Columns by Diana Taylor

When the Resolution Causes the Breach

[Social dramas consist of] breach, crisis, redress, and either reintegration or recognition of schism. . . . This breach is seen as the expression of a deeper division of interests and loyalties than appears on the surface. . . . The final phase consists . . . in the reintegration of the disturbed social group.

—Victor Turner, “Social Dramas and Stories about Them”

This past year has been difficult and at times heartbreaking. In addition to the attacks on public education throughout the pre-K–12 system, our universities are under siege. The government is pulling back on its obligation to education, as evidenced most recently when Betsy DeVos argued that “we’ve done a disservice to young people for many years by suggesting that the only path to success as adults is through a four-year college or university” (qtd. in Harris). Several campuses have become the scene of intense struggles to define and defend an open democratic space. What, for example, are the limits of free speech and who gets to decide what it means? The human and political costs of these new culture wars are staggering. The images of young white men holding torches and shouting racist and anti-Semitic taunts at the white-supremacist, neo-Nazi rally at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, sent shock waves throughout the United States and the world. Shortly thereafter, the current administration targeted our students by rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The economic costs are also enormous. The University of California, Berkeley, has allocated $600,000 on security for an on-campus talk by a conservative political commentator (Yudof and Waltzer). The University of Florida spent a comparable amount on security costs surrounding a recent speech by a white supremacist. That money, arguably, could have been spent on financial aid for students and on the creation of more tenure-track faculty lines.

The escalating attacks have been compounded by the increasing devaluation of the humanities by some of our university leaders and administrators. Funding for the humanities dwindles, departments and tenure lines disappear, and precarious teaching positions become the norm as institutions strengthen STEM programs and majors that supposedly lead to jobs. The instrumentalist approach to education does not factor in the changing reality of the workplace—the job we train for today may not be the new kind of work we do tomorrow. Universities need to prepare students to think and express themselves clearly so that they can learn new things and then analyze and resolve challenges in their first, second, and third jobs.

We’re at a watershed moment in our liberal democracy. Are our educational institutions and our professional practices up to the task of defending and promoting the vital role of humanistic dialogue and education?

The MLA has not been exempt from the tensions and conflicts that define our social moment and our profession. Resolution 2017-1, whereby a majority of voting members opted not to endorse the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, revealed deep differences of opinion and turned many members against one another and against the MLA. Some argued that the MLA should not boycott academic institutions. Period. Some held to unconditional and nonnegotiable values of free speech. Others felt that the MLA could and should bring pressure to bear on educational systems that participate in oppressive political systems, whether it’s in the Israel-Palestine conflict or in the context of United States institutions that target DACA and international students. Some members felt the MLA should not involve itself in political matters, as if working and debating ideas in the public sphere were not in themselves political activities. The MLA has long provided a space within which these troubling debates and contestations take place.

More disheartening, however, is when our association mirrors the contentious larger public sphere so that we become opponents, antagonists, enemies even, rather than adversaries who can disagree and yet continue to work together. We are never going to agree, not at the MLA, not in the country. As Chantal Mouffe points out, “a well-functioning democracy calls for a confrontation of democratic political positions.” If this confrontation is missing, there’s a danger of its being replaced by “a confrontation of non-negotiable moral values or essentialist forms of identification” (7). The animosity that members feel extends to the institutions in which those debates take place. Social ruptures or breaches, according to the anthropologist Victor Turner, should ideally end in “reintegration” and resolution (149). Yet uneasy resolution, he understood, could provoke a new breach, as we saw with the outcome of Resolution 2017-1. Does the “fault” of the outcome lie with the MLA or with how MLA members, after years of lobbying and debate, decided to vote? After the vote, the Executive Council almost unanimously agreed that the prolonged process contributed, in part, to animosity provoked by the outcome. We are proposing a new decision-making process for members to vote on. When the proposal comes up for review next year, I encourage you to vote on whether these new procedures can help us handle our necessary conflicts less antagonistically.

