Review: A Radical’s Call for Justice

Against the Current, No. 70, September/October 1997

Andrew Lee

Manifesto of a Tenured Radical
by Cary Nelson
New York University Press, 1997, $17.95 paperback.

Will Teach for Food
edited by Cary Nelson
University of Minnesota Press, 1997, $19.95 paperback.

THE COLLECTION WILL Teach for Food is part of the series Cultural Politics from the Social Text Collective. Edited by collective member Cary Nelson, it presents 17 essays on exactly what the subtitle proposes: academic labor in crisis.

The contributors are teachers, tenured, part-time and unemployed; union organizers and activists; public intellectuals and graduate students. These categories are clearly not exclusive. Many of the contributors are several of these at once: what they all share is that they all are workers.

Divided into two sections, Will Teach deals with the crisis and problems of labor in the academy labor, but concentrates on graduate students and professors. The first section, “A Yale Strike Dossier,” provides a wealth of information on the functioning of the mega-business more commonly known as Yale University and its relations with the three unions at Yale, in particular the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, GESO.

I highly recommend the essay by Corey Robin and Michelle Stephens. “Against the Grain: Organizing TAs at Yale” for anyone involved in organizing.

The second section is a combination of historical analysis, memoir, and argument for the unionization of graduate students and faculty at all levels.

The cumulative effect of these essays is to point out that even while the number of students may be increasing, the number of tenure track positions is declining, rapidly. The apprentice metaphor is no longer acceptable, collegiality is non-existent at several levels, and the new university is a post-Fordist one in which trustees, often the same corporate executives who are rapidly firing employees to increase already bloated corporate profits, are now turning their attentions to the college and university labor force.

In the face of this, do faculty band together with other workers, in particular support staff and graduate students? Rarely. They usually blame the staff and students for the institution’s plight, while denying that graduate students are workers, much less employees. Indeed, they seek to “establish a climate of vulnerability, job insecurity, and competing interests” (4) that Nelson argues in his introductory essay is the new face of academic employment.

Hell, even the New Criterion agrees: “There can be little doubt that graduate students at Yale, like graduate students almost everywhere, are exploited as cheap labor.” (From an editorial in the February 1996 issue, 3 quoted in Michael Bérubé’s essay, 164).

Moreover, graduate students at Yale committed the ultimate sacrilege when they allied with the unionized staff in pursuit of a common goal: a humane and just workplace with a sense of responsibility to the community. But as the old adage goes, charity starts at home, and many of faculty and administrators used paternalistic arguments (the ever present “happy collegial family” or the “privilege” of graduate school) to oppose unionization.

But one particularly telling anecdote from the University of Kansas is provided by Bérubé. According to graduate students in the unionization drive there, “half of the faculty who spoke to us about the importance of faculty-student collegiality didn’t even know our names.” (154)

Most are not as direct as Yale English professor Annabel Patterson who argued Yale would have been open to discussions with graduate students but not with GESO; it had sinned by allying itself with the support staff. (16)

An Engaged Intellectual

In the current debates about academics, labor, scholarship, and tenure few have taken the time to explore the past and link it to the present while  proposing a future. One of these few is Cary Nelson of the University of Illinois. He is best known as the author of the landmark work Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945.

I am more tempted to call Nelson academia’s John Brown. Like Brown, he sounds the clarion cry to justice and a better world, but in contrast to the lyric that I assume is close to all our hearts, he also points out that a better world is not in birth–though he adds both graduate students and part-time and adjunct faculty have nothing to lose but their chains.

I should clarify any further remarks by stating I am employed by New York University as well as enrolled in its graduate history program. Thus, I make no pretense toward disinterested commentary.

As I earn my keep as a librarian, I also want to get some “professional” concerns out of the way. Both books are topical, current, and written for that most elusive of creatures, the general reader.

They have attractive paper-bound covers, endnotes, indexes, and bibliographies, and Will Teach is well illustrated. The bibliography in Manifesto of a Tenured Radical alone is almost worth the book’s price.This minor digression is to provide you with the information you need in order to demand, not ask, that your local library buy this book: in particular, stress the bibliographies and excellent indexes.

To illustrate how useful these can be (the aforementioned Professor Patterson comes in for over ten citations in the two indexes!), henceforth I will provide index counts next to names. Look at this as usually a negative batting average).

The anti-union letters that Patterson and Margaret Homans (9refs) among others sent under the auspices of the MLA come in for censure as well. But don’t think that they are alone in being singled out., Dean Thomas Applequist (11) has as much notice as they, generally for his disdain of graduate students and remarks such as the following: “Graduate students enter as students but leave as colleagues of the faculty.” (Manifesto, 208)

Sara Suleri-Goodyear (3) and David Brion Davis (4), supposedly progressive scholars, both turned in graduate assistants for disciplinary proceedings because of their participation in the famous 1995 GESO grade strike.

Professor Peter Brooks (9) remarks that Yale graduate students are among “the blessed of the earth.” (97). Dean Richard Brodhead (9) is another favorite target for his now infamous letter of reference that discussed a student’s activism and GESO participation.

