Tag: academentia


My take on this is simple: It is better for a good book not to be taught at all than be taught by the people quoted in that article. Yes! — do, please, refuse to teach Shakespeare, Homer, Hawthorne, whoever. Wag your admonitory finger at them. Let them be cast aside, let them be scorned and mocked. Let them be samizdat. Let them be forbidden fruit.

They will find their readers. They always have — long, long before anyone thought to teach them in schools — and they always will.

so sue me

I have developed a theory about academic life in America today, one that started as a kind of joke but has developed into a genuinely held view. Here’s my theory: A great many university administrators want to get sued, or at least to get seriously threatened with lawsuits.

Many university administrators are under heavy, heavy pressure from politically agitated students and faculty to combat racism by introducing speech codes, implementing racial quotas in hiring, expelling noncompliant students, firing noncompliant faculty members even when they’re tenured, compelling speech in favor of their policies, and essentially creating an enormous panoptic surveillance state to discipline and punish. The whole business is logistically impossible and would be a nightmare to build and an even worse nightmare to maintain.

Fortunately for these administrators, almost all of the proposed remedies for racism are legally forbidden to public institutions, and many of them are forbidden to private ones as well. When organizations like FIRE show up to remind administrators of that, those administrators have a card to play in their tense poker game with protestors. FIRE has actually had a good deal of success in getting colleges and universities to rescind fundamentally illiberal and often illegal policies, and the success has come through meaningful threats to take the universities to court. (FIRE itself has no standing to sue, of course, but its lawyers can represent those who do have such standing.)

My theory is that many administrators love it when FIRE shows up, or when other plausible threats of legal action come across their desk. Then they can go to the protestors and say, I did everything in my power to create Social Justice U, and I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for that pesky Bill of Rights!


In the most recent issue of his newsletter, David French writes,

The fear of the Christian “best” is harming this nation…. [Some], in spite of Christ’s admonition to deny yourself and take up your cross to follow Him, are not willing to risk tweetings when the apostles braved beatings. Their jobs are too precious to risk. Though they enjoy greater freedom from actual censorship than arguably any people in the history of the planet, self-censorship suffices to drive too many thoughtful Christian voices from the academy, the boardroom, and the office. But shrinking back in the face of challenges to career and reputation communicates fear, not faith, to a broken world. While the fearful Christian would never say this out loud, they’re functionally treating the “strong gods” of the partisan political moment as greater and more powerful than the God of the universe they seek to serve.

He also says, “My friend Rod Dreher’s influential blog has become a clearing-house for frightened Christian professionals to (anonymously) express their deep fears.“

So it’s not surprising that Rod replied, thus:

I like and respect David. Let nobody deny his courage in the public arena. I’m serious about that. I agree with him that Christians cannot be silent, that we have to be willing to be criticized, and even suffer for our faith. The most important chapter in Live Not By Lies is the chapter on suffering as Christian witness. But I read David’s essay as way more optimistic than facts warrant. There really is a difference between hard totalitarianism and soft totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is a mindset before it is anything else. Totalitarianism is the idea that there is no area of life that is free from politics — and that also means cultural politics. I don’t believe that we will have a Woke Stasi in this country. But I also believe we won’t need one for the progressive radicals to achieve what they want to do. Justice Alito said in his dissent today that the ruling raises the question of whether employers will force employees to keep quiet regarding their opinions critical of homosexuality and transgenderism. Might you lose your job over your private social media posts affirming what your church teaches? Yes, you might — and you might have no recourse.

So yes, I completely agree with David that Christians should be more bold … but let’s not downplay how much they (we) are going to be made to suffer under the new and emerging cultural and legal regime.

There’s a lot here that needs to be sorted out. Let me make my best effort at the sorting. Here are the key questions:

  • Are Christians as such widely in danger of losing their jobs?
  • Or, are they merely in danger of losing their social standing, or of getting dragged on Twitter?
  • Or, are Christians as such okay, but those Christians who hold traditional views on marriage and sexuality have become personae non gratae in polite society?
  • Assuming that you are a Christian in some sort of genuine professional or personal danger, what is the proper Christian response to that?

These are difficult questions, and I would just encourage everyone engaged in these debates to be clear about what specifically they are talking about and what their answers to the above are. Then we can have more meaningful discussions.

In this post I just want to make a couple of points that may provide grist for our common mill.

