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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
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

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

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

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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Saturday, October 06, 2007

The University and the Specter of Horowitz

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 10/06/07 at 05:37 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair
-Florence Reese (lyrics), “Which Side Are You On?”

In an ongoing series of posts at Acephalous, Scott Kaufman has been linking to and collating instances of the ongoing war against progressive thought in the academy. First, as some of you probably know, Scott took up the subject of Until Proven Innocent, a book co-written by KC Johnson, who teaches at Brooklyn College and CUNY. Until Proven Innocent attempts to pin the scandal surrounding the Duke lacrosse rape case on the politically correct culture of liberal academia. While Scott was napping, Smurov linked to a piece by Mark Bauerlein, who is an English professor at Emory and who titled his essay “Indoctrination in the Classroom.” Finally, Scott and Smurov both linked to this reaction, via the National Review’s blog Phi Beta Cons, against those professors whose reading assignments make students feel “spoiled or privileged.”

I use the phrase “ongoing war” advisedly: this is a war, albeit one being conducted discursively through periodicals, campus organizations, and websites and blogs. At some point, the leader of the anti-intellectual, anti-academic crusade was David Horowitz, founder of Students for Academic Freedom, a “student” organization created with the express goal of sabotaging university teaching by mounting pressure campaigns against left-wing professors. The most affable representative of mainstream academic opposition to Horowitz was Michael Bérubé; with incredible patience and argumentative cunning, Bérubé defended academia and tore hole after hole in Horowitz’s shoddy research. He debated Horowitz live, and wrote a book (What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts?) that was the subject of several vibrant conversations at the Valve (book event archive). Although Bérubé was incredibly successful at mimizing Horowitz’s efficacy, the movement against the liberal arts has taken on a life of its own, falling back on the same rhetorical tactics that the American right-wing employed against welfare and in support of the Iraq war.

It is time that we examined where the logic of these attacks on the academy leads, and how the right-wing doublespeak of “academic freedom” is structured.

A Summary of the Conservative Agenda

Here is what right-wing critics of the academy would like to see implemented:


  1. Pay cuts for all scholars in the humanities, including reduced funding for research and travel.

  2. Elimination of tenure.

  3. Public access to all courses, particularly lecture courses.

  4. Public hearings for faculty hires and dismissals.

  5. Public or student-led selection of assigned texts.

  6. Guidelines for hiring based on candidates’ political beliefs; establishing a quota for conservative academics in all disciplines within the humanities. (Yes, this would be quota-based hiring for registered Republicans.)

  7. Replacing content-based courses with skills-based courses; in particular, replacing instruction in English with formalistic instruction in writing.

The underlying assumptions are as follows:

  1. There is no difference between a lay person and a tenured professor when it comes to evaluating the quality of a text.

  2. In the humanities, there is no difference between knowledge and belief, and all beliefs are equal. There is therefore no justification for challenging students to re-examine inherited beliefs.

  3. Skill is independent of belief; in expressive practice, this means that form (ability to write) is independent of content (statement of belief).

  4. Public interference in the process of education is justified by democratic and consumerist principles in a way that public interference in the private sector is not. For example, students are justified in suing professors, but consumers are not justified in suing corporations.

  5. The market value of writing skills should largely determine the salary of a humanities professor.

The rhetoric goes like this:

  1. Professors are out-of-touch with American values.

  2. Professors are hypocrites who criticize luxury while living in its lap.

  3. Professors are lazy.

Living in a Rhetorical World

Our thoughts are our own; our language is not. Whatever we say or write enters public discourse in the context of the assumptions and debates of its time, and, in the reader’s mind, it does not necessarily link up with our entire worldview or with our own private struggles and motives. I’m reminded of the moment in Philip Roth’s The Counterlife when Nathan Zuckerman tries to convince his brother to abandon an Israeli settlement in the occupied territories. Zuckerman tries to make his brother admit to Freudian motives, and the brother responds that his motives really aren’t important any longer, because he is now part of a movement, the historical meaning of which is greater than the sum of its parts. It is essential for us to see the rhetorical context of contemporary debates about the academy, and neither to exempt our own speech from its likely misuses, nor to treat disputants as rhetorically naive.

You can already see, in Bérubé’s account of working with a student named John (cf. the book event), that it’s not merely a question of having the right to speak, or earning a sufficiently high grade, which are personal concerns—John feels a political concern for himself and the other students in the face of possible “indoctrination.” His personal concerns are understandable and admit discussion; his political concern does not, since it is necessarily based on a series of judgments about the relationship between politics and pedagogy that John isn’t qualified to make and which exceed his right to fair treatment.

Similarly, in the comment threads that followed Scott’s posts on KC Johnson, there were a series of individuals (particularly an anonymous commenter named “Professor Ethan") who tried to inundate Acephalous with canned rhetoric about the failings of academia. Trying, as several commenters did, to get a personal account from Ethan of how he suffered in the classroom, and how such mistakes might be avoided in the future, is a mistake: Ethan is trying to create change, not come to terms. When Ethan quoted NPR, in the comment here, the point wasn’t just that he attributed to NPR something actually excerpted from Until Proven Innocent. He was quoting NPR in the first place because it’s “liberal media,” and he figured Scott’s readers would feel bound to respect it. This is all made possible by National Public Radio, which has been under siege from the Bush Administration for years, and so runs a piece on Until Proven Innocent as an easy way to seem balanced and not indefensibly liberal.

That’s how the feedback loop works when an issue gets pushed to the right: progressive intellectuals and media outlets are shamed into re-defining objectivity and balance as more centrist or rightist, and then skimmed for whatever admission can add fuel to the fire, without ever beating the charge of bias. Right now, any English professor who lends the credibility of a position and a doctorate to the conservative anti-academic agenda is guaranteed a lot of attention and readers.

Even the most well-meaning pieces can end up making odd syntheses, not out of impure motives, but simply because the rightist agenda is circulating everywhere. This is what happened, I think, with Tim Burke’s piece on academic freedom in the Minnesota Review. Burke is a great blogger and a thoughtful respondent (including on Acephalous with regard to Johnson’s book), and I think his article (mentioned by John Holbo here) was motivated by sincere concern for continued innovation in the humanities. Burke’s solution to over-cautiousness and paralysis in the humanities is, potentially, eliminating tenure, though he does not make an explicit demand.

From the standpoint of academic freedom, though, the demand doesn’t make any sense: expanding the population of professors without real job security is guaranteed to produce more cautiousness, not less. Whether or not the professors on a hiring committee have tenure, they will still want intellectual diversity, they will still desire to be fair, and they will still walk in to meetings and interviews with a set of firmly grounded attitudes and ideological allegiances. The real questions are whether the candidate can expect to get a tenure-track position or a year-to-year lectureship; whether that position will come as soon as graduate school is over, or after years of tutoring high school students preparing for the SAT; whether or not funding is available for summer research, and for dissertation research in lieu of teaching. That will determine how much capacity for innovation will be manifest in new generations of scholars. There is an analogy here to the situation with elementary and secondary public schools: first you starve them for funding, then you blame the teachers and the curriculum when students do poorly.

The Three Basic Criticisms of Academics

Professors are out-of-touch with American values.

I respect those authors, including Richard Rorty and Walter Benn Michaels, who have tried to define what “achieving our country” or “our America” might mean in progressive terms. That said, I believe that American scholars in the humanities might as well stand up for the truly international community that constitutes their field, as American scientists and businessmen have done. Nationalism has left a lot of scars, here and elsewhere, in the past few decades; the principles that found institutions of learning are universal. Otherwise, one sits in an IKEA chair, working on a computer made in China, trying to achieve our country.

Professors are hypocrites who criticize luxury while living in its lap.

This is really just a customized version of the argument about liberal hypocrisy: if you’re so idealistic, why aren’t you poor? It is pathetically literal to criticize professors for teaching about inequality. One may as well ask how able-bodied Congressmen could vote the ADA into existence. It is not necessary to believe that selfishness is the premise of all action.

Professors are lazy.

This is a groundless claim without a shred of hard evidence besides the existence of summer “vacation.” It is like calling apple growers lazy because the fruit appears in September. At UC Irvine, the summer is divided into Summer Session I and Summer Session II.

***

The fact that scholars like Johnson and Bauerlein are doing what they can to harm the reputation of the humanities does not make us unfree, and neither does the existence of an organized attack on the humanities. We remain free in the only meaningful sense of the word: free to determine our relationship to the humanistic traditions of scholarship and pedagogy, and free to determine our politics accordingly.


Comments

Tripe, all that.

While I consider Bauerlein’s agenda dubious, to burden Johnson, himself at the receiving end of PCness in attempted tenure denial, with the uses others make of his critique in the Duke case, is lazy, out-of-touch with American values, and belies the hypocrite who criticizes luxury while living in its lap.

By nnyhav on 10/06/07 at 07:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

nnhav: huh? Strikes me that Johnson has a working relationship with Horowitz: see here and here. If you’d like to provide counterevidence, without the ad hominem attacks and insults, be my guest.

JK: I’d suggest reserving the word ‘war’ for actual wars.

By Karl Steel on 10/06/07 at 07:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

nnyhav,

The fact that Johnson is disgruntled makes his epiphanies about academia less credible, not more.

Karl,

I don’t wish to use the term war frivolously. I can understand your objection.

I do stand by the term. While I could have exclusively used military metaphors at one remove—“battle,” “attack,” and so on—I wanted to make it clear that what was happening at Acephalous wasn’t an earnest conversation for both sides, any more than Until Proven Innocent is an “investigation” of the Duke case in search of unknowns. The aim was tactical, the answers foregone.

To my mind, characterizing this array of articles and counter-statements as anything other than a conflict trivializes what’s at stake for universities and for public discourse. The term “politically correct” itself, like “welfare mothers,” was a conservative invention. Because it was understood (even on the left) as a description, rather than a tactic, it was never adequately answered.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/06/07 at 08:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is one of those subjects that I feel that I could say so much on, from different approaches to it, that I am never satisfied with whatever approach I attempt.

So let me try, with all due respect to what Joseph has previously written about the problems with “radicalism” and the radical gesture, to write as a sort of radical moderate.

These people are an outgrowth of Bushism, in the sense that the same society which allows aggressive war, torture, and an incompetent, runaway executive also allows them.  That is not to say that they are a unique, new feature of American life—just as the Bush regime is not—but they share the Bush regime’s ability to take advantage of propaganda against institutions in order to attempt wholesale trashing of them, and to rejustify prejudice through a sort of postmodernist gloss.

And the people who excuse them, like nnyhav above, are part of the problem.  While our society crumbles, some people are still going on about people being “at the receiving end of PCness”.  It’s a staggering evasion of responsibility, a staggering failure.  Civility is the last refuge of the academic scoundrel.  People like this end up like Tim Burke, who I for one do not think very highly of; supposedly on the right side, ending up “compromising” on, say, getting rid of tenure; of more use to the right-wing than any number of conservative advocates.

The problem with approaching these people in a specifically academic context is that academics, in general, care about truth, and they don’t.  It’s not possible to really argue with them in the classical sense.  You can only mock them, and point out their factual wrongness at every opportunity, so that anyone who does have some degree of concern with at least instrumental truth—such as, e.g., the industrial complex that primarily supports universities and the politicians still concerned with it—will reject them.  Bérubé’s approach was good, because that’s mostly what he did in his interviews and other public appearances, and in his book he provided an alternative, positive glimpse into what he actually did as a teacher.

I can only hope that when Bushism falls, these people will also fall.  Certainly, if any of their proposals ever do pass, I will be among the first to agitate for their own removal from academia when the counter-reaction occurs.  They will of course say that they do not intend that are proposing the removal of individual professors for political reasons, and this is of course false.  But other people know how to manipulate these levers of power as well as they do, and they should not rely on being forever shielded by public opinion once they have destroyed the formal protections that shielded their own opponents.

By on 10/06/07 at 08:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Karl, YM ad strawmanem. HTH.
I was not aware that KC published in frontpagerag though; thanks for that, I think.

“Disgruntled” would be another loaded term. Generally militating against the dismissed. The ‘get your war on’ aspect cuts cred both ways; adopting their tactics means the terrorists have already won, right?

I’m saying, you want to pick apart D’Ho’s nonsense, you could pick a better vehicle.

By nnyhav on 10/06/07 at 08:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, regarding your list of seven elements conservatives would like to see implemented.

“1 Pay cuts for all scholars in the humanities, including reduced funding for research and travel.”

It’s true that Horowitz makes wild (untrue) claims about shockingly overpaid academics. But I don’t think many others have argued that humanities scholars are, per se, overpaid (there might be some complaints about superstar high-fliers - but complaining about the culture of having a few humanities superstars is sort of a different conversation. A bit past its sell-by date. But it is true that there was something unhealthy about academic superstar culture in the late 80’s. For what it’s worth.) It is so obviously untrue that, say, underemployed adjuncts are rolling in cash. I don’t think the argument has really been made.

“2 Elimination of tenure.”

Per Burke, it is possible to ask this question in a reasonable way. Admittedly, it is also possible to discuss it in an unreasonable way.

“3 Public access to all courses, particularly lecture courses.”

I haven’t seen anyone propose this.

“4 Public hearings for faculty hires and dismissals.”

I haven’t seen anyone propose this. There have been some screwy proposals made - at Horowitz’ instigation - about hauling people up on dismissal charges, fairly summarily.

“5 Public or student-led selection of assigned texts.”

Again, I haven’t seen anyone propose quite this.

“6 Guidelines for hiring based on candidates’ political beliefs; establishing a quota for conservative academics in all disciplines within the humanities. (Yes, this would be quota-based hiring for registered Republicans.)”

This one is pretty consistently disavowed - even by Horowitz. I don’t take H’s denials entirely seriously - he’s as straight as a corkscrew - but it is worth noting that the noxiousness of partisan hiring quotas is generally acknowledged. (What is less acknowledged is that it is hard to see what else could be the remedy for certain complaints. But it is consistent to say: I’m complaining about something for which there is no satisfactory remedy.)

“7 Replacing content-based courses with skills-based courses; in particular, replacing instruction in English with formalistic instruction in writing.”

There is something to this. But it would be just as true to say that the opposite: the idea is to get ‘better’, more traditional content. This isn’t much of a defense, because it amounts to saying the conservative complaints are incoherently coming in from both flanks. But that seems to me a more accurate characterization of what is happening.

In short, although I am personally incredibly unsympathetic to conservative critiques of academe, I don’t think you have really established that it is based on these 7 assumptions. But feel free to show that you are right by providing examples of people saying the things I haven’t heard them saying.

My reading of the conservative critique of academia is not just intellectually but structurally very different. A comment box isn’t really the place but here goes. The first thing to be said is that the critique is radically ambiguous in two ways: for conservatives outside the academy, we are an eternal blessing in the form of outrageous anecdotes. Eternal fount of Ward Churchills. For conservatives inside the academy, the dynamics are a bit different. Conservatives inside the academy are intellectually marginalized - not taken seriously. Yet inside the humanistic academy there is a persistent rhetoric of celebrating difference and empowering marginal voices. This is a tasty rhetorical angle - source of eternal tu quoque. But there is a lack of serious follow-through on that for a variety of reasons.

Basically, the academic humanities is a fantasy position for conservatives in the following way. It’s the closest thing to an actual institution that does work somewhat the way that conservatives like to fantasize that American society as a whole works: there is a democratically unanswerable, dominant liberal elite that marginalizes conservative voices. The fact that conservatives do not then also add ‘to the extent that this is true, it is a standing proof that academia is an aberration on the American scene’ more or less sinks the conversation.

David Horowitz is a decent litmus test, I’ll certainly grant that much. Conservatives critics of academia ought at least to distance themselves from him, explicitly, by way of showing that they want to argue seriously about these things. Anyone who does not do so is probably not really interested in engaging these issues seriously. (This is true even though it is usually a pain-in-the-ass technique to demand that the other side ostentatiously purge its ranks as a condition of coming to the table to discuss. In this case, I’m willing to make an exception. Anyone who tolerates Horowitz is not taking intellectual/academic principles seriously, so why should academics take such critics seriously when they complain about violated principles. It’s as simple as that.)

By John Holbo on 10/07/07 at 03:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, there’s an easier way to say all that: the problem with saying what the right-wing critics want to see implemented is that there isn’t ANYTHING they want to see implemented. The problem with the right-wing critique is, in a sense, that it is a recipe for perpetual indignation, rather than a program for reform.

By John Holbo on 10/07/07 at 05:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John—I think your last, succinct, formulation has it. They’re perpetually against it, whatever it is.

By Bill Benzon on 10/07/07 at 07:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Actually, there’s an easier way to say all that: the problem with saying what the right-wing critics want to see implemented is that there isn’t ANYTHING they want to see implemented.”

It’s a good analysis, but I think it’s politically incomplete.  A common tactic of issue-area political campaigns, such as this one, is to shoot for the moon with ostensible goals in order to achieve unstated ones.  Are they likely to eliminate tenure, and therefore at a swoop convert every academic job into one that requires political approval?  Well, with Tim Burke et al’s help, maybe, but it’s not very likely.  But they might as well ask for it, because doing so has the following kinds of effects, ranging from least to most likely: 1) they might luck out and somehow get it; 2) just having it discussed seriously moves the Overton window, so that it becomes far less likely to do something for e.g. adjuncts; 3) it adds to what they really want, a chilling effect.

