Further thoughts on accessibility in humanities scholarship

The issue of the relative accessibility of humanities scholarship, the role of “theory” and its terminology, and the need to reach a broader audience have all been major areas of conversation within the humanities themselves. The heyday of “theory,” for instance, is widely acknowledged to be over. Meanwhile, there has been an explosion of more accessible publications (n+1, LA Review of Books, The New Inquiry, etc.) and book series (Zero Books, Repeater Books, etc.) that apply the modes of critical analysis inculcated in humanities graduate programs in a way intended for a broader educated audience — and they have had some real successes, both in reaching that audience and in being accepted into the existing mainstream (as for instance when n+1 alumni pepper the pages of The New Yorker). And meanwhile, to pick just one major example, Judith Butler — the very embodiment of “bad academic prose” in most discussions — has quite literally transformed her prose style from the bottom up in the last decade and engaged quite intentionally with a broader public. We could also think of the phenomenon of Zizek’s broad popularity.

The journalistic discussion of “bad academic writing” never, ever mentions any of this. It judges from the outside, based on stale cliches of 80s- and 90s-vintage academic trends. It never asks the “bad academic writers” whether they have a reason for writing the way they do or whether they share concerns about accessibility. That’s why I regard the discourse as beneath contempt — not because of some misguided loyalty that rejects any critique of any humanities academic, but because the whole discourse is a transparent ongoing political hit-job.

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On the “bad academic writing” trope

Yet another article on the scourge of opaque academic writing is making the rounds, and someone on Facebook got mad at me for being so dismissive of it. After all, surely I must admit that sometimes academic writing is needlessly complex and jargony? Right? Right?! But I don’t have to admit anything.

What I wonder is not whether the generalization is justified, but why it is an issue suitable for discussion in the mainstream press. Further, though the critique is aimed at “academic writing” in general, the proverbial “howlers” are almost always in the humanities.

Why are the humanities singled out? The reason is twofold. First, it reflects a belief that specialized knowledge in the humanities simply does not exist. Any humanities research that is not immediately accessible to an undergraduate is therefore an elitist imposture. Second, there is little doubt that there is a political agenda at work, given the ire directed at the influence of “Theory” in humanities writing — which is almost always a left-wing enterprise.

So no, I won’t “admit” that sometimes “academic writing” is bad, because in the public sphere, such rhetoric functions to delegitimate the humanities. There is a serious discussion to be had about the accessibility of our work, etc., but that is a discussion for us to have, on our own terms — not the terms set by a tediously cliched article in the Atlantic Monthly.

New journal: Continental Thought and Theory

Mike Grimshaw and Cindy Zeiher have put together a new journal in collaboration with the Department of Digital Humanities at the University of Canterbury (New Zealand): Continental Thought and Theory. The first CFP is up currently.

It all looks great with the exception of the editorial board — somehow they let me on.

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Down with departments

One of the great tragedies of American higher education is that essentially every school bought into the organization of the modern research university. In that model, professors are distributed into departments that are defined by a given discipline or group of disciplines. They teach students that discipline, which means that they teach students how to do research within that discipline or, effectively, how to go to grad school in that discipline. There are transferable skills conveyed, of course, but the “job” that it prepares you for — or prepares you to train for — is academia. And as much as the idea of an “oversupply” of professors is abused, I think we can all agree that even absent adjunctification, there are not and never will be enough professor jobs for literally every English major, for instance.

This is where the liberal arts ideal comes in. Students should get a breadth of knowledge, unconstrained by any narrow field. And how they do this is, for the most part, by taking an incoherent smorgasbord of introductory courses to various disciplines. Students generally resent being forced to take these courses, and academics don’t like teaching them — meaning that adjuncts do. Lately departments are figuring out that this hurts them in the quest for majors, which brings me to my next complaints: majors.

Oh my God, majors! I wish the system of majors could be abolished altogether. It misleads students (and their parents), who generally hold some fetishistic belief in the power of a major to lead directly to a job, as though the job market is the next level of college applications. This is obviously not the case, and it is not even the case that you need to go to grad school in the field you majored in! The whole major thing is literally a lie. And it’s a lie that serves the worst trends in higher ed. It creates interdepartmental competition for “majors,” in order to maintain the department’s status, its hiring clout, and in the last resort, its very existence. It encourages a naive belief that you’re getting some set chunk of knowledge from college, which feeds directly into the naive belief that majors are direct paths to jobs. And it also creates a ton of administrative overhead, as a four-person department still needs a chair, and these departments must all be corralled into a school (or college), overseen by a dean who in turn answers to a provost, etc., etc.

