by Andy Urban
With high temperatures in the mid-60s, March 2, 2020 was a nice day to be outside in central New Jersey. That morning, my “Society and Thought in the American Past” course met at the entry to the Rutgers’ Ecological Preserve and hiked for a mile through the woods to the home that my partner and I are housesitting. Our excursion complemented course readings on nineteenth-century transcendentalist thought, the origins of ecocriticism, and what the preservation of “undisturbed” Northeastern landscapes means in the context of settler colonialism and the forced displacement of the native Lenape. The weather was disconcertingly pleasant for early March, and we talked about how the meticulous data Henry David Thoreau kept during his time living by Walden Pond, which included when various flowers first bloomed, was now being used by climate scientists tracking warming trends. We took a break and had lunch that I cooked for my students. The cat paraded around the room to my students’ delight.
In the weeks since then, marred as they have been by Covid-19 and its dire consequences, I have thought a lot about this day. Rutgers is an enormous institution and my primary department, American Studies, recruits its majors and minors by offering a liberal arts college experience. Our catchphrase is that we are a “school within a school.” We tout the department’s small size, the access students have to their professors, and opportunities to participate in public humanities projects, all of which stem from a singular emphasis on undergraduate teaching (the MA and PhD programs in American Studies are part of the department on the Newark campus).
These are genuine expressions of faculty members’ commitment to undergraduate education, but also rationales that must be fed to management. As instructors, we brand caring as “innovative teaching,” and sidestep difficult questions about how our generosity in the classroom gets exploited. At Rutgers, units such as the School of Arts and Sciences must abide by the “Responsibility Center Management” (RCM) system that many central administrations now utilize to determine budgets. RCM is best likened to an “eat what you kill” model for distributing resources, with tuition revenues, grants, and money brought in from “entrepreneurial” activities determining budget allocations. Under RCM, the central administration at Rutgers assesses a roughly 25% tax on each unit to pay for costs defined as shared. According to 2019 figures this includes 312 upper-level executives who cost Rutgers $63.5 million annually. As François Furstenberg points out in the Chronicle of Higher Education, administrative bloat has created a strata of managers with “little appreciation for transparency or inclusiveness,” who “make decisions behind closed doors and execute them from above.” And still we are expected to just carry on with our jobs.
Put another way, even when innovative humanities pedagogy succeeds and teachers provide care by creating an educational experience that is not simply transactional, this does not grant faculty members greater power over how the university is run, and what its priorities should be. After all, as historians focused on caregiving, the home, and reproductive labor have shown, caring is chronically undervalued and depreciated by the market, even while the service being delivered is feted as “essential.”
After our class in the Ecological Preserve, I met with my students one last time. A day later, on March 10, Rutgers announced that it would be suspending all in-person teaching due to the coronavirus outbreak. As of June 15, there have been 12,589 confirmed deaths from Covid-19 in New Jersey, the second highest number of any state except New York. Like many universities, Rutgers administration has acted unilaterally and without transparency as it decides whether fall courses will meet in person or occur remotely.
This is an essay about what it means to do radical history in the time of the coronavirus but, like many pieces that have been published in recent weeks, it is also an essay about how austerity measures in higher education will demand a different type of radical engagement. As already noted, care and personal attention are services that instructors have long endeavored to deliver. The provision of care has never been a burden distributed equally among teachers. Scholars have demonstrated that women and faculty of color are more likely to be enlisted and to volunteer when it comes to attending to the well-being of students, a concern that has become more pronounced since the election of Trump in 2016, and the hostility this engendered. Parallel to what happens with domestic and reproductive labor in the home, the work that goes into looking after students’ mental health and ensuring that they have adequate housing and enough to eat does not produce capital that the university awards when it comes to career advancement or fair compensation, as thousands of adjunct faculty could readily confirm.
What is different in the Covid-19 present is the ways in which the tensions between caring as pedagogical practice and caring as empty, neoliberal rhetoric, have been exposed. At Rutgers, the administration has predictably flooded the usual channels with language about the need to be empathetic during an unprecedented crisis. “Each of you has displayed patience and flexibility,” President Robert Barchi writes in a typical email message, “and your compassion for one another speaks volumes about the values we hold so dear and the generosity that defines the Rutgers community.” In this respect, Rutgers is not unlike Amazon, Target, or any other corporation that lavishes praise on the generous spirit of essential employees responding to Covid-19, while simultaneously denying these same workers the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), collective bargaining rights, healthcare, and paid sick leave. Since Rutgers operates hospitals in New Brunswick and Newark and provides healthcare to New Jersey’s prison population, this comparison holds even more water as there are immediate and practical forms of “compassion” that the university might dispense to its employees still laboring as essential workers. Instead, health care workers employed by the university have done their jobs without adequate PPE and likely lost their lives as a result.
