Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Defense of Academia

In 2004 I decided to leave my job as a high school teacher in a boarding school to go to graduate school in philosophy. My reasons for doing this were varied -- a mixture of naive idealism [maybe the study of philosophy will give me some insight into life] and real fatigue from the work of teaching young people [reading books and writing papers sounded pretty awesome at the end of yet another 15 hour day devoted to young folks.] My reasons had little to do with career. I was realistic about the instrumental value of a philosophy PhD. I hoped it would be a great way to spend a few years and left thoughts of Future Ramifications for Career to the gods.

Ten years have passed since that decision, and I am happy to report that it was a good one. A recent article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times  caused me to reflect a little on my nine year stint in academia as a graduate student, as a professor (though never tenured), as a writer and thinker, and as an educator. In the article, Kristof brings forward a common complaint these days that academia is insular and increasingly irrelevant. I mention this problem as reason for starting this blog, and I think it's worth noting that the insularity of academia is something that academics worry about much more than the general public.

Academics -- being driven people with high standards for themselves -- want to have it both ways. They want to be part of an intellectual elite, but they also want to be relevant to all. This is a tension that is written into the university life, and it's something that everyone in academia has to struggle with and make their peace with. Some are more comfortable with the elite end of things; others with the educational and "public service" aspect of intellectual work. My suspicion is that this tension is a productive one -- less a problem to be solved once and for all, and more an animating and productive sort of tension.

Individually, academics may struggle with these questions, but their temperaments eventually resolve it for them one way or another. Those who are educators at heart drift to the educational side. They end up writing more blogs, more editorials, engaging in more activism and land at smaller institutions where undergraduate education is central to the academic mission. Those who are intellectuals at heart end up at the big universities and spend most of their energy and time writing for top journals whose audience is a small group of elites. Then, there are a few rare souls who have the temperament, time, and talent to bridge the gap between these two sorts of academics and also the gulf between academia and a larger public world that likes to refer to itself as "the real world." These are the few that get to have it both ways -- probably at large personal cost.

Having left academia and returned to at least a real world if not the real world (my present job as academic dean of a high school asks me to communicate with all sorts of people with all sorts of educational backgrounds), I feel like I have something real to say about the gulf between academia and this "real world."

First: I find the work that I did while in my PhD program and then later as a professional philosopher to be extremely useful outside of academia. The qualities that make a good academic are useful in all kinds of contexts -- to trust in reasons, to listen to argument, to make distinctions, to disagree civilly, to write carefully. I lean on these capacities every day.

Second, I want to say that the work I did over the nine years I spent in a university philosophy department felt to me like it was fundamentally real and valuable in itself. While I decided not to spend my whole life as a professional philosopher, I was hugely enriched by spending a good chunk of my life doing this sort of work in a time when I was still growing as a young adult. I also allow myself to believe that I made a small contribution during those nine years to something I really believe in.

Yes, this experience was narrow and at times felt distant from certain realities. But, the ivory tower epithet has always struck me as a bit odd because it seems to me that the specialized careers we all lead in contemporary life subject us all fairly equally to a certain isolation and narrowness of perspective. Academics hope to speak out of their isolation towards public values -- thereby exposing themselves to the ivory tower critique -- but to my mind the attempt is virtuous, even if it so often fails. In a society of specialization we all ought to feel some anxiety about the reality of our worlds.

Finally, I just want to say that the pace and place of academic life, with its large blocks of time, its architecture that encourages interaction, the intensity of its push to think hard and well, and its care and concern for young people did not arise accidentally. It is the result of hard work and generous support of people from within and outside its walls. It's not a perfect world, but our world -- this real and fractured and hardly aware world --is more perfect because academia exists: fundamentally flawed, fragile, and necessary.

6 comments:

