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. Timothy Burke says:

    A lot of that resonates with me, John, but you also speak to a real ethical and pedagogical puzzler that I don’t quite know how to resolve.

    You could argue that the learning experience you had is a good one, that it wouldn’t do any good for me to go to passionate students and say, “Hey, for now? Cut it out, most of what you guys are doing politically is bullshit.” Maybe some of these are the lessons you quintessentially have to learn through experience–through targeting the wrong target and then feeling regret, or through becoming a target. So when I see a student group doing some of what you describe, I’m really conflicted: is it my job to engage them, make them think about what they’re doing? Or to just leave them alone, and let them work it out? Engagement also can be an Olympian error: I’ve never forgotten the passage in Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes where a professor at Columbia climbs in the window during the 1968 building takeover to try and “have a dialogue”, but he’s so clueless about the entire world his students are living in that he only enrages them.

    Now the piece of it where I’m sure what I should be doing is in the classroom, and that part of it I think you’re also right about. When the classroom is suffused with an urgent rhetoric about commitment, with a notion that knowledge is meant to be a weapon, then we’re playing a role in stoking up those passions.

    On the other hand, the opposite strategy isn’t any better–presenting knowledge as affectless, distant, objective, without applicability to the world.

  2. JohnTEQP says:


    Thanks for the response. I think the fact that you’re acknowledging the problem is a big help. When I think of the Swarthmore College response to political correctness, I think of Al Bloom dismissing PC as a myth promulgated by the conservative media. Which sounded to me like a dismissal of my experience – as if my concerns were not just trivial, but imaginary. Which, you can imagine, has not endeared me to the College.

    As for whether or not you should engage students about the nature of their political activity: hell yes. Absolutely. I would have loved some kind of engagement from professors about my political activism, if only for some adult perspective. I made lots of mistakes, and I’m sure some of them could have been avoided if someone older than 30 had been looking over my shoulder. I desperately needed a mentor, and didn’t have one. And I didn’t even realize I needed one. Just a faculty advisor for Amnesty International would have been great.

    And you don’t have to tell them “hey, what you’re doing is bullshit.” I read your post as a classic of the problems that I see in academia: you’re defining the problem in terms of discussion. Should you engage students, and if so, how? But political activism isn’t just about what goes on in the classroom. One good thing you could do is help students figure out what they can ACTUALLY DO. You’re worried about hunger? Check out the local soup kitchen. You want to fight torture? Here’s the name of a professor in the poli sci dept. who knows a Congressional staffer that can get you an internship with Carl Levin. Every professor at Swarthmore knows lots of professors at other colleges. But they also know lots of other people in the real world. Trust me, that kind of suggestion, making that kind of connection, could be invaluable to a student.

    I think the College has made great strides in helping students actually get things done. The Lang Center sounds like exactly what I needed when I was there.

    There’s another thing I would suggest. Discussion about politics in the classroom usually revolves around arguing, trying to prove that you’re right and the other guy is wrong. And politics in the real world looks like it is the same thing. But politics in the real world is much, much more effective when it starts not with arguing, but with listening. The most effective tool of political activism, at any level, is being able to convince your opponents that you’re right, and they’re wrong. But the best possible way to do that is understand where they’re coming from in the first place. Which requires listening.

  3. Prof. AME says:

    To continue on the question of whether pc is a real issue on campus, especially in the humanities and social sciences, and whether it can have a very negative effect on the quality of instruction, I wonder whether either Tim or John would have time to or care to respond to the following quotation from an article in the most recent Academe? Of course I’m only giving only one part of a larger article. But I was impelled to write it here because of John’s comments on how hurtful student interaction can be in the classroom. Yet that is exactly what Professor Kilmer is advocating in order to deal with what she terms ‘resistance’ to feminist pedagogy.

    None of the material below detracts from the major and I think valid finding from this discussion that there is NOT a lot of anger in the American public at academia.

