Angry at Academe

I’m up for promotion here this year. It’s not as fraught or difficult a moment at Swarthmore as it is at many R-1 universities, as we don’t receive a pay raise or really any specific reward at all save the title of full professor. Still, it’s an occasion for reflection. I’m not happy about some aspects of my career to date. I think I could have been more aggressive about pushing some of my published writing out the door in the last five years. After 2001, fatherhood and the death of my own father kind of snuck up on me psychologically, I think. I’ve not always been good about getting people things when they need them: I am genuinely easily distracted. But I’ve also done a lot of things that make me happy, in a lot of different areas.

I’ve been thinking especially about my blog writing, which I’ve decided to describe to my colleagues under the heading of “service”, for the most part. Which begs the question, why have I been doing this for five years? (My first entry at the old version of my blog was November 25, 2002.)

Maybe the most important part of what I’m doing is trying to understand how American (and global) society relate to institutions of higher education, and to carry on two parallel conversations about those perspectives. One with other academics, and one, however indirectly, with wider publics beyond the academy.

I remember reading a statement by the journalist Ray Suarez about the culture wars of the 1980s. Paraphrasing, what Suarez said was that he remembered watching academics get repeatedly attacked in those debates and either maintaining a dangerously Olympian distance from the public fray or getting their asses kicked because of rhetorical and political ineptitude when they did try to engage their critics. Suarez argued that the next time he’d advise academics to get involved early and to be smarter about their involvement.

I think Suarez is right. I think all that is valuable and productive about higher education (perhaps education in general) is now very much at stake politically in a way that it has not been in Western society since the mid-19th Century. That concerns me in terms of narrow self-interest but also because I really do believe in both the down-to-earth and abstract value of higher education. I blog because I want to understand how we’re seen, to hone my own ability to enter a wider public conversation, and to think about what it is that scholars and educators need to do to reform their own practices. I want to understand where we are at fault, where public critics of academia may be mistaken or malicious in their views, and where we’re entangled in some much more complex social matrix that isn’t easily encompassed by debates within the public sphere.


So when and where there is public anger in the United States at academia, where is it coming from? It’s important to note at the start that a lot of people aren’t angry at higher education. By some measures, higher education in the United States is more successful, more productive, and more valued than ever before. To some extent, the rhetoric of “crisis” is fundamentally misplaced. American higher education is the envy of the world, and not merely because of the resources we lavish upon it. It is also organized in a way that many admire, but that many more centralized national administrations hesitate to imitate for ideological reasons. I often have a hard time getting past the strange irony of seemingly “conservative” critics in the United States demanding a far more extensive role for centralized governmental administration and control over universities. You only have to look across the Atlantic to see the negative consequences of strong centralization in higher education.

That said, a lot of Americans really are angry or dismissive towards academic institutions and towards academic professionals. Some are that way all the time, some are only that way in response to particular incidents. Some are passionately angry, others are ironically bemused by what they see in academia. I take these feelings and arguments very seriously. Despite Suarez’ advice, I don’t think a lot of my peers do.

So why is there this structure of feeling in early 21st Century America?

Personal experiences

1) Episodic reactions to specific public controversies involving academia. One reason I’m thinking about this whole topic this week is a discussion of K.C. Johnson’s long-running criticism of Duke University, specifically the “Group of 88” who signed a letter that presumed the criminal guilt of the accused lacrosse players. I have a lot of criticisms of what Johnson’s been writing and what some of his commentators have been saying in response, but at least some of the anger that both Johnson and his commentators show is a legitimately righteous response to a serious procedural and ethical mistake on the part of the faculty signatories, including to their collective unwillingness to simply say, “Sorry, we made a mistake”. The players, their families, their friends, their supporters in the community and anyone who cares about fairness and due process all have reason to be angry. Nor is Johnson wrong when he suggests that there are some deeper currents at stake here, such as the institutional vogue for dubious instruments like speech codes that swept through many universities and colleges in the 1980s and 1990s.

The key point here is that there are pockets of anger at higher education that are a direct response to consequential errors of judgement by academics in which those academics seem to have violated some important principle embedded in their own profession. If a faculty member embezzles, well, that happens in a lot of social and economic institutions in America. It’s bad, but it’s fairly isolated to the individual. If faculty violate a responsibility towards their students or some important trust that’s distinctive to education, that reverberates beyond the act itself.

2) Specific negative personal experiences with higher education (where the university or faculty are at fault). If you’re around higher education enough, you’re going to see an individual faculty member commit some kind of fairly serious malpractice towards an individual student. Not just the obvious like rape or harassment, but also just intellectual and interpersonal abuse. Using students as a pool of cheap labor, bullying a student into reproducing an academic’s own ideas, manipulating students into buttressing the fragile ego of a professor. Entire departments can commit other forms of malpractice that are similar. Entire institutions sometimes exploit their students: they bait-and-switch them, they construct curricular requirements and then throttle the supply of courses so that students have to take ten years to graduate, they promise and do not deliver.

A lot of students graduate with specific, legitimate reasons to feel bitter about their experience. Some public anger at the academy isn’t much different from an X-Box owner who has had the device fail on them for the fourth time. Some of this personal disappointment is more abstract: students who had one image of higher education only to find the reality something different. The responsibility for that is a bit more complicated, but we should bear some of it. My father wasn’t bitter about his experiences as an undergraduate and a law student, but he was pervasively skeptical about a lot of the teaching he saw. He used to tell stories that have had a lot of influence on me as a professional, about the difference between the few great teachers he had and the bulk of narrow-minded, orthodoxy-demanding teachers he endured. I don’t think that problem is a product of recent political or disciplinary shifts in academic life: it is a long-term struggle in our profession.

3) A general personal belief system opposed to academia. There are people with perfectly valid (for them, at least) personal philosophical views about pedagogy, knowledge and so on that are incompatible with the way that universities are organized. This runs the gamut from countercultural neo-hippies to the attitudinal descendents of Henry Ford. Spiritual questers, hard-nosed believers in the value of real-world experience, Animal House-style hedonist-skeptics, autodidacts, aren’t going to find much in most universities that’s satisfying, except maybe the company of other young people. In the 1920s or even the 1960s, no big deal. But today, with the university standing like a colossus atop almost all forms of social aspiration, a lot of people who might be better off chasing their own muse get corralled inside higher education. I don’t know that this is our fault, exactly, and I’m not sure that we could or should want to widen the tent to bring all those styles of learning and knowing inside. But I readily understand the resentment of someone who wants to be valued for what they’ve done and what they think, or for their raw potential, but finds that most institutions just want to know whether they have a B.A. or not.

Social antagonisms

4) Specific social antagonism #1 (academia in specific). It’s not exactly news that intellectuals who want to talk about class or social categories in general have a hard time applying that framework to their own lives. If they do, it often devolves into a particularly annoying contradiction that Bruce Robbins laid out very well in his book Secular Vocations. The academic intellectual who tries to address his own class or social position either ends up complimenting himself with a kind of backhanded Gramscianism, “Oh, we’re really minor players in existing class tensions and besides we’re helping a teeny-tiny bit to build counter-hegemony”) or by saying “Oh woe is me, we are still part of the ruling class, and must self-flagellate more aggressively until we commit a kind of class suicide and vanish into the laboring classes”). Less ideologically, you may get something a bit like the fiction of David Lodge or Jane Smiley, a rueful awareness of the cultural gap between life among the academics and life elsewhere.

