On strike

As I write this post, we are on strike. Today, my UK union, the UCU, is holding one of a series of two-hour work stoppages, part of our current battle for a living wage increase for academic staff across the country. I won’t go into the details of what we are fighting for – read about the issues here if you wish – except to say that I voted to strike back in the autumn, and I’m doing my best to observe each strike in spirit if not always by the book (more on that below). At its core, this fight is about the continued, pernicious pressure levelled upon us by an intensively neoliberal civic culture, in which ordinary working citizens are required to bear the brunt of the government’s ongoing austerity measures in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, while the economy’s most elite workers (those who hold the greatest fiscal, social, cultural, and estates capital) are not only spared but rewarded with tax breaks and other income-protection measures in the name of a new kind of trickle-down economics. As a feminist, as a teacher, as a scholar and as a “lay” activist, I oppose the practice of neoliberalism in contemporary anglophone culture in all its forms, and my position on the issues over which we are striking is part of that opposition.

So I’m on strike, but I’m writing this blog post. More specifically, I’m writing it from the Costa coffee shop (a chain shop, similar to Starbucks or Second Cup, that operates all over the UK) across the road from my campus office. During today’s work stoppage I was not scheduled to teach, but I was scheduled to hold an office hour; instead of cancelling that office hour unequivocally and leaving my desk to attend our local rally near the QMUL library, I decided to put a note on my office door that simply said “I am at Costa if you need me.” I did not specify a date or time; I simply hoped that students who really felt they needed to see me would understand the message and come by the coffee shop if it was urgent.

I made this decision after chatting with several colleagues about the conundrum I was facing: I had missed last week’s office hour due to a meeting off campus, I wanted to ensure any students who had been inconvenienced by that cancellation would not be inconvenienced two weeks in a row, and I did not want to have to reschedule my office hour for another day, as I am making an effort this semester to protect my research time ahead of some upcoming deadlines. In other words, I did not want the act of striking to make my life that much harder by pushing my teaching work into the evening, or into another day scheduled for other, equally important tasks. At the same time, I did not want simply not to take some action; I wanted to make a gesture that could be understood as standing in solidarity with my colleagues actively striking, while also recognized by students as an effort to meet their most significant needs despite the difficult choices presented by the situation in which union members currently find themselves.

Some will call this fence-sitting, or perhaps even a kind of cowardice; I’ve tried to inconvenience nobody, when in fact a strike is all about inconvenience, at its core. I prefer to think of my choice as a compromise that makes the best, for me, of a situation in which I stand to lose on all fronts: my students stand to be frustrated and potentially blame me and my colleagues for that frustration; I stand to have to work later in order to make up for “stopping” mid-day; I also stand to lose a day’s pay (which I am willing to do when I am asked, by the administrators at QM for the official record book, if I observed the strike). As a group, union members may win our battle of course, may gain in the long run. But the likelihood of that feels, to be honest, quite small. My compromise is imperfect, and so am I: tired and emotionally drained just weeks into the spring semester, I want to stand by my political position but also not be worn down further in the process.

The compromise I’ve chosen is also, of course, in every way a function of the job I do, in both its privileges and its pressures. Academics work when we want to work, aside from set teaching and meeting hours; we also, as a result, tend to work most of the time. In fact, we tend to live our jobs, thinking about or acting on our research and teaching practices in conjunction with other “leisure” or “extracurricular” activities throughout the week and on weekends. For example, I lesson plan partly in my head while walking the dog, putting pen to paper and firming up the day’s tasks once we’re home. I also work a lot of Sundays and evenings, on research or marking. I combine holidays and conferences, so I’m usually working at least half of any given “holiday” trip. I’ve learned to preserve Saturdays, for the sake of my mental health, but that’s the best I can consistently do when it comes to guaranteeing myself genuine free time. (If you’re interested in reading more about this particular battle for free time – from a sunnier and more optimistic perspective! – please check out my holiday blog post on “getting a life” here.)

