Academics can only talk academese, episode five million

#itchytweed #highered #academia

Today’s humanities disciplines are not ancient, integral modes of knowledge. They are modern, artificial creations—where made-up lines pretend to divide the single sandbox in which we all play into each boy’s or girl’s own inviolable kingdom. It is a sham. . . . If the lines were real, disciplines would not need so relentlessly to police their borders within colleges and universities

James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, 385

Last week Shadi Bartsch published a pithy piece in the Washington Post about the latest iteration of debate/discussion/confrontation around race, the discipline of Classics, and the adoption of various bits of antiquity (Sparta, stoicism, hyper-masculinity, etc.) by the far right. I have no interest in wading into those issues and their various and ugly eruptions in that field, except to say, as a starting point for what piqued my interest, that I agree with Bartsch on all points.

As I have no skin in this game about Classics specifically, seeing all of this from afar has made me think a lot about a different sort of question, relevant to all parts of the academy nowadays. Namely, who gets to decide the future of a discipline? Who gets a say in a field of study?

What I see repeatedly in this Classics upheaval is a very old pattern, one not, to my knowledge, highlighted very well in anything I've read. Do amateurs or “professionals” get to decide the nature of a field of study? It's the old debate between antiquarians (the amateurs) and historians (the true professionals). Or it's the debate between the academic insiders and those outside the academy. Young vs. old guard. Professors at elite institutions vs. those further down the academic food chain. Whatever the labels, it's a question about who gets to decide what's worth talking about; then who gets to decide how to talk about what's worth talking about.

In the Classics example, this is happening at two levels. First, there is the inside-baseball debate about whether relatively young and largely minority members of the professorate (or the graduariate) get to set priorities of the discipline and chart a new course which might mean self-destructing and eliminating existing departments. Hence the mild but not overly confrontational pushback by the generation that includes Prof. Bartsch, among many others. There is nothing left vs. right about this; it is simply a question of who gets to set the agenda and who is truly an insider, a mover and shaker, within the discipline. It is, for anyone in academy, as familiar as what goes on in evaluating tenure binders or dealing with the personalities in any faculty meeting.

But there's also another insider/outsider form of contestation, one which maps imperfectly to the politics of today and crudely casts a lefty academy against a right-wing appropriation of classical culture, literature, and iconography.

Prof. Bartch's WaPo piece is a public airing of the intra-Classics debate over what to do about that larger insider/outsider debate.

I don’t want to throw up my hands and yield ancient history and ancient literature to this group [i.e. right-wing].

That's talking to fellow academics more than anyone else. So's this:

What we need to do is “take back the classics.” For millennia, they have been read differently by different cultures. There is no reason they cannot withstand the test of our time, too. We can save the classics, as long as we believe the sins of the father should not be visited upon the sons and daughters.

That's all good common sense and remarkable that it needs to be stated. But her conclusion belies what may actually be at issue here. Has Classics been stolen? If so, who stole it? Who has the right to “own” a discipline?

The fact is that academics aren't the only ones who get to decide the future of fields of study. Sure, you can shut down and re-absorb a bunch of Classics faculty into other departments. You can split up the discipline's various parts. You can shove the unpleasant history of Classics down the memory hole. But that won't erase present, past, or future appropriations of the Romans or Greeks and it certainly won't help alleviate information about antiquity used for hateful or distasteful ends.

Everything I've seen about this is framed in terms of social justice and race and right or left. But the journalistic compulsion to extract a simple narrative that echoes current political conventional wisdom misses the pervasive context here.

This is also about the role of the university and the role of academic disciplines. It's about specialist communities in an age of widespread information distribution and technologies which allow for immediate and broad publication. The problem is one of academic disciplines, and particularly humanities disciplines, and how they conduct themselves in the world.

Put bluntly, who really cares whether Classics departments exist or not?

I suspect that the answer is... not a lot of people. (The outrage! How could I say that?! Ok. Ok. I hear you. But calm down for a second. What are some of the smallest departments on any campus? As wonderful and fascinating and enduring as the material is, does the existence of a specific department or unit devoted to the field impact all that many people relative to the larger higher-ed ecosystem? And, no, elite departments are not going anywhere. But at many other kinds of institutions, it is a very different kind of calculus.)

