Pity Writing Studies, the Field That Hates Itself
In 2009 I found myself in my late 20s, broke, and trying to get a job in the teeth of the post-financial crisis employment depression. I had applied to hundreds of positions, entry-level and low-paying and low status, and yet couldn’t get hired to save my life. I was living in my sister’s house and driving an old beat-down Jeep Wrangler I couldn’t afford to gas up. I would take odd jobs on Craigslist, scraping paint off of houses or working product demos at the convention center where liquor store owners were sold on alcohol that turns your tongue blue. My early-to-mid 20s girlfriend and I had gone through an endless series of falling apart and getting back together again, and it was finally over. I was hungry for any kind of job that could bring in, perhaps, $30,000 a year, which would have changed my life. Couldn’t get one. It seemed that a BA in English and Philosophy from an uncompetitive state university and a resume filled with lifeguarding and dog-walking wasn’t going to cut it. So I went to grad school.
Reading and writing were then, as now, my only hobbies, the only thing I liked doing, the only thing I was ever good at. My friends joked that it had always been inevitable, my going back to school. And I am an academic, even today, though I will never again hold a position at a university. I had resisted, I think, in part because going to grad school was so expected of me, which is a custom common to the young, fighting doing something just because others assume that you’ll do it. In any event, the only job offer I had received would pay little more than I would make as a grad student and involved only soul-crushing clerical work with no opportunity for advancement. So when the University of Rhode Island gave me an offer of admission to their MA in Writing Studies, I said yes. I mean… why wouldn't I?
I borrowed someone’s van and loaded an old twin bed, an Ikea desk, and my giant CRT monitor into it, strapped my hound dog into the passenger seat, and drove an hour and a half east to the shittiest apartment I have ever lived in. The first day I walked around the campus in Kingston it felt like heaven. I found a building off the quad that looked like something from Harry Potter and an office in the biology building with a stuffed tiger inside. I also saw, after the first weekend, endless empty Natty Light 30-rack boxes sitting by the trash. I asked someone “isn’t this a dry campus?” and she said “it’s a little damp.”
Anyway, the writing department was in Roosevelt hall, the type of moldering old liberal arts building I’ve known and loved my whole life. Writing studies also goes by another name, rhetoric & composition, and I think that’s more popular in-field. (I will use the two terms interchangeably here.) The “rhetoric” included invites a lot of derision, but then rhetoric is merely the study of persuasion, and it had been championed in an effort to develop a subject matter for the field and a methodology for teaching writing, first through reference to the ancient Greeks and later through an ever-expanding definition that drew in more and more things. I prefer the name writing studies because I like writing, but the distinction never mattered much to me. And, anyway, no matter which one I used, insults followed; people online who disliked something I wrote would always use my field to mock me, a shorthand for all of the arguments they were too dim to make. But I always thought that the value of writing and argument, and the need to study them, was self-evident.
You may find it weird that there would be writing-specific programs and departments in American colleges and universities. Isn’t that English’s job? Well, no, at least not according to a great many English professors. English profs are into the subject matter of their field, man - which is to say, Lacanian readings of the phallic imaginary, queering the Young Adult canon, and why the comma is a tool of white supremacy. Teaching college students to write papers has always been seen, by a large chunk of the world’s English professors, as a kind of academic scutwork best fobbed off on the academy’s hordes of contingent and powerless labor. In the late 20th century some tenure track professors disagreed, though. They were mostly at large state universities in the middle of the country, far from the prestige and power of elite academia. They cared about student writing, took it seriously, and wanted to receive professional credit for caring about it. But English faculty would not give it to them, fearing that rewarding writing pedagogy work would devalue their field. It was from here that rhetoric and composition was born. A small but growing movement of faculty worked to break writing away from the broader umbrella of English, whether in new departments or programs within English departments. They could evaluate each other’s scholarship for hiring and tenure decisions, form their own professional associations, and set curricula for writing programs, outside of the negative influence of English professors and their biases.
