the Multigraph Collective and new avenues of humanistic scholarship

Allison Miller tells The Story of the Multigraph Collective, an academic group project that eventuated in a book called Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation. I very much want to read the book, but for those interested in the economics of labor in the academy and its effects on scholarship, this part of Miller’s account is especially interesting:  

Being edited by so many other scholars, according to Paul Keen (Carleton Univ.), was unnerving but also “weirdly liberating. It gave us all a license to put our authorial sensitivities on hold and put our faith in this larger brainstorming process.”
Indeed, [Andrew] Piper too describes the endeavor as a “leap of faith,” since no one knew how the final work would be received by tenure and promotion committees or by UK Research Excellence Framework evaluators. One Multigraph Collective member, says Piper, was told that since there were 22 collaborators, the member’s work on Interacting with Print would count as 1/22 of a book—by word count, not even the equivalent of a journal article.
In the thick of it all, however, the process was thrilling. Hierarchies of academic rank and disciplinary territoriality dissolved in a shared commitment to the work. “This project fundamentally changed my ideas about what humanities scholarship could look like and what it could achieve,” says Porter. 

The whole situation is a reminder of the absurdity of the current tenure system, with its crude quantitative pseudo-metrics for assessing “productivity” — but also of the power of tenure. Those of us who have it need to be engaged in projects like Interacting with Print — projects that reconfigure and extend the character of humanistic scholarship (sometimes by renewing older scholarly modes). I’m displeased with myself for not doing more along these lines. 

a Chinese model for American education?

I am somewhat puzzled by this essay on American and Chinese university students by Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University. Not by all of it, mind you — some of it is easy to understand, for instance this: 

In America, we often read about social justice warriors refusing to listen to points of view from outside the campus mainstream, but we should pay more attention to those engaged students who are creating opportunities in education, health care and access to technology for citizens beyond the university’s walls. Rather than focusing on why kids today don’t have the same fundamentalist commitment to the free market approach to speech as boomers claim to have always had, we should recognize how our campuses abound with productive nonconformists, practical idealists starting up companies and purpose-driven organizations.

I have to admire Roth’s straightforwardness here: When people point to a lack of freedom of speech on your campus, call them fundamentalists and change the subject. But what I’m wondering is whether the whole essay is basically about the free-speech-on-campus issue, though it doesn’t announce itself as such. 
Let’s look at the whole paragraph from which I drew my earlier quote: 

The discussion in Beijing led me to reflect that teachers and students in China, like those in the United States, are thinking hard about how to avoid conformity and indoctrination without just retreating to a campus bubble that has no relevance to the nonacademic world. In America, we often read about social justice warriors refusing to listen to points of view from outside the campus mainstream, but we should pay more attention to those engaged students who are creating opportunities in education, health care and access to technology for citizens beyond the university’s walls. Rather than focusing on why kids today don’t have the same fundamentalist commitment to the free market approach to speech as boomers claim to have always had, we should recognize how our campuses abound with productive nonconformists, practical idealists starting up companies and purpose-driven organizations. In China, more than half a million students each year study abroad, and scores of thousands are majoring in foreign languages and culture. Notwithstanding the central government’s frightening efforts to enforce narrow forms of political and vocational training, exposure to other societies will enrich the country by disrupting increasingly bureaucratized homogeneity. 

Now, Roth writes like a college president, which is to say rather badly, so it’s difficult for me to be sure. But he seems to be making a point of insisting that the Chinese students he met were bold, thoughtful, and willing to challenge the status quo despite studying in an environment in which freedom of speech is profoundly restricted by the government. As far as I can tell, Roth’s argument is that powerful constraints on speech don’t impede the education Chinese students receive or the investments they make in their society — so why should similar constraints be a problem here in America? As long as students are “disrupting increasingly bureaucratized homogeneity,” what’s to complain about? 
Tell me in the comments if I have this wrong. 

more on offensive ideas

In response to my previous post on this subject, my friend Chad Wellmon sent me a link to a (paywalled) essay by his colleague Elizabeth Barnes on the value of responding to offensive ideas. Barnes makes a useful distinction between ideas that are deeply offensive but not widely or seriously held — an argument in defense of rape, for instance — and the ideas of, say, Peter Singer. 

