Cogut Institute for the Humanities

11. Christopher Newfield on Building a More Democratic University

How do inequities in working conditions and resources across academic departments jeopardize the central project of higher education? And how might the humanities serve as a model for thinking about university reform and ensuring the democracy of our institutions?

In this episode of Meeting Street, Christopher Newfield, director of research at the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF) and 2022 president of the Modern Language Association (MLA), joins host Amanda Anderson for a conversation on the current state of higher education. Taking the field of critical university studies as a starting point, they consider how economic choices have led universities to prioritize departments, pitting STEM fields against the humanities and qualitative social sciences, and how this negatively impacts the general conditions and outcomes of both teaching and learning. The conversation also explores the nature of the humanities and its value to the contemporary world, particularly given present day struggles for equal access and social justice.

Music and production: Jacob Sokolov-Gonzalez. Administrative support: Damien Mahiet and Gregory Kimbrell.

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Amanda Anderson: From the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University, this is Meeting Street. I’m Amanda Anderson, the show’s host. The past few decades have seen a growth in research and scholarship addressing what might be called the cultural economics of the university. This work has been generative, not only in shining a light on the financial and budgetary aspects of universities, but also in clarifying the conditions under which scholars in the humanities and social sciences do their work.

One of the key contributors to this body of research is Christopher Newfield, and I’m thrilled to have him here today. Chris is currently the director of the Independent Social Research Foundation, or ISRF, located in London. The ISRF is a public benefit foundation that supports interdisciplinary research on key social problems.

Prior to joining the ISRF in 2020, Chris taught for many years at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he specialized in American culture, critical university studies, and interdisciplinary approaches to literature, especially those that bring social scientific perspectives into dialogue with literary criticism and literary theory.

He’s written a trilogy of books on the university, the third and most recent being The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them [Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016]. He’s also the co-host of a blog called Remaking the University.

One thing that makes Chris’s work so important and compelling is his ability to combine economic analysis with a keen attention to and advocacy for the forms of knowledge that the humanities bring to our understanding of social and cultural concerns, including the current challenges facing the university.

At present, he’s just beginning his term as the president of the Modern Language Association, the professional organization for scholars of languages and literatures, which has over 23,000 members worldwide. His election to this office is testimony not only to his contributions to the profession, but also to his capacity to generate important conversations on the conditions of academic life. Chris, I’m really looking forward to the chance to discuss your work. Welcome to Meeting Street.

Christopher Newfield: Thanks, Amanda. I’m really glad to be here.

Amanda Anderson: You are a humanities scholar with a Ph.D. in English, whose dissertation and first book was on the American 19th-century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. Since publishing your first book, you’ve become one of the most informed specialists on the economic and cultural condition of the modern university. How did that happen? What was the path that led you to concentrate your research and writing on the university itself? And how, if at all, has your earliest work informed what has become your major research interest?

Christopher Newfield: Well, actually there are a lot of things I was very critical about with Emerson, but he clearly influenced me with his sense that — what he called in one essay, the “American scholar” — that all of us are supposed to take our general learning and use it to comment on and change public life. It’s a humanities mode of commentary, it’s introspective, it’s observational, and then that endows us with the right and the obligation to say things about the world. I think, without my actually realizing it, he was doing that to me.

There are a couple of other things though. One is that I was trained in pre-Civil War U.S., as you mentioned, and it struck me as a profoundly authoritarian theocratic society at its roots that got kind of liberalized in Emerson’s period — you know, the age of transcendentalism, etc. — but which really still had, and still has, that base.

So I was skeptical of the common understanding of the U.S. as inherently democratic. It seemed pretty deeply not democratic to me, and I was kind of interested in doing American studies as a way of looking at non-democracy in the United States and the way that it’s played out in areas like slavery and the difficulty we had in overcoming it, but also in others, including sort of organizational life.

And the other thing that was relevant with Emerson is that I attributed a term to him that I called “submissive individualism” as a formation for sort of middle class folks who are very competitive and able to engage in competition, but are nonetheless really comfortable with hierarchical authority and with submitting to it. That’s maybe quite relevant to academic life and to academics — you know, the way that we operate in our institutions as both incredibly rivalrous and also deferential and not really that great at solidarity-based organization.

