By James Anderson
The boy held up “Castle Under Attack,” showing off the 48-page Dorling Kindersley Lego Reader.
“Daddy reads it to me all the time,” Peter said about his favorite book.
Matt Ryg, 34, reads the story of how King Leo’s feast at the castle gets interrupted by the evil outlaw leader Cedric to his son Peter, 4, and his other son, John, 3, one minute. The next minute he is moving “Toward Better Knowledge: A social epistemology of pragmatic non-violence” – his dissertation-in-progress.
Ryg, who is also president of GAUnited, the union for graduate assistants at SIUC, said his personal philosophy is a political one.
His philosophy differs from conventional American pragmatism in this regard. The latter did not “include any kind of political orientation,” at least not traditionally, Ryg said. He added that it was “originally conceived of as a theory of concept formation and a theory of meaning,” wherein the meaning of a concept was deduced by its effect on conduct.
The current GAU president and former vice president of the Graduate Philosophy Union now serves as student liaison for the John Dewey Society. He works in-against-and-beyond the American philosophical tradition.
“It’s a mode of cultural criticism of participating in – while simultaneously critiquing – the society, the culture and economy of which we are a part,” he said.
Conversely, French philosopher Michel Foucault once claimed politics and philosophy “must never coincide,” arguing that philosophy should rather have “a sort of restive and insistent exteriority toward politics.”
Ryg begs to differ.
“Is philosophy exterior to politics? Fuck no,” he said. “Philosophy is nothing if it’s not political – thoroughly saturated with politics.”
Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire once echoed similar sentiments.
“Education never was, is not, and never can be neutral or indifferent in regard to the reproduction of the dominant ideology or the interrogation of it,” Freire wrote in “Pedagogy of Freedom,” articulating a tenet of his critical pedagogical approach.
“I’m with Freire on that one, absolutely,” Ryg said. “Education can never be neutral. Objectivity doesn’t exist independent of people.”
Ryg has a lot experience working with people. He’s spent time in a variety of traditional and non-traditional pedagogical settings, living the subject-object dialectic.
Born in Rochester, Minn., he grew up in Kasson, a town about 15 minutes away. His family is of hearty Norwegian, Swiss, French and Czech stock – “good people,” he said.
Ryg attended high school in Kasson, which is where he met his sons’ mother, Lyndsey Hanson.
“We went to a smaller high school so it wasn’t hard for us to meet or know each other,” Hanson said. “But he’s come a long way.”
Ryg was not a serious activist in high school. It wasn’t until he was an undergraduate majoring in English at Hamline University that he decided to start down a slightly different path, one philosophical and political.
“I was on the pre-law track, and so they required me to take logic and ethics,” he said regarding his first foray into philosophical inquiry.
So he dropped the English major and decided to minor in it instead. He picked up philosophy as a new major. He also started work in the social justice program, and he knotted another minor in conflict studies.
“About the time when I dropped the pre-law thing and picked up philosophy I got really interested into social justice issues,” he recounted.
Duane Cady, Professor Emeritus at Hamline University, mentored Ryg in the Philosophy Department and encouraged him to get involved in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a multi-faith organization with a chapter on campus.
“Matt was always excited about social action, especially nonviolent social change,” Cady told GAU in an email. “I remember his optimism and a big smile, always willing to pitch-in his time and energy.”
Cady served as a FOR board member, and he spearheaded a lot of anti-war issues with Ryg.
“We re-ignited a group that had been active on campus before called Students for Peace,” Ryg said.
Work at the Office of Service Learning and Volunteerism and at the Hamline Undergraduate Conference on Race and Ethnicity (HU-CORE) occupied Ryg’s time too.
Upon graduation, he spent one year teaching at Southside Family School in Minneapolis, which later became Southside Family Charter School.
“Back when I was there it was an alternative elementary school,” Ryg explained.
After that he did two years with Americorp Vista with an affordable housing and homeless prevention non-profit. The second year out of school “was the year I really got into community organizing,” Ryg said. “That was my job title – community organizer.”
After three years with Americorp he worked for another non-profit on homeless prevention while working on his Master’s in Advocacy and Political Leadership.
For the applied degree, in lieu of a thesis, Ryg interned at Metrowide Engagement on Shelter and Housing Homelessness and at the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions.
He also did an internship with the Minnesota Senate working for Senator John Marty.
“They gave me a mug,” he said. (A mug that works wonderfully for drinking coffee spiked with Baileys Irish Cream liqueur while conducting an interview for a profile piece, one might add.)
While interning at the Minnesota Senate, Ryg did everything from answering constituent mail, to getting scolded on the floor of the Senate for walking up an aisle he probably shouldn’t have. Someone told him to deliver a message to Sen. Marty while the Senate was in session.
“And I just walked in and gave it to him,” Ryg remembered. “The Sergeant at Arms came up to me afterward and said, ‘Don’t do that,’ … He was very stern. … And I was like, ‘Well I didn’t know what,’ and he was like, ‘No. Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that.’”
