May 02, 2003

Anxiety and Insecurity: The Status of the Humanities

"I must confess that I've been guilty of such status consciousness myself. I recall with shame how, after one of my presentations, I realized that the person congratulating me wasn't an anonymous admirer (I'd been treating him with unconscious condescension), but rather the author of a book I admired. I think he heard the grinding of gears as I lurched into a more generous tone. He's been cool to me since, which is no more than I deserve."

-- Leonard Cassuto, "A Humanist's Soujourn Among Scientists"

Here's an interesting opinion piece, and especially so in light of the recent conversation about a lack of conversation. The conversation was inspired by Timothy Burke's essay, which I commented on here, and which Kieran Healy took up here.

An English professor and a science reporter (an interesting combination, no?), Cassuto recounts his investigation into a "scandal involving allegedly fabricated data in some influential superconductivity experiments at Bell Labs." He found his interview subjects candid, helpful, and "shockingly courteous as I peered into an embarrassing event in their field." But more than courteous, Cassuto notes, the physicists he interviewed were "downright friendly."

Not surprisingly, the friendliness of the physicists prompts Cassuto to reflect on the unfriendliness of the humanists with whom he spends most of his time:

"It's no coincidence that 'softer' fields are notable for their social hierarchies. One of my former graduate students described a typical conference encounter: 'the glance at the name tag and the look away -- "Oh, you're nobody." A few years ago at a party, I approached a well-known member of my field, with whom I shared a mutual friend. He didn't even bother to reply after I introduced myself. I can still see his dismissive glance...
This is more than impoliteness. It's unfriendliness. Naturally, it's no absolute rule. I've certainly encountered generosity from colleagues over the years, but I find it significant that almost every humanist I've spoken to can easily summon up recollections of mean-spirited treatment at the hands of our own scholarly community."

Of course we might ask how typical were these physicists, and how representative was their attitude toward a reporter on a scandal in their field, to whom they would want to show their discipline in the best possible light? (though Cassuto would no doubt argue that in the case of a scandal in the humanities, the reporter would not be treated with such courtesy, candor and friendliness). Anyway, his description of the humanities strikes me as all too accurate. I can't resist relaying my own recollection -- not something that happened to me but something I merely observed (as an invisible adjunct, I am but a spectator, though not a very impartial one, I will have to admit):

A panel at a major conference, with mostly "big-name" historians proposing substantive historiographical revisions to the interpretative framework that governs an important area of inquiry. During the question-and-answer period, someone asked a question that challenged one of the bases of the proposed historiographical revision. He was clearly coming at it from a more "conservative" position, I thought I detected something Straussian, perhaps, in his approach. He was very articulate and obviously very smart. If his question seemed a little bit strange or unexpected, it was a pretty good question and not something to be dismissed. His name tag revealed that he was an assistant professor at a "third-tier" place that I had never heard of. Afterwards, I was speaking with historian A (a panelist, and a friend), who was soon joined by historian B (a "big-name" historian who had attended the session, and a friend of historian A). From this point on, I was basically an observer. Well, watch and learn (and you can learn a fair bit when you're invisible). The question of the questioner came up. "Is he?..." Is he what? Well, is he one of us? of course. Where did he study and who does he know? He's at a third-rate school that nobody has heard of, which probably makes him a nobody, but then again, nowadays, with the job market so dismal, you can't be quite sure. "Oh yeah, he's...he worked with [renowned and respected historian] at [major top-ten history department.]" So then. He's not a nobody after all, he is even potentially a somebody. What's interesting is that he asked a very smart and challenging question, a question that clearly irked, a question that could not simply be dismissed. And yet it might have been dismissed, and quite easily. The extent to which his question would or would not be dismissed depended not on the force of his question but on the prestige of his connections.

This type of thing does not make for good scholarly conversation. Especially since the corollary seems to be (well, I've certainly seen this happen often enough), if you have the status and prestige in your field, you can get away with saying dismissable things that won't be dismissed.

These are the social hierarchies that Cassuto is talking about in his essay. He attributes the formation of such hierarchies to, among other things, a status anxiety stemming from the lack of status from which humanists suffer not only in relation to other disciplines but also in the eyes of a broader public outside the university. And he suggests that it is the anxiety and insecurity over their lack of status that makes for a lack amongst humanists of the kind of collegiality that he discovers amongst the physicists.

