The largest gathering of scholars in the humanities took place at the Vancouver Convention Centre last week. Hours of sunshine alternated with hours of fog and rain. I learned two things at the 2015 convention of the Modern Languages Association (MLA): That there is a world in which academia could be vastly different from what it is today; and that we are far, far away from this world. Much credit must be given to those who try to politicize the professoriat, by unionizing adjuncts and addressing issues of unfairness in the academe. By now, everyone is familiar with the untenable and exploitative working conditions of many part-time faculty members. At a panel for ‘Contingent Academic Labor and Unionization’, there was an impassioned call for solidarity between the adjunct and tenured staff at post-secondary institutions. To arrive at workplace democracy, we must establish collegiality and assume social responsibility. Academics, too, are waving a banner, calling for ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’.
According to some surveys, adjuncts make up 50% of all faculty at American institutions. We are the precariat, incessantly walking on tiptoes across an unstable bridge that stretches from one end of the bottomless chasm to the other. But perhaps the image of linear progression across a bridge is misleading, for there is very little sense of arriving on the other side. Instead, a member of the precariat engages in a circular loop of applications, teaching, rejections, more applications, until the motions become almost mechanical, and the enthusiasm once felt towards something like the MLA has dwindled to curiosity at best. Perhaps the lifestyle of the salaried bourgeoisie brings to mind Nietzsche’s Last Men, who lack passion and commitment, whose lives are sparsely filled with ‘little pleasures’. But having been on the wobbly bridge for so long does make me envy the comforts of those who are able to relax their weary limbs and set up camp for the night on secure, solid grounds.
I like the word ‘contingent’, for it brings to mind ideas about free will and fate; permanency and ephemerality; the possibility of catastrophe; also connoting the physical touch (from the Latin tangere), or the act of bringing together. Google shows that the use of the word ‘contingent’ has increased in recent decades; we are living in the age of chance, or hazards and precariousness.
I wonder if academia itself is contingent, an accidental formation created at a particular time, under particular historical circumstances. Those circumstances changed, and another chance formation might occur, replacing the current one. Since the start of the debate on the ‘value of the humanities’, there have been countless articles extolling the benefits of deep reading and complex writing. Centres for the humanities popped up all throughout North America, and in the UK, and scholarship gradually shifts towards interdisciplinarity. All this is to avert disaster. But during a panel on Romanticism (my supposed speciality), while I listened to convoluted prose that produced trailing sentences filled with too many adjectives and arguments-within-arguments too tiring to disentangle, I wondered if the effort to make ourselves unique, valuable, irreplaceable has ironically contributed to the devaluing of the humanities and the alienation of academia.
A curious event occurred on the second day of the Convention: A group of young people walked through the building holding up banners and shouting ‘From Ferguson to MLA, Black Lives Matter’. Most people looked on in bafflement and went about their business. This was curious – Did the protesters assume that scholars of the humanities would think black lives didn’t matter? Most scholars are probably left-wing liberals who would, at least in their research, fight for the underdogs, the disenfranchised, the oppressed. This kind of scholarship is a form of empathy, surely. Given this fact, it is curious how talks about empathy or ethics are often frowned upon in academia. I failed to get a job because I used the word ‘ethics’ in the teaching statement (not connoting a form of indoctrination, as was assumed, but a way of living and being in the Aristotelian sense); and on another occasion, I was told that a project on disaster has nothing to do with ethics or empathy. How can we approach catastrophe and its aftermath without thinking about the ethics of social responsibility and feeling empathy for the victims? Not everything is about the sublime, after all.
All the talk about workplace democracy, about fairness and positive change come down to one thing – the importance of empathy. On a panel about Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, there was much talk about the importance of compassion and empathy – I greatly respected these scholars of German literature, because such talks are rare and perhaps even unwelcome in some other scholarly circles. They discussed how some texts invite the reader to respond empathically, and how scholars, as serious readers of serious literature, can mediate that response. There was a subtle call for the ‘moralization of literary criticism’, to borrow the title of one of the talks.
How can the humanities carve out a space for reflection and intellectual inquiry in the age of neoliberalism and technological advancement? By bringing out the true value of the humanities – which is the same ideal upheld by many of the writers whose works we teach. Yeats wrote that literature is the ‘principal voice of the conscience’, and that a great writer will devote many years to the study of moral issues. Even though the university has become a profit-driven corporation, and academic publishing is primarily about career advancement, there is still a chance that literary criticism can also be ‘a voice of conscience’. And unless we can practice empathy in the workplace, unionization will not yield the desired results. Until we can see that the value of what we teach and write does not reside in grants, publications, academic celebrity, or tenure, academia will remain in a state of contingency.