    But this material below was actually published in the most recent issue of the journal of the AAUP itself:

    Reclaim Your Rights as a Liberal Educator

    By Julie J. Kilmer

    Coping with Resistance

    Feminist strategies might be used in the face of individual and collective student resistance. First, we must not be afraid to identify publicly and address directly students who work to undermine our teaching. I am suggesting not a hierarchical approach that emphasizes power differences, but clear, honest, and forthright conversation between professor and students. As Mary McGee says, “we need to teach and model for our students how one responds to this kind of criticism.” When students are intentionally resistant or confrontational, it is important to name these dynamics in the classroom. This means not only asking students about their intentions in private conversations, but also talking about resistance and intentions with the entire class. In order to create a classroom climate in which students are free to express their ideas and at the same time are protected from being hurt by thoughtless or spiteful opinions, I often find that students speaking to each other directly is more effective than the same message coming from me.

    The Rev. Julie J. Kilmer is associate professor of women’s studies and religion and director of the Betsy Dole Women’s Resource Center at Olivet College

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    That article has been brought up in a few places. I’ll be honest: I find that quote really troubling. For one, I think it’s because the author wants to have her pedagogical cake and eat it, too, quite aside from the problems with the substantive content of the article. I get annoyed by anything where the author says, “We must authoritative, only we must not be authoritative, we must be free but not free, we musn’t have hierarchy except that we need to act hierarchically”. But aside from that, Kilmer just has a view of pedagogy that is really about 100 miles away from mine.

    John, I suppose my problem with your suggestions is that on some of the policy and political problems that are closest to my own expertise, I actually don’t think there really is anything that most students can do that is urgently helpful. A small number can actually go to Africa in some institutionally constructive role during their time here, or lobby for useful changes to US law (say, for example, on food aid). But I think my most immediately useful contribution to them is to create some kind of framework for discussion and then let the chips fall where they may.

    I also think some students, in the course of their activism, become very subtle and competent thinkers about complex problems, perhaps precisely because faculty get out of the way. The students at Swarthmore who have been involve with Darfur and Sudan-related activism over the last three or four years have really impressed me in this respect, for example.

    I think the problem is more when faculty get roped into efforts to placate a particular group of students who have decided that the college itself is an issue for some reason, or when students are being mobilized as proxy forces in a political or institutional struggle that emanates from the faculty or administration.

  5. Western Dave says:

    I was also at Swat in the late 80s when PC was first coined. There was certainly some social click stuff going on. (Does anyone else remember Myron and Nancy asking them to get arrested at Curt Weldon’s office because it would be fun?) But I also remember some more effective things going on as well. A bunch of Swatties got the idea to buy attack helicopters to deliver aid to Darfur. The idea didn’t quite pan out but they founded one of the most efffective organizations for saving lives in Darfur. There was a fair amount of 60s hangover still in the air and we were feeling our way to a new solution. It really ticks me off when some warmed over 60s dude wants to know why the “kids aren’t marching to stop the war” (they are, btw) “because we did and we stopped it.” (No, you didn’t actually).

  6. Prof. AME says:

    Tim, I am relieved to hear what you say about that Kilmer article. I find it very troubling indeed.

    Question: in your experience, how widespread are these attitudes?

    For instance, we had a candidate for a position last spring who overtly said during her interview-talk that she intended to use her class to convert students to her (Left) politics. She was unselfconscious (and humorous) about it. On the one hand, that seemed to me a really bad attitude towards the purpose of teaching–she already had tenure, and was clearly coming from an environment (American Studies) where this attitude was non-controversial. On the other hand, her remarks caused a furor among my historians after she left campus, which I suppose is good.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    In the form of that article? I don’t think very widespread. I have met people who were that dogmatic, but I really don’t think it’s anywhere near as common as the right-wing critics would have it. Thinking about a few cases where I’ve been around people who are that explicit or clear, there is a huge amount of eye-rolling that goes on while they’re speaking. There may be a slightly larger number of people who will “play along” with those kinds of views, depending on who is in the room and how influential they’re seen to be.

    And then a lot of folks wonder about what to do when they’ve got a student who really, persistently, aggressively challenges everything about a class. Heck, I wonder about that now and again, and I would think any teacher might. I mean, what do you do if you’re teaching economics and you get a student who thinks everything about economics as a discipline is both malicious and flawed? That’s potentially a valid viewpoint, but you’re also in your rights to say, “Maybe you should be studying another subject”? I think those kinds of conversations might occasionally sound a bit like what Kilmer is saying, but without the dogmatism, with a genuine curiosity about what amounts to issue with craftwork.

