Syracuse University’s Identity Crisis

It seems like Syracuse University has been in the news a lot lately, and not in a good way.  First there was the announcement that we are the nation’s #1 “Party School,” then the Advocacy Center was closed in the shadiest manner possible, igniting student protests, and now there is news that Chancellor Syverud is slashing funding to the Posse program, which provides underprivileged students funding opportunities to attend our university.  While it might be tempting to see these as discrete events, they are in fact connected, all part of SU’s identity crisis, as it struggles with how it wants to face the challenges of the 21st Century.

This crisis is itself part of a larger cultural debate about how we think about a college education, what that actually means, and how we even understand the university as an institution.  At stake, I would argue, is also the fact that, beneath all of these arguments and hand-wringing over SU’s academic identity is a belief (held by unfortunately too many) that underprivileged students just aren’t cut out for the academic life.  How dare they (these voices seem to imply) drag down our lofty academic standards with their unpreparedness (after all, how can students from poorer and ethnic neighborhoods POSSIBLY be prepared for the rigours of a private school like Syracuse)?  And beneath that, a more sinister question:  how dare they seek to use the university for social betterment?

As a graduate student here at Syracuse, I have seen this battle over our identity coming for a long while.  Even when I served on the University Senate back in 2011, there was a small but vocal group of faculty protesting that Chancellor Cantor’s efforts to throw open the university’s doors to various minority groups was a serious threat to the school’s academic integrity, as if somehow these students would damage SU’s precarious claim to a prestige on league with the Ivies.  Of course, the obvious racism and classism was carefully obscured behind carefully chosen language, but it was there for those who had learned the hard way to expect it.

At the heart of this, it seems to me, is a struggle within the university about what image Syracuse wants to project  to the outside world.  Do they/we want to be seen as on par with the Ivies (with all of the problems that entails), or do they/we want to be seen as a university that is showing what the Academy can accomplish when it finally frees itself of the shackles of racism and classism that haunt its origins and, as this incident reveals, its current worldview?

For me, at least, the answer is an easy one.  Rather than continuing to cling to outmoded ways of evaluating the worth of a college education (I’m looking at you, U.S. News and World Report), we should start thinking about the social mission that the university should embrace.  This isn’t to downplay the importance of research (since that is important, in all fields), but to suggest instead that, when twinned with a social justice mission, research and a rigourous approach to teaching and pedagogy can lay the foundations for a more just society.  Syracuse University has the potential to lead the charge, if only the leadership will start making the right choices, leading us into the future instead of clinging to a hopeless past.

In Defense of the Academy

I know I’m going to take some flack for what I’m about to say, but I’m going to go through with it anyway.  Despite all of the hand-writing over the decline of the humanities, despite the call from some corners for humanities Ph.D.s (if anyone is so foolish or masochistic to go into that calling) to flee to non-academic jobs, despite the ways in which the American university system is indeed plagued by a myriad of difficulties and inherent problems that threaten to drag it down into oblivion, I still support the existence of the Academy.  I still support the existence of a space in which scholars and those devoted to the much-maligned “life of the mind” can engage with the pressing issues facing our society and our culture, while also advocating for a more engaged type of humanities scholarship that works to bring the Academy into the university and vice versa.

When I see humanities scholars and writers so flippantly and easily abandon the systematic study of the humanities, I can’t help but feel a heady mix of emotions:  anger, frustration, and (perhaps shamefully) a little joy that someone is finally being brave enough to say the unsayable.  However, I also worry that, in throwing in the towel, we are actually precipitating the very thing that we claim to be mourning, namely, the death of the humanities as a meaningful intellectual pursuit.

Like most social problems facing our late capitalist, heavily globalized, and technology-glutted society, there is no easy solution to the myriad problems facing the American Academy.  However, does that mean we should just give up on it?  What if we said the same thing about the many other social problems, about bullying of queer youth for example, or the increasingly violent and war-prone world in which we live?  Though the problems themselves seem insurmountable in their complexity, it is precisely this complexity that makes our engagement not only significant, but necessary.

