What is called grading? On the ontological structure of academia

The academy is in crisis. Adjunctification, outcome assessment, online learning, for-profit universities — all of these things have been decried as challenging the very foundations of the academic enterprise. Yet no one stops to ask what that foundation is. We have forgotten about the question of the being of academia. We must put ourselves in a position to ask it afresh, so that we can begin to sketch out the ontological structure of academia. (Here I limit myself to institutions of higher education — lower levels present different, though not unrelated, problems.)

Let us start from the assumption that the academic enterprise is a type of professional practice. Academics never achieved the clearly “professional” status of doctors and lawyers — and our ontological investigation may disclose the inner necessity of that failure — but that status remains an indispensable point of reference. Part of being a professional in the modern world is obviously being certified by the state to undertake some kind of activity in an authoritative way. Anyone can give medical or legal advice, but that does not make them a doctor or lawyer. Further, there are some aspects of being a doctor or lawyer that only “work” if the state certification is present. Not just anyone can write a prescription or rightly demand attorney-client privilege.

Broadly speaking, the aspects of professionality that require state certification to be effective are performative speech acts that the state has empowered the professional to undertake. This puts us into a position to ask: What are academics empowered to do? Read the rest of this entry »

Repost: Airport Security and Aesthetics

[In honor of the beginning of holiday travel season, and in light of the continued controversy surrounding the TSA, I've decided to repost this piece from last year.]

One guy tried to set off a bomb in his shoe, and now millions of shoes have been taken off and put through X-ray machines as a result. A couple of guys had a hare-brained scheme to mix deadly chemicals in the plane’s bathroom — which wouldn’t even have worked, as I understand it — and now we have millions of little plastic bags with little travel-sized toiletries.

Some might admittedly view these new practices as over-reactions. Indeed, some might even mourn the fact that there is no foreseeable way out of these stupid practices, as no politician wants to be the one who loosens up the rules and then gets blamed for the next terrorist attack.

But I think we need to look at the bright side — this is an opportunity for the greatest performance-art piece in the history of the world. All we need is a truly dedicated artist to stage an attempted attack and a new bizarre practice can be imposed upon millions of travellers for years to come. (Perhaps we could brainstorm in comments.) This heroic artist would need to be selfless enough not only to risk jail time, but to be willing to forego claiming credit for the piece, as the confession that it was merely a prank might endanger the new practice’s continuation (though who knows?). Only years later could the artist finally come forward and “sign” their massive work, which had played out for years on a stage the size of the entire nation, perhaps adding a note explaining that the project was meant as a commentary on our security-obsessed age, etc.

In a further twist, perhaps next time you’re unlacing your shoes in order to put them through an X-ray machine along with hundreds of your fellow citizens, you should ask yourself, “Has this already happened? Was the shoe-bomber just a performance artist?”

Airport security and aesthetics

One guy tried to set off a bomb in his shoe, and now millions of shoes have been taken off and put through X-ray machines as a result. A couple of guys had a hare-brained scheme to mix deadly chemicals in the plane’s bathroom — which wouldn’t even have worked, as I understand it — and now we have millions of little plastic bags with little travel-sized toiletries.

Some might admittedly view these new practices as over-reactions. Indeed, some might even mourn the fact that there is no foreseeable way out of these stupid practices, as no politician wants to be the one who loosens up the rules and then gets blamed for the next terrorist attack.

But I think we need to look at the bright side — this is an opportunity for the greatest performance-art piece in the history of the world. All we need is a truly dedicated artist to stage an attempted attack and a new bizarre practice can be imposed upon millions of travellers for years to come. (Perhaps we could brainstorm in comments.) This heroic artist would need to be selfless enough not only to risk jail time, but to be willing to forego claiming credit for the piece, as the confession that it was merely a prank might endanger the new practice’s continuation (though who knows?). Only years later could the artist finally come forward and “sign” their massive work, which had played out for years on a stage the size of the entire nation, perhaps adding a note explaining that the project was meant as a commentary on our security-obsessed age, etc.

In a further twist, perhaps next time you’re unlacing your shoes in order to put them through an X-ray machine along with hundreds of your fellow citizens, you should ask yourself, “Has this already happened? Was the shoe-bomber just a performance artist?”

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