The practical know-how of humanities academics

As we all know, humanities academics have an unparalleled ability to identify what is most politically effective. Indeed, it’s typical to find that a conversation that started out as a recondite scholarly debate quickly shifts terrain to political concerns — it’s just in our blood.

Nowhere is our effectiveness so obvious as in the institutions over which we have the most direct influence: colleges and universities. We have fought tooth-and-nail to the point where state and federal funding bodies cannot even consider cutting education budgets without a massive public outcry. Academic publications are available for free online or in a cheap hardcover, as we’ve come together to radically exclude for-profit firms or even the logic of “running things like a business” from academic presses — much less universities themselves. We’ve gradually managed to make the case that higher ed, including graduate school, should be freely available to anyone who wants it, including a modest stipend for living expenses.

Our influence outside our immediate institutions has also been massive. The conditions of academic labor are considered sacrosanct and inviolable, and indeed the general working population looks at our working conditions as a kind of model, so that labor unions have made major progress toward maintaining full employment by reducing the working week and providing two months of paid vacation for all workers. Universities have taken an active role in managing the communities they operate in, turning what were once forgotten rural hamlets or rust-belt ghost towns into vibrant models of social democracy.

And of course, given how much immediate practical benefit most people have gained from the cultural leadership of academics, expert knowledge is treated almost like an oracle: the “global warming” scare was quickly handled, as the country moved decisively away from its misguided car-centric culture toward a policy of greater urban density and public transportation. One can point to similar achievements in guiding the culture away from animal cruelty and factory farming, or toward designing products from the bottom up to accomodate recycling, or an endless number of other related areas.

And, of course, who can forget the pony for every man, woman, and child?

44 thoughts on “The practical know-how of humanities academics

  1. What is the correlation between the point you seem to be trying to make through satire and the very nature of your post? Maybe moving others beyond mere critique requires that we ourselves do so first.

  2. I think you forgot to mention that we academics are also considered models for negotiating fair compensation for the level of training that we have and the amount of work that we do. Of course, this is probably implied to the astute reader in the free pony policy.

  3. Smith, Adam likes to “troll” for comments, so one should be careful about presuming what he’s up to, else he’ll launch barbs like that. Aside from that, unless someone writes a biography in comments, we never know what other individuals practices are.


    Where’s my pony?

  4. This post only works if one assumes that academics are a unitary group with a left politics. If one recognizes that there are right-wing academics, perhaps like Paul Wolfowitz, or neoliberal Democrat academics, perhaps like Cass Sunstein, or even academic scientists who are perfectly happy with corporate funding, then the pretense of pathetic, ineffective academics goes away. It’s interesting that you begin with humanities academics but then let these become a synecdoche for academics overall.

  5. Before someone chimes in with the obvious “gotcha” that I also don’t know my fellow humanities’ scholars practice, etc., it’s not about individuals. Humanities scholars as a class are very likely to make political and practical claims about their work and to critique the work of others on political and practical grounds.

    Yet when you look at the institutions and interests that directly affect humanities scholars as a class, it is obvious that humanities scholars as a class have been utter and absolute failures in political and practical terms.

    Indeed, it’s as a result of that utter and absolute failure on the part of previous generations of humanities scholars that young scholars such as myself have so few outlets for exercising influence over our own situations.

  6. Jodi, You’re right about that slippage. It is definitely the case that certain academics are all too influential — or at least more likely to be deployed in certain types of power struggles. We lefty humanities scholars are so ineffectual, though, that no one even wants to co-opt us.

  7. Snap!

    Speaking of practical, trying to catch a Ph.D. with such an obvious gotcha is very, very insulting and in my view deserves that kind of response, e.g., from Adam.

    Adam, do you think this extends to other members of the intelligensia/technocracy/etc? Do not think-tanks appear to have some political power? Care to explore the bounds?

  8. Adam — it is not a presumptuous comment because it does not reflect on your life and practices it reflects on the nature of your post, which offers nothing but critique. Am I wrong there? Do you offer a solution to the problem? I don’t see it. I also don’t think it’s fair to require that I read you biography before commenting on something you’ve written. It should stand on it’s own. Shouldn’t it? We academics are full of cultural and social critique but more than naught the buck stops there. By the way, if that isn’t true for you, if you do more than that yourself then why not point us in that direction? I mean instead of dismissing my point by pretending that it is presumptuous and insinuating that it is ad hominem to boot. Cheers.

  9. Jason — I agree with you but I was not commenting on Adam’s life and practices. I simply see immense irony in the mere critique of mere critique. I do not understand why Adam has chosen to take it personally. I guess I said “we,” implicating him as well as the rest of us, but that we is no more personal than his “humanities academics,” was. Cheers.

