Passing the Buck–Higher Ed Style

The first lesson you learn upon entering the realm of Academia is that “it” is always someone else’s problem.  What constitutes “it” depends on the specific setting of your conversation, but this ethos remains surprisingly consistent.  If we are talking about a conference or journal article, “it” is the hegemonic forces that are “hiding,” “masking,” “distorting,” or otherwise oppressing someone or something.  If we are talking about a department meeting, “it” is the College Administration (i.e. the Provost, Dean, President, or Chancellor) who just doesn’t understand the value of what we do.  If we are talking about meetings at the upper echelons of Academia, “it” becomes the legislatures or broad social forces that hamper the leaders of colleges and universities from making much-needed changes.  Everywhere in the Higher Education the message seems to be–Our hands are tied.  We’re waiting for Godot to come and untie them.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Pozzo and Lucky.  I’d invite them to dinner if I could and, of course,  make them wait an insufferably long time for their food.  But too much is at stake to continue the hand wringing and finger-pointing that has thus far passed for action on the problems in Higher Education.  While we wait for Godot, our professions are increasingly marginalized.  Many schools have already consolidated individual language departments into one massive campus unit and it is only a matter of time before those mega-departments are deemed “too costly.”  Then work can be outsourced to private contractors to tutor students in foreign languages.  Much maligned First Year Composition programs, quite frankly, are the only reason most English departments have remained intact.  However, in some schools English is now part of a new department of Media and Communications or is blended with History or Language study.  Seismic changes are coming soon to a humanities program near you and yet not many in the professions are agitating to be at the helm of these changes.  Or, if they are, they have been shut out due to their marginalized place in the academy.  As I’ve said before, the most active and engaged members of the profession right now are the non-tenured who are easily fired for making waves.

And so, at the risk of sounding monotonous, I ask again:  WHAT IS TO BE DONE?  My recent tiff with the MLA shows that their idea of action is a committee report.  We don’t need any more data.  There are probably giant warehouses along the Potomac filled with statistics and studies that no one has ever read let alone used.  Picture the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.   The problems we face in Higher Education have not changed that much since I entered school as an undergraduate fifteen years ago.  They have merely intensified.

When it comes to taking action, HASTAC and THAT Camp are among the few groups who seem to be getting it right.  Embracing technology rather than fearing it or treating it as a fad, they are looking at how that aspect of Higher Education is changing the ways in which we understand grad school in the humanities and the nature of the profession as a whole.  Also, unlike legacy organizations such as the MLA, they are doing something to make sure that students (both undergrad and grad) are learning the knowledge they need for the 21st century.  If you haven’t been following these two groups, you should.  HASTAC is holding a conference in Ann Arbor, MI as I write this post and I’m sure that more learning will take place there than at the MLA in Seattle this January.

Despite my frustrations with the current system in Higher Education, it would be foolish to deny all that I have gained from my experience as a student and a teacher.  Among the lessons learned are two key truths.  The first is how little I actually know and that I am dependent upon others to help me fill in the complete picture.  This is something that Cathy Davidson addresses in her own way through examining attention blindness.  The second is that keeping silent is not an option for intellectuals.  The state paid a lot of money to educate me and I have a duty to society to share what I have learned.  That is what I try to do both in the classroom and out.  Scholarship is either vital, active in the world around us, or it dies in a sub-basement somewhere.  What I do is of value to the non-academic community and I am proactive in asserting this.

In my next post, I’m going to address a specific set of solutions in Higher Education that affect me directly, listing some suggestions that I have for changing work conditions for Adjuncts.  Until then I encourage you all to think about solutions rather than problems, changes that might be applied to whatever you do in the academy. And yes, I am looking squarely at you Occupy MLA.  Your heart is in the right place, but some of your tweets make me want to scream.  If you have any solutions specifically relating to Adjuncts that you’d like to see in my next post, send them along.  We’re all in this boat together.  We can either collaborate to fix the leak and survive or drown alone.

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