“What would it actually mean to act like an anarchist in an environment full of deans and provosts and people wearing funny robes, conference hopping in luxurious hotels, doing intellectual battle in language so arcane that no one who hasn’t spent at least two or three years in grad school would ever hope to be able to understand it? At the very least it would mean challenging the university structure in some way. So we are back to the problem with which I began: to act like an anarchist would be academic suicide. So it is not at all clear what an anarchist academic could actually do.” -David Graeber, “Anarchism, Academia, and the Avant-Garde”
The quote above makes me really think of only one phrase: “Well, shit.” I knew from a time before I even started kindergarten that I wanted to be a teacher. I’ve always really liked helping people; it was also pretty cool that I could tell people what to do and they would listen. Add that with a knack for figuring out how to navigate the coded structures of the classroom to achieve success (i.e. being a suck up, a teachers’ pet, etc.), and it was clear that my life would involve teaching in some way.
Now I’m a graduate student, and I teach freshman composition (writing) while working on my MA degree in English Language and Literature (which really has nothing to do with composition, except that I have to write a fuckton of papers). I am a teacher. Well, I’m a shit-on teacher. I’m at the bottom of a really nasty pile of poop in an academic system David Graeber sees simply as a contemporary form of feudalism–but I’m a teacher, and I have students, and I’m in control of their grades…! Wait. Control?
Control. Power. Coercion. Most teachers, unless they’re really honest and looking for a fight, would never admit that teaching others involves these things. But it does. Some of the best teachers are the ones who are able to wean students (and themselves) off of these things, but, let’s face it: this is really the foundation on which contemporary pedagogical methods are based. Want proof? Look at grades. Look at the way decisions are made in the classroom (from making students ask to use the restroom to the way the class is structured). Look at the assignments given, or the way material is presented. God knows that lecturing is one of the worst ways to transfer information (if, indeed, that is the purpose of “education”). Especially in a digital age, most people under the age of 25 (myself included) do not have attention spans longer than 10 or 15 minutes for any given activity. This could change, yes, but a 50 minute lecture three times a week isn’t going to help–it’s going to put students to sleep. Anyway, all of these things are okay–well, socially acceptable–because learning how to navigate hierarchical systems of control, power, and coercion are good for us. Success in school translates to success in life, didn’tcha know?
My point is that the way we go about educating others is broke. Not the school systems and not the curriculum, or the bad, bad teachers who are lazy and protected by unions, but the entire thought process that goes into the ways in which we, both as a society and individuals, approach learning. Thus, it follows that it needs to be fixed. By the way, what is the difference between education and learning? Certainly, they are not the same thing.
How could anarchists go about this project of fixing (or destroying or inverting or subverting or overcoming or smashing)? This by no means is a complete list, but perhaps a way to begin thinking about these questions:
1. Change the disciplinary culture
Jeff Ferrell, in “Against Method, Against Authority… for Anarchy” writes about criminology that the cultural and symbolic codes used within disciplines is a large part of the problem. He states:
This sad pseudoscientific trajectory has fostered a set of symbolic codes, a disciplinary culture that embodies and perpetuates the problem: passive third-person writing, interruptive in-text referencing, big tables, long equations, and a general tyranny of the calculated number and the turgidly written word over the idea and the image. And of course these cultural codes are distinctly arid, ugly, and inhuman, devoid of any cultural markers that would distinguish a scholarly article from an actuarial report. In this sense, “objective” or “scientific” social science has long operated more as anxious metaphor than accomplished reality. These cultural codes function as symbolic performances of scientific objectivity, as façades fronting the public presentation of disciplines. The passive voice in writing accomplishes a neat stylistic sleight of hand whereby the author’s influence seems to disappear from the author’s own text. Twenty-line tables and convoluted equations provide an assuring sense of precision and order, even for those uninterested in actually reading them. Pervasive in-text referencing offers the illusion of comprehensive disciplinary knowledge, and the image of progression toward scientific truth as each scholar builds on the work of those before. Together, these coded communications assure scholars and their audiences that methodological rigor continues to discipline the discipline; taken as a whole, they construct a persuasive aesthetic of authority (Ferrell 1996).
This is similar to my teaching of composition. The rules, regulations, and conventions that govern the discipline of composition are strict and unforgiving. But am I putting my students at a disadvantage if I don’t teach them these rules? How should I help them to succeed–in a hierarchical system of authority (should I train them to become “good employees”), or should I help them to succeed as people by teaching them to see these structures and figure out innovative ways to navigate them? Do they even care?
2. Question the purpose of the structure of acadamia
There’s some really, really good and cool stuff about school. There’s some really, really horrible stuff about school, too. This is where I see a connection with the burgeoning discipline of critical university studies. I think anarchism has a lot to add to a discussion of the issues within contemporary academia. David Graeber, in “Anarchism, Academia, and the Avant-Garde” details why it’s not as easy as one might think:
Initially, I was to write a critical auto-ethnography of my life in the academy. But I quickly realized that writing critically about the academy is almost impossible. During the 1980s, we all became used to the idea of reflexive anthropology, the effort to probe behind the apparent authority of ethnographic texts to reveal the complex relations of power and domination that went into making them. The result was an outpouring of ethnographic meditations on the politics of fieldwork. But even as a graduate student, it always seemed to me there was something oddly missing here. Ethnographic texts, after all, are not actually written in the field. They are written at universities. Reflexive anthropology, however, almost never had anything to say about the power relations under which these texts were actually composed.
