Friday, July 27, 2012

Frank Popper on Academia

He comments on my friend Lisa Schweitzer's blog:

As an alternative to this kabuki, let me describe specific kinds of experiences I see a lot, but that rarely show up in journalists’, academics’ or adminsitrators accounts:
1. Right- or more usually leftwing bigotry to the point where it becomes part of the intellectual air one breathes. A few years ago I took part in a search that produced a candidate who was mildly libertarian. S/he was treated as a Martian. The questions at the presentation were patronizing, extended to actual laughter. The initial daylong interview schedule ended at midday, sending the candidate home early. 
2. The vacuous meetings, where nothing of substance gets discussed and everyone–EVERYONE–would rather be somewhere else. Precisely because the meetings are so comprehensively boring, no one ever admits it at them, though there is plenty of backchat afterward. Somewhere there must be a Balzac of American boredom, perhaps whiling away time in the Ohio Public Roads Department or a backwater of the Gates Foundation or maybe even a university, who could convey all this. We need this person to emerge soon. 
3. The public corridor conversations about students in general, which are public, deeply insulting, and clinical. They seem to get worse when students are in earshot. 
4. The lack of knowledge about popular culture, which of course is most of it and the part likeliest to last. (Shakespeare in his time was popular culture, as was the Bible.) I have run across professors ignorant of Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood, American Idol, Saturday Night Live, etc., far into the night and keeping on ’til morning. They invariably have firm opinions about where America or the world is going or should do. It is hard to argue with them because, well, they don’t have much of a fact base and don’t care about it anyway. The comparison with Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck seems inevitable. 
5. It’s startling how much overt anti-intellectualism exists at the middle and top ranks of American universities. I know deans who couldn’t tell you two coherent sentences about what most of their professors do or why they do it. But they can give you precise figures about the grants (some of) them bring in. They actually remark on how dull the professors’ work is, not that they’ve lifted a finger to try to find out about it. Most professors themselves are remarkably ignorant about what their colleagues do and feel no guilt about it. 
6. The mistreatment and bullying of graduate students: an endless topic. One of the (many) low points of my graduate experience was submitting the first draft of my thesis to a committee member, who sneered at me that it read like “a long piece in the New Yorker,” as if that was bad. This fellow told me that I should “look to my education,” his phrase, then refused to be part of my committee. He was for some time quite well-known, and one of the joys of my adult academic experience has been watching the utter eclipse of his reputation. Another faculty member then took me on as a project, told me that part of my problem was that I “wrote better than 95% of our graduate students,” thus arousing controversy others avoided. He gave me tips on how to make my writing better while academically grounding it so as to anticipate people like his grump colleague. My savior died recently, got remarkable obituaries and had a spectacular memorial service, which I went out of my way to attend. 
7. There’s a softness in intellectual culture as universities purvey it. That is, one can get away with studying topics or subjects (in our field e.g., zoning, Chicago, Robert Moses) without having any actual ideas about them. All you have to do is write about them, and after a while you doesn’t even have to do that. One of the results is large numbers of high-status mediocrities who’ve never really done or contributed much and who, like the I-want-out committee member described, typically find their reputations slipping by late middle age and mercifully don’t get to see them disappear posthumously. Other results: dull papers in dull journals, both with microscopic readerships; ditto for dull books published by dull university presses; vacuous presentations at conferences; a general sense that almost anything is good enough for academic work if only it is sufficiently pedantic or obscure; and ceremonial for-wider-consumption overpraise for ordinary work (“This pathbreaking idea,” when no one can credibly tell you what the idea is, much less what the new path is or what old path it supplants.) 
I’m sure others can add further items, but that seems like enough from me for the day.
Let me say one nice thing about my place--I think the profs here really like our students.  It is certainly part of the culture for faculty to spend time with students (and not just Ph.D. students).  The students here are also pretty easy to like--while there is certainly variation in intellectual capacity and work ethic, the students here seem happy to be here, and I hear very little whining.    


Unknown said...

Let me add to my comments, which Richard was kind to cite. I see much faculty benevolence toward students, of the sort he mentions, but it tends to be toward students generally rather than any ones in particular. They like the idea of students, not the reality of most of them.

I am at Rutgers, New Jersey's main state university, though I also teach every semester at Princeton. Some RU faculty are remarkably cavalier about the state. One, with an impressive endowed chair whose name evoked New Jersey, thought its capital was Camden.

