Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cynicism, skepticism, utopianism

by  J J Cohen

Without going too far into intramural affairs, I want to post about an exchange that happened yesterday at a task force meeting. It's not often enough that I am called upon to articulate my own idealism in an ordinary meeting. Doing so helped cure me of the blues I had earlier in the day.

I've been appointed to a committee whose charge has been difficult to discern: on the one hand our official label speaks of innovation, but on the other our actual mission seems to center upon efficiency and potential cost cutting. My university is attempting to raise more money via fundraising combined with budget savings. The latter effort is a little odd because we are not in fact suffering the kinds of fiscal meltdowns that have gripped other institutions of higher education. The idea is, I suppose, that all universities can find ways to be more efficient, all budgets have fat that can be trimmed, and that it is better to undertake such projects when no crisis propels the effort.

Our committee's particular rubric is "learning," also referred to as "the academic enterprise." At our first brainstorming session, we immediately agreed that we would preface what we undertake with this statement: "The group is unanimous in its opinion that the academic enterprise at GW has been sorely underfunded." Finding ways to reduce costs is therefore a counterintuitive endeavor -- though not a wholly impossible one.

We were surprised, though, when we were informed that our thoughts should be guided by a strategic plan published six years ago, and originating several years before that. The plan is deeply associated with the vision and aspirations of our last university president (who reigned for 19 years) and his VP of Academic Affairs (who retires in May). Given that innovation is the in-folding of the new, I began to fear that the only thing innovative about our project is that budget reduction had been christened with a novel name.

To this objection I was told that our committee would find the economic means by which innovation could be enacted. To my query of who gets to do the innovating, the quick answer was the VP who is about to retire along with the provost who will replace him (that search is ongoing and will not be filled for some time).

So I pointed out that it might not be a best practice to hand $60 million in innovation funds to a person who has not yet arrived and a person who represents the past of the institution and has a foot at the door. I was told two things: (1) faculty cynicism and skepticism are major impediments to innovation; (2) we need to think in terms of what is best for the university.

To the second comment I replied simply that I, my faculty, and my students are the university. I find that when a person says "Get out of your silo and think about the university" what they actually mean is "Entrust this decision to those who have your best interests in mind." To the first comment I said, quite sincerely, that if I were cynical and skeptical I never would have accepted appointment to the committee. Cynicism and skepticism are modes of non-participation. They are lazy. I am in fact an optimist, even a utopianist: I want to be at a university where we move forward through consensus, shared vision, and community. Innovation, yes: that is why I serve on the committee when I have a thousand other demands on my time. I'm willing to undertake the labor ... but not so that some few who work for the university but who are not its entirety can make decisions that profoundly alter the lives of the thousands who actually are that collective.

Such objections did not fall on deaf ears. The mission of the task force is now going to be clarified in light of our discussion.

So what about you: are you a cynic, a skeptic, an idealist, a utopianist? Have you ever been in an institutional situation when you had to deliver your credo?

PS I realize that posting this interchange might seem self-congratulatory. I don't mean it that way. For me it's a reminder of what I value, of what I believe. Be a part of any institution long enough and it is easy to lose your credo, to focus on the small and the immediate over the frustratingly vast but enduring. The more demands I find myself answerable to, the more necessary I find it to remind myself not to follow paths of inertia and least effort.


Karl Steel said...

Cynicism and skepticism are modes of non-participation. They are lazy. I am in fact an optimist, even a utopianist: I want to be at a university where we move forward through consensus, shared vision, and community.
Oh hell yes. Agreed completely on all points, although (see below), I'm not agreeing because of optimism or utopianism.

Have you ever been in an institutional situation when you had to deliver your credo?

Just last week, in fact, in several situations, in signing my name to a report from one of my committees in which we recommended, well, various things. Let's say, though, it was less a credo than an articulation of several key points of doctrine. I was also a loud voice at a union chapter meeting in which we forged a letter demanding "consensus, shared vision, and community," although in language specific to our resistance to the top-down methods the administration is using in their attempt to reorganize our academic structure.

Ultimately, though, I'd say I'm not a "utopian." Rather, because credo in democracy and shared governance, I'll vigorously resist any infringement on faculty self-governance.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I'm finding myself deeply inspired by José Muñoz's new book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. He uses Ernst Bloch's idea of a concrete utopia, "the realm of educated hope," an indeterminate future space for collective dreaming and action. Concrete utopias are supposed to be the antidote to the "banal optimism" of abstract utopias, which are "untethered from historical consciousness."

So, when I say I am utopian it is in this sense: I want a more just collectivity rooted in the present but open (in affect and methodology) to a future that cannot be predetermined, that is rife with potentiality.

Bravo for your work, Karl.

Eileen Joy said...