  8. Prof. AME says:

    My problem with Kilmer, Tim, is that she is SO unselfconscious–and that this was printed in tandem with another similar article in (of all places) ACADEME. It was the same unselfconscious “Of course I have the right to seek converts for the Truth” that I saw in the candidate from American Studies. (Who was in fact offered the position (!), but she knew there was a lot of opposition and turned it down.)

    There’s the type of student you’re talking about, and, yes, that person could be talked to privately and you could say if you object to the fundamentals of the discipline, maybe you’re in the wrong course. But those students are very rare in History. Though I had a Chinese public official this summer who was truly bothered by the indeterminacy of historical research, and pushed me about it (“If you don’t think you can really know the truth of the past, what are doing spending your life studying it?”–but that was an interesting, not an irritating, conversation, and he was not being nasty.

    What do you do with a student who is actually not seeking information in his/her questions but is ultimately seeking (for psychological reasons I suppose) to monopolize your attention (and everyone else’s) by asking question after question? I’ve had those sorts of kids. You have to take’em aside and tell them to cool it, and to wait after class with their questions. But that’s a different sort of irritant from “an ideological opponent”, which is how Kilmer obviously types people quickly.

    There are definitely people who “play along” with the real fanatics, for their own political reasons–both of ideology and faculty politics.

    I gotta tell you, Tim, that I do see a lot more of all of this sort of behavior now than I used to. Not as bad as Horowitz says, but he’s not completely wrong, either, in my experience. And a lot of the real self-righteous politicizing is coming from faculty who do Women’s Studies sorts of things in particular–people just like Kilmer. In part it’s the self-righteous politics of victimization (except that such WS people, in my experience, actually give a real free pass to Islam!!! How does one explain that, eh?). In part (I fear) these faculty have learned that this tactic is a way to power within a Department.

    But again, in terms of the question this fascinating thread started with, in my experience most students and parents are very respectful as long as one treats them with respect, and students come to the university wanting to like it, and it’s not very difficult to get their respect, either, as long as your not too crazy. We faculty therefore have the upper hand in terms of winning respect, I think. In fact, in 25 years I’ve hardly met any student who was really angry at the university (a couple of parents, but again that’s, like, 1% of all the parents I’ve met). In terms of the general question you asked, we faculty seem to me in good shape.

    But a few more like Kilmer and things might be different. She shouldn’t be encouraged by being officially published by the AAUP!

    Prof. AME

  9. Prof. AME says:

    Gosh, at the risk of becoming like one of the students we’re talking about–always interrupting–a conversation I just had with my wife (who is an academic) leads me to add this other sort of problem to the mix:

    There are students who just are lying in wait for you to make some small factual error and then they want to pounce triumphantly on you. They really have a problem with authority (originating with parental problems?)–“aha! I’ve caught you out!”–or they are fanatic about some area or other, or actually they are frightened, or else they want your attention. Her solution with such a problem student, other than is to take’em aside privately and tell them to try not to be so disruptive, is something quite different:, to assign them write up a formal essay, for extra credit, on the issue they have raised, so she and they can both see it set out in a formal and logical fashion. This is great, because it converts hostility or doubt into a positive interaction.

    [One thing we teachers obviously shouldnt do is the thing Kilmer triumphantly recommends–sick other students in the class on the person who is “resisting”. That was the worst thing about what she wrote!]

    Prof. AME

  10. OsoRaro says:

    This has been compelling, the entry and the comments themselves. However, I wouldn’t want us to get too distracted by the spectre of PC, which has been and continues to be a problem, but one with certain effects that augur caution. Shall we calculate some cardinal sins? For instance, any faculty of colour can tell you of the continuing conservative, reactionary, and yes, white supremacist tendencies of the academy. And any faculty of colour can also tell you about the times that they and their training have been dismissed as “affirmative action”/PC hiring out of hand. Is this true in some cases? Why, yes, of course. There are a number of idiots I know who were hired and promoted specifically because they were dullards, ergo not threatening. But I would venture to guess that over half the professoriate was much more mediocre when hired than the dumbest of the dumb today, but the simple fact of race privilege (and being int he right place at the right time) means they “look” more like academics. If we’re going to call a spade a spade, to coin a phrase, then let’s start pointing fingers at those slackers who rolled out of bed and graduate school in the 1960s, avoided the draft, slept with their undergrads, finally produced their thesis as a book ten years after tenure and with multiple sabbaticals, and now collect a fat paycheck and are never around, except to make sure junior faculty are fired at tenure time for being too smart, too productive, too perfect. I promise you most of these people are white. The rot is not in the occasional ridiculous fellow traveller, but with the system that wants and sustains such figureheads to disguise its own failings. (Jackpot here: Lust, Greed, Gluttony, Envy, Pride)

