In June 2021, we participated in a roundtable at the annual conference of the Cultural Studies Association (US) that explored the potentialities—and the limitations—of abolitionist politics within the university. Bringing together several scholars whose work sits at the intersection of radical history, decolonial critique, and critical university studies, our contributions responded to abolitionism's anti-capitalist and anti-racist demands for transformative justice. These demands seek to recognize and redress the ongoing social consequences of the university's historical provenance within, and continued profit from, the practices of settler colonialism, enslavement, and monopoly capital. The contributions reflected on questions such as: What does it mean to take an abolitionist approach to the university? What gets lost if we don’t see the university from the perspective of abolitionism? And what is to be gained?

We framed our discussion around a set of common readings drawn from scholars and critics such as Sandy Grande, Fred Moten, Stefano Harney, and the Abolition University Project (Abigail Boggs, Eli Meyerhoff, Nick Mitchell, and Zach Schwartz-Weinstein).1 Like the participants in the roundtable, these readings came from different disciplinary backgrounds and political positionalities. They represented abolitionist, undercommoning, decolonizing, anti-carceral critiques of higher education. Roundtable participants drew on these texts to explore the ways US institutions of higher education have organized the labors of teaching and learning.

As we constructed a conversation at the intersections of these different trajectories, we saw both overlaps and potential for coalitional action and questions about what solidarity and mutuality might mean for education. For instance, we hear resonances between Sandy Grande’s call for academic workers to refuse “the cycle of individualized inducements” and the Abolitionist University Studies collective’s call for academic workers to take up the intellectual and political genealogies of a “left abolitionist tendency.”2 Grande’s encouragement to strive for collectivity, reciprocity, and mutuality as principles for building “social relations not contingent upon the imperatives of capital—that refus[e] exploitation at the same time as [they] radically asser[t] connection, particularly to land” aligns with the Abolitionist University Studies advocacy for creating higher education institutions that give substance to the freedom legally recognized in the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction amendments (and in doing so, would render the prison and the perceived need for prisons obsolete).3 In both of these calls to action we see a vision of using the machinery of the university against its historical role as what Grande calls “an arm of the racial settler state”; that is, to take the relations made possible/proximate by the institution and use them to pre-figure an institution that does not rely on the relations of dispossession, exploitation, surveillance, and, ultimately, policing that our current institutions do.4 At the same time, we saw tensions in these readings and their understandings of pedagogy. On the one hand, our own praxis gestures toward the liberatory potential and promise of radical pedagogies, while the work of Harney and Moten and la paperson leads us to question whether, and which, pedagogical transformations might be “reformist reforms,” or changes that ameliorate a measure of the harm done by the institution but ultimately preserve its endurance.5

Building on the work of the roundtable and the texts it engaged, we wish to create space for a conversation that responds to questions concerning the practical realization of abolitionism in the university today in the context of our pedagogies. The conversation can include exploring the unique challenges that the pedagogical terrain of an institution such as the university presents when compared with other state apparatuses subjected to abolitionist critique, such as repressive regimes like prisons and policing. Or, what pitfalls might await demands for abolition in the wake of the renewal, since the outbreak of COVID-19, of long-standing and widespread austerity measures sweeping higher education that directly impact teaching? Further, how might we share ideas about realizing university abolition in practical terms, especially through our work as instructors? To that end, we are convening an asynchronous conversation that invites colleagues (students, faculty, staff, administrators) to think out loud through these impasses and to share visions, resources, and even failures in our journeys away from carceral and colonialist pedagogies.

In this “distributed special issue” of Ethnic Studies Review, we envision expanding the space for conversations where we might imagine together creative and agile strategies that, as Grande puts it, “cleave study and struggle” for an anti-capitalist politics in pursuit of abolition.6 Such spaces are crucial prerequisites if we hope to build durable bonds of collective coresistance, allowing us to reappropriate our life and labor as subjects, “in but not of the university.”7 A distributed special issue, as we envision it, departs from the traditional style and structure of a special issue, in which editors solicit and select essays published simultaneously as an issue. Rather, we begin with this essay, outlining our conceptual and editorial vision, and invite interested participants to propose critical and creative responses. The essays will be published over the course of two years, so we envision that subsequent essays may respond to ones that follow ours. The purpose of this structure is to promote a dialogic approach to conversation at the intersections of ethnic studies praxis and pedagogical practice.