Janice Lauer of Purdue University was part of this early wave of scholars demanding professional respect for teaching writing. In my first year at the rhet/comp PhD program at Purdue, Janice (long since retired) came to campus and told us about how everything started. She said that when she was first starting out as a pre-tenure professor she was told not to even bother to put writing pedagogy articles into her tenure file; they would not be reviewed. So she and others across the university system simply invented their own field out of whole cloth. Janice was wise and kind, a former nun I believe, and sitting in that cramped conference room with my beloved cohort I knew we all felt lucky to be where we were.
The split between English and writing programs and departments, at some places, is very real. When I was finishing my MA at URI, I found myself in a truly awkward bind: both the English and Writing departments were demanding that I submit my graduation materials to them and not to the other. (I mean, literally, “don’t submit this form to the grad director over there.”) I explained to each of them that I was being put in an impossible position, but could not force them to put their heads together sufficiently to give me an out. I had received my offer to go to Purdue with a tuition waiver and stipend and needed to collect my degree; the situation seemed a little Kafkaesque. It took going to the dean of the graduate school, which made me feel like a snitch, to force them to allow me to graduate. That is the level of animosity that’s present at some schools.
This antipathy is not merely a function of dueling academic values. The root of the continuing animosity is the root of most animosity, money. Because while many English professors genuinely are disdainful of the value of freshman writing and similar classes, they’re not disdainful of the money such classes bring. The funding of departments and programs in universities is Byzantine and varies a great deal from place to place, but certainly to survive a department needs butts in seats. Big enrollment gen ed classes serve to fund the upper-level seminars where a dozen students or less have intimate discussions with professors, and I don’t see much to object to there. (Masters students, often, exist to fund the PhD students, which is far more problematic.) And so while English professors were disdaining writing classes, those classes were keeping the lights on in their offices. Newly-formed writing programs threatened that funding, and the ongoing decline of students taking American and British lit classes (which I lament with my soul) deepens the problem. So you see why it’s touchy.
But that was the origin story. What is writing studies/rhetoric & composition, really? You can get a good sense of what a field values by asking what graduate work it rewards. Who’s getting the awards at conferences? What dissertations are resulting in TT hires? Back when I was grad school for rhetoric & composition, it was, like, the rhetoric of Dr. Who, endless arguments that “playing video games is a form of writing,” papers about how white cishet people take up too much space in academia and need to step back written by white cishet people, tired screeds about how comic books are just as deep and real and also less racist and more cool and smarterer than the canon, dissertation-length case studies of three Appalachian women’s journaling habits that somehow could render sweeping generalizations about literacy, treatises on business writing that curiously had nothing to say about corporate practices and everything to say about Andrew Pickering’s theory of “the mangle,” lots of disdain for the concern of teaching students how to arrange sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into papers, relentless insistence that any attempts to correct a student’s English is the hand of imperialism, “ethnographies of place” that entailed the author spending four total hours in the library and writing about whatever they fancied there, and sundry other topics that could function as parodies of useless academic writing.
You might wonder what unites all of these projects. The answer is nothing, nothing at all. One of the profound downsides of including rhetoric within the definition of the discipline is that rhetoric is so capacious a concept that it can encapsulate anything, and a field about anything is not a field. “Everything is rhetoric,” people would intone gravely in my classes. I quickly learned not to point out that a concept that includes everything means nothing; No one was listening. This had consequences not just for the research of grad students but for how they taught their classes. I cannot tell you how many of my peers teaching freshman writing had excised out almost all actual writing from their syllabuses, replacing it with stuff like web design and podcasts and, literally, playing board games in class. They loved that shit. And they were rewarded for it: the last thing you wanted to do was to go on a job interview with boring-ass papers on your syllabus. I had multiple conversations at conferences where fellow grad students would brag about how few pages they required in their classes, often finding every loophole in their syllabus guidelines to replace writing papers with something cooler, something that seemed more fresh to the eyes of a faculty committee looking for a hip new member of their department.