    What typically happens is that people focus on PC or examples of PC (like what’s her name’s article in Academe, or Ms. Tenured Radical, both mentioned in the comments above) and then use that as an excuse to *stop* thinking about what these complicated and tense issues mean, and how to address them. Instead, the knee jerk response is meritocracy, such a soft, fuzzy, reassuring concept, but whose merit? What does merit mean nowadays? Knowing the right keywords? Being dumb enough not to offend white faculty (a case at Swarthmore comes to mind, actually)? Going to the right school? Having the right press? All of these are ways for faculty not to THINK, but instead rely on other barometers of measurement to do their work for them. (Sloth)

    Doctrinaire thinking is not limited, of course, to a handful of activist types, which is part of what the post is trying to think through. In fact, it is the methodology of the institution and its disciplines, and one is rewarded for hewing as closely as possible to the given line, whether that is PC race/sex debates or disciplinary “rigour,” which most often is defending one’s own particular training as revealed knowledge. Group think shouldn’t be too terribly surprising in any institution, I guess the quibble here is over who is setting the parameters. For all the ersatz politics of diversity, the professoriate, in particular at elite institutions (like Swarthmore 🙂 remains overwhelmingly white (gender imbalance is too wide a mark to characterise nowadays). There’s certainly a lot to be angry about PC thinking, and PC power plays do affect both student development and professorial career trajectory (this I know from), but let’s not confuse *power* with the Potemkin Village of good intentions. (And alternatively, when there is power, let’s call it by name and not be intimidated into silence). Or, I suppose another way to put it would be to follow the money, and add a little history. Zip Coon still lives on as a powerful metaphor, and added to the enumerated troubles of the academy listed above, is yet another insidious factor at play in the devolution of the academy. (Anger)

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, the “let other students do the work of bullying dissidents into line” bit is a pretty chilling bit of instrumentalism.

    I dunno, AME. I would almost say that I see less of this almost cluelessly instrumental kind of pedagogical attitude than I used to. If I see anything like this around, it’s usually way more cunning, subtle and calculated. At some point, moreover, almost all teachers are doing a bit of “missionary work” for some point of view or privileged argument.

  12. Prof. AME says:

    Dear Tim,

    Yes–most faculty, including myself, do some occasional subtle “missionary work” for some privileged point of view or argument. For instance, if I think that Realist international systems theory (the vicious pressures of the international system of states existing as an anarchy) is a better explanation for most governmental international action than, say, internal capitalist economic formation, I would lecture and favor that sort of analysis, and above all, give the reasons (evidence + logic) to the students concerning why I favor it. This is okay pedagogy, it seems to me–with one proviso: AS LONG AS one ALSO gives SERIOUS presentation to the students of the other and competing point(s) of view, and I mean a presentation of their best and most powerful arguments.

    This doesn’t mean one has to present every silly alternative argument–say, the equivalent of “intelligent design” in international relations. I don’t think anybody (including Horowitz) advocates that. But even if he did, WE faculty can choose what is “presentable” and what is not, because as trained professionals we take our professonal knowledge seriously and can apply it and do apply it honestly. But this DOES mean presenting to the students all the powerful competing reconstructions. (And there always ARE competing powerful reconstructions.) This allows students to choose at least somewhat (!) for themselves (although they may know that a professor favors one particular reconstruction and–above all–why and on what grounds).

    In that respect, one of the most formative moments in my own graduate education was when a fellow grad student wrote an entire two-semester research paper that was a criticism of the approach of the faculty-person giving the research seminar. I was a bit dubious of the project! But she assured me that our mentor was a profession who would accept professional arguments…and she got an “A” (and went on to teach at Cornell).

    That’s how it should be.

    That isn’t how it is with Kilmer, who advocacy of letter other students do her ideological bullying I found stunning to find in the AAUP’s official journal. It wasn’t how it was going to be with the person applying for a position in my Dept from American Studies who unselfconsciously proclaimed her desire to do political missionary-work in the classroom.

