Columns by Judith Butler

multiple microphones on stage

The Future of the Humanities Can Be Found in Its Public Forms

Published in the Winter 2020 Newsletter

We are, of course, all worried about the future of language and literature departments, the humanities in general, and the arts, as fiscal crises lead administrators to decide among programs and departments to fund. In my last column, I suggested that as much as we need to show how the humanities serve the social sciences, the sciences, public policy, law, and the study of the environment, we also need to show how all of those disciplines require the humanities. If we try, for instance, only to show how we might be useful to the STEM fields and other lucrative disciplines, we pursue a strategy that accepts the hierarchy of values that casts the humanities as secondary and derivative. No public defense of the humanities can proceed on the basis of the assumption that the humanities only gain their value by serving more highly funded disciplines and fields. Yes, we are all worried about where humanities PhDs will find work and we are eager to showcase the many talents of our graduates, but if the rationale we use for that purpose admits that the humanities have no value in themselves, we are contributing to the demise of the humanities, making our situation even more dire than it already is.

A recent survey conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with Mellon funding found that 84% of Americans (it is not clear how that category is defined) have a positive view of literature, and yet many reported that the teaching of literature at the college or university level is a “waste of time” or “cost[s] too much.” The immediate question, then, is why so many people value literature and yet also voice skepticism of or disdain for the teaching of literature in higher education. Why can’t we make good on the high value placed on literature? The answer may have less to do with literary critical schools than with higher education as a whole—specifically, with the difficulty of making higher education affordable. Would literature be considered a waste of time if time were measured less by productivity and profit? Do art and scholarship become regarded as wasteful or even self-indulgent when the gifts they offer fail to be measured by the available metrics? Certainly, it would be unwise to ignore such market values as we argue for our place within higher education. But if we accepted those values as the defining ones for what we do, we would be shutting down that horizon of alternative values that gives a sense of life outside the market and opposes the dominance of markets. Market values narrow our ideas of knowledge and depend on the precarious labor of adjuncts who are often working without a livable wage and health insurance. The limiting of imagination and the acceptance of wretched work conditions go hand in hand, following from a realism mandated by market rationality.

How do we make the case for what we do that appeals to those who already value literature and the imagination and want to see their connection to their public worlds? Surveys are a strange form of knowledge gathering, and I have my questions about some of the categories and methods deployed in the AAAS-Mellon report. And yet the report offers some insights that illuminate a path forward. So-called political liberals generally have a favorable impression of the term foreign languages, while far fewer conservatives perceive that term favorably. Question: What’s nationalism got to do with it? Interestingly, it appears that Black, Latinx, and Asian Americans “are substantially more likely than White Americans to believe it important that young people learn languages other than English,” and those who are less affluent are more in favor of learning foreign languages than those who are affluent. Question: What does learning across national and linguistic boundaries offer underrepresented communities? Consider another finding: Latinx and Black Americans are “nearly three times as likely to have frequently attended poetry/literature readings and other literary events as White Americans, and the youngest adults (ages 18 to 29) are more than twice as likely as those 45 and older.” If the task ahead is to translate the general appreciation for literature and the arts into an appreciation for what colleges and universities have to offer, we should perhaps take as our point of departure those public poetry and literature readings that compel people, especially young people from communities of color, to show up or tune in with the hope of making sense of their world, reckoning with their histories and their desires. The fields of African American and African diasporic studies are rife with memoir, history, poetry, and experimental writing, including Afro- and critical fabulations, crossing performance, history, and narration. Indigenous peoples across the Americas rely on poetry and ritual art to preserve their traditions, tell their stories, and negotiate the relations to time and space against a history of genocide and its denial. Throughout Latinx literatures, as diverse as they are, a poetics is operative not only as the study of the technique of poems but also as the technique of persisting while burdened and scarred by a history of colonial expansion and effacement. Feminist, queer, and trans writing has always been linked with fundamental questions of how to survive, live, flourish, fight, and pursue the promise of radical transformation.

Public events that include performance art, poetry, and literature draw from publics who do not regularly see their histories and creative works monumentalized in older versions of the literary canon. The literatures and art forms included in ethnic studies teaching, for example, are generally related both to a history of exclusion, effacement, extractivism, and empire and to a way of imagining a better world. Palestinian poetry cannot be fully understood apart from the way that it enters and registers the rhythms of ordinary life, the effort to preserve a people’s memory against its erasure by official history, a memory linked through recitation to the task of persisting under protracted conditions of occupation and dispossession. 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.

Work Cited

“The Humanities in American Life: A Survey of the Public’s Attitudes and Engagement.” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2020,



graduate in PhD regalia raising fist in front of building

The Future of Humanities PhDs

Originally published in the Fall 2020 Newsletter.

