Sunday, March 30, 2014

on the university: lament, warning, plan

Three books about the university I've read in 2014:

1. The Lament

Depression: A Public Feeling
Ann Cvetkovich

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people in academia are sad. I mean, ok, maybe not universally, but certainly in every university corridor, bathroom, and faculty lounge, and the idea seems to be gaining wider attention. Ann Cvetkovich asks why we're so miserable. “Why is a position of relative privilege, the pursuit of creative thinking and teaching, lived through as though it were impossible?” To answer the question, she uses a combination of memoir and criticism, addressing her own depression as well as the sadness of others. Depression: A Public Feeling both is and is not a self-help book: the compelling notion that depression is political, that it grows from the pressures of living through realities such late capitalism and white supremacy, sits oddly with the idea that we should stay with our sadness rather than fighting its external causes, or that the best we can do may be gardening or knitting. For me, the book is both welcome (basically because it chops away at the myth of "this is totally doable, you can have work-life balance and also be successful, what's wrong with you"), and vaguely disappointing. This review of it is great if you want to know more.

2. The Warning

Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University
Gaye Tuchman

Now as soon as you read THIS one you'll be like, no wonder we're depressed! Wannabe U is an ethnography of a public research university, one that's "innovating" and "transforming itself," and if these terms are familiar to you, Tuchman advises you to prepare for the apocalypse. She doesn't claim that thought in the university was ever "free"--she acknowledges academia's roots in religious institutions--but she argues pretty convincingly that in being "de-churched," the university's ideological justification has been "recast in terms of corporatization and commodification." Why should we care? Well: "Universities are no longer to lead the minds of students to grasp truth; to grapple with intellectual possibilities; to appreciate the best in art, music, and other forms of culture; and to work toward both enlightened politics and public service. Rather they are now to prepare students for jobs. They are not to educate, but to train." And also: "The market logic has amassed some accomplishments, including the transformation of students into consumers, of education into a commodity, of research into a revenue stream, as well as the imposition of centralized authority on academic matters."

Have some key words. Workforce development. Audit culture. Centralization. Bureaucratization. Coercive accountability. Are there lots and lots of administrators at your university? Does the university keep hiring more? You should have a backpack containing water and a first aid kit in your car. Are you required to fill out dizzying numbers of forms in service to "transparency"? What about developing assessment rubrics for "consistency"? You need to start stockpiling canned food. "[E]ach increase in efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control produces yet more efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control." Don't forget to pack your Foucault.

To me, the most intriguing claim Tuchman makes, which she really just throws out briefly in a couple of pages, is that the only thing worse than a U.S. university is a British university. Apparently the British have achieved even greater state control of their unis and are more efficiently transforming knowledge into capital. Tuchman wonders why more people in the U.S. are not looking across the pond to see where we might be a few years from now, and listening to what British academics have to say about it. Seems like it might be worth pursuing.

3. The Plan

The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten

Hey academic friends, are you ready to quit now? Well, before you do, I suggest you read The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (which you can do right now by clicking the link! PDF!!!). This is a passionate series of essays, with a wonderful long interview at the end, that draws on black radical thought to critique and reimagine academic practice. Key words here include study, planning, policy, and debt. It's not a book that shies away from grim realities--in fact, to me at least, it's more heartening than either Cvetkovich's or Tuchman's books, because its examination of the university is anchored in a history of conquest that continues through current processes such as mass incarceration. "The slogan on the Left, then, 'universities, not jails,' marks a choice that may not be possible. In other words, perhaps more universities promote more jails." This is actually more depressing than anything said by either Cvetkovich or Tuchman. And yet the book is, as I said, more heartening, invigorating, inspiring.

I think this is partly because it's just a relief when somebody says what's going on (and by the way H&M use Marvin Gaye's song "What's Going On" in a fascinating way that might make you notice new doorways to open in the classroom). And while Tuchman is very sharp on what's going on in the corporate university, she doesn't really relate it to what's going on outside, except insofar as the state and corporations are encroaching on and controlling what is, or should be, for Tuchman, the independent space of the university. (Side-note: Tuchman sees corporatization coming from the business world into the university, while H&M see it going the other way! For them, the university is a lab for corporations, where they can try out forms of control that are then exported into the office. Like having people work at tables in groups to make them feel more supported, who knows, maybe even what shade of carpeting stimulates productivity! LET'S NOT GET PARANOID THOUGH. Anyway, if anyone has thoughts on which way these managerial strategies are going, I'd love to hear them).

Also heartening is the way Harney and Moten refuse academic misery. They refuse "the belief that intellectual work requires alienation and immobility and that the ensuing pain and nausea is a kind of badge of honor, a kind of stripe you can apply to your academic robe or something." Like Cvetkovich, they are interested in feeling, but only as a starting point. Here's Fred Moten in the interview:

I was just always like: the university is fucked up. It’s fucked up over here. Why is it fucked up? Why is it that shit ain’t the way it should be here? Yeah, there’s some stuff here, but obviously there’s stuff in other places too. The point is: it’s fucked up here, how can we think about it in a way to help us organize ourselves to make it better here? We were trying to understand this problematic of our own alienation from our capacity to study--the exploitation of our capacity to study that was manifest as a set of academic products. That’s what we were trying to understand. And it struck us that this is what workers who are also thinkers have always been trying to understand. How come we can’t be together and think together in a way that feels good, the way it should feel good? For most of our colleagues and students, however much you want to blur that distinction, that question is the hardest question to get people to consider. Everybody is pissed off all the time and feels bad, but very seldom do you enter into a conversation where people are going, “why is it that this doesn’t feel good to us?” There are lots of people who are angry and who don’t feel good, but it seems hard for people to ask, collectively, “why doesn’t this feel good?” I love poetry, but why doesn’t reading, thinking, and writing about poetry in this context feel good?

The question leads to the development of a series of concepts that rethink social life, especially academic life, through slave revolts, anti-colonial uprisings, Occupy, and other forms of what you may wind up thinking of us study or planning. There are tools here. Click the link.


pat said...

Another great post about things I would never have heard of otherwise! That last one looks fantastic, and I've downloaded it.

If you know any people who think it's worthwhile to try solving some of these problems via accreditation agencies, I made up a handy list of the agencies and how to submit 3rd party comments to them at

Also, if you're in the mood for any academic fiction the latest Osyth story is available at

Anonymous said...

i think that i like fred moten

Sofia said...

I also like Fred Moten. :-)

& thanks much, Pat!