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Speculative Diction

Between borders – How and why do we define academic territory?


I first came across the term Critical University Studies (CUS) when it was mentioned in a 2012 Chronicle of Higher Ed article by Jeffrey J. Williams. The likely reason I hadn’t heard of this “emerging field” was that it seems the name hadn’t been used very much before, other than by Williams and Heather Steffen as discussed in the article – though Christopher Newfield has been described as one of the scholars who “helped to found” the field. Because the term wasn’t coming up in the framing of daily discussions I’d been seeing and papers I’d been reading about the critique of academe, I didn’t think about CUS again until recently, when a colleague in the UK, Dr. Martin Paul Eve, wrote to me about a project he’s working on that addresses some similar issues (he also wrote this blog post). Since my name was being connected to the aforementioned emerging field, I figured I’d better look more closely at what’s been said about it.

It was odd to realise that my work probably does fall within CUS as described by Williams. Something I’ve always said about what I do is that “I don’t have any discipline”. It used to be more of a joke, but over time I’ve come to realise that compared to friends in sociology, history, and various areas in the sciences, there’s little definition in the area where I work. This doesn’t seem to matter much – I feel the underlying themes are pretty clear, even though my degrees are in 3 different “areas”. But I’ve always known that it does matter when the academic system is one where professional socialisation and advancement are still aligned heavily with one’s specified field or area of research.

Some examples include the system of divisions between and within academic conferences; graduate and undergraduate programs, built on claims about legitimate areas of knowledge and study; the themes of academic journals; and of course, hiring practices for tenure-track faculty, wherein candidates are sought by discipline or field. This is why in practice, to be interdisciplinary means one must really be multidisciplinary, able to hold one’s own in a number of academic contexts, and adapt according to the opportunities available.

What then is the purpose of naming a field? What are the consequences of creating and using terms in this way? Once something has been defined, it takes on a new “realness” and becomes something people think and talk about in new and specific ways; Williams states that naming “recognizes that [the work] has attained significant mass and signals a gathering place for those considering similar work”. I’d add that when the boundaries are set out, we’re encouraged to define ourselves and the scope of our work in relation to them. More academic legitimacy can be gained when a research area can be discussed in terms of a body of work and/or a group of researchers, and when we have means of making a distinction between what belongs and what does not. In asserting that a field is “emerging” Williams positions himself at the forefront of a now-recognizable movement.

I’ve already noticed a number of these boundary issues arising in the debates about the digital humanities, particularly questions about who is a part of the field and who is not; whose work fits, and whose doesn’t; and who is “co-opting” the terms. When we consider that related claims can underpin requests for research funding, new publications, student recruitment, and other forms of (material) systemic recognition and reward, then it makes sense that there would be debate over the boundaries that separate those “in” the group from those outside it. If hiring and funding still happens based on field and discipline, then PhD students and early-career researchers are likely to align themselves accordingly.

For me the important point about CUS is that this work, which has the goal of critiquing the existing university system, is of course being enfolded and constructed by the same processes it criticises: the need to stake out academic territory and build upon it the infrastructure that will mesh with existing systems of assessment and professional advancement. A new field has been designated, but it’s one that should logically begin with a critique of the conditions of its own creation; can such a field transcend or violate those conditions and still “survive” within the institution? What are the consequences of survival?

There are politically positive uses for institutional recognition: I’d ask, will having Critical University Studies as a recognised field protect early career scholars who feel they can’t criticise the academic system “from the inside” without sacrificing their careers? Will it bring people together and help organise and inform so that the issues (which affect all academics) are being discussed more openly and in a more complex way than in sensationalist media accounts? And will it be open enough to include all those with stakes in the future of university education, not just those who hold particular political and theoretical views?

Considering the long-running debate about changing the university to meet multiple and divergent “needs”, I think these discussions are more important than ever, but they’ll need to engage diverse participants. If constructing a “field” is something that facilitates these things – rather than merely delimiting another narrow professional grouping – then I’m all for it.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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