I’ve met a shockingly large number of closeted academic Christians over the years, and received emails from them. I can think of one visit I made a few years ago to a university that everyone would recognize and recognize as thoroughly secular, at which no fewer than three faculty members approached me when no one else was around to confess, sotto voce, their Christian faith and thank me for my witness. It was obvious that outing themselves as Christians was unthinkable to them. But none of the three had tenure, so I understood. I really doubted whether they would’ve been in danger, because none of them struck me as conservative in their politics or their theology, but people on the tenure clock are easily spooked. The question I found myself asking, though, was: Do they know about one another? I doubted it. But wouldn’t they have been encouraged to know they had company? If even one of them had come out it might have meant a lot to the others.

Which brings me to the person Rod Dreher calls Professor Kingsfield. Professor Kingsfield is a tenured law professor “at one of the country’s elite law schools” who secretly confessed his views to Rod a few years back, and in my judgment Professor Kingsfield ought to be ashamed of himself. Just think of how much encouragement he could have given to other Christians at his law school and elsewhere! He could not have feared losing his job, only potentially the approval of some of his colleagues. The very worst possibility would have been something like being denied promotion from associate to full professor. And he couldn’t face that? He should spend some time reflecting on Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 69–155), who, when as an elderly man he was threatened with being burned to death if he did not renounce Christ, replied, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?”

Setting aside whatever judgment he may face when the Lord Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead and he has to explain why he could not bring himself to utter the name of Jesus for terror of the Associate Dean, Professor Kingsfield has dug a hole to hide himself into which others have fallen. A pox, then, on Kingsfield, who has made it more difficult for people who come after him to navigate these difficult days, and a murrain on all of his ilk. On all of them David French’s critique falls forcefully and unambiguously.

However. The situation of the tenured faculty member is an extremely rare one in our world. Very few Americans have the kind of job security Professor Kingsfield and I have, and David French needs to have more sympathy for those who don’t — and who don’t have the benefit that he has, and as far as I can tell has had his entire career, of working for institutions that are either explicitly Christian or explicitly open to Christians. (I have that benefit too!) Should The Dispatch fail, French, thanks to his prominence and a writer and to his previous career as a lawyer, has options to fall back on that few of his fellow American believers have. For them it’s not just a matter of risking “tweetings”: as we have seen countless times, people lose jobs because of what they post on social media or what someone with a smartphone captures them saying on video. And for many millions of Americans, losing a job means losing the ability to feed the family and pay the rent. French’s failure to acknowledge the real potential costs for such Christians is insensitive at best.

That said, I can’t help wondering what would happen if the Christians of America en masse started confessing their faith openly. Not going on a crusade against sexual deviancy or whatever — but simply saying that they believe that Jesus is Lord and that they hope to serve Him, which means to love the Lord their God with all their heart and all their soul and all their mind, and love their neighbors as themselves. To comfort the widows and orphans in their distress. To do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God. To put no other gods before Him, even the “strong gods” who preen and strut on social media. (Facebook and Twitter are “principalities and powers,” and we should never forget it.)

I don’t know whether that would “work,” whether it would be “effective.” But those aren’t Christian categories anyway. What matters is being faithful to the God who saves us, and that necessarily has a public dimension.

In his famous Divinity School address, Ralph Waldo Emerson complained about those Trinitarian Christians who “dwell with noxious exaggeration upon the person of Jesus.” I often tell people that I want that to be on my tombstone: He dwelt with noxious exaggeration upon the person of Jesus. If Even a relative handful of us did that, what might happen? One thing’s for sure: We and our neighbors would realize that there are more of us than anyone had thought.

I hope to revisit these and related matters in subsequent posts.

Fish on freedom

Stanley Fish’s new book The First consists largely of repackagings of ideas Fish has already developed: he’s covered free speech in There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing Too, academic freedom and academic culture in Save the World On Your Own Time and in many essays, religious freedom in a handful of essays, including a brilliant one called “Vicki Frost Objects” that’s far better than anything here. But Fish writes as sharply as ever, and The First could be a nice introduction to his writings on the issues emanating from the First Amendment. 

