From a pain in the neck to Conscientização: The “untested feasibility” of humanizing the university

By James Anderson

The day before my 10-year high school reunion my neck and shoulder started aching.

This was not an ordinary ache, but a sharp and debilitating onslaught of unrelenting pain and stiffness.

While I made it to my reunion and managed to dance – hurting my ego far worse than my neck, the pain continued with the same severity for about a week.

Overwhelmed and in a world of hurt, it occurred to me: I am not as young as I used to be. The irony of the injury occurring the day before my high school reunion was not lost on me. To be human is to be fragile. Our fragility can increase with age and intensify with chosen vocation.

In addition to carrying a bag over my shoulder for too long the day before the onset of pain, another likely cause has to do with sitting hunched over a computer for hours typing away, which I have been doing regularly for some time now.

When I was TA my first few years at SIUC, I spent hours each day at a computer grading or responding to emails from students in my lab. These days I am at my laptop incessantly, either working on my dissertation or annotating texts in order to do more work on my dissertation.

CONSCIENTIZACAO_1234715043PWorking through the pain and the second chapter of my dissertation this last week, I had occasion to return the writings of Paulo Freire, the seminal thinker in the critical pedagogy movement and a major influence on the philosophical-historical approach for my project.

Throughout his work, Freire argued humans, as sentient beings, are not just conscious but also conscious of being conscious. We have an innate capacity to objectify our existing reality and reflect upon it. By critically apprehending our reality, we represent it so as to pose it as a problem. We question how it came to be so. Tracing the genesis of the problem, we consider how its historical context normally conceals but can also reveal the way unjust relations are reproduced. We problematize the normality of present configurations, evaluate how commonsense assumptions elide injustice, and assay the prevailing practices producing subjects geared to thinking in ways conducive to maintaining unjust arrangements.

As “beings of praxis,” according to Freire, humans unite action and reflection. Our endowment for objectification of experience enables critical reflection upon the world, which enables us to project beyond what is and posit what could be. Informed by our imaginary, we can transform the world. Transforming the world “is to humanize it,” wrote Freire, who qualified that transformation can lead to humanization (realization of potentials) or dehumanization (an increase in the gap between what we are and what we could or want to be).

This poses a problem. Provided we use our capacities for conscientização, for the in-depth perception of contradictions, we recognize these alternatives subject to our action. Realization of the possibility for making the world more just emerges, for Freire and many of us, as the desired course of action and object to be achieved.

To maximize our potential we need to be both physically and psychologically healthy. When graduate assistants are expected to accomplish more during the 10 or 20 hours they are contracted to work on average each week, this leads to one of two negations of our potential. It either pushes a GA to increase the intensity of labor at the expense of physical or psychological health, or it results in a GA quietly working longer than his or her contract specifies, which can imperil health and impede a person’s success as a student when overwork without remuneration impinges on graduate studies.

“The problem of graduate student overload without proper compensation is a serious one that I have frequently seen during my nearly three decades in higher education across multiple universities,” James Garvey, who recently assumed new responsibilities in the graduate school at SIUC, just told GAU.

He added that GAs “should not tolerate over-commitments that tax their degree progress, interfere with their lives, or strain their health.”

While exploitative overwork cannot be blamed for my neck injury – or the fact I feel old because 10 years have passed since I graduated high school – it has no doubt been injurious to the health and degree progress of other GAs.

As Garvey suggested, this is not limited to SIUC. It is a problem afflicting cash-strapped universities across the country increasingly reliant upon the low wage labor of graduate students.

But graduate student workers nationwide no longer see it as inevitable.

Ana Maria Araújo, who Freire married and affectionately called “Nita,” explained in the notes to her husband’s book, “Pedagogy of the Heart,” that the notion of “untested feasibility” pertains to a “belief in the ‘possible dream,’ and in the utopia that will come once those who make their own history wish it so.”

In critically articulating themselves as workers – woefully undervalued workers – members of United Auto Workers local 2865, the graduate student-workers union at the University of California, committed to the struggle for a better contract. Rejecting the notion that an academic labor utopia would be awarded as a gift, their union argued “there are only gains that we win for ourselves, together, fighting.”

The Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, the democratic reform caucus within UAW 2865, advanced their struggle by advocating social justice unionism, which encompassed promotion of internal participatory democracy for rank-and-file empowerment and formation of an “Anti-Oppression Committee” committed to addressing issues of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia/transphobia.

As a result, student-workers at UC “made big gains on both bread-and-butter and social justice issues,” in their new contract, Katy Fox-Hodess, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley and a guide on the UAW statewide executive board, noted publicly.

Natasha Raheja, a doctoral student in anthropology at New York University and a member of the NYU grad union, GSOC-UAW local 2110, implored leadership to recognize the possibilities demonstrated by their sister union in California. Raheja suggested a “member-led contract victory” – set to be the first for private sector student workers at a university in the US – “will reverberate across the academic labor movement.”

Graduate Assistants United is now negotiating a new contract with the University. While conditions in Carbondale differ from the situations in New York and California, the struggle to humanize the university resonates with us. Conscious reflection upon how best to overcome conditions that limit potentials animates us as students and as workers, as it surely does those who labor and study at UC and NYU.

And we must recognize the limiting situation as more than just a proverbial pain in the neck, as it were. Following Freire and a long history of labor and syndicalist mobilization, we can recognize the situation as an open-ended reality ready to be transformed by solidarity and struggle. The new semester offers new opportunities for testing the feasibility of this.


James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.



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