It never seemed to occur to them that abandoning the specific purview of their classes was dangerous, that antagonistic forces were always looking for excuses to slash humanities funding, and that doing podcasts and web design in your writing classes looks less like innovation to college administrators and more like redundancy. They pay people with the appropriate degrees to teach audio editing and web design, and they will never see writing instructors teaching the same subjects as fiscally responsible, in part because writing instructors simply aren’t as good at those things.
You can’t generate a shared commitment to creating knowledge when no one has any interest in a common set of academic concerns. I once saw a guy give a presentation about his dissertation research at a conference. He had been looking at the archives of dissertations from the field for the past several decades. Dissertations would be tagged with subject markers for indexing in databases - mine was tagged with terms like “writing assessment” and “standardized testing,” for example. What he had found was that the median number of tags that dissertations in the field shared with other dissertations was one. That is to say, at least half of the dissertations in his large dataset shared one or zero tags with any other dissertation in the database. It’s difficult to imagine this happening in almost any other field. Which academic disciplines are so varied that none of their graduate students are studying the same things?
No, there was nothing that you could say was definitively in the field, but there were things that you could definitively say were not, and that was everything that people from outside of the field would assume we cared about. That might include grammar, crafting sentences, formal elements of effective lab reports, writing effective transitions, how to research in the library more efficiently, how to write with style, how to develop a personal voice, genre conventions of writing for different majors, and more. As I’ve suggested, this stuff was considered passe, when it wasn’t actively being called racist/sexist/etc. I’m not just speaking offhand, here. Some in the field had been describing how it had changed, for the worse. Wendy Bishop lamented the demise of the writer-teacher and pedagogical focus of rhetoric & composition in 1999, Richard Haswell lamented “[National Council of Teachers of English]/[Conference on College Composition and Communication]’s Recent War on Scholarship,” meaning empirical research, in 2005, and in 2007 Susan Peck MacDonald lamented “the Erasure of Language,” that is, the focus on the actual text and language in student writing. Each of these pieces was regarded as stodgy and old-fashioned by some I knew in the field at the time, when they were engaged with at all. I wish I could share more recent articles of this type but, well, there is no one left to lament.
Here is an example of the kind of work that was done in the field that was most directly related to writing as traditionally conceived:
(In fairness, there are also articles published in the same journal with titles like “Composition Is the Ethical Negotiation of Fantastical Selves” and “Student Affective Responses to Bringing ‘the Funk’ in the First-Year Writing Classroom,” so that’s cool.)
I remember sitting in a stuffy little office with my graduate advisor at URI, dear old Bob Schwegler, while we talked about my future as a professor. He got excited for me in a way that was infectious and made me put away my self-defensive distance for a little while. Bob did cool research; at the time he had been setting up young writers with eye-tracking technology to study how their eyes moved while composing, to see if any insight could be gleaned there. I was not particularly interested in using that sort of methodology itself, but in a broader sense this was the kind of research I wanted to do: empirical work on the writing process that could, perhaps, glean insights into how students wrote and in turn develop a better understanding of how to teach them. What I did not adequately reckon with then was that Bob was in his 60s, a full professor, and thus immune to the fads and prejudices of the field. I was not.
You’ve probably already guessed the turn here, given all this windup: what I found as a doctoral student, and should have grasped while getting my MA, was that writing studies had become just as disdainful of writing as English had been. The field had replicated the very conditions its founders had lamented. The tale I had been told of an academic field where writing was honored and respected was, by this point, a fantasy. Correspondingly, the empirical research I had discussed with my MA advisor was once common but had all but disappeared; when you’ve given up on the actual writing of students in favor of abstract theory, politics, and pop culture sermonizing, what was there left to study empirically? And anyway empirical study, particularly that which utilized quantitative methods, was constantly assailed as racist heteronormative patriarchy. Over a depressingly short timespan I signed up for a field that (I thought) centered student writing and studied it empirically and then found myself in one that had no interest in the subjects I cared about and which essentially forbade using the methods I wanted to use to study them.
