Judith Jack Halberstam on the University, Credos, and More

Critical Pulse, Jeffrey Williams

“I believe in shaking down the big disciplines once a generation, replacing dinosaur forms of knowledge production with improvised programs, and reinventing curricula, disciplinary knowledge, and knowledge clusters every decade at least. I believe … the university needs to dance carefully along the thin line between raising funds and becoming a corporation.”—Judith Jack Halberstam

Judith Jack Halberstam’s credo, “The Power of Unknowing,” from The Critical Pulse: Thirty-Six Credos by Contemporary Critics, begins with her admission that she’s always found credos off-putting. Between the religious aspect and the saccharine quality of the “This I Believe” feature on NPR, Halberstam resisted credos until oddly enough, she was drawn in by Kevin Costner’s credo in Bull Durham (“I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap).

Not necessarily persuaded by all of Bull Durham’s credo, Halberstam offers a kind of response:

I believe that Lady Gaga is a genius, that Justin Bieber is a lesbian, and that Prince is Lady Gaga. I think we should abolish English departments, change disciplines every few years, go back to school, get rid of standardized tests, all speak three languages, and I believe in the living wage. I also believe that straight men don’t try hard enough, gay guys try too hard, and butches should catch a break.

On a more serious note, Halberstam picks up on the more academic aspect of this credo to offer a more serious one on education:

Let me draw out a few of my hastily offered rules to live by…. I really do believe that many academics need to buck up and remember how to learn—many people teach the same classes over and over, repeat the work they did years ago in “new” scholarship and then jealously guard the gates of their discipline from intruders and newcomers who might shake things up to such a degree that their own work becomes irrelevant, anachronistic, or at least in need of an update. Let’s remember what tenure is supposed to be for while we ponder some of the stagnancy of the university: tenure was supposed to protect scholars while they pursued possibly unpopular or at least counterintuitive ideas; it should provide a shield behind which socially useless along with socially useful work can be completed.

Tenure, in its ideal form, allows scholars to take risks, try out daring theses, and innovate. But in a university where senior people often deny tenure to junior folks much more talented, skilled, and qualified than they are, we have to begin to question the validity of a system that protects the mediocre from the brilliant. And so I believe in shaking down the big disciplines once a generation, replacing dinosaur forms of knowledge production with improvised programs, and reinventing curricula, disciplinary knowledge, and knowledge clusters every decade at least. I believe that administrators are too often failed and bitter academics and that the university needs to dance carefully along the thin line between raising funds and becoming a corporation.

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