Rather than throwing away what we have, perhaps we should start encouraging our non-academic friends to speak up on our behalf when it matters, i.e. during election time.  If we truly believe that what we do is meaningful and important (and I, for one, do), then it is also our responsibility to continue fighting the good fight (incidentally, I realize that this sounds very trite and cliche, but sometimes that’s the only way I can find to express my philosophy on these things).  We need to explain to our friends, our families, and even our students why what we do is important.  Of course, in order to do that, we need to be able to articulate to ourselves why what we do matters.  Our reasons for this may be as varied as our individual interests, but we need to be more vocal and active about making them intelligible to those who do not speak our academic language.  At the very least, we must invest more of our energy in doing everything possible to ensure that those who are not trained in the esoteric language of the Academy have at least a measure of appreciation for not only what we do, but why.

All of this is not to suggest that I am blind to the gross inequalities that currently construct the Academy and that are, in many ways, built into its DNA.  Nor is it to suggest that non-academic jobs are in some way inferior; indeed, I see them as another part of a multi-pronged approach to make the humanities vibrant and present in American society and culture.  However, I remain unconvinced that abolishing the systematic and sustained study of the humanities–including the production and education of Ph.D.s!–is the solution.  It is, in my mind, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.  However, I do want to add my voice to the chorus currently calling for some real change in the Academy, but that call comes out of a love of what we do and what we can do, if we but keep up the fight.

What are your thoughts?  Is the Academy salvageable?  Or should it just be dispensed with?  Is there still a place and a purpose for sustained scholarly study of the humanities?  Sound off in the comments below!

Gay Assimilation and the Burden of Being Queerly Different

Recently, during a meeting of a queer studies reading group, I engaged in a spirited debate with a colleague about the advantages and disadvantages of assimilation.  He was not convinced that assimilation poses the dangers that many queer scholars such as Jack Halberstam and David Halperin have argued that it does.  Another colleague, one whom I know to be tremendously affirming of queer lifestyles, worried that it was unfair to expect her queer friends to continue to shoulder the burden of being different, wondering if it would perhaps be easier if, indeed, they were allowed to assimilate peacefully into the mainstream fabric of American culture.

While I respect these points of view and can even understand where they come from, I want to argue against them, and vociferously so.  In my view, the mainstream of American queers has not only resulted in a perilous amnesia about the queer past, but also a vehement disavowal of everything that once made queer life so vibrant, messy, and exciting.  As the great Michel Foucault reminded us so long ago, repression tends to beget the very instances and behaviours it seeks to repress.  Thus, it is almost as if, now that the tools of repression have begun to lose their edge and queer life has become for many much less overtly perilous, there is no longer an implied imperative to live queer life as if it may end in the next moment.  Without repression, it would seem, there is no longer an imperative to live and resist queerly.

The other danger that I believe exists in the very marrow of assimilation is the denial of the acceptability of any difference, even among those who ostensibly share one’s sexual orientation.  The same-sex marriage movement continues to organize its rhetorics around an implied “other,” the sexual deviant, the non-monogamous and sexually promiscuous homosexual that must be disavowed in order for same-sex marriage to gain much-needed credibility and acceptability among the straight, white, middle-class citizens who continue to be the arbiters of public cultural and political taste.  When queer people, especially queer couples, proudly announce that they are just like everyone else, what they really mean is that they are buying into the system of monogamy and all of the trappings that go with it, while simultaneously disavowing the acceptability of those who do not.  Even queers, it seems, create their own hierarchies of acceptability.

Of course, perhaps the most pernicious effect of assimilation is the ways in which it manages to convince its adherents to buy so completely into the logic of neo-liberalism and late capitalism.  If only, the logic goes, gay people can become consumers and participants in patriarchal capitalism–settle down, raise children, work hard, buy goods and services–then they will be fully accepted into the fabric of American society and all will be well.  Of course, the things that make American society so deeply divided, rampant and systemic racial and economic inequality among them, remain crucially un-examined and de-emphasized, precisely because those are nodes of crisis where the logics of of neo-liberalism that undergird assimilation are most clearly laid bare and made susceptible to critique.

