Before I came to Columbia, I wrote on medieval love poetry. Now I write on power—and its detractors.
You will think that this shift in my research interests is rather standard for the contemporary university. There is a cliché about American institutions of higher education—especially about the humanities—that they produce chronically unemployable left-leaning intellectuals intricately versed in the ravages of imperialism and the commodity fetish. Like most generalizations and clichés, there is some truth in the burden of anecdotal proof.
I have begun to think, however, that the change in my research interests has to do with the nature of the institution itself and not with the content of my coursework. It is true that I took one seminar on Marx and another—required for my degree program—that happened to be about radical politics. For the most part, I took the courses required by my home department of Italian—19 in all for the master’s degree. Spread across four semesters, these were courses on medieval and Renaissance Italian texts, Mediterranean studies, modern Italian literature, history, cinema, and culture. Such courses are meant to be foundations in the broad and ill-defined field of Italian studies. In a department with only a handful of full-time professors, I had little choice in my selection.
I admit that I had a rather dim and romantic understanding of graduate school upon arrival. It is also fair to say that by the time I started, my enthusiasm for the questions that had occupied me as an undergraduate had already waned. I naively thought that graduate school would be a time to explore new interests and further develop existing ones. Given the array of courses that a university like Columbia offers, I assumed I would have access to them.
I did not. Not at first, at least. In my first semester, fall 2015, I took five courses in Italian toward my M.Phil. and one outside the department toward the requirements of my degree certificate in comparative literature and society. I was exhausted by October and left wondering, like many peers in my department, if this was really what I had signed up for—15 sedentary hours of seminars a week and a mountain of readings and assignments I couldn’t keep up with. I fell further and further behind in one course; in another, the instructor took offense at my tendency to laugh, convinced that I was trying to undermine their professorial authority. In yet another, the professor joked that I had taken up a position of opposition when I took the seat across from her at the seminar table. Beyond these unsatisfying and slightly baffling encounters with faculty, my schedule did not permit me much “down time” to assimilate—to make friends and get used to living in a new city. I went home at the end of the day to the Columbia-owned apartment I shared with other graduate students who were just as stressed and depleted as I was. We had no common living area. One roommate prepared her meals ahead in plastic to-go trays and ate them at her desk in her room—a threshold I never crossed.
A young friend of mine died from the complications of a surgery in late September, and my mental health began to deteriorate. Depressed and unmotivated, I failed a course that first semester. It was the course I had fallen behind in, and I bombed the final exam. I remember a call over winter break with a faculty member who assured me that my F was not the catastrophe it seemed to be. In fact, the professor who had failed me had done me a favor: I could take the course when it was offered again.
My academic career was off to a roaring start.
It was clear that other students in my cohort felt the same way I did. We did not have time to do our coursework justice. And we certainly had no time to attend to our well-being, to which our professors paid the requisite lip service. Meanwhile, we had produced extensive written work in the form of seminar papers in December and, barring a few exceptions, had not received any feedback. Our hours of labor channeled into a void. Did the work actually matter? If it was a test, what was it a test of? Endurance? Patience? Stamina?
One day in late January 2016, a few of us exchanged our usual after-class laments and decided to act on them. We wanted to speak with other students before raising our concerns with faculty. Our main concern was the heavy course load—the highest, we believed, in the University. When I got home, I sent an email to all graduate students in the department with the few points we had agreed on and a suggestion that we meet to discuss the issues further.
When I went to class the next day, the fifth floor of Hamilton was taut with anxious expectancy. My email had been leaked. Even now, I am not sure who leaked it. I have my suspicions. It doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that my email had fallen into the hands of faculty, and my peers were worried about the fallout. The tone, in particular, had been too strong, friends said. “Dear commilitoni,” I had written. The Italian word for comrades, which I had looked up online in honor of the occasion. In my ignorance, I had not considered commilitone’s primary meaning of “comrade in arms.” To my great misfortune, it was in this latter sense that the word had been used by Mussolini’s young, militant Fascists.
In the meantime, I received a few grateful replies, saying yes, these were real issues and they ought to be discussed. The next week, following an invitation from our graduate council representatives, all but a few of the department’s graduate students met and began to draft a letter to faculty.
Two weeks later, I received a summons to the office of the director of graduate studies, who announced that the department had decided to put me on probation on academic grounds. My performance the previous semester had been unsatisfactory, the DGS said, and the faculty was worried that I was incapable of fulfilling my responsibilities. The letter announcing my probation stipulated the conditions of my ongoing participation in the degree program. If I did not meet them, I would be asked to leave the program that May. According to the department’s more precise calculations, if I had a cumulative GPA lower than a 3.0, I would, by the new standards, flunk out.
Meanwhile, faculty made remarks that seemed to have little to do with my academic performance. According to one, I was arrogant and lacked deference to authority. Since I liked to be a “bad girl,” I remember another saying, wouldn’t it be fun to get thrown out? I was proud, they told me, and didn’t know what was best for me, let alone for anyone else.
I went to the dean, hoping to find support and clarity. I said that something had gone terribly wrong in my department, and my probation was incommensurate with the lone F on my transcript. I had, after all, received A’s and A-’s in four other courses. There was nothing he could do, he said. The department had its reasons. He advised me to return to my studies and prove myself.
