This space needs no metanarrative. It’s form and function will emerge at a distance, like pointillism.
Today was given over to administrivia. Mostly it was boring, even (maybe especially) when the stakes are transparently clear and high. Meeting 1: What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of your graduate program? What other programs, exactly, are competition for your program? Meeting 2: Is a professor of practice (“expert” but non-PhD) considered a “regular” member of the faculty? When? What about a spousal hire or a research assistant in physics? What about someone who holds no or limited voting rights in your department but does have a PhD? Meeting 3: What is the obligation of humanities programs to the surplus doctoral students in our programs who will never receive tenure track positions?
Ok, granted, this last meeting was not boring.
All three meetings traced the porous filaments of an institution that wants clear borders and signature programs. That is, the ‘threats’ to program, faculty, and graduate students are precisely the relationships endemic to the constitution of program, faculty, and graduate student identity: the presence of other thriving graduate programs in religion; faculty who teach and mentor but have not endured the tenure track gauntlet that “we” have survived; students whose entire being trembles on the precarity of their future.
The last meeting centered around a discussion with Prof. Russell Berman of Stanford, one of the writers of the MLA task force report on doctoral study in modern languages and literatures. The discussion tacked along the axis of accommodation: doctoral programs seek professorial excellence, but do we not need to train students for jobs other than the academy? Graduate education is expensive, so is it not narcissistic for faculty simply to duplicate themselves in haughty disdain (or ignorance) of job market realities? Berman’s presentation was accused of ignoring the federal and state slashing of education budgets and the value of politically left culture housed (safe-housed?) in many if not most academies. He was asked if the privilege of the 1%, a privilege exponentially expanded through channeling profits back to elite Ivy League institutions, can ever model anything other than the chase for the golden ring of prestige.
Nowhere was the question of negotiating potential with pragmatism. Not even the Marxists presented the situation as one of a process instead of a set of bodies and positions staked out in death-dealing opposition. No one stated the obvious fact that tussles over things like responsibility (should advisors contact advisees, or are the advisees adults who need to check in regularly with their advisors?) and skill sets (do graduate seminars really need to point out the fact that ‘today we are working on oral presentation’?) are affective dodges. They attempt to pin down a situation that cannot be pinned down. They attempt to frame a situation in way that allows someone (some body) to be framed. Litigation, not education.
No one laughed when I said that, as DGS, I see my job less as responding to the possible realities of the job market than as responding to the actual realities of my graduate students’ anxieties. But that’s the truth. Don’t dodge the affect. Start where you are, attend to the person before you and to the fear or crisis or worry s/he relates. Build programming that addresses and navigates those concerns, even if they can’t be eradicated. Doing this enables older faculty to plug in to the leading edge of the wave that will be the next generation—whether in or out of the academy. And no, starting with affect and building cognitive programming around is not crazy; it is the hallmark of 21st century rationality.