Category Archives: Theory and reflection

Two faculty manifestos

Two distinguished professors, formerly of the ILA (and currently in English, Comparative Literature, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies), have published their thoughts on the meaning and value of interdisciplinary work in the liberal arts in a time of combined austerity and administrative bloat.

First, Walter Reed, laying down some Luther- or Spinoza-inspired “Theses on the Liberal Arts” for Durham University’s Centre for Humanities Innovation:

3.1 Teaching is the transmission of information, knowledge and (ideally) wisdom, either as ends in themselves or as the means to other ends. The traffic moves in both directions on this highway as well—from the masters to the disciples and from the certified professionals to those in training for certification, but also from the disciples back to the masters, from those in training back to the professionals. The balance between teaching and learning is dynamic and inherently unstable….

3.1.3 This dynamism and instability carry over to the relationship between emerging disciplinary specializations (new sub-fields within a discipline) and the disciplines as already established. New specializations both instruct and depend on older ones, though a balanced appreciation of the new and the old is difficult to maintain for those most closely involved. A similar dynamic instability informs interdisciplinary initiatives setting up shop between established disciplines. (Interdisciplinary inquiry is not the same as undisciplined study.)

And Michael Moon comments on “English Departments at a Crossroads”:

What some administrators currently mean by an “English department” seems to me in the main not to be a place or a project that serves the intellectual and professional needs of my students or myself very well. English departments turned out to serve the needs of faculty and students in queer studies for the first twenty years or so of my career in large part because many of them had – often through a process of prolonged conflict and division – turned themselves into major seedbeds of interdisciplinary growth during the 1970s and ‘80s, so that many fields which have since developed in varying degrees into autonomous disciplines, departments, and programs (critical theory, gender studies, lesbian and gay studies, queer theory, film and media studies, the whole spectrum of ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, cultural studies, etc.) spent their first decade or so as emergent academic fields as flourishing sub-projects of this or that English department.

So one feature of the current academic landscape that disturbs me is the relentless shutting-down of anglophone literary studies as the kind of expansive set of interdisciplinary intellectual spaces which they’ve provided at many universities for the past several decades….

Professor Moon’s piece comes courtesy of U to the Rescue, a blog curated by scholar-activist Christopher Newfield.


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David Mullins: Complexity pedagogy must define the university

David Mullins, an undergraduate student of comparative literature and one of the SRC’s most visible representatives, has sent us the text of his presentation at the symposium.

“Complexity Pedagogy Must Define the University”

Many commentators tend to talk about science and math as if they were neatly separable from language, liberal arts, and literature. That we can shorten column B (say liberal arts) and lengthen column A (say, science or business) and then we will have less B and more A. This presentation will argue that this is a bit of a devil’s bargain, and we will end up losing both. We will lose both because something that might be called complexity is both what the liberal arts excel at navigating, and that which underpins breakthroughs in science and business. so it is not that the liberal arts are somehow parasitic on scientific or economic breakthroughs, it’s actually precisely the opposite. That complexity, and creativity in the face of complexity, is the basis of groundbreaking investigation in all three: the liberal arts and the sciences, and economics and that the liberal arts, because they do not have this input/output fixation, this focus on efficiency they are in a privileged position because generally better situated than a Management 101 class to navigate complex systems, which have multiple and sometimes unknowable variables, not just one variable that we might call profit or empirical success, empirical success from the perspective of a rather naieve sort of modern, pre-Einsteinian, pre-quantum physics science.

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Tressie’s RVE speech and reflections

Tressie McMillan Cottom has published her talk from the Re-Visioning symposium on her blog, along with afterthoughts. You wouldn’t have known from listening, but much of her talk was edited at the last moment, in response to AIDS researcher Dr. Kimberly Hagen’s earlier talk about teaching one of Emory’s first MOOCs.

The panel on which Tressie spoke, which also featured Michelle Ledder of the Graduate Division of Religion and David Mullins of Comparative Literature, was one of the more electrifying conference experiences many of us had witnessed in a long time.* Jason Francisco, our faculty ally in Visual Arts, remarked that it was definitely the most compelling performance he had seen in the VAB gallery. We hope to make more of the presentations available in the coming days.

*I write this even having been present at the seminotorious Lee Edelman/Jack Halberstam standoff at the last MLA.

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Essence of Emory = censoring student expression

In the wake of yesterday’s Re-Visioning Symposium, which was a tremendous success (photos and reflections to come), one of our organizers received the following polite but loaded e-mail:

I hope your event went well last night and we need a favor. Can you please pull your signage and yellow ribbons from trees, poles, etc, on campus today?

