The following is an excerpt from Letters: The classroom is burning, let’s dream about a School of Improper Education by KUNCI Study Forum & Collective (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020), published with permission of Ugly Duckling Presse.
Subject: A failed academia
Hey Murni and Thothokkerot,
Remember the postdoctoral fellowship I told you about the other day? I failed to get it. Again. I received a rejection letter from the university last week. I agree that what I need might be a little bit of luck. But I have my own theory about this:
I may have constructed a strong Curriculum Vitae with a relatively long list of written works and creative activities such as exhibitions and research residencies. But instead of regarding it as a valuable aspect of my intellectual profile, I was perceived as someone who has too many research interests. Someone who has too many research interests means he or she is not linear. Non-linearity means something that is not arranged in a straight line. Mine was definitely deemed too curvy, or too wild.
Exploration and creativity can be perceived as conditions that lack depth.
I am rejected because I haven’t been nurtured by the university long enough. My coming of age as an intellectual has been molded not by the university per se, but rather by an independent system and self-taught attitude — study club, artists collectives, and nongkrong (hang out) with artists and activists.
I’m quite disappointed, it is as if I have to prove myself again and again in discomforting ways whenever I’m writing an application letter. There is an endless judgement of one’s capacity. I’m struggling with the unspoken competitive culture in universities, and as usual it is only with you both I feel like I’m allowed to show my vulnerabilities.
How are you guys doing? It’s still warm here. I need to brush up my swimming skills this year, like a proper prepper. Doomsday is near.
Subject: Re: A failed academia
Hi Sul, hi Thot!
Sulastri, my commiseration to hear about the rejection. I hope you’ve allowed yourself to eat a redemptive sweet dessert (the carrot cake on your Instagram looks delicious!).
How do you feel now, Sul? I’m sure you’ll need time to process everything, but do you find you still have a prospect to work in the university? What I mean by prospect here is not just the chance of being accepted in a university. But how actually does the prospect of being a university lecturer help to form our critical and political subjectivization in the age of neoliberal capitalism? Hehehe. I beg your pardon for being an old grumpy SJW, speaking as an art school drop out here!
I do believe teaching can be a form of activism, but how resourceful — or on the contrary, how limiting — is the university when it comes to practicing education as social transformation in our context? What’s actually your plan, if you’re ever accepted in the university? What kind of intervention can you think of? I want to know your thoughts on this. Maybe by dismantling your expectation of the university, we can think differently about your “failure” to get the job.
I remember our colleague Stefano Harney, who talks (and practices) educational intervention in the “underground of the university” (you remember this from his excellent dialogical book with Fred Moten, The Undercommons), aiming to disseminate knowledge produced within the classroom beyond its walls.
And here we are, outside the walls — not waiting for the univer- sity to disseminate its knowledge to us, right? On your “theory” of being rejected, I agree we’ve never been totally nurtured by the university, and to add to that, aren’t we kind of proud of it? Being a university lecturer is just a tool to reach a bigger trans- formative aim. If we ain’t got the tool, then we have to look, or even build another tool. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. We could not even possess the master’s tools!
Can we dream of building a new house with what we have? What kinds of pedagogical models, tools, and ecosystems have nurtured us to be critical, how do they sustain (or do they even sustain?)? Let’s think and dream about what we can do together outside the walls of the classroom. Maybe then, we can break those walls from the outside?
Subject: Re: A failed academia
dear s and m,
two important movements have emerged in universitas gadjah mada, yogyakarta, recently. one is gejayan memanggil, considered by many as part of the biggest student protest after reformasi. the other one is the #kitaagni9 movement, which is a student protest and campaign as a reaction against the inaction of ugm in dealing with sexual harassment in the university.
the gejayan memanggil started as a discussion club consisting of students from different departments called “kultur” — it reminds me of the various study groups that emerged during the nkk-bkk policy. you were part of one of the study groups during your time at ugm, no, sulastri? those kinds of groups that take place after class sessions because students were dissatisfied with the uninspiring lecturers.
the nkk-bkk policy was cancelled so many years ago, after reformasi. but i found it interesting that students still find the need to organize a study group outside of the classroom.
higher education is being commercialized. students are now obliged to finish their study in 5 years maximum. is campus life successfully becoming “normalized” and depoliticized? (i’m distracted as i remember our friend from the philosophy department anto labil who “finally” graduated after 17 years in the uni, haha — and now he’s happily living his life becoming an eel farmer in wonosari).
the reality of post-reformasi leads the country to the continuous polarization of diverging political views, religious radicalisation, gender and sexuality-based oppression, and formal and informal censorship of the media. these have engendered a mixture of feelings, which should encourage us to reflect on our position.
what can a university lecturer do to perform educational intervention in the university? i would say they should stop teaching and start building a space and make time to learn and unlearn together.
can we create a new initiative which serves as a public learning platform? it seems appropriate to articulate what we feel in the development of a school. in defining our initiative as a school, how can we use it as an avenue through which we can practice unlearning, and more importantly to turn the unknown into a series of productive tools for understanding the contemporary social ecosystem and articulating the resourcefulness of interdependent subjectivities?
this reminds me of a book that we read together at the Rabbit Hole Theory reading club a few years ago. ranciere’s book on joseph jacotot, the ignorant schoolmaster. i’m currently re-reading it as i’m thinking about it in the context of art education. art education should be more imaginative! it’s interesting when ranciere explored (in the last chapter) the fact that jacotot’s experiment was being tried out as an educational policy on a bigger scale as a reformist agenda in louvain (in a military school!!) by the netherlands monarch. obviously, it didn’t work out well.
ranciere writes: “jacotot was a master, not the head of the institution.” (p.102). his “universal teaching” method is as simple as to announce: one can teach what one doesn’t know and everyone is of equal intelligence. a poor and ignorant parent can thus begin educating their children. jacotot’s method is the poor’s method, and it cannot, and will not, work in a spoiled system of school, party, government, or any kind of institution. but although it is the poor’s method, it is not the method of the poor — everyone from any social rank can use it but ranciere emphasizes that they cannot institute it.
i’m sorry that you didn’t get the job that you want, s. I agree with murni, the failure to get that not-so-good-job-anyway hints at a chance to do something else altogether. I’m on board if we’re serious in making new ways of schooling!
and yeah, this might be the right time to believe in the tajikistani proverb, “you can only eat a chicken once; but that chicken lays hundreds of eggs.” perhaps it’s a good sign to move forward and think about what teaching actually means, and whether there is still a form of radical school that we can practice together outside of the conventional process of institutionalization?
i’m attaching a screenshot of one of gejayan memanggil’s protest posters. the wording is telling: empty the classroom, go to the streets, we’ll meet at gejayan!