Of course we must acknowledge that none of this is peculiar to the humanities or to the academy. But to say that it also happens elsewhere doesn't seem a good enough reason not to wish it were otherwise in the humanities.

In attempting to assess the reliability of Cassuto's portrayal of the humanities, Brad DeLong admits that he has written himself into a corner: "Either I claim that Cassuto's strictures against the humanities are not to be taken seriously because he is a psychologically-unstable unreliable narrator--in which case I then have to face the charge that his psyche has been warped by his disciplinary culture--or I accept the reliability of what he reports, and thus have to take his strictures against the humanities seriously."
Hmm...I think there is actually quite a bit of middle ground between these two alternatives. First, I suspect Cassuto's depiction of the physicists is somewhat idealized, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they have their own social hierarchies comparable to the ones Cassuto discusses with reference to the humanities. But second, if we acknowledge that such hierarchies exist all over, we can still argue that it is a question of degree and we still make the case that these hierarchies are both more arbitrary and more rigid in the humanities. Again, I think it's a question of an insecurity that stems from a lack of status. It's not that people in the humanities are just giving their own opinions. I think the problem can be linked to at least two related issues: first, the criteria by which humanists evaluate each other's work are highly specific to the particular disciplines and opaque to people outside the disciplines; and second, the work of the humanist has little direct and obvious utility to broader public. Of course the physicists' work is also -- and to a much greater extent -- opaque to those outside the field, but people generally agree that whatever it is they're doing in those labs, they are doing something useful.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 2, 2003 01:14 PM

Interesting story that reminds me of a job candidate I was interviewing with another, much younger, colleague of mine. I was in a suit, my colleague in slacks and button up shirt. The candidate directed all his attention (and body language) to me until the end of the conversation, whereupon he asked my colleague how he liked graduate school. Oops. When my colleague said he was a prof, the candidate notably turned all his attention to him. The department rejected him largely for being a jerk.

Also, I find it so funny how these "big name" professors that everyone crows about at conferences are usually the same idiots who think they are so freakin' important that they don't remove their name badges once they leave the conference hotel. As if some taxi driver is going to be impressed by the father of neo-institutional constructivism. Ha! I only hope they are cannon fodder for muggers.

Prof. Lemon
(Who has gained substantial notoreity in his own field, but removes his name badge.)

Posted by: John Lemon at May 3, 2003 02:04 AM

"I only hope they are cannon fodder for muggers."

Come, now. There is cause for consternation and dismay and yes, even some anger. But, uh, this is too much anger. And since when do muggers use cannons?

But you're right, of course, that one should always remove one's name tag before leaving the hotel.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 3, 2003 02:52 AM

"And since when do muggers use cannons?"

Hmmmm... apparently I can rule out the notion you've been associated with the University of Chicago. :-)

And as for my anger (hyperbole) problem...well, let's just say I'm not a very refined academic. I've been known as the Howard Stern (sans nudity) of my field. I actually don't need a name badge anymore, and only wear one when I have to get into the book exhibits at conferences (I am so glad they have this security check). I've left many a snooty audience slack-jawed with my presentations and irreverent humor, although I do have short hair and wear expensive suits. Wow! That's a non sequitir.

Posted by: John Lemon at May 3, 2003 03:18 AM

Sans nudity? But why do things by halves? Go big or go home is my motto.

You are correct: I have no association whatsoever with the University of Chicago. But now you must explain the mugger-cannon reference. Otherwise you are guilty of just the kind of cliquish insiderness of which the Cassuto article complains.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 3, 2003 03:48 AM

D'oh! Caught in my own web of hyperbole. I was just thinking of the neighborhood that U of Chicago happens to be in -- pretty rough, to say the least. A friend of mine who attended med school there said that he would hear gunshots at least once a week.

OK, I will admit the cannon fodder comment was over the top. Damn, you historians are good.

Posted by: John Lemon at May 3, 2003 05:14 AM

May I change the subject a bit? (Not that the image of obnoxious senior faculty being crushed by fusillades of antiquated but heavy objects isn't fun to contemplate.)