We have many future college students touring campus this week and we want their “vision” of Emory to be as clean and neat as possible.

Thank you,

Jimmy Powell
Director Exterior Services
Campus Services

In fact, campus workers began tearing down our signs (none of which were as imposing as a 60-foot tall Dooley) and erasing our sidewalk chalk on Sunday night and Monday morning, before the symposium began. This was an academic conference sponsored by three Emory departments. Can’t let potential freshmen be exposed to any of that!

Powell and Exterior Services have also run into conflict with Students and Workers in Solidarity over student activists’ banners.

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Wagner and the rhetoric of “truth”

Tomorrow (Wednesday, March 27), faculty members are invited to a “special” meeting concerning the appropriate response to President Wagner’s conduct–including, likely, a vote of no confidence. With that in mind, we’re reprinting SRC member Pat Blanchfield’s op-ed from the online edition of today’s Wheel:

On Truth, Courageous Inquiry and James Wagner
by Patrick Blanchfield

Nearly a century ago, the great American author and social critic Upton Sinclair wrote a withering portrait of the College President of his day. Sinclair’s College President is a manipulative, cynical figure, a smooth operator who effortlessly shuttles between the stuffy lecture halls of academe and the smoky backrooms of the business world, ultimately and solely serving the interests of the latter while modestly taking “the salary of a plutocrat” for his efforts. When faced with faculty opposition, Sinclair’s College President always gets his way, whether by cultivating alliances through flattery and handouts or by mobilizing a “kitchen cabinet” of administrators to discredit opponents, play campus interest groups against each other, and fabricate reasons to eliminate troublesome individuals and programs outright (“Perhaps they find that they have too many men in that department; or they decide to combine the departments of literature and obstetrics.”).

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Psychology faculty, Open Door members denounce Wagner

Nine faculty members in the psychology department have published an open letter to the Board of Trustees in the Wheel. They write of the “shadow of racism” cast over Emory by Wagner’s statement and note that it has been “only the latest example in a series of his actions tarnishing Emory’s academic reputation and standing.” Then they exhort the Board to take action and to initiate a conversation with professors:

Public comment from the Board of Trustees is an essential first step towards undoing this damage. We also strongly encourage the Board of Trustees to reach out to Emory faculty to solicit their input concerning the implications of President Wagner’s leadership for the future of the university.

The Wheel has also received a copy of a March 7 letter sent to Ben Johnson, Chair of the Board of Trustees, on behalf of Open Door Community, a group home and outreach center in the Catholic Worker tradition “that has sought to dismantle racism, sexism and heterosexism for the past 31 years” and that has strong ties to Emory. The ODC’s representatives express their outrage over the “Three-Fifths” editorial, adding:

We would like to stress that this is not solely about President Wagner, but rather about an urgent need for intentional work on the part of Emory University toward the eradication of racism, in which all of us can play a role under your leadership as the chair of Emory’s Board of Trustees. We are also distressed about the recent department cuts at Emory, which disproportionately impact people of color. Whereas only 15 percent of the overall university faculty are of color, the affected departments contain anywhere from 20 to 48 percent faculty of color – and these decisions were made entirely by a group of eight white people.

These letters should be distributed as widely as possible before today’s faculty meeting (4:00 in White Hall), over which President Wagner will preside, and at which the resolution for a vote of no confidence will perhaps be raised.

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WGSS expresses shame

The Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department has also condemned Wagner on their front page:

The Department of WGSS is deeply concerned by President Wagner’s decision to use the 3/5ths compromise as a model of compromise. That poor choice contributes to a culture of discrimination. The entire community is shamed by the statement. As our colleagues in History and African American Studies have shown, education in the genealogies of racism and racial discourse is an intrinsic part of a good education, and one we support and encourage at Emory.

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Comp Lit: Wagner’s “philosophical failing”

The tenured core faculty of Comparative Literature have released the following statement on their home page:

We regret and deplore President Wagner’s recent use of the example of the infamous “3/5ths compromise” as a paradigm of good political practice in general, as a basis for thinking about university politics in particular, and more especially as a model for negotiating the future of the liberal arts at Emory.   In their serious historical, political, ethical and philosophical failings, these remarks demonstrate a contrario the importance of the kind of liberal arts education to which we as a department remain uncompromisingly committed.

