Monday, January 27, 2014

Response to School of Humanities Reconstitution Committee

Response to School of Humanities Reconstitution Committee — Please Sign

On Dec. 10, 2013, UCI humanities graduate students met with the School of Humanities Reconstitution Committee, the humanities dean's ad-hoc committee charged with coming up with recommendations for a new direction in UCI humanities. The meeting generated a number of questions among students, professors, staff and the community regarding the role of the committee and its vision of the humanities. Issues of particular concern, which the below signatories would like to see the committee address, include the following:

1. Critical thinking:
We saw the concern and content of the recent deliberation and feedback session (Dec. 10) of the Reconstitution Committee in two ways: 1. types of application: i.e. where SOH should direct itself to, and, 2. the kinds of skills in which SOH is valuing to embark upon that application. It is fair to say that we felt a particular concept of criticality to be lacking, both in the Committee's articulation and implicitly in the suggested spheres of application.

The point of departure for critical thinking as we understand it, and how we see it "embedded" within UCI SOH, is to understand the application of our work, collaboration and teaching in a critical way. First and foremost we understand critical thinking to be practiced when the terms of the study being done are themselves the objects of study. We felt this perspective entirely absent from the Committee's presentation and Q&A responses. As such we listened with concern to the paths and tracks that the re-articulation of SOH were being directed to. Almost all of the committee's suggestions for future work and collaboration within SOH were directly concerned with, or saw their task as how to "embed", relatively new areas that are currently sources of funding opportunities. These included projects associated with "public humanities", "digital humanities" or "the digital", all of which were said to "facilitate and enable the work that is already being done". Humanities work, when it was to be extended, was to be extended in "multimedia ways"; clusters were to be composed "with publics in mind". Indeed, it was suggested that "in order to generate the kind of public support Humanities needs, one needs to cultivate publics," to the extent that this would be a consideration before, or concurrent with, the organizing of research.

Thus we would suggest that part of what we mean by "critical thinking" is to think otherwise, including specifically about, terms of engagement and areas of application that the Committee has so far set out. In embarking upon these areas of application the committee outlined a long list of skills or important abilities that SOH would want to keep in mind and utilize. There was general consternation from the Committee that many of the things we suggested were absent are not in fact already folded in, or assumed. We would argue against this position as well as suggesting the deficiency cannot be covered by "critical thinking" merely being placed in the long list the committee gave us under the "three arts". We do not wish to simply name supplementing qualities in-addition to those already named. Rather our concern is about where those qualities are to be directed and in the service of what.

It cannot simply be about about using the phrase "critical thinking," which is often invoked in a non-critical way, as though it were an area, but rather about enacting it already. It often seemed that criticality was identical in the Committee's minds to studying; that all "studies" that the Committee was moving toward are in fact by definition "critical". We would ask the Committee, given that it is imagining the future spheres of application for SOH work and types of engagement, to define the criticality that they see—if it is already embedded or folded in—being preserved? Could you point to the place where it's preserved? What, for instance, is something that you consider to be "un-critical" and something the Committee would intend to avoid?

The type of critical thinking that we are concerned to support within SOH and identify with, is not only practiced in many of the "Needs Attention" departments but committed-to. This is not to say that those are the only places that critical work takes place, or can take place, rather that those departments serve as a model for how critical thinking is embedded and something that in our view the Committee must align itself explicitly with.

For instance from Culture & Theory: "to examine productively the intersections of Critical Theory with race, sexuality and gender studies through a problem-oriented approach... a problem-oriented rather than a disciplinary approach to issues of race, gender and sexuality in relation to diasporas, transnational and postcolonial contexts." What's critical about this is that the "issues" will be taken as problems in the first place and not just as topics or areas or histories. That is, how the issues can come into being and be as they are at all is a focus of analysis. It is such an approach that is currently absent as we see it from the Committee's approach. This is one example, what we want stressed is a commitment to critical thinking and a different perspective from the Committee which meets what that means. It means something to us; it is not a quality to be kept in mind. In questioning the verticality of the composition and actions of the Committee we are raising the problem of the production of knowledge as a problem of power; in questioning the move toward the digital and public humanities, even though those forms do not preclude analysis in themselves, we are questioning the idea that the categories of application and systems of funding are not sufficient explanations in themselves for future work, but are objects for critique. We are in a dangerous position at UCI, because not in spite of the history of Critical Theory on our campus. It is all too easily invoked and we must not forget to define it, not in-itself as such, by what it means for us in practice, yes, but more importantly by the places we find valuable to practice in.