  10. Per Smith,

    There have been many, many political discussion on this website and in the local blogosphere. I read Adam’s comments both in a general and in that specific context. I took it, in part, as a criticism of the recent discourse that enters a fever pitch of political advocacy and condemns many individuals without, as it appears, actually making any political changes or even organizing to do so. I may be completely wrong in thinking this, but I mention it to re-situation this thread in concrete happenings for what it is worth.

    Meanwhile, I’ll go back to local organizing, which seems ineffective because the administrator across the table keeps stone-walling and holds all the power cards, and not because academics are blowing hot and cold.

  11. Per Smith,

    Yes, the irony. Adam is a smart guy, and I think the whole this is a joke. It is satire, and satire only works when it is close to the truth, in which case we either laugh or cry. His words are familiar within the genre, and baiting people is part of the goal. It’s like the dialectic–there is no escape!

  12. Jason I’m unsure how accurately you have read the situation but let’s assume you are 100% accurate (about the intentional irony and the trolling). In that case I don’t see much practical value in this form of engagement (by which I mean especially the response to my comment). Maybe I’m a simpleton, but as a simpleton who cares about the possibility of academic knowledge being 1) in tuned with real world problems and 2) capable of effecting positive change vis-a-vis those problems I seek a certain level of discursive clarity. But again, I’m probably a simpleton. Cheers.

  13. Per Smith,

    Calling it “trolling” is also part of a joke, and I did not mean it to be derogatory, though you seem to have taken that connotation.

    Regardless, your comments are beside the point, and you are playing into Adam’s hands, which is precisely what he expected. You may care as an individual, but as a class/group/category, it is demonstrably false that academics have the power to effect change. It is also difficult to argue that they have the practical knowledge and just lack the power, and while I can give you a lot of anecdotal evidence, at least in my case the evidence covers thousands of individuals as I have held various leadership positions in academic governance and union organization.

    Think of this as a chess game in which the moves are so predictable that everything can be played out in one’s mind in advance, including my role. Even if we achieved an unpredictable practical success, it would not be evident in this online medium, and thus the “ironic closure” is complete.

    Adam and observers, I suspect that we have long ceased being entertaining.

  14. Jason, I did not take your use of “trolling” to be “derogatory,” but I did take it mean that his response was part of a game, and unless I’m mistaken that’s precisely what you are saying now. While I still have no confirmation that you are correct, I see no practical value in such games, nor do I care if my exchange with you is entertaining anyone reading this blog, and that’s my point more broadly in fact. If the dilemma is, as you put it, isn’t in how clever we can be in our critiques of others or ourselves or the “class” we belong to. You say “[h]is words are familiar within the genre,” well in that case, “hold onto your genre. You’re genre has got a hold on you.” Enjoy the fun and games.

  15. Correction (missing text in the above post): If the dilemma is, as you put it, “actually making any political changes or even organizing to do so, then the answer isn’t in how clever we can be in our critiques of others or ourselves or the “class” we belong to.

  16. Yeah, well, how do you explain Michael Ignatieff’s stellar political career? Canada has been renewed in the glow of this philosopher-king’s wisdom and commitment to invading Iraq and torturing everyone you find there.

  17. Dunno. The figure of the academic who thinks he/she is politically astute, but is not, seems to me to be more a function of the polemic point than a real creature; to the extent that academics make grand claims about politics, this makes them representative of a larger class, which we could call “Americans,” or just “people.” But whereas most academics tend to be — exactly as Adam is — pretty contemptuous of the astuteness of academics (and don’t forget, most academics are in fields which have nothing to do with politics), it seems to me that your average citizen of the republic is on average much *more* confident of their astute analytic insight (not being dripping with self-loathing, like so many academics) and much more likely to believe that welfare mothers drive cadillacs or whatever. Secondly, doesn’t judging a class’s political fortunes to be a function of their political astuteness require the assumption that they have their own fate in their hands, and that what happens to it is, effectively, their own doing (and the result of how much expertise the *really* have)? Those assumptions seem pretty unwarranted in general, and particularly so in the case of academics; note how you start talking about “the institutions over which we have the most direct influence” but then you skip over to talking about “state and federal funding bodies” and “public outcry,” which are places where academics have no particular “direct” influence at all. All of which says to me that while you’re right that academics have a decided lack of influence because of their expertise, this doesn’t so much indicate that academics have less expertise than they think they do, it indicates a general lack of value of “expertise.” Academics are being flattened by finance capital for much the same reason as everyone else is getting flattened by finance capital: finance capital is godzilla.

