- “Never Waste a Good Crisis”: Critical University Studies during and after a Pandemic
Higher education, you may have heard, is in crisis.
Since the early stages of the pandemic, academics have written incisively about how the emergency response is functioning as a pretext to speed up trends that were already remaking US higher education in the image of a (highly stratified) marketplace.1 We are watching the pivot to virtual teaching increase the “datafication” of higher education while increasing administrative oversight, restricting faculty autonomy, increasing teaching loads, and furthering the casualization of the academic labor force.2
As long as I (and my millennial cohorts) have been alive, the American University has been on the precipice of some existential catastrophe. Breathless media coverage of the imminent demise of higher education as we know it—whether due to the Culture Wars, globalization, MOOCS, or the Great Recession—has been a constant companion through our educational trajectories.3 We have also seen other, less-heralded changes in regimes of production [End Page 181] shape the casualization of academic labor.4 The effects of compounding crises have made most of us overworked and underpaid graduate students, adjuncts, and contingent faculty.
But these moves have not gone uncontested. Our time in academe has also been marked by successive waves of student and student-worker organizing—antiwar organizing in the early 2000s; successive waves of Black student-led activism to turn diversity rhetoric into material gains for Black Studies, Black students, and Black faculty; Palestinian and Muslim student-led BDS organizing; the 2010 wave of student occupations protesting austerity measures; a long series of graduate worker unionization campaigns; student-led campaigns to divest from private prisons and fossil fuels; the COLA wildcat strikes still playing out across the UC system. In sum, the millennial university has been a site of deep contestation. In negotiating these moments and movements, we have repeatedly seen that the university, like other public institutions embedded in a racial capitalist settler state, is not the hapless victim of austerity but actively co-produces the networks, ideologies, and decision-makers that create the conditions of austerity. We cannot help but see that the current apocalypse is not the result of a freestanding pandemic but part of larger power structures that have ensured the effects of this “natural disaster” are artificially distributed.
The field of critical university studies (CUS) crystallized in response to the last apocalypse of 2008 and has been grappling with the nature of the university, academic labor, student organizing, and the relation of university, state, and capital. This review essay examines four recent publications in CUS that question academic and popular common senses about what, how, and why we study in the academy. Bridging a variety of disciplinary orientations, methodologies, and audiences, all four share a desire to return the university from the imagined ivory tower to, in Isaac Kamola’s terms, “a place-in-the-world” (16). At a time when academics are called on to defend the old normal, these texts can help us see the terrain on which the old normal was built while gesturing to alternative terms of engagement for the reconstruction of the academy. What follows is a brief introduction to each book, a discussion of how its contributions stretch the field of critical university studies, and then, by way of conclusion, some reflections on how American studies scholars invested in decolonizing and abolitionist world-making might use these texts during and after the pandemic.
Kamola’s Making the World Global: U.S. Universities and...