Rutgers frequently resorts to rhetoric that emphasizes concern and care, while evading action in areas where it could make a tangible difference. This is a managerial tactic that it applies to any number of pressing social and political issues that affect the university. When nationwide protests followed George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin and the Minneapolis Police Department, for instance, the Rutgers-New Brunswick chancellor sent out an all-campus email stating that “While we may be separated from Minnesota geographically, this incident of violence touches us all and underscores the fundamental importance of the Rutgers’ vision for a world where we are all treated fairly and justly.” What utter posturing and bunk this is from a university whose police force regularly sends out crime alerts with racial descriptors, thereby conditioning students to view black and brown New Brunswick residents, and the neighborhoods they live in, with fear. What hypocritical nonsense this is from a university whose police force went out of its way to hand over an immigrant they had arrested to ICE.
At Rutgers, a coalition has been assembled to help coordinate the responses of the different unions that represent the more than 20,000 workers that the university employs – from maintenance and clerical workers to nurses who are part of the healthcare workforce. In May, the coalition rolled out a plan where full-time employers and union members would participate in a work-sharing program and be furloughed for the months of June and July. Through a combination of New Jersey unemployment insurance and the supplemental weekly $600 unemployment stipend that the federal CARES Act provides until the end of July, full-time employees would accept a reduction in their hours without seeing a reduction in their income. The proposal promised to save the university $100 million in wages that could then go toward preventing layoffs and salary freezes.
Rutgers administration agreed to a scaled back version of the work-sharing program that saved 450 jobs in the Division of Institutional Planning and Operations and at a campus Developmental Disabilities Center. At the same time, however, it declared a fiscal emergency, which now allows management to move forward with dismissals and pay freezes otherwise prohibited by union contracts. Whether or not Rutgers faces a fiscal emergency, as defined by the administration, will be contested by the union in arbitration in July and August. In the interim, management can fire workers and block raises.
It has been the coalition of unions at Rutgers who have been digging and scraping for creative and ethical ways to manage the Covid-19 crisis, not management. The work-sharing program was designed to collectively protect those who are at greatest risk. Race and gender are salient issues here. Layoffs will most drastically impact low-paid dining hall and custodial workers. Employees in these jobs are disproportionately women of color at Rutgers. When Rutgers does eventually return to some semblance of normal, on-campus life, laid-off workers have no guarantee that they will be rehired, and it is not cynical to suspect that this temporary austerity measure will result in permanent reductions to the workforce or the employment of non-unionized temporary labor, as is so often the case.
Rather than just endlessly harping on about the need to demonstrate compassion, the coalition of unions crunched the numbers and put a realistic proposal on the table that would deliver “care” in practical and material ways. In respect to teaching, even before a fiscal emergency was declared, Rutgers reduced the number of courses that Part-Time Lecturers (PTLs, or adjuncts) will be teaching by twenty percent for the fall semester. As the AAUP-AFT faculty union points out, the four million dollars that will be saved by laying off PTLs in the fall equals what the head football coach gets paid in a year. Another helpful comparison: the administration has spent close to two million dollars, or half of what they saved through PTL layoffs, to retain Jackson Lewis, a union-busting law firm that specializes in higher education cases. These comparative figures notwithstanding, because PTLs are paid so little – $5,500 per course on average at Rutgers – in the grand scheme of things the money that the administration is saving is minimal and its decision to layoff PTLs so quickly seems grounded mainly in a logic that amounts to: we did so because we could. None of this even accounts for the $583 million in unrestricted reserves that the university has at its disposal to prevent layoffs, which management has so far refused to access.
What teaching should mean during a global pandemic has been the topic of myriad think pieces. A recurring motif in a number of these essays has been how the current crisis highlights what is lost when the teaching of the humanities gets disrupted. University of Chicago philosopher Agnes Callard’s essay in the New Yorker was emblematic of this position, replete with pleas for why universities had an obligation to preserve humanities’ classrooms as the “innermost sanctums” of “cloistered gardens.” Among beleaguered faculty members in the humanities, it is unsurprising that Callard’s essay was met with derision. After all, without a basic income, healthcare, and protection from a highly contagious virus, the types of ontological reflections that Callard claims the humanities must provide in a time of crisis seem like a tall and absurd order. In our current circumstances, online classes do not pose the most immediate threat to vital humanistic learning; a highly contagious virus and the austerity measures that will follow does.
Rutgers and other places of higher learning were never cloistered gardens in the first place. Or, if they were, Rutgers’ garden was the type of garden where the NYPD put Muslims under surveillance, where undocumented students were forced to engage in a lengthy battle to win in-state tuition, and where pro-Trump white supremacist politics motivate a vocal minority. One of my last acts on campus before we all left was to inform Rutgers’ facilities management – for the second time this semester – that there was racist graffiti in the men’s room. When campus shut down two weeks later, the graffiti was still there. How can I convince students of color they are cared for when on a structural level, the university’s distribution of resources mean that understaffed facilities’ personnel cannot ensure that campus is a safe space?
