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The Point: Narratives That Don’t Suck


Greetings, Colleagues!

I’m thinking about narrative a whole lot this week.

I guess I always do, but this week in particular.

This current round of musing was inspired by a student who is taking the hip hop studies course I am co-teaching with the great Boston rapper and gifted teacher Akrobatik.  In connection with our class, Akrobatik arranged for us to have a class visit and “live art” demonstration from the Roxbury-born artist ProBlak whose series of Breathe Life murals are such important contributions to Boston’s visual arts landscape.  The major goal of these art works, as Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs has explained, is to push back against the negative narratives that work so powerfully to define urban life: “Take a moment and stop and do something positive, breathe life into the situation.” 

So ProBlak’s life and work already had me thinking about narrative. But then I was sitting with some students outside University Hall, watching the artist do his work, and I said how nice it felt to be back on campus face-to-face. One student nodded, but then said something like, “We’re not really face-to-face though, are we?  It’s more like eye-to-eye.” I liked the implication of students and teachers seeing eye-to-eye, of course, but I know this is not what this student meant. This is a relatively minor point I am trying to make, but one with broader implications: accepting the nomenclature about F2F instruction means we all are participating in an obfuscation of what we are really doing.  How many meetings have you gone to “on campus” while sitting alone on Zoom in your office?

I am belaboring this because we are in a moment when university faculty and librarians have a particular responsibility to face up to and name, precisely and in depth—what we are seeing on our campus and the larger environment we operate in.  I got a lot of help thinking about all this by reading a usefully challenging roundtable conversation  Academia After the Pandemic.  Here are a few of the most pressing things the participants invited us to consider:

Accelerated Trends: In this conversation sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom pushes us to consider how university leadership has used the COVID crisis to do “more of what they had already been doing”: “Schools that had wanted to respond to inequality doubled down on that. Schools that had been trending toward profit-seeking, especially under the guise of a public institution—like Purdue and Arizona State—doubled down.”  While our own system has tossed its hat into this arena in the form of a nonprofit, it will be crucial for all of us to keep our eyes on whether this new venture accelerates worrisome trends with respect to shared governance, the casualization of the teaching force, curricula that bend to the demands of the donor class, and so on.  For now it is worth noting that Board of Trustee chair Robert Manning, who just made the largest single gift in UMass history, will also serve as chair of UMass Global.  UMass Global will be “affiliated with the public university but governed as a private institution under an independent board of regents.”

The Consumer Model: A number of the participants in this roundtable remind us that consumers are made, not born.  The logic of inevitability that often accompanies top-down university ventures is almost always organized around the notion some new initiative is what students want.  But student desire “is often created by the university itself, by the messages it sends its students and by the way it frames the college experience.”  This forceful creation of identity is what the French philosopher Louis Althusser called “interpellation” and it sure is chilling to see it up close in the rush to online—even as Professor Cottom reminds that “there is very limited consumer appetite for online education.”

Building Solidarity: Perhaps the most important reminder of all in the roundtable is the call to the more secure among us to invest in building solidarity at all levels—with each other, with our students, graduate workers, staff, and the larger community.  Federal and state governments have abandoned public higher education, that is clear.  The generally accepted narrative, which plenty of political leaders will acknowledge (at least off the record) is that the public doesn’t really care about public higher education.

But this is at least in part because we have ceded control of the narrative for decades now. We live in an era when it is impossible “to become a superstar university president right now unless you break the faculty. You cannot satisfy the board, you cannot satisfy donors and the political class unless you get around what tenure does for worker power in the university system.”  We have to work harder to counter all the ways that the bloated ranks of university administrators have actively participated in developing and rationalizing the neoliberal austerity measures that have warped our workplaces and weakened our collective power for too long.

In this roundtable, Christopher Newfield urges us to “produce counter-narratives that don’t suck.”  He has two suggestions in particular that resonate. First, we can reorganize the conversation around tenure so that it stops focusing on individual freedom and more on how it functions as a model of labor justice: we must push “for tenure for all—in other words, just-cause termination for everybody, no at-will firing.” 

And second, we must work hard to circulate a true narrative about higher education funding: “the current business model,” as Newfield puts it, “is a paradigm of structural racism.”  Newfield explains that as “the white share of the student body has fallen, tax-based public funding has fallen pretty much in lockstep.”  Calling sustained attention to this reality “could be used to bring in a broader base of people who say they are opposed to structural racism.”

This is your union! Let us know at how you think we might effectively construct and circulate narratives about the proper functioning of public higher education.


Jeff Melnick

American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

For information on the FSU, links to our contract and bargaining updates, and a calendar of events, see the FSU webpage