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Introduction: Cynicism and/as Academic Citizenship

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 2, June 2012
pp. 1-3 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In following the discussions that have been swirling around the mounting challenges facing the humanities in Canada, I have been struck by a rising tone of frustration and fatigue, as if negotiating the changing model of the university is fast becoming as depressing as it is necessary.1 In proposing a Committee for Professional Concerns panel on “Cynicism in the Academy” for the 2012 Congress, I hoped to foster a discussion about the affective and personal costs of navigating the academy in a period when the humanities are widely perceived as being under threat. “Academic Citizenship,” a second panel organized by Clint Burnham, emerged from a different path but addressed similar concerns, exploring how literary scholars in Canada currently understand their relationship to the profession and to the public at large.

At a time when governmental and institutional leaders unapologetically evaluate postsecondary education through neo-liberal rhetoric of efficiency and economic accountability, a certain amount of cynicism in the academy may be understandable. It may also prove critically useful, for active cynicism has the potential to interrogate, or at least destabilize, the shifting power dynamics that are quickly becoming normalized. In their contributions to this forum, for example, Mark McCutcheon draws on Slavoj Žižek to underline cynicism’s value as a “carnivalesque mode of […] ridicule,” while Erin Wunker draws on its classical tradition to suggest a form of cynicism that “barks” in the face of power. And yet, as both McCutcheon and Wunker go on to remind us, cynicism also exerts a tremendous affective and political cost and risks facilitating the conditions responsible for its rise.

If the notion of citizenship has become an increasingly important term in Canadian literary studies over the past decade, it must be at least partly in response to the threat of institutional disengagement that comes with a rise in academic cynicism.2 In this context, citizenship has come to signify less as a reified marker of inclusion in the nation-state than as a rhetorical construct designating a critically engaged participation in the structural and institutional politics of the profession. In his “Defense of Publicity” in this forum, however, Frank Davey reanimates academic citizenship’s implicit connection to the nation. Untangling academic citizenship from activism—insisting the two may be related but ought not to be mistaken as synonymous—Davey suggests that as citizens with very particular skill sets, academics have an obligation to engage the larger national community by offering our expertise outside of the academic context. If we understand academic citizenship through faculty expertise, however, how are we to position graduate students? As Brad Congdon points out in his contribution, graduate student labour has become central to the function of contemporary universities, and yet their position within academic notions of citizenship is far from clear. Congdon notes that for graduate students looking toward a career in their field of study, “the many concerns of citizenship are effectively reduced to one: how to get in.” Lily Cho further questions the efficacy of citizenship as a model for academic engagement, arguing that the implicit equation between the academy and the nation-state obscures much more than it reveals—including the ways in which we are complicit within the structures of power against which we rail. Instead, Cho advocates for a radical “honesty about the incomplete process of becoming that marks academic life,” with the hope that we might find ways to “exploit the submission to power.”

The title I have given this Readers’ Forum is “Cynicism and/as Academic Citizenship.” This is meant, in part, to reflect the deep frustration and encroaching resignation many of us feel as we navigate academia in particularly challenging times. It is also meant, however, to reflect my cautious optimism that, as a collection, the essays here gesture toward an academic practice that is strategically proactive in its engagement with the affective and the institutional contexts of our discipline.

Robert Zacharias  

Robert Zacharias is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto. His research interests include Canadian literature, migration, and Mennonite studies, and he is Associate Editor of the Journal of Mennonite Studies. His publications include Shifting the Ground...

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