Pedantry and Critical Thought

John Bruce has a long series of posts detailing his critique of academic quality control. His main complaint, as I understand it, is that in some disciplines (perhaps most or all: he’s focused on English but there’s no restriction of his critique to English) he believes that a significant number of professors are factually ignorant about their subjects of expertise. This, he feels, degrades the value of undergraduate education. I’ve criticized him for not detailing exactly what the harm suffered is, but to be fair, he’s had a lot to say about that in the past: he views many students trained by elite universities as shamefully ignorant in factual terms and therefore crippled in their ability to do good work after graduation.

In this series of posts, he attributes the source of the problem to academic hiring practices, and cites a number of other bloggers critical of academia (including yours truly) to buttress his characterizations of academic hiring. I’ve made some critical comments over at his blog, but I’ll echo and amplify a few of them here.

The general problem, as I see it, is that John Bruce is building his own Frankenstein monster out of various anecdotal spare parts which do not really fit together very well. The lowest common denominator critique of academic hiring, tenuring, graduate training and so on that you can find at my blog, at Invisible Adjunct’s defunct blog, at Erin O’Connor’s site, and many other blogs and publications, is that academia is a closed shop in various problematic ways. That it has an overly narrow or parochial set of selection criteria, that it punishes idiosyncracy or originality, that it allows people to misuse confidentiality to promote their own views or practices at the expense of healthy intellectual diversity. That academia is too much of a monoculture.

John Bruce’s representations of academic hiring are fairly accurate. Typically a department is granted a “line”. The members of the department craft a description of the ideal candidate: usually this describes a required field of expertise and suggests some desired secondary fields. The college administration often approves the language. The job is advertised. Applications come in. In most cases, an application consists of the candidate’s c.v. and reference letters. Some candidates may also send in a publication and a sample syllabus. Usually a department of more than three people will designate a committee to make a first pass through the applications with the intent of eliminating those that are totally unsuitable and those that are especially interesting or promising.

Some of the applications that are more or less eliminated at this stage, honestly, anybody would eliminate. Really. Academia’s no different from any other employer in that respect. Anybody who has done any kind of job search in any profession knows that you get some applications from people who are totally unsuited to the position by any standard. Kind of like the first round of American Idol. If the committee were all unprofessional and tried to eliminate honstly competitive applications? The norm in most cases is to keep all the files together, even those deemed uncompetitive. People can and do check up on their colleagues to be sure everything is going fairly.

It’s possible to bias the selection process more subtly, and people do. But I don’t know that academia is all that different from any other workplace in that regard. John Bruce thinks industrial workplaces are different because market mechanisms are self-correcting. Maybe in the grand scheme of things, but there’s plenty of capitalist workplaces that look more like “The Office” than an efficient entrepreneurial powerhouse, where cronyism is the rule of the day. (And of course, the same remedy is available with universities that it is with businesses: if they’re dysfunctional enough in your judgement, don’t give them your money. Shop around for quality.)

Still, I’d agree that academic hiring does tend to reinforce some of the worst aspects of scholarly culture: its insularity, its timidity, its drift towards safe mediocrity, its monoculture. Plurality of viewpoints and methodologies, unconventional ideas, and so on, do tend to be punished, often without any obvious over-the-top manipulation or unprofessionalism–more by insinuation, or by the simple fact that group decision processes tend to revert to a mean. The incentive structure of academic life, in hiring and elsewhere, is often completely screwed-up.

That’s the lowest-common-denominator consensus, and John Bruce appears to be drawing on that to forge his own complaint. The problem is that the main thrust of his accusation is the one thing that virtually no one else complains about. Left, right or none of the above, the one thing that almost no one says about academics is that they’re insufficiently erudite or knowledgeable. In fact, I’d say that’s the one thing academic hiring processes tend to be brutally efficient about detecting, for the most part. I was involved in a search some years ago, not in my own department, where one of the candidates turned out in my judgement and the judgement of many others to simply not know some basic factual information, the kind John Bruce is concerned about. That was an instant disqualifier, and I think it would be in many departments. The same goes for other kinds of vetting processes, by and large. Whatever is wrong with academia, I don’t think it’s that most academics don’t know their fields of expertise reasonably well.

