Fighting Words

Days pass, and issues go by, and increasingly by the time I’ve thought something through for myself, the online conversation, if that’s the right word for it, has moved on.

One exchange that keeps sticking with me is about the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature’s recent report and a number of strong critical responses made to the report.

One of the major themes of the criticisms involves the labor market in academia generally and in the MLA’s disciplines specifically. Among other things, this particular point seems to have inspired some of the critics to run for the MLA executive with the aim of shaking up the organization and galvanizing its opposition to the casualization of academic labor. We need all the opposition we can get on that score, though I suspect that should the dissidents win, they are going to discover that the most militant MLA imaginable is nevertheless not in a position to make a strong impact in that overall struggle.

I’m more concerned with the response of a group of humanities scholars published at Inside Higher Education. To the extent that this response addresses casualization and the academic labor market, I think it unhelpfully mingles that issue with a quite different argument about disciplinarity and the place of research within the humanities. Perhaps this mingling reflects some of the contradictions of adjunct activism itself, which I think has recently moved from demanding that academic institutions convert many existing adjunct positions into traditional tenure-track jobs within existing disciplines to a more comprehensive skepticism or even outright rejection of academic institutions as a whole, including scholarly hierarchies, the often-stifling mores and manners that attend on graduate school professionalization, the conventional boundaries and structures of disciplinarity, and so on. I worry about baby-and-bathwater as far as that goes, but then again, this was where my own critique of graduate school and academic culture settled a long time ago, back when I first started blogging.

But on this point, the activist adjuncts who are focused centrally on abysmal conditions of labor and poor compensation in many academic institutions are right to simply ignore much of that heavily freighted terrain since what really matters is the creation of well-compensated, fairly structured jobs for highly trained, highly capable young academics. Beyond insuring that those jobs match the needs of students and institutions with the actually existing training that those candidates have received, it doesn’t really matter whether those jobs exist in “traditional” disciplines or in some other administrative and intellectual infrastructure entirely. For that reason, I think a lot of the activists who are focused substantially on labor conditions should be at the least indifferent and more likely welcoming to the Task Force’s interest in shaking the tree a little to see what other kinds of possibilities for good jobs that are a long-term part of academia’s future might look like. Maybe the good jobs of the academic future will involve different kinds of knowledge production than in the past. Or involve more teaching, less scholarship. If those yet-to-exist positions are good jobs in terms of compensation and labor conditions, then it would be a bad move to insist instead that what adjuncts can only really want is the positions that once were, just as they used to be.

They should also not welcome the degree to which the IHE critics conflate the critique of casualization with the defense of what they describe as the core or essential character of disciplinary scholarship.

The critics of the Task Force report say that the report misses an opportunity to “defend the value of the scholarly practices, individual and collective, of its members”. The critics are not, they say, opposed in principle to “innovation, expansion, diversification and transformation”, but that these words are “buzzwords” that “devalue academic labor” and marginalize humanities expertise.

Flexibility, adaptability, evolution are later said to be words necessarily “borrowed” from business administration (here linking to Jill Leopore’s excellent critique of Clayton Christiansen).

For scholars concerned with the protection of humanistic expertise, this does not seem to me to be a particularly adroit reading of a careful 40-page document and its particular uses of words like innovation, flexibility, or evolution. What gets discounted in this response is the possibility that there are any scholars inside of the humanities, inside of the MLA’s membership, who might use such words with authentic intent, for whom such words might be expressive of their own aspirations for expert practice and scholarly work. That there might be intellectual arguments (and perhaps even an intellectual politics for) for new modes of collaboration, new forms of expression and dissemination, new methods for working with texts and textuality, new structures for curricula.

If these critics are not “opposed in principle” to innovation or flexibility, it would be hard to find where there is space in their view for legitimate arguments about changes in either the content or organization of scholarly work in the humanities. They assert baldly as common sense propositions that are anything but: for example, that interdisciplinary scholarship requires mastering multiple disciplines (and hence, that interdisciplinary scholarship should remain off-limits to graduate students, who do not have the time for such a thing).