But there are some real social issues to consider, especially in smaller communities where a college or university is a major employer. Academics aren’t a social class unto themselves, but within the broader professional class of American society, they have some pretty distinctive cultural and social markers. (When you’re going to a large academic conference and you get off a plane, can you spot all the professors and grad students on the hotel shuttle? I sure can.) There’s a political economy which I do not think should lead us to self-flagellate or apologize, but it’s real. We’re not nearly as well-paid as most other professionals, but tenure-track faculty have embedded compensations which almost no one, professional or otherwise, has in this economy. Job security is almost the least of it: the ability to work without direct supervision from a boss might be even more valuable. And faculty within their institutions are accustomed to at least think they are in control of the institution, and perhaps they should be. It’s not wrong for faculty to think that their work is at the center of higher education, that without them, the whole thing would be pointless. But these basic structural facts alone also tend to isolate academics even from other workers in their own institutions, and have a spill-over into the wider communities that they live within. Add to that some of the peculiar flourishes of scholarly and intellectual cultural life, and you have a reason for a structural antagonism between academic professionals and the wider society. I don’t think there’s much to be done about it except to know it is there, to soften its edges, and to be humble about its manifestations.

5) Specific social antagonism #2 (political economy of professionals). Academics are part of a larger professional class in American life, and some of the antagonism we see comes from that larger context. In some conversations and conflicts, academics may simply be the random target of popular anger that could just as easily settle on doctors, lawyers, psychologists, bureaucrats or other professionals. The professional elite sometimes angers people who’ve made their money through business, the “hard way”, both because other elites are dependent upon professionals for their services and because professionals are seen as cultural brokers who define the nature of success in American life. For lower middle-class and working-class Americans, professionals are sometimes targets almost for the same reasons: they don’t seem to have made their money “honestly”, and yet, are often seen as more directly taking money from people less privileged because they need professional services. Academics may be the “softest” target among all professionals because their services are less obviously necessary than medicine or law. On the other hand, because our services are tied to aspiration and to positively-felt cultural values, we may also be better regarded than lawyers or other “negative” professionals.

6) Specific social antagonism #3 (political economy of expertise/technocracy). This is closely tied to the social status of professionals, but it’s a bit wider. So many of our civic, political and cultural institutions are now dependent in complex ways upon the authority of expertise, often in ways that don’t seem particularly beneficial, and this is a pervasive reason for popular antagonism to expertise as a whole. I think this crops up in phenomena as widely dispersed as creationism, dietary choices, Wikipedia, and so on. There is a generalized tendency to regard expertise as a dubious value and to see experts as snake-oil salesmen, often with good reason. People who sell expertise and set up roadblocks requiring experts are expansively distributed through the political economy, and most of them aren’t academics. But academics are a lightning rod for popular frustration with expertise: we’re the most concentrated and visible institution dedicated to the production and circulation of expertise even when our institutions may actually be antagonistic to the more snake-oil kinds of expertise in the wider society (policy wonkery, pseudo-science, consultancies, and so on).

7) General social antagonism (blue state/red state, winner/loser). Academics are a soft target in the context of pervasive, unspecific kinds of cultural discourse about blue state/red state divisions in contemporary American life. And in an economy where the middle-class as a whole is losing ground, academics sometimes appear to resemble the professionals and business elite as a group that is at least holding their position. If you look at academia as a whole, rather than a handful of elite institutions, I don’t think that’s really true–the adjunctification of academic life is an indication that the slow erosion of middle-class position as a whole is affecting many academics as well. But when these very general discourses about social and cultural division are in play in our national life, academics are generally going to be visible targets on one side of the divide.

Philosophical and cultural views

8). The devaluation of higher education. This is so hard to summarize. It’s probably what I blog about most often at Easily Distracted, in various ways. I think that compared to the period between about 1920 and 1980, American society is simply less inclined to see scholarly and academic institutions as a source of precious or ineffable value, as a defining source of national and public virtue. Some of that slippage in value is our fault. I’ve said before that I think many faculty in the humanities are now like priests who’ve lost their faith. We say certain things about the value of culture or philosophy or the liberal arts, but many of the practicing academics who say those things don’t believe those statements in any deep way. Those are sentiments for the admissions catalog. There are specific intellectual reasons for that: both Western Marxism and poststructural views of knowledge have played a role.

But there’s an anomie that’s harder to pin down and not a specific result of those philosophical views. Careerism and departmentalization, a consequence of the expansion of higher education’s role after the GI Bill, has played a role in driving us to more and more specialized and narrow kinds of practice, away from public life. That hasn’t helped, particularly in the humanities. I think American society respects highly specialized scientific research, for good reason. I don’t think it respects the products of specialization in the humanities (also with good reason). It really isn’t what the mission of the humanities ought to be.

There’s other issues. A bit of it seems to me to resemble what the art critic Robert Hughes has said about 20th Century artists, that they were on a quest to create an art that the art-buying bourgeoisie would finally be so shocked and offended by that they would stop buying art, and thus extract the artists from a kind of dependence that they felt morally compromised by. Some academics maybe have been looking for the same thing.

Some of this isn’t our fault. There are a lot of forces in American life since 1950 that have pushed our culture away from valuing knowledge that is impractical or has no immediate application. Universities have colluded in defining the value of what they do in terms of careers and economic rewards, but that’s also been done to them by the relentless careerism of students and their parents. The ghastly cynicism of big-time college athletics has had a generally corrosive effect, often feeding a belief that college is primarily for parties, getting laid, and social networking.

The net effect, though, is that we claim to occupy a higher ground that has been dangerously hollowed out. At least some of what we have to do as academics is renew our faith in our own mission and thus renew the faith of others.

9) Deep tropes of anti-intellectualism. I put this way down the list not because it isn’t a powerful part of the reason why a lot of Americans are at least sporadically dismissive of academia, but because it’s often the first thing that academics will say about why people hate or mock them. It’s absolutely true that there is a very distinctive kind of anti-intellectual sentiment in American national culture that has exceptionally deep and complex roots, arguably all the way back to the founding of the country, and that this sentiment is frequently unfair, cruel, and destructive. I’m not sure what you do about a tendency that’s deep in the national character except to know about it, understand it, and try to figure out how to defang or defuse it when it rears up. One of the ways you defang it, I think, is by not using it as an all-purpose reason to avoid introspection, or as a cloak against legitimate criticism.

10) Specific ideological use of professoriate as “soft target” & distraction. No question about it: there is a network (if you’ll excuse the word) of activists, politicians and intellectuals who use the professoriate as an all-purpose whipping boy and scapegoatprecisely because they know about reasons 1-9 described above. All of that leaves academia highly exposed to instrumental, calculated demagoguery. The question of how to reply to this kind of attack is a difficult one. My general view is that I’d rather address the genuine problems and issues in the relationship between academia and American society and so take away some of the energy feeding the more malicious or opportunistic critics. Yes, that means conceding the partial truth of some of the kinds of criticisms they peddle, which in turn opens a window of vulnerability. But stonewalling is never a good idea. Reform always involves vulnerability, but failing to reform is far worse in the long run.