Maybe Joseph has accurately described seven points of their ostensible agenda, maybe he hasn’t.  But part of their unstated one surely has to be to make every professor think first before they say, do, or teach anything that could be used in a conservative outrage campaign.  Sure, most professors don’t have the vulnerability of Ward Churchill.  But the next person who doesn’t want to include whatever noxious twaddle the right wants in their course is going to have to think twice about it, lest they be the next target.

By on 10/07/07 at 08:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Another way to see what they really want is to examine one of them, as a sort of anecdotal test case.  Back when KC Johnson was claiming that he had no connection to Horowitz, I Googled at least six of his articles on Horowitz’ site (Karl kindly linked to that comment above, so it was easy to find again).  What are those articles concerned with?

Terrorist Lawyer on Trial: 7/2/2004

“Yet on Middle Eastern affairs, this band of leftists [the reference is to CUNY’s faculty union] has consistently excused the acts of Islamic fundamentalists.”

Global Studies, Universal Bias: 8/6/2004

““Global Studies” departments, however, provide scant, if any, useful knowledge. Instead, students subjected to such courses receive warmed-over ideas from discredited 1960s radicalism. [...] Parents, trustees, and state legislators might want to find other uses for the funds that they are currently providing to “Global Studies” institutions.”

The Bankruptcy of Cold War “Revisionism”: 12/31/2004

Since this one attacks a particular essay, I’ll give it a pass.

Academic Freedom on the Front Lines: 1/11/2005

Quite a bit in this one, but perhaps I should point out the approving citation in the following: “One faculty member (whose in-class approach this noindoctrination.org posting profiles) informed Assembly representatives that the bill, which urged the college to adopt as official policy that professors could not be fired for their curricular or political opinions, would produce a new “McCarthyism.””

Duke’s Party Line: 5/24/2006

This one is noteable for casting expression of opinion as aiding and abetting prosecutorial misconduct: “The second is that a prosecutor, for personal or political reasons, has perpetrated a massive miscarriage of justice, acting as if the state bar’s ethical and procedural regulations don’t apply to him; and that Duke administrators and faculty members abetted his crusade, perhaps unwittingly, by declining to use their influence to demand procedural fair play for the school’s own students—and, in some cases, by taking actions that, as Kerstin Kimel and Stuart Taylor pointed out, suggested they believed the worst of the lacrosse players.”

Ward Churchill And The Diversity Agenda: 7/30/2007

“Well before Churchill ever uttered his “Little Eichmanns” line, the University of Colorado - a Tier I research university - had hired, then tenured, and then promoted to department chairman a woefully underqualified academic charlatan. In this respect, the affair provides a case study of “diversity” hiring practices gone awry.”

and

“The outcome, alas, suggests that in politicized fields such as African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, and Ethnic Studies, the message too often trumps quality.”

I think that this gives a good picture of what is desired—attacks based around individual incidents, preferably those that have been pumped up by the right-wing noise machine, that can then be used to try to affect what is taught.

By on 10/07/07 at 09:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Whole comment goes in parens to indicate its absolutely secondary nature: (Joseph, thanks for your thoughtful explanation. Your point about tactics is well-taken. I had come to your essay after having read yet another report on rape and war (this time, in the Congo, the report in the Times (and where I wished the article had contextualized rape as inevitable in ANY war: why not quote from Candide, which I’m teaching this week? Otherwise one imagines the typical Times reader associating mass rape with war only with those barbarian Africans rather than with our glorious soldiers in Iraq &c. But of course one doesn’t look to the Times for intelligent analysis...). Hence my distaste for war as metaphor. But I can’t come up with one as serviceable just yet.)

By Karl Steel on 10/07/07 at 10:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This infighting between left liberal artists and right liberal artists is a distraction.  It is merely a turf battle between two entrenched interests over a diminishing supply of academic positions in the humanities, and both sides will use anything at hand to demonize their oponents asideologues—PC-ism vs Bush-ism indeed.

Surely the real question we should all be looking at is what purpose the liberal arts serve in the 21st century.  Is there any longer a goal to this hodge-podge of academic disciplines?  See The Varieties on this topic, here.  If this question were adequately addressed, there would be plenty of jobs for everyone, both left and right.

In the meantime, however, it is understandably easier, if somewhat lazy, to toss grenades back and forth in this manufactured “war”.

--Ziff

By Herr Ziffer on 10/07/07 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m glad to see that the tide is turning against Tim Burke.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/07/07 at 01:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well I, for one, would be sad to see any tide turning against Tim Burke. What would be the point, after all?

By John Holbo on 10/07/07 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not so much him personally as his signature style of “reasonableness,” which he himself claims to have abandoned on the issue of the Iraq War (though the concrete result seems to be that he simply stopped talking about Iraq).

By Adam Kotsko on 10/07/07 at 02:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, imagine that you were having a discussion with someone who was not a conservative—let’s say, a moderate Democrat—and he said that there was no harm in discussing a war with Iran.  After all, he said, it might work out well, they might democratize or something.  I assume that first you would reply that we shouldn’t casually go to war, but let’s say the right was already agitating for it, so in some sense you couldn’t help discussing it. 

Now let’s say that this person had some ideas on how a war with Iran might be made to work out well, if it was done right.  (In fact, there is a term of art for this, created by a person close to you—a Pony Plan.) You’d say that nothing done by the Bush administration has ever been done competently or without malice.

Now let’s say that this person used whatever access to media they had to propose their Pony Plan with regard to Iran, perhaps to make themselves look more moderate with regard to related issues, and said that the Bush administration should be given permission to go to war if necessary.  I assume that you’d point out that this person wouldn’t control what the Bush administration actually does with this permission—that the war, once approved, will actually be carried out by Bush, for Bush’s goals.  And hopefully you’d conclude that this person shouldn’t be carrying the right wing’s water by proposing Pony Plans at this time.

Now, if you substitute “reforming” tenure for war with Iraq, then this person becomes Tim Burke.

People who do this show an inability to learn, or to generalize from one situation to another.  They’re eternal suckers.  Which is not so bad, if they only hurt themselves, but they don’t, they hurt everyone else as well.

By on 10/07/07 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not in academia, but wonder if its real concern is breaking the fourth wall.

By on 10/07/07 at 06:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Herr Ziffer: “This infighting between left liberal artists and right liberal artists is a distraction.  [...] Surely the real question we should all be looking at is what purpose the liberal arts serve in the 21st century.  Is there any longer a goal to this hodge-podge of academic disciplines?”

Herr Ziffer, let’s assume for the purpose of argument that there is no purpose for the liberal arts, that the whole thing could be tossed overboard and no one would be harmed.  Well, the people proposing political control over academia aren’t limiting it to just the humanities.  There isn’t really any way to do so.  So if they win, they’re going to be putting the people doing actually useful work under political control as well.  Anthropogenic global warming is a “political issue” to the right.  So is evolution, ecologic studies, many applications of biology, economics, law…

And anyone who accepts assurances that this power, once created, will not be used in those fields is deluded.  They’re depending on Bushites to show restraint.

By on 10/07/07 at 06:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich - the thing about tenure is that, not only does it protect the professoriate against the depredations of conservative zealots (and any other zealots), it also protects stick-in-the-mud thinkers and gets in the way of innovation. It really does.

From an abstract POV these are independent issues. Despite all the pomo blather about ruptures and intellectual revolution, the academy is intellectually conservative. It pretty much has to be. There are zillions of ideas that are outside existing paradigms, most of them worthless. But sorting the few grains of wheat from the mightly dust storm of chaff is very difficult. So you just resist intellectual deviation and change.

But this has nothing to do with secular politics. It was as true in the 60s as it is now. In the 60s political conservatives weren’t a threat to the academy; they are now. As a practical matter, tenure isn’t going anywhere.

In the larger scheme of things, here’s what worries me. Back in the middle ages the church was the institutional center of intellectual life among the European tribes (which, in due course, became Western Culture). Along came the Renaissance and Reformation and the modern university system emerged and assumed the institutional role of being the center of intellectual activity. The church didn’t disappear, nor did its universities. But they moved to the periphery of intellectual life, where they are today. Doesn’t mean then don’t have some power and influence, etc., but they remain peripheral. The Catholic Church can admit in wronged Gallileo and Jerry Fallwell can start his own university, but our basic intellectual institutions remain pretty much unaffected by such things,

Well, it seems to me we’re now in the middle of changes comparable to the Renaissance, etc. Does this mean that some new institution is going to arise to take over the center of intellectual life? Is the current university system in the process of becoming a backwater holding action in the wake of institutions we don’t yet see? Is all this angst over the university system just wasted?

By Bill Benzon on 10/07/07 at 07:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"it also protects stick-in-the-mud thinkers and gets in the way of innovation. It really does.

From an abstract POV these are independent issues.”

Perhaps so.  But one of the many things that the Bush administration has taken away from our society is the luxury of discussing it in a public policy context from an abstract POV.

“As a practical matter, tenure isn’t going anywhere.”

How can you be sure, Bill?  Wouldn’t you have said, less than a decade ago, that as a practical matter, we weren’t going to start openly torturing people?  That habeas corpus wasn’t going anywhere?

By on 10/07/07 at 07:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Back in the middle ages the church was the institutional center of intellectual life among the European tribes (which, in due course, became Western Culture

to be a pedant, which is, after all, what medievalists do best. This Depends on: a) what time counts as the Middle Ages; b) what counts as an institution; c) what counts as intellectual life; d) what counts as European (Jews? Muslims?); e) what counts as Western; f) what counts as culture.

Strikes me that Xianity is the jumping off point for a lot of cultural activity from, say, 1100-1500, rather than the referent. Xianity becomes a way to think through Free Will, the Human, Eros, Metaphor, and other hot topics that still concern us, and the range of opinions doesn’t look all that bad compared to ours, whoever we are. Strikes me, too, that the modern university emerged sometime in the 19th century or later 18th century. You may want to look, for starters, at this.

This doesn’t mean that your questions about cultural shifts are valueless; far from it.

But tenure has been going away. The shift from tenured faculty to adjuncts, part timers, and grad students: does it show any sign of slowing? And, sure, tenure protects intellectual stasis, but I can’t think of a better system for protecting intellectual innovation. One goes with the other. It also helps resist the reduction of academics to mere employees, which is, after all, what conservatives want most: universal markets guided by crony capitalism.

By Karl Steel on 10/07/07 at 07:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

JK tries way too hard to make a bundle of resentments into a matter of reason.  The core is simply the conviction that universities turn kids into [whatever you’re most worried about] and propagate doctrines of [whatever you’re most worried about].  As long as universities occupy the high ground in teaching and research they’ll be attacked this way.  DH is a hustler who has figured out that he can fundraise off this.  The remaining specifics, whether of fact, argumentation, or policy, are window-dressing. 

For English departments there’s an extra turn of the screw ‘cause you guys are supposed to be the mausoleum-keepers of Western culture, instilling a proper sense of European identity in undergraduates.

By on 10/07/07 at 07:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Karl, on your points a through f. Sure. But I’m willing to say 1100-1500 is the relevant period. As far as I’m concerned, it’s doubtful that any such thing as “Western culture” existed at that time. The old story of Western culture from ancient Greeks and Hebrews on up to the present is mostly a geopolitical tub thumper. In any event, it strikes me that, during that period, Muslims may have had some pretty advanced intellectual institutions on European soil. Don’t know about the Jews.

Not sure what you mean by “jumping off point” vs. “referent,” but it does seem to me that during that period the Christian religious were the heart and soul of the intellectual class.

As for intellectual innovation, somewhere around here, or perhaps over at the Lair of the Tim Burke the Weasel, I suggested a more restrictive notion of tenure, granting it only to those with expertise in at least two distinctly different intellectual specializations. Wouldn’t guarantee innovatioin, but would loosen things up a bit. And will never happen.

* * * * *

So Rich, what’s your point? I’m a card-carrying research intellectual who is deeply concerned about intellectual innovation because that is what I do. As far as I know, you are not a card-carrying research intellectual. Intelligent, well-educated, concerned about our institutions and the future, but not a research intellectual. Perhaps you were in training to be one, but opted out for whatever reason. Whatever. You aren’t one and as far as I can tell, based on your statements here, you don’t understand what’s needed to keep innovation going.

Or perhaps you think that innovation has to be put on hold while we deal with the more urgent problems. If and once those problems are taken care of, then we can open things up for innovation once again. What I fear is that, by that time, we’ll have forgotten how to do it, or no longer care. We’ll just mark time thinking the same old thoughts, running the same old wheels in the intellectua squirrel cage.

It seems to me that universities could suit your current purposes just fine without being in thrall to conservative politics and without, at the same time, being at all conducive to the sort of innovation which is important to the long-term intellectual health of the culture. So, Rich, if I have to get into bed with a devil, which one will it be, a political conservative, or you?

By Bill Benzon on 10/07/07 at 08:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not sure what you mean by “jumping off point” vs. “referent,” but it does seem to me that during that period the Christian religious were the heart and soul of the intellectual class.

Running out the door, so this has to be quick: I mean that they might begin their thinking on matters in modes of thought and texts prevalent or gained in professional training in the reading of Christian texts, but that the relationship of the products themselves to Xianity would be only a relationship to one of the primary points of origin. In other words, what the texts were ‘about’ finally was not Xianity, or least not only Xianity. I think of the Divine Comedy, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the Lais of Marie de France, or the Romance of the Rose, or the History of the Kings of Britain, or a great many of the works by Xine de Pizan, or, to think of more ‘intellectual’ works, the work on animals by Albert the Great or Thomas of Cantimpré, to list only a few of the greatest hits of the period. Is that clearer?

I think restricting tenure right now would be a disaster unless there’s a radical turn away from academic short term contract labor.

By Karl Steel on 10/07/07 at 08:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich writes: “John, imagine that you were having a discussion with someone who was not a conservative—let’s say, a moderate Democrat—and he said that there was no harm in discussing a war with Iran.  After all, he said, it might work out well, they might democratize or something.  I assume that first you would reply that we shouldn’t casually go to war, but let’s say the right was already agitating for it, so in some sense you couldn’t help discussing it.”

I understand your point here, Rich. But I don’t think the politics of tenure are quite the same as the ‘bomb Iran’ case. Also, talking about tenure is not the same as talking about right-wing critiques of academia. The two are sufficiently distinct that they shouldn’t be run together. (Right-wing critics don’t really focus on the tenure issue very much.) Tenure is a really strange institution - the last living medieval guild - and it is worth asking, if only experimentally, what it’s for, intellectually. What the value of the institution is, because of course it has costs as well. I don’t think this is really a harmful discussion to have, in terms of feeding fodder to the likes of Horowitz. Because it just isn’t enough of a hysterical hot-button.

You obviously can’t let yourself get into a position where you are so reflexively concerned that anything bad you say about academia will become fodder for Horowitz that you aren’t willing to say anything critical about how things go in academe.

By John Holbo on 10/07/07 at 09:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

nnyhav,

“Disgruntled” would be another loaded term. Generally militating against the dismissed. The ‘get your war on’ aspect cuts cred both ways; adopting their tactics means the terrorists have already won, right?

No; a tactical, rhetorically aware approach is entirely compatible with academic integrity. Note that we’re not talking here about what happens in the classroom—we’re investigating political discussions about academia. I have no problem characterizing Johnson as disgruntled; is there anyone else in America who has made me so familiar with his or her own personal tenure battles and career shortfalls?

I’m not interested in continuing to pick apart David Horowitz’s work; to paraphrase Ben Fong-Torres from Almost Famous, we already have a Michael Bérubé.

*

John,

Thank you for such an in-depth comment. Given that my lists were reasoned inductively from the various news items and blog threads I’ve read, and given that such attacks tend to be phrased as criticisms rather than as a set of proposed reforms, it’s possible that the positive content isn’t there, and that the Horowitzian offensive is just an annoying epiphenomenon. That would be wonderful news. Right now, I don’t think we have the grounds for confident dismissal.

I wrote:

Pay cuts for all scholars in the humanities, included reduced funding for research and travel.

Compare Bauerlein: “Do not believe academics when they talk about summer research work. Outside the scientists [sic], most of them are idle or labor on books and articles that they don’t have to write and that less than 50 people will read.”

Phi Beta Cons: “It is tough to imagine a more “privileged” person than a tenured faculty member at a major university.  Six figure income. [...] ‘I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,’ says the prof who was the subject of a high-profile bidding war, teaches her (one) class sometimes in sweatpants, and is currently away (at university expense) at a conference in Helsinki.”

Of course, neither of these excerpts actually contains proposals for pay cuts. However, the message is clear enough. Furthermore, as someone completing graduate school under Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is impossible not to make the connection between these fantasies of wealthy, idle academics and the ongoing, real gauging of state university budgets in California.

Elimination of tenure.

