Reader, I have a confession to make. Reader, I am not.
That may have sounded a bit too Yoda, so to rephrase it: I don’t read. Maybe that sounds ironic, given that I write two articles a week at minimum – or flat out wrong, because I proofread at least a dozen articles per issue. So let me rephrase this: I am not a reader of literature.
This perhaps puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to covering Brooklyn College, because BC has staked its reputation in recent years on the literary achievements of its professors and recent alumni. You couldn’t trip over a Twitter feed a few months ago without seeing a CUNY surrogate trumpeting the triple threat of hashtag-BC-Family-members on Time Magazine’s top ten for fiction in 2019: Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” Ben Lerner’s “The Topeka School,” and Helen Phillips’ “The Need” were all name-dropped in many a listicle last December. And the list goes on – Charles DeShawn Wallace, R.O. Kwon, Jeanne Theoharis, Corey Robin…
“Oh no, Quiara,” you say: “I know where this is going. Fed up with your complete lack of talent, you’ve decided to take out your anger on these better-known, allegedly inferior authors in an obvious display of green-eyed deviltry.” Well, first of all, my eyes are a lovely shade of brown (although, would I look better with green eyes? Reader, please let me know what color contacts I should be buying in the future) – and second of all, no, I think all these authors genuinely deserve the praise they’re getting.
What concerns me is the level of emphasis that the college has been putting on its English program as of late. We often hear claims that the humanities are under attack in academia, as legislators push for a curriculum rooted in STEM and market-relevant skills. (This is especially relevant as a philosophy major, where posters in our little annex in Boylan suggest that the critical thinking skills that majoring in philosophy fosters can make you as successful as… Carly Fiorina?)
On paper, this emphasis from admin on our achievement in the humanities seems like Brooklyn College taking a stand against the corporatization of higher education; the heroic CUNY supplying the liberal arts’ erstwhile David with rocks to wield against the STEM Goliath. But I’d like to put forth what I believe to be a more accurate view of why our colleges prioritize certain departments.
The deficit in attention between majors like, e.g., Accounting (heavily supported) and e.g., Puerto Rican and Latino Studies (historically underfunded), is usually explained by the college in terms of enrollment numbers and by PRLS majors in terms of universities trending towards “marketable” skills. But neither explanation holds water when you consider how little emphasis the college puts on our extremely popular Psychology department (one of the top two majors at BC, by my count), or the lavishing of attention in college literature on a handful of creative-sector MFA programs (Creative Writing, Playwriting, etc.) with zero corporate utility. How to explain it?
Here’s one explanation: Imagine a grid where the vertical axis measures how expensive a field of study is, and the horizontal axis measures the “sexiness” of a field of study – e.g., how easily it can be used for positively boosting CUNY’s national profile. The best majors land in the bottom-right hand corner – big fame, low cost.
This is the model I am tentatively (and egotistically) calling the Vasquez Cash/Sex Matrix – and it helps to illuminate why some departments get more attention than others. To go back to Accounting vs. PRLS, for instance, both majors are inexpensive, but Brooklyn College’s accounting program is a big draw for the college; meanwhile, ethnic studies programs are less useful for the college publicity team than shipping random undergrads to Ghana and snapping photos for Facebook. Even within majors, that cash/sex framework is relevant: more students go to BC to learn about technical theater than playwriting, but technical theater is expensive and space-intensive; meanwhile, you can stick a handful of MFAs in a room in Boylan with Mac Wellman at no cost, and at least one of them will get an Obie.
I’m complicit in this too, of course. The overwhelming majority of student journalists on this campus are humanities majors – mostly in the JAMS department, of course, but also a few English-journalism stragglers, and a surprising number of Film and TV/Radio people as well. This results in very few writers having contacts outside the humanities, which means that college papers are far more likely to report on a sparsely-attended event about journalism in the Trump era than they are, e.g., some groundbreaking scientific discovery in the Biology department. Last semester, I covered the memorial for the late Biology department chair Dan Eshel. It was the first time BC’s student media had even acknowledged the School of Natural Sciences in two years. I’ve been writing for four years, and I don’t think ever I’ve ever seen a student paper write a piece about a psychology course, or a story about the Koppelman School of Business that didn’t involve a business professor making controversial comments on social media. (And again, these are the two biggest majors at the college.) It might seem odd to stick up for the “hard sciences” given the societal push towards them – but they’re the departments that are most affected by chronic underfunding.
I end this article not with a stupid joke but with a genuine plea: if you study something outside of the humanities, and something interesting is going on within your major, let us know. We have a responsibility to represent the BC student body in all its diversity, and our diversity of scholastic pursuits is a part of that. Don’t let this paper dedicate all of its precious column inches to the onanistic ramblings of us humanities majors. We’re not that important, after all, and we’re not that smart. Some of us, I hear, don’t even read.