Apply this also to academics, writers, and artists:

Many years ago, my wife and I were on vacation on Vancouver Island, looking for a place to stay. We found an attractive but deserted motel on a little-traveled road in the middle of a forest. The owners were a charming young couple who needed little prompting to tell us their story. They had been schoolteachers in the province of Alberta; they had decided to change their life and used their life savings to buy this motel, which had been built a dozen years earlier. They told us without irony or self-consciousness that they had been able to buy it cheap, ‘because six or seven previous owners had failed to make a go of it.’ They also told us about plans to seek a loan to make the establishment more attractive by building a restaurant next to it. They felt no need to explain why they expected to succeed where six or seven others had failed. A common thread of boldness and optimism links businesspeople, from motel owners to superstar CEOs. (258–9)

That’s from Daniel Kahneman’s highly recommended book Thinking, Fast and Slow. How many times have you read some artists say that they succeeded because they believed totally in themselves and worked demonically to make their careers happen? If you’re like me you’ve heard this narrative many times. But you haven’t mostly heard the narrative about artists who believed totally in themselves and worked demonically only to fail, because they don’t get interviewed and their views don’t hit the media.

The quote is from chapter  24 of Thinking, Fast and Slow, which ought to be required reading for anyone thinking about getting a grad degree in the humanities. People giving advice on this topic tend to have succeeded; those who haven’t succeeded are mute (though less mute than they once were).

Why do people, including other “humanists,” love to hate the humanities?

In “The Hierarchy of Humanities Schadenfreude: Scoffing at academic job-market losers comes from some unexpected places” Rebecca Schuman posits some of the reasons why other academics look down on humanities professors, and why humanities professors look down on the adjuncts. I have some theories of my own:

* The simple answer is stated in Schuman’s second paragraph: “Allow me to explain supply and demand to you.” Teaching 18 – 22-year-old undergrads is just not that hard and a lot of people can do it. Grad school in the humanities is more time-consuming than hard. There is in fact a lot of supply and limited demand. The simple answers are often correct.

* Regarding tenured professors looking down on adjuncts, academia is not solely a lottery (though it has some lottery-like elements); people who write in a disciplined, perhaps even demonic, way tend to succeed, at least for some value of “success.” Tenure-track gigs in rural Wisconsin or Florida are much easier to be had than TT gigs in New York and Chicago.

* Academia is ridiculously hierarchical and status-oriented, even if its status ladder is different than the mainstream American status ladder. It’s also, interestingly, very transparent. People at the very top of any ladder rarely have a need to piss on those lower than themselves, but the nervous middle classes often piss downwards to make themselves feel better. Humanities professors are convinced they got where they are because of their hard work and adjuncts got where they are because of their lack of it, yet humanities professors rarely if ever apply the same thinking to income or to non-academic status.

* The unspoken fear underneath much of the status jockeying entails realizing that, even among the employed, much of the “research” being done either doesn’t matter or is just wrong.

That last one is important. To some extent humanists are destroying themselves and have been for decades. They’ve lost whatever ability they had to ask themselves, “Is this important?” and “Why should other people give a shit about it?” I don’t think I ever heard those discussions among academics, and I rarely if ever read them among the marginalized scribblers online. If you want to know whether going to grad school in the humanities is a good idea, start by reading the journals or books. Many are filled with garbage and the ongoing fascination with 19th and early 20th century economists and psychologists is bizarre. Humanists rarely even cite each other. The simplest way to learn about these problems is just to read the output.

People are talked out of their creative, interesting, and original ideas. People with those kinds of ideas get MFAs, or blog, or leave. The field has no space for such ideas, per Peter Thiel. At one point academia was growing fast enough that even humanities disciplines had space for heterodox thinkers, but since ~1975 that hasn’t been true.

The lessons of academic satires and Camille Paglia have been largely ignored. The cost to the individual who manages to get tenure is low but the cost to the field as a whole is high.

Within the field no one can say this and outside the field everyone is ignored. The equilibrium is not a good one.

What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.

Same Performance, Better Grades: Academic achievement hasn’t improved much, so why are college-goers getting higher GPAs than ever before?” doesn’t cite Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, though it should. Both the article and the book observe that grade inflation is real and doesn’t reflect increased student knowledge. But neither book nor article bring up an obvious question: What incentive does an individual professor have to grade honestly (or, as students might call it, “harshly”)?

