Monday, October 12, 2015

Coward's Evolving Views on Solidarity at the University of California

Berkeley Mathematics lecturer, Alexander Coward, haslaunched a stinging attack on the calculations that have gone into hisapproaching dismissal, suggesting that at the bottom of his own plight is a dysfunctional department and indeed university culture, where success in teaching by non-senate faculty can shed light on the costs of a higher education system that emphasizes research more than when not at the expense of teaching.

In a passionate e-mail, Coward has sought to “[blow]the whistle” on his department.  In calling attention to the relationship between the production of knowledge, the value assigned to good teaching, and institutional politics, Coward is asking students to think critically about the University community they call home.

That is a good thing, and students have rallied to Coward’s defense, writing letters, posting on facebook and social media, and planning a demonstration to protest his dismissal.  Not knowing much about the background (but having heard stories about the mathematics department at UC Berkeley) to this story, or having heard the institution’s side of the story, I nonetheless very much hope that Coward gets a fair hearing.  Lecturers and other adjunct faculty at UC and beyond are treated as an easily-exploited pool of labor.  They do critical teaching but have none of the protections or benefits that come with tenure or tenure-track status.

What is curious to me, though, is that the same faculty member who is rousing students to his defense, critiquing the institution’s exploitation of labor, and making connections between academic politics and students’ own lives is an individual who became a celebrity on campus and across colleges nationwide for imploring students to do otherwise.

In 2013, University of California service workers and graduate students went on strike, protesting working conditions and asking students to think about how the UC’s treatment of its employees is related to the welfare of its students.

Coward responded to the strike with an e-mail (referenced in his more recent denunciation of the institution) wherein he declared that “whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education because of someone else’s right that you are not responsible for.” 

Then, Coward asked students to turn inwards, ignoring their neighbors on campus, the people who provide the support team, in and out of the classroom, for their education experience.  Then, he insisted that they didn’t even need to know the specifics of the issues at stake.  The fact that students were not responsible for them meant that they shouldn’t think about them or take action to protest about them.  Attending one day of class was more important than one day of action dedicated to supporting the institution that created, supported, and sustained classes, departments, and the individuals populating them. 

I don’t know whether Coward has re-thought his ideas about the communal character of a university, and the mutual dependence of all the people in it.  Or perhaps he is advancing a different line of argumentation because a different kind of labor—his own, faculty, etc, instead of service or graduate student—is at stake.  The dissonance is striking, but I hope that Coward gets a fair hearing and benefits from the kind of critical thought and moral action that he once sought to quell when other people’s livelihoods and work were at stake.  And I hope that the fact that he is turning to the university community for support will convince him of the importance of solidarity and communal thinking.  

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