Cultural Studies

Cultural Studies

Interdisciplinary Graduate Program

Cultural Studies

Interdisciplinary Graduate Program

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From Un-Ionized Particles to Unionized Labour Relations:

An Interview with CUST PhD Candidate, Rohit Revi


This is the first iteration of a newly minted Cultural Studies tradition in which graduating alumnae return to host an interview with current students in order to profile new and exciting researchers in the program. 


Dan Vena (CUST Grad ‘19): Over the summer, I had the good fortune of chatting with CUST PhD Candidate Rohit Revi about his academic journey in graduate studies – which is quite the harrowing journey, let me tell you! Rohit, why don’t I pass the mic over to you to begin this story.

Rohit Revi (PhD Candidate): Absolutely! Hello everyone, I am a migrant student and academic worker at Queen’s, with a temporary visa and 4-year permit to study here on stolen land.

I grew up in rural Kerala, a southern state in India, which has a long history of social movements and radical Left politics. After high school, I pursued a bachelor’s degree in physics, even though I remained curious about larger philosophical questions of cosmology and popular science. The turning point was perhaps in my third year of undergraduate research, when I was studying for one of my chemistry exams -- I was reading about ionized particles and un-ionized particles, and for some reason, I kept reading the latter as unionized. It took me a moment to realize that chemical particles do not participate in labour relations, whereas I probably should!

It was during my Master’s work at IIT Gandhinagar in Society and Culture that I was first able to merge my interests as an activist with my academic trajectory, with my thesis focusing on a labour critique of the techno-solutionist paradigm. I was encouraged by my supervisor (who is an alumni of Queen’s) to pursue a doctorate in the Humanities, and to apply to the Cultural Studies program here. It appeared to me as a unique program that would welcome my questions, without filtering me out based on my unorthodox academic history. And the scholarship money seemed good…

After a long and frustrating immigration process, here I am at Queen’s, working on the cultural politics of paranoia as it relates to the technologies of late stage capitalism.


DV: It’s clear to those who know you that you have quite the rebellious spirit and an engrained commitment to political organizing. Where did you learn to cultivate this side of yourself? How does this translate into your research?

RR: I am indebted to my friends and colleagues whose experiences and knowledges have shaped my worldview at every stage. As someone without a formal training in the humanities and social sciences, I learnt most things through conversations in informal spaces, from people trying to make sense of their living and working conditions in their own ways.

We live in a crisis-prone world, where a radical political transformation is an urgent necessity. As an international socialist and as a labour activist, I find myself inheriting a long history of academic thought and political action, with numerous questions and contradictions. In my research, I am trying to understand why periods of economic crises have historically resulted in the acculturation of paranoiac modes of political subjectivities, such as the ones we witness today through the rise of far-right populism worldwide.


DV: As you explained, you found a place for yourself in politicized and activist communities in your home city. Did you have the same success when coming to Queen’s?

RR: As a PhD student here, I am definitely in a position of incredible privilege when compared to most of my friends and colleagues back home, but at the same time, as a migrant student from a common background, I face significant challenges here. In the beginning, the social and political landscape was largely illegible, and the restrictions of my own language and accent felt like a hindrance to meaningful political engagement. But this is the case for most international students.

Eventually, I was introduced to the TA union on campus, PSAC Local 901, and began using the union as a platform to speak out about the challenges international students face. Currently, I work as the Equity Officer for the union, and try to develop the potential of our local towards social justice activism in the broader community.


DV: As you rightfully identify, international students face significant challenges – both with respect to completing their degrees and within the larger cultural community. Can you discuss some of the challenges international students face with finding a sense of belonging at Queen’s?

RR: From my experience, there is still not a coherent community of international students at Queen’s. Most international students relate to one another through the lens of nationality and ethnicity, rather than through our shared status as migrant students.

Universities in Canada treat international students as sources of income in their revenue model. They compensate for the underfunding of public education and the austerity cuts by Provincial governments by increasing international tuition fees and by limiting the scholarships options available to international students. At Queen’s International PhD students still pay twice the tuition fees as our domestic colleagues. This is compounded by the fact that international students mostly belong to one or more of the equity-seeking groups, and experience social marginalization in the communities that we currently live within. We need to be able to extend ourselves to each other beyond our national identities and build a strong organization to be able to advocate for ourselves.


DV: I think your description of feeling like a liminal subject is a salient one, and perhaps one that informs your commitment to coalitional politics and community building. Can you talk about that desire and the work you’ve done to bridge such divides?

RR: As a slogan, I feel that “All of Us or None of Us” captures the spirit of coalition-building between groups of differential power within a overall system that is based on Divide and Rule. We could not have organized the International Student Caucus under PSAC 901, or the International Student Working Group under the SGPS, without support from our domestic colleagues. They realized that we were struggling to have our voices heard by the administration, that our situation is particularly precarious, and stepped up to create a space for us to launch a campus-wide campaign asking for the reduction of PhD tuition to domestic rates. This gesture of solidarity was important and inspiring. We might be temporary, but we are not alone.

As migrants here, we also have a similar responsibility towards the Indigenous communities who host us here on their lands. We have learnt from Elders on campus that international students are guests here on Indigenous territories. We must recognize this and be grateful and indebted to our hosts. We are duty-bound to stand with our hosts in their fight for self-determination, and we need to be able to critically engage with our relationship with the Canadian State.

As important, we must, as migrant students, recognize that we have responsibilities towards migrant workers in Canada, who do not have the same political liberty as us in Canadian society. So I want to reiterate again, “All of Us or None of Us.”


DV: Rohit, you actually earned the Kingston and District Labour Council’s “Rising Star Activist of the Year” Award in 2020 for the work you have done at Queen’s advocating for international and domestic students. I have to ask…how do you stave off activist burn out?

RR: There was a time this year when I was totally burnt out, and the words that came out of my mouth no longer made any coherent sense. My colleagues at the union have witnessed this first-hand. I took self-care quite lightly and tried to do too much in too little time, and in not the most energy-efficient manners. I think that learning to delegate work and preserve energy, is still a challenge. This is not to mention the mental load of being a grad student with hard deadlines and academic pressures.

I have learnt from activists who have done much more organized than me here that one needs to not commit to everything. It would be an injustice to oneself and to the work being committed to.


DV: My last question for you, and perhaps the most pressing of all, where is Rohit on a Saturday night?

RR: (chuckling) If I am alone, I am probably playing an abnormal amount of Chess online with strangers, or watching Malayalam movies, or reading Science Fiction short stories. Or I could be video calling with my family in Kerala, since it would be morning there!