Goodbye to a Colleague: Dispatch from a Frontline

I said goodbye to a colleague last night. My husband threw a party at our house because, he said, since we work at the University of Wisconsin, we need to get used to saying goodbye to friends who are laid off, fired, or who leave for other jobs. This colleague is now out of a job and will leave town next week, for good.

I have known this man for the past five years, during which he has worked as Visiting Assistant Professor in my department. But in the current fiscal climate, his position was eliminated.

During the past five years, this colleague has become a part of my department, taking part in work meetings and social events. I observed his teaching as part of the process by which we evaluate instructors, and I have watched as he has become an effective and valued part of the History Department. This year, one of the students from his senior seminar won our “best undergraduate paper” award. At the awards ceremony, the student spoke movingly about how much my colleague had inspired him.

This colleague and other contingent faculty in similar positions teach twice the course load of tenured and tenure track faculty. They have no claim to the job security of tenure, and after the passage of proposed state law, will lack even the ambivalent protection conferred to some contingent faculty under the rubric of “indefinite status.” But, like most contingent academic laborers, my colleague continues to work on his scholarship, writing articles, working on book manuscripts, putting panels together for professional conferences. Like most historians, the contingent faculty in my department do this work because they believe that writing history is important, that how we remember the past makes a difference.

Scholarship informs teaching. My colleague brought our students new insights into global history. Visiting appointment like his allowed our department to offer enough courses that students can complete their majors efficiently and on time. His departure means fewer classes and options for our students, as well as a diminished understanding of the world.

At the party this particular colleague, a historian of twentieth century Europe, explained to me the traditional Greek concept of “martyrdom,” which is slightly different than the Christian one. Whereas the Christian definition refers to those who suffer or die for a cause, the traditional Greek idea of a martyr is someone who directly encounters the forces of historical change. This idea of a martyr is less about intentional sacrifice than the Christian definition: it is about becoming immersed in the frontlines of a struggle over the direction of history.

By this definition, all of us in Wisconsin are martyrs these days: teachers and students, professors and workers. All of us are directly engaged in a struggle over time honored values about democracy and public education. This fight is part of a broad conflict over power and resources. It is waged over no less than a rewriting of our collective social warrant: the way we deal as a society with justice and inequality.

Right-wing assaults on education, labor and civil rights have gained a powerful momentum here. Deliberate fiscal policies like cutting taxes and refusing federal subsidies for health care drive political demands to cut public sector spending. Purposely created austerity means dramatically less funding for education, and has resulted in the spiraling cost of higher education.

As public investment dwindles, access to education is curtailed. Public, compulsory k-12 education has been a central tenet of American democracy since the Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647 mandated that every Massachusetts community of fifty families or more hire someone to teach their children to read and write. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony feared for the soul of an ill-educated society. And they were not wrong.

From 1647 on, public education has been central to envisioning democracy. Access to education has allowed generations of new immigrants to become Americans; it has been a key claim of the African American and Latino/a freedom struggles since well before the landmark Brown vs Board of Education case mandated school desegregation in 1954.

The assault on public education in Wisconsin takes many forms, including the defunding of education; the drive to privatize urban schools in particular through expansion of the voucher program; and the abrogation of tenure and faculty governance in the UW system. Less access to education means less opportunity in a state already notable for its astronomical incarceration rate of African Americans. As access to education diminishes, an expensive “school to prison pipeline” channels many young people into the criminal justice system.

Current plans to downsize the University of Wisconsin are part of a much broader assault on public education and equality of opportunity. My colleague’s departure marks one moment at the frontline of this historical struggle. We said goodbye last night, bracing ourselves for further partings and the losses we will all sustain if the current political program in Wisconsin prevails.

Goodbye to a Colleague: Dispatch from a Frontline

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