Summary: Tim shares his experiences of militant research with university workers and students, making disOrientation Guides, and the importance of starting from your own position for building solidarity. Reflecting on the Queen Mary Counter/mapping project and community-based cartography, he discusses the challenges of map-making collectively, as well as the benefits of the process for building a plane of commonality for struggles. Against the individualizing and recuperative functions of academia, he shares some thoughts on how we can better traverse the tensions our movements face across the boundaries of universities and communities.
Solidarity from Our Own Positions and Struggles: Militant Research across Laborers and Students
CW: Can you say a little about your background and how you came to be involved in organizing around universities?
Tim: I had been involved in organizing since high school, when I became part of a youth media collective that did a radio show and other stuff. We were thinking a lot about youth and age and ageism and the institution of school and the function of school. I had three friends who dropped out of high school to teach themselves because of that. I came into college with that. But it wasn’t until my Junior or Senior year of college that I started thinking more critically about the institution of the university itself as well. Maybe this was because the anti-war movement was so big in my first year of college that we got swept up into that—a moment when it was easy to play the traditional role of the student as being out on the forefront of politics but not questioning your own position. So, I started getting involved out of that with this group Student Action with Workers, a worker-solidarity group on campus, and some of it was with workers outside the university. One of our first actions was trying to get the university on the Mt. Olive Pickle boycott at the time. But we also started getting involved with other stuff. At that time, the union was trying to organize the cafeteria workers and there was already a housekeepers union that was active. That was when I started questioning my own role as a student and what my relationship to other people that were working on campus was—in big part because Liz and I and Maribel and Sebastian came together around the Counter Cartographies Collective (3Cs) and started to do these sort of militant research actions around that question. Another piece was that we were really frustrated with the model of activism that is so big in the university—of ‘your doing something on behalf of someone else’ or ‘going off to help other people in far off lands’—just trying to think what solidarity looked like and how that might be different.
CW: How did this rethinking of solidarity influence your and 3Cs’ approach to organizing on campus?
Tim: We started to realize that in order to be in solidarity with other folks on campus, we had to be in our own place on campus and understand what that was. To really start figuring out—how are we being influenced by the university, how are we being impacted, what is our struggle as graduate students—so that we can then bring that to the table and be in solidarity with folks in other struggles. That was a really big question, because we were so used to being taught that, as students, we were receiving a public good from the university, especially at a state university where tuition was relatively low, and that we were recipients of this gift and privileged folks. It was great to be working with grad students who were at a really different place around that—the money, jobs, and health care, etc.
CW: It’s interesting that you were able to form that cross-positional relationship between undergrads and grads. When you were doing that organizing, did you thematize this as cross-positional or are you seeing it retrospectively as such?
Tim: I think some of our questions were around ‘what is your labor as an graduate student, as an undergrad, as a professor, as an employee on campus, as someone on work study?’ So, we did thematize it in some ways, but maybe not so explicitly in the way you are talking about it, as ‘cross-positionality.’
CW: But you saw it as the substance of the militant research project you were doing—to research on what labor meant to different people in different positions on campus?
Tim: Yeah, all the different forms of labor that were happening on campus, and how they were related to each other, and how different subjectivities played into that.
Pictures of Labor Drift project (via a slide presentation from 3Cs)
CW: So, that was a drifting project, right?
Tim: Yeah, it started with a drift on Labor Day, and it bloomed into this larger cartography and research guide, which became the first disOrientation Guide project, eventually. We originally started with this idea of mapping the flows of capital and, then, mapping the day-to-day trajectories of labor on campus, thinking around those two different trajectories and temporalities. We later moved away from that sharp distinction, but that’s how it started. [For more analysis of the drifting project, see “Drifting through the Knowledge Machine.”]
CW: Was that your first exposure to a militant research kind of approach to organizing? And, since then, how has your understanding of militant research developed?
Tim: I think that was my first exposure to something called militant research. I had been, the summer before, to Argentina and spent some time with the movements of unemployed workers down there. In terms of doing theoretical production and alternative education as part of a radical organizing project, I think I learned a lot from that example. Since then, I have had the privilege of meeting a lot of folks doing militant research and learning from other movements in other places, and learning from Liz about the Italian history of militant co-research.