What is the basis for this entire architecture of departments and majors? Expertise. That’s the basis for the university’s legitimacy and for its internal prestige economy. But here’s a dirty little secret: first- and second-year students cannot remotely handle “expertise” as traditionally conceived. Indeed, learning from a hardcore expert can be pedagogically problematic, because if someone knows something really really well, they have a harder time getting into the mindset of someone who knows something not at all. Departments tacitly admit this by having graduate students — aspiring but not-yet experts — teach many of the lower-level courses.

I think we can go further, though. This is based on personal experience. I have taught all manner of materials at Shimer. Teaching something within my expertise, narrowly conceived, is the exception rather than the rule. When I try to teach within my expertise, in fact, it generally doesn’t go as well as when I’m learning along with the students. I have taught visual arts, music, sociology, anthropology, economics, world religions, and now even some primatology and evolutionary theory. If they let me, I’ll teach chemistry and biology.

I am able to teach all these subjects because I can read and because I’m naturally curious. It’s not because I’m a polymathic genius with unparalleled reach. It’s just that people with more expertise than me have collaborated in putting together a good set of materials, and I’m able to keep ahead of the students to a sufficient degree to give them some value-add. At the very least, I model a certain enthusiasm and curiosity, I let them know that it’s okay to be wrong sometimes, and I provide them with the requisite superegoic pressure to keep working through stuff. I learn along with the students, and I can tell they’re learning too. Course evaluations seem to bear this out — because Shimer is one of those weird places where we actually have a consciously articulated pedagogical model and hence don’t throw students back onto the worst form of consumerism when we ask them to assess what happened in class.

My experience also tells me that developing a curriculum like Shimer’s is difficult and contentious. One fight that the division into discipline-centered departments spares an academic community is the fight over what it is that we do here. Each little fiefdom can say that they transmit a discipline, which we know is worthwhile because it just is. As for the school as a whole? I don’t know, maybe we inculcate leadership or excellence or … whatever. Social justice? Yeah, sure. We create citizens, maybe, just to make sure we don’t alienate conservatives too much.

I think there are probably possible models between Shimer’s extreme core curriculum (two-thirds of the typical student’s credits) and the prevalent model of “getting your gen-eds out of the way so that you can focus on your major.” It may even be the case that Shimer itself needs to loosen up a smidge! But some day people are going to realize that paying 100-grand for leadership and excellence is bullshit, and it would be nice if before that day came, we actually created a curriculum that was halfway cohesive and persuasive.

Weaponized critique: On nuance-trolling

On Facebook, Scott Erik Kaufman pointed out Kieran Healy’s paper Fuck Nuance, which I greatly enjoyed. One thing that stood out to me was his repeated claim that the endless demand for more nuance is a form of symbolic violence. Often it can be a very explicit power play: you aren’t allowed to make that kind of argument until you take account of my pet topic. But more generally, how often have we heard attempts to disqualify arguments on ostensibly “procedural” grounds that wind up being an open-ended demand for more work? “I won’t even consider what you have to say until you address X, Y, and Z text, etc.”

For instance, I recently received a singularly unhelpful reader report that demanded I refer to a ton of other texts and make all kinds of subtle distinctions. What was missing from this report was any sense of whether my argument was generally right or wrong and — crucially — what these further references and nuances would actually add. The report amounted to a demand that I completely rewrite the piece in question, but provided no guidance, no sense of what would constitute “enough.”

I have previously referred to phenomena like the fillibuster as weaponized debate — that is to say, a rhetorical intervention that takes on the appearance of debate, but actually functions to preempt or shut down debate. The same thing is going on with nuance-trolling, which amounts to an academic fillibuster: rather than directly talking about the argument in question, the critic runs out the clock by listing off all the things they happen to know.

The sad fact of the matter is that we academics are way better at carrying out those kinds of weaponized fillibusters than actually engaging with each other’s work in a serious way. It would be bad enough if we were all just bullshitting in the seminar room, but people’s careers and livelihood depend on these kinds of interactions. In a time when academia is in such profound crisis, we should learn how to take better care of each other — and if we have the privilege of engaging in the life of the mind, we should actually do so instead of wasting everyone’s time with the tedious one-ups-manship of nuance-trolling.

