Sunday, August 8, 2021

Is Academia Eating Its Young?

Bumped to the top of the queue from a decade ago on general principle. Nothing's changed on this except that other social media have displaced blogging. The pandemic has killed off some of the weaker schools and hastened the transition to forms of distant learning. Permatemping is still a scandal.

Saturn devouring young 400

The fate of bloggers has been a matter of some interest in the academic blogosphere. Not bloggers in general, but graduate students and junior faculty. The concern is not just that no professional credit accrues for blogging, but that blogging may actually hurt one’s career. It is a fact that many (older) faculty are, at best, ignorant of and indifferent to, online activity of all sorts, including blogging. Some – many? – are actively hostile to it.

This issue came to my attention most recently though a discussion at Arcade, a humanities site sponsored by Stanford. Arcade includes a group blog where a wide range of humanists have blogging rights. This particular issue was not the central focus of the discussion – which was about the anxieties attendant upon thinking in public and, by the way, why aren’t people posting as much anymore? – but it did come up.

In thinking about the issue I was struck by one thought: it’s pointless to try legitimating blogging in the current academic world. Of course I think blogging is a valid intellectual pursuit,; that’s not an issue. The current academic world is too far gone to be able to accommodate blogging in a robust way. Just why I think that would require some explaining, which I don’t want to at the moment. Let’s just say that I’ve been deeply skeptical about academic institutions for some time, and this is just another reason to despair of them.

And that leads me to this question: Is the academic world eating it’s young? And if so, how can it survive?

I believe the answer to the first question is “Yes.” And the answer to the second question must therefore be, “No, it cannot survive. Not in its present form.”

On the first point, it’s long been common wisdom that graduate students and junior faculty must curb their creativity and get with the program so they can obtain, first, a tenure-track appointment, and then tenure itself. But, if you’ve been holding back during what may be the most creative period in your intellectual life, will you be able to open it up once you’ve gotten tenure, or will you have forgotten how? And, it’s not as though having tenure brings you home free. There are still many lines to toe, many hoops to jump. I take the case of Mark Changizi as an index of the current state of affairs. He’s one of the most brilliant and creative psychologists of his generation, but has chosen to abandon the academic ship because it didn’t give him room to think deep thoughts.

Then there is the scandal of permatemping, using graduate students and poorly paid adjuncts to teach the bulk of undergraduate courses. Not only does this make research impossible – and research has never been of primary interest to more than a small number of academics – but it makes good teaching difficult to impossible. How can you do a good job if you’re teaching five courses at a time, spread over two campuses? You can’t. All you can do is hang on and hope your spouse has good health coverage.

No, the current system cannot survive, not when the structure of the institution forces older faculty to grind the younger faculty into hamburger. At the same time there’s the pressure from the on-line for-profit world. Those institutions have their own problems, but they’re here to stay. They’ll continue to siphon students away from more traditional institutions, and those traditional institutions will offer more and more online instruction, taught by graduate students and adjuncts.

Many schools will survive, in some form. But the system as it currently exists is dying. It cannot be saved. The best that can be hoped for is that some gifted people at some institutions will be able take hold of change and do something interesting. I see precious little of that on the horizon.


  1. Agreed, obviously.

    The more closely you look the worse it is. For example, the established scholars are presiding over the demise of their profession, but most of them are unaware of this and cannot be made to care, because they're the center of their own worlds. A lot of sharp new people are driven out. A lot of other sharp people end up being shunted into conventional, prescribed areas of research where they can display their virtuosity without actually dealing with significant questions.

    Not long ago the dominant group of economists believed that the big questions were all solved, so they encouraged their grad students to do extra-economic work of the Freakanomics type. Then suddenly the whole world found out that the problems had been wrongly solved.

    Even more depressing is that this coincides with the decline of highbrow journalism, which used to provide a living for a lot of sharp people.

  2. Thought-provoking, Bill. I am not quite as sure that the academy won't survive: not all of its institutional forms are mistaken or dysfunctional. But I do agree that there is a lot of pressure to conform, and a worrying trend is that people are getting more conservative rather than less in this respect because of the feeling that tenure is under threat, the humanities aren't taken seriously, and so on: a lot of people believe the only defense is to do more and more of the same, to 'excel' along the already-established lines and look more 'productive.' Mind you, they think this because in a way they are right: this is still the way to get rewarded (with tenure, with promotion, with grants, with prestige). I admit I find Arcade a symptom of the problem, because it is as un-bloggy a blog site as I've seen. I know many people found The Valve clubby and exclusive (I did, actually, before I was invited to contribute!) but it was at least much wider-ranging and made more gestures outward than Arcade does. Arcade, to me, looks like what happens to blogging when you try to coopt it as something the academy can recognize and reward.