CW: So, you’ve decided to step away from academia and university organizing for a bit, right? What’s going on now with your relationship to academia? Do you feel that you’re involved with organizing that’s more outside the terrain of universities?
Tim: I’m giving up on being a grad student, for sure. But in the Triangle [the Research Triangle area in North Carolina] it would be really hard to do any kind of organizing that didn’t touch on universities in some kind of way. Still, a lot of the mapping work is around the relationship of UNC to the Northside and some other communities. Also, a lot of the contracts are related to professors or different working groups or organizations on campus. I guess, it’s sort of a different relationship now. I haven’t started building an analysis on how I want that to look. That’s a bigger challenge for us in 3Cs. The university is still there, we’re all still touching it in different ways but it’s more complicated.
CW: What is the composition of 3Cs now? Are some folks holding official academic positions while other are not? Have you tried to grapple with those different positions and the relations between them?
Tim: One member got his PhD and is looking for work and having a shit time of it on various one-year teaching contracts. Other folks who have graduated are on post-docs that pay sort of halfway enough money to live on, but are staying close to their family in order to make it happen. Some of us are still in school – three folks are doing field work, most of them with funding, which is awesome. And then, I’m working, but on campus every once in awhile. So, we want to do something about it, but it’s really hard—not being in the same space on a regular basis—to have those kinds of conversations, to figure out how to make it happen as a collective. We’ve had a couple of conversations, but in terms of doing something around that positionality, we haven’t done much.
CW: Has that been a big obstacle to 3Cs doing collective work together? What has 3Cs been up to lately? How do you collaborate across your different positions and geographic locations?
Tim: It’s been a huge obstacle. We haven’t really collaborated on anything lately—because the work that it takes to develop and maintain a collective analysis, to produce something collectively, is work that we have not been able to do without seeing each other in person. None of us have really made the time commitment to do it some other way. I don’t know if we will. I hope we will. We have been trying to see each other in person more, in little groups at least. But, it’s really hard to figure out how to move forward collectively when you’re not having those small day-to-day conversations that develop an analysis.
CW: Do you find that you and the other 3Cs folks are engaging more in your own projects individually while trying to spread counter-cartography practices to other people through your own projects?
Tim: Yeah, everyone has their own projects. And we keep each other up-to-date on that. I’m excited about the work other folks are doing. But it’s not so much a collective project of 3Cs.
The Queen Mary Counter/mapping Project: Teaching of and through the Practice of Making Maps
CW: I want to jump back to some of your counter-cartography projects. In interviewing folks, I’m asking how they use radical pedagogy in classes but I’m also interested in learning about how it’s used in non-classroom settings. So, how do you see radical pedagogy fitting with the militant research projects you’ve done? For example, in the Queen Mary counter/mapping project, in your thesis you speak of it as a teaching tool.
Tim: When you talk about radical pedagogy, are you talking about pedagogy that challenges the teacher/student relationship? How are you thinking about it?
CW: Yeah, that’s one way of thinking about it: the popular education sense of breaking down the hierarchy of teachers and students, and seeing students as bringing knowledge and their kinds of expertise to the learning situation, seeing everybody as a kind of co-learner and co-teacher. Another way you could think of ‘radicalness’ would be to think of using pedagogy for intentionally ‘radical’ purposes—anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, however you want to define ‘radical’ politics.
Tim: In the Queen Mary project, we developed that game and the idea was that both the map and the game could be used in a classroom setting as a teaching tool. A lot of the undergrads at Queen Mary were UK home students, so we were trying to bring folks to an understanding of what different experiences of immigration or borders were like, as well as having conversations about people’s own experiences.
“Countermapping QMary: finding your way through borders and filters. The map + board game tracks border policy, labor conditions on campus, resistance movements, and helps us re-orient ourselves within, against and beyond the filtering mechanisms of the modern British research university. All with rad techno-baroque stylings! This map was inspired by all those who resist the border, our experiences of education and our migrations from various locations on and off it.”
