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Monday, August 27, 2018

Monday, August 27, 2018

Humanities Graduate Education After Avital Ronell

I yearn to return to my beloved topic of truth and fantasy in university budgeting.  But last week it was impossible to avoid the Ronell affair.  There's all sorts of good (and terrible) stuff out there.  The Daily Mail?  Et tu New Zealand? (photo credit).  More links below--though I won't link to the trolling of Ronell's non-condemners, some of which sounds like it was written by a GRU cyberwarfare unit.  

The Ronell case has become for me a case study of the interaction between perm-austerity in the academic humanities and graduate student mental health.  It questions the existence of graduate student academic freedom.  It also shows a systemic failure of faculty governance that, in spite of everybody's pessimism, needs to be fixed.

For anyone just back from deep vacation (or not in the humanities): Avital Ronell is a prominent professor of German and Comparative Literature at NYU.  One of her former graduate students, Nimrod Reitman, filed a complaint with the University charging her with sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other misconduct. An 11-month NYU investigation found Ronell to have committed sexual harassment (but not the other charges); the University has suspended her for a full academic year without pay.  It confirmed that her behavior was "sufficiently pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of Mr. Reitman’s learning environment.”  Case closed?-- investigation conducted, individual offender identified and punished, behavior  sanctioned as violating professional standards.  Message received by that university community and others. In fact not-- the public case was just getting started.

The turning point was a New York Times story on August 13th that refocused the issue around the superficial contradiction between being a harasser and being a lesbian and/or queer woman and/or feminist: "What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist is the Accused?"  The article also focused on a letter of support for Ronell sent privately on May 13th to the NYU administration.  Signed by an all-star roster of senior faculty in or near Ronell's discipline, it has been widely viewed as demanding leniency for Ronell's conduct on grounds of her elite status, and following an old-school patriarchal practice of casting the complainant into disrepute. Although the signers moved too quickly because they were apparently afraid NYU planned to fire Ronell, they seemed to let their own authority outweigh their lack of knowledge about the case.

The literal answer to the NYT title question is straightforward: nothing happens to #MeToo.  Of course women can harass, queer women can harass, and lesbians can harass--although mountains of international data show that they do it much less frequently than do men.  Ronell's harassment of Reitman (a gay man) doesn't say anything literal about the #MeToo movement except what we already knew: gay men can be in it, women can be at odds with it, and no social movement requires uniformity or purity of victimhood. In a lucid piece, Nisha Bolsey concluded, "The approach of feminists should be clear: to believe Reitman. To attempt to discredit him in the name of feminism is not only wrongheaded, it undermines the cause of feminism."

Such statements weren't enough to resolve anything, once the group letter of support for Ronell went viral.  The philosopher Judith Butler's apology for key elements in the original letter wasn't enough.  Complex analyses on the widely-read queer site Bully Bloggers by Ronell non-condemners Lisa Duggan and Jack Halberstam were definitely not enough.  The reason was that the letter disparaged the graduate student while defining Ronell's mentorship of students as"no less than remarkable over many years." If these fifty prominent senior faculty would take no action against one of their own in this kind of case, then by extension graduate students in general could expect faculty toleration for harassment.   

I was struck by the high proportion of academics who seem to agree, as one FB comment put it, that "harassment of students has always been the norm and MANY students are harassed every day by ordinary, non-star faculty."  Many were worried that fixating on Ronell would encourage the profession to "overlook all of the ORDINARY ways in which predominantly straight white men have been sexually intimidating their students, in milder and more violent fashion, ALL of the time, before and after and regardless of theory and its present standing."  Harassment is a kind of general condition of grad life because the faculty who don't do it themselves don't get involved in stopping it.

