What Solidarity with Striking Workers at the University of Michigan is Building

This is a reposting of an article I wrote for Left Voice on April 29th

University of Michigan graduate students have been on strike for one month. While these workers have faced harsh conditions, the broad connections and class-consciousness they are developing are worth celebrating. 

This morning, I was stumbling around making coffee, checking the strike news on Twitter. It’s been about a month now since my graduate student instructor colleagues voted overwhelmingly to strike, facing down the legal and financial powerhouses at the University of Michigan. I only had to scroll for a second, then I just sorta had to sit down. 

There was a picture of about 20-30 people in a beer garden on a gray springy afternoon, fists raised and smiling. The message was from grad students, lecturers, and faculty from UC Santa-Cruz; they had held a fundraiser and were donating $600 to the University of Michigan grad student strike fund

I don’t know why this one touched me so deeply. Over 4,000 supporters have donated to the strike fund so far. Individual donations have ranged from a few bucks to amounts in the thousands. Scrolling through the list of donations, I found a math professor who wanted his students to know that they “have at least one person in solidarity in the math department” and a few of the non-unionized graduate student researchers who donated exactly what their union dues will be when the state of Michigan passes a bill that will make it legal again for grad research assistants to unionize. There were messages of solidarity from university staff, undergrads, lecturers, parents, and unions around the country. Lilly Wachowski (yes, that Lilly Wachowski) even donated. Maybe that’s why this handful of smiling faces hit me. They were just some folks doing what they do, but linking up and standing in support of others who need a hand.  

Strike funds are important because they help to satisfy the material needs of workers who have been cut off from their pay by their truculent capitalist bosses. Grad student instructors were already in financially precarious situations. Before negotiations began last fall, the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) chapter representing grad student instructors surveyed members and learned that most could not afford an unexpected $500 expenditure. 80 percent of graduate students at Michigan are rent burdened, which means they pay more than a third of their wages into rent. One in five had delayed medical treatment due to cost. 

So when the University administration did not pay graduate instructors who were on strike throughout April (and also docked pay, according to some reports, of instructors who actually did work), the strike fund became that much more important. What had previously been somewhat of an abstract cushion turned into a clear way to help make rent. 

But this morning, I’m thinking even beyond that, to the place where strikes reveal deep reserves of class consciousness and solidarity. We are drowning in messaging that speaks the language of capitalist realism, telling us that there is no alternative. We live in a competitive market, we are told, and people need to fend for themselves and their families. Organizing and dreaming of something else is naïve utopian dreaming. 

In the face of that dour worldview, I want to point to everything I’ve been seeing during the GEO strike because the last month has just dripped with solidarity and newly discovered connections across a wide spectrum of people. The community has rallied around the strikers to provide what it can. Local restaurants are providing food and coffee. The UAW auto worker local and the University medical campus nurses deliver pizza and home-made cookies. Every day, the community strike kitchen feeds crowds of striking workers, allies, and non-affiliated people who are hungry. There are dance parties during pickets that are so joyful that the millionaire lawyers on the University of Michigan Board of Regents huff about them like stodgy dads from Footloose.  

The class consciousness raised by the strike is palpable. Caroline Leland, a master’s student in public policy and environmental science who had never been involved in union work before but is currently serving as a departmental steward and negotiator, explained the evolution in her own thinking as she realized that “This strike is about more than just this one contract, it’s about workers everywhere getting paid a fair wage and feeling safe at work. What we win will set a precedent elsewhere. It feels amazing to be part of something so powerful.” Striking grads recognize that some of the construction workers who have picketed in solidarity are ambivalent about some of the items in GEO’s platform, but they picket just the same because they know the importance of labor solidarity. This kind of unconditional support between workers is providing an important lesson for graduate students, many of whom do not come from families or communities with deep union ties. 

Even the tenure-track faculty seems to be showing signs of growing class consciousness. After the administration pushed to get grades submitted on time by assigning alternative graders who had no connection to the course and students involved, the generally conservative faculty senate has been stirred to life and called the administration’s move “a violation of professional ethics” and “an infringement on academic freedom,” signaling a growing awareness that concerns of graduate instructors are shared by their tenure-track colleagues. In a reflection of this growing awareness, several departments have issued statements that they will withhold grades in solidarity with GEO. An un-unionized faculty, frustrated by the administration’s indifference to simple statements of condemnation, is beginning to see that the leverage they hold is as workers who can make a difference by withholding that labor. 

All of this is not to paint a pretty picture over the dire situation and the danger University of Michigan workers face at this moment. But during a strike, the connections between workers are laid bare and we learn that our strength lies together. 

