Friday, April 13, 2007

ACADEMIC SQUATTING - A democratic method of curriculum development

This article was printed in the spring 2007 issue of "Our Schools / Our Selves," published quarterly by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives It was also printed in the September/October 2007 issue of "DESIGNER / builder" magazine.

Denis G. Rancourt

I teach an activism course at the University of Ottawa.

Not a course about altruism, volunteerism, charity, international aid or civic duty and building community within the confines of the status quo. But an activism course, about confronting authority and hierarchical structures directly or through defiant or non-subordinate assertion in order to democratize power in the workplace, at school, and in society.

As is often the case with effective activism, this course is itself direct, overt, and defiant. I have chosen to adopt a style consistent with this stance in writing this article, as an illustration of my pedagogical posture. Teachers need to show what they stand for and more and more we need to stand for something beyond doctrinal platitudes.

The underlying working premise of all other courses on my campus is that our societal structures are mostly beneficial and just – that the schools and other private and public institutions, government institutions, corporations, and financial institutions all work together to generate wealth and distribute services and resources. The underlying assumption of all other courses is that societal structures may perhaps need to be adjusted but are necessary in some form and mostly benefit society.

In contrast, the underlying premise of the activism course is that our societal structures, taken together, represent the most formidable instrument of oppression and exploitation ever to occupy the planet– that the reality of these structures is one of continental-scale pillaging enforced by the greatest military and coercion machines ever assembled. In this paradigm, the observed generalized criminal disregard for local inhabitants and indigenous peoples is no accident; the environment, workers and inhabitants are structurally expendable liabilities in a profit-driven debt-based global financial enterprise that must be characterized as insane, not to mention unsustainable; and the schools and universities supply the obedient workers and managers and professionals that adopt and apply this system’s doctrine--knowingly or unknowingly, according to need.

This is the outlook that informs the speakers I invite, the readings I suggest, the way I position science and all the disciplines, the way I guide whole class discussions, and the one-on-one interactions I have with students.

I think there should be room for at least one such course on my campus.

The university administration and many of my colleagues do not share my zeal for this diversity of perspective--as has been amply demonstrated and documented over the last few years. Their attacks on the activism course experiment are strong testaments to the uncompromised position and moral and intellectual rigour that the students and I have chosen to apply and defend.


It all started with a modest experiment in pedagogy and social relevance in the fall of 2005. In response to twenty years of observing classes that both delivered soulless material and served mainly to prepare students to be obedient and indoctrinated employees, I felt I had to do something more than give a “better” physics course. I realized that it is activists, not obedient employees, who make a difference, who make the world a better place.

I decided that the course would itself be a realization of activism. I decided to squat the Physics and the Environment course that had been assigned to me that fall. This may have been the first example of overt academic squatting, where one openly takes an existing course and does with it something different.

For a squat to succeed, the occupants have to be on board, and at the first class the students embraced the project with more enthusiasm than I could have imagined. I had simply suggested that maybe the greatest societal problems around were as important as physics, that the students themselves could be in charge of their own learning, and that I saw no need for grading or any institutional evaluation.

The experiment encountered immediate and explosive resistance. After the VP-Academic choked on the course web site, we were treated to a tantrum from the Dean of Science at the second class. What followed was a textbook example of successful activism, to the point that several students asked if the administration’s response had been completely staged, and some thanked the dean for providing a laboratory component to the physics course.

At the third class, the dean was back to announce a negotiated agreement “to the benefit of all” that would have us – the students and I – run the course exactly as we had intended. But we knew the victory would be short lived if we did not get an activism course on the books, and so we fought our way through 11 months and 16 committee meetings to have SCI 1101 approved, as a credited Faculty of Science course with no prerequisites. Despite official recognition of this first multidisciplinary Science (SCI)-code course on our campus, in the words of an enlightened Science Faculty Executive, SCI 1101 "does not count as a science course."

The activism course exists because hundreds of students and community members fought for it against committee normalcy, unprecedented administrative barriers, disciplinal ghettoism, and regressive opinion echoed by the mainstream media. It has received unequalled praise from both its paying “clients” (as the administration calls students) and “freeloading” community participants. Many attest to a life-changing experience, like only discovering one’s agency and place in the world can produce.

At the very least, the students of the activism course were exposed to speakers and issues that they did not encounter in other courses, often had their first university encounter with intrinsic motivation, deeply questioned the pedagogical methods of other courses, and often became leading campus activists. In the words of one student: “Everything else is the same but this course is real.”

The more activists there are, the more democracy there is.

In contrast and true to character, the university executive has consistently attempted to block the course over the past two years: From the dean’s failed in-class intervention, to deflected attempts to censor the course web site, to ad hoc rules and evaluation committees, to forbidding community member participation, to failed disciplinary campaigns based on ridiculous premises, to withholding academic resources, to the upper executives re-writing the course description themselves, and most recently to expelling students on the basis of age.

