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Where the Humanities Are Not in Crisis

By Jeffrey Herlihy-MeraJune 16, 2023

Where the Humanities Are Not in Crisis
SINCE NYU PROFESSOR John Guillory’s book Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Studies appeared last fall, perusing the ensuing debates has been like eavesdropping on a tiff among academic stars. Critique of the book has added important context on political and cultural topics, as well as on the author’s tenuous attempt to link the notion of “profession” to “criticism.” Essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, the London Review of Books, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, by faculty at Cambridge, Wesleyan by way of Oxford, two from the same professor at Columbia, and a follow-up from Guillory himself. This is evidence of a remarkable level of commercial demand for literary critique across popular media. But that traction is deceptive. The circumstances of those authors, the experiences they draw upon for context and reference, are unlike those of nearly everyone else in the academy. This popular focus on perspectives honed at prestigious universities frames the discussion of the purported “crisis” of literary studies in misleading ways.

The New Yorker recently ran a piece, focused largely on Harvard’s English program, that used a binary top/“bottom” comparison to English at Arizona State University. (The piece was written by Nathan Heller, a Harvard grad.) Comparisons like this complicate things. In many ways ASU is superior to Harvard: the former’s Humanities Lab is among the most innovative in the country, and the school has resources superior to those at many flagship campuses. James Marino at Cleveland State University has observed how damaging the pervasiveness of views like these can be for public institutions. Commenting on a 2014 article in The New Republic by William Deresiewicz entitled “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” Marino writes:

Deresiewicz has never studied or worked outside the Ivy League. He has three degrees from Columbia. He taught for ten years at Yale. Public colleges, and the students at public colleges, are merely rhetorically convenient symbols for him. He displays no understanding of, and no curiosity about, what those places and people are actually like. […]

[His] phony, patronizing praise for public universities helps paper over the crisis that public schools are in.

If we put institutional affiliation aside in the Guillory spat, centering any debate at top-ranked universities will include some promising ideas but exclude many more. Like any form of gatekeeping, limiting views on the crisis in literature and criticism to faculty at elite institutions homogenizes and regulates knowledge. It makes certain solutions and viewpoints appear unviable. Characterizing “crisis” via the experiences of professors at prestigious universities silences many communities and makes the varied and uneven nature of academic life seem unimportant.

“[W]e listen differently,” Jason Weiss notes, “to music, words, sounds.” But what about institutional affiliation—does it influence listening, how words are perceived? Mary Davis of the University of Kentucky has reflected on the experience of submission and rejection, and how her owns words, when attached to the letterhead of a top-ranked school, suddenly changed in value. When James Lindgren, at that time on the faculty of Chicago-Kent College of Law, held a visiting position at the University of Chicago, he sent out the same article on both letterheads. The texts were identical but the responses were not: UChicago stationery meant that 2.5 times more editors acknowledged his submission, and periodicals at UPenn and Northwestern suddenly expressed interest in his work. David Shatz conducted an experiment in which articles from scholars at prestigious universities were “resubmitted with a non-prestigious affiliation”; most editors “recommended rejection” and did not notice the texts were already in print.

I’ve kept up on the Guillory tiff partly out of a vicarious, escapist curiosity. My institution, the Universidad de Puerto Rico, has endured a 40 percent budget cut since Hurricane Maria. We haven’t had Project Muse for years and recently lost access to JSTOR. Articles behind paywalls—like those in the Guillory row—require effort to read, and this immediate reality frames how “literature,” “critique,” “crisis,” and “affiliation” intersect with and inform my scholarship.

I wonder: if you have institutional research support, databases and NYT access, a top-ranked university salary and teaching load, sabbaticals and course releases, and all the professional resources and opportunities accessible to Guillory and those in his cohort, what do you think about? How does that context shape your questions and uncertainties? How does it inform your understanding and experience of literature, criticism, and “crisis” itself? I also wonder: what if those periodicals—and this quarrel—were democratized? What do voices from other types of institutions add to the debate? What do voices from universities that are truly in crisis have to say about this crisis? Does their absence from the conversation matter?

It is not merely a curiosity but an ethical dilemma when people experiencing a crisis cannot participate in its definition. While the downturn is different at each institution, the authority to be a mouthpiece for the crisis in the humanities from an office at a prestigious university is among the more peculiar ironies of academic hierarchy.

