This Academic Life
Apparently there was
a memo about how college has been transformed into a job training exercise. I must have missed it.
In this kind of economy—and given the dominance of "economic" ways of everyday sense-making—what is to become of thinking
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Science, not politics!
Science, not politics
I posted the Fish op-ed to a listserv where fellow academics discuss similar issues. I got a lot of negative reactions, so I posted a couple of replies, excerpts from which are below:
I find the generally negative reaction on this list to Stanley Fish's op-ed quite fascinating, in that it concretely demonstrates a rather profound shift in [this group, which] was more narrowly focused on two concerns that I think entirely proper to our vocation as academics: the relatively closed character of many of the top journals in the field to work that did not utilize formal or statistical techniques, and the dominance of the APSA by a small group of scholars whose interests were not broadly representative of the field of political science as a whole. These concerns speak to two of the dimensions of our vocation: the first speaks to our scholarship, and the second speaks to our professional lives.
(Largely absent from most of our subsequent discussions, has been what I would regard as the most important piece of our vocation as academics, namely pedagogy; we've talked a fair amount about how do make our journals and our association more methodologically diverse, but not much about how do teach our students how to appreciate and conduct research that is grounded in very different ontological and epistemological positions. Personally, I would argue that diversifying the journals and the association is a means to an end, and that end is having more research that can be used to make students confront the "uncomfortable facts" with which their own perspectives have trouble dealing. That's why I want there to be a lot of research floating around in the field that utilizes presuppositions and techniques with which I do not personally agree, because it saves me the trouble of having to invent such things for pedagogical purposes.)
I never signed up for "a more (politically) engaged political science," and I am very skeptical about "speaking truth to power." In my understanding we already have a more politically engaged political science; it is practiced (as appropriate, I think) outside of the academy at various research institutes and think tanks and consulting agencies. This seems appropriate because, as far as I am concerned, deploying the mantle of "social science" in an effort to affect state policy is politics, not science. The difference, as Weber put it, is that politicians use their words and concepts as "weapons of war" and not as analytical tools for making sense of complex situations -- politicians are not methodologically rigorous, nor should they be. "Speaking truth to power" is an exercise of power -- unless one buys the Enlightenment-era metaphysic that separates the two moments. While I feel that Foucault pretty definitively eliminated that position, I can certainly understand that others might disagree -- and a methodologically diverse political science should have room for that debate too. But by the same token it should have room for those like me who entered academia precisely because we didn't feel strongly enough about a particular issue to want to devote our lives to advocating for it.
I shudder to think of myself -- or any of us -- as "experts" who can resolve political questions with our superior knowledge. Isn't that the kind of philosophical position that got us into this methodologically homogenous mess in the first place? If there is a One True Way That The World Is (to invoke Richard Rorty's terminology), doesn't it follow almost necessarily that there must be a One True Methodology That Can Reach That World, or at the very least a One True Set Of Insights That Can And Should Legitimately Drive Out Others Which Are False? For me, methodological diversity is implacably opposed to "Truth" understood as divorced from power and perspective and cultural values. Promoting methodological diversity means abandoning the (misleading) hope that we will be able to resolve pressing political issues through our superior scientific (or humanistic, or interpretive, or whatever -- these are in my opinion minor variations within the same Enlightenment-era dualist metaphysic) techniques.
I still think that Weber got it right: academics are supposed to teach students by making them question their pre-existing assumptions about the world, and to conduct research that is founded in ideal-typical versions of particular cultural values. There is a Nietzschean perspectivism at the heart of this endeavor, and it vitiates the notion that we can come to a definitive and solid resolution of the most pressing questions. Of course we academics are not somehow constitutively separate from the wider world which we study and in which we live. But it does not follow that we should use our positions in society to engage in narrowly partisan battles, or that this is all that we can and should do. Instead, I think, our research embodies and instantiates particular value-commitments and *may* thus contribute to a broader public debate about the utility of those values, but such a debate should not be our proximate goal.
As for the production of democratic citizens, well, I have to agree with Fish that I have no idea how to do that. I do know how to bring students into dialogue with perspectives and facts that are remote from their presuppositions, and I do know how to promote notions of scholarly integrity and methodological consistency. If those are "democratic" values, then fine -- they seem to me to have little to do with democracy per se and much to do with the scholarly endeavor that is proper to our vocation.
