The Toll From the Troll

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.

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4 Responses to The Toll From the Troll

  1. A. G. says:

    We can all share such stories. My own favorite is from an APA many years ago, when I interviewed for a one year position at the Northfield MN college not named for a Norse saint. It was me and the interviewer, and she sat on the bed in her hotel room the whole time, answering the frequently ringing phone in Spanish.

  2. A lot of this depends on departmental leadership. You have to find ways to get good people on your personnel committee and the best (on or off the committee) doing interviews at the national conference. That’s assuming you’re in a big enough department that you can have a personnel department…. And that the department is functional enough to agree on a long-term hiring strategy so that every job ad doesn’t lead to a civil war….

  3. withywindle says:

    Re: “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”.”

    You want the people who hate academia for its political sins should know all the other reasons to hate it? But anyway: one can argue that all the problems that matter for the polity at large result from left-wing politics; the stuff which is just academics torturing each other doesn’t matter outside academia, and probably shouldn’t. Except to the extent that such dysfunctions provide material for schadenfreude, which is good clean fun–the psychological health of the country at large probably depends on academics scarring each other psychologically at regular intervals.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    You’re worried about the polity at large because you believe that more people would agree with you if it weren’t for some form of ideological interference by civic and cultural institutions that implant wrong ideas in their heads. Since I don’t believe that academia has that kind of impact (indeed, I don’t believe in the basic theory of “ideology” and its effects that I think drives you) and wouldn’t even if every member of every humanities department was to the left of Stalin, I don’t share your concern.

    Where I’m worried, it’s more narrowly about whether academics deliver a good liberal arts education to students. If the failure to do so has consequences, they are subtler than indoctrination. It’s more a case of missed opportunity, of a chance for good habits of critical thought and bodies of useful general and specific knowledge to seep more deeply into the everyday life of communities and the polity as a whole. I think some of the dysfunctionality of academia as an institution–which can include various “political” behaviors–results in that opportunity being missed. But the big point that’s relevant even to your concerns is that I think the “politics” you so decry results from *deeper* structures in the institutional sociology of the academy. You misdiagnose a symptom that worries you for the disease when you obsess about the politics of academics. You could root out every political idea you dislike in the academy and I think you’d be faced with some of the same problems of egocentrism, malfeasance, and pettiness directed at students, the public and other academics.

    The issue for you should not be “what politics does that professor have”? It should be, “Is that guy both a professional and a mensch in the way he acts as a professor?” Left-wing or right-wing or none of the above, if the answer to the second question is a good one, then there’s no problem. If we’re living within “best practices”, modeling a commitment to intellectual diversity, thinking in an exploratory manner, being generous in our scholarly lives, there’s no problem, regardless of our convictions.

    This is one reason I keep after some of you guys so much on these issues. The way you approach these things, I don’t think you’re modeling any kind of improvement to the temperment of academic life. You’re not being exploratory, not trying to set up a big tent.

    I’ll give a concrete example. I had a graduate professor who was strongly anti-leftist. I don’t think he was particularly conservative, just against most varieties of left-influenced work. One of the things he used to ask some of us, if we used particular words (like “proletarianization”) was, “Do you want to be tarred with that brush?” Now, there’s a proper “teaching” way for him to express that skepticism. He could say, “Look, that word is associated with a fairly complex body of Marxist historiography. I just want you to be sure that you’re using it on purpose, and to hear you tell me why you think it’s the best term.” But for him to ask that question, he would have had to know more about a body of thought that he disliked. He would have had to accept that a student might purposefully want to use that word, and accept that this was a legitimate choice. Instead, he was more or less saying, “Don’t use it, and I’m not even going to say why”.

    The problem there is with pedagogy, with professionalism, with living in a scholarly community, with valuing intellectual diversity, with a failure to take an exploratory approach to historiography. It’s not with the politics.

    When I read some of the critics complaining about the left-wing ideologues, all I can see is another group of ideologues who would reproduce the institutional behaviors they complain about, people who would glumly poke their students and say, “Do you want to be tarred with that brush?”

    So the point is to focus on the deeper institutional sociology, because that’s what produces the behavior, “political” and otherwise, that makes academia less than it can be and should be.

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