On Invisibility (And Sunshine, The Best Disinfectant)

Hi, I’m Lindsey, and I accidentally crashed a private event at my workplace on Tuesday night. But if you’re reading this, chances are you already know that. What you may not know is what I think it all means—or how a series of casual tweets came to represent, for me, a bigger set of questions about not only secrecy and power, but community and contingent labor in the academy. This post is an effort not only to explain what happened in a longer format than bursts of 140 characters, but to think constructively about how to move forward from here—both on my own, as an individual, and as a member of a set of overlapping academic subcultures.

First, to recapitulate the events of the evening of September 17 as I understand them. I make no claim for the viewpoints of others. In the intervening days I have heard what other individuals think happened. I do not challenge their intent, but I do believe in taking a behavioralist’s approach to situations like this one. And actions speak volumes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. On Tuesday afternoon I was helping out with a class at the Macaulay Honors College. That’s my job. I was at Macaulay to begin with because I am an employee, and I had a task to complete. Downstairs, everyone was getting ready for what I later learned was a private, invite-only event, at which new Macaulay faculty member David Petraeus would speak, with some moderation from Fareed Zakaria. At the conclusion of the class session I went downstairs with a Macaulay faculty member, and together we both walked into the reception hour that preceded Petraeus’s speech. I was never told that I was not supposed to be there. So I had a glass of wine, I spoke with some of the Macaulay students taking Petraeus’s course (a few of whom I already knew), and listened to the superb student jazz combo that was performing for what was obviously an A-list crowd. As the reception hour came to a close and the guests moved to Macaulay’s lecture hall for the speech itself, I asked a Macaulay staff member, a co-worker—one I know has seen me there at work in other contexts, and to whom I thought I was a known entity—if I could sit in the overflow room that had been set up for the event, where I could watch the live feed. The overflow room was largely empty—maybe there were fewer attendees than expected?—and the people in the space were generally Macaulay staff and plainclothes security. Anyway, I asked politely, and she said yes, I could watch the speech from there. So I did ask, and I was allowed in after asking. She could have said no, and I probably would’ve tried to exit the building safely, and go home.

As Ann Kirschner made introductions, and Fareed Zakaria set up the first segment of the talk, I decided to do what I do at almost every speech or panel I go to—I decided to live-tweet. (You can scroll back through my Twitter feed to the end of May and see that I did this with the World Science Festival, for example, sending out a boatload of tweets on the possibility of a multiverse, of all things, in about the space of an hour.) This isn’t an uncommon behavior in the worlds I live in, and it wasn’t a premeditated action, either. I still didn’t know that I had crashed a party—and really, since I was in the overflow room rather than the lecture hall itself, and I had asked if I could be there, I doubt you could even say I crashed it completely. At that point I understood I had explicit permission to stay, to be part of the audience.

I sent out a few descriptive tweets (you can see them online; I haven’t changed anything in my Twitter feed), and then Petraeus asked the attendees to consider his talk as being “off the record.” I mentioned this, and noted that I would stop tweeting, as a matter of respect. I only tweeted twice again during the talk. Once to relay a comment made by Fareed Zakaria—who had never said that he was “off the record”—and once to note after that comment that Petraeus had switched topics and that I was again going to pause my live-tweets.

It’s interesting, hearing someone with such a history claim that his words are not for the ears of the public. It’s a great trick; it makes the audience feel like insiders, and at the same time controls their response to whatever is said. It appears to give power to the listener, even as it actually takes power away. The contents of an off-the-record speech given by an authoritative figure inevitably seem exciting and edgy and secret. And “I know something you don’t know” is a way for the audience to leave feeling special—certainly, I’d say, feeling as if they were somehow better people than the protesters outside the building that night, a superior class of human. But of course, all of Petraeus’s words were carefully chosen. He wasn’t actually speaking off the cuff. His repeated use of the word “candidly” was an effort to mask the fact that he was being anything but candid. There was no way he was going to share information or opinions with that audience that were newsworthy. And yet he made everyone listening feel like they were “in” on something. It’s a great sell, and if I can manage to find a way to apply it in a more neutral fashion in my teaching, I probably will. It makes the speaker seem utterly fabulous and utterly present, even if they are neither of those things.

