Columns by Judith Butler

Forked path surrounded by trees

What Kind of Future?

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.


The Tasks Moving Forward

Originally published in the Spring 2020 MLA Newsletter

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.

One obligation of faculty members in these times is to attend to the various institutional and public conditions that make work possible not just for tenured faculty members but also for graduate students and contingent faculty members who seek the secure employment and living wage they surely deserve. This means securing a livable wage for graduate students and fighting for more secure, full-time positions. We all have now to take on a new commitment fighting for the humanities, for the teaching of languages and literatures across the globe, and making clear in public terms why what we do is indispensable to culture, society, and even the public good and why tenured positions are crucial to keeping the humanities alive.

One strategy is to convince deans and provosts that investing in the humanities is a key way for the university to survive, so we need to be prepared to show how important the humanities is for attracting students and preserving the public value of universities as sites for open critical inquiry unimpeded by external authorities. Another is to enter into public debate about the value of the humanities, especially the teaching of languages and literature, in order to show precisely how and why the world would be radically impoverished without humanities courses and fields of research. Against the current tide of anti-intellectualism, we have to make the case again for reading, writing, critical and creative work that empowers students to renew their consideration of how the world is structured and how it means A third strategy, equally important, is to develop collaboratively a wide range of pathways to employment for graduate students. The humanities can and should be valued for its economic contributions, but market values will never capture the value of the humanities. Further, while we make the public case for the humanities, we must not lose the grain and texture of the academic work we do. Making that public case, however, is indispensable, especially if it shows how the liberal arts, including language and literature programs, substantially contribute to the university and our ability to act as informed, critical, and thoughtful faculty members and to cultivate those capacities in our students.

The immediate task for mentors is to revise our practices in both an ethical and a practical direction. It is imperative to develop a new practice of mentorship for graduate students in the light of today’s alarming economic horizon. It now becomes our responsibility as well to think knowledgeably and creatively with our students about how they can find positions that pay a livable wage and offer opportunities for them to pursue their talents and to flourish. (You can read more about the MLA’s efforts on these fronts in “Improving Graduate Education,” on page 1 in this issue.) Otherwise, we train them in academic fields only to abandon them to a market for which they are unprepared. That practice is intolerable. It is as important to support their efforts to secure a livable wage within graduate school as it is to help them find pathways to employment with a PhD in hand. To do that, we have to become smarter about the economic world, even if it means stretching beyond our own formation in the humanities and learning about the economic and financial conditions of universities. We must study the trends that affect employment possibilities in our fields, especially in the humanities, and engage the public debate on the enduring and urgent value of what we do.