These are among the many sites in the university where the connection to public worlds is already being made; these sites should be supported as the portals to a broader world, the link between the university and those who require the humanities to live a more illuminated life. The future of the humanities may well depend on realizing that the best case for art, poetry, literature, and performance is already being made by our most publicly engaged fields.
It has been a challenging time at the MLA as we face the transformation of work under COVID-19 and fresh threats to the future of the humanities. The report by the MLA Taskforce on Ethical Conduct in Graduate Education focused on power dynamics in graduate education. It clearly opposes the unacceptable conditions for students who face harassment and neglect as well as debt and impending financial precarity, and it sets MLA guidelines for faculty conduct (Report). The pandemic has made life even more difficult for graduate students, intensifying racial and economic disparities and underscoring the need for graduate student participation in deciding the safety of their environments for teaching and studying.
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.
The crisis of the humanities is all around us, proclaimed by the popular press and suffered perhaps most acutely by our graduate students in their bones. On the one hand, we are tempted to emphasize just how bad it all is in order to wake up those colleagues and administrators who are going about their daily business without addressing the defunding and downsizing of the humanities, the rise in contingent labor, and the dim prospects of employment in humanities fields for our graduate students. On the other hand, we are now tasked with thinking about both our own teaching and research and our obligations to graduate students in new ways, developing an ethics of mentorship responsive to precarious times. Graduate programs now have to reckon with their obligations to students during a very bad job market, and it is all the more important that graduate students be mentored not only on how best to do research and write but also on how to think about and plot their futures. During a time of intense anxiety about the market for graduate students, it is all the more important to develop and abide by an ethical code of conduct that prohibits exploitation, including harassment. Such a code would also emphasize the support we owe graduate students, the attention we must give to their work, and the practical mentoring we should offer that is focused on how to find employment when the degree is finished.