When I was five, my father taught me the meaning of work. “Don’t be blue collar,” he said tugging desperately at the thick collar of his mechanic’s work shirt. “Be white collar. Blue collar means you work with your hands.” My father’s hands seemed big and thick and were often riddled with black car grease from his work. In his halted English, his lessons on work and class for me as a five-year-old made him seem hysterical. I realize now his desperation resulted in hoping for a different life and work for me.
My father immigrated from South Korea in the early 1970s. He was among the first groups of Korean immigrants allowed into the U.S. after the 1965 Immigration Act. As an adult, I asked him about his immigration experience and he told me there was a commercial on television where the ambassador to the U.S. told Koreans to come to America as mechanics and laborers. I always imagined a white guy with an American flag top hat dancing and singing, “Koreans, come work with your hands.”
America was most likely not in the cards for my father given immigration was a new phenomenon and he could not immigrate through the professional class. Though my father was not from a wealthy family, he managed to be accepted into a top Korean university — Ivy League equivalents: Seoul National University, Yonsei University, and Koryo, or Korea University where my father attended. He told me his ambitions were to be a politician and to enter law school. When the law program declined his application, he became a Western history major instead.
However, he would gamble on immigrating to the U.S. after his graduation, lying on the application that he had mechanical experience, which he didn’t. Instead of gears and motors, his knowledge included the British monarchy and the history of Western colonialism. When we were born, he would name my sister and me after Princess Caroline and Princess Margaret respectively.
In the U.S., my father became what the application intended; he was an auto mechanic and I knew him as a mechanic throughout my childhood. Though I didn’t understand class even after that fateful day he sat me down to teach me what “blue collar” meant by way of his hands, I witnessed the suffering he experienced on the job.
Once, he hurt his back at the Long Beach shipyard doing menial labor. I remember waking up at night and driving with my mother to pick up my father. I may have been five or six, and the late night near the Southern California harbor made the atmosphere feel thick, pitch black, and menacing as if it would swallow you whole. It was unusual to pick up my father and to drive so late at night. When we picked him up and drove home, he lay in the back of the car howling in immense pain. From work, he had hurt his back badly, enough later to go on disability. He was unable to work in the shipyards again. In the car, I remember my father, with his tall frame, seemed like a big wounded animal. His suffering haunted me as a child.
Even if I could not understand it, witnessing his pain impressed upon me a truth that school or television never told. It was a story of the immigrant working class.
My father died when I was twenty-one, just a year before my college graduation. It was a slow, painful, and untimely death. While he lived in Koreatown, I went to school nearby at the University of Southern California. Koreatown and USC seemed worlds away from one another. The joint Burger King laundromat filled with Mexican and Korean immigrants next door to my father’s senior apartment complex contrasted with the smooth white bike pathway of Trousdale Parkway. My father’s senior apartment complex was where elder Korean immigrants, most of whom were uninsured and unable to speak English, would walk slowly. Trousdale Parkway was where sorority sisters would leisurely ride by me on their bikes, their long hair and ribbons on their handles waving carefree in the wind.
If my father was an angry man while I was growing up, I can understand more fully now how frustrating it would be for him. He was a person who loved reading about Western history who had to work with cars when he didn’t know how and to experience daily work of difficulty and suffering.
Currently, I work at a job that pays to do what I love. My work includes writing books, articles, reading, teaching students, and engaging with colleagues. This happened not only out of sheer will, but thanks to countless mentors, friends, colleagues and federal programs like the McNair Scholars Program, which supports undergraduate students of color and from working-class backgrounds to pursue higher education. Most of my colleagues may not know or understand the kinds of blue collar work people do to survive. It is rare to meet other working class academics, and when I do, there is a solidarity and understanding that I appreciate deeply.
Perhaps both of my parents didn’t expect me to go to college. The opposite of tiger parents, they didn’t pressure me at school. In large part because I believe they were too preoccupied with work to pay much attention to my schooling. The lackadaisical approach was ultimately a gift to pursue knowledge freely and without persuasion — an imperative that ironically serves me well as an scholar and teacher, a profession where independent thinking is valued and rewarded, and persistence and passion is essential in the process to develop knowledge. Teaching in the classroom is the active translation of passion for a subject. Teaching in the college classroom cannot be done in draconian tiger-parenting directives, I would argue, if a professor wants students to genuinely learn and fall in love with a subject in a sustained way that supports their critical thinking and agency irrespective of the grade. Watching my students fall in love with film analysis in my film courses, for example, I witness how new worlds open up for them as they spend time on discussions, projects, papers, and ideas often irrespective of grades.