  3. The interesting thing, Rohan, is that, as far as I can tell, Arcade is pretty much the same as it was a year ago. There's some vague sense there that something needs to be done about something, but I don't think they realize how insular the place is. Or perhaps they see that as a feature, not a bug.

  4. I think you're right that they don't realize it--which means they aren't thinking in those terms, which in turn means they either started it up without looking into what blogging was being used for elsewhere (and what was being said about it as a form) or they looked and decided to use it differently.

  5. The astounding thing about the Arcade site in general is that they're planning a section entitled "Interventions: Humanists on Public Life." I have never liked that word — "intervention" – as it is used, and find it condescending. It asserts and affirms the gap those 'interventions' are supposed to transcend.

  6. As someone who has occasionally humored the idea of pursuing advanced degrees, yet for whom academia leaves a bad taste, I found this quite interesting. Perhaps fairly soon the academics will find that they're the ones it's pointless to legitimate and by then it will be too late.

  7. This friggin verification system gobbled up and erased my thoughtful, 15 minute post. WTF!!

  8. That's Google for ya, Kim. Sorry. I've long made a habit of prepare substantial comments in a text editor and then pasting them into comment boxes. For I assume that any comment box can eat my words at any moment.

  9. Cool painting by Goya at least--but I'm not sure the saturn metaphor applies so well to academia (and Emerson's usual pathos--put a tip jar up, Roshi JE). Anything put up by Stanford-Co should be ignored (or ..hacked and destroyed).

    Diagnosis: read a bit of Feyerabend and start over.

  10. There seem to be three interlinked factors here that differ by discipline: literature, psychology, and computer science are affected in different ways by these factors.

    1. The ability to get funding for research in that field from anywhere other than a university.

    2. The non-overhead resources (time, money, people, equipment) required for research in the field.

    3. The field's self-determined metric of success for research (profitability, influence, "impact," prestige).

    For example, in computer science, some areas of research are getting hard to do because only enormous companies have the computing power available to perform the analyses requried. Experimental psychology needs more money to conduct experiments than lit professors do. Etc.

    Michael Ventris made huge steps in deciphering Linear B, despite being a low-level architect with no credentials. Low-cost research will continue to be done by enthusiasts.

    High-cost research will continue to be done within institutions as long as there's profit in it. Changizi's post seemed bizarre to me because (a) people like Deolalikar wander between academia and research labs quite a bit, as there's much closer coordination between them in the CS world, the profit motive being far more obvious, and (b) Deolalikar's capital needs are very cheap: a living wage for himself, an office, etc. He didn't have a "lab." If you need a lot more money, there will be a lot more politics in getting it. Research labs spend thousands of person-hours filling out grant applications where they have to convince the pursestring-holders that they're doing the "right" thing. But I don't think this is anything new, and I don't think that the current state of academia has occasioned such a sea change in the paradigm.

    The real changes seem to have occurred in fields which lack external sources of funding AND lack external metrics of success (i.e., the measurement of a researcher's success is determined near-exclusively by people within the field). Those are in trouble. But when I put it this way, it doesn't exactly seem surprising in the abstract, just in the particular way it's shaken out.

  11. It's not clear to me that academia has ever been friendly to intellectual exploration. In retrospect, yes, praise the explorers who laid the basis for current routine. But don't do anything to threaten that routine.

  12. I think that Americans use "intervention" as they do because they once read Lacan's "Intervention sur le transfert" and didn't realize what the term meant in French.

  13. Hmmmm . . . you could be right about that. Not that I know any French, but the timing is about right for the introduction of the term into American academic life.

  14. I agree with you Bill. Because academics are inclined to be bright people who like a steady paycheck, they are more inclined to conform, which, unfortunately, pushes the more radical scholars out of academia. But this tendency is also a function of neo-liberal reforms call for a more conservative ethos. Because of the dual forces of corporatization and the inherently conservative nature of today's middle-class academic, I see it primarily as place where people make a big song and dance about doing things to help their own careers, but do little to change the fate of the world.
    This is why I believe that the change-agents of our time will no longer be found in academia, but perhaps in other non-colonized sectors of economy such as free-lance writers, independent inventors, or free radio. Perhaps it is the great movement of academics injected into the world that will revolutionize the world and academia, ironically, in the process.

  15. Hmmm. Academia has "died" before, when the monasteries lost their credibility, and then when religious colleges lost their credibility. In each case different institutions were founded which acquired the legitimacy of the "academic tradition".

    Some of the former religious colleges made the transition; perhaps some of the existing institutions will be able to make the transition. Others won't, and brand new institutions will become the "new academia". Get ready for it. The first time a blog is endowed, you'll know you're watching it happen.

    1. Yes, there will be new institutions. Just what they'll be, that's not obvious.