Proposal for the “Corporate Humanities” panel, 2012 MLA Conference
Paper Title: “What Do Students Need From the Humanities?”
Abstract: Two different strands of discussion have so far dominated the debate over the increasing corporatization of the humanities. One strand focuses on the purpose, utility, and ends of humanities research and the structure of the humanities as disciplines; the other vocalizes concerns about the effects of the corporate model on the professional lives of academics. I argue that a third perspective needs to be addressed more fully: that of humanities students, both those who major in the humanities and those who take humanities courses as electives while pursuing degrees in other disciplines.
At first, to ask “What do students need from the humanities?” seems to place students in the very consumerist subject position that critics of neoliberalism’s influence on higher education forcefully reject. However, I would argue that the most progressive and effective transformations within the humanities in previous generations have arisen from identifying and responding to the needs of students. For example, Judith Halberstam points to the movements to institutionalize ethnic, postcolonial, gender, and queer studies and their transformation of the humanities in the last decades of the 20th century as a model for the responding to the decline of the humanities today. I suggest that these movements were motivated by the needs of greater numbers of women, minority, immigrant and lower-income college students entering college for the first time. The study of culture—and the transformation of what it means to study culture—was affected by these students’ desires to use their education to make sense of both the new social position they occupied through their college educations and the historical, social and cultural experiences that shaped their multiple communities. A more direct engagement with the social and cultural mechanisms of neoliberalism in our research and teaching—an effort already under way for many veterans of the culture wars and their intellectual allies—is crucial to meeting the needs of contemporary students who often struggle to articulate their experiences and positions in relation to the neoliberal order.
The challenges that arise from this approach are: 1) the extent to which neoliberalism has been institutionalized makes this kind of work already less valued within the academy and thus more difficult to pursue; and 2) neoliberalism’s co-option of the discourses of freedom and opportunity that helped to frame students’ expression of their needs in the earlier era makes it more difficult for students to articulate their present needs and desires in a language that directly opposes the neoliberal regime. For now, is our best option to engage with the needs as students currently articulate them—needs for economic security and “success,” and for the skills that will make them “effective global citizens”—and make the argument for how the humanities might help them achieve those goals, while simultaneously (and perhaps surreptitiously) working to reappropriate and redefine those terms?