11) Specific personal experience where the student or former student was in the wrong. Students can commit malpractice as well, in a fashion, and it’s important not to believe that every individual who is bitter at professors or universities has a valid point. At least a few of the most bitter people I’ve run into, online and offline, strike me as operating with a supervillain-theory of justice. Having scarred themselves through their own mistakes, they’re now out for revenge against an uncaring world, to tear the whole thing down. At the most extreme, this kind of thinking leads to aberrant violence like the Virginia Tech shootings, but there’s plenty of angry people out there on the Internet who are almost the verbal equivalent in the way they attack universities, professors, other students and even the concept of education as a whole.

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70 Responses to Angry at Academe

  1. k8 says:

    I want to come back later after I’ve digested your larger points, but I wondered if you had seen the latest issue of Kairos at

    Steven Krause has an article called “Where do I list this on my cv?” about self-published websites, blog writing, etc., revisiting his 2002 article of the same title.

  2. JasonII says:

    Nice piece. Where would a generalized dislike of teachers come into play? Maybe 2b? I see this in a lot of the net dialogue about education, and i think some of it comes from anger that starts in K-12. A person has a bad teacher or the person is a case of number 11–probably some combination of the two–and hates anything to do with school. But I suppose bringing K-12 education into the mix would require a separate list. Where would you place jealousy of perceived workload?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s a great addition to the list, Jason: hostility towards higher education that is a consequence of bad treatment or rejection of K-12 experiences.

    Say more about jealousy of perceived workload. You mean the perception that academics don’t have to work very hard?

  4. prof.e says:

    This is a terrific catalog of forces at work, but I am surprised that you did not mention at all the rising (and rising and rising) financial cost of higher education. The high cost of tuition has played a role in the commodification of college education (students think of it as a product because they pay so much for us) and made higher education vulnerable to all of the types of criticism you are describing. I think the expense (and the perceived expense) of higher education is a major source of the fuel to the fires of hostility.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, yes, definitely that’s a good point. Though I think the cost wouldn’t matter as much if we were well covered in some of these other respects–there would be more of a sense that whatever we charge, it’s worth it.

  6. prof.e says:

    It’s interesting that you put it that way. My thinking of late has been the opposite: That if the cost were so negligible there would be less anger about these other matters. (People get most upset about the corporate profits of Exxon/Mobil when gasoline is over $3 a gallon.) Of course, I wouldn’t disagree with you that if these other matters were different, then the cost would become less of a concern.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, think of the cost of medicine. It’s very high, people often get hit hard by it, but doctors themselves oddly often are spared the anger that cost provokes unless they’re seen to have individually provided services of very low value or otherwise to have exploited patients.

    Doctors get much more personally targeted in other ways–for their lack of a human touch in delivering treatment, for the overweening moral authority they’re sometimes perceived to exert over patients, and so on–but they don’t get the kind of fury that sometimes comes up in public fora about the uselessness of academics. So I think anger over medical costs is vented towards much more abstract institutional forces and actors than towards the individual professionals who are the main point of human contact with the medical system.

  8. indiefaith says:

    Put me down for a #4. My experience with academia (certainly not to the exclusion of many other professions) is that it tends to promote a culture of exclusion (linguistic, economic, social, etc). Perhaps this is a larger issue of “maturity” in how we tend towards a desire for increased security which means weeding out the unstable “riff-raff” of the urban moving us to the apparent safety of the suburbs (and other similar analogous situations) and establishing our value through an ascent of the intellectual ladder (with a need for the many to stay somewhere ‘below’ to maintain our currency).
    I say with this with the sting that my academic career was cut short for economic reasons. Even though now I am in position to read much more broad (and interesting) texts I still feel like I want to get back “in”.

  9. k8 says:

    About #1 – I get some of their complaints, but having looked at that site, and seeing the work of someone from my field (composition & rhetoric) misrepresented and slammed because it is about teaching writing, I get angry right back at them. Funny, though, that they complain about people not teaching and then criticize the work of someone who tries to help people teach better as being an insignificant research interest.

    #2 – I generally had good experiences. But, I attended a very small LAC. I can see how these types of problems could be exacerbated on a large campus, where there isn’t as much one-on-one contact with professors. A student might have a bad experience with one of the loons that invade all sectors of humanity, and not have close experience with the non-loons.

    #3 and some of #9 – Makes me think of home. It isn’t that I was surrounded by anti-intellectualism, but it is (or was) common for older farmers in my region of Indiana to make jokes about or complain about the “new Extension agent from Purdue” for thinking that s/he knew more about farming than they did. I think we have a weird dynamic in this country, where these anti-intellectual threads are woven through our culture, yet we value credentialing via academic degrees as a way of indicating expertise. I have no doubts that some of those farmers knew a whole lot more about farming than the newly graduate extension agent. Sometimes, it is the antagonism and the lack of recognition between the credentialed and non-credentialed that hurts us most. I suppose that tied in to #6, too.

    #8 – The careerism seems to be something we talk about around the English department a lot – particularly in relation to those students in some of our gen. ed. courses. Again, attending a slac, I never questioned my gen ed requirements – I just assumed that was part of being educated. At the big R-1, though, I see a lot of resistance in my introductory and intermediate composition courses (because, really, why would anyone need to know anything about writing in their future careers). It makes it harder on everyone when we encounter resistance from day 1.

    As for the k-12 thing, I’ve heard a lot of people complain that k-12 teachers don’t do much work. The general argument is that they only work 9 months a year and they only work from 8-3. Personally, I can’t even imagine being a high school English teacher with papers from 150+ students. Again, as with professors, people sometimes don’t count/know about the work they can’t see. Very frustrating. I still have trouble convincing some family members that when I am reading I am working.

  10. k8 says:

    Oh, goodness, sorry that was so long! Really sorry!!

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I have no complaint against really long, believe me. Thanks.

  12. withywindle says:

    A good post. I think you do underplay the hostility aroused by the political views and advocacy of academics. The various surveys you believe do confirm a remarkable shift to the left in academia even since 1980; it is not imagination to perceive this, and to be hostile to the profession in consequence. Also, you underplay the power of academia. Let us leave aside the effects of political bias in pedagogy–note the scale of financial donations by university employees to Democrats in recent years. Academics may not be well-paid by comparison to other professional, but they have a substantial wealth in toto, and a willingness to put their money as well as their words behind their beliefs. They are a very powerful, politically committed interest group, and therefore must expect to arouse hostility.

  13. tony grafton says:

    Both the post and the ensuing discussion are thoughtful and fascinating, thanks so much to Tim and to all. One more question: how far is this situation distinctively American? I’ve lived for fairly long periods in Germany, Britain and Italy in recent years, and at least in Germany and Britain the universities have also fallen drastically in public esteem. There too universities–and humanities more particularly–afford an easy target to recognizable groups of politicians and journalists, and to some academics who identify themselves with this opposition. There too, as here, certain features of the academy–like the PC, jargon-ridden nature of humanities research–are assumed, rather than demonstrated, by many of the critics. Yet these societies are quite different from one another, and–especially Germany–from the States. Certainly neither of them shares our precise anti-intellectual tradition, though both have their own. The few other systems I know at all–e.g. the Israeli, where I have spent a little time in the past–also reflect a number of these developments. So: do we confront a primarily American or a Western problem, or something still larger (ignorance prevents me from commenting on universities in non-western countries)?

    Thanks again!

  14. Doug says:

    Hmm … Germany. Been here nearly 10 years now, was an exchange student before the Wall fell, and the discussion of university reform that was going strong back then is still going today. People who are inclined to criticize the system would add “without visible results” at the end of the previous sentence, though that’s not really true.

