mamamusings

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Tuesday, 4 March 2003

a not-so-academic rant

Let’s play a little search-and-replace game. From Gary Sauer-Thompson comes this quote about academia:

Basically I couldn’t wait to get out. Political life was a breath of fresh air and I felt alive once again. I had no desire to return. Today if tenure was offered I would not take it. The security is not worth the sacrifice of autonomy by living a sick mode of life.

Then this morning, after breakfast, I read this and this by Dorothea; this by Alex; this and this by Liz and this by Baraita.

What did I came across in my reading? Insularity for one thing.

Few looked beyond the walls of academia to see themselves in the context of public policy or political life. Most were concerned with their life within the institution.

Hmmm. I am truly amazed to find these particular stones being hurled out of the glass house of politics. So, let’s try this version:

Basically I couldn’t wait to get out. Political Academic life was a breath of fresh air and I felt alive once again. I had no desire to return. Today if a tenure politicial appointment was offered I would not take it. The security power is not worth the sacrifice of autonomy integrity by living a sick mode of life.

Then this morning, after breakfast, I read various cites removed all these attacks on academia.

What did I came across in my reading? Insularity for one thing.

Few looked beyond the walls of academia their own experiences to see themselves in the context of public policy or political life thoughtful analysis or philosophy. Most were concerned with their life within the institution organization.

Ooooh…that was fun! Was there ever a field more ripe for this type of criticism than professional politics?? Certainly if I had to pick an area that was rife with insular, twisted minds, that would be the one I’d seize up on first. But you know what? There are also people like MB Williams—and, I suspect, Gary himself—who show us another side.

Okay, I realize I’m getting cranky here (thus the “curmudgeonly” category), but really, now. Can we please stop with the blanket dismissals of all academics as insular and self-absorbed, and academic environments as sick and wrong?

In terms of the numbers of academic bloggers, which Gary dismisses as negligible—I’d argue that as a percentage of their population, there are quite a lot of academic blogger. And so far as I can tell, most of them regularly look at larger political and public policy issues (and the relationship between their field of study and those issues). Look at the people on my academic blogroll (and add in AKMA, of course) for just a few examples.

And to assert that these people are all “insular” implies to me that Gary must not be reading anything except our posts responding to Dorothea. Did he bother to look at the grant proposal I recently wrote on blogging/microcontent? At the conversations between me and the Happy Tutor? The mix of academics and other bloggers in Joi’s recent “happenings” on Emergent Democracy?

Most “academics” with blogs (and, btw, how do we define that? Is Lessig an “academic?” Reynolds? Both are professors…) have links and conversations with a wide variety of people outside of academia.

Why I allow myself to get so irritated and drawn into these straw man debates, I don’t know. It’s clear that the people determined to characterize academia as “sick” won’t be swayed by any of my “insular,” “survivor bias” comments. But it’s spring break, I don’t want to clean house, my kids are in school, and I obviously have way too much time on my hands to pick fights!

Posted at 12:36 PM in: curmudgeonly
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Terminology from Caveat Lector on March 4, 2003 5:21 PM
Excerpt: As usual, I’ve stirred up more heat than light. Liz, can we both step back a bit? I’ve got a terminology problem. Perhaps you can help me with it. There is an overarching system of poorly-run, poorly-managed universities and university depa...
Academia & State: the Great Divide from philosophy.com on March 5, 2003 9:13 AM
Excerpt: Liz Lawley's negative response to my off the cuff viewing academia through the eyes of the political reminded me of the great divide that exists between the academia and the state. It is difficult to cross and many don't. Sure there are corporate and a...
-aca(en)demic- from texturl on March 6, 2003 6:57 AM
Excerpt: Liz has a recent worthwhile rant on academics and blogging. Liz's post resonated all the more because I recently had
-aca(en)demic- from texturl on March 6, 2003 7:00 AM
Excerpt: Liz has a recent worthwhile rant on academics and blogging. Liz's post resonated all the more because I recently had
Comments
Comment from Timothy Burke on March 4, 2003 1:39 PM (Permalink to Comment)

I once heard Ray Suarez of National Public Radio say something I thought was pretty smart about the "culture wars" of the 1980s, namely, that academics sort of sat on the sidelines while they got trashed in absentia, acting as if public representations (and misrepresentations) of academic life had no effect on them. Suarez suggested that this was factually incorrect--that the public image of the academy had an effect on the academy, mostly bad--and that it was oddly a demonstration that some of what the critics were saying was true, that academics thought they were above it all and didn't need to sully themselves.

