Reflections on the 2015 CSA Conference

What Can a Cultural Studies Conference Say?

Marcus Breen. Department of Communication. Boston College

Another University is Possible: Praxis, Activism, and the Promise of Critical Pedagogy

13th Annual Meeting of the Cultural Studies Association. UC Riverside May 21-23, 2015.

Skilled readers of texts abound in Cultural Studies, yet few scholars in the field spend time analyzing the conference as text. A welcome recent exception was a report in Cultural Studies by Graeme Turner about a plenary at the 2013 ICA conference in London, in which he puzzled over “the lack of respect” accorded Cultural Studies generally and at the event itself. As with any institutional analysis, “the conference” is influenced by a complex of contesting forces and interests. The many and various annual Cultural Studies conferences and related media and communication events (of which the CSA is the most relevant US one) are part of this complex. The Cultural Studies Association (CSA) Conference in the US is no exception, operating as a text that reveals trends and shifts in interests, values and career orientation among those who attend. 

The 2015 conference at UC Riverside was characterized by the absence of a significant number of tenured faculty, leaving the conference as a site for 400+ registered mostly non-tenured attendees. An investigation of what is happening at conferences offers a text rich in meaning making through critical interpretation of those present, and through some admittedly sketchy guesses, about those absent.  Indeed, the question is, what does the absence of senior scholars at a major national conference say about what is happening to Cultural Studies in the US and more generally? Is it possible to critically evaluate what is taking place in the American academy by looking at this particular conference?

To begin contextually, the changing landscape for academic employment is the focus of public discussion by the Federal Government, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and critics. Here is the AAUP on the rising tide of contingent academics:

Depending on the institution, they can be known as adjuncts, postdocs, TAs, non-tenure-track faculty, clinical faculty, part-timers, lecturers, instructors, or nonsenate faculty. What they all have in common: they serve in insecure, unsupported positions with little job security and few protections for academic freedom. And they are the vast majority of US faculty today. Something needs to change.

While the drop in the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty has changed in line with an increase in untenured or contingent faculty, little is known about the impact of these changes on the professional activities of Cultural Studies scholarship. Similarly, if they do not attend conferences, little is known about the way the absent tenured professoriate manifests itself in everyday teaching and research.  Outside of questions like: who attends conferences? The larger issue is, what is the relationship between those undertaking research and publishing and those teaching? What is the difference between classes taught by contingent faculty compared to tenured and tenure-track faculty?  

A more pressing issue is the question about former colleagues who left the academy and the field of Cultural Studies and sometimes the profession, due to department closures, unrenewed contracts and failed tenure claims? Who has moved unwillingly under administrative pressure due to disciplinary demands into departments of Sociology, History, Anthropology and English, because the Interdisciplinarity of Cultural Studies remains comparatively vague?

Answers to some of these questions initially emerged at the Riverside conference during a panel session in which I was giving a paper. The answers became clearer to me throughout the conference, especially through a panel discussion on “Cultural Studies in the Neoliberal University,” where a dozen people met in a comfortable room in the Riverside Convention Center.  

Presenting “Cultural Studies in the Institution,” I was prepared with an abstract and notes about the rise of managerialism, which has emerged through the application of “Private Administrative Oversight,” a method derived from financialization practices around which universities, both public and private, are being organized.  The practice of transferring private accounting practices almost everywhere has been an effective administrative stealth tactic that has changed university culture around the world, with few exceptions. (Unhelpfully, this is sometimes referred to by the catch–all of “corporatism,” a generic term that describes often positive organizational alignments). In so doing, universities have been subjected to the power of the finance hegemon, claiming domination over decision making, as private systems of oversight have been used with increasing deliberateness to manage revenue and institutional structure. Consequently, the prospects for Cultural Studies are bleak because our revenues and pedagogy generally fail to accord with the metrics – a condition Cultural Studies shares with Humanities education.  

After 30 years of attending cultural, media, technology and popular music studies conferences, I was part of a gathering of younger scholars, none of whom I knew. All the panelists made pertinent presentations before we broke into a Talking Circle, a Native American tradition of sitting in a circle and speaking as equals. This move was prompted by the session chair, Adam Davidson-Harden, who introduced himself as having just completed an adjunct contract in Canada, with the prospect of unemployment imminent. If he failed to find a job over the summer… Nevertheless, he maintained a positive disposition throughout the session, then later during the conference when I saw him again.

Adam invited everyone in the room to join the Talking Circle and to comment on the presentations. It was a grand idea that immediately undermined those anxious first few seconds of discussion time at most conferences. But then, after four introductions and comments from non-panelists about where they worked and their work status, the trend was clear: no one in the Talking Circle was tenured, no one in the room was tenure-track!       

