April 29, 2003

What Ever Happened to Scholarly Conversation?

"The Separation of the Learned from the conversible World seems to have been the great Defect of the last Age, and must have had a very bad Influence both on Books and Company...
....[Learning] has been...[a] great Loser by being shut up in Colleges and Cells, and secluded from the World and good Company. By that Means, every Thing of what we call Belles Lettres became totally barbarous, being cultivated by Men without any Taste of Life or Manners, and without that Liberty and Facility of Thought and Expression, which can only be acquir'd by Conversation. Even Philosophy went to Wrack by this moaping recluse Method of Study, and became as chimerical in her Conclusions as she was unintelligible in her Stile and Manner of Delivery."

-- David Hume, "Of Essay-Writing" (1742), Essays Moral, Political and Literary

"We should be more concerned with our quality of mind and less concerned with our production of scholarship, and place greater value by far on one good conversation about the nature of a good society than the publication of five journal articles. That's how we get to a new academy humming with passion for ideas and a generosity of spirit, where academics treat each other with the same tender pedagogical regard that professors at a college like Swarthmore now reserve for their brightest undergraduates, where the excitement of discussion and debate replaces the damp silence that nestles over the academic calendar like a fog."

-- Timothy Burke, "We never talk anymore"

Lack of time, writes Timothy Burke, is "the alibi that everyone uses to lightly explain away the puzzling vacuum at the heart of academic life." He's not buying it.

In a nice dissection of the heartlessness at the heart of the academy, Burke places his emphasis on the significance of fear. There is, for example, the "internalization of shame" and "paranoid wariness" that is too often the accompaniment of graduate school training. And there is also "the massive saturation of the intellectual marketplace with published knowledge and academic performances of knowledge at conferences, workshops and events," which makes academics "fear exposure of ignorance, because in truth, most of us are ignorant."

In place of "the ceaseless overproduction of derivative, second-order knowledge," Burke calls for a renewed embrace of the teaching mission and a revaluation of the vanishing art of scholarly conversation. Following Hume, we might call this a return to the ideal of conversibility, where the scholar does not work in "monkish seclusion" but rather engages with the problems and concerns of common life, mediating between the world of learning and the rest of the world. In any case, go read Burke's essay.

Re: "the ceaseless overproduction of derivative, second-order knowledge." I have to agree that it would be far better to have less production of what could then be more valuable books and articles. But I'm not optimistic.

Less production of better publications would require a much greater emphasis on qualitative rather than quantitative measurements of value. But where would the criteria of evaluation be found? As Burke notes in his essay, since the canon no longer has any authority, there is no longer a "compass to point the way towards what we ought to know." One response to this loss of compass is the move toward ever greater degrees of specialization: the more narrow the field, the easier it is to find evaluative criteria that specialists can agree upon. But this specialization is of course not a solution but rather a major part of the problem of an overproduction of work that will never be read by more than a handful of like-minded specialists.

And then there is the problem of the academic job "market" (the dismal state of which is also related to a loss of authority): an oversupply of candidates has intensified the pressure to publish, which now begins in graduate school.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 29, 2003 02:48 AM

I have read your blog today which is quite informational in a practical sort of way since I am an aspiring grad student and virgin blogger (like really).

After reading your initial postings and the most recent, I am even more afraid ! But fear IS a very undesirable and unproductive element. It doesn't sound like practicality has catapulted you into some other action either. I read Michele Teper's piece and I must admit, you folks are living in a different place than I am. It is still difficult for me to envision.

Posted by: Michelle at April 29, 2003 03:26 AM

Scholarly conversation has moved to listservs and blogs.

Posted by: jam at April 29, 2003 01:10 PM

Okay, but why does that have to destroy conversation in hallways? (Assuming there ever was such; I don't mean to postulate a Golden Age here.)

And when departments start taking regular, serious notice of blogs and listservs, what will happen?

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at April 29, 2003 02:42 PM

I have had a hard time imagining what might be required to get most academics to notice blogs and listservs. In fact, most don't precisely because of the "alibi of time": they presume that anyone who has the time to write in such an unrewarded, uncredited, un-peer-reviewed, unimportant medium must be someone with too much time--and they fear exposing themselves to the same charge.