If we’re going to talk about words and their associations, perhaps it’s worth some attention to the word “capitulation”. Flexibility and adaptability, well, they’re really rather adaptable. They mean different things in context. Capitulation, on the other hand, is a pretty rigid sort of word. It means surrendering in a conflict or a war. If you see yourself as party to a conflict and you do not believe that your allies or compatriots should surrender, then if they try to, labelling their actions as capitulation is a short hop away from labelling the people capitulating as traitors.

If I were going to defend traditional disciplinarity, one of the things I’d say on its behalf is that it is a bit like home in the sense of “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”. And I’d say that in that kind of place, using words that dance around the edge of accusing people of treason, of selling-out, is a lousy way to call for properly valuing the disciplinary cultures of the humanities as they are, have been and might yet be.

The critics of the MLA Task Force say that the Task Force and all faculty need to engage in public advocacy on behalf of the humanities. But as is often the case with humanists, it’s all tell and no show. It’s not at all clear to me what you do as an advocate for the humanities if and when you’re up against the various forms of public hostility or skepticism that the Task Force’s report describes very well, if you are prohibited from acknowledging the content of that skepticism or prohibited from attempting to persuasively engage it on the grounds that this kind of engagement is “capitulation”. The critics suggest instead “speaking about these issues in classes” (which links to a good essay on how to be allies to adjunct faculty). In fact, step by step that’s all that the critics have to offer, is strong advocacy on labor practices and casualization. Which is all a good idea, but doesn’t cover at all the kinds of particular pressures being faced by the humanities, some of which aren’t confined to or expressed purely around adjunctification, even though those pressures are leading to the net elimination of jobs (of any kind) in many institutions. Indeed, even in the narrower domain of labor activism, it’s not at all clear to me that rallying against “innovation” or “adaptability” is a particularly adroit strategic move for clawing back tenure lines in humanities departments, nor is it clear to me that adjunct activists should be grateful for this line of critical attack on the MLA Task Force’s analysis.

Public advocacy means more than just the kind of institutional in-fighting that the tenurati find comfortable and familiar. Undercutting a dean or scolding a colleague who has had the audacity to fiddle around with some new-fangled innovative adaptability thing is a long way away from winning battles with state legislators, anxious families, pragmatically career-minded students, federal bureaucrats, mainstream pundits, Silicon Valley executives or any other constituency of note in this struggle. If the critics of the MLA Task Force think that you can just choose the publics–or the battlegrounds–involved in determining the future of the humanities, then that would be a sign that they could maybe stand to take another look at words like flexible and adaptable. It’s not hard to win a battle if you always pick the fights you know you can win, whether or not they consequentially affect the outcomes of the larger struggles around you.

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4 Responses to Fighting Words

  1. Withywindle says:

    You may have done this elsewhere, but what are examples of the sort of public advocacy that you believe should be imitated?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    So for one, if it’s not obvious from the post, I think the Task Force is closer to the mark than its critics. E.g., they take various worries and anxieties swirling around the humanities seriously enough to actually acknowledge them, engage them, and try to provide some programmatic ways to be responsive to some of the substance of those concerns. I think the Harvard Humanities Project’s recent report is another good document that is mostly speaking back to humanists at Harvard (and elsewhere) but that is trying to be a public document as well. I think at least some of the genre of “Whither the Liberal Arts?” books that are out there by academics work pretty hard to connect with those publics that are not committed to inflexible anti-intellectualism–the new Michael Roth book is a pretty fair attempt in that direction, for example.

    I think there are people who are less trying to be a part of the grand public conversation and are more just doing their own thing in a very public way who also count. Cathy Davidson and HASTAC are good examples of that approach.

    And I also do think that many of the activists working on labor organizing in the academy are making a meaningful impact, if nothing else just by calling attention to how poor the terms of employment really are in so many universities. That really seems to finally be registering with at least some publics who previously ignored or were unaware of the whole issue. I’m not sure that’s having a specific impact on the humanities, though.

