April 28, 2003
We never talk anymore
Via Caveat Lector, this wonderful essay by Kenneth Mostern, a post-academic, someone who had the sinecure of tenure and cured it by leaving academia.
When all is said and done, I love academia, but still, it hasnt always been what I sometimes imagined it would be.
I thought I was
choosing my dreams and rejecting security, but it turns out I was choosing security
at the possible cost of some of my dreams.
What Mostern most
accurately identifies is the strange absence of talk between academic professionals
about their own work or the larger skein of their intellectual interests. To
some extent, this has to do with time, or the lack of it. A professor is also
of necessity an administrator and a teacher and a scholar. The work expands
to fill any time vacuum: clear a space for some purpose and you quickly find
unsought obligations filling it.
As Mostern notes,
thats not an adequate explanation of the problem. Its the alibi
that everyone uses to lightly explain away the puzzling vacuum at the heart
of academic life.
I had a chance
a few years ago to attend a dinner for a guest lecturer. Some of my favorite
colleagues from Swarthmore were there. The conversation started with issues
that were fairly specific to the speakers presentation and work, but very
rapidly grew into a fast-paced bull session aimed at the primal question, What
is a good society? Afterwards, I talked with one of my colleagues who
hadnt been there about how this had been the best discussion Id
had since I was an undergraduate, and my feeling of melancholy about how rare
and odd this conversation actually was. My colleague looked puzzled and said,
Sounds awfully simplistic.
A student organized
a panel a month ago on the integration of the social sciences, Again, the panel
was composed of some of my most valued colleagues, people who are accomplished
scholars and teachers, who always have something interesting to say. It was
a great panel, but I was also stunned and depressed by one thing that emerged
out of it. Some of our brightest and best students, including the organizer,
felt that this discussion was the first time theyd heard about some of
the issues we covered, about how we worked through the intellectual terrain
of our own discipline within the social sciences, how we confronted a new problem
or a new idea with our own toolkits. I dont think the students were exaggerating:
we dont talk that much about these kinds of issues, either to them or
to each other.
A significant group
of Swarthmore faculty met early this year to talk about a grant designed to
help facilitate year-long seminars between mid-career faculty about new areas
of mutual interest and inquiry. (Im pleased to say that my colleague Mark
Kuperberg and I submitted a proposal for a seminar on emergent systems and computer
simulations that will be the topic for next years seminar.) I have to
say I was stunned when several bright, interesting colleagues of mine essentially
shrugged in response to the idea of the grant and said that if it wouldnt
help them get research work to the state that it could be published in a specialized
journal, it wasnt terribly useful. Conversation between faculty about
a subject not directly functional to their research was not a sufficient end
in its own right.
You can overstate the hold of this strange silence: this semester I have been having a wonderful time with another interdisciplinary seminar on emergent systems and complexity and also been part of another faculty group reading postcolonial theory. I do get a chance every once in a while to talk with colleagues about their work, but usually because of accidents or strange interruptions of routine.
It is not because we are too busy. It is because we are afraid. For one, we are afraid because of having tenure, not because we have yet to have it: all of us with tenure fear starting a conversation that will reveal an irresolvable intellectual and political divide between ourselves and a colleague.
Who wants to live
for 30 years with someone who hates you and will work to undermine you, especially
knowing as most of us do that an academic environment offers innumerable opportunities
for a dour machiavel to damage colleagues in ways that cannot be
confronted or stopped? I was speaking the other day with a colleague from another
institution that I like a lot and I confessed (that's the right word for it)
that I really liked Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism. He looked surprised,
"But it's quite a neocon book, isn't it"? I suppose, I said, but on
a few things, I think the neocons have a point.. That earned me a quick look
of concerned surprise, much as if I had said I had cancer or AIDS. For most
academics, better to keep silent and tend ones own gardens in the very
public privacy of ones own specialization.
We are afraid of
our own intellectual ambitions, afraid that other academics will think us simple
or lacking knowledge and expert command of our subject matter. That is partly
an artifact of graduate school training, its internalization of shame and its
More potently, it is an artifact of the massive saturation of the intellectual marketplace with published knowledge and academic performances of knowledge at conferences, workshops and events. We fear exposure of ignorance because in truth, most of us are ignorant.
that disciplines and old ways of processing the flow of information provide
to academics are on the verge of uselessness. The canon has no authority any
longer, and there is no compass to point the way towards what we ought to know.
No wonder some graduate professors rule their students like cruel eunuchs: they
no longer know how to reproduce their own practices and can only train others
through authoritarian mystifications and capricious dictates.
We have to embrace certain kinds of beautiful simplicities--one of which is to acknowledge the gloriously irreducible complexity of the human condition and meet it without the security blanket of well-manicured social theory and reflexive turns to our own epistemology, to write histories and sociologies and anthropologies that have the emotional intimacy and ambiguity of the best and richest fiction--and that are as seductive and engaging to read as those fictions. We have to be unashamed about speaking plainly, to feel that our deepest obligation involves being legible to our colleagues.
We should embrace
our teaching mission and slow the ceaseless overproduction of derivative, second-order
knowledge, of monographs or experiments whose only justification for being is
a tenure dossier and the hollow, insincere rhetoric of a whiggish mission to
add one more grain of sand to the pile of knowledge, a rhetoric that we spurn
at every other moment of our waking days. We should ride the wave of information
in its wild state, embrace the strange attractors that lure us from one subject
to the next.
We should be more concerned with our quality of mind and less concerned with our production of scholarship, and place greater value by far on one good conversation about the nature of a good society than the publication of five journal articles. Thats how we get to a new academy humming with passion for ideas and a generosity of spirit, where academics treat each other with the same tender pedagogical regard that professors at a college like Swarthmore now reserve for their brightest undergraduates, where the excitement of discussion and debate replaces the damp silence that nestles over the academic calendar like a fog.