The reforms that John Bruce suggests, particularly a national comprehensive multiple choice exam administered to all Ph.D candidates, seem to me to kill the patient outright (or to return to my earlier metaphor, putting a defective brain inside the Frankenstein monster). What is it that parents have a right to expect in return for their money? What do students have a right to expect? What are the outcomes desired, and what skills do professors need to have to deliver those desired outcomes? Bruce’s suggestions would change the incentive structure of graduate education and academic hiring in major ways. The consequence of those changes, in my view, would be to replace what is now understood as scholarship with something that looks more like pedantry. To make professors people with tremendous amounts of rote learning and no ability to think. Or to teach and communicate. If anything, the more common anecdotal complaint heard outside of academia is not that professors don’t know their material, but that they have no ability to teach it (or no interest in doing so).

My father used to tell me about the professors who made a difference to him as a first-generation college student at a Catholic university. The golden thread that connected them, in his view, was not what they knew but how they thought. He didn’t come away from their classes with a sack full of discrete facts–one of the classes that mattered most to him was a course that he literally made no use of later in life in terms of the subject matter. He came away having encountered a person who could think clearly, think critically, think skeptically, and who could show his students how to do the same. My father learned persuasion. He learned communication. He learned what knowledge was, and how to come to know new things when it was necessary or even pleasurable to do so. Of course my father knew also that thinking well involved knowing things, being clear about the facts, and saying no more or no less than what the facts allowed you to say. He learned that also from these few professors he valued.

The ones he didn’t value were the pedants: the people who knew a great deal factually but who had no idea why they ought to know it. Who could say nothing about why their knowledge mattered, and could only demand that their students repeat the same rote processes that the professor himself had undergone to acquire knowledge.

I share my father’s views. You have to know your shit but knowing your shit isn’t the thing that makes you a valuable professor. It’s the easiest part of this career. It isn’t the thing that a well-designed process of hiring and retention needs to be looking for first and foremost, the thing that separates the excellent from the adequate. It isn’t the primary good that higher education ought to aspire to deliver to students. It comes with the territory, but a fetishistic emphasis on factual information to the exclusion of critical thought, persuasive communication, and the ability to explain why knowledge matters, is a surefire way to reduce the value of higher education still further.

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12 Responses to Pedantry and Critical Thought

  1. llhinkle says:

    The idea that discrete knowledge is more important than creativity or critical thinking is clearly seeping up from our public school education debate about standardized testing. Students, too, do not benefit so much from knowing specific noodles of information but knowing how to think and research. I trace all this back to that damnable Cultural Literacy movement of the 80’s.

  2. Ayjay says:

    Well, now that Mr. Bruce has stopped making arguments and resorted to stamping his foot (at tedious length), I don’t really want to defend him. But in the context of English studies specifically, one of his points is not unique to him, but is made fairly often by others: it’s not that English PhD’s are in some general sense “insufficiently erudite or knowledgeable,” but that they are insufficiently knowledgeable about their own field, which is presumably literature. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the complaint, usually from faculty members in their sixties who are participating in a job search, that younger job candidates can quote chapter and verse from Lacan or Zizek but have never read a novel by Dickens and couldn’t even name one by Balzac. (You could fill in any number of other theoretical and literary names.) I think this is a reasonable complaint. There do seem to be a lot of people in English studies who have read a few authors within their period thoroughly and carefully, but who have supplemented that knowledge not with a broader understanding of literary history but rather with a fairly random collection of psychoanalysts or cultural anthropologists or political theorists. The problem with this, it seems to me, is that such scholars end up with little real contextual knowledge of either the literature or the theory. Not only do they fail to understand the literary traditions in which the literary writers worked, and the ones which they formed or altered, but they read hundreds of pages of Lacan without ever bothering to discover the psychoanalytic traditions with which Lacan was engaged and to which he responded. Ditto with literature scholars’ favorite anthropologists, like Clifford Geertz and Mary Douglas. So they end up with a lot of knowledge, but not much that is appropriately called erudition. (This is of course the old problem of true vs. bogus interdisciplinarity which Tim has considered often on this blog.)