  13. Prof. AME says:

    First sentence of last paragraph should read:

    “That isn’t how it is with Kilmer, whose advocacy of letting other students in her class do her ideological bullying I found stunning to find in the AAUP’s official journal.”

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree that’s the top thing I don’t like about the quotation you selected. There’s nothing wrong with a feminist pedagogy, but someone practicing it should first be able to present perspectives that argue against that pedagogy in a fair way and second ought to welcome “dissidents”. I don’t mean some guy who burps and grabs his crotch, but if there’s someone in the class who is intellectually serious and strongly critical (directly or indirectly) of a feminist approach, then that professor ought to be incredibly pleased, not seeing that person as a dissident to be rooted out or confronted.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    Sorry your comment got caught in the weird WordPress moderation, OsoRaro, since it’s really germane to the discussion as it has developed.

    I think you’re absolutely right that a lot of the complaint against PC, or “politicization”, is used as a way to artificially simplify the permanently uncertain and uneasy difficulties involved in teaching and producing knowledge–and that’s before we even get to questions of identity, diversity, pluralism and so on.

    I think that’s another piece of the puzzle that I didn’t bring up in the main post that’s crucial–I suppose I was getting so frustrated by some of the discussions of KC Johnsn’s blog elsewhere that I left it out. But at least some public anger at academia is provoked by the fact that institutionally, academia is seen as being committed to diversity or affirmative action. At least some of Johnson’s readers at his blog get fairly ugly on racial terms with some frequency–for a few of them, the sin of the Group of 88 just seems to be that they a) aren’t white and b) write and teach about being not white in some respect.

    The politics and practice of diversity inside the academy, within academic culture, are a whole different topic that I find harder and harder to navigate the older I get. I think we’ve gotten to a place collectively where it’s very difficult to have cathartically open conversations within our institutions about diversity because people are defending institutional projects of various kinds, some openly, others covertly. That in and of itself is a dangerous asymmetry–say, when you’ve got people arguing for diversity as a priority in hiring practices when it’s a committee meeting and then sandbagging that argument when private discussions of “merit” take place. You can’t even tell any longer what the determinative moment is, or what anyone is really trying to have happen.

    But a lot of our institutional arguments–both those that people make openly and those they hold in private–come from what now strike me as confused premises. For example, when I look at the humanities, what’s keeping some kinds of diversity from happening? It goes all the way from the undergraduate pipeline into grad programs and then into hiring pools for actual positions. Which means it can’t just be a question of background or preparation or anything else–it’s potentially a question about pedagogy. What are we teaching, how are we teaching it? The stock answer is to assume that it’s the exclusion of identities, of race, and so on, which repels diversity–but I sometimes wonder if the banalization of race, or the orthodoxy of some identity arguments, is as much at fault–if we take questions that should be alive, and dangerous, and messy, and turn them into simple orthodoxies about bad racism and good diversity. And so students–both students of color and white students–who are looking to explore the lives they actually live go to something else that seems more useful. And what we’re left with is the students looking for ideology.

    A concrete example for me is Forrest Carter and The Education of Little Tree–that a moving, seemingly “authentic” first-person account of Native American identity could turn out to have been written by a white author, and not just a white author but a segregationist and Klan member, is the kind of thing that scholars should excel at helping students (and colleagues) to think through, without knowing in advance what the results of that exploration will be. I get so tired of routinized stock narratives about appropriation, silencing, stereotype, and so on–the way we run the messiness of race, gender, sexuality through a kind of well-manicured machinery. In the book I’m writing now, I really want to leave a space for arguing that a given white colonial official might have been effectively an African, that another might have had a valid critique of local African political practice, that a chief who was a collaborator with the Rhodesians might also have been an effective steward of local indigenous knowledge, that living and constructing race in a white-dominated society could contain suffering, injustice, irony, lies, possibility, and even that it might at times have been irrelevant or unimportant.

    I do feel at times that when an identity conversation begins within the academy, its results are choreographed by all the participants–that we have a prior implicit agreement not to let it go to any wild or dangerous places. Neither to let it become a catalogue of unexpressed anger or grievance nor to allow that we might challenge some of the conventional narratives that surround diversity practices–to ask, in an uncertain way once again, why we want diversity.

