This Academic Life
  "I'm not brave enough for politics"
There is a scene in Revenge of the Sith, immediately after Anakin manages to crash-land the burned-out husk of Grievious' flagship on a convenient Coruscanti runway, which involves an exchange between Anakin and Obi-Wan on the subject of politics. Obi-Wan has always cautioned Anakin about his political contacts and ties, but in this case he goes a little further and declares, in a self-depricating way, that he's not brave enough for politics -- so Anakin, the hero of the day, should go enjoy his "glorious day with the politicians" while Obi-Wan goes to report to the Jedi Council.

Obi-Wan's kidding, kind of. But I think that his line is entirely appropriate to a reading of the entire Star Wars cycle as an extended treatment of the dangers of combining absolute ideals and political power -- a reading which I think more than defensible, since the final reasoning behind Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader is all about how Anakin's absolute commitment to the fulfillment of his morally good ends (preserving Padmé's life, ending the civil war, creating a stable and secure society) leads him to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of sufficient power to achieve those ends. Which, of course, results in Anakin's corruption as the means (achieving power) steadily takes the place of the original ends and becomes its own justification and its own goal.

This is an old story, of course. It's been told on film before, perhaps most brilliantly in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane; Lucas includes a cinematic homage to Welles in the scenes just before Anakin and Obi-Wan's climactic lightsaber duel, employing the same deep-focus technique to keep both foreground and background faces sharp that Welles regularly uses in his portrait of the corruption of a young and fortunate idealist. And it's the plot of Macbeth, figures into Hamlet, and can be seen on display in numerous other great works of tragedy. And the message is almost always the same: politics corrupts, because its currency is power rather than ideals, so one only survives and prospers in politics by sacrificing one's ideals to practical necessities.

Pretty bleak. But I don't think that this is the last word on the subject. Not surprisingly, I think that Weber has something important to teach us here, something that has to do with the mechanisms through which the corruption of ideals happens in political life. As Weber describes the situation in "Politics as a Vocation," the corruption of ideals takes place largely when someone without the vocation for politics gets involved in political struggles. The person with a vocation for politics is a person who is capable of responsibly balancing normative ideals and practical necessities, and thus pursuing an "ethics of responsibility" in which hard choices are made and their effects acknowledged. The person with a vocation for politics owns up to the consequences of her or his actions, and does not try to mollify critics by pointing to the good goal that she or he was striving for. "She meant well" or "his motives were pure" doesn't cut it in politics -- and can in fact lead to disastrous consequences.

The problem, as Weber diagnoses it, is that people without a vocation for politics, and thus not operating according to an ethic of responsibility, get involved in things and try to operate according to a very different logic. instead of an ethic of responsibility, they act according to an "ethic of ultimate ends," according to which they take absolute ideals and try their hardest to implement them politically. Here are my ideals; let me now try to act on them. This runs into problems because exercising political power -- which is inseparable from violence and other forms of coercion -- requires you to engage in morally questionable acts. So you can't stay pure. In an ethic of ultimate ends, this trafficking in immoral activity is justified in the name of the goal pursued, which paradoxically makes it more likely to happen than if the politician didn't have such a convenient rationalization ready-to-hand. The ethic of ultimate ends thus devolves into a pure instrumentalism, in which a morally pure (and in many respects irreproachable) goal stands above any number of reprehensible acts but doesn't seem to have any ability to restrain those acts or to prevent them from occurring.

So the implication would seem to be that only those with a vocation for politics should engage in political struggle. How does this connect to Obi-Wan's line? I would argue that people with a vocation for politics have to have three kinds of bravery:

Obi-Wan is a brave man; he does face both Grevious and Jango Fett in single combat at different times, and he certainly stands up for what he believes. So he has the first kind of courage. What I think he is acknowledging in his comment to Anakin is that he lacks some combination of the second and the third kinds of courage -- in a sense, he loves his ideals too much to compromise them, and isn't willing to press on with full knowledge that they have been compromised. Instead, he'd rather keep those ideals out of the political process.

Contrast Anakin, who is for sure acting with an ethic of ultimate ends. The Sith are evil, so executing them (as he does Count Dooku) is good. Saving Padmé is good, so betraying the Jedi is justified. Palpatine has the knowledge of power that Anakin needs, so murdering Jedi younglings and trying to kill his best friend Obi-Wan is acceptable. Darth Vader, a man without a vocation for politics who is in a position of political power…a real Weberian nightmare.

Obi-Wan's admission doesn't make him a coward, however. It makes him someone with a different vocation -- a Jedi vocation. A vocation for science, actually. A vocation that is more concerned with integrity and consistency than with practical results, and leads to witnessing rather than to administering. But that's another post.

