notes on a lively conference on universities

The mood last weekend in Minnesota was sometimes fiery, sometimes like a storm about to break, with groves of raised hands waiting to be called on; other times a bit calmed, a bit weary from ten straight hours of sessions, or sobered by the complexity of the topic or even the complexity of the discussion. It was a conference called “Rethinking the University,” three days long, at first in a dark business school ampitheatre, and then in an old assembly hall with wooden beams and weak sunlight seeping through opaque windows.

The crowds ranged from thirty to ninety, I’d guess; panels dealt with everything from academic labor and grad student unionization to radical pedagogy, the liberal arts, academic knowledge with its marginal branches like theatre and design, Marxian theories of affective labor and Italian autonomism, and of course academic branding and corporatization. A high degree of political commitment, and widespread involvement in the labor movement, set the tone of debate; a number of participants were labor historians, union organizers turned grad students, past members of SDS, or “seventies feminists” (as one woman called herself). Only a few non-academics showed up, raising questions about how to bridge the gap between academic discourse and other kinds of organizing.

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American conferences on the university

I was making a little list of conferences on the university and I thought, for quick historical reference, it might be good to post them here. When I try to make a list – and I’m sure this is a very incomplete one – it turns out that there’s a pretty continuous flow of scholarly interest in the topic. (And this is all ignoring the work of ASHE and other education research groups that I don’t know.)

increased American interest in philosophy

An article called “In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined,” in the Times, reports that the number of undergraduate philosophy majors is climbing across the country. The interesting thing is that the reasons given for the increase in enrollment are far from traditional justifications for philosophical inquiry. A student at Rutgers, Didi Onejame, is said to think that philosophy “has armed her with the skills to be successful.” What are these skills? “It’s a major that helps them become quick learners and gives them strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking,” says the executive director of the APA. Students also, apparently, find it “intellectually rewarding,” “a lot of fun,” good training for asking “larger societal questions,” and a good choice for an era when the job market changes too fast, supposedly, to pick a more reliably marketable field.

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Philosophy course listings, University of Vincennes 1969/70

According to a curious book, Christopher Driver’s The Exploding University – a journalist’s reflective late-60s tour of universities around the globe – the courses offered at the University of Vincennes as of 1969/70 were as follows:

  • La 3ème étape du marxisme-leninisme: le maoïsme (Judith Miller)
  • Problèmes concernant l’idéologie I (Judith Miller)
  • Problèmes concernant l’idéologie II (Jacques Rancière)
  • Théorie de la 2ème étape du marxisme léninisme: le concept du stalinisme (Jacques Rancière)
  • Introduction aux marxistes du XXème siècle: (1) Lenine, Trotsky, et le courant bolchévique (Henri Weber)
  • (2) Les écrits de Mao Tsé Toung (Henri Weber)
  • La dialectique marxiste (Alain Badiou)
  • La science dans la lutte des classes (Alain Badiou)
  • Problèmes de la pratique révolutionnaire (Jeannette Colombel)
  • L’idéologie pédagogique (René Scherrer)
  • Logique (Houria Sinaceur)
  • Epistémologie des sciences exactes et des mathématiques (Houria Sinaceur)
  • Epistémologies des sciences de la vie (Michel Foucault)
  • Pb. épistemologiques des sciences historiques (François Chatelet)
  • Critique de la pensée spéculative grecque (François Chatelet)
  • Nietzsche (histoire et genéalogie) (Michel Foucault)
  • Les idéologies morales d’aujourd’hui (Françoise Regnault)
  • A propos de la littérature et del’art (François Regnault)
  • Le signe chez Nietzsche (François Rey)

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student experiences of postmodernism, part 1

One of the most interesting phenomena of post-Reagan academic culture in America is the student perception of “postmodernism.” Or of “postmodern theory” or simply of “theory.” Now, to be honest, I find ‘postmodernism’ useless as an intellectual category. Possibly it remains useful in thinking about art or architecture; I’m not sure. Of course, I recognize “postmodernism” as a term with a well-known, if fuzzy, referent. It designates such French intellectuals as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze, and Lacan, and certain American academics like Donna Haraway or Richard Rorty or James Clifford (in anthropology), and more importantly a whole academic social world, recognizable by its characteristic concerns, idioms, arguments, and styles.