So what’s the difference with Peter Singer? His views are, from my perspective at least, no less offensive than the pro-rape argument. Yet he strikes me as different for the simple reason that, when it comes to a description of what many people think or what many people’s everyday views imply, Singer isn’t wrong.
Most people would, of course, be far too polite to say what Singer says. But Singer’s claims about the comparative value of disabled lives follow naturally from the casual remarks that disabled people and caregivers hear all the time. They’re implicit in the grave “I’m so sorry” quietly whispered to my friend after colleagues meet her beautiful, smiling daughter for the first time. They’re the unspoken message when another friend is reassured, just after her son is born: “But you can have another child.” They’re the natural conclusion of a well-meaning doctor remarking to me, on learning that I don’t have children: “Oh, that’s probably for the best — your children might’ve inherited [your condition].”
I seriously doubt that the well-intentioned people who say these things would endorse Singer’s conclusions. But Singer is right that his conclusions flow straightforwardly from these sorts of common attitudes. For this reason, I find myself strangely grateful for the brutal honesty of Peter Singer. He says explicitly what others only gesture at implicitly. 

(Barnes has a rare medical condition that, as far as I can tell, does not threaten her life but makes that life more difficult in various ways.) Now, someone might argue in response that if Singer’s arguments indeed extend commonly-held views, that’s all the more reason to ignore them — to push them further and further to the margins. Barnes: 

People worry that grappling with offensive views gives those views undue legitimacy. But in the case of someone like Singer, the views have legitimacy whether or not I choose to engage with them. To state the obvious, the arguments of the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University are going to matter whether or not I pay attention to them. But, more important, Singer’s views already have legitimacy because people will continue to think about disability in ways directly relevant to his arguments regardless of whether progressive academics decide those arguments are simply too offensive to be discussed. (After all, as Singer himself wryly notes, the sales of Practical Ethics tend to increase whenever there are calls to “no platform” his talks.) Even Singer’s views on infant euthanasia aren’t a dystopian thought experiment. At least one major European country (the Netherlands) openly practices infanticide in some cases of disability.

If ideas have actual social and political purchase, if they are doing work in the world, then it’s rather naïve to think that by ignoring them we could somehow delegitimize them. That’s simply wishful thinking. 
In the talk I gave at Duke in January, called “Embrace the Pain: Living with the Repugnant Cultural Other,” I tried to make a case similar to the one Barnes makes, though on somewhat different grounds. I also think my argument is a kind of response to the thoughtful comments Alastair Roberts made on my earlier post. 
Anyway, here’s an excerpt: 

So, if we dare to embrace the pain while striving to minimize the harm, what does that look like? And how does it help us deal with our RCO? How can the presence of my RCO in my community to be seen as a feature rather than a bug? It begins with the understanding that we come together, temporarily, in this place so that we may play a certain complex and meaningful game, a game that involves trying out intellectual and personal positions, testing my beliefs and my identity in relation to others that are doing the same — and playing this game under the guidance and direction of people whom we all trust to run it fairly and with our flourishing in mind. With that framework in place, then, we might be able genuinely to hear Mill’s word of warning: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” In a healthily functioning academic community, these words can be heard as a health-giving challenge rather than a threat to be feared.
In such a community, my RCO can therefore play a role in strengthening and clarifying my convictions — even if that’s the last thing he would want to do! Recall my opening promise that, following G K Chesterton, I would try not to ask you to consider that you might be wrong. To take a couple of extreme examples: Do we really want a world in which Elie Wiesel seriously considers whether the Nazis might have been justified after all in implementing their Final Solution? Or where Malcolm X pauses to consider whether white supremacy is, after all is said and done, the best social order? I think not. But that doesn’t mean that — even in the big and uncontrolled outside world, and still more in the semi-controlled realm of academic conversation — we don’t benefit from a better understanding of what people we disagree with think, and why they think as they do.
Chesterton deplored the movement of modesty from “the organ of ambition” to “the organ of conviction.” He doesn’t want you to be modest about your convictions, but rather about your ambitions — by which he means all the ways you hope to put your convictions into effect. He wants you to be confident about your ends but critical and even skeptical about your preferred means to those ends. He wants you to consider all the different ways you might get to the goal you treasure — and in this endeavor your RCO can help, even if, again, he wouldn’t want to.