And the last thing that really just pushed this over into institutional studies — but this didn’t happen really until the second decade that I was at Santa Barbara full time — was going from private to public universities and realizing — you know, just experiencing really on the front lines — the fact that society was attacking these institutions first through culture wars and then budget wars, and that it had to be defended and understood.

Amanda Anderson: You affiliate yourself with something called critical university studies, which is an interdisciplinary enterprise that brings together economics, policy studies, cultural analysis, and psychology. How should we understand that enterprise, and what role do humanities methods or forms of knowledge bring to it?

Christopher Newfield: Well, just speaking mostly for my own version of it, it focuses on the institutional conditions of knowledge production in the same way that critical legal studies and also critical race theory is looking at the way the law structures consciousness. Critical university studies is doing the same thing for the way that finance and resource dependency and political rivalries within Weberian bureaucracies structure relations of power and domination and deprivation.

I mean, I’m sort of a cultural studies person, and it seemed like critical university studies is a branch of that in that it integrates different disciplines in order to try to get a holistic picture of what is happening, both to people in organizations — you know, in the organizational forces — and then also what is happening to them affectively and psychologically.

And I guess the latter is really the key contribution of the humanities, you know, recognizing the way that affective structures in the circulation of forms of consciousness are also as important as just the money side and the formal bureaucratic side in determining outcomes.

I guess the other thing I would say about this is: it’s a scholar-activist project for me because the idea of developing this knowledge is to put it into the hands of people in these institutions so that they can both understand them better and also change the institutions so that they’re sort of less punitive and less destructive to those folks.

It’s very much a two-way street, so I’ve learned a lot from the activism both within and outside the institution in my research, particularly around strike debt and student debt and so on.

Amanda Anderson: Right. You’ve partly answered a question that I wanted to ask as a follow-up, but insofar as critical university studies is a critical project, how would you describe the values or the ideals that underlie the critical part of critical university studies? And I realize obviously different people bring different perspectives to bear on this project, but I’d be curious to hear how you would describe the — I guess I would say the positive values or ideals that underlie the project.

Christopher Newfield: Well, for me, it’s democratic. It’s egalitarian. It’s decolonial in the sense that it’s not rooted in sort of constitutive racist control structures.

It’s egalitarian among disciplines. There is also a branch of me that really still believes in sort of the [19th-century clergyman and Oxford academic John Henry] Newman understanding of the university as “all the knowledges,” and the thing that’s been lost in our era with that is the [idea of] “all the knowledges” as some kind of equal interactivity and mutual respect. I mean, that’s really been damaged, if not destroyed, first by the way that the Cold War preferred military-oriented applications and the way the post-Cold War has preferred commercial applications in the fields that are able to contribute to those over the ones that focus on non-monetary developments the way that the humanities does.

It’s racially egalitarian. It’s economically inclusive. And I guess really the most important thing, given that it’s a university that we’re talking about, is it’s about the equal intellectual development of everybody that goes through it. By “it,” I mean the system as a whole, so that folks that are going to open-access institutions near their places of work and their homes are getting functionally equivalent forms of learning and transformatively similar access to new forms of knowledge and new capabilities as folks that are going to elite private and public universities.

It’s a positive goal of critical university studies for me, and also of the research that I’ve been doing, to really try to equal it out, you know, to make folks, policy people — because I think regular people understand this — [make] policy people understand you can’t have a higher education system that is as stratified as ours is and as differentiating as ours is in terms of the working conditions of the people in it and the intensity of the teaching that is being delivered and still consider it to be a democratic institution. Now, it’s an anti-democratic one when it’s this hierarchical.

“ [Y]ou can’t have a higher education system that is as stratified as ours is and as differentiating as ours is in terms of the working conditions [...] and the intensity of the teaching [...] and still consider it to be a democratic institution. ”

Christopher Newfield

So a positive goal of critical university studies, at least in my version, is to democratize by equalizing resources and then the knowledge and learning that comes out of that.

Amanda Anderson: After a long career at the University of California at Santa Barbara, you made a somewhat dramatic change leaving the university to take up a position directing the Independent Social Research Foundation. I mean, how has that change been, and what work is it enabling you to do?