The opposite atmosphere reigns in the classroom, where hundreds of students of all ages (10 to 70+) and backgrounds interact with intricate and compelling material of direct relevance to their place in the world. Principal actors, experts, and readings present vital issues including: war, terrorism, the armament industry, monetary economics, poverty, professional ethics, environmental issues, societal and institutional structures, human rights, science funding, the non-profit sector, the agri-food industry, the pharmaceutical industry, animal rights, democracy, foreign policy, and others. Self-motivation and unrestrained exploration and expression are enabled by the absence of grades and by individually designed progress reports.

Academic squatting works! Academic squatting is needed because universities are dictatorships, devoid of real democracy, run by self-appointed executives who serve private capital interests. Producing obedient employees and publicly funded intellectual property transfers are in fact the university’s only business, as is evident from its research, programs, curricula, and coercive methods. Of course, there are accidental side benefits that may be realized by individual students, just as friendships can develop in a labour camp, and one can marry a prison guard one met on the inside, or write a good book while in exile, but the point is that the university is an instrument of power as it has always been, period. Only activism – resistance – can change that.

One antidote to the university as boot camp in the service of capital is for tenured professors to use their tenure. This would turn tenure on its head, as it is free society’s coercive tool of choice for fabricating aligned and docile academics. Not the job security in itself, which should be available to all, but the filtering and moulding process known as the tenure track. But why not turn tenure on its head? Tenure is death, risk is life, and collaboration is criminal. Collaborating in an institutionalized system of resource looting, labour exploitation, and genocidal demographic engineering is criminal, especially when its ultimate weapon is the foremost crime known as war, such as the present Canadian war in Afghanistan.

Tenure – use it or lose it.

Alternatively, the next step is academic hijacking, where students tell a professor that she can stay or leave but that this is what they are going to do and these are the speakers they are going to invite… Here, academic freedom would apply to students, not just professors.
Now that would be taking responsibility for one’s education.

Denis G. Rancourt is a physics professor and environmental science researcher at the University of Ottawa.


*Two activism course classes reported on at YaYaCanada:

*The original activism course web site:

*My blog the “Activist Teacher”:

*del Moral, Andrea, 2002, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.

*Malatesta, Errico, 1891, Anarchy. New translation from the Italian by Vernon Richards, Freedom Press, 1974, 1994.

*Mitchell, Peter R. and Schoeffel, John (editors), 2002, Understanding Power – The indispensable Chomsky. The New Press, NY.

*Noble, David F., 2005, Beyond the Promised Land, The Movement and the Myth. Between the Lines, Toronto.

*Rancourt, Denis G., 2006, Gradual Change Is Not Progress.

*Rancourt, Denis G., 2007, Activism and Risk – Life beyond altruism.

*Said, Edward W., 1994, Representations of the Intellectual. Vintage Books, NY.
*Schmidt, Jeff, 2000, Disciplined Minds. Rowman & Littlefield.


Anonymous said...

I am very happy to have discovered this chap Denis Rancourt!

Your's and David Noble's views on critical pedagogy is an area that I am very much interested in and practice in my life as a teacher in Japan. I share your critique of the capitalist "system" and also sympathize with many of your other insights. I don't know about the global warming thing, surely humans (and their capitalist leaders in particular) are responsible for destruction of the ecosphere, and global warming is being manipulated by the powers that be, Schumpeter's Creative Destruction, but I personally do not know if anthropogenic global warming is not true either. Anyway, great blog, keep it up, more comments to follow.

OldWorkingClassGuy said...

I’m also quite pleased to have stumbled upon Denis Rancourt. I am coming to a point in my life where I feel my level of comprehension has reached the point where action should ensue. Our society is in its leadership structures corrupt and undemocratic to the core and is in need of radical re-structuring. As things stand, we are as a civilization in deep trouble, far deeper than most realize. If the worldwide depredations for which our current ‘system’ is incontrovertibly responsible are to be significantly attenuated or mitigated, then the ‘system’ must be changed, and it must be changed in the direction of egalitarianism and democratic participation for all. I also agree with Professor Rancourt that the hysteria about global warming is suspect. It’s not about whether climate change is or is not happening. Throughout the history of our world, climates have always changed. And it isn’t about whether the change, accelerated or otherwise, is or is not being caused by our insane levels of industrial activity. Surely, we are having an impact. Rather, our concern should be to identify which of the consequences resulting from our overall activities are the ones causing and most likely to continue causing the most damage and suffering to the greatest number of people and their environments. Professor Rancourt is surely right: imperialist wars, profit driven resource extraction, for profit industrial scale agriculture, debt extortion (both domestic and international), a public kept ignorant and cynically manipulated by a compliant and complicit (because privately owned) press, institutions designed in their command structure to maintain an ironclad and unquestioning discipline among the rank and file -- these are the real, immediate, and greater dangers in our world, and the catastrophes resulting from them are not even in the offing but happening even as I write these comments. Global warming is a distraction, I think, that activism cannot afford. There are more serious and urgent problems in need of our attention and energy.

