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 hasn’t 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, that’s not an adequate explanation of the problem. It’s 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 speaker’s 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 hadn’t been there about how this had been the best discussion I’d 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 they’d 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 don’t think the students were exaggerating: we don’t 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. (I’m 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 year’s 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 wouldn’t help them get research work to the state that it could be published in a specialized journal, it wasn’t 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 one’s own gardens in the very public privacy of one’s 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 paranoid wariness.

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.

The heuristics 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. That’s 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.