This month’s post, the forth in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 US Elections,” comes from Anthony Warnke and Kirsten Higgins (Green River College). In their post, they discuss how the COVID-19 outbreak ups the stakes in the 2020 US presidential election, and they call for other teacher-scholar-activists to “reject the comfort of being sad” in favor of taking action around and through this election.
In the coming months, this series will feature critical perspectives on the elections, issues related to them, and thoughts about how scholar-activists (teachers and students) can intervene. We encourage readers to share these posts and to discuss the ideas with people in your communities, classrooms, and workplaces.
Liz Lane & Don Unger, Managing Editors—Spark
Darin Jensen, Editor—Teacher, Scholar, Activist
Rejecting the “Comfort in Being Sad”: Relocating Agency within the Stakes of 2020
By Anthony Warnke and Kirsten Higgins
Strengthening Our Resolve
The Trump administration’s COVID-19 response has laid bare the stakes of the 2020 election in striking new ways. Our students—already at risk of deportation, gun violence, police brutality, predatory lending practices, racist attacks, financial abuse, and a thousand other assaults and indignities—are increasingly at risk of losing their lives as well as their paths to a reasonable livelihood. Grounded in the need for solidarity with our students, we call for clear, unequivocal action on the part of teacher-activist-scholars, especially two-year college writing instructors and basic writing instructors. We call for a resounding commitment to putting aside our divisions and rejecting the comfortable and/or critique-oriented postures of the privileged. Whatever our wish for the candidate of our dreams to take on Trump, we now face the stark choice: vote for Joe Biden, even if that feels like a personal compromise, or allow our students’ living nightmare under Trump to continue.
As tenured English faculty members, it’s easy for us privileged folks to retrospectively idealize the pre-COVID-19 Trump era. We have, over the last few years, fallen prey to a kind of sleepy crisis fatigue as our city has paid an increasingly steep price for its successes in the context of neoliberalism: a skyrocketing cost of living, an increasingly cut-throat housing market, and a lack of compassion for those who experience housing insecurity. As the city has evolved, some would say it has been nearly destroyed. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics have seemed prescient in their vision of rage at bureaucratic oppression that, embodied as a risen Frances Farmer, could “come back as fire/to burn all the liars/leave a blanket of ash on the ground.” But what we have experienced in our city with the civic and environmental destruction concomitant with its neoliberal successes is not that righteous revenge of a woman wronged by oppressive, patriarchal psychiatric and medical structures but the wages of years of neglectful, entitled affluence. The blanket of ash we see is in the air, not on the ground, in the form of the choking particulates from the climate crisis-induced, summer-long wildfire seasons that grip the West Coast and its interior forests. The burning is the dwindling of the resident Orca pods and the losses to the ecological web that go with them. The burning is the stark inequities of our economic reality, in which tiny-house villages and forested hillsides choked with trash are the most obvious symbols of the lackluster policy response to the housing crisis. The burning is the sapping of strength of our students, who take $15 per hour jobs at Amazon’s fulfillment centers until their youthful energy is sucked dry. In truth, these fires have been burning for a long time, and we have become somewhat inured to them. To acknowledge the truth of it, we have grown too used to the “comfort in being sad” (to quote Nirvana) and fallen into patterns of critique. In this posture of critique, we have left our region’s dispossessed, including our students and their families, without our aid in fighting the fire.
We now wake to an inferno. COVID-19 has thrown into stark relief the systemic inequalities which we have critiqued without experiencing firsthand. As full-time college instructors, we still have our housing, jobs, and places in society; many of us still have our health, too. In the past several years, right-wing authoritarian policy has further entrenched precarity for underserved groups that COVID-19 only further exacerbates; disproportionate death tolls among people of color are perhaps the starkest data points to illustrate this (Thebault et al.). While that precarity is a product of political forces that Trump and right-wing authoritarianism lead in the present, we know that oppression and dispossession long preceded his election. Only now, as media theorist Thomas de Zengotita argues in an interview, COVID-19 is bringing unmediated reality to everyone. Unlike disasters and crises that rarely go beyond our screens, “no one can opt out of this pandemic” (Wilkinson). As a result, a return to normal is, at best, a return to tragedy happening to someone else, somewhere else, tragedy that many of us can sympathize with but never feel ourselves. This post is an attempt to attest to the injustices of business as-usual, to enact the refusal of postures of critique that take comfort in being sad, as we strengthen our resolve to band together to resist the existential danger to some of the most vulnerable in our society.
