In Florida

Michael Hofmann

We are a small part of a shrinking thing, tail to a dwindling dog, or that thing that, in Yeats, is fastened to the dying animal. The heart; the soul. The dying animal is the English department, perhaps the humanities as a whole. When I started at the University of Florida, thirty years ago, the department offered sometimes thin but fairly uninterrupted coverage from the Middle Ages to modern times. Or even Modern Times. There were sidelines in film studies, gender studies, children’s literature. Some other things. There was a faculty of eighty. Now it is a little under half that. All idea of coverage has been binned. We have someone who teaches the 18th century. An impresario who sometimes does Shakespeare. One or two that teach poetry. We have been hollowed out. We have certain specialisations, called ‘concentrations’. These enable us, without directly competing with them, to draw students away from other universities. We follow the trend. We chase the customer.

And ‘we’, the tail or the soul, not in any spiritual sense, but as an appendage – an ornament, if you want to be nice about it – ‘we’ are two fiction writers and three poets. Creative writing has been taught at Florida since the early times, the 1940s, when it started in Iowa and then quickly spread pretty well everywhere. An MFA programme has existed here since the 1990s. In America, if you want to do something, you have to organise it, and organise it defensively. Nothing but an institution will survive the chill winds of practicality, which usually means dollar signs. Informality doesn’t stand a chance.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, we were sitting pretty. The programme had just shifted from two to three years; the postgraduate intake was six poets and six fictionistas; there were enough English majors and undergraduate writing classes to keep our MFAs employed and interested (because in this system, the graduates teach the undergraduates); their stipends were not lavish but competitive in an inexpensive town, and the thing chugged and hummed. Or wagged and beat. Our MFAs had time to write and teach; many went on to publish and find jobs and win prizes; we, the faculty – while basically, as I well understood, being paid not to write – taught graduate and undergraduate classes, but were nevertheless able to write some; we competed with the best schools for the limited pool of interesting applicants; our undergraduates left having learned something of reading and writing. It felt like a virtuous circle, the parts interacting with the other parts to the benefit of all.

Anything that happened could only shake our little idyll. Though then again, we were so obscure, so inoffensive, so small, so efficient, what could possibly happen? We began with a measure of autonomy. There was the always touching display of people who are good at something else (Pope, as it might be, or Dickens, or Ford Madox Ford) taking turns at being briefly administrators. (Unlike our vaunting administrators, who so far as I can tell are good at absolutely nothing.) It was like playing house. There were little bits of money to subsidise travel, to invite guest speakers. And the whole thing was devolved government, grass-roots democracy. We ran our little show. We knew what we needed and were sometimes able to get it. We put people forward for this or that. Did our committee work, chose our intake, replaced faculty who left.

Things got bureaucratic and fiscalised. There was more jargon, more acronyms, more metrics. Fatuous measurements were introduced, to express in hopelessly inadequate numbers what we were endeavouring to do with words. Pepsi got a monopoly on drinks machines. Students were discouraged from using their offices on campus. We had to account for our own presence there. In our brutalist 1970s building – designed, it was said, to be indefensible and sit-in-proof – there were no longer any chance conversations at the copy machine or the water-cooler. It’s always midnight now, all the time.

Managerial layers that once protected us from administrative curiosity – to put it no higher; others might speak of mischief or idiocy – were stripped away. People who once might have been expected to stand in the way seemed rather to turn on us; the downward transmission of power became the rule. Our laborious and trivial autonomy became merely burdensome, a foolish pretence, a charade. Think of replacing the threads in a mobile with metal coat-hangers. There is no give, no movement, no flexibility, no sway, no grace; only a tautening; a jerky, creaky, clanking, humourless expression of will over long distances, with little to choose between push and pull.

The pace of change accelerated in 2019 when Ron DeSantis became governor of Florida, and again last year when the boyish Nebraska senator Ben Sasse pulled the plug on his (I thought, perfectly viable) political career to become the president of our university. He quit as though in a hurry, in the middle of a six-year term. For some reason, he was the only candidate for a million-dollar job; faculty and students voted against him, not that we had a vote; the trustees of the state university system – political appointees, fundraisers and donors – enthusiastically installed him. He fits the 18th-century concept of a ‘placeman’ more closely than anyone I can think of.

Since February 2023 he has been here among us, but not with us. ‘Missing’ posters have been put up with his face on them. A cabal of Nebraskans – I thought of Mandelstam’s line from ‘The Stalin Epigram’, ‘big friends from home’ – protects him. The contrast between him and his kindly, ineffectual predecessor, Kent Fuchs, who spent weeks saying public goodbyes to all comers – he had a desk put out for him under the trees in front of the library – is absolute. Sasse does not use the office set aside for him, nor does he speak to any of the locals, even when they are his employees and colleagues. I imagine him with a Nebraskan chef, a Nebraskan valet, a Nebraskan taster. His homeschooled children are – oh, somewhere.

