academia: May 2004 Archives

Converging on Austin

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A whole bunch of rhetoric folk have converged on Austin this weekend for the biennial Rhetoric Society of America conference, and while I don't wish that I'd spent the last week finalizing a paper, I wouldn't mind being there. RSA (pronounced like RZA with a hard S in the middle) is always a good conference.

Jenny and I were chatting the other night, bc she's on a panel about bridging the gap between rhet/comp and rhet/comm, and what the benefits of doing so are. One of the central points she'll be raising, and a reason why RSA is a good conference in the first place, is that communications studies doesn't suffer under the same pedagogical imperative that composition seems to. It's something that almost every rhetoric scholar in rhet/comp ends up struggling with, the overwhelming pressure in our field to translate everything we do for the classroom. And that comes in part from our schools' failure to understand the difference between teaching a subject and teaching practice, as Alex has been observing. In rhet/comp, what began as a shortcut, a way to work on both pedagogy and scholarship simultaneously, has normed to the point where scholarship that isn't pedagogical (or whose applications in that direction aren't immediately apparent) is frowned upon.

And despite the best attempts of some, this isn't really a theory/practice issue. Some of the panels at RSA will be theoretical, others historical, others analytical, and others cultural/critical. And these conversations, I suspect, will suffer much less for the absence of the old "Monday morning" trump card that is deployed far too often at other conferences I attend.

So, yeah, wish I was there.

Update: Mike is blogging some of RSA, and has a couple of entries on the sessions he's attending.

Go, Fish

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How did I miss this? Last Friday, the New York Times published Stanley Fish's farewell to academia:

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.

There's not a whole lot in his farewell that will come as much of a surprise to anyone who's had cause to read All in the Game, the column that he's done for the Chronicle of Higher Education for the past couple of academic years. Fish's basic point, if I'm allowed to boil it down, is that academics tend to bite off more than they're qualified to chew, and they should stop. Whether it's couched in terms of overestimating the relevance of theory, faux interdisciplinarity, or more recently, the insistence on politicizing the academy, it seems like Fish has been engaged in a broad campaign to convince us all (in the academy, at least) that we're not as smart as we think we are. And thus, his conclusion,

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.

It's always been hard to argue with Fish--if there's ever been a writer who's as successful as he is at defining an argument in such a way as to rule disagreements out-of-bounds, I have yet to read that person. It's hard to resist the seductive simplicity of the idea that "the true task of academic work [is] the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching." Of course, it would be a lot harder to resist if he could honestly describe his own career that way, a career that ends with generous space on the Op-Ed page of arguably the leading newspaper in the country, a space not normally provided to those who have sought truth and disseminated it through teaching. Here's how Slate described his career when he was hired on at UIC:

He is receiving such a princely sum from the University of Illinois not just because he's famous--or notorious--but because he was the chief architect of two of the most well-thought-of (though controversial) American academic programs in the 1980s and '90s, Johns Hopkins University's Humanities Center and Duke University's English department. His success as an administrator rested on two insights that are now commonplace: first, that the academic star system could be used to create departments with high-profile brand names, and second, that the longing of academic couples to live in the same place represents an administrative opportunity, not a headache. Fish built both the Humanities Center and Duke's English department by hiring celebrity couples and finding room for both, rather than wooing one member of the couple and banishing the other to a lesser department, or condemning husband and wife to a commuter marriage. That both departments are now falling apart can be chalked up either to his considerable skill at maintaining allies or to his cynical lack of concern with long-term stability.

Ahh, yes. The $tar $y$tem, faithful underwriter of the $earch for truth. I should be so lucky, when one day my job is to be a $tar. I promise I won't let someone else do it for me...

academicky discourse

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Steven Shaviro's got a nice entry about Lindsay Waters' new book Enemies of Promise, which SS describes as "a jeremiad about troubles in the world of academia and academic publishing. Waters says that too many academic books are being published, books that sell poorly for the most part, and that this situation is not sustainable either economically or intellectually." Waters is the humanities editor at Harvard UP, so presumably he knows whereof he speaks.