In any job that is also a kind of calling, boundaries are few and far between (as well as a profound challenge to maintain, when we do erect them). This life-work weave speaks to my privilege as a well-paid, mobile professional in an information economy. At the same time, though, that information economy, with the high premium it places on “knowledge” workers belonging to a “creative” class, demands my excess time, encourages me surreptitiously to work all the time, to take less and less money per hour for that time, and to call it all a job perk to boot. This is one of the ways that neoliberal ideology works strenuously against me, and against us all. I am aware of it, but feel in many ways helpless in front of it. And this helpless awareness is one of the things, whether stated in this round of bargaining or not, that information workers are always striking about these days, when we are lucky enough to have the right to strike (and fewer and fewer of us do).

There’s one more way in which my compromise in today’s strike action feels uncomfortable but essential to me. I mentioned above that I am emotionally drained already, only three weeks into the new semester; this may seem like an extreme experience, but it’s not at all a new feeling. Any college-level teacher (any teacher full stop, I suspect) will tell you that working with others, especially young people, in a mentor-student relationship is emotional labour of the highest order. The students we teach need us like never before: caught in the hamster’s wheel of high tuition fees, part time jobs with zero hours contracts, not enough support staff at uni to help them in their stresses and struggles, not enough time in the day to complete their paid work as well as their scholarly labour, and few great job prospects on completion, these students look to us to help them get through the affective pain of being here with us, in this socioeconomic moment in time, feeling betrayed by the institutions that promised to guide and aid us and yet having to carry on anyway. And it’s my job – indeed, it’s my calling – to help when asked. But taking on their affect hurts; it’s physically and mentally taxing for me, too. That doesn’t mean I won’t do it; it does mean, however, that it makes me so, so tired when I do. So I refuse to blame myself for wanting to sort-of-but-not-quite hold my office hour over the road at Costa; I did it to help alleviate the building anxiety I was feeling about when I might do that crucial affective labour, that emotional support work that is so much a part of my job, if not as scheduled now – because it simply has to get done.

The cultural theorist Lauren Berlant has a term for what I’ve been engaged in this past two hours, and in this blog post. She calls the act of doing what I know will ultimately be bad for me, but which I hope against hope will be OK after all, cruel optimism. Cruel optimism is the condition of possibility of neoliberalism today; it is a bad compromise, one you feel you can’t but take, just to make it to tomorrow. By partly but not quite striking today, the UCU itself took a compromise position against British universities that amounts to a gesture of cruel optimism; by almost but not quite striking with my union, I did, too. Looks like we’re still all in this together.

In solidarity,

Kim

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GUEST POST: Thinking Through Writing, From Undergraduate Essays to PhD Dissertations

By Sarah Thomasson

As Kim discussed in a recent post, essay writing is perhaps the toughest challenge for undergraduate students and is one that is not necessarily directly addressed within the curriculum of many academic courses at any level. Essay writing (and increasingly other forms of written communication such as wikis and blog posts) form the basis for assessment in the academy but it is also where students develop their thinking on a subject, draw the connections between the class material and their independent research, and reach their own conclusions by developing the all important thesis statement. It is this process of ‘thinking through writing’ that remains constant whether you are writing an undergraduate essay or a PhD dissertation.

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This semester working on ‘Performance Texts’ with Kim, my fellow Teaching Associates Christine and Michelle, and a group of enthusiastic first year students provided a working model of how to integrate writing into our teaching, but also teaching into our writing. Throughout the semester we deployed a number of strategies to incorporate writing exercises into our teaching that were developed in collaboration with Thinking Writing (part of Learning and Development within Student Services at QMUL) the year before. Two strategies in particular have inspired reflection on my own writing practices and how these principles are valuable for overcoming psychological writing blocks in academic writing more generally.

Performance Texts is a first-year undergraduate module (course) that centres on developing ‘reading’ strategies for a number of different texts. When responding to performances (whether professional productions or the workshop performances of their classmates), we asked students to focus on ‘critical moments’: points that stood out for each of us as spectators within the performance, and which we saw as communicating an activist message (the theme for this semester’s class). By thinking with the students about how and why our own moments stood out for us, we as teachers were able to model for students how to push past our initial gut reactions in order to develop a claim about the performance, which would in turn form the basis for articulating a strong, clear thesis statement. In asking students to transform their critical moments into a thesis statement for their first essay, this exercise ultimately broke the process of performance analysis down into three manageable steps.

