Monday, June 30, 2008

And we wonder why academics have a bad rep....

I begin, as usual, with a link:

This, from today's Chronicle of Higher Education. The present post will not easily fit into my proposed format for this blog; it does not address an aspect of popular culture, or a certain musical performance that I find invigorating and rewarding, or anything of the like. Instead I find myself dragged right into the muck which Mr. Reeson inhabits: self-reflexive meta-commentary by academics on academia. (I usually save the putrid stew of bitching, self-evaluation, armchair-professoring and plain old ranting that all fit under the rubric of this "meta-commentary" for in-person, voiced conversations--i.e., shooting the shit with friends who are also in grad school.)

It is not the first time that something published in the Chronicle has raised my ire, or inspired me to fits of condemnatory logorrhea (--case in point), though again, those usually manifest in the spoken, rather than written, word. However, Mr. Reeson's comments compel me to use a blog post to weigh in on his editorial. My initial reaction was to believe that his piece was a ruse of some sort, a practical joke meant as a send-up of the self-importance many professors feel. But I must remind myself that the views and opinions expressed in the Chronicle under cover of pseudonymity often border on the surreal and absurd. Reeson is in all likelihood sincere in his musings.

Although Reeson seems to be at pains to alert the reader that he does not condone selfish, anti-social, and childish behavior on the part of humanities faculty members, his essay as a whole serves as a sheepish apologia for the kind of antics experienced by most people who serve on or are in contact with such faculties. If it were simply a matter of a room full of PhDs trying to stir up the dull waters of their professional lives by creating a bit of office drama, Reeson might have at least half a point. Yet he reveals his cloistered perspective in his failure to mention how faculty dysfunction negatively affects non-faculty members of an academic department (...yes, them...remember?). When brilliant professors get cranky--either because of spats with other profs, or for whatever reason--administrative coordinators, program administrators, assistants to the chair, in short staff, are often the ones who must weather the storm. Even when conflict is not brewing, staff may have to put up with random tantrums, sudden requests (orders) to stop what they were doing and assist a faculty member with a dire task like showing him or her how to make double-sided copies. (Needless to say, the occasional graduate student can also get caught in the crossfire of departmental politics). So, issue #1: Reeson is a classist. Academic departments would not exist were it not for the staff. So to lament that faculty "only hurt ourselves" by being mean and selfish is to discredit the labor and humanity of our colleagues in the main office.

I also find Reeson's version of structuralist analysis of faculty infighting as a form of ritualized sociality to be unpalatable in its false logic. This paragraph in particular is a gem:

"Now I'm not trying to normalize or sanction conflict. What I am trying to suggest is that conflict must have a certain practical value for us. We professors are a relatively intelligent bunch. But by refusing to be nice to one another, we poison our work environment, effectively peeing in our own pool. Why would intelligent people do that unless it served some purpose? Couldn't it be the case that academic conflict — even as it creates certain problems — might also solve certain problems, problems that are particularly acute for academics?"

Normalizing conflict is precisely what Reeson tries to do in this piece. It is insulting on multiple levels. Firstly, since when has intelligence ever precluded aggressive or unethical behavior? Secondly, why does intelligence necessarily lead to "rational" or "practical" actions? Did intelligence prevent "great minds" like Dostoyevsky or Charlie Parker from doing something impractical like hitting the bottle or needle? Thirdly, and perhaps most distressingly, Reeson suggests a quantitative approach to interpreting and analyzing faculty behavior where a regularly occurring action must serve some positive, beneficial, or productive function. The more something happens, the more likely it is that there's a good reason for it to happen. Extending this logic further suggests so many harrowing examples of how it could be (and has been) employed that I need not even cite specific instances.

I must also take exception to Reeson's thoughts on the special problems that academics face: tragedies of the moderately-affluent intelligentsia such as boredom, ennui, wanderlust. The agony of teaching courses in a field you consciously chose, year after year, earning a comfortable salary. I respect boredom: it is a powerful human emotion which can lead to or coincide with others such as depression and anger. But I will not place the charge of boredom on the profession; instead, I place it on the person. (If Reeson wants to experience boredom, he could work the night shift as an office building security guard night after night. If he wants to know repetitious labor, he should try working in an automobile assembly line for 35 years.)

So, to conclude I return to the thoughts of Mr. Reeson's non-academic friend, who reiterated the proverbial wisdom that though professors learned many things, how to interact with other humans was not one of them. While it is a simplistic and prejudicial statement that cannot serve as a general theory of academic social conflict, I do believe that it lies somewhere near an accurate explanation of this conflict. I think that those academics who do not get along with their co-workers are not so much socially inept as unwilling. The job of university professor does not emphasize social skills; the highest premium is placed on "brilliance." Even the non-superstars in Reeson's own department were once starry-eyed graduate students who worked hard to get into their graduate program, then worked hard while in it, and were sure that their dissertation would shake the world. The job training most academics received was in how to write well, how to develop critical thinking skills, how to develop and market a research project. Nobody told them that once their dissertation (or article, or book, or job talk) got them a seat at the faculty meeting table, they would have to interact with their co-workers. I suspect that those faculty members who interact with peers in a disrespectful manner view those interactions as a distraction from the "real" work at hand. To them, faculty meetings and collegiality are just not a part of their jobs, even though they are.

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