But I want to question something that he writes about academic freedom. His argument here centers on a single crucial distinction, which he develops in response to the Chicago Statement on academic freedom:

My challenge to that popular view (the Chicago statement has been endorsed by a number of other universities) depends on a distinction between freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry. Freedom of speech is a democratic value. It says that in a democracy government should neither anoint nor stigmatize particular forms of speech but act as an honest broker providing a framework and a forum for the competition of ideas and policies. In this vision, every voice has a right to be heard, at least theoretically. (In fact, differences in resources will almost always translate into differences in the size of the audience one can reach.) In the academy, on the other hand, free inquiry, not free speech, is the reigning ethic, and academic inquiry is engaged in only by those who have been certified as competent; not every voice gets to be heard. The right to speak in the scholarly conversation does not come with membership; it is granted only to those who have survived a series of vettings and are left standing after countless others have been sent out of the room.

I think Fish knows that this might not be comforting to people worried about professors and administrators who exclude the ideas they don’t like, so he clarifies:

Academic inquiry, then, is not free in the First Amendment sense; it is free only in a very special sense: the path of inquiry is open and should not be blocked either by putting the stamp of approval on particular points of view in advance or by dismissing other points of view before they are heard and evaluated.

But why not? Why shouldn’t those who ”are left standing after countless others have been sent out of the room,” those ”who have been certified as competent,” decide that some points of view actually may (perhaps must) be dismissed before being heard and evaluated?

Fish argues that a scholar like Charles Murray should be treated differently than a provocateur like Ann Coulter, should be given a hearing in venues where she should not, but what if the certified-competent decline that distinction and treat Murray and Coulter identically? I don’t think Fish can offer them any reasons why they shouldn’t. His longstanding belief that academic life is to be regulated only internally, by people engaged professionally in the practices of that life, provides no means by which academic life can be prevented from growing narrower and narrower and narrower. 

I’ve been reading Fish pretty carefully for a long time now, and I think he would reply that no such means could be provided — that you cannot write rules and guidelines in such a way that people in power will be unable to abuse them, twist the rules to their purposes, as long as their power is uncontested. (Note that when power is to some degree distributed, rules can be effective: thus the ability of the American judiciary to constrain some of Donald Trump’s impulses.) If this is indeed his view, he may well be correct. For instance, conservative and religious voices — N.B.: those are not the same thing — may alike be so tenuously present in academia that they can do nothing to soften the tyranny of the certified-competent. Certain ”paths of inquiry” are closed and on Fish’s account of the academy must remain closed, despite his lip service to the phrase. 

If so, do we simply accept that state of affairs? Or do we look for broad social forces or institutions to which academic institutions might legitimately be held accountable? 

teachers at the margins

Lisa Marchiano, a psychoanalyst, describing her encounter with a student who had a “panic attack” during an exam and didn’t want to take any more exams:

I asked this young patient of mine what in fact had happened during the first exam. She responded again, I had a panic attack. I lightly pressed her to move beyond the jargon and tell me about her actual experience as she took the exam. Eventually, she was able to tell me that, as the papers were being handed out, she become flushed and light-headed. Her heart was pounding, and her hands felt clammy. What happened then? I asked. She felt like running out of the room, but she was able to calm herself down enough to take the test. Though she successfully completed the first exam — and did okay on it — the fear that she might have another “panic attack” had prevented her from attempting the second exam.

What had happened here? One way of understanding this young person’s experience is indeed that she had had a limited-symptom panic attack. According to the diagnostic criteria for panic attacks in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a limited-symptom panic attack can be diagnosed based on a pounding heart, sweating, and shaking. Of course, as anyone knows who has ever taken an exam, performed in front of an audience, or asked someone they like out on a date, these are in fact utterly normal reactions to feeling nervous. I gently attempted to reflect this back to my young patient. “So you were nervous about taking the exam, but you didn’t run out of the room. You did it. You pushed through the fear feelings.” I wanted her to see this as a success, one that she could build on, that could help alter her stuck story that tells her she is too anxious to function adequately. Her response to my positive reframing was telling. She looked up at me from under her brows and held my gaze. “Yes,” she responded firmly. “But I had a panic attack.”

Reflecting on this experience, Marchiano raises a key issue: “I found myself wondering where she had learned that she ought not to be expected to tolerate ordinary distress or discomfort. How have we come to the point where we believe that emotional disquiet will cause harm, that we ought to be soothed and tranquil at all times?”

Some years ago I had a student — I’ll call her M — who came to me and said that she could no longer take the reading quizzes that I give at the beginning of many classes. If she had to take them, she preferred to do so in the office on campus that deals with students who have disabilities, even if that meant missing most or all of my classes. And M clearly, though in no way angrily or aggressively, expected that I would do as she preferred.