Ryg bounced back after his lashing on the Senate floor. He continued working with MESH after graduating with his Master’s in 2007, gaining metropolitan level organizing experience.
“We worked on county issues and state issues, [and] tried to coordinate homeless service programs around the seven-county metro area in Minneapolis – that metropolitan area,” he said.
The process was dynamic but difficult, Ryg said.
“Each individual county re-created its own wheel,” he said, “whereas homeless people, they didn’t give a fuck if they were in Ramsey, or Hennepin, or Anoka, or Dakota County. They just went where there [were] resources. … So we tried to coordinate resources across county lines.”
The coordination proved challenging because there were “so few resources to begin with,” he said. It was also educational, in more ways than one.
Many contemporary pragmatists “don’t make a hard distinction between theory and practice,” he explained, and so those experiences were thus part of his praxis. He said although it wasn’t in a formal academic setting, the work he was doing still had a strong pedagogical component.
“I honestly thought – and think – that in those different jobs I was doing education,” Ryg said. “I was doing teaching. I was teaching people.”
In addition to the homeless service coordination and the grant writing work, Ryg also led the training program at MESH. They put together a series of workshops, including Homelessness 101, designed to educate people – the public and those new to service work – about homelessness. Other MESH workshops focused on mental health issues, the culture of poverty, working with veterans and working with homeless youth.
The motivation to bring that experience to bear in the classroom prompted Ryg to go back to get a doctorate. Although his memory remains hazy, Hanson also remembers him coming home from a job interview describing how well it went, but lamenting that he would not get the job because he didn’t have a Ph.D.
“So there’s a point where I was being denied jobs – apparently – because I didn’t have the Ph.D.,” he confessed with a touch of bewilderment.
Since coming to SIUC in 2010 to pursue a doctoral degree in Philosophy, Ryg has taught PHIL 102: Intro to Philosophy, PHIL 210: The American Mind and Education 311: Diversity in Education. He also worked as a Teaching Assistant for PHIL 104: Ethics, and as a Research Assistant in Morris Library.
He worked as an undergrad at his school’s library, and considers the work of activist librarians who bring underground newspapers, labor weeklies, zines and other publications into libraries “cool” and inspiring.
Hanson works as a GA now too in the Cataloging Department of Morris Library, and she is GAU’s co-steward for the library along with Jennifer Haegele.
“Don’t fuck with librarians,” Ryg said jokingly.
Ryg received the Dissertation Research Assistantship this year, which has allowed him to focus on writing while becoming even more involved. While writing his dissertation he has served as Vice President for Administrative Affairs on the Graduate Professional Student Council and as the Lectures Director for the Student Programming Council Lectures Committee.
As Lectures Director he is working to bring Cornel West to campus in the spring. Ryg said West also shows up in his dissertation, albeit unexpectedly.
“Right now I’m actually writing through Cornel West on prophetic pragmatism,” he said. “And I didn’t think I would do that. He’s not in my prospectus, for example. But I’m using him because not only does he critique the tradition of American pragmatism much like I do – I think he’s right on – [because] it lends itself to corporatization, opportunism, militarism,” and more oppressive forces.
In the same vein, Freire wrote in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” that a pedagogy of problem-posing “is revolutionary futurity. Hence it is prophetic (and as such, hopeful).”
“I actually use a little bit of Freire in my dissertation too,” Ryg said. “I’m trying to lay out a conception of knowledge – an epistemology – that is situated. It’s problematized, it’s social – and political, obviously. One of the reasons that I love Freire and ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ is that it doesn’t take learning or education or knowledge as this abstract endeavor or field or subject matter [or] discipline. It’s very much co-constructed.”
He stressed the situated character of that knowledge.
“So it’s not just about a teacher standing up in front of the classroom and making deposits of knowledge in the student’s heads,” Ryg explained. “It’s about teachers being participants. It’s about students being teachers also. It’s about learning together.
“And not just for the sake of acquisition of propositional knowledge. I mean, that’s part of it. But it’s also oriented toward social justice, about getting folks politically engaged … getting people to empower themselves to solve social and political problems, economic problems.”
As president of GAU, he has embraced “social movement unionism,” a kind of public pedagogy that critically reflects and acts upon the array of problems graduate students face and want to address.
It entails “not just focusing exclusively on bargaining and grievance work,” Ryg said about the need to be responsive to a host of interwoven GA concerns. He stressed that the union continues to add value to the University through work with other student organizations. The union has reached out to GPSC, engaged in substantive dialogue with international students and advocated for inclusive housing.
Some of these connections might not have been made if Ryg were not at the helm. But his tenure as president almost never happened.
Ryg said he remembers that an email went out to graduate students asking for GAs to run for office. He responded.
“‘Plug me in where you need me,’ that’s what I think I said,” he recounted.
He received a reply and was told that he would be put down.
“I thought I was going to be a steward or something,” Ryg said.
He ended up on the ballot for president.
Ryg said he remembers thinking to himself: “This is something that I can do.”
“If you actually believe in it, you should step up,” he said. He decided to step up, knowing that with the DRA award he would have a little more time.
