Below is an amazing open-letter written by Jamiey Kelly, a fellow striker in the Philosophy Dept:
Dear Professor, I am writing you to express my concern that I will not be able to complete and submit my assignments for your class. Indeed, I could quickly study and assemble both, but a measure of excellence or precision would surely be missing. More so, while generating this work which would inevitably be insufficient, I will have to abandon the important work and participation that has been constant up until this point. In a way, I am stuck between generating poor work that doesn’t reflect my ability plus I would have to pull back as a lead organizer. I would suggest finding some other way to secure the credit for this course, such as equalizing the grades I have received thus far in your course. This request is simply an attempt to find another way to, at least, demonstrate my commitment and to reason through the potential claims against this position. Below I hope to outline my understanding of the issues. I believe that I can show why engaged students should not be penalized for missing these assignments.
Claim 1: Academic success, as a personal project, is less valuable than justice.
I have heard the sentiment, from a number of supportive professors, that if we care for this issue we should be willing to abandon this small academic success in favour of social justice. Certainly a reduced or failed grade is a small price to pay when cashing a cheque from one’s moral convictions. At face value, and respecting an intuition about distributive justice, this seems to be true. As a person of advantage and privilege, I can reasonably sacrifice some grades, even a semester perhaps, for those less fortunate who after me will accrue almost double the amount of debt. The idea here is that we can’t have our cake and eat it too.
However, academic success creates opportunities to work towards future justice. There is a legitimate fear that a black mark on one’s transcript will reduce a student’s capacity to continue working on important issues related to social justice in various fields, namely a future career as an academic if one decides to pursue it. This point is as significant for the critical geographer or the dancer as it is for the philosopher, and even more so gripping for those with seminar grades hanging in the balance, as these grades most strongly dictate future opportunities for undergraduates.
Students have been placed in a position to choose between academic excellence and moral excellence, and this problem points to a malaise in the classroom and within society in general about interpersonal care and individual goals of securing capital and privilege over one another. Must I choose between my moral convictions or my future functionings? It is clear that we need to question this rigidity within academia, the dull and impractical expectation that students must go through all the regular motions despite the real pragmatic concerns that prevent this from normally occurring. We need to also consider the genuine ends to which academia aims: are we exercising critical thinking skills only insofar as they apply to ourselves, or do we plan on shaping our shared environments, expressing our reasonable outrage at injustice when it occurs and posing those critical questions which carefully consider the intrusion of dangerous politics into existing institutions? Should we not challenge the very fundamentals of systems that perpetuate injustice?
Claim 2: A lack of temperance may be at play.
Perhaps one could argue that we have invested too much in the strike, its organization and its execution. In this frame, our imbalance and immoderate level of activity reflect imprudence rather than commitment, moral flaw rather than moral excellence.
I believe that only the more abstract or foolish normative moral theories, such as deontological or egoist propositions, subtract praxis from the equation of a good morality. With what conscience can a moral philosopher not plug into a popular movement about justice, even if to constantly object and detract from poor judgments and unsteady arguments?
It is worth noting that moderation is difficult to properly attain given the specific circumstances at Concordia. A great number of students have chosen to continue their coursework in spite of the democratically decided decisions of both the student union and a variety of student associations who voted in favour of a student strike. It is the lack of solidarity that has created the condition by which some students have followed the paradigm of business-as-usual, whereas those in solidarity with their peers suffer without even that benefit of knowing that they are all in a similar predicament. Those attending class have, through their inaction, participated in augmenting the already difficult moral dilemma about desert that instructors face.
Furthermore, those actively engaged in the strike are fulfilling the moral duties of both those students going to class and those who ride for free, and thus work two or three-fold to establish a base for the movement. This is to say that the polarity in participation would be less exaggerated if everyone acted on their support, worked to make their voices heard and engaged fully in the process, but this has sadly not the case.
Claim 3: Acting out is a choice. Acting out is construed as a choice whereas following existing protocol to the letter is not seen as an act equally deserving of criticism. I have heard detractors call the strike immature, irresponsible and childish. Dismissing student outrage as excitability or rambunctiousness seems inappropriate. This is so simply because following norms is not mature or rational unless these norms exist for good reasons. For example, sitting through a racist or sexist lecture would be incorrigible, even if leaving it fails to satisfy conventions about good manners or etiquette.
As well, assent to injustice should not be mistakenly viewed as somehow more respectable or decent than mistaken or inappropriate revolt against something to which we should in fact agree. Each instance of moral quandary requires unique judgments, and assuming that the status quo is, by virtue of its dominance, more adequate or appropriate to dictate the right course of action smacks of conservatism. It seems to me that the difference between a good rule and mindless protocol is their respective abilities to respond to the occasional test and demonstrate exactly how they were necessary in the first place.