    For the narrower public of mostly older professionals, literati, etc. who identified with the humanities as they were in the 1960s and 1970s (publishers, writers, journalists, critics, theater-goers, etc.) I think the gloomy, pessimistic, o-tempora-o-mores sort of public writing that a small number of academic humanists specialize in is effective, but I think at the costs of further isolating the scholarly humanities.

  3. Withywindle says:

    Thank you! Having examples like this is helpful for me to think through this sort of issue.

  4. Jerry Hamrick says:

    I have read and reread your posts about the problems engulfing the humanities. The last thing you need as commentary from amateurs.

    But, anyway, there are two problems in my opinion. One is funding and that can be fixed though not very quickly. I think it will take at least six years to open the spigot and if it is not done then it will be a very, very long time for things to get better. The other problem is one that I encountered as a college freshman: what good are the humanities? When I search the Internet for the answers to this question I cannot find satisfactory answers. But it seems to me that the humanities are positioned to fill a void in our society.

    Economists, I have no idea where they belong, but in any case they fearlessly make many predictions about the future, and they have no basis for those predictions, and their record is abysmal. Yet they thrive.

    Not too long ago, I saw on BookTV several Civil War historians discussing a new book that one of them had just published. During the audience Q&A several questions were asked that the historians ducked, amid much nervous laughter. They, unlike economists, understood the limits of their knowledge. Yet, they often talk about the lessons of history.

    The humanities, because of its scope in time and space, should be able to draw theories that will enable predictions to be made. But, again, they can’t do it, because they know the limits of the discipline.

    When I read Internet articles about the humanities some tell me that the discipline teaches us about human nature and how it is the same everywhere and everywhen. The idea is that the humanities defines human nature. But some practitioners disagree. They say the the focus should be on understanding the human condition everywhere and everywhen so that the student can develop his own theory of human nature. I accept the former and reject the latter view.

    But no matter which is correct, if either, the usefulness of the humanities depends on the student. It leaves him with nowhere to go. He is not given enough information to form a working model of human nature and how he should expect life to unfold for him. He needs a process that will help him evaluate the events of his life so that he can better deal with them than otherwise. But, as I understand it, the humanities does not supply this working model of human nature. It is probably impossible, it is dangerous because somebody will strongly disagree with it, and right now it requires someone to really stick his neck out a long, long way.

    But what if the working model is wrong in many ways? So what? I think that the humanities, at least some part of it, should offer a course on human nature, what it is, how it varies, how to recognize the variations, what to expect from each variation, and how best to cope with the most difficult parts of it. I am not talking about interpersonal relationships, I am talking about the effects of human nature everywhere and everywhen in general and in our society in particular. The class should start with a list of the varieties of behavioral characteristics of human nature and how those behaviors manifest themselves and how they affect society. Then this list should be applied to all aspects of the humanities. What sort of person was Shakespeare? How did his specific human nature affect his point of view, and his choices? How much of literature is a reflection of the human nature of the author? For example Robert Browning, just before he died, was reading from Epilogue to Asolando to his daughter when he came to a passage that was autobiographical and he said to her, “It almost looks bragging to say this, and as if I ought to cancel it; but it’s the simple truth; and as it’s true, it shall stand.”

    Surely all of his work reflected his particular variety of human nature. And the same may be said of poets in general. Are they of only one variety? Why don’t individuals from the other variety write poems? The answer will say a lot about how society works. It will say that not all things are possible for all people, and it will predict what is possible, and even what can be expected of each variety.

    Yes, I know all of the objections to this idea, and I reject them. I think that humanity needs to confront our human nature and all of its ramifications. There needs to be a place where that confrontation can take place and where our understanding of life will be improved. The humanities are that place, and taking on that role will transform the humanities to a vigorous place of current ideas about the here and now and about the future. Funding problems will go away. Enrollment will jump. Students will seek schools with the best humanities departments as measured by their ideas about human nature and how it should be dealt with as a society.

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