2. Reconstitution:
If what we are facing is really a moment of reconstitution, we would like to see represented a focus on not only the wider SOH community, but also the structural conditions of the Humanities within the Academy. To this end—and it surprises us how off the committee's radar this was given the charge to think about the future of Humanities education—we would expect the Committee to engage the whole question of a relative lack of post-PhD employment within the academy, not to think of ways of solving this problem, but to see this problem as redefining the Humanities itself. The most pressing issue facing the humanities academy and the academy as a whole is the replacement of the tenure system with non-guaranteed, zero-benefit, short-term adjunct contracts. 75% of higher education faculty are now adjuncts. The tenure system is being replaced, and there is the widespread sense that tenured faculty have implicitly or explicitly supported this process. The committee must take a stand on this issue, even if it places them at odds with broader UC administration We would welcome discussion on how adjuncts could be better supported and of generally breaking down the verticality that persists among the majority of tenured-faculty, including the sharing of teaching with adjuncts.

Relatedly we find particularly problematic the eagerness with which non-academic or "alt-ac" opportunities are being pushed on humanities graduate students, especially as the primary answer to the crisis of jobs within the Academy. The non-academic job market suffers from the same problems of scarcity and hierarchy that plagues the academy. Such focus betrays a considerable blind-spot and/or refusal to engage the problem at the structural level. Why is this being discussed without also putting on the table for reconsideration the massive shifts in funding away from teaching and hiring of permanent faculty and towards the growth of administration and investment in digital technologies, even within the Humanities itself? In concentrating so wholeheartedly on "alt-ac" the committee and SOH generally is not only passing over important discussions, but occluding essential conversation for anyone involved in Humanities academia.

We would suggest that the Committee think of ways to address these issues, whilst considering whether a moment of reconstitution, as an occasion, can be let pass without a statement of solidarity that would "re"constitute SOH as a community, i.e. to workers, adjuncts, and TAs, that has been missing throughout the period of cuts.

3. Trends:
It is a shame that the "imagining" of what UCI humanities could or should be is a simple one: to procure capital. It must be said that this was not a promise or guarantee, at times the imagining was less: to direct ourselves toward the potential of procuring capital. Thus we would suggest that part of what we mean by "critical thinking" is a diversification against the instrumentalization of Humanities education at UCI that the Committee appears to be at least in partial pursuit of. Critical thinking as we understand it includes thinking otherwise than funding trends. It is of course not surprising to us that the trends that the committee expressed follow UCI and UC wide trends. To be clear these are as follows: increased centralization, especially in the distribution of resources; general unaccountability in the forms (i.e. ad-hoc committees) that provide information to decision-makers (often unaccountable themselves); pressures to instrumentalize certain forms of collaboration, seen also in the move to promote inter-school activity, especially felt upon the Humanities.

These are trends—centralization; unaccountability; instrumentalization—expressed in EVP Gillman's "High Impact Hiring Plan" in which there is a centralization of decisions through the EVP's office and a large stress put on inter-school hire. We see the latter aspect as a move of instrumentalization and thus against critical thinking because of the way in which inter-school pressures are likely to fall. Thus we are somewhat suspicious of the unrestrained use of "collaboration" and "interdiscilplinarity" that the committee sought to invoke. The Committee's unspecified use of the latter term must be inflected with substance: it must be interdisciplinary work that is being valued not inter-institutional exchange. It concerns us that the committee is buying into a perception that the humanities is only valuable as a supplement to 'harder' disciplines (disciplines easier to immediately instrumentalize) and not also on its own terms. To continue outlining what a critical perceptive toward SOH would be, i.e. the application of "critical thinking", we would suggest it would be valuable to redress an idea that Humanities is mis-understood and thus must begin from a starting point of showing why it is worthwhile. Indeed because Humanities public education is actually more reliant upon both University and State funding, we should resist the neoliberal rhetoric that suggests—along the lines of capital more generally and something that has proved destructive for all sorts of public projects over the past 30 years—we must be answerable to capital, that we are "value for money".