This all came to a head in 2015, where at the field’s premier conference, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, a keynote address was given by Adam Banks, I believe then of the University of Kentucky. Banks’s address was a bald statement of everything I’ve been laying out here: to expect students to achieve mastery of writing as traditionally conceived - the ability to use written text as a means to communicate ideas and arguments in a variety of genres and modes - was terribly old fashioned. “The essay” was Banks’s particular target, and he saw it as an outmoded and limiting form that should be deprecated in favor of, well, all manner of wooly substitutes that were more likely to thrill the kind of people who still talked about wikis as a revolutionary new technology. This was the championing of “multimodal composition” that had dogged my every turn in grad school, the insistence that everything was writing but writing, that all forms of communication were valuable except for the form where you put words on a page. I found the speech, personally, to be bizarre in that it advocated denigrating writing itself as some bold new perspective, when that was the dominant view in the field already and had been for some time. But no matter: the speech was a hit. The crowd at the conference went wild. The field’s online spaces redoubled their dedication to dismissing writing as traditionally conceived as a bigoted anachronism. They wanted the world to know that their writing programs had no use for writing.
I couldn’t believe that all of these people with so many degrees failed to grasp the risk inherent to this attitude. I wanted to grab them all by the lapels and ask them: what do you think the neoliberal university is going to do, once you’ve convinced them that writing papers no longer has any value to students? Do you think they’re going to say “oh, well then, please continue to take our funding so you can dick around doing various other creative work that our graphic design, computer science, music, and various other departments already do better than you do”? This is why I say writing studies is the field that hates itself: its members never stop passionately advocating for the irrelevancy of what they are paid to study and teach. Their naivete and failure to understand the precarity of the modern university seem unfathomable. And yet Banks’s presentation was treated as a religious experience. The Council of Writing Program Administrators listserv, an email forum for people who run writing programs, lit up with celebration at this argument that their programs served no unique function. They were all agreed: it was time for the essay (and the essay was understood to encompass all of writing as traditionally defined) to die. Academics, as a species, are desperately afraid of appearing behind the times, and writing is 6500 years old.
A typical response to my fears has been to say, “I didn’t sign up to study how to teach students to write research papers.” To which I would say, that’s what the people who write your paychecks thought they were signing you up for.
As usual, my worries were not welcomed. It was stupid to voice them, of course, for purely self-interested reasons, but I never stopped hurtling off of the battlements in my graduate career. On that WPA listserv, people who had been tenured for 20 years and felt they had nothing to fear professionally sniffed condescendingly at my concerns, waving away my fears of defunding and casualization of the teaching workforce - “that would never happen here.” Like so many conversations with senior academics, their displeasure with my opinions was tinged with menace; I can’t tell you how many times I was told in my graduate education some version of, “I would never try to restrict what you have to say, but I worry for your career….” My grad school friends, almost all of whom were smart and sweet and perceptive, would mostly get quiet when I would talk about such things publicly, and I don’t blame them. One way or another it was clear that asking writing programs to care about writing was a professionally unhealthy thing to do.
Why? What happened? Why did a field that still dutifully trotted out its origin story as a place where student writing mattered have so little regard for student writing? I think, more than anything, that it’s a vestige of the culture of the American university. It’s long been lamented that our system places the value of research far and above the value of teaching. The more prestigious (and generally well-paying) a faculty position you can get, the less teaching you do; the more seniority you gain, the more teaching you can avoid, and the true academic stars barely teach at all. There are teaching colleges where pedagogy is prized, but they are universally understood to be lower status than research programs. It’s no wonder then that pedagogical research, in almost any discipline, is little valued.