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s a good observation, Ayjay, but it’s a more complex problem in its origins and manifestations than a simple lack of knowledge.

    One of the parallel examples that sometimes strikes me is work on “colonial discourse” in the mode established by Said. It’s often quite knowledgeable in the sense that its authors have read certain texts very thoroughly and thought about them ably, often with a remarkably interesting or wide-ranging theoretical perspective or set of touchstones. In one sense, the knowledge base of many scholars in the humanities is far wider and less pedantic than their predecessors.

    But this comes with a cost, sometimes a heavy one. As you say, many humanities scholars have a great deal of knowledge, but it’s a kind of knowledge that often seems to have little to do with the task at hand, or their disciplinary identity. So in the particular example I cite, consequently many works about “colonial discourse” seem to know very little about the details of imperial history, or have very little sense of the other literary and cultural contexts governing the texts being connected as a “colonial discourse”. In a class several years ago, I was working with students on a close reading of Frederick Lugard’s influential Dual Mandate, which was a sort of how-to manual for British colonial policy in Africa. I went looking for good intellectual histories of imperial thought, or histories that might talk about what people like Lugard were reading, what they knew, what was in circulation at the time–basically the specifics of what should be involved in a good, meaty account of “intertextuality”. And I really felt there was very little for me to draw upon, particularly in recent scholarship. Work on “colonial discourse” was much more fitful and ungrounded, making connections between different texts (literary and otherwise) on a much more spontaneous, willful basis, because the scholar wanted to make such connections.

    So I do think the issue is real, in ourselves and our students. We have put perhaps too much emphasis on studying the processes by which knowledge is produced and not enough on producing knowledge ourselves. I wrote a journal article some years ago where I talked about a recently deceased colleague of mine whom I had learned to admire. He was a very dedicated empiricist: his work was very densely factual. I think he had a weakness, in that he couldn’t explain very well why he was dedicated to knowing some things and not others–the best he could do was to say that he wanted to know what he felt we did not yet know. The set of things that falls under that heading is virtually infinite: it’s not a sufficient statement. But the fact is that the kind of work my colleague was doing is essential. In my field, we all rely on his work, we cite it, we read it, we use it. We all depend on him, but no one wants to be him, and no one is really rewarded for being him in careerist terms.

    I think this is a subtle rather than gross problem. It’s a problem of emphasis and focus. Lack of knowledge is not really at the top of my list of things wrong with academia, though it’s a component of some of the issues that worry me more. The intensity of Bruce’s complaint and the destructiveness of his proposed solutions is what I object to, even when the observation, made more modestly, is potentially reasonable. It’s a question of proportionality; he’s complaining about Sean McCann’s work on grounds that seem to me not about depth of knowledge but about a single pedantic point, observed not through reading McCann’s book but by parsing his title. I don’t think you can complain about the empirical weakness of scholarship without calling on scholarly knowledge to do it–otherwise it’s just a kind of schoolboy debate tactic. The most powerful critiques of the weak or scattershot knowledge base of scholarship in the humanities that I’ve read come from deeply knowledgeable readers (scholars or otherwise), and they’re critiques that are made about the whole of something rather than a quick reading of a title or the blurb on the back of a book.

  4. Jonathan says:

    What counts as sufficient erudition? Obviously the job candidate who hasn’t read Dickens is not applying for a job in Victorian novel, and maybe the faculty member in his 60s complaining about the ignorant job candidates has never read 2nd generation New York School poetry, and might not know the dates of the T’ang dynasty. He might be ignorant of the négritude movement, despite his superior command of Dante. Nobody is really erudite enough to be a literature professor. A little humility is in order, given how little any of us know in comparison to how much there is to know. A deep grounding in this field takes a lifetime to acquire. That being said, most English PhDs know their own subdiscipline well at a “factual” level. They may or may not be complete enough intellectuals to actually understand the theory they are applying, but that is another question.