It's not just Classics of course. Also in recent weeks, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoff Shullenberger makes a number of important points about the way that questioning academic disciplines, particularly humanities disciplines, actually serves the financial and corporate needs of the university. His argument focuses primarily on English departments and the question of who gets admitted to Ph.D. programs in an age of necessary austerity. But he highlights well the way that different kinds of rhetoric around academic disciplines can be more than simply two sides of a debate. A key graf towards the end of the piece:

The moral emphasis on social justice in humanistic scholarship might be viewed as an effort to reassert substantive values against the “corporate bureaucracy” that the university has become. But this contestation will ultimately prove illusory. The faculty members and departments pursuing these causes are also obligated to operate as market actors procuring resources in a hyper-competitive environment. As a result, their rhetoric is still subject to neutralization by the corporate university. This is even more obviously the case now that many presidents, provosts, and deans have embraced the discourse of social-justice. Full-throated commitment to political causes is now a means by which colleges compete for publicity, prestige, and grants. And if support for these causes is integrated into the university’s proclaimed mission, departments that emphasize them lose their distinct value proposition.

I think this is right to a large degree. At the least it gives me pause and makes me wonder whether the “debate” in a field like Classics will, inevitably, come to serve the financial values of universities. One might well ask why universities will continue to support Ph.D. students in larger numbers than the academic professorate can absorb if members of the discipline are themselves calling for its dissolution and realignment. Indeed, this is just one of many completely fair and legitimate criticisms that runs through conservative reaction to these episodes, e.g. here. Why support courses in a discipline which some of its own members are calling racist? Shullenberger's important recognition that “faculty members and departments ... are also obligated to operate as market actors procuring resources in a hyper-competitive environment” highlights how easily any idea about changing or modifying disciplines can be adopted into something that will look outwardly unobjectionable, even noble, while ultimately having very different ends and goals.

Put another way, thinking about disciplinary edges and boundaries is a fairly periodic ritual within academic disciplines. It's also a ritual which administrations always make use of in order to realign departments and spending with priorities. More often we see this as a jumping on bandwagons, opening new programs and the like; but it can also mean the absorption and redistribution of programs or faculty.

Sullenberger focuses on the difference between inward- and outward-facing rhetoric.

This disjunction between inward-facing and outward-facing rhetoric is also not new, as Bill Readings describes in his 1996 book The University in Ruins. For Readings, an uncertainty about both the place of humanistic scholarship within the university and the university’s place within society has led to an “impasse between militant radicalism and cynical despair” that afflicts humanities scholars like himself. In “militant” mode, they may propose radical overhauls of their own fields of study; but in “despairing” mode, holding onto what they have is paramount, so they pay lip service to the traditional humanistic values they might otherwise denounce, not out of any conviction but for lack of any other available justification that might be seen as valid in external contexts.

These distinctions are crucial. In our current day, when inward-facing debates can immediately become outward-visible due to rapid digital publication, social media and the like, this does more than muddy the waters in a debate about the virtues and vices of a discipline. It also makes the sort of convergence of seemingly disparate points of view towards a corporatist end, in the terms described by Shullenberger drawing on Readings, all the more likely. Universities can't remain neutral or silent. Therefore every inward-facing debate or debate within a discipline is in fact a form of public airing, part of the calculus of publicity and prestige which drives the neoliberal university (for lack of a better term).

I think this is the crux here. Insiders are airing their insider debate in public; but it isn't public-facing in its rhetoric or goals. It is still peformative within the confines and norms and expectations of the academic ecosystem. Dissent, even radical eating of one's elders, is a defining part of academic performativity. One might identify it as capital “C” Critique perhaps. Disciplines police their own boundaries as part of the game of disciplines, particularly in humanities. Where, ultimately, is everyone else? They are still being disrespected and looked down on. What is framed as a push-back against dominant narratives is in fact still a debate among the most elite. It may not start out that way and it may not feel that way from the inside, but by virtue of taking place in the academic stratosphere, it is flattened into that mold. And the endpoint is ultimately an inside-baseball kind of issue. Do Classics departments (or Anthropology or English or whatever departments) still exist in something like their present configuration? It is, ultimately, something that risks becoming only the pragmatic business of how administrators organize academic units for budgetary purposes.

James Turner, who I quoted at the top, is right:

Today’s humanities disciplines are not ancient, integral modes of knowledge. They are modern, artificial creations—where made-up lines pretend to divide the single sandbox in which we all play into each boy’s or girl’s own inviolable kingdom. It is a sham. . . . If the lines were real, disciplines would not need so relentlessly to police their borders within colleges and universities

Let's double underline that. If the lines were real, disciplines would not need to police their borders.

