And I Want a Pony: Dissatisfied Academic Version

On to other matters. I meant to respond earlier to the pseudonymous essay of a tenured faculty member who plans to leave academia published recently at Inside Higher Education.

My reaction largely echoes what was said about the piece at IHE. “John Smith” doesn’t consider that maybe some of the problem is the beam in his own eye, in several respects. He plans to leave academia because he thinks his colleagues are too soft on students, because today’s students aren’t intellectually motivated or serious enough for his tastes, because he thinks current students “drink and smoke excessively”, that they don’t “read for pleasure”. In short, because they don’t conform tightly to what he envisions as the scholarly and monastic ideal.

I’m hoping for one that he’s not a historian, because he doesn’t seem to have a historical perspective on some of his complaints, with the humility that ought to follow from it. I know that when I find myself ranting away about how things are worse today than yesterday only to suddenly recognize that my rant could easily have been given with small amendations twenty, forty, sixty or eighty years ago, it’s bit of icewater to the face.

John Smith doesn’t seem to know how to argue on behalf of the pedagogy he believes to be the sole, solitary way to approach a liberal arts education. In that, he’s not alone: a lot of similar criticism is entirely reactive. These critics know what they don’t like, and they hold in their consciousness a kind of Rockwell-esque ideal, burnished and glowing in the fires of nostalgic amnesia. But why their ideal vision is the exclusive best, and how we might achieve it? That’s someone else’s problem. They want the magic administration fairy to sprinkle dust over academic culture, or maybe they’ll mutter sotto voce that the government should do something (but oh my no, we’re not suggesting regulation or government control…yet).

When I look around the institutions I know, I can see a number of faculty whose grading scale is considerably tougher than the average, who are much harsher and sharper in the demands they make of students, who march to a different pedagogical drum. And you know what? If they’re any good at what they do, they usually garner enormous respect for taking that approach, from both colleagues and students. They may not change the pedagogical practices of their colleagues simply by example, because those other practices also have their own integrity and deliberate character. John Smith thinks that his colleagues teach the way that they do because they’re lazy or cynical or resigned. Not that they teach another way on purpose, with a determination, out of equal conviction. John Smith thinks that contemporary students are just bad rather than different, that when they don’t conform to his ideal there is no reason except sloth and sleaze. No wonder he has a hard time convincing them to think otherwise: he doesn’t have any curiosity about the practices he observes, or any real interest in whether what he’s seeing is real or just his own prejudicial imagination and limited personal horizons speaking more loudly than they ought.

If you want to persuade people to act more the way you think they should act, you’ve got to be more genuinely interested in how they actually act, and why they act that way. If you don’t want to persuade, then honestly, don’t expect the world to be other than what it is, and settle for permanent disappointment and isolation as your lot in life. When John Smith writes, “perhaps for a career where deadlines are honored, ideas are exchanged and gimmicks and fads are routinely avoided because they distract from advancing the mission of gaining and sharing knowledge. Yes, it is time to find another line of work, where I can enjoy the fruits of my labor, even if I realize that the grass is grayer, if not greener, elsewhere”, I can’t help but laugh. Yeah, sure, buddy, let me know how that works out when you start looking at the want ads.

I’d suggest a sports car as a solution for John Smith’s mid-life crisis. It’ll save him money in the end and be a lot more fun than sending off cover letters to the imaginary sugarplum employment fairies.

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8 Responses to And I Want a Pony: Dissatisfied Academic Version

  1. evangoer says:

    Well put. If he does manage to get an industry job, John is in for a rude awakening.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    You betcha. I read that passage multiple times to try and see if I could guess what he thinks it’s a code for–business? law? think-tank punditry? Whatever it actually turns into, nothing is going to fill out his bill of particulars.

  3. G. Weaire says:

    Wow. If I had read that before my own tenure, I would have been very angry, and only slightly consoled that his departure would open a post for someone who actually wanted it. Now I’m just peeved, but still consoled by the thought that some deserving and desperate young PhD. out there may benefit.

    If the college in question isn’t under a hiring freeze, that is…

  4. Carl says:

    It’s worth noting that one of his peeves is against the liberal bias of academe. He’s not quite Straussian, since he seems to favor open, balanced and evidence-based discourse rather than indoctrination for the smelly masses. So far all good liberal artists should agree, but he thinks the indoctrination is going the other way:

    “My partisan colleagues are universally National Public Radio listeners. They do not hear the other side, so it is easy to demonize the other side. Their students are listening, and sadly think of conservatism in its many forms as horrific.”