Christopher Newfield: Well, some of it is just, you know, 30 years is enough in one job. I got there in 1989 and had been through many generational cycles of students. I mean, another is, you know, new situations, new people, a new continent, a new country means new thoughts. I just feel really lucky at this later stage in my career to be able to start again like this and to contribute in different ways.

I guess it’s full-time research development. It’s developing research at the interface that I’ve always worked at between the humanities and the social sciences. It’s interesting — I mean, the folks that we end up funding are both critiquing mainstream economics as such, but they’re also in a sort of a larger group of the fellows looking at boundary areas all over the world where practices that people are enacting are, if not antithetical to, then just sort of divergent from the way that global capitalism has organized things.

It’s a foundation that’s funding new ways of thinking. I mean, it’s not interested in policy influence. It’s really about original thought coming out of different kinds of experience in the field.

The other thing too is it’s also helping me formulate something I’ve been thinking about for a long time in the university, and that is: how can the humanities be more effective in addressing and in fact changing the social and cultural worlds outside? Literature is something that attracted me because it has such a huge impact on me personally and psychologically.

It feels like the collective knowledge that comes out of humanities disciplines, including humanistic social sciences, has the same impact on society, and we haven’t done a good enough job in explaining how that works or thinking about it reflexively. So this is also a chance to do that.

Also, we fund independent scholars who are not associated with universities: for example, people that have been working in councils on anti-racist interventions for 20 years and who need some time to write a book about their experiences and they don’t have a university job — we fund folks like that. There’s an integration of academic knowledge and situated community knowledge that I also think we need more of.

Amanda Anderson: That’s wonderful. Zooming out a little bit, what do you think is the relation at the present time between the type of cultural and intellectual work that’s being done inside the university and the type of cultural and intellectual work that’s being done outside of the university?

Christopher Newfield: It depends on the field. If we’re just thinking about humanities disciplines, it feels like the work going on outside the university is more confident and more dynamic than the somewhat more depressed work that’s going on inside. It’s not because the economics outside is so much better, but I think the presence of the audience is really clear — the interest of people in just reading everything and consuming massive amounts of writing in the form of, you know, Netflix series, etc.

There’s huge health in cultural consumption in the world that I wish we and folks in universities could tap into at least psychologically so that we felt like we had more of a sense of — more of a destiny to explain and articulate and understand and reorganize understandings of people in the outside world — as well as doing what we primarily do in universities, which is teach and do our specific research.

Amanda Anderson: To return just for a moment to the question of funding within the university, you argue for stronger funding, not only for the universities themselves, but specifically for the humanities, arts, and social sciences, what you refer to as the SASH fields, as a counterpart to the widely used anagram STEM. Part of that argument has to do with budgetary justice, given the tuition revenues that the humanities and other SASH fields bring in through course enrollments. Can you explain your argument about tuition revenues?

Christopher Newfield: Yeah, well, basically we value departments in the American university on the basis of numbers of majors, and this has become an especially acute issue over the last 10 years as funding has stagnated or gone down, and as there’s been just a massive shifting of students into fields like computer science, data science, on the grounds that in a not very good economy, or just in an unreliable economy as it’s been for the last 10 or 15 years, it’s better to do something that seems safe and that has a pretty clear job pipeline like data science, anything that’s quantitative.

Universities are faced with the prospect of having to do something with majors that used to have 600, like computer science at Irvine, that now have, say, 1500 students trying to take it, or 2000 students. That’s an important problem, and I don’t want to belittle it: where do you get the folks to teach that number of students at any given time?

American universities talk a lot about majors. They don’t talk very much about enrollments, that is, about the workload that teachers are handling regardless of what their department is. We’ve focused a lot on the way that massive numbers of majors have accrued to, say, computer science over the last 10 years. We’re not looking so much at the lower division art history class that has 650 students at UCSB, maybe 30 of which will become art history majors, but the other 620 of which are in fact getting the same attention, or lack thereof, that the majors are getting.