Claim 4: Misfortune is a result of poor choices.
Involvement in the strike is something that I mindfully decided on; I was not constrained, pressured or forced to make this decision. I knew the potential consequences, I acted with a clear mind and I knew that letters of this sort would need to be later drafted and negotiated. This is a good example of pure, poor option luck. Without a doubt, I knew that active engagement in this issue would not make up for any poor grade I would receive in this or any other course, and so a risk was being taken. I recognize that my participation in this strike has been a choice of my own, however I also see it as seated within the greater context of my personal academic interests of social justice, ethics and feminism.
In spite of making the choice and being responsible for these actions, how can students prove that they deserve remuneration? Well, there are some instances of poor option luck can be easily compensated. Kristin Voigt’s work on the harshness objection comes to mind, in that remuneration is sometimes simple and requires little or no opportunity costs. Indeed, only the professor knows the costs that they are willing to endure, as well as the extent to which they want to or must follow university protocol. As well, a solution seems possible through prioritarianism regarding remuneration and allows a more appropriate response to those in a situation of poor option luck. According to Richard Arneson, “one ought as a matter of justice to aid the unfortunate, and the more badly off someone is, the more urgent is the moral imperative to aid”.
To forget or pretend that students in their final year of university are not already in such a position or privilege or advantage would be daft. Yet it seems like this is the moral impetus by which students on strike are engaging. We identify that the next generation of students coming out of high school will pay almost double what we pay now. More so, by contextualizing all those students who have come before and will come after those striking, we can see that striking students do seem to occupy an unique position among our peers, past and future, in that we are disadvantaged and should be accommodated more so than others. Indeed, this is exactly the position that French universities have taken respecting students and they have provisions in this regard that English universities are missing. Most disturbing in the Concordia context is the threat of failure or academic penalties for disobedience. These threats are a powerful tool of subordination in this instance, and work against all that students and allies have been fighting for over these past few weeks.
This isn’t to say though that professors have not already been acting in this regard over the past few weeks, but extending due dates or eliminating readings is not the furthest extent to which instructors can modify their syllabi, nor is it the extent to which they can negotiate individually with each student given their particular circumstance.
Some professors have expressed that this would be unfair. However, to offer all students the exact same options only make sense if all students are experiencing the same conditions and encountering the same struggles. Equality is important in achieving justice, but it is similarly important that we avoid erasing difference in this quest. Our differences should not be marginalised in the interest of uniformity and streamlining of the process of justice. There may be a dilemma in awarding passing grades to those who have not done required course work; however this requires that the instructor conceives of the missing course work as simply incomplete, errant or irresponsibly abandoned. None of these conditions properly applies to the extenuating circumstances resulting from the strike, especially if an instructor can identify the ways in which their regular semesters have been interrupted, or at least punctuated, by the strike.
One final word on egalitarianism: one could conceive of the ways in which this situation could rapidly be transformed into one of brute luck. The barriers that stand between students and a post-secondary education will conceivably become an insurmountable obstacle for some. It seems that the hikes represent a political act which betrays a commitment to fairness, even if we consider some of the less developed and nuanced egalitarian stances concerning simple resource or welfare distribution. In this government’s warm embrace of neo-liberal reasoning, it abandons a commitment to equalizing opportunities. From this, I reason that we should all attempt to the best of our abilities to support and encourage one another, as well as undermine and foil the methods and “better practices” of organizations (such as the university) and government bodies alike which inhibit these broader goals of fairness.
Claim 5: There are many problems with the movement.
These need to be identified and further discussed, such as the narrow understanding of accessibility, who is already excluded, the theme of nationalism at play, the many beach bums that have ridden the coattails of academic clemency, the movement’s short-sightedness in previous negotiations, its often questionable rhetoric, and the efficacy of constant disruptions that it has come to represent. These issues no doubt need to be addressed, but the problems of accessibility and distributive justice still underpin the movement, and essentially power it towards its goal of fairer and more accessible education.
Regarding the above, I am certainly not asking for a handout but rather a reconceptualised understanding of how this cause is the perfect stage on which moral convictions and academic rigour unfold, and this deserves identification and acknowledgment. If you can be convinced of this, then surely the only work to be done is establishing the extent to which I have been involved in the process of general assemblies, picket lines, letter writing, participating in direct action and composing long-winded, labour-intensive blog and moodle posts similar in nature to this letter.
I will be posting this as an open letter, to aid my peers in their attempts at similar ends and to challenge those who fail to support us. We want to rescue both our academic projects and our system of accessible education. What a horrible moral dilemma, choosing between the two.
Jamiey Kelly Undergraduate in Philosophy at Concordia University, 2012