On Refusal

Every academic’s favorite short story is Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Or at least, every academic’s favorite line is that famous one from “Bartleby”: “I would prefer not to.” Sure, Bartleby is probably clinically depressed (I’m not the hugest fan of psychoanalytical literary analysis but this one seems pretty straightforward), but in those five words Melville concretizes one of the great desires of all those who struggle under wage labor: the desire to simply not.

Premise: it would be advantageous for higher ed instructors to embrace refusal—to refuse uncompensated labor, to refuse deadly re-opening schemes, to refuse work that increases our immiseration. However, the pandemic has seen the opposite, as we instructors have intensified our workloads even at our own expenses. I want to understand why. And I want to suggest that refusal is still on the table, and may in fact be more powerful than any other option available to us.

We are now six months into the grand experiment that is emergency instruction in a pandemic. While no doubt some of us have experienced minor victories—a positive Zoom discussion, an innovative online assignment—I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that the entire enterprise has been a failure. By “failure,” I mean that underneath all the well-meaning toolkits, tips from veteran online educators, and bursts of positive outcomes, festers pain and suffering and sadness. We are all of us—instructors and students alike—hurting. Our country is torpedoing itself, our industry is blowing itself up, and people are dying every day. It is tempting to think that somehow the worst is over, or even that we are living through the worst, but the fact of the matter is that the pandemic has only just gotten started and we are only just now learning what it means to live with its pain.

This last concept—that we must learn to live with pain—is the crux of my thinking right now. I don’t mean passively to accept (as our government has, for ex.) the inevitability of suffering. Rather, I mean that to overcome the pandemic we must learn how to care for ourselves and each other, how to acknowledge the reality of its pain, and how to work in all ways to ease the suffering of others. I am not sure we have done these things over the past six month, at least not in a coordinated fashion.

The fact of the matter is that we have instead doubled, tripled, quadrupled down on some semblance of business as usual. Think back to March, when we all thought this shit just meant an extra week or two of spring break. Our institutions pulled the plug on our in-person semesters and told us that now we needed to teach online. How? Well, that was really up to us to figure out. And we did. We should celebrate how, in March and April, educators moved heaven and earth to provide their students with the best we could, and with little to no material support from our institutions. I was proud to be a member of this profession then. Our students rose to the occasion; I was so proud of mine last spring, who did their best to make sense of challenging films while dealing with sick family, cramped living conditions, and extra jobs as front-line workers.

However, I am increasingly convinced that we were mistaken. We said “yes, we’ll figure this out” when we should have said, “absolutely not, this is untenable.” We said “we’ll figure out how to grade you during a pandemic” when we should have said, “grades are impossible during a pandemic.” We said “let’s buy new microphones and lighting set-ups so that our Zoom classes look be as professional as possible” when we should have said, “I am a grad instructor living in a one bedroom apartment on a $20k/year stipend, I will not spend a penny to make this university look better than it deserves” or “I have children of my own and no child care support” or “I am one of the lucky few with a secure job and I will not allow those with insecure work to suffer further.” We have discovered how we are just like any other workforce, subject to the same forces of social reproduction.1

Now, there are many reasons we didn’t say any of those things. First and foremost is fear. Our institutions have enacted draconian hiring freezes, slashed benefits, fired contingent workers. Who can refuse to work when they could be laid off at any moment? Not for a second will I ever decry vulnerable and contingent workers who do what they have to do to survive through this great immiseration. But fear isn’t the only reason. There is also a well-meaning desire, particularly on the part of more veteran educators, to Do a Good Job. This is a point many others with better analytical vantage points than I have made many times before: that educators are extremely passionate about their work, which means we’re more likely to accept hacks and slashes and try our best to do their jobs anyway, because some things are more important than money, etc. There’s also the project of care laid bare these past few months. I know I was willing to move heaven and earth to help my students because I saw how much they were suffering—and I also saw how little some of their other instructors were doing to help them.

If I may generalize broadly and baselessly for a moment: I think what I am ultimately extrapolating from all of this is a pervasive tendency in our culture, particularly in this industry, to prioritize Doing Things over Not Doing Things. Faced with the insurmountable challenge that is a pandemic—and I truly do mean “insurmountable,” in that there is absolutely nothing any one of us could do on our own to overcome its malevolent power—we opted into Doing Things. We put together syllabi, we traded online tips, we helped teach each others’ classes, we bought new tools, we tried new platforms, we sent email after email after email. We did it all. What did it come to? Our jobs are still on the line. Our students are being brought back to campus on lies that will kill them, us, and our communities. And our institutions have locked eyes with us and now say, “well, you did it in the spring, right? So you can do it again.”

But there is power in Not Doing. In the strike, in the refusal. (There might even be more power.) Refusing to do that which we all know is patently impossible and absurd clears the space to do other, more urgent things. Things like build structures of community support to get through our oncoming economic depression. Things like imagine new forms of education that can come after this one, which has revealed itself utterly broken in its embrace of the profit motive. Remember back in March also when we all got really into mutual aid? When we said that we should ignore deadlines rather than work three times as hard to meet them? I want to reclaim and intensify that energy.

To be crystalline: I am not blaming myself or any of us for the choices we made back in March. Nor do I think that there is any individual approach to refusal that replaces the collective solidarity of the strike and its equivalents. Our world is such that refusal is among the most genuinely dangerous things a person can do. It would do us well to think more about why that is.

So here at the end is my thesis: we have the ability to refuse. It is not an ability we all have equally. (This is why those with the most protected jobs have the obligation to refuse in ways that make it possible for the most vulnerable to refuse.) But it is perhaps the last tool we have left to stop this careening train of immiseration and exploitation, before higher ed becomes something entirely unlike what it is—or perhaps all the more frighteningly itself.

Many thanks to @RedThunderAudio for thinking through this w/ me and reading drafts.

  1. And, @RedThunderAudio pointed out to me, note also how those who have stood up and refused, particularly grad students and contingent workers, have been fired and silenced: I am thinking about striking UCSC grad workers and international students whose fates were sealed this summer by administrative inaction even as the government eventually relented on their cruelty. 

revision history for this page