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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, May 01, 2009

An op-ed so bad, we had to post on it twice

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 05/01/09 at 06:44 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

Dear readers: every time I try to get out, they keep pulling me back in. I don’t know why the New York Times published Mark Taylor’s op-ed on “ending the university.” If they hadn’t done so, I could have kept on with the work of figuring out how to write my dissertation without a teaching position, as UCI will probably not renew its TA contracts for seventh-year graduate students.

But instead, I have to add to Marc Bousquet’s characteristically wonderful reaction piece my own observations about Taylor’s faddish and wrongheaded plan for academic “reform.” Thankfully, Bousquet has saved me the trouble of responding to Taylor’s calls for the end of tenure, and to his off-the-cuff, factually incorrect statements about the job market and probable compensation for so-called “contingent” faculty (who do not have tenure and are not on a tenure track).

I am throwing in my own two cents because still more of Taylor’s arguments compel a response: first, his proposal for re-inventing the dissertation; second, his ideas for re-designing the disciplines, ideas that are very subtly and very insidiously political.

Taylor believes that graduate students should produce multimedia dissertations, along the lines of undergraduate “final papers,” which have been transformed into all kinds of other rhetorical exercises, including websites, video games, films, and so on.

The overwhelming direction of these new assignments options is towards visual media; there is, increasingly, an assumption that visual media (or mixed media with some text) is preferable to plain text. This is not necessarily the case. It should go without saying that a certain depth of analysis usually requires a predominance of text. Of course it is possible to create a film that conveys as much meaning as a book, but the people who can do this usually end up in film school. The reason that most dissertations end up in a dusty attic, metaphorically speaking, is that they are written for a small audience of specialists rather than for Malcolm Gladwell’s audience. The problem is one of content, not one of form. Graduate students could be encouraged to write for a popular audience, but this would naturally lead to a disconnect between the demands of two very different readerships. Perhaps we have reached a point in the cultural history of the West where specialization no longer holds much value for us, other than in practical fields like medicine. Be that as it may, we have to discuss the matter directly, and not dodge it by telling graduate students to put their ideas about Duns Scotus in the form of a theology video game.

On to the second proposal. Taylor writes that we should

...abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

This goes together with his insistence that academia be regulated and reformed in the same way as “Detroit” and “Wall Street.” To begin with, one can only wish that academia received the same treatment as the villains in the world financial crisis, who were bailed out in handsome fashion because their services were deemed indispensable to the society. Moreover, in looking at Taylor’s proposed new disciplines, we discover a very cynical conglomeration of topics that would feel at home in a newspaper’s Sunday magazine, all of which quietly reinforce the capitalist notion of the empowered, optimized, mechanized individual. In other words, Taylor’s naive belief that Wall Street and Detroit are the thriving beneficiaries of centralized liberal planning—as opposed to irresponsible entities exploiting their stranglehold over taxpayers by dragging everyone down with them—is an alibi for Wall Street that goes hand-in-hand with his desire to re-frame academic labor in terms of politically acquiescent “deliverables.”

Consider how ludicrous it is to discuss “Time” as part of a program with a built-in “sunset date” of seven years, after which point it will be either “abolished, continued or significantly changed.” According to this model, the “Time” program is already defined in advance by a “project completion date.” It is unthinkable that such a nebulous “ad hoc” field would produce any radical new insights; instead, after seven years, the researchers would of course come to the conclusion that there are two types of time: managed occupational time, and leisure time, which we need to feel happy and fulfilled. They would cite old studies by Ford, and new ones conducted by Google at their employee complex, in order to help answer questions about how to make workers more productive; they would cite Proust and Bergson in their discussions of “off-duty” leisure time.

The same goes for the rest of Taylor’s categories. Notice how quickly he re-establishes Cartesian dualisms by splitting “mind” from “body”: the former would reduce down to cognition and strategies for optimizing cognition, and the latter would become a faintly nauseating playground for discussions of health, wellness, and sexuality. He invokes “Money” ("Are You Making The Most Out Of Your Dollar?") but not “Labor.” He calls us to the study of “Life,” but is silent about death. Finally, he comes around to “Water,” the most incongruous discipline, which was his real darling all along. In giving us a quick glimpse of what the “Water” department would look like, he reveals that it is primarily a public works and urban planning department, concerned with problems of distributing water. As a professor of religion, his role would be to legitimize not merely the secularization of modern life, but the instrumentalization of human beings. Notice that he puts “theology” together with the “professional schools,” and apart from the humanities, who apparently do not have professional practitioners: “A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture.”

It is downright frightening to consider how the “religious turn” in academia has been used to justify what ought to be called the “neo-liberal turn.” What on the surface appears to be an interest in religion is really an interest in containing and controlling everything subjective through the definable practices and ideologies of this or that faith. Religion, like leisure time, comes to stand for certain human needs that those at the top reluctantly recognize as extending beyond food and shelter. As long as those needs can still be anticipated and regulated, they can be tolerated and even encouraged. The search for meaning can be doled out, after consultation with the experts, like so many cups of water, and the university as we know it can be brought to an end.


Comments

Hear, hear.  Benjamin is turning in the grave.

By on 05/02/09 at 05:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Seminaries and divinity schools seem to me to be professional schools in a way that humanities departments are not.  This has been the case since the earliest days of the modern university—see Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties, for example.