Lest you think that it is all villains, there are some shining lights among the faculty. Professor Michael Denning (9) exposed Brodhead’s letter when he came across it as part of the student’s application for employment at Yale. In fact, it would appear that only professors Denning, Hazel Carby (3), and David Montgomery (3) gave all three unions their unqualified support.

Full Blast

But it is in Manifesto of a Tenured Radical that Nelson really comes forward as a modern day John Brown. Those who have heard Nelson speak know he has a wicked and sharply humorous tongue and it is on full blast in the essays that make up the collection. Even the chapter titles are amusing, and yet point out serious problems in academia.

What more can be said in a review about his very serious proposal in “What Is To Be Done? A Twelve Step Program for Academia”–or his ironclad defense of real multiculturalism in “Canon Fodder: An Evening with William Bennett, Lynne Cheney and Dinesh D’Souza.” He identifies the problems, gives a number of amusing yet disturbing illustrative examples, and then clearly, simply, but with a determined will, lays out his demands.

Manifesto is divided into three parts: “The Politics of English,” “The Academy and the Culture Debates,” and “Lessons from the Job Wars.”

The politics of English is equally applicable to many other disciplines. The defense of theory, the importance of a culturally expanded curriculum (something that Nelson himself has gone a long way to achieving with Repression and Recovery), and the debate over cultural studies and postmodernism are important topics and items of debate on Capital [sic] Hill.

He does not merely argue for an expansion of the traditional curriculum or canon, but also for a reflective and self-critical one. Nelson’s case for the importance of anthologies and the role that they play in education is one that is sadly overlooked by not only many college and university English departments but also most high schools.

The United States is a culturally diverse nation and our self image is partially created by those anthologies, those texts that many come to remember as fragments from long ago classes. Nelson’s own efforts in this area will surely be augmented by his latest project, an new anthology of modern American verse.

Nelson’s attempt to overturn the hierarchies within texts and pedagogy is less successful, almost quixotic. Like Brecht’s use of only lower case letters, he tried to omit hierarchical structures in Repression and Recovery. It pointedly does not have chapters and material that traditionally is “relegated” to the notes is in the text as well as the reverse: one of the notes has an illustration!

His account of teaching, “Progressive Pedagogy Without Apologies: The Cultural Work of Teaching Noncanonical Poetry” is also an attempt to achieve something new. A class where the students and instructor grapple with important social issues, and where the very value of the works being read is open to question, was not a complete success, but at least Nelson is trying, experimenting and at the same time expanding the possibilities, opening up the spaces for change to occur.

Because the Manifesto essays were often separately published pieces, they can tend to have a pit bull effect when read together. Nelson grabs hold of things he dislikes, especially those he detests, and does not let go.

On page three he is attacking the isolation and discipline blinders that many faculty wear, their aloofness to the decline of library budgets and its devastating impact on not just academic presses, but all scholarly publishing. This theme, in particular the self-defeating and irrational isolation of disciplinary boundaries and the passivity of much of academia, is repeated in almost every essay.

Nelson is funny, amusing, and provocative but he definitely does not have a light touch. This is not light fare to be kept in the bathroom for occasional reading. He is forthrightly against hate speech codes, censorship, and watered down multiculturalism. He is also for reducing the number of Ph.D.’s, breaking down institutional boundaries between departments, and also the time-honored cliché of town versus growth.

He finds anti-intellectualism as much at home in the university as without, and scores professional associations, in particular the MLA, for their head-in-the-sand approach to the current crisis in academia.

Nelson would prefer a more direct response to attacks on education. He sees the future of higher education in the United States as being one of limited employment for a select few and temporary and migratory positions for the rest of us.

For graduate students, it is probably going to get increasing difficult to find jobs, a situation that seems to pass by with no serious action by professional organizations, and that irritates Nelson. He brings out the statistics, has more pointed examples, and argues for faculty and students to unionize on a massive scale.

The process of graduate student education has changed from an apprenticeship to the exploitation of low-waged workers who are often deceived and intimidated (172). Nor does Nelson hold out any bright hope that change is around the corner.

In fact, this is the closing sentence of the chapter “Late Capitalism Arrives on Campus:” “In the meantime, take Mao’s advice: dig tunnels deep, store grain everywhere.” Not what any college or university president wants prospective graduate students to read…certainly not the 90+ students entering the program I attend.

Yet I don’t think many of Nelson’s critics, and they are legion–particularly since he freely uses names of academics and their institutions and organizations in his criticisms, will pay attention to what are ultimately his extremely serious proposals for reforming and defending the humanities and theoretical sciences.

Already he is being dismissed with a wave of the hand, a defensive shrug, and counter-attacks: he has tenure, he will benefit from his proposals, he is disaffected, he can’t be serious, we can work with Bennett and Cheney, et al…

In short, I do not think that these collections will be on any reading lists anytime soon. So I repeat my earlier exhortation: Go to the library and demand that they purchase these books, so that at least some will be able to read them, and the message debated and engaged.