I see no reason to generalize negatively about Tim Burke, as I wrote. I don’t see what makes his tenure proposal so reasonable; as I argue in the post, it would have an effect opposite the one intended if it was implemented.

Public access to all courses, particularly lecture courses.

In California, we had somebody tape-recording lectures at UCLA in order to use them as evidence of indoctrination. In order for this and other acts of publicizing course material to be justifiable, one has to assume that coursework and the text of lectures ought to be matters of public record.

Public hearings for faculty hires and dismissals.

Ward Churchill’s firing; on the other side, KC Johnson’s efforts to win public sympathy for his own situation.

Public or student-led selection of assigned texts.

In order to believe that students and parents have the right to complain about multiculturalism, you have to believe that professors are choosing books wrongly, and that these mistakes can be accurately spotted by lay audiences who would prefer to be taught Shakespeare, or the Bible, or what-have-you.

Guidelines for hiring based on candidates’ political beliefs.

Groups like Students for Academic Freedom continue to run ploys like “surveying” humanities faculty on their stance on abortion. Such statistics are meaningless unless one believes that they represent unfair hiring practices. As with affirmative action, it is possible to dodge the implication of a quota, but it isn’t possible to avoid asserting a continuity between the effects of race and gender discrimination, and the effects of supposed “political” discrimination. It is as if ideas were the same as skin color where institutions of learning are concerned.

As for complaints without consolation—it’s a logically permissible formulation, and one that occurs all the time within certain post-Marxist schools of thought. It’s not the mode of conservative activism. We call it activism because it’s not resigned; for example, an activist will argue that if we can’t get Republicans into the podiums, than at least the progressives who are there should do all the more to make room for “other voices” and “other perspectives.”

As for the final point, replacing literary content with skills-based curricula, it’s true that some conservatives still focus on returning to the canon. You make a good point there; I’d add that returning to Shakespeare in order to teach queer theory probably isn’t what they have in mind. My response is that formalistic courses (like the ones Stanley Fish teaches) are a more likely compromise with conservative activism than a retreat from the new canon—which includes writers like Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich—since that is a war progressives have won.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/07/07 at 10:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ziff,

For the “turf war” you’re describing to exist, it would have to be a civil war within the academy, which it’s not.

What you say about the pressure of a diminishing field is well-taken. But the idea of new justifications for the liberal arts has to be itself justified rather than assumed. What has changed so much, since Erasmus or since the GI Bill, that humanists should have to begin re-branding their goods? The fact that something becomes less popular does not make it less necessary.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/07/07 at 10:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I’m going to ignore your condescending bit, and focus on your content, which appears to be negligible.  You’ve simply repeated the word “innovation” over and over.  Perhaps you’ll next tell me that I have to learn to think out of the box?  Let’s get it clear what you’re suggesting: that the tenure system, which has been part of academia since its inception, is going to stifle innovation unless we change it in some ill-defined way, soon.  That’s not an argument.  That’s a hustle.

By on 10/07/07 at 10:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, thanks, a couple quick responses:

The problem with arguing about tenure is that it’s a bit of a fantasy in the following way. People say: suppose we eliminated tenure, but in exchange academics got this and this and this and this? Intellectually, it might be an appealing grand bargain (for some values of ‘this’). But, in practice, that sort of thing isn’t going to happen. But I am still willing to talk about it. It’s interesting to discuss. It clarifies how things actually work, even if there is no practical possibility of redoing them some other way. (Sometimes people object to John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” on the grounds that it clearly presupposes some sort of radical revolution. But I don’t think that’s a good criticism.)

Regarding all the public access/hearing/hiring so forth - there’s a big difference between saying that conservatives are committed to saying that anyone can attend classes (this requires mandating indefinitely large class rooms, I should think) and advocating the possibility of various sorts of whistle-blowing activities. Especially at public institutions, the public has some (admittedly indefinite) right to know what the hell is going on. If someone is saying crazy stuff in some classroom and some intrepid reporter sneaks in to report on it, or interviews students, I have no objection to that. Obviously this technique can be abused to mislead, rather than inform. At public schools, if someone said there should some procedure whereby members of the public ask permission to visit classes, to see what’s up, I don’t really have a problem with that. It might be abused as a nuisance technique, but in principle there isn’t anything wrong with the idea.

Re: hiring and firing. There is a big difference between advocating that the public be involved in the process, per your post, and advocating potential public reportage on alleged wrong-doings. If KC Johnson thinks he was done wrong, in a tenure review case, obviously it is his right to air his grievances in public - try to draw attention to what he thinks is an injustice. This is true whether he was at a private or a public school (but especially if he was at a public school.)

“In order to believe that students and parents have the right to complain about multiculturalism, you have to believe that professors are choosing books wrongly ...”

No, I don’t think this follows at all. In order to believe that students and parents have the right to have some input in curriculum decisions you do NOT need to believe that professors are actually mistaken. You merely need to believe one (or both) of two things:

1) Professors MIGHT be wrong. (There might, conceivably, arise some situation in which parents and students had some legitimate grievance.)

2) It MIGHT be best to settle curricular matters through some compromise between what professors think ought to be taught and what students and their parents think ought to be taught. (It needn’t automatically go all the professors’ way.)

1 is utterly defensible and 2 is highly defensible on a variety of democratic and pluralistic and the-customer-is-sometimes-right grounds, albeit this is not the way things are generally done at present. And there are good reasons for letting professors decide these things, without public checks and balances.

More later, perhaps ...

By John Holbo on 10/07/07 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I think that you’re factually incorrect when you say that attacks on tenure are not part of the right-wing critique of academia.  Let’s see, I’ll start with Mark Bauerlein in The Trouble With Tenure:

“We need to break up standard operating procedures, and the place to start is the central event in the system - tenure. Tenure shores up everything else.”

Let’s see, who else?  Horowitz’ ABOR, of course, envisions modification of the tenuring process.  Its first point is:

“All faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise and, in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives. No faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs.”

That bit about granting tenure “with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” means that if you tenure too many people the right wing doesn’t like, expect to be politically investigated.

Who else?  Let’s try KC Johnson, from here:

“My own discipline, for example, has witnessed a sharp decline in positions in political, diplomatic, constitutional, and legal history over the past generation. Perhaps intellectually compelling reasons exist for dramatically shifting staffing toward adherents of the trinity of race, class, and gender. Yet absent any public justification, it’s hard to think of a reason other than ideological bias why, say, the University of Michigan’s History Department, whose ranks already included five U.S. women’s historians, used new lines to hire three more specialists in women, gender, and sexuality — all while the department lacks even one historian currently working in U.S. foreign policy.

Even more discouraging, despite the credible allegations of in-class bias by professors, I know of no university that requires faculty members to publicly post their course descriptions, syllabi, assignments, and lecture notes.”

I kept the last paragraph because you said that you hadn’t seen propose public access to course materials.  But the first paragraph envisions universities having to give public justification for tenuring decisions.

Is that enough, or do you want more?  If you suggest more names, I’d guess that I could turn up some kind of attack on tenure from each.  It’s absolutely central to right-wing strategy to attack job security of all kinds.

By on 10/07/07 at 11:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m fascinated by the evolving discussion between Bill, John, and Karl about the emergence of the university, the intellectual rivalry between the university and the church, and the meaning of the present moment for the liberal arts.

A couple of remarks.

First of all, the humanities have been shaken by an astonishing number of innovations in the past fifty years. Professors, universities, and academic print media have gone digital: an incredible number of texts and other archives are available online, and many of them (including almost all forms of academic blogging) are free to the public.

New kinds of media have been incorporated into the curriculum, including film, graphic novels, pop music, commercial art and design, and more. Departments have been created and re-organized in response both to new cultural designations ("Asian-American Studies") and new media specializations.

The number of new theorists who have infiltrated literary studies (and the rest of the humanities) boggles the mind. Writers like Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek, Daniel Dennett, Alain Badiou, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Niklas Luhmann, Stanley Fish, Helene Cixous, Judith Butler, etc., have all become semi-required reading for almost any scholar in any field in the humanities, in addition to the major critical writings within a given specialization. There have also been numerous “retrojective” innovations following on the canonization of new authors in older fields—Maria Edgeworth, for example.

We are exhausted of innovation, actually; the reason that it feels as though the field is still missing something is the direct result of an artificially imposed state of competition. Some scholars try to earn their keep by paying lip service to every sort of theorist in circulation, while others seek to win support for their particular ideology at the expense of all the rest.

By eliminating tenure, we would not be turning ideas loose to promote survival of the fittest. We’d be increasing the competition between scholars—people—and resulting marketplace of rhetorics (and the resultant mafias) would be even more poisonous to thought than the present situation.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/07/07 at 11:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich:

I honestly cannot thank you enough for keeping better track of the right-wing bits and pieces than I have. It is an unfortunate circumstance that, given time constraints, I occasionally have to generalize based on half-remembered browser histories.

You’ve been invaluable to this discussion, both because you’ve been able to provide quotes that help bring the criticisms of academia into focus, and because of your own working knowledge of tactical speech.

Cheers.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/07/07 at 11:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are many scholars in the humanities (classics, philosophy, history, and many varieties of literary studies) who have read few--if any--of the writers you name, I’d wager. (We’ll not count newspaper pieces from Fish or Dennett.) Those who have read them all or many of them probably did so in the once-over-lightly mode in a seminar long ago.

This is only my relatively well-informed impression, of course, and I worry that any anecdotal evidence we may gather here will be contaminated by the unfortunate universal tendency to refuse to admit not having read something; but we’ll see.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 10/08/07 at 12:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John,

You write:

There is a big difference between advocating that the public be involved in the process, per your post, and advocating potential public reportage on alleged wrong-doings. If KC Johnson thinks he was done wrong, in a tenure review case, obviously it is his right to air his grievances in public - try to draw attention to what he thinks is an injustice.

Sure, he has the right to try to call attention to his situation; his freedom of speech is protected. However, the fact that he might win a lot of sympathy from people who already believe academia is corrupt doesn’t mean that his case has any objective merit; furthermore, I think it is entirely reasonable for someone within the institution he believes has “betrayed” him to view what he’s done with antipathy.  In Scott’s original post on the subject, Scott wrote: “keeping K.C. Johnson on the roster [of the academic blog Cliopatria] does the rest of the contributors a disservice.” I agree, and to be frank, I think that is the kind of response such an attempted end-run deserves. I don’t think people who make appeals to the worst anti-academic and anti-intellectual currents in our culture really have a place within the community they are sabotaging. I use the word sabotage not because Johnson is being critical, but rather because he made an unethical and flimsily grounded appeal to prejudice, and did so partly out of a feeling of personal entitlement.

Back to the comment:

But I am still willing to talk about [eliminating tenure]. It’s interesting to discuss.

Definitely; however, having read Burke’s piece and considered the thought-experiment, I agree with his diagnosis but reject his idea for the cure (for the reasons I gave in the post and earlier comments).  I do think that increasing funding for the humanities, as opposed to eliminating tenure, should be granted the advantage of being more feasible.

Access to classrooms:

Regarding all the public access/hearing/hiring so forth - there’s a big difference between saying that conservatives are committed to saying that anyone can attend classes (this requires mandating indefinitely large class rooms, I should think) and advocating the possibility of various sorts of whistle-blowing activities. Especially at public institutions, the public has some (admittedly indefinite) right to know what the hell is going on.

Sure; professors should be accountable. They receive evaluations from students and supervisors on their teaching; their research is evaluated by many different people (peer-reviewed journals, readers, colleagues, and so on). That is the definition of accountability in the sciences, and the same standard should apply in the humanities. I am as unsympathetic to people who want “alternatives” to the study of social class as I am to those who want to see college courses on “intelligent design.”

At public schools, if someone said there should some procedure whereby members of the public ask permission to visit classes, to see what’s up, I don’t really have a problem with that. It might be abused as a nuisance technique, but in principle there isn’t anything wrong with the idea.

Actually, there’s a lot wrong with the idea if it’s mishandled. University students are selected from a pool of applicants, and either pay tuition or study on scholarship. If we want to expand enrollment, offer the public greater educational opportunities, and in the process make the whole world of American higher education more transparent, I am all for it. If, on the other hand, we want to grant the public the opportunity to make students and teachers uncomfortable, to force professors to publicly defend quotes taken out of context by “eyewitnesses,” and to otherwise pave the way for politically-motivated harrassment, the only people who will thank us are those who have a grudge.

1) Professors MIGHT be wrong. (There might, conceivably, arise some situation in which parents and students had some legitimate grievance.)

2) It MIGHT be best to settle curricular matters through some compromise between what professors think ought to be taught and what students and their parents think ought to be taught. (It needn’t automatically go all the professors’ way.)

Let’s not overstate the situation: students and parents can contact teachers and administrators at their schools, students do evaluate professors at the end of each quarter or session, and many teachers and professors give students significant leeway—for example, letting them choose which one of dozens of poems they will write on. The question is what happens when these individual interactions are hijacked by an organized, external political movement with a peculiarly relativistic attitude towards knowledge—does such a movement change the feedback process qualitatively? Yes: it changes normal evaluative processes into a wedge for people who fundamentally want to replace knowledge, which is both content and an open-ended process of investigation, with belief.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/08/07 at 12:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, when you unpack your “I’m going to lay down the brutal political realities for you academics” act, you are being condescending. You seem to think you have a deeper insight into acadmic institutions than those of us who work in them, or who have worked in them in the past (I no longer do). And when you suggest that I’m about urge you to “think out of the box” you’re being both condescending and deliberately obtuse.

I’m quite sure that you can define innovation. That’s not the issue. Creating institutions that foster innovation, that’s the issue. That’s not so easy to do.

On the notion that tenure “has been part of academia since its inception,” you’re wrong. It’s a 20th century arrangement in the USA and seems to have been dropped in most of Europe late in the century.

Let me offer a simple analogy: seed corn. As I see it, you’re saying that the larder is bare and the kids are starving. Time to mill the seed corn into flour. I’m saying, sure we can do that, and even if we make it to next year, we’re not going to be able to plant a crop.

Now, we can argue about whether or not we actually face that situation, but that’s a different argument, and a rather difficult one to make, on either side. 

* * * * *

Joseph—The problem with your list of innovative theorists is that, from my point of view, many, most (all?) of them are now an old guard that stands in the way of progress.

OTOH, I may be a crazy man and those thinkers eternal fountains of wisdom.

How do you tell? After all, there’s no transcendental viewpoint from which these matters can be discussed. So we’re back to Rich Puchalsky’s domain where we just slug it out, power against power. Your guys have the power so they win. They, and those influenced by them, get to determine what ideas enter the intellectual marketplace.

By Bill Benzon on 10/08/07 at 12:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I’ll respond later, but here’s a quickie. You write: “Actually, there’s a lot wrong with the idea if it’s mishandled.”

But obviously there’s a lot wrong with ALL my ideas, if mishandled. If you think about that, I think you’ll see that we are substantially talking past each other. I do acknowledge that, in an environment where lots of people are in fact itching to abuse the rules, you need to be a bit hair-trigger about potentially abusable rules. Nevetheless, ALL institutional features CAN be abused. There’s no getting around it, so there is no objecting to any feature SIMPLY on the ground that it can be abused.

In response to my two points you respond: “Let’s not overstate the situation: students and parents can contact teachers and administrators at their schools, students do evaluate professors at the end of each quarter or session”

But I’m not overstating the situation. I’m responding to YOUR overstatement. You stated, and I quote again ““In order to believe that students and parents have the right to complain about multiculturalism, you have to believe that professors are choosing books wrongly ...” It would seem to follow from this that students should not be permitted to negatively evaluate classes unless the professors have, in fact, done something wrong. But, obviously, gathering negative evaluations is supposed to be a stepping-stone on the way to determining whether that is the case.

Probably I am being my usual socratic pain-in-the-ass self about this: I meant my criticisms as a signal that you need to reign in some of your own overstatements.

By John Holbo on 10/08/07 at 01:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill,

I agree with you, actually; I think some of those thinkers have come to seem like roadblocks in our way. But since their texts don’t always read as dogmatic and stodgy, and since some of the people I listed are still very much alive, I’m driven to ask whether it is isn’t the structure of academia which is turning these earnest considerations of philosophical and cultural problems into dragons that must be slain.

I don’t think the problem is tenure, but I do think it’s structural. I’m unwilling to put all my bets on a newer, somehow more radical vanguard to replace a group of thinkers who were themselves trying at every step to kick over the traces. It comes too close to the consumer demand for mere novelty. Anti-Oedipus may not be an eternal fountain of wisdom, but I have equal trouble declaring it passé and then returning with such pleasure to this or that by Nietzsche, or Austen, or Rabelais.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/08/07 at 01:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Joseph.  I don’t actually keep track of them; I just Google quickly.  I hope that people actually read e.g. the KC Johnson quotes above; I think that makes the actual agenda involved fairly clear.

Now, speaking of tactical speech, let me go back to the Overton window:

John: “No, I don’t think this follows at all. In order to believe that students and parents have the right to have some input in curriculum decisions you do NOT need to believe that professors are actually mistaken. You merely need to believe one (or both) of two things: 

1) Professors MIGHT be wrong. (There might, conceivably, arise some situation in which parents and students had some legitimate grievance.)