I’ll charitably assume that your interpretation of the deeper implications and motivations of Taylor’s op-ed are grounded in a familiarity with his actual texts rather than free-associated on the basis of his status as a professor of religion.

By Adam Kotsko on 05/02/09 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam,

Second point first: my interpretation is not based on Taylor’s specialty, but rather on the place he imagines for that specialty. As you know, I’m very sympathetic to the “religious turn” in Badiou, Zizek, and others.

As for seminaries and divinity schools being more “professional” than humanities departments, I just don’t buy it. Professors and writers aren’t professionals?

By Joseph Kugelmass on 05/02/09 at 01:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And rereading your last paragraph, it makes even less sense to me each time.  Perhaps Taylor can be read as an apologist for neoliberalism, though he would strenuously object to that reading—but I don’t really see how the majority of those involved in the “religious turn” can be painted with that brush.  Are Derrida, Marion, Zizek, Badiou, etc., etc., all apologists for neoliberalism?  Is that really what’s at stake in the “religious turn” as a whole?  Again, maybe that’s what’s at stake for Taylor, but he doesn’t seem representative of the general “religious turn”—since he was doing religion “before it was cool” and hasn’t really enjoyed an upsurge in popularity once the “religious turn” came around (in fact, by that time people were complaining that he’d totally stopped writing on religion). 

And is the “religious turn” really about anything like spirituality?  That’s the only way I can make sense of your talk of servicing religious needs, etc., and I just do not see spirituality as a major trend in the “religious turn.” And as for reproducing religious ideologies, all the work I’m familiar with in the “religious turn” is about getting past the ideologies espoused by “actual existing” religious institutions and mining “religious” texts for fresh insights—in many cases insights diametrically opposed to the institutional form.  It’s not like there’s this huge trend of English professors studying more religious texts and then becoming fundamentalists or quoting the pope in class or something.

So overall: no.

By Adam Kotsko on 05/02/09 at 01:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Being a minister is a profession, akin to how being a lawyer or social worker is a profession.  You can also tell it’s a professional school because it has different degree names from those granted by what Kant would’ve known as the “philosophy faculty”—a masters of divinity for professional ministers, just like you have a masters of social work or a JD or MD degree rather than an MA and PhD.  This is not a difficult or controversial point.

By Adam Kotsko on 05/02/09 at 01:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, sorry for the cross-post—would you say this sentence:

It is downright frightening to consider how the “religious turn” in academia has been used to justify what ought to be called the “neo-liberal turn.”

could be edited to say,

It is downright frightening to consider how the “religious turn” in academia has been misused in Taylor’s op-ed to justify what ought to be called the “neo-liberal turn.”

By Adam Kotsko on 05/02/09 at 01:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, sorry for the cross-post—would you say this sentence:

It is downright frightening to consider how the “religious turn” in academia has been used to justify what ought to be called the “neo-liberal turn.”

could be edited to say,

It is downright frightening to consider how the “religious turn” in academia has been misused in Taylor’s op-ed to justify what ought to be called the “neo-liberal turn.”

Sort of, except that I think the writers you mention represent the best, most interesting parts of the religious turn, while Taylor is far from alone in going in a different direction. Stanley Fish, for example, imagines our need for a “religious turn” in ways similar to Taylor.

Being a minister is a profession, akin to how being a lawyer or social worker is a profession.  You can also tell it’s a professional school because it has different degree names from those granted by what Kant would’ve known as the “philosophy faculty”—a masters of divinity for professional ministers, just like you have a masters of social work or a JD or MD degree rather than an MA and PhD.  This is not a difficult or controversial point.

Teaching writing is also a profession; otherwise, why bother with “professionalization” seminars? I’m totally confused by your insistence on this point. What is the magical unity between the JD and the MD that the MA or PhD cannot share? And why would Kant, writing hundreds of years ago, provide the best model for the relationship between knowledge and occupation in our world?

By Joseph Kugelmass on 05/02/09 at 01:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, again, what is your basis for claiming what place Taylor sees for religion?  Is it just the thing where he names theology among the professional schools, or is it his actual work?  If it’s the former, then your assertion is on pretty shaky ground, because you are actually wrong to object to that. 

Perhaps academia should be a profession, and perhaps it aspires to be—but I think Mark Bosquet and others would agree that it hasn’t quite developed the institutions, etc., that more conventional professions have to protect themselves.  I.e., the problem is that academia isn’t yet a profession.

The original professional schools were and remain the faculties of medicine, law, and divinity.  Since then, other professional schools like social work or journalism or business have been added.  But in the process, the inheritor of the mantle of the “philosophy faculty” has not become a professional school.  Do you consider the College of Arts and Science or the Graduate School at a given university to be, as such, a professional school?  I think you would be wrong to consider them professional schools, even if the people who graduate from them later go on to become “professionals” in some loose sense. 

In short, again, Taylor is using “professional school” here in a completely conventional and acceptable way that does not reveal any insidious agenda on behalf of religion.  In fact, he is implicitly including himself on the non-professional side—rightly so, since he’s in a department of religion rather than a divinity school or seminary.  Indeed, Taylor has never been employed by a divinity school or seminary, and he has never received a professional ministry degree.

By Adam Kotsko on 05/02/09 at 02:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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