Archive for July 18th, 2013

When I was writing about writing the other day I considered linking to this post by Arlene Stein that mentions C. Wright Mills’s idea of “intellectual craftsmanship.” Stein writes:

Mills spoke about the benefits that accrue to those who approach writing as a craft rather than simply as a means to an end. The main reason, he said, “I am not ‘alienated” is because I write.” Writing can make us feel more connected to others, and allow us to make a contribution to the society in which we live, he believed. Mills saw writing as a skill that one can develop, as well as an art form, and a form of self-expression. A mixture of technique and inspiration, good writing requires an acquaintance with the methodologies of research needed for the task. There is, he believed, an unexpected quality about writing too—a “playfulness of mind, as well a truly fierce drive to make sense of the world, which the technician as such usually lacks.”

While I was thinking about this in terms of the writing process, though, Stein juxtaposes Mills’s idea with a perceived lack of intellectual craftsmanship on college and university campuses today as the result of increased competition that places the ends above the means:

Today, we laborers in the groves of academia are pitted against one another in a quest for increased productivity. Academic departments and units compete against one another for increasingly scarce goods, such as the right to hire faculty; individual scholars in the same department compete against one another for small pay increases, euphemistically termed “merit pay.” In my own university, Rutgers, the public flagship university of New Jersey, “austerity” is the new normal, justifying stagnant salaries and higher tuitions. As state funding provides a smaller and smaller percentage of annual operating budgets, university administrators try to introduce entrepreneurial initiatives into academic departments to generate revenue–with varying degrees of success.

Competition in academia, like competition elsewhere, can at times spur one on to produce great things. (Just think of the fierce mid-1960s rivalry between The Beatles and the Rolling Stones!) Too often, though, competition for scarce resources leads individuals –and I’m speaking of academics here– on a quest to distinguish ourselves from our peers merely to stand apart from the crowd. Today, market values and “fast capitalism” increasingly permeate academia, leading to ever higher expectations of output (read: publication), and higher productivity for productivity’s sake—accumulating more and more lines for one’s cv instead of contributing work that really makes a difference to oneself, and to others.

Perhaps more important than a lack of great or meaningful works, I would argue that this competition among faculty both within and between institutions is contributing to our eventual demise by creating false consciousness among academics. Because administrators want to increase the rankings of our institutions, they want each generation of faculty to be better than those who came before. They want us to publish more and in “better” journals while teaching more students with fewer resources. They want us to become internationally-known experts in our fields while denying sabbatical requests that would allow us to finish a book. And we do it.

Academic false consciousness is not only striving to become a “famous” sociologist, but believing that if you become one it is on the basis of merit rather than good fortune. Academic false consciousness is writing harsh reviews of papers submitted to a journal that you have never personally published in. Academic false consciousness is noting in a tenure review letter that the scholar in question would not receive tenure at your hallowed institution. Academic false consciousness is downplaying the achievements of your colleagues so that your own case for merit pay will be stronger. Academic false consciousness is being afraid to question an administrator’s decisions because you fear the administration’s ability to make dissenting voices pay in subtle ways over many years.

Administrators have continually raised the bar for tenure-track faculty members and rather than refusing to play their games, we buy into the idea that the administration’s view of the world is real and meaningful. The response from tenured faculty at Portland State University when newer faculty tried to change this system is evidence of this. Jennifer Ruth writes that the negative response to the changes she and her colleagues fought for did not come from administrators:

No, the people who now disliked us were some of the people who’d once been our closest friends: those people whose sweetheart deals no longer existed; the tenure-track faculty whose under-enrolled classes were now fully enrolled so they had 35 papers to grade instead of 20; the man whose program relied on adjuncts and so was always, if only temporarily, imperiled by my resistance to signing adjunct contracts; full-time, non-tenure-track faculty who understandably felt that my commitment to growing tenure lines implicitly jeopardized their job security (it didn’t but it’s easy to imagine how they’d feel it might); non-tenure-track faculty serving on Faculty Senate (at our institution, non-tenure-track faculty are involved in governance) during the year we introduced the “line of shame”; tenure-track faculty who had joined the profession to—god forbid—write books and teach, not to take on the Sisyphean task of rebuilding the profession, but who felt a little guilty about this. Many of these people hated our guts.

Ruth responds to Ivan Evans’s assertion that adjuncts are like India’s “untouchables” by claiming that at Portland State adjuncts were “far from being our untouchables, they were our friends with whom we had coffees, lunches, dinners; with whose kids our kids shared playdates” but she does not say that these adjuncts were given tenure-track positions when when faculty were able to argue for new lines (Update: in an e-mail she told me that some of them were).

Academic false consciousness is complaining about the problems with the adjuctification of higher education even as tenure-track faculty huddle on the top floor of the ivory tower, conspiring against each other and ignoring the fact that our weight is helping to bring it down.

Read Full Post »