I coined the term “Critical University Studies” in print and defined its scope in a 2012 essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Deconstructing Academe: The birth of critical university studies.” On the sorry state of American higher education, I have published many essays such as, “Debt Education: Bad for the Young, Bad for America” and “Are Students the New Indentured Servants?”, which are part of a forthcoming book entitled Brave New University. I also edit a new series from Johns Hopkins University Press on Critical University Studies.
Deconstructing Academe: The birth of critical university studies
by Jeffrey J. Williams
Over the past two decades in the United States, there has been a new wave of criticism of higher education. Much of it has condemned the rise of ”academic capitalism” and the corporatization of the university; a substantial wing has focused on the deteriorating conditions of academic labor; and some of it has pointed out the problems of students and their escalating debt. A good deal of this new work comes from literary and cultural critics, although it also includes those from education, history, sociology, and labor studies. This wave constitutes what Heather Steffen, a graduate student in literary and cultural studies with whom I have worked at Carnegie Mellon University, and I think is an emerging field of “critical university studies.”
Often criticism of the university seems a scattershot enterprise. A scholar from almost any discipline might have something to say about higher education, but it’s usually an occasional piece that’s a sideline from normal work. There is, of course, a sizable body of scholarship coming from the field of education, but it largely deals with elementary and secondary schooling. Or it follows established scholarly channels; for instance, it might gather and present data about the student body, or it could deal with administration, or fill in a segment of the history, sociology, or financing of education.
In contrast, this new wave in higher education looks beyond the confines of particular specializations and takes a resolutely critical perspective. Part of its task is scholarly, reporting on and analyzing changes besetting higher education, but it goes a step further and takes a stand against some of those changes, notably those contributing to the “unmaking of the public university,” in the words of the literary critic Christopher Newfield.
To give it a name recognizes that it has attained significant mass and signals a gathering place for those considering similar work. “Critical” indicates the new work’s oppositional stance, similar to approaches like critical legal studies, critical race studies, critical development studies, critical food studies, and so on, that focuses on the ways in which current practices serve power or wealth and contribute to injustice or inequality rather than social hope. “Studies” picks up its cross-disciplinary character, focused on a particular issue and drawing on research from any relevant area to approach the problem. “University” outlines its field of reference, which includes the discourse of “the idea of the university” as well as the actual practices and diverse institutions of contemporary higher education.
Critical university studies is not only academic. Part of its resonance comes from its organic connections to graduate-student-unionization and adjunct-labor movements. That is probably one reason that it draws literary and cultural critics, because those in English and foreign-language departments typically do a great deal of introductory teaching (rather than, say, working in a labor under one professor on a particular project financed by grants) and lead union efforts.
In my view, critical university studies emerged in the 1990s, as scholars began realizing what was happening to higher education. (In the 1980s, influential commentators like William G. Bowen were still predicting rosy prospects for the 1990s.) The approach was first suggested in books like Lawrence C. Soley’s Leasing the Ivory Tower: The Corporate Takeover of Academia (South End Press, 1995), Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins (Harvard University Press, 1996), and Sheila Slaughter and Larry L. Leslie’s Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), all of which analyzed the consequences of “technology transfer” to businesses and the rise of corporate managerial policies in place of traditional faculty governance.
In the 2000s, critical university studies coalesced with work like David F. Noble’s Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education (Monthly Review Press, 2001), Jennifer Washburn’s University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education (Basic Books, 2005), Joe Berry’s Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education (Monthly Review Press, 2005), Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York University Press, 2008), my own ”Debt Education: Bad for the Young, Bad for America” and “Student Debt and the Spirit of Indenture” in Dissent magazine (Summer 2006; Fall 2008), Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2008), and Michele A. Massé and Katie J. Hogan’s Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces (State University of New York Press, 2010).