Free form writing was a second strategy that we used a number of times throughout the semester to help students develop their own thinking about performance through the process of writing. One example of this was in our performance workshops when everyone (including the seminar leaders) took two minutes directly after each ten-minute performance to write down everything they could think of about a critical moment that they had just witnessed. Once everyone had formulated their own responses through this stream of consciousness writing exercise, the audience members discussed their responses in small groups and were asked to come up with good questions to ask the performers. These critical moments and the free form writing exercise that accompanied it formed the basis for our thesis statement workshop the following week and ultimately the thought work that went into writing the first essay. Importantly, this free form writing was not assessed or even shown to anyone, but was rather introduced to students as simply part of the thinking process that goes into essay writing.

My students assured me that they found these exercises and the subsequent thesis statement workshop helpful in preparing for their first essays, but I too learnt valuable lessons to feed back into my own writing. The exercises that we incorporated into Performance Texts model a number of good practices to use at any stage of writing. Firstly, they employ stream of consciousness and free form writing to lower the stakes for the participant; they encourage thinking through writing by asking the author to write out their thoughts before even planning their essay; and perhaps most importantly, they encourage everyone to get words on the page sooner rather than later. This has led me to put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard and to draft my top writing tips to share with readers of this blog. Hopefully they will be useful to anyone at any stage of their writing career.

Sarah’s Top Writing Tips (begged, borrowed, and stolen from various formal writing sessions and informal discussions over the years):

1. Lower the stakes

The self-critic over your shoulder is omnipresent and often crippling. If you are judging the piece as you go, you will never be able to get the words out. A trick is to remove the pressure by remembering that it is just a draft that you can always tidy later. It is also important to keep in mind that this piece of writing is not your life’s work – whether it is an essay as part of your degree, a public blog post, an article being submitted for publication, or a dissertation – and that it doesn’t have to change the world.

2. The ‘Throw Up and Tidy Up’ Method

This was the phrase that my MPhil Associate Supervisor used to describe what is ultimately the ‘thinking through writing’ stage of a piece and is in direct contrast to the ‘spend all day crafting one perfect sentence in the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson’ method. Now that you have lowered the stakes for yourself you can get those words on the page in whatever form that they come. This is similar to the free form writing exercises described above and involves vomiting all of your ideas onto the page and allowing the salient points to emerge. This is particularly useful when you are scared of a piece of writing, have no idea what you want to say, or the opposite – when you have so many ideas in your head that you don’t know where to start. This requires free form writing without checking back through your notes, looking up facts you aren’t sure of, or perfectly referencing each idea (this will come later, once you have a roadmap of where you are going). The thing to remember is that you don’t have to show this to ANYONE. You will not be assessed on it or judged for it. Don’t worry if the sentence structure is too simplistic (or too complicated) or if you have made questionable word choices throughout. Resist checking your dictionary/thesaurus at this stage and just focus on thinking and writing. You’ll feel better for having words on the page and will have something to work with. (Remember, too, that sometimes thinking can also emerge through the editing process, so there will be time to develop your argument further through restructuring and planning after the fact.)

3. Assume the Position

This sounds a bit questionable but is perhaps the most useful tip that I picked up from a writing seminar run by Maria Gardiner and Hugh Kearns of ThinkWell. Those of us who have important pieces of writing to do – this is as true of essays as it is of articles/dissertations/monographs – can expend an awful amount of energy doing anything but writing. Call it procrastination or writing apprehension, which is often more accurate for those of us who spend ages in the research/reading/planning stages, but we often leave the actual writing until the very last minute (although at least we now have clean ovens and freshly-baked muffins, right?). We are all guilty of/afflicted by writing apprehension at some point in our writing lives. The advice I was given when this feeling hits is to ‘assume the position’:

Step 1. Sit at your desk with your computer switched on in front of you.

Step 2. Plant your feet on the floor.

Step 3. Place your fingers on the keyboard in front of you, and have your word processor open on screen.

Step 4. Maintain this position for the next two hours, and don’t move for anything.

It sounds silly but when you don’t give yourself the option of getting out of the task of writing, it can really help. Just writing for two hours a day can get that essay/dissertation/manuscript done in no time. Do this in the morning and then you can spend the afternoon doing more enjoyable tasks like reading/admin/having your wisdom teeth removed guilt free.

