See Also

Two things I want to point out now before sinking under the next wave of work:

(1) The New Inquiry is a group blog that is very close in spirit to what I would do with Quick Study if I were putting any effort into it at all. (Which pretty clearly is not the case. Sorry about that.) Anybody still hanging around this place might want to check it out.

(2) A recent item published by my erstwhile employer discusses "The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind,'" and anybody under the impression that they will be the lucky one to get a tenure-track job might do well to have a look -- though seriously, people, the writing is on the wall, so read the wall first. I only mention the piece because it generated some interesting comments, along with a few that seem deranged, but so it always goes. One comment in particular, number 75, signed with the name "dcbetty," caught my eye.

It is very close to my own sense of the world, and I want to pluck the text out of the comments section and paste it up in this digital scrapbook:

One problem is when students and faculty think that the only way to HAVE a "life of the mind" is to go to grad school. I suggest prospective grad students start hanging out with writers and artists. In my experience, ideas that in academia are treated as revolutionary are in fact concepts that artists and writers outside academia often explored literally decades earlier (and without a PhD). Academia is indeed a fantastic place to explore the life of the mind-- but it is also often conservative, derivative, and uncreative in its thinking, even among those who fancy themselves radicals.

Scholars might as well go be with the artists, for becoming a credentialed intellectual (by going to grad school) now has a high likelihood of landing people in the exact social and economic situation experienced by artists and writers -- no, or very little payment for your "real" work, and little interest or even notice shown by the rest of the world. The difference is that writers and artists usually have few illusions about their moneymaking prospects, so it's totally acceptable for artists to have "day jobs" that no other artist would ever fault them for having so that they could continue to do their work.

Academics, on the other hand, tend to be much more mainstream and narrow in what kind of moneymaking work is acceptable, and a lot more worried about social status. (What else can you say about a profession in which teaching high school, or publishing an essay in the New Yorker or a book aimed at the NPR-listening public, is seen as evidence of unseriousness and will, in all likelihood, be detrimental to your career?)

These days, though, scholars, like writers and artists, must accept that what they do, they must do for love (because no one really gives a damn about it except your peers), and persevere even if they have to work at Whole Foods during the day to do so. In the world outside academia they can find a fascinating group of people living an often far more adventurous "life of the mind" then you will find in a university. (and believe it or not, some in this group will be reading the same books you are, and have interesting things to say about them)

The cost is that such scholars will have to give up on the idea of upper-class social status, and know that mainstream academia will now consider you a loser/crank and probably never let you back in. The benefit is that you can work free of intellectually-restrictive career-ladder restraints. And that might produce work so interesting that you could become a professor someday after all -- especially if/when the current academic model finally destroys itself.

To whoever wrote this, all I can say is: Thank you. There is something to say for knowing that somebody out there actually gets it.

But of course the message will not be understood by most of the people being overtly addressed by dcbetty -- for the "fantasy of professionalization" very effectively destroys the ability to imagine any other order of things.  
February 15, 2010 6:50 PM | | Comments (9)



What greater measure of the depth of the problem can there be than contrasting the New Yorker and NPR as models of open debate!

But she sounds right to me. The elitism behind the conceit that you MUST attend grad school to enter the "life of the mind" is staggering. I have heard exactly that when people know that I won't attend graduate school. These same people, when pressed, will speak of their experience in graduate school as a trauma.

I'm sure this quote is tactless, but it's too relevant to ignore:

"Being willing to sit in a boring classroom for 12 years, and then sign up for four more years and then sign up for three or more years after that—well, that’s a pretty good measure of your willingness to essentially do what you’re told."

-- Samuel Bowles

The context for quote, I should add, was a response to blaming inequality on "education choices."

That's a good line -- and in keeping with something that Bourdieu says about a key requirement of academic success being docility.

One year, during MLA, I was at a dinner after having spent a little time in a used bookstore. A young professor wanted to see what was in my bag. Among the items were a novel by George Gissing, a collection of Trotsky's writings on China, and an edition of Freud's papers.

