A Love Letter to Radical Graduate Students, Present, Former, Future: Part One
Two years and two months ago, I was handed an opportunity that essentially devoured half a year of my life. I was tasked with developing and teaching a course for “underrepresented” undergraduate students (a term which is sometimes the post-Proposition 209 substitute for the more familiar term “students of color”). All of these students were on the verge of becoming the first in their families to complete postsecondary degrees, and what brought them to this course was the fact that they were all deeply interested in continuing their schooling by pursing graduate education. The purpose of the class was complicated: each student had secured a faculty member with whom they were to work in tandem in developing and completing an independent research project, while my job was both to coordinate/manage the students’ relationships with their mentors and to direct a seminar that helped them develop specific skills and writing assignments that would prepare them for the kind of writing they could expect to do in graduate school. What attracted me to this, in the face of what promised to be a rather complex teaching situation, was that it provided the opportunity, so rare when you’re operating on the quarter system, to work with the same fifteen students over the course of six months.
What happened over those six months was amazing and frustrating. On one hand, it was, unquestionably, the most fulfilling teaching experience of my life. And, on the other hand, I don’t think I can responsibly record that fulfillment and that transformation without also noting that the labor conditions that generated it were, well, fucked. I was regularly working upwards of forty hour weeks when I was barely being paid for twenty, and thus violating the hard-won union contract that existed to protect me and my fellow graduate student laborers against such things. Like many of my fellow graduate students, I was compensating for the difference between the cost of living and my teaching salary by taking out student loans in order to sustain myself. My decision to put considerably more work into this course than I was paid for shouldn’t be seen as just one bad individual decision, as its impact, both shitty (because I was overworked and underpaid) and satisfying (because in spite of the overworking and underpayment, I loved what I was doing) has repercussions that extend systemically beyond my individual working conditions. Doing so doesn’t simply devalue my labor but also the labor of others positioned like me—after all, wouldn’t the person who held my position in upcoming years be expected to do the same work that I did, and have their performance evaluated by the standard that I set by overworking?
Thinking about the university as a labor environment presents an interconnected series of contradictions for radical-identified graduate students, present, former, future. This is especially the case because in many ways, it is us that the university increasingly expects, and depends upon, not only to go beyond the call of duty, but to want to do so. First contradiction, then: the post-1960s university absorbs the potential shock that critical practices might otherwise exert by keeping its critics close by and beholden to it. This is not so much to say that the university, as an ideological apparatus, no longer excludes critical voices as much as it is to say that the university now exercises power just as often through strategic inclusion as through exclusion. Once you win inclusion, the very terms of the struggle change. From this vantage point, it’s possible to say that the neoliberal university has never ceased to rely on the presence of a critical mass of people who desire politically to subvert and to transform it, and along with it, the society of which it is part. In this historical period, which stretches all the way to our contemporary moment, not appreciating the fact that the university contains those that would challenge it not by suppressing them, but rather by giving them a space in which to work, is to misrecognize not only how the university works, and not only how it keeps working, but how it keeps us working, and how it keeps us working for it. What follows, then, is a series of scattered commentaries about that contradictory space.
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The original title of this post was “On (the Risks of) Loving Your Work.” I changed the title upon realizing that what was motivating me to write about academic labor and love had to do with the fact that a relatively substantial number of students, friends, and acquaintances with whom I’ve worked with are now being admitted to graduate school, and that I have had something to do with their decisions to do so. For most of the people I’m speaking of, getting into graduate school meant confronting, repeatedly and courageously, odds that had been stacked against them since birth. As such, this is an occasion for celebration. What form will that celebration take? For me, having—somehow—recently completed a Ph.D., learning of these accomplishments provides an opportunity for reflection and, more importantly perhaps, a call to take responsibility for having encouraged other people to pursue graduate work in the academy on the assumption that the academy is a place where politically impactful work can be done from the left.
What makes this a love letter is the idea I want at once to express and in expressing, to make irresistible to you—the idea that knowledge work in the academy is most powerful because it is a domain of love, by which I mean a place in which intimacy, desire, attachment, and investment all hold considerable sway in keeping the machine running smoothly. Or otherwise. So this is meant at once to serve as an expression of love and to carry a distinctly Marxist feminist lesson about it—particularly, that the idea of love has never been far from relations of domination and exploitation.
