Section 5 of my journalistic article. How can I strengthen it still further?
A New Curriculum
Around the time my piece was distributed in Louisiana, British political scientist Tarak Barkawi published a closely related analysis in Al Jazeera. In it he notes the use of euphemism to justify the purchase of commercial educational products over the development of an institution:
A meaningless buzzword in the mouth of a dean, such as “new majority student”, might in practice help legitimate the hiring of less qualified faculty. After all, if “teacher ownership of content” is old fashioned, why do you need to hire a professor who can create his or her own course?
He ends the article by emphasizing the the connection between MOOCs, the undermining of self-governance, neoliberal economies and deceptively reassuring rhetoric with which mine begins:
The bottom line of the neoliberal assault on the universities is the increasing power of management and the undermining of faculty self-governance. The real story behind MOOCs may be the ways in which they assist management restructuring efforts of core university practices, under the smiley-faced banner of “open access” and assisted in some cases by their “superstar”, camera-ready professors.
This sentence bears repeating: “The bottom line of the neoliberal assault on the universities is the increasing power of management and the undermining of faculty self-governance.” Recently published as well is Eric Margolis’ The Changing Hidden Curricula: A Personal Recollection, which provides much context for the changes in institutional policy and practice sketched out in the Lombardi essay discussed above, as wel as a description of the entrepreneurial New American University that is both vivid and chilling. Reading Margolis, I am struck once again by the way in which the management techniques and the new language of the entrepreneurial unversity project strive to train faculty into a new role. It is not only that, as he points out, key elements of the “hidden curriculum” of the 1950s university are creeping back into our institutions, just as the superficially modern MOOC resuccitates the lecture-and-quiz model of that era. It is that the language of crisis, of urgency, the representation of critique as superficial “fear of change,” and above all the presentation of the entrepreneurial model as a fait accompli train us as firmly as they can to further quietism. Capital now governs labor, as Corey Robin points out, and tells workers what to say; the vocabulary it teaches serves market logic better the more it severs connections with practical reality and reason. Lulled by the idea that, as members of the liberal professions, we are not labor, faculty have ignored the signs of being refitted precisely as such.
I am not in the mood for activism now. I want to close my door and write. I have tenure, so I can. I may be one of the last rank-and-file faculty members to have such an opportunity. It is a gift I do not wish to dishonor by refusing. There would be nothing more convenient than to decide the game is up, and to cultivate nothing beyond my own garden. But how shall I define myself, and describe the garden I cultivate? The energy in the adjunct movement, for example, which is organizing as established faculty take the quietist turn that also tempts me, suggests that corporatization or the complete adoption of the entrepreneurial model may not be the only path ahead. The “hidden curriculum” of corporatization is a lesson about its own inevitability, and this course is still in progress. It may be possible to brake and shift gears.
I would suggest that those of us who have tenure or are on the tenure track take the time to remember–remember, not expect to be granted, but remember and enact–the old faculty role, that tenure in its truer sense corresponded to, and that faculty had before our “deconstruction.” This means taking responsibility now, as opposed to merely lamen the “fall of the faculty.” I, of course, have always favored unionization and solidarity with contingent faculty, but this last is particularly important now. Such solidarity, importantly, does not mean only ensuring decent working conditions or making symbolic, weakly inclusive gestures like token representation. It means standing up to administrators and negotiating hard for FTEs and tenure-track lines. This is especially important given Lombardi’s insight that in the absence of this the weaker gestures, while humane, actually work toward the further erosion of faculty power. Tempting though it is to decide that all is already lost, and that the best use of time is in research, teaching, and service at the level of one’s disciplinary organizations, the journals on whose boards we sit, or in social movements outside the university, we should take active leadership roles on our campuses. We should sit on university level committees, offer to chair them, revive AAUP chapters, and stand for seats on Faculty Senate. Especially because so much of the new administrative class does not arise from the professoriate or necessarily have a background in a traditional discipline, they are isolated from these worlds and more vulnerable to sales pitches from ed-tech enterprises and political pressure than they necessarily want to be. They may appreciate our assistance in resisting the onslaught on our institutions coming from entities which truly do not have our, or our students’, or the country’s best interests at heart.
We should also guard against carelessly relinquishing the formal power we have left, as the Faculty Senate at my institution nearly did in its constitutional “editing” process last year. This is such an apparently small detail, such a dull bureaucratic task, that I wondered at the time whether my alarm at what was being attempted were an overreaction, but the fact is that we almost signed the future power of that body away. And as Barkawi points out, the undermining of faculty governance is central in the neoliberal attack on universities. Faculty governance must be recovered, and faculty must retain or regain all the integrity we can. We may not want to use all our power all the time, but we should not allow our structures of governance to be weakened or dismantled. The future is not nailed in, and it may be the neoliberal model that becomes the past.
Manuel Maples Arce’s modernist poem Urbe, Metropolis in John Dos Passos’ translation, was written in response to a workers’ parade in Mexico City. In its first edition, it is accompanied by woodblocks that are not mere illustrations, but a part of the text; the human figures are tiny before skyscrapers and machinery, and along imposing avenues. Poetry and visual arts of the period, nearly a hundred years ago now, registered and grappled with the shock of the new, and the velocity of change. The machines in the landscape Maples Arce surveys with his movie camera gaze, are in high gear. “Here is my poem,” he proclaims. There are strong poems to be written yet.