What I think about when I think about power

It’s my birthday so my girlfriend took me out to lunch. Over chocolate mousse I asked her what I should do as a 42 year old. Plans? Goals? Intentions? What?

Do you want to write a book?


What do you want to write about?

Oh man, the loaded question, the one I think about all the time these days. I had been scheduled to take a sabbatical last year, and had proposed a book project. As the summer drew to a close and contract negotiations headed toward the shoals, I decided to cancel my sabbatical. I thought I’d be needed on campus, that there would be plenty of work for me to do there in the union. That turned out to be more true than I could have imagined. I’m glad I was in the office and on campus last spring. But I guess I’d still like to write the book.

My current problem: How do I understand what I proposed back then in light of what I learned during the lockout? The proposal built on a few things I had been writing and talking about in the months leading up to the management action against us: How do standards and infrastructures build and distribute power? How do they shape the world we occupy, and how do they disappear from view? How can we talk less about the words on the page and more about how the page got here in the first place? I’ve written about this in terms of library cataloging and classification, but have become more interested in other forms of practice standards and the ways librarians work in, through, and against them to produce power for ourselves in our institutions. How do we use evidence of the value of academic libraries, for example, to make resource claims like new faculty lines, classrooms, and technologies, as well as a seat in the room where critical institutional decisions are made? Not that I don’t think academic libraries have value–of course they do! But more interesting to me are the ways that we have those conversations strategically in order to embed ourselves in structures of power. I believe that the assessment work I do on my campus strengthens and buttresses an administrative infrastructure that works in part to decrease faculty control over classrooms, transferring power to the managerial class. I also believe that participation in those infrastructures is necessary in order to gain access to power in the institution, power that can be used to shape things in all sorts of ways. Materially, this includes things like my salary, but also things like invitations to search committees and program review task forces, locations of power in the corporatizing university. If we aren’t there, we don’t get things. That’s something I believe, and it is in tension with my desire to resist things like the corporatization of the university. Like, I don’t like capitalism, but I do like eating Buffalo Wild Wings, so I eat there a lot, and wish the restaurant did not exist in a form that almost certainly includes wage theft on top of the horrors of factory chicken farming. Figuring out how to navigate those tensions–in the world, in my family, in the library–is what feels like my work in the world. I’d like to write a book about it.

And then the lockout happened. And those fantasies I had about participation in things like assessment and accreditation as strategies for preserving and building power for those of use who work in the library the library were pretty much snuffed out. I am accustomed to thinking about power as something that is in tension, that phrase that makes it possible to simultaneously critique the university and get a paycheck from it. But this was an encounter with a different kind of power, the brute kind, the kind that doesn’t care about the timely submission of reports or data that demonstrates the role of the library in student retention and graduation. Nope. This was the kind of power that fires you because it wants to and doesn’t owe anybody a reason. The lockout told me that power is not nuanced or subtle or operating in ways worth examining and articulating. Power does not care. Power will steamroll you when it sees fit. Articulating value as way of claiming power is a fantasy, and one that I was disabused of last September when the administration turned off my email and canceled my health insurance and stopped paying me because it wanted to fuck with my life.

So I want to write a book about power. I want to understand how the relations between self and structure build power. I want to understand how and why those brute forms of power emerge when they do, and how we can position ourselves to resist that brutality when it happens to us. Because it is happening to many of us, and will happen to many more of us, and the days we get through without those encounters are just lucky ones. I want to write a book about how to be ready.

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