Following Grande, we propose that institutional spaces—particularly our classrooms—can be spaces of refusal. In her essay “Refusing the University,” Grande argues for the need to refuse the institutional inducements to mere recognition offered by liberal ideological paradigms of justice that promise an individualist redressing of grievances without a structural reorganization of power.8 In the wake of the uprisings in response to the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, university spaces have been awash in inducements to recognition that emphasize individual accountability and that offer what we might call “social justice solutions” meted out on a case-by-case basis. For example, universities have been quick to put out statements in support of Black Lives Matter and to make half-hearted attempts to operationalize them through individually awarded internal grants and fellowships. This shifts responsibility away from the organization, putting the burden on individual actors. Of course, it would be counterproductive to refuse these kinds of inducements in toto especially as many of them, at least in word if not in deed, directly address the real and ongoing harm caused by decades of non-recognition and misrecognition. Such individual labor is a crucial, if only first, step in cultivating safer and more inclusive campus spaces and academic workplaces. However, Grande’s work reminds us to cast a critical eye on who receives such inducements now while many Indigenous faculty and faculty of color have been doing this work without credit or compensation for over a century—often from contingent positions in which their labor is exploited. It further begs the question of how best to ensure that university initiatives that rely on individuals are held accountable to systemic change—and how refusal can be mobilized to shift the frame from individual to institutional accountability.

Despite the immutable finality of the term refusal, academic life is not a zero-sum game. There are other ways that we might construe the posture of refusal besides the kind of irrevocable disengagement that the term might otherwise connote. The refusal of the university might just as easily be figured as a refusal to settle for its polite concessions and institutional inducements when contesting our claims as its primary stakeholders and value producers. That is, refusal might be realized through a politics of “yes and…,” a refusal to grant our consent to the institution’s attempts to contain the cries against its complicity, while continuing to struggle for more radical efforts at transformative and redistributive change.

One way to insist on more transformative forms of justice is to articulate the politics of refusal through a specifically labor-oriented analysis that, in turn, might engender a foundational shift in our definitions of the university, seeing it as a historically convergent site of several modes of accumulation for capital (i.e., as land, people, labor, intellectual property, financial speculation, etc.). As Kathi Weeks has noted, the politics of refusal have been a valuable resource for autonomist labor traditions precisely because they rely on a vision of capitalism that does not solely privilege the institutions and relations of private property, but rather conceptualizes the substance of capitalist relations as “the imposition and organization of work.”9

Perhaps the most immediate site for the imposition and organization of our work as instructors in the university is the classroom. Several of the contributions in our session turned toward the possibilities of abolitionist pedagogy, examining classroom practices such as evaluation and assessment, or resisting the ways that our application of digital technologies for the purposes of remote learning can motivate our engagement with students along principles of surveillance or compliance. These provocations asked us to reevaluate the classroom as a site of accumulation, and to consider how that accumulation proceeds, not only through our labor process as teachers and instructors, but through the unpaid work of our students as well. Shifting our view in this way reveals the classroom as a potential site of new forms of what Michael Denning has called “wageless life.”10 As the notion of “wageless life” has historically signaled, “the only thing worse than being exploited” for individuals under capitalism is “not being exploited,” designating “those dispossessed of land, tools, and means of subsistence” and whose life-making activities within the logic of capital are rendered as, and reduced to, “bare life, wasted life, disposable life, precarious life, superfluous life.”11 Within the context of the university, we might repurpose this notion of “wageless life” to describe the layer of unpaid and shadow work that sits within the university's relations of waged-labor: as graduate waste products, disposable at will staff members and precarious student workers, or casualized teaching faculty.

The conditions of pedagogical labor are at once the conditions of learning for our students. One such example is the frequent debate over the value of providing “flexibility” to our students on deadlines. Such flexibility is often positioned as an unqualified good, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we recognize that flexibility is a cornerstone of making learning accessible for students, it is not without its limitations. For student labor, endless flexibility is delimited by course dates, so students may eventually end up buried under a pile of unfinished work. For faculty labor, the clear inequities in instructional labor make flexibility inherently unequal. A contingent faculty member teaching large introductory courses may find that unmitigated flexibility magnifies the exploitation of their labor. The refusal to do so—and, instead, to configure one’s teaching differently—is one such example of resisting the capitalist underpinnings of the university.

Vineeta’s contribution to the 2021 roundtable took up these issues through the poles of pedagogies of surveillance and pedagogies of solidarity. The former expects and invites faculty to enforce the gatekeeping mechanisms and the yardsticks of compliance we call “academic integrity” and “academic rigor” and to sort students into compliant and trustworthy, troublemakers, and lost causes. Vineeta juxtaposed this pedagogy of surveillance to the coalitional practices of solidarity and shared governance that animates the political and intellectual projects of the interdisciplines (Black Studies, Gender Studies, etc.). Her reflections on inviting students to become active participants in designing learning outcomes, assignments, and evaluation criteria concluded with an urgent articulation that the instructor’s role is not merely managing and surveilling students but preparing them to be workers who are theorists of their own experiences and fields of work; who, as workers deserve a say in how they are evaluated and assessed; who as workers have a right to self-determination in setting the conditions of their labor and demanding accountability from decision-makers.