I also argued in that talk that we stand a better chance of getting people to, as Roberts puts it in his aforementioned comments, “stress-test” their beliefs under two conditions: if we are able to cultivate a game-like character in our campus conversations and if we faculty members work much, much harder to create an environment in which our students trust us to manage and direct those games. 
A postscript: at dinner after my talk I sat next to Bob Blouin, the Provost of the University of North Carolina, and he commented that he thought that faculty would do a better job of cultivating their students’ trust if they felt trusted by administrators. Well, yes. Precisely.  

how to mark your participation in an academic guild

This is just a brief follow-up to last night’s post on my personal blog about my experience reading biblical scholars. All scholarly guilds have their characteristic markers of valid participation, but they vary considerably. For biblical scholars those markers seem to be, as far as I can tell, largely structural: that is, as I explained in that post, monographs are expected to begin with a methodological introduction and a literature review. But in my field, literary study, the markers tend not to be structural but terminological. We can organize our monographs in a good many ways, but we need to signal our deference to guild sensibilities by deploying certain terms: in one era we needed to point to aporias in the texts we studied, while later on we needed to acknowledge our complicity in the very structures we sought to critique, or to speak with appropriate regretfulness about the power of patriarchy; later on still it was heteronormativity that needed to be acknowledged.

The rules were never specific, and we could always neglect certain terms if we made use of others that were equally au courant; but terminological markers have to be there for a book to be a guild book. It would be interesting to hear from various academics about what they perceive to be the key scholarly markers of membership in their own guilds. Comment below, perhaps? (I’m also to hear challenges to my thoughts on these matters.)

historical knowledge and world citizenship

Few writers have meant as much to me, as consistently, over many years as Loren Eiseley — I say a bit about my teenage discovery of him in this essay. I am now writing a piece on the new Library of America edition of his essays for Education and Culture, and, man, is it going to be hard for me to keep it below book-length. I keep coming across little gems of provocation and insight. In lieu of buttonholing my family and making them listen to me read passages aloud — though I’m not saying I’ll never do that — I may post some choice quotations here from time to time.

Here’s a wonderful passage from the early pages of The Firmament of Time, Eiseley’s lapidary and meditative history of geology, or rather of what the rise of modern geology did to the human experience of time. I like it because it illuminates certain blind spots of today’s academics — and people more generally — and because it reminds us just how essential the study of history is.

Like other members of the human race, scientists are capable of prejudice. They have occasionally persecuted other scientists, and they have not always been able to see that an old theory, given a hairsbreadth twist, might open an entirely new vista to the human reason. I say this not to defame the profession of learning but to urge the extension of education in scientific history. The study leads both to a better understanding of the process of discovery and to that kind of humbling and contrite wisdom which comes from a long knowledge of human folly in a field supposedly devoid of it. The man who learns how difficult it is to step outside the intellectual climate of his or any age has taken the first step on the road to emancipation, to world citizenship of a high order.

He has learned something of the forces which play upon the supposedly dispassionate mind of the scientist; he has learned how difficult it is to see differently from other men, even when that difference may be incalculably important. It is a study which should bring into the laboratory and the classroom not only greater tolerance for the ideas of others but a clearer realization that even the scientific atmosphere evolves and changes with the society of which it is a part. When the student has become consciously aware of this, he is in a better position to see farther and more dispassionately in the guidance of his own research. A not unimportant by-product of such an awareness may be an extension of his own horizon as a human being.

men ignoring (as well as interrupting) women

The New York Times is wrong about a great many things these days, but it’s certainly right about this: men really do interrupt women All. The. Time. (And the NYT has covered this story before.) I have seen the phenomenon myself in many faculty meetings over the years, and it’s especially painful when a woman sits in silence through 45 minutes of a meeting, finally decides to say something — and is instantly cut off.

I have often talked too much in meetings, but I don’t think I do this — women who have worked with me, please let me know if I’m wrong. Please. (Could you do it in an email instead of in the comments, below, though? That would be a kindness.) But interrupting is just one of many ways confident and articulate men — or confident men who just think they’re articulate — can sideline their female colleagues.

Once, some years ago now, a younger colleague asked me to join her for lunch. She wanted to talk to me about something: the fact that I had not expressed interest in or support of her scholarship, even though it overlapped with my own in some areas. My first thought was that I really did admire her work and thought; but that was immediately followed by the realization that I had never told her so. I had completely failed to offer the support and encouragement that would have meant a lot to her as someone making her way in our department and our institution. So I apologized, and asked if she would forgive me, which of course she did.