The other piece for me has been with this community mapping work; I’m still trying to figure out how to do radical pedagogy. We did this self-organized mapping class last fall, which was great. It was a mix of grad students, faculty, and some other activists. We did readings and skill-shares, looking at maps together and talking about them, and we tried to build maps together. It’s always hard for me to teach concrete practical skills about how to make a map using ArcGIS or something like that, that doesn’t re-enshrine the power dynamics around expert knowledge vs. lay knowledge (e.g., whether you can use the software or not). I’m still figuring out how to do that well.
CW: Do you feel the difficulty you face in trying to teach those specialized skills comes from the technology or from the lack of teaching tools—is there not a good enough how-to guide for learning these techniques?
Tim: I think that would help. But, it’s pretty easy to teach people a really specific skill, like ‘I’m going to teach you to make this one map this way,’ using a step-by-step, and you can come out knowing how to do this really basic chunk. But where I’m trying to get to with radical cartography is being able to be really creative and thoughtful about what you are doing, and to mix a lot of different approaches and make a map that is well-suited to the situation. It’s personally hard for me to trust that that will happen and set that aside, and say ‘today we’re just going to learn how to map block-level census data for one variable and do that really well, and you’re going to leave the classroom and that’s the only map you’re going to know how to make’—maintaining that tension of making people aware that there’s a lot of other options vs. teaching one option. A lot of the teaching materials that are out there are focused on really specific skills, and you do have to learn those in order to do it.
CW: Do you feel that learning how to be creative and thoughtful with these cartography techniques would require more long-term training? In your own learning of these skills, did it take you a long time to pick them up, and if so, do you feel that for more people to acquire that deep set of capacities, would we need more popular education centers around radical cartography?
Tim: Yeah, or a longer-term commitment from people. I think what works really well has been groups of folks with mixed skill levels. The Queen Mary project is a good example of that. Also, I advised with a project-based class that was looking at mapping different forms of energy in North Carolina this past semester. It was cool to see some people having more technical skills than other people, and then engaging in a conversation around collectively deciding what to do. There are some people in the room who know how to make it happen, and everyone else can be dreaming about it. Otherwise, what I’ve often found is, when it’s individual projects where individual folks don’t have a lot of technical skills, we can dream up this awesome project for them to do but then they have this wall around actually making it happen. Because it is a really steep learning curve, when you’re working with someone who has those skills you can pick up the skills along the way.
Struggling against the Individualizing Function of Academia and the Recuperation of Movements
CW: In your attempts to organize in and around universities, what do you feel are some of the biggest obstacles to building anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, anti-imperialist movements?
Tim: There was this conference recently, and we got coerced into being on a panel. I thought 3Cs and a few other activist groups were going to be on a panel together. And actually we found out, two days before the date, we were supposed to self-organize an info session. The professor who was intro-ing it was like, ‘we believe so strongly in autonomy that we’re giving these groups the autonomy to self-organize the session.’ This was our little bit of autonomy in the conference, but really they had given us no support and no guidelines. So, that was really frustrating. I think that speaks to questions about recuperation. One of the things we thought about is the individualizing function, particularly in grad school but in the university more generally. In the last five years it feels like it’s gotten stronger around entrepreneurship and individual-as-commodified-entrepreneur. That leads people to be defensive and cautious about entering into deeper relationships with other grad students, because it’s always like you want to guard whatever you’re bringing to the table. Whatever your stuff is outside the university is like your value in some ways—especially as community work becomes more valued within the university. That seemed like a big challenge. That coupled with how there’s so much less institutional support in the university right now. It’s harder to make time to do that kind of work, when everybody’s struggling to get all their classes done, write grants, etc.
CW: You mentioned recuperation—are there ways that you feel you’ve experienced pressures to have your work recuperated into normal, academic, careerist institutions, converting it into value for marketing yourself or other people?
Tim: Yeah, it’s definitely felt that way with my own work. One thing that happened was that the folks within the university got really excited with the Northside community mapping work, so it got good press from faculty and honor societies on campus (see Indy Citizen Award and this article on fighting studentification). And that was a weird experience—maybe not recuperation in the way we often think about it. I think if I had stayed for a Ph.D. it would have looked really different. There would have been a lot more pressure to do that. I’d like to think that there aren’t as many opportunities for recuperation with graduate level work or at Master’s level work, because it’s not sanctioned in the same way.