“ American universities talk a lot about majors. They don’t talk very much about enrollments, that is, about the workload that teachers are handling regardless of what their department is. ”

Christopher Newfield

What I started to do when I was doing planning and budget work for UC Santa Barbara and getting data from there and from other universities was just break out two different kinds of revenues that actually are spendable: one is research funding, which comes from the outside, which is countable, which is very visible; and the other, enrollment funding, that is, what the students are paying to be in your class, in whatever numbers they are actually in their class.

What became clear pretty quickly is that although STEM departments bring in lots more money in research, humanities and especially social science departments bring in enormous amounts of money through teaching. In the allocation of resources, universities tend to count research money, research revenue, and they look at major numbers, but they aren’t looking at enrollment revenues that we are actually bringing in with the labor of teaching and grading that we do.

“ [H]umanities and especially social science departments bring in enormous amounts of money through teaching. In the allocation of resources, universities tend to count [...] research revenue, and [...] major numbers [... not] enrollment revenues [...] ”

Christopher Newfield

That struck me as quite unfair to high teaching departments and high teaching fields, because what was happening was they were not keeping all the revenues that they were generating through their teaching. It was being cross-subsidized, that is, moved to other fields that had less teaching revenue and higher costs in research.

So my first argument is this: we have to be able to talk about this openly. You know, it’s not a Victorian family — it’s like, we need to be able to see how the money is moving. And then secondly, we need to make more equitable policy decisions.

I mean, you mentioned budget justice. I think that’s really the frame that we need to use now, because what’s been happening is fields that attract lots of first-generation students, lots of students of color who are particularly interested in learning things that will allow them to participate in social justice vocations and movements after they graduate are often the least well funded departments on campus.

Those students are getting less money. Although they’re paying the same tuition as folks that are in engineering, they’re getting much less of that back. They had an unjust educational situation quite often before they arrived in university, and the disproportion of resources, once they get to university, is just compounding that injustice and also damaging their learning. I would like the conversation to be much more widespread so that we can actually address that problem.

“ [F]ields that attract lots of first-generation students, lots of students of color who are particularly interested in learning things that will allow them to participate in social justice vocations and movements [...] are often the least well funded [...] ”

Christopher Newfield

Amanda Anderson: Yeah, that seems really important, and the second part of your argument about the SASH disciplines ties into that, because as you move beyond this question of the budgetary inequalities, you focus on the value of research in the humanities. A lot of people have written about the value of the humanities, stressing things like the importance of cultivating empathy or the importance of narrative in understanding. From your own perspective, what do you think is distinctive about research in the humanities, and what’s most valuable about it?

Christopher Newfield: Well, it values subjectivity instead of trying to set it aside as a problem. It always includes, even if it’s not focusing on interiority. So if you’re studying a social formation, you’re also always studying how it’s affecting an individual person or a group of people.

It’s constitutively self-reflective. So this could be — you know, there’s also a lot of self-flagellation, so that’s not always a great thing — but there’s a kind of self-consciousness about the limits of our knowledge and what we have to do in order to extend it that is sometimes negative, but is always usually positive. There isn’t a kind of arrogance about methods that one can find in some other disciplines from time to time.

It’s very interested in the relation between identity and knowledge. You know, we had sort power-knowledge with Foucault. I think humanities is kind of identity-knowledge where it’s — you know, standpoint theory coming out of feminism and ethnic studies, although it draws on the insights from other cultures, non-Western cultures in particular. So there’s kind of reinventing the wheel in the ’60s and ’70s.

It’s nonetheless epistemologically revolutionary to move away from universality as the only kind of factor that — or as always a necessary element of legitimate knowledge — and see specificity or locatability and variability as true also and true in a different and sometimes a deeper way.

Plural, multiple methods, as opposed to questing for uniformity and consensus in the way that, say, orthodox economics does, so it’s not particularly proceduralist.

I mean, you mentioned empathy, but it’s kind of interested in effects of approaching a problem in a certain way. So, I think, [it] is empathetic, but it’s also just, again, philosophically quite valuable and valid.

Couple of more things. It’s kind of integrative. I mean, I’ve been able to be interdisciplinary as a literary scholar more easily than I can imagine being in most other disciplines, and also experimental in picking up stuff, with the point being that I could put together the things that I learned from accounting with the things that I’d learned from ethnic studies and critical race theory and argue for the structural racism of the funding system on the basis of having combined those two things from pretty different worlds without getting thrown out of my department. If sometimes they thought about it, they didn’t ever actually do it.