In the aftermath of that lunch meeting, I thought a lot about why I had so manifestly failed my colleague, and I’ve continued to think about it since. I don’t fully understand the complexities of the situation, and I may be looking for self-exculpation here, but I do think I’ve identified one element of the problem, and it involves sexually-segregated socializing.

A number of my younger male colleagues had expressed gratitude for my support of them, and when I thought about how I had expressed that support — the advice I had given, the responses to their work — I realized that that had rarely happened on campus, in our offices or hallways, but rather in coffee shops and pubs. When we met on free mornings for coffee to chat as we got through some grading or diminished the size of our inboxes, or met in the evenings after work for a pint or two — that’s when I got the chance to say some supportive things.

But while we often asked our female colleagues to join us for such outings, they rarely did. I am honestly not sure whether they just weren’t interested, or had conflicting obligations, or didn’t hear enough to make it perfectly clear that their presence was really wanted and that we didn’t desire to create a Boy’s Club. But I do know that I should have been aware of these dynamics and found other ways to let the women in my circles know that I valued their work. Once that single colleague had the boldness to call my attention to my shortcomings in this area, I made an effort to compensate — though I don’t know that I ever did enough.

I especially want to ask my fellow academics: What do you think about the account I’ve given? Does it sound plausible? What am I missing, either about myself or about the general social dynamics?

reconstituting the Republic of Letters (or not)

Here I want to follow up on my previous post on academic publishing and the patronage system.

First, just a note that the article by Stanley Fish that I cited in that post created an interesting conversation that can be found here, at least for those with JSTOR access.

Now, back to the main issues raised by Wellmon and Piper: As I mentioned in my earlier response, their work brings a welcome historical dimension to the issues they raise, identifying the ways in which the rise of the modern research university, starting in the late 18th century in Germany, sought to avoid or transcend the limitations of a patronage regime but ended up (largely, though not wholly) reinscribing such a regime in a disguised and more systematic form.

It was what we might call a Weberian development: a community or network of scholarship — the old Republic of Letters about which Anthony Grafton, more than anyone else, has written so eloquently — that depended a good deal on the charisma of individual figures, from Petrarch to Erasmus to Voltaire, was gradually rationalized and systematized. Wellmon and Piper and I are the heirs of that rationalized system, and for better or worse have to function within it. But as a professor at a private Christian university, as opposed to the public institutions that Chad and Andrew work at, my ties to that system are slightly looser. The epistemic world of Christian scholarship in the humanities overlaps with the larger scholarly world but has various regions that lie well off that map. At Wheaton, where I taught for 29 years, an English or philosophy professor could (might not, but could) get tenure while writing only for specifically Christian journals and presses; at Baylor, where I now teach, that would not be possible, but some publication with Christian scholarly outlets is usually acceptable.

So from where I sit the rise of the modern research university, with its national and often international standards of accreditation and prestige, is a mixed blessing, and I am tempted to wonder whether, in the university as it is currently constituted and likely to be constituted for the imaginable future, any serious alternative to the current epistemic regime can be achieved.

If such an alternative regime is ever to be realized, then it might well need to involve reflection on what elements of that Republic of Letters could be reconstituted. In contrast to the research university the Old Republic was characterized by

  • locally variable interests and approaches
  • dependence (as noted above) on individual charisma
  • loose and variable social ties among its members
  • loose and variable relations to intellectual institutions
  • a common language (Latin) for much of its history
  • private and locally variable publication technologies
  • dependence on postal service for most of its exchanges of ideas

For a time it seemed to me that the internet might allow for the formation of structurally similar networks of scholars, more-or-less loosely related to but not confined by academic institutions. I remember, ten or fifteen years ago, hearing fairly regularly from people who didn’t hold academic positions but who nevertheless — or perhaps not nevertheless but rather consequently — offered interesting ideas that I did not come across in my regular academic reading. (These people often held advanced degrees but did not have academic jobs, for a variety of reasons.)