It's to overstate the crippling ignorance of popular culture. A prolific colleague never heard of Harry Potter, years after the books became megahits, until his grandchildren asked for them.

A while back, three colleagues were on a conference call with a fourth, who was traveling. This colleague politely left the call, saying she wanted to watch "American Idol," which at the time--and for a long time--was the top-rated TV show. The other three, puzzled, came down the hall and asked me about the show. Evidently none had ever heard of it. I told them about it, but must have sounded surprised that they didn't know. One of them replied, "Well, I know what heroin is, but I don't use it." All three of them never hesitate, in person or on paper, to recommend suitable public action. All three and many others wonder sadly why no one, anywhere, much cares about their advice or even reacts to it. There's a reason.

Richard H. Serlin said...

Not much time to comment on this, but it appears to vary a lot by field.

My experience with academic economics and finance is that there is a lot of very valuable learning in the academic journals, along with stuff of little importance, and math and models that can be ridiculous if interpreted over-literally, but if interpreted intelligently to reality can often be valuable.

Economists seem more attached to the real world than those in Popper's area. But many are savagely brutal people willing to ruin many a graduate student or other life to get ahead even a little more.

I remember one inhumane professor who had a Chinese RA who had a masters in statistics from a prestigious university, but spoke mediocre English and had little business background. In her very first term she had her gathering detailed information from bond prospectus's, an impossible task, even though she was very smart. This prof threw her out of the program, ending her career before it could even get started. Sadly you have many people like this in academic economics and finance. The win at all cost, don't care, inhumane people will have an advantage in publishing; they have a lot of control. Darwinian extreme libertarians tend to like economics; we have lots.

Others are good people but it's hard to buck the system. From what I've heard, the hard sciences are far more humane. I think they need people more, so they're not just disposable assets to grind up, with no regard for the externalities, or that those people had little understanding of what they were signing up for.

The more you have asymmetric information and difficulty demonstrating real world value and effectiveness, the uglier academia can get. And in some areas the asymmetric information and difficulty showing effectiveness is off the charts.

Don Coffin said...

You know, it's interesting. I have spent the last 32 years of my academic career at two institutions, one in Illinois (whihc offered a MA in economics, and a DA, but without a PhD program), and the last 25 years at a school in Indiana with only a vestigal BA in economics and an MBA, in addition to the undergraduate business program.

I recognize none of the behavior that Prof. Popper appears to find endemic at his institutions (or institutions with which e is familiar). I'm not saying he is wrong about those institutions, but I think he is wrong in concluding that his experience is universal in higher education.

It's true that my colleagues often express dissatisfaction with their students' performances, but generally in private. It's true that people have attitudes about the "correct" orientation to their disciplines, but I have never seen it influence hiring decisions in the ways described by Prof. Popper. It's true that most academics are not immersed in popular culture (I, for example, have never seen an episode of American Idle or ofSurvivor or of almost any other commercial television series--and very few of those on public television), but I would guess that *all* of my colleagues know what they are and, at least to some extent, why they are popular.

While, at my most recent institution, our chief administrative officer (we call them "chancellors" here), who retired, was widely thought not to have much interest in the live of the academy, that has been the exception, not the rule. Our current chancellor, and our current chief academic officer, are both aware of and involved with day-to-day academic activities, icluding both teaching and research.

Bad meetings, meetings with no content, and waste-of-time meetings occur everywhere there is a bureaucracy, but the academic institutions with which I have been affiliated have been less prone to thise vices than have the government and private-business-sector organizations of which I have knowledge.

Not that life here has been perfect. We have had to cope with large swings in enrollment and in funding. We have faced some rather nasty accreditation issues. We bicker and quarrel. But I flat-out do not recognize my life in Prof. Popper's rant.

Perhaps I have been lucky, and perhaps life at R-1 institutions truly sucks, but, in general, academia has seemed to me to be an oasis of civility, of concern for one's students and colleagues, and of respect for the life of the mind. I find myself feling very sorry for Prof. Popper.

Richard Green said...

To Richard and Doc:

I suppose I should say the following: I feel extraordinarily blessed to have had the career I have had. I loved getting to work at Wisconsin-Madison, and I love working at USC. I just thought Frank's comments were sufficiently interesting and provocative that I decided to repost them.

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