Thank you for affirming the liberal arts’ value in the positive…

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An archive of resistance

On Tuesday, February 26, the ILA hosted a colloquium titled “Re-Visioning What is and What Can Be: Activism, Art, and the Creative Edge of Change.” The speakers talked about recent student-led activism at Emory–the SRC’s work, Students and Workers in Solidarity’s fight for subcontracted workers’ rights, the fight to get Chick Fil-A off campus, and more.

Many participants commented on the role of images and humor in creating a grassroots movement. You can download the PowerPoint presentation featuring some of our “greatest hits” here, but note that it’s quite a large file at 30 MB.

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Navyug’s speech on the racialization of the cuts

Here is the text of Navyug’s speech on behalf of the SRC at the Rally Against Racism last night.

There is a problem here at Emory.

What brought all of us together today is what appears to be only the latest in a series of blunders by the administration. From exploitive labour practices, to the suppressing of student dissent, the dishonesty of data-reporting, the ignoring of racism, the drastic cuts to programs, and the latest comments by President Wagner – Emory is all the more prominent for all the wrong reasons.

In fact, last semester around this time, opposition to the sweeping and unilateral cuts to academic programs announced by Dean Foreman on September 14th animated our campus. It was to these very cuts that President Wagner referred to in his infamous article.

One indication of what these cuts are about is through the logic of proportion.

Whenever people in power attempt to implement narrow-minded and regressive decisions, they always present them as neutral, efficient, responsible, prudent, inevitable – or, especially in this case, ‘in the pursuit of eminence.’

Yet when we use the critical faculties that are a central purpose of the university – when we examine the details, read and discuss carefully, and analyze the processes – we see that these cuts were far from neutral.

As you all know, the cuts target the Division of Educational Studies, the department of Visual Arts, the Journalism program, the Institute for the Liberal Arts, the department of Physical Education, the graduate programs in Economics and Spanish, as well as some language instruction in Russian, Farsi and Hindi/Urdu.

Taken together, these programs contain some of the highest numbers of students of colour and from abroad. Just two examples: 25% of the ILA students are minorities, while 40% of students in the DES are African-American, the highest population of any department in the university. In terms of faculty, whereas only 15% of the total University faculty is of colour, the cut departments contain anywhere from 20% to 48% faculty of colour. And the decision to make these cuts…was made by a group of 8 white people, 6 of which were men.

In other words, these cuts disproportionately impact people of colour: students, faculty and departments that have a vital role in communities across Atlanta.

To make sense of what this means, contrast it with another glaringly disproportionate relation in our society. Take, for example, US incarceration rates.

While African-Americans are 14% of the general population, they are 40% of the prison population. Now, unless one is either hopeless or ignorant, it is clear that issues of poverty, criminality and the justice system are far from neutral, but instead deeply implicated in a politics of race and racism.

The further question to ask, however, is that if African-Americans, as 14% of the general population, came to constitute 14% of the prison population, would the problem be solved? Would proportional representation in prisons be the answer to the contradictions of poverty, crime and justice?

Disproportion is therefore an indication of a problem, but it is not its entirety.

This is where President Wagner’s comments are actually illuminating. What he said in praise of the decision of a few white property-owning men to quantify the humanity of slaves as a fraction is not merely clumsy and insensitive. It also contains an insight into how the administration understands governance and the process of decision-making.

President Wagner’s use of the 3/5 example unwittingly draws a parallel between the actions of those in power. In this case, in mobilizing against these cuts, the Student Re-visioning Committee organized three major public demonstrations, wrote scores of op-ed pieces in different publications, sent letters, requests and petitions, met and spoke with administrators for hours, garnered local and national media coverage and held a seven-hour sit-in at the administration building. In response, the administration listened, shrugged and proceeded to do exactly what they set out to do.

This is what the language of dialogue and compromise is designed to conceal: the disparities of power that, again in this case, exclude students from meaningful participation in how our university operates. President Wagner’s error was therefore not only an odious comparison, but an honest revelation. And it is a profound lack of vision that allows him first to make the mistake, and second to apologize to deny its truth.

Indeed, by their own words, the administration acknowledges that they do not have the right set of eyes to edit their own publications. While I agree that they are grossly inadequate, this issue involves more than simply iris colour and skin pigmentation.

So, there are problems at Emory. What is needed is a movement of people in a range of capacities to come together to think through a different way of identifying priorities, addressing needs as well as aspirations, and implementing sound policies. We need a project of re-visioning to democratize our university.

And for that, what this latest uproar demonstrates is that we are probably better off attempting
this difficult task without the current administration.

[The same, as a PDF]

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