From the “Academic Tarot” project (all images courtesy Visionary Futures Collective)

The Visionary Futures Collective, also known as the VFC, is fighting for what higher education needs most: a bringing together of thinkers who “believe in the transformational power and vital importance of the humanities.” And it is doing so in unexpected ways, including its most recent project, “Academic Tarot: The Major Arcana.”

This isn’t just any tarot deck. The 22 Major Arcana are reinterpreted for academics and public scholars living during the pandemic amidst spiritual havoc. The Fool becomes the Grad Student. The Magician becomes the President. The High Priestess becomes the Archivist.

The VFC came to be during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the midst of the long-overdue national reckoning led by the Black Lives Matter movement. Its 22 members are experts in literature, culture, digital humanities, and beyond, hailing from all corners of the US. Co-founders Dr. Hannah-Alpert Abrams and Dr. Brian DeGrazia wanted to make an intentional space for any individual on a college or university campus facing the COVID-19 crisis to help “trace the contours of things that define our shared human condition,” DeGrazia told Hyperallergic.

The “Academic Tarot” is a project of the VFC’s Academic Psychic Friends Network, which circulates a biweekly newsletter about the state of affairs in higher ed. It includes data visualizations sourced from an open access COVID-19 response tracker; student-reported stories on how the pandemic is impacting their work; and “feelings surveys” that report on campus workers’ emotional responses to re-openings. Key word: feelings — the VFC’s starting point, rather than an after-thought, making the VFC’s ethos a pathos. The organization prioritizes the feelings of individuals who teach others how to interpret “being” in text, in art, and now, in themselves. It puts the human back in the humanities.

Tarot is a tool. A way to see ourselves that otherwise may elude us. A storyteller, a mirror, and a coach, tarot helps the reader look inward. The 22 Major Arcana are teachers, a sequence that represents life’s spiritual lessons. “The VFC is all about imagining the world we want to live in, and then identifying actions we can take to move us towards that reality,” said Alpert-Abrams. “Academic Tarot” is one of those tools in the kit.

VFC artist-in-residence Claire Chenette, a Grammy-nominated Knoxville Symphony Orchestra musician furloughed due to COVID-19, brought the tarot cards to life. What began as a three-card project to complement the VFC newsletter grew in spirit and in number.

The Defense (Judgement) depicts a woman defending her dissertation about the pros and cons of stuffed vs. real life cats as emotional support companions, offering insights about the inner calling.

“Rudderless,” Chenette told Hyperallergic, “I kept painting. People told me the images made them laugh out loud. Or that they hit hard. Or that they even made them cry, but that it needed to happen.”

Instead of setting a lens upon infection spikes or a political agenda, “Academic Tarot” flips the script. “In tarot, the cards read us,” the VFC gently instructs, “telling a story about ourselves that can provide clarity, guidance, and hope.” What is this pandemic if not humans protecting themselves and their communities? “Academic Tarot”encourages pausing the thinking self to reflect on the feeling self.

VFC co-founder Hannah Alpert-Abrams told Hyperallergic, “It allows me to use my skills as a student of literature in an act of close reading that requires imagination, care, and critique.”

The Dep’t Admin (The Hierophant) holds a large ring of keys as they write an email to faculty.

The deck’s editorial and artistic team wanted an inclusive way to manifest a better future in higher ed with all those messy human experiences and feelings in tow: humor, beauty, fear, intentionality, struggle.

“If there are aliens Googling us, they must think that humans are 100% heteronormative white, super-hotties, and also 95% male,” said Chenette, who relied on resources like Qwear, a queer-centered fashion hub.

Chenette and VFC tarot interpreter Elizabeth Grumbach realized that the act of graduate study evoked the Fool’s traditional characteristics, provoking its reimagination as the Grad Student: “On this journey,” Grumbach explained, “we don’t yet know the things we don’t know.” “Academic Tarot” helps us see what we might not realize is there all along.

The Cohort (The Lovers) march in protest holding a sign that reads “Hate has no home on campus.” They offer harmony and in reverse, self-love and misalignment, major opposing tenets of the academic life.

Chenette continued, “I wanted to elevate the mundane, creating images that could bring levity … but also to capture the inescapable tragedy and anxiety of this moment. I wanted the characters in the cards to be normal people in academia doing (almost) normal things, to demonstrate the absurdity inherent in our current reality.”

Stephanie Malak is a writer and editor working between literary advocacy and public scholarship. She holds a PhD in Latin American literature and resides in Los Angeles.