    One omnipresent element of the German discussion is how the German system can be made more like the American one. Which is interesting in a historical sense because the US system of graduate education was essentially taken whole-cloth from Germany with the establishment of the Johns Hopkins University and the adapted to the scale of America. And of course American academia (especially at its highest levels) was immensely enriched by the German diaspora of the 1930s. But you get used to seeing those kinds of historic ironies when you work with Germany.

    Anyway, over the last decade, parts of German academia really are moving towards what is perceived as the advantages of the American approach: greater flexibility (the national government has turned over almost all regulation of universities to the states), more personal touch (various experiments with recreating the campus experience), better quality control (evaluation in many different forms), alumni support (though this has a long, long way to go), local responsibility (this week, the Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder had its charter re-worked so that it could have an endownment, one of the first; no really, this is how far German institutions are from US practice), mix of public and private institutions (though the private part is still very small), and so on and so on. Whatever its shortcomings, the American system is the benchmark for the world.

    As for criticism within Germany, there are a number of reasons for the fall in public esteem over a long-ish (that’s long-ish for a semi political scientist, maybe medium-ish for a historian and a blink of an eye for the geologists here) period of time. First, the distance to all of Germany’s institutions has fallen dramatically when compared with, say, the beginning of the 20th century, or even the immediate postwar era. Doctors, political leaders, captains of industry all retain their prestige, but it’s nowhere near the demi-god status that they enjoyed 50 or 100 years ago. Second, a much larger share of the German population now has post-secondary education than was the case 50 years ago. With that explosion of students, professors and universities, there’s naturally been some leveling involved. Third, I’d be hard-pressed to quantify, but my sense is that German academic writing privileges obscurity even more than English-language academic writing. There are structural and historical reasons, but just think about philosophers for examples. Obscurity makes for easier targets. Fourth, German universities are often not as good as American ones at delivering what they promise. This brings in many of the points that Tim makes. It’s not unusual for a degree to take a year or two longer to complete because professors decline to teach relevant courses, or not enough sections are offered. That pisses off people within the system, and makes outsiders go wtf.

    Those are several specifically German reasons for discontent with their system, but the larger point remains that what they are aiming for is an idealized version of what they perceive the American system to be like.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the political bias issue is a valid one to raise here, much as I tend to push back on that argument in other contexts. What I think it does in this case is exaggerate the social antagonism issues, particularly the highly specific academics v. non-academics antagonism. The more that your average academic’s social and political convictions are dramatically unlike the people in his/her own community, the more exaggerated the sense of a social cleavage, especially when that academic seems fairly clueless or dismissive about that gap. This isn’t nearly as big a deal when the university or college in question is set in a community that closely matches the sociological and political character of academia, and it’s a much bigger deal when the university or college is in a community that is very, very different in its social makeup.

    Academics are still important social actors, definitely, and not just because of their political donations or what have you. If nothing else, they still have a very established role in the public imagination: the professor is as stock a character as the doctor, the lawyer, the psychologist.

    The question of European academia is a really interesting one. I’m hoping for more comments on that from people. One thing that I think is different is described somewhat by Doug: these institutions are more closely tied to the state and also, at least in France, to a much more controlled system for placing graduates into highly specific social hierarchies.

  16. Kieran says:

    I’m sympathetic with much here, though before reaching for the theme of “anti-intellectualism” its worth reflecting on the way that the position of the university as an institution has been completely transformed over the past hundred years — and (despite much complaining from faculty over the period) almost without exception in ways that have consolidated and expanded its power. Universities have been fantastically successful at legitimating themselves over the course of the 20th century. No other medieval institution has done remotely as well. As mentioned above, universities now sit “like a colossus atop almost all forms of social aspiration,” and credentials are required for huge swathes of jobs which, in terms of the technical knowledge required for their execution, at most some technical or vocational training might be needed.

    This isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon (and this might speak to Tony Grafton’s comment above). As documented by sociologists like John Meyer, David Frank and Evan Schofer, the expansion of universities since 1900 has been astonishing and more or less simultaneous globally. There are more college students today in Kazakhstan than there were in the world at the end of the nineteenth century. About a fifth of the world’s college-age people are now actually in college, up from less than one percent in 1900. Moreover, in their internal structure and everyday functioning universities around the world are far more similar to one another than they are different. Sure, up close French universities look different from Japanese or American ones, etc, and for many questions these differences matter. But with just a slightly wider historical lens the organizational model is everywhere basically the same.

    So I think it’s no surprise that the sudden and remarkable rise, diffusion and consolidation of a particular model of official knowledge and credentialed expertise should provoke a backlash in society at large, and that this backlash is similar in Germany, Israel and the U.S. is more a reflection of the similar position that Universities relatively find themselves in everywhere these days. Those skeptical Indiana farmers k8 mentioned knew whereof they spoke.

  17. Gavin Weaire says:

    IMO, there’s the following. (It’s present in what you say, but I’d like to draw it out and flag it more clearly.) There’s a fundamental mismatch between what members of the general US public (not all non-academics, but people outside academia and similar professions that tend to socialize with academics) think academics do/are for and what academics themselves think.

    It’s taken for granted by most Americans I talk to that a college professor is basically a teacher, like a high school teacher but more prestigious. Many are genuinely surprised to hear that faculty are expected to publish.

    Academics, by necessity, become very good at justifying their professional activity within the terms of the subculture, and very bad at talking outside those terms.

  18. Ralph says:

    It seems to me that KC Johnson has tapped into a perception of American academics that we are arrogant, smug, and well out of touch with reality. That perception is only re-enforced when a group of prominent faculty members publishes a “rush-to-judgment”, re-affirms it in the face of legal findings to the contrary, and, with its wealth, the University’s lawyers negotiates a settlement that buys those faculty members immunity from civil proceedings.

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    Gavin’s point is important enough that I’d add it to an updated list: the internal workings of academia are very non-transparent. I’ll give a simple example that I think is a common experience of a lot of academics. Almost all of my relatives did not understand that my doctoral training was subsidized by my institution, that my tuition was waived and that I received a stipend. So becoming an academic, in that sense, looked to them like unbelievable financial folly, that I was paying massive tuition for what was likely to be a poor payoff. On the other hand, when a few of them came to understand this, they thought it was a sign of unfair privilege to academics–e.g., they didn’t see that universities commonly do this for their own economic self-interest, to buy some cheap teaching labor.

    There’s almost no one out there explaining to the wider public what the work process of academics actually is. Many people think that we know everything we teach without any preparation, so our only work is walking into the classroom and speaking off the top of our heads, with the rest of our time being leisure time. Because no one is out there offering a specific counter-narrative that lays out the kind and type of work that we do, and also because some of the most elite professoriate at R1 universities really do have very small teaching and service loads and so don’t particularly *want* to lay out that narrative, the public imagination is “up for grabs”.

  20. JonathanGray says:

    First: many kudos, Tim. I spent much of yesterday evening reading some of your posts, and plan to be a repeat visitor henceforth. Cracking stuff.