I haven't read the book, but I probably will now. What's unfortunate about it, if Shaviro's description is accurate, is that it offers no real solution to a huge problem that stretches throughout the academy at large, one that can probably be linked in any number of ways to the University of Excellence. As curmudgeonly as we seem to be about grade inflation, it would be refreshing to hear my senior colleagues (and I'm casting that net as broadly as it will fly, not critiquing my immediate ones) admit some culpability in what I think of as "grind inflation," the assumption that tenure requirements must grow over time, to the point where junior faculty are held to far higher standards than those who judge us are themselves capable of meeting.

Like Shaviro, I'm lucky, but for a different reason. I didn't waive any years towards tenure when I moved up here from Virginia, and the result (I hope) will be a far better first book than I could have written otherwise. Rather than flipping my dissertation around, I've reworked it almost entirely, and framed it as a project with much broader implications. In that way, I can identify with the one "solution" Waters offers:

At the end of the book, Waters praises silence; "it is possible to be a great thinker and not publish anything" (78), he writes, citing the obvious example of Socrates. Water urges scholars and critics to hold back, to publish less, to give their ideas more breathing space to develop.

At the same time, this strikes me as woefully naive, because it simply ignores the realities that face junior faculty, who have been taught for years, both in and out of graduate school, that "breathing space" is a luxury reserved for the tenured, and fenced off by tenure committees. That's part of what I take Shaviro to mean when he says that "the way we train graduate students is the main culprit in creating this situation." I don't know that I'd agree that there is a "main culprit," because I'm as complicit as anyone when it comes to trying to prepare graduate students to compete for positions and to succeed in them once they arrive. But I'm equally loathe to fall back into a lame defense of "the market made me do it." Seems to me that it's a vicious cycle with multiple factors, and the only answer is to intervene at some point to keep it from feeding back and accelerating.

Shaviro says that Waters rejects the Internet as an option, which is disappointing, but not wholly unexpected. Intellectual sustainability is one thing (and a big thing), but I continue to believe that projects like Parlor Press and print-on-demand are a powerful answer to the question of economic sustainability. If Dave Blakesley's experience is any indication, I think that most of the UP's in our field will have to move in that direction, one way or another, over the next ten years. That's not the Internet per se, but it does offer one way out of the cycle, and a far better one than, say, widespread adjunctification.

At any rate, I'll put Enemies of Promise on my fall reading list, which I'll tackle once I've--what else?--finished up that first book manuscript...

saturday (part 1)

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One of the things that kept me pretty well tied up for the day on Saturday was a symposium that we hosted here at SU. We invited faculty and grad students from RPI, UMass, and Penn State to join us in thinking about the future of the field and to do a little bit of regional networking.

One of the things that I'm hoping to accomplish over the next few years is more of this kind of activity. Next year, I'll be taking over our dept's PhD program, and I'd like to see us develop some kind of regional consortium of such programs. I hope that we'll share some resources, connect more often as colleagues, etc. For my part, I had really nice conversations with Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Zappen of RPI, and had a chance to chat about my network rhetoric course. And due to some no-shows, I had a chance to give what I hope was productive feedback to a couple of students from other programs.

Another one of the things that we did at this program that differed from most, as you'll note in the schedule, is that it was set up with two "plenary" sessions with several colleagues delivering short, more informal pieces on graduate education, the future of rhetoric and composition, etc. We did have a Friday night keynote (Elaine Richardson), but I liked the move away from "keynotes" towards shorter, more intentionally provocative talks (mini-manifestos).

I'm fairly sure that there's an underlying logic (beyond my own ADD) to my preferences for both shorter talks and regional (as opposed to national) networking, but I need to think through it a little more carefully first. More weekend recaps as the evening progresses...



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This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from May 2004.

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