Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Advice for the Miserable #3

Tuesday again.

America has long been a nation of anti-intellectualism. Studies have been done, go read them if you are deeply concerned with a full picture. Or go watch a couple hours of regularly scheduled television. Now I have problems enough with anti-intellectualism. With a desire to "know nothing" or any number of other pleasant euphemisms for disregarding accepted science and intellectual pursuit for short sighted partisan nonsense masked as "faith" or "for the good of the country" or the ever insulting "keeping the nation safe". But anti-intellectualism in general is not my issue tonight. It is not what "grinds my gears" and I have no advice to offer on the subject at this time. After all, things are looking up. Science is in, as federal funding for stem cells, re-institution of protections for endangered species, and the recent acknowledgment by the EPA of the human impact on the environment. Everything's the flavor of the month once in a while.

Tonight's advice does still go out to intellectuals, though. Because the threat to intellectualism, to reasoned and impassioned debate, does not wholly come from without. Indeed, an often greater threat is waged silently from within the tower, weakening its foundations while intending to strengthen them.

Bad intellectualism, useless intellectuals, failed theory, closed-mindedness, single-disciplinarianism, and, of course, bureaucracy all are threats to the academy. Now, to clarify, I don't in any way care about the academy as academy. Or, what the academy has come to represent, the hierarchies, the power struggles, the watering down of curriculums, etc. I do, however, wholeheartedly agree that there must be secure fonts of knowledge, safe places for thinkers to pursue their individual and group efforts to better understand our bodies, our selves, our life, the universe, and everything. And anything that threatens that is a serious issue.

I seem to be deviating somewhat from my initial outline - to advise embattled intellectuals trying to both educate and relate research and theory to reality as they ward off the slings and arrows of outrageous university bullshit. I suppose I could enter into a full on rant about the American education system, about the possibility of an effective system that doesn't force children prematurely into "tracks" or "castes", and that doesn't do so based on economic or cultural bias. It's a hard enough issue and my plague on all your houses mentality hardly matches with the necessary altruism of a national education policy. So I will try to narrow the issue again.

To the embattled intellectual - probably still a grad student or a new assoc. prof. hoping that you can prove yourself in this temp gig so that you can land one of the fast disappearing tenure tracks: drink more, enjoy and relate to life, read phd comics, drink more. So much of my advice seems to hinge on drinking. It's not really the drinking that is the issue, the booze just tends to be a lubrication for the necessary detachment, for the destabilization of hierarchies, for the attempt to reach/create/remix new knowledge centers. Face it, most of what we do as academics is boring. Even to ourselves. Just think about what Joe Sixpack would say when you recite the 15 word title of your disseratation. Don't take yourselves so seriously. Because again, most of what we do is boring and taking it seriously just makes you an ass. No one likes that. You'll have to drink alone. Which, also, tends to be boring - when it isn't depressing or a possible sign of addiction. Actually, this advice is for everyone (i.e. the miserable) not just academics (i.e. the miserably in debt).

Learning to relate is a must. If your disseration is only going to be read by three people and only interesting to five, none of which will ever read it, you might have a problem. Either face up to the pointlessness of it and keep on trucking till something else comes along (the route I ended up taking) or write something more interesting, something that you can relate to in your private life (if you don't have one, get one), something that you won't be embarassed to talk about when trying to pick up strangers at the bar (if they don't understand what you are talking about, you should be embarassed or you are already drunk and then it doesn't matter, ask someone about it in the morning). Video games seem to be popular these days. And comic books. But maybe I'm just too much of a fan of low culture. Someone needs to study the mating habits of porcupines. Of course, I can think of several ways of working that into polite conversation.

So this has rambled on long enough. Chances are I will spend time enough ranting about education in the years to come, so more on that later. I guess it really boils down to this: know who can learn and who will learn and who wants to learn and forget the rest. Know how they learn and how they want to learn and teach that way. Stay relavent, stay interesting, and stay impermanent. Otherwise you'll just get lazy and dull. There are far too many terrible thinkers and terrible ideas in the world. Don't add to them.