The careerist academic would pay attention to a blog when: a) a promotions and tenure committee started wanting to see blog writing on a c.v. and said as much; b) when "hot scholars" of a certain commodified breed have blogs (probably written by one of their graduate students) or c) when they are drawn unwillingly into a blog-initiated debate in the public sphere (say, for example, the way that a few scholars have used blogs to call attention to grossly unfair tenure decisions).

As for water-cooler conversations and whether there was a Golden Age, one interesting thing I have heard from colleagues here is that once upon a time, there was an informal faculty seminar that met here where people presented their work in a social setting, over drinks and food. When the most menschy senior scholars presented, everyone had a good time and it performed a lot of the connective functions that I see as lacking in contemporary academia. But when junior people, ESPECIALLY women, presented, it was basically like the Spanish Inquisition--you were on trial for your academic life, and the senior men made sure you knew it.

So there came a day when there was an insurrection, they buried the thing, and everyone felt generally better, even they also knew that something had been lost. Reinventing the best of that seminar would take some hard thinking about how to make it playful and pleasurable rather than performative and laborious.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at April 29, 2003 03:29 PM

"...b) when 'hot scholars' of a certain commodified breed have blogs (probably written by one of their graduate students)"

Ouch! Don't make me laugh when I'm drinking coffee.

Your account of the faculty seminar strikes a chord. When I was in graduate school I was not the only member of my cohort to wonder whether we were witnessing the end of a wonderful seminar system, where historians from different areas and subfields (and sometimes also academics from neighbouring disciplines) would meet to discuss a paper about which they found some common ground, some shared point of interest. Watching the old guys in action sometimes inspired -- admittedly romantic -- "world we have lost" reflections. It often seemed as though some of the younger scholars were either unable or unwilling to speak more broadly and generally about their work (broad and general are of course relative: this was mostly historians, so it was a question of speaking to other historians, though to other historians from different fields and subfields). The generational difference was partly due to intensified careerist pressures, but also, I think, the result of increased specialization within the fields and subfields: it just gets harder and harder to find the common points of reference. Anyway, this somewhat romanticized narrative of decline would have to be placed alongside an acknowledgement of just the kind of Spanish Inquisition that you mention, where junior people, and especially women, were put on trial and treated as guilty until proved innocent.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 29, 2003 04:24 PM

I have often pondered this question and have come to more depressing conclusions. Graduate schools seem to select for careerists without actual interests. I have colleagues who are literature professors who do not read. Conversations about politics are limited to expressions of cliches. The only way to explain the existence of many contemporary approaches to literature and history in the academy is to recognize that their adherents have no particular love or even interest in their own disciplines, let alone others.

Posted by: David R at April 29, 2003 04:43 PM

I wonder, too, if context plays a role in this decline of thoughtful conversation. I remember well that, as an undergraduate, sitting up late at night talking about all sorts of ideas that came up in our classes (and gossiping and cracking lame jokes, too, of course) was seen as normal and desirable. Having everyone live on the same floor and eat in the same building helped too. Then, in graduate school, I encountered much the same, partly during class discussions, but also while waiting for class, during slow office hours (again, we all were on the same floor, and many of us practically lived there), or in the campus pub. In other words, in both cases, the boundaries between personal life and scholarly life were fluid and permeable -- friends were colleagues, and vice versa.

Now, as a very junior and temporary faculty member, I find that same spirit of inquiry and playful discussion harder to achieve and maintain. A very few colleagues (mostly in other departments) have also become friends, and some of those eagerly discuss their work and ideas -- but for most of us in my social circle it's very hard because our disciplines are so disparate (math, biology, physics, philosophy, history). Our discussions are fun and often informative, but don't substantially influence our work.

Within my department, on the other hand, everyone's very friendly, but also busy and interested in drawing clear lines between social and work space (living in a small college town may aggravate this); casual, playful conversation and scholarly conversation rarely occupy the same space for most people, it seems.

Posted by: Rana at April 29, 2003 07:42 PM

These comments and the broader conversation in the blogosphere strike me as a good example of engaged and scholarly conversation.

