Monday, March 16, 2015

"It is unethical."

by J J Cohen

A year ago I placed this update on FB where it engendered quite a lively conversation. Having come across it by accident this morning, I'm offering it here now because of late I've grown weary of the gated community that platform fosters. Aren't we in the humanities supposed to be fostering public conversations about what we do, especially in the face of constant devaluation of the arts? Shouldn't we talk less amongst ourselves and more in spaces that are accessible to wider publics? And I still believe strongly what I wrote below. The solution to the crisis in higher ed, especially in the humanities, is not to close up shop and think thereby that an obligation to work for change has been fulfilled. I see the attraction of shutting it all down: no more job market to worry about, no more exploitation of graduate student labor to be troubled by, no more reason to think too hard about the adjunctification of the profession. But I also see how this austerity model of humanities futuring serves to buttress the moral comfort of those already inside the academy while not in any substantial way addressing the issues behind the very manufacture of the crisis, triggered in part by the administrative implementation of a rather similar model that emphasizes leanness, assessability, quantification, and other corporate desiderata.

IT IS UNETHICAL. That three word declaration of why PhD programs in the humanities need to be shut down now was first voiced to me by a senior colleague in 1994, when I became a beginning assistant professor at GW. The declaration took me by surprise: stark, unyielding, a demand rather than an invitation to contemplation. After long thought, my response was and remains that ethics should not work that way, should not close doors for others who might desire to forge affirmative modes of living that cannot be known in advance. Ethics inheres not in making decisions for others without their knowledge, but in the instigation of a relationship of care in which a future in all its complexity and fraughtness is opened. Ethics makes choice possible: the informed choice of saying no; the choice of saying "I don't like where this door you are opening leads now but I'll embark on this road to see what I can alter, or maybe I will leave it halfway through, I don't know"; the choice to agree to something tentatively, with a hope that may well be dashed but should not be foreclosed. Ethics is not a certainty that you know what is best for others without asking them, again and again, what they desire, imagine, and need -- as well as what they are willing to risk. Advanced humanities study is broken and the academic job market is dire: those facts are even more true than they were in 1994. These sad facts can lead us to the abandonment of the humanities -- or to their reinvention, revaluation and re-story-ing. For me ethics entails new possibilities for advanced humanistic study based upon alliance, relation and shared endeavor. Ethics demands the opening of as many doors as possible, knowing that behind most is despair, but beyond some lies hope.

EDIT March 19
When I shared this post on Facebook I added this comment about how an ethical program should operate. I reproduce it here because it was behind what I wrote above.

A PhD program must support all those who enroll with sufficient funding to ensure that they can live adequately within the city or town where the program is located; also grant travel money for conferences and other kinds of professionalization; not exist solely because cheap labor is needed, so that any work in the classroom is well mentored and not of such intensity that it impedes timely degree completion (time away from teaching should be inbuilt, as well); labor not a necessary part of mentored pedagogical training should be protected within collective bargaining/union structures; students should be trained for both traditional academic jobs and #altac; the program should be serious in its attentiveness to those enrolled, so that those within are nurtured (and so that when it is obvious that things are not working out, students are not told it will be OK and they should push on through; the program should cultivate realism rather than trade in fantasies); PhD students should be given every opportunity to complete a degree in a timely manner and with as much intellectual freedom as possible. Without those things as part of its structure, a PhD program is committing some deep wrongs.

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