"The Classroom is a Public"

The following is a shortened / excerpted version of a keynote address I gave at the Literature and Social Justice (LSJ) graduate conference held at Lehigh this past weekend (see details here). The topic of this year's LSJ conference was "Public Humanities," and I wrote this to address that particular topic. 

Many of my colleagues and students know me as an enthusiast for social media but in truth I have grown increasingly ambivalent about these services as tools for social transformation. I felt misgivings about giving a boosterish talk that would have aimed to show everyone how great it is to be on Twitter, Tumblr, and various blogs. Finding publishing success via social media and mainstream venues like Salon.com is highly dependent on market forces and ratings/rankings structures that quantify -- or economize -- the fundamental mechanics of communication online. While doing this kind of writing can be very rewarding, writing for commercial venues and ranking-based social media will not, by itself, resolve the "crisis in the humanities." In my talk, I tried a different tack: instead of encouraging attendees at the conference to retrain themselves to be more "public" than they already are, I argued that teaching -- something we're already doing, but don't always value -- is a very important way in which we all already engage with a non-specialist public. What's more, humanities teaching in particular plays an important role in helping to create the next generation of questioning citizens. 

As mentioned, these are excerpts from the longer talk. If anyone would like to see the full text of the talk, please feel free to contact me. 

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The Classroom is a Public

1. The Idea of the Public Is In Crisis

It’s customary for talks like this to begin with a discussion of how the “humanities are in crisis.” We’ve heard that phrase a lot -- maybe a little too much -- and academics writing in public venues have become very skilled at diagnosing the causes of that problem. And my talk today will speak to at least some facets of what’s ailing the humanities and what might be done to better defend and advocate for the kind of work we do. But I want to start somewhere else: with the stipulation that the idea of the public is in crisis.

In his classic book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas put forward the idea of a modern bourgeois public sphere as an intermediary between the private space of individuals and families, and the state.

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Habermas’ idea of the public sphere has been widely and persuasively critiqued, and I’m not too strongly attached to the ins and outs of his argument, especially as pertaining to the putative decline of the public sphere. (Among other things, it seems strange that the era of the public sphere he talks about was one in which women and people of color were by and large excluded at the very period when he claims the public sphere was most effective.) That said, Habermas continues to be helpful in giving us a vision of what a public sphere might look like, where we might find it, and why we might want it. We find it in evidence in a free and independent press, in public spaces where citizens of different socioeconomic strata can engage in free and open debate about pressing issues, and in institutions that are designed to support and sustain it: museums, public libraries, civic centers, coffee houses -- and yes, universities.

Another political theorist who may take us further in terms of providing a useful way of understanding the present-day crisis in the public sphere might be Wendy Brown; her recent book, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, explores the triumph of neoliberal ideology. For Brown,

[N]eoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic. All conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized. In neoliberal reason and in domains governed by it, we are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus, which itself has a historically specific form. (Brown, 10-11)

Brown is alluding to a kind of contagious tendency towards economization in thought that has become incredibly pervasive, and that has led to a decline not just in the role and power of the state, but in many of the core institutions connected to the public sphere. If the public sphere was once seen as a buffer between the authority of the state and the private individual, since the 1970s the State in the U.S. context has sought to deconstruct itself. Americans have elected wave after wave of politicians (both Democrat and Republican) aiming to privatize government institutions, from social welfare, to prisons, to war itself. Even the signature accomplishment of the current administration, the Affordable Care Act, is notable in that it doesn’t actually provide a service to uninsured people directly, but only creates market frameworks through which they can buy insurance from private companies. And I can’t help but also think of Cap and Trade. Or the education reform idea of “school choice.” The fact that these have been seen as highly desirable by both liberals and conservatives at various times (admittedly school choice is now being unmasked for what it is) further demonstrates how pervasive the marketization of areas once thought proper to the state has been.

For Brown, the problem isn’t just that areas of our social lives and public institutions are being restructured as markets, but that this trend illustrates a growing dominance of market-oriented thinking that is increasingly entering into our core sense of self.

