Post-Automated Luxury Criticism

Forthcoming in the Winter 2022 Newsletter

Our profession’s perpetual glory is the work done by our hundred thousand practitioners in classrooms and offices across the country and in every type of institution, often with little security, acknowledgment, or material support. Your work had additional care labor layered on during the pandemic, and this labor has not been removed. You’ve knocked yourself out to maintain educational quality in a year summarized by the headline “My College Students Are Not OK” (Malesic).

So the first thing I would like to do is honor and thank each and every one of you for the combination of brilliance, courage, and sheer determination you brought to the job this year, when full relief did not materialize. I wish I could snap my fingers and make the media finally see your powers of experimentation and improvisation. I’d like to snap my other fingers to help them see the poor conditions under which you often work—and to help them see the need to improve those conditions.

I’m impressed too by the profession’s collective refusal to hunker down into a single mode of engagement. You’ve continued difficult teaching, but you’ve also worked overtime to sustain a flood of remarkable scholarship, whose range and creativity is as good or better than at any time I can remember. You’ve also continued to build deep relationships with the communities in which our colleges are embedded.  

And many of you have intensified your relationships with your institution by going on strike, in New York and California and places in between. Graduate student employees and contingent faculty members have long been at the forefront of the fight for decent teaching and learning conditions at their colleges and universities. They need more help from tenured faculty members.

We are familiar with the three classic modes of teaching, research, and service, to which must be added the “humanities industries” with which we would like to improve relations. These modes are increasingly interactive and reciprocal. One hybrid mode is advanced public writing as reinvented in the past decade by the LA Review of Books, Boston Review, Aeon, Full Stop, Literary Hub, Public Books, n+1, among many others, where academic research meets nonacademic or postacademic readers. Another is the reciprocal model of public engagement, in which community-defined problems lead to the pooling of academic and nonacademic expertise. All the signs this year point toward a profession that understands these multiple and interactive modes of knowledge creation. These modes again raise the question of how they can receive proper support.

Which brings me to my favorite topic—support, and the need for support to take the form of structure. We have so much to celebrate at the end of 2022, starting with your remarkable work and inexhaustible inventiveness. And yet, now facing 2023, it’s clear we’ll need to spend the rest of the decade building, for the first time, a national structure that properly supports mid-twenty-first-century criticism.

Such a structure would do some essential things we can’t do now. First, it would visualize the components of our profession as a whole. How does employment status vary by subfield, such as composition or language instruction, and by institutional type? Where is racial parity improving, and where is it not? Who allocates funding to humanities research and instructional development, how is this done, and to what extent are various subfields supported? What share of institutional funds do colleges and universities spend supporting scholarship in MLA disciplines? What contribution do humanities centers make? What is happening with national doctoral fellowship support? STEM disciplines have comprehensive, annual answers to such questions that their practitioners use for nonstop advocacy; literature and language fields need the same.

Second, a national humanities structure would allow cooperation among initiatives taking place in the country’s hundreds of educational jurisdictions. Teaching, scholarship, and public engagement need to interact and also retain healthy, independent bases. For example, communities have learned that they cannot count on local universities to teach and research the issues uppermost in their minds. At the same time, forty years of cultural wars have taught academics that they cannot entrust their research questions to the goodwill of most communities. Once we know the relative proportions of funding, the distribution of topics and methods, and much more, we can have our first policy discussion about how our various academic and nonacademic modes can avoid competing with one another for the same limited funds and pools of official approval.

Third, a national humanities structure would allow us to set concrete goals for teaching and research health, to be pursued over time. High-cost disciplines focus relentlessly on sustaining their material conditions; disciplines that do not will fall behind.

Fourth, this structure would support a collaboration across multiple learned societies, associations, and foundations. The MLA can’t develop national policy on its own and must think about the needs of literature and language scholars in relation to the rest of the humanities disciplines.

Only a national support structure can create solidarity and unification in a fragmented and hierarchical discipline. Only a large-scale approach will allow us to make progress on the existential issues we face.

We need to achieve racial parity within our disciplines. A new study in Nature Human Behaviour shows that faculty diversity increased from 2013 to 2020 by 0.23% per year—at this rate, it will never catch up to be representative of national demographics, even if we wait several more centuries. Contesting the “leaky pipeline” theory that focuses on retaining students and faculty members of color one institution at a time, the study further finds that, during those same years, “45,309 people from underrepresented groups who had PhDs granted by US higher education institutions were not hired into tenure-track positions” (Matias et al.). Our profession should hire the PhDs that already exist (and de-emphasize alt-ac efforts to get other sectors to hire them). Only a national structure can build the necessary funding to do this and coordinate to avoid poaching one another’s favored individuals, which is zero-sum for the profession.

Racial parity goes hand in hand with other existential issues I’ve discussed before: funding MLA fields as full research disciplines—that is, giving them their first material foundations scaled to the size of the country—and achieving a 2:1 ratio of tenure-track to non-tenure-track hiring. Our scholarly output model has turned on the luxury care and feeding of a small subset of tenured faculty members largely working at three to four dozen wealthy and prestigious private universities and public flagship universities. There is no ethical justification for limiting institutionally supported intellectual life to a portion of the 156 Carnegie R1 institutions while leaving the working masses of literature and language instructors out in the cold—and outside tenure. It also violates the definition of postsecondary or university education, in which instruction always has some kind of connection to the research frontier. It also weakens our intellectual benefits to society, starting with the students who go to our most poorly funded community colleges. This fact—the necessarily up-to-date intellectuality of all college instruction—should translate into a profession consisting wholly of teacher-scholars, where all types of institutions sustain both teaching and research for everyone, in varying proportions. Getting there will require a national structure.

The luxury criticism of my title hinges on teacher-scholar support for all. My short list of basic elements includes the following:

  • Paid research time in all types of institutions for frontier engagement with research. For many instructors, this will consist entirely of professional reading time. For others, it will enable fundamental research, public engagement, or both. 
  • Travel funds for exposure to and participation in communicating frontier scholarship at, say, two conferences per year.
  • Research assistance (additional research, communications, collaboration with skills outside one’s domain, doctoral training where applicable).

Does this sound expensive? Only if we take the current state as normal. A basic but complete package might run about $20,000 per year for each of the nation’s 166,070 postsecondary humanities faculty members. That would cost $3.32 billion per year. This is one hundred times the current research budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities, but only one-third of the National Science Foundation’s, even before its major Biden boost. It would add 0.5% to the expenditure of the overall postsecondary sector, which spent $671 billion in 2019–20. Such a program could start at a lower figure: a national structure would develop an inclusive goal for all members of the profession and plan a multiyear approach to it, starting with $2,000 a year or $5,000 a year or somewhere. Humanities knowledge creation needs everyone involved: only a national structure can be properly inclusive.

Of course, this sounds impossible, but only because we’ve been thinking too small for too long. We need to build the support structure our remarkable teaching and scholarship and public involvements deserve. This is a good season to define luxury criticism. This is the time to start planning how to make it part of everyday working conditions for each and every member of the profession. This is a project not of getting but of giving a future to our profession. 

Works Cited

Malesic, Jonathan. “My College Students Are Not OK.” The New York Times, 13 May 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/05/13/opinion/college-university-remote-pandemic.html.

Matias, J. N., et al. “US Universities Are Not Succeeding in Diversifying Faculty.” Nature Human Behaviour, vol. 6, 2022, pp. 1606–08, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01495-4.