Posted by: Nicholas Packwood at April 29, 2003 09:32 PM

It seems important to say that the time issue isn't just an "alibi" for a lot of people. If as a junior faculty member you work at what used to be called a "teaching college," and have trumped-up publication expectations as well as the old-school imperatives to service and student contact, the time constraints can easily and vastly surpass the corporate work week. (My wife worked in telecom while I was a junior faculty member; she had a commute of 40 minutes one way. I had the longer hours by far, occupying not only weeknights after dinner but most weekend hours as well.) And since no writing can be accomplished during the school year under such conditions, the summers can become sweatshops as well. Adjuncts have the same time constraints with the added time-and-paper burden of constantly feeding the application cycle, which in itself is quite nearly a full-time job.

Institutional culture is relevant, but I think there should be strong instincts to resist any psychologizing analysis that attributes the problem to matters of individual "character" and dismisses any structural complaint about the actual conditions of employment as the primary generator of woe (or, as far as that goes, the primary generator of the deficits of "character" themselves.)

Posted by: T. V. at April 30, 2003 05:23 AM

"If as a junior faculty member you work at what used to be called a 'teaching college,' and have trumped-up publication expectations as well as the old-school imperatives to service and student contact, the time constraints can easily and vastly surpass the corporate work week."

This is a nice description of the strange combination of older guild-like expectations and newer corporate-like pressures.

Yes, the time constraints are real. But I don't they adequately account for what Timothy Burke is talking about in his essay. For example, what have time constraints to do with the fact that he feels he has to "confess" to liking Berman's book?

If fear seems too psychologizing a term (though I don't think he psychologizes: he attributes the fear to structural and institutional factors), perhaps insecurity would be a better term? it captures the structural/insitutional factors but also points to the impact of such factors on the academic's orientation/experience.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 30, 2003 10:31 AM

Um, IA, I think TV was aiming that one squarely at me. :) Not that your response wasn't spot-on.

What I suppose I (still) don't understand is why people's responses, healthy and un-, to the conditions they find themselves under are somehow off-limits to expression, exegesis and discussion. I'm quite aware that an *exclusive* focus on these responses without addressing the conditions that created them is counterproductive (can lead to blame-and-shame as well as inappropriate despair), but it doesn't follow for me that an exclusive focus on the conditions is any better.

Not least because I can't see how any of the conditions get redressed if it isn't clearly and copiously documented how they hurt people. But I am no sociologist, so I am probably missing a good many links.

Timothy Burke's essay is good documentation, at least. Sometimes we don't understand all of what's going on, from our worm's-eye viewpoints. That doesn't make our accounts useless or unproductive; just means we need critical analysts with a wider viewpoint to tie it all together.

Or so I think.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at April 30, 2003 01:30 PM

Time isn't just an alibi, but the rhetoric that legitimates particular uses of time is an indicator in part of what both academics and their administrators value. That it is nearly impossible for me to rhetorically justify time spent on a blog or on a 1-hour 'over-the-watercooler' conversation with a philosopher and an anthropologist about the nature of the good society as anything other than private perversity (in the case of the blog) or as luxurious supercargo (in the case of the conversation) indicates that more than just "We're really busy" is going on here. The real question is, "Busy with what, and why is what you're busy with more important than other kinds of intellectual engagement and communication?"

That's why at some point, to reference another conversation about this essay, over at Kieran Healy's blog, you have to fish or cut bait on the issue of specialization and careerism. If those cost time, and time is finite, we actually *have* to make a qualitative judgement at some point about which kinds of activities we really prefer. It can't just be a matter of individual taste, because this is about how institutions organize and prioritize labor in such a fashion that individual faculty cannot simply secede from those labor regimes in favor of something else. So I suppose my primal question is, "Are we really happy with the institutional prioritization of intellectual and pedagogical labor that presently holds sway in the academy? Do we really want to give the labor of specialization *higher* priority than the labor of connection and communication between specialists?"

Posted by: Timothy Burke at April 30, 2003 02:53 PM

""Do we really want to give the labor of specialization *higher* priority than the labor of connection and communication between specialists?" "

This is an excellent question! As someone whose work tends to cross field boundaries with some regularity (I'm of the mind that if someone in another discipline has useful insight to offer, I should make use of it!) I find that such cross-discipline conversations are incredibly difficult to inspire and sustain. I can easily cite numerous instances of failure -- a conference I and a like-minded colleague tried to institute that was intended to foster such dialogue but which only attracted a handful of (admittedly interesting!) folks; a cross-discipline conference (reaching from the sciences to the humanities and back) that seemed more interested in keeping us within tidy field boundaries than reaching across them; incomprehension of my work (and I theirs) _within_ my field because we were both so specialized...

Yet the cross-field discussions I've had with people interested in similar topics have been wonderful, when they occur. Does anyone have any suggestions of how to go about encouraging them?

Posted by: Rana at April 30, 2003 04:23 PM

I agree with a lot of what Tim Burke says in his essay, and I wasn't aiming my remarks at Dorthea in particular. I think the word "alibi" in Tim's essay just pushed my buttons, because it seems to unwittingly buy into a certain neoconservative discourse that waves away any systemic analysis as "whining" and implies that the only problem is a failure of individual gumption. Certainly there is some systemic critique there, but my own experience of the time problem makes me grit my teeth hearing it called an alibi.

Tim is right that institutions have to prioritize what they value as a use of time, and that the issue can't just be left to individual choice. But there is a prior discussion that is suppressed here: at some point, the issue is not time allocation at all but simply the gross amount of time that one is expected to work as a cultural norm. This is not a problem limited to academe. Once the forty-hour work week is a nostalgic memory and a number approaching twice that is normalized, citizenship itself will go by the wayside. It takes time to be informed and involved in a community. (Benjamin Barber has a wonderful discussion of citizenship and the time economy, underscoring the catch-22 that the only nonwealthy people who have time for serious political and volunteer involvement are those who are not employed full-time, and precisely because they don't work full time they are suspect as being "lazy" or "losers" in a culture like America that places so much status emphasis on work. Leisure time can only be enjoyed without suspicion when it has been earned by an excess of work--this seems far more true for my generation than for my parents'.)

I think the matter of the time economy is a dangerous blind spot in America, and I think it's the primary vector that the right will use to roll us back to the nineteenth century. Ideology isn't really necessary; all they have to do is convince everyone that it's "competitively" reasonable to be required to work seventy hours a week. And it's really quite easy to convince Americans of this. Since collective action and the creation of political alternatives requires time, alternatives will not be generated when people have no time to spare.

The time issue is particularly neuroticized in the academy because a) the flexible summers and weekly work schedules continue to be a secret attraction at the entry point, b) the lack of a punched time clock permits administrations a lot of bad-faith latitude in infinitely expanding time requirements and then answering complaints with "But you don't even come in on Wednesdays!" as if this means "You have Wednesdays off!" c) especially at liberal arts colleges, the in-loco-parentis confusion of roles makes it unusually easy for administrators to vaguely consider weekends and evenings as times when one should be on call ("approachable"); so d) once academics discover that the flexible time schedule turns out to be hypercolonized by work pressure--and the trade-money-for-time equation turns out to have been a particularly cruel myth--they will guard their time all the more selfishly, feeling that the skeleton of the flexible schedule is the last perk they really have in the job.

This doesn't wholly explain why academics are embarassed to have lively discussions these days, but I didn't want the "alibi" point to pass by unchallenged. That's all.

Posted by: T. V. at April 30, 2003 04:42 PM

Nodding in - I find it credible that there was a Golden Age of conversation, because there used to be so much work and etiquette and system devoted to supporting it. However, since most of the work was done by women or servants in the name of gentility, it got thrown out with successive changes of bathwater.

A formal dinner is a wonderful place to have a conversation, partly because there are ground rules about not being able to openly insult or ignore other persons or their relations; partly because the hostess should be devoting her time invisibly to directing the conversation, adding a catalytic person here, a natural diplomat there; partly because everyone is mellowed by food and drink and coffee and wearing their most flattering clothes.

Posted by: clew at April 30, 2003 07:03 PM

I'd like to see that Barber discussion of the time economy and citizenship (something to add to a ongoing discussion about volunteerism) - where might I find it?

Posted by: Elaine at April 30, 2003 10:07 PM

"However, since most of the work was done by women or servants in the name of gentility, it got thrown out with successive changes of bathwater."

I have to believe there can be something between Manor House and Hard Times.

But you raise an interesting point. The democratizatin of higher education (the enormous expansion, the opening up of the university to women and minorities both as students and, to a lesser extent, as faculty members) pretty much coincides with the trend toward corporization. Is the commodification of education the price we must pay for its democratization? I don't think there is a necessary and inevitable link, and yet I can't help wondering whether there isn't some sort of link? This puzzles and troubles me.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 1, 2003 12:01 AM

It worries me too -- as does the spread of commercial life into new territories (schools, churches, private family rituals, etc.) more generally. I wonder if this change rests on the perception that money is value-free and thus offers a handy yardstick for gauging worth in a relativistic world filled with competing value systems -- it doesn't matter who you are, if you have money you are valuable. It doesn't matter what people think of a given claim's strengths and weaknesses; if it brings in money it's valuable, etc.

It's therefore particularly troubling to see commercial incursions into scholarly arenas, because presumably such places are ones in which values and ideas and people are judged in context and against competing values, ideas, etc. To make money the yardstick seems to be a direct challenge to that spirit of assessment and exploration.

It may indeed produce "democracy" -- or more accurately, a common mass culture, but it seems like reduction to the simplest common denominator is the most typical result. And, as I think about it, this does come neatly back to the issue of declining scholarly conversation -- if everyone is taken to hold the same views and ideas, what is the point of discussion, beyond mere affirmation of group values?

Posted by: Rana at May 1, 2003 06:19 PM

Wow, this was an extremely interesting discussion to stumble on.

A brief history: I was a grad student in philosophy, viewed by all the professors in my (mid-level) schools as promising and bright. I worked my way up to ABD and then... just left.

Why? For many of the reasons described here. My great passion in life is open, lively, honest conversation. I am compulsively straightforward and honest about what I do and do not know, and about what I think. I detest over-specialization, and my instincts constantly pushed me towards writing that was, by the current standards of analytic philosophy, over-broad and too-wide-ranging. I was, and am, interested in lots of things, and in finding common patterns in different areas.

My temperament, I was finally convinced, is not welcome in academe. Some of my professors seemed to enjoy talking to me, but they never talked to each other. Everyone was very defensive, very proprietary with their thoughts--perhaps to hide their perceived "ignorance," as Tim said, perhaps out of insecurity, perhaps out of some general notion of decorum (that I could sense but never understand) that to just up and SAY exactly what you think is somehow... brutish.

So I left. But now... and here's what I would love to hear anyone's thoughts on... I'm back in the "real world," where abstruse intellectual discussion is not exactly thick on the ground either. I miss being able to read, to think, to write, without the pressures of a 40 hour work week. So I'm thinking of taking the GRE and going back in (perhaps to poli-sci).

I can't keep yo-yoing forever. I'm 30 years old.

Where can people like me find a home? I hate to sound plaintive and pathetic, but that's pretty much how I feel.

Posted by: Realish at May 1, 2003 07:10 PM

I hope there's a nonsexist, nonclassist alternative to corporatizing everything, but I think it's obvious that the compromise between the old order and the new gave corporatization a big leg up. The schools and churches used to run on a lot of unpaid or underpaid volunteer labor, mostly women, and the current demographics of nursing are startling. Good conversational dinners are maybe not so important compared to the rest, except that they're an important part of lots of noncommercial enterprises. I doubt High Table interdisciplinary conversation is the only important loss; I bet people went and ate together after Bowling Together.

I have a scrap of contrary feeling about the horrible irruption of money-as-yardstick into the academe. Surely greater academic success was always supposed to bring a higher share of the material rewards within academe? It seems to me that the big change isn't in paying for academic success, but in comparing the pay of a successful academic to the pay of a successful businessman. And I quite see that that's a stick in the eye, and as housing prices go up it's less and less avoidable even for the pure in heart, but it's not totally the same thing as losing a golden age in which everyone was above money. And even a faint suggestion of the latter should be avoided, since it will be puffed up by people who don't
want to pay you now into evidence that you aren't pure & therefore aren't deserving. (Which this blog points out well.)

Posted by: clew at May 1, 2003 07:38 PM

"and here's what I would love to hear anyone's thoughts on...So I'm thinking of taking the GRE and going back in (perhaps to poli-sci)."

Ahem. Well, since you asked, my thoughts on whether you should go to grad school can be found in a number of related entries on this blog (check the archives under "Academia" and "Academic Job Market.")
I have also linked to a number of essays by others (see sidebar heading entitled "I'd Like to Thank the Academy").

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 1, 2003 09:05 PM

*chuckle* As IA beats me to it...

Realish, what makes you think the people in poli-sci are any better than the ones in philosophy? Not trying to be snide, just asking.

Or do you have a non-academic poly-sci-related life goal that you are going for? If so, that might incline me to think you should still be thinking about it.

Information science seems to be a haven for a lot of ex-academic eclectics. It's what I'm going back to grad school for -- and I'm 30 too, for what that's worth. But if it's not your thing, it's not.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at May 1, 2003 09:23 PM

Well, it's a matter of finding a field where my rather idiosyncratic interests/abilities/proclivities will be welcome (or, more to the point, be viable at all).

One of the things that bothered me about philosophy was the resolute refusal most most people in it to follow their trains of thought to the station of real life. (I just made that up.) For instance, I focused quite a bit on cognitive science, with the related artificial intelligence, brain science, consciousness studies, mind/body stuff, etc. Part of what attracted me to that stuff was that it seemed to me that a) there was a fertile dialogue between philosophy and other disciplines, and b) the conclusions that struck me as correct seemed to me to be quite consequential for the self-image of every Joe Schmoe, and consequential for several policy and cultural questions. However, everyone seemed to want to *insulate* the discussion from Joe Schmoe (and Joe Politician, and Joe Therapist, etc.). It's not fair to cast that accusation widely--Daniel Dennett and others did try to popularize... but they often suffered for it.

Anyway, my real interest these days is in politics, in political theory, in political questions generally, and (harkening back to my past life) ways that the self-image that evolutionary theory suggests might affect the way we structure our laws and institutions.

I have to say, I'm far from convinced that poli-sci is spot-on, but I'm really at a loss as to where else I might go.

IA, I will scour your helpful posts and links when I'm not at work, on the clock. And thanks--I'll keep reading your blog.

Posted by: Realish at May 1, 2003 09:44 PM

I would caution you against doing anything too idiosyncratic (of course, I would first caution against going to grad school at all...). It might be possible to find a graduate programme that would give you the space to pursue your interests. The problem would be finding a job afterwards, which would involve fitting yourself into a recognized slot. Despite a superficial premium on novelty and originality, hiring committees can be remarkably conservative and cautious, and not always interested in "thinking outside the box." On this point, Timothy Burke offers some insights in the comments to my entry "Still Thinking About Graduate School in the Humanities?"

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 1, 2003 10:18 PM

uh huh,

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at May 2, 2003 02:41 PM

To Elaine:

The Ben Barber book is *A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong.*

The management takes no responsibility for misremembering the jist of the argument.

Posted by: T. V. at May 2, 2003 03:39 PM

Just wanting to follow up on clew's comment...

I hope that I wasn't misunderstood as arguing that intellectual discourse must rest on a noble, suffering refusal to taint ourselves with the filthy presence of money. As someone currently struggling to get by on $18,000 a year (pre tax) I am all too aware of how important a solid income is to one's daily welfare! Money enables me to exchange my labor for food, books, rent, etc. Wonderful! I'd love my work to have more value in that practical sense. But I'd also like it to continue to have value in other ways too -- how my ideas can inspire others, how my work can promote personal and intellectual growth in my students and myself, etc. And this is what I fear can result from corporatization -- money becomes the _only_ measure of value, or becomes radically divorced from other measures of value (such as social worth). In such a world, a CEO or sports figure has greater worth than a charity worker, or a pro bono lawyer, or a volunteer nurse -- even if they obtained their wealth by selfish or socially destructive or even criminal means. I have no problems with money in the academy; I have significant problems with money being the mover and measure of the academy. (And of life more generally.)

Posted by: Rana at May 2, 2003 04:05 PM

Thanks, T.V. - now I've got it on hold at the library and I can see for myself. ;)

Posted by: Elaine at May 4, 2003 12:44 AM

"Information science seems to be a haven for a lot of ex-academic eclectics. It's what I'm going back to grad school for -- and I'm 30 too, for what that's worth. But if it's not your thing, it's not."

This may come across as incredibly trite, or not nearly as insightful as many of the observations already made here, but I will give it a shot nonetheless.

I'm glad to have run into this conversation as the lack of academic discourse in academic institutions has been plaguing me lately. I am currently *leaving* the information sciences as I have found this sort of conversation, the conversations of discovery and exploration to be markedly missing. It seems the field is overrun with people who want nothing else than to trample whomever they may run across with their intellect. Others stay very reserved, for very obvious reasons. I had attributed these displays of knowledge to the fact that the field is relatively new and en vogue, so it might attract those who are more interested in status than academia.

I have my B.S. in Comp Sci/Mathematics and am currently a graduate student in Mathematics (in a department with strong ties to computer science). From my experience information science tends to be the most specialized, especially when you consider computer science to be a particular manefestation of mathematics. Outside of universities, work is done on specialized systems within a particular environment. I fear such specialization gives certain unimaginative individuals a sense they have aquired a large body of knowledge, attendant with gross expectations of what you should know about their particular field.

I have considered moving to a MFA program in creative writing. Partly to escape this blind chauvanism, partly to find individuals who are willing to converse about a variety of subjects, partly because I just can't immerse myself in anything else. So far, I have found some solace in my dealings with people from this field (admittedly only professors and other students). I feel I've had better luck there becuase I'm mostly seen as an outsider, an "non-threat". I'm not somebody they need to prove themselves to.

As you may have surmized, my point is this: people are afraid to display ignorance because they feel they need to prove themselves. The focus is always on what you have done, and does not allow for discovery. The indivuals who are so ready to trounce another for their ignorance are simply taking pre-emptive measures. One is to be born a genius, and to have vast stores of knowledge available at all occassions.

It takes many displays of intelligence to prove ability.
One to prove stupidity.

This mentality can be seen in the job market as well (esecially computer science). It is common to see job specifications where one is to have a number of years of experiece with a particular programming language that has not been around long enough for one to have had that amount of experience.

Posted by: michael at May 5, 2003 09:09 PM

I just wanted to add a quick response to another comment.

"Scholarly conversation has moved to listservs and blogs."

I think this shift is has been primarily becuase listservs and blogs allow one to stay relatively

Posted by: michael at May 5, 2003 11:16 PM

Rana, I thought that was probably what you meant, but also thought it was worth pointing out that academy was never really pure. Of course, the more profitable comparison might be to the administrators who claw their own job security out of the nests of scholars.

How sad that conversation should be so rare as you all report it. I should maybe say that I didn't find it difficult to start or find conversations while working in a big software firm; Microsoft had, probably still has, lists for Communists, gun-rights activists, emigrés from all over the world with various involvement in changing their birth countries, etc etc; and lunch conversations were often wide-ranging. I don't think anonymity is necessary, therefore.

Of course, working at Microsoft, especially in the late 90s, gave us all a well-founded hope of basic financial security. The social and work culture built on top of that was devoted to figuring out how to measure who was right in any disagreement. I could easily believe that without the security, people don't always play fair enough in disagreements to make anonymity unneccesary.

Posted by: clew at May 6, 2003 05:28 PM

Thanks, Michael, for a valuable counterweight.

All I'll say in my own defense is that I am entering infosci with specifically *professional* rather than academic aspirations. I *hope* that will help me avoid the sort of person you cite -- but time will tell, I suppose.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at May 6, 2003 09:06 PM