My modest hope, as I leave the presidency in January, is that we use the size and clout of the MLA, and the spaces for debate the association offers, to focus on those arenas that unite us so that we can intervene in the urgent problems affecting our profession and our constituencies. Such action requires collective effort. And let’s use the MLA Action Network, the OpEd Project workshop at the convention this January, and other tools the organization offers to help us develop our individual and collective skills so that we can more effectively voice our own opinions in the public sphere. There’s a lot to do, and I am heartened by the belief that we are up to the task.

Works Cited

Harris, Adam. “DeVos Keeps Higher Ed—and Reporters—at Arm’s Length.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 Oct. 2017, www.chronicle.com/article/DeVos-Keeps-Higher-Ed-and/241372.

Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. Verso, 2013.

Turner, Victor. “Social Dramas and Stories about Them.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 7, no. 1, 1980, pp. 141–68.

Yudof, Mark G., and Kenneth Waltzer. “Free Speech, Campus Safety, or Both.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 Sept. 2017, www.chronicle.com/article/Free-Speech-Campus-Safety-or/241220.

Protest in support of the arts and humanities

#States of Insecurity

Originally published in the Fall 2017 MLA Newsletter

This year’s presidential theme, #States of Insecurity, pressed itself upon me late last year. It urges us to reflect on how our intellectual, artistic, and pedagogical work helps us confront the grave issues facing our profession(s). What strategies, it asks, do the humanities offer for navigating our current crises: political volatility, fluctuating financial markets, fear-mongering media, and increasingly hateful acts and rhetoric that contribute to a general sense of malaise?

I had originally anticipated my presidential term might highlight resistance and activism, exploring ways that humanists might use the skills they have developed in verbal and written
expression, performance and visual cultures, and digital and analog formats to support the values of the liberal arts and invert, subvert, parody, and redo some of the more nefarious happenings in the public sphere. I was hopeful we might enact solidarity and even joy in support of our disenfranchised students and colleagues as we strengthened our educational mission.

Suddenly, however, it became clear that the challenges facing education in the United States were overwhelming our profession. Resistance and activism, though certainly vital, did not seem enough. With dizzying speed, executive orders announced travel bans. Congress appointed Betsy DeVos, an open critic of public schools, as secretary of education. DACA (deferred action for childhood arrivals) students were at risk of deportation. The White House threatened to defund the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other cultural institutions. Title VI and Hays-Fulbright came under attack, limiting support for language instruction in the United States and abroad. The speed and reach of the hostile actions set off alarms for those of us in the humanities. Gone was the time for analysis, reflection, and discussion so vital to our understanding of critical thinking and decision making. The tables had turned, and the WE, those I had imagined would intervene and redirect the conversation toward more democratic and egalitarian practices, were the ones being parodied and undone.

Public opinion also shifted rapidly. In July, the Pew Research Center reported finding a “deep partisan divide” regarding the value of education (Fain). As I write, our educational system is being dismantled and defunded. Departments, as with Stony Brook University recently, are being collapsed into catchall administrative units to reduce the number of faculty and staff members. Watch lists target “liberal” professors, and reputable scholars are being maligned in the press. Our theories are being used against us. Those of us who had argued cogently that reality is complex and anything but natural and transparent are back in the trenches maintaining the primacy of facts. Advocates of freedom of expression are being slammed using free-speech arguments. The tensions and suspicions that currently plague our public sphere make themselves felt increasingly in our fields and professional practices. I, like many others, have started to police what I say and what I write.

As the new not-normal unfurled, however, it became clear that resistance and activism, while they might not be enough, remained more important than ever. The women’s march and the PEN rally called attention to how critical it is to have people on the streets. Activist groups made common cause with civil rights organizations and journalists to continue to defend DACA. Protestors clogged local airports to impede the travel ban. Nearly 150,000 people have contacted their congressional representatives to defend the NEH. Organizations such as the MLA have been on the front lines of many of these struggles.

#States of Insecurity, then, asks us to consider the very real threats to our educational system even as we use the tools we have—organizing, critique, protest, collective action, and humor—to push back. The hashtag in the title is an emblem of the networked and mediated nature of both the menaces and our responses.

