13 October 2020

Dear Everyone:

On Friday, Elizabeth Freeman graced us with a beautiful talk that invited us to move with her through the intimate links between carework and reading.  Her talk resonated strongly not only with the work we do and/or can’t do because of present circumstances, and/or that we must do as strategies of living with and through uncertainties and loss, but also with the compassion that describes the ability to accept and embrace our own and each other’s vulnerabilities. How do you care?  In part, through reading.  Many and big thanks to Talia Schaffer for organizing it, and to Nancy Silverman and Anna Rider for making it happen. A recording, along with a transcription of the event, may be found here, with especial thanks to Professor Freeman for agreeing to make this available.

I know everyone is doing an immense amount of carework these days, and that that’s been true for some for ages and ages.  We know also that carework is often unpaid or underpaid and racialized and gendered in ways that reflect, for one, the history that gives us Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day (ugh), and there is the context of the intense individualization and privatization of care characteristic of life under neoliberalism that shapes the present as well.  How to care is a question that taps into vast and vastly complex history.  As a pedagogical/writing exercise, I suggest a practice that I use to my classes and the people with whom I work, namely, to thematize the things that are worrying us – the writing through of knottiness as itself the point of writing, rather than conceptualized as the blockage or thing to overcome to getting writing done. I’ve been trying to do that with and around care these days, because it is both an impossible and inescapable task with which everyone is living in albeit enormously heterogeneous ways.  In a small iteration, I wonder, what is the virtual/zoom equivalent of offering a tissue, a book, chocolate?  Handshakes I will gladly forego, but I miss hugging! How do we do that virtually? The flaw, of course, is in thinking in terms of equivalents…on 23 October, we’ll be holding a Friday Forum on “Teaching in Emergency” that I think will serve in part as occasion for collective thinking on these matters; more on that event to follow next week.

In the immediate, I wanted to note to those of you undertaking graduate work, and especially those in your first years of doctoral studies but everyone, really, simply, it’s really hard. Every text you read and zoomed seminar meeting and blog post you write can feel like a test of your intelligence and suitability to be in the program. As early and as often and as fully as possible, allow/compel/make yourself remember that the relationship to the institution and its economy of value is not the sum of your being; that you are more than adequate, more than enough; that working with ideas is genuine work and uncertainty and disorientation are phenomena attached to learning. In the enormity of the work necessary simply to get food, pay rent, manage young and old and middle aged people, to live up to the mandate to “be safe!” – the difficulty of the work you’ve undertaken is starkly illuminated.  This first semester is always hard; this particular semester is absurdly so. We (faculty) know; we want you to know, too.  All the informal, casual ways in which we could convey all this in sensory form – in the hallways, at a reception, in the befores and after seminars – they aren’t available, so this clunky, clumsy form will have to do. All of what we’re living now will fold into your research and teaching, it’ll make you aware of the worldliness of ideas and the humanity of the people with whom you work – let that be the measure of the work you’re doing to cushion you over the sharp edges of doctoral studies.  Tissues and chocolate and hugging will have to wait…

…and for a good while yet, which brings me to information to share, and with thanks to the Curriculum, Faculty Membership and Executive Committees, who’ve been conducting program business over the last couple of weeks. Some of this also comes of various beyond-program meetings held last week.

  1. While there hasn’t been an official decision made or announced, spring 2021 looks very much also to be fully remote. If you’ve read the reactivation plan, you’ll see that there are many factors involved in getting us back into the building, and getting everything in order by spring term seems highly implausible.  It is likely that there may be slightly more traffic in and out of the building, but students continue to be actively discouraged from going. 
  1. Getting us fully back will also require resources we don’t at this point have.  As you may remember, the Grad Center’s been receiving monthly budget allocations – true for all the CUNY colleges, I believe.  We have recently been given an allocation that takes us through the end of the year.  Without calling it a budget cut, the state is withholding 20% of CUNY’s funding, so the allocations are a fraction of minimal, if that makes sense.  As we participate in all the different ways we do in protesting the continuing defunding of the system that should be the best resourced university on the planet, at the program level, we’re also going to be especially mindful of the potential antagonisms that arise within the context of constraint: we’ll do our best to mitigate the impact on course offerings, of course – curriculum is the backbone of who we are and what we do; we’ll think of faculty membership with these structural conditions in mind; and so on. (I don’t for a second believe there isn’t money certainly at the level of the state – some people are getting rich(er) as a consequence of pandemic and anti-Blackness; austerity is ideological!)
  1. The current budget picture and contemporary context is of course an extension of rather than rupture from the decades of defunding public education has seen.  One of the effects of that long process has been to the landscape of higher education.  We know that there are far fewer tenure track jobs available now as compared to even a decade ago.  Tanya Agathocleous, our most excellent DEO of Placement, has already put into place opportunities for students to consider careers beyond the academy. I’m pleased to note that the Executive Committee approved two courses we’ll be offering in spring 2021 toward these ends – The Practice of the PhD in English I and II – and that will make their way up to Graduate Council so that we can have them as a permanent part of our program offerings.  I’ll write more and separately about these to the students closer to spring registration, and for now will note simply that they intend to encourage us in a structured way not to limit ourselves to thinking of the professoriate as the only or privileged afterlife of the PhD.  Tanya, Matt Gold, Bianca Williams, Stacy Hartman, and Jenny Furlong were instrumental to crafting these, and Curriculum Committee undertook consideration, and Executive Committee approved – all this, also enactments of care!
  1. The Middle States accreditation team came and went last week.  There was nothing specific to English that came up immediately from their visit and from what their preliminary report suggested, not surprisingly, I believe we will be reaccredited.  (That allows students access to federal financial aid, fyi, which is a major part of why it’s important.)
  1. Faculty Membership and Executive Committees approved a consortial faculty appointment in US Latinx studies, to be launched shortly and to unfold primarily in spring 2021.  I’ll write separately about that, too, and to share the appointment call.  We also have the composition/rhetoric appointment currently in play – super excited about these!  Again, more specifics to follow.
  1. Nancy Silverman helpfully reminded us at the EC meeting that dissertation committees should be meeting annually, more or less around the anniversary of the prospectus approval. Some committees have done so regularly and others have not. Students and faculty both, if you’ve not had such a meeting in the past year, take a moment to schedule! 

I think that’s it for now – what things I’ve forgotten, I’ll include in the next missive.  I’ll close by reminding everyone that this coming Friday, 16 October, is our Open House!  I’ve attached a flyer for it that includes registration information – please feel free to circulate far and wide!

With virtual candy and hugs aplenty, and always with abundant gratitude for you all,


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