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Sunday, May 19, 2013


I feel like an asshole. I can't be casually ironic about the value of the academic work I do. I really feel that what we do is more valuable than the things society holds in high esteem, like hitting balls with sticks and getting people to buy shiny things. I could be wrong about this, of course, but I don't think so.


Thomas said...

I'm an asshole like that too sometimes.

Sometimes I wonder if we are not comparing the wrong things. The serious scholar may be as useful to society as the serious athlete or advertiser.

Consider the value of lawyers and journalists alongside academics, for example. Many of them do a great deal of harm. But many do good. Isn't it like that with academics?

The error, I think, is to try to estimate the value of the profession as a whole. Pop music, as a vocation, I'm inclined to dismiss. But there are serious musicians who contribute to even to that genre.

There are days when I think academics, as a group, are no better than advertisers, from the point of view of "civilization" if you will. But then I quickly think of a those academics that I would immediately except from that judgment. And on days when I feel like Bill Hicks about advertisers, I remember who I'd like to have a coke with.

Anonymous said...

Oh, you mean about reacting to the Schumann piece? Academia just hasn't been as good a place for her as for you, that's all. Re the "cult" thing, see what happens if you try to quit, and those aspects of it all come out of the woodwork. When I was not on job market and was working on FAFSAs for law school, people organized a phone tree such that I got regular calls from around the country, don't betray us by leaving. I ended up feeling too guilty to quit, but I also quit publishing and did a lot of pining for the projects in other fields I still dream of and still regret renouncing.

Vance Maverick said...

I'm a failed academic too -- in the sense that I began grad school with the idea of becoming a professor, hung on till the degree and then went a different direction. But it was clear before I finished that teaching and research weren't for me, or more to the point, vice versa. And I moved on with the sense of loss, of disappointment in myself, rather than anger, and I still think that work would have been more useful for the rest of the world than what I do now. I'm a programmer, which is lots of fun and pays well, but I have no sour grapes about my years in academe. (Would those be bitter olives?)

Leslie B. said...

There's a lot to say about the way these things are discussed. If you get on a high horse and tell students it is the only valid career to have, and/or if you systematically shame them for thinking of other things, you will end up creating them as people with Schumann's feelings if they do not succeed.

On the other hand, if you go around sighing about academia because that is the cool thing to do -- one sees a lot of this -- then you can end up creating students who, like Schumann, think that the only way to look like someone who deserves to belong is to denigrate your work.

To me, Schumann doesn't sound like a person who was a good candidate for a Ph.D. in literature, she sounds like more of a book enthusiast, I advise people who express themselves in the way she does to do other things. In the meantime, though, I wouldn't criticize her, I'd criticize the culture in which she has evidently been taught.

Clarissa said...

I also think that what we do is profoundly valuable. I must be an asshole, too. :-) Maybe we should start a club.

Leslie B. said...

"To me, Schumann doesn't sound like a person who was a good candidate for a Ph.D. in literature, she sounds like more of a book enthusiast, I advise people who express themselves in the way she does to do other things."

Now rescinding this, having finally wormed my way through LexisNexis and read more of her. This is someone smart. I guess you can have clubs where you look down on people who didn't get jobs, or who have criticisms to make, or who decide to do other things, but it doesn't make the profession look very good or professors, very mature, and also I could really use your efforts on some activist things.

Anonymous said...

...and this discussion keeps coming back to me, as I work on my piece about governance.

I am coming to the conclusion that this kind of punitive and self justifying attitude towards people who did not quite make it is part of what left the flanks of the whole edifice open, so the neoliberalizers could get in.

I really do question the idea the two of you have been kicking around, that a person who did not get a job is somehow responsible for what has been going on *since before they even started graduate school.*

I also really wonder why it is so important to you to castigate someone in that situation and put so much effort toward proving you are superior to her. I think it is time to grow up. I am saying this here because I am tempted to use this discussion in print as an example of why people find professors entitled and supercilious -- would rather say so directly on the blogs where it happened.

Seriously, shame on you both.

Jonathan said...

I think I don't share your exact interpretation. I was responding to something a bit different: the self-alienation that comes from not claiming your own work as your own. I was so irritated by the slate piece in which she complained about over-theorization. I read her chronicle of higher education piece in the same vein. Making fun of theory, like conservative pundits used to do in the 1980s. Then making fun of her own Wittgensteinian reading of Kafka. Then reclaiming that analysis as not the kind of overtheorization she was making fun of. Because it's Witt and not French theory?

Maybe the institution did this to her. She is the victim. And I am the asshole as the title of my post makes clear. I am glad to have someone call me on it if I have been an asshole.

I just felt that if she had gotten a job then she would not have ever had that negative attitude toward the intellectual work itself. Why target something that is not to blame?

If you want to use me as an example of arrogant full professors, go ahead. I have a thicker skin than that and we will remain friends, at least from my end. I wouldn't have had an objection to an article saying: I went into a field in which there were very few jobs. I have no objection to Bousquet or anyone else proposing meaningful critique or reform, and I admire your principled position on faculty governance.

Leslie B. said...

On the tone of those pieces, sure. I didn't take it seriously since these were the vituperations of someone for whom things were not going well, and I grew up hearing professors say such things in bad moments, and I've been known to say them myself in similarly bad moments. They can seem true when you are looking at years ahead of adjuncting/VAP or at taking jobs that will require you to give up most of what you need, just for the sake of saying you are a professor and thus satisfying those who want you to "succeed," that also being alienation, or producing it.

She's from UCI where Derrida ruled until he died in 2004 and was very destructive. And yes, it's entirely possible that had she gotten a job, she would not have felt these emotions or said these things.

But for my friend who just got out of the mental health unit, or for Karen Kelsky (blog "The professor is in"), the alienation set in post tenure and other successes at schools where I'd love to be and would not feel the alienation I feel where I am. It's a set of reactions people really do have, in response to the cognitive dissonance that sets in when you try to say things are all right and they aren't. I question Kelsky's reaction more than Schuman's -- she says she was losing her soul working at UIUC which doesn't have the cozy parties Oregon has. I feel like saying oh Karen, you should have reached out and made some friends outside your department or outside the university, I've lived in Cham-bana and I know it can be done! And now she is dispensing the same advice that apparently killed her own soul, which to me seems like a contradiction.

Alienation: it happens when work doesn't get to be something you are doing for it or for you, but when all forms of survival hinge on it *and* the system is telling you you are not qualified to do it. These things make it very difficult to claim the degree of authority or integrity you would need to relate to it as yours.

All of this is why I am more interested in the question of a system that produces this situation than in the question of what individuals did "wrong." I could say a lot about what my friend who recently cracked did wrong - insist on staying in a bad situation, for one - or about how any of us strategized wrong or had faults. But more interesting is a system that produces this many casualties.
I'd be more pleased if more successful types or more of those who survived were not walking wounded.

Final point - the other academic cliché I would like to get rid of is the idea that only in academia does meaning lie, that everything outside it is just the sale of shiny objects. Repeating that just reinforces the idea that academics are out of touch!!!