But, to speak practically: I’m hoping this post might serve a similar purpose as that of Dean Spade’s letter to radical and progressive folks who are considering law school. My intention is less about encouraging you to think about deprofessionalizing the work you learn to do in graduate school (which should be the function of public education) as much as it is about de-privatizing it. Along the way, I have a few things to say about what graduate school—particularly graduate school in the humanities and social sciences—is, as well as about what forces, desires, and social conditions might be at work in your wanting to go in the first place. I think the habit of confronting that desire will prove useful, whether or not you choose (or have chosen) to go to graduate school or not. So what follows is actually an attempt to come to terms not with the academy I hate (even though you know that if there’s anyone who loves to hate, it’s me). I’ve said something previously about that academy whilst discussing the precarity of graduate students’ position in the neoliberal academy and ranting about the way that structural issues get individualized and psychologized in the discourse around graduate school. Here I want to say something about the work that I love, and to do so by subjecting it to the same kind of scrutiny that I would typically reserve for the parts of university work I hate—or at least know that I should. I want to say something here about why it’s important to recognize the pleasures not only as intimately linked with the precarious character of graduate study’s role in the academic industrial complex, but also an integral factor in creating a disciplined work force.
My intention here is decidedly not to try and make you believe that the academy isn’t a place where meaningful and transformative work can, and should, happen. Rather, I want to say something about how the desire to encounter the academy as such a place is often overinvested in an ideal of transformation that begins and ends in consciousness-raising and critical thinking. That desire—to do “political” work through writing and teaching radical and critical knowledges—is an important one. In fact, if you were to ask me, and likely, many (if not most) of my colleagues what brought us to the academy, you are more or less guaranteed to hear some more or less earnest variation on such a statement. Yes, we are nerdy. Yes, we like ideas and reading books and talking about them, amongst other related things. But the “official” story that radical grad students and academics generally riff on is the one where we explain our choice of profession by talking about the political difference we want or wanted to make.
What, then, does the official story crowd out? Perhaps something that is all too obvious: more likely than not, we also came to the academy because we thought we could make a living by working here. Even though we might have left perfectly good jobs to come here, what makes it possible to remain here is that, whether through TAing, fellowships, or the accessibility of loans, grad school and academic employment helps us to (sorta) pay bills, eat, clothe ourselves, etc. If we didn’t need the university in such a way that allows it to exploit us, we might have found (or founded) other outlets, other practices, other fields, in which our political and creative work could take place. We might have found or founded different kinds of work. We tend not to tell this story about the needs we have in common not only because the fact that we need to work to survive seems natural, or obvious, but also, I’m willing to bet, because we know all too well that we are supposed to speak about academic and intellectual work as if it were some sort of natural fit for us. Otherwise, how could we justify taking on a career in which one agrees to spend at minimum, half a decade getting paid poverty-level wages and, more often than not, going into five, and, yes, sometimes six figures of debt in order to enter into an academic job market that, as no one seems to be able to tell us enough, has never been worse and shows little potential for improving in the future?
If, popular narratives notwithstanding, aspiring academics are no more prone to making horrible decisions than any other social constituency, these decisions need explaining. And the most fitting explanation for me is routed through what you might call a Greater Good discourse. The reason that Greater Good discourse is so strong a factor in bringing radical-identified twenty-, thirty-, and sometimes fortysomethings to the academy, has to do with the way that is motivated by the normative belief that in choosing to pursue intellectual work, we are producing a social good that is, in the final analysis, incommensurable with what we get paid for. As far as work is concerned, Greater Good discourse is not at all new thing, nor is it restricted to the way that radicals describe their choice to do academic work. It belongs, rather, to a larger cultural way of relating to work, that was famously described by Max Weber as the Protestant work ethic.
In the classically Protestant formulation of the work ethic, one’s willingness to deny pleasure while embracing work functioned as a sign that one had embraced the highest Christian values. Present-day radicals, by contrast, generally do not find a Greater Good in the prospect that the work we do will bring us closer to God, but rather, in the thisworldly and, seemingly to us, more reasonable belief that such work creates the possibility of generating political community and radical social transformation (or at least the desire for it). In response to such conditions, we often talk—without having to be explicitly taught to do so—about our academic work as though it were more than a job, as if it held for us some greater, higher, or more fundamental meaning, as if it promised some deep, core expression of our political desires—if not our personhood—that we couldn’t find in any other place.