    Second, a great list. I find myself siding with prof.e somewhat in thinking that the price of tuition is a huge factor. I’ve also lived in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Canada, and the UK, and while academics are seen as odd sorts removed from reality everywhere, I’ve yet to see the depth of hostility as in the States. Take the parents who call in to complain about profs not writing rec letters for their kids, or complaining about grades, or simply micro-managing their kids’ academic lives, for instance (quite common these days) — this shows how much they expect and how much they think they’re paying for. And heck, they are paying huge sums. The day I realized that if I stay in the US and have kids, I’m going to need to do some major saving, was a bad bad day. Certainly, many parents save a lifetime so that their kids can go to school, or they live with the psychological trauma that they and/or their kids have a good 20 years of debt as a result. This creates huge expectations, which very few unis can live up to, even if the professoriate wasn’t as messed up as it is. In Canada, I paid CDN$1500/yr at one of the country’s top 5 universities, and my parents knew it would be so, so a bad prof here or there wasn’t a big deal, not could uni become a symbol of my and my parent’s various sacrifices, as unis seem to be here. (Sure, taxes kicked in a lot of the rest, but taxes are so amorphous that one can’t blame profs for taxes).

    Continuing with the comparison to other countries, I’m interested in how academics (across the political spectrum) in other countries often have a closer connection to policy. Angela McRobbie used to get flown to Germany for talks with Culture ministers, Tony Giddens was behind Tony Blair’s “Third Way,” Nordic academics actually consult with the govt., etc. How come? What’s being done differently?

  21. For once, I kind of agree with withywindle. Set aside questions of “bias,” and whether the academy has really moved leftward. The mere fact that some professors hold and advocate views that many people violently disagree with, and may even regard as outside the pale of legitimate discourse (I’m thinking of the Middle East in particular), would be enough to anger people. And since the more radical academics tend to stand out more and get more publicity (often fanned by the network you refer to in #10), it’s easy for non-academics to assume they’re typical of the whole professariat. And there’s also the idea that such professors have a free hand to indoctrinate their students, which is seemingly proven by the fact that students frequently do leave college more liberal, and sometimes radical, than they entered it.

    Do colleges which espouse conservative viewpoints (e.g. Wheaton, Bob Jones University) encounter the types of hostility from conservative non-academics — either within their communities or in general — that you describe? This would be interesting to look at.

  22. withywindle says:

    To Jonathan Gray: Postwar America saw excellent science and engineering research cooperation between the iron triangle of government, business, and academia. My sense is that this cooperation has diminished somewhat in recent decades, but is still very largely in place. I also have a sense that the Wisconsin model–social science at the service of government–had a fair prevalence in the early post-war decades, but that this has diminished more sharply. (I speak here with less knowledge.)

    Speculation: has government become so complex that even most specialized academics are relatively uninformed about it? I can see Joe Bureaucrat thinking that an academic had more informed comment to offer in 1950 than in 2000, when any relevant advice requires so much knowledge of the bureaucratic details that only another bureaucrat, or specialized policy wonk, could possibly master it all–a professor, after all, distracted by such things as teaching and professional service.

  23. JasonII says:

    tim: what i meant by perceived workload is the nature of academic years, and the times during which there aren’t classes. also, the nature of our teaching (which may not be courses every day). i think some of that drives people to dislike teachers–the whole “summers off” jealousy. many don’t understand that during semesters we take our work with us day, night, and weekend. they don’t understand or don’t consider research or creative work that academics perform outside of the classroom.

  24. JonathanGray says:

    Withywindle, I don’t think it’s just about profs not trying (though that’s a big part of it, for sure) — it’s often about them simply not being wanted. I think here of my own field, media and cultural studies, in which it’s relatively common to see dialogue between govt and academia in Europe, but nothing close to that in the US. So discussions on videogame violence lead to a rare act of Congress giving Henry Jenkins a minute to talk (to deaf ears) about why videogames aren’t simply Portable Damnation, but much media policy is not just indifferent to academic involvement but actively hostile. It could be easy to see this as motivated by a perceived left-right split betw the academy and the govt, but as Prometheus vs. FCC’s media ownership battle recently showed, many right-wingers are also being ignored, since often the only true “experts” in the FCC’s eyes are media owners.

    Maybe then this all links back to Tim’s recent point about academia needing to be clear about what it is that we do. As he says, many do think that we just have opinions, not substance on which to base those opinions, and few realize that at least some of us spend 14 hour days and all 3 months of our supposed “summer vacation” studying and reading up. (And, of course, we’re not helped by those who don’t research, and who do kick the feet up, yet who feel the need to pontificate on anything as though they’re experts). If our opinions seemed to come more out of research and careful deliberation than out of a rabid desire to inculcate, then our public image could shift. (Along this line, it might be nice to let the world know that many of the “causes” and issues we study and care passionately about are less volatile and politically loaded or clear-cut left-right than the public face of academia such as Ward Churchill or Noam Chomsky seem to suggest)

  25. I guess I should clarify what I meant by saying “the Middle East in particular.” I didn’t mean that this was the only issue that angered people. I meant that this was one case in which a substantial proportion of academics in the relevant field hold views which many people, rightly or wrongly, regard as beyond the pale.

    On the lesser influence of academics in the U.S., I don’t think it can be because government has gotten too complex. European governments have presumably gotten more complex at the same rate (perhaps even more so, since they have larger welfare states); and on top of that you have the immensely complicated EU bureacracy and regulations.

    I would speculate it has something to do with European universities, at least the elite ones, being seen as training grounds for civil servants to a much greater extent than in the U.S. My impression is that European countries the civil service is more powerful and prestigious, and more heavily staffed by graduates of the elite universities, than in the U.S. At least this is true of France, and it used to be, and maybe still is, true of the U.K.

  26. jpool says:

    Adam Stephanides made the point that I was thinking of: Academia gets targeted for right-wing ire in part because it’s a profession in which it’s possible to espouse political opions that they consider not simply heterodox, but a kind of proscriptive opposite of doxa, that which it should not be possible to speak in public. The indoctrination fear is part of this, but I think it’s even more grounded in the supposed corruption of an ought-to-be august institution. If Marxists are consigned in the public eye to coffee shops and book stores, then they can be shrugged off as dirty and ignorable. If they occupy a position of influence and authority, both they and their position need to be publically degraded.
    I think you’re right to describe this as a whipping-boy exercise and to point to a much broader range of resentments and frustrations for why it might gain purchase in the public imagination. I think it’s worth noting, however, that these political networks have selected acadamia for this purpose not simply because it’s available, but because it seems somehow important and necessary to do so.

  27. jadagul says:

    To follow up on the point about workload: my uncle (mother’s brother) is an academic, and I’m a larval academic (in the process of applying to grad schools). This amuses my father to no end, because he’s under the conviction that college professors don’t do any work. Not because he doesn’t know what we do, but because he on some level unable to believe that what we do actually counts as work (a position I have some sympathy for; I don’t really believe my research is ‘work,’ either, but feel I shouldn’t say this too loudly lest someone figure that out and stop paying me for it). But however often we point out that there’s a lot of course preparation, and grading, and then lots of research to do, and that my uncle basically doesn’t get any sleep for weeks at a time, he can’t stop making jokes about how professors work basically twelve hours a week and then just laze about.

    And my father is in a position to know academics, and to know better. I imagine this problem is by far inflated among people who’ve never actually met a college professor in a social setting.

  28. dave mazella says:

    Great post, as always, Tim, and good luck with the “process,” as they like to call it.

    Your catalogue of factors reinforcing anger at academia is pretty complete, but I’ll add one more: our habits of “overpromising,” which is closely related to the interplay of cynicism and idealism that we find in our daily working lives at the university.