This crew was self-selecting so I don't know how representative the sample is. But the logic needs to be taken seriously, and it goes like this:
  1. Ronell is not the exception but the norm 
  2. Ronell is the norm not because most advisors of doctoral students are sexual or nonsexual harassers but because
  3. Structural inequalities of power not only condition but control all advising relationships
  4. Such that (all) graduate students live in a state of permanent quasi-subjugation or, at the very least
  5. A permanent fear of retaliation
  6. Which means graduate students have no functional academic freedom
  7. Nor do they have creative intellectual latitude of the kind that enables original thought and the value of the humanities
  8. And because the faculty are the problem not the solution, this is not going to change.

Some examples: Masha Gessen's perceptive overview in The New Yorker highlights what we might call the tyranny of the faculty member's own vulnerability, and ends citing Derrida on the impossibility of justice. Corey Robin, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, concludes, "For all the revelations of sexual harassment within academe that we’ve seen in the past few years, we continue to leave that imbalance of power to graduate students, as individuals, to figure out" -- which of course they can't. Also in the Chronicle, Lee
The shame-harassment spectrum will endure as long as capitalist austerity does.

On Facebook, my quanty self tried to specify just how many Ronells people think there really are--one per department? 25 percent of each  department? We seemed to converge around two per department, but many made the point that the actual number doesn't matter: it's the possibility, the fear, and the near-certainty that if something does happen, nobody short of a Title IX officer is going to do anything.  And that cure can be worse than the disease (see Laura Kipnis in The Guardian). Back to the 1 through 8 cascade. 

Facebook discussions also turned up a strong sense that public universities are more egalitarian and offer less latitude to despotism.  One person, who went from an elite private doctoral program to tenure at a large public research university, wrote   
Untie funding from individuals— ours teach their way through and advisors have no input on funding. Democratize decision-making about funding for [all departmental programs].  Lastly, on the national front, abolish recommendation letters.
All of which got many cheers.

These would help.  But also: could we not think much more about how faculty can improve graduate mental health and academic freedom by working harder to end austerity in graduate education? 

Drew Daniel and everyone else are right that the root cause is competition under austerity, and yet most tenured humanities are fine with perpetuating it by shrinking their graduate programs.  The humble project of cooperative downsizing has been going on for nearly four decades--and here we are, weaker than ever, and expecting more weakness to come. If you are not entirely sure why austerity always does this, Mark Blyth or Richard Seymour can help.   

The alternative is to increase demand for our students. That will involve increasing undergraduate enrollments, intensifying undergrad education, and enlarging and explaining the humanities research agenda. We need non tenure track positions to be converted into tenure track positions.  Obviously this cuts against current trends, but current trends will bring more of the rot we're here to discuss.

To grow the humanities and Theory, we need to wrestle with the Theory legacy.  First, most of the modern version takes the university for granted.  A great exception was Jacques Derrida.  Another has been Judith Butler: in addition to her institutional work, she has also theorized the university as a condition of critique and as one important source of social justice: this Critical Inquiry essay (2009) offers a good overview.  The university needs its own ethics of care.

Second, we need to be clear that this Ronell case (leaving her scholarship aside) should have zero impact on its future.  Research universities fund disciplines based on the intellectual value of their research topics and programs.  They fund theory across the board, in engineering and economics and art history and philosophy, because theory is about getting at invisible forces that shape or control the empirical world.  Theory is also about refining methods of study so that our study is less rather than more distorting of what we study.  This turns out to be very hard to do--in chemistry as well as philosophy.  Theory is thus the condition of all intellectual progress and also of disciplinarity--not to mention rigor and validity.  So nothing Ronell did can embarrass the intellectual project.  The point is obvious if we glance at another field: no one said the disgrace of astronomer superstar Geoff Marcy might tarnish the search for exoplanets.  The same is true of critical theory in German or in any other language and culture.  Theory's issues are quite unexhausted, even as the material conditions of their study have been slashed.  We need to hold universities accountable to their intellectual mission and not let them use marketing, liability, or financial issues to advance the under-study of core issues.

