BY JOSEPH M. PIERCE
It has been five years since I completed a PhD in Spanish American Literature, and seven since completing the MA in Latin American Studies at LLILAS. A lot has changed in the past decade. But change is always a matter of perspective. I was recently at LLILAS for a conference honoring longtime director Nicolas Shumway, and the occasion inspired me to think about Latin American studies then and now. One of the many things I learned from Shumway is that the ideas that we have of social life, art, and literature never develop without context. Intellectual history teaches us that with just a bit of perspective, we can better understand the fictions that guide the present.
As I have been thinking about the recent past, I am reminded of two global events. First, on September 11, 2001, I was a freshman at Trinity University. While 9/11 represents many things, perhaps principal among them is a shift in how the United States relates to the globe. It marks a fissure in globalization itself that is linked to the increase in the technical proficiency of information and war. Second was the financial crisis of 2007–2008, which took place when I was completing my MA and starting my PhD, and represents yet another crisis of global scale. In those years we glimpsed the failure of free-market economies that had previously gorged themselves on high-risk, largely speculative debt.
The Academe was not immune to these crises. Tenure-track positions were reduced dramatically in the wake of the “great recession,” as contingent academic labor became the preferred employment technique that allowed administrators to cope with shifting budgets, markets, and endowments. These events led to an adjustment in the way that university administrators understood the value of both disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to cultural phenomena.
Over the past decade we have seen a widespread devaluation of disciplinary research, particularly in the humanities but also in the social sciences. This devaluation relies on an interpretation of the current moment that is based on two assumptions: (1) a globalized world is a technical world, and (2) a technical world requires technical expertise above all else. That is to say, as the world globalizes (and contracts and expands), we must globalize the study of the world. The market demands; higher education must provide.
This perception leads to what I see as a split in the way universities are preparing (students) for the future.
On the one hand, parents, students, and the administrators who court their tuition dollars appraise the precise skills of computer science or engineering, computational linguistics or physics, even political science, as accruing value along with the shift in the market toward tangible, “hard” skills. This is a shift toward the technification of knowledge. On the other hand, we see a rush to incorporate the global as an object of study, a major, or a PhD program, in an attempt to keep pace with the postmodern, cybernetic, globalized era. This is a shift that seeks to ride the totalizing wave of globalization, while not fully understanding what that means, or why it matters. This is a question of speed: rather than take time to reflect on structural changes, social or economic flows, or even to solicit meaningful faculty input, administrators have uncritically sought to keep pace with the immediacy of the now.
At Stony Brook University (SBU), where I work, this is demonstrated in the recent attempt to merge my current unit, the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature, with two other units, Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, and European Languages and Literature, into a broad administrative conglomerate tenuously linked by the fact that we all teach languages (whatever that means). What is more, a new undergraduate major in Global Studies may also be folded into this new umbrella unit, which, after a year of wrangling, still has no official name, identity, or credibility.
This merger is the product of a manufactured crisis. SBU has accrued substantial debt due to a structural deficit caused by stagnant state contributions to the university’s budget coupled with an inability to raise tuition (as part of the State University of New York system, this is regulated by Albany), and a union-negotiated 2 percent cost-of-living raise for tenure-track faculty and staff. Under the guise of fiscal responsibility, “surplus” PhD programs (such as Comparative Literature) and “weak” majors (such as Theater) were suspended.
At first, my own department’s PhD program was slated to be cut, though the administration eventually realized that by its own (nebulous) metrics, ours was one of the strongest in the humanities at SBU. Then, in an unprecedented move, four tenure-track lines were not renewed (after the third-year review) in a callous attempt to cut costs. However, faculty pushback and widespread indignation on campus and off led to a reversal of that decision. Not deterred, however, the university administration notified many full-time lecturers that their contracts would not be renewed. Adjunct positions were eliminated. Finally, mergers—aka “administrative consolidation”—became a way to save money on administrative staff. As the narrative of budgetary crisis expanded (debt numbers shifted from $4 million, to $10, to now $35 million), university administrators positioned themselves as having been forced to make decisions about where to cut costs and where to invest in future growth. The market had forced them to make these tough choices, which pained them greatly, we were told.
However, at no point in the past year have administrators taken responsibility for their own role in creating the structural deficit that they have forced faculty and staff to pay for. At no point have they recognized that their presumption that language or area studies programs are less valuable or less productive than favored disciplines such as English, history, or philosophy is based in willful ignorance, sinister bias, or both. On the surface, this is a plan of economic austerity that seems unavoidable. What lies beneath, however, is the entrenchment of prejudice against minority populations and scholarship, and the departments that serve those populations.