[Posted with ecto]
  Top four and bottom six
Because I like stalling and procrastinating a bit, here are a few things I really abhor about summer teaching and a few things that are not so bad, sort of:

Six Worst Things About Summer Teaching

  1. six weeks to cover fifteen weeks' worth of material
  2. two class sessions a week, each of which is three hours long: too long to lecture, too long for a single discussion
  3. no time for students to digest material between classes -- no time to let them live with thorny problems and wrestle with them outside of the classroom
  4. perpetual class prep, since the sessions come one right after another
  5. perpetual grading, sometimes with overlapping assignments that need to be graded right now
  6. students who are mainly interested in getting credit for a requirement, and bring a somewhat lackadaisical attitude to their assignments and class participation
Four and-I-use-this-word-loosely "Best" Things About Summer Teaching
  1. ability to afford replacement furnace, since the heating element on our old one cracked
  2. ability to afford therapeutic summer camp for autistic son
  3. forced opportunity to update lecture slides, some of which will be re-used in Fall courses
  4. opportunity to marvel at the fact that, even though the conditions are considerably less than ideal, a couple of students still get it while going through the courses, and come to question fundamental assumptions that they formerly held to be true
On balance, I'd still greatly prefer not to have to do summer teaching. One day, perhaps.

Now, back to grading. Sigh.

[Posted with ecto]
  University for sale
Ah, summer -- when the bastion of learning that we call the university gives way to a group of buildings with a prime location and decent facilities to support a slew of small conferences. And other events. Walking across campus today I had to take a different path through the quad (university's gotta have nice grassy quads, right?) because my usual path was blocked off by the some group of realtors (I think) who were having a series of game competitions: obstacle course, something involving water and a tricycle, a hit-the-golf-ball contest, etc. Behind me were several team leaders from some other competitive activity, talking about how their kids were going to do in the day's events; I didn't listen closely because I was, imagine this, walking to class and thinking about what I was about to teach. On a university campus. Go figure.

I hate being reminded that in this present culture, a university is a business like any other: taking in fees, processing bodies, making a profit or at least breaking even (hey, it costs a lot to give those administrators their exceptionally high salaries). I hate having it flaunted as I walk from the parking lot -- the cheap parking lot, since the one next to my office is too expensive for me to pay for it, and yes, we have to pay for parking even though we work here -- to my office, and have to dodge campers and tour groups and people who were entirely too peppy for 9am, dressed in matching t-shirts as they prepared to triumph in the three-legged race ... on the quad around which stand buildings that house faculty offices and classrooms.

I hate it when various forces and persons conspire to turn my vocation into a mere job.

[Posted with ecto]
  On the absence of sufficient financial resources
Leave it to Bitch, PhD to say what a lot of us have undoubtedly been thinking: the financial incentives in academia are seriously fucked up. Personally, I know that I am definitely doing less well financially now than I was while in graduate school; having two kids -- one of whom is autistic, which means among other things that he needs expensive therapies that our crappy health insurance package doesn't cover very much of the cost of -- and owning a house will do that, I suppose, and my university-provided "travel funding" doesn't cover more than one conference a year. To say nothing about books and other supplies, almost all of which have to be paid for out of pocket.

And on top of that, let's think for a moment about the time commitments. I have a stack of journals that must be four feet high sitting in my office; those are the journals that I haven't read, and when I say "haven't read" I mean "haven't unwrapped form their plastic, or have unwrapped and then tossed onto the pile" for about the past four years. Why is there all of this backlog? Because in addition to my regular teaching load during the year, I have to teach two summer courses just to pay the basic bills. And the rest of the summer -- all six weeks out of the year that I am not actively teaching multiple courses -- is either spent writing madly (writing a lot while teaching is, I have learned, a recipe for disaster; I can edit and revise while classes are in session, but if I try to write something from scratch I end up trying to juggle too many balls at once and usually dropping all of them) or trying to make up the backlog of other professional commitments (supervision of theses and dissertations, peer reviews, etc.). And the backlog just gets bigger and bigger.

So I ask you: how am I supposed to keep current in my field when I haven't the time to do so because I am teaching additional courses to pay the bills? And while I'm at it, where am I supposed to find the time to be a human being, see my wife and kids, and so forth?

I'm very glad that I'm not in this for the money. On the other hand, it would be very nice to have adequate finances, instead of continually refinancing the house to consolidate accumulated debt.

[Posted with ecto]
  Not dead yet
No, I haven't completely vanished off of the face of the earth. Between lingering Spring grading, summer teaching, and the release of the new Star Wars film I've just been exceptionally busy. I'll get back to posting in a few days, I hope. Stay tuned.

[Posted with ecto]
"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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