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“The Inconvenient Critics”: Institutional History and Political Economy

In Mary McCarthy’s 1952 academic novel The Groves of Academe, the protagonist Henry Mulcahy is let go from Jocelyn College, a self-described sanctuary of academic freedom in a world haunted by the specter of Joseph McCarthy. The facts of the matter are undisputed: Mulcahy writes an article for Marxist Quarterly about dialectical materialism in James Joyce, donates money to the Henry Wallace campaign, attends a meeting given in support of dissenting political opinions, and then is informed by his employer that his contract with the college will not be renewed. Seen from this perspective, the relevance of The Groves of Academe to our current moment could not be more obvious. The novel’s setting amid a major threat to academic freedom resonates in the inchoate age of Trumpism—a period defined as much by its “alternative facts,” xenophobia, and besieged institutions as it is by questions about the function of free speech on college campuses.

But as anyone who has read the novel understands, Henry Mulcahy is not exactly a victim of political persecution, and the struggle to keep his job is not undertaken in defense of academic freedom. In fact, the reason why Jocelyn College does not renew Mulcahy’s yearly contract has as much to do with his ties to the Communist Party as the reason he was awarded the contract the first place—that is to say, nothing whatsoever. Jocelyn did not hire or fire him because of his politics. Indeed, the true reason why “there was nothing permanent for Hen[ry]” was because the “budget for Literature-Languages doesn’t allow for another salary at the professorial level” (176). Mulcahy thus utilizes key events within the novel’s plot to construct a narrative of perceived discrimination and, in the process, successfully blackmails President Hoar into keeping his job. When confronted about his deception, Mulcahy replies, “I’m not concerned with truth . . . I’m concerned with justice. Justice for myself as a superior individual and for my family.” At the core of what Mulcahy means by justice is “the right to pursue his profession, the right to teach without interference or meddling, the right to bring up his family in reasonable circumstances” (301). Everything else, including the characters’ “motives,” is merely “subjective.”

Put in those terms, the relevance of McCarthy’s novel to the profession is even more obvious than is its interest in academic freedom since most of the people currently working in literature and language departments—non-tenure track faculty—have, like Mulcahy, comparatively little freedom to teach without interference or meddling and have almost completely lost the ability to bring up their families in reasonable circumstances. But unlike Mulcahy, what contingent faculty do not have is a framework in which demands for higher wages and secure employment bear any meaningful relation to something we once understood as employee “rights,” which is a term that has more or less disappeared from the discourse that constitutes both the profession of English and its recent history. Indeed, today it’s more common to think of the intellectual and economic securities of tenure as a kind of privilege to be envied (or derided) than it is to think of them as entitlements that apply to all members of the academic workforce regardless of their political beliefs, the content of their scholarship, or their shitty character flaws. Of which there are many.

It is in this context, I think, that we can best interpret some of the recent developments in the discipline—the emergence of digital humanities, post-critical reading, and the re-emergence of composition—as major intellectual forces that will shape English studies in the coming decades. Perhaps one of the most promising examples of these new approaches is Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s own interest in uncovering the teaching archive.[1] The idea here—and it is undoubtedly a valuable one—is that you can get a better sense of what it means to be an English professor by examining lecture notes, syllabi, and grading principles since these materials have come to define the bulk of our collective professional activity, beyond whatever it is we profess in our scholarship. Insofar as understanding the significance of this archive helps us “bridge the divide between [our] interested everyday selves and [our] debunking, professional selves,” we can see our work as something more than cultural capital and come to know the “worldly effects” of our teaching as a way “classrooms connect to the world” (132).

If, however, you’re among the overwhelming majority of the professoriate that teaches six to eight courses a year, the desire to think of literary study as something that can be disconnected from the classroom might be at least as intense as the desire to explore it through the classroom. And perhaps this explains why a more familiar version of disciplinary history—one concerned with intellectual genealogies—maintains such a strong pull on our imagination. Indeed, causal accounts of how scholarly disagreement becomes a legitimated field of knowledge is perhaps best seen today in the discourse surrounding the digital humanities. For example, Ted Underwood has recently written that because “most people in our discipline do believe that the humanities and quantitative social sciences are organized around competing modes of knowledge…discussions of distant reading are so often framed as attempts to find a middle path or compromise—the implicit assumption being, that we confront some kind of zerosum tradeoff between opposing principles” (25).[2] But because Underwood doesn’t “believe any of that” and sees distant reading “methods not as competing approaches to [understanding] human life, but as interlocking modes of interpretation that excel at different time scales,” he thinks that both forms of reading can coexist within the same institutional contexts, and indeed his own scholarship is a worthy testament to how inquiry into literary history can be carried out at multiple scales [PDF] (25).

If we take Ted Underwood at his word when he says that “quantitative methods don’t really conflict with close reading,” we must understand the meaning of “conflict” within an academic context that is almost totally divorced from the material conditions that define universities in the age of austerity. When people like Franco Moretti feed a literary corpus into a machine, their personal motives are not to make the practice of close reading institutionally obsolete. As Matthew Kirschenbaum puts it [PDF], “Digital humanists don’t want to extinguish reading and theory and interpretation and cultural criticism. Digital humanists want to do their work,” presumably without interference or meddling, and to bring up their families in reasonable circumstances, as is their right as professors (56).[3] And when Frederic Jameson and Marjorie Levinson produce scholarship through close reading, that’s their right, too.

But between equal rights force decides, and today the driving force behind higher education isn’t the kind of growth that once allowed universities to manage curricular conflicts by simply carving out new academic fiefdoms, ensuring that serious intellectual disagreement would not devolve into petty academic politics. Just the opposite. Every academic department on campus today—every unit within every academic department—is locked in a fierce competition for dwindling resources, and the survivors will inherit the Earth, such as it is. Of course it would be prudent if close readers and distant readers, compositionists and rhetoricians, creative writers and literary theorists of all stripes understood our work in terms of the political economy that wants to make Henry Mulcahys of us all, though nothing in our shared literary or disciplinary history suggests that that we will [PDF].

When Mulcahy says he is concerned with “justice” rather than “truth” or “motives,” he isn’t interested in President Moar’s reasons for letting him go. Mulcahy already knows why employers need a flexible workforce, just as he knows why the reserve army of labor toils for pitiful wages; as a common reader of his own material circumstances, what matters most to Mulcahy is keeping his job. By way of contrast, as professional readers of literature and disciplinary history, I believe our sustained interest in understanding novels like The Groves of Academe is because they not only show us the relationship between the material circumstances of our profession and what it would mean to pursue it without inference, but they also reveal how the accumulation of such knowledge does absolutely nothing to change the very conditions it describes.

Which is why, even if a post-critical reader [PDF] like Latour is right to suggest we divorce ideology critique from literary interpretation, he would certainly be wrong to do the same in relation to our own labor. After all, professional activity means one thing when your tenure file reveals how the theoretical commitments of your scholarship are at odds with the theoretical commitments of your teaching, or even your personal life; professional activity means something quite different when, since there are no more tenure files, the theoretical commitment that matters most to your teaching is how little you’re willing to get paid to do it.


[1] Buurma, Rachel Sagner, and Laura Heffernan. "The Common Reader and the Archival Classroom: Disciplinary History for the Twenty-First Century." New Literary History 43.1 (2012): 113-135.

[2] Underwood, Ted. "Why Literary Time Is Measured in Minutes." Working paper. September 17, 2016.

[3] Kirschenbaum, Matthew. "What Is “Digital Humanities,” and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things about It?" differences 25.1 (2014): 46-63.