Like Robin Kelley, I was very much taken with the phrase “to be in but not of” when I first read it in 2008 while a graduate student. The vision that Fred Moten and Stefano Harney provide of “a subversive intellectual in the modern university” is compelling and attractive. I would never have thought to deny that the university was a place of refuge, nor accepted that it was a place of enlightenment. Once a month, a deposit appeared in my bank account, the bulk of which I immediately signed over to my landlord, and this surely had something to do with the university. But the classes that I taught—the intellectual and personal relationships that I built with my students—felt like they belonged in a different space: that community had so little to do with the university, as little as I could manage. I wrote the syllabus alone, prepared for class alone, laid the groundwork for discussion alone. Then we built a fragile, temporary intellectual community together.
These days I am no longer in the university, but—after years of trying and failing to find academic employment—I find myself still of it. The university no longer pays my rent; it is not a place of refuge. But I remain sustained and animated by the communities that academia opened up for me. I would not describe the university in the archaic phrases we have inherited from centuries of hierarchically minded professional intellectuals; I would not call it a place of “enlightenment.” But neither can I take its refuge for granted, as I could when I thought I was on the path to a professorship. I was not: I had to steal what I could on my way out the door.
In the years since 2008, many of my graduate student colleagues have followed our students in leaving the university. Most of my generation of academics—we who went on the job market after it crashed—have faced a different reality than the generations of academics before us. Like our students, whose four-year tenure in the university was always going to be brief and fleeting, my generation is not in danger of mistaking the university for a refuge. Instead we know it as a vocation stripped of its profession, a devalued form of labor that we must nevertheless struggle to do.
I would not presume to instruct Robin Kelley on how to be in the university. But if I were still an instructor of record, I also would not presume to instruct my students on how to protest the university, or how to leave it. If there is one thing professors with lifetime employment lack authority on, it is the world their students inhabit, in which the university is simply a brief interlude. I had to leave the university to understand that.
By the same token, when Moten, Harney, and Kelley caution us against recognizing the university’s legitimacy—against becoming invested in its regimes of professionalization—I don’t think it is students who need to be convinced that its institutional power over our lives is illusory. For one thing, this is because it is not: the institution has tremendous and very real power over students, and if professors are in danger of acting on behalf of the institution—of mistaking its identity for their own—students tend to understand their place in this machine with much more clarity. Theirs is the exploited labor that makes the university operate; theirs is the debt that funds professorial salaries and endowment; theirs is the place that must soon be vacated to make room for fresher meat.
When the president of Mount St. Mary’s University instructed the faculty not to think of their students as “cuddly bunnies”—but rather to be willing “to drown the bunnies,” and “put a Glock to their heads”—I suspect more professors than students were shocked. It has not, in my experience, been students who misrecognize their structural relationship with the university, or mistake it for a home. And when student protesters organize to demand ways to survive in bureaucratic, transitional spaces—when they turn traumatic structural negations into a collective cry to be recognized—what they are not doing is demanding love, study, or struggle. They are practicing it.