Now, my friends will know that these purchases reflected a years-long preoccupation with each of the authors -- and my enthusiasm about getting each volume no doubt came across. But that mood broke as I began to gauge her response. She was perplexed that someone could be interested in (and indeed preoccupied with) all of these figures without having the credentials to "qualify" as a specialist on any of them. It was clear that this bothered her. The response to seeing my corner of "the life of the mind" was anxiety.

This also registers, often enough, in the form of a rather frantic need to call "journalism" any intellectual writing that is not the product of established routines they find reassuring. This isn't a neutral label but something use as a put-down. (On a merely descriptive level, "journalist" has never seemed all that useful for the sort of writer I am, given that I was 37 years old and had published hundreds of reviews and essays before anybody explained to me what a "lede" or a "nut graf" was.)

These things are symptoms of a timidity that is institutionally rewarded, hence unlikely to change. Of course there are plenty of people who go through the process and come out of it for the better -- smart, confident, able to do do meaningful work, etc. These people are often able to grasp that there are forms of intellectual and cultural life that exist outside their routines.

I'm just venting about the ones who don't because for some reason I get tired of being crapped on by them.

I'd like to know what English Dept., for example, would count an article in the New Yorker against you. I mean, is that a well-considered example?

I don't think it's incorrect so much as a case of viewing things through the wrong end of the telescope. Any academic publishing in The New Yorker will by that point be in a position where such a thing won't be counted against him or her.

But an assistant prof writing for, say, The Nation or Bookforum will get no credit for that, and plenty of reminders that it is not the best use of time and energy. This may not involve a formal memo, but peer pressure works just efficiently through the raised eyebrow.

I feel a measured agreement with you, Scott.

My biggest point is that no one should be faulted for wanting to live an economically comfortable life--though academia certainly doesn't guarantee one.

While I admit that my chances of getting a job in academia maybe slim, I don't think that grad school will hurt either way. In other words, I will earn about as much in Grad School as I would at Whole Foods, but in Grad School I get to do research (and grad papers).

If I can't get hired as an academic, I'm no worse off.

I think that is the right attitude. Where the situation is problematic is that it seems to be set up now to exploit graduate students as teaching laborers for a few years by holding out the expectation that they actually will get to have that economically comfortable life down the road -- while in reality the whole thing precludes that, at least for most, since it is cheaper to pay new grad student stipends than full-time profs to handle the same courses.

As Marc Bosquet puts it, the Ph.D. then becomes a waste product. The result is a tremendous amount of bitterness. It also tends to create a profoundly trivilialzing identification between institutional recognition and intellectual seriousness, which is my complaint, but in some ways that is just icing on the toxic cake.

I feel as though I have seen her gaze. The "What are you doing here?" of a lessee who is unnerved to find squatters in the neighboring apartments, in a neighborhood where "that just doesn't happen."

I have a Masters Degree and started a Ph.D., but I realized that most of it was reading stuff other people had written, and summarizing it.

I can do that without paying tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Plus, I can read whatever I want at my own pace.

Quick Studier,

I love your story of the used-bookstore bookbag. Sadly, the vignette rings only too true. The conflation of a certain kind of narrow specialization with intellectual life has been only too pernicious in the university.

My question is what would a more ideal university look like outside the current corporate model? How can we draw upon the good things about professionalization and institutional stability (economic and otherwise) in a way that supersedes the existing neoliberal model for the university?

One additional comment: I think we should also be careful of the declension narrative. The old university was an old boys' network, certainly not ideal. And even ye ol' New York Intellectuals public intellectual life had plenty of problems. So what would the future look like, beyond the current university system?

You don't need to answer this question, of course. Though by all means if you have proposals, please please offer them! But the latest blast from Benton, your own sharp comments, and the thoughtful responses above got me thinking about what kind of questions we should be asking about the university system -- and what kind of alternative models we might propose in addition to the latest, well-publicized Menandian "Marketplace of Ideas" reform.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Quick Study published on February 15, 2010 6:50 PM.

War on the Palaces! Peace to the Cottages! was the previous entry in this blog.

Funny This Never Came Up in the "Paris Review" Interviews is the next entry in this blog.

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