I am increasingly frustrated by the deluge of articles by tenured professors explaining why it is an act of lunacy for anyone to go to graduate school in the humanities. I decided that it is about time that the academy hears what one of those lunatics thinks, and it’s probably past due for them to hear why I am fed up with their opinion on the matter.
If Pannapacker cared for humanities research as much as he claims he does, he would not be so cavalier about giving up on it.
According to Professor William Pannapacker in a Slate article last summer, what is needed to combat the ever-dwindling number of tenure-track positions in the university is for humanities programs to start preparing students for “real careers” outside of academia by focusing on internships and networking1. I think his misguided opinion on the matter perfectly illustrates how the problem has gotten so bad. It apparently has never occurred to Professor Pannapacker that this type of instrumental logic is precisely why humanities programs are devalued in academia. Ostensibly he’s arguing that if a program doesn’t prepare students for “real careers” in the real world of capital, then it is failing its students. This is the verbatim rationale that has been used to squeeze out expensive tenure professor positions and replace them with cheap graduate student or contract labor. In other words, Pannapacker’s solution to the problem is the problem. Worse yet, one of his potential remedies is for graduate students and professors to simply leave the university in order to show administrators that they are unhappy with the state of humanities research. If Professor Pannapacker cared for humanities research as much as he claims he does, he would not be so cavalier about giving up on it. Unfortunately, the good professor is not the only one of his ilk who has lost touch with the nature of this problem or its only real potential remedy. I would like to submit an alternative analysis of the crisis that so many professors in the humanities appear to be concerned with, but have as of yet been incapable of or unwilling to articulate properly. With that, I’ll provide a solution that I feel is more concrete, and certainly more likely to produce sustained viability for university research and education than any of the available proposals.
Professors have much more power than they or university administrators are willing to admit, and I’m not afraid to say that it makes them complicit in the erosion of higher education.
It would be shortsighted to blame all of our problems on university administrators who continually demand more profitable research from professors, and saddle faculty with massive numbers of undergraduate bodies to teach and fewer resources with which to do so. That is, of course, part of the problem. Or at least it would be part of the problem if it weren’t for the fact that these administrators are making demands on a body of people that happen to be amongst the most highly educated citizens in their respective countries. Amongst many public universities, professors have been able to maintain some degree of union strength. In the universities where unions are absent, the institution of tenure affords professors considerable free speech protections, especially regarding their right to speak out on issues of public importance. Now, in light of this new information, it is hard for me to place blame squarely on the shoulders of the profiteering university administrators, when in fact there is a group of people who far exceed administration numbers, are potentially better organized, and have the institutional protections to openly question university policies. To put it bluntly, professors have much more power than they or university administrators are willing to admit, and I’m not afraid to say that it makes them complicit in the erosion of higher education.
Just this last year, at my institution in Canada, the faculty union defeated the administration in contract negotiations because it was widely believed that the university was attempting to erode the strength of tenure. A full-fledged resistance was launched; much of the public relations language expertly articulated the universal understanding of the crisis in academia. At this rather conservative university, the faculty union was able to unite and defend themselves against an administration that threatened their professional autonomy. At the beginning of this last fall semester, the faculty also successfully defended the academic librarians who were forced to strike over the administration’s insulting wage demands. Why was this possible? It’s no secret that the administration, any university administration, is outmatched against a professorate that is united in their stance, especially when they have garnered the support of other groups of people in the university. But sadly, this is as far as the fight has gone. It’s true, tenure may be saved for those that already have it or those that may be in line to immediately receive it, but tenure as such is dangling by a thread, as is the future of higher learning itself. And it is not the administrators that stand poised to hang us, but our own mentors who have failed to acknowledge how tenure is being passively eliminated through the back door. The problem then, if it is not already clear, is not the university administration alone, but rather the complacent, disorganized, disillusioned, and self-involved professors in the academy who have lost their revolutionary spirit, who have turned the other cheek rather than resist, who have retired to the safety and comfort of departmental obscurity, and who have thus traded away the security of future generations of scholars in order to solidify their spot in the Ivory Tower.
The Occupy movement has established a new foundation for resistance, and the next logical step is for this movement to spread to university campuses.