2) It MIGHT be best to settle curricular matters through some compromise between what professors think ought to be taught and what students and their parents think ought to be taught. (It needn’t automatically go all the professors’ way.)”

Alright, look at what we’re talking about.  Consider the following:

In order to believe that adjuncts have the right to better conditions and a wage commensurate with the work that they do for universities, you do NOT need to believe in socialism.  You merely need to believe one (or both) of two things: 

1) Universities MIGHT be underpaying their adjuncts, because they can get away with it

2) It MIGHT be best to settle funding matters between how politicians and university administrators think public monies should be spent and between what the people who teach courses actually need to live on.  (It needn’t automatically go all the executives’ way.)

The second, I would assume, is just as logically plausible as the first; it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that John agreed with it as a hypothetical.  Of course, it sneaks in a rather thoroughgoing social change in point 2), but so does the original point 2).

Are we as likely to hear the second as the first?  No, of course not.  We’re all talking, somehow, about a choice between letting the right gut the universities and merely thinking about tinkering with or limiting tenure to encourage “innovation”.  I’m cast as a radical for taking the (Edmund) Burkean position that we shouldn’t even consider changing the system at a time when we strongly suspect that actual right-wing radicals have seized control of the government.

That is how setting the agenda works.

By on 10/08/07 at 01:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John,

That’s fair. Probably we can maneuver between Scylla and Charybdis if I clarify what I mean by “complaining about multiculturalism.” I have faith that if a teacher substitutes Langston Hughes or Lorraine Hansberry for some other American writer, in an attempt to be inclusive, the students generally won’t complain because Hughes and Hansberry are writers of genius. So the students will get the benefit of first-class writing, and they will get the benefit of seeing how diversity interacts with language. It will be possible to talk about the literary problems of race in ways it wouldn’t have been otherwise.

If the teacher selects an inferior text—in my own education, I might point to The Bean Trees or The House on Mango Street—the students may write that the assigned texts are trite, uninspired, dull.

Those judgments, as well as judgments about whether the course is politically dogmatic, should arise naturally from the progress of the course. When Mark Bauerlein publishes an article entitled “Indoctrination in the Classroom,” he’s putting people on their guard, assuring them that indoctrination is the new academic status quo.

In other words, he’s trying to reinforce a prejudice that his colleagues now have to actively overcome. Students may complain if other people convince them they’re being cheated. At the end of a course, students can judge how much they learned, whether they were allowed to develop their ideas in freedom, and whether the syllabus was appropriate to the aims of the course. But they can’t go in to the class knowing that anything besides Shakespeare and Dickens is liberal fiddle-faddle. That’s the sort of outsider expertise I won’t grant, anymore than I would expect a physics student to arrive in class skeptical of his textbook, either because physics classes covered different material in 1907, or because the person teaching him about quarks has a given set of political views, or because some article of his personal faith conflicts with the material in the course.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/08/07 at 01:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But since their texts don’t always read as dogmatic and stodgy, and since some of the people I listed are still very much alive, I’m driven to ask whether it is isn’t the structure of academia which is turning these earnest considerations of philosophical and cultural problems into dragons that must be slain.

That is, if the academic world were structured some other (unspecified) way, the impulse to “slay” these dragons would disappear? I’m not questioning their earnestness. There are all kinds of earnest people in the world, but the fact of being earnest does not imply that their ideas are viable. They may be, they may not. And the dragon-slaying metaphor implies that that’s all this is, some kind of quest directed at them as its primary objective. It’s one thing to hear about some dragon and set out to slay it because that’s what one does to dragons. It’s another thing to undertake a journey to, say, Peoria, to take a new job and find that there’s a dragon in your path that doesn’t want to move. If you can’t find another way to Peoria, then maybe you have to fight the dragon. But that’s not what you set out to do.

By Bill Benzon on 10/08/07 at 02:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I’m still virtuously resisting the temptation to go ad hom on you in return.  But you’re not making it easy.  As for my thinking out of the box line, I reserve the right to mock business-speak whenever I encounter it, especially when it leads up to business-catastrophic statements like “I’m quite sure that you can define innovation” —as opposed to, say, simple faddism—within the context of the humanities.

As for who knows best about this, it’s a matter of public policy, and not a matter of academic specialization.  Anyone can argue about it, and of course when I argue I will do so from my own point of view, using whatever knowledge I’ve acquired.  If you find that condescending, too bad.  I’ve given actual arguments about why I think that the right wing is wrong, and why I think that e.g. Tim Burke is wrong.

Now, your analogy: “Let me offer a simple analogy: seed corn. As I see it, you’re saying that the larder is bare and the kids are starving. Time to mill the seed corn into flour. I’m saying, sure we can do that, and even if we make it to next year, we’re not going to be able to plant a crop.”

No, you have completely misunderstood my point.  I’ve said that in terms of the academic humanities, there is no immediate crisis.  I see no reason to do anything with the seed corn except plant it, next year, as usual.  I have said that there is an immediate crisis in American politics, which is a very good reason to keep academia as unaffected by new political initiatives at the current moment as is possible.

You are the one who is saying that there is a crisis in academia, and that we need to make structural changes or innovation will be stifled.  I have no idea why you believe this.  Tenured dead-wood is as old as tenure itself, and is a problem that is more than outweighed by tenure’s benefits, especially in a country like the U.S. with political groups determined to intervene in academia.  If you want to argue that tenure started in the 20th century, fine, I don’t really feel like going down that path, but then you need to show that according to your handy-dandy measure of innovation, there hasn’t been a large degree of innovation in the 20th century humanities.

By the way, John, I couldn’t help Googling one more conservative attack on tenure while I was looking for something else.

By on 10/08/07 at 02:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As for my thinking out of the box line, I reserve the right to mock business-speak whenever I encounter it, especially when it leads up to business-catastrophic statements like “I’m quite sure that you can define innovation” —as opposed to, say, simple faddism—within the context of the humanities.

I don’t know what this means. But I do think that literary studies has been stuck in faddism for two decades or so and is still thrashing about.

As for my sense of “crisis” in academia, it’s more like cronic problems that have been uncomfortable for quite some time. The modern research university is built on a late-19th century model. I’m suggesting that the model no longer serves and we need to rethink the nature of the institution. This isn’t just something that’s all of a sudden come to a head during the Bush administration. It’s been around for 30 or more years as far as I can tell and has more to do with internal issues than with any specific pressures from the Right.

By Bill Benzon on 10/08/07 at 02:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Writers like Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek, Daniel Dennett, Alain Badiou, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Niklas Luhmann, Stanley Fish, Helene Cixous, Judith Butler, etc., have all become semi-required reading for almost any scholar in any field in the humanities”

Ah, what an amusingly ludicrous notion!

By Conrad H. Roth on 10/08/07 at 05:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill,

There are a bunch of threads to pick up on here.

First of all, I think the film Dragon Wars 2: Journey To Peoria could be better than Shaun of the Dead. I would assume that you’re not trying to antagonize theorists living and dead for the thrill of it; rather, the problem is that these new figures of institutional authority end up marginalizing other approaches (to borrow John’s term, which I think is the right one).

I disagree with some of Derrida, and admire other parts of his work; that is also how I feel about Nietzsche and Spinoza. The fact that I feel as though Derrida has to be overcome, while a thinker like Nietzsche simply gives me the opportunity to reflect on and refine my ideas, speaks to a kind of institutional practice that can turn a thinker into an oppressive center of authority.

Is right now really comparable to the Renaissance? I don’t feel as though it is; I would be curious to hear the evidence.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/08/07 at 05:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan,

It is quite possible that many good scholars haven’t done much reading in postmodern philosophy and critical theory. Nonetheless, their disciplines have felt the earthquake. Take classics: renewed interest in rhetoric and the Sophists has grown up alongside postmodern writing on discursive modes of power (Foucault) and performativity (e.g. Butler). I know an anthropology student in New York working on Foucault; a history student in Irvine doing post-colonial work on postage stamps, and another in the United Kingdom trying to get Homi Bhabha to give a keynote address.

These are anecdotal examples, to be sure. But I believe they are paradigmatic.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/08/07 at 05:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear readers, I do recommend the link (included above by Ziffer) to the Varieties of Unreligious Experience. The post is interesting, and the discussion that follows is perhaps better still.

Ah, what an amusingly ludicrous notion!

nnyhav, Ziffer, “C”, Conrad, I realize that the pleasures of condescension linger on the palate like the fade of a fine wine. But it’s just me here, folks. I’m not Black Bart, and the hipshots you’re getting off aren’t all that spectacular.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/08/07 at 05:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, Joseph. Thanks. None of us is a foreigner to condescension. I don’t speak for the others, obviously; but it strikes me that there is just a little condescension--of a different sort--in suggesting that any postmodern, let alone the whole posse of them, is ‘required reading for almost any scholar in any field in the humanities’. Maybe at UC Irvine, but not necessarily elsewhere.

Still, you’ve clearly done a good job at getting things going here, and these are interesting waters. About as close to politics as I can come without vomiting.

By Conrad H. Roth on 10/08/07 at 06:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Cheers.

In calling the thinkers on that list “semi-required,” I definitely wasn’t putting in a little reminder that everybody should read more “theory.” I find it extremely strange that we should suddenly be faced with such a welter of theorists, all of whom currently eclipse figures like Aquinas or Schopenhauer. It is too much for anybody to assimilate; nonetheless, I don’t believe you can make it in any field in the humanities now without paying some attention to the interdisciplinary accomplishments of theory. As a result, each scholar’s relationship to theory becomes haphazard, arbitrary. Ideas and methodologies cycle too quickly, exhaustion sets in, and finally a sort of opportunism emerges, based on what fits rather than what is.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/08/07 at 06:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Is right now really comparable to the Renaissance? I don’t feel as though it is; I would be curious to hear the evidence.

Well, of course, “the Renaissance” was not an instantaneous moment. It was a process that unfolded over centuries, say 14th through 17th. During that period ideas and institutions where reconstructed inside out. Well, we’ve had intellectual and artistic upheavals since the early 20th century and that’s not damped out yet. For a fuller sense of how I think about this, see papers that David Hays and I wrote separately and jointly on Mind-Culture Evolution, especially the one of “The Evolution of Cognition" where we set up our major discussion by asserting:

The basic idea of cognitive rank was suggested by Walter Wiora’s work (1965) on the history of music. Wiora argued that music history be divided into four ages. The first age was that of music in preliterate societies and the second age was that of the ancient high civilizations. The third age is that which Western music entered during and after the Renaissance. The fourth age began with this century. (For a similar four stage theory based on estimates of informatic capacity, see Robertson, 1990.)

This scheme is simple enough. What was so striking to us was that so many facets of culture and society could be organized into these same historical strata. It is a commonplace that all aspects of Western culture and society underwent a profound change during the Renaissance. The modern nation state was born (Gellner 1983), the scientific revolution happened (Butterfield, 1957; Cohen, 1960), art adopted new forms of realistic depiction (Gombrich, 1960), attitudes toward children underwent a major change (Aries, 1962), as did the nature of marriage and family (Stone, 1977), new forms of commerce were adopted (Braudel, 1981-1984), and so forth. If we look at the early part of our own century we see major changes in all realms of symbolic activity--mathematics, the sciences, the arts--while many of our social and political forms remain structured on older models.

... Beginning, perhaps, with Darwin and going on to Freud, Einstein, and many others, a new kind of cognitive process appears. To account for it, we call on Rank 4 process. We understand earlier science to be a search for the one true theory of nature, whereas we understand the advanced part of contemporary science to be capable of considering a dozen alternative theories of nature before breakfast (with apologies to Lewis Carroll). The new thinker can think about what the old thinker thought with. And indeed we use that sentence to summarize the advance of each cognitive rank over its predecessor.

By Bill Benzon on 10/08/07 at 08:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: “I don’t know what this means. But I do think that literary studies has been stuck in faddism for two decades or so and is still thrashing about.”

What it means is that “innovation” is an overused business term, which when used outside of a defined context leads to sloppy, stereotyped thought.  In this case, you were quite sure that one could define innovation, in the context of talking about the academic humanities.  I think that that statement is a metaphorical step into rather quick quicksand.  Your innovation is what someone else considers to be faddism, someone else’s innovation is what you consider to be faddism.  You haven’t answered anything by saying that you want innovation, much less claiming that it is defineable; you’ve just tried to sneak your particular goals in as desirable according to a pseudo-universal standard.

Tim Burke did better, by the way, by talking about not limiting autonomy, and avoiding groupthink.  Autonomy is a condition of each individual, not something with which you’re supposed to be talking about the progress of an entire field.  Groupthink is at least theoretically discerneable, outside the sciences (within the sciences, it’s difficult to distinguish from consensus). 

Bill: “I’m suggesting that the model no longer serves and we need to rethink the nature of the institution. This isn’t just something that’s all of a sudden come to a head during the Bush administration. It’s been around for 30 or more years as far as I can tell and has more to do with internal issues than with any specific pressures from the Right.”

I never argued that specific pressures from the Right were causing the current problems of the universities, although I said that they could if not resisted now.

Now, you’ve chided me for condescendingly posing as an expert on the brutal realities of power, explaining how things work to you academics.  Yet, at the same time, you want public policy arguments to go on exactly as usual, despite what’s happening in non-academic politics.  Or, actually, not even “despite”: wholly ignoring what’s going on in non-academic politics.

I don’t think of myself as being condescending.  I think that you’re avoiding the obligations of citizenship, in some sense, in your refusal to learn anything from what’s going on, and that your political initiatives disguised as thought, such as “rethinking the nature of the institution”, are wholly untrustworthy and foolish as a result.  But I’m not condescending to you.  I truly think that you’re both wrong and that your actions, insofar as they are carried out as a public intellectual with some visibility as in the case of Tim Burke with his article, are damaging to what’s left of the fabric of our society.  In those circumstances, yes, I’m going to argue against you, and I’m not going to be especially polite about it.

By on 10/08/07 at 09:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What it means is that “innovation” is an overused business term, which when used outside of a defined context leads to sloppy, stereotyped thought.  In this case, you were quite sure that one could define innovation, in the context of talking about the academic humanities....Your innovation is what someone else considers to be faddism, someone else’s innovation is what you consider to be faddism.  You haven’t answered anything by saying that you want innovation, much less claiming that it is defineable; you’ve just tried to sneak your particular goals in as desirable according to a pseudo-universal standard.

You might want to re-read a remark I addressed to Joseph:

Joseph—The problem with your list of innovative theorists is that, from my point of view, many, most (all?) of them are now an old guard that stands in the way of progress.

OTOH, I may be a crazy man and those thinkers eternal fountains of wisdom.

How do you tell? After all, there’s no transcendental viewpoint from which these matters can be discussed. So we’re back to Rich Puchalsky’s domain where we just slug it out, power against power. Your guys have the power so they win. They, and those influenced by them, get to determine what ideas enter the intellectual marketplace.

That bit from “How do you tell?” and the next sentence pretty much says: “Your innovation is what someone else considers to be faddism, someone else’s innovation is what you consider to be faddism.” I’m well aware of the problem. As for “sneaking,” I’m not being sneaky about my intellectual goals. I’ve expressed them often enough.

I don’t think of myself as being condescending. 

Who does?

I think that you’re avoiding the obligations of citizenship, in some sense, in your refusal to learn anything from what’s going on, and that your political initiatives disguised as thought, such as “rethinking the nature of the institution”, are wholly untrustworthy and foolish as a result.

Since when did you get to set the standards on what constitutes the obligations of citizenship? What’s so threatening about rethinking the nature of the institution? It’s not as though such rethinking is all of a sudden a new thing. It’s been going on for some time. Perhaps I think your defense of existing academic institutions is “wholly untrustworthy and foolish as a result” of a failure to appreciate how they work - a “refusal to learn anything from what’s going on” inside them - and thus to understand what is necessary to promote further intellectual progress.

Perhaps you should take a look at Steven Pinker’s response to my Open Letter, as he too is in “despair” (his word) over whether or not the universities can support certain kinds of intellectual work. Yes, he has certain specific things in mind, as do I; there’s overlap between us and difference as well. But the need for more effective ways of getting around the existing disciplinary structure is a general one, and various academics have been articulating that need for some time now. It’s not a new complaint.

For example, in his 1983 review and synthesis of a wide range of cross-cultural work in the social sciences, The Moral Order, Raoul Narroll says this (pp. 98):

In fact, social science...tends to be governed in its interests and efforts and concentrations by fads and fashions.... The problem is that every major discipline tends to be dominated by a small number of research microparadigms. Each such paradigm selects a small problem–commonly a worthyone–and attacks it by a particular method–commonly a useful one. Six or twelve of these microparadigms constitute what, in effect, almost everyone in the discipline is doing. Major professors training new doctoral candidates tend to produce replications of themselves who study the same problem with the same methods.

The 1966 conference that brought French Theory to these shores at Johns Hopkins was funded by Ford Foundation money directed at breaking down barriers between disciplines. Forty years later the net result of that effort seems to be what Holbo calls The Higher Eclecticism and disciplinary barriers are still very much in place. The problem has been around for awhile.