    Now, this is ironic because I just the other day posted on recent studies that find students to be largely refractory to professors’ ideological influence. The conclusion being that although professors may be liberal, they’re doing a very bad job of passing it along. So sad that they’re not little robots awaiting their programming.

    To me the diagnostic frame for this piece comes in the first section, where he reflects on his anxious outsider status in grad school. He just screams petty-bourgeois wannabe, and don’t we all know a few of those. His picture of academe is idealized and phantasmic, he’s got no feel for the nuances, and he’s outraged that, as you quoted Doris Lessing on African politics a while ago, it’s run by human beings.

    Given his conservatism and if I’m right about his class background, he may actually be much happier in the business world, in which the field of distinctions will seem more familiar and less will be required of his cultural goodwill.

  5. evangoer says:

    It all makes sense, because his picture of industry is idealized and phantasmic as well, much like his fellow travellers in the conservative commentariat. Gimmicks and fads are routinely avoided? Deadlines are honored? Sheesh, who comes up with this stuff?

    Don’t get me wrong, industry can be a fine place to be — it can even be a fine place for ex-academics to be. But I hope John is more resilient than he’s letting on, or he’s going to get eaten alive.

  6. AndrewSshi says:


    Your mention of politics makes me think of certain C- papers I’ve graded. There have been a couple of occasions when I’ve TAed English classes. In one of these, the students had to read Angels in America. A whole lot of the essays assumed that what the instructor wants is dogma, and so trot out six pages of “And therefore we can see how discrimination against gay people is bad.”

    By the end of that batch of papers, I really wished that either I or the professor had had a brief talk before the essay and said, “Let’s take as a given that discrimination against gay people is bad and talk about Kushner’s use of language.”

    And then there’s papers on stuff by Native authors.

    All of which is to say that I think that a side effect of a lot of grousing about liberal academia is that in the culture at large, it creates a sense that professors want to have people espouse the right dogmas. So a first year student naturally assumes that what s/he needs to do is make a dogmatic pronouncement that conforms to his/her expectations of what the professor holds as orthodoxy.

  7. Carl says:

    Yeah, that’s a C- alright, and possibly a D or even an F if it’s ranty and unsupported enough.

    We ask them to do a pretty complicated thing in these papers; it’s not surprising that they would throw dogma in with all the other hoops they think we’re making them jump through. And there are some real mixed messages in the academy about dogma, not least because some of our colleagues are indeed on a moral mission to sort the good people from the bad people, as opposed to showing students how such sortings work.

    For a more subtle example, and I know you just tossed this off, I wouldn’t want to tell students to assume that discrimination against gay people is bad. I won’t even let them assume Hitler was bad; too easy to write off the ‘ordinary men’ who did the actual killing that way. I’ve got plenty of students who don’t think discrimination against gay people is bad, and the ones who do often can’t say why, so their views are pretty nearly useless.

    If I told them to assume homophobia is bad, then whether they agree or disagree they’d learn that dogmatic performance is indeed a requirement of the course, but of course they’d be no closer to enlightenment on the substance of the issue. I might tell them that if they want to assume it’s bad on the way to another point they should say so, but that every time they make that move they restrict the persuasive field of their writing to people who agree with them already or are willing to suspend disbelief. If the paper isn’t about whether homophobia is good or bad but about Kushner’s use of language, that seems like the right thing to tell them.

    I want to teach my students to think more deeply and broadly. I want my conservative students to be thoughtful conservatives and my liberal students to be thoughtful liberals. My own politics are pretty well hidden. The standpoints and ideological orientations of the texts I select are part of our analysis of them. I want students to learn to recognize and bracket ideologies when they see them, including their own.

    In one of my world history sections the other day I teased a student who wanted to know if they could get out early by predicting that she and the vast majority of students who thought I was keeping them there were going to vote for McCain (on the Lakoff theory). Bullseye on that one, so later when we were talking about the spectrum of political preference a student pressed me on who I was going to vote for. I redirected the question to the class – who did they think I was going to vote for? Half said McCain, half said Obama. So I asked them, how many of you assumed I’d vote the same as you because you sort of like me? Heehee!

    Anyway, eventually students who pay close attention should note that there is, or should be something sneakily liberal about valuing open inquiry and diverse views. So I’ll agree with John Smith that there are plenty of faux liberals in academe, but if he really wants what he says he wants he is in fact a liberal (I think he’s an ideologue with sour grapes); and I agree with Tim that he needs to think and work much, much harder about his practice.

  8. scratchy888 says:

    Concerning the whole narcissistic trip that is an entire way of thinking on its own, and which always presumes hidden agendas in others as well as in one’s self, I found this book extremely useful:

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