A critique of Guillory’s critique, in a nutshell, is that views grounded in ideologies of universality and neutrality mask their participation in the upholding of exclusive, elitist, and colonialist ways of being, reading, and interpreting. As I will soon discuss, if some of Guillory’s work is illuminating, he subtly misconstrues the notion of “self-authorization,” imagining it as universal in application. Creating a personalized center and using it to judge others is deceptive and violent. The truth is that, while some “self-authorize,” others, due to an array of biases and prejudices, do not because they cannot. Meanwhile, Bruce Robbins deftly observes that critique makes “democracy more genuinely democratic” while he also asserts that “[m]embership in academic institutions does not grant anyone autonomy.” Nevertheless, as Davis, Shatz, and Lindgren have shown, people at some institutions enjoy a special latitude.

The frames Guillory relies on to construct “crisis” and “critique” are far from the center of scholarly experience—and they are therefore provincial. While they may have resonance in a specific context, therein lies part of the problem: the media machine pushes those views—and their shortcomings—to the center of conversation, in the process silencing other voices and experiences of academic life. This fact places a great responsibility on those authors and on the editors who publish them. It would be beneficial if this accountability were shared by—if not redirected toward—those beyond the hallways of prestigious universities. But that’s not possible until scholars at other types of institutions can participate in the conversation.

One editor politely rejected a recent submission of mine on this topic, saying the conversation was at a “saturation point.” Héctor Huyke, my colleague at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, replied,

¿Saturado? ¿No es eso el punto de tu argumento, que está saturado de voces de cierto tipo de universidad? Esta respuesta confirma la crítica de tu ensayo. Profesores en universidades élites pueden participar, múltiples veces con argumentos repetitivos, pero cuando la voz viene desde abajo, criticando el patrón aceptado, de repente la conversación se cierra. Ese mensaje documenta el problema que identificas.

(“Saturated? Isn’t that the point of your argument—that it is saturated with voices from a certain type of university? This response confirms what your essay critiques. Elite university faculty can participate, multiple times with some repetitive arguments, but when a voice comes from below, criticizing the accepted pattern, the conversation suddenly closes. That message documents the problem you identify.”)

If what Davis, Shatz, and Lindgren observe is widespread in publishing, and institutional demography influences whose words, opinions, and experiences appear in The New Yorker, The New York Times, the London Review of Books, and the like, then the silence created and endorsed by these articles and those publications may be more important than what appears in the squabble itself.

“This book seems so out of touch with the profession as it is actually lived,” writes Kevin Modestino, of Howard University, about Professing Criticism. Of Guillory’s blanket statement that “[n]o one listens to us [academics], but no one tells us what to do,” Modestino observes: “[T]hat simply is not true for the majority of university workers.”

What literary experiences are silenced by these articles? If we consider this debate in context, Guillory’s experiences as a critic are not unlike those of his interlocutors. After a PhD at Yale, he taught at Yale and Johns Hopkins before NYU, professing for nearly half a century within a bubble of opportunities available to very few others. In addition to the power and authority afforded by those affiliations, he has light teaching loads, small classes, regular sabbaticals, labor security, a top-level salary, database access, funds for archival and conference travel, support to invite speakers and host conferences, and many other resources. In short, it would appear that Guillory has the institutional positioning necessary to take on initiatives that he defines, to self-authorize.

An important question, then: What can’t tenured faculty in universities like that know? What aspects of literary critique, of professing literature, are invisible to those in such positions? And why are other voices unheard and therefore unimportant?

Let’s consider two examples from my campus:

1) Scott Kushner of the University of Rhode Island and I both applied for National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellowships last year and were rejected. What happened to our projects? Rejection means my work—comparing the depiction of empire in the novels of Sandra Cisneros and Gabriel García Márquez—cannot go forward. Kushner, meanwhile, is writing a book this year on sabbatical as ad honorem visiting researcher in my department (anyone who would like to do something similar with us at UPR, reach out!). Kushner’s lectures and collaborations have brought many delights to our community, despite his rejection by NEH. I would think that Guillory et al. know nothing of the ironic humiliation of such a circumstance: you need a fellowship to do a project but are rejected, yet many grant recipients can do their work irrespective of an award. NEH even has a special invitation for faculty with “sabbaticals and grants from their own institutions” to apply. When external funding is unrelated to the completion of a project, the award is, in effect, a trophy. These trophies have a serious cost, which is that projects like mine cannot exist. In this way, support going to scholars at prestigious universities reduces the humanities research done in places like Puerto Rico. NEH grants going to scholars who are not in financial need of them is yet another mechanism of silence cloaked as “opportunity.” Does this shape whose literature, critique, and cultural activities are recorded? Does it fit Guillory’s myth of self-authorization?