By Bill Benzon on 10/08/07 at 11:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Josef K, registering my displeasure with this included overflow from SEK’s prior post; I owe you something somewhat more substantive, at least as to my view (from outside):

On KCJohnson: He is conservative. He makes common cause with the likes of FPM, SAF to his ends. This does not imply all their ends are his. He was instrumental (though not crucial) in preventing the farce at Duke from going farther than it did (imagine the damage had it gone to trial). He pins this scandal on Nifong; he emphasizes faculty’s role ("Group of 88") as enablers, supporting or encouraging a rush to judgment against their charges (and in one case, possible retaliation in the classroom). Nifong was ultimately held accountable. (Duke as well, in civil settlement.) The G88 statement in its context deserved opprobrium, but the signatories aren’t otherwise affected, except in besmirching Duke’s reputation. As an academic in the humanities who had been attacked within an ideologically slanted institution (Brooklyn College is atypical; yes, it’s a common move to take such as common; I think SEK makes this move in grouping KCJ with the extremists) he’s sensitized to such slant engendering abuse. Whatever you think of his slant, trying to discredit him by overemphasizing his overemphasis of this aspect goes up against a wall of credibility built brick by brick from his early involvement in the case. The case itself certainly got attention as a man-bites-dog story, more than it deserved, but the publicity kept the rabid elements at bay. It also got Jena more notice than it would have had otherwise. Which is a sad commentary.

As I indicated, Bauerlein’s line is different, wrapping (or warping) some valid criticisms (yes there are some) of the institution into a specious narrative that should be forcefully countered (so why don’t ya?). But on to bigger matters: I don’t at all agree with the ventriloquizing the VRWC deployed here (’ad strawmanem’ not just for Karl’s benefit, though he seemed immune to the notional irony of gradstudent lap-luxuriating). I think you construct a ghost of a phantom, the phantom being Horowitz’s provocateurship—the chance of success in legislating anything like ABOR near nil, but still requiring vigilance (kthx Bérubé), not focus. One of many populist sops (cf Discovery Institute) which is at its core anti-intellectual. But this is but one aspect of the Right (which is not monolithic). Another, for which this provides cover but with which it is not co-ordinated, is the ongoing co-optation of the University into commercial space via funding and intellectual property involvement (not that this is undesirable in some limited aspects, but in excess, of course). The din from the former permits the latter to unobtrusively (continue to) influence the adapation and growth of the institution in a changing environment. Where these intersect is in the perqs of University employment (job security, benefits ... I am not in academics, my nonacademic better half works at a dot edu); build resentment, knowing that the knowledge-elite get no sympathy while the power-elite get no scrutiny (particularly the perqs)—who gets the popular vote? (and who the funding in the University, the Humanities or the Sports Team [and I don’t mean lacrosse]?). Just who you gonna educate, especially by shouting louder?

(Meanwhile, Tim B. lacks all conviction, while Rich P. is full of passionate intensity.)

By nnyhav on 10/08/07 at 12:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Since when did you get to set the standards on what constitutes the obligations of citizenship?”

Bill, I hate to break it to you, but anyone can have an opinion on what constitutes the obligations of citizenship. 

And, by the way, people certainly often do know when they’re being condescending.  For instance, I was being condescending to you above, in response to your ridiculous implication that it is not part of ordinary politics to have diverging opinions on what constitutes the obligations of citizenship.

“What’s so threatening about rethinking the nature of the institution?”

I have explained my theory about why it is threatening to publicly muse on Pony Plans about academia at this time, in the comment thread above, at great length.  I see no reason to repeat myself at this point.

People have been talking about the need to break down disciplinary barriers, in one way or another, since at least Snow’s “The Two Cultures”.  I think that where it’s not extremely specific, it’s generally tripe, the romantic maunderings of people who can’t accept that the amount of specialized knowledge has grown past the point where interdisciplinary work must be approached with great caution.  I’ve seen nothing about your proposals that is extremely specific.

By on 10/08/07 at 12:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"(Meanwhile, Tim B. lacks all conviction, while Rich P. is full of passionate intensity.)”

Comfortable, convictionless people always like to cite that poem as a way of implying that intensity is in of itself bad.  Since I’m in this case passionately defending the status quo (of, at least, the 20th century in academia), I fail to see how I can be typed as hastening the coming of whatever rough beast you’re afraid of.

By on 10/08/07 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I hate to break it to you, but anyone can have an opinion on what constitutes the obligations of citizenship.

Well, Rich, then maybe you’re open to the idea that my conception of citizenship is simply different from yours rather than implying that I am indifferent to the claims of citizenship;

On my reading, Snow wasn’t so much talking about breaking down disciplinary barriers as he was talking about the need to have a wider range of knowledge routinely included in one’s eduation. He felt that Britain lost its empire in part because its gentlement were conversant in Greek and Latin at the expense of physics and engineering. Problems like that can be remedied by changing the curriculum. Calls to break down the barriers have been initiated by others, who often cite Snow, though I think they’ve misunderstood his central thrust.

....the amount of specialized knowledge has grown past the point where interdisciplinary work must be approached with great caution.

You mean we can now toss caution to the winds?

Sorry I can’t meet your demands for extreme specifity here and now.

By Bill Benzon on 10/08/07 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, it was obligatory, given the correspondence of the prior couplet to the Sports Team and the lacrosse team.

By nnyhav on 10/08/07 at 12:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

nnyhav: “ [...] he emphasizes faculty’s role ("Group of 88") as enablers, supporting or encouraging a rush to judgment against their charges (and in one case, possible retaliation in the classroom). Nifong was ultimately held accountable. (Duke as well, in civil settlement.) The G88 statement in its context deserved opprobrium [...]”

Oh, and I would bet that nnyhav has not read the Group of 88 statement, instead relying on KC Johnson’s characterization of it.  The statement in no way supported or encouraged a rush to judgement of the three particular lacrosse students; it in fact repeatedly said that the situation wasn’t really about them.  You can say this that attitude of encouraging protest about racism in general by seizing on a focal incident deserved opprobrium in its context, if you want to, but that isn’t why KC Johnson says that it does.

But what does that matter, when the Dirty Fucking Hippies can be blamed for being so uncivilly right.  If only they had taken care to make their objections in the proper tone of voice, as the proper kind of person, then maybe the people who have turned out to be wrong about everything would have been able to listen to them.  It’s all their fault.

By on 10/08/07 at 01:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: “Well, Rich, then maybe you’re open to the idea that my conception of citizenship is simply different from yours rather than implying that I am indifferent to the claims of citizenship”

I didn’t say that you were indifferent to the claims of citizenship, I said that I thought that you were wrong about what they were.  The exact quote was: “I think that you’re avoiding the obligations of citizenship, in some sense, in your refusal to learn anything from what’s going on [...]” In a sense, I don’t think that you can be a good citizen while making political plans (and plans for restructuring a broad institution like academia are, of course, political) that ignore current politics, and how those plans will actually be implemented.  You’ve said, that, instead, we shouldn’t wait; that your concept of good citizenship means that people should press on with what they think are good ideas regardless.  For instance, your quote below:

“Or perhaps you think that innovation has to be put on hold while we deal with the more urgent problems. If and once those problems are taken care of, then we can open things up for innovation once again. What I fear is that, by that time, we’ll have forgotten how to do it, or no longer care. We’ll just mark time thinking the same old thoughts, running the same old wheels in the intellectua squirrel cage.”

Yes, I think that this leads to the same syndrome that I’ve seen over and over in recent U.S. politics in which people propose nice-sounding ideas and then are shocked when those ideas, once approval for them is gained, are not implemented in the way that they intended.  You’re saying that we simply can’t wait and see what happens in 2009, say; that we must rush ahead and give rhetorical aid to people who want nothing good for academia, now, or we will forget how to innovate.

By on 10/08/07 at 01:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[2nd submit]
Oh, and I would bet that nnyhav has not read the Group of 88 statement, instead relying on KC Johnson’s characterization of it.

You lose.

The statement in no way supported or encouraged a rush to judgement of the three particular lacrosse students; it in fact repeatedly said that the situation wasn’t really about them.  You can say this that attitude of encouraging protest about racism in general by seizing on a focal incident deserved opprobrium in its context, if you want to, but that isn’t why KC Johnson says that it does.

Which is why I said in context. Ergo implicit.

I think I’ll retire back into smug complacency now ...

By nnyhav on 10/08/07 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m coming a bit late to this party, but I have to say that the question of eliminating or modifying tenure has to be looked at in the immediate political context, not just in the context of the academy.  In an ideal political climate, I would probably support weakening tenure, to ensure that professors who were no longer effective teachers or researchers could retire more gracefully, and new teachers and researchers could circulate.  As someone who is about to try to get a job as an academic, this is a sensible position for me to take. 

But that ignores the political context, which is that the right wing is actively looking to undermine, and fire, professors who hold left-wing positions--not just Churchill and the Group of 88, but Erwin Chemerinsky as well.  Professors are political targets right now, and consequently, there has never been a worse time to consider doing away with tenure.  Opponents of tenure, like it or not, are aligning themselves with the right wing.  Similarly, a lot of the liberals who supported the invasion of Iraq defend themselves by saying that ousting Saddam Hussein was morally right, but Bush bungled it--as if, when they supported the war, they didn’t know who was President or how competent he was.

By tomemos on 10/08/07 at 01:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

nnyhav, if you agree that my reading of the statement is accurate, then it is also implicit that KC Johnson misrepresents the Group of 88, since he does characterize them “as enablers, supporting or encouraging a rush to judgment against their charges”.  The Group of 88, as far as I can tell, only exists as the people who signed that particular statement.  KC Johnson says that the Group’s statement accused the lacrosse players of rape.

So KC Johnson is a conservative, tied to Horowitz, who is misrepresenting academia in connection with supportive stories in e.g. the Weekly Standard.  But you think that “to burden Johnson, himself at the receiving end of PCness in attempted tenure denial, with the uses others make of his critique in the Duke case, is lazy, out-of-touch with American values, and belies the hypocrite who criticizes luxury while living in its lap.” I guess that we must give him the benefit of the doubt, is that it?

Please do retire back into that smug complacency.  I mean, if you can’t be bothered to care about a particular issue, fine, no one can care about everything.  But don’t lend support to it and then pretend that you’re a bystander.

By on 10/08/07 at 01:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This blogospheric discussion of tenure is pretty, well, academic. There are no legislative or governor’s aides listening in and thinking “oh oh, Burke, Benzon, and even Holbo are thinking about eliminating tenure, let’s jump on it while the iron’s hot!” There’s no AAUP committee waiting in the wings to move on it; the faculty and administration of, e.g. Stanford, Chicago, and Rice are not ready to act on this as soon as the word comes down from the blogosphere. It’s just talk. And for any number of reasons it may never be anything more.

As for innovation, it’s not at all obvious to me that the horse isn’t out of the barn on that one. Maybe it’s already over and, as nnyhav suggests, academia’s research mission has become subordinated to the applied research needs of business and industry. Check out these videos of a Harvard discussion of the so-called cognitive revolution. On one of them, the first or second, but I don’t really remember, you hear these old guys (Noam Chomsky, George Miller, Jerome Bruner) talk about research funding in the good old days. Labs got open ended funding from the military with no restrictions on what they did. For that matter, my teacher and mentor, the late David Hays, worked for RAND during the 50s and 60s and told me that they got half their funding on a single research contract from the Air Force. The statement of work on that contract was very simple, to do something for the good of the country.

Those days are gone. And maybe they’re gone forever. Maybe we’re just fighting over the piddling leavings.

By Bill Benzon on 10/08/07 at 05:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: “This blogospheric discussion of tenure is pretty, well, academic.”

I already addressed this: “I truly think that you’re both wrong and that your actions, insofar as they are carried out as a public intellectual with some visibility as in the case of Tim Burke with his article, are damaging to what’s left of the fabric of our society.”

Sure, Tim Burke may write and affect absolutely no one.  In that case, of course, he may as well not write.  But insofar as his writing does help to set the tone for what academics talk about, he legitimizes the idea that we need to do something around the margins about tenure.

And then this:

“Maybe it’s already over and, as nnyhav suggests, academia’s research mission has become subordinated to the applied research needs of business and industry. [...] talk about research funding in the good old days. Labs got open ended funding from the military with no restrictions on what they did. For that matter, my teacher and mentor, the late David Hays, worked for RAND during the 50s and 60s and told me that they got half their funding on a single research contract from the Air Force.”

As you might recall, it was that dangerous radical Eisenhower who said something catchy about the military and industry.  Ah, the good old days, when benevolent overlords gave out money with no strings attached.  Who would have thought that one day those nonexistent strings would be found to be there after all, and that they would start to tighten?  Who would have thought that there was anything strange at all about the military being in control of the funding for basic research?

At any rate, those decisions are already in the past; your band of brothers, Bill, already sold us down that river.  If you look higher in the thread, you’ll see that I said something about industry as well.  Universities are already primarily the servants of industry, not just as sources of applied research, but in the more basic sense that they train the professional/managerial class.  That’s really the major defense against the likes of Horowitz, not the feckless it-can’t-happen-here stuff we’ve seen in this thread, or even the work of someone like Berube.  It’s that the people who really fund the universities don’t want them screwed up.  But unfortunately (in this case), those people are not really that great at defending their interests against the right.

By on 10/08/07 at 06:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No, Rich, you didn’t address it. You just made a blank assertion, without evidence, that magnifies the importance of these discussions in which you seem to have settled into the role of the Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike.

I’m aware of Eisenhower’s warning. But just who attached those strings, Rich? And why were they attached? Accountability perhaps?

It’s not my band of brothers, Rich, who sold academia down the river. To be blunt, I was rather thinking it was your band of brothers, the apparatchiks, the defenders of the status quo.

By Bill Benzon on 10/08/07 at 06:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve always thought African-Americans, as Constitutional canaries, have influenced American status quo.

By on 10/08/07 at 07:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wasn’t even born then, Bill.  And who attached those strings?  Well, you were the one writing about how all those people you admired were saying that those were the good old days.  Who would have thought that by happily taking money from the military past wartime, they were putting themselves under institutional control?

But you can entertain yourself with fantasies of the communal guilt of the Eternal Apparatchik of whom I am presumably the representative.  That certainly would be more comforting than questioning whether all those people you admire were really doing something rather foolish, and wondering whether emulating them is really a good idea.

And you can also keep saying that this is just a comment thread, which it is.  Of course you’ve chosen to align yourself with a course of action that would prove disastrous, so I think that it shows something about the value of your ideas, whether you get to ever implement them or not.

And lastly, sure, I’m defending the status quo in this case, although it generally isn’t my inclination.  Frankly, people like you haven’t left us much else to work with.  You are the using the same, precise reasoning as those who, when someone said that we shouldn’t attack Iraq because an aggressive war of choice was insane, said that that was the concern of a defender of the status quo, not a brave adventurer willing to try out new approaches to an imperfect international situation.  Thanks a lot.

By on 10/08/07 at 07:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A response to Rich’s going out and finding actual evidence of conservatives saying what I said they didn’t really say: well, point taken.

That said (and take this with a grain of salt, I haven’t gone and clicked on all those links Rich made), I don’t think conservative critics outside the university are really seriously proposing reforms. I think, occasionally, they say ‘we could do this’ or ‘we could do that’. But mostly, for them, the ideal situation is things staying the same: the academy rolls on, and they get to complain. Stupid professors is an easy indignation hot-button and that’s just going to go on being the case. There will always be a new Ward Churchill. (This is not a defense of conservatives against Rich, of course. The fact that people propose reforms without really seriously meaning anything by it is not admirable.)

Inside the academy, I think that critics like Mark Bauerlein are a bit different. I think they really would like to change some things (whether they are right or wrong, at least their desire for change, rather than for perpetual potshot targets, is sincere). But it seems to me there is a serious failure to follow through on what are, essentially, a grab-bag of standard ‘gotcha’ moves - of varying degrees of quality.

One thing that keeps the critique from the inside hobbled is precisely its connection with the ‘outside’ critique. There’s an element of sweeping contempt for the academy, as such, which baffles any concerted push for piecemeal reform. The sensible thing for conservative academics to do, if they have some realizable vision for the humanistic academy - at least for their own corner of it - would be to undertake a generation-long long-march up through the ranks. But it doesn’t seem to me that much of a positive alternative has been propounded, let alone pushed for.

I say this not as someone who has any sympathy, at present, for conservative goals for reform in the academy. What I mean is: a litmus test for reformist seriousness is undertaking some sort of long term push to make a positive space for whatever is thought to be the good thing they want. If it’s a conservative ‘canon’ approach, find a critical mass of young folks who will really sign on to study and publish and work on that, for the rest of their careers. Start some journals. Start trying to impress some opponents. Or if you want a ‘skills approach’ - whatever - push for that. There is a lot of conservative think-tank money and etc. and no one has even tried to go out and build the George Mason University of Humanities Departments. (That is, a department or division that aims to pluck up neglected ‘conservative’ talent and show the rest what they’ve been missing.) I admit that there are structural barriers in the way of trying this sort of experiment, but nothing that couldn’t be pushed past if the will was really there, at present.