The last day of summer vacation

Tomorrow I have my first faculty meeting of the fall semester, making this the final day of summer vacation. Aside from a certain Unfortunate Incident involving unwanted online attention, it was a good one. It was obviously dominated by my work on The Prince of This World, the full manuscript of which is now under review. Finishing it was a big milestone in my life, but it was more than just checking something off a list — I enjoyed the work. And given that I had enough time to pace myself appropriately (3-4 hours of concentrated writing a day, max), it also provided a steady background for a very “civilized” lifestyle. I struck a good balance between semi-random reading and getting my sci-fi fix (I’m about halfway through Babylon 5 currently), for instance. Though we didn’t take any major vacations, we took advantage of The Girlfriend’s unexpected car ownership (the last vestige of the Minneapolis episode) to take a weekend trip to Milwaukee and several day trips for outdoor activities and/or visits to various brewpubs.

I also worked on piano in a more sustained and focused way than I have in many years. Yesterday I had a major breakthrough on my Schubert piano sonata, finally getting the most intricate new material to an acceptable level and playing through the whole first movement in one go. Much of what I have left to learn is a repetition of previous material in a different key with small variations, and it was gratifying to be able to sight-read passages that had taken weeks of hard labor on their first incarnation. It felt good to work on something that was purely an end in itself, with no greater purpose or goal.

At the same time, I did check plenty of things off the list. With my big translation submitted and the book under review, my decks are cleared in a pretty radical way. And over the last couple weeks, as a kind of cool-down exercise, I wrote an article on Star Trek that is quite literally the last piece of writing I’ve promised to anyone. My “writing” time for the next few months will therefore be dominated by responding to reader reports, answering copy-editing queries, and correcting proofs — a suitable accompaniment to my labor as a mid-level functionary at Shimer. In so many ways, becoming Associate Dean this year marks the end of a long class-aspirational journey for me: I’ve emerged from a working class background to become middle management. And as an added bonus, I am now, for the first time ever, a member ex officio of a committee. Oh, the policies I’ll draft! The data I’ll analyze! The resolutions I’ll propose!

Public shaming as a political strategy

In the social media age, the prospect of being socially shamed has become a real site of anxiety for mainstream culture. Jon Ronson has written a book on the topic, and columnists routinely meet their wordcount by repeating cliches about the dangers of Twitter hordes. The primary anxiety seems to be centered on social media storms coming from the Left, which seem to represent a new weaponized form of Political Correctness. And there are many on the left, particularly in campus activism circles, who are understandably intrigued by the potential power of shaming as a tool.

Tim Burke has already thoroughly addressed the potentials and pitfalls of public shaming. Arguably his most salient point is that “stigma is a dangerous tool generally, and has far more often been a tool of oppression or domination than the other way around.” While he is quick to clarify that this observation “doesn’t necessarily mean that it has no purpose or legitimacy as a goal,” he encourages activists to be more cautious and realistic in their deployment of shame.

As the victim of public shaming, I want to amplify what Burke is saying. Even though people are most worried about shaming from the left, it’s the right that is really mobilized to carry out this kind of thing. They are absolutely relentless and merciless. Literally everything you say in response becomes more fodder for harrassment — above all the claim that you are being harrassed, which indicates your intolerance of criticism and unwillingness to consider other views. Here as elsewhere, whatever you do, however you respond, it proves that your harrassers are the real victims, who are thoroughly justified in defending themselves against you by any means necessary.

This is only one of many repeated rhetorical strategies. Indeed, what is striking about right-wing harrassment mobs is their crushing tedium. The same phrases and talking points are repeated over and over and over — and all with the clear presumption that you have never heard it before. It’s like they workshopped it ahead of time, and in a sense they did. Becoming a movement conservative (or aligning even further right) consists largely in learning the strategies of shaming and silencing, of drowning out and driving out opposing views. For us it might seem like a useful tool, but it’s their native language.

Hence I would like to add my own small point to Burke’s analysis: one danger of using shaming as a tool is that the right is way better at it. In fact, I think there’s a case to be made that they are especially prone to mobilize a shaming campaign precisely when they detect an attempt to shame them. And when it comes to a head-to-head shaming battle, there’s just no way we can win. Given the huge number of divisions and constituencies operating on the left, there’s no way we can generate that kind of lockstep relentless campaign. Nor, in the end, do I think we really want to — certainly not as an end in itself.


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