The paradox of a lot of the typical criticisms of academia is that many are justified, but that in making them, the critics are essentially asserting that academics ought to be better than everyone else.

At least some of what is wrong with academia today is generic to any large institution or bureaucracy: pointless rules and contradictory institutional pressures, unnecessary wasting of resources, dead weight or malicious people who prey upon the vulnerable and productive, institutional pressures to conform. To argue with special passion that academia ought not to be this way is to assert that academia ought to be better than other institutions--a fair argument, because academic institutions represent themselves as being better, adhering to a higher standard.

At least some of what is wrong with academia today is wrong with the other "professions"--law, medicine, psychotherapy, and so on. The growth of the professions, their guaranteed path into the middle-class, and the ethical distance they seem to promise from the grubbiness of commerce, afflicts them all with intense careerism and massive over-specialization. Doctors and patients pine for the (somewhat fictive) days of the family doctor and the home visit; others pine for the days of the public intellectual and an academy full of joyous generalists (also something of a fiction). Here again we hold academics accountable because we think they ought to be something better.

Then there are the specific and peculiar ills that academics afflict themselves with: a kind of neurotic fear of American anti-intellectualism coupled with a hyperbolically inflated sense of entitlement, the strange terrorism of the grad school-to-tenure gauntlet, and the odd solitude that it is possible to vanish within post-tenure. All of these have their joyous side, too.

It is both that academia is no worse than anything else, and that it ought to be better than most things. It's unfair to hold academics accountable for their failure to be better and then blast them for elitism: most of the critics need to admit to themselves that their criticism is premised on a belief in the *idea* of academia and a faith that it *ought* to perform some of the higher missions to assigns to itself. Otherwise, someone like Dorothea holding academia to account for her father being an arrogant alcoholic makes no sense whatsoever: arrogant, insular alcoholics are not in short supply in the wide world. You can only put that on academia's balance sheet if you think academics should do better, try harder, be more, that the academy is a place of potentially unique value and importance in a liberal democracy.


Comment from matt pfeffer on March 4, 2003 11:34 PM (Permalink to Comment)

To argue with special passion that academia ought not to be this way is to assert that academia ought to be better than other institutions

Not necessarily, though. Saying that one thing among a number of flawed things should be better doesn't necessarily mean you're saying that one thing is the only one that should be better. There are three doctors in my immediate family; they argue with the same special passion about what's wrong with medicine that academics deplore what's wrong with academia. It just happens to be what we're talking about, that's all.

There is a critical difference between medicine and academia, of course -- medicine pays a bit better. If people have higher expectations for academic careers, it's because many have non-economic motivations for pursuing them. And that's a perfectly fair calculation for an individual to make -- it wouldn't make any sense to volunteer for the poor pay and non-existent job security that most academics are faced with if they didn't derive some other benefit from the choice.


Comment from Gary Sauer-Thompson on March 5, 2003 3:16 AM (Permalink to Comment)

Liz,
I'm sorry. I did not mean to have a go at you. I did say that I agreed with you upbeatness. I concur with you remarks about politics.

There is a bit of misinterpretation due to the Australian context dropping away.I had my eye on the historical

The 'Memories of academia' was one of 3. The other two are

Postanalytic philosophy at

http://www.sauer-thompson.com/archives/philosophy/000113.html

Which located the remarks in a disciplinary context

and Ivory Tower Revisited
at http://aheapofcrap.blogspot.com/

which located it in a historical context.

So the importance for me was the losss of the humanities kind of critique in the shift to an information society.


Comment from Gary Sauer-Thompson on March 5, 2003 5:00 AM (Permalink to Comment)

The above was very rushed as I had to go out before I could finish. So sorry about the typos. There was no time for corrections. What I did want to highlight was the Australian context.

Academics do not run webloggers here.I think that it is fantastic that many do so in the states and that this has been connected up to an emergent democracy See the post 'Beyond the market' Sunday, February 23, 2003 at a heap of junk for code

The remarks I did make about the insularity of academia (ivory tower) tried to draw attention to what academia would look like from the eyes of policy makers in Australia. It looks very different, but that political perspective is rarely given much legitimacy in by academics in Australia. It is mocked rather than engaged with.

