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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 239-248

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Historians at Work

2.5 Cheers for Bridging the Gap between Activism and the Academy; Or, Stay and Fight

Jesse Lemisch

On April 5-6, 2002, Columbia University graduate students presented a conference on "History of Activism, History as Activism." The conference was very successful, drawing about three hundred registrants. It consisted of some two dozen panels and sessions on a wide range of topics, including the following: "Anarchy and Socialism"; "Archiving Activism"; "The Transnational 1960s"; "Environmental Activism"; "Perils of Publishing and Alternative Media"; a screening of Occupation (a video concerning the Harvard Living Wage protests); "Politics of Sexuality"; "Accessing Healthcare"; "Nationalisms and Resistance"; "Academia and Activism: Can We Bridge the Gap? Historians as Activists"; "Mobilizations—Motivations and Means"; "Campus Organizing"; "Women's Movements, Movement Women"; "Unconventional Activisms"; "Radical Teaching"; "Art As Activism"; "Fatal Women, Feminist Futures, and the Past That Would Have Been." (The full program is available at The speakers were mostly graduate students from a variety of places, but they also included such faculty from Columbia and outside as Eric Foner, David Rosner, Victoria de Grazia, Gary Okihiro (Columbia), Temma Kaplan, Nancy Hewitt (Rutgers), Linda Gordon (NYU), Catherine Clinton (The Citadel), and myself. Plans are afoot to publish papers from this year's conference and to plan another one for 2003.

The conference was not sponsored by or officially connected with the Columbia [End Page 239] teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants (RAs) union, Graduate Student Employees United (GSEU), and the program included some antiunion students. Ironically, union activists were too busy, they were at a crucial stage of organizing, to give the conference much attention, although some participated. However, the conference took place in a context that I think had been largely produced by union activism at Columbia, which is part of a larger movement at many universities across the country, including Yale, Brown, the University of Minnesota, Michigan State, Cornell, NYU, Tufts, and elsewhere. (On March 29, 2002, a radical history conference at the University of Minnesota surprised its organizers—and university administrators—by drawing two hundred people.) Many history graduate students are active in GSEU.

Less than three weeks before the conference, Columbia research and teaching assistants had voted on whether to be represented by GSEU, which seeks higher stipends, better health care, a grievance procedure, and workload guidelines. 1 Although union poll watchers believe that they won, the ballots were impounded. Columbia, using the prestigious union-busting law firm Proskauer Rose (see below), which NYU had used earlier and unsuccessfully, had appealed an earlier National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision classifying TAs and RAs at private universities as employees. Columbia stakes its hopes on the possibility that the January 2002 addition of two management-friendly Bush recess appointees to the NLRB will reverse the earlier decision.

This is the context in which the conference took place. On April 29, three weeks after the conference, GSEU staged a one-day strike. Unionized clerical workers joined the picket line, where the cry was, "Count the Votes!" A large inflated rat floated over the 116th Street main entrance to Columbia, as it often does in union pickets elsewhere in New York City. As of this writing, the outcome is unresolved. If, to its shame, Columbia holds out, I hope the rat will take up long-term residence there.


We're all here because we're in favor of bridging the gap between activism and the academy, and we're hearing lots of good ideas here about how to do it. But far less frequently considered among leftists and other dissenters are the .5 reasons not to build that bridge, or at least not to make this our primary goal. I'll get to those. But first, a few words in favor of gap bridging, at a time when this campus, among others, is the site of some of the most important union organizing going on in this country, which I fully support.

Being an activist is a necessary...


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pp. 239-248
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Archived 2004
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