CW: Do you feel like your decision not to pursue a PhD was partly motivated by your not wanting to be co-opted into the academic ratrace?
Tim: I’d always felt used by a few folks in my department, in terms of recuperated work, especially because of their contacts with the administration. So, folks could turn around and get really excited about the work I’m doing, and I’m sure talk with other people about it on the one hand, and then still make really crappy decisions and not really support it. I think it was that sort of frustration of feeling that I could not really be myself in the university context anymore.
CW: I’d like to touch on a question about building radical, anti-capitalist relations between people in different positions, such as between advisers and advisees, between teachers and students in classrooms, between students and workers in coalitions. Jasper Bernes—a grad student at UC Berkeley, who was involved in the occupations out there—wrote a paper about that called “The Double Barricade and the Glass Floor.” He talks about what he calls the ‘glass floor’ between students in the capitalist reproduction process and workers who are in the capitalist production process, having their work exploited. He argues that in the event of the Wheeler Hall occupation at Berkeley, there were moments when that glass floor was shattered, and students could see their future as exploited workers and connect with workers who, likewise, could see students becoming them and feed off of the students’ sense of antagonism. This seemed like a powerful way to understand the potentials for anti-capitalist struggles at universities. There are so many points in the university where those kinds of connections could be made—student-worker coalitions, classrooms where there is often an exploited teacher at the front of the class of students who are becoming workers. So, I was wondering, when you talked about how your adviser was doing the opposite of fostering those ‘struggling together’ kinds of relationships—then, in contrast, in your own experiences, working as an undergrad with grad students in 3Cs or working in other student-worker coalitions, have you thought of any ways of fostering these relationships across reproduction and production?
Tim: Yeah, it makes me think, when I was an undergrad I did feel a lot more solidarity from faculty members, in terms of supporting the purpose of the organizing work that I and other folks were doing and helping us out. And vice-versa, one of the faculty at my school, when I was in Junior year, got attacked by the right-wing for when some kid had said some homophobic thing in class and she had called him out on it. We had organized as students to form a support committee and hold press conferences in support for her. It makes me think, with the faculty piece, folks have to feel supported in their struggle in order to do that. And it seems that the faculty on my campus feel under attack now, and it’s coming out in a lot of different ways, and they’re taking it out on the grad students. They feel like they have to justify, as faculty members, their own self-worth and the value of their own scholarship and they end up doing that by critiquing and attacking our work. Some of that seems to be a pretty important facet of when they’re can be effective relationships across positions—when folks are feeling like their needs are being met or can be validated.
The Art and Performance of Map-making: Elaborating a Plane of Commonality to Imagine and Act as if We Weren’t Capitalists
CW: I’d like to ask about how you and 3Cs have tried to integrate your counter-cartography work with radical organizing on campuses. In your thesis, you note a common theme of how maps build power by building commonality or making common cause. You have an example from the Queen Mary’s counter/mapping project; you say, “as an experiment in the use of counter-cartography, to elaborate a plane of commonality amongst group members ourselves but also in a space that has come to be, not just among individual institutions and projects, but also that of a movement.” (via Tim’s master’s thesis – download it here). In what ways do you think counter-cartographies could help build a plane of commonality for anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian movements? Do you have any particular strategies or tactics that you’d recommend for those movements that they could incorporate in their toolboxes?
Tim: I think there are two different angles to it. One is that counter-cartography can be a really good research tool in terms of answering some of these questions of: what are different subject positions, how do they relate to each other, what are the economic conditions of the university, what are the social conditions? From the point of view of figuring out how to build commonality, and by understanding our situation, the actual information that you can get through counter-mapping is useful for that. But, on the other hand, the process of it, and the ability to integrate different kinds of skills and creativity, particularly the artistic and performative aspects of theory production that maybe have been undervalued—I think that can be really powerful. That somehow maps and cartography occupy this place—I think along with performance and other kinds of documentary work that are sort of a middle-ground between theory production and day-to-day empirical fact—that’s a powerful place to be, because it allows those two realms to meet in some way.
