A Cog in the Machine

The following anonymous article is published in solidarity with people whose jobs are increasingly threatened by a system that values capital over educators. Though the author is not associated with this journal, Practicing Anthropology is publishing this piece because we believe it to be important and interesting to our readers. We respect the author’s request to remain anonymous.

I am a cog in the higher education machine. I have no illusions about my value to the institution. The institution sees me as disposable, replaceable, and secondary to their economic interests.

Between the time I started graduate school and emerged with a PhD, I knew that I would be lucky to find a job in academia. I entered a graduate program to become an anthropologist, a professor in a declining job market for a disappeared job transformed by neoliberal priorities. As a graduate student I taught at a state university. I got a postdoc at a small liberal arts college. At the end of the two year postdoc I had to (got to) choose between a visiting assistant professor position at a state college, or a lecturer position at a polytechnic institute. I chose the lecturer position because I wanted to put down roots.

“Lecturer” can mean vastly different working conditions at different institutions. The lecturer position I accepted was similar to tenure track positions in many ways- there were research and service components in addition to teaching, and the teaching load was similar to tenure track loads elsewhere. I had more teaching and fewer publication requirements (and time for research) than my tenure track colleagues, but this position more closely resembled that career than the contingent adjunct path. The contracts were several years, and I was advised by those who had been renewed for many contract cycles that the job was more or less stable.

I wanted to join an academic community where I could see my students and advisees through their entire college career. I wanted to start research programs to connect my students with the broader community. A community-engaged research process that refuses extractivist methods and aims to participate usefully and learn with, from, and for communities takes time. Time is necessary to get to know people and organizations in the community, build relationships, show up and participate regularly. I chose this job because I thought I would have that time, and more of an opportunity to make an intervention at a university famous for training engineers. In my time here I’ve learned these students want to create changes for a more equitable world, and with their developing technical expertise and creative problem solving, I was enthusiastic about contributing a solid grounding in ethnographic research methods that dislodge local lived experiences from assumptions; a background in social processes informing environmental sustainability; the history connecting colonialism with capitalist development ideologies and practices; and an understanding about experiences of environmental racism and the fight for environmental justice.

And so while I don’t have any illusions about my value to the institution, I have a strong commitment to teaching. Teaching is the thing I do, and maybe “teacher” has become the thing I am. I read about how difficult it is to find a job in academia, and the suggestions of employable, marketable skills we may have. Now more than ever it will be hard to find a job, maybe impossible. Colleges and universities are not weathering the pandemic. But I am a teacher, and it seems that I might be of more use as a teacher than anything else- particularly right now when it is imperative to educate youth about how systemic oppression has been established and continues to expand under ideological veils.

I am a cog in the machine of higher education. But perhaps a cog in the machine is a useful way to reimagine higher education.

Cogs make the machine run.

A cog makes a machine run by transferring motion through engagement with other cogs and mechanisms. A cog is defined as subordinate but integral.

I want to reimagine the subordinate part of that definition with a question:
Subordinate to what?

If the answer is being subordinate to the greater collective learning community, I will proudly claim my position as a cog.

If I am to be subordinate to a hierarchy of business-minded bureaucrats who focus on profit for the advantage of the few at the expense of the many, then I will rally against that position.

A cog or gear is interactive. A cog accomplishes its task through a relational process.
This process changes the direction, speed, and force of the machine.
Imagine replacing the idea of competitive individuals.

In academia we compete for funding, for publications, and for prestige.

Replace the individual scholar-teacher ideal with the practice of being one member of a community.

  • A community centered around learning.
  • A community that actively practices care for students.
  • A supportive community where teachers and students learn together and challenge each other.
  • A community supported by a caring and necessary administrative staff who keep the community moving smoothly.

I am reimagining what it means to be a cog. The transformation from individual to
collective, community, more-than-individual has meant that I let go of control and trust other people to guide me, I trust them to act with different skill sets, from different experiences and perspectives. The joining together of our experiences, perspectives, skills, limitations, plans, and goals creates something more powerful than what any individual is capable of. I give up the illusion of control to participate in a collective and remember that benefit for my community (human and extra-human) is benefit for me. We are relational and we do not act in a void.

We can reimagine higher education, as we are reimagining so much right now.
Established institutions based in extractive colonial-capitalist models are not sustainable. There is nothing left to extract, and in this moment the exploited are pushing back and fighting to topple oppressive systems. We are reimagining and creating our social systems to meet community needs rather than the demands of the exclusionary authority.

We can expand our conceptions and practices of care. We can practice care for strangers as we have for loved ones. This expanded sense of care extends to the extra-human world too, and in this sense care is an integral aspect of sustainability.
We might imagine moving away from some ideas about resilience. We don’t necessarily want resilience in the sense of being able to bounce back- we need to move away from oppressive, destructive systems and create new processes. This may mean innovating, it may mean digging back into practices of the past, and it will definitely mean learning from ways of life oppressed by the mainstream global capitalist system. Local specifics matter- there will be multiple paths to follow and ways to create care.

As cogs, we have power collectively to change the direction of the machine.

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