A hashtag is a metadata symbol that helps find, name, and organize materials by topic, such as states of insecurity. The # clusters some of the many possible topics in the convention into a recognizable theme. Are states of security or security states the hoped-for opposite of states of insecurity or the other side of the same subjugation? The hashtag suggests too that this state pertains to a category of similar events—neither the first nor the last in a long series. Indigenous peoples, as well as many racial, gender, national, and religious minorities, have long lived in states of insecurity. The hashtag can also communicate one’s feelings about something: #makingprogress, #depressed. The metadata tag on social media automatically creates an ad hoc community or affinity group. As a product of social media, it captures the speed with which the debates and critiques both outside and inside our organization have gone viral.

Ideally there will be as many different ways of thinking through #States of Insecurity at this year’s MLA convention as there are ideas on how best to confront these states. More than three hundred sessions (or more than a third of the total number of sessions) have asked to be part of the presidential theme. The Presidential Plenary brings together scholars long committed to activism—including Angela Davis, Cathy Davidson, Judith Butler, the Mayan scholar Juan López Intzín, and Anthony Romero, head of the American Civil Liberties Union—to discuss strategies for survival. The linked sessions, Rights under Repression and States of Insecurity: Accepting Vulnerability, Permeability, and Instability, further explore the theme. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak will receive the Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award.

The MLA is committed to advocating for the centrality of the humanities not only in our educational systems but also in society. The association’s new advocacy site, the MLA Action Network, will enable scholars to keep up-to-date and respond to threats to free speech, net neutrality, and health care—all of which affect those working in our fields. Because of its size and standing, the MLA can make a difference and help its members intervene in the many states of insecurity we now face. Now is the time not only to assess the dangers but, as a WE, to fight them collectively. I’m looking forward to seeing you all in January!

Work Cited

Fain, Paul. “Deep Partisan Divide on Higher Education.” Inside Higher Ed, 11 July  2017, www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/07/11/dramatic-shift-most-republicans-now-say-colleges-have-negative-impact.

Becoming WE

Originally published in the Summer 2017 MLA Newsletter

I remember the moment it occurred to me that I might want to assume a leadership position in the MLA. For the association’s 2014 convention, Marianne Hirsch organized her presidential forum around the topic of vulnerability. I spoke of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas, who had been rebelling against the Mexican government and had, over more than twenty years of resistance, developed a notion of a world in which there is room for many worlds. I are WE, one Zapatista mural declared. This political construction of the WE did not signal conformity of opinion, background, or belief. But it did underline the awareness that WE are in this together. The urgent problems they faced—discrimination, violence, inequality before the law, conditions of extreme precarity—called them to acknowledge themselves as a collectivity composed of individuals determined to struggle together for justice. Their WE, rather than a shared identity or worldview, reflected a strategic linking up to defend the issues they care about. I looked up and asked the MLA members in the room: When will we become a WE?

Now is the time to become a WE.

Not a royal WE.

Not a nationalist or populist WE.

But a collective, negotiated WE advocating for the right and the access to a world-class education for all.

As scholars and students in the humanities, we agree on the value of education in a democratic society, even though we have different ideas about how to prioritize and address the challenges that face us. As members of an evidence-based community trained in critical thinking, we recognize that the perennial problems continue to intensify. The humanities are undervalued and underfunded in most areas of educational and public life. Departments of languages and literature are shrinking or being clustered in catchall entities that require less specialization and, thus, fewer faculty members. Not enough public schools offer training in languages other than English, and the “teach to the test” pedagogy means many high school students never read full texts as part of their course work. Our graduate students have trouble finding full-time postsecondary teaching jobs in their areas of study, and adjunctification now seems an existential condition in addition to an acute labor issue we need to fight. Alongside these and related problems, the new United States presidential administration has ushered in a series of positions aimed at the “deconstruction of the administrative state” (in Steve Bannon’s words), including education (Rucker).

