Teach-Outs and the Progressive Stack

Amidst the incredible student-led gun control movement in the US and the completely sickening slaughter in East Ghouta, the USS strike amongst (some) UK university workers seems rather unimportant. The surface cause of the strike—fighting for our pensions—sounds downright quaint even within the UK context, but it is within a landscape of intensive, predatory neoliberalism that has been eroding the UK university system for the last 20+ years.

This strike action has been a rapid education for me—though I’ve been teaching in universities since 2006, my lectureship so far has basically been firefighting, with developing new courses and getting used to new responsibilities while conducting top notch research (right???) and occasionally seeing that child that I’m rather fond of. I didn’t really think I’d have to learn the specifics of my pension, the timeline of escalating student fees (beginning to understand why Tony Blair is so thoroughly despised), and the subtly different rules of protest and industrial action in the UK, but here we are. We are two days into a strike action that could potentially take out 14 days of teaching from a critical time of the student year, the end of the spring term.

I’m no stranger to protest; my mother took me to an anti-nukes rally in the early 1980s, I protested the build-up to the 9/11 (forever) wars and took action in Berkeley many, many, many times, as perhaps one might expect. One of my photos of these protests made the cover of the 2010 University in Crisis issue of the Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ The Habit of Courage is published in that issue, and much of it still rings true for the UK actions:

The first act of civil disobedience doesn’t come easily to most people of good conscience. We are raised, with good reason, to be obedient; it requires a great deal of discernment to decide what matters enough to justify going against our more sociable inclinations to conform….

…the call to direct action was not limited to ‘safely’ tenured faculty – but included undergraduate and graduate students, and untenured faculty, drawn into sometimes uncomfortable confrontations with the administration by their sense of integrity and drawing strength from what I am calling “the habit of courage.”

This habit of courage and willingness to engage in ‘non-violent resistance’ has weakened in recent decades, replaced by a self-interested and protectionist academic ethos. A more politically cautious faculty have followed a neoliberal notion of decorous and quiet civility….

Meanwhile, there is a resurgence of anti-intellectualism, the infiltration of corporate business models to every aspect of academic and university life, the devaluation of the arts, humanities and the social sciences, increasingly seen either as a luxury or as intellectual enemies of the global economy. The Enlightenment idea of the university as a voluntary community of teachers, researchers, and students dedicated to the open and disinterested pursuit of knowledge and learning is being rapidly replaced by the idea of the university as a corporate enterprise whose primary functions are to provide a skilled workforce and to generate profitable and usable research for industry and global commerce.

Scheper-Hughes points out that, ironically, during these strike actions we actually do more teaching and admin than we would have done otherwise, through organized teach-outs, strategy meetings, and public outreach on the radio, print and television.

We’ve been organizing Teach-Outs (as opposed to Teach-ins, which would cross picket lines) at our local archaeology pub who immediately and fervently declared their solidarity. I was afraid that our first Teach-Out would find me and a handful of fellow lecturers having a lonely pint, but…we had standing room only. There is a hunger for action amongst students and staff that is refreshing but honestly unsurprising.

During the Teach-Out, we had questions and discussion guided by the progressive stack, a tactic used for group meetings during Occupy. Sara Perry and I had been talking about ways we could use it in the classroom, and I had written it up for review by our teaching committee. The progressive stack in the context of the Teach-Out was invigorating; POC spoke before white people, LGBTQ+ people before cishets, students before lecturers, women before men…to the best of my ability, at least. It relied on my own biases and foreknowledge, so it was (deeply) imperfect, but foregrounded voices that were critical to our discussion. We’re doing it again on Monday, and hopefully gathering momentum–getting more diversity on our speaking panel, etc.

It was and will continue to be, completely exhausting. Organizing on the fly, standing out in the bitter, bitter cold, and keeping up the emotional energy left me with very little to give my family afterwards. So…basically like academia, right?

But, again, as Nancy Scheper-Hughes states:

Nothing good happens without struggle, without solidarity, without a readiness and a willingness to court controversy, to take risks, and to expect and to sustain retaliation….

There’s a very real chance that this, my first UK industrial action, might be the last. If it fails, a toothless union isn’t worth much, except to be laughed down by ridiculously overpaid VCs sipping “pornstar” martinis in expensive hotel suites while our precarious associate lecturers and other university workers struggle to make ends meet. It’s critically important to support the strike and to take back our universities.

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DIY, Green Burials, and Mortuary Archaeology

After digging up a few people, most archaeologists come up with a burial plan. One of my graduate student instructors back at my beloved alma mater, the University of Texas, was able to eventually date unmarked 19th century graves to within a year by the style of safety pin that was used to dress the body. He was an expert on all kinds of grave fittings, and knew how much each piece (coffin handles, hinges, etc) had cost–they were all listed in the Sears catalog and minor changes in design were easy to detect. He was going to pick a year and kit himself out perfectly in 19th century burial clothes, correct down to the safety pins, then clutch a shiny new penny in one of his hands.