I ended up talking with the case worker assigned to M, and the case worker told me that M was anxious about not having time to finish the quizzes, and, further, that M had problems, not to be disclosed to me, that made it necessary for me to accommodate her preferences.

Several elements of this situation puzzled me. First, M was usually among the first to complete her quizzes. Second, she had the highest quiz average in the class, and it wasn’t even close. Third, her very intelligent contributions to class discussions about the quizzes added significantly to the value of our class time. And fourth: those facts, and my observations, had absolutely no bearing on the expectations my university had for me. M’s feelings and preferences, as interpreted by her case worker, were all that mattered — I was strongly discouraged from sharing with M any of my thoughts, no matter how positive.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I agreed to make any accommodation necessary. But M kept coming to class, kept taking the quizzes, and kept excelling in them. Why she didn’t follow through on her request I can’t say. Maybe her knowledge that I would do what she wanted was enough to relieve the pressure the had been feeling.

I’m glad M stayed in class, and that there was a peaceful resolution to the situation, but the whole sequence of events troubled me then and troubles me now. The first, and larger, problem is that we’re now in a moment at which any attempt to resist the pathologizing of perfectly ordinary experiences of nervousness or uncertainty is tagged as indifference (at best) or cruelty (at worst). To encourage students to believe that they can overcome their anxieties is, it appears, now a form of abuse.

And second — perhaps not as important but still significant to me — there is the marginalization of the teacher-student relationship. It was made very clear to me that the case worker — who had never been in my class, who had never observed either M or me — could dictate the response to M’s concerns. I didn’t push back, because I didn’t want to bring any further anxiety to a student who was already anxious, but I wonder what would have happened if I had insisted that my own view of the matter, which was after all backed by some experience, should be taken into account.

More seriously, it seemed to me that the case worker was constructing, or allowing M to construct, a narrative in which I was M’s antagonist and it was the case worker’s job to intervene to assist M in her struggle against her antagonist. The idea that I might be on M’s side and want to help her, and indeed should, as part of my job, help her was never considered.

The work done by the “bias prevention units” or “diversity offices” that have proliferated in many universities might seem to be a very different phenomenon, but that work has a similar effect on the relationship between teachers and students. A key premise — sometimes unstated but sometimes quite explicit — of such administrative offices is that faculty are often the enemies of diversity and the perpetrators of bias, and therefore these programs must step in to correct the injustices inherent in the system. Again the faculty member is cast as the students’ antagonist, or at least as a possible antagonist. I do not know of any circumstances in which the “learnings” or “training modules” produced by these offices — which are often mandatory for all students — have received any faculty input, though I suppose some faculty may occasionally be involved. The “learnings” seem to be designed to emphasize the untrustworthiness of teachers.

I think students in general have a pretty good grasp of these dynamics. My observations suggest that disgruntled students these days rarely take their complaints to department chairs or deans, but rather to these amorphous “offices” which exist independently of the faculty structure and are typically empowered by the university to impose decisions without consulting anyone in that faculty structure.

I also think that this way of doing our academic business exacerbates, quite dramatically, one of the worst features of academic life, which is its legalism. Knowing that they are being overseen by these distant and almost invisible “offices,” faculty end up writing more and more detailed syllabuses, working to close every possible loophole which might be exploited by students to get what they want even when, from the faculty point of view, they don’t deserve it. And the more desperately faculty look to close such loopholes, the more the students search for them. It’s no way to run a university — at least if the university cares about learning.

There were certainly flaws in the old way of doing these things, in which individual teachers almost certainly had too much power. But certain experiences of learning were possible in that system that the current, or emerging, system is rapidly making impossible. The marginalizing of the student-faculty relationship is not a good recipe for addressing those old flaws.

activists and administrators

Conor Friedersdorf on “an under-appreciated tension in the approach of today’s student activists, who simultaneously express outrage at the bad behavior of administrative bureaucracies — and fight to expand their size and power.” So students join with administrators in the belief that the fix for pretty much everything on college campuses today is: Hire more administrators.

Faculty have always been odd, but increasingly we’re the odd people out in the current university, with our belief in “free inquiry” and “critical thinking” and “intellectual curiosity” and crap like that. Which, I suppose, is why our numbers are decreasing while those of administrators continue to skyrocket. Our ideas of what college is for have been quite thoroughly repudiated by the market.