It seems there is only one model for today’s ‘man of action’, and that is Shock and Awe. Overwhelming force deployed suddenly and overwhelmingly. A theatrical performance with no audience as such, only a houseful of victims. The lions eat the circus and then tweet about it. Ask no questions, tell only lies, and double down, triple down, quadruple down. The ineffably stupid ‘move fast and break things’ that has so much to answer for in our time. Our new ‘Innovation Hub’ has an asinine three-word slogan: ‘Grow Ignite Disrupt’. It would make just as much sense to have ‘Paper Scissors Stone’ for a motto. And rather more to have ‘Smash Grab Run’.

Sasse wanted, it was claimed, to spend a few months to take ‘soundings’ but he’s in fact as unresponsive as Ulysses lashed to his mast. (Nor does he answer letters, not even when personally addressed, courteously written and submitted in triplicate via US Mail, campus mail and email.) More than $4 million is being spent on an analysis of the institution by McKinsey the management consultants. (It so happens that management consultancy is Sasse’s business background.)

A New York Times photographer, Mark Peterson, managed to snap him lurking in or issuing from an unidentified building on campus in running kit in the very early hours. It is one of the most haunting photographs I have even seen. The phrase ‘aggressively furtive’ came to mind. An accompanying piece by Michael Sokolove, who had to travel two hundred miles into the Florida Panhandle for the privilege of catching a rare, semi-secret public appearance from our president, managed to quote a chunder of management speak (‘techno-futurist patois’ is Sokolove’s phrase), words spoken fast, distressingly ugly, and making no obvious sense. All of which is exactly the point. You flood the zone with shit, as Steve Bannon nobly explained.

While we wait for the former senator’s moves – and he for McKinsey’s expensive and predictable wisdom (what price ‘Grow Ignite Disrupt’?) – his minions, our bosses, are displaying their anticipatory obedience. ‘One whistles, another meows, a third snivels,’ Mandelstam writes, in that poem again, in the translation by W.S. Merwin and Clarence Brown. There is nothing like the experience of working for people who hate you – or maybe they don’t hate you, they just have a funny way of showing their appreciation. Or perhaps their unawareness that you exist.

We are forever being told there is no demand for our product, that the number of undergraduate English majors is on the skids, though a 2 per cent decline from a previous year hardly seems dramatic; true, the graduate applications are volatile and contingent on the general economy, but there are always dozens in poetry, and scores in fiction. There was said to be a hole in the college budget. It was stressed that we weren’t being asked to make up for it; it sure felt like we were. Menacingly, we are told that no university houses 199 academic units, as we do. This number – our glory? – is by some opaque reckoning too big. A new humanities institute, the Hamilton Center, has sprung up with apparently limitless separate funding, and is everyone’s blue-eyed boy. There is endless noise about AI.

Meanwhile, tenure is being nibbled away at. We are looking at a ‘post-tenure review’. We are offered new hires, but with strange strings attached. Staff are taken away from us; a need is identified, and a vacancy confirmed by someone in HR; but they are not replaced. The workload of those remaining goes up by 20 or 30 per cent. We are told we have too much leave, and that we are not sufficiently productive in our research. No sense of a contradiction there. Nor when the president tells us, indirectly of course, that we are a rocket ship of a university, and that we need to move very fast and make lots of changes. At least, with his ‘break things’, Mark Zuckerberg was a little honest.

Covid provides cover for anything and everything. We taught remotely then; so why not now? Our reduced complement of MFAs are teaching workshop classes of over twenty, while we for now share our wisdom with four or five of them; out of pity, the third years agree to attend, even though they are under no obligation to do so. If we had a bigger intake, we could have proper ten or twelve-strong workshops, and the MFAs would have manageable classes to teach. What happened to a humane arithmetic? There is a push for more ‘student contact hours’ – bigger classes – that ignores our delicate workshop model, but also such things as the health and safety rules of laboratories. For some reason it is proposed that all classes in anything be the same size. Nineteen is a number. Twenty-five is another. Procrustes may be forced to rethink there.

We are frightened by the relaxing of gun laws, by the banning of books, the impugning of subjects, the politicisation and subsequent termination of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), the stacking of boards, the close supervision of gendered bathrooms, the dissemination of all our materials. (Governor DeSantis’s flightpaths over Iowa, New Hampshire and California remain a closely guarded secret.) There are new laws that warn us we may be recorded by students in class, though only for the purposes of bringing a suit against us for political indoctrination.

The Wall Street Journal recently put us at number one on a list of American public universities, but we took it rather as the impassioned if unnecessary expression of a political point of view than any accurate or considered reflection of anything. This happens when you are ruled by people who have neither understanding nor respect for what you do, for whom you are reduced to ein Politikum, a plaything, a way of sticking it to the libs. In a recent survey of the faculty, over 80 per cent of us would not recommend going to Florida to study; frankly, I’m surprised it’s not 100.

From early on in DeSantis’s governorship, it was apparent that here was someone who took extreme pleasure in malice and cruelty. In him, the political is personal. Which is to say he has no politics beyond the reach of his shadow, neither care nor imagination nor interest. Here was someone who had witnessed and approved force-feeding at Guantánamo. He told asylum seekers there was something waiting for them, and flew them to the middle of nowhere (he alone had the pleasure of knowing it was the playground of the enemy, Martha’s Vineyard). He took funds away from schools that, against his wishes, kept mask regulations in force. He sacked a public prosecutor in Tampa who said he wouldn’t criminalise abortion, and another in Orange County who refused to turn a blind eye to police crimes. He fired a data scientist who collated coronavirus statistics. He seems to have special antennae attuned to the category ‘small opposition’. And these individuals – librarians! – he goes after with his thunderbolts, with the astonishing array of state power. Not bad for a party that claims to want to drown it in a bathtub.

His special animadversion is education: teachers, school libraries, syllabuses, test preparation. Dreary enough, ordinarily, to kit out the most colourless political career imaginable, but because invested by DeSantis with a kind of berserker fury, and because the annihilation of his tiny targets implies a vast inversion, an extraordinary attention to detail and limitless reserves of force, terrifying. How does he know? What does he care? Why does he bother? It all makes for a formidable politics of intimidation. This kind of thing feels like it’s only ever been deployed historically in spy-riddled, denunciatory or panoptical societies, but the new technology makes it possible; first the discovery of the hold-out, the lone exception, and then the magnification of the consequent annihilation.

In Sarasota, in South Florida, DeSantis took it upon himself to take a small liberal arts college, New College of Florida – six hundred students, founded by Unitarians in 1960 – and give it a conservative overhaul. He named Richard Corcoran, former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, president, appointed a bunch of mostly out-of-state ideologues to the board, and settled back to watch the damage. It’s the small target that really gives bang for the buck. The faculty quit, the students were terrorised, the press was agog, intellectual standards plummeted, jocks enrolled and sports teams were started up. (Previously, there had been no sport other than sailing in Sarasota Bay.)

It all looks suspiciously like a dry run for the fifty-times-bigger UF. It’s strange to think of the mortality of institutions. Things that are the product of many lifetimes ending in one’s own. How easily and cavalierly the works of decades and centuries are demolished. ‘The real end of the world is the destruction of the spirit,’ Karl Kraus wrote; ‘the other kind depends on the insignificant attempt to see whether after such a destruction the world can go on.’ Already Sasse’s Nebraskans have seen off the advanced degree in Latin. And now onto the soft subjects among the other 198. These almost unnatural, intricate, baroque human formations now feel like road-kill, or water-kill: like the manatees, overwintering on supermarket lettuce because the seagrass has been killed off by algal blooms gorged on nitrates, huddling in the warm waste water of the Crystal River power plant, to be scabbed and traumatised by passing airboats. Florida, not Austria, is Kraus’s crucible for the end of the world, the Versuchsstation des Weltuntergangs: the state where education, like so much else, increasingly goes to die.


  • 4 April 2024 at 7:44pm
    Nicole Harvey says:
    After closely following the debacle at New College, I had been hoping to hear from Hoffman on the endangerment of scholarship in Florida.
    Having been witness to program dissolution at a university where I was a teaching assistant, his report was chilling. While my own (allegedly) liberal school was motivated toward cuts for purely financial reasons, it's hard not to read into the situation when trustees are often a who's who of the managerial class.
    That school bureaucracy is now touched by ultra-conservative dogma is the natural progression for Florida: it was just last month that Viktor Orbán visited Mar-A-Lago, and a failed presidential run for DeSantis means he has more time to double down on perfecting an ideological state.

  • 5 April 2024 at 12:39am
    Harriet says:
    Is it the desire of all institutions to destroy? Isn't government, by its very nature, designed to oppress the will of its subjects? It appears to me that only a complete psychotic would run for office. The best and the brightest have departed the world of governance. A dark age is hovering over the West; the United States will provide the match that will strike the flint.

  • 7 April 2024 at 9:52am
    Ian Sheperd says:
    Beautiful words about ugly ideloogues

  • 10 April 2024 at 3:00pm
    Mark Harrison says:
    If only we could have seen it coming. The forces in play here have been in motion for a quarter century and tenured faculty have not addressed it and in many ways aided and abetted.

  • 12 April 2024 at 4:00pm
    alex b says:
    Whining about this 30 years in after never standing up in an actionable or meaningful way: the typical humanities professors 1980-2024. Smug job, nice gig, got lucky, born in the right zipcode and decade. Waited it out, got old, got fat. Now you can retire and watch the smoke from afar and write articles to pretend you were the morally good actors after contributing... what to the fight? More articles? Get high on a mystical class on Deleuze? Do another line of Kraus? Get your money. Go back to sleep. Thanks. RIP. -gen z working class

    • 13 April 2024 at 4:54am
      steven rutkowski says: @ alex b
      you taking on hoffman is like a flea jumping on the back of a lion.

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