Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Useful Uselessness

There is nothing, really, quite so invigorating to the soul - well, my soul, stunted and smelling of the lamp as it is - than a big article on the Trials of Academia. At least if it's not a long cliche, usually,Those damned lefty english professors use sich big woids! - or whatever... So - people (Michael Berube and Crooked Timber at least, and that's a good start) have been linking to this article by Gideon Lewis-Krause in The Believer about last year's MLA convention. It's interesting - take this quote:

Once I get past the requisite "Oh, another MLA-vilifying piece?" with each new person I meet, I find that there are exactly two conversational avenues they want to pursue: tenure, publishing, and other academic pressures, which make them wince; and teaching, which makes them glow. The topic of literature itself straddles the two: literature is either "what you're writing your tenure book on" or "what you teach to your students," and the responses vary accordingly.

This is fascinating, because that is what most of the enemies of academia say - that teaching is good - writing, tenure, all that jazz is bad. Which is what the teachers say. It may be true - though I imagine there are those who love the writing as much as the teaching. Maybe - since it is equally likely I guess that one would love not the teaching but the writing...

That's just the beginning though - it goes on, presenting level on level of academic hell, the demands of tenure committees and the marketplace and politics and relevance and all the rest, before coming through the other side,a nd trying to explain why it's not quite hell... Largely about accountability - to whom, on what criteria:

As scholars. Because of course they're accountable beyond their own ranks as teachers—accountable to their students, to the parents of their students, to the taxpayers paying their salaries in the case of public universities. And of course they're accountable beyond their own ranks as poets or punks or whatever they are in their nonprofessional time. The problems arise when they're held accountable for the wrong things to the wrong people. When scholarship—which is not intended to produce a profit—is tossed to the market. When academic writing—which is neither conceived nor written for a wide readership—is held accountable to a general audience. When the work of someone like Charlie—which is a part of an ongoing discussion deep within his remote professional galaxy—is disparaged for its everyday irrelevance.

And it's also, in the end, a defense of something that's really outside accountability. Take this passage:

As San Francisco State Univerity's Professor Saul Steier puts it, "I have a moral obligation as a teacher to work against efficiency as best I can," and the idea is not to demean the George Babbitts in gray flannel suits (although that does happen), but to exemplify an alternative. And this is where the dark hollow of anti-academic unrest is laid bare: critics of the academy are not really afraid of explicit political indoctrination, they're afraid of these preserves of communal autonomy. They're afraid of the flowering of the arcane, the unmarketable, the unprofitable. They're afraid that their children will become scruffy bohemian types.

It's one of the themes of the piece - the "uselessness" of academia - though a useful kind of uselessness. (Oh, can't you see the academic manque in me coming out? Paradox! wordplay! scare quotes!) The value of pleasure - the value of investing the world, every piece of it, with value. Which is what art does, in a sense - and what those who study art do, in their turn - invest the world with value - value it has, but which is, somehow, recognized in the representation of it. That is where the air gets fairyish - but it's still - right.

And yet... Lewis-Krause sighs a bit about academic jargon (or slang), and sniffs about academics' occasional desire to be hip - "trying to kill two birds with one unwieldy stone" (writing - in full academese - about The Bachelorette will do that) - but he's missing something. It isn't just about being relevant, though it is that - it's about the fact that those things - bad TV etc. - are also worthy of attention. If there is a problem is is really the fact that somewhere along the line they are not going to take something seriously - they are going to treat bad TV with condescension, or with fake respect - they sneer, or they pander. That is not the same as trying to wed unweddable things - because you can write about reality TV with all the seriousness of writing about Shakespeare - it is that they inevitably take a position on the relative worth of these things, but without making the position clear. And - that they don't quite get across the sense of discovery that, I think, really, is at the core of art and criticism and scholarship. That sense of finding value in things and getting other people to appreciate that value - if that's lacking, that's your problem.

But I have to confess - I find it in an awful lot of academic writing. This post - What MLA Panels really look like from George Williams' blog, probably evens the score - a good amount of this looks pretty interesting. If it's your thing (it's not quite mine, English/MLA things, not really - history and film are more my things), most fo these panels will give what I said I wanted. Finding something interesting, and communicating, to people sort of interested, your deeper interest. Making us all better off, but the time it spreads far enough. (Link from Crooked Timber comments...)

I have to stop or I will be able to publish this as a monograph.

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