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In Which I Go On a Bit About Academia

I’ve been getting shaggier and shaggier lately so yesterday afternoon I went to get a haircut near campus. It was a straightforward, fifteen minute affair but I have to say there’s nothing that makes me feel like an adult man making his way in the world quite like getting shaved with a straight razor. The heaping of hot towels, the sense that if you have a muscle spasm your head could go flying off –– it feels downright Victorian. If you can manage it in the “Far East” (granting that the term is pretty silly these days), then so much the better.

The last few days I’ve been thinking about what it means to get an advanced degree in the humanities. This may have been precipitated by a recent Slate article bemoaning certain structural issues in academia (e.g. the explosion of adjunct profs, etc) and a follow-up consisting of rejoinders from English grad students. They were both fine but I was more struck by the comments accompanying each: as is to be expected, the comment boards reflected a kind of war with hostilities on two fronts. That is to say, graduate students in the humanities defending their right to intellectually exist from the “intellectuals are elitist jackasses” crowd on one side, and on the other side from the “education is great IF you’re studying math, hard science, or engineering but if you study words then you have a degree in bullshit” crowd (who are mostly annoyed because their team name doesn’t fit comfortably on a T-shirt, even when rendered an acronym).

So, the traditional defense of the “liberal arts” education typically goes something like this: “I may not learn any specific professional skills such as spot-welding or jujitsu but I’m learning to think really well. In an age during which the typical American will change careers X number of times in his or her lifetime, this is the best training you could ask for.” This is sometimes buttressed by the “finer things” argument: “So, you say you want to become an internet billionaire? A liberal arts education will enable you to appreciate all the fine books, art, and music that you will suddenly afford to be able to fill your life with.”

These arguments are dandy but they’re generally applied to undergraduate education. The stance shifts a bit when graduate students enter the picture. Grad students, we’re told, learn how to manage sustained intellectual engagement with a complex problem (eventually, the dissertation) and on top of this become these super disputants who are able to argue the hell out of a problem and, by extension, find the weaknesses in someone else’s argument. Here’s where we academics become vulnerable to attack by the people who pick up some work of critical theory, say, and dismiss it as so much jargony bullshit.

Clearly, some percentage of thorny academic prose is naked nonsense holding a thesaurus over its genitals like a fig leave. Clearly again, some percentage of really difficult academic writing is actually very smart and has something valuable to say, provided you buy into the underlying assumption that art / music / poetry / fiction is ever worth discussing. The problem becomes separating the good stuff from the dross, which turns out to be rather difficult.

This is arguably a style issue, at least in part. Is it necessary for academic prose to read like the EULA for a particle accelerator? (Consider, for example, this gem from Judith Butler: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”)

Certainly, there are those who say that nonspecialists wouldn’t expect to understand every word in a journal of genetics, so why should they in a journal of comparative literature? Fair enough, but it’s specious reasoning to assume that just because something is hard to understand it must necessarily be really smart. Sometimes things are hard to read just because they’re poorly written. For example, the authors behind Style: Toward Clarity and Grace argue (if I recall correctly) that writing can be divided into three types: simple ideas expressed with elegance; complex ideas expressed with necessary complexity; and simple ideas obscured by unnecessary complexity. Writing of the third sort is depressingly endemic in academia, but this no more invalidates the whole enterprise than the presence of quack physicians means all medicine is a waste of time.

Of what use is the good stuff, then? My degree is in “Chinese and Comparative Literature,” so that’s the apple crate I’ll be preaching from. Basically, my work consists of three parts: language study, narratology, and literary history. Language study practically speaks for itself: in an increasingly multicultural world, the ability to communicate with people with backgrounds different from one’s own is a tremendous asset. Along with greatly expanding one’s pool of potential contacts in life, the ability to talk, read, and think in foreign language gives the practitioner access to previously unimagined ways of thinking about the world and articulating one’s position within it.

I see the study of literary history as an extension of that first point. (The history component here is important. Nothing annoys me more than the assumption that literary scholars write three hundred page books about how a poem "makes them feel." (That's what footnotes are for)). My ability to (laboriously and imperfectly, let there be no doubt) read the literature of seventeenth century China and, as a result, mentally enter that distant time and place has greatly enriched my experience of the present (both in the West and the East) by allowing for a point of comparison.

Finally, there is narratology (in other words, the study of narrative), which superficially seems the most abstruse but actually, I would argue, is the most universally applicable. The study of narrative equips one with the skills necessary to dissect nearly all human communication at its most fundamental level. If, for example, you’re a sophisticated reader of journalism, you’re engaging in a kind of narratology, whether you know it or not.

To wrap up, these skills are essential and nourishing. In other words, academia has its problems but you can pry it out of my cold, dead hands.



Very interesting!

Loved this article. The style and the range are impressive. Academia is also, I'll add, serving something different today than it was 50 years ago. Not that the "new" problems aren't, but that the context for the arguments is slightly different. I'm not sure what the effect is, but I'm eager to read what you think. I expect you to take all of this up immediately! Academia II: The Learnening!

Re: Very interesting!

There's a kind of implicit question in there that I somewhat deliberately glossed over: the basic skills I listed at the end are valuable of course, but can the same be said of the very obscure and specific nature of a lot of post-graduate research? Who am I really helping by writing a book about late Ming vernacular fiction? If one accepts (as I do) that conducting research is a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition for first-rate teaching and vice versa, is that enough to justify the practice? I.e., is it the harmless clucking among hens that we keep around because we need the eggs, or is there some further added value?

May 2012

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