Cinthya Ammerman

Last week I attended a two-day symposium that I helped organize for Native American Studies graduate students. Our keynote speaker, Dr. Dian Million, had advice for us: “you have to get strong and fight” she said, “this fight is about how to not let corporate university steal your heart.”

Her advice was well timed. In our Mellon Public Scholars seminar we have been discussing how higher education reflects, reproduces—and sometimes subverts— social hierarchies such as race, gender, class, and sexuality. The essays in Presumed Incompetent reveal that the demographics and culture of academia is distinctly “white, hetero-sexual, and middle- and upper-middle-class. Those who differ from this norm find themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, ‘presumed incompetent’ by students, colleagues, and administrators.” But how or more importantly, why, has academia come to reflect and reproduce these hierarchies?

Dian Million told us, “it’s called ‘disciplines’ for a reason…universities are training students to replicate dominant ideologies.” Authors of Presumed Incompetent note that when an academic woman of color does not behave according to expectations, they are often punished with subtle or blatant micro-aggressions. These issues are not confined to one university or department; they are symptomatic of a structural problem. Higher education is modeled after the worldview of a specific demographic. Reinforced by the ‘objectivism’ of scientific rhetoric, we are led to believe that their worldview is the epitome of truth and knowledge.

In The Reorder of Things, Roderick Ferguson traces the birth of the interdisciplines (African American Studies, Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, Native American Studies) to the “ethnic and women’s movements” of the 60s. These movements were absorbed into U.S. higher education, and the academy became “a capitol of archival power, training state and economy in its methods of representation and regulation.” The academy became a resource for the institutionalization of difference, effectively turning knowledge and power into what Foucault terms biopower. In other words, the interdisciplines became a way to manage dissent not through overt repression, but through people’s self-regulation.

How do academics self-regulate in this era of the corporate university? Faculty and staff feel pressured to act as service providers who need to please rather than educate students. Students play the role costumers who are there to buy ‘the commodity of credentials’ rather than to learn. The corporate university fosters an ultra competitive environment as graduate students vie for grants to cover increasing university costs and compete for decreasing tenure track positions. Competition and the tenurecentric dream, to borrow Karen Cardozo’s term, are often internalized and naturalized.

Feminist economists J.K. Gibson-Graham showed how capitalocentrism prevents us from seeing the diversity of economic arrangements outside of capitalism. Drawing from J.K. Gibson-Graham, Karen Cardozo’s term, tenurecentrism, shows how our obsession with tenure track prevents us from acknowledging the diverse opportunities for careers of the untenured faculty majority. Alt-ac and post-ac services are making some of these opportunities accessible, but Cardozo argues that the terms ‘alt-ac’ and ‘post-ac’ imply that they are fallbacks. Cardozo is suggesting that graduate students and faculty need to maintain an alt-ac mentality from the beginning.

Scholars of Native American Studies will tell you that indigenous peoples had a diversity of economies of their own, and that these economies were centered not on capital, but on relationships…to the land, to humans and other-than-humans. Our research and careers in Native American Studies are founded on honoring these relationships. Authors of Presumed Incompetent call for us to “recognize and honor the connections among body, mind, culture, and spirit—connections that are denied by the rationalist and masculine-dominated culture of the academy—to survive and thrive in a hostile academic environment.” Acting on our worldviews and honoring our relationships, I feel, is the biggest act of subversion that can come from the interdisciplines.

The answer to Dr. Dian Million’s question of “how to not let corporate university steal your heart” isn’t simple. It has to do with us becoming aware of how we perpetuate hierarchies in our work and in our pursuit of the tenurecentric dream. It has to do with us acknowledging the diversity opportunities for us to put our work into action. The answer has to do with us honoring our connectedness and relationships outside of the academy through opportunities such as public scholarship.