When an individual professor grades students harshly, the students give low evaluation scores (which the article does to its credit note), but more importantly they can create a lot of extra work in the form of emails to be answered and to a lesser extent office hour visits generated. None of that work is rewarding but it can be distracting. Professors are rewarded primarily by producing research and in some schools to a lesser extent for getting high student evaluations. Grading honestly is counterproductive for either of those goals.

In addition, I haven’t experienced helicopter parenting first-hand, but I have heard the stories, and I have heard about grad students and adjuncts going to meetings based on low grades. The message gets disseminated even if it isn’t stated explicitly.

I’ve gotten lots of unhappy emails and, more rarely, calls from students. The perhaps most interesting ones come from students who plagiarized papers but thought I should excuse the plagiarism. In middle or high school perhaps that would be appropriate, but not college, and their efforts take time and mental energy away from more important activities. If even the plagiarizers want a hearing and elaborate negotiations and second chances, imagine the students who just wrote weak papers!

Finally, there is no check on giving high grades, especially in squishy humanities courses like the ones I teach. The article says “Ultimately, grade inflation has severe consequences” but then lists extremely un-severe consequences, like difficulty “for employers to vet the caliber of an applicant” (do employers actually do this?) or misleading students, “who often use their grades as benchmarks to help diagnose their strengths and weaknesses.” I haven’t noticed students doing that. The “severe consequences” paragraph feels like it was invented by a student for a paper.

Colleges mostly know this, and they’ve set up programs that are designed to graduate students with limited skills but real tuition money. Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton describes the consequences.

Want more serious grades? Provide the incentives to give them.

See also “Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing” and “The validity of grades.”

Insanity in academia, or, reason #1,103 why you should stay out of grad school: Kangaroo courts

In “In the Middle,” a medieval studies group blog, Dorothy Kim and Jonathan Hsy have a post reasonably titled “Medieval Studies, Sexual Harassment, and Community Accountability.” But the body isn’t reasonable: Kim wants to adopt policies that demand being “Victim-Centered,” which in her view means among other things:

Don’t ask for ‘proof’.
Don’t treat ‘both sides of the story’ as if they hold equal weight.
Do not engage in any type of victim blaming behaviour.
Listen to the victim. Do it. And don’t judge.

And she quotes approvingly:

Did a woman just report getting sexually harassed? Eject the man from the conference.

This reminds me of the Harvard law professors who are protesting, for good reason, changes to Harvard’s policies.

We have adversarial legal and conduct systems because those systems are designed to balance the rights of the accused with the rights of the accuser. Being able to confront one’s accuser and hear the evidence against a person is part of that process—and for a good reason. False accusations exist and they too are a serious problem.

Formal bodies of almost any sort should have to adhere to evidentiary requirements and assume innocence. Otherwise you’re running a witch hunt. That witch hunt won’t necessarily be limited to men, either, as Jane Gallop writes in Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment.

If I went to a conference with rules like this I’d be tempted to accuse a woman of sexual harassment just to see what happens. Performance art may be the only appropriate respond to insane policies. I wonder too if Kim, Hsy, or the various approving commenters have read Francine Prose’s novel Blue Angel.

I’m also curious about what sexual harassment constitutes. If a woman says to me, “Wanna come to my room and have a drink?” does that count? It shouldn’t. The line is tough to draw and is close to “I know it when I see it,” which may be one reason why it’s hard to draft good rules—and publicly available rules that are specific enough to be understood are another legal hallmark developed over centuries to prevent unfair punishment. If a woman offers to hug me and I feel uncomfortable, should that count? Possible examples proliferate.

Anyway, this post is also worth discussing because most of the comments about academic looniness and unreasonableness either blown out of proportion or misunderstood or whatever. In Kim and Hsy’s case, here are academics being their own worst stereotypes; the post reads like Rush Limbaugh-style caricature. It’s also a good example of yet another reason you should avoid grad school. See also “The ignorance and ideological blindness in the college sex articles: Kathleen Bogle and Megan McArdle.”

(I originally left a version of this post as a comment; perhaps not surprisingly, it was deleted. The open flow of ideas is not appreciated in all quarters of academia!)

What happened with Deconstruction? And why is there so much bad writing in academia?

How To Deconstruct Almost Anything” has been making the online rounds for 20 years for a good reason: it’s an effective satire of writing in the humanities and some of the dumber currents of contemporary thought in academia.* It also usually raises an obvious question: How did “Deconstruction,” or its siblings “Poststructuralism” or “Postmodernism,” get started in the first place?

My take is a “meta” idea about institutions rather than a direct comment on the merits of deconstruction as a method or philosophy. The rise of deconstruction has more to do with the needs of academia as an institution than the quality of deconstruction as a tool, method, or philosophy. To understand why, however, one has to go far back in time.

Since at least the 18th Century, writers of various sorts have been systematically (key word: before the Enlightenment andIndustrial Revolution, investigations were rarely systematic by modern standards) asking fundamental questions about what words mean and how they mean them, along with what works made of words mean and how they mean them. Though critical ideas go back to Plato and Aristotle, Dr. Johnson is a decent place to start. We eventually began calling such people “critics.” In the 19th Century this habit gets a big boost from the Romantics and then writers like Matthew Arnold.

Many of the debates about what things mean and why have inherent tensions, like: “Should you consider the author’s time period or point in history when evaluating a work?” or “Can art be inherently aesthetic or must it be political?” Others can be formulated. Different answers predominate in different periods.

In the 20th Century, critics start getting caught up in academia (I. A. Richards is one example); before that, most of them were what we’d now call freelancers who wrote for their own fancy or for general, education audiences. The shift happens for many reasons, and one is the invention of “research” universities; this may seem incidental to questions about Deconstruction, but it isn’t because Deconstruction wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t exist in the way it does without academia. Anyway, research universities get started in Germany, then spread to the U.S. through Johns Hopkins, which was founded in 1876. Professors of English start getting appointed. In research universities, professors need to produce “original research” to qualify for hiring, tenure, and promotion. This makes a lot of sense in the sciences, which have a very clear discover-and-build model in which new work is right and old work is wrong. This doesn’t work quite as well in the humanities and especially in fields like English.

English professors initially study words—these days we’d primarily call them philologists—and where they come from, and there is also a large contingent of professors of Greek or Latin who also teach some English. Over time English professors move from being primarily philological in nature towards being critics. The first people to really ratchet up the research-on-original-works game were the New Critics, starting in the 1930s. In the 1930s they are young whippersnappers who can ignore their elders in part because getting a job as a professor is a relatively easy, relatively genteel endeavor.

New Critics predominate until the 1950s, when Structuralists seize the high ground (think of someone like Northrop Frye) and begin asking about what sorts of universal questions literature might ask, or what universal qualities it might possess. After 1945, too, universities expand like crazy due to the G.I. Bill and then baby boomers goes to college. Pretty much anyone who can get a PhD can get a tenure-track job teaching English. That lets waves of people with new ideas who want to overthrow the ideas of their elders into academia. In the 1970s, Deconstructionists (otherwise known as Post-structuralists) show up. They’re the French theorists who are routinely mocked outside of academia for obvious reasons:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

That’s Judith Butler, quoted in Steven Pinker’s witty, readable The Sense of Style, in which he explains why this passage is terrible and how to avoid inflicting passages like it onto others. Inside of academia, she’s considered beyond criticism.

In each generational change of method and ideology, from philology to New Criticism to Structuralism to Poststructuralism, newly-minted professors needed to get PhDs, get hired by departments (often though not always in English), and get tenure by producing “original research.” One way to produce original research is to denounce the methods and ideas of your predecessors as horse shit and then set up a new set of methods and ideas, which can also be less charitably called “assumptions.”

But a funny thing happens to the critical-industrial complex in universities starting around 1975: the baby boomers finish college. The absolute number of students stops growing and even shrinks for a number of years. Colleges have all these tenured professors who can’t be gotten rid of, because tenure prevents them from being fired. So colleges stop hiring (see Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas for a good account of this dynamic).

Colleges never really hired en masse again.

Other factors also reduced or discouraged the hiring of professors by colleges. In the 1980s and 1990s court decisions strike down mandatory retirement. Instead of getting a gold watch (or whatever academics gave), professors could continue being full profs well into their 70s or even 80s. Life expectancies lengthened throughout the 20th Century, and by now a professor gets tenure at say 35 could still be teaching at 85. In college I had a couple of professors who should have been forcibly retired at least a decade before I encountered them, but that is no longer possible.

Consequently, the personnel churn that used to produce new dominant ideologies in academia stops around the 1970s. The relatively few new faculty slots from 1975 to the present go to people who already believed in Deconstructionist ideals, though those ideals tend to go by the term “Literary Theory,” or just “Theory,” by the 1980s. When hundreds of plausible applications arrive for each faculty position, it’s very easy to select for comfortable ideological conformity. As noted above, the humanities don’t even have the backstop of experiment and reality against which radicals can base major changes. People who are gadflies like me can get blogs, but blogs don’t pay the bills and still don’t have much suck inside the academic edifice itself. Critics might also write academic novels, but those don’t seem to have had much of an impact on those inside. Perhaps the most salient example of institutional change is the rise of the MFA program for both undergrads and grad students, since those who teach in MFA programs tend to believe that it is possible to write well and that it is possible and even desirable to write for people who aren’t themselves academics.

Let’s return to Deconstruction as a concept. It has some interesting ideas, like this one: “he asks us to question not whether something is an X or a Y, but rather to get ‘meta’ and start examining what makes it possible for us to go through life assigning things too ontological categories (X or Y) in the first place” and others, like those pointing out that a work of art can mean two opposing things simultaneously, and that there often isn’t a single best reading of a particular work.

The problem, however, is that Deconstruction’s sillier adherents—who are all over universities—take a misreading of Saussure to argue that Deconstruction means that nothing means anything, except that everything means that men, white people, and Western imperialists oppress women, non-white people, and everyone else, and hell, as long as we’re at it capitalism is evil. History also means nothing because nothing means anything, or everything means nothing, or nothing means everything. But dressed up in sufficiently confusing language—see the Butler passage from earlier in this essay—no one can tell what if anything is really being argued.

There has been some blowback against this (Paglia, Falck, Windschuttle), but the sillier parts of Deconstructionist / Post-structuralist nonsense won, and the institutional forces operating within academia mean that that victory has been depressingly permanent. Those forces show no signs of abating. Almost no one in academia asks, “Is the work I’m doing actually important, for any reasonable value of ‘important?'” The ones who ask it tend to find something else to do. As my roommate from my first year of grad school observed when she quit after her M.A., “It’s all a bunch of bullshit.”

The people who would normally produce intellectual churn have mostly been shut out of the job market, or have moved to the healthier world of ideas online or in journalism, or have been marginalized (Paglia). Few people welcome genuine attacks on their ideas and few of us are as open-minded as we’d like to believe; academics like to think they’re open-minded, but my experience with peer review thus far indicates otherwise. So real critics tend to follow the “Exit, Voice, Loyalty” model described by Albert Hirschman in his eponymous book and exit.

The smarter ones who still want to write go for MFAs, where the goal is to produce art that someone else might actually want to read. The MFA option has grown for many reasons, but one is as an alternative for literary-minded people who want to produce writing that might matter to someone other than other English PhDs.

Few important thinkers have emerged from the humanities in the last 25 or so years. Many have in the sciences, which should be apparent through the Edge.org writers. As John Brockman, the Edge.org founder, says:

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

One would think that “the traditional intellectual” would wake up and do something about this. There have been some signs of this happening—like Franco Moretti or Jonathan Gottschall—but so far those green shoots have been easy to miss and far from the mainstream. “Theory” and the bad writing associated with remains king.

Works not cited but from which this reply draws:

Menand, Louis. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Paglia, Camille. “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.” Arion Third Series 1.2 (1991/04/01): 139-212.

Paglia, Camille. Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. 1 ed. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Falck, Colin. Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards a True Post-modernism. 2 ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Windschuttle, Keith. The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past. 1st Free Press Ed., 1997 ed. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Star, Alexander. Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca. 1st ed. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Cusset, Francois. French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Trans. Jeff Fort. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking Adult, 2014.


* Here is one recent discussion, from which the original version of this essay was drawn. “How To Deconstruct Almost Anything” remains popular for the same reason academic novels remain popular: it is often easier to criticize through humor and satire than direct attack.

Finally! Someone else notices that the best instructors aren’t necessarily the most credentialed

Finally! Someone else notices that a lot of academic practices don’t make any sense: “Pictures from an Institution: Leon Botstein made Bard College what it is, but can he insure that it outlasts him?” makes me like Bard; this in particular stands out: “In the thirty-nine years that Botstein has been president of Bard, the college has served as a kind of petri dish for his many pedagogical hypotheses [. . . including] that public intellectuals are often better teachers than newly minted Ph.D.s are.” Why isn’t anyone else following the Bard model?

