The Possibility and Promise of Access

Before GCAS was GCAS it was a flurry of academic and intellectual possibilities . . . and still is. At one very early point it was thought of as an “intellectual start-up,” then an “institute” contractually attached to a major US research university. Later, it would be thought of as an autonomous school offering graduate level non-degree seminars embedded in conferences—Denver and New Orleans were the first proposed sites. And, consistent with its current iteration, it was understood as an affiliated, accredited degree granting institution. In between these models were many other arrangements and agendas, visible and invisible. As GCAS was taking shape (and I was part of the discussion about the final name), I served as the interim director, providing ideas about organizational structure, mission, and vision. As GCAS transformed and was defined and redefined, one crucial element persisted, an element that has kept me connected in various ways over the past few years—access to the conversation.

What is access to the conversation? Simply, it is a meaningful opportunity for students, researchers, and faculty to participate and have a place in the intellectual community, at-large.

Let’s be honest. The intellectual community, especially in the US, is an exclusive, “gated” community. For aspiring graduate students, access . . . real access to leading scholars and writers is determined by graduate committees at elite institutions. If someone desires to work with a major figure, she or he needs to gain admission to a highly selective program and then experience a more highly selective process to move from student to mentee. The only other opportunities to engage with major scholars are conferences and several quasi-academic programs, e.g. The School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University. The latter, of which I am an alumnus (1997), provides graduate students and faculty with access to high profile scholars in an intensive summer program. The National Endowment for the Humanities sponsors similar seminars with scholars, but to truly work with someone who is highly accomplished in a field of study requires admission to increasingly more contained and insulated graduate settings.

Why does this matter? Shouldn’t the elite schools have a monopoly on knowledge production? Distribution? Shouldn’t they determine and manage the “protocols” for academic validation? Well . . . no. This current and dominant model is indicative of a neoliberal, corporate ideology that guides higher education. Limiting access to a “market” is a crucial first step in controlling the market itself . . . in this case the so-called marketplace of ideas. Our present system for admission to graduate education, specifically, and for joining the conversation, generally, affirms a “competitive” process; it lets people in and keeps people out according to GRE scores, grades, letters of recommendation, project ideas, prestige of institutional affiliation, and the “shadow” works of private advocacy. I’m not against “merit based” standards per se as long as they are fair and equitable . . . and are oriented toward letting people in as opposed to keeping people out.

How can the conversation, then, become more democratic and, generally, more open and accessible? Not just for aspiring graduate students but for everyone interested in joining the conversation? GCAS and its degree programs and special web-based discussion series are one answer to that question; GCAS and a growing number of “para-academic” institutes, centers, working groups, and forums challenge the present exclusivity of the conversation. These “para-spaces” always have haunted academia (e.g., salons) but more broadly today, under the influence of neoliberalism, the entire spectrum of knowledge production and distribution needs to be critically examined and GCAS, as an alternative model for graduate education, needs to be part of that conversation.

I have emphasized that GCAS provides students, researchers, and faculty with access to many high profile scholars working across the humanities and social sciences today. At a certain practical level this is crucial to students or anyone in forming a solid knowledge foundation. This, however, isn’t the only path toward knowledge . . . through an academic “expert.” Knowledge comes from a wide range of sources . . . activists, journalist, artists, and people in other non-academic contexts. Shouldn’t education and specifically graduate education accept the idea that everyone has something to contribute to the conversation? If so, this notion of radical equality, as Rancièrean as it may seem, may lead eventually to radical access. So, as I see it, this is the goal—the opening and flattening of knowledge production and distribution. Not only is it possible to do this in pedagogical situations, it is also possible to extend this to publication (GCAS Press, which may be the topic of a future blog posting).

GCAS is one among many present alternatives to our current knowledge production/distribution problem, a problem that I am taking up in my next book project, The Cartelocene. If in the future we have a form of radical access to the intellectual community, then we may see the complete dissipation of determining elitism and, perhaps too, the more insidious “shadow” network of private advocacy in which “nano-cartels” regulate who is included and who is excluded from the conversation. These “nano-cartels,” as I call them, are “communities of transaction” in which opportunity and influence are traded on a private exchange. These exchanges or leveragings can take place in the admissions process, job search process, or in professional/career development activities. More generally, having access to the conversation or more access means not being so susceptible to the work of the “nano-cartels” or being “cut out” of or marginalized in the ideas “market.” And, in this context GCAS’s mission and vision moves us closer to a more inclusive, less stratified intellectual community.