More than that, though, writing studies is a product of the humanities of the past half-century. And the humanities have relentlessly advanced an ethos where research is only serious when it’s abstruse and complex. If just anyone could understand our papers, how could they be genuinely scholarly? And here again rhet/comp’s contested professional status was consequential. There was often a sense of inferiority based on writing classes being seen as “service” classes. (Lord knows we wouldn't want to perform a service for our universities, would we?) Because they had broken away from English, the discipline most dedicated to disappearing up its own ass with incomprehensible jargon and abstraction piled on top of abstraction, I think scholars in rhet/comp felt pressure to prove that their work was deep too, that it too was sophisticated and complex, that theirs was serious scholarship. Writing articles about best practices for leading students through the research paper process would be a boon to the adjuncts and grad students who actually teach our college students how to write, but they don’t get you invited to conferences where someone will deliver a ponderous recitation of your accomplishments when introducing you. And the dictates of professionalization mandate that grad students looking for a tenure track job have a dissertation on a “hot” topic, rather than on a useful one.
All of this seemed straightforwardly dysfunctional to me, and I tried to push back where I could, but I lacked any institutional influence. Because I am a worrier, I worried. I worried, for one thing, that the schools were paying for our programs because they expected us to teach students how to write, and I knew how threatened the liberal arts are in the contemporary university. I worried that, though the field reflexively dismissed the complaints of other faculty that their students couldn’t write, lots of students plainly couldn’t, not in a way that they would need to in order to succeed in their majors and in the workplace. I worried because the burgeoning ethos of “the student can do no wrong,” now unavoidable in higher education, seemed to directly confuse what students needed and what they wanted. I worried because students were not asking for us to baby them in this way. (I would take grad classes in second language studies, some of them very generative and useful. But all of them would inevitably spend long hours agonizing over the “linguistic hegemony” of expecting second language writers to write like first language writers, insisting that we should honor linguistic diversity and never treat one as better than the other. And then I’d teach my freshman writing classes and my Chinese and Indian and Russian students would say, please, just fix my English so I can get my degree.) Most of all, though, I worried because I love the written word, I believed it could empower and enrich our students, and my own life was living proof that the ability to write could prove an invaluable professional ability.
All of that seemed ignored, dismissed. And it was hard to imagine a scenario in which such concerns would be taken seriously, even if only to be rebutted. Those without tenure lacked the influence the force the conversation and those with tenure seemed mostly to want to hide in their offices and be left alone.
By the time that incomprehensible piece about assemblages I excerpted above had been published, I had graduated from Purdue, but was still deeply concerned with the future of the school and its liberal arts programs, given that former Republican governor and presidential candidate Mitch Daniels had become the president of the university. In an almost impossibly corrupt process, he had been appointed president by a board of trustees that was made up of people he had appointed himself. He had swiftly begun remaking the college in his own image and eventually hired a dean of liberal arts, David Reingold, who was more or less unapologetic about the fact that he didn’t care for the liberal arts. Whenever pieces like that excerpted above would crop up, I would think to myself, “I can't wait to tell the state legislature or some neoliberal administrator that they shouldn't defund our programs and fire our faculty because writing is a Deleuze-Guattarian assemblage that operates within Burke's ambiguous dialectic.” I’m not naive enough to think that, had the field been more focused on brick-and-mortar issues of teaching writing as traditionally conceived, it would be immune to the vagaries of the 21st-century university. But it would have offered, at least, the possibility of a defense.
When I first got to grad school, I was amazed to discover that there were PhD students who showed up unaware of what tenure was or who didn’t know that publication was the coin of an academic career. But it occurred to me that I had been raised in an academic household and had learned such things through osmosis. What was much more widespread and troubling, though, was a total naivete about the political economy of the university in American life. I would be reading, every day, about how threatened our colleges and their faculty were, about the remorseless march of forces that wanted to replace all tenured faculty with adjuncts and online teaching. The threat was and remains large. And yet people in academia would blink stupidly when I would bring any of this up. All of their mental understanding of their position was derived from what they needed to do to succeed within the industry, and none of it with how to defend the industry itself. Against all sense and in defiance of reality, they thought their university walls were impregnable.
