Rethinking Academic Hunger Games

By Tina M. Kelleher

Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University by Kathleen Fitzpatrick. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. 

After serving six years as director of scholarly communications for the Modern Language Association (MLA) and transitioning into a new role as director of digital humanities and professor of English at Michigan State University, Kathleen Fitzpatrick has developed significant perspective on the ways that corporatization contributes to mission creep on many American campuses. Her most recent book examines, among other things, how higher education evolved to be seen as a “club good” (“I am paying for my entrance . . . and you should pay for your own”) rather than a public good that is “supported by all for the benefit of all.” While this year’s “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal garnered mainstream media attention for spotlighting well-known celebrities gaming admission processes, Generous Thinking focuses on less-publicized academic “hunger games” that disserve educational priorities and merit significant course corrections.

As the book’s title suggests, Fitzpatrick wishes to foster ways to step outside competitive frameworks that cut against our collective interests, by offering learners better carrots and by rethinking outdated scholarly shticks. She champions a range of worthwhile but relatively anodyne practices unlikely to spark much controversy: cultivating “healthy humility,” collaborating across divisions, lingering with others’ ideas, listening carefully despite whatever disagreements exist. Such back-to-basics suggestions do not initially seem to make for the “radical approach” that the book’s subtitle suggests, until you reach the fourth chapter on “The University,” which calls for a more thoroughgoing paradigm shift to develop solutions that rebuild trust in higher education as a common good, beyond the transactional exchanges of what she dubs the “Solutions Industry.”

Before moving forward, we first have to appreciate the profundity of our present-day educational quagmires. Chapter 2, “Reading Together,” charts humanities scholars’ debates about the role of reading in imagining and relating to difference(s) and for inspiring new modes of self-fashioning; it also reappraises how reading shapes relationships, both on and off campus and throughout schooling pipelines. The takeaway: literary critics and cultural theorists have been professionalized into a perpetual state of contestation over the how, what, and why of reading, in ways that have often inhibited empathic solidarities. Fitzpatrick discerningly notes that “in our engagement with texts and other readers, we must grapple not only with the stories that others tell us, but with the parts of ourselves that resist and rewrite those stories.” Embracing improvisation’s interactive rule of “yes, and . . .” over a mansplaining “well, but . . .” can go a long way toward facilitating meaningful collaborations and rejuvenating good will.

However, many catch-22s surface around developing new ways of caring about the how and why of knowledge production, particularly in light of gendered and generational struggles. The introduction notes that “the understanding of the coalition-building potential of community has long been central to women of color feminisms.” As Roderick Ferguson’s work demonstrates, administrative and governmental responses to student social movements during and after the civil rights era coopted and narrowed the possibilities, just as the publics that higher education served became more demographically mixed. This shifting landscape became the target of systematic policy efforts to limit opportunities for economic and social mobility; such developments are consequential for the ways academic scholarship is funded and valued, too.

Drawing on the work of Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings, Fitzpatrick further links her approach to feminist ethics and praxis relevant to psychology and education; her survey of scholarship on reading likewise emphasizes some instrumental figures whose work overlaps with feminist and queer studies (Rita Felski, Sharon Marcus, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick). Surprisingly or not, philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn’s work becomes an “exemplar” in the history of science, as well as for critical higher education studies, partly because the concept he identified as “paradigm shifts very often require transformation in the community” and “frequently align with generational change,” yet she also notes that women are entirely absent from his influential 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The “massive abdication of the duty of care” at Fitzpatrick’s home institution, where Larry Nassar sexually abused many gymnasts and students, exposes systemic problems with policies and structures; this comes with “incalculable human cost” that begs for responsibility, “especially for the not knowing.”

The book explicitly mentions academic freedom only a few times, but it matters for understanding why “the marketplace of ideas” turned so corrosively against forms of thinking that do not readily conform to corporate and state interests; it also sets into relief challenges attending Fitzpatrick’s desire to center “generous thinking” as a guiding ethos that extends beyond an institutional setting. For instance, the chapter “Working in Public” takes up difficulties associated with upholding principles and practices that enable freedom of expression and thought, particularly when online communication channels enable targeted harassment, which had not yet emerged as a significant problem when she solicited comments on a blog for her 2011 book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. Indeed, she continued to beta-test “intellectual vulnerability” by posting this book’s first draft to the website of a project she directs, the MLA’s Humanities Commons, at http://generousthinking.hcommons.org; the open-access, open-source platform fosters interdisciplinary community in what the site’s “About” page characterizes as a “trusted, non-profit network.”

