Originally published in the Summer 2020 MLA Newsletter
Even before the pandemic it was difficult to address the problems facing our profession—to ensure the well-being of our graduate students, provide access to health care for adjuncts, offer job security for untenured faculty members, and strengthen contingent faculty members’ tenuous access to academic freedom. With the pandemic, these problems have only grown more acute as travel ceases, courses can no longer be held in person, university revenues diminish, and budget cutbacks begin. Frankly, it is a terrifying time for PhD students, who face the future as an ever-narrowing horizon. The world we know has drawn to a halt as its structures of power and exclusion start to expose their seams. The structures of racial and class inequality, for instance, that permeate our institutions have only become more visible and, for many, more difficult to deny. On the one hand are administrators eager to reopen the university precisely as it was to secure its revenues; on the other are those who wish to take this occasion to reflect on and reimagine the university as a public good, as a place where social inequalities can be addressed and overcome.
Those who wish to restart the university have sought to confront the effects COVID-19 will have on their faculty members, students, staff members, and other workers. Universities that insist on opening in the fall even with social distance protocols in place cannot fully acknowledge the risk they take in possibly assisting the spread of the virus and disenfranchising those who can neither teach nor learn under conditions that may well be hazardous to their health. They have calculated, whether consciously or not, that a certain amount of illness and death will be acceptable. Can they give us that number? Will those who fall ill or die be the people of color and working-class migrants who compose their cleaning and maintenance staff, their kitchen staff? Or will it be the lecturers, who cover about seventy-two percent of all college teaching but are often denied the right to health insurance because their teaching load is restricted to less than fifty percent? Or faculty members and students with autoimmune diseases or preexisting conditions, or those who are older?
We all surely wish to keep the university alive, but is this not a moment to think creatively and critically about which form of the university should come into being? By what principles should it be governed? Can the university now be renewed with a commitment to expanding its curriculum to reflect the diversity of our social world and to ground its aim in principles of social justice and the public good? Will we continue to insist on budgets that bloat administrative salaries rather than give graduate students a living wage and secure health care for all? How would our deliberations about reopening change were we to start with the public good as a more important value than those generated by market reasoning alone?
In the humanities, we ask how values operate within language, how worlds open and close within a text or image or performance, how the future is constrained by the visual lens through which one sees. But life and death have also always been our themes, and now a new question emerges for all members of our communities: What obligation do we have to sustain one another’s lives? The communities of care emerging among graduate students during this pandemic model thinking and writing in the context of caring for life. A public disassembled into solitudes turns to art and story, to viewing public art and theater online, exchanging poems over e-mail, writing collaboratively, establishing dialogues between humanists and scientists, experimenting with digital forms. Reading a novel, we often ask about its protagonist, What kind of life is this? And if that character dies, what sequence of events led to the conclusion of this life? Was it fate or the effect of social forces that could have been averted? The entire public now asks that question as it fathoms the brutal killing of George Floyd and the long list of Black lives extinguished by police violence.
How to understand and mark such a loss of life, linked as it is with so many losses? This question we ask in literature as in life. The very same Black community that is mourning the loss of lives from COVID-19 that could have, and should have, been treated and saved suffers a series of brutal and violent losses at the hands of the police. Police violence that takes Black life works in tandem with health-care systems that let Black people die without proper care. It is systemic racism that links the two. How best, then, to rethink the university against this death dealing? Is this not our chance?
To those in a rush to reopen the university to save its future, we must ask, What kind of future do you have in mind? Shall faculty members and students have a say in that future? In our field of work, we constantly engage with imaginary worlds that refract the societies in which we live, tasked with fathoming lost or future worlds by texts that both claim our attention and let our minds wander. We cannot subscribe to the false and manic optimism of the market and its speculations as the only way to “save” the university, since once those values reign, we will have lost the battle. We speculate in the name of another set of values. And as those who work together in institutions, we affirm the chance to make a habitable world for living beings who are too familiar with having their lives stolen or their dreams extinguished. Our task, then, is to draw the contours of a future collaboratively, an imaginary for the living with the power to become our world.