CW: This makes me think of how in the academy, a certain kind of communication, linguistic communication, tends to be valorized so much more than visual communication. And yet, visual communication is really powerful in a lot of ways. Along these lines you say, in your thesis, “counter-cartography provides a tool for groups of human beings to orient themselves within and traverse a shared imaginary, the plane of the map. By destabilizing the chains of representation which bind Western state cartography to a particular conception of the real, counter-cartography takes seriously the ways in which the maps function in the register of what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘the virtual.’ … as a collective woven with solidarity that can analyze and intervene until shared visions become reality.” I wonder if you can talk a little more about how counter-cartography can create these imaginaries, or fantasies, of non-or-anti-capitalist spaces. How can these fantasies have performative effects of, on the one hand, destabilizing people’s desires for statist, capitalist fantasies and, on the other hand, constituting desires for alternatives?
Tim: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of militant research, too—putting into question our subject positions in capital and beginning to act as if they were different even if they aren’t. I think one of the powerful things about mapping is just that: you can make these sort of ‘what if’ maps, but then they become real on the plane of the map. Ideally, when it’s a mapping process that’s also linked with action, particularly with militant research, they also become real outside of the map as well. That’s the exciting and challenging part about doing counter-cartography.
Connecting Counter-mapping with Movement-building: Traversing the Boundaries of Struggles within and beyond Universities
CW: You talk about how, in the context of using these maps as part of militant research, they’re useful for opening up questions and lines of analysis and potential organizing. What are some obstacles that you’ve noted for those questions to be opened up and, also, for those potential lines of organizing to actually be followed through on? For example, with the Queen Mary’s or with the disOrientation Guides at UNC, what kinds of obstacles or limiting conditions did you face in moving toward actual organizing?
Tim: It’s just really hard to do the actual work, and it takes a lot of time. It’s disheartening for me, often, because we can make a map that’s really great and that puts forth this imaginary that we really believe in. But then, the degree to which that imaginary can play out in organizing is always so much smaller than the visions presented in the map. It’s like ‘building the structure of the new society’ is really hard, so that shouldn’t be disheartening. But sometimes that contrast can make me wonder if there’s any value to what we’re doing. Part of writing this thesis for me was looking back at this question of ‘what is the value of this work that we’ve been doing?’ And, in many ways, it’s not so much an external value, in terms of what happens to the maps outside of the collective, but a lot of it is the value of the process of mapping for a roomful of people. I’m really more interested in what kinds of things can happen in a roomful of people rather than large-scale kinds of change.
CW: Do you feel that, through having those transformative kinds of processes with a roomful of people, is it your aspiration that they will continue to do these kinds of projects with other rooms full of people?
Tim: Yeah, it’s like relational organizing, in a way—that does travel outward. But it’s hard to trace. It might not always look like the vision that we’re putting into the map. It’s been interesting with the disOrientation Guides; they keep on having impacts. Those came out around seven years ago, and the other day I met an undergrad who said, ‘I found one of these somewhere in a box and now it’s up on my wall.’ And I’m sure there are other people like that. There are also other groups, such as one working on rural conservation in the county where the University is, and they emailed us out of the blue and said, ‘we found this zine on the Carolina North development.’ I thought that zine was cool but it had basically gone nowhere. And they were like, ‘we found it so useful reading through it for thinking about how the University thinks about development.’ So, I guess there’s kind of a trust that that stuff eventually has some impact, but it tends to be when one or two people get really into it, and find some kind of motivation then to do work on their own.
CW: Have the 3Cs or you thought of or tried to build-in a kind of training process for the people who you work with, for them to go on and become initiators of these kinds of projects themselves?
Tim: We never framed it that way, but we have recently started doing more mapping and counter-mapping workshops, with the idea of exposing people to these ideas and also giving people concrete skills that they can take home and do something with. I think that’s had some impact. It’s really hard to figure out what a curriculum looks like for that.
CW: Have you been developing curricula for that?
Tim: We’ve got some different worksheets and step-by-step exercises around different mapping tasks or different Powerpoint presentations about counter-mapping. That was actually one of the goals of the seminar this past fall: one of our ideas was to come out at the end with a workshop that could then be brought out to folks outside of the University. But that didn’t end up happening because it was so close to the end of the semester and we all got busy with our own classes.