What about this term that came back from the dead last week: High Theory (HT).  It is associated with French deconstruction and poststructuralism as it crystallized in the 1960s and 1970s and migrated to American humanities departments.  Ronell is a Germanist, so closer to those complex literary and philosophical cultures that were also taken up by the original French poststructuralists.  I got my PhD in a time and place where HT was going from insurgent to hegemonic, though it didn't keep me from turning into someone who studies the university's plumbing. I offer three quick points about it.

The good: as I already noted, theory studies foundational issues and HT got literary criticism past its Cold War positivism into new depths.  HT works on the relations between language, reason, consciousness, affect, the unconscious, objects, other people's subjectivity, and various related factors. It is preoccupied with invisible causes of visible things, and with their intractability.  It attracts the kind of people who, if they were in physics, might study the evidence for the possibility that our curved universe, the brane, sits in a bulk of multiple higher dimensions.   I've had a debate with some university studies scholars about whether intellectual Bildung is really compatible with democracy.  I think it is: difficulty is the lesson of theory for democracy.  Ronell by all accounts has among other things tried to disrupt linear narratives and common sense. Intellectual conventions do need to be tested and violated, or else nothing new ever happens. This not too sympathetic Martin Jay review of Ronell's Fighting Theory is a good reminder of disruption's positive side (h/t Helen).

The bad: in my experience, HT never figured out how to teach the full background you needed to understand the immediate ideas and texts.  Some people didn't really try.  But most did, with mixed success.  If you are in a course on Wordsworth and post-structuralist theory, how do you read enough Derrida to understand the professor and your classmates while also covering the Wordsworth carefully along with canonical Wordsworth criticism?  If you are in a seminar on Derrida and poststructuralism, how do you learn enough linguistics to understand his critique of Saussure, and enough Husserl to understand his critique of phenomenology, or enough Levi-Strauss . . . you get the idea.   Maybe 10-20% of the grad students were solid enough in three background areas to scramble to master the fourth or fifth that you needed to understand one of the major authors in your course.  My cohort did okay because of nearly-ideal funding conditions, but to my knowledge HT overall never solved the basic curriculum problem.  And here's my real point: because HT never faced the curriculum problem, it never faced the resources problem--more time, more collaboration, more archives, better searching, more depth.  The political economy of research has been put of until tomorrow, for decades.

The ugly. The gaps in student attainment were filled by a status Darwinism.  There were the truly smart who could follow the masters and the not smart enough who couldn't.  The New York Times piece reported, "Maybe, Professor Ronell suggested, [Reitman] was frustrated because he just wasn’t smart enough." This essentialism has again become a major grievance, and it has been hurting HT's reputation and dampened interest in learning it for going on 40 years.  

In reality, the source of different levels of performance is different levels of education. Ronell would naturally try to recruit graduate students with B.A.s from Yale rather than Oberlin or Cal State Fullerton--not because  all the smart people are at Yale but because Yale's philosophy, German, French, and other departments offer years of intensive training in seminar conditions in her exact tradition.  HT never denaturalized the foolish discourse of smartness, and in addition to wreaking psychic violence it has kept tenured faculty from pushing relentlessly for the economics that can fund the difficulty. 

Fund the difficulty!  When will humanities faculty address the basic political economy of their fields? TT faculty teach twice as many courses as their counterparts in the sciences, and have grads who do still more teaching while trying to learn research.  Hum faculty mostly mentor grads as an overload.  Extramurally-funded science labs give their doctoral students systematic training and experience in research and not just teaching (though they have problems of their own). The humanities have no equivalent: their grads operate in a semi-DIY environment in which it's easy to think, "my diss project has no structure because I am not smart enough."  I think that more structured and intensive research training would help grad mental health--and help re-professionalize some regressed faculty-student relationships. The economics will take some time to solve, but we'll never get started if we don't want it on academic grounds. 

