The Risky Business of Spreading Awareness

Since I began my career as a doctoral student at CUNY I have learned extensively on the history and the current state of higher education in the United States and its many contradictions. Yet, I still find it difficult and perhaps a bit arrogant to express an opinion on such topics, due to the fact that – luckily – I have not experienced them firsthand. So I will try to give authority to the critical claims coming from an outsider that follow by making use of a widespread remark credited to John Culkin and employed by both Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, and Jean Baudrillard in America: “We do not know who discovered water, but we are certain it was not fish.”

While reading The Risky Business, I couldn’t help but thinking of the paradox that arises from the clash between the centrality of the humanities in the development and history of the nation on the one hand (as argued by a text in a comment I mentioned a few weeks ago, Geoffrey Harpham’s The Humanities and the Dream of America), and the capitalistic and exclusive nature – often at the core of the discipline’s critique – of its higher education system, the very institution that is supposed to carry on its mission. This idea of being able to serve only privileged portions of the social stratum – leaving out those who would benefit the most from it – is itself in contradiction with the democratizing function of the humanities.

Some inspirational considerations on the topic come from texts Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons, and from Roderick A. Ferguson, The Reorder of Things. The piece reminded me how crucial introducing these texts in English classes can be, so as to raise awareness among both white students and students of color. Here are some of the questions that they raised for me, as an educator – how do we distinguish ourselves from the very economic system and structures of power object of our critique? How do we escape the daunting scenario of being nothing but a cog in the machine – in other words, how can we differentiate ourselves from those who say that “slavery was a long time ago”? Does working in an elitarian system produce a negation to our values? From this perspective, is teaching nothing but a service we are providing to customers? If so, how do we reconcile with the fact that we are failing to provide our services to a certain category of customers who are paying for our services with the same currency as other students? In addition to the “customers” we are not serving right I am also concerned about those who are left out altogether. Is there a way for us to reach out to those who are left out from the academia? Finally, how do we reconcile with those questions and contradictions when we engage in academic research?

Both Harney and Moten’s and Fergusons texts offer, if not answers, then valuable insights in regard to the problems that arise from living within the system and dismantling it – or at least attempting to do so – at the same time.  Both texts deal theoretically (and with different levels of explicitness) with the emergence of a sense of frustration caused by the impossibility to change the system, and to make an impact on society at large that goes beyond the circulation of one’s idea within the academic context. My personal take is that these goals cannot be reached on the part of the academia alone, in other words, I see the theoretical as in need of being strongly and necessarily tied to a too-often deaf political dimension. Ideally, the academic world should be able to act in synergy with other social institutions to achieve its goal. In other words, the outcome of academic research should inspire policy makers and mold the structure of powers.

To make room for the “postcolonial university” invoked by Gutierrez, we first have to make room for it by dismantling the old one. This process beings by spreading the word of books such as The Undercommons and The Reorder of Things and familiarizing ourselves and our students with theoretical frameworks such as CRT to “disrupt dominant racial narratives by “analyzing the myths, presuppositions, and received wisdoms that make up the common culture about race and that invariably render blacks and other minorities one-down.” (347)



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2 Responses to The Risky Business of Spreading Awareness

  1. Kristi says:

    Hey Stefano,

    You raised a lot of really great points in response to “Risky Business,” as well as some really difficult questions. While I don’t even know where to begin trying to answer those in a short blog post, I will agree with your point on the importance of reading books like The Uncommons and The Reorder of Things. On top of that, I believe it’s extremely important to integrate books (and secodnary sources) by women, people of color, and disability throughout the semester. I know from previous classes I’ve taken, often syllabi have a pretty white male focus and then at the very end have one or two token texts that are inserted for a “diverse” syllabus. I think we also need to consider what we mean by “diverse.” Often times, white women and African Americans are included on syllabi, but women of color and large groups of minorities (Asian and Native American are the first two most prominent groups of writers that come to mind) are left off. Would it be beneficial to require one class a semester that refuses to teach white male texts? Would it be important to have syllabi that are forced to include a disability perspective even if the class isn’t on disability?

    On a side note, I was also struck by “Where We Are: Disability and Accessibility” when the question was raised beyond the syllabus, and how faculty are supposed to integrate multiple perspectives beyond our own into the classroom (whether through assignments, readings, and class discussion). The article suggested some great ideas for inclusion of disability, but I wonder how we can translate that beyond disability and use it for the inclusion of multiple social and economic dynamics into the classroom.

  2. Sarah says:

    I think, Stefano, that you raise a really important issue in your post about “Risky Business.” I have spent a lot of time since beginning the PhD process considering how to position myself within the English discipline and within and in relation to the increasingly corporate structures of “Western” universities. However, I also struggle with the idea of dismantling or “burning everything down,” as the radical in me once said and sometimes says. I struggle because sometimes, as the Gibson, et al and key sections of “The Risky Business” point out, it is dangerous for certain bodies to even be in the space of the university.

    While I am wary of addressing the personal, as I think discussions about diversity can bring out the marginalizing identifications in everyone in a way that defeats the purpose of the discussion, I struggled in a new way reading the two articles mentioned above. In reading the intensely personal accounts, I felt both admiration for the way in which queer women and women of color were willing to shirk conventions to invest in the imagined alternative and a kind of revulsion from certain saccharin elements in the Gibson, et al explorations of queer women’s identity in the academy. What this highlighted for me was the way in which I have very often stripped myself of identity (to the extent to which this is possible and with the acknowledgement that passing is itself a kind of oppressive privilege) before entering the classroom. That sometimes to make it as an other actually demands the over-investment in the system. To not do so is to risk accusations such as those depicted in “Risky Business.” To not do so is also to put one’s person in every sense in jeopardy of direct violence of all kinds, beyond those encountered in reading a racist or homophobic assignment. While the readings seem to address identity as an unavoidable partner in the room, there is also a sense in which it is mute. Not closeted and covered but stripped and removed—the classroom asks that it is forgotten to the point that personable chit chat with students cannot happen for fear of a slip of the tongue that opens oneself up to violence and blocks the students’ ears from what you have to teach.

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