    Universities, like other sites of institutionalized authority, provoke a lot of cynicism because they are very vulnerable when outsiders measure their (often spotty) performance against their hightoned justifications. As individuals working within an admittedly inconsistent and imperfect system, we are continually pushed to promise better performance, even when we cannot guarantee the system will do better. (this, at any rate, is my experience in a large underfunded public institution) The alternative seems to be throwing up one’s hands and allowing one’s students to be devoured. But students, and by extension the parents and families of our students, very quickly realize how empty much of this talk of higher education is, and can grow very angry about it in a big hurry. This is where a lot of public higher education is right now, even while state governments continually transfer the costs of public education onto the backs of their students. So part of this anger is about the hightoned language we use to describe higher ed, while our own institutions and state governments make it clear how money-driven the whole process is.

  29. Jmayhew says:

    A hypothesis: It’s a faux-rage, drummed up by the very few. People give billions of dollars to their almae materae (sorry don’t know the Latin plural of that any more). They like the places where they got their education, even if they might agree with some general anti-academia sentiment in the abstract.

    I’m not saying the ressentiment doesn’t exist, for all the reasons listed and discussed here, but is there some way of measuring it against the reserve of positive feeling among people who credit their education for some of their later success? Is there cognitive dissonance among those who love their universities but hate “academia”?

    Jonathan M.

  30. Doug says:

    JasonII above: “many don’t understand that during semesters we take our work with us day, night, and weekend. they don’t understand or don’t consider research or creative work that academics perform outside of the classroom.”

    This is not significantly different from numerous other professions — science, medicine, media and law (enforcement, too) come immediately to mind — that don’t have the advantages of academia.

  31. Timothy Burke says:

    There’s the paradox that Jmayhew describes–I love my own university and the professors I know and hate “academia”. That’s actually a very familiar pattern in a lot of the social antagonisms I describe. “I hate politicians…but my congressman’s a good guy”. “I hate medicine…but my doctor’s great.”

    But yes, I also think I could easily do a post about why there is also a lot of affection and appreciation for professors in specific and academia in general in American society. In fact, I think academia is still far more liked and appreciated than it is hated or mocked, on balance.

  32. Gavin Weaire says:

    Almae matres.

  33. JasonII says:

    Doug: you’re right many people also work long hours, but they do have advantages that academia doesn’t: they’re not targets and they generally receive better compensation. i’m not sure how you include medicine–nurses may work long shifts and have to work holidays, but they have a shorter work week. Doctors may have to be on call, but again they make a lot of money.

  34. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s sort of the key point about the relationship between academia and the other professions: our “advantages” are effectively part of our compensation, on some level. Our salaries are well below what lawyers, doctors, psychologists and other professionals make, on average. In the most successful years of his practice, my father probably earned in a year about 10-15 times what I make in a year, and I’m well-compensated by academic standards. But the cost of those salaries is in the relationship that other professions have to time.

    I think it’s not hard to have a sympathetic dialogue with those other professions about our relative working conditions where we agree about what constitute valid trade-offs of time flexibility vs. income. Maybe even we can have the same dialogue with business elites and others. The problem comes in when professional and business elites get involved in a dialogue with the wider society about labor and compensation. Here academics end up the odd man out in an economy that’s been squeezed very hard by the relentless drive for productivity on one hand and by the erosion of middle-class support systems on the other. In the 1970s, an academic with job security might well find a counterpart on the factory floor who also had job security of a sort, and both might agree that that’s a good way to organize not just their own instutitution but the wider society. Now the academic is pretty much standing alone in some of the ways that his/her labor is organized and compensated, and just saying that we’re poorly paid in comparison to doctors and lawyers doesn’t carry us very far.

  35. JonathanGray says:

    Tim, the odd thing is that while we’re in part the vestiges of an older way, our profession is also arranged in a way that could/should be a model for others, and so can seem very “new” and funky. When I talk my friends down from their belief that I get to eat Cheetos and play PS2 for 100 hours a week and get paid an ok middle class salary for it, explaining that, yes, I can timeshift so that I could indeed eat Cheetos and play PS2 for 100hrs a week occasionally, if I was willing to put in the time to work *elsewhere*, many of them become suddenly impressed, and resentful that they can’t do this in their profession. In an online, cell-phone-carrying, UPS world, a lot of middle class professions could be done at home and could accommodate long “holidays.” Many European nations have generous holiday time, so maybe we could add to your list above that many are suspicious of us because we are the undisputed holiday champs

  36. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree, Jonathan. That’s part of what’s frustrating when the perennial discussions about academic workloads come up. I’d rather argue that a lot of white-collar work could be organized more like our work than to argue that everyone needs to get Dilbertized. One of the most intense reactions I’ve ever had to anything in an online discussion goes way, way back to a Usenet thread I participated in, when a Canadian architect came in and argued that universities need to abolish faculty offices and put all faculty into cubicules in order to make better use of space. It just gobsmacked me. I was thinking first, what makes you think that there is a “space crunch” at most universities such that the space devoted to offices needs to be reclaimed for something else? Second, do you really think faculty should be having consultations with students about how the student is doing in classes in a large, open space divided by cubicles? Third, given that books are our “work tools”, where are we going to keep them in our cubicles? etc. This guy didn’t really have any answers: all he had was an ideological faith that if all other white-collar labor was organized into cubicle spaces, that was something everyone should have to do. It was a philosophy of “drag everyone down”, regardless of common sense, rather than “explore the possibilities”.

  37. Doug says:

    “just saying that we’re poorly paid in comparison to doctors and lawyers doesn’t carry us very far”


    Journalism, for example, is only recently up from trade to profession. There’s occasionally prestige, but there can be long and unpredictable hours, you’re as committed in the off hours as any academic, and in the most extreme circumstances (mostly outside the US, admittedly) the very fact of the profession can be life-threatening. Salaries are generally under the professorial, and time off is your standard US deal.

    As Tim says, though, the question is a good one: Why aren’t many white-collar jobs organized in a more 21st-century fashion?

  38. Timothy Burke says:

    Maybe one reason is an issue that we all actually struggle with: what’s the productivity metric if not “hours clocked”? A lot of white-collar labor actually systematically masks who is doing what, partly to allow people at the top of the hierarchy to claim credit for what groups have accomplished. Someone who is genuinely fucking up on a catastrophic level in a white-collar position is pretty visible, and maybe someone who has irreplaceable and unique skills is also. Everyone else is a bit of a muddle. But you at least feel like you know something about productivity if everyone was in the cubicle from 9-5, If you let everyone time-shift, work from remote locations, and so on, you’d have to have a much clearer way of tracking who did what and when. This wouldn’t be good for the bosses who are accustomed to claiming credit for what people do, so they sandbag it. It wouldn’t be good for the people who are already coasting on the group output and are simply good at working office politics to cover it. 21st Century organization has a transparency to it that a lot of people may oppose.

    You could say that academia doesn’t have that, but on some level we do. We have our classes at set times. Nobody’s there to supervise, but if we don’t show up and perform at least moderately adequately, that becomes a known fact at some level. If we don’t do any preparation or don’t stay familiar with our fields, that becomes visible at some level.

    What we have that most ordinary white-collar workplaces might lack is a strong professionalized culture that drives people to productivity even when there’s no hierarchy riding herd on them. You probably won’t get fired for becoming a dullard who doesn’t know anything about what’s going on in your field, but a lot of academics will put in the effort to avoid that happening to them because of an internalized sense of professional commitment.