The success of these networks depended on a reliable means of exchanging ideas, something that, early in internet’s history, was enabled by various technologies: the BBS, the newsgroup, the listserv. But when we moved from those technologies to the World Wide Web, and thus to comment-enabled blogs, things started to go seriously wrong, largely because ignorant and/or malicious people, who didn’t even have to sign up for a listserv in order to share their opinions, drove the more measured and thoughtful people out of comment threads. Then, at about the time that everyone started to figure out the necessity of comment moderation, Twitter arose, and suddenly commenting on blogs seemed burdensome to people.

For instance, the number of comments on this blog has steadily declined, though for a while, until I began emphasizing that I don’t read Twitter replies, people would respond there — inevitably more briefly, and therefore less clearly and cogently, than they would have if they had chosen instead to comment on the blog itself. Now I get very few responses at all to what I write here. I think the rise of social media, and especially Twitter, has done great damage to any hopes for an online Republic of Letters that could provide a kind of epistemic counterpoise to the Academy. Perhaps when Twitter burns itself out — which I believe it will do, and fairly soon, thanks to the crass indifference of its leadership to the abuse that goes on there — some new possibilities will arise, or old ones come back into view.

But without some such counterpoise — some intellectual ferment going on outside the disciplinary powers of the research university (and I mean “disciplinary” primarily in a Foucauldian sense) — then I doubt whether we’ll see a significant alteration in how the university works.

Let me return now to the question that Wellmon and Piper ask: “What are the epistemic effects of a system in which academic prestige is so unequally distributed and how might we, as an academy, foster a more intellectually diverse space of academic communication?” I want to suggest one possible answer to that question: If we want the university to become a more intellectually diverse space, then maybe we need to find ways to strengthen and vivify intellectual discourse outside the university. Because it is only when serious alternatives to the epistemic practices of the university are being cultivated elsewhere that the university is likely to reconsider how it does its business. In this way a major investment of academic intellectual resources in the world outside the academy could constitute, at one and the same time, a public service and a means of self-invigoration.

publication, power, and patronage

Here’s a PDF of an important article by Chad Wellmon and Andrew Piper, soon to be published in Critical Inquiry. And here’s what the journos call the nut graf:

Historically, university reformers from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century have touted publication as a corrective to concentrations of power and patronage networks. An increased emphasis on more purportedly transparent or objective measures provided by publication have long been cast as an antidote to cronyism and connections. As we will show, however, current data suggest that publication patterns largely reproduce significant power imbalances within the system of academic publishing. Systems of academic patronage as well as those of cultural and social capital seem not only to have survived but flourished in the modern bureaucratic university, even if in different form. When, as our data show, Harvard and Yale exercise such a disproportionate influence on both hiring and publishing patterns, academic publishing seems less a democratic marketplace of ideas and more a tightly-controlled network of patronage and cultural capital. Just as output-focused advancement is older than we might expect, patronage-based advancement is more persistent than we might like to acknowledge.

And then Wellmon and Piper bring the data that show just how institutionally concentrated academic publishing is. After they had “surveyed over 45 years (1969–2015) of publication data from four leading journals in the humanities — Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, PMLA, and Representations,” they discovered, among other things, that “authors with PhDs from just two universities, Yale and Harvard, accounted for one-fifth (19.95%) of all articles.” (Just for the record, Chad’s PhD is from Berkeley, Andrew’s from Columbia, mine from UVA.)

There are many ways one might explain this state of affairs, and, especially if you’re associated with Harvard or Yale, you might want to start by pointing out that the graduate programs of those schools have their pick of the most talented student applicants, so therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that those students go on to be productive professionals, some of whom then return to Harvard and Yale and select the next generation of graduate students — it’s a kind of circle, yes, but not all such circles are vicious ones. So the argument might go. And we can grant a measure, and even a large measure, of truth to those claims and still be concerned for the various results of such a system.

Among those various results, the ones that Wellmon and Piper are most interested in — and not just in this article, but in the larger project of which this article is merely the first installment — may be seen in this sentence: “The broader question we want to ask, which we can only begin to raise in this essay, is: What are the epistemic effects of a system in which academic prestige is so unequally distributed and how might we, as an academy, foster a more intellectually diverse space of academic communication?” (Emphasis mine.) Yes, there are social and political effects, but tangled up with those and never fully extricable from them are surely epistemic consequences: a kind of scholarly Overton window of acceptable topics of study, methods, conclusions, all monitored and disciplined by a clerisy that doesn’t acknowledge its own power or interests. A fascinating element of the essay is its brief history of how the whole endeavor of academic publishing arose largely in order to provide an “objective” discursive arena in which the intrinsic merit of scholarly work could be properly assessed — which, however well or badly it served its announced purpose, enforced a system that valued writing above speaking: “advocates of a new university model assumed that written and, most importantly, published material had a higher value than oral exchange or other less broadly public media.” That this system of value concentrates the power of the clerisy may well be, as the Marxists like to say, no accident.