Even the now-common appeal to diversity has become little more than a performance of inclusion of underrepresented minorities, all the while cutting academic units that actually do the critical work of diversity, and foisting extra service labor disproportionately onto women and people of color. A 2015 internal study showed that 69 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty identified as white at SBU, a number that increases to 80 percent among high-ranking administrators. But given this “crisis,” why hire more faculty of color when the administration can periodically invite a person of color as a guest speaker for a fraction of the cost and still tout the university’s commitment to “diversity” on the flashy new home page?
The Problem of Measurement
Key to this financial restructuring is the neoliberal logic of investing in “excellence.” A second neoliberal fiction of this gambit is the need to keep up with “student demand.” Students—that is, clients—must be offered courses that they want. In order to keep up with student demand, then, the university proposes to build on areas of recognized proficiency, areas where minimal investment can yield acceptable outcomes for students (again, clients).
In these decisions, student enrollment interfaces with the allocation of limited resources that are dependent on the quantitative valuing of “faculty productivity.” Thus, companies like Academic Analytics, which, ironically, was founded at Stony Brook University, seek to provide administrators with information by mining select academic databases for publication data, numbers of citations, grants received, and so forth. In these lean times, administrators feel they must base their decisions not on the “soft” rhetoric of intrinsic value, but on “hard” computational data. As should be no surprise, this data was originally designed to measure the scientific disciplines. It does not take into account (literally, cannot count) international publications, non-English-language publications, activist work, collective or community engagement, and the like.
To rely on such measurements only lays bare the fictive nature of the globalized present: academic work done in languages other than English does not have the same quantitative representation in these corporatized academic databases, which, in turn, reinforce the logics of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields through a regime based on proprietary algorithms and the hegemonic assumptions that they encode as intellectually valuable. In other words, administrators rely on hard data and yet remain oblivious to the fact that that data itself depends on the very structures of inequality that faculty members in the “language” departments have been critiquing for years.
A Neocolonial Curriculum
For anyone attuned to interdisciplinary methodologies, this situation obviously (perhaps unabashedly) repeats the very structures of colonial dominance that Latin American studies, postcolonial studies, feminism, and queer studies, to name a few, have fervently sought to dismantle. Likewise, for anyone attuned to the histories of Latin American nations—let us recall Mexico’s Porfirian-era científicos or Brazil’s ordem e progresso—the technification of knowledge is a central tool of maintaining gender and racial hierarchies, class stratification, and epistemological control over marginalized populations. The struggle to maintain the status quo depends on devaluing the alternative. Any alternative. Technocratic solutions demand acquiescence to a positivist regime of unilateral truth. (How soon we forget that numbers tend to lie because they are always selectively viewed.)
So, when administrators begin to cut programs or to consolidate academic units based on a fiction of disciplinary equivalence (this language is like that language), they are redefining fields through economic restructuring. The lack of an intellectual or historical rationale to combine distinct fields is not a hindrance to these moves. Language, it seems, has become a tool for advancing access to global markets. It has become, in effect, a widget that enables the client to more efficiently perform their task in the global economy. In this scenario, linguistic proficiency is divorced from cultural competency. It is applicable, as an instrument, an extension of the market through the voice of the new client/student/worker, whose worldview and whose assumptions about meaning remain unchanged.
But a language is not a widget. And what Latin American studies offers us in this moment is an array of tools that enable us to critique and resist the drive to bifurcate academic production into the narrowly technical or totalized global. A language is not a widget, and area studies is not reducible to the study of a language. While I am reticent to advocate for an entrenchment in area studies, I do feel pressured by this very move toward the global to defend the local, national, or regional.
This is the double bind we are currently in. We must resist the notion that all languages are equivalent, and that all areas of study are now global, yet we must not do so by reviving the nationalist discourses or regional identifications, as these so often lead to the historical myopia that Latin American studies, when done well, can help us avoid. Such is the predicament of Latin American studies, at least at my own university. My hunch is that what is happening here, now, is coming soon to a university near you, or else it is already there.
It would be nice if we could simply extricate ourselves from this feedback loop—delete the app, so to speak—but the fact of the matter is that how the coming years unfold will depend on our ability to negotiate the local and the global, the disciplinary and the interdisciplinary, the specific and the general. The flexibility of Latin American studies is both the problem and the solution in the quest to develop a sustainable approach to what has been a recent history of ambivalence, adjustment, and promise.
Joseph M. Pierce (MA Latin American Studies 2007, PhD Spanish and Portuguese 2013) is assistant professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University. His work focuses on the intersection of gender, sexuality, kinship, and race in Latin American literature and culture. He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.