Professor Raccoon is dismayed.
The enrollment period at Amerika University is coming to an end, and Raccoon has almost no customers. Only seven students showed up for his first class in Gender, Power and Sexuality. Only three showed up for the second. Raccoon sighs. The techno-capitalist society and greasy-whiskered STEM folks are at his throat yet again.
This morning’s call from the Dean has him worried. The Dean and Raccoon are old friends. They’ve been through the culture wars together and have lunch every month or so at the Faculty Club. The Dean is in a bind, however. Raccoon is not pulling his oar. The Dean hates even thinking this way, but the Department of Critical Studies is withering on the vine.
Raccoon’s “dynamic transdisciplinary space” used to be box office. He reigned for decades — his paws firmly on the bacon — pushing adversaries aside with vindictive ad hominem epithets and aristocratic disdain.
But departments of ethnic, gender, identity, and grievance studies are suddenly no sale. Students, their parents, trustees, and the outer world are voting with their feet. Safe spaces for injustice collectors, affirmative action hires, and the insane are no longer safe. And instead of dialing down the campus lunacy, team players try to stiff the deserters and critics.
Raccoon is yet another tenured professor past his shelf life. It’s been 20 years since his breakthrough book, Anything But White, landed on the front page of the Times Sunday Book Review. Now no one remembers it, and he is persona non grata with the lipstick lesbian who’s running things over in Women’s Studies.
The Dean doesn’t want to be Doctor No. And her reasons are not altruistic but self-protective. Tenured professors hold real institutional power and can make real trouble. They enjoy making trouble. Finding jobs for squads of underemployed raccoons is increasingly what the Dean does. The Dean is in the business of pacifying unionized cultural agents-provocateurs.
What to do with Raccoon, the Dean wonders. Then in a flash it comes to her. Engaged Scholarship and Learning may be the answer.
The Dean thinks of her pal from graduate school, cultural anthropology chair and professor Orin Starn at Duke University. Starn — like Duke itself — always seems to be ahead of the curve. The Dean calls Orin. Get with the future, he tells her.
In Fall 2014, thanks to the Duke’s Humanities Writ Large program, Starn taught a zippy new class on the challenges facing Latina housecleaners. Then the Duke Office of Civic Engagement (DOCE) — Starn is on the advisory board — awarded him its inaugural $15,000 Engaged Faculty Fellowship to fund his Housecleaner Project. To sweeten the deal, the university gave Starn a semester sabbatical “to conduct research and activism related to the experiences of Latina housecleaners.”
According to Starn, “immigration reform remains among the most urgent needs facing us as a country.” Housekeepers live “in a permanent limbo of disenfranchised invisibility,” he says, “sometime targets of resentment and nativist spite. And it’s more than time that we did better as a society by all those who have come here, in the great American tradition.” To follow up, Starn is launching a “social media campaign and other outreach efforts in support of immigrant and labor rights.”
Wow, just wow, the Dean sighs. How noble. How stirring. Engaged Scholarship is so tomorrow, she thinks.
Pretending to be at the forefront of knowledge and posing as “public service,” proliferating Engaged Scholarship and Learning programs in colleges and universities work the vast soft-money apparatus of government and private grants. Using progressive dog whistles to woo human-resources departments, foundation boards, and federal civil rights officers, they shore up existing campus power. University Inc. does corporate-style “activism” by the book.
Whatever the campus, websites and prospectuses emit the same rancid hot air and mock-heroic rhetoric. Curricula promise “collaborative and interdisciplinary solutions to local and global challenges” and “deep and transformative experiences.” They vow to promote civic responsibility, democratic values, and public leadership through personal involvement and growth. They offer to build hubs, not silos.
Above all, the programs assure sustainability. Courses, fellowships, internships, and initiatives pledge sustainable, mutually beneficial associations; sustainable human communities; sustainable relationships between people and nature; and sustainable solutions to increasingly global problems.
At Harvard, the Department of African and African American Studies Social Engagement Initiative pitches a “method of learning that foregrounds empirical, practical elements of real world issues,” revealing “how and why academic findings, theories, and even technological or medical discoveries are challenged and even refuted by the lived experiences and cultural proscriptions of communities different from the larger American mainstream.”
“Navigating disciplinary expectations while addressing community needs,” as the University of North Carolina puts it, Faculty Engaged Scholars make a high-minded end run around the canonical dustbin.
Studies may focus on federal summer meal programs, holistic masculinities development, sex trafficking, obesity in African-American women, advocacy for Congolese youth, or tribal consciousness. The subjects never, ever involve English constitutional law, Confucian philosophy, or Roman baroque design.
Goodbye — and good riddance — to unbiased scholarship free of personal advocacy, ulterior motives, and vested interests. Engaged Scholarship and Learning declares inquiry premised on detachment, objectivity, and taking evidence wherever it goes passé or blinkered. Refuting cultural proscriptions is instead the beau ideal.
The Dean will be in New York and Washington next week on a New Initiatives Project tour. This, she thinks to herself, is a Go and Raccoon is Our Guy. With a nod from the university president, the Dean gleefully calls Raccoon. Amerika University will be funding the Open Society Institute for Engaged Learning and Public Service.
Raccoon has been thinking along the same lines. Great minds think alike, he says to the Dean over the phone. Now a researcher and activist, Raccoon has a new lease on life. Who needs students or a book contract?
With new bacon on the way, Raccoon feels empowered. The system is working. And the good to society, Raccoon thinks before he goes to bed, is incalculable, unlike his pension, which is.