Skip to main content

3 Questions with Author John Patrick Leary

Posted by on Monday, February 1, 2021 in Robert Penn Waren Center.

John Patrick LearyJohn Patrick Leary will be the guest speaker for the Critical University Studies Seminar meeting on Wed., Feb. 3 at 3:30 PM. He will discuss “From Corporatese to Universities.” Register here.

What do you mean by the word “corporatese” in terms of its use in universities, and how widespread is it?

Well, “corporatese” isn’t my word exactly, but I would say that I would call it something like “business language” or “administrative language.” The reason, to answer your bigger question, is that it’s too widespread, and too at home in the university world, to blame it all on “the suits” from the corporate world. It’s a language that is sunny, optimistic, and broadly unskeptical language speaking in terms of “innovation” and “serendipity” and “changing the world” through big ideas—all of which, for good reason, finds plenty of receptive ears at universities, filled as they are with idealistic people who are enthusiastic about the power of ideas.

What are the benefits of some particular innovation? What are the costs? Who is exploited or overlooked? Who benefits?

The problem, though, is that there is a deep lack of skepticism about the ideas in question here. What are the benefits of some particular innovation? What are the costs? Who is exploited or overlooked? Who benefits? What are the structural obstacles to “changing the world” through whatever project being promoted—a new business school, a “maker space,” a school of design thinking, some sort of digital or online education enterprise, a collaboration with private industry?

 At my old institution, Wayne State, I was continually struck by the disconnect between the airy rhetoric and boundless enthusiasm of the campus administrators for its new “innovation centers”—which were going to revitalize Detroit, harness student and faculty know-how to transform industries, etc.—and the day-to-day struggles of my students, who worked full work weeks at Petsmart or Autozone to pay rising tuition at a college that had stopped stocking the bathrooms with hand towels.

What led to your interest in this topic, and do you think it’s getting the attention that it deserves?

As an English professor, I was interested in close reading, and the meanings that can be revealed by picking words and phrases apart carefully. And I’ve always been inspired by Raymond Williams’ book Keywords, which showed how you can build a wide-ranging analysis from the first building click of a common word. But mostly, I was drawn to the topic out of a deep sense of annoyance with the language of innovation and entrepreneurship.

What have you discovered about yourself through living in a pandemic?

I guess I’ve learned (about myself and the world in general) how quickly one can acclimate oneself to circumstances that might have seemed outlandish a month before. But I would like the opportunity to acclimate myself to a dramatic disruption to business as usual that is actually constructive and exciting, for a change.

John Patrick Leary is the author of A Cultural History of Underdevelopment: Latin America in the US Imagination and, most recently, Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism.