May 21, 2003

Monastery or the Market?

My piggy-backing on other people’s blogs continues: this time, I’m responding to Michele Tepper’s essay “Doctor Outsider”, which I found via Invisible Adjunct.

Tepper nails the snobbery of the academy dead on in one respect. There is no doubt that most academics regard the pursuit of careers outside the academy by ABDs or Ph.Ds to be a sign of failure or mental breakdown.

There is so much bundled up in that reaction. For one, the academic fear of irrelevance, coupled with an equal and opposite pride in the ethereal virtue of being outside the world of everyday life. For another, the confusion about desirable outcomes, the difficulty of figuring out how graduate school culminates in the anomie of the tenured life.

What I think Tepper does not properly credit is that many academics express distress at a Ph.D in the humanities and social sciences choosing a career besides academia is that they’re thinking like utility maximizers. Privately, they’re asking, “Why invest the time in doing a doctorate when most of the post-academic careers that one could choose do not require or benefit from having a doctorate?” Look at Tepper’s own career choice: couldn’t she have done that without a doctorate? Look at Kenneth Mostern’s postacademic career: couldn’t he have just done that in the first place?

Of course this is an appalling indictment of the near-total lack of pedagogy within doctoral programs in the humanities and the social sciences. There are certainly professors who teach their graduate students very well, but what they teach is largely the art and craft of being an academic. Becoming a Ph.D in history or literary studies is not about deepening expertise and knowledge that can be put to general use. Most undergraduate courses that are taught well bequeath knowledge and thinking skills to students that have many possible uses. Most graduate study in academic subjects is the opposite: it has no other use besides the reproduction of academia in its present institutional form.

This has a lot to do with the derision that greeted Elaine Showalter’s recommendation that Ph.Ds in English would make great screenwriters. I’m sure some of that reaction was the unbridled snobbery of academia, but some of it was also practical. A Ph.D who would make a great screenwriter would have made a great screenwriter before they got the Ph.D, The Ph.D surely would not have helped them become better screenwriters, and as a utilitarian credential, it not only does not open the doors for an aspiring screenwriter, it may actively close them. Quite a few newly-minted humanities Ph.Ds have found that their degree is an active impediment to seeking employment outside the academy. Even if the job-seeker is willing to start in an entry-level position, potential employers often feel that is inappropriate for someone with a doctorate—but that person often also lacks any experience that would qualify them for more advanced jobs.

Most academics shudder at the specter of the marketplace, and blame “corporatization” for all the ills that afflict universities and colleges. I think it is not nearly so clear-cut. It’s possible that universities and colleges aren’t corporatized enough, and in any event, most of the academics who decry the intrusions of the market into academic life are totally unwilling to embrace an alternative return to the university as a sacred, artisanal institution whose legitimacy derives from its relationship to the democratic public sphere and ideals of citizenship.

I don’t think this is a false binary. It really is a basic choice, to some extent, at least as a foundational principle about what is worth doing and why the academy exists. Though the partial commercialization and corporatization of the academy certainly has been accelerated by exterior pressures, I think many faculty collude in the process, often precisely those who protest most strenuously complain about it.

For example, anyone who has ever accepted either a Foucauldian or Gramscian understanding of what the university does—who either sees it as part of a ‘truth regime’ deeply connected to dispersed forms of bio-power or who sees intellectuals as engaged in a ‘war of position’ with the aim of revolutionary transformation of civil society—has more or less opened the door to the corporatization of the university.

That sounds like a perverse claim, but the direct consequences of abandoning a vision of intellectual life as involving a progressive accumulation of knowledge whose purpose is open-ended, non-ideologically fixed critical thought for an informed citizenry in a liberal democratic society is that it leaves academics no basis for articulating a privileged place for higher education in terms of the general logics of 21st Century global society.

If the university is nothing more than another power/knowledge factory or a subversive redoubt for the production of opposition to late capitalism, then there is no intelligible argument for its continuance in a non-market form that can be made within the terms of the larger public sphere. Of necessity, those arguments have to be oddly private, made only within guild circles, between academics, in journals and monographs and conferences and committee meetings. And the only grounds for continuing the conventional practices of academia, like tenure, peer review, or scholarly production itself are hermetic and inertial ones: they are what constitutes valid power/knowledge claims, so they are what we do, or they are how we move chesspieces on the board of the “war of position”, so we bow to the rules of the game.

The only grounds on which one can legitimately resist the marketization of higher education, in the context of a larger public argument, is that some set of progressive and sacred values resides within it, that as an institution is cannot be and must not be understood in terms of a productivist logic.