And if you want the easy life, quit now and marry rich.


lifeanxiety said...

I brought my benefit of the doubt to this rant and found nothing I could strongly disagree with in its first half.

Then, suddenly, a paragraph is addressed directly to me, the "embattled intellectual" and out come two ideas of such outlandishness they can't possibly go without comment. First of all, even as someone who agrees with not taking yourself too seriously (as I assume most people would claim), I would never say of academics "most of what we do is boring even to ourselves." I couldn't give half a shit for half the intellectuals I've ever met or what they're doing. Those are generous estimates. But I still like the academic work that I'M DOING and find it odd that you think your feelings are the more common ones. Maybe you should just be doing something else?

As for that all-American icon defined by his alcohol problem, Joe "Sixpack," I would gladly tell him any of the titles I've used (15 words I've exceeded for sure) and he can do with it what he will. I'm not really seeking his approval, which is what I think you're doing when you express all this internalized guilt bullshit about how "taking it seriously just makes you an ass. No one likes that. You'll have to drink alone."

It sounds to me like you're projecting your own personal and class issues all over your fellow grad students, casting them out of this 'real' reality apparently only available to someone with exploited blue-collar street cred and a predilection for beer-drinking. At the same time you unfairly condemn the things you claim to like as "low culture," which is a vastly contentious statement I won't even attempt to counter because at this point your sentences have become as decreasingly intelligible as they are increasingly effuse.

That you feel this way I find rather worrying, mostly in your own harsh self-dismissal. (But there's honorable mention for how reliant on your alcohol intake this "detachment" that you apparently find so "necessary" is.) It sounds to me like you're condemning yourself, and likely to some extent rightly so, for a failure on your part to find something in the academy that you consider both fascinating and relevant.

That, incidentally, is not stable ground from which to advise those you so blithely assume to be in your same position but beneath your level of amassed wisdom. As best as I can even attempt to extract a sensible core from this advice, you appear to be telling me to not feel irrelevant or embarrassed by what I do, which I do not and again is actually your problem.

At the same time you advise that I "stay relevant, stay interesting" in such a way that makes it seem pretty clear you are appending a tacit "to x" afterwords. The "x" stands in for wherever you feel this standard you are applying, here mostly unarticulated, comes from, which is almost certainly a host of personality issues for which I would advise you seek some therapy.

Billy Prophet said...

You raise many fair and notable points. First, let us take for granted my penchant for hyperbole. That said, I will make an effort to address your comments with a reasonable amount of seriousness.

1. boring. Well, this might be little more than a semantic argument. I would not argue that academics find the ideas that the write and research on to be boring (at least so long as they are their ideas and not the ideas of their advisors, &c). But the work? Even if you are one of those unique and lucky souls that enjoys researching long hours in the stacks do you really mean to say that you are not put off by deadlines and red tape and the many and various requirements of academia that are not you and your idea taken to fruition? No one likes their job. Once your passion becomes intertwined with restrictions and deadlines it loses a substantial amount of its luster. I'm not saying that this would be reason to give up the academic life, but seriously, it's not like it's an easy ride sweet dream boat existence. Should I be doing something else? Eh. Maybe. There are other things I would rather be doing. But I like this well enough for now.

2. It's not so much approval that I am concerned with as transmission. This technically does not concern the average joe any longer. As more and more academic research finds itself being distanced by the continual watering down of societies collective intelligence. So transmission of academic discourse is becoming an issue that concerns only the smallest of groups. Here is one issue that I will respect a healthy disagreement regarding, but I think that the point of knowledge is its transmission. That knowing something is insufficient if you cannot pass it on, if it cannot be disseminated. If academic work continues to closet itself away from the world, eschewing the average opinion because the average can no longer understand it and becoming more and more insular, I feel justified in expressing this concern.

3. the drinking. The drinking is a metaphor. There are many ways of escaping reality, of distancing one from ones problems, of enjoying the finer things. Drinking happens to be both a legal example of this escapism as well as a practice that I quite enjoy. It strikes me that you do not, that you conflate beer drinking with blue collars and find a sixpack to be emblematic of a drinking problem. Please substitute your own metaphor.

4. It is again hyperbole that I find nothing of facination and relavence in the academy. Just that those rare few bits are still rare. Derrida loved television. Barthes discoursed on professional wrestling. There are plenty of theories and theorists that I find interesting and of value. Really my main complaint in this realm was not so much with the academy but applied in haste to cover an issue that is most often found in high schools and undergraduate realms. In the upper levels of the academy one can research with relative freedom nearly anything, and so yes, I would agree that my earlier statements did misconstrue. To clarify, I do find the ideas I work on to be quite satisfying in their relevance and import. The issue then is that at lower levels, in undergrad programs and high schools were transmission of knowledge that is of both relevance and import - that can keep both instructor and student engaged and learning - are a rare commodity. Bureaucratic movements that seek to hand out good grades and high test scores undermine legitimate learning environments, teachers and professors find it difficult to relate to students or difficult to be allowed to relate lest they upset the delicate balance the administration has arranged with the parents. Again, I find the transmission of knowledge to be a very important act, the purpose of knowledge, and I wanted to express a certain impotent rage at the roadblocks that are being throw up.

5. to x - yes, to students. At least it must be relevant to students. The number of students is clearly variable. Knowledge is not necessarily popular and certainly does not need to be learned or accepted by everyone. But academic research must be relevant to at least some students lest it not be passed on. If you write a thesis or dissertation that is read only when it is being defended and then put on a shelf to gather dust, your work is less for it. It should be read afterward, it should be commented upon and give rise to spirited debate not locked away and forgotten. Do I apply other standards to whom I seek to remain relevant? Yes. I'm sure we all have our own. But research conducted in a vacuum, without the desire to pass it on, with out the drive to write it so that it might be read is irrelevant. And the last thing higher education needs right now is to be seen as irrelevant by those upon whose money we rely.

6. therapy. Maybe a few years ago. Right now, I'm doing just fine. Better, actually. Thanks for your concern.

Hopefully that addresses your concerns & criticisms. Hopefully you have a little better idea of where I am coming from. Hopefully you keep at the critique so that I can't get away with all the easy and flippant comments that tend to define most of my writing here.

lifeanxiety said...

3.) i was actually implying beer/blue collar was your conflation. hey, maybe it's not. let's all agree drinking is for any collar. and the shirtless. and for me, in fact.

and if i were to substitute my own "metaphor" i could pick from a whole host of other substances i use and abuse. so this isn't high-horse judgment being lobbed down at you.

i guess i'm just saying your way of speaking about alcohol tends to seamlessly blend "escaping reality" and "enjoying the finer things." and in a rather "it-takes-one-to-know-one" kind of way I feel like maybe you should apply your academically-honed analytic/problematizing skills to your own character enough to sense that probably you are rationalizing, a little, maybe.

6. also i'm in therapy. so. i advise that to a lot of people.

the rest of these education issues you talk about are sort of in line with the first half of your op. yea, in the academy, we all have to manage the onerous system (it can go very much in your favor, though, if you're good at it) as well as find research that is personally fulfilling but justifiably relevant.

and yes, teaching at every level is equally fraught with complications. i guess it just sounds like you think a lot of people are learning irrelevant BS with no regard for what should be taught, and that's just ... well, correct, really, imho.

but i'm willing to bet that's not how they feel about it. we all tend to think we're the shit regardless of the facts.

so your clarion call that we not be useless academics lest the tower continue to crumble away beneath us is likely to fall on deaf ears. which would be more alarming were the whole insane tangled mess of institutionalized education not so large and diverse that i feel confident there is a place in it for anyone who professes to be passionate about knowledge transmission -- that's both of us.

if you find the air up there to be a little too rarified for your particular tastes, there's always a frightening number of 16 year old's who don't yet know how much they need shakespeare and whitman and salinger and may never find out because the big scary administration threw up too many roadblocks for the impotent to surpass.