Fitzpatrick acknowledges the “boatload of privilege” that enabled her to assume that her own thought experiments would benefit from peer-review processes open to a broader community beyond scholars in her own field. The risks compound in online contexts when, in order to mine and monetize data, third-party platforms create terms of use that limit access to academic resources and thwart collaborative engagement. Furthermore, microblogging has altered dynamics so that readers engage more with one another than with a posting’s author, which perpetuates what social media commentators refer to as context collapse and echo chambers as well as shallow, deep, and utter fakes. I would add that these developments have seriously complicated how faculty members engage in extramural expression in and with the public and have called into question whether academic freedom can be defended in all contexts, at all levels and ranks—especially amid intense pressures on higher education to be something other than a public good. The ramifications have been most starkly felt by first-generation and underrepresented scholars, who face difficulties finding constructive academic mentorship and supports, with or without cybermobs and trolls in the mix.

Fitzpatrick sharply advocates for academic-owned technology infrastructure to push back against public-private partnerships that enable for-profit entities to control higher education operations in perverse ways. This state of affairs raises serious academic freedom and shared governance questions, as it creates back doors for corporations to exploit a “nonprofit” status for ulterior political and ideological ends. (The Koch brothers’ funding for “freedom schools” at Arizona public universities and elsewhere may be only the tip of an iceberg melting into an ocean of troubling new norms.) At the same time, the government officials from Alaska to Wisconsin who are siphoning dollars away from existing public universities and neglecting educational deserts in their own states are grossly underestimating the long-term payoffs of academic-sponsored research, which benefits government agencies no matter what party holds office. I nonetheless remain intrigued by Fitzpatrick’s suggestion that a commons-based approach can be instructive for other kinds of meaningful collaboration and interventions at institutional, regional, and systemwide levels. She points to Samvera (an open-source repository that enables collective projects) as a potential model. Additionally, the same technologies that universities use to maximize “efficiency” (and administrative bloat) while skirting accountability could be used, in theory, as tools to address grievances not as individual “private personnel” matters but as systemic concerns that matter to collective well-being. They could also serve as a means to involve the faculty in more transparent decision-making processes rather than acceding to donors’ intentions to manipulate educational missions.

The book openly struggles with tensions surrounding “generosity” when precarious scholars must find ways to subsist despite austerity budgeting politics that expose the degree to which patronage dynamics may stack the deck. The digital humanities, for instance, burgeoned partly as a range of side gigs and “unconferences” that depended on a cast of energetic but overworked and underpaid graduate students and postdocs with ever-narrowing pathways onto the tenure track. Retooling on the fly, many leveraged their research training into a skill set that resulted in new ways to build, curate, and crowdsource digital repositories for resource-strapped cultural institutions and library collections. Fitzpatrick does not delve into how the pursuit of alternative funding sources can misleadingly inflate “prestige” barometers, partly because she so sincerely values community engagement. Further, the disproportionate emphasis on open-platform public scholarship creates a distorted picture of the extent to which the resulting research can be used to address long-standing forms of exploitation and objectification. Conversely, a push for independent funding opportunities can complicate faculty dynamics on a campus, particularly in light of professional models that undervalue teaching and service.

That being said, Fitzpatrick meticulously credits all collaborators and sources, which attests to her appreciation for the many hands that facilitate her scholarship; this conscientiousness extends into broader concerns. She worries about ways to capture and count elusive forms of intellectual labor such as “code switching” (or the extra burdens marginalized and underrepresented scholars negotiate to adapt and survive) as well as translation initiatives that render works accessible in different formats and languages for broader circulation. While traditional forms of humanities and social science assessment have inadequate frameworks to value professional contributions that exceed the parameters of publication, Fitzpatrick recognizes why this state of affairs seriously limits what higher education can and should be in a democracy.

Generous Thinking contends with a number of double binds associated with service expectations, both to the university and to the broader community. Heavy workloads discourage meaningful participation in shared governance among what she calls “the permanent faculty” or the “we” on the tenure track, even though statistically that group represents only about one-quarter of faculty in the profession. It’s neither a representative nor a sustainable model of governance. Conversely, those who can afford to care do not always know how to do so helpfully, often for practical and structural reasons that have little to do with bad intent or elitism. Developing ways to include faculty relevantly at all levels and ranks among disciplines requires a holistic understanding of how institutions and policies do and do not work. Perhaps generosity needs better-distributed ways to percolate up: to check power’s blind spots and to debunk the meritocratic assumptions perpetuated by funding models that never seem to trickle down as promised. To think through less extortionist and more viable ways to pay our intellectual debts forward will no doubt require envisioning a future open to new academic models, based in world citizenship and grounded in more capacious understandings of community engagement.

Ultimately, Fitzpatrick’s book is a must-read because it offers so many compelling insights of value to the work of the AAUP, particularly as the organization pivots to building solidarity among all faculty.

Tina M. Kelleher is a lecturer at Towson University, where she has taught computer science, English, and gender and women’s studies. She is a member of the AAUP’s Committee on Gender and Sexuality in the Academic Profession. Her email address is tkelleher@towson.edu

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