I did. I survived the spring semester.
When a serious traffic accident left me shaken that summer, I pondered what I wanted from my degree, what I would be going back to school for. I decided to try to change departments, start over. Back on campus the following fall, things seemed to be in place for the switch. I took courses in the new department and participated in its events; Italian took me off its spring teaching rota. Then, just before winter break, the professor responsible for admitting me to the new department announced that there had been a mistake. I would be a liability to the department’s reputation, he said. I glumly returned to Italian, my tail between my legs, to speed my way through more courses. Between the F and the intended transfer, I had fallen further behind.
The hostility continued, albeit in a more subdued manner. One instructor, mistaking another student’s negative course feedback for my own, said I had ruined her life. Despite glowing student reviews and positive teaching assessments, my request to teach a higher level of Italian in my fourth year was rejected. The professor responsible for the decision cited grave concern about my competence. She had heard, she said, very worrisome things. I had never contributed to the department Dropbox of teaching materials, for instance, nor attended events held by the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning—activities normally considered voluntary. I went to the administration to ask for a reevaluation of the situation. I was told that the department was in the best position to determine my language proficiency and pedagogical training needs.
In my third year, though, I had an epiphany. In a visiting professor’s course, I read—years behind Columbia undergraduates—Foucault’s famous essay “The Subject and Power.” Power does not exist, Foucault tells us, nor is it merely “a relationship between partners, individual or collective; it is a way in which certain actions modify others.” It may involve consent or violence, but does not have to. Power is the fiber and texture of the institutions and relations in which we live, “integrated into a disparate field of possibilities brought to bear upon permanent structures.” Importantly, it is an exchange that involves more than one party. As Foucault writes,
“… A power relationship can only be articulated on the basis of two elements which are each indispensable if it is really to be a power relationship: that ‘the other’ (the one over whom power is exercised) be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts; and that, faced with a relationship of power, a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up.”
It takes two to tango, in other words. Power, as my professor said, circulates. And power isn’t blunt force but moves instead in mysterious ways: “it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely.” Because power also acts on possibility, it engenders, dictates, or forecloses potential action. As Foucault argues, we would do well to think of power in terms of government, of the way that one entity governs the actions of others, or tries to.
So I did, parsing his text with my own taste of power. The decisions my department made first and the decisions the administration made after were impersonal to a degree. Still, they implied a relationship of power in which I, the weaker party, could be labeled insubordinate. I was one of the governed and my actions were deemed governable, subject to the ad hoc rules that were of the government’s making. The email I wrote as a naïve first-year doctoral student had threatened something. And I had been forced to submit. I had complied, with, as one professor observed, a hint of respect in her voice, a “stiff upper lip.”
Reading Foucault, I also learned to think about power’s many dimensions. Faculty members occupy a different, higher place in the ladder of the University, but they still report to an administrative entity beyond themselves, which places them under stringent enrollment and performance demands in exchange for funding. The realization that they are part of their own power dyad allowed me to see what had transpired more generously. It freed me.
In the years since my Foucauldian revelation, I have come to wonder about the merits and gaps in the French thinker’s notion of power. But it remains with me as a forceful tool for thinking about my life and the lives of others within an institution deeply marked by relations of power, accompanied by both acts of violence and a lack of consent. Embedded in my dissertation, too, I like to think, are insights from my purgatory. I write about individuals who turned their critical attention to systems of power and to themselves.
In 2016, when graduate students voted to unionize for the first time, I joined them in voting “yes.” I had learned the extent of our precarity. Not only were we poor, overworked, and neglected by the departments that had recruited us, our positions were more fragile than many realized. A union with a good contract, while no cure-all, at least offered the prospect of the neutral grievance and arbitration procedures that are a standard in most workplaces. And while I never filed a complaint about what had happened (I wouldn’t have known where to file one), I doubt my case would have made it very far if I had: I had no proof of the ad hominem comments that had been addressed to me mostly behind closed doors. And I had no way to link my email—which had never been officially shared with faculty—to my probation. I had, they would say, failed a course. It was an academic matter. But was it? From where I sat, hunched over my work in the library, it was a problem of institutional culture.
In February 2018, I signed a collective statement of women graduate workers about why we were organizing a strike. It highlighted the lack of protection Columbia offered its graduate students “from chronic sexual and racial harassment and discrimination.” I knew, like my fellow signees, that “the culture of silence and terror that descends on anyone who dares attach her name to an accusation” was our hard reality and that “the avenues of redress that the University prescribes as the appropriate means of resolution” were insufficient. I knew this because my experience had taught me that the University’s structure is designed to protect those who govern. I, with the others, was “tired of being without recourse at the mercy of administrators whose first priority is protecting the institution.” I have also been, like so many around the world, a survivor of sexual discrimination, harrassment, and assault. These are everyday realities. I trust my colleagues and their Columbia horror stories. I have never trusted my paternalistic employer to have my best interests at heart.
In April 2018, I went on strike. This semester I cannot strike because I am not teaching. But you can find me with my fellow undergraduate and graduate workers on the picket line. We have no desire to destroy the institution in which we teach and study. We only want it to be livable for ourselves and for posterity.
Enjoy leafing through our sixth issue!