The Activist Tax

This is a more personal post. And I’m sure I’m like the 100,000th person to make this point in a blog on the internet.

I realize that what I am about to say is nothing compared to what my colleagues in MUNACA are dealing with. They are marching in circles for four hours a day at the rate of $70 per day. That’s brutal and boring and economically crushing. And certainly what I am about to say does not compare to being a peaceful protester and getting pepper-sprayed in the face.

But it is really hard to be a professor and actually stand up for what you think is right. It is like a job on top of a job, except neither job ever stops.

I was speaking with someone yesterday who wondered why more progressive faculty don’t take a stand. Is it that we are bought off with our research grants and well-stocked labs (okay, I don’t have a lab but I take the point)? Perhaps for some. And there are plenty of others who are simply depoliticized or who aren’t comfortable speaking up in public. But one of the biggest disincentives to activism is the added stress and exhaustion it brings in times of crisis. There is an activist tax and every activist pays it.

If you are good at your job as a professor you are a very busy person with a lot of people depending on you. Every day I spend on some matter related to what’s happening on campus and locally is a day when papers don’t get marked (sorry again for the delay on that date assignment, COMS 492!), letters don’t get sent (so I do that instead of taking time off on a Sunday), readers’ reports for other people’s books don’t get written, emails don’t get answered and meetings with people who need to see me don’t get had. I have commitments to travel, presentation and hosting that I made months in advance and can’t simply abandon. Then, there’s my own research. Humanists (or any scholar who is able to work alone) will tell you that the institution always tells you your work comes last, despite the fact that it is the thing most valued. But because of publication deadlines, I don’t have that luxury right now.

All of this is actually wonderful and intense and part of the job. But the activist part of the job never stops either. Every day is a new emergency, a new project, or a new meeting. And so those of us who want to actually do something about the terrible things happening on campus have to move back and forth, and ideally, we should “selfishly” take some time off besides (this is the part I’m not so good at–apathy is good for relaxation).

A few years ago I started using the phrase “every day is a special occasion” to describe the embarrassment of riches (and too many nights out) that comes with too many invited speakers and conferences in too short a time. One could say the same thing about the current state of political emergency in my campus environment.

I have never been so angry at my own university, even when my undergraduate school threatened to cut the department where I was studying.

But this is clearly going to be a long haul, and so like some other crises I’ve faced, the challenge is to find a “new normal,” whether temporary or not. There is a cliché that people who do service well are “rewarded” with more work. We could also talk about an activist tax for faculty and students: those who stand up and do the work are rewarded with more of it and stretched thinner. This is why organizing and organization are important, so that we can depend on one another, but don’t individually have to “pay” as much for the time we put in for the cause.

As for me, I am close to my limit, and will be stepping back for a couple weeks–at least that’s the plan.

5 replies on “The Activist Tax”

  1. Jon,

    I am about to come tell you that I am going to work on the MUNACA action for Thursday instead of sitting in the classroom for pro-seminar. I completely empathize, although obviously I can’t imagine what it is like to have so many people depending on me, and if it helps, I want to thank you for writing about how difficult the situation at McGill has been for you as a professor and a person committed to not relaxing in blacked-out, apathetic bliss.

    I actually ended up here because I had to submit a list of resources for folks who need to get a better sense of what’s at stake for MUNACA (and the rest of us by extension). These are the “others who are simply depoliticized or who aren’t comfortable speaking up in public.”

    I need to finish a list of grievances, but please know how much you’re appreciated.
    See you in ten minutes,

  2. so so well-put. I’ve been feeling that “every day is a special occasion” thing for a while now, and trying to remember that it is a privilege. There have been several days now where every single thing I’ve had to do that day is something that it is 1) kind of high stakes 2) something I’ve never done before 3) will take multiple tries to do right. I miss the comfortable rut! Also, I experience relaxation as depression rather than apathy so I avoid it at all costs. That’s why that movie “up in the air” is maybe the best movie ever.

  3. Also, “Up in the Air,” more than any movie, has exquisitely summarized my hatred of bed and breakfasts and my love of soulless hotels.

  4. I would almost rather sleep in my car than b and b. As you’ve said in other contexts, if you’re “good at institutions” then b and b’s are not for you because they have the exquisite social discomfort of a family visit without the already-limited benefit of family. My routine: check in, sweep all of the hotel-promoting spam stand up cards into a drawer, hang up my toiletries bag, fire up the tv (we no longer have cable), make myself some hopefully not-too coffee flavored tea using bags acquired from posher hotels, crack open the laptop and get on Yelp to plan a meal and then do some emails. I use the gym if there’s a pool, go for a run if it’s not too urban a place, make some powerpoint, have dinner with an actual friend (if lucky) or the people who invited me (sometimes not lucky, sometimes very much so). Or if a late arrival, dinner with an Ipad is fine too. I always eat as much as possible in case of meals that get missed because often some interesting (or too pushy) person needs to have a heart to heart during that time. It’s hard to focus on people’s projects for half an hour when you are starving, thirsty, or need to pee, but it seems that half of the time this is the case. I used to carry my husband’s steel WILL pledge drive travel mug with me but stopped because it was bulky but because it also made me feel too much like a pro. If you know what I mean. I introduce myself to everyone. If I am keynoting I go to everyone’s shit because that’s my job. I write down things people say and take and give cards–lately there have been less cards, but I probably give more cards than I take because I request copies of people’s stuff a lot. It seems that it’s Asians who give me the majority of cards that I get. I drink coffee which I don’t drink at home. I never go drinking and always sleep well. It is totally totally domestic.

  5. OMG, this is brilliant. First thing that happens when I enter an American hotel room: find SportsCenter on the TV. I never watch it at home (the Canadian “re” version isn’t as good), and I hardly watched it in the US. This academic road warrior phenomenology could be a thing.

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