Ask us a question and we'll draw a card for you.

Let's say: How can studying dark academia give us hope for higher education?


from Hannah

An illustration of a glass bottle with the words "Delicious Desolation" in gold on the front, surrounded by a blue background that has the effect of being painted.
Artwork by Saronik Bosu.

I light rose-scented incense, a gift from Rachel Colwell, an ethnomusicologist whose Sympathology project has taught me about using sensory experience to find healing at the edge of rational thought.1 I set out an Indigo Gabbro crystal, a gift from digital humanities visionary Liz Grumbach, which brings balance and protection.

I shuffle the deck, lay it out, and wait to see which card calls to me.

In traditional tarot, card XI is the card of justice. In this deck, which I designed along with Liz Grumbach, Claire Chenette, Sonya Donaldson, and other members of the Visionary Futures Collective, the card is "The Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee.''2 In the traditional card, a woman representing justice stands between two pillars, holding a sword and a golden scale. In this card, three young people stand together in the doorway of a library, wearing protective face masks. One holds a scale, representing justice. In place of a sword, the other holds a to-go espresso cup.

Upright, The DEI Committee is the card of fairness, of truth, and of the law. But I drew the card reversed. From the Reader's Guide: "Reversed, this card represents unfairness, a lack of accountability, or dishonesty. Recognize where justice is not being served, and act decisively."3

Let this card be our introduction to dark academia: the novels, videos, wardrobes, and songs inspired by university life that Mitch Therieau, in this cluster, describes as "tools for aspirational self-fashioning and reparative self-soothing."4 Let the library, with its ornately carved wood and leather-bound books, represent the romanticized version of elite universities. Let the gold scale of justice allow us to imagine the elite university as a site of literal or metaphorical magic.

As is the case with so many of the characters of dark academia, the three members of the DEI committee are in tension with this romanticized ideal of the university. They reflect the realities of working or studying in an institution that has been corrupted by its association with money and prestige, that is violent in its assertions of power. Their fight for justice is one that the magic of the university may not be able to contain.


The Visionary Futures Collective is a loosely organized community of humanists working in and around the academy who share two beliefs: the study of human history and cultural expression is essential to a more just and meaningful society, and current conditions in higher education are incompatible with the work of the humanities.

The VFC originated as a small group of colleagues interested in using digital humanities methods to respond to the structural violence of academic employment, particularly in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. We first came together in the summer of 2020 to collaborate on a project that aimed to visualize and resist campus reopening policies that seemed both unsafe and exploitative. We found that along with a place to direct our outrage and fear, we needed a community where we could find care, support, joy, and even hope. 

Membership in the VFC is open to anyone who shares our goals, across institutions, disciplines, and positions. Initiatives led by VFC members have ranged from surveys and data visualizations to newsletters, rituals, community gatherings, and support for union organizing. Our work prioritizes three pathways to transformation: shared vulnerability, radical transparency, and collective action.5 Communities we have advocated for include international students, caregivers, and those vulnerable to COVID-19.

In writing this piece we have come to recognize that in three ways, the VFC operates in a space that could be designated as dark academia. We find that much of dark academia, despite its edginess, tends to work in collusion with the neoliberal academy. In our work with the VFC, in contrast, we are repurposing the tools of dark academia to break through its stultifying indulgences and create spaces for enthusiasm and transformative action.

How does the VFC match up with dark academia?

Most importantly, we have a very cute aesthetic. The first thing many of us think of when we hear "dark academia"is the clothing and home decor posted by influencers on social media. In the case of the VFC, member Quinn Dombrowski has designed a whole wardrobe around our work featuring bright fabrics, playful designs, and apocalyptic themes, which you can view at their Twitter account.

Second, we exist in response to the emotional devastation wrought by the neoliberalization of the academy. Peter Fleming uses the term "dark academia" to describe this process in his eponymous book.6 Fleming's use of the term is not in reference to social media, video games, and novels. It speaks more directly to the dark academia that many of us live every day.

For many of us, the humanities have become a site of personal, professional, and collective loss. For example: I chased the tenure track across the country, sacrificing relationships, community, family, and financial security before deciding to take a different path and finding employment outside of higher education. I mourn the career I thought I wanted and the research and teaching I left behind.

