Jon Cogburn’s description of the academic job-hunting process in philosophy is vivid. I suspect philosophy is a bit worse off in the ways he describes, but a lot of what is hateful in the process holds pretty true in history (and, I suspect, most disciplines). A lot of memories of my time on the market came back to me while I read his post. There was the search committee of two men who jumped up on the bed in the hotel room, took off their shoes, and appeared to be dozing off during my interview. There was the screamingly one-dimensional Afrocentrist who kept yelling at me that Anthony Appiah wasn’t a true African, and that my mention of him as an African thinker was contemptible. There was the smiling, matronly professor who wanted to know how I might build on the early work of Basil Davidson more effectively in my studies of material culture in Zimbabwe (this is roughly as relevant as asking a candidate in US history how they might connect Frederick Jackson Turner’s work with their studies of labor mobilization in the Northeast in the 1920s).
The general description Cogburn gives of academic culture is a good example of why I completely agree that there are deep problems with the nature of academic institutions and attitudes, and why I get frustrated with what seem to me to be crude attempts to truncate those problems down to “left-wing politics”. Most of the bad behavior described in Cogburn’s post would be bad regardless of the political convictions of the professor involved. In fact, with academics inclined to this kind of behavior, “politics” are just another kind of shallow affectation. Over at Unfogged, the academic commenters are describing their own bad experiences with hiring processes on both sides of the process. A White Bear says that in her department, colleagues start talking about whether female candidates they’ve interviewed are pretty. Substitute the label of a particular methodological speciality (“continental philosopher”, “historicist”) or a “political” posture (“Western Marxist”, “neoliberal”) and that’s roughly the level of operation at which this kind of talk functions. It’s how the small-minded, bureaucratic or ego-driven function in academia, by acting like trolls under the bridge of collective business and exacting a toll from everyone who must pass. The thing is, I would insist that they’re not at all the majority. The problem is, the structures of academic institutions that make them highly productive for the majority of professors are also highly vulnerable.