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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2011

Retooling the Humanities

The Culture of Research in Canadian Universities

Daniel Coleman & Smaro Kamboureli, eds. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2011; 312 pp; ISBN: 978-0-88864-541-8, paper $49.95 CAD.

Reviewed by Margery Fee

In the past 30 years, the state has tried to reinvent the university as an economic driver and R&D hub. Earlier visions, albeit Eurocentric and elitist, were aimed at increasing cultural capital for student and nation alike. Now a degree is seen as a guarantee of increased lifetime income. In this framework taxpayers are supposed to see a return on their investment, research to produce “deliverables” and scholars to tie their work to social payoffs that can be audited for impact.

The shift in the larger universities to “research capitalism” has been driven by funding losses. Levels of government funding fell to 58 per cent in 2009, from 84 per cent in 1979 (CAUT Almanac, 2011­–2012). The result is the need to “sell” the university to corporate donors and partners and to market increased tuition (and debt) to parents and students. This utilitarian framework counters one that sees the primary benefit of a broad liberal education as the formation of (self-) critical citizens.

The 10 essays (with an introduction and coda by the editors) published in this book examine changes that have impinged on the humanities in the past 30 years, with funding through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council taken as a barometer. The success of the authors, who range from Ca­nada Research Chair holders to graduate students, at getting SSHRC or Canada Council funding has provided them with insider knowledge, not to mention analytic skills.

Marjorie Stone, a former director of the Atlantic Metropolis Centre, analyses the history of the long-running Metropolis Project on migration and diversity. She explains why it has involved so few humanists, becoming a “culture of no culture.” The dynamic role that artistic and literary representations play in transforming the social landscape was left under-represented, she argues, not only because of structural and systemic issues within the project’s complex collaborations, but also because critical humanities scholars tend to represent government programs as monoliths.

She notes that those who characterize power as a monolithic force “from above” fail to take into account Foucault’s notion that governmentality “influences differently positioned subjects acting from localized positions, often with somewhat conflicting agendas.” These differences and conflicts allow for interventions that do not lead to instant contamination. Stone calls for a more sophisticated and nuanced analysis that enjoins both SSHRC and humanities scholars to be more open to multidisciplinary alliances.

She also says the pressure on SSHRC staff to maintain funding in competition with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research may explain the “neo-utilitarianism” in some of their policy proposals — proposals that, in fact, may have overshot the mark. She argues that policy makers might welcome hearing from humanities scholars about innovative ways to reframe complex policy issues.

Paul Danyluk’s paper on Roy Kiyooka, who interned in his youth as a Japanese “enemy alien,” examines the conflicts Kiyooka felt as a professor of fine arts at the University of British Columbia between 1973 and 1991. Kiyooka’s “performance of the non-quantifiable self” did not preclude his conviction that “‘we’ as educators have been complicit in the very inequalities we are besodden with.”

Jessica Schagerl’s essay titled “Taking a Place at the Table” considers the less privileged in the academy — junior and unten-ured faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. Acronym-filled discussions about the directions of humanities research exclude these academic workers — not to mention the public — although they will form the future of the research community, in some cases even despite untenured employment.

She analyses the University of Toronto’s (subsequently retracted) unilateral decision during collective bargaining negotiations in 2006 to no longer support the applications of sessional lecturers seeking external research grants. For her, cross-generational mentoring and consultation of this oft-excluded group is crucial for both cultural institutions like SSHRC and humanities scholarship.

Kit Dobson examines the proposition that “there are more ends to research than the perpetuation of capitalism.” He notes W.H. Auden’s line “poetry makes nothing happen” might be seen as a condemnation. However, this “nothing” resists a purely instrumental view: some poems may be commodities, but they are more than that, too.

Susan Brown argues for engagement with the “digital humanities;” Melissa Stephens for the integration of personal testimony into academic writing; Diana Brydon considers a “new humanism;” and Ashok Mathur and Rita Wong write on how the four degree-granting art institutes in Canada can attain equity while reaching out to racialized communities.

Donna Palmateer Pennee, dean of arts and humanities at the University of Western Ontario, who also served as vice-president of equity issues for the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences from 2004 to 2008, takes a broad perspective: “I am concerned with the public defunding of the university as a sign of decreased state support for any component of Canada’s ‘social safety net.’” Government cutting of university funding is a move from the “cultural nationalism and judicious taxation” that produced our once relatively affordable university system to the “lowest common denominator of global capital.”

But Canada is not quite at the bottom yet — four countries with lower rates of government funding are Australia, the United States, Japan and Korea. Pennee, like Schagerl, argues for the teaching of the history of education so students can react intelligently — personally and politically — to continuing challenges.

Len Findlay supports this call for self-critique, noting the “apologetic or obscurantist” ways that humanists often represent themselves; the humanities remain “surprisingly opaque” even to humanists. He calls for a “translation” of the humanities that will require an engagement with contemporary commodity culture, the reclaiming of citizenship as a site for humanities scholarship and the rebuilding of the nation as a space where the “anti-Eurocentric Indigene, the Anglo-French colonizers and the participants in the immigrant-diaspora” are seen as a trivium that can move us on from moribund frameworks.

What is all this really about, if it is not the ungrateful, hand-biting, whining, or lack of clear answers so often ascribed to humanities scholars? One focus is the difficulty of retaining a space in any institution for critical reflection, whether that institution is a nation, a government, a big corporation, or a university. The humanities, suitably “retooled,” can frame that space. Ironically, corporations have formalized such “resistant” spaces — consider “Skunk Works” aimed at radical innovation carried out by a loosely structured group of people unhamper­ed by bureaucracy and operating with a high degree of autonomy (Wikipedia).

Resistant and activist humanities scholars claim the moral high ground, but once there, they need to begin the harder work of change, “work that has none of the grandeur of totalizing theories, none of the romance of ‘revolutionary’ action, none of the comfort of institu­tional embrace” (Chris Creighton-Kelly quoted in Mathur and Wong). This hard work, the authors argue, also requires cunning, strategy, self-criticism and diplomacy, but is crucial for the future of the university.

Margery Fee is professor of English at the University of British Columbia and editor of Canadian Literature.