The Syracuse University English Department’s Statement of Concern
In a recent article lamenting the demise of the canon in English departments, Professor Mark Bauerlein calls attention to the homepage of Syracuse University’s department. Where one would expect to find a description of the department, one finds instead a “statement of concern regarding the death of George Floyd and in support of protests against police violence.”
In short, the statement is the Syracuse English Department’s deliberately chosen first impression. Scripted in large font and occupying the entire screen, this document is the web equivalent of a political billboard, confronting all, including prospective students, who might go to the departmental home page to learn about courses offered, requirements for a major, faculty research interests, or other such predictable matter.
Bauerlein’s main concern is with the widespread rejection of cultural heritage by university humanities departments. The Syracuse English Department’s web page provides evidence in support of this charge, but the “statement of concern” is troubling for other reasons as well.
The first thing to notice is that activist scholarship is not merely accepted but is actually mandated by professors in what was, until recently, a relatively popular liberal arts major. The faculty who signed this statement signed a document that requires them to be political activists. “We pledge to bring awareness and justice to our classrooms and to all of our wider communities by foregrounding racialized voices, experiences, and histories in our curricula, our pedagogies [etc.],” the statement declares.
The statement is thus an extension and intensification of a widespread trend begun some decades ago. Longstanding professional standards and admonitions by organizations such as the AAUP that teachers must refrain from irrelevant politicking while engaged in their course work are not merely ignored but have been turned on their heads.
Dialing the clock back thirty years, one would find activist scholarship to be a prominent characteristic of certain newly minted departments, usually those with the word “Studies” attached to them: Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies—the sort of departments that critics came to label “Grievance Studies” or “Victim Studies” on account of the tendentious focus undergirding their activism. More traditional humanities and social science departments were staffed largely (often overwhelmingly) with left-leaning instructors, but only a small number of them would have deemed open political activism in the classroom to be acceptable, much less desirable, much less required.
This has clearly changed in the Syracuse English Department, whose statement may be notable for its extremity, but not for the fact that it exists. It is far from the only academic department to make such a public declaration over the past several months. The progressive political agenda of such scholar-activists is impossible to miss. Conservatives and classical liberals will find it unacceptable; modern liberals will perhaps be confused, and, if honest with themselves, distressed by what their tolerance has enabled.
The question of motive remains. Why would the Syracuse English Department post this statement? The obvious answer may be correct: its members are so involved with the politics of the moment and so sure of their moral and political stance that they feel compelled to parade it. If so, sincerity in no way exonerates the faculty’s relinquishment of long-standing scholarly mores.
The statement might also be seen as an effort to attract clientele to a field of study with a shrunken profile on almost every campus. A more cynical interpretation would find that this marketing is the primary reason for the statement. If this is the case, Syracuse is grandstanding in the vein described by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke in their recent analysis of “the abuse of moral talk.”
Will the marketing gambit work? “Good luck with that,” as the cliché goes. Enrollments in humanities courses have been dropping across the board, and English departments have not been immune. In a recent New York Times op-ed on the plight of the humanities, Jon Baskin and Anastasia Berg note the “rise within those departments of conceptions of humanistic education that privilege scientistic knowledge accumulation, political activism and the cultivation of ‘analytical skills’ thought to be prized in Silicon Valley.”
Baskin and Berg could use the Syracuse web pages as exhibit A for their case. English departmental self-descriptions, faculty publications, and graduate student research areas all carry a heavy flavor of the social sciences. (One notes Baskin and Berg’s use of the word scientistic rather than authentically scientific.) The needle in the haystack would be quicker to appear than expressions of interest in aesthetics amongst these lovers of literature.
The English Department pages rely on a rhetoric that tries to marry progressive politics with assertions of career practicality. There is little mention of classical texts as objects of extraordinary value. Consideration of the canon as a cultural heritage is so passé that allusions to such a notion are unnecessary. There is no surprise in any of this. Even as they hemorrhage students, modern English departments with status aspirations have taken their intellectual efforts in a different direction for quite some time. The guild has its ways.
One supposes that some percentage of the Syracuse English Department is fervently on board with the statement, some go along with it, and most think it couldn’t hurt and might even help to attract students. If this is so, one wants to ask if the university plans to have an ever-changing set of such postings heading the departmental home page. In contrast to literature, once thought to be the business of English departments, the news of the day is ephemeral, just as student politics will prove to be.
The Syracuse English faculty seems to think that its stance on Black Lives Matter is the most important thing it can advertise. Anyone looking to enroll at Syracuse with the least awareness of the modern university would already take faculty support of Black Lives Matter as a given. It has probably not occurred to that same person to contemplate what is being lost as standards of academic disinterestedness are cast aside at Syracuse, as they are with ever more frequency in American universities.
Image: DASonnenfeld, Public Domain