The metaphors we use shape the future we create.
Upon entering the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, you are immediately confronted by four enormous Corinthian columns supporting a spacious atrium. There they stand, four strong individuals, each holding up their portion of the larger edifice.
I found myself in this amazing space one early November morning in 2023 to meet a group of beloved colleagues from the HuMetricsHSS team, the University of Washington’s Rethinking the Academy initiative, and Michigan State University’s MESH Research, to imagine what a more just and caring future academy might feel like. Thanks to our colleague Dianne Harris, we gathered for a two-day retreat that began at the National Building Museum and ended, most fittingly, with a restorative walk through the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks. Here was a gift—an expanse of time to be together, to talk and imagine and dream, and to begin to discern a pathway to a future Academy worth wanting.
In reflecting on our time together, I began to think about the spaces we inhabited and the course our conversations took as mile markers along a longer path toward a future Academy enriched by connection, collaboration, and care.
An Inflection Point
Higher education in the United States finds itself at an inflection point. A failure to live out in practice the values higher education institutions profess to advance has not only led to a debilitating cynicism among faculty, students, and the wider public, but also uncovers a performative contradiction the system itself is unable to reconcile. Our policies and practices do not enact the values for which we say we stand: we do not walk our talk.
This performative contradiction is, however, the symptom of a deeper problem. Yes, we are false to our professed principles, but our principles themselves need to be re-imagined from a more ontologically responsible perspective. The systems of higher education in the United States are designed to legitimate and reinforce a conception of subjectivity rooted in the misguided ideology of liberal individualism that presumes independence and self-sufficiency while diminishing the existential importance of relational interdependence. The crisis we face in higher education in the United States is ontological. Our systems are built to support a subject that is thought to be, but is not, independent and self-sufficient. The illusion is not unlike those pillars in the National Building Museum: they seem to stand separate and independent, but without one another, the edifice will collapse.
Until we reckon with this deeper ontological crisis, higher education in the United States will remain incapable of living up to its promise to nurture and advance mutual flourishing in a complex, interconnected world.
In her essay, Higher Education and the Im/Possibility of Transformative Justice, Sharon Stein emphasizes the degree to which this promise has been perverted by conception of the subject that is independent of and separated from the ecological network of relationships that sustains us. Indeed, given the growing political attacks on higher education in contemporary politics, Stein points to an ethical imperative to reimagine higher education from a more relational, interdependent perspective.
As higher education increasingly becomes itself a target of accumulation, there is both an ethical imperative and a political opportunity to imagine futures that do not depend on dispossession. But this remains unthinkable for those who continue to center the modern subject as their primary concern.1
We gathered in DC last November to begin to imagine futures for higher education “that do not depend on dispossession.” This requires us, as Stein rightly emphasizes, to re-imagine the nature of the subjectivity the university has been designed to value and to serve. So long as it remains the modern liberal subject, separated from and elevated above the rich and diverse network of human and more-than-human relationships that sustain us, we will be unable to create a future academy that sustains and nurtures mutual flourishing.
The course of our conversations in DC and the changing location of our gatherings map the possibility of another way of thinking about academic subjectivity. As we moved from the National Building Museum to the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks, we began to think together in more interconnected and dynamic ways. The gardens on the grounds of Dumbarton Oaks offered us another metaphor for thinking about the ontological ground of a re-imagined academy. Here in the gardens, the independent and separated pillars of the National Building Museum gave way to a complex, interconnected expression of beauty and flourishing.
We had entered the sphere of trees and roots and rhizomes. This latter, the rhizome, offers higher education another way to think about the subjectivity that gives it life. Rosi Braidotti has called this a “posthuman subjectivity” in order to emphasize how it points beyond anthropocentrism and the extractive practices of the modern, liberal subject. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s articulation of the rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus,2 Braidotti outlines the characteristics of such a posthuman subject in her book, Posthuman Knowledge.3 These characteristics offer us complex and sophisticated ways of thinking about the kind of subjectivity around which a re-imagined Academy might be organized.
In Posthuman Knowledge, Braidotti gives expression to the posthuman subject as relational, embodied, embedded, and embrained, vulnerable (aware of finitude), transversal (which is to say, intersectional), immanent (connected with the structures that sustain it), and, importantly, animated by joy.
If our metaphors shape the future we create, let the metaphor of the rhizome empower us to imagine and enact a future academy that does justice to interconnection, wholeness, flourishing, and joy.
As this Coalition for the Future Academy itself grows and develops, as it nurtures connections and fosters new collaborations, I will do my best to trace the progress of our evolution, and we invite you to join the effort to re-imagine and co-create the Academy anew.
- Stein, Sharon. “Higher Education and the Im/Possibility of Transformative Justice.” Critical Ethnic Studies 4, no. 1 (2018): 130–53. https://doi.org/10.5749/jcritethnstud.4.1.0130.
- Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. 2nd edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
- Braidotti, Rosi. Posthuman Knowledge. 1st edition. Medford, MA: Polity, 2019.