The Mundanity of Activism: University of California Graduate Students

For the Classical Theory course that incoming graduate students in our department take, David S. Meyer includes an article by Daniel F. Chambliss called “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers.

Most of the folks in my cohort were perplexed when we read it.

“Maybe it’s for methodological theory, or something?”

“I don’t know, I was thinking he’s trying to appeal to the Inequality people?”

It turned out Professor Meyer was offering advice on academia, generally. Excellence is about persistence and consistent work, not natural ability. He was also, perhaps inadvertently, offering insight to those of us studying Social Movements. That social change doesn’t happen the way popular culture often portrays it, with a dramatic turn of the tides in public opinion or political positioning. Social change and even the smallest gains activists achieve happen with persistence and consistent… and constant… work. Change can appear mundane, and small, and moot, but especially in the U.S. where the system is designed for only the slowest of change, small gains are all activists can get most of the time.

University of California graduate students belong to the United Auto Workers union, chapter 2865. Contract negotiations officially began in the Fall of 2013, and ended in the Fall 2014, but the UAW’s preparation for this tedious process began well before 2013. In the Fall of 2012, during the annual recruitment drive, organizers from the union gathered to begin strategizing for the negotiations. The first task was this tedious membership drive, that included talking to new graduate students at the orientation meetings. Talking to graduate students who had very interest in unions, and were sometimes antagonist, despite that the UAW was the only source of leverage they would ever have within the UC system. It is exhausting, often disheartening, and just one of the mundane tasks that is vital to union organizing.

TA Strike

The folks involved in the UAW’s more bureaucratic side are also activists who participate in grassroots protests. We often conceptualize movements as containing mutually exclusive professionalized organizations that use institutional processes for change and organizations that use extra-institutional tactics, more disruptive protest forms that can challenge the bureaucratic status quo. Although some organizations, in name and structure, choose one tactical repertoire or the other, the activists actually doing the work don’t usually function this way. Activists often move from one organization to another, or work with multiple organizations simultaneously, or engage in activity without any organizational affiliation. I interview activists involved in animal advocacy for my dissertation work, and many of them identify themselves purist ideologically, but moderate in practice. Part of that “moderation in practice” is dealing with institutions, dealing with compromise, dealing with people with whom you would never want to interact normally, and dealing with getting only the smallest of gains.

The UAW made small gains for graduate students in the new contract. By small I don’t mean that graduate students’ lives weren’t made easier by the new concessions, like increased children’s subsidies and increased wages. By small I mean that graduate students say they need more to be able to do research on par with Research I universities without going into crippling debt or going beyond the normal time to completion. The UAW is proclaiming this contract as a huge victory, as they should, but the mundane work of membership drives and negotiations and meetings must move on.

Several months after this victory, about two weeks before this post, the School of Social Sciences at UCI sent an email notification to 23 graduate students in their 6th year of their programs, including Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, and Cognitive Science. Their funding would be cut off as of this Spring, including tuition costs, healthcare, and any other form of financial assistance that came from the School. Later, the administration told students that, in fact, no one would be funded beyond their 5th year at all, despite 6 years being widely considered as the normal time to completion.

Faculty members in the Social Sciences were just as surprised as the students, and many of them just as angry. Some departments rallied their funds and will stave off the immediate effects of the cut off for some students in the Spring, but some graduate students think more is needed. Mobilizing graduate students might be needed to address the underlying administrative problems that led to this sudden and, possibly, devastating cut off. It might be needed to pressure the administration to be more vigilant about protecting the graduate students who are integral to undergraduate education, the main source of income for Social Sciences. Protecting what graduate students in the University of California already have requires more “mundane” work by the UAW. This isn’t unique to graduate students, but is true for any social movement constituency.

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Filed under Daily Disruption, Student Activism in Social Movements

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