A Pragmatic Advocacy Among Real Tensions
As our students face erasure, we must do more than comfortably critique and condemn. Steve Lamos, among other scholars, details the way fragile progress, especially concerning racial equity and higher education, is possible even when circumscribed by problematic limitations. Although we question the privilege of “returning to normal,” we also want to protect hard-fought, if piecemeal, gains and achievements. Absolutism, at its worst, says, “if we can’t have it all, America deserves what it gets.” We share the values that “all” represents—such as affordable healthcare for all and a real living wage for all—and recognize the implications of dreams deferred. However, absolutism, and the resignation that follows, also sometimes comes from positions of privilege where one’s material existence is not under immediate threat. The absolutists ignore the reality we can’t opt out of: there’s a generation-defining election in about six months. The two viable candidates are a neoliberal centrist who has been nudged to the left after the Democratic primary; who authored the Violence Against Women Act yet permitted the ugly interrogation of Anita Hill; who led the 2009 Recovery Act as well as draconian bankruptcy reform; who advocated for minimizing troop presence in Iraq after voting to authorize the war. The other is a neo-fascist incumbent whose mad king persona is willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives for short-term economic gains—in just the latest iteration of his disregard for human life and protecting the most vulnerable among us. The unrelenting callous cruelty and incomparable corruption of the Trump administration are beyond question.
Pre-COVID-19, Trump administration’s searing attacks on underserved populations reverberated through our classrooms. Yet we were smart, so we found ways to resist, to push back, to reconfigure or “hack” the system, to build opportunity structures and improve access. We must not take comfort in the great ingenuity we have shown. Too many brilliant, responsive innovations rested, at least in part, on vestigial structures and practices that have been shaken or nearly destroyed under Trump. As many discerning commentators have noted, we are experiencing in the COVID-19 crises a dress rehearsal for the worsening climate crisis and its likely wave of climate refugees. How long, and under those conditions, will these vestigial structures and processes, hold?
In the midst of COVID-19, the Trump administration’s cynical indifference to our students’ and their families’ lived realities may, in a sense, feel normal, even comfortable, because we have been developing our capacities for resistance and innovation. Yet those of us insulated and privileged enough to be sheltering in our homes with paid work owe something to our society: our discomfort. Both in terms of basic human decency in times of crisis and in terms of the need to make visible the irrationality of the market’s hand in sparing us this time around, we need to stand in greater solidarity with our students, their families, workers who have lost their jobs, the dispossessed. We need to lobby our state leaders to increase investment in higher education, especially in open-access institutions, and to provide material support for students’ most pressing needs, especially in terms of housing and food insecurity. On the institutional level, we need to develop infrastructure for advising and other supports to ensure that our open-access institutions are not open access in name only.
What’s actually at stake for our students? If we can open our eyes to them, real material conditions show us. As The Hope Center’s #RealCollege Survey indicates, “In 2019, approximately 13,550 students from 28 Washington State community and technical colleges responded to the #RealCollege survey. The results indicate: 41% of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days, 51% of respondents were housing insecure in the previous year, 19% of respondents were homeless in the previous year” (Goldrick-Rab, et al.). A disappointingly center-left neoliberal like Joe Biden, even one with a track record in racial justice, isn’t our first choice. But he’s someone to whose better angels we can appeal. (We have yet to spy an angel of any description resting on Trump’s shoulders).
In this political moment, we must explore these tensions: how do we resist nostalgia for a “comfortable” moment that never existed? How can we organize around the reality that the march of time does not guarantee progress? In other words, how do we work towards a more just future while also safeguarding what exists, believing it can always get better and witnessing how it can always get worse?
Agency within the Teacher-Scholar-Activist Tradition
As teacher-scholar-activists whose work is dedicated to promoting access at the two-year college, we are perhaps stepping out on a limb by acting as political pundits. However, these are the stakes of our own work in the current moment: as critics of the neoliberal influences on the two-year college, we see now, more than ever, how market logic is affecting the two-year college as well as how the Hobbesian-Trumpian individualism that comes with it is materially threatening and dispossessing our students.