The question was and is, how to defend a field that had no sense of intellectual progress? At some point, when I was really in the throes of despair about it all, I started asking everyone I could think to ask: what do we know, as a field, that we didn’t know ten years ago? What new knowledge could we say with confidence that we had gained? I asked grad students and faculty, at my institution and at others, over beers and at conferences and via email. The only consistent and shared answer was, again, that society/the university/the humanities/the classics/writing are racist. This was the story everyone wanted to tell. But this wasn’t really new, at all - the dissertation topics from ten years prior were choked with white academics nervously borrowing from the history of racial oppression for the purposes of employability. And absent that, there was quite literally nothing that different people offered as new knowledge that was broadly agreed upon. Asking specifically about student writing or writing pedagogy induced shrugs. There was no sense, at all, about what all of us busily writing articles were actually learning. We demanded our research be taken seriously but I couldn’t tell you what it was progressing towards. Can you imagine a bunch of biologists being unable to name any consistent thing that their field had discovered in the past decade? The academic field of psychology is rife with problems, but I have no doubt its members can at least name new ideas and facts that the discipline has generated recently. It’s not just that my old field has no such shared new knowledge, it’s that I can’t imagine a scenario where such mutual understanding is ever generated.
Obscure research is one thing; a failure to support teaching is another. A truly toxic dynamic for our university system is that the conferences and journals and organizations are run by the tenured, but the tenured don’t teach low-level classes. In some writing programs at research universities tenured faculty don’t teach undergraduate writing at all. (I in fact know of several professors who had to go to great lengths within their institutions to be allowed to continue teaching basic or freshman writing.) Instead, freshman writing is dominantly taught by adjuncts and, at schools with graduate programs, grad students. Again, the actual brick-and-mortar work of teaching students how to write sentences, paragraphs, and papers is essential to the finances of programs that run writing classes but disdained by many of the faculty who are funded by such classes. But the work continues, and freshman writing is sometimes cited as the single most commonly-taught class in the American university system. The people who teach such classes are typically overworked and undertrained, and they could use better insights into the process. More than once at conferences I met adjunct instructors and professors at teaching colleges who ruefully pointed out that the large conference programs contained not a single presentation that would be of use to people looking to teach actual writing. But the tenured at research universities don’t teach those classes, and the contingent labor that does lacks the voice to induce change.
You might read all of this and assume that I think poorly of the people I studied under and went to school with, but that’s not at all the case. The faculty in my programs at URI and Purdue were almost universally bright, committed, and levelheaded, and most of my grad student peers were as well. I met many intelligent and thoughtful people from other schools. That’s part of what makes this all so frustrating; it became clear to me that most of the people in an academic discipline could be sensible while the collective hurled itself off of a cliff, thanks to the bad incentives and distorted cultures of academia generally and the field specifically. But getting people even to consider these issues - how the departments and programs that made up the field were threatened by refusing to think strategically as part of larger bureaucracies, and how disdaining writing in its traditional forms hurts our students, denying them a set of skills that could be immensely useful for their lives - seems impossible. The walls are too high.
In the last year of my PhD program, in 2015, I sold a book to Harvard University Press. (That I was unable to get a tenure track job with a PhD from a top program, academic journal articles, and a book contract with HUP tells you how badly I self-sabotaged during my graduate career, and my life.) The book was called Writing Itself. You can read the proposal here, if you’re interested. The book was to be a record of all of the frustrations I’ve laid out here, and more; the title was a reflection of what I thought really mattered, writing itself, words, text, print. And it was exactly that which my field, the field called writing studies, had given up on, had declared to be low status. I never wrote it. First, because I had gotten a meaningless and wasteful but comfortable administrative job at CUNY, and writing an academic book (for zero dollars, of course) would have no career value for me. Second, because I had come to accept that a combination of the field’s bizarre priorities, my politics, and my considerable personal instability meant that I would never get a job as a professor. Third, because I was hurtling towards a mental health crisis that eventually arrived. Fourth, and most importantly, because I knew it would not make a lick of difference in the discipline. They wouldn’t read it. No one in the field, no one, was advocating for writing, itself, and absolutely every incentive in academia cut against sticking your neck out and appearing old-fashioned in defense of what the students really needed most and what the colleges were actually paying us to teach.
