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Member Spotlight: John Rundin--Political Power Broker (V.P. for Legislation), Classicist, Cyclist and Reader

Raised in Chicago, where he got a B.A. in Greek Literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago, John Rundin went on to earn a Ph.D. in Classics at the University of California, Berkeley. He has published on Greek religion, Greek literature, and Latin literature. After he got his Ph.D., he hopscotched across the country from teaching position to teaching position at, among other places, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of California, Los Angeles, till, in 2005, he settled into a long-term position at the University of California, Davis. A winner of a UC Davis Campus teaching award, he expects to finish out his teaching career there in a few years. He joined the UC-AFT immediately upon arriving at UC Davis. He eventually became president of the Davis local and, most recently, he was elected to the UC-AFT Council Executive Board as Vice-President of Legislation. 

You've been teaching Classics at Davis for about 15 years. How has your professional relationship with the department and institution evolved over that time?

I have been lucky to be in a program that has always been supportive of its lecturers. The Classics Senate faculty at UC Davis have always been kind, helpful, and protective. In some ways, that may have helped me become more confident as I took on tasks for the union. The Classics Program remains a good place for lecturers, but, I have to say, I am acutely aware that my security largely remains tied to individuals rather than to institutions. That is, I have seen how non-supportive Senate faculty and administrators in other areas of the University can make lecturers' lives and jobs miserable, and I am aware that, with changes in personnel, my job could change dramatically for the worse. Only the union can protect me against that. 

The biggest change I have seen over my time at in Davis' Classics Program has more to do with shifts in the country at large. Our program was booming up till 2008. But, after the recession of 2008, an interest in the humanities waned. It has affected classics, English, history, art history, and language and literature programs across the country. I speculate that students have become convinced that humanities degrees will make them unemployable, and, in an era of unit caps and high tuition, they are afraid to engage the arts and humanities. In an age when technically skilled professionals are increasingly threatened by automation and outsourcing, it is not clear to me how much security people really get by fleeing the arts and humanities; they may well be making an unwise decision—it could be that the good jobs in the future are for those who can manipulate ideas and thoughts in sophisticated writing and other media. But even just taken at face value, this is a distressing development. I think that good citizenship begins with a  sense of one's place in history and human culture. And students no longer feel they can afford to indulge those concerns. It's sad. This is rich society. It would take pretty minimal investment to allow people to expand their cultural horizons, and we'd all be much better off for it. It's rather odd; we are twice or more as productive as workers than we were in the mid-twentieth-century U.S., but somehow we seem to have fewer resources to pursue the arts and humanities. Isn't that what increased productivity should bring us...the freedom to pursue our interests? As the wealth produced by our increased productivity gets siphoned off to a very few very rich people, somehow, our increased productivity has turned from a tool of liberation to one of oppression.

Tell us something about how you motivate Classics students through the challenges they encounter in your courses?

That's a toughie and my ideas are a bit eccentric. I personally believe that humans are born to learn. They have to learn. The material I teach is very interesting, and, most people, if they are introduced to it properly, minimally acknowledge its value and maximally come to love it. The problem is that we have a educational system that is largely based on punishment. As a result, students often foresee no joy in education; they expect to be punished and even abused. I try to overcome this by being scrupulously fair. I believe in making  clear exactly what students need to master and making sure that it is a reasonable amount. I try to reward any improvement, and I forgive a lot of stuff.

I also believe that education is not just a matter of transferring facts from one person to another. It's far more social than that. There is something very magical that happens in good classrooms, and it's lot more about building society than it is about teaching mere facts and skills. There is something deeply human and satisfying in the relationship between students and instructors, and that is what underlies a sound education. I know I teach best when I teach what I love, and my enthusiasm just naturally transfers to students. This is the reason, I think, that online education can never replace a bricks-and-mortar personal experience in a classroom. It's also why I believe that instructors should have great autonomy in managing classes--they need to teach their interests or it just doesn't work out. 

Increasingly, as I have matured as an instructor, I have come to realize that it's better to teach a little well rather than a lot superficially. I traffic in some pretty wiggy texts from the ancient world. They can be quite alien and incomprehensible to someone who is not familiar with early Mediterranean civilization. I have largely given up on the notion of courses that survey large swaths of history; instead I tend to structure courses around several discrete texts or artifacts and go into depth on them in their context. It's far more engaging for the students, and I think the fragmentary scaffolding they can build by encounters with particular phenomena actually better offers them the opportunity to create their own sweeping views of history's large-scale structures.

