Spaces of a Student Strike

13 Mar

I have been wanting to write something about my experiences with and observations of the strike for a while now, but time and energy have been scarce resources.  There are many spatial elements that have played a role in how the strike has unfolded: the horizontal distribution of the campus downtown, the vertical distribution of classes in a multistory building, and the number, size and distribution of doors to a classroom have all contributed to how we’ve organized and sometimes contributed to our success or failure.

I observe and obsess over these little things on a day-to-day logistics level, but from wider tactical perspective there is one issue that is very problematic. It is tangled up in the nature of a student strike, the purpose of picket lines, the individual, education as a download… the question is, how many hours should I put into writing this article in order to get across all these things?  What should my central problem and main argument be? (Oh school, you were supposed to prepare me for this!)

As strike organizers in the geography and environment department, we made a commitment to ensure classes do not take place. We understood that student strikes are effective because the university relies on student labour to function, and that non-completion of a semester or failing an entire cohort of students would be an economic and administrative disaster. We felt these qualities made a student strike fundamentally different from a protest or demonstration.

Preventing classes from taking place was also important for the academic amnesty of students participating in the strike, who would presumably be re-investing class time into strike activities. It was clear that while we could not realistically prevent students from attending class, we could prevent the professors from entering. There were a variety of considerations that went into this decision. To some extent we were looking to protect the faculty from penalty. But ultimately: No professor, no class. Right?

Classroom space is a problematic measure of success in our case.  The professor and class can merely re-locate to another room, or push lecture into lab time. More commonly, the class has simply been pushed online.  Lecture slides are posted, readings assigned, and assignments are expected to be submitted by email or to the faculty mailboxes.  As one of my professors observed via e-mail, “Ironically, online spaces can be sites of resistance to all sides.”

How does one picket an online space? Clearly we can’t block the professor. We can’t block the students. All we can do is appeal to their sense of reason and convince them to withhold assignments.  There are some major hurdles to accomplishing this. One is information based; students may simply have no idea that submitting assignments might be undermining the strike effort in some way. Another is a tendency toward self-preservation.

As I am registered as both an Geog and Urbs student, I attended both GAs this week. At both of them the same amendment was proposed to clarify what the strike actions would include. Withholding assignments was part of this amendment, as well as blocking faculty and not attending class. Geography and environment students voted in the entire amendment.  Urban planning/studies students were split 50/50 on it, and as a compromise ended up removing the line about withholding assignments.   This was a big disappointment to me, because without some kind of statement about assignments it is difficult to ensure the strike will be successful. On a positive note, a motion to remove the line about blocking faculty was struck down almost unanimously.  But if the energy we spend in blocking classes is being wasted as classes move online, and there is nothing we can do to stop someone from handing in their work anyway… what is the point of a strike in the first place?

I would definitely appreciate feedback on these ideas, as I’m really struggling to figure out what is significant from these observations and which are dead ends. It’s also difficult to project your thoughts into a vacuum with no idea of how it is being received. So I thank you in advance for contributing to this discussion.

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