I broke into the circle – the somewhat impertinent Australian-American at the moment of recognition. “Excuse me! Am I right in saying” I asked, “that no one in this room is tenured or tenure-track?” Everyone agreed. The Talking Circle was made up of graduate students, adjuncts, contract employees and in one case an instructor who earned most of his income “working in industry,” as he put it.

For the first time in my conference life I was in a room populated entirely by the precarious employees of the future-present higher education sector. And it was in this curious situation that questions emerged about how Cultural Studies is changing in line with the sector more generally.

The answers are becoming clear and urgent. In 2014 the population of US undergraduate university students dropped by 2 per cent or one million, most notable in four year private and two year public adult training colleges, while the number of contingent faculty rose, as did tuition for students and their families. Against this background, the 13th Cultural Studies Association Conference happened in a biggish week in US higher education news.

At The University of Southern California (USC), all but one of the USC Roski School of Art and Design MFA students boycotted their graduation in protest at the university’s decision to impose a new regime of tuition on the students (Stromberg). Part of the official argument driving the decision was that USC needed to change its structures, including its tuition subsidy for art students. The more telling statement came from C.L. Max Nikias the USC President, who reflected on how priorities are being reconstituted around fields of research and teaching that exclude art and by default Cultural Studies and related areas in the Humanities and Liberal Arts.

Nikias, did not respond directly to the student’s protest to not attend their own graduation. But this is where a funny thing happened on the way to the conference. There was Nikias, on the record in the United Airlines in-flight magazine Hemispheres (May 2015) saying: “For any research university that really wants to remain relevant in the 21st century, you must address and make serious investments in the medical, biological and biotech arena.”  His comments were presented in a summary of interviews on a single page: “The Innovators: A look at the leaders behind some of LA’s most forward-thinking organizations.”

Other forward thinking happened that same week when a Democratic Party Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposed that $70 billion dollars annually should be set aside for free public college education in the US, partially paid for by a tax on financial transactions. In the same story in the May 22 edition of The Wall Street Journal, another Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, proposed a $30 billion fund to be matched by State funding. This story ran alongside an article pointing out that the Clinton Foundation received $26 million dollars in fees from donors, which included the following kicker:

Nearly a third of the speeches were given at colleges and universities which could revive criticism of the Clintons for accepting payments, even on their foundation’s behalf, from schools that have been hard-pressed to keep tuition costs down. Schools paid the foundation a total of between $2.8 million and $6.7 million for the Clinton’s speeches. (Ballhaus and Nichols, A4)

By the end of the week, Janna Kasperkevic published an article in The Guardian highlighting the free college idea: “Democrats look to make debt-free college the key campaign issue of 2016.”

Blogger and policy critic David Russo, an economist from the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at The University of San Diego, joined in, offering ruminations with an empirical pitch perfect chart, available here:

(Source: “When are public universities no longer public?” David Russo)

Hopefully, that chart will soon begin pointing north again!

On May 13, in the week leading to the conference, WGBH, one of my local radio stations, ran the following story: “As Demand Dwindles, Can Small Colleges Survive?” by Kirk Carapezza. Introducing the story, host Bob Seay began with the following comment: “In March, Green Briar College in Virginia announced that it would close because of insurmountable financial troubles. Since then, everyone in higher ed. has been asking what college might be next?”

The pressure is mounting across the sector, with Cultural Studies facing the challenge of changing circumstances amidst institutional survival. In addition, pressure from Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) is on the rise, partly in response to global pressure, where these subjects in countries like China, India and Russia appear to be overwhelming western dominance of innovation and with it economic strength. Apparently, STEM is the answer.

My view is that this is a misdirected neo-classical economic game, argued by vested interests who believe that perpetual growth through technological innovation via STEM is what every educational institution and US student needs. The lobby, known as the STEM Education Coalition insists on this line.  Cultural Studies and Humanities education in US Universities confront the possibility of a STEM reorientation.

The future scenarios for US colleges includes four paths, put here in propositional form:

  • the total number of students will be reduced in line with diminishing tenured research and teaching interests in the Humanities;
  • the total number of students will be further reduced due to the high cost of college education;
  • the total number of programs will be reduced in line with national priorities, namely STEM;
  • the total number of Cultural Studies and Humanities programs will be reduced due to the above determining factors.  

How these propositions emerged out of a small group discussion in the Cultural Studies Association Conference, “Another University is Possible” is a function of Cultural Studies as critical practice. In this case, reading the conference-as-text for its connotations in the broader context of public discussion, can be described as a style of institutional semiotics. Unfortunately, the signs point in a negative direction.