Before he passed away, I shared with my father once that I wanted to teach college and he replied it was a bad idea. I wonder if it was simply misogyny or he could not fathom the possibility of being a professor for his daughter. For working-class immigrants like my parents, work was always about working with their hands, a struggle they endured. Prior to becoming a professor and poet, I was a journalist in Los Angeles. From the white, shiny building off Wilshire Blvd, my mother said when she visited me with her eyes wide, you never have to work with your hands.
When I decided to pursue graduate school and move away from entertainment reporting, I desired to study ethnic communities and media. At UC Berkeley, where I earned my Ph.D. in ethnic studies, my cohort of graduate students were like me, mainly from a first generation of academics of color. Most of my colleagues in the department had parents who worked at schools as janitorial staff. We were from the immigrant working class. I emphasize my colleagues in ethnic studies, a discipline created out of campus protest to a white hegemonic universities in the 1960s, because most of my colleagues are not from the working class.
I told an older white colleague once about my father through sharing a piece of writing about him and his work and his anger, and she wrinkled her nose, seemingly unaware nor empathetic that people do other kinds of work than we do.
For my colleagues of the working class, to be paid to publish poetry, or read poetry seems unfathomable to our families and their notion of work. But this cultural work is work. And like other industries and sectors, there is exploitation and unfairness in the academic industrial complex.
I share this story to reflect on the current strikes at my university, The New School, and to write in solidarity with part-time faculty bargaining for a fair contract for their work. The New School is understood as a progressive institution historically based on social justice values. Like my colleagues in ethnic studies, I find that many of my new colleagues at The New School are on campus to teach, research, and create art that can help move towards a more equitable society. As part-time faculty negotiate for a fair contract, the administration has not bargained in good faith. The ongoing strike has lasted three weeks already, becoming the longest adjunct strike in history. More recently, the administration has threatened to suspend the salary and health insurance of full-time faculty if we continue to strike in solidarity with part-time faculty for a fair contract.
We do this out of love. We do this because of the students and to foster a love for learning.We learn because we love. But what we do is still labor.
We would do it without being paid, but it is still labor. My parents in their work experiences remind me of the gross inequities that can occur in working conditions, even in the culture and academic industry. We are all here because of the pursuit of knowledge, and the university seems hollow unless there are living or nonliving things you care about motivating the research, teaching, organizing, and even administrating behind it all.
The New School administration has emailed several threats to part-time and full-time faculty alike to stop the strike using the well-being of students as the reason. But the protests are the greatest lesson for students living in a democratic society. It shows them that they too have a voice, and that the campus and education they entrusted us with is led in good faith, and with equitable working conditions for all. And if not, they too can ask for and reimagine the university they want to see and believe in.
On the 23rd day of the strikes, the students took the university in their own hands, and occupied the University Center of The New School campus. Hours into the occupation, we received an email from The New School President McBride notifying the campus that the administration now “agree to all of the union’s compensation demands, with the addition of an administrative services fee to compensate part-time faculty for their work outside of the classroom.” This extraordinary win for the union prompts jubilation from many on the line, and those working in solidarity. As the part-time union awaits the finalized contract with the met demands, the strike reminds us to continually reimagine the university to move forward for change.
The New School administration repeatedly stated that the strike hurts the students, however it is unfair treatment and wages for the part-time faculty, the majority of the campus faculty, along with the treatment of university community members — the part-time and full-time faculty in direct contact with students — that harms students the most. The administration breached what students entrusted us with: a campus of safety, learning, respect, and support, so they too can move forward in the world to change it for the better.
The New School administration has a choice to lead with socially just practices. While not about The New School, two scholars on education and the institution help guide this possibility. Education scholar Cathy N. Davidson writes about the radical possibilities in The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux on centralizing the importance of equity, creativity, and imagination in higher education. Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom’s saying featured as a photo on her Twitter page: “The Institution cannot love you” and another quote from her extends this sentiment, “And I honor the many many people who work to make them more humane. But you, alone, can not do that…”
While the administration criticized the striking faculty, a strike may be the most valuable part of an education. As a graduate student at UC Berkeley during the Occupy movement in the aughts, the massive protests for Occupy and ethnic studies that occurred every week made me learn that a better university is feasible. Rather than diminishing my learning, the protests taught me that there is a responsibility and possibility to transform the university together.
The “institution cannot love,” as Cottom writes, but the students do. In an open letter to the New School administration, a parent writes: “The reason students are drawn to, and remain at, the New School […] is the teaching faculty. No one is going to the New School because of the administration.”
The New School students who picketed, organized, and occupied the University Center in solidarity with their part-time faculty members teach us over and over again how the university is the place for imagination and collective change. They teach us a kind of love.
Addendum (12/15/22): The email from The New School President McBride notifying the campus that the administration now “agree to all of the union’s compensation demands, with the addition of an administrative services fee to compensate part-time faculty for their work outside of the classroom,” only included compensation and not health insurance. The strike continued for three days for a finalized contract with all health insurance demands met.