academia: November 2005 Archives


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Not much going on in my neck of the 'sphere here in the wake of Turkey Day. For the umpteenth year in a row, I did all I could to avoid Bleak Friday, the inevitably depressing reminder of all that is commercial and cynical about the upcoming holidays.

And so, looking to restore my faith and optimism, what should I come across (tip: Chuck) but a link to an NYT interview with Jean Baudrillard? Okay, if you don't know who JB is, then you wouldn't recognize that as irony. Trust me, though. It is.

There was a time when I was really into JB's work, when it felt like he was on the front edge of what was going on in culture and society. Of course, this was a while ago, and since then, I must admit that it's felt like the world passed him by. In part, I think it's a generational thing--had he been a fair bit younger, I think he would have embraced the Net and drifted with the flow a little more. Now, he just sounds cantankerous:

Q: Some here feel that the study of the humanities at our universities has been damaged by the incursion of deconstruction and other French theories.

A: That was the gift of the French. They gave Americans a language they did not need. It was like the Statue of Liberty. Nobody needs French theory.

That's the close of the piece. Ah, well. If he had bothered to lead with this bon mot, then perhaps Deborah Solomon's time could have been better spent with someone whose only relevance to the NYT is his status as "one of France's most celebrated philosophers." I can't help but sense the parallel between JB here and the other theory wonks who have delighted in crowing about the demise of theory, their last gasp attempt at keeping control over the industry from which they've derived a great deal of benefit but for which they're no longer as relevant. The irony of JB trying to keep it real in the NYT, after years of arguing precisely against such a strategy, is almost enough to make me laugh.

Almost. That is all.

While I was symposing...

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My normal strategy is to have a mental category of "bloggables," a place where I store all of the things I might write here. It's a pretty Darwinian spot, and when I have the time to do a little sharing, the item from that place that feels most pressing is the one that shows up here. A fair number of bloggables fade and vanish, a few stick around for what feels like ages, and the rest eventually pop up here.

Anyhow, I've been holding onto this one for a few days now. One of our field's listservs has been particularly active as of late, and my reaction to it, most likely, is a rough approximation of the reaction that prompted Donna's recent post, esp the part comparing listservs to telemarketing. My own gut reaction to the discussion there is that there are a couple of trolls stirring things up intentionally, but that's really besides the point. A couple of questions/comments were raised that provoked me a little more than than they perhaps should have, and so...

The basic argument is this: future employers and associates could be on the list, and if you offend them, you are damaging future employment attempts.

Still others encourage me to post what i will and let the chips fall where they man [sic].

As an open question to the list, I ask:

As a potential employer or person in a position to influence a job decision, which opinion would you endorse and why?

This question comes up every once in a while on various listservs. Since I've achieved more than enough distance from the events in question, let me say this: Any public, professional statement is fair game for consideration, period. The problem here is that, when several people email you or talk to you off-list about your future employers, what they're really saying is that you're making an ass of yourself. But they're doing it indirectly, by suggesting that you tone it down as a matter of self-interest. There's something a little insincere about doing it this way, but I've done it myself on plenty of occasions, so there you are.

Now, I'd fight for your right to make an ass of yourself on a listserv, just as hard as I would for those who do it on their weblogs. That's your right. But it's no less of a right on the part of prospective employers to weigh the relevant evidence in their deliberations, and a statement made on a clearly identified professional listserv, in my opinion, qualifies.

Case in point. A long time ago, I was on a different listserv where one of the members engaged in a fairly protracted discussion about how a particular area of the field just wasn't that relevant or useful. I was a little miffed, given that I was on a search committee for a position that included said area. Imagine my surprise when this person's application appeared on my desk for that position. Actually, don't imagine my surprise. Imagine instead my laughter. The application didn't make it particularly far, as you might additionally imagine. I'm being purposefully vague here, to protect both the applicant and the process in general, but the fact is that applicants' behavior in professional contexts, even when it's not the pages of a journal, has an effect on how I view their applications. And anyone who believes that listservs don't have that effect is hopelessly naive.

(You won't be surprised to learn that no one, however, offered the suggestion in this conversation that graduate students shouldn't participate in/on disciplinary listservs.)

Of course, there's a lot of grey, particularly in contexts that mix personal and professional, and those contexts are far more the norm than the exception. Should a drunken comment in a hotel bar at a conference submarine your job prospects? Probably not, but it's probably happened to someone. Does a garish homepage design have anything to do with someone's ability to teach a course in whatever? Probably not, but the two have undoubtedly been linked together in some search committee member's mind. Is it fair for committees to try and imagine, on the basis of selected and incomplete information, what a body is likely to be like as a colleague? Nope, but it happens all the time.

Fact is, not everyone will want you. But to imagine that you don't have some measure of control (not to mention some measure of responsibility) over how you are perceived is absurd. The message quoted above ends with the following paragraph:

If one is not being true to oneself, does it benefit one to act in such a way that moderates or diminishes argument to a level that is more socially acceptable within the list, or should one instead be "loud and proud"?

Setting aside the really poor writing, what irked me the most about this question was the false dichotomy. Either one is "true" or one is acting. And of course, buried in this question-that-isn't-really-a-question is an indictment of anyone who is "socially acceptable" because of course, to be "true" is to just let it all out and damn the consequences. This is bunk. But it led to the second of the things that really pissed me off, and that was the series of snide comments about the academic "game."

Maybe I'm just particularly attuned to what I take to be a cynical, dismissive attitude lately because I'm in a position to have an influence on some of the "rules." My experience, though, has been there's very little outside the "game"--no profession that doesn't have rules that seem unnecessary, arbitrary, and capricious from the outside. But the rhetorical strategy here is to treat academia as a game, as though there's some other mythical place where we can all be "true" to ourselves, where we don't have to play well with others, and where there's perfect transparency.

The people who speak knowledgably about the "game" of academia, though, are the ones who understand that it's a game like any other (profession), one with often real consequences, and one that differs from other professions not in essence but in practice. It's "performative" not in opposition to the real, but performative at the root of what we take to be real. And the fact of the matter is that your "real" identity is often going to be based on a limited set of "performances." The job application is onesuch, but by no means the only way that the discipline gathers information about you.

So, yes, by all means, make an ass of yourself. Just don't complain when you apply for a position, and someone on the committee thinks of you as an ass.

That is all.



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This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from November 2005.

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