My own field, philosophy, has by now been almost completely colonized by a pernicious ranking mentality deriving from the crusade of a single person. (Oh, he has allies, but if he hadn't taken up the crusade I doubt anyone else would have.) As a result of his labors, we all now know exactly where we stand in the professional hierarchy.

What can one do in the face of this reality? One can try to counter it directly or just make fun of it. But so far neither has done any good at all, as far as I can tell. (I participated myself in both. My team lost.) Once you have a ranking system up and running, people identify too much with their place in it, and the attendant anxiety -- about where they are or about where they might fall -- begins to define them.

Posted by: Ted Hinchman at May 3, 2003 08:15 PM

Ok, John, now I get it. A little over the top, yes, but in the next comment Ted admits that "the image of obnoxious senior faculty being crushed by fusillades of antiquated but heavy objects" is fun to comtemplate.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 4, 2003 12:49 AM

As a senior faculty member myself, I will begin anxiously scanning the skies... :-)

I'm not expressing this well, but if there *is* a difference (and I'm not convinced that there is), it has to do with the fact that the building blocks in science are facts and theoretical explanations and in the humanities they are people and what they said. It's easier to disengage personal ego and monkey-dominance considerations when it is clear that you either have or have not created a Bose-Einstein condensate and validated the theoretical predictions Bose and Einstein made more than seventy years ago, or you have not.

Posted by: Brad DeLong at May 4, 2003 05:35 PM

I hereby declare this blog a fusillade-free zone :)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 4, 2003 06:35 PM

My father is a well-respected academic and I have occasionally gone to lectures hosted by his department. I am not even an amateur in the field, but by being introduced to the lecturer by my father I can completely take over any post-lecture conversation. It certainly isn't me that's being sucked up to. In my defense, I don't do that anymore. No longer feeling insecure and inferior (which un- and under-employment will do to an unhappy young man), I no longer have a need to stick it to junior faculty or the students.

Posted by: Martial at May 8, 2003 01:51 PM

I'm a polymath. I've actually walked out of graduate programs in both physics and social psychology. Perhaps I shouldn't even be posting here. :-) I'm clearly not in the elite. :-)

Things can be very bad in the hard sciences as well.

And don't even talk to me about NASA unless you can handle some real shocks.

Seriously, I think the rise of rigid hierarchies in academia is causing very real long term problems for Western civilization. It's gotten worse in my lifetime.

Posted by: Chuck Divine at May 8, 2003 07:35 PM

Having the privilege of attending both a large social science association meeting and a smaller, more hard science association meeting in more or less the same week every year, I can attest to my anecdotal observation of the hierarchy vs. non-hierarchy situation.

In the SS meeting, quite a few "names" are referred to (by some of su) as Momma Duck because they have a queue of grad students parading after them. They are incredibly hierarchy conscious. It is worse than that poem "The Cabots speak only to the Lodges and the Lodges speak only to God." Even being introduced to one by another name brings only condescension unless you happen to be a new member of a "prestigious" institution.

At the HS meeting, the "names" seek out new people with new ideas and encourage them. I may only be in this area because some years ago one of the biggest saw me standing by myself around lunch time and asked if he could join me for lunch to "pick my brain." He did so in a gentle and jovial manner and later helped me get established to the extent that I now am (I'll probably never be a name.) This is more often than not the case. Our luncheons are designed to facilitate mixing of folks unknown to one another. Get togethers after the sessions tend to be of the "who wants to go get a drink and shoot the shit?" types where the most common element is to ask the newest comers, "what are you studying/thinking about, and how is it coming?" Books, articles, chapters, and research relationships have come from these gatherings.

I can't imagine anything similar happening at the SS meetings (no matter how hard some of us try).

I agree with Prof. DeLong -- the difficulty of proof leads to hierarchy, I think.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie at May 8, 2003 07:36 PM

Well, I'm neither a professor nor in the soft sciences (graduating as I did from an engineering school, with a Master's), but I had a thought.

Would it be instructive to compare Cassuto's depiction of the way the physics scandal was treated to the way the Bellesiles (for instance) scandal was treated? Or more precisely, to compare the way journalists were treated in each case.

The only immediate objection I can think of to that comparison is that the Bellesiles fiasco hinged on hard data and objective fact; if that has much bearing on the situation, perhaps someone more acquainted with dirty laundry in the humanities can find some fairly representative instance to compare instead.