I expressed some of my worries in a vignette for a special issue of College English, one that promised to look at assessment and its potential impacts on college writing programs, guest-edited by Maya Poe and Asao Inoue. I was, in fact, invited to write such a vignette, so I did. The piece was accepted - I received an email saying so directly - and then, mysteriously, removed from the special edition. You can read it here. What I said was true and, I am willing to say, necessary. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes. Inoue is one of a number of scholars in contemporary academia who has realized that he can essentially hold the fragile white professoriate hostage by threatening them with constant accusations of racism, which has vaulted him to the top of the field. Thus empowered, he has used his influence to agitate against anyone who has suggested what I was suggesting: that writing programs are not in fact wholly autonomous and independent, but rather exist within large institutions that are themselves often under the control of government apparatus, and those stakeholders have demands of writing programs that faculty can’t long ignore. And I argued, as I did in my dissertation, that if the field continues to stick its head in the sand about these forces it will only speed the demise of faculty control. Sadly, this argument always runs up against the one Inoue has laboriously expressed time and again: that writing assessment, as traditionally conceived, is racist.
Whether Inoue’s doing or not, the vignette was certainly spiked after acceptance because it said something the field simply does not want to hear: that the total abandonment of its core pedagogical function leaves it immensely vulnerable to the neoliberal takeover of the university, and the endless identity grievance-mongering that holds so much power within its culture will be powerless in the face of the Republican state governments that will inevitably come to defund its programs. The wolf is at the door.
This, indeed, is exactly what happened to rhetoric & composition at Purdue, long seen as one of the discipline’s most durable and influential homes. A year or two ago Daniels and his lackey dean began strategically “right-sizing” the liberal arts generally and English specifically. The rhet/comp graduate cohorts of ten to twelve were cut down, I believe, to one or two. The graduate courses were slashed. Professors got ready to leave. The program, I’m told, is essentially no longer a program. The faculty appear to have no idea what hit them, which is odd, because I spent four years in their department urging them to take the threat seriously. It was to no avail. I have spent 15 years as a writer saying things to no effect, giving out warnings that no one will heed. I am, after all, a 21st-century American Marxist. I know from intellectual impotence. And yet nowhere was I less heeded than in my academic field. I would go to conferences and beg people to see how vulnerable they were. I told them, I have been a child of the university my whole life, I have studied where higher ed is going for a decade, I understand who really holds power within our institutions, I grasp what state politics is like, I know of what I speak, please, work to defend yourselves. Tenure and “this is how we’ve always done it” will be no defense. They looked at me with bemused pity. And, indeed, should this piece somehow penetrate the collective consciousness of the field, it’ll get dismissed with the same reductive terms academics dismiss everything, sneered at on that WPA listserv full of tenured bigwigs whose work no one outside of their community would even bother to make fun of.
The last academic conference I ever went to was focused on assessment, from the standpoint of accreditation. It was, I think, my third and penultimate year at Brooklyn College. Philadelphia. The trip gave me an excuse to get away from campus and my beleaguered boss a break from me. I ran into someone there who had been a PhD student at the same time as I was, from another big program. Assessment conferences are grim affairs, ringed with the worst kind of academic technology vultures selling schools ludicrously expensive software they don’t need so that they can convince accrediting agencies to pass them in reviews that nobody fails. Like a lot of people there I was a failed academic in a dead-end job who was busily collecting bullshit data for no reason simply so that I could maintain health insurance. The woman who I had known as a grad student was now a freshman writing coordinator, a job with lots of work and zero prestige that’s often fobbed off on the pre-tenure. I told her that everything in academia seemed grim to me, that the writing had been on the wall for years and that what little money state colleges continued to receive would end up getting spent on absurd boondoggles like the pointless assessment software being sold nearby. It was all raw for me, as CUNY’s financial woes had a way of amplifying all of the American university system’s problems. But she was flying high and spoke only of all the possibilities laid out before her and her program. She had a lot of big ideas.
I gently asked her how she could be so confident; I had read that her state government was contemplating another round of major cuts. She crinkled her nose at me and said, “you know, our department’s a pretty big deal.”