4. The Committee itself:
To continue articulating what we mean when we say "critical thinking", i.e. to work against the three predominant trends named above (centralization; unaccountability; instrumentalization), we would like to highlight the presence of these trends in the feedback from the committee in both its form and content: First, with regard to centralization, we would like for you to be more specific in terms of a centralizing trend of "coordinating" grad admissions across the humanities. If a grad applicant was good for multiple departments would that become a criterion? If shared areas developed out of the dean's call for clusters, for example, would the existence of clusters become arguments for taking students in subfields that worked well with them (and so not taking others)? These would be centralization moves that fit with the centralization move in curriculum of making "core" courses for humanities students. We are concerned that individual small departments would wind up with fewer students per unit and that faculty and grads could wind up with fewer graduate courses, and less discretion over grad courses. Second, with regard to unaccountable processes we would again like to return to the nature, actions, and composition of the committee to which these submissions have asked to be addressed. The committee itself is symptomatic of UCI and UC wide trends toward unaccountability. It is itself a manifestation of what we don't mean when we talk of taking a critical thinking perspective. The composition of the committee—which initially solicited nominations from departments then did not follow up on those nominations—was unclear to faculty and students alike. After its composition the committee worked, and continues to work, in a vertical manner, i.e., without graduate or undergraduate student involvement. As previously discussed the committee made itself available for 5 meetings with faculty, to which requested access was denied, for a total of 7 and a half hours to graduate students 1 meeting after all the faculty meetings (in finals week, rearranged to a later time two weeks after the initial time was set) over the course of 1 and a half hours. We appreciate the multiple meetings were not for sustained engagement with the same faculty, but it is hard not to see how more would not have been gleaned, and more was intended to be gleaned, from engagement with faculty. These are not petit gripes they suggest a disposition toward the value of students in the process and the value of students in Humanities education at UCI. We would suggest that graduate students and adjuncts who face the contingencies of both academic and non-academic labor have a far better understanding of current system's shortcomings than those who have benefited from that very same system. For this reason, an original reconceptualization of the humanities is more likely to come from those who have not material stake in the current system. Therefore, if the committee wants to make an impact at the university or in the academy, they should be led by those at the bottom of the current academic hierarchy. Third, as we will discuss in further detail below, the third trend of "instrumentalization" was apparent in the sustained use of "portable capacities" and the places to which those capacities were being taken to, i.e., towards funding procurement at best, and outside academia at worst.

Thus what the committee phrased as a problem of collaboration—maybe it wants to re-examine its terms—was rather often felt by us to be a problem of resource. Unfortunately many questions of collaboration were thus buried under the concern for resource. If the committee is genuinely interested in how to make SOH a more interesting and critical environment it ought to detach itself, at least partially, from the chase for resource. We see one of the roles of Humanities within the university to be a critical wing of the institution which would mean critiquing the dominant trends of centralization, unaccountability (i.e. ad-hoc committees) and an instrumentalization of Humanities generally.