Changing subjects slightly: one reason why I will defend Burke on this one is that it seems to me insisting on being basically relentlessly reasonable about all this is a sound strategy. When people like Horowitz make unreasonable complaints, the best thing to do is elaborate on how they are being unreasonable. I don’t think the Horowitz will overrun the battlements, against that. Anyway, there isn’t a more winning strategy that I can see. The alternative is to be unreasonable or extremely inflammatory in an opposite sort of way. Frankly, I think that suits Horowitz just fine. There is just no way you can out inflame Horowitz without burning down the whole Ivory Tower. Which would suit Horowitz just fine.

Why do I even bother giving conservatives advice about how they should proceed, if they want to win a place in the humanities? Well, probably it’s my hypertrophic, liberal fairmindedness talking. Fair enough. But I am also, of course, concerned to keep open the possibility for statements of the form ‘the humanities are pretty messed up at present’. Because I do think they are significantly messed up, in a lot of ways. Saying so may be fuel on some conservative fires I wouldn’t want to feed. But what am I supposed to do? When Joseph writes “nonetheless, I don’t believe you can make it in any field in the humanities now without paying some attention to the interdisciplinary accomplishments of theory,” this seems to me true in a professional sense, but not really intellectually compelling. I’m not going to fight about it right now because that’s not what the thread is about, and it all depends on how how much ‘paying some attention to’ turns out to be, in attention dollars. (I’m willing to chip in a penny for Theory’s thoughts. But I’m not willing to cut a blank check. And I’m sure Joseph is somewhere in between as well.)

Why do I have to give advice to conservatives, on the side, in order to preserve a space for the sorts of critiques I would offer myself? I probably don’t have to. I guess I’m defending conservatives against Joseph’s criticisms, in an over-elaborate ‘in an alternative universe, the conservatives might actually have a point’ way because it seems to me Joseph’s formulations are too sweeping, in an unhelpful way. He doesn’t necessarily mean them, except as a response to the present circumstances. But principles have a way of applying to other circumstances than the present ones, so there is still something to be said about NOT getting so focused on the present, tactical conflict that you can’t see past the next trench.

By John Holbo on 10/08/07 at 10:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Who would have thought that by happily taking money from the military past wartime, they were putting themselves under institutional control?

Actually, I was thinking of NSF. I have no idea what DARPA’s up to these days, but for awhile they had a pretty good record of funding interesting projects.

That certainly would be more comforting than questioning whether all those people you admire were really doing something rather foolish, and wondering whether emulating them is really a good idea.

Let’s see, the people I foolishly admire took money from the military so that must mean that, by emulating them, we too should take more money from the military. Where’d I say anything like that, Rich?

Frankly, people like you haven’t left us much else to work with.

Now, just how am I responsible for the current state of the academy?

By Bill Benzon on 10/08/07 at 11:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, that seems like a pretty good reply.  But seriously, if they want change, a reformist strategy might not be the most effective.  With their current strategy they only need to get lucky once.  Why should they go through a generation-long march through the ranks, when one amendment attached to a must-pass funding bill and let through conference (because the Democrats have heard vaguely that tenure reform is a good thing) is all it takes?

It also may be their only possible strategy.  I suspect that the critical mass of young conservatives who are actually interested in the humanites does not exist. 

“Changing subjects slightly: one reason why I will defend Burke on this one is that it seems to me insisting on being basically relentlessly reasonable about all this is a sound strategy. When people like Horowitz make unreasonable complaints, the best thing to do is elaborate on how they are being unreasonable.”

Sure, some people should be reasonable; I wouldn’t insist that everyone be unreasonable, though I also wouldn’t say that no one should be.  But look at Burke’s essay.  The first ten paragraphs (if I’ve counted correctly) are fine.  Then we get to:

“Academic freedom in this sense is less an accomplished goal that needs to be defended against attack and more of promise or potential in many American universities and colleges. It is defensible because it promotes innovation in teaching and scholarship, encourages original thought, fosters transparency and openness by assuring the job security of faculty, and helps to circulate and disseminate knowledge. In practice, many individual academics and institutions fall short of these goals.”

What is that last sentence doing?  Providing compulsive balance, I think.  Of course every institution falls short of its goals in practice.  The next five long paragraphs are mostly about the problems with tenure, and they lead off with: “In particular, the system of tenure, allegedly the cornerstone of academic freedom, often acts perversely in the opposite direction.” In an essay that purports to talk about “The Obligations of Academic Freedom”, the implication is clear.

Now, of course every public intellectual gets remembered for what they say against type, not what they are expected to say.  Tim Burke wrote 10 paragraphs of nice but unexceptional defense of academic freedom.  Then he said that tenure often acts perversely against it.  The takeaway is that “even a moderate liberal like Tim Burke thinks that tenure has to go”. 

I’ve already mentioned enough Eschaton phrases so that I probably won’t add Lieberdems to the list.  But really, I have no idea why people think that their writing as a public intellectual is important, yet they have no responsibility to consider the consequences of what they write.  If Burke was writing an academic paper, that’s one thing, but he’s not; he’s writing what appears to be a political opinion piece.  Some people should re-read the end of Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation”.

“I guess I’m defending conservatives against Joseph’s criticisms, in an over-elaborate ‘in an alternative universe, the conservatives might actually have a point’ way because it seems to me Joseph’s formulations are too sweeping”

I really do think that you should re-read the comment here, where I supply an alternative version of your objections to Joseph’s formulations.  They are logically equivalent, I think.  But you never have to make them, because no one ever argues too sweepingly for support for adjuncts.  Supplying alternate-universe reasons why conservatives might actually have a point is a one-sided exploration of alternative universes, isn’t it?  It’s equally likely that people far to the left of anything that’s been said might have a point.  It may be a good addition to liberal fairness to remember to point this out.

By on 10/09/07 at 01:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One more addendum:

“The alternative is to be unreasonable or extremely inflammatory in an opposite sort of way. Frankly, I think that suits Horowitz just fine. There is just no way you can out inflame Horowitz without burning down the whole Ivory Tower.”

Maybe academics shouldn’t be inflammatory, for purely tactical reasons.  (That isn’t the same thing as sneering that the whole thing is just infighting between left and right, talking about people being at the receiving end of PCness, etc.) But if so, they should recognize that this is a tactical, not a principled, choice.

Here is what the right is up to: mobs harassing children, supported by the same people boosting KC Johnson.

I could see someone being “reasonable” in response to this in an MLK Jr. kind of way—which would of course involve actual actions taken in opposition.  But it is a rational, principled response to be unreasonable to all manifestations of the right at this time.  It doesn’t matter that KC Johnson would undoubtedly say that he personally opposes the harassment of children.  He’s allied himself with people who do it.  One simply can’t treat academic-politics issues as if they occur in a void, unlinked to anything outside.

By on 10/09/07 at 08:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That said (and take this with a grain of salt, I haven’t gone and clicked on all those links Rich made), I don’t think conservative critics outside the university are really seriously proposing reforms.

It is difficult to guess exactly how much more evidence to the contrary one would have to acquire. That said, even if it were the case that conservative critics of academia are merely trying to provoke general contempt for the present state of the humanities, that is still a significant rhetorical objective and one that could have consequences.

There is a lot of conservative think-tank money and etc. and no one has even tried to go out and build the George Mason University of Humanities Departments. (That is, a department or division that aims to pluck up neglected ‘conservative’ talent and show the rest what they’ve been missing.) I admit that there are structural barriers in the way of trying this sort of experiment, but nothing that couldn’t be pushed past if the will was really there, at present.

Let’s assume, for a second, that I really am “taking the bait” and employing counter-productive or even dangerous rhetoric. Let’s assume that my way of considering these issues has the potential to “burn down the ivory tower,” precisely because it has formal similarities to the way conservatives write and speak. In that case, you can’t possibly be serious about any of these constructive suggestions for conservative critics, because the second they became part of the ivory tower (by founding their own liberal arts university, or etc.), they would be guilty of trying to burn it down.

It seems to me that this is not lost on intelligent conservatives.

Changing subjects slightly: one reason why I will defend Burke on this one is that it seems to me insisting on being basically relentlessly reasonable about all this is a sound strategy.

What are we really defending here? Burke’s freedom of speech? Via your post, I linked to the guy; it seems to me that his speech is magnified, not endangered, in the process.

It is a mistake to treat people as reasonable simply because they adopt a reasonable tone. I took Burke seriously enough to discuss his ideas about tenure, and to reject them. I don’t consider them reasonable proposals just because he presents them in a muted and indirect way; for that matter, his “Everything Studies Department” was also unreasonable in the sense that it was rationally indefensible, although it provided interesting food for thought.

If I happen to think that Burke’s attack on tenure was published because of its conservative potential, and to believe that some conservative reader may try to capitalize on that potential, I’m either objectively right or not. It’s not dangerous or unfair to make the supposition. If Burke thinks he should go ahead and make his point anyway, fair enough; we can debate the proposal on its merits, as I have done. But that doesn’t obviate the effect of historical context on the dissemination and interpretation of a text.

But I am also, of course, concerned to keep open the possibility for statements of the form ‘the humanities are pretty messed up at present’. Because I do think they are significantly messed up, in a lot of ways. Saying so may be fuel on some conservative fires I wouldn’t want to feed. But what am I supposed to do?

Of course, you make whatever criticisms the situation merits. Same goes for me, and I agree with you that there are a lot of legitimate objections to the present state of theory. Mark Bauerlein, however, did not raise new questions about the nature of subjectivity or truth by calling professors lazy liars. He merely slandered his colleagues and his profession.

there is still something to be said about NOT getting so focused on the present, tactical conflict that you can’t see past the next trench.

To be honest, the process of translating everything a conservative loose cannon says about academia into semi-reasonable jargon, and then trying to offer a helpful rejoinder, is precisely what makes the horizon disappear. Bérubé had to expend an enormous amount of energy “managing” one student, John, to say nothing of his work refuting Horowitz; at least three different commenters tried to “reason” with Professor Ethan (see the original post), with the effect that Ethan became the VIP of the thread. As Rich noted, these debates repeat a larger pattern of showing greater friendliness to conservatives than to the far left.

I desire change as much as Mark Bauerlein, but the changes we want are different in kind. I want a re-investment in the humanities, leading up to the kinds of reinvigorated internal debates and innovations that everyone commenting here desires. He wants to eliminate “indoctrination in the classroom.” I cannot automatically count among my fellow travelers those people whose visions of change are in direct conflict with my own, and who want to generalize negatively about the moral worth of professors rather than debating ideas.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/09/07 at 02:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I want to get back to Holbo’s idea that conservative critiques of the humanities are, in effect, built into the psycho-cultural structure or our society. Or, perhaps more accurately, they feed into something that’s a part of our psycho-cultural structure. My little query about NYTimes anti-MLA snark has yielded a mention of a bit of anti-MLA snark in a 1922 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (from jasmurph), along with a reference to Rablais (from Jim Harrison), and to Aristophanes (from Rich Puchalsky). I take it that these examples could be multiplied in more or less direct proportion to how much time one spends in hunting them down.

Thus a certain anti-intellectual anti-academic strain is simply part of our cultural formation. Conservative ire draws from and feeds into this. The fact that this IS a structural matter is not, of course, reason to dismiss it. But it does count in favor of Holbo’s reasoned approach.

By Bill Benzon on 10/09/07 at 02:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich:

Bite me.

---

Anyhoo, I’m recalling you were the one chiding people for bad reading skills when it came to the “listening statement” and all that shit. When you come to the part of my essay where I say, “eliminate tenure”, let me know.

I’m talking about how we practice our profession. If we can’t talk about how we ought to practice because there are bad people out there setting their agenda, then they just as surely have set our agenda that way, by creating a zone of silences, of things that must not be spoken, as if Lord Voldemort will leap out of the bushes at us the moment we talk about the way things are and the way we want them to be. Would you factually disagree that the actual practice of tenure sometimes keeps innovative faculty from speaking, writing, teaching as they would? If you think that’s simply not true, then seriously, fuck off, because you don’t know jack about academic life.

I refuse to let the Bad Mens keep me from trying to think about problems of culture and habitus that affect my own life and keep my institutional and professional world from achieving what I think is best and most precious in it. The entire point of my essay is that where there are shortcomings (as in the habitus of tenure), those are problems of culture, meaning that structural solutions are never called for. There’s nothing wrong with tenure as a structure, as an institution; the only wrong thing might be in how we live it at times.

This goes to what John said perfectly above: that the conservative critics don’t have anything to say about what they want, because they don’t want anything but perpetual outrage or because what they want they cannot say because it’s not “conservative”. That’s about the most consistent message I try to deliver when I get into these kinds of issues.

--------

Rich holds himself to have an x-ray perfect insight into the brutal realities of power. Here’s two brutal realities and one idealistic possibility he’s missing, as far as I can tell.

1) That academics, esp. academics in the humanities, are in a weak structural position as a whole. Rich is acting as if there is a strong card in the deck to play when the university is under assault from various sources, that either withering denunciations or total silence will be an effective reply because of some underlying strength. In my view, we have no choice but to engage some of this attack and try to defang it or turn it aside (or just tie it up in dialogue). Shrieking back is a dumb idea both because we’re not in a strong position and because it’s way easier for the right to make demagogic use of that kind of posture. I think what’s wiser is a version of a decency trap, more or less.

I get this kind of shit all the time from people who say, let’s fight back, return invective for invective, they put one of yours in the hospital we put one of theirs in the morgue. Fine, fine, you go right ahead. Don’t pull this bullshit thing of saying, “And it would have worked too, if it weren’t for that damned Voice of Reason” or “We had those fuckers on the run until Tim Burke came along and agreed to abolish tenure”. If ferociously fighting back with intense invective as a strategy is so fucking pathetically weak that one wussy little blogger can sandbag it by his lonesome, then it was too weak to do anything meaningful in any case. This is the classic posture of radicals without any kind of popular base who are also have a rhetorical tin-ear: blame the popular front, blame the liberal. What is going to put strength into your strong words, Rich? I don’t see anyone at all in the wider society besides professors in the humanities who *requires* that the humanities continue as they are presently constituted. If we rise to demand their protection in uncompromising terms, why should anyone care?

2) Brutal reality #2: that some of the conservative attack is making fairly cunning use of some of the genuine problems, contradictions and shortcomings of the modern academy, and is emotionally resonant enough with real experience to have some power, despite the fundamental dishonesty of a lot of the right-wing assault. The Horowitz fantasy of political indoctrination in classrooms is just that, fantasy--but what is not fantasy is that a decent number of undergraduates sit in classrooms of 400 people being lectured to by bored, detached and/or arrogant professors to no obvious end save the achievement of a credential. The humanities aren’t a hive of liberal conspiracy, but they are struggling with their intellectual and philosophical identity. There *is* a gap between what we claim to aspire to and what we actually do, in a wide variety of ways. This is a problem with all civic and social institutions, of course, but you can’t just be indifferent to it, or act as if any attempt to talk about that gap is aiding and abetting the enemy. The conservative assault gains traction because it appropriates some genuine disappointment and frustration out there. When a lot of these kinds of discussions first started in the blogosphere at the Invisible Adjunct’s site, I was really struck that some of the people who would later sign up for the conservative crusade and a lot of people who would later attack that crusade were narratively describing some of the same kinds of emotional disappointments with graduate school, academic practice, and so on. Rich acts as if the whole thing is just a complete and utter fabrication, and therefore easily dismissed by treating as such. In my view, that’s a mistake that leftists and liberals continue re-make in the US when confronting conservative demagoguery: to act as if they need not think about the part of the iceberg that’s below the surface of the manipulation and the lies. I think that’s a recipe for continually sinking our boat.

3) Idealistically? I think Rich is advocating burning the village in order to save it. What is academia that we should struggle to protect it from malevolent critics? If it’s just a fortress for the left (e.g., the critics are factually correct, just ideologically wrong), that’s one vision--but I think that’s both untrue and wrong-headed. If it’s because there’s something valuable about the ideals of the academic enterprise, then those values are necessarily also our vulnerabilities--they have to be. We rise to defend the humanities because they offer something precious and ineffable and generative and beautiful to students. If that’s so, part of the burden we shoulder is that we have to listen, to discuss, to be open, even to people who unmistakably have evil intent and dishonest means. This is the argument that Inga Clendennin has made about the history of Nazism and the Holocaust: not that one has to be nice to Nazis, but that to understand Nazism, we have to understand it in human, connected, interior terms, not as an object outside of history or bereft of humanity. I think that’s no less true here. I approach criticisms that I think are both malevolent and dishonest with a notional openness and reason because I must, even if I were to be convinced that was a bad tactic. Because the institutional values I’m trying to defend with tactics require that openness.

What is the university that you would save it from its critics, Rich? What is it that you value in it?

By Timothy Burke on 10/09/07 at 03:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph: What I said to Rich (sans the “bite me") applies to you as well, on the matter of tenure.