There are many examples that follow from this that will be relevant to our talk today. I already mentioned a few areas where we’ve seen marketization of formerly public institutions. Among other things, Brown is quite interested in the way economization is changing the culture of American higher education (there’s a chapter of her book dedicated to the subject; a version of that chapter also appeared as a journal article in Representations in 2011). This particular issue is quite salient for us, so I hope you won’t mind another sizeable quote:

It is no news that European and North American universities have been radically transformed and revalued in recent decades. Rising tuition rates, declining state support, the rise of for-profit and online education, the remaking of universities through corporate ‘best practices,’ and a growing business culture of ‘competences’ in place of ‘certificates’ have cast the ivory tower of just thirty years ago as anachronistic, expensive, and indulgent. [...] Older measures of college quality (themselves contestable insofar as they were heavily bound to the caliber and size of applicant pool, along with endowments) are being rapidly supplanted by a host of new ‘best bang for the buck’ rankings. [...] [R]eplacing measures of educational quality are metrics oriented entirely to return on investment (ROI) and centered on what kind of job placement and income enhancement student investors may expect from any given institution. (Brown, 23)
Many commentators have expressed their concerns about the “corporatization” of the conventional university and the growth of for-profit universities, and Brown is certainly concerned about those things as well. But more fundamentally troubling to her -- and to me -- is the idea that it’s increasingly considered acceptable to judge the success or failure of higher education on the average incomes of recent graduates. (One particularly disconcerting example might be the recent White House tool: The College Scorecard; it perfectly encapsulates her argument by emphasizing average income of graduates and tuition costs above all other metrics.) Once we accept a market framework and the inevitability of “Return on Investment” thinking, our tools for advocating for the humanities in particular become much more limited than they once were.

I had been hearing hints of this from my students for years, so last fall I taught a freshman seminar dedicated to the topic. Titled, “What Am I Doing Here? The Value of a Liberal Arts Education,” the course asked students to explore and consider what a college education is for. In opening response papers, the majority of the students at the beginning of the term alluded to the idea of Return on Investment, and a handful even used that exact phrase to describe their expectations for their college degree. This kind of thinking isn’t limited to administrators and government officials; it’s already endemic amongst our students and their parents. I thought it was a good course; but talking to students about these issues made it clear that we have a tough fight ahead of us.

Finally, while there are many things to embrace about the rise of new media and the internet, unfortunately there are signs that the digital turn may be accelerating economization and undercutting the public function of higher education. Many university administrations are trying to find ways to cut costs by moving coursework online, often with private consulting firms and contractors designing the infrastructure along the way. MOOCs may do to the university classroom what digital downloading did to record stores, and what Amazon did first to bookstores, and now is doing to the entire retail industry. As ex-techno utopian commentator and internet activist Jaron Lanier put it in a recent book, “Higher education could be Napsterized and vaporized in a matter of years.” Lanier is talking about the total up-ending of the old business model of the music industry starting in 1999, with the advent of the Napster file-sharing service. Could that really happen to us? Actually, given the tuition our students now have to pay and the massive burden of debts they incur as a result, the shift to an all-digital campus and online-only education may ultimately be driven by their demands.

For now, we are still here. Even if private, the university we work for is a non-profit institution, and we as faculty are still in the position of working -- researching and teaching -- in the public interest rather than for personal profit. I see the public humanities as an ethos that might encourage us to assert both the value of the work we do as humanists -- but also (and this is crucial) the value of the public sphere itself.

2. Public Humanities Writing 

One major component of public humanities in practice is the idea that we can use the internet -- especially social media services as well as blogs -- to reach out to audiences outside academia. Undergirding this thinking are a set of common assumptions about the differences between the two modes of writing -- one, “academic,” and the other, which we call “public” writing -- that I’d like to interrogate. While there’s no doubt that there are many limitations and problems with the traditional academic modes of publication and peer-review, the various modes of public writing that are currently available to us have problems of their own.

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The discussion of social media might lead us to return to Wendy Brown one more time, for a slightly different take on how the digital turn has been a mixed blessing for those of us interested in finding new publics. And again her issue is marketization: the turn to market-based thinking we might normally see operating at the macro-level has come to permeate the fundamental concept of private selfhood in social media space:

Increasingly [...] homo oeconomicus as human capital is concerned with enhancing its portfolio value in all domains of its life, an activity undertaken through practices of self-investment and attracting investors. Whether through social media ‘followers,’ ‘likes,’ and ‘retweets,’ through rankings and ratings for every activity and domain, or through more directly monetized practices, the pursuit of education, training, leisure, reproduction, consumption, and more are increasingly configured as strategic decisions and practices related to enhancing the self’s future value. (34-35)
Insofar as social media services invite us to construct a new kind of image of the self -- a way of experiencing life in which very little is really fully private (off limits to public sharing), it’s remarkable and concerning that the new selves we are devising on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, et al. are all fundamentally marketized: they are driven by follower counts, the numbers of likes and retweets -- an entire economy based on the public representation of private experience. Far from feeling oppressed by the market structure, by and large users (especially younger users) actively embrace it. And while some of these services may be ephemeral -- we probably won’t still be talking about Snapchat by this time next year -- the ratings and rankings structure seems to be common to them all. And yes, we could easily imagine social media services that didn’t have these features, but it’s only too clear is that hardly anyone would use them. (Remember “Ello”? “Diaspora”?)

Finally, more than the design problems associated with using these free services to try and engage in public debate, it’s worth remembering that they are managed and run by large corporate entities interested first and foremost in profit. Their business model entails using data they gather about our interests, beliefs, and demographic identities in order to show us advertisements that are targeted to patterns of consumption associated with our demographic and socio-economic profiles.

That isn’t to say that I’m opposed to using Twitter or Facebook or academic blogging services like Tumblr or Wordpress to do public humanities work; indeed, I’ve used all of these, and will probably continue to do so. But I think we should be well aware that none of these services is without significant limitations. And none of them appear to be spaces that enable true public debate: the internet, right now, does not give us a substitute for the lost public sphere.

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3. The Classroom is a Public

In light of the dangers of the disappearance of the public function of higher education because of marketization, it seems worthwhile by way of conclusion to take a moment to think about the function the live classroom can serve as a space for public humanities work.

The classroom can operate like a public in this way: it is a space where we as teachers work in the public interest. It's a space where we bring our specialized knowledge to the table and present it to substantial bodies of non-specialists for their evaluation and use. The accusation that academics don't know how to talk to ordinary people who don't know our field is, I think, a bit absurd for most of us who teach: we do a version of this every time we talk to first-year students or non-majors. 

It’s our job to persuade our students to care about their own views and experiences and the views and experiences of their peers. It’s our job to persuade them that they can, after all, be citizens, not just consumers, not just workers. The humanities classroom plays a unique and important role in this; it’s one of the only spaces in the university where self-reflexive thinking about what those ideas mean and why they matter regularly occurs.

It’s also our job to demonstrate for them the dual-edged possibilities and perils of social change. As we have been seeing in the current election cycle with the rise of an authoritarian demagogue, the democratic values we largely take for granted in the early 21st century in the United States are a lot more fragile than they might appear to be. On the other side, we can remind our students that aspects of our society that do not seem right or just are not inevitable facts of nature, but are connected to practices and beliefs that can be changed.

Admittedly, we don’t always approach our classrooms as if they are publics. We get to know our students, and the sense of intimacy that can sometimes arise especially in a small classroom can make it a very cozy space (graduate seminars are especially susceptible to this type of atmosphere). But I think if we’re too cozy with our students -- if we set up an environment where everyone agrees with us, and where nothing is really under contention, we’re probably not doing it right. I am arguing for a classroom that isn’t cozy, that isn’t even always comfortable for everyone -- a space where real disagreements and differences can and should be discussed.

One objection I can imagine hearing might be this: we can’t just unilaterally disarm. If the world we live in is dominated by market exchanges, and if academic life is also dominated by markets of various kinds, aren’t we better served by embracing that? I don’t think so, or at least not all the time. I’m well aware that market forces remain in the picture all around us -- they determine who can afford to go to college, and they’ll be only too present for students after graduation. They shape the lives of professional academics as well, in many, many ways. But we do a disservice to our intellectual promise and to the promise of higher education as a democratizing force, if we confuse our market values with our true value as scholars and teachers committed to the public interest.