Whether we are in the academy or have made our escape, many VFC members struggle with the distance between the vocation we were called to and the contingent and exploitative conditions of our employment, as Fobazi Ettarh has articulated so powerfully in the context of librarianship.7 Some of us are international students whose research has been violently interrupted by university administrations' intransigence in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Some of us are caregivers who have been asked to choose between our jobs and the safety of our loved ones. Still others struggle with insecure employment as we move between postdoctoral, lecturer, and adjunct positions. VFC members support each other through these difficulties and mourn these losses even as we work to change the conditions that create them.

Third, the VFC operates within an imaginary where there is a better future for higher education. In much of the popular fiction classified as dark academia, magic (either literal or metaphorical) is the tool that saves the protagonists from the violence of capitalism's hold on higher education. As a stand-in for the esoteric and powerful knowledge that scholars are responsible for, magic suggests that academia still has something worth believing in. Magic, however, is seldom democratically distributed. In fact, access to magic in these books is heavily gatekept, and it provides most of the obstacles that the protagonists have to overcome. In the process, they fashion themselves into savior figures or chosen ones.

Movement up the tiers in academia, from grad student to tenure-track faculty to full professor, replicates the myth of the chosen one, and we are conditioned to see this process as natural and even good. In the neoliberal university, this requires, as Caroline Mann and Lucia Tang write in this cluster, the rituals of "an aesthetics-driven magical thinking."8

But chosen ones do not offer enduring systemic solutions, which collective and communitarian work can do. In books like A Discovery of Witches, Ninth House, and Binding Shadows, the protagonists use their special access to magic to resist the violence of the neoliberal university.9 But the success of magic in these situations, paradoxically, overwrites the possibility of real institutional transformation through grassroots, collective action.10

Those of us who were drawn into academia in part by fantasies of a magical space for intellectual pursuit may struggle with our response to the realities of work in the neoliberal university. This is where the VFC departs from dark academia. We divest from the place-based magicality of the institution, creating our own rituals within virtual environments to build extra-institutional and non-hierarchical relationships from which grassroots actions can take form.


from Saronik

An illustration of a scroll slightly unrolled. The top of the paper shows a faceless drawing of a person's head, with simple illustrations of the moon phases next to it. The background is a splotchy mix of white and dark greenish turquoise.
Artwork by Saronik Bosu.

A large part of the international student experience is a search for the center that holds, or the fantasy of a center, and then holding on to it for dear life. It could be daily calls with family back in the home country, or hangouts with your found family in your country of study; it could be that rare advisor who understands the peculiar challenges of international student life, or the promises of life with a partner you have met during your study. The centrifugal forces that you fight in the process always outsize you most crucially the vagaries of the student visa.

If you are on an F1 visa in the US, for example, you shall not work off-campus, even to make ends meet. In the midst of a pandemic with rapidly changing travel restrictions, you shall not be able to get your visa renewed without traveling to your home country. Of course we came to the US having accepted the differences between the image of international students that immigration laws work with, and the image of higher education in a Western country that is sold to us. At an event I attended to prepare for my journey to the US back in 2016, a speaker described in the same breath the community that informal brown bag lunches foster, and how ICE raids, should they happen, usually take place very early in the morning. The joys of international student life have clear costs, and they come with anxieties that keep you suspended in a constant state of at least mild disorientation and desperation.

Dark academia provides an atmosphere in which you can experience such anxieties, but potentially cuts you off from actual support when these anxieties prove too strong for its built environments. Say your ways home have been blocked by a combination of pandemic-induced travel restrictions and strict visa stipulations that have refused to change in response to global crises. You wander around your Ivy League or Oxbridge campus; deserted corridors with pointed arches and that hidden plush chair in a rarely visited corner of the library are inviting sites for working through loneliness and maybe even a kind of Weltschmerz. These sites represent what Amelia Horgan has identified as the structure of feeling that defines dark academia: "the fantasy of uninterrupted time and deep concentration, afforded by the quietude of elite campuses...[which offer] cocooned possibilities of specialness."11 These sites allow us to romanticize ugly feelings and tell us that certain forms of pain make us special. They refuse us catharsis, however, or the opportunity to find healing and community through shared experiences.