So, verdict rendered. But: beware the corporate monster.

success robots

I go to schools a lot, have taught at uni­ver­si­ties and seen a ton of great kids and pro­fes­sors who’ve re­ally sacrificed them­selves to teach. A few years ago I worked for a few months at an Ivy League school. I ex­pected a lot of ques­tions about pol­i­tics, his­tory and lit­er­ature. But that is not what the stu­dents were re­ally in­ter­ested in. What they were in­ter­ested in — it was al­most my first ques­tion, and it never abated — was net­work­ing. They wanted to know how you net­work. At first I was sur­prised: “I don’t know, that wasn’t on my mind, I think it all comes down to the work.” Then I’d ask: “Why don’t you just make friends in­stead?” By the end I was saying, “It’s a mis­take to see peo­ple as com­modi­ties, as things you can use! Con­cen­trate on the work!” They’d get im­pa­tient. They knew there was a se­cret to get­ting ahead, that it was net­working, and that I was cru­elly with­holding success­ful strate­gies.

Peggy Noonan

academic wishful thinking

Elite Colleges Don’t Understand Which Business They’re In, says John Fabian Witt of Yale. Alas, they understand perfectly well. It’s just not the business Witt and I wish they were in. The Yale administrator who said that his university, and others like it, are a “high-level service industry to the 1%” understood the real business model.

defilement and expulsion

A couple of years ago I wrote this:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

I’d like to pair that brief reflection with an essay I published around the same time, in which I made this claim: “For those who have been formed largely by the mythical core of human culture, disagreement and alternative points of view may well appear to them not as matters for rational adjudication but as defilement from which they must be cleansed.”

It is this sense of defilement that makes people want to cast out wrongdoers, to expel the contagion they carry. It seems increasingly common on the right to cast all this in Girardian terms — my friend Rod Dreher does this a lot — but that wouldn’t be quite right even if Girardian terms were valid, which they are not. (The nearly absolute uselessness of Girard’s thought is patiently and thoroughly demonstrated by Joshua Landy in this essay.) The scapegoat is by definition innocent; the malefactors our punitive society casts out are not, but their crimes are so small in comparison to their punishment that they seem like scapegoats.

But if we understand how the experience of defilement functions we will also understand its punishment. The University of Virginia has an honor code which punishes violators with the “single sanction” of expulsion: one either has honor or one does not. Similarly, the woke social order has a single sanction: either your presence does not defile me or it does, and in the latter case the response is and must be expulsion. This is what Phillip Adamo of Augsburg University learned when he used the n-word in class — or rather, quoted James Baldwin doing so. This he was removed from the class he was teaching and then suspended from all teaching, “pending the outcome of a formal review.” The separation of the source of defilement from the community must always be the first step, when one’s responses arise from what Kolakowski calls mythical core.

If you really want to come to grips with what’s happening on many college campuses today, and in social media countless times every day, put down thy Girard; take up thy Kolakowski.

the position of power redux

Robin Hanson begins this post by quoting a passage in Tyler Cowen’s new book Stubborn Attachments in which Cowen talks about whether economics is about satisfying people’s preferences. Hanson wants to reflect on this, but he also wants to talk about something else:

Tyler seems to use a standard moral framework here, one wherein we are looking at others and trying to agree among ourselves about what moral choices to make on their behalf. (Those others are not included in our conversation.)

It has long been remarkable to me how often social scientists, and philosophers when they concern themselves with public issues, consider their subjects from the position of power. As I say in that post I just linked to,

There is a kind of philosopher — an all too common kind of philosopher — who when considering such topics habitually identifies himself or herself with power. Pronouns matter a good deal here. Note that in Roache’s comments “we” are the ones who have the power to inflict punishment on “someone.” We punish; they are punished. We control; they are controlled. We decide; they are the objects of our decisions. Would Roache’s speculations have taken a different form, I wonder, if she had reversed the pronouns?