If we can’t talk about problems in the habitus of tenure because to do so invariably implies that tenure must be destroyed as a structural practice, that is letting the conservatives set the agenda just as surely as anything else. I want the same re-investment in the humanities you want, largely on the same terms: that you can’t see that the habitus of academic life (including the way we train, hire, tenure, promote faculty) is part of what makes that re-investment and re-invigoration so challenging strikes me as a huge blindspot.

We have to be able to talk about the ways we’d like to live the structures we inhabit, about the best practices that define our profession. If we can’t do that, we become precisely what our most malevolent enemies say we are: hidebound, secretive, etcetera. The only way to create an open society is to live it openly.

You and Rich are arguing for the War on Terror version of culture war: close down, draw up the walls, treat the enemy as an object of hysteria, check every transaction at every border. “You’re with me or against me” as a credo.

By Timothy Burke on 10/09/07 at 03:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What Burke said.

By Bill Benzon on 10/09/07 at 05:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim,

Will Smith doesn’t have to swear to sell records.

The entire point of my essay is that where there are shortcomings (as in the habitus of tenure), those are problems of culture, meaning that structural solutions are never called for. There’s nothing wrong with tenure as a structure, as an institution; the only wrong thing might be in how we live it at times.

If the structure of tenure is unrelated to how we live tenure, then tenure isn’t the point; rather, the point is how we “live” academic debates in general. Making tenure into something entirely dependent on “habitus” makes your whole series of references to tenure a red herring.

That academics, esp. academics in the humanities, are in a weak structural position as a whole. Rich is acting as if there is a strong card in the deck to play when the university is under assault from various sources, that either withering denunciations or total silence will be an effective reply because of some underlying strength. In my view, we have no choice but to engage some of this attack and try to defang it or turn it aside (or just tie it up in dialogue). Shrieking back is a dumb idea both because we’re not in a strong position and because it’s way easier for the right to make demagogic use of that kind of posture. I think what’s wiser is a version of a decency trap, more or less.

You think that you’ll build up the academy by giving it a reputation for decency. But if your approach is based on granting a bunch of nasty generalizations about teachers and researchers in the humanities, all you’re doing is reinforcing an impression of malfeasance.

I support the right of both academics and the public at large to make informed critiques of the academy. That said, I haven’t the foggiest idea what to make of this:

The Horowitz fantasy of political indoctrination in classrooms is just that, fantasy--but what is not fantasy is that a decent number of undergraduates sit in classrooms of 400 people being lectured to by bored, detached and/or arrogant professors to no obvious end save the achievement of a credential.

I mean, hey, why stop with Bauerlein calling academics idlers who lie about their summers? Let’s also throw in some references to their arrogance, ennui, and “detachment”! It’s the only way to save the humanities!

...How on earth do you arrive at the conclusion that Rich, or I, or anybody else in this conversation is being “secretive”? The thread is certainly open to the public via Google, and there’s no particular information about the humanities that I’m trying to hide. That said, calling professors bored is supposed to count as information?

If it’s just a fortress for the left (e.g., the critics are factually correct, just ideologically wrong), that’s one vision--but I think that’s both untrue and wrong-headed.

Perhaps in a different industrialized country, such as any country in Western Europe, it wouldn’t be necessary to think of the academy as a “fortress of the left.” The problem right now in the United States is that all kinds of basic work in the discipline gets branded as politically “left.” If you want to study class inequality, race, gender, colonialism, environmental devastation, urban studies, the Vietnam War, or just about anything else besides applied natural science, and you do it honestly, you are going to end up on the left. Because you probably aren’t going to conclude that the solution to urban decay is moral uplift and charity; you probably won’t discover that racism and sexism are at an end; you probably won’t find colonialism and neo-colonialism to be triumphs of economic and intellectual development. If you want to study Shakespeare, you have to study Caliban and Antonio’s feelings for Bassanio; if you want to revere Plato, you have to come to terms with the pious fraud. In some arenas, you can be branded as “left-wing” simply for arguing that students should be taught evolution.

In any case, I would be much happier arguing any one of those issues, which are at least grounded in some kind of content, than I would be going back and forth about whether or not professors are degenerates. Doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and everyone else with a comparable level of professional training have deserved reputations for arrogance. The difference is that we applaud the arrogance of Donald Trump and Gregory House. In any case, re-structuring tenure or even growing the humanities is not going to make professors less humanly flawed.

We rise to defend the humanities because they offer something precious and ineffable and generative and beautiful to students. If that’s so, part of the burden we shoulder is that we have to listen, to discuss, to be open, even to people who unmistakably have evil intent and dishonest means.

Well, of course this follows the claim that we’re in too weak of a position to do anything else. Forget about the fact that we’re structurally weak—really the reason that we have to listen is that it’s the only way to preserve what is ineffable, generative, and beautiful about our discipline.

Actually, the only way to preserve what is ineffable, generative, and beautiful about the discipline is by standing up for what is presently inexpressible, as well as for what is beautiful and what is revolutionary. The attempt to characterize all discourse as inherently dogmatic, central to the rightist demand for restored “balance,” is an assault on fineness of meaning, an assault on beauty, and a brazen curb to new ideas.

In your final passages here, you imply a connection between the American right-wing and the Nazi party. I’m sure that the people in the White Rose Movement understood the Nazis, if that is the feverish analogy we’re pursuing here; nonetheless, they were a resistance movement.

You want to tar me with Christ’s “with me or against me” while imitating Christ in your beautiful generosity towards those who have “evil intent and dishonest means.” I would rather engage with my students and with actual injustices, if it is a question of the burden of compassion.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/09/07 at 05:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The contours of tenure shape the way that we live our institutional culture. When we enforce our disciplines as barriers to innovation, we do it through tenure. But there is nothing necessary to that in tenure, e.g., it is not tenure which causes that cultural problem. It is simply that tenure is the tool that makes that kind of malpractice powerful within the institution. You don’t fix that by abolishing tenure.

What does “standing up” mean to you, Joseph? I’m curious about the actual content of what that means for you and Rich. Is it Rich arguing 200 messages deep with “Prof. Ethan”? How is that different from what you guys regard as scandalous elevation of Horowitz et al? Is it silence towards the conservatives and trenchant critiques of any academics who look to you like they’re breaking ranks? Spell out the marching orders here, break out that last paragraph of Weber.

As far as “with us or against us”, you’re the person who started off with an apparently unironic quote of “Whose Side Are You On?” Meaning, yes, you’re mirroring the War on Terror: there are no middle spaces, there are no dialogues, there are no transactional spaces, there is no beam in our eye, there is nothing about the academy that we can discuss as a problem lest we give comfort to our enemies: we only must fight, “stand up”, go to war.

By Timothy Burke on 10/09/07 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim, really, I admire your willingness to resort to “bite me” and “fuck off” when you feel personally criticized.  It’s too bad that you aren’t willing to use such strong language when e.g. KC Johnson is making misrepresentations that you know are misrepresentations—but hey, baby steps.

I’m going to pick out a few of what I think are the more substantive points:

“Would you factually disagree that the actual practice of tenure sometimes keeps innovative faculty from speaking, writing, teaching as they would?”

Of course not.  The actual practise of anything always acts against some of its purposes.  And the phenomenon of people having to suck up to their tenure committee and then having their habits formed is well known.

So why did you feel it necessary to restate these rather well-known points in an essay about academic freedom?  Because there are problems of culture and habitus that people won’t realize unless you point them out, and will start to fix if you do?  Perhaps.  But I think that a more likely reason is the desire to appear evenhanded.

So, unlike Joseph, I’m not surprised that the next mention is of the “bored, detached and/or arrogant professors” that teach those 400 person classes.  Your whole stance demands that you can’t criticize conservatives without taking a compensatory shot at your own side, in order to demonstrate what a judicious person you are.  I already referenced Lieberman, upthread.

Next, the “brutal realities” and “idealistic possibility”:
“1) That academics, esp. academics in the humanities, are in a weak structural position as a whole. Rich is acting as if there is a strong card in the deck to play when the university is under assault from various sources, that either withering denunciations or total silence will be an effective reply because of some underlying strength.”

Presumably this is why I wrote: “Maybe academics shouldn’t be inflammatory, for purely tactical reasons.  (That isn’t the same thing as sneering that the whole thing is just infighting between left and right, talking about people being at the receiving end of PCness, etc.) But if so, they should recognize that this is a tactical, not a principled, choice.”

So, reading comprehension not your strong suit at the moment; that’s OK, you’re mad.  But this should be easy to understand: responding nicely, with a decency trap, does not mean that you have be dismissive, or prove your bona fides with some kind of Sister Souljah move.

“If ferociously fighting back with intense invective as a strategy is so fucking pathetically weak that one wussy little blogger can sandbag it by his lonesome, then it was too weak to do anything meaningful in any case.”

Tim, either somebody is reading what you write, or not.  If not, who cares what you write.  If so, then you’re doing damage.  I’m not saying that you spoiled everything for everyone.  I’m saying that you took whatever influence you do have and used it damagingly.

“2) Brutal reality #2: that some of the conservative attack is making fairly cunning use of some of the genuine problems, contradictions and shortcomings of the modern academy, and is emotionally resonant enough with real experience to have some power, despite the fundamental dishonesty of a lot of the right-wing assault.”

Oh, my.  Some students are bored.  Some people try grad school and find it doesn’t suit them.  People often go to college just to get a credential for a good job.  The humanities are a site of conflicted goals and identities at this time.  I never would have known these things!

The conservative assault gains traction from all kinds of things: KC Johnson uses racism, Horowitz anti-intellectualism, and so on.  Sure, any criticism of academia from any direction will gain some traction because of academia’s ordinary failures.  But suggesting that the way to deal with an attack based on total fantasy is to work harder to change structural elements of academia that professors have no real control over—that’s nonsense.

“Idealistically? I think Rich is advocating burning the village in order to save it. What is academia that we should struggle to protect it from malevolent critics? If it’s just a fortress for the left (e.g., the critics are factually correct, just ideologically wrong), that’s one vision--but I think that’s both untrue and wrong-headed.  [...] What is the university that you would save it from its critics, Rich? What is it that you value in it?”

I am concerned that our society is currently falling apart.  The Bush administration is putting strains on it that I don’t think that most people take seriously enough.  In these circumstances, opening up one more sector of society to tinkering around the edges which will be implemented by the right is, in my opinion, incredibly foolish.  The university is no fortress for the left.  But tenure does provide a stabilizing influence at this time; those intellectuals that don’t work for business or government can’t just be fired for political reasons.

Also, frankly, the people in the humanities have to be defended, because if you go, you take everyone else down with you.  None of the proposals for reforming academia are really humanities-specific.  If you go, so does any kind of science that the right wing doesn’t like.  “We rise to defend the humanities because they offer something precious and ineffable and generative and beautiful to students. If that’s so, part of the burden we shoulder is that we have to listen, to discuss, to be open, even to people who unmistakably have evil intent and dishonest means”—that strikes me as self-serving, romanticized twaddle, that with its theme of civilizational burden is strangely reminiscent of colonialist themes.  But hey, whatever you like to believe, guy.

Don’t get me wrong; I generally like academics in the humanities; I generally value the humanities, and scholarship as a whole.  Even when people are spouting ineffable BS in defense of them.

“If we can’t talk about problems in the habitus of tenure because to do so invariably implies that tenure must be destroyed as a structural practice, that is letting the conservatives set the agenda just as surely as anything else.”

Well, yes, they set the agenda.  They control the presidency, the Supreme Court, have great influence over the media, and the Democrats are seemingly not strong enough to stop them in Congress, plus they have foundations that can fund them even to do low-probable-payoff things like attack academia.  Their ability to set the agenda is why we are even talking about this issue.

But really, you can talk about whatever you want.  I’m not attacking your free speech.  I’m saying that you’re being foolish, and questioning your motives.  If you want to go on, and perhaps in a fit of dudgeon go even further, go right ahead.  I don’t really think that enough people listen to you so that you’ll do anything but damage your own reputation.

By on 10/09/07 at 08:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, Rich, just how would you defend the humanities? You say you value them, why? The only reason you give in your post immediately above is not a defense of the humanities at all; it’s a defense of science, which you fear will become vulnerable if the right gets its way with the academy through the sorts of attacks it directs against the humanities.

You reject Tim’s quick and formulaic defense as “romanticized twaddle.” OK. Do better. Or is you statement of support for the humanities simply a rhetorical gesture? I don’t think it is but I’d like to see how you defend the humanities on their own terms.

By Bill Benzon on 10/09/07 at 08:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would defend the humanities on the same terms as I would defend any part of academia; as valuable scholarship.  Do I have to go all the way back to the basics like “knowledge and ideas are good”, “it’s good to have people in society whose main job is to think about things and write about them”, and so on?  In the most basic humanist terms, anything of interest to people is worth studying.

I wouldn’t even try a defense of something like poetry on the basis that it’s “precious and ineffable and generative and beautiful”.  There’s a lot of poetry that doesn’t try to be those things.  Much less would I defend academics who study poetry on those terms, especially since their own writing generally lacks the qualities of ineffability, beauty, and so on.  Isn’t it enough to say that they’re generally good scholars who do their best with their subject?  Or do they have to shoulder the burden of civilization as well?

By on 10/09/07 at 08:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s too bad that there’s a good discussion between Joseph and me buried in here that will clearly never see the light of day.  But I do have to reference this:

Tim: “What does “standing up” mean to you, Joseph? I’m curious about the actual content of what that means for you and Rich. Is it Rich arguing 200 messages deep with “Prof. Ethan”? How is that different from what you guys regard as scandalous elevation of Horowitz et al? Is it silence towards the conservatives and trenchant critiques of any academics who look to you like they’re breaking ranks? Spell out the marching orders here, break out that last paragraph of Weber.”

I really have difficulty figuring this out.  Scandalous elevation of Horowitz et al?  I’ve always thought that Berube had the right approach to Horowitz, and I think that I’ve even said so in this thread, let’s see:

Me: “The problem with approaching these people in a specifically academic context is that academics, in general, care about truth, and they don’t.  It’s not possible to really argue with them in the classical sense.  You can only mock them, and point out their factual wrongness at every opportunity, so that anyone who does have some degree of concern with at least instrumental truth—such as, e.g., the industrial complex that primarily supports universities and the politicians still concerned with it—will reject them.  Bérubé’s approach was good, because that’s mostly what he did in his interviews and other public appearances, and in his book he provided an alternative, positive glimpse into what he actually did as a teacher.”

But Tim wants marching orders, and wants to inflate my disagreement with his writing, dislike of triangulation, concern with the political situation, and annoyance that people are still being fooled by the same stupid tricks that fooled them for the last seven years, into some kind of call-to-the-barriers pretension on my part?  OK, I command him to think about what Weber wrote about a politics of responsibility, and consider that his essay will have the effects that it has no matter what his motives were for writing it.  If he doesn’t care, and wants to defend his right to write whatever noodlings he wants, in what amounts to an op-ed, just to show that he can, then he should go ahead; there are certainly a lot of people like that out there already.

As for myself, I did my duty to the Resistance by writing a parody of Ludacris’ Roll Out.  Catapult the propaganda!

By on 10/09/07 at 09:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"So why did you feel it necessary to restate these rather well-known points in an essay about academic freedom?  Because there are problems of culture and habitus that people won’t realize unless you point them out, and will start to fix if you do?  Perhaps.  But I think that a more likely reason is the desire to appear evenhanded.”

Nice to know you’re telepathic, that must come in handy. Pretty much one of the most consistent themes in my blog writing since I started doing it has been that there are problems of culture and habitus in academia, and that those require some kind of address that scrupulously leaves the structures of academic life intact.

But whatever. Somehow I think motivating Rich Puchalsky to tendentiousness isn’t exactly going to take my reputation capital down a notch, considering that this appears to be roughly as easy as breathing air.

By Timothy Burke on 10/09/07 at 11:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

When we enforce our disciplines as barriers to innovation, we do it through tenure. But there is nothing necessary to that in tenure, e.g., it is not tenure which causes that cultural problem. It is simply that tenure is the tool that makes that kind of malpractice powerful within the institution. You don’t fix that by abolishing tenure.

Exactly. I do agree with you that the discipline is “enforced,” but from where I sit, the locus of that enforcement is the hiring process. Even if our disagreement here is a product of differing positions within the academy—graduate student versus professor—that divergence is enough to suggest that tenure shouldn’t grab the spotlight.

What does “standing up” mean to you, Joseph? I’m curious about the actual content of what that means for you and Rich. Is it Rich arguing 200 messages deep with “Prof. Ethan”? How is that different from what you guys regard as scandalous elevation of Horowitz et al? Is it silence towards the conservatives and trenchant critiques of any academics who look to you like they’re breaking ranks? Spell out the marching orders here, break out that last paragraph of Weber.

Same here as with the commenter at Acephalous who became convinced I owned Che Guevara clothing: the Weber shot misses its mark. Also, don’t conflate me and Rich. He and I agree in significant ways, but were you to look just at what he and I have written, you’d see differences of opinion and approach. Was it Rich chiming in against Professor Ethan? Yes; I also wrote several comments. This post was written with the benefit of hindsight.

