Because of the devastation caused by SARS-CoV-19 across people, communities, countries, and the world, scholarship must—and will—change. The only question is whether we resist that change or allow it to transform the ways in which academia interacts with the world, our new reality.
The upheaval of academics due to the virus can be seen across the globe. Schools close, and classrooms become computer screens—although not for everyone, computers and the internet are still luxuries—and the conviviality of communal spaces for scholarship: cafeterias, libraries, dorms, sports complexes, all but disappear. These changes are impacting the ways students study and the ways we even think about how we study: we must learn to embrace this.
Global interruptions have long been the nutritious soil for fruitful changes in academia. World War II catapulted modernism into postmodernism, the Cold War brought America and its way of thinking to the forefront of world scholarship, and 9/11 stoked new—and old—fears about the clash of cultures and xenophobia. Scholarship has always rested on cultural shifts and especially shifts that upheave the global order.
This is not to say that the scholarship that comes from all these upheavals lends itself to the faults of ideology that come with the upheaval. Great examples can be seen of how looking at the upheaval sheds new light on connections and evolutions. For instance, Associate Professor of English Hilary Thompson recently published an outstanding book, “Novel Creatures: Animal Life and the New Millennium”, that records a shift in the cultural depictions of animal life before and after the effects of 9/11 (a shrinking of animal life after 9/11), giving scholars vital information on the evolution of literature, cultural understandings, and scholarship itself.
That being said, we are also currently seeing how the SARS-CoV-19 pandemic is destabilizing current scholarship. This is not to say it is negating the millennia of scholarly work that has been done up to this point but rather we are seeing old tricks thrown at problems which are undeniably different than we have ever seen—and I’m not just talking about our country’s government’s response to the virus.
Giorgio Agamben, one of my favorite philosophers, is a great example of a powerhouse thinker that seems unwilling to budge. In recent blog posts by the scholar, he is touting his revolutionary theories of the camp and bare life (which I won’t get into here), and arguing against the government-imposed quarantine in Italy because it takes away human rights. He has asked, “what is a society that has no value other than survival?” In this case, I think we see a scholar applying theory in a monotheistic way, and potentially arguing for a greater sacrifice of life for the sake of the greater good. Sure, there is more nuance to his argument and he is an example perhaps of an extremist academic, but the effect remains the same: he refuses to change the way he thinks through problems even while our reality changes drastically around us.
Of course, there are other philosophers who have disagreed with Agamben, I would point you towards Sergio Benvenuto and Jean-Luc Nancy, both friends of Agamben, who argue against his stubborn philosophical paranoia. As Nancy writes in his essay “Viral Exception,” “Giorgio states that governments take advantage of all sorts of pretexts to continuously establish states of exception. But he fails to note that the exception is indeed becoming the rule in a world where technical interconnections of all kinds (movement, transfers of every type, impregnation or spread of substances, and so on) are reaching a hitherto unknown intensity that is growing at the same rate as the population. Even in rich countries, this increase in population entails a longer life expectancy, hence an increase in the number of elderly people and, in general, of people at risk.” Nancy and Benvenuto show good examples of thinking about our current situation through a better philosophical lens. Though perhaps to really change we need the bad and the good, the Agambens and the Benvenutos, though I hope as future scholars we can try to be like the latter.
Maybe the most interesting part of this new world order we are sliding into to me is that, in some ways, it is not as drastic a shift for the impoverished as for the wealthy. It is something that has been slowly brought to the surface on Blackboard discussion groups and in talks with my peers over FaceTime. For some, the impoverished especially, capitalism failing them is nothing new. The old reality failed (and continues to fail them) again and again.
When the wealthy start to hoard food because they are afraid of food scarcity and having to make do with what they have in their pantry, it reveals a crack in capitalism. Many people across the globe, even a staggering number of Americans, they have always wondered when their next meal would be or when they could possibly run out of food. They have always thought about what happens when a debilitating sickness hits them or when they may lose a job. The faults of the world order of capitalism are being exposed now more than ever. Wealthy people flock to bunkers or the rural communities where many of the very workers they exploit live. They hide from the effects of capitalism, a luxury most people don’t have. Perhaps this will finally make us look away from the wealthy and powerful for the answers for problems that they can barely perceive, and look towards people who are affected by things for better insight. Consider Bernie Sanders, who has vowed to stay in the presidential race because he sees that people who did not take him seriously may actually give a damn now. People are changing their perception of the world, and scholars (people, too) must acknowledge this.
If history has taught us anything, the change in academia is coming. No subsection of scholarship will go unaffected. Sure for sociology, anthropology, the arts, and history these effects will all be easier to see than, say, chemistry, but it will hit chemistry and mathematics. STEM is not immune to culture, no matter how “pure” and “unbiased” as its scholars often aim it to be. Feminist scholars have shown, for instance, how medicine’s powerful eye nearly always views the world through a man’s lens—with this feminist observation things are changing in the medical world. We will all need to research new things and perhaps change how we do research. I’m not referring to Zoom meetings and Blackboard discussion boards, this time will pass, and conviviality will resume on campuses and in classrooms, but our discussions, and how we have those discussions, should change. This virus is showing how interconnected the world is, how individualism can no longer exist in its original ways, how many of our structures we rely on will fail us.
To act as if all these changes will not impact how we conduct scholarship would be absurd. We must adapt and look at the deconstruction of the world around us as the possibility to build it back up even better. To make better scholarship and greater discoveries, we should not throw away all we have done but we also cannot ignore the reality that some of it may not apply, at least not in the same way. If not for scholarship’s relevancy, then for its accuracy. We are witnessing one of the largest destabilizations in history and we must not be blind.
Mitchel Jurasek is a member of the Class of 2021.
Editor’s Note, 4/3/20, 6:31 p.m.: A previous version of this article accidentally omitted several sentences. It has been updated.