This post was sent to me by Olufemi O. Taiwo and is signed by #TheUndercommons (UCLA).
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
An adjunct. She’s Black, which she must remember when her colleagues and students recoil at her perceived anger, but forget if she’s brave enough to openly question these reactions. Which colleagues remember when assessing her work – especially should she make the mistake of mentioning her race, or worse, researching in ways that make it salient – but forget when defending these assessments. Fellow marginal colleagues and students seek her for advice and support. She helps.
Not familiar? How about: your department’s sole Black professor. A status that is noticed for committee assignments and the occasional “diversity” course offering (festive!). By students huddled in his office, often strays from departments that have no version of him, seeking — what? Guidance, maybe. Someone to entertain the quiet thoughts they jot in the margins of their class notes, next to the ones they are actually willing to articulate. He rarely asks. He just listens. Teaches. When queried about his unsatisfactory productivity at his tenure review, he makes shit up. Win some, lose some.
Or: a Black student, sitting in a class. Maybe yours. They can feel that something is off, left unsaid, that there are maneuvers to be made that the course material is not gymnastic enough to allow. That the person in front of them isn’t the person to ask.
They find a Black instructor.
If stories like these are familiar to you, you might understand what was being demanded at 51 campuses across the US, India, South Africa, and Taiwan: an environment in which students can expect to be challenged on their thoughts, not their standing to offer them. Or why faculty diversity was the most consistently made demand. Or why students at UCLA are running their own space of reasons, “#TheUndercommons” as (among other things) an implicit form of protest against higher education as it currently stands: a collection of spaces of complacency. Spaces that are, frankly, embarassing. Spaces whose complacency and self absorption is dangerous.
If you find these stories unfamiliar, maybe you were persuaded by characterizations of the protesters focused on “illiberal” demands on speech policies, or calls for firings (that is, the two least consistently made of the central demands). Maybe you were more concerned with the decorum of the protesters, which juxtaposes awkwardly with the long, often violent history of protest that was required to make the advances we take for granted today.
But even after consideration of the merits of these criticisms, they are ultimately distractions. The most popular proposals should be understood as aiming to swell the ranks of those competent to navigate race and related issues (by experience or by other forms of education). Then, the “coddling” line of criticism against student activists relies on an argumentative strategy that conveniently shifts the goalposts for the benefit of those already most advantaged – as, effectively, do liberal defenses of the protestors that concede this framing. After all, there certainly is at least one epistemic environment among our options that artificially constricts reasoned debate, caters to the sensitivities of a sensitive few, and “coddles”: the one at work in the status quo.
This fact is often gestured to by way of a host of theory-laden terms that seem to make some folks feel unsafe – for example, “white supremacy”, “cisheteropatriarchy”, “ableism”, “capitalism” (yes, this too) and “imperialism”. While the phenomena named with these terms intersect with the intellectual work dedicated to studying them in fraught ways, folks in the various ‘knows’ seem to agree on this much: higher education as it is already serves as a ‘safe space’. Namely, for the sort of person content to free ride off of the extra labor required to teach and learn around those who refuse to develop or even acknowledge the capacities that would allow them to share the load. Then, objecting to the excesses of those pushing for safe spaces in ways that treat the dominant paradigm as the evaluative standard of sense and justice is, at best, confused. At worst? There are some scary words we should talk about – you know, when you feel up to it).
Criticisms of some perceived fragility gripping the latest generation of students are not moves within the space of reasons, but refusals to enter it. And how you gon hate from outside the club? You can’t even get in.