  5. Ayjay says:

    Thanks to Tim and Jonathan for their replies, which help me to clarify my thoughts. Let’s return to my example of the older professor complaining about those new PhDs who have never read Dickens. I see now that we need to consider the ground of that complaint. Is it:

    (a) Every educated person should have read Dickens.

    (b) Dickens is one of those authors that every professor of English should have read — he’s part of the Great Tradition (or some such neo-Arnoldian or Leavisite term) and therefore part of the “cultural literacy” of English departments.

    (c) This candidate is a specialist in postcolonial fiction in English, and how can anyone plausibly claim to understand Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith without knowing one of their most direct progenitors?

    It seems clear to me that the first complaint is the weakest of the three and the last the strongest. Agreed? But if so, how strong is that third complaint? Could one say that, if there’s time for a specialist in postcolonial fiction to read either Dickens or Zizek but not both, the strong presumption should be in favor of Dickens?

    (I suppose it would depend in part on what one’s goal is: to become a strong practitioner of one’s discipline? or to get a job?)

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Very nicely put, Ayjay.

    John Bruce seems to think that by demanding he spell out his vision of what the study of English literature should be, I’m somehow circling the wagons and saying that only scholars can do that labor. Not at all. I’m asking him, really, which of these three complaints is his complaint about Sean McCann or various other targets of his ire.

    If it’s a), that there is a magic list of literature that every educated person should read, and an equal list of literature (or culture) which has nothing to do with education, then I really do think you can’t just assert this as if it’s self-evident. What’s that magic list and what makes it magic? People have done very good, very careful, very knowledgeable work on the way “canons” form, and it’s by no means clear that they have formed around literary work whose high-culture status is somehow natural or axiomatic.

    If it’s b), fine, that is a stronger, easier claim to defend, that doesn’t require nearly so extensive an explanation. It runs into the problem of ossification and rigidity, that the study of English literature is as it was and so shall it ever be, but many exegetical communities form around just such a proposition; arguably all scholarship is formed around the idea that what has already been studied is always a constrictive guide to what shall be studied.

    c) is, I agree, the strongest claim. But it’s also the one that requires coming inside the norms and practices of scholarship most directly, the claim least friendly to a self-proclaimed outsider.

  7. Jonathan says:

    c) is also a highly specific claim, requiring an ad hoc judgment That is, how high does Dickens rank among all the various authors that a postcolonial scholar should know? Rank these authors in order of importance for the scholar of Rushdie: Fanon, Foucault, Said, Césaire, Senghor, Walcott, Faulkner, Chaucer, Rilke, Li Po, Dickens, Whitman, Basho, Heidegger, Zizek, Mailer, Rumi… Sure, some seem more directly relevant than others, but overall it’s not that easy and “reasonable people might disagree” about the order of relevance. Even if we put primary texts ahead of secondary texts or theorists there is still ample room for debate. The problem with the anecdotal evidence of “the job candidate who never read ____” is that it collapses a complex problem into a rather facile judgment.

  8. Ayjay says:

    Jonathan, the example I give in statement C is (I think) not necessarily facile or ad hoc — but neither can it be self-evident. It’s the sort of thing that (indeed) reasonable people can disagree about — but as Tim says, those reasonable people probably need to be within the practice of a certain academic discipline in order to debate the matter fruitfully. The point I want to make is that debates about the factual knowledge that a good practitioner should have will always be part of the life of a discipline, and should be. So if John Bruce is willing to say that a scholar in Subfield A doesn’t have enough knowledge of some specific content field (call it X) in order to be a good practitioner within that subfield, then that’s a point worth listening to and responding to. But a vague complaint about general ignorance among an undefined population of scholars is not something worthy of anyone’s attention.

