Theses on Academia, Academic Scholarship, and Their Critics

I’m no Luther, not even a Posner. But here are some thoughts prompted by several years in academe, and by exchanges on this blog and Twitter over the last year or so.

  1. Many criticisms of “academic” scholars from outside the academy reveal a poor grasp of the workings of (a) research and teaching; (b) academic disciplines; and (c) academic institutions.
  2. This means that problems specific to one are often misattributed to the others, or vaguely assumed to belong to all three. It also means that fundamentally different phenomena are misleadingly grouped together. For example: “academic jargon” is applied to technical terms, theoretical terms, pedagogical concepts, administrative language, and plain bad writing.
  3. In part, this reflects deficient research — such as criticisms of “the state of academia” based on the latest book, or on a tiny or unrepresentative sample of institutions (e.g., the story of admissions told through Harvard’s incoming class), or an outrageous incident or anecdote.
  4. In part, it reflects the appeal to writers and readers alike of familiar caricatures and tropes: the Ivory Tower vs. the Real World; Publish or Perish; the Useless PhD; the BA in Basket Weaving.
  5. In part, it reflects (not always wittingly) real linkages between different areas of academic life. For instance, terms coined in the course of research can be hollowed out and turned into administrative buzzwords; and vice-versa. See: innovation, disruption, paradigm, and so on.
  6. Beyond simply being distorted, the image of academia taken for granted does not change at the same rate as real academic life. Similar criticisms are levelled year after year, but with each iteration their target bears less and less resemblance to the realities faculty and students face. (For example: the idea that most professors stand at a podium and lecture to their students, with no interaction.)
  7. All this means that such criticisms take little account of the forces actually changing academia, the disciplines, and scholarship. They persist in an outdated view of how each works, where the power to alter them lies, what the imperatives driving trends in each are. It is as if pedagogy were to be debated assuming a one-room schoolhouse as the current model.
  8. It would not be hard to fix these shortcomings; the information needed is public and informed experts on the subject plentiful. But there is no incentive and little pressure to do so.
  9. Such criticism lowers the quality of discussion about higher education, research, and so on. Matters of degree become simple opposites; complicated ideas or programs become slogans; complex institutions become businesses or brands.
  10. This arbitrarily privileges those whose engagement with education takes the form of promoting brands or profiting from businesses. On the other hand, it does a disservice to those whose engagement with scholarship and teaching is more complex: faculty, students, and the public.
  11. Such criticism evinces no coherent view of the value or purposes of education. At various points, these may be implied to be mastery of a discipline, the ability to navigate between disciplines, skills transferable to non-academic settings, job training and employability, knowledge for patriotic citizenship, preparation for dealing with social (or global) problems, and more.
  12. Similarly, such criticism expresses confusion about the chief aims of scholarship. Is it to discover new truths? Test theories? Produce marketable goods? Decide matters of policy? In the context of history, is it to explore human experience? Tell the national story? Explain present-day phenomena? Confer critical, analytical, or rhetorical skills?
  13. This very incoherence suggests that higher education in the humanities has no unambiguous or essential purpose, and is therefore an option, a luxury.
  14. A luxury is not a right. In tough times, luxuries have to be cut.
  15. Responses to criticism from within the academy have also, often, lacked coherence. They frequently submerge defences of the importance of the humanities as subjects in appeals to transferable skills, employability, and future earnings.
  16. By adopting the utilitarian assumptions of their critics, academics yoke their disciplines to the market and imply that their work is inessential. If other or surer paths to earnings could be found, what purpose would the humanities serve?
  17. The assumption that scholarship in the humanities can’t be justified on its own terms reveals a lack of faith either in the humanities or in the public, which includes our own students.
  18. The misunderstandings and misrepresentations that dominate public discussion of academia are largely reproduced within the university, in conflictual relationships between faculty, administration, and students.
  19. Within the university, many administrators mirror or adopt the tone, ideas, and simplifications of non-academic critiques. “Traditional” lecturing is contrasted with always-new interactive teaching, the world of the faculty with the “real world” administrators navigate, etc.
  20. Within the university, faculty generally grant the assumptions of their critics about the value or otherwise of their work, and adopt their terminology; this often goes under the rubric of “speaking their language”, “telling them what they want to hear”, etc.
  21. The effectiveness of this as a faculty tactic — a way of “keeping them off our back” — depends on the meaninglessness of the terms in question. It backfires as soon as administrators anchor their rhetoric in specific material requirements. (Consider the difference between asserting that the proposed hire you need is “interdisciplinary”, and having to establish that it will bring grants to two or three particular departments.)
  22. By failing to defend their disciplines on their own terms, faculty have painted themselves into a corner both publicly and in their own institutions. In neither setting is scholarship valued, unambiguously, for its own sake.
  23. The academic world we were trained for no longer exists. This is as true for tenured scholars as it is for PhDs in precarious academic positions or on non-academic career paths. Radical change is upon us whether we “play the game” or not.
  24. The fate of our disciplines may not be up to us; but what we think that fate should be is for us, and our students, to articulate now.

4 thoughts on “Theses on Academia, Academic Scholarship, and Their Critics

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