Resisting the Will to Institutionality: A Letter to Roderick Ferguson

Dear Rod,

This is so much more than a thank you letter ever could be, but I will call it that for now as I continue to search for the right words to describe what your work means to me. I just finished re-reading The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (2012) and I am still reeling from the enormity of this project that you have undertaken with such grace and precision.

You have done the difficult, often under-appreciated thing, of asking us to look again, to reevaluate the victories of the Civil Rights Era and, in particular, the interdisciplinary fields that were born in its wake. Your assertion that the establishment of these interdisciplines also signals the advent of new mechanisms of racialization to quantify, regulate, and discipline minoritized subjects and knowledges cuts to the quick. Your words are hard to read and hear and process all at once, especially as someone who identifies as an Asian Americanist, who benefits from those earlier struggles, and whose scholarship is necessarily shaped by them.

And yet, you show us how institutionalization has its costs. Even though it was the end goal, the horizon for many students and activists of the 1960s and 70s–and, in some places, it is still the horizon that slips from grasp–we have to recognize how institutionalization was also used to placate unruly scholar-activists and constrain the energies of antiracist social movements.

Your work presses us to see how what began as struggles for representation and redistribution for under-represented minorities became increasingly framed around the former–desires for institutional visibility and legibility that the academy could appease through the creation of interdisciplines, courses, and programs like affirmative action. However, these additive measures also eclipsed conversations about what a redistribution of resources and a rethinking of the fundamental principles and organizing dynamics of higher education would entail. Too often minoritized bodies are called on to bear the burden of teaching race, class, gender, and sexuality… The creation of interdisciplines like African American studies, Asian American studies, Latina/o studies, Women’s studies, and so on paved the way for scholarship in new, exciting areas, but at the same time made legible the spaces where these issues purportedly “belong” in ways that forestall radical transformation in hegemonic disciplines. This is the vexing double-bind we are in today.

I realize of course that I am summarizing here- you know your work, but I think too that it is worth saying again and again, if only to underscore the importance of this project. Recognizing the dangers and violences of what you call the “will to institutionality,” is after all the first step toward addressing the question, What do we do now? If we can admit that the victories of the 1960s and 70s social movements were not what was hoped for, fought for (at least, not exactly), that racism and structural injustices persist in different forms today, then how might we have to approach our research and teaching differently? How can we inhabit the academy dissidently and create room for addressing the importance of both representation and redistribution?

Your work has given me so much, not least of all, the vocabulary and confidence to take up these questions and continue the project you have started in The Reorder of Things. It has allowed me to think of my scholarship as always an effort to proliferate minoritized subjects and knowledges, especially in the spaces where they have been excluded, delegitimized, and deemed inferior. My dissertation works in and through Asian American studies to articulate how we might not only re-conceive the proper objects and objectives of the field, but also that of the humanities and aesthetic education more broadly. I can only hope that this research will create openings for others to think and do what your work has done for me.

This is all to say thank you for what you research has enabled. Though the terrain is no less treacherous today, it is comforting to know that you are there wading through it too. So, even though words are not, nor will ever be, enough, I want to end by saying thank you thank you thank you for the work you have done and continue to do.

For now,


Just sharing an example of the practice of letter writing I discussed here.

Photo by Elijah O’Donell on Unsplash.

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