This paradox is especially acute in the lives of international students from erstwhile colonized nations. I did my undergraduate studies in English in one of the oldest colonial universities in India, which taught me how to be fond of humanistic studies conducted in dark rooms with vaulted ceilings, many of our curricula unchanged since the nineteenth century. It also taught me to exteriorize difficult feelings, often unrelated to my studies, not only onto the texts that I was reading, but also to the dramatic ambience that my historic institution provided. I have to admit that the desire to chase that aesthetic underwrote my choices when I was applying for grad school in the UK and the US years later. Since then, however, having been in grad school for over five years now, opportunities for hiding in a reading nook in a gothic library have become less tantalizing when they imply a solitude that comes at the cost of indispensable community.

In an effort to combat solitude like this, the VFC conducted a survey of international students' experiences in the pandemic, where we asked what an ideal version of that experience would look like.12 A majority of the responses hoped for the systems of both higher education and immigration to be kinder, and to do more to fight systemic and deliberate racism. The main takeaway from the survey, as we wrote in a newsletter, was that "international students need more transparency and less bullshit, free mental health care, more awareness of the cultural and financial realities they go through, jobs outside campus and no more visa restrictions!"13 Students from the Global South are inordinately more endangered by the problems represented here; not even the pandemic has been a leveler of international student experiences. The survey allowed us to locate some of the shared pains of international student lives, but also to identify common struggles and feelings among those of us studying under these uncertain conditions.

The survey also helped me personally to realize that I have left behind certain fantasies that took up a lot of headspace, but didn't afford me any pleasure or escape that looked constitutively different from my problems. In other words, my fantasies have now changed their objects, their shapes and textures. In my years as an international grad student, infinitely more than solitary studies in moodlit alcoves with artisanal coffee, I've benefited from union meetings in flatly lit basements with cheap pizza. I still fantasize about libraries, but I dream about them being opened up to the public, hosting free events, making sleeping arrangements for unhomed students, and being funded by the endowment redirected from its professedly arcane self-multiplying remit.14


from Hannah and Saronik

A simple illustration of a person wearing glasses whose lenses are brightly illuminated by the laptop screen in front of them. The person is wearing an all blue outfit that could be pajamas. Their right hand is propping up their chin and their left hand is resting on an open notebook. On the table they have a mug of coffee or tea, and beside them is a a green plant with large leaves. The background and and several of the objects are a pinkish orange.
Artwork by Saronik Bosu.

Once we have rescued it from the clutches of dark academia, can magic save us from the violence of capitalism's chokehold on higher education?

In dark academia, magic can only be accessed through prestigious institutions. The characters of Ninth House draw strength from nodes of power created through violence and embedded in Yale's campus. In contrast, the VFC works hard to keep our power diffuse and dispersed. We call in from our home offices (or our one-bedroom New York City apartments) and from our many, varied campuses, implementing extra-institutional solidarity with each ritual we perform. When we read tarot with striking graduate students on NYU's virtual picket line, we found strength in our shared values and vulnerabilities as we supported those fighting for change.

In dark academia, magic is the purview of chosen families and chosen individuals. The characters of A Discovery of Witches and Binding Shadows find power in their family lineages, and those of Ninth House find power in their affiliation with secret societies. In contrast, the VFC aims to be non-hierarchical in the way we build relationships and do our work. The Campus Caregivers project was led by alt-acs; the Student Pandemic Experience project led by adjuncts; the International Student Survey led by international graduate students; Academic Tarot was designed by a furloughed artist. Every once in a while, a tenured faculty member even gets involved.

Many of the members of the VFC practice magic. We light incense, we conduct grounding rituals, we draw tarot cards. Our magic, with its accompanying rituals and fantasies, might look like dark academia. But in crucial ways, the work of the VFC dismantles the deceptive metaphors of magic that dark academia implies will lead to transformative change in the context of higher education. This is where our hope for the future of higher education comes from.

For the VFC, magic is a way of opening space: for shared vulnerability, for transparency, for collective action. Academic Tarot, the satirical tarot deck that VFC members designed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, has become a site of common action. In Academic Tarot, as Stephanie Malak describes, each traditional tarot card has been substituted for an academic stand-in.15 The Fool is The Grad Student; the Wheel of Fortune is The Job Market; Death is The Alt-Ac.