For those of us from working-class backgrounds, this kind of community support is familiar and it’s something that we can share during these moments of crisis. When I was growing up in a blue collar Michigan town, my dad was constantly putting together spaghetti dinners to raise money for somebody’s medical bills. My mom and I shoveled and mowed halfway down the block because the elderly folks living in our neighborhood couldn’t do it themselves. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) hall and the dark little corner bar were — and still are — hubs both for people who had needs and people who had a bit of extra time to address others’ needs. It’s just what working people do because if we don’t hold each other up, then we all fall down. 

That’s what I’m thinking about today before the next public bargaining session begins. Certainly, the university administration will continue its aggressive assault on its workers. There will probably be repercussions for lecturers and tenure-line faculty who are grade striking in solidarity. There will be hardships and none of it was necessary. The University could have come to the table and agreed to pay its workers a living wage and assure them of safe and dignified working conditions. They didn’t do that. But the GEO strike is doing what people do: coming together and finding ways to be supportive of each other, respectful of diversity, and excited by the prospects of what we can build together. 

Inflation and student loan rates are creating unsustainable debt

This is a reposting of an article I wrote for The Michigan Daily in Sept 2022.


As someone who teaches classes for brand-new incoming students, the fall is an exciting time. I get to watch all these beautiful humans exploding into new things. There’s so much potential. As a first-generation student myself, I often find myself having conversations with other first-gen students. Sometimes those are amazing, as I get to watch new students gape at all the possibilities in front of them. But often there is a hefty batch of nervousness, particularly around the amount of debt required to come to Ann Arbor. These students can expect to finish undergrad with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and quickly-compounding interest on top. Nationally, the student debt burden worsens for first-generation students or those from lower/working-class  or racially minoritized families.

So I’m always worried about my students. But this year has been especially troubling for me, largely due to something we’re not hearing enough about: the relationship between measures used to target inflation and increasing student debt.

There’s no reason to go very deep into rampant inflation and the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes in response. That discussion is happening literally everywhere.

What we do need to talk more about is the fact that these solutions have saddled college students with a disproportionate share of the burden. That’s because, when the Fed raises interest rates to slow inflation, the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds goes up. Basically, these rates are what the government pays out to people who invest in it – the returns on American debt. For college students, this is important because, since 2013, student loan rates have been tied to treasury bond rates. The cost of student loans is linked to the cost of federal debt. But there’s one important thing to notice: student loans tack on another 2.05% on top of the treasury bond rate. That’s right. Here in America, we charge our kids more to borrow money for schools than the lender pays out when it borrows money. We expect to make some side cash from students going to school.

This disgusting price gouging is another example of the ways current financial policies push off the cost of unsustainable capitalist growth on future generations. Young people did not cause the current rates of inflation, but they will be harder hit in the short term by a recession in response to interest hikes. In the long run, they will also be worse off if they have to take on costlier loans on their own futures to stabilize the economy. Perhaps the most obscene thing is, when inflation eventually does go down, rates on treasury bonds will too. But student rates are locked in. Today’s students will pay high rates on the loans they take out this year, no matter what the economy looks like when they graduate. Something has to be done.

Of course, there are a lot of ways we could do better by college students. Eliminating student debt altogether while also moving forward to include college in our national promise of free universal public education would make the most sense. Re-instituting funding for public universities at levels that reduce the need for rapid yearly tuition hikes would likely help a bit.

But while we’re pushing the Biden administration and Congress to eliminate the unsustainable costs of education, we should support those arguments by pointing to concrete evidence of why current policies are designed to prey on students. The way rates are calculated and locked in are predatory.

I don’t want the government to make money off the amazing people I look forward to meeting every semester. I don’t want our excited conversations to drift into fear about how to pay back loans down the road. I don’t want to combat inflation on the backs of the next generation. And I certainly don’t want to continue the cycle of indebtedness that supports this whole broken system. We can do a lot better.

Pretty Vague Comments on Writing?

This semester, I’m teaching a mid-level academic writing course and I started out with a definition piece asking students to make an argument about a word. Common stuff, but a fun way to start a class. One student wrote about the historical moment where pretty started to be used as a diminutive kind of intensifier (“You’re pretty smart” isn’t exactly a real compliment, as she pointed out). It was a good paper.

But when writing feedback, I realized how often I use pretty and other words to slightly measure the force of the comments I put on student papers. Looking over a small batch of old drafts, I found pretty, fairly, quite, solid(ly), a little, incredibly, and somewhat. (I hope) I’m at least a little bit more substantial in my comments than this list might suggest, but I started thinking about students’ experiences of this broad class of modifiers. Looking over my comments, I can definitely see the connection between my use of This point is fairly well supported when you say . . . and the critique of holes in the analysis that follows. But if I were to point to just that sentence, would a student really know where on the continuum of writerly success I was plonking them?