There is something to be said for productivism, but only IF the entire operation of scholarship is laid bare to it. Imagine academic departments where continuous employment was guaranteed only by two things: bringing paying customers in the door and producing and disseminating knowledge that mattered, where “mattered” was judged by the size or importance of the larger non-academic audiences consuming that knowledge. I don’t think that is entirely a horrible vision. It would have the virtue of (cruelly) clarifying regimes of labor value: you’d have to be either an effective pedagogue or an effective communicator in your scholarship. In that system, the hundreds of other students I have had who would gladly pay for an extension of the broad liberal arts experience they had as undergraduates might find a graduate pedagogy to satisfy that aspiration. People like Michele Tepper might find that the work they did as graduate students actively assisted a variety of professional aspirations by pedagogical design rather than adaptive necessity.

We would sell what the market demanded, not what we austerly deemed the market required. Such a university would have to abandon requirements entirely, because the are a way of skewing the intellectual marketplace within a curriculum. You couldn’t determine whether the market for pedagogy was operating properly if there were required courses, because ineffective pedagogues who were good bureaucratic infighters could simply claim more than their fair share of the requirements and so claim a captive pool of “customers”. You’d have to abandon peer review or strenuously reduce it to no more than fact-checking. And so on.

It certainly would be a different kind of institution. To reject it out of hand because it bows to the market requires rethinking everything in academic life that invokes some kind of market differentiation between scholars and teachers. If you want to reject that vision completely, then don’t judge scholars by the quantity of their scholarship. Don’t judge them by the number of students in their courses. Don’t judge them by the grants they bring in. Don't judge them by how many citations they get in other academic publications. Don't judge them by their internally determined commodity value, by what other scholars deem valuable or interesting. Don't judge them against labor markets at all, in any way.

The easiest way to do that is not to judge at all, but that too is impossible if there are a limited number of jobs and a large number of job-seekers. What that means is that in a rigorously non-market academy, we have to judge by quality of knowledge and nothing more, and that this judgement cannot be by any instrumental rubric, whether left or right. The moment you say, “This knowledge matters more than that knowledge” and that assessment is based on a general utility, profitability, or significance, rather than ethereal correspondence to truth and beauty, you’re open to an intellectual market of some kind.

As I said, I think that’s something of a virtue, at least potentially. To admit that the ordering of faculty life is legitimately subjugated to some kind of market is also to admit that the bugbear of “corporatization” is with us not because of evil administrators or the sinister forces of late capitalism predatorily inserting themselves into our lives. We do it to ourselves, every day. The grad students at Penn who take up arms against corporatization by unionizing today are clamoring to join a profession where they will, of necessity, practice corporatization tomorrow. Not because they will fall from grace, but because the normative practices of contemporary scholarship accept and even embrace half-formed market logics of value, often quite particularly and intensely within the academic left. Any perspective which strongly instrumentalizes knowledge production opens that door, because it abandons an artisanal and sanctified understanding of academia.

If you want to defend scholarship as monasticism, you had better be willing to accept in generality an otherworldly and non-instrumental understanding of academic virtue, to believe in knowledge for knowledge's sake.. You cannot conceive of higher education as such only when it is convenient to do so: the philosophical obligations of such a view must of necessity run far deeper.

If you’re sometimes open to a market understanding of what is good about some knowledge or pedagogy, then you have to be at least notionally open to much of what comes with “corporatization” . For example, grad students trying to unionize ought to be embracing corporatization, because the devaluing of pedagogy that permits an Ivy League institution to fob off its paying undergraduate customers on poorly paid and ill-trained graduate student instructors is made possible not by an exposure to the marketplace but by relative insulation from it. More customer rights demanded by undergraduate students in a market-driven rhetoric might lead universities to take the steps they responsibly ought to take: dramatically reducing the number of Ph.D candidates in the humanities and the social sciences, hiring contract faculty at reasonable salaries to teach courses, reforming sham curricula that pretend that putting 600 undergraduates in front of a video monitor of a lecturer is education worth paying $20,000 a year for, and so on.

Right now, what most academics seem to want, even and especially on the “left”, is a quasi-statist academic market, a market whose terms they exclusively define, where fixed consumption of knowledge outputs is dictated by control over disciplinary canons and library budgets and production targets are met by the dictates of tenure and promotion. This seems to me to be the worst of all worlds, without the generative fecundity of a ‘real’ marketplace of ideas and education and without the sacred, contemplative virtues of a life of the mind that serves the wider civic needs of a liberal democratic society.