Having worked in both I think that the rejection of the political in the kneejerk academic way (so common in Australia) is not a useful way to conduct a critique.What the politicians see only too clearly is some academics not living up to their ethos of debate, argument and criticism of ideas whilst denouncing the politicians for engaging in polemics (rants?)

Why should we critique the academy? Well not because it fails to turn out workers, research, and technologies for the information society---which is the argument of the politicians. Nor because it is full of trendy lefty liberals who are into affirmative action, multiculturalism etc etc ---which is the neo-con critique.

But rather because the contemporary university does not live up to its ethos: education for citzenship, providing a liberal education, civilizing the marketplace, fostering a civil conversation. As a liberal institution in civil society it is not fostering the liberal values (the very ones you affirm) that it still professes to uphold. It is hollowing them out. So I fully concur with Timothy Burke's position.

Again, there may be a big diference between Australia and the US on this. (Always the difference, always.)

Why did I make such a big fuss of the sickness of the academic mode life? Because of my view that philosophy, which has escaped the disciplinary confines of the old modernist culture of the academy,can usefully work in civil society as a therapeutic philosophy that is concerned about suffering and damaged lives caused by human practices and culture.(This conception of philosophy is advocated by Nietzsche and has its roots in the classical Greeks.

I hope that this puts some context around my remarks and shows you that it was not meant to be an anti-academic bash.


Comment from Jill on March 5, 2003 6:32 AM (Permalink to Comment)

Go Liz!


Comment from MB Williams on March 5, 2003 8:06 AM (Permalink to Comment)

Liz, I bet I could look through my emails of 1993 and find one which fits your annotating of the Sauer-Thompson to a "T". In fact, I actually left my Clintonian political appointment to return to academia, and swore I would never return to the political domain.

Of course, in 2000, I found myself in the reverse role, feeling the life breathed back into me with my newfound presence in politics. So which is it? Ask me again after 2004, and I'm looking to finish my dissertation in anthro.

One thing which I find is very ironic, is that so many purported political bloggers are shocked to find that I'm actually involved in real-life Democratic politics - that I'm an elected Democratic official. They couldn't imagine blogging if they were in that position. Say what? If political pundits in blogtopia don't gather their knowledge from real political life, I wonder from whence derives their expertise? If you look at the vast majority of polibloggers, they're either academics or journalists. Are journalists quasi-academics?

I know I'm jumping into this midstream, and I hope Liz, you don't mind, but I'm quite intrigued by the whole discussion, especially since I've been sitting in the incredibly insular world of political blogging for a few months now, with your blog as one of the few excursions I make into the non-poliblog world.

BTW, Congratulations, Liz!


Comment from jonty on March 5, 2003 10:53 AM (Permalink to Comment)

I think labelling a blog as "academic" problematic. As a writer/academic/blogger off four months I'm still working out the focus of my blog. Because I host on my own server rather than the university server I make the distinction that this is not an academic blog; however, I am linking to students on my Creative Writing course. I'm increasingly taking up subjects that are aimed at my students but there's still plenty on the site that's not academic.
I'm grappling with the idea of having different blogs but right now it seems okay to be something of a hybrid.


Comment from meika von samorzewski on March 5, 2003 10:54 PM (Permalink to Comment)

In reference to the elected Democrat above who blogs (MB Williams), a fact which amazes some people I can say that as a dolebludger (Australian for long term welfare recipient if not cheat) blogging on I have had a number of contacts who are amazed that I am so honest about my position, in particularl when they are blogging from that place, so I am not surprise at the surprise.

People seem to want/desire/require to keep up appearances, even when it does them, -- but then, nought as queer as folk.


Comment from Gary Sauer-Thompson on March 7, 2003 6:44 AM (Permalink to Comment)

MB Williams writes

"One thing which I find is very ironic, is that so many purported political bloggers are shocked to find that I'm actually involved in real-life Democratic politics - that I'm an elected Democratic official. They couldn't imagine blogging if they were in that position."

My experience exactly. Rather than being seen as doing something different I was treated as a carpetbagger; some who had sold out; someone who had betrayed academia by going into political life. This was the reaction even though I tried then tried to bring the two worlds together around pressing public issues.

I am encouraged to continue the public opinion weblog by those in the political world--it is still scorned as crass and vulgar by those in academia.

Once again I think that this is more an Australian experience that an American one.

Labelling a blog 'academic' is problematic? Then check this out Thoughts Arguments and Rants out.


Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna