27 July 2011

They Can't Understand Any More Than An Abstraction

Yesterday I saw a colleague for what might be the last time.  I have only come to know him during the past year, but in that time, I have grown to respect, and even like, him.  

He completed his PhD about half a dozen years ago after a career in journalism.  As I have mentioned in earlier posts, journalism has been hemmorhaging jobs at an even faster rate than most other occupations.  Worse for him, he is well into that part of life in which people experience age discrimination.  And he is African-American.

Anyway, he is moving to California to live with the woman whom he plans to marry. She works as a librarian. He doesn't know whether he will find a job, as he knows that the economy is even worse there than it is here in New York.  But, he says, he hopes that he can do "something," even if it's not in higher education. "At least I have a chance of being happy there," he said.

In the time I have come to know him, our conversations have stimulated me:  something I don't often experience in the academic world.  They have also given me some of my inspiration to start this blog, as well as material for at least a couple of my posts. 

I'm thinking now of two things in particular he said to me.  A few weeks ago, when we were talking about our classes and students, and the uselessness of most of the workshops we've attended and materials we've read on the subject, he conveyed one of the most acute observations I've heard about.  Referring to the workshops, conferences and books on educating "nontraditional students," he said, "The problem with them is that the people who put them together see our students as abstractions.  They don't have a clue about their lives, about the way they see the world."

"That's because they come from completely different kinds of backgrounds," I said.

"Yes.  All they see are labels and generalizations that they learned in some workshop or conference."

"I guess I'm guilty of that sometimes, too."

"Maybe.  But you have some understanding of that; you come from a different background from most profs."

The last part of that statement is definitely true:  I grew up in a blue-collar family and community, with no books at home.  My parents (Yes, thankfully, they're still alive.) are intelligent people with practically no formal education:  My mother went to work when she was fourteen to help support her family, and my father, for various reasons, dropped out of high school to join the military. (The draft was in place then, so he probably would have been in the military one way or another.)  The majority of my students come from today's equivalents of that background; others are even poorer many don't speak English at home.

I am thinking now of a comment someone left on my post from a couple of days ago.  This person describes a "highly theoretical" PhD program in Spanish where professors "claim to expose injustices against the little guy,"--In this case the "little guy is an amalgamation of different people from the so-called "Third World," as well as other kinds of backgrounds!--through the books of academic philosophers like Lacan and Derrida.  

Now, reading those books has its value, but I think that trying to use them to explain the experience of "minorities in the US, the indigenous in Peru, the working class in Argentina" or to clump the expereinces of people from Mexico to India under the rubric of "post colonial" is less than helpful, and can be outright misleading.  Really, the profs who do that are no different from those twelve-year-old boys who hear about "survival of the fittest" in their science classes and use it to justify their worst behavior.  And some of them never change.  But I digress.

Another thing this colleague told me has shed light on much for me. We were talking about the economic crisis (Who doesn't, these days?) when he mentioned that, nearly three years ago, Alan Greenspan said that he couldn't explain why the financial system all but imploded.  "If he could have explained it, he wouldn't have been where he was."

I instinctively knew that was true, but asked him to explain.

"You can't get an advanced degree in economics if you actually understand how the capitalist system works."

"I don't know much about economics.  But from what I've read, it seems that people get to that level by constructing mathematical models of economic activity rather than watching human interactions."

"Yes, you're right about that.  It's essentially what the Chicago School.."

"Milton Friedman?"

He nodded.  "That's what he and his followers do.  And that's the kind of thinking that controls graduate programs in economics."

That got me to thinking about how there are parallels in other fields.  Almost everybody--even the people who are in those fields--knows that to be entrusted with running things in that field (or the whole country!) and mentoring the next generation, you have to be steeped in whatever the prevailing orthodoxies of that field are.  An example was described by the commenter I mentioned earlier:  Nearly all graduate school professors in language and literature are, to some degree, under the spell of Lacan, Derrida and a few other critics and scholars, much as an earlier generation was in thrall to Freud.

Now, I realize that there are certain basic skills and fundamental knowledge that everyone in a field needs to possess.  Anyone in any medical or health field needs to know how the human body is put together, and anyone who wants to study literature or language needs to know the basic structures.  Those, however, are not the same as the "isms" that dominate most fields in graduate school.

The fact that my colleague spent decades as a journalist before pursuing his PhD makes him all but immune, I think, to being an "-ist" of any kind, at least in the academic sense.  That is exactly one of the reasons why I wish him well but worry a bit about him.  I think he'll be fine but, as someone a bit older than I am who's moving to a part of the country where the economy is even worse than it is here, it might be difficult at first.  At least he has a chance at being happy, which is more than can be said for too many I've met in the academic world.


  1. Too many PHDs, too few universtiy teaching positions and too many demand 'publish or perish' equals too many "ism" and "ist".

  2. Learn when to use a semicolon. Then we might take you seriously instead of thinking you're a moron.

  3. Anon 2:46: Can you show me some examples from this blog in which I misused a semicolon, or didn't use one when I needed one. Also, could you tell me how to use one?

    As I undedrstand--from the guidebooks, instructors and editors I've consulted--a semicolon is used to attach two complete sentences (Example: My brother got his job with an associate's degree; today, he would need a master's to get the same job.) and where to seperate clauses that contain commas.

    Please do tell me if those rules have been changed or amended--and, as I said earlier--where I have misused semicolons or not used them when they were necessary.

  4. Anon 2:46--Why so mean-spirited? What's the point of lashing out and name-calling? It's ugly and unnecessary. If you want to offer a critique of the blog, engage with the arguments, don't pick at minutia. It takes more effort than zinging off insults. If more people did the latter than the former, academia might actually be a liveable place.

  5. Like the colleague described in this post, I am in the age-discrimination range (43 soon). Unlike him, I haven't earned the PhD yet. If I stay, it'll likely be years before I graduate, then I'm geographically stuck in CA. What a nightmare, whether I stay and finish or leave, either way I've wasted years of my life and am likely unemployable.

  6. I mentioned Lacan and Derrida in that 7/23 comment because they are two of the most recognizable names. To be fair, their ideas--whatever their merit--aren't necessarily the ones most utilized to criticize the plight of women and other oppressed groups around the world throughout history.

    Nonetheless, the thrust of the message is valid and appreciated because it's rarely touched upon. Five years ago, Neil Larsen wrote an essay "Latin-Americanism without Latin America: 'Theory' as Surrogate Periphery in the Metropolitan University". His argument, much like yours, is that the scholarship produced by literary and cultural studies with respect to the place known as Latin America (Latin Americanism) relies more on theory than on the actual place itself (Latin America). In the end, Latin America and its people become nothing more than abstract ideas. To argue that a mistake of colonialism was to reduce Latin America to an abstract idea only to then commit the same folly is a blatant contradiction. I could elaborate, but this doesn't seem like the most appropriate place.

    I could be wrong, but I wonder if Anonymous 2:46 is one of these graduate students or professors who constantly cites and refers to Foucault, a thinker who warned us about the dangers of normativity. And yet, here she/he is, suggesting that your argument lacks merit, not by presenting a counter-argument but by imposing one of the more arbitrary and normative rules of punctuation. It's a mystery to me how people who incessantly point out the contradiction of others are completely unwilling to recognize their own.

  7. Anon 6:20, I stuck to Derrida and Lacan for the same reasons you mentioned them. However, while others have influence, I can't think of many others who have had more influence over what has been done in humanities scholarship over the past three decades or so.

    I read Larsen's article and what I find interesting about those arguments is that, if you follow them, they nullify the ideas of race and nation. When you come right down to it, both are abstractions precisely because they're arbitary distinctions.

    Anon 11:55, I'll bet my colleague faced the same dilemma. On one hand, it's hard to "abandon" something like that: We are given the message that doing something like that is a form of failure. On the other hand, I also know that it's difficult to think of an alternative, especially if one is over 40 or so.

  8. 11:55 here,

    I've already "reinvented myself" several times, and thought that this foray into academia was going to be my last iteration. Now it seems that it's not. My partner thinks that the courageous thing to do is just quit with the MA--the PhD will impress no one sensible, and since I'm learning NO applied skills that I can transfer over I'll be essentially training for the next 4 years to adjunct (hooray minimum wage!). On the other hand, my mom is elderly and periodically requires more help than at other times, so if I were to start something new (vocational program, new job/ career) I'd be hamstrung there as well. It really seems that the only solution is a time machine to make better choices.