Material Interests

By Scott Klein

Being chair of a department of language or literature means mediating between one’s  colleagues’ senses of their discipline and professional responsibilities and those of their institutions. This balancing act is even more challenging during a time of widely-acknowledged hardship for the humanities—of falling student enrollments and underfunding, increasing use of adjunct teaching and corresponding difficulty retaining lines left by retiring faculty members, and a historical drop in the overall fraction of the faculty in tenured and tenure-track appointments. These are pressing problems on most campuses, problems without easy solutions.

However, the economic underpinnings of educational institutions are often invisible to most faculty members, even at unionized campuses. And this invisibility—sometimes called lack of transparency—can become a source of resentment for many. Most professors of literature were drawn to their subject fields by idealistic motives. No one, after all, decides to become a humanities academic with financial gain as the primary impetus. We entered the field to become scholars, not managers. And we envision our students—ideally–as being largely as we were. We hope they will be drawn to literature because of the deep resonance it offers to their sense of our self and of the world. We sometimes naively assume that others, including administrators, should self-evidently value our fields as we do—providing sufficient funding for our programs without requiring us in turn to muster any specifically economic rationale for their organization and workings.

In recent years, many departments have had to become more cognizant of the economics of their programs, particularly when it comes to numbers in our majors and overall student enrollments. As many chairs at ADE Summer Seminars have reported, many faculty members want to raise the visibility of the English major through advertising and social media, and by educating students and parents on the career possibilities offered by the humanities. This part of the faculty wants the department to stress both the intrinsic worth of a literary education and its instrumental value in the marketplace. Other colleagues, however, view such efforts with distaste as, at best, a necessary evil in the age of the corporatized university.

Yet it is useful for humanities academics, and especially for chairs, to be conscious of the always complex motivations and contexts that shape our academic decisions. These decisions are always both idealistic and instrumental, although as faculty members we tend to focus on the idealistic side of the balance. The balance of instrumental and idealistic motives is clearest, perhaps, in staffing decisions. No one questions that the loss of tenure-track lines, and the increasing use of part-time faculty, are financially motivated changes that derive from and create significant economic ramifications for both institutions and for individuals. It is generally clear that both moral and economic considerations are in play when we advocate on behalf of undercompensated or underemployed colleagues or graduate students.

But thinking can easily become less clear about the interrelation of the intrinsic and the instrumental when issues range beyond staffing. For example, why do so many departments become upset about falling numbers of majors, assuming stable enrollments across the institution? Many faculty members, I suspect, would say they are alarmed that students risk missing the valuable experience that their field can provide. Yet if pressed, these faculty members are also likely to admit that students can gain highly valuable experiences in other departments and fields. Institutions are generally fairly neutral on the relative merits of different majors. If students are well-trained and satisfied by their undergraduate experience, then the institution has done its job well—whether a student majors in literature, or in politics, or in engineering.

When a department of literature prioritizes raising its number of majors or boosting overall class enrollments–particularly when doing so may involve alterations of staffing or curriculum—it is not an abrogation of one’s field and character as a scholar to take rational self-interest into account. It is, rather, healthy for the members of a department to be clear about their motivations.  To what degree are potential changes in a curriculum mandated by idealistic motives—say, the desire to modernize out-of-date requirements or respond to changes in the field? And to what degree are such changes intended to bring in more students to classes, knowing that such numbers have a potential impact on future departmental funding or faculty lines?

For many departments such material facts are the elephant in the room. Yet there is no shame in being practical, or even self-protective. Indeed, we learn much of this shame from literature. One cannot read Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo—let alone Heart of Darkness – without being constantly reminded of the pernicious effects of material interests. (One notes ironically, however, that much of Conrad’s voluminous correspondence consists of his scrounging much-needed money from friends and publishers.)

Perhaps a more balanced model for such discussions is found elsewhere in modernist literature. Consider Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own—where feminine creativity depends on the economic resources that provide privacy—or E. M. Forster’s Howards End. In the latter novel, material interests and the life of the mind are embodied by two families, the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels. And although the Schlegel side—the life of the mind—tends to get the upper hand by the end of the novel, Forster’s protagonist Margaret refuses to reject the notion of material advantage. A fortunate member of the rentier class before the First World War, she understands that her freedom to pursue the arts comes from her investment income—made possible by the likes of the Wilcoxes and others in British industry. For Margaret (and implicitly for Forster), material considerations are only to be shunned when they are the only considerations. Instrumentality is always a part of idealism. In Forster’s metaphor, it is the warp that allows the overlay of a woof to create a whole fabric.

It is useful for all members of the academy to remember Forster’s metaphor. Our reading, our teaching, and our thinking coexist with concern over our own and others’ paychecks and conditions of employment, office space, parking fees, and so on. These material interests are not necessarily to be dismissed out of hand as petty concerns—as an increasing number of historically-minded scholars have discovered. Part of what one learns from being chair is the inescapably material character of academic life, how the academic fabric is woven in our workplaces. It is a good thing to keep the economic underpinnings of the enterprise front and center for colleagues, helping them to balance their idealism against the many competing, often economic, priorities that departmental discussion and decision-making need to take into account.

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