Our theme for the month of March is “Part Two.” Writers were challenged to choose a piece they’ve previously contributed to the post calvin and revisit it, perhaps writing a sequel or reflecting on how things have changed.
Ben’s original post is “In Solidarity: A Letter before Striking.”
Late last month, when it became clear that GEO, the graduate employee union I belong to, would strike, one of the professors I work for decided to make a few timely tweaks to her syllabus. The course, an undergrad survey of pre-Civil War American literature, was slated to move into the mid-nineteenth century, so she swapped in two new readings to coincide with the first day of the strike. The first of these, deliciously on the nose, was a few excerpted pages from the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848. The second, published five years later, was a short story by Herman Melville, called “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”
If you haven’t read “Bartleby,” I recommend it. It’s a strange little story—kind of sad but also pretty funny. Primarily set in a law office on Wall Street, it centers on a scrivener, or clerk, who decides one day that he will no longer do what his boss tells him. And he has a particular way of framing these refusals. Asked, say, to call over one of his coworkers, Bartleby responds, with the perfect mildness of a guru repeating a mantra, “I would prefer not to.” This line, which becomes a sort of refrain for Bartleby over the course of the story, always arrives in the same language and always in the same politely unperturbable tone. Moreover, Bartleby himself never offers an explanation for his preferences because, of course, he would prefer not to.
I would prefer not to compare those copies, he informs the narrator, his increasingly flummoxed boss. I would prefer not to mail that letter. I would prefer—as the story balloons ridiculously toward its conclusion—not to go home at night, or to stop treating your place of business like a hotel room, or to account for my actions in any way whatsoever.
I would prefer not to.
Read against the strike, it’s not particularly surprising why my professor turned to “Bartleby” to jumpstart conversations about class and labor with her undergrads. Nor is it all that surprising that one of my friends in the department—in a testament to the enduring (endearing?) dorkiness of English folks—trotted out “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to rowdy up a crowd during a pro-strike rally. Bartleby, the “original Wall Street Occupier” as my friend calls him, is a reminder that there’s nothing natural or necessary about the relationship between employer and employee and that the exercise of authority is, in part, a performance that requires a receptive audience. Thus, every day I show up for work—every day I arrive at school in a tie, with a lesson plan to teach, and a sheaf of papers under my arm—is another day in which I assent, implicitly, to the way things are. I, like Bartleby, articulate my preference.
These last few weeks, then, have been for me and hundreds of my colleagues a concerted exercise in articulating what’s not our preference. Starting at the end of February, we went on strike to protest bad-faith bargaining on the part of the UIUC administration, and for two full weeks, we preferred not to as loudly and obnoxiously as we could. Turning out in droves despite rain and wind and snow, we marched and chanted and beat on bucket-drums and blew on whistles and papered the campus with fliers. We disrupted classes. We shut down buildings. We paraded en masse near important university events. Like good old Bartleby, we even occupied administrative buildings and refused to leave. And, at the end of two weeks, we were heard.
As of this post, the strike’s officially been over now for eight days. Our new contract contains a lot of the language that we originally took to the pickets to secure, and although in other corners of the US and in Europe other educators are now striking or rumbling about strikes, things have, for now, quieted down some at UIUC. I’m grading papers again. My professor proctored a midterm. That midterm covered, among other things, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and soon I’ll be grading those too.
Were Bartleby a teaching assistant like me, plucked from the nineteenth-century and dropped into the twenty-first, I doubt very much that he would have joined us on the picket line. Of course, I don’t mean that he would have scabbed—if you prefer not to work, you prefer not to work. But as solitary, soft-spoken, and inscrutable as he is, it seems unlikely he’d have subjected himself to something so noisy and communal as a strike. Still, who can say for sure? Maybe he would have. After all, Bartleby knows better than most how to shake up the status quo, how to rouse us from our tidy complacencies, how to alert us to those moments we give our silent, unthinking assent. For Bartleby, nothing is given. For Bartleby—piss-poor scrivener perhaps, but a conscientious laborer—there’s power in a steady, deliberate preference not to.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.