The question is partially rhetorical. College presidents and trustees are probably systematically selected for conformity, but I’ve gotta think there are other people out there who are going, “Aping the Ivy League model is not going to work for us. What can we do differently?” The current order of things, driven by bogus ranking systems, discourages this sort of thinking. Colleges love the rhetoric of being different, but very few follow that rhetoric to actually being different. Perhaps rising costs will eventually force them to be differentiate or die. Then again, the article says that Bard may be on its way to death or drastic restructuring because of financial problems. Still I don’t see overspending as being fundamentally and intrinsically linked with other issues. Instead, it seems that being a maverick in one field may simply translate to being a maverick in many, including places one doesn’t want mavericks (like finances).

A few weeks ago I wrote about donating to Clark, my alma mater. Although I still think Clark a good school, I’d love to see it move in a more Bard-ish direction. the current President and trustees, however, appear to have come through the system and do not seem like shake-it-up types, regardless of their rhetoric.

Why don’t more men go into teaching? Fear of The Accusation

In the NYT Motoko Rich asks “Why Don’t More Men Go Into Teaching?“, and he gives a variety of answers but not an important one: any male teacher is only one accusation away from having his entire career derailed and a potentially lengthy, onerous police investigation. I thought about going into teaching, but stories from existing male teachers were persuasively dissuading.

At the K-12 level, you’ve got all the problems that all teachers face—obnoxious “do something” administrators, angry parents, medium- to low-status, etc.—plus the need to teach defensively and to think about how any words or actions can be interpreted in the worst light possible. Being one-on-one with a student is dangerous. It’s often normal to touch someone for emphasis, or hug someone in a non-sexual manner, but that can’t happen. In short, many of the little things that are part of normal human interactions are forbidden or dangerous.

William Deresiewicz just wrote Excellent Sheep a polemic about education and what students need; one excerpt, “Students crave emotional mentorship from their teachers that their parents can’t give them. There’s nothing wrong with that,” describes how students want and need mentorship. Male teachers can’t really provide that at the K – 12 level. School policies and culture are ironically curtailing what is arguably the best part of education. It’s been said that guys in foxholes no longer fight for their country or their ideals, but for the guys next to them. I suspect that many students—and I’ve experienced this—don’t try to excel in a given class for the specific skills or the subject or the future job. They excel because they’re compelled to by the person in front of them. Yet that person can’t forma genuine connection without being able to spend at least some one-on-one time with some students.

The dangers are real and the cultural feelings are pervasive, though they rarely rise up to the level of official discourse. Still, check out the stories in “Teachers of reddit, have you ever had a student try to seduce you? What happened? [serious] nsfw,” or numerous similar threads. They reveal a level of well-founded paranoia on the part of male teachers.

Teachers deal with hundreds of students every year. It only takes one grandstanding neurotic, to use Camille Paglia’s phrase, to create a huge amount of work and a level of gossip and innuendo that could take years to dissipate—if it ever does.* The paranoid attitude is also not limited to K – 12. When I was a first-year student at the University of Arizona, I was driving to L.A. to see my family for Thanksgiving and told some students, many of whom were from Southern California, that if they wanted a ride they could hitch one. That ride could be worth hundreds of dollars, relative to a flight. I also went to school three thousand miles from home, where I got a lot of help with matters like this—mostly from my cross country coach, but to a lesser extent from professors and others. I can appreciate what it’s like to show up somewhere and have no resources.

Nonetheless, I told some other grad students that I’d told students they could get a ride to California, and the other grad students were shocked. That’s so dangerous! Are you crazy? What if something… happens?

They’d internalized the defensive mindset. Their reaction helps explain why so much teaching is so poor. And I was dealing with legal adults most of whom lived autonomously! Nonetheless, the other grad students were expressing a real fear. The fear that male K – 12 teachers live with is legitimate and governs their behavior. .

So why put up with the usual problems teachers face if a teacher can’t even do the job really well? Answer: Don’t.


* Paglia writes that she favors campus efforts to deal with genuine sexual harassment and rape, but that “I was concerned about the possibility of false charges by grandstanding neurotics, with whom I’d had quite enough contact at Bennington. Every sexual harassment code should incorporate stiff penalties for false accusation, presently rarely mentioned.”

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