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.

For many years, the MLA has sought to be an advocate for graduate students, who are too often underpaid and whose career trajectories are increasingly uncertain as academic job opportunities dwindle (e.g., Arteaga and Woodward). Our resources for those pursuing a range of career paths, including the Mellon-funded Connected Academics project, have proven to be indispensable as many graduate programs seek to adapt their placement programs to a changing market for PhDs. The MLA has worked closely with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) in developing its fellowship programs that offer humanities PhDs a way to put their knowledge to work in the service of public art, legal assistance, health care, cultural preservation and innovation, journalism, archives, and forms of activism including antiracist initiatives and climate justice projects. Yet too many of us remain attached to an academic culture that reproduces the same graduate curriculum and training without regard for the shrinking academic market that awaits most of our students. Including diverse career options as part of placement program is a first and necessary step (“Where?”). But now it has become obligatory to include the public humanities as part of required graduate education as well. That way we prepare students through internships and interdisciplinary collaborations for paid work with the PhD, and we revitalize our profession as more responsive to historical conditions and more active in bringing our capacities to think about language, values, and critical judgment to bear on the transformation and repair of our public worlds.

It makes sense to suspend admission to a humanities graduate program for a year or two under the present circumstances, but only if we can guarantee that such actions won’t be used as a pretext by administrations to shut down programs and departments. Some argue that resources would be better used to support students who are already enrolled and are living in precarious conditions than to support new students now, when academic prospects are bleak (see, e.g., Hartman; Flaherty). Yet the decision to suspend graduate admissions is a risky one: administrations may demand that humanities departments close their graduate programs indefinitely or find external funding to fund those programs—and that response is a form of extortion we must oppose (Tullman). There is a way to avoid this situation by restructuring programs such that the curriculum for language and literature imagines a wider range of future positions in the arts, culture, law, health, and public life.

If we train in the fields of public humanities as well as in established fields,  structure internships into the program, and pursue the kinds of interdisciplinary and public connections that show the value of the humanities for the world, we make the public case for the humanities and take better care of our PhD students (Cassuto). If we only argue, however, that the humanities have value because they are useful to businesses and profit-making parts of the university or the economy more generally, we accept a measure of value that demeans or even destroys what we do—or relegates our fields to subservience to other fields. The public humanities offer an alternative vision, one that the ACLS, The Mellon Foundation (e.g., “Hunter College”), and New York University (“Public Humanities Initiative”) have affirmed and one that I hope other funders and educational institutions will increasingly come to value and support.

Further, if current trends continue, language and literature courses run the risk of becoming ornamental or service-oriented aspects of the university taught by adjuncts only. Intensifying adjunctification, as we know, undermines both tenure and faculty governance and, in most cases, health care and a livable wage. By strengthening the public humanities as part of graduate training, we have a chance to make clear to nonspecialists within educational institutions and the public sphere the value of what we do and how our commitment to education can help strengthen traditions of public writing, discourse, storytelling, and critical engagement. Partnering with scientific research and public health, but also with environmental and science studies, seems timely and crucial, suggesting that we need to support those fields that represent the intersection of science and literature, including narrative medicine and medical humanities, but also climate and social justice projects. We will then have employment possibilities that will justify our renewed programs, and we will turn out to live in the world we seek to understand and make the world a more livable place. A new imagining that restructures higher education for PhDs is required to combat climate change and racism, to establish all the lives considered dispensable as indispensable and invaluable, and to build shared life that reverses the social and racial inequalities intensifying in these nearly crushing times. We can create against and within these times a humanities for emergent and future publics.

Works Cited

Arteaga, Rachel, and Kathleen Woodward. “Mentors, Projects, Deliverables: Internships and Fellowships for Doctoral Students in the Humanities.” Profession, May 2017,

Cassuto, Leonard. “Doctoral Training Should Include an Internship.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 Aug. 2020,

Flaherty, Colleen. “Pausing Grad Admissions.” Inside Higher Ed, 1 June 2020,

Hartman, Stacy M. “A Pause in the Pandemic.” Inside Higher Ed, 18 Aug. 2020,

“Hunter College.” The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 2020,

“Public Humanities Initiative.” New York University,

Report of the MLA Task Force on Ethical Conduct in Graduate Studies. Modern Language Association, May 2020,

Tullman, Anya. “SAS Will Not Admit New Ph.D. Students Next Academic Year due to COVID-19 Financial Loss.” The Daily Pennsylvanian, 15 Sept. 2020,

“Where Do Humanists Work? Organizational Profiles.” The Humanities PhD Project, University of Michigan, 20  June 2018,

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.