In a characteristically incisive iteration of this line of thinking, Judith Butler’s recent President‘s Column in the MLA Newsletter, “The Future of the Humanities Can Be Found in Its Public Forms,” ties the public turn to the racial diversification of the humanities. Citing a
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In a characteristically incisive iteration of this line of thinking, Judith Butler’s recent President‘s Column in the MLA Newsletter, “The Future of the Humanities Can Be Found in Its Public Forms,” ties the public turn to the racial diversification of the humanities. Citing a recent survey by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Butler points out that young Latinx and Black Americans are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to be consumers of poetry and other forms of literature. Engagement of these publics, she reasons, will also naturally revise the Eurocentric focus of the traditional canon. Admirably, this is more than a call for better public relations. It is a call for thought and practice responsive to a 21st-century demos, which, if we have eyes to see, has no shortage of vibrant humanistic energies.
I like that. It makes the “public” in public humanities a site of plurality, of rich and multiple textualities to which the academic humanities ought to be responsive. I would add only that the “humanities” in public humanities should be equally capacious, looking beyond the present and beyond narrowly American concerns, to include other times and places characterized by complex cultural interplay, whether the Eastern Mediterranean of late antiquity, or al-Andalus, or modern China.
But still, a public humanities focused on the American scene has had extremely positive results: Witness the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s new “Just Futures” initiative, which funds social-justice-oriented projects that build paths between universities and various publics, and at latest report has awarded more than $72 million. This is in addition to the foundation’s Monuments Project, which supports the creation of inclusive public spaces. The Whiting Foundation has also launched new Public Engagement Programs, to support “ambitious public-facing humanities projects.” One would be hard-pressed to think of more worthwhile things for granting bodies to do.
This is infinitely superior to an earlier phase of grant-giving, which spurred the mania for digital scholarship. Indeed, in some ways the new vogue for the “public humanities” often seems like a reaction to the digital humanities, the last great initiative that was supposed to save us. Particularly in the wake of the 2016 election, people came to realize that Silicon Valley’s influence on the public sphere may not be entirely salutary. Those of us who never sipped the digital julep could have told you that.
Unfortunately, the public turn does resemble its digital predecessor in one way: It promotes the evaluation of scholars and programs based on their ability to secure grants, gifts, and corporate partnerships. Some universities will reawaken their ambitions for humanities departments to become grant-generating in the manner of the sciences and social sciences. Even if not securing external funding, the thinking might go, more public-facing work in the humanities could draw the attention of donors — and so offer a way to shift costs away from the university.
That desire is especially pernicious in its potential to reinforce inequalities of academic labor. Rather than being valued for exemplary scholarship and teaching, scholars will be rewarded for their “public profile.” This will encourage a star system and hasten the transformation of the tenure stream into the bastion of a small, privileged elite, while the vast majority of work sustaining humanities departments is performed by underpaid and unvalued adjuncts. If the public turn does not create much-needed opportunities for the next generation of Ph.D.s but instead further isolates them from opportunities within the university, then it is not worth a hill of beans.
If the public turn does not create much-needed opportunities for the next generation of Ph.D.s, it is not worth a hill of beans.
Cleaving to this principle is not likely to suffice in the face of assaults that faculty members will soon encounter. Sniff for a moment the winds emanating from legislators and trustees. At this writing, 16 states have passed or are contemplating laws that would ban the teaching of critical race theory from all public institutions. Trustees, too, will have their own ideas about faculty speech demonstrating an “unfitness to serve,” as recent events at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill amply demonstrate. In the midst of its absurd delay on approving tenure at the journalism school for the astonishingly well-decorated journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, the university also refused to renew the appointment of Eric Muller, a professor of law, to the board of UNC Press. That decision appears to have been a response to Muller’s criticism of the Board of Governors for agreeing to pay $2.5 million to the Sons of Confederate Veterans for housing and displaying the monument known as Silent Sam (a deal that was later thrown out by a state judge). Muller’s criticism had appeared on the blog of NC Policy Watch. (One shudders to think what would happen if board members were to actually pick up a catalog of the UNC Press, which has distinguished itself as a leading publisher in Black studies.)
If these are the values, and the activist spirit, driving legislators and trustees, it is especially worrying that the public turn will place institutions on stronger legal ground when making politically motivated dismissals. If all activity on matters of public import is now evaluated and rewarded, or even potentially evaluated and rewarded, as “part of the job,” then faculty speech in public forums will lose First Amendment protections. An institution might now claim that the expressive activities of faculty members, regardless of forum, must coincide with its mission. And the courts are likely to see this position as consistent with recent Supreme Court rulings, namely Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), which limits the protected speech of public employees, and Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010), which crafts a limited-public-forum doctrine for universities.
This becomes especially dangerous when the mission of the institution is conceived as catering to the whims of wealthy alumni, or when administrators are reluctant to square off with reactionary trustees. When “public profile” becomes part of a professional portfolio, faculty members who speak at a demonstration, or write an opinion piece, a letter to an editor, or even a tweet, might find themselves newly vulnerable.
To remedy that, we must recommit ourselves to the idea that faculty members as citizens have a right to speech beyond the scrutiny of the university, and rethink the procedural protections safeguarding extramural speech. During cases of tenure, promotion, or performance review, all faculty members, and especially contingent and junior ones, ought to be allowed to embargo certain writings, including social-media posts or entire social-media accounts, as not falling within the cognizance of their institutions. Once so embargoed, these writings cannot confer professional credit, nor can they inflict professional harm. As is always the case with freedom of speech, this would cut both ways: A person can embargo ravings defending the cause of white nationalism, and an institution would have to demonstrate his unfitness based on a procedurally sound evaluation of classroom performance.
There are many excellent initiatives included under the broad umbrella of the new public turn: prison education, K through 12 outreach, engagement with galleries, libraries, and museums. These have the potential to invigorate our mission as scholar-teachers as we strive to contribute to a democratic society that cultivates the democratic arts of thinking, writing, and ethically encountering individuals unlike ourselves. I love the public turn. But I am concerned that universities, as currently instituted, will find a way to cock it up. Getting it right will require structural change on the American campus — and some institutional investment in humanities departments. Rightly conceived, the public turn needs no star system; it is the work of many hands engaged in the common cause of teaching, and learning from, students of all kinds. And if it is to be truly vigorous, it must be open to the wild work that engaging matters of public concern can produce, work that is not always consistent with university branding.