The Evil of Banality

There is a problem in unions, that in their very formation they were sectional organizations, that the essence of unions is that you’re defending a group of workers. You’re not actually thinking about the class as a whole, or about other dimensions of workers’ lives. On occasion, in spite of that sectionalism, you see the potential of workers because they go beyond it, as they did when they were mobilizing in Madison. But the problem is that the structure of unions, and their culture and their logic, takes them back to returning to being very instrumental. The problem with being sectional and just thinking about yourself is you also tend to think instrumentally. You look to your leaders as—you pay some insurance for being in the union, you give them some dues, and they’ll deliver. And the leaders think in terms of “well, we occasionally have to mobilize the workers but we shouldn’t exaggerate that or really open the door to mass mobilization, because we just want to mobilize them enough to make a deal.”

Sam Gindin, Interviewed by Doug Henwood

If I get lucky, the other people at the gym are like me and like to work out in a cool, dark room, listening to something interesting, in my case, on a Touch Pad. If I am less lucky, the weightlifters are clanging around on the free weights and listening to loud bad rock music– why can’t they ever be Jack White fans?– or this older man is milling around, hardly working out at all, and inexplicably listening to the View on one or more noisy televisions. Yesterday was a good day so I listened to Behind the News.

I know it’s a longish quote– and post– but Doug Henwood’s interview with Sam Gindin struck a nerve because I have had a lot of experience with union instrumentality. It’s why I don’t work at a traditional university. I spent several years slogging away in an English department and I did well. I had a book in the works (published a few years ago now) and published articles, I had a lot of friends, I won university-wide grants a few times, my student evaluations were consistently high. I did everything right.

In year four I agreed to develop a new course in Professional Writing; that was my mistake. Nothing else changed, but that course failed each time I taught it. I just could not get it to work.  That’s not uncommon with new courses, of course. Suddenly I had two classes that had horrible evaluations. I should have simply refused to teach it again until I had tenure but I was convinced that one or two bad classes could not wipe out my very strong record. After all, I had nearly 30 other sets of good to great evaluations. I was wrong.

A small group of English faculty– three or four people– decided that they had to get rid of me for reasons that they have never explained.  They had allies in the administration, too, but at bottom it was nothing more than the sort personal animosity that too often poisons academic culture. Colleagues on the university-wide tenure committee voted to give me tenure, again and again. More faculty sent in public letters of support than had voted on the committee that denied me tenure. I had a union and they hired a lawyer for me and sued the university.

In one way, I don’t want to complain about the union; these were people who supported me and provided resources in my defense without hesitation. On the other hand, the union’s approach was limited, just as Gindin suggests, by its instrumentality, that is, by its narrow focus on contract legalities. I thought my case had larger implications and that it said a lot about how the tenure system can break down and what we could to fix it. That larger, more public argument was never seriously considered.

We fought the university on contractual grounds, it went to arbitration, and I won a not-so generous settlement but lost my job. In effect, the administration can legally fire anyone it likes for more or less any reason it likes as long as it follows the correct administrative procedures. That’s all that the arbitration decided. The university doesn’t have to be fair, it just had to win the legal debate.  If I had to lose, then I would  have rather lost in a fight over something more important than a few key terms in a contract.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Post Navigation