After I sent out my first round of tweets, I noticed that my Macaulay co-workers in the overflow room appeared agitated. They were conferring over their phones in groups of twos and threes, and then they had a pow-wow of five or six right behind me. I’m not stupid. I knew I was probably the only person saying anything on social media from within the event itself. And I knew that nothing I tweeted was problematic, or even particularly revelatory, but I still knew, in the way that you do, that everyone in that room was talking about me, and it wasn’t good.

What flabbergasted me then, and scares me now, is that no one ever spoke to me directly. No one asked me to introduce myself, no one asked me any questions, no one even said hello. Instead, my tweets basically got me physically surrounded for the remainder of Petraeus’s speech. What had been a mostly-empty room suddenly wasn’t. And a staff member I did not know—and who never introduced himself, even when I tried to make friendly light conversation with him towards the end of the event—sat directly across from me and observed me from about a foot’s distance, never once turning his eyes to the speech itself, but always alternating between me and the rest of the room.

I still don’t know who that was. I was told later that he wasn’t private security. But it doesn’t matter. I am the daughter of a career law enforcement officer, a man whose primary job prior to retirement was to find, observe, and retrieve fugitives. I know how surveillance works because I learned it at the dinner table. So I know what kind of behavior was being exhibited in the room. And I knew then, what I’m grappling with most now: at that moment, no one in that room recognized me as a co-worker. As a colleague. Or even, really, as a human of equal standing. Paranoia had erased who I was, both as a person and in relationship to Macaulay as an institution, and had remade me into that most nebulous of postmodern objects, a “security threat.”

Have you ever found yourself directly in the gaze of the panopticon? I assure you that you will begin to feel like you did something wrong, even when you didn’t. You will feel intimidated. You will feel scared. I was so scared. I wanted to tweet out what was happening, but my co-workers obviously thought I was dangerous, and there was more security in that building than I’d seen in one place anywhere in my life, even in my post-9/11, NYC, security-as-ubiquitous-performance-art life. Truly, I didn’t feel like I could dig my iPad out of my bag without someone somewhere in that room engaging in some sort of physical action towards me. I first read Althusser as a Barnard undergraduate, just weeks after the towers fell, and it’s stuck with me since; I felt the whole time like I was being interpellated in a reenactment of that classic example, even though the room was eerily silent. As soon as Petraeus’s speech came to a close, I put on my most cheerful face and left the building with my head held high, politely thanking some of our longtime Macaulay security staff (they knew who I was) and a co-worker who was holding open the front door. I took buses home to Queens and I tweeted what had happened; it was those tweets which probably got the most attention, since in the rush of the moment I publicly asked @macaulayhonors why they tried to intimidate an employee.

The behavior of my fellow staff members was all explained away to me the next day as being more or less legitimate, on the grounds of everyone fearing for their physical safety in light of escalating anti-Petraeus activism outside the Macaulay building. And I’m trying to believe that my colleagues at the Honors College, who I generally understand to be good people, were simply scared. That no one genuinely wanted to threaten me. But they did want to watch me—that much is absolutely clear. And they went about it in an intimidating way. I’m not sure how much of a difference there is, or how much your intent can matter, when the harm you’ve caused is so real.