Thinking of the classroom as a space of wageless life highlights the coercive character of the pursuit of higher education as a necessary pathway toward social success, economic survival, or both. In this sense, it mirrors Denning’s attempts to “decentre wage labour in our conception of life under capitalism,” and locate the foundation of the capital-labor relation not in “the offer of work” but in the “imperative to earn a living.”12 While many of our students remain engaged in low-waged employment outside of the classroom, all of them are impelled to undertake a regime of full-time unpaid work as students. The imposition of this mode of work, and the attendant cycles of reproduction that are its necessary accompaniment—both as consequence and precondition—provide the terrain upon which value is generated and realized through the activities of student life. But it is also increasingly the circuit through which value is requisitioned from future life in the form of student debt. These relations of future-exploitation that underwrite the otherwise wageless lives of so many students position the indebted yet “free”—and in reality, unpaid—labor of students as the primary driver of accumulation within the higher education industry, fueling the expansion of capital returns on student life, and quantified in the tuition-price index of the market place of professional credentials and cultural prestige.

Current and former students who have become teachers for the university continue to have their work and lives structured by these relations of debt and unpaid labor. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported last year that more than 60 percent of all faculty in the United States are contingent workers, reliant on annual or semi-annual contracts for employment. Only 10.5 percent of working faculty were in tenure-track lines in 2019, while another 26.5 percent already held tenure.13 In addition to their teaching work, most contingent faculty take on the unpaid labor of research, peer review, and other “service” to their discipline and profession, which is neither required in their contracts nor assessed in their contract renewal evaluations. Kathleen Kuehn and Thomas Corrigan call this type of work “hope labor”: “un- or under-compensated work carried out in the present, often for experience or exposure, in the hope that future employment opportunities may follow.”14 Regardless of whether the motivations behind taking on unpaid labor are tied to the cruel optimism of the belief that their positions might be converted to tenure-track lines (at the present institution or the next) or whether they are driven by an earnest belief in the value generated through this praxis, they produce value for stakeholders, ranging from institutions and university presses to academic organizations, at the same time that they subsidize cheap teaching labor for the student debt regimes fueling undergraduate degree programs by providing aspirant scholars with access to professional networks and research materials through institutional affiliations and database subscriptions.

In our own work, organized as it is through the uneven and extremely inequitable relations of the academic labor market, we must find ways to refuse the regulatory functions that learning is made to play within the university’s circuit of capital accumulation—refusing the roles that we are hailed to, as floor managers of the wageless life of student labor, and as accessories to the profiteers of indebtedness. Refusing our roles as regulators within this circuit need not mean that we deny students the actual resources of our critical practice as teachers, whatever we may understand those to be (e.g., as aesthetic sensibility, historical knowledge, theoretical acuity, cultural competency, communicative efficacy, technical mastery, or political fluency) nor does it require that we hamper their progress up-and-through the ladders of achievement and attainment that the university often provides. Instead, we might develop practices in our work that refuse the logic of accumulation and the organization of our work that it imposes. We recognize that part of this work involves returning the “ivory tower” to the larger landscape of education in the context of settler racial capitalism. We know our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) colleagues in early childhood and K–12 education have long histories of organizing and are currently engaged in anti-fascist resistance to counter attacks on anti-racist pedagogies and queer life within and outside their classrooms. We hope this distributed conversation invites and engages scholars, teachers, students, and activists working in these spaces and gives them resources and connections that can be useful in our shared struggles. And in doing so, we may push instead for a pedagogical approach that works against the material traces left by the historical processes of the university as an institution—one that is both unremitting in its historical vision and generative and unsettling in its political ambition.


See Sandy Grande, “Refusing the University,” in Toward What Justice? Describing Diverse Dreams of Justice in Education, eds. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (NY: Routledge, 2018), 47–65 at 61; Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (NY: Minor Compositions, 2013); Abigail Boggs, Eli Meyerhoff, Nick Mitchell, and Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation,” Abolition, 28 August 2019, (accessed 1 August 2022).


Grande, “Refusing the University,” 61; Boggs et al., “Abolitionist University Studies.”


Grande, “Refusing the University,” 61; Boggs et al., “Abolitionist University Studies.”


Grande, “Refusing the University,” 47.


Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 27; la paperson, A Third University Is Possible (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017),; Critical Resistance, “Reformist Reforms vs. Abolitionist Steps in Policing,” (accessed 1 August 2022).


Grande, “Refusing the University,” 49.


Grande, “Refusing the University,” 49.


Grande, “Refusing the University,” 61.


Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durhan, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 97.


Michael Denning, “Wageless Life,” New Left Review 66.10 (2010), 79–97 at 80.


Denning, “Wageless Life,” 79.


Denning, “Wageless Life,” 80.


AAUP Research Department, “Contingency and Upper Management Growth on the Rise in Higher Ed,” Academe Blog, 28 July 2021,∼:text=In%20fall%202019%2C%2063.0%20percent,were%20on%20the%20tenure%20track (accessed 1 August 2022).


Kathleen Kuehn and Thomas F. Corrigan, “Hope Labor: The Role of Employment Prospects in Online Social Production,” The Political Economy of Communication 1.1 (2013): 9–25 at 9.