I am very eager to see where Wellmon and Piper go with further research along these lines. Here are a couple of questions I am mulling over and that I would love to see them consider:

1) I wonder if the prestige-distribution system in the publishing of academic books works in the same way that it does within the network of academic journals. My own experience suggests otherwise. Fairly early in my career I discovered that it was far easier and more rewarding to write and publish books than to go through the endless rigmarole of trying to get journal articles published — so I stopped doing the latter. My suspicion is that, unlike journals, university presses need to make money, or at least to avoid losing much money, which gives them a rather different set of priorities. That’s just a suspicion, and one derived from only one person’s experience; but still, I wonder.

2) One of the responses to Wellmon and Piper’s work will surely be that they have exposed a false meritocracy and we therefore need to come up with some way to create and sustain a true meritocracy. Perhaps some will insist that places in graduate programs be determined by GRE scores, or by some imagined replacement for the GRE that more objectively determines merit. To which others will reply that the concepts of “objectivity” and “merit” are and will always be ideological tools by which the entrenched clerisy will sustain itself. Thus the academic profession’s old oscillation between the political and transcendent will simply be renewed.

I take my framing of that opposition from an essay that Stanley Fish wrote in 1979 and published nine years later, “No Bias, No Merit: The Case Against Blind Submission”:

The true and proper view of literature and literary studies defines itself against academic politics, which are seen by the aestheticians as being too much like the politics of “actual life” and by the new historicists as being not enough like the politics of “actual life.” The complaint is different, but its target – the procedures and urgencies of professional activity – is the same, and so is the opposition underlying the different complaints, the opposition between an activity in touch with higher values and an activity that has abandoned those values for something base and philistine. Whether the values are generality, detachment, disembodied vision, and moral unity on the one hand or discontinuity, rupture, disintegration, and engagement on the other, the fear is that they will be compromised by the demands that issue from the pressures of careerism, the pressure to publish, to say something new, to get a job, to get promoted, to get recognized, to get famous, and so on. In the context of the aesthetic vision, these pressures are destructive of everything that is truly intellectual; in the context of the historicist vision, they are destructive of everything that is truly (as opposed to merely institutionally) political. Not only do the two visions share an enemy, they share a vocabulary, the vocabulary of transcendence, for in the discourses of both we are urged to free ourselves from parochial imperatives, to realize the true nature of our calling, to participate in that which is really and abidingly important. It is just that in one case the important thing is the life of the poetic mind, while in the other it is the struggle against repression and totalization; but that is finally only the difference between two differently pure acts, both of which are pure (or so is the claim) by not being the acts of an embedded professional.

Fish is playing the provocateur here, of course, as always, but I think he has rightly identified the constant temptation of the reformer, whether academic or religious or any other kind, which is to seek a purity of purpose and action that escapes the downward-dragging gravity of the grossly political. For Fish, it seems, there are three options for organizing the prestige-conferring, patronage-distributing system of the academic humanities: a falsely-pure aestheticism, a falsely-pure revolutionary politics, and a cheerfully impure intra-profession politics.

Now, even if we agree with Fish that we need to avoid the sham purities, the simulacra of transcendence, that our profession tends to embrace, and accept instead the inevitably political character of our profession, that doesn’t get us very far. In fact, by arguing that we should all just accept and work within professional norms without claiming that they are anchored in transcendent values, Fish simply avoids asking questions about how those norms are created and perpetuated: to Wellmon and Piper’s point about how our models of scholarship ground value in national and international publishing rather than in oral and local engagements, Fish could reply only with a Wittgensteinian shrug. But his warnings against utopian illusions should be noted and heeded by all would-be reformers.

(more forthcoming in another post)

those darn millennials?

Stories like this one by Frank Furedi are ubiquitous these days. It’s a refrain sung by many:

Back in 2003, Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of the study Millennials Go to College, advanced the thesis that this generation is far less mature and resilient than previous ones. They noted that the millennial generation is far more “closely tied to their parents” than the students that preceded them, and they also insist on a “secure and regulated environment.”

Howe and Strauss concluded that as a result, students today find it difficult to flourish in the relatively unstructured environment of higher education. The assessment that the millennials find it more troublesome to make the transition to independent living on campuses than previous generations is widely held by educators on both sides of the Atlantic.

All I can say is that none of this has been my experience. I’m a pretty tough grader, so I’ve had many complaints about grades over the years, but not discernibly more now than in the past. Once a parent called to yell at me after I failed her daughter for plagiarism, but that was 25 years ago. Some professors complain that they can’t assign long books any more because students won’t read them, but I’ve always assumed that few students of any description will read long books unless you hold them accountable with reading quizzes, so that’s what I’ve been doing since I started teaching literature in 1983. (I learned the practice from my undergraduate mentor, John Burke of the University of Alabama.)

Perhaps — perhaps — my students today are a little more sensitive about criticism than my students of decades ago. But I’m not convinced of it.

So why does my experience differ so greatly from that of many others? Some possibilities:

1) Rosy retrospection by the professorial complainers.

2) Institutional location A: I have spent my career at a highly selective liberal arts college (Wheaton) and a selective program within a university (the Honors Program at Baylor). So my students have been very, very good, but perhaps have not had the unbroken record of triumph that some students from the cultural elite have had: they understand the value of hard academic work but don’t think that perfect success is their birthright.

3) Instututional location B: Wheaton and Baylor are both (though in rather different ways) Christian schools, which means that most of my students come from Christian homes, where they are more likely than many young people to be taught respectf for authorities. Which could mean that they accept the validity of my decisions, or that they complain as much as students elsewhere but not to me. Also, I think that in Christian families academic success may be important but it is never the only thing, and rarely the most important thing: there’s a bit of perspective built in. (It may be noteworthy that here at Baylor the students who have expressed to me the deepest anxiety about grades come from non-Christian homes, but my sample size isn’t large enough for me to conclude that.

Obviously these possibilities are not mutually exclusive; and I may have left out something significant. Any thoughts, friends?

on Social Justice U

Jonathan Haidt explains “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice.” When my friend Chad Wellmon (on Twitter) questioned Haidt’s dichotomy, I agreed that there is a problem. After all, people who are promoting social justice in he university think that their beliefs are true!

But I also think Haidt has a point — it just needs to be rephrased. The social-justice faction in the university believes that the most fundamental questions about what justice is have already been answered, and require no further reflection or investigation. (And from this follows the belief that questioning The Answers, and still worse suggesting other answers, is, as Haidt says, a kind of blasphemy: At Social Justice University, “there are many blasphemy laws – there are ideas, theories, facts, and authors that one cannot use. This makes it difficult to do good social science about politically valenced topics. Social science is hard enough as it is, with big complicated problems resulting from many interacting causal forces. But at SJU, many of the most powerful tools are simply banned.”)

What needs to happen, then, I believe, is for “SJU” to be honest about its own intellectual constitution, to say openly, In this university, we are not concerned to follow the model of many academic enterprises and inquire into the nature and forms of justice. We believe we already know what those are. Therefore our questions will involve how best to implement the understanding we have all already agreed to before beginning our work.

And you know, if SJU is a private institution, I don’t think they would be simply wrong to do this. After all, I have spent my teaching career in Christian institutions, where there are also certain foundational assumptions at work — which, indeed, is true even at Haidt’s Truth U. If Haidt really thinks that there is no blasphemy at Truth U he is sorely mistaken. (Thought experiment: a professor grades her students by seeking the wisdom of the I Ching.) Every educational institution either implicitly or explicitly sets certain boundaries to its pursuits, that is, agrees to set certain questions aside in order to focus on others. And what has long made American higher education so distinctive is its willingness to let a thousand institutional flowers, of very different species, bloom.

The question I would have for proponents of SJU is: Do you embrace the ideological diversity that has been a hallmark of the American system? Are you willing to allow SJU to do its work alongside Truth U and Christian U, and argue for all of those institutional types to be treated equally under the law? Or, rather, do you want every college and university to be dedicated to social justice as you understand it — for there to be no institutions where the very definition of justice is open to question and debate?