Our work on access in the two-year college has often centered on Basic Writing in terms of our efforts to reform developmental education on the ground. Basic Writing, too, is our scholarly touchstone for progressively committed work. We were inspired to read the spring 2020 issue of the Basic Writing e-Journal, which historicizes, challenges, and offers strategies for resisting the pernicious influence of neoliberalism on the two-year college. When the “free” market is under threat, social institutions, such as the two-year college, are further instrumentalized to serve the interest of capital. This timely and trenchant issue of the journal documents how these neoliberal influences threaten to cut off access to the most marginal students, further commodify the value of higher education, and stymie activist possibilities for engaged faculty. From innovative activist frameworks to instructive histories to on-the-ground work with students, the issue reminds faculty of what’s at stake when effectively responding to socio-economic conditions that threaten our professions, our students, and our communities.
In order to respond to and negotiate the neoliberal assault on higher education, the editors of this issue articulate a vision of “located agency,” and this orientation towards meaningful action runs throughout the issue. As they state, located agency is “action or intervention within a particular place or context meant to produce a particular effect” (Jensen and Suh 10). Rather than seeking an ultimately futile and enervating total negation of the neoliberal assault, located agency asks how we can assess our own material circumstances in a way that facilitates effective change action in our diverse institutions.
Many of these articles locate agency in the context of the 2008 Great Recession and its aftermath. We re-read our own article in the issue in early spring in Seattle as COVID-19 began burning its path through our city. It felt like an iconic moment, like a bastardized version of Kurt Cobain’s vision of Frances Farmer “[coming] back as fire” to have her revenge on Seattle. But for the wronged, bold Frances Farmer, substitute the corrupt, cartoonishly cruel Trump and his cronies whose refusal to properly prepare caused the near-term deaths of hundreds in our county. As the COVID-19 crisis encircled us, the “blanket of ash on the ground” Cobain and co. fantasized about had, in a sense, materialized here. We began to shelter-in-place, nostalgic Nirvana ringing in our ears, with a city’s worth of boarded-up theater and art spaces all around us. As we pondered our just-published article, we felt the curious anachronism of drawing conclusions based on the Great Recession and its aftermath.
It’s not 2008 anymore. New public-health and economic realities are rapidly reshaping the present and destabilizing the future. The tenure of Donald Trump and his response to this crisis, in particular, continue to marry neoliberalism with right-wing authoritarianism—birthing a horrific market-centric neo-fascism where one should get comfortable with the idea of dying for the economy. Antecedents of this, of course, run throughout history. However, the dominance of right-wing authoritarian neoliberalism, especially in this time, requires relocating our agency and facing the uncomfortable truth.
The viable options this November do not offer true alternatives to neoliberal capitalism such as the tightly regulated, New-Deal capitalism of Elizabeth Warren or the Scandinavian-style hybrid system of Bernie Sanders. What we are advocating might only be a stopgap. It certainly chafes to let years of the neoliberal, “Washington consensus” of both parties go unchecked because of how bad things are now. We largely agree with Henry Giroux when he argues that
“[r]avaged for decades by neoliberal policies, U.S. society is plagued by a series of crises whose deeper roots have intensified the stark class and racial divides… Neoliberal capitalism is the underlying pandemic feeding the current global shortage of hospitals, medical supplies, beds and robust social welfare provisions, and increasingly an indifference to human life.”
First Steps for Responding to the Moment
Yet as we reflect on the precarity of our institutions, students, communities, and fellow faculty members, we believe it’s reckless to say that, no matter what happens in November, neoliberalism wins. Such a reductive move might be academically satisfying, but it is divorced from the real consequences at stake in this generation-defining presidential election. On the left, we need to grasp the distinctions between the permutations of neoliberalism, permutations that can literally mean life or death for our students and their access to education. For example, in our work, we often focus on racial disparities in two-colleges, especially in the context of disparate impact, writ large (enrollment and completion rates) or small (classroom-level disparities perpetuated through unexamined writing assessment practices). Mainstream racial discourses in the two-year college posit colorblind opportunity structures where equality is prized over equity, where the impact of racism is diminished to just one of a list of possible -isms, where students are reduced to data points and completion metrics (see Coleman et al. for further discussion). These discourses must be deliberately, unwaveringly opposed. But we are also witnessing the right-wing authoritarian prerogative of division through race-baiting—racial othering for economic scapegoating, the demonization and elimination of immigrants, the existential threat towards public programs and institutions that serve marginalized groups. If a more centrist neoliberalism proposes reductive categories and insufficient, and harmful, metrics, right-wing authoritarian neoliberalism promotes decimation and stokes racial conflict.