Posted by: Eric at May 8, 2003 09:34 PM

As a young physicist I would say that while there is a clear institutional hierarchy in our field, social hierarchies are quickly forgotten when a physics point is being discussed. When better data or a better explanation of the data is offered, everyone pays attention regardless of the speaker's laurel collection. A young genius is especially welcome. The occasional exception to this rule is within a large group of students and postdocs working under a famous Name; some professors can be obtuse.

But note that your corollary does seem to hold in physics. Poor research from established Names is often benignly ignored rather than attacked, which is not true for the up-and-comers who need to be tested (could be a genius, after all!). Also note that this description is of American institutions and international results may vary.

Posted by: gwc at May 8, 2003 09:42 PM

why shouldnt muggers use cannons? using one will maximize their profits from mugging. second, there are no fusillades of cannons, but rather fusillades from cannons. third, i wonder how much of this is actually a sort of physics envy? i would imagine that when your field is really just your opinion then the need to put down people who might challenge your ideas is greater than it would be in one of the hard sciences, where your opinion must be grounded in the observable facts of nature.

Posted by: akaky at May 8, 2003 10:05 PM

The hard sciences often require collaboration, the humanities positively discourage it. Question answered.

By the way nothing, and I mean nothing, can compare to the rudeness and arrogance of the law school community. Law professors are by far the rudest, most obnoxious bunch I've associated with.

I say this as both an historian (Ph.D.) and lawywer teaching in an interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate program.

Posted by: at May 8, 2003 10:17 PM

It's interesting to hear from some scientists.

Akaky: There's no question that Cassuto is envious of the physicists. But it's not a mean-spirited sort of envy; he is expressing the wish that humanists could more like the physicists, ie, less attached to social hierarchies.

"i would imagine that when your field is really just your opinion then the need to put down people who might challenge your ideas is greater than it would be in one of the hard sciences, where your opinion must be grounded in the observable facts of nature."

What I write and teach in my field (history) is not just my opinion. There is narrative, but the narrative is based on fact. Much of it is probably a different sort of fact that the one scientists deal with. You could argue that it's ultimately based on what people say: ie, what people in the past said happened, how and what they recorded about what happened, and why. But though there is a good deal of room for interpretation, historians don't just make stuff up.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 8, 2003 10:29 PM

As a graduate student in both physics and engineering I got to see both fields (hey, switching from the Ph.D. in physics to EE more than doubled my starting salary coming out of school), and with a father who's a prof of psychology I think I can make general comments comparing them.

Hard sciences have their own social cliques, but being a member or connected to one doesn't have quite the same impact as it does in the "softer" sciences. Being connected to a respected professor will get you an easier pass on publishing, and in the cases of controversy will tend to give you more credibility, but when hard data is discussed and presented you still have to pass muster. The danger to the "respected name" you're attached to is pretty severe if you've been sloppy in your work when you're questioned. Usually when a "neme" paper turns out to be substandard nobody mentions it, but nobody forgets it either.

My guess is what the reporter was seeing was an attempt by the others in the department to distance themselves from the fraud. They have to maintain their reputations, so by being open about it they can survive with some reputation. Given where they were, there's a very strong engineering culture there and the engineering culture is even more confrontational than the hard sciences. Engineers who present results generally have the typical paper views with about the same level of review as is found in physics, but in business they have "design reviews" which are terrifying to academics and those not used to them. Design reviews tend to be very brutal, but they also tend to be brutal in a questioning and directed way at improving the result being presented. Even the most respected people in a department have to fully defend their work, especially if it is something new. And everybody comes out of the design review with many things to do, check and reinvestigate.

You'd never be able to do something like an engineering design review in a "softer" science setting. The participants would go into shock and get very defensive.

Posted by: nerdbert at May 8, 2003 10:48 PM

The social hierarchies can be accompanied by a caste system.

I used to be a data analyst working for a behaviorial research group. One day, one of the more senior researchers asked me to come work for her. This was seen as 'poaching'. I decided I didn't want the job.

Shortly thereafter, another scientist - who's office was 30 feet from mine - asked to speak with me for the first and last time. I told her that I didn't want the job, since it was a lateral transfer and I liked what I was doing better. Then she said:
"Did anyone pressure you?"
"Did anyone tell you that you shouldn't do this, or that it would be bad for your career?"
Then the money quote:
"Hm. We sometimes forget that programmers are capable of making independent decisions."
I replied "Yes - we're almost like regular people, that way."