You've held a number of roles with UC-AFT at the local level and now you're the elected, statewide V.P. for Legislation. How would you describe your development as union leader? Do you have any advice for recently active leaders who are trying to find their way within our organization?

My own development as a union activist was fairly natural. My politics are generally aligned with the union movement. I showed up at events and participated. The more I learned, the more I became emotionally engaged in the  union's functioning, which made me learn more, and a sort of cycle arose that kept me getting more and more involved. 

I do have three suggestions for new leaders. The first is to attend meetings and events. Becoming involved in a union can be a bit disorienting. Unions typically have a lot of moving parts, and attending events and meetings allows a new leader to begin to understand what's going on--and that takes a while. In addition to a lot of bureaucratic complexities, there is often a lot of history that has to be grasped. And there's a second thing here. If I, as a leader, do not show up to events, how can I expect others to show up when I need them to? Moreover, what message am I conveying if I don't participate in things? The union's strength ultimately derives from getting its members and allies to show up at places and do coordinated activities. That's a dynamic that develops through habit, and that habit is based on mutual support. People will show up if they know that people they care about up will show up too.  

The second is that new leaders try to think about the union structurally rather than personally. The people who are engaged in union work typically are well-meaning people. At times new leaders may think that problems they see in the organization arise from malevolent individuals. Increasingly, I have been convinced that such problems are usually a function of institutional structure, not personal malfeasance. That is, if we see something wrong, a better question than "Who's responsible for this?" might be "How can we restructure our institution to correct this issue?" 

I also suggest that new leaders become involved in recruiting new members. My first role in my Local at Davis was as "Membership Officer." It was my job to get new members to join—a task that is urgent now in the wake of Janus. But asking employees to join the union is important not only because we need dues to support our activities but also because it forces us to talk to our colleagues about the issues and challenges they face. The best way to get to know the people we represent is to ask them to join. I have learned important things that way. It's a great way to get to know your local and your campus. All forms of organizing and development work are enlightening learning experiences. 

What are your hopes for the coming year in terms of UC-AFT's legislative agenda and political organizing?

In this year, I hope to launch a statewide legislative committee that will provide a structure and process for our legislative activities; hopefully, this committee will form the core of a network of member-activists who engage legislators and other political actors. With the help of the CFT's lobbying team, we are slowly becoming familiar to legislators by accomplishing fairly simple things: favorable resolutions and supporting lobbying efforts by other groups. In the next legislative session we intend to be more pro-active: actually moving some of our own UC-AFT issues through the legislature and trying to influence the budget to be more favorable to us. 

As the person responsible for coordinating our union's legislative and political work, how do you respond to members who may think that we should focus on bread and butter issues and stay out of politics?

Our union could take a whole range of positions about political engagement, from refusing as much as possible to engage in politics at all to pursuing a wide political agenda that includes advocacy for things not immediately relevant to our members' working life. Our union is a democracy, and, ultimately, where our union fits in that range is up to the membership to decide in democratic fashion. 

I, however, tend to favor a wider range of political engagement because, as educators, we do not live in a vacuum. Our jobs are not isolated from the larger political and social context in which we work. The University of California is a huge tool for social engineering. It would be naīve to pretend that, when we instruct students either as librarians or lecturers, we are not already politically engaged, like it or not. Even what we might think of as political inaction on our part has political effects. And, if this is so, it behooves us to consciously choose our role within a political world in which we are already implicated.

Moreover, recent gains by teachers' unions in a number of places have made it clear that the most successful bargaining engages the larger community. This was so in the recent Los Angeles teacher strike, West Virginia teacher strike, and the Arizona teacher strike. In short, if we wish to have the best work conditions possible, we must engage politically with our allies so that they will support us when we bargain. Our force is multiplied when we have the support of political allies. In short, to address bread-and-butter issues most forcefully, we must be active politically.

Finally, we need to be engaged just because we work in a public institution. Politicians ultimately decide what happens at the University of California. The UC Administrators know this, and they work the legislature all the time. I just witnessed them kill SB 715, which would have done much to improve UC's retirement plan to benefit workers. We would be fools to cede that realm completely to the Administration. 

When you're not doing academic or union work, how do you like to spend your time?

I love to read; I prefer non-fiction, but I always try to read several novels a year, including at least one nineteenth-century British novel (somehow I got through a Ph.D. program in the humanities, but never really read many "classic" novels). My favorite place to read is on the beach, but I don't get to do that very much. I love hiking in rural areas away from cities, but I also enjoy walking through great cities. I bicycle a lot around Davis for recreation, and I continue my desultory attempts to learn Japanese and a bit of Chinese--I wish I had started them when I was young!