At the beginning of this piece, we asked: How can studying dark academia give us hope for higher education? The card we drew was The DEI Committee (reversed), the Academic Tarot substitute for Justice. Replacing Justice with The DEI Committee was tongue-in-cheek: because we believe in justice for higher education, but also because we see how higher education uses the trappings of justice to reinforce inequity.

As is often the case with tarot, drawing the DEI Committee tells us what we already know. A careful analysis of dark academia reveals the unfairness, lack of accountability, and dishonesty in higher education. In part, this is because academia itself is dishonest, is unfair, and lacks accountability. And in part, this is because the usage of magic and/or scholarship as a tool for resistance, in the novels of dark academia and the tropes that they export to imaginaries of academic life, is dishonest.

Academia will not be saved by chosen ones, and in fact, academia may not deserve to be saved at all.16 But for us, the magic doesn't happen through the drawing of the cards. The power of our work, and the hope that it engenders, comes from drawing the cards together; from finding a community with shared struggles, shared values, shared goals.17 The people who make up our academic institutions, the work we do, and the relationships we build: those are worth fighting for.

Hannah Alpert-Abrams (@hralperta) seeks to use technology to build community, increase transparency, fight inequity, and create a better future for the humanities. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Saronik Bosu (@SaronikB) is a doctoral candidate at New York University where he is writing his dissertation on economic thought and literature in India. He co-hosts the podcast "High Theory," which produces tiny episodes on difficult ideas. He also coaches students in making podcasts and faculty in teaching them. His work has been published in journals such as Interventions, Movable Type, and Avidly. He also makes art, which has been published in journals like On Eating


  1. Rachel Colwell, "Sympathology: the feelings pharmacy," Creativitches, accessed January 21, 2022. []
  2. The Visionary Futures Collective, "Academic Tarot," accessed January 21, 2022. []
  3. The Visionary Futures Collective, "Academic Tarot Readers Guide," accessed March 7, 2022.[]
  4. Mitch Therieau, "The Novel of Vibes," Post45: Contemporaries, March 15, 2022.[]
  5. Of the many who have served as models for our work, we name just a few here: Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown; Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks; Data Feminism by Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren Klein; the collectively-authored Torn Apart/Separados and COVID Black.[]
  6. Peter Fleming, Dark Academia: How Universities Die (Pluto Press, 2021).[]
  7. Fobazi Ettarh, "Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves," In The Library With The Lead Pipe, January 10, 2018.[]
  8. Caroline Mann and Lucia Tang, "Dark Glamor Magic," Post45: Contemporaries, March 15, 2022.[]
  9. Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches (New York: Penguin Books, 2011); Leigh Bardugo, Ninth House (New York: Flatiron Books, 2019); Jasmine Silvera, Binding Shadows (Seattle: No Inside Voice Books, 2020). Thanks to Noa Balf, Jess Marx, Liz Richardson, and Lindsay Wahowiak for crucial early conversations about these books.[]
  10. A parallel to these plots can be found even in books without any magic. For example, in Micah Nemerever's These Violent Delights desire functions as a kind of magic and resistance is, well, murder.[]
  11. Amelia Horgan, "The "Dark Academia" Subculture Offers a Fantasy Alternative to the Neoliberal University," Jacobin, December 19, 2021.[]
  12. Saeide Mirzaei framed the initial language of the international students' survey. She and Sara Rico Godoy worked towards its dissemination, and Brian DeGrazia provided invaluable guidance for the whole process.[]
  13. International Students at the VFC, "[takeover]: international students," Academic Psychic Friends Network, July 20, 2021.[]
  14. Stephen Wood, "A university president responds to those who have suggested the school should dip into the endowment," McSweeney's, May 15, 2020; Kelly Grotske, "Are Endowments Damaging Colleges and Universities?," The American Prospect, February 12, 2021.[]
  15. Stephanie Malak, "A Tarot Deck Offers Spiritual Solace to Scholars," Hyperallergic, February 9, 2021.[]
  16. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, "Your Institution Does Not Deserve to Survive," June 26, 2020.[]
  17. Four Queens, "Today Must Be Sunday: Visionaries Futures Collective with Teresa Carmody and Shameka Cunnigham," YouTube, December 6, 2021.[]