5. Needs Attention Units:
Within this climate stands a common concern among graduate students for "Needs Attention" units. This was not only because of the destructive legacy of that memo—although, that remains something that the committee unfortunately must address given it serves as its institutional precedent—, but because of the pressure that certain types of collaboration could have, especially if collaboration is actually standing in for funding procurement. Thus in any articulation of SOH future should be inscribed a support for small ethnic studies and interdisciplinary departments, including the type of instruction which must occur in small groups. We are concerned that the rearticulation of core values and of what humanities offers in general, does not reflect the particular kind of 'critical thinking' done in departments flagged in the Needs Attention memo (the kind of approach we find valuable was addressed in point 1. of this submission). We feel strongly that such departments offer a distinct kind of critical enlargement, critical politicization, and critical reorientation of thought. We would suggest that it would be worth considering revamping the general education requirements and/or developing a certificate program in critical politics or something of that nature. We would like to see something like critical politics more clearly and specifically on the radar as a crucial competency and value.

Further the committee suggested that a concern about precarity—previously said to be the concern of the departments named in the "Needs Attention" memo—now affects all graduate departments, not those just historically and continually under-threat. Additionally it was suggested that small departments now actually, inversely to their previous position, represent the "model" for SOH. To this we would say two things: first, the rationality that suggests that because Humanities education is felt as a crisis across all departments, (i.e. if it is a crisis for English and History it must really be a crisis now) is of a particularly problematic mentality. Second, it remains the trend of UCI and the UC system to seek "flag-ship" hires who will be supported by hiring-clusters; emphatically the trend is not to a de-centralized approach and trust in what smaller departments can do. In regard to the already articulated values that the committee put forward we are not saying they necessarily, (i.e. will in every situation) exclude. Our concern is that these departments end up losing some of their autonomy in particular forms of interdiscilplinary engagement, especially when instrumentalization is the mode of that engagement. For instance if things are based on creating clusters that are cross-disciplinary the concern, because of both crude numbers and institutional strength—as well as their inherent resistance to the trends outlined above—is that these departments in not being insulated by the process itself, will suffer.

6. "Lived" Concerns:
An issue that affects our lived-experiences as graduate students is the issue of faculty workload. This is an important issue because it has in fact been at the center of debates regarding the future of humanities at UCI. Disagreements about workload, and how to measure workload, have led to policy suggestions regarding how scarce resources are allocated and which departments or programs should be considered for closure or reorganization, for example. Thus the issue of faculty workload does not just affect faculty, as suggested in the meeting, but students as well, as we find our departments under threat because of perceived workload inequity. The committee must establish a sense of principles which will protect the important work done by our colleagues across the humanities. If the committee considers such issues within the consumerist mindset that defines contemporary UC administration, it will be no more than an extension of the worst elements of that administration, and do more harm to the school than good. We would like to see if not the reintroduction of a banking system for faculty advising, then something similar to it, protecting, supporting, and encouraging graduate and faculty association. Along the lines of our general concern for the support for small classes, often the only kind that can foster critical thinking as we have outlined it, we would like to see a push against the quota of students that faculty are required to teach in any given year. It has been indicated that since Gottfredsson's departure and with the new SOH Dean the stress on numbers has decreased. It seems essential for this to be institutionalized across SOH as a way of supporting the smaller and more critically minded departments we have been addressing.

To the question "what makes Humanities at UCI distinctive, innovative, exciting, attractive," many of us answer CTI and CTE. Rather than further centralizing—putting CTI under a "more capacious umbrella"—seen in the trend toward single space (both literally and conceptually) that the committee outlined, we would like a commitment to the refunding of CTI as an urgent priority. We would also like either the reinstatement, or a new space, for the CTI library that grad students ran and used, and which was rather cynically taken away by order of the Dean's Office the day after Horacio Legras (who gave it to us) left the country. To address CTE we would like to see an increased commitment to funding and making available mini-seminars as well as a resolution of the senior critical-theory line hire that has remained empty following Eitenne Balibar's retirement.

If what we are doing is articulating a future vision it seems important to not take things for granted. It must see the scope of its task to be a greater involvement of students yes, but more importantly to see beyond the scope of the tenured system. And if the committee is really interested in de-siloing SOH it ought not to see centralization as a solution. We hope to have not only made a number of concrete suggestions but also to have outlined a vision for the future of SOH at UCI that values critical thinking over trends of centralization, unaccountability and instrumentalization that are apparent within the UC system.

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