    But in terms of the relationship between academia and a wider public, identity is a big part of it. There’s a danger in me playing “reasonable white man” given the fact that at least a share of the hostility out there is directed at the academy by people who resent the extent to which they see it to be feminized, queered, enracinated–almost to the point that you wonder if some people stopped valuing academia simply because it stopped being respectably white and male.

  16. JohnTEQP says:


    This has been a very good discussion, thanks for posting the question and responding consistently. In the course of reading all these posts, particularly your last response to me, I realized a key distinction between the experiences of professors and the experiences of students. This, I think, explains a lot of the disconnect.

    Most of what passes for political correctness – passing judgment on people who disagree with you, effectively suppressing dissenting opinions – DOES NOT TAKE PLACE IN THE CLASSROOM.

    It takes place in the cafeteria, in dorm rooms, in meetings of campus groups, at parties. Etc., etc. Political correctness is mostly a social phenomenon, not necessarily an institutional one. I experienced very little political correctness actually in the classroom. Even my most politically liberal professors (Hugh Lacey, Braulio Munoz), were very open-minded and perfectly willing to entertain and discuss opposing political viewpoints. Hugh and Braulio were two of my favorite professors. About the closest I came to a PC experience was taking a class on contemporary women’s poetry. There wasn’t anything wrong with the professor or the students – they were all pretty cool. But it really was not a good idea for a young, straight white male to be reading very angry lesbian poetry from the 1970’s. I thot I was being very “sensitive,” but, in retrospect, I was putting myself in the crosshairs of some very angry women. But, again, the anger was on the page, not in the classroom. Not the best decision on my part, listening to people who had very legitimate reasons to be angry at people who looked like me. But that’s water under the bridge.

    But back to my point about where political correctness happens. This, I think, is why people like Al Bloom deny that political correctness is at Swarthmore: it’s below their radar. If any kind of authority figure, from a visiting professor to the president of the college, is involved in a discussion, it’s going to be much more nuanced, and people are going to be much more careful, than they would be late at night at the social center. Not that there is a conscious decision on anyone’s part to be more judgmental when the adults are out of sight. Political correctness, like just about any kind of peer pressure, is largely unconscious.

    But that doesn’t excuse faculty and staff from being oblivious. Political correctness is mostly under the radar. But isn’t the whole purpose of the liberal arts to uncover hidden truths? Isn’t a key raison d’etre of a liberal arts college to ensure the greatest possible range of freedom of expression? If someone says that you aren’t meeting that responsibility, aren’t you obligated to take that accusation seriously?

    I could go on about the particular aspects of both academia and Swarthmore that facilitate the social phenomenon of political correctness, but I think this is good for one post.

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    I think this is very important, John. Inasmuch as I encounter “political correctness”, it is also not in the context of the formal work of academia. It’s in meetings or casual conversations or social events. And of course, in that sense, it is below the radar–it’s not like Al is distorting the truth or hiding something. It isn’t a formal part of our professional work, and extending our professional reach into the places where pressure does happen is actually a very difficult and delicate enterprise.

    I’ll give you an example. After the famous incident with the alleged vandalization of the Intercultural Center, I went to a meeting with some very angry and upset students, many of whom were students I liked, respected, and wanted to help. At that point, it was still reasonable to suppose that someone had in fact crapped and vomited in the IC on purpose, but in another way, the truth of the incident was only an occasion for a lot of these students to feel through and express some of their own bad experiences at the college. Now, yes, in every meeting of that kind, there’s someone who is expressing a self-aggrandizing, performative complaint about their own identity; there are other young people who are just trying to figure out who they are and what they are. But there’s plenty of other folks with genuinely bad experiences (both here and elsewhere) who want to talk as well. So what’s my job there? Tell them they’re all wrong, they’re politically correct, etc.? No, I don’t think so, not the least of which is because some of them have valid issues and the incident itself could be something real. Is my job to pontificate about the history of race and identity? I don’t think so–some faculty might, though. In the end, what I mostly did was to inject a note of pragmatism in terms of the things the students wanted the administration to do. Several people wanted a full-fledged police investigation–I pointed out that on other occasions, they would be wary of the police, so why did they suddenly see police power as a desirable thing? What did they seriously think the police would find? Did they really want someone to be criminally prosecuted for this act, if it happened? Why were they so absolutely certain about what they thought had happened anyway, in advance of an investigation, etc.