“He said it’s going to be little to no work,” Hanson recalled. “That’s what he said. I said, ‘Matt you don’t have time for this.’ He said ‘little-to-no work. None.’”
“That’s not what I said,” Ryg retorted in earnest.
“Yes it is,” Hanson corrected him. “Yes it is what you said. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying that’s what you said. Are we being recorded?”
The record speaks for itself. Ryg said the “kids are definitely the priority,” and finishing the dissertation is right up there as part of this “big juggling act,” but pressing issues demand attention.
“The problem doesn’t escape me that we don’t have enough people stepping into this position,” he said. “That need doesn’t escape my attention. We need more people to step up. One of my main goals with respect to that is building the capacity of GAU to do work.”
Nurturing a formative “culture of organizing,” and building “sustainability over the long term,” remain top priorities for GAU, he said. Theory and practice converge here, and that public pedagogical approach makes a difference.
“I don’t know that there are any other grad unions in the country that do quite the level of communications work that we do,” he said while also acknowledging major barriers to GA organizing.
“Grad students have no time,” Ryg admtted. But he added that there are “tangible reasons to be involved,” and given that more than 50 GAs have joined the union since the beginning of the academic year, people get that.
Healthcare, a resolution on fees and a raise so grads can make a living wage remain key, he said. GAs add value to the University, but the University continues to extract value from them without sufficient remuneration.
“They don’t pay their grad students enough,” Ryg said, “especially given the role that grad students play.”
With the current courseload, the University could not function if not for graduate students, he said.
“And we’re not getting paid for it,” he added. “That’s my critique.”
University pitfalls unfold through “administrative indifference,” and “through egregious administrative pay,” he said apropos the current situation in which, after fees, most graduates fall below the poverty line with the current level of pay. And the University’s graduate students fall well below the middle income.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for residents of Jackson County is $32,819. A typical GA might make about $22,000 less than that after fees. For families like Ryg’s, with two GAs as income providers, their household income would still be almost $12,000 shy of the median mark when the employment fees GAs pay to work at the University are factored in.
A typical GA pays 24 percent of his or her salary back to University. If the same percentage was deducted from the Chancellor’s salary, that would be $83,514 in fees, or more than two-and-a-half times the median household income, indicating the vast discrepancy between the highest salaried administrators and those who teach and research at SIUC.
“They shouldn’t be making that kind of money if we’re making the kind of money that we make,” Ryg affirmed.
With all of the union’s committees staffed and regularly meeting, Ryg said fees, a raise and economic democracy continue to be central issues to mobilize around while pushing for participatory democracy within the organizing process. There is plenty to learn from and teach people in the University community, and new issues arise all the time.
“The University has arbitrary violated our contract,” Ryg said about recent developments. “They’ve capped the number of hours we can work on campus. It’s a contract violation. We cannot work at .75 anymore. We’re restricted to working at 50 percent or 25 percent … because they don’t want to pay for our health insurance.”
The personal is thus political, which for Ryg is also philosophical. That philosophy, however, must be pragmatic, if not also rhizomatic.
In “A Thousand Plateaus,” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari described a rhizome as something that “ceaselessly establishes connections between the semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.”
Deleuze and Guattari also critiqued linguistic models, among other conventions, for reasons at odds with Ryg’s philosophy.
“Our criticism of these linguistic models is not that they are too abstract but, on the contrary, that they are not abstract enough, that they do not reach the abstract machine that connects a language to the semantic and pragmatic contents of statements to collective assemblages of enunciation, to a whole micropolitics of the social field,” they wrote in the aforementioned book.
“I don’t have a lot time for that,” Ryg said. “I don’t.”
He said that’s not the reason he is interested in philosophy.
“I’m interested in philosophy because people are being theoretical,” he said. “There are theoretical and philosophical implications in the work people are already doing.”
From dissertation research, to union activism, to raising kids, his doing is application-in-process.
“I don’t think my work is something that needs to be applied at all,” Ryg explained. “I think it is applied. It’s meant to be.”
Ryg’s schedule really only permits reflection fused with action, and he wants to make the most of his time here.
He said he will not run for president of GAU again when elections are held next May.
Like Jim Podesva, former GAU president and current Steward Council chair, Ryg said he would like to stay involved in a similar way, which would help establish “a nice tradition” for the outgoing president.
“It would be silly of me to talk about identifying and grooming emerging leaders and not continue and stay involved as I can,” he said.
Ryg clarified that he could only hold that position for a semester since he, Hanson and the boys will be leaving next December after he obtains his degree. First he has to finish taking his dissertation committee “Toward New Knowledge,” but he said he is confident it will be completed in a timely fashion.
Climbing the kitchen chair to reach sugary treats atop the cabinet, his son John illustrated that shared ethos of determination.
“No, you’re done with fruit snacks,” Ryg said to his son.
“See, that’s his persistence,” Hanson commented. She was referring to John, but she subtly spoke to Ryg’s philosophy as well – one that is personal, political and pedagogical all at the same time.
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.