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The Point: No Austerity for Grief


Greetings, Colleagues,

Remember early April?  Me neither, not much anyway.

But I do remember reading a remarkable piece of writing published by the novelist Arundhati Roy, called "The Pandemic is a Portal." In this cri de coeur the writer urged us all to think like historians and also to think like utopian visionaries as we confronted this tear in our social fabric.  What if, instead of trying to power through, business-as-usual style, we took the opportunity offered by this moment of rupture to “rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves”:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Have we done a good job of imagining another world?

Well, as our NTT colleagues who wrote The Point last week make clear, our administration has not been so ready to put down the old baggage.  Instead, our official campus approach to the dual pandemics of our moment has been stopgap at best, characterized by the usual bureaucratic smokescreens and the (re)creation of familiar regimes of enervating and activism-blunting busy-work; at worst, our official campus response has been marked by the cruel logic of austerity. Mass layoffs, late reappointments, rising course caps (particularly for vulnerable students in gateway classes), all powerfully undercut the efforts being made by so many on campus to transform UMB into an antiracist and health-promoting institution.  But with a new chancellor now at the helm there is reason to have hope for a dramatic course-correction.

That said, it is important to remember that real change will have to come from the grassroots--from our students, from staff on campus, and from our own efforts to acknowledge and address what we are really facing this coming term.  It is clear that our ability to walk through Arundhati Roy’s portal will only come if we root our practice in the real world of outrageous loss and immeasurable grief we are operating in.  We have lost so much since we “went remote” in March and it bodes ill for fall term if we do not develop healthy protocols for working through the material and affective crises together.  

Tough talk from administrators about “upping our teaching game” this fall is exactly what we do not need. (Every time they talk about “work from home” remind them that what we are really doing is “living at work.”) While it is outside the expertise of many of us to develop a fully-articulated set of “trauma-informed” practices for our campus work, that does not mean we should ignore the sage guidance of  experts such as neuroscientist  Mays Imad who have been sharing some basic principles. This advice includes such encouragements as building on existing student strengths and emphasizing mutuality, while also being vigilant in considering “how racialized communities may experience trauma more severely” as a result of “intergenerational traumas and ongoing oppression and marginalization.” As is always the case, we must focus on the needs of individual students but it is also crucial that we think—and talk, and write—about how systems of oppression reproduce themselves.

It has been inspiring to find examples of colleagues, on campus and elsewhere, who have been rising to the challenges of the moment. I think, just for instance, of Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin writing in May about her experience teaching African American literature during the pandemic, and how gratifying it was to read her report of students operating as “global citizens...capable of imagining a more just future.”  More recently, Professor Cathy Davidson has offered up a set of provocations about teaching this fall that urges us to start not “with Zoom, not with Plexiglass, but with the disruption of our lives.” To move “beyond trauma,” Davidson writes, and get to a place “of agency, confidence, control, community care, activism, and contribution” we will have to consider and act upon matters of “access in all its dimensions”: technological, intellectual, personal, financial, medical, educational.”

Individual efforts can only get us so far: that is why we are a union!  It is incumbent upon all of us to figure out how to work together to fulfill a simple program for the coming semester, as articulated by Kevin McClure in an article on faculty burnout: “minimize harm and do the most to contribute to individual and community wellbeing.”  As McClure writes, anything “that doesn’t achieve these aims should be on the chopping block.” (I mean: do we all need to do AFRs this year when so many of us will be looking for the drop-down menu in the research section that just says “LOL”?)

This is your union: please tell us at how you are thinking about your workload, your students’ overall health, and the relationship between what should be central to our work and what should be put on the “chopping block.”


Jeffrey Melnick

Graduate Program Director, American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

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