    I’m sure that for some people, even that kind of pragmatism or gentle skepticism is seen as insulting or unsupportive, maybe even complicit in racism. It’s easy to see why many faculty would just say, leave it all alone, let them get it out of their system, it’s none of my business. It’s also easy to see why some faculty might choose to express their support in terms that I myself find to be a bit patronizing. There aren’t any simplistically good choices here precisely because the questions that concern you happen in the everyday life of the institution and the community. There isn’t a simple professional role for faculty to take up any more than there is in the real life of our real life communities. What do I say to an activist fighting for racial justice on the national stage when I disagree with some of the way they’re going about it? I dunno, it depends on circumstance. Maybe most of the time, I should just shut my yap: it’s not like this society has any shortage of middle-aged white guys with a lot of opinions about everything under the sun. Same thing applies inside the institution, only complicated by the fact that we claim that what happens within the everyday life of the institution is part of the educational service that our students are paying for and within which they are supposed to receive guidance.

  18. Doug says:

    A brief thought on being “effectively an African” in Tim’s comment slightly further above – I’ve just read a short sketch about Gibbon’s education in Lausanne, and about how when he returned to England he was seen as no longer English. It’s in Norman Davies’ collection of essays, Europe East and West. There’s an in-between-ness built into that role: the people at “home” see the official as not entirely British (or indeed as African) simply because he’s been away for a while, or possibly all his life; yet in Africa he’s the very face of Britain because of his official role; he’s permanently neither fish nor fowl. The situation has clear modern counterparts, from diplomats around the world, to Japanese managers who have spent time in the US, to star soccer players, and probably dozens of further categories.

  19. Gavin Weaire says:

    IMO, faculty have to be oblivious to what goes on in these “outside the classroom” interactions between students, because students need some autonomous space in which to complain about their professors.

  20. snowfall45 says:

    I’m a student at a small, liberal-arts college very similar to swarthmore. Usually I don’t do this anymore–leaving what are essentially anonymous comments; I did when I was younger, mostly in some unvisited backwater of the web, because it made me feel better. I feel like a lot of what you said resonated with me. I suppose there are aspects of all institutional behavior, even all social behavior, that lends itself to the alienation of certain people, but in academe I feel like it’s particularly the case. I live in a dorm in which the walls are paper-thin, so I have to listen to my roommate fuck his girlfriend (or in some cases girls other than her) and party loudly in general. I spend all my time either in the gym or studying; I think I must work as hard as anyone here (though I am leaving a blog comment at two in the morning, so I supposed that’s evidence that I’m not immune to distraction), and, even given the grade inflation, I think I must be in the top five or ten percent of my class; I never disagree with a teacher, I am anything but impolite, and I always try to be nice. I only say these things so that when I tell you I feel immensely unhappy and alienated here you will understand that it is not the result of my having failed to do the right thing (at least what I genuinely believed to be the right thing). I have no friends here, under anyone’s definition of friendship. I sit by my classmates wordlessly when they–they who drink, party, and otherwise act indiscriminately and irresponsibly (not that I don’t sympathize with such behavior or think it immoral–I did many such things when I was in high school and I at least am not convinced such behavior is immoral)–criticize anyone who is conformist, conservative, or who god-for-bid should desire conventional happiness and wealth. And what has surprised be most about college is that the professors rarely seem aware of the similar effect they have on their students (or, I should say, the effect they have on myself). I feel miserable every time a teacher expresses disdain for rich people or business people or any form of bourgeois privilege (I guess they are oblivious to the bourgeois elements of the academic class), and when they do express themselves in such a way it is never, in my experience, relevant to the class discussion or even, at times, qualified (for instance, I have a hard time believing any of my english teachers really have a better understanding of political philosophy or normative ethics than their students). I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m writing this. I just felt that maybe it would be worth expressing how the atmosphere of academic culture can have a negative effect on others. I don’t pretend that my situation is unique or even worthy of sympathy. It just amazes me that teachers aren’t aware of their ability to make the students in their class miserable if they really want to. Whatever, at least this made me feel a little better.

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