Do amateurs care whether one learns about the Ancient Romans from a Classicist or a literary scholar or a historian or someone in an “Ancient Studies” department? Those distinctions matter only insofar as they are echoes of schooling that one might have experienced. If a computer scientist offered something new about the ancient Romans, and it appealed and was interesting, was well-presented, would that be rejected in the public world of blogs, internet information and the like? Should it be rejected? Ultimately, we may just want to know something interesting about all that antiquity.

This is a debate playing out against the reality that humanities disciplines are, by and large, not the gravitational center of the university. The action's happening over in the Business School or the Law School or the innovation / design / entrepreneuring academy (or whatever name they've given to it). All those pre-professional disciplines have a very different relationship between academic insiders and academic outsiders (or amateurs) than many humanities disciplines tend to have. Humanities disciplines like Classics or English or History or Philosophy contain professors who are, in their community, the professionals of the field. Everyone else, no matter how interested or how much you read, is something of an amateur. (And, yes, there are some variants and exceptions for things like professional writing programs or creative writing, but I'm talking about broad mindsets here.) Professional schools both draw much more from practitioners and also have a different sort of ongoing relationship with the expertise of those outside the academy. There are professionals both inside and outside the academy and, if anything, in many fields it is those outside the academy who represent most clearly “professional” status. In some fields, being an amateur is not really a thing. (Can you be an amateur lawyer in the same way that one can be a sort of amateur classicist? I'm not sure.)

Monks talking to themselves

When I see this Classics debate playing out it feels distinctly out of time, like eavesdropping on a monks' conclave from the Middle Ages over what kind of robes to wear. That sounds dismissive, but I don't mean it to diminish the important intellectual, ethical, and social issues relevant to this debate. Rather, rearranging the internals of the field seems like a distraction from the more urgent existential crises of academe. Do you have to be within a university to be a professional? Is being an amateur enough? And, most importantly, is it in fact the amateurs who have control of the larger territory anyway?

Writing on a completely different topic, John Warner put out an open letter to Heterodox Academy which I came across after I started writing this (now rather lengthy) post. His argument struck a chord with me, in part because he zoomed in on the distinction between elite universities and non-elite higher-ed, calling out clearly the way that much discourse around higher-ed imagines elite higher-ed and the concerns of professors and students at elite institutions as the most important and default higher-ed. There is an analog of the hierarchy that I'm tracing — insiders and outsiders, professionals and amateurs — in what Warner is taking about as elite vs non-elite concerns and assumptions. He starts with trying to locate the source of his unease with Heterodox Academy and zeroes in on the paternalistic and generally “elite” assumptions of what they tend to focus on and by the academics they tend to promote.

It’s as though HxA is a discussion club held in one of the lifeboats from the Titanic, debating the various virtues of travel by luxury liner even while thousands of other passengers are sucked into the icy depths as the ship tips skyward before making its final plunge.

(right there with you John!)

and a little later:

I wonder if some of the HxA activities are the proverbial whistling past the graveyard, even as the corpses rise from their crypts and lurch toward snacking on the living. Are you as worried as I am about the existential threats to nonelite higher education, particularly public higher education?

The full piece is definitely worth a read on its own terms, but I appreciate Warner's calling out of the facile equation of higher ed with elite higher ed (both in this piece and elsewhere). The endpoint is similar to mine: are the concerns and perspectives of professors at elite institutions really the big issues facing higher ed?

To put it another way, all academic disciplines police their own boundaries. For humanities disciplines, it's all the more urgent because the disciplines are “modern, artificial creations” with “made-up lines.” Classics is even further prone to this problem as it is, by nature, a discipline which brings together scholars who usually have a foot in at least one other area (literary studies, history, philosophy, etc.). One of the ways to police boundaries — and this is triply true of Classics, a discipline which historically has required significant training in Greek and Latin as precursor and prerequisite to admission — one of the ways that disciplines define themselves is by excluding amateurs. (Following Sullenberger's focus, we might say too that disciplines do this policing by establishing a private, inward-facing discourse.) It might be nice to think that disciplines are created around content and methods, but in practice they are as much defined by inclusion and exclusion, by identifying insiders as opposed to outsiders and, in the academy, by creating hierarchy whereby the most insider insiders are also the most professionalized, the most non-amateur; by extension, those in the provinces, outside the centers of power and production and attention, or sidelined as adjunct or conditional labor, are, notionally, lesser professionals, not quite amateurs, but still without a full membership in the discipline and its future.