I’m therefore glad to see Hanson push back on this habit. He envisions “a more inclusive conversation, one where the people about whom we are making moral choices become part of the moral ‘dealmaking’ process. That is, when it is not we trying to agree among ourselves about what we should do for them, but when instead we all talk together about what to do for us all.“

But consider how rare this perspective is, especially among academics dealing with public policy in any form. Imagine academic treatises on policy written from the perspective of people who have policies imposed on them whether they like those policies or not. Maybe there are such treatises, but I haven’t seen them.

academic labor as social media

The current argument about whether scholars should cite the work of nasty people — here is the argument against citing them, and here is a rebuttal — is interesting primarily as a reminder of how citation actually functions in many academic fields, including my own. It is not, typically, an acknowledgment of genuine intellectual indebtedness, but rather a signaling mechanism, a way to mark tribal affiliation.

Pick any recent article in a humanities journal and you’re likely to see several citations that don’t acknowledge the source for a specific idea, or an argument to which the author is responding (positively or negatively), but rather what one might call affiliational suggestion. Here’s an example from a recent article, chosen at random:

My language of counts and miscounts obviously owes a debt to Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis, 1999).

But what debt, specifically, is owed? This the footnote does not say, nor is is meant to say. The message is: “I have read and approved of appropriate critical texts.”

Note that in the essay that promoted this conversation Nikki Usher concludes, “We need to start asking questions about whether there are ways to have frank discussions with editors and even reviewers about why we might not want to keep reinforcing the academic fame and reputation of someone who would not do the same were the situation reversed.” And Usher is exactly right that this is how much academic citation works. By citing someone you pay them in the currency of reputation, because reputation itself is largely a function of simplistic metrics. I have seen departmental websites that list, alongside the name of faculty members, sparklines showing the history of their numbers of citations. Basically, academic citation works, nowadays, like a social media platform. To cite someone in your article or books is, effectively, a retweet. Except that you don’t get to say, and no one would believe you if you did say, “Retweets are not endorsements.”

I am tempted to formulate a new Law: Over time all cultural work asymptotically approaches the condition of Twitter.

the strange world of graduate study

In an article on the Avita Ronell controversy, Masha Gessen quotes a Facebook comment — apparently from a current or former student of Ronell’s — that has stuck with me. The author declined to be identified in the article, citing fear of recrimination, so nothing said in the comment can be confirmed. But I find it fascinating nonetheless:

We don’t need a conversation about sexual harassment by AR, we should instead talk about what AR and many of her generation call ‘pedagogy’ and what is still excused as ‘genius.’ When people talk about sexual harassment it’s within the logic of the symbolic order – penetration, body parts – I doubt you will find much of this here. But AR is all about manipulation and psychic violence…. AR pulls students and young faculty in by flattery, then breaks their self-esteem, goes on to humiliate them in front of others, until the only way to tell yourself and others that you have not been debased, that you have not been used by a pathological narcissist as a private slave, is that you are just so incredibly close, and that Avi is just so incredibly fragile and lonely and needs you 24/7 to do groceries, to fold her laundry, to bring her to acupuncture, to pick her up from acupuncture, to drive her to JFK, to talk to her at night, etc….

This comment brought back something that happened to me in graduate school, something that I haven’t thought about in decades.

In one of my classes I wrote my big final paper on a famous and yet almost wholly unread work, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. The professor praised the paper very highly — indeed, I hadn’t written anything to that point in my grad-school career that had received as glowing an evaluation — and made it clear that he believed I had great potential. I was of course flattered by this, and when I saw that he was offering a seminar the following semester on a topic I was interested in, I signed up for it. At this late date I am not sure, but I think I was wondering whether this professor might make a good dissertation advisor; in any event, I very much looked forward to the course.

On the first day, he laid out the plan for the seminar. We would be studying an author of the first importance, he said, a figure fascinating and yet endlessly challenging. Writing about this author could bring out the best in us, or defeat us altogether; but in either case, it mattered — not, he concluded, like writing on something as useless as, say, Sidney’s Arcadia. And then he looked right at me.

After class I went away and thought about what had happened. It seemed to me that the professor was telling me, You are bright, young man, but you don’t know how to direct your abilities. If you take my guidance, I will set you on the right path. But if you continue on the path you are now going, I will have no respect for you. The more I thought about it the more sure I was (and for that matter still am) that this was the only plausible interpretation. So I walked over to the graduate office and dropped the course.

I saw the professor in the hall a week or two later, and he stopped me to ask what had happened to me. He seemed both concerned and wounded. I made an excuse of some kind — I think I said I had a scheduling conflict with my part-time job — and scurried away. We never spoke again.