And as for International Relations in particular being a "practical" field like organizational management, I can do no better than to quote Hedley Bull from the conclusion of his book The Anarchical Society
"The search for conclusions that can be presented as “solutions” or “practical advice” is a corrupting element in the contemporary study of world politics, which properly understood is an intellectual activity and not a practical one. Such conclusions are advanced less because there is any solid basis for them than because there is a demand for them that it is profitable to satisfy. The fact is that while there is a great desire to know what the future of world politics will bring, and also to know how we should behave in it, we have to grope about in the dark with respect to the one as much as respect to the other. It is better to recognize that we are in darkness than to pretend that we can see the light."
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Academia is about scholarship
Academia is about scholarship
At least someone
agrees with me.
Why We Built the Ivory Tower
By STANLEY FISH
(NYTimes, 21 May 2004)
After nearly five decades in academia, and five and a half years as a dean at a public university, I exit with a three-part piece of wisdom for those who work in higher education: do your job; don't try to do someone else's job, as you are unlikely to be qualified; and don't let anyone else do your job. In other words, don't confuse your academic obligations with the obligation to save the world; that's not your job as an academic; and don't surrender your academic obligations to the agenda of any non-academic constituency — parents, legislators, trustees or donors. In short, don't cross the boundary between academic work and partisan advocacy, whether the advocacy is yours or someone else's.
Marx famously said that our job is not to interpret the world, but to change it. In the academy, however, it is exactly the reverse: our job is not to change the world, but to interpret it. While academic labors might in some instances play a role in real-world politics — if, say, the Supreme Court cites your book on the way to a decision — it should not be the design or aim of academics to play that role.
While academics in general will agree that a university should not dance to the tune of external constituencies, they will most likely resist the injunction to police the boundary between academic work and political work. They will resist because they simply don't believe in the boundary — they believe that all activities are inherently political, and an injunction to avoid politics is meaningless and futile.
Now there is some truth to that, but it is not a truth that goes very far. And it certainly doesn't go where those who proclaim it would want it to go. It is true that no form of work — including even the work of, say, natural science — stands apart from the political, social and economic concerns that underlie the structures and practices of a society. This does not mean, however, that there is no difference between academic labors and partisan labors, or that there is no difference between, for example, analyzing the history of welfare reform — a history that would necessarily include opinions pro and con — and urging students to go out and work for welfare reform or for its reversal.
Analyzing welfare reform in an academic context is a political action in the sense that any conclusion a scholar might reach will be one another scholar might dispute. (That, after all, is what political means: subject to dispute.) But such a dispute between scholars will not be political in the everyday sense of the word, because each side will represent different academic approaches, not different partisan agendas.
My point is not that academics should refrain from being political in an absolute sense — that is impossible — but that they should engage in politics appropriate to the enterprise they signed onto. And that means arguing about (and voting on) things like curriculum, department leadership, the direction of research, the content and manner of teaching, establishing standards — everything that is relevant to the responsibilities we take on when we accept a paycheck. These responsibilities include meeting classes, keeping up in the discipline, assigning and correcting papers, opening up new areas of scholarship, and so on.
This is a long list, but there are many in academia who would add to it the larger (or so they would say) tasks of "forming character" and "fashioning citizens." A few years ago, the presidents of nearly 500 universities issued a declaration on the "Civic Responsibility of Higher Education." It called for colleges and universities to take responsibility for helping students "realize the values and skills of our democratic society."
Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard and one of the forces behind the declaration, has urged his colleagues to "consider civic responsibility as an explicit and important aim of college education." In January, some 1,300 administrators met in Washington under the auspices of the Association of American Colleges and Universities to take up this topic: "What practices provide students with the knowledge and commitments to be socially responsible citizens?" That's not a bad question, but the answers to it should not be the content of a college or university course.
No doubt, the practices of responsible citizenship and moral behavior should be encouraged in our young adults — but it's not the business of the university to do so, except when the morality in question is the morality that penalizes cheating, plagiarizing and shoddy teaching, and the desired citizenship is defined not by the demands of democracy, but by the demands of the academy.