I find it useless, myself, for three reasons. For one thing, it’s too vague to be useful in academic work. It elides all the intellectual, disciplinary, and institutional differences between, say, Derrida and Foucault, or Deleuze and Lacan, or Rorty and Haraway. Second, it’s typically used as a term of abuse, a brand of shame that designates others rather than selves. No one I know self-identifies as a postmodernist (in the same way that there are no self-identified “hipsters”). And finally, it’s seeming like a rather obsolete category at the moment; its famous controversies are behind us and its leading figures are long tenured or deceased. (1971: Foucault debates Chomsky on human nature; Allan Bloom sparks the Canon Wars, and Paul de Man’s pro-Nazi writings surface; 1996: the Sokal Hoax; 1995-1998, the Bad Writing Contest.)

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University teachers join french student strikes

Liberation reports that twenty universities are still affected by student strikes, and more interestingly, that teacher-researchers are joining students in the streets. One said:

«La loi attaque la fonction publique», s’indigne Noël Bernard, maître de conférence en mathématique à l’université de Savoie, à Chambéry, et membre du Snesup-FSU, premier syndicat du supérieur. Il dénonce «le recrutement massif de contractuels», «l’autoritarisme instauré pour le président d’université et son cénacle», «les équipes qui seront pieds et poing liés aux bayeurs de fond privés».

“The law attacks the public function,” exclaimed Noël Bernard, a master of conferences in mathematics at the university of Savoie, in Chambéry, and a member of Snesup-FSU, premier union for higher education. He denounced “the massive hiring of contract workers,” “the institutionalized authoritarianism for the university president and his circle,” “the research groups that will be bound hand and foot to those who lust for private funds.”

The teachers have their own group, “Sauvons l’université” (Save the university), with its own call for action.

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academic activism in israel

Israel, it would appear, has an academic system no less controversial than any other… Haaretz reports that the senior faculty at several universities have been on strike for four weeks, claiming that they are not given adequate resources and, more interestingly, have rising anxiety about their professional status:

There is also a growing feeling that the status of academia in general in Israeli society is in a steep decline. However, some say that the academic world itself is part of the problem, because it is elitist and cut off from society, and has therefore made itself irrelevant… Faculty from various fields say the high social status that once adhered to the title of professor has been eroded…

The same debates are certainly heard in the U.S., where there’s a lot of anxiety about American anti-intellectualism, but also a horde of critiques of academic elitism. It seems that Israel also converges with U.S. critical discourses on postmodernism:

One of the main arguments of the veteran professors is that the decline of the humanities is partly due to a post-modernist trend “that has given a bad name to the humanities, because they have eschewed their task of presenting a clear scale of values,” one critic of the trend says.

The most sociologically interesting dimension of the strike is that apparently it’s led by senior professors, who didn’t bother to consult their junior colleagues before starting their protest. Last week, apparently, the scientific researchers joined them in their strike. They say, however, that they don’t feel that the public is paying any attention to them; apparently Israeli administrators have taken no definite action so far, and have announced no intention of doing so. They may be hoping that pressure on the faculty will increase as the strike lasts longer.

Apparently, also, a lecturer was suspended from his job after demanding that a student leave class. The student was wearing an army uniform and carrying a gun, and the teacher was “an Arab lecturer who does not identify with the Israeli army and who does not share in the naturalness with which many of us accept those who carry arms among us,” according to a letter written in his support by his colleagues. Obviously this has a lot to do with local Israeli politics; but it also raises, again, the question of how teachers can express their ethics or politics in the classroom, when they clash strongly with their students’ views, or with their students’ very identities. And to investigate this, we would have to return to the question raised by the first article: what is happening to professorial identity today?

