Friday, January 15, 2010

Academia is what it is...

Continuing the chronicles of perceived and actual university woes, reflections on the purpose of education, etc...

Samuel has a good piece on intellectual as opposed to academic vocations and the importance of recognizing the place of university life as we pursue various ends. A representative quote, I think, is this:
"I know I am called to pursue and share truth; I believe I am called to pursue and share truth in the university. Thus I order my life towards that latter, proximate end as a way of working towards the former, ultimate end."

Roland comments on an article by Melissa Gregg and also seeks, though in a rather different way than Samuel, to deflate our expectations of academia. A quote:
"But I couldn’t help noticing that Melissa actually believes in the university. She wants to change it for the better, instead of thinking outside that framework. Of course, there is a long training to get you to believe, years of undergraduate study, more years of postgraduate work, after which you are a product of the machine. As Pascal once said, kneel and you will believe (and here’s a lolly as well). The problem with believing in and giving your life to an institution is that it couldn’t give a rat’s arse for you."

I don't disagree with either of these pieces, and on top of not disagreeing with Samuel's piece I actually think it's helpful. He offers some constructive steps forward for how to think about one's intellectual calling, inside or outside of the university.

To all this I would persist in emphasizing: academia is what it is- let's not make too big a deal of it. I've been intrigued by how much unrelenting scrutiny has been brought to recent conversations about university life. Personally, I don't feel especially compelled to take continuous self-inventories of my priorities (or litmus tests? One gets that sense at Stalin's Moustache or Vulgar Marxism). I doubt that such anxiousness over proximate and ultimate ends would be present if we were talking about reforming a local government's zoning regulations, or restructuring a small non-profit organization. If we're dedicated to the useful function of a government or an organization, then we try to fix what needs fixing, and we probably don't entertain all that many existential dilemmas about our own place in these processes and whether we "believe" in them unnecessarily. All that talk strikes me as entirely too grandiose. My question, then, is why must the university be any different than a government, or a non-profit?

I imagine that academia uniquely attracts these sorts of reflections because it is so tied to things like "truth" or "free inquiry" or "progress" or other things that we value in a particular sort of way. It has also been liable in the past to confusion with these ends themselves. For this reason, it makes a lot of sense that people like Samuel are questioning whether the academic life assists or obstructs the pursuit of certain ultimate ends. It also makes sense that people like Roland reject strong "belief" in institutions and structures that are perceived to not "give a rat's arse about you".

There's no question in my mind that these reflections benefit us insofar as they foster intentionality in our working lives. My own contribution, though... perhaps a concurring opinion alongside Samuel's and Roland's... would be to say that once our priorities are all in line, once we have divested ourselves of undue faith in the university, once we have acknowledged the ancillary purpose of academic to intellectual inquiry and the decidedly tentative nature of statements about one's own place in the professoriate given the current (and probably future) job situation... once we have gone through all of this, we should come out of the process feeling free to comment, advocate, and work for the university in whatever capacity we currently stand: as graduate students, faculty, or aspirants to either position. Academia is what it is, and once we move on from the need for perpetual hand wringing about the moral import of our place within its processes, I think we should with a good conscience be able to move forward and get the job done.

That's how normal folks operate, at least. And as quirky as academic folk are, I contend that a good chunk of them probably stand somewhere within the pale of such functional normalcy (or I hope against hope, at least!).


  1. I agree 100%.

    I think there are some obvious reasons, though, for the "hand wringing" you perceive.

    First, most of it comes from people in remarkably insecure situations. It's not like most graduate students already have a secure, full time job, much less one that involves their academic work. And the same goes for people with PhDs working as adjuncts. So this group is not like political reformers who are in office, have power, a relative degree of financial security, and can just "get to business."

    So it's an obvious point, but worth stating: existential dilemmas arise out of existential insecurity. Not having a secure job, as is the situation for many graduate students/PhDs, having at least a decent chunk of debt, and then hearing about the lack of positions for which one is training, is going to cause a lot of concern.

    Second, the ability confidently to "got the job done" is predicated on the presence of what is here absent for most people: security. So, it's easy for tenure/tenure track professors to not worry about these things, just as it's easy for people with financial security to be personally dispassionate: their livelihood's are not at stake.

    Normal folks, on most conceptions, have jobs with some relative security(!). Some most of this cohort are not normal folks.

    Again, these are obvious points, but I think it's easy for people to forget the social and material preconditions for their own fields of concerns. A calm, "get 'er done" attitude assumes material and social preconditions most graduate students/PhDs lack, which is one reason I address valuational/personal aspects of the situation, rather than primarily institutional aspects. The idea of not knowing where one will live for the next 5-7 years, or the prospect of being forced to relocate year after year while waiting for a long-term job is surely a very difficult situation, so I sympathize with the anxiety, fear, and even anger many people are experiencing (although I don't think these reactions are necessary or the most helpful, they are utterly understandable).

  2. As I see it there are two different types of "hand wringing" that have been discussed over the past week or so. There's 1) the concern over hiring and pay and sustainability and such, and 2) the concern over the legitimacy of the humanities or the inherent goodness of academic and/or intellectual inquiry.

    Obviously these two concerns are often related. I think what I'm trying to deflate in this post is mostly concern #2, and my guess is that this concern carries the same sort of weight whether you're established as a scholar or struggling as a student/adjunct.

    As I've read some of the posts on various blogs lately, the idea seems to be that too much investment in concern #1 is really just a matter of placing too much "belief" in academia's ability to offer the intrinsic worth that is central to concern #2.

    I think my main point here is to separate #2 from #1 a bit, and argue that concern #1 is really more mundane than most people make it out to be. Academia is what it is, and if we're invested in academia in some way then it just makes sense to be concerned about its problems, without any appeal to ultimate intellectual virtues and whatnot.

    In your comment here you some to mostly be voicing issues of concern #1... and this sort of hand wringing, I agree, stares us graduate students and young scholars pretty squarely in the face. I just worry that all of the pressures that can come up for us cause us to unnecessarily intertwine concerns #1 and #2, and burden us more than need be.