Everyone’s probably already heard the first bit of important news to come out of the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at the University of Western Ontario over the last several weeks: Western has launched a “School for Advanced Study in the Humanities” that will — starting next Fall — give 25 students a year the opportunity to engage in the “critical and cultural thought and practice that have been the hallmarks of the Arts and Humanities within a liberal arts education . . . in order to help [them] realize their critical and cultural potential to make a transformative impact on the world at large.” What you may not have heard is that two professors from their department of English (Bryce Traister and Matthew Rowlinson) and two from the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (Sasha Torres and Nick Dyer-Witheford) participated in a panel presentation two weeks ago entitled “Interrogating Scholarly Responsibility in the Age of Market Fundamentalism,” a video recording of which is available on Youtube.
The most provocative remarks are offered by Professor Nick Dyer-Witheford, Associate Dean, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, beginning at the 53-minute mark.
In her introductory remarks, Alison Hearn (Faculty of Information & Media Studies) sketches out the difficulties that “academic capitalism” poses to the contemporary university as a place for “the activity of thinking.” First speaker Sasha Torres urges a “die-in.” Second speaker Bryce Traister speaks to the importance of participation in administration to reclaiming the university as a place contributing to the democratic culture of public debate. Matthew Rowlinson then offers an historical sketch of the university’s place in Western culture and (citing E.P. Thompson’s famous essay, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism”) urges that we defend the importance of the labour that we do in our classrooms as creating the space and dynamics of thinking that may continue to be, for professors and students alike, the experience of “pre-industrial time.”
Speaking last, Dyer-Witheford argues that faculty should be aiming for a “politically progressive synthesis between critical theory and the work prospects of our students.” He understands, he notes, why many of his colleagues wish to “reject the vocational responsibilities being thrust upon them” by the current public conversations on the issue, but suggests that “work” is far too important a concept to be “entrusted to the market.” Citing Fredric Jameson’s claim that in an era in which capitalism is “structurally unable” to provide jobs for everyone and is busy creating ever-enlarging “surplus populations” the “most subversive slogan is, paradoxically, Jobs for All,” Dyer-Witheford argues that universities must simultaneously prepare students for work while also teaching them “the critique of work, and the critique of a system that cannot supply work and which turns work into the destructive forms evident in the other great crisis of our day, the bio-crisis.”
This Faculty should aim to offer this kind of panel, and host a forum for the discussions it spawns, as it goes forward, in the Winter semester, with the process of re-imagining its curriculum. But as Dyer-Witheford argues, all projects of how to re-imagine how we teach the Humanities in this moment in the history of the academy must, to be properly handled, involve a “revivification of the Canadian Left” that simultaneously sees it tackling the problems of precarious employment in Canadian universities in the form of its inordinate, long-standing dependence upon instruction by contract academic staff, as well as the problem of tuition, which it must address by freshly convincing the public of why postsecondary education matters to us all. For Dyer-Witheford — and I will heartily second him here — it matters not the least because it has the power to create both identities and forms of enjoyment that “lie beyond jobs in a society where ‘work’ is transformed.”