Saturday, January 11, 2014

Cinderella, Cinderella Where For Art Thou?: The Academic Life as Suffering

It has long been a struggle for me in the academy. I have fancied myself an intellectual since I was in junior high school where I opposed the Vietnam War and, like Kevin in The Wonder Years, helped organize an attempted walk out against the Vietnam War. It didn't work, by the way. The administration found out about it and locked us into the school putting chains on all the doors.

Once upon a time, specifically when I matriculated at college in the 1970s, I initially dreamed of becoming a teacher of Biblical Studies in a college or university somewhere in the English speaking world or if not that of becoming a rabbi, a fairy tale I gave up quite quickly because I am a sherlock, I am hardly a "people person". Eventually I came to believe, under the influence of sociology, cultural anthropology, cultural studies, and film studies, that if I could marry social theory to an emphasis on the empirical facts I could liberate students from the prison house of ideology most students were mentally incarcerated in, whether by choice or as a result of the very effective workings of mass propaganda. I, in other words, and like so many other academics of my time, burned with optimism’s flame. So off I went to graduate school first in American Studies, then in Sociology, then in Cultural Anthropology, then again in Sociology, and finally in History. Teaching in the academy, however, has shown me that my fairy tale dreams really were fairy tale illusions.

One of the things I have learned while teaching over the last twenty years is that college teaching and the work with the disabled while I was an undergraduate at Indiana University were eerily similar. When I worked with the disabled at Stone Belt in Bloomington, Indiana I was involved in the writing of objectives to be accomplished for and by my disabled clients so that they could gain greater independence. Every year we house parents and a member of the administrative bureaucracy wrote objectives we wanted to accomplish for each client so they could become more independent and eventually move into semi-independent status in a semi-independent apartment complex. While we were drawing up these objectives, however, we knew but we didn’t talk about it that it was really impossible for our clients to achieve the objectives we wrote. Despite the fact that we knew our clients could never achieve independence, however, we continued to play the game that we could make them independent not because we burned with optimism’s fame but because we had to. The state required us to write objectives every year in order to get goal number for most of these institutions, funding from the state and other sources that kept us in “business”.

Working for a living in the academy is quite similar. The state bureaucracy and those in the academy caught up in the mania for academic Taylorism with its numbers, the academic equivalent of industrial production, and quantitative outcomes, require those of us who teach general education classes (classes full timers can't or won't teach because they generally result in poor evaluations) to specify objectives that we hope to accomplish in our classes. And while I have no problem writing objectives for my classes the fact is that we can’t accomplish these objectives because most of those who take general education classes, often under duress, have little if any interest in the subject matter of the class and most of them simply don’t have the intellectual capabilities to meet the critical dimension of the objectives we draw up.

The reason for this is clear. There are simply far too many people attending liberal arts colleges these days. Those who flock to college campuses have been convinced by the argument—one that is partly true if less so as every year goes by an as larger numbers of graduates with bachelor's degrees enter the job market—made by many politicians, academic bureaucrats, and academics that if they go to college they can make lots of money after they graduate. Many, of course, come to the ivy-covered halls not to learn but to partake of that rite of young adult passage, the right to party. Most of those who come to college come, in other words, to get a job that will earn them lots of money and to party rather than to learn how to tell what is rot from what is not rot. They come to college with their heads filled with ideological beliefs which are akin to religions beliefs and which are hard if not impossible to dislodge. No amount of education as liberation will succeed against it. Over my years of teaching I have heard students say or write things which are intellectually and academically problematic and even completely intellectually and empirically invalid. Ironically it is students like these who the bureaucracy has "rate" those of us with higher degrees and immense experience who teach. This is akin to Ford hiring me to "rate" everything about their motorcars, though I have no experience or knowledge of the operation of cars in general, but because I drive one.

I am noting all of this because I find it excruciatingly painful and ultimately sapping of one's humanity to try to teach under such conditions. I am more of an intellectual than an academic. I prefer discussion and debate to standard operating teaching practise. I no longer believe in that fairy tale that education can liberate. By and large education, including higher education, produces and reproduces cogs in the ideological machine. As a result higher education no longer has meaning for me.

Additionally, the fact that I am an intellectual who doesn’t respect academic territories (and who has limited respect for the academia itself) has made it difficult for me to function in the ivory tower. My entire academic life has been one of disappointment whether it was the disappointments associated with being a student--I was disappointed by anthropology’s wholism and fetishisation of non-Western culture, sociology’s fetishisation of quantitative research, history's naive wholism, its naive attachment to archival research, and its anti-theory phobias--or the multitude of disappointments associated with college teaching. But what is an intellectual to do? There are few options beyond the academy these days of an intellectual and even fewer options that offer, like some academic gigs, excellent benefits. As an asthmatic and someone approaching senior citizenship I need these excellent benefits. If only I had been born in Denmark.

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