and more willing to use force? Once again, it’s time to think of Audre Lorde’s injunction “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”


Oakland Commune

Today was advertised as “move-in day,” when Occupy Oakland was to reoccupy an abandoned building. Looking at the streaming pictures, first impressions are that the police were forewarned of their target and came heavily armed with smoke bombs–some say tear gas–and there are reports of rubber bullets after they declared “unlawful assembly.” So much for the First Amendment, then.

From what I have seen the Occupy people have been non-violent–although abusing the police is being classified as “assault” these days. No doubt the media will report a “violent” clash with arrests, if they report it at all. The situation is still unclear but it looks as if there won’t in fact be a reoccupation. Infiltration by police agents was a better tool today than occupation. On the other hand, the excessive and almost casual resort to force may give Occupy as a whole a new impetus.

Net choices

I’m getting much of my information on Oakland from Twitter, as has become the norm over the past year. Yesterday, however, Twitter seemed to take a far more cautious position in relation to internal censorship than it has in the past, promising to abide by local laws in countries where there are “different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression.” What has become a critical tool of horizontal expression seems under threat.

By the same token, we were all struck at the peer-to-peer meeting when every person present cracked open a Mac to begin work. Given the latest revelations of appalling working conditions at Apple’s Chinese factories, some are now calling for a boycott. And then there are the phones that we use to coordinate activities: the same reports show that all major phone brands are made at places like Foxconn in China and that there are no phones made to decent labor or environmental standards. The long-standing call for open-source software seems to need a hardware counterpart that would require resources that only a state could mobilize. How about it Finland?

In the likely continued absence of such hardware options, how about software tools? In our discussions today, a distinction emerged between open access and open review. The latter might not be in the end too much of a disruption to current vertical patterns of gatekeeping. There’s an argument that it might even increase requirements for seemingly permanent review of everything by everyone.

Open access is different. When we see a company like Oxford University Press giving established writers contracts deeming their work “for hire,” and thus totally the intellectual property of the press, it’s time for a change. Steven Shaviro, the writer in question, points out the convergence at work across the “knowledge economy”:

Writers would become “knowledge workers” whose output belonged to the press that published them (or to the university at which they worked, in another variant of the scenario) in the same way that code written on the job at Microsoft, Apple, or Google belongs to those companies, and not to the writers themselves.

The conclusion he came to, along with many others on Facebook and elsewhere, was not only that one cannot write for such presses but also that we should not assign their books. Oxford’s UK counterparts Cambridge University Press have taken to renting articles on a daily basis–no printing permitted.

The alternative is free publication, using open source software and online distribution. Open Humanities Press is the model. Yet even OHP has retained the double-blind peer review. Today, some felt that for the humanities monograph, there was as yet no real alternative. If that’s right, which it may well be, I suspect that’s because the “master’s house,” the vertical university, has no space for alternative tools. Just as in other areas of economic activity, the rhetorics of scarcity and austerity are used to sustain and reinforce intense competition among the aspirant workforce.

It’s an open question as to whether there’s one last “bubble” in the post-2008 economy: higher education. The very noticeable extent of participation in Occupy by graduates and post-graduates suggests that for the user, it already has done. We need to prepare our tools not for an ever expanding system but for one that places value on equality.