4. Practice what I say not what I do.

This is a work in progress for us all.

 

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Sarah Thomasson is a PhD candidate and Teaching Associate at Queen Mary University of London in the departments of Drama and Geography. Her dissertation compares aspects of the Edinburgh International Festival, the Adelaide Festival and their associated Fringe Festivals to interrogate the relationship between these cultural events and their host cities. She also works as an administrative assistant for Contemporary Theatre Review.

Fight back with your brain!

There’s a point in my favourite episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly (it’s Objects in Space, connoisseurs) where River Tam, an exceptionally gifted and damaged young woman who, in this particular moment, is kicking the ass of a bounty hunter, says: “And also, I can kill you with my brain”. It’s always made me laugh. Mostly because it’s so true.

OK, maybe our brains don’t kill – not really. But the larger point River makes is absolutely unassailable: hard, directed, careful thinking is powerful stuff. As I noted in my last post, it’s also not stuff that’s all that well respected in our current neoliberal climate: too much thinking from us Plebeians is risky for the corporation-friendly powers that be. They rely on us not thinking too much about, say, why we just bought that book on Amazon given that Amazon is a massive tax avoider and committed small bookstore assassin, or what the production line tethering our iPhones to child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa might actually look like. They count on the (generally well founded) assumption that we’ll buy their message that consumption is good, taxes are bad, and assume they’ve done the heavy thinking for us, because hey, why wouldn’t they? They’re smarter than us, right? Up there on those podiums? In other words, they hope and pray that we’ll choose not to use our killer brains – because, of course, at any time, we can choose otherwise.

The power of a well trained brain is my business, as a scholar in the humanities and the social sciences. My colleagues and I fret a lot – as you can imagine, since the powers that be are always reminding us how useless we are at training Drones for Good Jobs – about how to quantify what it is we do with and for students, and about how to articulate that doing to a larger public made terribly skeptical by neoliberalism’s anti-intellectual smoke and mirrors games. The default, for a long time, has been to claim that we are building “critical thinkers”; this is another way to say that we are helping students to develop their killer brains. It’s a bit of a tough sell, though; after all, those of us who have never thought of ourselves as especially “critical”, or for whom “critical” just means antagonistic, will likely not appreciate what scholars mean when they say “critical thinking”. Which, of course, is another way to say that, maybe, scholars need a different vocabulary – maybe a more direct, forceful, powerful vocabulary – for saying what it is that we do, and why it actually matters. A lot.

Here’s what I think I do in my classrooms. It’s what I try to do, anyway – because it’s about building a base of skills that is in fact in urgent need.

  • I teach students how to use their brains – their careful, sharp thinking, and clear, direct writing – to fight those who are trying to trick them into accepting less. Less good in the world. Less money and fewer resources for them and their families, and for their communities. Less community, less camaraderie. Less security. Less freedom.
  • I teach students what it means to become committed citizens: of their home towns and regions, of their adopted towns and regions, of their nations, of our shared world. Being a citizen requires a hell of a lot of hard, concentrated, careful thinking and active, courageous speech. And those skills don’t come from nowhere.
  • I teach students to think politically. 
  • I teach students to solve problems creatively.
  • I teach students to question the things I claim to be true, and to ask me to spell out how I know their truth, as practice for questioning all the truthy bullshit they are likely to encounter outside our classroom, on their way to demanding more and better for themselves and others.
  • I teach students to use all the gifts they bring into our classroom to fight better, and smarter, for their own and others’ human rights.

This is what I hope I do when I get up to teach everyday: I hope that I am training politically aware, creative, thoughtful, agile citizens, the future leaders of a much better world than we’re living in right now. I hope I am training killer brains, in the face of their endangerment.

How about you? How do you describe the work you do in your classroom? Please share, so that we can begin building that better, stronger vocabulary. “Critical Thinking” doesn’t really cut it anymore – and we’re about so much more than critical thinking, anyway.

Kim

PS: yesterday, the UK lost an exceptional citizen and a deadly sharp brain – polymath and political commentator Simon Hoggart. For this post, and for all it champions, he was an inspiration. Read his excellent Guardian obituary, with links to his writing, here.