Holding onto an idealized progressive position—refusing to ally with the squishy middle—can feel comfortable, as though it is ideologically and ethically consistent. Yet we wonder whether our own privileged conditions have lulled us into a sense that things can’t get worse. Things are getting worse. At this moment, we must honor coalition building, even though it is uncomfortable at times, in order to address the greatest needs of and threats to the population. In a macro sense, of course, coalition building means massive organizing and turnout in the 2020 election. In the context of the two-year college, we must see to the needs of students, then staff and adjunct faculty, and then full-time faculty. In part, coalition building requires centering adjunct faculty in departmental conversations and the institution’s ad hoc policymaking. It requires assessing and attuning ourselves to the needs of students, even when online teaching lends a cloak of invisibility, where we can mistake their not reaching out for the absence of their needs. It requires a belief that we can move forward together while holding space for grief towards what, and who, we’ve lost. For we agree with Marcy Isabella and Heather McGovern when they caution that “[t]here is no going back. Despite how often or how rhetorically we respond to the neoliberalist agenda in/at/of our institutions, universities will not ‘return’ to anything (there is no there there)” (2). We will keep humming Nirvana. But we’ll reject the nostalgia for the last safe harbor while also realizing that we are at a vital moment of struggle, a moment when “responding rhetorically matters” (ibid.) This post is our first, messy step at responding to this destabilized moment by beginning to relocate our agency.
Anthony Warnke and Kirsten Higgins teach writing at Green River College in Auburn, Washington. As co-Writing Program Administrators, they helped design an equity-focused Accelerated Learning Program to revamp their department’s developmental English sequence. Their scholarship has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Basic Writing e-Journal, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, as well as edited collections on autoethnography in co-requisite courses and emotional labor in writing program administration. Their article “A Critical Time for Reform: Interventions in a Precarious Landscape” was selected for the Parlor Press anthology Best of the Rhetoric and Composition Journals 2019.
Coleman, Taiyon J., et al. “The Risky Business of Engaging Racial Equity in Writing Instruction: A Tragedy in Five Acts.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 43, no. 4, 2016, pp. 347–70.
Giroux, Henry A. “The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Exposing the Plague of Neoliberalism.” SP: The Bullet, 18 April 2020, socialistproject.ca/2020/04/covid19-pandemic-exposing-plague-of-neoliberalism/. Accessed 20 April 2020.
Goldrick-Rab, Sara, et al. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. February 2020. hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2019_WashingtonState_Report.pdf. Accessed 23 April 2020.
Jensen, Darin, and Emily Suh. “Introducing Lived Interventions: Located Agency and Teacher-Scholar-Activism as Responses to Neoliberalism” Basic Writing e-Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–11.
Isabella, Marcy, and Heather McGovern. “Reviving Administrative Amnesia: Basic Writing Faculty Looking and Responding Rhetorically in the Neoliberal University.” Basic Writing e-Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–27.
Lamos, Steve. Interests and Opportunities: Race, Racism, and University Writing Instruction in the Post-Civil Rights Era. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.
Nirvana. “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” In Utero, DGC Records, 1993.
Thebault, Reis, et al. “The Coronavirus Is Infecting and Killing Black Americans at an Alarmingly High Rate.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 7 Apr. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/07/coronavirus-is-infecting-killing-black-americans-an-alarmingly-high-rate-post-analysis-shows/?arc404=true. Accessed 28 Apr 2020.
Wilkinson, Alissa. “No One Can Opt out of This Pandemic. And That Will Change Us Forever.” Vox, Vox Media, 13 April 2020, www.vox.com/culture/2020/4/13/21213820/coronavirus-reality-tom-de-zengotita-mediated-theory-philosophy-interview. Accessed 21 April 2020.