At Rutgers, it seems that too many instructors, despite everything going on, subscribed to the mentality that learning must proceed at any cost. In the worst instances, instructors upped students’ workloads, strictly policed online attendance, and displayed an alarming lack of empathy. As faculty we should all ask: why enforce disciplinarian measures that stem from institutional prerogatives that are not ours?
The undergraduates I corresponded with shared disappointing, even depressing perspectives. One student noted that in the majority of their classes, “there was no asynchronous learning option, which meant either you ‘showed up’ to class and got the credit, or you didn’t and lowered your grade significantly.” Dealing with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic would have been stressful even in the most stable of conditions, but stability of any kind was certainly not the norm at Rutgers. A student employed by Rutgers as a residence assistant described the evacuation of Rutgers dorms and apartments as a harrowing experience for all involved, where undergraduates, armed only with rubber gloves, were required to knock on the doors of classmates and notify them to evacuate. Students have been conditioned by the corporatized university to view themselves as consumers of services and goods, and, accordingly, many lashed out over what they viewed as a breach of contract. “Some of my staff were met with anger,” my former student explained, since “residents did not want to leave a room for which they paid thousands of dollars.” Students face a daunting bureaucratic system – a hallmark of a Rutgers education in the best of times – to obtain refunds on housing, dining plans, and parking.
Although money was at stake, it was not the only issue. “We were also inundated with the fact that many students could not merely be evacuated,” my student who worked as a residence assistant noted. “Some students who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community did not feel comfortable returning to homes with homophobic families. International students, which Rutgers has a large population of specifically from China, could not fly back home. Other students did not feel safe returning to abusive homes.” Multiple students that I taught this semester contracted the virus, and others were forced to relocate when roommates or family members did, in attempts to isolate themselves from its spread. For some, to learn while moving from place to place was simply impossible. This does not even account for technological limitations, crowded homes, and other obstacles to instruction.
Here is where not caring seemed the radical and caring thing to do. I was clear with my students after it became apparent that all classes would move to remote learning that traditional modes of assessment were out of the window. I cut assignments. Attendance was no longer taken except so that I could check in on students who had vanished without notice.
In terms of the intellectual content we were engaging, I did rely on the “usable past” model that tends to inform most radical historians’ pedagogy and was already present in my syllabi before the pandemic hit. For instance, in my “Society and Thought in the American Past” course, I improvised lessons on nineteenth-century yellow fever and cholera outbreaks, and emphasized how enslaved persons and immigrants bore the brunt of public fear and anger for allegedly being the vectors of these infectious diseases. We examined the history of nineteenth-century mutual aid, and what people did when they found themselves confronting disability, unemployment, or financial costs related to the burial of loved ones, and how states and the federal government ultimately became involved in these processes. In my other course, “Monuments and Museums in American Culture,” we had truly fascinating discussions about what best practices for collecting and building archives related to Covid-19 might look like, and a couple of my students became involved in efforts at Rutgers to do just this. Earlier in the semester, before everything went online, we had read Stephen Vider’s groundbreaking essay in The Public Historian on curating the “AIDS at Home” exhibit that was on display at the City Museum of New York in 2017, and which focuses on how New Yorkers grappling with the loss of loved ones to AIDS transformed domestic spaces into sites of political activism that highlighted, among other points, public indifference to the crisis. With grieving on everyone’s minds and the behind-closed-doors nature of Covid-19’s death toll, this text resonated in powerful new ways.
But I was ultimately aware that even having any discussion about course materials was somehow a bonus. An opportunity for all of us to be productively distracted, as I often put it, because we happened to be a group who were mandated to gather online and play out the ritual of learning. We spent a fair amount of time kvetching about how fucked up everything was. This was cathartic too, and totally appropriate. Once everyone was ready, we returned our attention not only to course materials, but also to the institutional politics shaping and governing how students were experiencing the crisis.
Radical history insists that the teacher is a subject of the workplace and member of a collective body that must seek to assert control over the means of production if they wish to initiate meaningful change in regard to what is actually being produced. In this context, strategic forms of “not caring” about one’s job requirements can be powerful.
Moving forward, how we care or do not care, as instructors, will become even more strategic. Radical pedagogy will invariably require us to remind students that they need not simply be consumers of education, but that they can actively partake in determining what it is the university is producing. At Rutgers, there have been empowering signs that students are rallying to this point. Of course, it will be tenured faculty who have the most power to disrupt university proceedings and to not care when necessary – whether through grade strikes, off-subject teach-ins, or other acts of thoughtful sabotage – in order to stand in solidarity with PTLs, non-tenured faculty, and others who are most vulnerable to layoffs. That is a powerful history lesson we should not need to relearn every time there is a crisis, real or manufactured.
Andy Urban is an Associate Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is currently working on a book and series of public humanities projects that explore the history of Seabrook Farms, a frozen foods agribusiness and company town in southern New Jersey that recruited incarcerated Japanese Americans, guestworkers from the British West Indies, and European Displaced Persons and stateless Japanese Peruvians during the 1940s.