What’s the problem with Greater Good discourse? As Marc Bousquet puts it, “under academic capitalism doing good…implicates the do-gooder in exploitative schemes of academic employment.” Indeed, one of the problems with Greater Good Discourse in the neoliberal university has to do with the ways is the way in which it asks us—trains us, even—to find love, pleasure, and even success, in making ourselves exploitable subjects. In my experience, this has been especially the case with graduate students of color, who are constantly appealed to to do the work that the university fails to do by making themselves into role models and mentors for students of color to whom the university is failing to provide sufficient resources. So much of the work that we do to build, maintain, stabilize, and nourish community becomes work for us precisely because the university has outsourced it to those who will do it because it needs to be done. The fact that it appears more pure, more organic, more authentic, to do so without being paid is not a coincidence—whether we train ourselves to do this work out of the goodness of our hearts or because we think it can deliver a political end matters little to a university that systemically runs on our willingness to ruthlessly fashion ourselves as Greater Good workers.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, though. Yes, is a privilege to love your work, but it is that four-letter word—love—that needs some scrutiny here, especially the way love and work relate. It takes work not only to love your work but to learn to love it. Love, we might say, is always the effect of a social pedagogy. What makes the relationship between, loving, learning, and working so complicated has something to do with the ways in which learning and loving are both kinds of work that only rarely find compensation (this is why the term “labor of love” is in this context both redundant and obfuscatory) because of our training to recognize them as non-work, pre-work. (And there is a gender politics at work here, no doubt.) We ask students to work and at the same time tell them that they are not yet workers; we take for granted the work that it takes to love in a deep way. To bring the discussion round to the example I opened with, yes, I loved my work because I felt, finally, like I was really doing what I came to the academy to do. It is that sense of purpose, that sense that you are doing what you were called to do, that you’re doing socially important or necessary labor—labor that, you are supposed to imagine, might not get done in your absence—that makes teaching work so exploitable.
It’s this Weberian point that Kathi Weeks spends a good time elaborating in the first chapter of The Problem with Work. Following Weeks, I’d we might say that that a good share of what makes work like teaching exploitable is not simply the presence of masses of people in need of work to make a living, work which compensates them, in return, for far less than the social value that they produce (insofar as such value can be quantified). What makes it exploitable is that the conditions that bring you to work are shaped by an ethic that teaches you to imagine and relate to work as something you were called to do, to relate to work, again, as if (not because) it were a calling from God. As Weeks explains, whereas at one point, this particular aspect of the work ethic was once restricted to certain kinds of professions—clergy and medicine, for example—it now characterizes the dominant discourse around work in general. And it’s this work ethic that fuels educational work at large these days. That capacity to love and care and nurture others far exceeds not only what we’re compensated for, but also how much we should ever really be expected to work, even under optimal conditions. Full stop.
So radicals, as academic workers, find themselves in a double bind in which the very work that they want to use (and believe, at least in their most optimistic moments, can be used) to pave a route towards political transformation (if not also to prefigure that transformation itself) is oftentimes the same work that makes them further exploitable as workers. What does it mean to politicize work from this standpoint? This is what I want to start thinking about in Part Two.
Notes (lol. notes on a tumblr post.)
 This post is both dedicated and addressed to the other folks with whom I shared space in that class, who, if I can call them “students” of mine, are as good as accomplices insofar as we can be said collectively to share the blame for some serious overwork. One of the students from that class is now in law school; I’m less proud about the (clearly impressive) fact that she got in in the first place than about what she brought there with her; particularly, I’m thinking of the kind of political thoughtfulness that drew her, when she reached out a few weeks back, to report about how annoyingly apoliical and obedient her law school classmates have been, and about the fact that the La Raza law student group’s idea of collective organization at her school has amounted to little more than a decision to hire mariachis to play the holiday party. I’m glad, too, about my having had the opportunity to work with another former student who, after going through all the motions to apply to law school, ultimately made an informed and thoughtful choice about why her energy would be best expended elsewhere, and is now working with AnakBayan Los Angeles and organizing with health care workers. And of course, the one student who’ll be joining an important California Ethnic Studies formation in the fall, as well as the other one who will matriculating to a certain public art and curatorial studies program very soon.
 I imagine my audience here as radical-identified graduate students in general, but I do so while wanting that category to carry a certain political valence that makes the category “radical” something other than an unmarked synonym for “white.” ”Radical graduate students in general” here means students who fit within the contours of certain political identity categories—among them, overlappingly: queers, people of color, disabled folks, trans folks, feminists, marxists, anarchists, people with community organizing experience—that would lead them to imagine the academy as a site in which they can not only make a significant difference in the social world, but also find fulfilling and meaningful work.
 Speculating on desire is risky business, no doubt—after all, how can I know what you want if I haven’t asked you?—and I haven’t always been responsible enough to corroborate many of my impressions here via hard data. What makes me willing to commit the violence of speculation without consultation—and therefore to risk being wrong about what motivates an individual person here and there—is a certain unwillingness to allow matters of desire to remain private or individual affairs. If desire is understood a form of social agency, to desire becomes a question of how one simultaneously inhabits while being inhabited by desires.
 Anyone who knows about my at times storied annoyance with canonical sociology will likely be surprised with this citational presence. What can I say? Weber got some swag sometimes.
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