Occupy University

Occupy University (OccU) grew out of the Education and Empowerment working group of the Occupy Wall Street movement in fall 2011. Initially named Nomadic University, OccU was formed with the goal of creating a university for everyone, at which education is collaborative and politically empowering.

We organize our educational encounters (some spontaneously, while others far in advance) to offer anti-institutional modes of learning, and often to respond to current crises and community interests. We have explored a variety of modes of teaching and learning with the intention of breaking the traditional hierarchies of the academy. With a commitment to offering free education, each of our encounters has been open to everyone, and has congregated in public spaces throughout the city, as well as within academic institutions across New York City.

In fall 2011 and for most of 2012, OccU organizers met once a week for 3-hour planning meetings which were open to the public and attended by an average of 6 or 7 people each week. We have also used a listserv as a way to communicate with the larger group of people who could not attend the meetings. People heard about OccU via the various groups of the Occupy Wall Street movement, word of mouth, as well as via our website. Our meetings were run using the working practices of the movement, including having a facilitator, a minute-taker, and, when needed, progressive stack as a way to diversify the voices heard. We introduced additional practices, such as making sure to have an empty chair at the table so that any latecomers always feel welcome

What most distinguishes OccU’s educational encounters from those of traditional higher education is their nomadic nature, hosted in public space or in and with community-based and art organizations; as well as the pop-up ability that permits us to create encounters that will respond to current critical social crises. Last fall our series on Debt was prompted by the student debt crisis and was hosted at Momenta Art, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, and with Trade School. Many members of OccU are interested in horizontal pedagogy as a mode for the encounters, and our Horizontal Pedagogy workshop has been a weekly ongoing conversation on pedagogy.

Though the idea driving the commitment to free and open encounters is to diversify attendees, OccU has been able to attract various kinds of people but not necessarily those who aren’t already comfortable in “university” settings. We know we need to spend much more time on outreach that will lead towards further racial and ethnic diversity in the encounters. On the subject of finances, OccU has been volunteer-run and free. We have received some payments from participating in talks like this one at CUNY, and we have yet to decide where that money will go. Though urgent, we have not yet taken the time to explore a structure that will allows us to offer free education (it seems most, if not all, in the group agree to this commitment) while tackling the issue of volunteer burnout. So, for those who are professors, it is those traditional academic institutions who are in some way “funding” their participation.

How OccU fits into the practices of its members varies greatly across the group. For some, the thinking about pedagogy relates to their doctoral research. Others consider it part of their scholarship as faculty, while for several, it does not directly connect and is just a part of being an academic and committed to thinking through alternatives to the status quo. OccU is not the core activity for anyone in the group.OccU has at times been explicit about its critique of the traditional higher education system -swapping debt for a degree with the promise of a job that will sufficiently cover the loan payments, and provide savings to enter into other modes of debt (ie. mortgages.) Through our critique, we have been interested in exploring the other functions of education – learning for learning’s sake, and not only to get a job. We have had several conversations about vocational vs. the “less useful” such as humanities and liberal arts. Though we appreciate both, our educational encounters have definitely not focused on the vocational. Instead, and with our recent series, we believe that approaching current crises (debt, climate change, etc.) from an analytical and critical perspective, will, in the end, become “useful”

On October 8, 2012, a subgroup of OccU came to consensus on pausing the planning meetings and activities of the group, and called for a daylong retreat so that we could reflect on the previous year, and strategize moving forward. Unfortunately, this pause has extended itself, and though we organized one more series in 2013 (The People’s Reconstruction Series on the politics around Hurricane Sandy and climate change, and which met at the independent bookstore in the Lower East Side, Bluestockings), we have not been able to meet as a group to debrief and learn before moving forward.Some advocate for meeting, and others would prefer to continue planning educational encounters. This conversation on experiments in education comes at an interesting point for us as we are not yet sure what the future holds for our “experiment.”

Have we run into the issues that will naturally emerge from a leaderless movement? Did our alignment with the Occupy Wall Street movement set us up for failure? Can a group of traditional academics (affiliated with the institutions of higher education we are critiquing) truly, and sustainably, radicalize education? Are we suffering from purely logistical issues, or are our differences of a political nature? What is true is that the group (now a core of 16 people) has suffered a rupture, and many in the group have been left without the space to have a dialogue about racism, sexism, hierarchy, and power – all issues both internal and external to projects of this nature.Though we use a listerv to keep in touch, Doodle to plan meetings, and Google Docs to draft documents such as this one, OccU could have been entirely possible in 1970. And perhaps, if we were not able to overly rely on technology, then we would be in a slower pace all together, that would give us the time and space needed to reflect, before moving forward. OccU’s next steps hinge on our ability to look back.

occupy university