December 04, 2003

Move Along, Move Along, No Elitism Here, Folks

I must say that I find the increased attention being paid by folks outside the university to what goes on in college courses and the academic response to this increased attention amusing.

A couple of links first: academicgame fisks a Stanley Fish article. Full disclosure--the man always has and will chap my ass, because every article of his I've read and every public appearance he's made has convinced me that he is the poster boy for the "condescending prick" model of academic. He has nothing but contempt for students, especially when they have the temerity to question his practices. I wonder if all of that condescension dripping from his keyboard affects his ability to type?

Erin O'Connor highlights an article by a fellow who determined that the reason a conservative student so disturbed him and his classroom was because the student himself was disturbed. Mentally, that is. Ah yes, the old "conservatism as mental illness canard." What a very evolved response.

This amuses me because the more academics and universities get up in arms to defend their economic and classroom practices the more they expose the prejudices which contribute quite a bit to the problems they're having--and the biggest problem appears to be their unfounded belief in their own unquestionable position as the great unwashed's intellectual superiors.

Let me clarify--I am more than willing to accede that someone with a PhD in a particular subject has more knowledge of that subject than I, but that doesn't translate into any sort of overall superiority of intellect, particularly since in the humanities a PhD is obtained after focusing research to such a narrow degree that a professor effectively corralls him or herself into a tiny academic space and becomes the master of that domain, trading ideas and papers with the other hundred or so people in the same domain. In short, a PhD can be seen as a one-way ticket to stagnation, and it's the rare professor I've come across who successfully combats the research rut.

In addition, while the depth of knowledge is impressive, the breadth is often lacking, as is apparent in the Berube article (by an English professor, no less--WHY is it always the English professors?) which diagnoses someone with a different political viewpoint as disabled.

The companion to the intellectual superiority pose is the "You can't criticize me if you don't do what I do for a living" argument, which is a load of bull. Certainly there will be things a layperson is ignorant of in any profession, but not knowing the inner workings of departmental politics doesn't affect an outsider's ability to tell if a professor is doing a good job. Talk to the students. Read his or her output. Go over the syllabus--none of these things require either teaching experience or a PhD; it's almost the same thing as consulting a copy of Consumer Reports before purchasing a car. I don't work in the auto industry but I can judge a good car. I'm not a doctor but with a phone call to the medical board and an office visit I can make informed decisions about which ones are best. Similarly, if I read an article in which a professor diagnoses a problem student as disabled, and it turns out that the disability is a political point of view, I don't need to be a department head to see a problem with the fellow's reasoning and perhaps with his teaching.

I thought that the point of a university for an undergraduate was to gain exposure to a breadth of knowledge--to have ideas challenged without being belittled or labeled in the process. Professors who cry foul when their students or the public critique them, or try and diagnose away different points of view have completely missed the point of the university.
Their cries of "no fair!" or "how dare you!" will only result in more criticism, and mark my words, it'll be less and less constructive and more combative as time goes on.

Sort of like Stanley Fish.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at December 4, 2003 11:17 AM

Gee, Stanley Fish was rude to some of my questions (``I think you'd better stop asking questions now'') after a public lecture where he laid into the ignorance of Wayne Booth on the subject of Irony, long ago when he was still an eastern star.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at December 4, 2003 12:39 PM

Excellent post!

Posted by: Jay at December 4, 2003 01:41 PM

Did you read Berube's article? He doesn't say anything about mental illness until the very end, which is the first section O'Connor quotes. At no time does he imply that the student is mentally disabled, as shown by his conservative views or any other reason. That's O'Connor's gloss.

She also says, But as the essay unfolds, Berube loses track of a crucial distinction, that it was not the student's conservatism that was disruptive, but his disruptive behavior that was disruptive...

I'm not sure that this is true either. The point of Berube's essay (which he makes largely in the title), is that maybe possibly perhaps there's a point at which you have to stop reasoning and understanding and pandering to a disruptive element, and just force it to pipe down. I'll bet his conservative student could've told him that in the first place.

Posted by: Angie Schultz at December 4, 2003 07:20 PM

"every public appearance he's made has convinced me that he is the poster boy for the "condescending prick" model of academic"


BAW, I remain, as always, your devoted fan.


Posted by: Academy Girl at December 5, 2003 11:02 AM

Another bit of irony. Berube makes reference to the prisoners' dilemma and game theory in the article. It is also apparent he has no idea what he is talking about in that area. So while his expertise is demonstrably narrow, he has delusions of great breadth...

Posted by: gerald garvey at December 5, 2003 11:24 AM

Prof. Garvey, Prof. Berube makes reference to the prisoners' dilemma and game theory in reference to the novel of the same name and the point the author thereof is trying to make. It does not matter whether he (or even the novel's author) understands game theory. He understands the way the author was using it.

Posted by: Michael at December 5, 2003 10:55 PM

That's like saying it doesn't matter if the teacher knows how to add or not as long as he makes sure to write a '4' after '2+2='.

If you don't understand it, how can you use it? And if you don't understand it, how can you understand how the author was using it?

Posted by: linden at December 6, 2003 05:07 AM

Linden, Your analogy doesn't work. A better one might be that it doesn't matter if an author doesn't know how the theory of relativity works, so long as he gets nothing very wrong when he describes it in his novel in order to make a larger point about something else.

I found Prof. Garvey's attack on Prof. Berube to be snide and condescending, and based on a poor reading of one minor passage.

Posted by: Michael at December 6, 2003 08:27 AM

In the prisoner's dilemma, two prisoners are prevented from communicating with each other, and each is given the following options: if you confess and the other guy follows suit, you each get ten years; if you keep quiet and the other guy does the same, you get two years. If you keep quiet and the other guy squeals, you get the chair and he goes free. Each prisoner thinks, at first, well, this is simple enough: I should keep quiet, and the other guy should keep quiet. But then the problem appears to him in another way: if I keep quiet, I get two years or I get the chair; if I squeal, I go free or I get ten years. Clearly, then, I do better when I squeal. And since the other prisoner reasons the same way, they each get 10 years, or five times the sentence they'd have gotten if they had kept quiet. You can play with the parameters, of course, but that's the classic version.

Now, the Chronicle of Higher Ed asked me to explain all this, and I did, and then they cut the explanation from my essay. As a result, I'm now subject to snide remarks from people who mouth off about the novel without ever having heard of it. Oh, well, no biggie. Let that be the worst thing that happens to me from here on in.

Posted by: Michael Berube at December 7, 2003 05:14 PM