Presented at CCCC 2018
[The Above is an audio version of the ‘Book We Need’ talk presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, which is followed by a transcript of the same talk given by María Carvajal, PhD student at the University of Illinois—Urbana Champaign and member of the Latinx Caucus.]
Hi! My name is María Carvajal. I’m a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and a member of the Latinx Caucus. When Steve Parks approached me last year to see if I wanted to share what book I thought the field needed my first thought was, oh wow, this sounds like such a great panel. But also, how am I supposed to speak for the field? This semester, I’m reading in preparation for my special fields exam, so the book I really need is a book that summarizes, analyses, and critiques all of the texts in my reading list. But since nobody but me would likely want to read such a book, I have been thinking really hard about what book I think we need for months. This turned out to be a lot harder than I thought it would be. New events kept happening almost daily that I think needed and still need the field’s attention.
My first personal shock came when Trump announced the immigration ban. I felt affected personally, even though my family is not from any of the countries that were mentioned, most of them do live abroad, and I worried if the ban wouldn’t take us down a slippery slope. Joe Shapiro was then pardoned and before I had time to digest this information, Charlottesville happened. By the end of August and early September, we saw the White House take an even more public stance on denying global warming, even as natural disasters were occurring on what seemed to me a daily basis. We had Hurricane Harvey in Texas, wildfires in California and Portland, and Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico and Florida. Especially during the natural disasters, I kept thinking that those who were already most marginalized would suffer the most—folks without flood insurance; single parents; black and brown people; Puerto Ricans, because Hurricane Irma really showed us how the White House and lots of people on mainland US view Puerto Ricans: as not really Americans. I wasn’t only worried about friends and family, I was worried about the future of science and the future of the planet.
On top of all of this, DACA was repealed. When this happened, I had no words; now young people, most of whom have worked hard, paid taxes, gone to school, served in the military were being attacked and treated the way so many others had been treated by this administration—as if they don’t matter; don’t belong; don’t deserve respect. DACA recipients are our future. They’re my friends, my colleagues, my students. And yet the administration didn’t care then and still doesn’t.
This was only September of last year, and things have only continued to get worse. We saw how the government wanted to tax graduate students’ tuition waivers, we still don’t have immigration reform, Dreamers and DACA recipients still don’t know what the future holds. We’ve seen Russian meddling, memos that dominate the news for months, more and more men accused of sexual assault and harassment, just to name a few examples. Even within Cs and NCTE, we have also had to come to terms with our own decisions and roles in systemic issues, leading many individuals and groups to boycott this year’s Cs. I really could keep going on and on. But I think we get that trying to think of a single topic for a book that the field needs is no easy task.
Because so much was and is happening and changing on a daily basis, I decided to focus on a topic for a book that could benefit as many people as possible. I think the book we need is one that discusses how to be politically and civically involved in our scholarship, our teaching, our research, and outside of our own institutions, in the communities we live in, during the Trump era. This book should specifically focus on how to do so for individuals and groups who are marginalized, for people of color, for women, for LGBTQ people and for those at the bottom or toward the bottom of academic hierarchies and the possible intersections of all of these positionalities and identities. In other words, on those who are likely to gain the most from this type of involvement and advocacy but who are also most vulnerable. And here I don’t mean that we need only people with certain positionalities or only those who have more stable positions to do this work, rather that we should be better at advocating for each other, at being smart about our civil engagement and activism, and that we can use our knowledge for positive change in our current political climate.
It makes sense that those who are black and brown, those who are most disenfranchised and marginalized, who have the most to lose, and who are most negatively impacted by these issues also tend to be the most involved activists and outspoken voices in fighting injustices. Of course, this is in part because these decisions and events impact them personally and have real consequences for their daily lives and futures. And while I’m 100% sure that being outspoken about the things we find wrong in the world is generally good, I think that we, as scholars, teachers, students, future faculty members, current faculty members, tutors, editors, and administrators, etc. would benefit from looking at activism and political engagement in the Trump era in terms of who is being active and outspoken, and who has the most to win and lose in these situations, as well as who is choosing not to participate, and who is being left out. Doing so could help us ensure that we’re better prepared to be involved in creating positive change and that we’re not going at it alone or without support that could help us succeed.
In the context of higher education, we tend to say that tenured faculty can and should fight battles that those with less job security can’t because they would suffer adverse consequences for doing so. We tend to see non-tenured faculty, junior faculty, some academic professionals, graduate students, and undergraduate students in some ways and depending on the institution as more vulnerable. But I think we would benefit from a book that provides an even more nuanced understanding of this—one that is intersectional and keenly aware of what is happening in the current political climate and that provides solutions to ensure that we can all help each other and work towards a better future.
So I know so far I’ve been pretty vague as to what this could look like, especially in the context of higher education. It so happens that recent events that took place at my university can illustrate what I mean. Beginning on February 26th, the Graduate Employees’ Organization or GEO, the union that represents U of I’s TAs and GAs went on strike. This strike followed 11 months of bargaining and close to 200 days of work without a contract. And while there are way too many issues and systemic problems that led to this strike to talk about here today, I do think that it offers an interesting example of something a book like the one I’m proposing could help us understand. The strike is an example of how graduate students, who occupy a more precarious position than, say, faculty members, chose to fight for the future of a university and for higher education more generally. And while we had the support of faculty members, both tenured and non-tenured, we potentially still had a lot to lose since we occupy one of the lowest positions at our university. We weren’t the first or the last to engage in this kind of action and yet the strike showed me that there is more we could all do when we feel the need to rise up and fight battles we deem worth finding if we have the tools and knowledge to do so.
At a more personal level, as someone who is not a US citizen, I’m always concerned with what potential consequences my actions might have for my future immigration status. So when I began to hear words like “strike vote,” “strike card” and “strike date,” I immediately started to worry. However, as unionized employees, we did have a right to strike and we felt like this was the next logical step after months of the administration stalling. Knowing that I couldn’t be fired helped my anxiety about the strike, but deciding to participate meant potential ducked pay and lots of concern about the visibility that the strike could potentially bring. Still, I knew I had the support of other union members and most of my department. And I knew that I was doing the right thing—that I was fighting for a contract that would acknowledge the value of graduate employee’s work and that I would be fighting to ensure that future students have access to higher education and that they can have diverse teachers and role models. Yet, during the second week of our strike, when I was asked if I wanted to occupy a building on campus, I again couldn’t help but think about possible implications, even if this was a peaceful occupation. Thankfully the members of the GEO leadership were really understanding when I voiced my concerns and were able to find someone who didn’t have the same concerns as me to occupy the building.
Although the occupation only lasted two days and we finally got the contract we fought for and deserved, this event exemplifies what I think the field can help us understand better—how to be involved politically or in activist work that might require, call for, benefit from, or even hinge on involvement by groups and individuals who are already vulnerable and perhaps marginalized and what roles we can all play in such events. A successful book on this topic would also need to take into account the history of political involvement by marginalized groups and individuals because people of color, LGBTQ folks and other vulnerable and marginalized individuals and groups have been fighting battles similar to the ones we currently face for a long time. Finally, a book of this type would obviously benefit from having a variety of voices and perspectives that can help us understand what all of this means for junior and non-tenured faculty, for undergraduate and graduate students across a range of institutions, and for communities outside of our institutions. It would also benefit from voices that can help us understand the role of universities and professional organizations like Cs in these conversations, movements, and events at this particular moment in history. And while I don’t have solutions to these issues, I believe such a book would be beneficial to many, if not all, in our field and that we have the capacity, and perhaps even the responsibility, to create such a book.