  1. Jeff,
    Appreciate the read as this issue is pertinent to me as well (began in 2005 left in 2011). I read lots of these types of articles at the Chronicle, Inside Higher ed, and hear all kinds of complaints from my tenure track friends. Here is my two cents…That the Academic environment is difficult to generalize about since each dept. has its own culture and individuals can act in radically different ways within those depts. I do think academics tend to view their work as “special”. Having worked in ham factories, law firms, chamber of commences, universities et cetera I can say that work seems fairly similar everywhere. It seems to come down to balancing playing the game of intra-personnel politics and the ability to do the work (I naively went into the towers looking for a more “pure” intellectual engagement). Where this is ironic is that in my anecdotal experience it was in one university where I taught that intra-personnel politics constantly trumped everything else. Again though it is difficult to generalize I can say that I sat in intro classes at undergraduate liberal arts schools and had much more in depth conversations than in a R1 doctoral program(seminars were public opportunities to reaffirm some professors egos) . Yet, I have been a student and taught in “low ranking” state institutions where seminars felt like true explorations of ideas and students had sincere commitments to deepen their knowledge on a subject. I have no answers but do find it frustrating that when discussing “academia” that almost no articles take the time to clarify what academia is or what its purpose actually is(their seems to be this general assumption that it is good). I do not believe that knowledge is compatible with prestige based hierarchies in the long run; I mean the Mandarins had a run from the 6th century until 1912 in China but eventually external reality caught up with their insular world. Perhaps the greatest irony is that a good amount of humanities depts. have been hawking the philosophies of post-modernism since the 1980’s. A theory which claims that “knowledge” is nothing more than an institutional construct itself that has no value outside of the society in which the institution exists. I guess the irony to me is that the most post-modern professors I encountered saw ” knowledge” as displaying your acceptance of their rigid interpretation of post-modern ideology. Almost all never seemed to realize they were promoting an anti-institutional theory while using the arbitrary power afforded by their position as professors in said institution to encourage agreement. Perhaps most surprising is that they seem surprised when tax payers no longer want to fund their institutions after spending their entire careers proclaiming that knowledge is subjective. The last irony I will leave with is that most academicians think of the institutional model of current education as something eternal (its current iteration has only really been around since the 19th century). Many of the historical intellectual figures idealized by many were completely outside the educational frameworks of their times. I guess it boils down to this is knowledge a commodity to be bought through prestige based degrees/institutions or is it a more disruptive force not conducive to status quos, peer-review, tenure, departmental politics or hierarchies. I suspect the latter and would place a bet that academia will be around forever but in 50 years will look completely different than it does now. -KEVIN
    “Why are the debates in academia so bitter? Because the stakes are so low.” -old joke I used to hear
    Have you seen this?: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/02/sexual_harassment_in_philosophy_departments_university_of_colorado_boulder.html

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  2. Jeff, Great piece. Your thoughts resonate really well with me, as someone who is in a similar academic space right now. I would also add (with the above commenter) that it is hard to generalize about academia. I would say that in the biological sciences, at least, public outreach is part of the new norm--in other words, you have to do it all. You will notice that it is often the top researchers at R1 universities who have the most engaging and best developed research websites. This is crucial to attracting the best graduate students, and to obtaining NSF funding (which now pretty much requires some form of outreach as part of the research package). And it doesn't stop at websites. Lab blogs are very much the norm, as are Facebook pages in some cases. You will find that many labs will bring elementary school kids through once a year, or offer support to high school students on their science fair projects etc. I find it frustrating, on the other hand, when I go to many other disciplines to find out what professors are doing, and it is often hard to find even a functional website. It may be that biologists have a lot of interesting real world stuff to talk about, and a bit more of a knack for technology than other disciplines. All of this definitely puts pressure on the work-life balance, as you say. Between teaching and research, professors are already working way longer hours and less pay than other people of the same level of education. Throwing in outreach to the mix may very well tip the work life balance off-kilter and it is the rare individual who can take it all in stride. One other feature of laboratory-based research is the laboratory community, and this is one factor that may make it feasible. Perhaps the PI has a graduate student keep the website or blog up-to-date, or take the elementary school class on the tour. Philosophy professors may not have that luxury.

    Thanks again for this piece.

    Cheers,

    Tim

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    Replies
    1. Billo!

      Agreed about it all -- I think philosophy profs do feel these same pressures. I just want to say that all the tension and the stress and the impossible demands that academia places on folks, especially their best folks, is in the service of something good. Not perfect: I see a lot of what Kevin says about academia as true, but still good.

      Our college experience taught us to believe that it was all possible in academia -- that we could train hard, have great friends, have incredible teachers, and engage in research, all at a sustainable rhythm in a beautiful place. But of course a lot was hidden from us at Williams as well -- behind that experience was a lot of hard work and stress.

      At any rate, I guess I mostly wanted to step back from a place whose flaws I saw at close range and say something like: "Academia might suck in a lot of ways, but we are better off with it than without it."

      So glad you are still reading -- and hope our paths cross again some day in real life.

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    2. Jeff,
      Sorry to keep posting on this but here is an article: http://theblogologist.com/2013/12/quitting-academia-and-writing-about-it/ with links to several other good articles on leaving academia. One writer even organizes 34 "I quit" essays into different types of "Quit Lit".
      -Kevin

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