This is so not because these practices are political, but because they are the political tasks that belong properly to other institutions. Universities could engage in moral and civic education only by deciding in advance which of the competing views of morality and citizenship is the right one, and then devoting academic resources and energy to the task of realizing it. But that task would deform (by replacing) the true task of academic work: the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching.
The idea that universities should be in the business of forming character and fashioning citizens is often supported by the claim that academic work should not be hermetically sealed or kept separate from the realm of values. But the search for truth is its own value, and fidelity to it mandates the accompanying values of responsibility in pedagogy and scholarship.
Performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level is a job big enough for any scholar and for any institution. And, as I look around, it does not seem to me that we academics do that job so well that we can now take it upon ourselves to do everyone else's job too. We should look to the practices in our own shop, narrowly conceived, before we set out to alter the entire world by forming moral character, or fashioning democratic citizens, or combating globalization, or embracing globalization, or anything else.
One would like to think that even the exaggerated sense of virtue that is so much a part of the academic mentality has its limits. If we aim low and stick to the tasks we are paid to perform, we might actually get something done.
Stanley Fish will step down next month as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He didn't cite Weber, but he might as well have. Go Stanley!
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Actual quotation from an e-mail from a student:
"[Professor Z] was concerned, more or less, that the course we design may be great, may be intellectually stimulating, but may fall short on providing me with the "tools" I need to get a job. "If you want to read a lot of great books on topic X and talk about them that's nice, but it won't help you when you get done with school." The criticism is legitimate but a bit ironic."
[The "course" referenced is a directed reading / independent study course that the student and I have been discussing for some months now, revolving largely around issues of explanation in the social sciences. In other words, your basic meat-and-potatoes epistemology course.]
Aargh. Since when is graduate education primarily about getting a job??
From elsewhere in the student's e-mail: "Everything they told me grad school was good for had nothing to do with class: networking, meeting folks, internships, etc.…I came back to graduate school to be challenged and educated by my peers and professors about topics I am deeply concerned about. But I assumed that [this school] would, because of the personal experiences of professors in their respective fields, alert me to the "tools" I needed to be successful when I graduated. So I'm a bit frustrated. I feel as if a lot of that responsibility has been hoisted upon me and it is not at all clear just what it is I'm supposed to be getting from my [graduate school] experience that will actually be of use when I get done."
This student has apparently figured out from his end what I have been figuring out from my end: most of what we teach in our courses for the MA students is basically irrelevant
to their career plans. So the question remains: do prospective employers expect
students graduating with an MA to have learned something useful? If we aren't teaching it, what kind of racket are we running here?
I think that the racket may be much bigger than us. The racket may be the very concept of the professional MA itself. And barring a major seismic shift in how hiring is done in the field of "practical IR," it shows no signs of abating.
[Posted with ecto]
I'm a little dissatisfied with what I posted earlier, so I'm taking another crack at it even though I have loads of end-of-semester grading to do. As a colleague said to me yesterday, there's nothing like a looming deadline to focus the mind on other things :-)
The conventional distinction between MA and PH.D. education is the practice/theory distinction: MA degrees are supposed to be "applied" degrees involving the use of skills to solve problems, while Ph.D. degrees are supposed to be "theoretical" degrees involving the production of the knowledge that MAs and other practitioners can go out into the field and apply. While I think that there is something to this distinction, I also think that it is inaccurate to characterize a Ph.D. degree as purely "theoretical" and an MA degree as purely "practical." Both of these educational pathways involve modes of practice, and are supposed to bring students along into those modes of practice; both are also "theoretical" inasmuch as they involve a way of seeing (which is the rood of the word "theory," after all) that is something other than mere description (as if such a thing were possible).