In retrospect, the reason seems simple enough: when one is in the field, all the power is on one side – or at least, could easily be imagined as being so. To meditate on one’s own power is not going to offend anyone (in fact, it’s something of a classic upper-middle-class preoccupation), and even if it does, there’s likely nothing those who are offended can do about it. The moment one returns from the field and begins writing, however, the power relations are reversed. While one is writing his or her dissertation, one is, typically, a penniless graduate student, whose entire career could very possibly be destroyed by one impolitic interaction with a committee member. While one is transforming the dissertation into a book, one is typically an adjunct or untenured Assistant Professor, desperately trying not to step on any powerful toes and land a real permanent job. Any anthropologist in such a situation will, in fact, mostly likely spend many hours developing complex, nuanced, and extremely detailed ethnographic analyses of the power relations this entails, but that critique can never, by definition, be published, because anyone who did so would be committing academic suicide. (103)
3. Give up Control
Oh, just give up control? Okay, I can do that. Wait. Give up control? How could I do that? Out of the three points I’ve presented here, this one is certainly the trickiest. This is because control permeates almost every aspect of pedagogical practice–from assignments to grading to the physical/bodily positions of student/teacher in the classroom to communications–well, you get the point. It’s gonna be really, really hard. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done.
Perhaps one of the best ways to go about “giving” up control (see how problematic this is already?) would be to think about a consensus-based decision making process in the classroom. Graeber sees possibilities in consensus-based decision making:
One of the fundamental principles of political debate, for instance, is that one is obliged to give other participants the benefit of the doubt for honesty and good intentions, whatever else one might think of their arguments. In part, this too emerges from the style of debate that consensus decision-making encourages: where voting encourages one to reduce their opponents’ positions to a hostile caricature, or whatever it takes to defeat them, a consensus process is built on a principle of compromise and creativity where one is constantly changing proposals around until one can come up with something everyone can at least live with; therefore, the incentive is always to put the best possible construction on others’ arguments. (104-105)
A consensus-based decision making process takes much of the control out of the teacher’s hands and puts it with the entire group. Granted, it is easier to get things done with a dictator, but dictators have a way of making things go horribly, horribly wrong for at least some of the people involved (usually the people who do not know how to navigate the socio-political hierarchy).
With that being said, there are a few approaches that may help with an anarchist pedagogy within academia. For example, Luis A. Fernandez in “Being There” argues that academics (and I would add students) need to be in the conflict to truly understand its impact. He states, “We, as scholars, anarchists, and thinkers need to seek out and cherish these kinds of experiences. They teach us many things, including our own subjectivity and mortality, and the limits of our understanding. And these experiences only come from being there, by placing ourselves within and among the lives of those who suffer, by running risks and, if only momentarily, by placing our privilege into sharp focus” (94). For example, this might mean including more service learning in a classroom, going on educational excursions, or communicating with those who are involved. Instead of having a student write a research paper on the death penalty, perhaps they should meet or interview (over the phone) a death row inmate. If a student is writing a paper on social mobility, perhaps they should have to volunteer at a soup kitchen and meet the people serviced by such a venture.
Another approach, extremely similar to Fernandez, could be field research–surprise–actually done in the field. Jeff Ferrell argues:
Ethnographic field work – long-term, committed engagement with those we study – leaves researchers appropriately vulnerable to the emotions and experiences of others. It humbles researchers before those they study, subsuming intellectual arrogance to a search for verstehen – for appreciative and nuanced understanding (Weber 1978; Ferrell 1996). It also stands orthodox disciplinary methods on their heads. Rather than “objectivity” guaranteeing accurate research results, it is emotional subjectivity that makes for good research; without it, researchers may observe an event or elicit information, but will have little sense of its meaning or consequences. Fieldwork functions in this way as a sort of humanist subversion, a decision to affirm and explore the human agency of those we study. These subversions are temporal and existential as well. Good field research flows with the dynamics of situations, embracing the inefficiency of dawdle and delay, suffusing life with uncertainty and surprise (Kane 2004), and carrying researchers beyond their own existential complacency. Along the way, this do-it-yourself method generates disciplinarily dangerous knowledge, spawning deep human engagement, oddball insight, and illicit meaning unimaginable…(80)
He continues to state that “At its extreme, ethnographic field research can become an anarchic process through which researchers lose themselves – and by losing themselves, find new meanings and emotions” (81).
This certainly challenges the notion of a “detached” researcher, and it has many implications, especially for writing, in terms of the ways in which students are taught to hand their “research.” Often, students are punished for not distancing themselves from the topic or controversy at hand because they are not seen as “experts” on the topic–and the “experts” should be the ones in the forefront of a paper or a presentation. While I agree that it is useful to look to others for information when they have experience in the field, students often possess expertise in academic subjects, and generally more expertise in non-academic subjects (music, movies, social media, video games, etc.) than most of their academic teachers. By disallowing students’ voices of experience in the classroom, a hierarchy of information, intelligence, and “expertise” is created and maintained–a hierarchy students and future teachers perpetuate unwittingly to generations of other students because it is the “right way” to do things.
Although these are just a few questions and points of interest to the issues surrounding anarchism in the academy, they cover many of the areas that need to be examined first.
All essays can be found in:
Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Anthology of Anarchism in the Academy. Ed. Randall Amster, 2009.