  39. DarkoV says:

    Not being in academia and slogging through a full year of “work”, year in year out, armed only with a Master’s an my wits, I bear no grudge toward folks in academia.
    Except for one not so little thing. This “little” thing, tenure, is always a lively topic of discussion when friends of mine in academia and those not get together to compare notes. We all know each of us works full year round, irregardless of our prospective settings. It is tenure that is the great divide and I see some of my professorial friends tilting toward the non-tenure position as they have to deal with and/or clean up the messes of some of their tenured colleagues.
    The last point you made, that there is “a strong professionalized culture that drives people to productivity even when there’s no hierarchy riding herd on them. You probably won’t get fired for becoming a dullard who doesn’t know anything about what’s going on in your field, but a lot of academics will put in the effort to avoid that happening to them because of an internalized sense of professional commitment.” is most probably true at Swarthmore. It is just one explanation as to why your college is continuously held in high regard.
    However, there are an awful lot of colleges out there that doe not seem to be run by this same unspoken principle. When you throw in tenure on top of that, a sort of “welfare college state” can result. How many lousy colleges would not be if their necks weren’t encircled by these albatrosses.

    For a non-academic, where job guarantees are tied to one tomorow rather than a plethora of yesterdays, tenure is an undreamable state of employment. For a lot of folks working outside the ivy walls, it seems an unfair condition in a market-driven economy. We take our hats off to you folks attaining tenure, but don’t think we’re not exactly happy about that lifetime guaranteed employment status.

  40. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, this is a good point about differences between different types of institutions. Though there are a number of colleges and universities that pay both tenured and untenured faculty so badly (without any of the other compensations, like sabbaticals or reasonable workloads, or even autonomy over time) that the question then becomes, “Why does anyone work there?” That’s where the professional culture comes in–some people care enough about the idea of academia that they’ll still chase it even when it provides no other compensations whatsoever.

    But yes, there’s definitely more “tenured parasites” in some institutions than others, and they’re not doing any of the rest of us any reputational favors.

  41. On the issue of time-shifting labor, one important point to factor into the equation is that academics have (ideally) tremendous micro-flexibility, able to do the PS2 & cheetos thing during the workday – or more likely can spend time with the family & travel. But we have very little macro-flexibility – most of us are lucky if we can find any decent job, and we certainly can almost never choose where we get to live. A doctor, lawyer, etc. can generally choose what part of the country to live in, and can relocate at their own desire. Academics have to find jobs in a scarce market, with little flexibility or mobility except for the most elite professors. I often compare it to being a pro athlete – you get drafted & have to go with the team that takes you, except at a fraction of the salary & prestige.

    Not that I’m complaining…

  42. Timothy Burke says:

    That too is a crucial thing. I really can’t seem to get through to some of the potential graduate students I advise on this point, but when you’re talking with a professional in another field, if you can get them to understand this limitation, it’s often a breakthrough point: that in most cities and towns with a university or college in this country, there’s 1 or 2 possible positions you could ever arguably occupy. The ones you can actually have are limited to a) positions where someone dies, retires or moves at the time you’re on the market and b) ones that actually would hire someone of your approximate seniority. Much as I like liberal arts colleges as a whole, I could never move to another one, because no liberal arts college hires to seniority that I know of. So if, for example, I needed to be close to an ailing family member or my spouse got a job elsewhere, I’d be limited to those institutions which actually hire to seniority. That’s not like any other professions–it’s a very strong limit condition for which I think people are entitled to expect some kind of trade-off.

  43. Prof. AME says:

    Dear Tim,

    A fascinating conversation here.

    1. I agree that there is NOT much anger at the University within the American public. I also agree that one index of this is shown by the huge scale of private giving to almae matres. I give to my own, for the library. This suggests many students leave with some affection. (I did.) So at the moment, if there is a problem, it isn’t so huge.

    Again, my experience is that students’ parents tend to treat professors with great respect–except for the very few who come in with chips on their shoulders.

    2. I agree that the public doesn’t know exactly what we do, and in the increasingly insecure world of work, our lovely custom of tenure can create jealousy, especially when they DON’T know what we do (or how hard we work). In that respect, in my own Dept there is some dead wood–and worse, a tendency to want to “define scholarship down”. But most people are trying to be scholars and teachers. The accusation of laziness is not true; the accusation of great and close to unique privilege in job security for those who have tenure is true. When it is combined with our failure as faculty to explain what we do (esp. true of Humanities faculties), it’s a problem.

    3. I do think that left-wing politicalization is also a real problem; not as bad as Horowitz says it is, but in the Humanities, it is definitely, in my experience, a real problem. Take a look at the current ACADEME, which actually published an article by a professor of women’s studies, entitled “Reclaim your Rights as a Liberal Educator”, which characterized student differences with her obvious prosyletizing in class as “resistance”. Her way to handle resistance, she implies in this article, is to humilate the “resister” in class; best method: at the hands of classmates. I wish I weren’t making this up. I definitely wished this peice hadn’t been published in “Academe.” That it WAS, and that the fascism here is so unself-conscious both the author (and, I fear, the editor), is a bad sign.

    There are two reasons why politicization is a problem. First, it undermines scholarly standards with inappropriate factors, and skews the hiring and promotion process. I’ve seen it. Not as bad as Horowitz says, but pretty darned bad in some cases I know (both tenure and refusal of tenure). This process is creating a self-perpetuating leftist politicized elite in the humanities. Mark Bauerlein wrote about the subtle but very effective prejudices and their effectiveness here, in the CHE, about three years ago.

    One aspect of this phenomenon is that senior faculty with deep scholarly accomplishemnts are so alienated by the rise of political standards of evaluation of colleagues (pro or con) that they they withdraw from participating in Dept personnel decisions. I could name you two major History Departments where I personally know that has happened. Is it a trend? I don’t know. But it is surely a loss to those Departments.

    You have occasionally worried about the politicized faculty’s inability to maintain traditional scholarly standards on our own–to police ourselves. The ability to police ourselves was always the basis of the claim to academic freedom. Ward Churchill is the poster-child for this sort of academic malfeasance (hired, tenured, promoted to full professor, made chair of a department–HOW did this happen? It’s not just HIS failure, but the failure of the entire system.) But there aren’t many of HIM. The hideous article in Academe is another example. (Well, maybe others will read it differently, but arrogant fascism is the way I read it). And this is in the official AAUP journal!!When this sort of thing is combined with the increasingly high-handed corporate model adopted by university administrators (in which they are the bosses, we faculty are the employees, and the students are the customers)–then, if we don’t police ourselves and maintain unpoliticized standards of scholarship, we are really asking for intervention. You can see what happened at Colorado. The failure to maintain standards with Churchill has led to a much sterner and interventionist attitude by the Colorado State Legislature.

    The combination of leftist politicization–a politicization increasingly self-confident and overt (look at “peace studies”)–plus the increasingly high-handed corporate model of administration is leading to a crash where self-administered academic freedom might (MIGHT) have a new hard time. It’s a bad combination.

    But perhaps my worries are exaggerated. In any case, I’ve gone on WAY too long.

    Tim, this is a very interesting site! Congratulations.

