Monday, April 8, 2013

Guest Post: We are not all Jims: the Colour Line and Sadness in the University

Today's guest post is the first in an at least two-part conversation around the challenges -- old and new -- of the Academy. Next week I will post a response to Jade Ferguson's piece that continues the conversation.
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A recent Think Tank brought scholars from across Canada to the TransCanada Institute to discuss the continuous defunding of the university, the increasing denigration of intellectual work, and the anxiety-ridden conditions faced by emerging scholars.* Some of the critiques of the neoliberal devaluation of post-secondary education were notable for their deployment of the discourse of race struggle. The embedding of market-logic and corporate-style management into the academy was likened to the degraded conditions of a “plantation economy.” This was not my first time hearing senior faculty describe management as “overseers.” Jo-Anne Wallace’s “wishful allegory of university administration” employs Leslie Fiedler’s well-known and controversial reading of the racial relationship between Huck and Jim (18). She writes, “it is we [faculty] who are the dreamers, the Jims, who call out ... I won’t say to ‘our oppressors’ ... to come back to the raft again, come back to the breast, to the dream of emancipation that is at the heart of real education” (18). I want to take up the issue of race in the struggle against the corporatization of the university by examining “the problem of the color line” (W.E.B. Du Bois’s pithy formulation for discussing race relations in the early twentieth century) and the public feeling of sadness in the academy.

One of the central objectives of the Think Tank was to devise some concrete means that may help provide mentorship and sustainability for recent doctoral graduates. Nine emerging scholars (4 part-time/contingent/contract faculty and 5 full-time/tenure- track faculty, all of whom teach and do research on Canadian literature) bravely provided stories about their precarious existence in the university. These stories outlined the pervasive conditions of unprotected work and invisible exploitation faced by recent graduates. Despite this “shared precariousness,” an underlying tension quickly emerged: 4 of the 5 tenure track faculty were people of colour and all 4 contract faculty were white. Rather than reducing this racial division to happenstance, this local instantiation of the colour line reflects in part the new racialized conditions of emerging scholars in the Canadian academy. In contrast to the anxiety-ridden conditions of the job market described by white emerging scholars (at the Think Tank and on blogs such as Hook & Eye), it often appears as if people of colour are “the beneficiary of policies that provide jobs, fellowships, and other support” (Cvetkovich 124). Like the other junior faculty of colour, I was hired ABD. I did not experience a long and arduous struggle for employment. However, as Ann Cvetkovich astutely notes, “what often goes invisible in the polite world of bureaucratic culture are the casual forms of racism or lack of understanding that make this condition of so-called privilege one that is also pervaded by anxiety and stress” (124).

The four faculty of colour each expressed their own complex affective stories about what racism in the academy feels like. My ongoing sense of alienation and disenfranchisement as a black scholar has made it impossible for any easy sense of belonging in the academy, and the burden of this untenable existence has created an inconsolable sadness that affects all levels of my everyday experience. However, I was not the only one who was sad. The university-in-crisis is an emotional catalyst for sadness on both sides of the divide. Erin Wunker uses Lauren Berlant’s notion of “cruel optimism” to describe the “affective bind of precarious employment,” but “suspended agency” is perhaps most affectively accompanied by forms of sadness that descend “when the belief that one should be happy or protected turns out to be wrong and when a privileged form of hopefulness that has so often been entirely foreclosed for black people is punctured” (Wunker, Cvetkovich 116). While listening to their stories, I found myself unwilling to fully attend to the depth of this white sadness; after all, I told myself, “their forms of sadness were incommensurable with those of the historically disenfranchised, an incommensurability that is lived affectively as alienation and hopelessness” (120). The difficult discussion chillingly revealed “the emotional color line” that separates (my) black sadness and (their) white sadness (116).

The Think Tank opened a discursive space to “dwell in sadness” (117), which our ideas for possible concrete political action in the concluding session were woefully unable to address. The turn to immediate concrete political action seemed to circumscribe the call for political uncertainty that had previously been expressed. Engaging with David Eng and Shin Hee Han’s suggestion that “melancholy’s negativity might in fact be a productive corrective to a naïve politics of hope,” Cvetkovich argues that “tending to feelings means the disruption of politics as usual” (117). Central to this work, she argues, is a “sense that we might not know what politics is,” and thus, we “need to slow down in order to see what these feelings might be” (117). The challenge left before us is to explore “the full measure” of this public feeling of sadness “without seeking immediate redemption...[or] giving up a hopefulness that remains stubbornly faithful for no good reason in the midst of despair” (117). I abruptly left the concluding session of the Think Tank because I was unable to tell my colleagues, without collapsing in tears, that despite the chasm of mis/understanding I still had hope. In our struggle to preserve the “dream of emancipation that is at the heart of real education” (Wallace 18), a more nuanced coalitional politics and political rhetoric must emerge. We are not all Jims.

Jade Ferguson, University of Guelph 

* I sincerely thank Smaro Kamboureli and Erin Wunker for organizing the TransCanada Think Tank Session on “Sustainability, Mentorship, and Intellectual Production: The Present and Future of Emerging Scholars in Canadian Literary Studies” (April 5-6, 2013), and all the scholars who openly and generously participated in the difficult and necessary discussions. My response to the Think Tank is inspired by the dialogue and struggle that occurred at the TransCanada Institute. While I have tried to capture the spirit of the event, my response is limited to my own perspective, and thus any faults in the response lie with me.

Works Cited

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham & London: Duke UP, 2012. Print.

Wallace, Jo-Ann. “Come Back to the Ranks Ag’in, Huck Honey!” English Studies in Canada 37.3-4 (Sept/Dec 2011): 17-20. Print.

Wunker, Erin. “On Doubt.” Hook & Eye. 18 March 2013. Web. 7 April 2013.

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post. It's helped me think through my dissatisfaction, even irritation, with the glut of online articles about the hiring crisis (such as this one) and the implied discourse of injustice and failed expectations at work in so many of these rants. If, as Judith Halberstam suggests, failure is an affect that has been associated with--even embraced by--minoritized subjects, then I suppose it isn't surprising that the throng of voices bemoaning their betrayal by a system that promised them success has been largely white, straight, and middle-class. I'd like to hear more voices talking back to that throng. Thanks for starting the conversation.

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  3. I applaud this post, and it's author's willingness to ask the hard questions as well as offer (and demand) nuanced readings of the discourse of the "denigration of intellectual work." In particular, the request to focus attention on the material, aesthetic, and affective registers that make possible "this local instantiation of the colour line" and to see it as a microcosm that "reflects in part the new racialized conditions of emerging scholars in the Canadian academy" is especially apt and urgent. If the goal is to "attend to the conditions that make life [in the humanities] possible" (or impossible) and to take them seriously as "both our political responsibility and the matter of our most vexed ethical decisions" (a la Judith Butler), then I agree that forms of "political uncertainty" are necessary (but also need constant reexamination). The last line of this post fits into my blue eye like a fish hook. Indeed the post itself has been the very best eye-opener. Here's to coalitions, and the courage to instantiate them.

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  4. I have just come across this reply to the above-linked diatribe against attending graduate school, and it seems to me like a valuable addition to the conversation: "I am suspicious of declarations of an institution being dead the minute I show up to it in my party dress."

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