Recent student demands for the increasing institutionalization of ethnic studies and queer studies at Harvard get at the heart of one of the central tensions in the idea of the university. It is possible in one sense to think of universities as institutions whose function is essentially conservative: they exist in order to preserve and transmit traditional forms of knowledge, and so maintain profound ties to the past. But at the same time, the relative autonomy of universities has allowed them to function historically as sites of critique and iconoclasm. The strange thing about universities in this sense is that they are at once staunch defenders of tradition and hotbeds of radicalism.
While popular accounts of the “culture wars” would have us believe that the university is divided between traditionalists and radicals, few academics fall neatly into one of these two camps. Most academics are both traditional and radical in their intellectual commitments, and in this sense they live out the contradictions of the university in a very real way. The way that academics formulate the “problem” of the emergence of new disciplines —how to continue to value the old texts, methodologies, and ways of thinking at the same time that we struggle to come to terms with the new ones—is a testament to this defining ambivalence.
As a newly minted Ph.D. with a strong investment in the new disciplines—my research and teaching are primarily in the field of queer studies—I don’t think that such ambivalence is necessarily a problem. It is good for academics to struggle with such impossible demands: it makes them smarter. What is a problem, I’d suggest, is the synergy between academic ambivalence and institutional inertia. As in other large bureaucratic institutions, the rate of change in the university tends to be very slow. This is particularly true when what is at issue are the deep, organizing structures that make up an institution, and in the university, those structures are called the disciplines.
Disciplines do change over time, whether we recognize those changes or not. Departments such as English or sociology or biology or classics are not timeless; rather, they are man-made artifacts that emerged out of particular historical contexts. While some disciplines are older than others, every discipline was new once upon a time. The deck is stacked against upstart disciplines, but this is especially true of the so-called “identity-based disciplines,” a range of new and not-so-new fields including women’s studies, Afro-American studies, ethnic studies, queer or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) studies, Latino studies, Native American studies and disability studies.
Today, most academics agree that American higher education has been significantly enhanced by the opening of the university to women, poor people and people of color over the last hundred years. But the opening of the university to new fields of study has been more contentious: in this context, the ideology of diversity gives way to arguments about the dangers of the “slippery slope”: If we can integrate queer studies, Caribbean studies, south Asian studies, or Native American studies into the curriculum, then what will be next? This line of reasoning echoes anti-immigration arguments in troubling ways. Like such arguments, it claims to be about others who have not yet arrived, but it works effectively to de-legitimize the concerns of students who are already here.
Work in queer studies or ethnic studies is often travestied as a form of navel-gazing on the part of marginal social groups. But in fact all kinds of people are working on all kinds of issues in these areas. Why is this? For one, it is often the case that the most trenchant critiques of concepts such as “race” or “sexual identity” are coming out of these so-called “identity-based disciplines.” Also, the putatively narrow concerns addressed in these fields engage many of the most pressing and far-reaching concerns of the present, such as racial profiling, international labor markets and the politics of health care. Scholars have been drawn to these areas of inquiry not out of narcissism but because they recognize that some of the most vibrant and compelling intellectual work out there is happening in such fields.
Harvard needs to do more—in terms of course offerings, academic mentoring, and visibility—to make queer studies a viable field of study for its undergraduates. The university recognizes the importance of the political and social aspects of queer life, but it has not formally recognized queer studies as a legitimate field of intellectual inquiry. The critical analysis of gender and sexuality is a topic that is potentially of great interest to all students, no matter how they define themselves. Such possibilities currently exist for students at other institutions: at Yale, for instance, a standing committee appointed by the provost organizes offerings in gay and lesbian studies; at the University of California, Berkeley, undergraduates can minor in LGBT studies. Harvard offers little in the way of courses or guidance for students with interests in the history and theory of sexuality.
Defenders of the traditional disciplines describe them as if they guaranteed both an authentic relation to the past and the survival of critical reason itself. They tend to suggest that if students are thinking about things like personal identity, sexuality, or the experience of gender, they are not thinking. I’d suggest that the opposite is true: students do their best thinking when they engage the complexities and difficulties that the “real world” so richly provides.
Heather Love ’91 is a Woodrow Wilson Postdoctoral Fellow in Literature.