I haven’t written, since, well, about February. My bad. I’ve had a thing or two going on. I’ve reproduced below a piece I wrote in May in response to the University of Canterbury’s proposal to disestablish American Studies. I later transformed this into a submission. The document to which I am referring is available here, following an Official Information Act request.
It can be hard, sometimes, to argue against people that are so embedded within a discourse that they cannot see the possibility of opposition. It can feel, sometimes, like yelling at the sea, forming an argument that, like Atlantis, will surely be engulfed.
I’ll bring one exhibit to the case of the missing argument. It is the University of Canterbury’s ‘Change Proposal’, a document that proposes to ‘change’ the College of Arts by eliminating American Studies, Theatre and Film Studies, and Cultural Studies.
The Change Proposal for American Studies makes for pretty bleak reading. What struck me more than anything else was that it is painfully self-ironizing: at the very time when the authors suggest that we do not need fields of examination that encourage both culture-wide interrogation of arguments and excellence in writing, the University produces a document that is replete with errors of grammar and expression, is deeply hostile to the idea of evidence-based practice, and most of all, never maintains any clear argument.
The tone is established right from the outset, when the authors claim that
The American Studies programme at the University of Canterbury is the last remaining stand-alone programme of its type in New Zealand. (12)
New Zealand has only ever had one stand-alone American Studies programme in its history, and that has been at UC since it was established in the 60s. (The University of Waikato has a transdisciplinary American Studies programme, but its lecturers and courses are all drawn from other departments.)
This is merely the opening salvo, however, in a tour-de-force of disingenuous rhetorical strategies founded upon uncertain ‘realities’. One of the key strategies is to make large, sweeping statements based upon vague, indiscernible feelings and senses. We are told that AMST ‘seems to be less central today to the life of the College’ (12), that across Universities there is a ‘pervasive sense that, while highly relevant in earlier decades, they cannot be sustained in a 21st century set of expectations and fiscal realities’ (12). None of this is backed by evidence, precisely because there is no evidence that would support this: research articles, rather than feelings, show that American Studies is in fact a healthy, active field, with increasing numbers of departments and faculty across the world. Further, it shows that contrary to the assumptions of the change proposal, ‘studies’ programmes have increased their enrolments and faculty numbers since the turn of the century. In a University, relying on intuition isn’t enough; ‘seeming to be’ just doesn’t cut the mustard.
The proposal moves onto benchmarking next, and, relying upon faculty figures, almost makes an argument—but then backs away. The authors find that ‘only two universities had discrete programmes with staff that are employed in American Studies’ (12). They then recede, however, from explicitly linking this to the planned demise of AMST. Instead, we get this:
Interestingly, these two programmes, each with 4 FTE staff, have the smallest number of academics flagged as specifically teaching in American Studies, of the 11 institutions listed.
‘Interestingly’? What is ‘interesting’ about that? It is not a word of argumentation. Yet I find it deeply significant: more than a schoolboy-ish turn of phrase, words like this demonstrate how adrift the edifice that is being constructed is from the facts upon which it is supposedly founded. Because the facts cited don’t present any compelling reason to act in the way the authors are proposing, they hide behind limp lexical constructions that only further reveal how deeply disingenuous this proposal is.
Yet it is, of course, the very lack of linkage between evidence and argument that marks this proposal. Here are a few of the more obvious unwarranted or unsubstantiated claims:
The diminished ranks in the programme and the reduced relevance to the overall Arts curriculum experienced here is similar to that experienced in similar programmes in comparable universities both in New Zealand and beyond. (13)
As a “studies” programme established during a wave of such curricular additions during the Cold War period after the Second World War, American Studies has over the decades contributed in meaningful ways to the scholarship and teaching of the university. But its relevance and centrality are no longer what they were 20 or 30 years ago. (13)
Perhaps as a result in part of the existence of American Studies over the past decades, the College of Arts has a significant collective offering of courses in this area found across a number of departments.
Evidence? If true, how would this be an argument for the disestablishment of American Studies, rather than an expansion of it?
Should American Studies be discontinued, there will still be sufficient numbers of courses to provide viable options for study in this area for future students at the University. (13)
Such as a 100-level American Literature paper? Pull the other one. There would be a large gap in the syllabus, as a number of specialist theory and American culture courses would be lost. By my count, only around four courses offered by AMST have parallels elsewhere in the University—‘viable options’ indeed.
The gaps in argument are pretty wide at times. This one is especially notable:
It can well be imagined that at the time the programme was established, there was a need to foster increased teaching and research in the areas of the study of America. The College of Arts does not currently have that need as a pressing concern. (13)
When the English Department was set up, the pressing concerns were to both pacify the natives and to reproduce Britishness in the colonies. The changing rationale for a discipline provides no clear reason for its disestablishment. The point is not to prove that it no longer serves its historical function, but that it no longer serves any clear use.
And then there’s the downright absurd.
The University’s on-going strategic imperatives compel the College to plan for a future of international distinction, even in the context of diminished resource. (4)
So we’re aiming for the stars, while not having enough fuel to get off the ground. The lack of reflexivity demonstrated here is staggering: surely this sentence cannot have been written in good faith; it can’t be written to be taken seriously.
Yet that phrase, ‘good faith’, makes me realize that I’m approaching this thing in the wrong way entirely. I’m presuming good faith when there is none: the outcomes of the change proposal were, of course, determined prior to its very drafting, as has been shown in the emails discovered under the Official Information Act, showing Ian Town and Ed Adelson attempting to shop Theatre and Film Studies to CPIT. Scuttlebutt around the Arts College suggests that as far back as early 2011, Ed Adelson was already telling certain programmes that they were ‘safe’ from the next round of cuts: a greater degree of predetermination could scarcely be imagined.
I need to view this proposal not as the rationale for decision-making, but a deeply ideological instrument whose sole purpose is to eliminate a few departments. Conveniently, for this approach, the departments on the receiving end are those that end with the word ‘studies’ at the end of their titles, are strongly influenced by Marx, and are interested in producing oppositional culture. I realize, now—and shouldn’t I have known this from the start?—that the whole process is a sham: the Vice Chancellor, after all, stood up in the staff forum and told his proles to ‘dob in’ underperforming academics and programmes. In the competition between supreme incompetence and supreme malevolence, of which this change proposal is surely one, I prefer to imagine that nobody could be this blithely, breathtakingly idiotic.
This is what I mean when I say that I’m arguing against the sea. The agents of neoliberalism, so it seems, don’t even have to bother with argument anymore, so total is the defeat of the academic left. Management, now, barely even have to try to justify themselves.
 See, for example, Simon Bronner, ‘The ASA Survey of Departments and Programs, 2007: Findings and Projections’, ASA Newsletter (2008), pp. 11-19. Available: http://www.theasa.net/images/uploads/Final_Copy_Simon_Bronner_Article_PDF.pdf