  18. A better response to Jodi would be that of course such a politically astute group would quickly gain hegemony over the institution — and of course take up a leading political-cultural role.

    Z, the point about Americans’ general overestimation of their astuteness is well taken. Yet the burden of what you’re saying seems to be that there is just absolutely no hope — which is how I feel, certainly, but I never figured I was a reliable barometer.

    The fact that this post has resonated with people (along with its companion tweets) has to be taken as prima facie evidence that it’s at least in the ballpark of a real phenomenon — saying I’m just making it up is not convincing.

  19. Adam, the claim that Barack Obama is a socialist “resonates” with a lot of people, but it isn’t evidence of anything but the fact that it resonates with those people. It certainly isn’t evidence that Barack Obama is actually a socialist. I do not know if the creature is real or not but you will have to do better than that to support the claim that s/he is.

  20. “Great counter-argument!” — I’m not sure if that was facetious but I hope it wasn’t. There are a great many reasons why ideas resonate with people and a good number of them have little to do with how accurately those ideas reflect observable phenomena. Adam, my point does not refute your claim that the creature exists. It merely suggests that your evidence does not support it, prima facie. It supports something else.

    “Speaking of Obama, I don’t think anyone here would accept ‘but he faces obstacles!’ as proof that he’s been as politically effective as possible.” — I don’t think anyone has argued that humanities scholars have been as politically effective as possible, have they? My own point is very simple. Wouldn’t it be more productive transcend the cynicism by suggesting ways that they could be more effective? You wrote to Z that “the burden of what you’re saying seems to be that there is just absolutely no hope — which is how I feel, certainly, but I never figured I was a reliable barometer.” Does that mean you have no interest in making those kinds of suggestions, instead just venting frustrated cynicism about a condition you feel cannot be changed? If that is true I think it’s fair to ask what the point is of discussing the matter at all.

  21. Per Smith, Doesn’t my sarcastic account of the political accomplishments of humanities scholars sound like a desirable political program, or at least part of one? It’s not like I skipped straight to ponies.

  22. Per Smith,

    I would locate the problem elsewhere. Adam’s words are an occasion to think upon a larger problem, and let us set aside his theatrics, which he performs, I presume, to point out the powerlessness of academics as a group as they simultaneously claim to have so much power. Hence the satire. Your attack on him is beside the point; his are the jester’s and not the poisoner’s words that you seem to think. So far, you have been playing an entirely predictable role and have not justified yourself as playing anything else.

    Show me how academics as a group have the expertise to solve problems. Most any claim made will be belied by their societal, cultural, economic, and even concrete positions. We do not maintain cultural clout. We do not have economic power or facility. I have not seen academics mobilize as a group in any way more significant than any other group. Our protestations that we *know* and therefore should have authority is belied by our actions. (I’m usually thinking of humanities academics, btw, as many business, engineering, and science academics are entirely off the radar.)

    Let me make a diagnostic suggestion. Perhaps part of the problem is that a vast number, probably a majority, of academics are not in permanent positions and positions of security. Why risk what little we have that is so hard-won? I think Adam made an astute point when he noted that our predecessor’s lack of action has tied our hands–this is a younger crowd here.

    I would drop the issue except that the hypocritical performance of academics as a group drives me to a furor. When I ask an academic what they think, they might have something to say. When I ask them to protest, to file a complaint, to keep a time schedule to prove unpaid work, to voice their thoughts, to attend meetings, etc., I see that there is nothing special about being an academic. But then, being human is no little thing.

  23. So far I have seen nothing from Per Smith but long-winded variations on two standard cliches: “Sure, you can criticize, but what’s your solution?” and “Okay, you’ve pointed out a systemic problem, but what are you personally doing about it?” Both are ways of shifting the goal posts — discrediting my critique unless I have a full-blown alternative (I disagree with Zunguzungu on this, but at least he’s directly responding to the critique as such) or turning my systemic critique into a matter of personal virtue. And both are incredibly, incredibly tedious, as every single one of Per Smith’s has been.

  24. Let me offer a concrete political action.

    Have a large community college department’s adjuncts document the actual amount of time spent doing their duties in an above-board manner, e.g., using an institutional time-clock. Presuming that they are paid hourly, over a semester this will show that they are engaging in contractually-stipulated unpaid work. That is, most CCs pay on the basis of “contact hours,” but do not pay for prep, grading, office hours, etc. even though it is contractually obligated. Sue the college on the basis of unpaid but contractually obligated implicit over-time. If this occurs even once at a well-known school and catches media attention, or occurs often enough at other institutions, then it may build enough political capital to force a positive change. If it creates a negative change, well, it cannot get much worse.