Contradictions of graduate education in anthropology

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about socialization of graduate students in anthropology, and on Friday just had a very exciting session at the AAA Annual Meetings, which I titled Trauma, tactics and transformation. I won’t repeat here what I’ve said elsewhere about the ethical need to analyze our own profession and reckon with our own moral contradictions. But I do want to report on some of the major issues I left thinking about:

  • At an abstract level, how should socialization of graduate students look as a process? Should it be auto-socialization, self-socialization, where we mostly do the work of socializing ourselves into the professional world? Or should it be faculty-directed, top-down, a process of being led into the promised land of scholarly pleasure? Or should it be group-organized, a process in which students socialize each other and form a kind of social collective that learns from and teaches itself? Of course it is all of these, but I think that often our dissatisfactions have to do with the proportions between them. Each has its disadvantages: loneliness, authoritarianism, peer pressure.
  • Thinking about graduate education is a form of reflexivity, but reflexivity has its disadvantages: it can waste time that could be better spent elsewhere; it can be a means through which we end up resigning ourselves to the present; it can even become a weapon turned against our colleagues. Still, the first question in the panel, and one that I like very much, is: what are the costs of not being reflexive? As Anneeth Hundle pointed out, these can be very concrete: the perpetuation of bad racial dynamics in a department, for instance. And it seems to me that the ethics of the status quo are inherently bad ethics, because they seem to presuppose that the actual world is as good as it can ever get.
  • But the thing about reflexivity is that you have to be reflexive even about your reflexive moments: a potentially infinite regress. And one of the new questions that comes to my mind is: what kind of recognition and reward are we looking for in questioning graduate education? Do we expect to be pleased through the validation of our peers? The panel wasn’t perfect, in those respects; everyone surely had to walk away without feeling like their concerns were fully answered.
  • Dominic Boyer argued (gently) against me that reform is impossible, and that thus we should settle for therapy. My first thought here is that even doing therapy is already a kind of reform, and that he’s understating his own accomplishments in teaching theory reflexively. (Though the crucial question might be: does he believe in therapy that cures? Or just in therapy that helps us cope with what we can’t change?) My second thought is that I don’t really care if we call it “therapy” or “reform” as long as the underlying ethical and psychological issues are being addressed. But my last thought is that I wonder if it’s worthwhile for us as graduate students to try to reform the current system at this exact moment. What if we ask instead: how will we do things differently when we are in a position of institutional power, when we have our own students; how does graduate education look when we dream of ourselves as the professors? The status quo has so much inertia that I think we need to look for hope partly in the future rather than in the immediate present.
  • Finally, a major issue, raised by Anneeth Hundle but not finished, is: how are we silenced by academic institutions? And how are these silences structured and distributed? It’s a question with no immediate answer.

american academic politics

A recent Harvard study reported in Inside Higher Ed indicates that a majority of American professors are moderates, rather than liberals. The most unexpected trend within this overall finding is that radicals and activists tend to be older faculty – which may suggest that newer faculty are less political than a 60s generation of profs, and that the academy in general is getting less political. However, it may also mean, as various commenters pointed out, that it’s easier to be an activist once you get tenure, or that you can get more politicized as you get older, or that it’s tempting to call yourself “moderate” in an era when “liberal” is stigmatized.

That’s all on the level of just trying to interpret the survey data itself. It seems to me, though, that Diana Relke, in her comment on the InsideHigherEd story, gave by far the most perceptive critique of the whole project. Initially she says, “I’m still not convinced that you can say anything about an institution by toting up how its faculty votes on particular issues,” since “the sum [of the institution] is always greater than its parts.” Which is exactly right: the politics of the institution and the political effect of the institution aren’t reducible to the ways that faculty consciously choose to classify themselves on surveys. (Case in point: according to the comment by “Unapologetically Tenured,” “people with college degrees vote Republican in higher numbers than their less educated counterparts. Thus, either indoctrination is not occurring, or it is failing miserably.”) On the contrary, all kinds of political dynamics can operate beyond the level of conscious belief – or for that matter, beyond any clearcut political metrics.

And Relke makes another major point, which is that “in my experience, the academy is rivaled in its conservatism only by the Church. And that has nothing whatsoever to do with the voting habits of the faculty.” In other words, even a single person’s politics are highly contextually sensitive — I think of those old white male Marxists who are purportedly committed to revolutionary human liberation but who are deeply authoritarian classroom teachers. One can still ask, of course, whether there are ethically troubling contradictions between their ostensible values and their practices, or whether there’s something intrinsically objectionable about these values or practices.