    (P.S.: Tim, if you can ever make it possible to preview comments, that would be nice. You never know in advance how blog sites are going to translate HTML tags.)

  9. I think that it’s abundantly clear that John Bruce is an attention-seeking crank. I personally get a great deal of enjoyment out of reading his posts, but you can’t expect an argument in any meaningful sense.

    I would also suggest that anyone who would unironically use “to fisk” would automatically fall into this category as well, though this might be something that serious people could disagree about.

  10. A. Cephalous says:


    That someone other than Norman Mailer would employ the participial adjective form of “to fisk” as an insult is almost as unimaginable as someone thinking such employment clever. What amuses me are his populist delusions that he’s an effective advocate for his positions. “Every hit repersents a vote for the John Bruce plan to resolve the problems John Bruce has with academia!” One of these days the tenor of his rants will achieve its tonal apotheosis and conclude “OR YOUR MATTRESS IS FREE!”

    As for the books every academic should’ve read, I think it’s based on the faulty assumption that if an academic has read a book, he or she has something interesting to say to other academics who study it…or that he or she can even remember it. Whenever I feel especially chipper about how smart I’ve become since entering grad. school, I walk to my bookshelf and start scanning books I read five or six years ago. I look at the marginalia, recognize the handwriting as my own, and try to tease whatever it was that interested me from cryptic shorthand annotations like “ms. dpo = ltn!” Then it dawns on me that not only can I barely remember whatever it was that interested me about this particular book, I can’t remember a damn thing about it: characters, gone; plot, gone; themes, gone. Oftentimes the only thing I can remember about it is the experience of reading it: when, where, and why I read it remain crystalline in my memory, but everything useful about the book has vanished. So I’m not sure that general questions about Dickens novels (at least the ones not featuring a fisking Quilp) would have any positive effect on the quality of the candidate hired. Fifty years hence departments would be stacked with mnemonists instead of scholars, and produce mnemonists instead of people.

    (I have an amusingly humilating story about blanking on a question about Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood during my qualifying exams, even though I was essentially being asked to recapitulate the thesis of the 35-page essay I had written for the prof. asking me the question, but since it seems I’ve already told it, I believe I’ll keep it to myself.)

  11. Sean McCann says:

    Holy Meroly! I had no idea that John Bruce was raving about me at his sight until I read this post. That was a shock. So was the discovery that what he says about me (including some just invented facts) and my book has scarcely any contact with reality. I guess prominent people have this sort of thing happen to them all the time, but it does feel weird–especially because about a lot of things I’m not wholly unsympathetic to his complaints. You describe the closed shop more clearly than I can, Timothy, but I agree with the diagnosis entirely.

    I also share Bruce’s affection for the blogosphere and the belief that it’s an important corrective to the problems of academia–which is why it was so gratifying to see him get taken to task in his comments. (I do appreciate that he allows them. If you’re gonna be dragging people’s names through the mud, it really is quite decent to allow people to call you on it.) I’m enormously grateful that there are readers who, apparently for no other reason than a dislike of bullshit are willing to point out Bruce’s carelessness to him.

  12. joeo says:

    >It comes with the territory, but a fetishistic emphasis on factual information to the exclusion of critical thought, persuasive communication, and the ability to explain why knowledge matters, is a surefire way to reduce the value of higher education still further.

    An emphasis on factual information can have a democratizing effect at the undergraduate level. Even if your college sucks or you have little preparation for college, you can still compete with everybody else in learning facts; you just have to work harder. If you don’t have the ability for critical thought, persuasive communication, and the ability to explain why knowledge matters before you take a class, and those are the things that are graded for, you are pretty much SOL. At best, those things are difficult to learn and, at worst, those things are just signs of inate verbal intelligence.

    The deemphasis of factual information is linked to professionalism. It is why someone who knows alot about world war II isn’t a historian. Graduate school is about the reproduction of professional values and methodologies, so there really is little cause to to complain about the deemphasis of factual information at that level.

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