Apparent followers of Paul de Man, administration leaders aim to delink speech from meaning, lauding the virtues of education while placing the Department of Education in the hands of a person who has long attacked the public school system. In a move to privatize education through a charter school system, the new secretary of education made it clear: “We must open up the education industry—and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry—we must open it up to entrepreneurs and innovators” (Strauss). The president’s budget provides zero funding for the NEH and NEA and the Department of Education’s international education programs. Bills are being proposed to eliminate or cut back on free-lunch programs. DACA students (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), who have until recently been allowed to pursue their educations, are being deported. Other students, faculty members, and guest speakers from abroad have been denied entry into the United States.

The challenges posed to education at all levels are interrelated. WE, as members of the MLA, need to link up strategically to face these threats on several fronts. In addition to the work the MLA can do on a national level, we can participate in our neighborhood schools, go to town hall meetings, contact our legislators, and write op-eds in our local newspapers to advocate support for the humanities, for our schools, and for all students. In our universities, we can campaign actively to increase the number of tenure-track positions and to make sure that our adjuncts have appropriate pay and as much job security and as many professional advancement opportunities as possible. While some of these issues seem beyond our grasp as individuals, by linking up strategically we form a very strong WE. The MLA is currently putting resources in place to help us act individually and as a strategically linked collective (www.mla.org/Advocacy-Initiatives). This is the time to make our voices heard in defense of education and the humanities, together as the MLA and as individual educators and members of the humanities workforce.

Several scholarly organizations across disciplines, like the MLA, are currently discussing the degree to which they should involve themselves in the political debates. Professional standards of behavior have long held that being vocal in the public arena and addressing a general public are to be avoided. Some scholars are understandably reluctant to speak out. Some of us fear we might face ostracism or be passed over for professional advancement. James Hansen, a leading scientist of climate change, was ridiculed, harassed, and arrested for addressing an audience about the human factors contributing to global warming. Now scientists and their allies are marching in Washington on 22 April in support of scientific research and evidence-based policies. The long-observed practice of delinking researchers from the publics affected by their findings does not serve anyone well.

Those of us in the MLA can’t sit on the sidelines while the educational system is being “deconstructed.” The MLA is part of a larger WE, a community of scholars and academics across the spectrum that also understands the need for action. WE can link up with others to pursue broader, shared goals. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of education in the United States is playing out right now. WE need to have a part in shaping that future.

Works Cited

Rucker, Philip. “Bannon: Trump Administration Is in Unending Battle for ‘Deconstruction of the Administrative State.’” The Washington Post, 23 Feb. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/02/23/bannon-trump-administration-is-in-unending-battle-for-deconstruction-of-the-administrative-state/?utm_term=.c022b8440c25.

Strauss, Valerie. “To Trump’s Education Pick, the U.S. Public School System Is a ‘Dead End.’” The Washington Post, 21 Dec. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/12/21/to-trumps-education-pick-the-u-s-public-school-system-is-a-dead-end/?utm_term=.d4bab722d413.

Inside/Outside: Un-disciplining Disciplines

Originally published in the Spring 2017 MLA Newsletter

An undisciplined student, impatient with my high school classes at the British school in Mexico City, I used to jump over the fence a few times a week after roll call and walk home. I’d throw off my tie and blazer (the outward signs of colonial submission) and set about to learn in my own haphazard fashion. I loved Shakespeare but also the Mexican comic and philosopher Cantinflas. When I graduated from high school it was because Dios es grande (God is great), as people say in Mexico, and, as important, because students in the British system had to pass the General Certificate of Education administered out of the University of London. The exams were graded in London, where no one cared if I had jumped over the fence to escape school. I passed: five Ordinary Levels and two Advanced Levels, in literature and history. Not brilliant, but it got me into college, where I learned to navigate the system enough to develop my skills and focus my passions.