It was the next day that Daniel Kovalik’s op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette“Death of an Adjunct,” started popping up on Twitter, spawning the hashtag #iammargaretmary and explaining, in literal life-and-death terms, the stark reality of the modern American university’s overreliance on disposable academic labor. And it took me a day or so to put it together, but as I was commuting to my other academic job, early Thursday morning, I realized that the reason I felt such a deep sense of betrayal over the actions of my co-workers—and why I’d already written my direct supervisor, announcing that I was cancelling my Thursday afternoon work at the Macaulay building due to my discomfort—was because my role at Macaulay as a non-teaching adjunct is too easily marginalized. I am Margaret Mary, too. No matter how much good work I do with our amazing students and wonderful faculty, my history with the institution—and with the community that institution anchors—can obviously be erased in an instant.

The Macaulay Quidditch team’s pre-game chant begins, “‘Ohana’ means family. Family means Macaulay.” And I always believed that, thought I was part of that family—that Macaulay was home, even. (ETA: My colleague Karen has also expressed that sentiment to some degree in her excellent Tumblr post, “Thoughts on Petraeus.”) I’ve been with the Honors College since before we had our own building. Since before just after we were named, through Bill Macaulay’s generous gift to us. My tenure predates that of almost every co-worker who was afraid of me on Tuesday night. But my labor for the school has always been contingent, has always been on fellowship or on contract, and has always been direct instructional support. I’m in the classroom, not the office cubicles. So I was mostly invisible. My direct supervisor has been a valuable mentor to me, but most of my Macaulay co-workers didn’t think they had to know my face or my name, much less my role within the community. I serve an essential function within the school, and I’m damn good at what I do. But in the larger scheme of things, I’m infinitely replaceable, and neither the length of my service nor the quality of support I provide truly matters in the face of the burgeoning administrative machinery that is becoming a larger and larger part of how all universities work— or “work.”

I’m still coming to terms with the idea that I could seem like a danger to other people. It isn’t something that a white, educated, and female American citizen experiences all that often, and it is literally mind-blowing—it’s a sharp rap against the skull that reverberates like crazy and makes you lose your balance for a time. In the long run, I imagine I’ll be grateful for the increased awareness, for a new understanding of marginalization that I can channel into productive direct action; in the short term, I am sinking back into my soon-to-be-completed dissertation, because even that anxiety-laden bundle of unanswered questions and half-formed ideas feels far safer than does the house on 67th Street. I know I have to go back to work at Macaulay this coming Tuesday, to see the same class I was working with this past week, and I will, and I will again have an opportunity to engage with some incredible students, and that will go a long way towards healing the hurt in my heart over what Petraeus’s hire is doing to our amazing community.

But the takeaway here isn’t just the dangers of an increasingly militarized public university, the inequities that become entrenched with the establishment of elite institutions-within-institutions, or even the important question of just who’s paying for all that extra security staffing (which we were all assured would be completely unnecessary when Petraeus’s hire was first announced, last spring). The way forward is to talk. To share. And to try and really see all your co-workers, all of them, as colleagues engaged in complementary pursuits, rather than as disposable liabilities, or threatening specters of unknown malignant forces. If you work for a college or university in the United States today, and you don’t know your contingent workforce, you really don’t know how your institution works.

I am so proud to be a member of the staff of the Macaulay Honors College. As a group, we have the immense privilege of coming together to work in support of the success of a downright stupendous student body. Whatever your feelings on David Petraeus’s hire, and whatever you think about the events of the last few weeks, the best way for us to move forward as an institution, in my view, is to make our community fully known to itself—before an abject fear of the unknown irrevocably infects us all. Here comes the sun. Let the sun shine in.

That’s all I have to say. Thanks for reading. If you’d like to reach out, e-mail me or tweet at me. If you happen to be a member of the media, however, I’d appreciate it if you’d concentrate instead on the fate of those undergraduate protesters who were so violently arrested on Tuesday evening. All CUNY students deserve the right to free speech and political expression in their capacity as members of our university, and to protest without fear of overreaction from a hair-trigger NYPD.

Lindsey Freer is a senior fellow in instructional technology at the Macaulay Honors College, CUNY, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of English and Speech at the Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY, a doctoral candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, and a hoopy frood who knows where her towel is.