In my first academic job, I arrived after a 2-3 year commission of faculty who evaluated that university’s core/ liberal arts curriculum. That commission wrote a report detailing what the challenges were. The administration reflected on that report for another year. I was later assigned to a new committee that would discuss the commission’s report. That took another two years. When I left that committee and university, a new committee was designed to come up with a report that outlined a plan on what to do next. 5 years of students graduated and nothing changed; it looked like the next five years would promise more of the same.
I noticed some strange stuff in my first year of department meetings when I was an assistant professor. I once had a question about students’ progress in the program (which was a certification program) so I saw my question as vital and requiring an answer… as in, ASAP. It was a two-hour meeting with lots of discussion but I was confused by the end and said as much. I had class the next day and needed to tell my students something and needed to ACT on a decision. So at the end of the meeting, I asked: what did we decide here? The answer was this: that we need to keep talking about this. In the three years that I was there, I never got any answer to that question; we just kept talking. I stopped asking and got annoyed with even listening since the circuitous, nit-picky-do-nothing-and-go-nowhere dialogues just gave me pounding headaches. I designed my own process with my students in my classes, processes that the department could have learned from and adopted had folk not spent their time trying to standardize a curriculum that couldn’t work. When I realized there was no way to do real or important work in that space with infrastructural support– whether it was from colleagues, the chair, or upper levels of academic administration/management— I left. It was a good call on my part too; with no sense of urgency or political vision, the department has all but folded now.
I still remain stunned by the unwillingness of faculty to fight, to see education as a way to critically intervene in the world, to think politically about what literacy and learning mean in the 21st century, or to actually engage polemics and research on higher education and learning. It’s frightening, especially since the current educational system we are in is one predicated on our demise as teachers.
This kind of culture in the academy was just not something I could get used to:
- The kind of culture that says everything is okay and, if not, we can just ignore everything, make gradual changes, or just talk for a decade (I mean this literally) about what we will do. There’s a kind of white bourgeois privilege here that does not imagine there is an urgency or danger to other people’s livelihood and progress when all you do is talk and stall. I am reminded of that infamous text that seems to populate all composition textbooks: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Bourgeois “progressives” are still all about waiting while other people suffer.
- The kind of culture that says let’s just find a way to co-exist with the existing social forces, even if we do not want to. I hear this kind of selling-out from many white liberals in relation to assessment and standardization in schools today. I find it utterly irresponsible…and stupid. What exactly do we think black communities have been doing all along since Brown v. Board of Education? We have been making our peace with a system that promised improvement but gave very little, if any, for a longlong time now. Making peace with the way things are could only be a perspective that comes from white privilege; that’s the only perspective that could see ACCOMMODATION as something new… or viable.
What gets clearer and clearer to me is that the majority of the white liberal bourgeoisie, the PMC, who makes up the professoriate has not had and will not have the tools to challenge or even understand the most corporatized university structure we have ever had. I suppose if you take the arguments about the PMC to their logical conclusion though, the PMC was never interested in waging a challenge anyway. However, the PMC is no longer invited to the table; holding on to the delusion of privilege seems a high price to pay.
I am thinking about these things because I was recently on another committee to evaluate the core. As one assignment, we had to write about what we think students should be doing/learning in Core/Liberal Arts in the 21st century. I liked the homework assignment and plan to move forward on my ideas in my next classes:
- Take on current information about new global markets and the connections to 21st century imperialism
- Fully immerse ourselves in a digital empire in ways that (re)center self-determination and community-control (see the National Conference for Media Reform)
- Speak to and locate racial oppression in a Post-Katrina nation-state
- Speak to and locate male dominance in new Benevolent Patriarchy (women are outnumbering male college students more and more, but this is not bringing us any closer to gender equality in higher education… can we talk about this?)
- Craft new rhetorical mobility and design competence in a multi-media and digital universe
- Develop new worker consciousness in current modes of capitalist production (are we going to keep ignoring our students’ increasing debt, students’ increasing inability to find a job or one that can pay off those debts, and the corporatization of professions that makes professional jobs today look more like factory assembly lines?)
- Reframe the standardized education students have received (this is the most tested and standardized group of students in the world and ever in history) and work toward counter-standardization as an educational and human right
- Internalize and apply real tools for cross-racial dialogue and alliance in a multiracial/multilingual world
- Make daily decisions about the planet with an eco-consciousness that will not destroy the environment we take for granted (it’s not an option to just ignore this)
Of course, right-leaning white liberals will accuse me of indoctrination but this will be what my curriculum for first year writing does and interrogates in the future anyway. I am not looking for student agreement here, just engagement, something I think I am pretty good at. I suspect that, once again, the curriculum and strategies that I devise will be ignored while faculty sit on more commissions and committees, talking about and doing nothing. I’ve seen how it goes down.
Obviously, I think these nine points are the role of a liberal arts curriculum, work that I think traditional disciplinary structures do not even come close to. We keep talking about the theories of Freud, classical literature, Greek empires, blahblahblah that students need to know and the students keep asking us about their debt, about the world in which they live, about their livelihood and living wage, about the realities of digital design in their lives. My definition of a liberal arts/core curriculum has nothing to do with the disciplines and their canonical texts/ideas at all. A liberal arts/core curriculum is the framework for the intellectual culture of a college… it is a deep, meaningful, intellectual engagement with ideas and contemporary social issues, not a set of isolated skills to measure.
What I am left with now is not so much about student identities or ideas about what students need to do. I am thinking more about faculty identities and what faculty need to do. As faculty, we need to ask ourselves: What should Core/Liberal Arts FACULTY be doing in the 21st century? We will need to fight for exactly the kind of intellectual and political culture that I am describing here … an intellectual and political culture diametrically opposed to our current corporate models of higher education. At best, we faculty of the PMC have been D students in achieving this.