I am not alone in this assessment of the situation. I will guarantee that the armies of graduate students struggling to stay afloat know who is to blame. So too for the contract lecturers and instructors. The grim job prospects have forced many to stay quiet out of fear that they will hurt their potential to get a tenure position when that times comes (perhaps the definition of academic irony?). Many professors I know despise the neoliberalization of the university as much as I do, they have fought administrations on these very terms, and they understand that exploitation of graduate students is getting worse, as is the demand by administrators to constantly increase graduate and undergraduate enrollment. More and more teaching falls onto contract lecturers and other precarious laborers, but for whatever reason, no one seems willing to take a stand that is not directly related to their own immediate well being. There is no need to discuss this problem amongst ourselves indefinitely: we do not need to organize a conference to discuss possible solutions, and we certainly should not consider throwing up our hands in frustration, as though the powers that be have already won. The stakes are too high. What we need is for the professors of the academy to use their positions to help rescue the university from the corporatist, profit logic of neoliberalism by openly and actively resisting further encroachments by administrators. The Occupy movement has established a new foundation for resistance, and the next logical step is for this movement to spread to university campuses. Allow me to provide a rough sketch of potential action.
- What is needed first — unfortunate as it may be as a first step — is for faculty to decide whether or not the university is a business, or an institution of learning; it can no longer be both of these things at once. It has served as a convenient scapegoat for tired professors, who carefully walk the line between business and criticism depending on their needs at the moment. The university has to be either a space of intellectual exploration and free thought, or it is a factory in which students show up and exchange money for a degree. The inconsistent hypocrisy of university faculty on this matter has been nothing short of appalling. Treating the academy as both a business, whose sole purpose is profit, and also an institution of unbound and critical reflection charged with transcending the ideologies of capital, race, gender, and sexuality, is counterintuitive and unsustainable. It works only in the interest of university administrators who have capitalized on the myths of what the university used to stand for, in order to fill the lecture halls and attract donors; it has led to the situation we find ourselves in at the present moment.
- Assuming that the hard truths regarding how we lost our way can be magnanimously accepted, the next step is organization. Faculty, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, undergraduates, university employees, contract lecturers, and whomever else is inclined should begin at once to hold general assemblies in order to identify what role the university ought to be playing in society and the current barriers to its fulfillment. This I believe will lead to an erosion of the hierarchical barriers between the involved actors, and will help us all identify what we desire from one another so that we may all help each other realize our common goals. Foremost, we need to stop thinking about what we can do, or are allowed to do, or what we can afford, or what we have done in the past, and instead we need to focus on what it is we believe the university is supposed to be about, and work from that position and that position alone.
- The final step should be to provide administrators with the assembly’s grievances, and the ways in which they can be rectified. The ultimate goal should be to wrestle control of economic resources and sole decision-making authority out of the hands of administrators, whose instrumental reasoning and profit motives are turning the university into a diploma factory, made possible through the exploitation of graduate student and contract labor. Obviously, I don’t believe that the administrators will be receptive to the idea of relinquishing power to a general assembly. Faced with this inevitability, all should be prepared to hold a series of peaceful demonstrations, strikes, walkouts, and occupations, in order to disrupt all university business for as long as it takes to regain some level of control and autonomy.
I realize I put myself at considerable risk publishing this polemic. True, the fear of alienating myself from the very faculties I seek to join would appear to be reason enough to stay quiet, but if someone doesn’t speak up soon, there will be no university to protect. At my institution, our faculty is spread thin amongst a cadre of admittedly needy graduate students, so much so that they are now attempting to justify the refusal of reference letters and committee obligations. This is unacceptable. More graduate students will be accepted next year no doubt, but there is already no funding for conference travel. My willingness to speak out illustrates that the situation has gotten so bad for us that as graduate students, we are no longer concerned about the possibility of getting a tenure track position. In my eyes, tenure is already gone. Maybe academic freedom will be next? After that, what’s to stop them from eliminating all of the unpopular or unprofitable subjects? Claiming “institutional pressures” was an excuse that worked for the professorate as long as the next generation of graduate students believed there was still a university to go to. We once believed we could defer university activism until after tenure. Let this be the unofficial notice that we no longer believe that. There is indeed a crisis in academia, which is not debatable. But the point at which it can still be saved is upon us. The methods I propose perhaps seem radical, but I implore you, if we consider what is at stake, if we fail to save the very foundation of thought, then we should all hang our heads in shame for what we’ve allowed to happen.
“Overeducated, Underemployed: How to fix humanities grad school.” Slate July 27, 2011. ↩
Eric Lohman is a PhD student in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, where he researches intersections of feminism and the social reproduction of labour power in the media.
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