- Scholar, Activist, Organizer:An Interview with Richard Moser
Richard Moser earned his PhD from Rutgers University in 1992. Until 1998, he was an associate professor of American history at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author of The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent during the Vietnam Era (1996) and, with Van Gosse, is coeditor of The World the Sixties Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America (2003).
Moser joined the national staff of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1998 and has devoted much of his energy to issues relating to the abuse and overuse of part-time, or contingent, faculty. His essay, "The New Academic Labor System, Corporatization, and the Renewal of Academic Citizenship," has appeared in numerous labor and professional publications. He staffs the AAUP's National Committee on Contingent Faculty and the Profession and was appointed the first chair of Campus Equity Week 2001. Moser's organizing work draws on over twenty-five years of experience as a grassroots activist in the peace, labor, and student movements, as well as on his work as a full-time community and labor organizer.
The interview was conducted by Eliza Jane Reilly of the Radical History Review editorial collective.
Eliza Jane Reilly: Let's talk a little bit about your background. Your current work as a national organizer with AAUP seems like a logical synthesis of several strands in your life—your career as a teacher, your scholarly interests, and your experience as [End Page 70] a political activist and organizer. Let's start with your scholarly interests and how they relate to your current role.
Richard Moser: Broadly, my scholarship has focused on popular consciousness in regard to politics—how meaning is constructed and reinvented, how identities and communities are created and evolve over time. These are all cultural questions one has to consider carefully if one is going to organize people around political issues. Organizing is first about creating communities of interest, then helping people to see how their needs overlap with those of others, and finally converting common interests into political ideas and actions. One really needs to bring a historical view to the task of understanding how meaning is created by specific communities and then to understand how best to act in order to pursue political ends.
You mean you really have to understand their needs and goals before encouraging them on to a new set of goals?
Yes, you have to start working with people where they are now, not where you might want them to be. It's one small step at a time. You can create very elegant systems by starting from scratch or elaborating on a theory, but you will never create lasting political value that way. That is to say, it will never be an "engaged" system. For me, politics means engagement more than ideology. So, while ideology is important, the ideas that get you started usually have to have a strong grounding in the existing politics of a community. Only then can you proceed to the more creative stage of organizing where "the community you get is the community you make." A lot of this approach comes from my time as a community organizer, years ago.
Could you locate that phase of your work in your CV?
In the mid-1970s, I was a community organizer with the Social Action Center, run out of the graduate school at the Rutgers University School of Social Work by one of my mentors, David Antebi. We organized block associations and tenants unions and an organization for the unemployed. I had been involved in activist politics before that, during the Vietnam War, and in small ways since grammar school. My interest in U.S. history goes back just as far. My grandparents lived in Madison, New Jersey, near Morristown, which is where the [American] Revolutionary army camped. Visits to Washington's headquarters were always a thrill. We also had a family heirloom, an officer's saber from my great-great-granduncle, who got off the boat from Ireland and fought in a New York State regiment during the Civil War. That was a meaningful icon...