Definitely a utopianist, in the Munoz sense, which I take to also mean that there is sometimes a *determinacy* in that holding-open of a space of indeterminacy, which is moved toward with all sorts of built-in awareness of what really *is* and what *cannot* be [or, can only *be* with some cost, risk, pain, suffering, etc.].

As to credos, I have never been in a situation where I have had to deliver one, in an institutional context, although I think it's obvious how much I like to invent them in spaces like this, but those are almost always pointed at disciplinary and field concerns. In the space of my university, I am the person who has become known for speaking the uncomfortable truths that everyone is afraid to say. This sometimes gets me in trouble, but you can also see the palpable relief when I do it, since everyone is thinking it. And since I don't care if some people think I am impolitic or idiotically averse to securing my own survival through various modes of terse and double-speak diplomacy, everything generally works out fine in the end because we can move a little closer to what really matters [even if we don't always get what we want--as faculty, on behalf of our students, etc.].

[to be continued below]

Eileen Joy said...

More largely, I think this post, and the one that precedes it by Jeffrey ["Blue, wet day"], are important because as faculty members who often just want to concentrate our energies on teaching and research, we are reminded here of how we are situated within institutional contexts that don't just require, but very much need, our skilled interventions, into matters of funding, curricula, hiring, and the like. I have often been torn on this issue, wanting very much to retreat into my study and classroom, and participating in various service duties with half my mind often somewhere else completely, ticking off the completed chores as just something else to add to the service resume so that no one can accuse me of being lame in that area. And I have often said, over and over again, to anyone who will listen to me in my own department, that at the end of the day, the end of our careers, and the end of our lives, the last thing I want to be remembered for is the work I did on the general education task force or the expository writing committee. I simply admit these things as having been true, *at times*, in my own career.

But the real epiphany, for me, came in the discussions that have been ongoing for a while now, at the disciplinary level, over the so-called "fate" of the humanities, and more pointedly, of premodern studies within those humanities. It occurred to me that if medieval studies is to both maintain its foothold within the university while also maybe having a hope of increasing its purchase upon and enlarging its fields of inquiry within the humanities [and maybe even of leaping into places beyond the humanities proper], that we have a lot of work to do both within our institutional contexts [at the level of curricular reform, especially, but also in the shape of creating and getting funding for new programs, institutes, re-defining positions, etc.] but also *across* and *beyond* institutional contexts [in the form of creating new working groups, new journals, new spaces--both virtual and otherwise--for doing and promoting new kinds of work, etc.]. So it's actually critical that we serve as department chairs and also lead committees aimed at curricular reform with an eye toward advocating for the important role of the humanities within the larger institution [which often does not value the humanities but sees them in a primarily "service" or "gateway" role to other, more "professional" fields], but also for the critical importance of the study of earlier periods in relation to very contemporary problems, issues, concerns, etc. within specific fields: literary, historical, or otherwise. This is just my way of saying that, if one is concerned about the fate, say, of medieval studies within the larger university system, that it is not enough to just write about that, or to wonder how the field can change itself from *within* to address that issue, all the while hoping others outside the field will notice [they generally don't]; rather, this concern must manifest itself in active ways within a variety of inter-disciplinary institutional contexts and also in vigorous, what I would call "hook-ups" and "mash-ups," across institutions, thereby [hopefully] creating broad networks of advocacy, and even [again, hopefully] actual mobile "products" [such as journals, symposia, books, etc.] that would help more people secure better footholds within the institutions that, frankly, pay us our living.

So, this is all just to say that, as time-consuming and often frustrating as it is, some heroic labor dedicated to "service" to our institutions, to include taking leadership positions within department and Colleges, and also to the field itself across institutions [and maybe even--?--moving beyond the conventional institutions to newly-imagined Other-institutions or to what Paul Bowman has called alterdisciplinarities], has MUCH to do with whether or not medieval studies survives in a viable fashion [such that more than just a few persons could hope for careers there].

Anonymous said...

It's a while since I have been in utopian mode - but I guess you know that Jameson and Jacoby have an interesting critique as to why Bloch's dreaming utopianism has resurfaced with such force in recent utopian writing and also (russell jacoby) on its relationship to jewishness?

sorry if I am teaching you egg-sucking!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thank you for that comment Eileen, which resonates rather profoundly with the videocast of "Reading Beowulf" that went out today, with its citations of Reading and imagining of a university to come.

Sarah, I am new to the topic of utopia, so anything you want to send my way I will deeply appreciate.

Anonymous said...

Ok - so I am thinking of Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (London and New York: Verso,2005) and Russell Jacoby, Picture Imperfect. Utopian Thought for an anti-utopian age (Columbia UP, 2005).

On jewishness and utopianism - (as I am sure you do know) - is a big much-debated theme - and I believe next year's AJHSE in New york will have a session on it (courtesy of H-Net).