    Prof. AME

  44. JonathanGray says:

    Going off what Jason and Tim were saying about geographic entrapment, maybe this produces another thing that we could add to the list: some form of xenophobia. Admittedly, some of the premier colleges and unis get a geographically diverse student population too, but a lot draw heavily from the surrounding area. So introduce a professoriate drawn from elsewhere, and we don’t quite fit in, do we? If supporting the “wrong” sports team or not knowing local cultural politics *within* American is one thing, it becomes all the more of an issue with international faculty. As a Canadian teaching in the supposedly accepting New York City, and in Berkeley before that, I’ve experienced direct and indirect xenophobia, yet I see and hear a lot more of it with other non-Anglo, non-White foreigners — comments on Prof. A’s accent, or B’s social awkwardness, etc. are remarkably common, and quite often barbed in a way that suggests it’s always the prof’s job to acclimatize to the students (which of course it *partly* is), not their job to accept some forms of difference. Sometimes this is racism, sometimes it just points to a geographic cultural disjoint. I wouldn’t rate this high on the list of reasons why we get thought of as oddballs, but it’s down there somewhere.

  45. tony grafton says:

    A fascinating set of posts: I’d still love to hear more from more who, like Doug and one or two others, bring an international perspective.

    The point–made by Tim and others–that the noise machine’s version of the university does not match the actual feelings of most Americans is very, very valuable, and important to hang on to–even as some parts of the anti-university noise machine seem to be gearing up to denounce the big endowments and generous gifts that have enriched American universities.

    One very different point: the geographical trap. My own experience is that different disciplines experience very different ranges of geographical mobility. The young economists, academic lawyers, and computer scientists that I have known–all of whom, admittedly, have had opportunities outside the academy as well as inside–seem to have a much wider range of choices than most young humanists, whose situation Tim has described very precisely (even there, one might make a partial exception for those with doctorates in composition, who do seem to me better off than many others). I simply don’t know how these questions play out, say, in physical or life sciences: but I suspect we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that the humanities/soft social science situation applies generally.

  46. Tony’s point is certainly true – the closer to other professions you get (faculty in med/science, law, business/econ, CS/engineering), the more flexibility you get, mostly because there’s the outside competition of industry looming as a threat. Even still, you still can almost never choose where to live, and then get a decent job there – which you can in most other professions (except for extreme specialists perhaps). Composition faculty may be in exceptional demand, but the market hasn’t accommodated that demand, as they get the least respect & compensation throughout the humanities.

    As for Jonathan’s point about faculty xenophobia, definitely check out Michael Berube’s piece “Blue Towns in Red States” (alas locked behind the Chronicle’s pay gate) for a nice analysis of this issue.

  47. Brad says:

    The geographical “trap” is not as much of a problem in the physical and life sciences. A biochemist (me), for example, working on gereally relevent questions, with current gov funding for the research, has opportunities to move around the R-1 state university network. Furthermore, seniority is not much of an problem: a couple NIH or NSF grants have a way of soothing a Dean on that issue. Of course, this does not apply to “deadwood.” However, with the promotion process tied so closely to funding and high-level pubs these days, most of the non-productive faculty are older folks with no desire to move.

    Another difference is the politics question. Aside from those involved in controversial topics, such as global warming, most science faculty are not, and correctly so, viewed with suspicion in this regard. In fact, chemistry departments, eng schools, agriculture schools, etc are usually fairly conservative. One doesn’t encounter many”activism” personalities outside of biology departments, and they are not that common there.

    Other differences: less possiblity of time shift (5 grad students, 5 undergrad workers, 2 techs, and 1 post doc add up to a lot of hands on baby sitting). More interaction with industry, which “normalizes” us in their view. Henry Ford worshippers view us as useful idiots. Positive press, usually (no Duke 88 stuff). etc

    Having said all that, we still have far more in common with other academics than we do with the general public (e.g., books and journals are our lifeblood).

  48. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, I think scientists are rarely the targets of most of these kinds of hostility. One place where they’re just as included, I think, is when the issue is professional-class identity or even more, the role of expertise in the wider society. Creationism is a good example of where scientists suddenly become representative figures of academia.

  49. MEHooper says:

    Fascinating stuff. I’d like to add a consideration to the issue: the end ‘product’ of our teaching. How many students leave our courses with only the most basic learning having taken place? Haven’t we all seen students who can barely write a coherent sentence graduate from our institution(s)? If we are judged by that which is most visible to our critics – our students, and that product is incapable of doing something that we profess to teach them, doesn’t that also contribute to the degradation of our profession and the academy? While we consider our research and related creative/interpretive work our primary product, our public sees our roles as teachers first, and researchers second. They see and pay for us to teach yet find, all too often, an end product that seems to have profited little from the years of exposure to our influence.

    When we write, few of us can hope to be read by the ‘judging public’ who regard our writing as jargon-bound, specialist and elitist. Since that work is beyond their interest (or so they are convinced), our valuing of that work amy also seem distanced and remote from what they would consider our primary function.


  50. JohnTEQP says:

    Fascinating post. Lots of things I would like to respond to, but I’ll choose one: I would like to particularly respond to your paraphrasing of Ray Suarez on political correctness in academia. My experience is highly relevant: I was at Swarthmore in the late 80’s, and I was one of the most politically active people there. I coordinated Amnesty International, I marched for just about everything, I had two internships in DC fighting the death penalty. I read the NY Times every day. I minored in Sociology so I could study Critical Theory. But I started to get disillusioned with political correctness by senior year, and in retrospect, political correctness at Swarthmore was a horrible experience for me. It was my decision to be as active as I was, but there were some things wrong with the College.

    Political correctness at the college level is liberal peer pressure. That’s it. You put a bunch of very energetic, passionate, confused, and angry young people in an environment with adults encouraging them to vent their anger at large societal institutions, you’re going to have some dysfunctional behavior. Politics is an emotional minefield at any level. But most political environments are moderated by factors like collegiality, accountability and focus. Politicians and activists in the real world have to figure out how to get along and how to get things done. College students do not have either those demands or those outlets. They are largely powerless and often unfocused. They feel the pain of the world, but they don’t know what to do about it. And the only tools at their disposal are the theories they’re learning. I took a year off because I didn’t feel like anything that I was doing was making a difference in anyone’s life. The fact that I was majoring in philosophy didn’t help – my head was in the clouds while I was desperately searching for some ground to stand on.

    My gripe with Swarthmore is not that it facilitated this environment, but that the faculty and staff seemed completely oblivious to it. Moreover, they still seem to be oblivious to it. That, to me, is the significance of your citation of Suarez. I think academics got their asses kicked BECAUSE of their Olympian distance from their own students. They were, and apparently still are, clueless. Faculty and staff encouraged us to be politically active, and gave us all kinds of bright and shiny rhetorical and theoretical tools to express ourselves and bash our ideological opponents. But then they didn’t do anything to solve the problems that invariably arose. They took credit for inspiring us and creating a supportive environment when we marched and wrote letters, but did nothing to keep us from burning out or getting lost in the haze of our vitriol. Or from being subject to other students insecurities. Sometimes, when political anger is focused on a target too far away, a closer one will suffice. “Capitalism” is a vague enemy – far easier to train crosshairs on anyone in your class who disagrees with you. When that happens – when someone else takes out their insecurities on you, and you are completely unprepared for it, and you have no shield against it, it is traumatic. Particularly if you don’t even realize it’s happening. That’s brutal.

    For me, a key enabler of this unfortunate dynamic is tenure. Students are technically the customers of professors. But because professors have tenure, they don’t HAVE to care about their students. Why should they? They have no incentive to do so. At Swarthmore, I think most of my professors did care about their students. I give the College credit for hiring people who were passionate about teaching.

    I just don’t think they knew HOW to care about their students.

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