Then I guess the last thing is that it’s very interested in emergent or sort of pre-emergent forces and themes — you know, the unconscious, which has been such a big issue in psychoanalytically informed criticism. You know, weak signals, things that are not dominant, the non-dominant, what is just starting to happen, what has been pushed aside, what’s been marginalized. You know, knowledges that aren’t official, that don’t have endorsements from powerful people. Those may be actually the true knowledges and not the false ones. So we are always looking off to the side. There’s really great peripheral vision in the humanities, and we pick up stuff that other fields just miss, and miss kind of deliberately.

“ [The humanities are] very interested in emergent or sort of pre-emergent forces and themes [...] the non-dominant, what is just starting to happen, what has been pushed aside [...] There’s really great peripheral vision in the humanities [...] ”

Christopher Newfield

I guess, as you can tell, I’m really pretty excited about what the humanities is doing and has done. I mean, I just think the research that’s happening now is as good as ever — better — and it’s undersold. The intellectual quality of it is very misunderstood, and that’s something that I’d actually like to work on over the next couple of years.

Amanda Anderson: Wonderful. You argue for B.A. degrees that reflect deep learning, by which you mean a form of learning that links personal identity — what you were just speaking about — self-development skills, field knowledge, and creative capabilities. You’ve spoken very eloquently about how that takes place within the humanities. Do you think this model of deep learning is important in STEM teaching?

Christopher Newfield: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Just, it’s gotten so massified in STEM because of the demand problem, at least in big public schools like the one that I worked in for so long. This is a funding issue. They don’t have the money, even in better research departments, to do the small-scale personalized teaching that would allow folks to become active engagers. There’s a lot of weeding, there’s a lot of 600-person lectures at many universities like UCSB, UC Berkeley, Wisconsin, Madison.

All over the country, folks are learning passively because of the material conditions under which the United States conducts public education, right? Nobody likes teaching this way and likes students to learn that way, and I’ve never met a student that wanted to learn that way, as opposed to being in a seminar or supervision or a tutorial on the Oxbridge model.

Why should we do it? I mean, this is one of the things that I think has really hurt the university, is that the public, but really the policy world more particularly, they don’t understand what you get cognitively out of that. The one-sentence definition for me that’s most important is: you get the ability to create knowledge and not just consume it when you’re in that kind of a small-scale active learning environment.

In other words, in high school, you’re acquiring knowledge, you’re mastering a bunch of stuff that is already known. At the university level, you should be, if it’s structured properly, regardless of your background, learning how to work with it — not just apply it, but create it so that you know what to do when the rules don’t work, you’re not just sitting there applying rules.

I mean, just to sound really old-fashioned, that should be the definition of an educated person. It’s certainly my definition of what somebody with a bachelor’s degree is, is that you can imagine and structure and operate and conclude a research project. You get a B.A., you go into a job, somebody needs you to find out something, and you know how to actually find that thing out, and then, just as importantly, you know how to keep finding it out after you fail.

Like, you get stuck, it’s not going well, what you thought would work doesn’t work: what do you do then? I mean, that’s the kind of thing that I train people to deal with, the failure of any kind of intellectual endeavor.

People say, “Well, the university is really important to democracy.” It’s really important to the cognitive agency that underlies democracy, right, the ability to generate your own understanding of how do you deal with all the conflicting knowledge that we have about the Omicron variant of COVID now, where, I mean, you look at two different channels on TV and you’re getting two completely different stories. You have to figure out how to deal with that. Same with voting, same with relationships, with workplace stuff, everything.

“ People say, ‘Well, the university is really important to democracy.’ It’s really important to the cognitive agency that underlies democracy, right, the ability to generate your own understanding [...] ”

Christopher Newfield

Amanda Anderson: Your proposals for higher education have been based on the view that higher education is a public good. As you say, in your most recent book, “the great mistake is the private good framework.” In that book, you stress the need for strong state action to fund tuition-free college and develop appropriate progressive tax structures to support that process. Yet you’ve also voiced sympathy for more radical proposals to decolonize processes of higher learning and dismantle the university as we know it. Can these approaches be combined in a viable way, or is your thinking moving beyond state-based solutions in certain ways?