It is my hope that I may become one of Professor Rancourt’s students - as old and as grey as I am - and that I may learn to make a practical difference beyond merely talking and thinking and reading about badly needed change. Looking forward to learning more from you, Professor Rancourt.

Anonymous said...

Inspiring, amazing stuff. Wishing you all strength and determination in your struggles. I will so what I can do spread the word on my campus.

In solidarity,


p.s. have you come across Harry Cleaver's On School Work and the Struggle Against It? Its an analysis of among other things, the everyday ways that students and teachers resist University Inc. I think you'd really enjoy it.

consuelo said...

Texte et citations de Jean Lebrun, présentateur sur France Culture (consultation du site 08/12/1) à propos de la découverte du virus du VIH:

(J'ai ajouté les parenthèses dans la citation suivante pour la lisibilité)

"L'immunologiste Jean-Claude Gutman, dans A voix nue (émission) mercredi 3 (décembre 2008), note : "Aujourd'hui, on nous bassine avec l'excellence; or aucun de nous (première génération de chercheurs sur le VIH) n'était excellent et néanmoins nous avons fait quelque chose d'excellent".C'est, ajoute Klatzman, que "nous étions des personnalités atypiques, que nous nous étions mis d'accord pour ne pas être d'accord; mieux encore, considérés de haut par les mandarins qui ne comprenaient pas qu'on se passionne pour une maladie d'homosexuels, nous avions la chance d'échapper aux hiérarchies".

G. Tod Slone said...

Here's what I just sent to the New York Times, which ran an op ed on Rancourt today ( Some of the comments left by professors would make a thinking man puke.

It is revealing and utterly shameful that The New York Times would implant an established-order crony like Stanley Fish as a regular columnist to report on higher education! How could someone like Fish possibly comprehend what it means to buck that system, go against the professorial kowtow grain, and otherwise make waves in the la-la land of Deans? Contrary to Fish’s restricted paradigmatic mindset, Academe should not be a Business or Corporation! It should not be making collegiality far more important than courageous truth telling as it has been doing. Bravo to that rare college professor Denis Rancourt!!! Democracy clearly depends on such professors willing to risk career for truth and integrity! What we currently have today in higher education, thanks to the hiring Fish ilk, is no less than disgraceful: PC-careerist professors and administrators who seek to curtail vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, by restricting the constitutionally protected rights of free speech and expression with PC-speech codes. For the sake of democracy, we ought to put the Fishes on trial, not the Rancourts!
PS: A thinking citizen ought to wonder what EMERITUS really means in academe today, as in years of service to the MAN, years of obedience, years of collegiality, and especially years of turning a blind eye. Is that what a professor or dean should be in a democracy?

G. Tod Slone said...

PS: As a professor on and off, I've been a long time critic of academe. I've dared open my mouth at institutions employing me and find myself, of course, unemployed if not unemployable today. I founded a journal in 1998 as a direct result of the corruption I discovered at Fitchburg State College and the refusal of the press to cover it. I was ordered to leave my office one day, had to have all my class locations changed, and to this day could be arrested if I step foot on McKay Campus. The order stemmed from one professor crony's complaint to the dean that she was afraid of me.

G. Tod Slone, Founding Editor, 1998
The American Dissident, a Journal of Literature, Democracy & Dissidence
A 501 c3 nonprofit organization providing a forum for vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy,
And for examining the dark side of the academic/literary established-order milieu
1837 Main St.
Concord, MA 01742

Anonymous said...

Below is a quote from Paul Goodman's essay "The Freedom to Be Academic", which was Appendix D in his 1960 book Growing Up Absurd. Prof. Rencourt's activism echoes an opinion from 50 years ago.

I am reasoning somewhat as follows: What is problematic for inquiry is always just beyond the known; in socio-psychological matters this is an area of confusion and anxiety, and
of suppression and repression; then its exploration must involve interpersonal daring and personal risk, whether or not there is "acting out," and in these matters there is a generic tendency toward acting out. The vital social questions for inquiry are those you are likely to get jailed for messing with.
When you are threatened with academic sanctions, it is a good sign that you are on the right track; when you are fired, it is better; but when you are beyond the pale of the
academy and "will receive no support from your colleagues," then you are possibly touching the philosopher's stone. My
point is not that universities are worthless, nor that they should not or cannot be free, but that one cannot seriously regard them as primarily places of inquiry nor found the case
for academic freedom on freedom of inquiry.