CW: One way that we who are involved in radical organizing could create alternative sorts of institutions to promote more radical teaching, research, and organizing approaches would be to have a network of people at different universities who get money from the universities through student groups or faculty connections and to have radical speaking tours.
Tim: Yeah, and to incorporate workshops into that too.
CW: Do you think that, if 3Cs got a grant, that you would be able to put together a workshop like that?
Tim: Yeah, probably. We’ve done bits and pieces of it before. And through the Public School in Durham I’ve tried teaching this mapping course. The cool thing to do would be to look at it in terms of: here we are, this collective that’s geographically dispersed, and can we do it in such a way that, rather than one person doing the tour, it’s actually different people in different places, and we could develop the curriculum together.
CW: That would be awesome. I think that you could get a grant for that, such as through the Institute for Anarchist Studies. The final big question I have is in consideration of how many aspiring radical academics either rise out of academia or are pushed out or forced out by not being able to find a job, or they try to cling on to it and get stuck in a kind of purgatory of permanent adjuncting and that precarious life. One person I’ve interviewed said that we shouldn’t subject ourselves to that kind of life, because when we do that we don’t have enough time or energy to continue doing radical organizing. So, instead of devoting our energy to clinging on, we should engage in alternative forms of organizing. But then the problem is: how do we create alternative institutions to support that kind of radical teaching, learning, and organizing? Can we make new forms of popular education centers—like the Highlander Center—more training centers? It’s an open question… For yourself, as someone who’s traversing the boundaries between universities and radical organizing outside of universities, do you have any thoughts on what sort of supporting institutions or practices could be helpful for that?
Tim: It seems that something like EXCO could be a useful way of approaching it. Combining different kinds of courses and trying to do the community organizing work to build engagement in it. We tried that with the Public School in Durham here for a while, and we haven’t really put the organizing piece into it that would make it more sustainable feeling. It does feel like that kind of work is always hard to sustain, to keep those spaces open.
CW: With the Public School, what sorts of obstacles did you face with that?
Tim: There were personality conflicts, and the kind of thing where people get really excited about it, but maybe what folks, particularly grad students, are actually looking for is social time. And so, the courses that were movie screenings were really popular. But, people would often come to just watch a movie and drink and hang out, which is great, but in terms of actually fulfilling a popular, radical education piece, that wasn’t necessarily what people were looking for.
CW: You mentioned EXCO, and I feel like there are a lot of these free skool attempts around North America, currently, and some of them have gotten close to developing a sustainable model, such as EXCO, the Santa Cruz Free Skool, and one in Vancouver. But, I don’t think that any of them have taken off in a notably effective, sustainable way yet. I feel like we’re missing something that could help them take off. Do you have any insights on that?
Tim: It makes me think that a lot of these do really model themselves after schools, with courses and curricula and you sign up for a course. The one thing that’s really hard about that is that school creates this separation between learning and teaching and everyday life. It seems like this kind of stuff is most sustainable when it links to other kinds of organizing as well. I can think of other kinds of study groups and radical education stuff happening in movements in North America. It seems that with these free skools, it’s often judged on how much it’s like an actual school, but the proposal isn’t necessarily to change people’s daily lives. If the proposal were that way, maybe there would be ways that it could feel more lasting. I think it is changing people’s daily lives, but if it was more explicit about that, so people recognize that, rather than judging it in comparison to whatever people know as institutionalized education.
CW: This reminds me of the IWW who are integrating popular education into their movement a lot more. This summer they’re doing a week-long popular education and training event called Work People’s College where they’re flying people in from all over the country.
Tim: My friend Alexis is doing this Indigo After-school program, which is these three sixth-grade girls who are friends but they wanted to have an after-school program to think through being a teenage girl in middle-school and about the changes that are happening in their lives. It seems like it’s been an amazing experience for all of them, and it seems like something that they were really wanting and needing in their lives then, and they’re also meeting their parents needs for childcare. One of the kids initiated it too.
CW: Giving young people space where they can make decisions about their lives, and giving them resources to do that: there’s a lot of potential there.