In the case of a field like Classics (like many humanities disciplines), the difference between who gets to be a professional and who remains an amateur impacts basic assumptions about why we might study or learn about the past (or literature or history or philosophy) in the first place. These articles about the flare-ups in Classics tend to miss the importance of this fundamental divergence. Far right views of the Classics, like most “amateur” perspectives (“amateur” from the vantage of the institutionalized professional), tend to privilege the way that we can draw on the past for our present needs. Amateurs publicly value how the past can talk to us. By contrast, the posture of the professional, the academic, and particularly the elite academic, is much different. Professionals must be seen to elucidate, probe, question and expound, but the idea that one would be in thrall to antiquity, or in the power of the past, is anathema to the scholar's project. The scholar's journey, such as it is, from love to a form of critical distance or cynicism, is fairly common, a rite of passage among academics. In the extreme form, the professional must publicly reject love of content and display his or her mastery of critical habits. Maybe you can indulge in that love in introductory undergrad courses; but even there, such pandering is only performative, to engage and invite the callow uninitiated into a taste of the higher critical mysteries. Amateurs pursue as fans; professionals should appear above all that.

The problem I find with all these pieces, both about the specific field of Classics and many related debates, is that they seem to think there are two sides at play here. They take for granted the structure of higher-ed against which all this takes place. But everything here is a symptom and outgrowth of the current state of humanities in a highly corporate higher-ed filled with widespread precarity and disparity among the professorial and a-professorial labor force. Ironically, the very tools of historical analysis and close-reading which are so central to many humanities disciplines (looking at you Classics) seem to be forgotten when it comes time to assess what's going on here. And in doing so, the current debate misses the bigger question and, potentially, important ways of thinking about the very real problems around disciplines like Classics.

Who gets to decide the future of an academic discipline?

The real problem is that the professionals, and particularly the elite professionals, think that they have the most important voice in this. What these debates miss is a different sort of resolution, or at least a more important field in which to put one's efforts. I suspect that the amateurs ultimately get the last word on this. (Sidenote: how much is the “Classics” which is being maligned actually the product of early 20th century amateurs, politicians, and non-academics?) And I also suspect that that in characterizing amateurs primarily in terms of the far right misreadings of classicism and ancient masculinity, these pieces (and the scholars themselves) are excluding a much larger population of people who are interested in things like the Ancient Greeks or the Romans simply because they want to know more. People are interested in the Ancient Egyptians too, because it is cool to think of stuff that is so remote, almost alien. They could be interested in Ancient China or aboriginal Australia if presented with something that piqued their interest. Ancient stuff is cool precisely because of ignorance and not knowing something, because of the thrill of finding something out about something so remote and distant and seeing bits where it might be similar. The amateur might approach with wonder and not knowing. They might listen to podcasts on ancient myth or ancient history (mostly done by other amateurs and enthusiasts I might add).

Academics are sabotaging themselves by playing insider baseball, as seems to be the case going on with Classics right now. Though dressed up in the guise of public debate, it is still performative insiderism. I appreciate Prof. Bartsch's pragmatic end. The approach cannot be to shut down or cut off or rearrange deck chairs and dissolve departments The only viable approach is to engage, often and widely, with amateur and professional alike.

I would go even further. We live in an age of hobbyists and enthusiasts, amid a redefinition of what it means to be an expert. There is not such a clear distinction in an age of popularizing podcasters and bloggers and widespread availability of information. (Arguably the distinctiveness of academic professionals is itself an anomaly in the long history of thinking about literature, history, and humanities subjects in general.) That is the affordance (and yes, the danger) of our current technological moment. Amateurs have a voice — perhaps the louder one — especially in an era where the tools of information are rapid, public, and easily adaptable. Universities must do a better job of supporting their faculty in these public arenas, not as questioners or critics but as enthusiasts of their fields of study. There is a role that can be both engaged and critical voice at the same time. Moderator, fellow investigator, companion rather than antagonist. But there is no room for that in the academy and certainly not for younger faculty. At present, public engagement is a potential risk for even the most comfortably tenured; even for the dedicated and interested, it is, framed within the expectations and norms of the professorial carrot and stick system, a time suck, and a drag on your CV in the eyes of tenure committees. No, the accepted mode is dissent, inward-facing and in the high and exclusionary tongue of academe.

The way forward lies with enlarging the role of universities in public life and with how they reward and incentive the work of the university. The road through rearranging the disciplines and arguing about their boundaries is the same stale academic game, the same old insider debate, and an intellectual dead end for anyone outside the high priesthood of academia.