The reaction against being disciplined cuts both ways; from my point of view, it’s not that I’m silencing your critique of tenure, but rather that you are trying to dictate how I should use dialogue and “defanging” to mollify conservative critics.

“Standing up,” as you put it, means different things in different contexts. My position doesn’t boil down to being harsh; like you, I don’t put much faith in shrieking. In some cases, I think academics should take a slightly higher-level approach in their responses to conservatives. Rather than simply defending the aesthetic quality of a chosen text, they should ask what qualifies their interrogator to prefer Shakespeare (or whomever), why that particular author has been chosen, and what further restrictions might apply to how an author like Shakespeare will be read. Or, in response to the demand for a “conservative reading list,” an academic might say: “You are putting forward a relativistic view of the relationship between knowledge and belief. Is that consistent with all of your positions about knowledge? Is it consistent with your reasons for choosing these particular authors?” The point of the post was to indicate the potential of confronting people like Ethan with the assumptions implicit in their claims.

When Stephen Jay Gould wrote The Mismeasure of Man, he attempted to do more than just debunking the factual inaccuracies in The Bell Curve. He asked why these factual inaccuracies came to be: how they fitted into a long tradition of scientific justifications for racism. In that way, he tried to lay the groundwork for responses to books that haven’t been written yet, but that inevitably will be written. You have to go after more than faulty data; you have to expose the hunger for that data.

Deciding whether to be silent or vocal is a decision that should be made tactically if a debate has become polarized, which, in this case, I believe it has. (I believe this in part because of the nasty and distortive characterizations of Bérubé by K.C. Johnson’s readers on Acephalous. Who tried harder than Bérubé to restore a dialogue?) Academics should pick their battles. If a debate is likely to reach a wide public, it may be worthwhile. If it takes the form of troll-like behavior on a blog, it should perhaps be ignored. “Men’s Rights Activists” show up at feminist blogs all the time; for the most part, no matter how sincerely each MRA means his critique of feminism, their comments are either deleted or dismissed.

You’re right, I am threatening a writer like Bauerlein with the prospect of trenchant critique. Guilty as charged.

As far as “with us or against us”, you’re the person who started off with an apparently unironic quote of “Whose Side Are You On?” Meaning, yes, you’re mirroring the War on Terror: there are no middle spaces, there are no dialogues, there are no transactional spaces, there is no beam in our eye, there is nothing about the academy that we can discuss as a problem lest we give comfort to our enemies: we only must fight, “stand up”, go to war.

First of all, it is unscrupulous and offensive to compare my frustration with Mark Bauerlein, or even my response to your article on tenure, to a specific war that has cost thousands of lives.  I am using the term “war” broadly; you are not.

Second, I am sure that you would not accuse a conservative interlocutor of “mirroring the War on Terror,” since a conservative may very well support the War on Terror. So, as it happens, you expect more of me than you do of the people you are apparently engaging in dialogue. To you, they are misinformed children. I am sure they will not thank you.

I am not sure what middle spaces, or “transactional” spaces, exist for you between your own viewpoint, and that of those others to whom you refer, but I am sure that automatically generated “middle spaces” between one opinion and the next are miles away from the scholarly pursuit of truth. The fact that somebody disagrees with me doesn’t give me pause; rather, what gives me pause is the thought that I may be wrong, and only an informed person can speak about that. If Jean Baudrillard is eventually refuted, and somebody who avoided reading him says “Well, I always knew he was a load of crap,” I wouldn’t give them the slightest credit for it. Similarly, if something is wrong with the academy, that doesn’t mean that malcontents babbling about laziness and indoctrination have their fingers on the pulse. My point remains that there is nothing wrong with the academy that is worth discussing in an unintelligent, unconstructive way.

Even as I type this, of course, I am eager to return to considering, as fully as possible, the problems (including factionalism and methodological dogma) that do, in fact, exist within the humanities, and don’t admit of easy solutions.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/10/07 at 01:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim, I’d guess that you really do believe that you spent something like a third of your essay on the problems of tenure because it was important in the context of academic freedom.  And then you just forgot to mention anywhere in your essay that you think that the structures of academic life should scrupulously be left intact because hey, the readers of your essay must have read your blog.  Or have telepathy.

So we have two different possible authors here.  One of them is committed to a “Habermasian conception of knowledge and communicative action” and “accepts that there are no strictly apolitical or disinterested positions.” The other is reacting with tired ad hom slams like “Somehow I think motivating Rich Puchalsky to tendentiousness isn’t exactly going to take my reputation capital down a notch, considering that this appears to be roughly as easy as breathing air,” and going on about the bored, detached and/or arrogant professors who make the conservative critique of academia something less than a complete fabrication.  What makes this second author mad enough to start telling someone to fuck off?  Historical misrepresentation?  Race-baiting?  Nope.

Of course I don’t know what’s in your head.  But I know which author I’d pick as the likely author of this body of text.

By on 10/10/07 at 02:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

FWIW, as a point of information and just in case it isn’t obvious, concern about the stiffling effects of tenure predates the current conservative onslaught by decades. For all I know, it’s been around as long as tenure has, but it’s definitely been around since the early 70s, when the drop in Federal funding to higher education caused academics to start worrying about coming shrinkage in academic employment. They started worrying that a large cohort of faculty would become “tenured in” and thus make entry into academia much more difficult for later cohorts because the number of slots opening up through retirement would be relatively small until that cohort started retiring sometime early in this century. Back then they didnt’ forsee the massive use of adjuncts.

By Bill Benzon on 10/10/07 at 02:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Even as I type this, of course, I am eager to return to considering, as fully as possible, the problems (including factionalism and methodological dogma) that do, in fact, exist within the humanities, and don’t admit of easy solutions.”

Why are you eager, Joseph? Given the analysis you’ve laid out here, how can you possibly do that without precluding the use of your analysis by conservative critics? You think that an analysis which proposes that the system by which academics confer tenure can become a tool that suppresses academic freedom because of underlying problems in culture and mindset amounts to a reactionary argument for the elimination of tenure, even if that analysis doesn’t say that, simply because there are people out there poised to misuse the argument. If this is war--your rhetoric, I remind you--why ever write anything again on a public blog that doesn’t directly service and reinforce the war? Particularly something that by your own argument could potentially be re-engineered as a weapon against you. Right, I know, the old argument that a good writer can somehow prevent all such misuses through craftwork. Well, look at me: I can write as much defense of academic freedom into an essay as I like, but it doesn’t prevent telepathic readers like Rich from deciding that I have some other intent, and that only his creative misreadings are meaningful arguments.

There isn’t any defense against willful misreading through craft. After I wrote a long attack on one of ACTA’s reports, I got a host of blog links from far-right figures denouncing me as a Stalinist, a well-known long time radical leftist, and so on. The only defense in fact is to do what Rich pours scorn on here: to write as you like, say the things you think matter to you in the professional and political life that you live and want to live. I think that a lot of what I see as the cultural shortcomings, the weak practices, of academia matter. So I’m going to talk about them as carefully as I can, with as much appreciation for complexity as I can manage in this format.

Letting the right-wing assault tell you what you can’t talk about in your own institutional world is letting them have power over you that they aren’t entitled to have. I’ve watched tenure used as an instrument to suppress autonomy and innovation quite a few times in this profession: I think it’s important to talk about that precisely because I believe in academic freedom and precisely because I believe that the answer to that isn’t changing tenure, it’s changing the way we live our academic culture. Which I say very clearly in that essay. If your marching orders are, “Don’t say that, you mustn’t say that, someone might hear you and think you said the opposite”, then mon general Broulard, I refuse your orders.

By Timothy Burke on 10/10/07 at 07:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"concern about the stiffling effects of tenure predates the current conservative onslaught by decades.”

I know, Bill.  I don’t really see any connection between the conservative onslaught and concerns about tenure, other than that conservatives don’t like tenure and that therefore bringing up old concerns about it is an easy way to appear fair and balanced and nonpartisan in an article in which one otherwise opposes that onslaught.  It’s as if whenever one wrote an article about the problems with legacy admissions, one had to put in a long section about how there are long-standing concerns with affirmative action too.

And in any case, rhetoric like this pretty much clinches it:

Tim: “As far as “with us or against us”, you’re the person who started off with an apparently unironic quote of “Whose Side Are You On?” Meaning, yes, you’re mirroring the War on Terror: there are no middle spaces, there are no dialogues, there are no transactional spaces, there is no beam in our eye, there is nothing about the academy that we can discuss as a problem lest we give comfort to our enemies: we only must fight, “stand up”, go to war.”

Joseph is mirroring the War on Terror—my god, I had never realized that Joseph controlled intelligence agencies, military forces, secret prisons, and law enforcement of all types.  Joseph has so much power, it’s no wonder that I agree with him at all times.  Wait, you say that he’s a grad student writing a blog post? 

But I thought that blog posts had comment sections, making the “there are no dialogues, there are no transactional spaces” bit particularly ironic.  Surely it can’t be no one likes being criticized, and that some people very rarely are because of their institutional status and the cosy standards of their milieu, so that when they are they have to go into a tirade about those people who are always trying to make people choose nonexistent sides and suppressing public discussion.

But I’ll play that war-of-terror mirroring, annoyingly pseudo-radical guy, if there is such a demand for him.  Why shouldn’t people ask you to choose sides, Tim?  Because there self-evidently aren’t sides in general politics at the moment?  Because if someone vaguely on the left tells people that they shouldn’t rhetorically support the right needlessly, they’re as bad as the people supporting the War on Terror?  Because as an academic, you are privileged person, and shouldn’t ever have to deal with annoying people who criticize whatever you want to write in the public sphere?  What is it?

If I could annoy every person who isn’t on the right but who still hasn’t chosen sides by this point, I’d gladly do so.  They certainly annoy me.

By on 10/10/07 at 08:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim: “If this is war--your rhetoric, I remind you--why ever write anything again on a public blog that doesn’t directly service and reinforce the war?”

And the straw bonfire goes on.  Let’s see, an at best poorly written essay that doesn’t bother to include “I think that we should scrupulously leave the structures of academic life, including tenure, intact” has the same public impact as a blog post.  The whole point of blogs—or, at least, what I think of as a major point of them—is to be able to try out ideas, or write what you want, without the full responsibility of having to consider your words as a public intervention through the most formal channels.

People were rampantly misreading the Group of 88 essay even after they said, explicitly, multiple times, that the statement wasn’t about the guilt of the students in the case.  If you’d said something like “Oops, I guess I should have clarified what I meant in that essay more,” and left it at that—even with suitable curses at what a jerk I am—then maybe I’d believe that my original reading was a misreading.  But I don’t think I was wrong about it, precisely because of how you’re reacting.

By on 10/10/07 at 09:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim,

You’ve cast yourself and me in an academic version of Paths of Glory. At this point, trying to take your arguments on their merits while pretending you didn’t finish with “mon General Broulard” makes little sense, but here goes.

Given the analysis you’ve laid out here, how can you possibly do that without precluding the use of your analysis by conservative critics?

I certainly can’t avoid being quoted out of context, or misquoted, or misread. I have to settle for knowing that a statement like “Don’t believe academics when they talk about summer research work” is different in kind from a statement like “The attempt to make Victorian literature analogous to police surveillance misreads the significance of knowledge in omniscient narration, and underestimates the importance of the process of surveillance.”

That’s the sort of statement I have in mind when I talk about criticizing the humanities: statements that challenge widely-held views about literature and society, views often based on some important critical text—in this case, D. A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police, which reads Victorian narration via Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. This is also the kind of work I would do responding to “theory” claims with which I disagree. At what point would such work blend into claims about “bored” and “detached” professors? The answer is never.

I think it’s important to talk about that precisely because I believe in academic freedom and precisely because I believe that the answer to that isn’t changing tenure, it’s changing the way we live our academic culture.

You never responded to my point about your association between habitus and the thing-in-itself (tenure). If tenure is neither good nor bad, except through habitus, then your essay should have focused on habitus. As it is, your essay implies that cut-and-thrust between graduate students has something to do with tenure, which is ridiculous.

If this is war--your rhetoric, I remind you--why ever write anything again on a public blog that doesn’t directly service and reinforce the war?

Actually, part of the point of trying to take a more strategic approach is avoiding getting tied up in redundant dialogues with every person capable of a statement like “Academics push discredited leftist ideas on their students, and punish dissent with ridicule and failing marks.”

In sum, you are arguing that we must save academia (which has become “structurally weak") by responding to conservatives, and doing that in a particular mode ("defanging" or “tying up in dialogue"), while simultaneously arguing that whatever you write must be dictated by your institutional conscience, and not by conservatives. Such a separation of audiences is pure fiction, at least when it comes to work published in an online journal. If it was morally imperative for you to weigh in now about academic tenure, so be it, as I’ve stated at least three times. Your act becomes more admirable because you thought through its consequences to the best of your ability. However, that is quite different from merely saying “Damn the torpedoes, I write what I want,” which isn’t the slightest bit reflective.

More and more, it seems like you just agree with conservative critics of the academy. You think there is an iceberg of truth beneath the thin penguin homestead of lies and manipulations. You consider the academy to be an intellectual failure, and academics to commonly be moral failures. You think many of the people “crusading” against academia were once idealistic students who received unfair treatment or inadequate instruction.

If I agreed with you, I would drop out immediately.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/10/07 at 04:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim: “Which I say very clearly in that essay. If your marching orders are, “Don’t say that, you mustn’t say that, someone might hear you and think you said the opposite”, then mon general Broulard, I refuse your orders.”

Joseph: “You’ve cast yourself and me in an academic version of Paths of Glory. At this point, trying to take your arguments on their merits while pretending you didn’t finish with “mon General Broulard” makes little sense, but here goes.”

When I first read this, I took the “General Broulard” line as merely a rhetorical flourish.  Since Jospeh commented on it, I thought I’d look up Paths of Glory.  So now I know that Tim is comparing himself to a French soldier ordered to storm a German position in WW I trench warfare.

All right, this is still a rhetorical flourish, but a highly revealing one. 

Let’s look back at how “very clearly” Tim Burke wrote that essay.  I looked through it once more, especially for any mention of culture of habitus.  There is one:

From Tim’s minnesota review essay: “The less mobility, the higher the risk that idiosyncratic intellectual behavior is going to leave an academic suffering through two or three decades of pariah status within a single institution, with little ability to have a fresh start elsewhere. This is substantially a problem of culture or habitus: it cannot be readily addressed by building a better system for granting tenure, nor even by dispensing with tenure altogether. Some kind of protection from dismissal for new ideas or approaches is a basic condition of academic freedom, but American academics also need to develop a consistent taste for innovation and individuality.”

I would read this as saying that the problem of mobility is one that is substantially one of culture or habitus, not all of the problems discussed in the last five paragraphs.  And the “nor even by dispensing with tenure” line is immediately negated by “Some kind of protection from dismissal for new ideas or approaches is a basic condition of academic freedom [...]”, implying that tenure may be replaced or tinkered with as long as there’s something there that serves the purpose of protection from dismissal; if Burke had wanted to write that tenure as currently constituted had to be kept, he could have.

So I do not think that the essay says what he thinks it does.  He’s either offering a dishonest gloss on the essay, or denying that it’s as poorly written as it actually is.

Now, when people tell him that they think his essay is harmful, and that he shouldn’t have written it in that way, he replies that they are giving him orders, as if he’s part of a military chain of command —and not just orders, orders that would send him on a useless suicide mission.

That’s simply adolescent petulance, nothing more.  No one here has any kind of institutional power over Tim Burke.  What he’s saying is that he shouldn’t be criticized.  That any attempt by other people to tell him that he did a bad thing by writing a particular essay is getting in his space, and he’s going to say whatever he wants, and that those people can’t push him around, and he’s got to be free and maybe buy a motorcycle.

To which there really is no answer, except, OK, dude.  If you want to fantasize that we are The Man pushing you around—which is really the only way that I can translate this into an even borderline acceptable fantasy; the one in which we are generals sending him across the wire is grotesque—there’s not really much to do except back away slowly.  I happen to think that the reason for this odd reaction is most likely because of anger that anyone would question the self-image of above-the-fray evenhandedness that Burke is so clearly invested in, and that taking responsibility for the effect of his words would mean that he could no longer preserve it. 

But really, who knows why.  All that we know is that we are now in some fantasy land in which Tim Burke, tenured professor, is being ordered across no-man’s-land, and he’s virtuously standing up to those orders and proclaiming that he’s going to write whatever he wants to write—not in his academic work, but in political op-eds.  And who cares what effect it has.

This is why I find people like Tim Burke annoying.  It’s the exact equivalent of the TV pundits who chirped their way through the Bush years.  After ignoring or excusing the right wing for years, or at best “dialoguing” with them, the increasingly heated yells finally are heard in the distance, and the reaction is “Oh my, those people are telling me what to do, what to say!  What uncivil radicals they are.  I must guard my privileges.”

Oh, great job.  And these are the people who present themselves as the trustworthy, moderate ones.  I wrote higher up the thread that this was a staggering failure on these’s people’s part.  And it is.

By on 10/11/07 at 08:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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