I’m thinking that I need to look at some of the corpora of writing feedback that I know are out there, then I need to try to imagine a way to learn about how students read lines like these.

I mean . . . I need to write a dissertation and finish the article I’m working on and get a job and stuff like that. But I want to do this too.

Sales Pitch Medical News

6688082-3x2-340x227In the 6 minutes or so I was in the car this morning, listening to NPR, I caught the tail end of an advertisement for MMR vaccines and a full ad for 3D mammography. Both were only thinly disguised as news pieces. So I’m thinking about NPR and their relationship to the broader medical-industrial machine. For all the claims about being independent media, NPR is 29% funded by corporate sponsorships. It’s a little hard to nail down exactly who these sponsors are because of the way NPR reports funding, but I know that, for instance, they’re supported by the pharmaceutical and medical-technology giant Merck because they announce it between stories once in a while. They’re also funded by the Gates Foundation, which is tied up in medical technology development too.

So, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that medical pieces sound like commercials. But this piece extolling the benefits of 3D mammography seemed worth stopping to look at a bit more closely. It’s a rhetorical storm of positive valuation, working in at least 3 main ways. The first is the enumeration of general benefits (underlined in the sample below). The second is the statement of sentiment-based accolades from the patient’s case (in blue). The third is the specific reiteration that this process facilitates – and maybe even creates – an easy experience (in red). 

When Mary Hu, an administrator in communications with Yale School of Medicine, went to get a mammogram two years ago, she didn’t even know she was getting 3D mammography, also called digital breast tomosynthesis. But she’s glad that’s what she got.

I am really a walking advertisement for early detection through this advanced technology,” she says. Thanks to 3D mammography her doctors found a small, but malignant tumor in her breast. They discovered it at a very early stage.

My treatment was really as easy as it was because we caught it so, so early,” says Hu, who had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor. And because it was detected so early, she didn’t need chemotherapy. Her radiation was done in just three weeks and four days.

If you have to get breast cancer you should do it the way I did; it was small and it was early stage,” says Hu. Today, at 58, Hu remains cancer free.

These positive value statements accumulate together to convey a sense that, because of 3D mammography, which is consistently framed as “easy,” cancer itself was also “easy.” Throughout, the patient is happy, glad, thankful, and willing to advertise. This kind of mammography is presented as a process that isn’t just more thorough or accurate, it is explicitly sold as a truly bizarre commodity: a more preferable experience with cancer.

I wonder, though, if this piece has some similarities to genres of actual advertisements, specifically the more long-form narrative kind. It would be interesting to draw out this kind of analysis I’m doing, but across the whole piece. Other examples would include the praise that it’s easy to get this kind of mammogram because insurance covers it (though it also covers 2D), and the dance around the question of physical discomfort, which the article even manages to put a positive tone on: patients “hardly notice the difference between 2D and 3D” (which, of course, is a little funny considering how much the story leans on patients noticing the difference in other ways).

I wonder if a TV sales pitch would reveal similar choices. Lining up medical ads disguised as news pieces with explicit advertisements could really highlight the ways that even ostensibly non-corporate news does that work for (almost) free. Someday . . .

Performing White Monolingual Arguments

At Cs this year, I was fortunate enough to be on a panel with the amazing Norma Denae Dibrell, Sumyat Thu, and Sara P. Alvarez.

In my talk, I highlighted Emil, an old student and one of the participants in my longitudinal study of Spanish-English students moving from high school through college. In short, Emil has been writing some brilliant pieces of writing that artfully explain a position, then share information to substantiate his view. But, at least according to his professors, he’s not making arguments in the sort of linear claim-subclaim-evidence-warrant-connection-counterclaim form of broader academic argumentative genres.

I argue that such genre-centered feedback (and I’m well aware that the kind of argument his instructors are talking about is the muttiest of mutt genres) is a feature of what Asao Inoue calls a “white racial habitus.” Emil is being held to a narrow view of writing that doesn’t match with his own priorities for learning and sharing knowledge. And that’s some old bullshit.

Here on the other side of the talk, I’m thinking about how to take this work further. Is this about looking critically at ways that Emil’s instructors have perpetuated this white monolingual argument? Is it about highlighting the navigations Emil learned to make, finding little ways to take an end-run around this white racial habitus? Is it about thinking about learning to teach better? Or is it about looking at ways to radically restructure writing and education practices? I mean, it’s all of them. But where to go from here?