I’ve heard of archaeologists wanting to get excarnated, donate their bones to their department, and of course, the ever-popular viking boat burial. Antiquated Vagaries has a couple of good posts on the graves of archaeologists, which usually allude to the subject that the archaeologist was investigating.

Cornelius Holtorf wrote about this phenomenon in his chapter in Archaeologies of Remembrance: Death and Memory in Past Societies wherein he writes about a Neolithic passage tomb in Sweden and the memorial for Wilhelm Ekman a few meters away, who died while excavating the tomb. (While this was in 1915, sadly these things happen even today when proper precautions aren’t taken.)

My specific chosen commemoration style has changed from time to time, but my general interest in “green” burials was piqued back in 2005, in the New Yorker article The Shroud of Marin by Tad Friend. In this he details the growing phenomenon of people wanting to be buried without concrete vaults, coffins, embalming, or even a tombstone. If there was a coffin or a tombstone, enterprising DIYers wanted to make it themselves. I was interested in this expression of the environmental movement made material in burials, and it continues to come up from time to time on sites like Boingboing and the Make Magazine Blog.

These updates emphasize the distance that has grown between the (primarily white, Western) bereaved and their dead. Death is now fully legislated, and permits are required for most steps of the burial process, from moving the dead body to digging the hole and placing the body in the ground.

So it was with avid interest that I read the newest archaeology-themed issue of Mortality, an academic journal “promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying.”

As widely-read as I attempt to be, I hadn’t heard of Mortality–I’ll have to rummage through their back-issues some point soon. In the introductory article, Howard Williams lays out the engagement that mortuary archaeologists have with contemporary death and what they can contribute to our understanding of modern death and death practices. One of the first points that Williams makes is that “the private, individualized and medicalized nature of death in Western modernity is extensively used by archaeologists as the antithesis of funerals in past, pre-industrial societies” (92). Beyond using modern practice as analogy, Williams also states that “Archaeologists are key stakeholders in current ethical, political and legal debates concerning death and the dead in contemporary society” (93), linking this status to issues of repatriation and reburial. I wonder if there is more to this linkage, this stakeholder status, than Williams allows.

Archaeologists are fairly unusual in the (white, Western) world in that we have a greater intimacy with death and decay. While we certainly deal in lifeways and birth, they are always seen through the yellowed lens of time. Even our contemporary archaeologies are informed by a disciplinary history of studying remains. We count it a boon in many ways–we’ve gained an understanding of materiality that is unparalleled in other disciplines. As contemporary as your archaeology may be, there is a good chance that as an archaeologist, you have dealt more fully with death and human remains than most people.

Our role in handling human remains has been greatly vilified, especially in North America where (white, Western) we are most certainly not handling the bones of our ancestors. We have come under such criticism that a lot of my colleagues will not excavate burials, nor handle them in any way. The intimacy is denied–we will sort through their trash but will not shake their hand. Fair enough. You do not have to brush the dirt off of someone’s pelvic curve to understand their house or their meals. But do we turn our backs on this knowledge entirely?

I wonder if there is a way to use this unusual relationship to death in order to serve (white? Western?) people. In a very specific example, can we help the people that wish to be buried in an environmentally friendly way while not running afoul of very good local laws that protect water tables and prevent disease? Can we use our knowledge of site depositional processes and decomposition, our understanding of burial practices around the world to help people come to terms with the inevitable? Or do we become just another person standing between the bereaved and their beloved? Is there an activist mortuary archaeology?

(This post is also hosted at Then Dig, an archaeology group blog that will premiere in June)

The Great Abandonment

Cleveland, Ohio

“Explaining the ‘Great Abandonment’ has proven to be a challenge…The evidence for warfare, the widespread abandonments, and the subsequent settling of vacated regions by these nomadic peoples were considered to be compelling evidence. The arguments, however, have not held up to scrutiny.”

Cleveland, Ohio

“The trash deposits in the midden show that the initial abandonment was gradual, with perhaps a family or two leaving every once in a while, but the final exodus was much more rapid – so rapid that they actually left behind many intact vessels and perfectly good stone tools.”

Minneapolis, Minnesota

“The fact that people did leave northern towns is testament to how uncomfortable life had become.  As each family or kin group migrated south, tensions in the towns they left may have been alleviated for a while, but the town lost some of its labor force and defensive capacity with each person that fled.  It is perhaps for this reason that the abandonment started as a trickle but ended as a flood.”

Detroit, Michigan

“One possible explanation is that the aggregated towns simply lacked social cohesion and effective decision-making mechanisms…These were therefore towns only in the sense that many people lived closely together and occasionally acted in concert to face a common threat, particularly for defense against a definable mutual enemy.  But their internal ties were tenuous, and it may be that they were not sustainable when the problems were more nebulous and when the solutions required new social and political mechanisms.”

Quotes taken from John Kantner’s Ancient Puebloan Southwest.