All of this is not to argue that queer life was somehow better under the former repressive regime.  Certainly, there have been many gains that we should not give up, especially the ones that make queer life infinitely safer than it was even when I was growing up a decade and a half ago.  Even I, cranky radical queer that I am, would not give away the hard-earned legal gains that have made steps toward seeing queer people become equal citizens under the law (though the questionable status of the law itself is worthy of its own blog post).  However, I do want to argue that we should not so easily give up the practices of queer life–resistance to normativity, sexual, economic, racial, and gendered–that so many queers throughout the last century have developed.  Being accounted as “just the same” as everyone else is, in the end, just another form of oppression, however affirming it may appear.  Rather than seeing difference and resistance as a burden that only some have to bear, perhaps it is time that we see it as an opportunity in which we can all share.

Thinking Through Extinction

In case you missed it, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the possibility of bringing the passenger pigeon back through cloning.  If we leave aside for the moment the pros and cons of such a move, we can more clearly see the ways in which extinction as a phenomenon continues to haunt our collective human imagination, reminding us of just how precarious our own existence as a species remains, especially as the consequences of our rapid march toward modernity become increasingly obvious to even the most casual observer.  We have, in essence, left behind us an enormous trail of vanished creatures of all stripes and, if current trends continue, we might be on the very brink of another mass extinction.  That being the case, it is worth spending time thinking about the function that extinction serves, and how it can be not only a warning of things to come, but also a potent tool for considering how we engage with our present place in the world.

I have always been particularly drawn to and enthralled by those creatures that have been brought to extinction by the actions and influence of humans.  The great auk, the Stellar’sea cow, the passenger pigeon, the Chinese river dolphin, the Tasmanian tiger, the quagga, the Carolina parakeet…the list goes on, each of these mysterious and intangible creatures haunting my imagination, a perpetual reminder of the fragility of life on this planet.  Paired with this is also the fact that their presence in the cultural imagination is so powerful precisely because they cannot be seen again.  This also goes a long way toward explaining why there continue to be sightings of some of these creatures, as well as debates about the feasibility of resurrecting some of them via genetic technology (the passenger pigeon is but one example; there have been similar discussions about the Tasmanian tiger and, perhaps most famously, the woolly mammoth).  We as a species are so guilt-ridden over what we have wrought that we will do almost anything to undo the damage that we have caused, even while a part of us also recognizes that it is too late for such measures.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that our media is so glutted with images of the devastation wrought by nature.  I am speaking here not just of how much the 24-hour news cycle revels in the joys of chaos delivered by natural disasters (though that is certainly the case.  Nothing drives ratings like a forest fire, a hurricane, or an earthquake).  I am also referring to films such as Godzilla, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and so many more that serve as expressions of our collective guilt over the damage that we have perpetrated against entire species, though in this case we get to to be the ones that face utter annihilation, at the mercy of a force or forces that we cannot control nor effectively combat.  Whether that be a pair of giant creatures that feed on radioactivity or a virus that spreads and decimates the human population, these forces are the spectres that continue to haunt or collective human imaginary.  These media texts are also a recognition that extinction is, ultimately, the fate that has awaited almost every distinct species that has ever emerged.  There is clearly something cathartic about seeing our destruction writ large,  about embracing the oblivion that is the ontological root of extinction, even if only for two hours in a movie theater.

Extinction is a potent and troubling reminder of how tenuous and sometimes unsustainable this idea we have of progress truly is.  We want to believe, we are constantly encouraged to believe, that the world is headed toward a better place, that a brighter future is always on the horizon, just waiting to be grasped, if we but continue to believe in it.  There is much in our world, both in the present and in the past, that hauntingly reminds us of the essential fallacy that lies at the heart of this notion of progress, as well as the terrible price it exacts.  We who inhabit the conceptual and temporal space of modernity must constantly remind ourselves of the price that has been paid by numerous species as we continue our march into the future.  There is both a pleasure and a pain to the contemplation of extinction, and we as a species would do well to spend more time reflecting on both.