Hence, both MA and Ph.D. tracks have a "professional" aspect, in that there is a profession into which the student is being socialized, and a "content" aspect, in that there is particular material with which the student has to contend in the course of her or his education. I reject the use of the word "theory" to describe the content of either
of these tracks. In typical social-science fashion (and parenthetically, this whole discussion may only apply to the social sciences), here's a 2x2 table that hopefully clarifies more than it obscures:
The MA track is about training people to be practitioners. The profession into which MA students are being socialized is the world of practical (in our case, political) activity, which is why it is good to have experienced practitioners as instructors. Experienced practitioners can facilitate socialization both by simply telling
students what the world of practice is like, and by connecting students with aspects of that world through internships, jobs, consulting opportunities, and the like. experienced practitioners can also transmit their knowledge of the craft practices that make the world of practical activity go around, both through exemplary story (sometimes called the analysis of "best practices") and through apprenticeship opportunities. [I have several colleagues who secure consulting contracts for their classes and then walk them through the process of researching, preparing, and presenting reports to NGOs, government agencies, firms, and the like; the faculty member serves as the expert guide, giving feedback at every stage of the process.]
The Ph.D. track is about training people to be scholars. By "scholar" here I do not necessarily mean "university faculty member," although that is clearly one of the place where scholars ply their trade; there are also think-tanks and research institutes where scholars can thrive and prosper. To be an scholar largely means to be interested in ideas and abstract debate, as well as in the conditions of validity of the knowledge-claims implicated in those debates. This does not mean that scholars don't have "real-world" concerns, but that they approach them in very different ways, and with more of a heightened sense of the philosophical implications of their stances. There is clearly a "profession" here, involving publishing, attending conferences, and in many cases classroom teaching (especially for university faculty members), but it is a different profession than that targeted by the MA track. And the content is different, even if the same texts are read in both tracks
. Ph.D. education is concerned -- obsessed, perhaps -- with methodological questions, which I would define as bringing philosophical issues (ontology and epistemology) together with the more technical questions of research design and execution.
The corruption of the Ph.D. track occurs when educational organizations, and the faculty members within them, ignore or suppress the distinction in favor of a focus on the MA track. What this does -- again, speaking ideal-typically here -- is to exercise a gravitational pull on the Ph.D. track away
from scholarship and methodology and towards
the world of practitioners and craft practices. Thus researchers become "consultants" and think-tank members become hired guns for political parties and NGOs -- and the Weberian distinction between "Wissenschaft" and "Politik" falls completely apart.
Hence, my problem: I'm a scholar in an MA-dominated university program, where many of our Ph.D. students are not being socialized as scholars and are not really as focused on methodology as I think that they should be. And I would like to change this, butI am not sure that many of my colleagues are with me; and
I am not sure precisely how much room to maneuver I have, given the financial logic of the situation.
Meanwhile, back to grading the final papers for my methodology course, which also drove home this distinction to me inasmuch as I have some MA students who are really doing Ph.D. work and also some Ph.D. students who are really doing MA work.
Do I really have anything useful to teach MA students?
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Our graduate program, like many others, consists of both MA students and Ph.D. students. Because the Ph.D. program is rather small, there are very few Ph.D.-only classes offered; outside of the five core courses, Ph.D. students either take classes with MA students or engage in directed independent study. In many cases this means that the Ph.D. students are simply mixed in with the MA students; professors might ask them to read and write a bit more, or to do so at a higher level of competence, but much of the time there is no qualitative
difference between the two categories of graduate students.
I well understand the financial aspects of this arrangement: MA students pay for their educations, by and large, while Ph.D. students generally have stipends and fellowships provided by the institution, and those fellowships and stipends need to be funded somehow. The available options seem to be an endowment (which is very
difficult to produce if you don't have one already), massive external grants (which are more plentiful in the natural sciences), and tuition -- specifically, MA tuition. The MA students pay for their educations, and this allows us (and many other institutions) to support a Ph.D. program.
But if the MA students are providing the cash, then the program has to have adequate resources to attract them. In addition, it takes several
MA students to give the institution enough surplus to support a Ph.D. student, especially in the absence of an endowment that could close the gaps or a grant that could provide other funding options. It is thus not surprising that the majority of our graduate course offerings are targeted at MA students, and that many of our hires are of people with practitioner backgrounds: MA students, after all, are generally interested in employment outside of academia, and are enrolled in their graduate program as a way of maximizing their chances of gaining such employment. The MA is a practitioner's degree, a certification that the person has mastered a certain set of practical skills -- the institution vouches for the training of the student, which streamlines the hiring process.