Eventually I found a very different person to direct my dissertation, the brilliant and kind and odd Daniel Albright, God rest his soul. But just as Daniel and I began to work together, two things happened. First, I took a one-year appointment at Wheaton College — which turned into two, then three, and eventually twenty-nine; and second, a little later, Daniel went off for two years as a visiting professor in Germany. Remember, this was the 1980s and therefore pre-email (at least for most academic humanists). So I had a dissertation to write — in between bouts of grading freshman composition papers, hundreds and hundreds of freshman composition papers — and no ready way of being in touch with my advisor. So rather than writing a chapter, sending it off, waiting for a reply, getting the reply, incorporating revisions, sending it back — forget all that stuff, I thought — I just wrote the whole thing and when I was done, a couple of years later, I mailed it all to Daniel in Munich. A month or so later I got back his corrections and comments, all of them written, in a minuscule hand, on the front and back of one sheet of typing paper.

So what’s this little trip down memory lane all about? Just this: my realization that I have had none, absolutely none, of the experiences that, everyone says, are intrinsic to the career of a graduate student. (See this essay by Corey Robin, for instance, or this one by Chris Newfield.) No passive-aggressive games, no assertions of power, no building-up-and-then-tearing-down — not even anxieties about whether my advisor is writing me a strong enough job-recommendation letter. I already had a job, though I wasn’t sure that it would turn into a tenure-track one.

Moreover, I have spent my entire career teaching undergraduates, having played a role in but a handful of Masters’ and PhD theses, and even then a secondary one. So though I have been a professor of English and then Humanities for more than thirty years now, I am reading all these descriptions of what graduate study is really like with almost an anthropologist’s eye. What a strange and fascinating tribe! How peculiar their customs! I’m really, really glad not to be one of them.

I have one question

Avital Ronell is “original and inspiring.”

I’m sure. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

Her “mentorship of students has been no less than remarkable over many years.”

I will gladly take your word for it. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

She is “a powerful, radical, queer, feminist, professor who has always spoken out for the marginalized in society.”

Okay. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

“It’s not the same thing to accuse a male person in power versus accusing a woman. It’s just not the same thing, because we’ve got a culture and a very long history in which males were dominant and abusing their power.”

I concede the point. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

“People know that she is very friendly and open and crosses traditional boundaries in relationships with her students.”

Duly noted. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

Ronell “is a walking provocation for a stiff Politically Correct inhabitant of our academia, a ticking bomb just waiting to explode.”

This could very well be true. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

pronoun trouble

Political philosopher Jason Brennan on the case for epistocracy:

Here’s what I propose we do: Everyone can vote, even children. No one gets excluded. But when you vote, you do three things. 

First, you tell us what you want. You cast your vote for a politician, or for a party, or you take a position on a referendum, whatever it might be. Second, you tell us who you are. We get your demographic information, which is anonymously coded, because that stuff affects how you vote and what you support. 

And the third thing you do is take a quiz of very basic political knowledge. When we have those three bits of information, we can then statistically estimate what the public would have wanted if it was fully informed. 

There’s an intellectual habit, one very common to academics, at work in Brennan’s formulations that I’ve called attention to before, and you can get at it by noting his use of pronouns: We get your demographic information. You tell us what you want. You take the quiz, we administer and assess the quiz. We ask, you answer; you give us the information we require and we decide what to do with it, and how it should be interpreted. We’re running the experiment, you’re our experimental subject. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! 

Which means, of course, that none of us will ever have our vote discounted. 

As I’ve noted in a slightly different (but not altogether different) context, “There is a kind of philosopher — an all too common kind of philosopher — who when considering such topics habitually identifies himself or herself with power.” It’s enough to make a Franz Fanon disciple out of me. 

the ed-tech snake-oil salesmen

This year we in the Honors Program at Baylor were told that we could no longer submit our annual activity reports as MS Word files. Instead, we must use an “instrument” called Digital Measures. Just take a look at that website and you’ll see what Digital Measures is all about: things like “THE WORKFLOW MODULE for ACTIVITY INSIGHT.”

What’s it like to use Digital Measures? Let’s suppose that you want to enter the data for a journal article that you’ve recently published. Digital Measures cheerfully tells you that you can just import a BibTex file, which is helpful if the journal in which you have published the article, or a database in which that journal is available, happens to make a BibTex record available. But of course you’re not likely to know that without some searching. That can be time-consuming, though not nearly as time-consuming as entering the information manually — so maybe it’s worth the trouble.

