For better or worse, I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with the large institutional structures that govern Academia writ large. I’m not referring to my current situation (which I adore, for the record) or my previous situation (much less adorable, for the record) but to organizations such as the MLA, AHA, ASA, etc. Officially they represent the abstract “us” of the professoriate, but at present absolutely no one I know would take such an assertion seriously. To give you a concrete example, despite its declarations on the plight of graduate students who must attend the national conference to interview largely on their own dime, despite its declarations on the adjunctification of academic labor (which directly damages the prestige of the organization itself), this year’s MLA will be in Vancouver, Canada. That’s right: in a world where we have friends leaving the academy because they can’t make ends meet and other friends are desperately giving the job market one last try on their precariously balanced credit cards, the MLA tone-deafly decided to hold its annual conference a mere “transborder” flight away. According to her Twitter MLA Pres Rosemary Feal is even actively interested in keep the poor riffraff who can’t afford conference registration OUT of the sacred hall of the conference. Bravo, MLA, bravo, I say.
This brings me to one of the more important matters facing the “us” in the abstract: solidarity. When I read this article on online education and adjunct labor from the Chronicle’s Vitae site, my take away questions were: where are this person’s colleagues? Do they not understand that a move against one in a case like this is a move against all? Do they not understand how online education in this instance is coming dangerously close to eroding the core of academic expertise itself? Do they not see how they themselves are implicated directly in the outcome here? Do they simply not care?
Take a look, for example, at the number of folks who have taken to the Internets and actively boycotted the University of Illinois over their decision to rescind a job offer to Steven Salaita. I’m not taking a position on this particular matter, but am using it as a reference point on how academics, despite the terror inspired by their apparently Marxist leanings, are yet enamored by the kinds of fuzzy abstract categories like “academic freedom” that would make a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist cringe. In other words, the past few months have seen a large, sustained public outcry over the Salaita firing while the ongoing, massive erosion of the professoriate and the conditions of intellectual production in the US academy (in which academic freedom certainly plays a part) are the subject of unhinged blogposts and whispers in the hallway, at best. Indeed, where are the calls to boycott Austin Peay State over its tacit dismissal of Karen McArthur and the outright theft of her intelectual property that diminishes the value of academic expertise itself?
Let’s be honest: the difference here has more to do with status (tenured or tenure-track versus non-tenure track) than the issues at hand. That is, the matter here is of academic class, the academic haves and the have nots.
And let me be blunt: in the presence of such a division the Humanities and literature have no value beyond the narrow, limited self-interests of individual actors. That is, no value at all. Put another way, academic infighting and academic privilege destroy notions of disciplinarily insofar as the formation of disciplines requires the engagement and investments of infinite actors across time and space. There can be no discipline of one. Disciplines by their very nature demand the hands of all. If we cannot stand together in support of the Humanistic project that, at this point, is centuries if not millennia in its refinement and evolution, we are destined to disappear one by one.
This point has been driven home to me in a number of ways during my time in academia. For instance, at one point awhile back I found myself at one of those institutional self-help seminars (no names, no editorializing beyond that). The person in charge gave the impression he was doing a parody of an SNL skit insofar as his rhetoric was so stunningly transparent he HAD to be speaking ironically whilst at the same time he fully expected those in attendance to take everything he said at face value. As part of this process he gave us a list of survey questions we would then ask each other in small groups, speed dating style, before aggregating the answers so as to give the illusion of “faculty input.” Before speed dating, he then PROVIDED US WITH THE “ANSWERS” to the questions. In real time I thought, “wow, I can’t wait for the speed dating so we can discuss the absurdity of this obvious psychological manipulation.” As the speed dating arrived, however, I was profoundly disappointed. To the question, “How will the U benefit from this process?” I responded, “That’s a terrible, dishonest question, and a blatant attempt to frame our discussion as it assumes, ipso facto, the institution will benefit. Can you believe this guy?” The person across from me looked at me as if I were speaking Martian.
The Stepford quality of the enterprise was driven home by my interaction with one of the most respected actors on campus, a person well respected in all quarters for her broad commitments to student learning. When asked my question, “What is the most important thing for faculty to keep in mind about the process?,” she uncritically parroted the “We must have an institutional mindset” nugget the facilitator has JUST told us was the answer to this question. This person has a PhD. This person does research in critical thinking. And yet this person took that suggestion whole cloth without realizing what it means. An institutional mindset treats the U in an artificial vacuum in which it does not stand in relation to the much broader, no less institutional structures of the disciplines that intersect to comprise that particular university. This is akin to considering the ecosystem of your house apart from that of the surrounding environment: sure, there are needs particular to your situation, but you’d do well not to forget that there are much larger forces at work here than the AC, and that, say, taking the roof off of your porch because you find it annoying may have drastic consequences for your basement. Similarly, here “institutional perspective” set disciplines against each other to compete for resources rather than understanding how these intersect with, inform, and depend upon each other to realize their individual fullness. In other words, it precluded any sort of broad-based faculty solidarity.
I disagree with a number of points in this other Vitae article (particularly its rather puerile swipe at Obama), but I agree wholeheartedly with its conclusion: namely, that “we” must fix “ourselves.” If we don’t value our disciplines, the material conditions of our own intellectual production, each other and each other’s work, why should we expect anyone else to do so?