2) A group of UPR–M humanities graduate students have been blocked from developing a program on digital critique for two main reasons: a lack of institutional funds binds projects like theirs to external support, and the English-only demands of US humanities funding agencies—including NEH and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS)—do not recognize our campus language, Spanish, thus requiring all forms, letters, narratives, budgets, and the like to be translated into English (they also only conduct peer review in English). (The Mellon Foundation and the Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades, by contrast, accept applications and conduct peer reviews in Spanish, and emerging media, like the New Books Network, treat Spanish and English equally.) To be sure, this extra time and effort to meet monolingual demands negatively impacts scholars in Puerto Rico, as it does New York, London, and many other places, and this is a fundamental dimension of the crisis in literary critique that the Guillory debaters gloss over: even if there were no funding issue, some scholars still would be barred from the debate by language and institutional hierarchies.

This context is important because literary critique by the majority of academics—that is, anyone off the tenure track—often requires financial support, and ACLS and NEH are among the only US agencies supporting the humanities in which non-tenure-stream scholars are eligible to apply.

While I sympathize with efforts to show the consequences of the humanities’ decline, it may be more important to show the absence of uniformity in how this crisis is experienced by differently situated scholars and students. I doubt that can be done by scholars who are all from the same institutional demographic. If voices from other types of institutions were to appear suddenly, and then regularly, in the types of publications involved in this interchange, I doubt the importance of the conversation would be reduced. But I am confident the nature of the debate would change.

The “crisis” of literary studies and the dialogue surrounding it are, at bottom, questions of memory: What do we remember, and what do we forget? Whose stories can endure, and what experiences disappear? Which voices matter?

Are silenced demographics capable of valid thought? How do academic and publishing inequalities shape collective understandings of knowledge, culture, literature, crisis, critique, and humanity? How does this silence act? What does it do? Are silenced ideas less real because they are unheard? What can this crisis and its dialogues tell us about people who have no history or ideas that are recorded? How do publishing and academic “best practices” participate in the creation and maintenance of this silence?

For many academics, taking on such questions involves retaking spaces that are designed to exclude them. And this challenge has been met: some of the best scholarship about the crisis in the humanities, literature, and criticism has come from authors who are living the crisis and are—at least in a professional sense—defined by it. The unsettling, visceral reports from Sydney Freeman Jr. and David DiRamio, Lynn Arner, Héctor Huyke, Sumana Roy, Sheila Liming, the late Terry Caesar, and the venerable Rebecca Schuman derive from lived experiences. It may seem that their views balance the self-assured, stately, and dignified tones of John Guillory. But the balance is not a real one in impact or consequence: scholars outside privileged circles may be in print, sometimes on blogs, but they are at best footnotes in the public conversation and have little weight in institutional action. If knowledge is rumor until experienced by the body, then a definitive change of voices defining, critiquing, and analyzing the crisis in the humanities could remedy part of this distortion.

This fact is shielded by the supposed universality of academic experience, especially evident in how, in his Chronicle address, Guillory names critique a “self-authorized” activity. But trying to enter any conversation requires authorization (sometimes from editors, or from admissions and search committees) that is elusive, and excluding those outside the prestige cohort is widely understood as a “best practice” in the academy. Self-authorization, Guillory largely fails to note, is not merely dependent upon oneself: the unethical dimension is that who you “are” in an institutional sense has been shown to inform whether your words are “authorized” or not—and thus read or not, appreciated or not, interpreted or not, critiqued or not, discussed or not.

“What gets lost when the margins can’t even participate in a debate over marginalization?” asked Scott Kushner at a recent event in Mayagüez. Héctor Huyke observes of scholars at institutions in crisis: “No tienen voz. Por eso sus ideas no cuentan.” (“They have no voice. For that, their ideas do not matter.”)

The Guillory conversation is a symptom of a larger problem—when people in crisis cannot enunciate their own circumstances because others have already defined it for them.


Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera is a professor of humanities at the Universidad de Puerto Rico–Mayagüez. His fourth book, Decolonizing American Spanish: Eurocentrism and Foreignness in the Imperial Ecosystem, was recently published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

LARB Contributor

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera is a professor of humanities at the Universidad de Puerto Rico–Mayagüez. In 2022, he was an Obama Fellow at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. His fourth book, Decolonizing American Spanish: Eurocentrism and Foreignness in the Imperial Ecosystem, was recently published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.


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