Because if you have no luck finding a BibTex file for your article, then the fun starts in earnest. How to record a journal article? You go to the landing page and discover that there are thirty-five categories in which you can enter data. Let me spare you some time and tell you that the one you’re looking for is called “Intellectual Contributions” (which suggests, by the way, that much of the rest of what you do as a faculty member does not involve “intellectual contributions”). So you click on that.

Congratulations! You are now faced with a page containing no fewer than forty-six form fields. Surely DM does not expect you to fill out all forty-six? Indeed Digital Measures does not have this expectation. However, the UI experts who designed this page did not see fit to let you know which of the forty-six fields are required and which optional — even though few practices are more standard in database UI design than to provide that information for users (most commonly by the presence of an asterisk). So you type in what you have and hope that it’s right. If you guess wrong you get a message like this:

(Of course, few people would forget the date of publication; I just chose that to get a ready example.)

Let’s go back a step, though. The first thing Digital Measures wants you to do on this page — you discover through trial and error — is to identify what type of “intellectual contribution” you are making. Once you select “Journal Article” the page refreshes and you now have a field in which to enter the name of the journal. Possible names are drawn from a database, so you get a drop-down list — but the field is helpfully pre-filled, thus:

So if on the off-chance that your article is not published in the “Constantin Brancusi” University Annals etc. you will need to click in that field, select all, and only then start typing in the name of your journal.

But suppose the journal in which you have published does not appear in the list? That happened to me roughly 100% of the time, since the databases from which they draw the journal names are all in the sciences. (As far as I could tell, not one single journal in the humanities is on the list. This, along with the charmingly innocent belief in the universal availability of BibTex records, tells you which faculty members this service is designed for — and which ones Digital Measures, and very possibly your university, couldn’t care less about.) It turns out that at the very bottom of the list of dozens (hundreds?) of journals there is an option called “Not Listed.” Should you happen to scroll through screen after screen of journal titles and finally get to that little Easter egg, you’ll be able to enter the name of the journal you published your article in. (If you have been around this block often enough to guess that such an option would be available, entering “Other” or “Not in List” yields nothing. You have to get it precisely right.) It’s enough to make me want to submit all future articles to the “Constantin Brancusi” University Annals from Targu Jiu.

I could go on, but that, I think, would be to belabor my point. A “service” like this is designed with absolute contempt for the people who are sentenced to use it. It is vastly expensive, so once a university commits to it there’s no going back. The only real option is to add to the cost by hiring people to help the miserable faculty navigate the inscrutable interface, thus adding to the costs. (Unless, of course, you’re a scientist, in which case you probably have the relevant BibTex files readily accessible and a research assistant to do the data entry for you.)

And the university ends up with less information than it had under the previous system! The reason is this: because the data entry is so onerous and slow, faculty typically are not required to enter all the data for their articles, nor to fill in their entire CVs. (As I pointed out to one of my colleagues: if I spent an hour a day, five days a week, entering items from my CV into Digital Measures, I wouldn’t be finished by the end of the semester.) So we enter as little as we possibly can; whereas most of us have, ready to hand, a complete CV in a Word or LaTeX file that is trivially easy to update, to share, and to parse.

So we tell once again the old, old story: the ed-tech snake-oil salesmen convince universities to spend enormous sums of money on a ineptly-designed, user-despising “service” that gives that university less data, and less usable data, than it had under the infinitely simpler previous system. A certain line from P. T. Barnum comes to mind.

the invariant ed-tech sequence

  1. Some company creates a new “killer app” for Academic Task X that is supposed to make the machinery of academic life run more smoothly but is basically a database with a hideous UI;
  2. Some administrator or committee at your university decides that this is just the thing we need to pay $$$$ for because it’s The Future of the University;
  3. Use of the app is imposed on faculty who despise it, because it is manifestly inferior to what they were doing before but far more cumbersome to use;
  4. Administrators, faced with serious faculty pushback, back off on their demands for making the app central to the whole academic enterprise, but only to some degree, because they paid $$$$ for this piece-of-crap-code and feel that they can’t back out now;
  5. The result: the app is forcibly implemented, but only partially, with the result that faculty are still unhappy with having to use the crappy app but have to use it *less*, which means that the task that was performed adequately with previous technologies/means is now performed less effectively and completely. Everyone loses except the people who made the sorry-ass app.