Christopher Newfield: I think we need to do both on different tracks without one kind of watering down the other. I mean, capitalism and colonialism were interactive processes historically, so sort of de-neoliberalising the university and decolonizing it, they’re distinct, but they’re also interactive. Constitutionally, I’m a Libra, right? I’m just always like, “Yeah, both of these things are really ... This is really smart. They’re both really good.”

But I’m really opposed to pitting race against economics, and seeing anti-racism, anti-colonialism, as opposed to, in some fundamental way — opposed to socialism or opposed to developing social democracy. I just think we really have to do both. The important thing is the non-reductionist autonomy of different folks who are pursuing different kinds of projects.

I spend a lot of time with a small group of people thinking about storefront universities and how to develop something that’s completely alternative based on labor stolen from academics. You know, like, you and me, we would have jobs, and we would teach one free class in a storefront place while it was getting going, and then they would pay people who didn’t have other jobs, and it would be teaching what local folks wanted to learn.

It would borrow from extension programs. It would borrow from community colleges, tribal colleges. I mean, there’s a whole bunch of really interesting grassroots models out there. I’m totally in favor of those things happening and working alongside the big state-funded public universities. I’m still not willing to give up on the very moment in which massive numbers of students of color want to get into them and want to get their benefits for an affordable price.

So I’m interested [on the one hand] in free college for the state-funded side and funding it so that that is possible, and then on the other hand, doing local and experimental initiatives led by people who have had a bad time in mainstream universities and have all sorts of great ideas about how to make completely different and better ones.

Amanda Anderson: As I mentioned in the intro, this year you are serving as the president of the Modern Language Association. As a last question for you, what plans do you have for your presidential year and what role do you think the MLA can play in advancing the sorts of transformations you promote in your writings?

Christopher Newfield: Well, my theme is “working conditions,” and it’s asking us to turn at least part of our brains towards using our knowledge and teaching experience and research insights towards imagining better working conditions and fixing the ones that we have. The premise is that we do know tons about how to make it much better, and that we are capable of doing that, so it’s ways of pooling and consolidating and developing that.

There’s two fronts that I’m particularly interested in. One is adjuncting and stopping and reversing the use of precarious labor for teaching at every institution. I mean, it’s been massively abused. Half of the 4,300 institutions of higher learning in the U.S. have zero tenured/tenure-track professors, which is, I think, quite scandalous. What can the MLA do about that?

Well, one thing that we’re looking at is just developing frameworks [and] standards and formalizing them, and then using the delegate assembly as our ambassadors to basically do, first, consciousness raising, and then in some future years possibly even enforcement and sanctions in the way that the AAUP does for departments and institutions that offer their entire programs on the basis of precarious labor.

The relationship between the MLA and the graduate student union movements is another thing that I think we’re going to explore this year. And then, a third issue that I’m quite obsessed about — it’s really the only word — is research funding. We talked about this a little bit. Possibly the MLA could work with other humanities organizations, ACLS, NEH, NHA, Mellon, the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Society, learned societies, or you know, the College Art Association, to work together to try to fix the research poverty problem. We do all of our knowledge creation on the basis of about a half a percent of the aggregate STEM research on the federal level.

I think that that’s true for most non-elite privates — that is, including major public research universities like University of Wisconsin and the University of California. I would like to help start a collective solution to the research underfunding problem as well.

Amanda Anderson: Well, all of that is incredibly important, and it’s inspiring to hear you talk about it. I really look forward to your year leading the MLA, but also to all of your current and future work.

Christopher Newfield: Thanks for having me, Amanda. I really enjoyed talking with you.

Amanda Anderson: Meeting Street explores some of the most important and creative work being done in the humanities today, through conversations with scholars and thinkers who are extending the boundaries of their respective fields. The show is produced by the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University. Damien Mahiet is our production manager. Our sound editor is Jake Sokolov-Gonzalez. If you enjoyed this week’s episode of Meeting Street, please leave a review wherever you listen to your favorite podcast.