    This strategy needs some companion organizations publishing/communicating on the plight of non-permanent labor in academia as soon as it gets media attention. Organization of the affiliated bodies would be necessary.

    Here’s your positive proposal.

  25. Adam I’m sorry to see you resort to descriptions like this that aim at what? Diminution? Grounds for dismissal? “Personal virtue” isn’t exactly the issue, and I still don’t understand why you insist on making my argument more personal than it is. Let me be blunt. I’m tired of critique. It’s everywhere we turn in academe. Some of it is spot on while some of it is completely divorced from reality, but rarely does any of it get over itself. I worry that this fact is actually part of the problem you are critiquing and I was trying to suggest as much through my “long-winded”, “incredibly, incredibly tedious,” “cliches.” Yes what constrains us is systemic, but the practices that maintain the system(s) of constraint are not merely a result of Godzilla’s might (Z.) or our forefathers’ legacy (Adam). They are also a result of a certain culture of knowledge that we ourselves propagate, and critiques that goes nowhere beyond discussion (and other intellectual games) play their part. I wasn’t moving the goalposts, I was arguing that what we ought to be doing is erecting goalposts on a playing field that seems to have none. I’m sure I agree with you on what many of the constraints we face are, and I certainly agree that many are out of our direct control, but some are not.

    There is a professor in my department who is a social theorist and a damn good one at that. He has written several books critiquing various contemporary social institutions and practices but unlike some of his peers this work doesn’t end when a book or journal article is finally published or when other academics stop inviting him to give lectures. Instead he runs a field school every summer that provides “a laboratory for the practical pedagogy of tolerance and living with difference in a global society.” His pedagogical work in this setting is based on his various social theories and critiques, but as such it applies them towards concrete goals. I had another professor, a senior anthropologist from Norway, who was rather blunt to us about the differences between the American and European academies when it comes to applying intellectual knowledge towards sociopolitical goals. In Europe, he said, NGOs and governments actively seek scholarly advice and European institutions of higher learning reward faculty members who do work for those other institutions. In United States? Not a chance. As he put it, taking time off to partake in a UN mission of some sort might actively hurt your career as an American anthropologist, particularly if it means less time publishing papers in obscure journals that will be might be read by 5 of your closest friends. But even with the current restraints on us, as my first example shows, it is possible to apply critique to social problem solving. On the other hand it is clear that several systemic constraints are in place that make it difficult to do so. But how many are ones we can change ourselves? That’s my question. Are we entirely powerless in shaping the culture of knowledge we partake in? Are we even entirely powerless in shaping the institutional practices that constrain us? If not, shouldn’t we be talking about how? Isn’t it time. Jason’s example is a good one. Maybe it should be discussed further…

  26. ‘In Europe, he said, NGOs and governments actively seek scholarly advice and European institutions of higher learning reward faculty members who do work for those other institutions.’ Isn’t it pretty to think so!!!????

  27. To what extent that is true I have no way of knowing but to be clear Fredrik Barth (the anthropologist) was not arguing that the European academy was a model of perfection, but merely that applied knowledge was *more* valuable there than it is here (at least applied anthropological knowledge). I should add that he was speaking from direct experience frequently working for organizations like the UN throughout a very successful “academic” career that he literally split between Boston and Bergen (Norway). Norway may also not be representative of “Europe” but he spoke of as if it were. Of course in Norway they also have “state scholars,” a post he held for a year.

  28. Jason’s lawsuit strategy would probably fail, because “learned professionals” are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s wage and hour regulations (i.e., minimum wage and overtime).

  29. Todd,

    So, it’s the category that counts and not the contract terms? I think it has a chance, because it’s a violation of the contract, and thus might be doable under contract law. I am aware of the exemptions, but not all the details.

  30. Jason,

    Wage and hour lawsuits claiming that an employer failed to pay overtime are usually brought under the FLSA. But learned professionals are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime rules. Adjunct professors, by virtue of their advanced education and specialized knowledge, would likely qualify as learned professionals, and would not have the right to sue for overtime pay under the FLSA. Some states’ wage and hour laws may be more protective than the federal FLSA, but I’m unfamiliar with their details. If you’re curious about this stuff, just google “learned professional exemption.” The first result is an informative fact sheet from the Department of Labor.

    As far as contacts go, you can always sue your employer if you believe they breached the terms of the employment contract. But that’s basically a separate issue from any lawsuit seeking overtime. And I would imagine that most colleges are smart enough not to include any promises of overtime pay in their contracts with adjuncts (or any other instructors for that matter).

Comments are closed.