At any rate, a purely descriptive response to this whole debate would be that the university is complex and politically contradictory, and that those who are trying to find a single coherent political description are doomed to self-deception. And moreover that political descriptions of the university might be context-sensitive too. For instance, sometimes I’m tempted to say that academia really is not very liberal, but other times I freely acknowledge that it does have some thriving leftist subcultures, and obviously much social and literary theory has historical connections to left politics. And there are other times when what most needs saying is that the American university is also an instrument for the reproduction of class status through educational credentials – in fact, this might be its most sociologically important function. But the point is that a political analysis of the university has to account for the proliferation of contextually specific discourses about the university’s politics.

Finally, even if we had a perfectly accurate political analysis of the contemporary American university, the normative implications would remain far from obvious. If universities are dominated by liberals, is that some sort of structural necessity or a  mere historical accident? Would a predominance of liberals be intrinsically bad, and ought the faculty (or students) to be a perfect political mirror of society at large? (Do the likes of Horowitz long for the kind of affirmative action for Republicans that they might reject if it were based on race or ethnicity?) Or if universities are dominated by their donors and boards of trustees, and indirectly by the politics of the status quo and the desire for institutional self-preservation and prestige, then what are the political implications of – in short – depoliticization? What about the politics of academics’ claim to privileged truth, knowledge and expertise? Or the broader politics of “knowledge production,” of academic research into esoteric, unprofitable, seemingly socially useless topics like the structure of dark matter, or the techniques of medieval cathedral building?

If there’s anything I’ve learned from talking about the ethics of education in my own department, it’s that the morality of scholarship is fraught with troubling and only sometimes inevitable institutional compromises. I don’t know where this leaves us, except with the sense that the demographics of the political spectrum aren’t the best place to start thinking about academic politics. That said, however, the actual text of the study is much more analytical and interesting than the news coverage — it analyzes degrees of “cosmopolitanism” among faculty, for instance, and generally conveys a more sophisticated view of faculty politics than the news coverage would suggest. Moreover, it has a fascinating bibliography that I recommend, especially to myself, wholeheartedly.

What makes students jump

All week, student protests have continued in France, in conjunction with a much larger and more economically important strike by transportation workers. Liberation has an article that juxtaposes “what the law says” with “what students fear.” It’s the clearest introduction to the politics of the confrontation I’ve seen so far – in spite of everything that it probably leaves out about the sociopolitical context. Let me summarize the major points of contention:

  1. State disengagement. The law mandates that universities manage their own budgets (a major innovation in the French context); it increases the power of the university president and diminishes the power of currently-existing administrative councils. Students fear that this is just an excuse for the state to abandon universities to their own devices, decreasing state funding for higher education.
  2. More social selection. The law mandates “l’orientation active,” which is defined as “aider le lycéen à faire un choix d’orientation éclairé,” i.e. helping the lyceén to make an enlightened choice of their program of study. Students view this as a process of “sélection,” which corresponds loosely to what in American universities is called “selectivity,” that is, the screening process by which some students are chosen over others. And they view this as a disavowed means of reproducing social inequality. (See also a longer analysis of social selection at café pédagogique.)
  3. Increased registration fees. Official statements to the contrary, students say it’s obvious that in the absence of state funding, universities will look to their students for financial resources.
  4. Closing of fields of study. The law says nothing about this, but the worry is that universities will be inclined to get rid of un-profitable fields. Interestingly, it seems to be students in human sciences and languages who are the most worried about the law in general. Also, Libération comments that:

    Derrière cette crainte, il y a aussi le refus de la professionnalisation des filières, des licences pros trop liées aux besoins du marché, et la volonté de défendre une université lieu de transmission du savoir.

    Behind this fear, there’s also a refusal of the professionalization of academic fields, of professional degrees too closely linked to the needs of the market, and the will to defend a university as a place of knowledge transmission.

    The whole problem of the university’s general societal role comes up here, and of its dependence on, or partial autonomy from, its economic circumstances. Even in the U.S., there are periodic conflicts over whether college education should be directly vocationally oriented. It’s remarkable that French students, not just professors (whose self-interest is obvious in this context), would defend the right to an economically irrelevant field like philosophy.

  5. The two-speed university. According to the law, each campus will be treated equally. Students suspect, however, that there will be increasing differentiation between major Parisian research universities and small provincial teaching campuses.

Last month, some visiting French anthropologists suggested that I look into the workings of the Pécresse law as it takes effect. Along these lines, I’m tempted to think of this Libération article as a set of five empirical hypotheses whose truth will emerge over the coming years.

critical anthropology of academic culture