This gets us to faculty self-governance.  My sense is that the helplessness of tenured faculty towards academic financing has been leaking for years into their relations to the departmental structures they actually do control.  In the Ronell case, there seems to be general agreement that she long felt entitled to evade professional standards.   Where was the DGS, the department chair, the other faculty?  Apparently not creating a support structure that grads felt could protect them from tyranny and retaliation.  

I don't mean that funding shortages are ever an excuse for tenured faculty inaction, especially at NYU where comparatively speaking there aren't any.  But faculty not confronting political economy is part and parcel of not confronting abuses of power, which are paired traits of neoliberal subjects. Writing in punctum,
I agree: and this "dynamic administration" of the "container" of doctoral programs is entirely in the hands of faculty and students, starting very much with tenured faculty.

I would very much like us--again, especially the tenured--to focus simultaneously and persistently on fixing the psychological and financial conditions of the humanities' theory projects in all their forms. That will mean growth and depth of graduate programs, i.e. anti-austerity.

for them:
I'm happy to help with the plumbing.


Unknown said...

Faculty used and abused graduate students when universities were flush, so I don't think we can tie this to austerity. All hierarchical systems breed abuse, and universities are not only highly hierarchical but they they hide hierarchy and abuse behind a rhetoric of social and political equality, much like the Catholic Church. The more people think they are doing good work or god's work, the more they are able to justify abusing and exploiting others. Universities, like the church, spend a great deal of time and money covering up abuse.

Chris Newfield said...

@Unknown You're right that hierarchy and the sense of being chosen each facilitate abuse. My piece is about the demoralization of large numbers of people who are not themselves directly abused, and there austerity is the key. One feature of this demoralization is the sense that the situation cannot be reformed. For example, there's your comparison of universities (as a group) to the Catholic Church!

Geoffrey Skoll said...

It is important to distinguish between status and class in universities, while at the same time acknowledging that they are intertwined. The strength of Corey Robin's piece is that he points out that he is at a working class university where a lot of the shenanigans are either impossible or just plain don't fit with the ambience. The class relation between grad students and mentors (e.g., the mentor getting the student a job) needs to be parsed from the status (prestige of the professor and the university in question. In other words, would this have happened if Ronell were at Brooklyn College like Corey Robin? Answer: yes as instanced by the Jane Gallop case at UW Milwaukee which is not too dissimilar from Brooklyn College. Also as Robin pointed out, these scandals do not seem to plague, say, electrical engineering, although the class relation is the same. It is because electrical engineering is not sexy, much like studying universities' plumbing.

Anonymous said...

But you yourself are implicitly if not naturalizing smartness, then at the very least tying it to a necessarily (under capitalism) naturalized class hierarchy. You write "Ronell would NATURALLY try to recruit students" from Ivy League Universities. I don't think there's anything natural about it and if you've ever taught at a state school or a community college you'd know that there are exceptional students there with fantastic ideas. Now, you may accuse me of wanting to mystify the problem by talking about "ideas" rather than education, which is obviously the part you can not only learn but pay to learn and if your parents are able to send you to Harvard you'll more likely end up in a grad program at a similar school than if you went to CalState Fullerton. But let's talk about how fucked up that is. I agree that training is important - and I would even say that some measure of hierarchical learning, i.e. being mentored by someone with authority, is unavoidable in a graduate education because it's necessary - but it's the combination of thinking (which you cannot teach or buy) and education that counts. (I won't go into cliched rants about how many Ivy League idiots with zero ideas I have met...) Part of the problem here is the rampant elitism that is celebrated at such universities and even fostered in graduate students. To me this culture of "excellence" is at the root of the decay of undergraduate teaching and, hence, the humanities. Too many star professors at these universities refuse to teach undergraduates or are never asked to do it so that their only contact with students is with adoring, somewhat dependent grad students. What that teaches the grads is that the goal is to become like them - and that comes free with those "years of intensive training in seminar conditions."

Chris Newfield said...

I actually agree with all of this @Anonymous

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