Immediately after my panel discussion and after checking with CSA President Jaafar Aksikas and President-elect Paul Smith, I rose at the lunch meeting. After telling the attendees what I had seen of the changing membership of the conference, I asked for a show of hands to establish the categories of employment people were in: from the raw figures of my straw poll, the majority of attendees at the lunch were graduate students (about 50) while about 15 were adjuncts, many of whom were also graduate students - “We teach at other colleges where we are not students,” someone intoned - ; Contract employees about 10; Nine Tenured; Seven Tenure-track; One Independent Scholar, Six Undergraduates and zero unemployed.  

Curiously, later at the evening plenary, “The Cultural Studies Project,” Jonathan Sterne of McGill University spoke to “What is Intervention.” He asked for a show of hands from those in the audience who were “contingent.” Out of about 250 people in the room around 15 raised their hands. Sterne noted, too casually for my liking, that the low numbers were probably the result of contingent faculty not having access to travel funds from their places of employment. (Thankfully, as a Full Time Faculty member at Boston College I receive generous funding, although I am employed on a contract.)  If he had pursued the point, he would have found that several of those contingent colleagues who raised their hands had funded themselves to attend the Riverside conference.

There is a sharp dividing line between tenured privilege and the increasing numbers of “others,” constituting contingent Cultural Studies faculty.

Walter Benn Michael, from The University of Illinois, Chicago speaking at the closing Saturday Plenary, shared slides that illustrated the drop in numbers of tenured academics. He also pointed out the rise in low paid workers in the much needed areas of health and aged care who are paying ever higher tuition, even as they are being trained to move into low paid employment. This panel, “The University in Practice/as Praxis: Inequality, Meritocracy, and the Possibilities of Social Struggle,” suggested that changes in university structures generally were mirrored by those attending the conference. Any struggle, born out of collective solidarity, seems a long way away.

Cultural Studies in the US University is changing along with higher education. This change is not restricted to the US, as centers and departments concentrating on Cultural Studies have closed or are shrinking: Goldsmith’s College London, The University of Queensland’s Center for Cultural and Critical Studies, The University of Minnesota at Milwaukee, are part of a slow burn.  As the pressure grows for instrumental education aimed at the particularities of neo-classical growth economics and public policy accounting methods, Cultural Studies and related areas could become less present, and if they exist at all, increasingly populated by contingent labor.

At this stage there is insufficient conversation or action across the boundaries of tenured and contingent labor in Cultural Studies and elsewhere. Nevertheless, in his presentation Walter Benn Michael offered an example of a campaign that united contingent and tenured faculty with the group New Faculty Majority, for improved salaries and conditions at The University of Illinois, Chicago. Perhaps a more urgent stream of action is slowly surfacing, signaling a social movement in gestation. More generally, the slow uptake may be traced to what has been described as “a certain provincialism,” where department issues trump the larger challenges, as suggested by Columbia University Humanities Professor Andrew Dalbanco, writing in the July “University Press Issue” of The New York Review of Books.  

The CSA 2015 conference provided a text to identify these and related concerns. By deploying a granular analysis of the conditions under which participants attend conferences, an understanding of who is employed and the conditions of employment can be put to use transforming Cultural Studies into a critical project where “another university” offers justice, as the tenured and the contingent collaborate on the future.  Without this kind of maneuver, Cultural Studies may not only suffer from a lack of respect, it may not have much of a future.




Ballhaus, Rebecca and Nichols, Peter. “Foundation Got Uo to $26 Million in Fees.” The Wall Street Journal. May 22, 2015: A4.

Belkin, Douglas. “Student Debt is Hot Topic for 2016 Presidential Field.” The Wall Street Journal. May 22, 2015: A4.

Delbanco, Andrew. “Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality.” The New York Review of Books. July, University Press Issue: 38-41.  

Karapezza, Kurt. “As Demand Dwindles, Can Small Colleges Survive?” WGBH, May 13.

Kasperkevic, Janna. “Democrats look to make debt-free college the key campaign issue of 2016.” by 27 May 2015. The Guardian.

New Faculty Majority.

Russo, David.  “When are public universities no longer public?” 19 May, 2015.

Stromberg, Matt. “University of Southern California MFAs Boycott Graduation in Solidarity with #USC7.” Hyperallergic. May 16, 2015.

Turner, Graeme. “Afterword. The Mark Of Cultural Studies On Communication Research A Perspective From The Audience.” Cultural Studies, 29:1, 51-54, DOI: 10.1080/09502386.2014.917233