This preamble allows me to reflect on the complicated but hopefully productive friction between the “inside” (academia, schools, disciplines) and the “outside,” the postdisciplinary and even the undisciplined approaches to knowledge that take us beyond the restrictive epistemic grids that some of our Eurocentric disciplines and practices have imposed on us. Knowledge (as opposed to facts) is not out there in the world, ready to be found or measured or ingested. Knowing, like memory, like identity, is a doing carried out in the present. Sometimes we have to jump over the fence to do it; sometimes we dance or read or write or debate or go to class. It’s hard work that we do with others, many different kinds of others, in many languages, and in many places.

The fence, however, has also isolated and delegitimated knowledge. Colonization dismissed the noncanonical forms of knowledge as well as the people who practiced them. The Huarochirí Manuscript, written in Quechua at the end of the sixteenth century by Francisco de Avila, announced, “If the ancestors of the people called Indians had known writing in early times, then the lives they lived would not have faded from view” (41). That he could not see or understand their cultural productions did not mean they ceased to exist or have lasting value. Their rituals, fiestas, songs, architecture, and medical and agricultural systems prove that. But Western educational systems, products and beneficiaries of colonization, were built on the backs of the conquered, the enslaved, the indebted, and the excluded; and not simply because black slaves and indigenous workers built the universities in the Americas that would deny them entrance. These institutions organized knowledge into what the Brazilian legal scholar and sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls “monocultures” (24). He coined “epistemicide” to signal the damages to ways of knowing that fall outside neat divisions and classifications. Scholars across the humanities have worked for decades to make our universities more inclusive in all ways. Still, there is much we need to unlearn of what our disciplinary regimes have instilled in us and much we need to learn again, differently. Rather than advocate an end to disciplines, I propose that we rescue and repurpose the valuable training from our fields to develop and encourage other, less bounded, decolonial models of critical thought.

Jumping over the fence may be a necessary first step, but it’s only the first.

What might the “decolonization of knowledge” look like today? Educators and students have long argued about what we read, who we engage with, and how we structure our environments of learning. As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o makes clear in all his work, decolonization includes revalorizing the autochthonous languages that allow us to know, think, and be. Some departments in the humanities are doing wonderful work diversifying their curricula and engaging transdisciplinary thinkers. In these coming years I suspect we’ll hear a great deal about reaffirming the centrality of “Western civilization,” getting back to the “great-books program,” and insisting on “English-only.” Shakespeare is fine, but forget about Cantinflas. “Foreign” language departments and courses are disappearing as language requirements decline precipitously. Ethnic studies too have come under attack. The irony, of course, is that what defines the United States, what gives it its unique identity, is its break from Europe. The United States became what it is today because it is European, and indigenous, and African, and Latinx, and Asian. The decolonization of knowledge leads us to recognize and value that complexity and to study the literatures and languages as an inextricable part of the greater cultural, political, economic, and historical context.

Yet as we in the humanities push to liberate our institutions from colonial legacies and to make them more inclusive, we face the onslaught of the neoliberal debunking of education that pushes critical thought to the periphery. The inside-outside model is suddenly reversed. Our traditional disciplines that participated in the exclusionary ­legitimating practices are themselves being excluded. The humanities are being underfunded and pushed over the fence, out of universities in an economic environment that sees more direct benefit from business management and the sciences. I agree with Terry Eagleton when he says that we lose the “university in the full sense of the word when the humanities exist in isolation from other disciplines.” The humanities need to reaffirm, again, the centrality of transdisciplinary critical thinking.

One productive approach to the inside-outside tension might be to embrace a more active and encompassing definition of knowledge that engages the potential of what eludes or troubles our disciplines but that also encourages us to come back to hone our critical capacities, pass our exams, and strengthen our institutions. It seems vital, to me, that we work both sides of the fence, now, more than ever.

Works Cited

Avila, Francisco de. The Huarochirí Manuscript: A Testament of Ancient and Colonial Andean Religion. Edited by Frank Salomon, U of Texas P, 1991.

Eagleton, Terry. “The Death of Universities.” The Guardian, 17 Dec. 2010, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/dec/17/death-universities-malaise-tuition-fees.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide. Routledge, 2016.