|REFUGE symposium in progress, as photographed by Alexa Huang
by J J Cohen
Sometimes I get into a funk about the devaluing of the humanities, the proliferation of bureaucracy within academia, the mania for assessment as a box-ticking exercise over the cultivation of superb pedagogy in its varied forms, the transformation of higher education into a service economy structured around quick, underpaid gigs rather than the longterm cultivation of shared endeavor ... and so on. Within that larger picture directing an institute has grown each year to be more of challenge, since the support mechanisms something as ambitions as GW MEMSI requires simply are not there. On the positive side I have learned to be quite a travel agent, reservation maker, financial form filler out, social media advertiser, and so many other skills I did not ever think I'd need. Since it is so important to me that MEMSI guests feel welcome from the moment they arrive I put a great deal of effort into small things -- and have learned (for example) to stop by the hotel in person the day before to ensure that everything is in place, to double check with the library that the proper guest list has gone to the front desk, etc. Fun! And: never a guarantee that the best plans are not going to encounter bumps of all sorts. I often think about what I could do if I had better structural support (and I am so grateful for the graduate students and faculty colleagues who consistently step up to the plate to help me).
This week has felt especially hard because I did something I almost never do: I gave up. I finally waved a white flag when an introductory, undergraduate course so important to me and to the engaged humanities I want to enact was nibbled to death by two years of administrative and then resource-related pressures. I just could not write one more email defending something that had proven so successful (I have the assessments from last summer to prove it!) despite its "nonstandard" form, and I could not get the support I needed to make the course work well ... so I cut my losses, cancelled and replaced "Myths of Britain" with "Chaucer" before registration opened. As you can no doubt tell, I am also being hard on myself for having done this and am hoping it is not a sign of things to come. But there is a part of me that is kind of relieved that the clock is ticking on MEMSI: the Institute's internal funding expires next year, after a ten year run.
OK, that's the gloomy part. Here's the radiant part.
Sometimes after a day filled with frustrations, angry phone calls to hotels where you suspect a guest was denied early access to his room for reprehensible but all too common reasons, despair at the library not having the guest list right again, the gathering that happens in the aftermath of the annoyances is so unexpectedly catalytic that all you can do is sit back, nod your head, and think "THIS is why the labor is worth it." After a day of glitches large and small (and despite my anticipation of each glitch and emplacing everything to prevent them) ... when the GW MEMSI symposium on REFUGE started yesterday afternoon, everything the event required didn't matter anymore. A packed room of undergraduates, grad students and faculty colleagues from near and far assembled to think together, create together, dream stories more affirmative than the narratives we have been given. By the time the Venetian Room of the Hotel Lombardy closed at midnight, my faith in the communal forging of a future humanities -- or at least in the benefits of forming temporary shelters where that future might be thought -- had been amply restored. Patience Agbabi, Pamela Troyer, Steve Mentz, Jonathan Hsy and DJ Spooky inspirationally enacted what "refuge" might mean in these troubling times. I will tackle a thousand bumps and glitches for such moments of making new and better narratives together.