If You’re Reading This, There is a Shred of Freedom Left in the University

By Marika Josephson
(with thanks to Nicholas Guardiano)

I have to admit that I have a difficult time imagining what “academic freedom” means.

The topic of this issue of canon is drawn from the title of a recent conference, which set freedom against the corporatization of the university.  So one is to assume, I suppose, that corporatization is the opposite of freedom.  As things become more bureaucratic, where the idealism that leads the bureaucracy is the corporate entity, all of one’s endeavors are channeled to whatever the corporation stands for (oil, cheeseburgers, etc.).  The corporation acts like a good totalitarian institution, destroying freedom by crushing participation into working solely toward, well, cheeseburgers, for example.

But this seems a little naïve.  After all, the corporation is a capitalistic machine. So perhaps the thinking is that freedom is limited by the extent to which a corporation generates money.  As long as you generate money – even if you’re the anti-cheeseburger, the loudest, snarkiest, most authentic veggie burger eater that ever lived: the Slavoj Žižek of veggie burger eaters – you are an asset.  Once you stop generating money, you are expendable.  You are free to be a proponent of veggie burgers so long as people are, well, eating them up, so to speak.

But those are cheeseburgers and oil companies.  Who in the university do we suppose is or is not subjected to this bureaucracy of freedom?  The professors?  The graduate students?  The undergrads?  Who is the question of academic freedom aimed toward?  To get a real understanding of who feels free among these three categories across the country would take asking people from all three categories at every university across the country.  But I think that it’s noble that canon wants to hear from each department here at the New School for Social Research, and I’m happy to give my perspective as a graduate student in philosophy.  I certainly can’t speak for the professors or the undergrads, and I can’t speak for (all) of the other departments, but I can give you this miniscule window onto my own experience.

What is academic freedom for a graduate student in philosophy at the New School?  Let me tell you about a typical day in the life:

I wake up at 7 a.m., read the paper and drink my coffee.  I am free to read the paper in the morning because I get a discount from the New York Times, thanks to the New School.  I guess technically I’m not “free” to read the paper but rather “discount” to read the paper, but this is only a technicality.  And I do appreciate the discount, as paper prices have soared and I don’t get funding as a graduate student in philosophy here at the New School.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Like I said, I wake up at 7 a.m., read the paper, have coffee, and at about 9 a.m. I start my work day.  Now, that doesn’t mean that I put on my hard hat, grab my lunch box and head into town to teach my first undergraduate course.  Nope, the New School is unique among universities; I may not have aforementioned funding, but that just means I have the freedom to work outside of school for as long as I want, for every single year that I’m in graduate school.  And if I work just enough to make over $10,000 (which barely pays the rent), then I’m free to accept the fact that the reduction of my tuition will be denied.  But don’t worry – I’m free to contact financial services as many times as I want to try to get it back.  Yep, I’m free to keep e-mailing and keep calling and keep walking in, just as many times as I can possibly stand it.  Sometimes that interferes with my work day and I have to forfeit an hour or so of pay, but that’s okay, because I’m also free to take out as many student loans as I need to cover any lost work time I have from arguing with the bursar’s office.

I work until about 3 p.m., and then take the train to Union Square.  I walk up to the beautiful new building at 79 Fifth Avenue, and then I’m free to wait for the elevators.  And if the first one is too crowded, I’m free to wait for the second.  And if that one is too slow, or stuck on the 9th floor, I’m also free to wait for the third, and maybe the fourth.  In fact it seems the only thing we’re not free to do at the New School is take the stairs. At any rate, I continue to be free to wait for the elevators in one of two roped off lines (which both filter into the same waiting area!), but that’s okay because I’m free to cut off the girl next to me if it means I get to class five minutes late instead of ten.

From 4 to 6 p.m. I have a fantastic class with a fantastic professor, and I start to remember why I really do love the freedom the New School affords me.  It gives me the freedom to take classes with accomplished professors, and even take notes in class if I want to.  And, at the end of class, I’m free to schedule a fifteen-minute appointment with my professor during his office hours. What can a person accomplish in 15 minutes?, you might ask.  Not to worry, I am free to come in with a list of questions and fire them off as quickly as possible to get the greatest amount of brain stuff from my professors in the shortest time possible.  Sort of like HMOs, where one doctor is free to see sixty-five patients in half an hour, New School professors are like well-oiled machines of academic efficiency.  What’s your problem?  Descartes’s epistemology? HerearetheMeditationsinunder60seconds!

So, I get out of class at 6 p.m., but I need to go check a book out of the library.  And here I am free again!  I have the freedom to walk all the way down to that school down the street and use their library.  As much as I want!  You heard me, I have the freedom not to use the New School library – now how many schools give you that?  And if I do a search for a book and discover that it’s at Fogelman, I also have to freedom to walk all the way back up those 14 blocks to make sure it’s not in one of the hundreds of empty shelves before I exercise my freedom to put an order in to yank it out of storage.

At 8 p.m. I have another class and my professor exercises his freedom to keep us holed up in our classroom until 10:30, after which he feels free to ask us out for drinks.  But, alas, I must freely make the choice to go home instead, as the trains don’t run to Brooklyn quite so regularly after 9 p.m., and I still haven’t eaten dinner, and I’m free to wake up at 7 a.m. to start the process all over again and continue to make the only money that’s sustaining me and paying for all this freedom I’m getting as a graduate student at the New School.  You may not have noticed any study time in my day, but that’s just because my schedule isn’t so rigid that I have to study during the week.  No, I’m free to study on the weekends, and on the train to and from work and school, or while I’m waiting for a three-hour dental appointment with the student dental health clinic, which I am free to buy into, and is sponsored by that other school down the street, whom we’re free to patronize, thereby making ourselves more free, in the long run, to use their library and their facilities, as we have indirectly paid for all of them anyway.  This must be exactly the kind of freedom to concentrate on intellectual pursuits that the Greeks had way back in ancient Athens!

So, canon, I hope this helps.  Humbly, I report a day in the life of a graduate student in the Philosophy Department.  And I must say that if you can publish an essay like this then there really is the slightest glimmer of hope that we’ve preserved even a speck of authentic freedom at this university.

The truth is that so many independent scholars over decades and centuries have wrenched themselves away from the university to exercise as freely as possible their intellectual thought.  (Charles Sanders Peirce burned his chairs for firewood because of his difficulty in making a living.)  And is it any wonder?  Even those universities with the best intentions all fall victim to the same fate: they are bureaucratic nightmares that slowly become wrapped up in their own posterity and endowments.  I don’t want to say that the New School is better or worse than any other school, each has its own unique problems; but certainly the fact that so few graduate students get funding chains those students in a more perverse way, academically speaking, to the all-consuming responsibilities of full-time jobs while they’re studying, and to a lifetime of repaying student loans when it’s all over.  Pure physical exhaustion – even before arriving at school – keeps students from realizing their full intellectual potential and undermines the whole purpose of the university.  Take that academic freedom!  How does one even visualize it, when one is so far away true academics?  Real freedom is at least having a working library, so that fifty years from now our books aren’t still sitting in some warehouse across the Hudson (such is the utter death of intellectual life).  Once we’ve gotten that figured out, we graduate students at the New School can work on one of our other current freedoms, like the freedom to pay as much as other university students who get twice as many services, and, more importantly, who get the freedom of funding.

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Marika Josephson is $60,000 in debt and waited in a mob for ten minutes yesterday to use one of two working elevators at 79 Fifth Avenue.  At the suggestion of an anonymous professor at the New School, she advocates that students calculate the class time they lose by waiting for the elevators and subtract it from their annual tuition.