The problem is that MA education and Ph.D. education are not the same thing, because MA students and Ph.D. students are neither heading in the same direction nor concerned with the same issues. If the MA degree is a certification related to skills-training, the Ph.D. is a certification of an intellectual rigor and a commitment to "thinking" -- which does not mean the clever solution of practical problems. Problem-solving as a mode of practice means taking the parameters of a situation for granted and then greasing the gears of the machine to make it run more efficiently, which is what I believe is meant by "analytical skills" when we are talking about MA students. But Ph.D. students are supposed to be "critical" in their approach, which means not taking things as parametric but instead reflexively questioning how those parameters came to be and whether those are the appropriate parameters to maintain. "Analytical" for a Ph.D. student means something quite different: it means the ability to apply theoretical literature to a situation or issue and generate a compelling response.
To put this more bluntly: one expects a Ph.D. student to generate knowledge
. One does not expect an MA student to generate knowledge; one expects an MA student to generate solutions, perhaps, or maybe innovation. The classical model of the relationship between these two is that the Ph.D. students produce the bedrock knowledge that the MA students subsequently apply, on the model of theoretical physics and engineering. I think that this is silly, even in the natural sciences -- engineers aren't narrowly "applying" much, and communities of practice have their own embedded forms of knowledge -- but it is particularly problematic when implemented in graduate educational programs.
The error is two-fold. First, the "skills" that the MA students are supposed to learn aren't really skills so much as craft dispositions, and thus need to be taught in an apprenticeship environment wherein one learns by doing. It should be an older guild model, in which experts communicate the benefits of their wisdom and experience, benefits that can't be completely summed up in abstract formulations and generalizable rules. Second, Ph.D. practice is not about participating in a fact-producing-machine that simply churns out findings and laws and the like; obtaining a Ph.D. does not mean that one is becoming an "expert" in the sense of being able to rattle off the answers to Final Jeopardy trivia questions about Pakistan or globalization. But it is
about engaging in deliberate and systematic efforts to produce insight into empirical situations, and doing so reflexively.
The point is that neither of these two educational pathways is free of theory
. But the theory involved is of different sorts, and has different goals: MA theory is distributed practice, while Ph.D. theory is both disciplinary (since it necessarily relates to a body of written literature) and conceptual (as it provides tools for interrogating empirical situations in a way that breaks with mere description). This means that Ph.D. students and MA students will approach the same texts and the same issues in very different ways. These senses are qualitatively different; the Ph.D. is not
simply an advanced MA degree, and the kinds of theory that are embodied in the distinction are not simply more and less strenuous forms of the same thing.
Thinking that the two modes are continuous is dangerous -- dangerous to the Ph.D. kind of theory, a.k.a. "thinking." Conflating the two modes of practice means, in this Protestant-ethic-dominated, practical-results-obsessed culture, that the Ph.D. kind of theory vanishes from view, as Ph.D.s are transformed into expert-certification diplomas, such that a Ph.D. student is just an advanced MA student. And if one's graduate program is dominated by MA students and by faculty who are teaching to and for MA students, the danger grows: MA students are not interested in reflexive inquiry and in puzzling through epistemological issues, because such an exercise is not relevant to their goals. So the faculty plays to the crowd, for the most part, which is perfectly understandable at the same time that it is, to my mind, deeply problematic.
, IMHO, a meaningful difference between the two pathways and the two kinds of theory that they embody, even if that distinction is neither the hoary old "practice/theory" distinction nor the distinction between inexperienced youth and wise old age (practice summed up in pithy anecdotes is not "theory" in the Ph.D. sense, even if it is pedagogically useful for training MA students). I should be clear here that I am speaking in ideal-typical terms: sometimes someone ends up in the MA who is more like a Ph.D. student, and vice versa. I think that admissions committees should be more clear about the distinction, so as to minimize these kinds of confusion. The only way that a Ph.D. program will survive in an organization numerically and financially dominated by MA students is if the Ph.D. admissions process is extra careful to assemble a group committed to a particular kind of learning, nurtured by a subset of the faculty dedicated to a particular kind of teaching.
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