The sarcasm escaped her, and I was dismissed.

Posted by: JD at May 8, 2003 11:36 PM

I've been a business school prof for about 15 years and have observed a similar pattern. The economists (which also includes most finance and some accounting folks) tend to be rather sweet-natured and bumbling. The strategy and organizational behavior profs (or at least the successful ones) tend in my experience to be arrogant, hierarchical, and a lot less fun at parties. While econ is hardly a hard science, no one doubts it is closer to a science than other b-school areas. And there is a neat twist. Economists are often attacked by OB types as having a narrow and unflattering view of human nature. True, but it is not a bad portrayal of most of the folks making the attacks!!

Posted by: gerald garvey at May 9, 2003 08:15 PM

I am the child of a PhD in Philosophy (who ended up without a career due primarily to NOT playing the game...), yet my area of expertise is definitely the 'hard' sciences (I joked with my friends in college about "escaping the science building").

My experience defintely concurs with this. Even in the worst cases, in the hard sciences, if you are wrong, sooner or later someone tries to understand your work and reads the details, and you are disproven, no matter how big a name you are (Einstein, for example, was once proven wrong). On the flip side, if you are right, eventually, someone tries to disprove your work or find the flaw in it and can't, and they go to someone else who goes to someone else... eventually, you are listened to.

Without provable rightness, "Big Name" and hierachy is all you've got. Especially when proven wrongness (which is usually possible) doesn't seem to make a dent.

Posted by: Deoxy at May 9, 2003 09:43 PM

invisible, i know that historians dont just make it up, that there must be some sort of documentation for a historical conclusion. what makes history fun is that while no can doubt that an event occurred if you show your proofs, arguing about what the event meant, if it meant anything at all is one of the great things about history [my god, i've committed tautology, and in public, no less!] and this is why history is not one of the hard sciences. we can all argue about what the significance of sherman's march to the sea was and is, or whether or not the American strategic bombing was effective during WW2, but E=mc2 is going to mean the same thing today, tomorrow, and the next day.

Posted by: akaky at May 10, 2003 04:53 PM

I hear you. I didn't mean to suggest that history is a hard science, just wanted to make the point that it's not about simply giving one's opinion.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 10, 2003 06:19 PM

Well, I'm only a former academic, a failed physicist and, finally a conservative lawyer. But, I should think that the reason for Cassuto’s distinction between the “soft” and “hard” sciences is obvious: objective verification. Status (schooling, current position, etc.) is far less important in physics and other hard sciences because all are subject to a heavy dose of objective verification (known outside academia as “truth”). One can publish a paper claiming to discover the key to cold fusion, but unless the process is independently reproducible, it’s irrelevant. By contrast, my impression of the social sciences is one cannot simply “disprove” a paper claiming that poverty in America can be explained by a neo-Marxist power structure designed to impoverish women, immigrants, and people of color. Rather, the paper’s author would more likely be rewarded with tenure at a school (first, second or third-rate) precisely because such a topic isn’t subject of rigorous proof, therefore minimizing buyer’s remorse in tenure outcomes.

Perhaps once upon a time—in the long-gone golden age—social sciences papers could be judged objectively. But, once complex observer-dependant perspectives replaced conventional historigraphical narratives, objectivity vanished. So did my interest in reading such work, as a non-specialist. But the more important casualty was truth.

Posted by: Carl at May 12, 2003 11:24 AM

"Rather, the paperís author would more likely be rewarded with tenure at a school (first, second or third-rate) precisely because such a topic isnít subject of rigorous proof, therefore minimizing buyerís remorse in tenure outcomes."

Hmm...So if I start writing papers from a neo-Marxist perspective, does this mean I will get a tenure-track job?...

"But the more important casualty was truth."

But if we accept the distinction between hard and soft sciences based on objective verification, doesn't this imply that there never was "objective truth" in the social sciences? -- better and worse research design, yes, and more or less convincing interpretation of the data, but never the kind of verification that takes place in the lab.

Anyway, as Cassuto suggests, there are significant differences in peer review between scientists and humanists: the humanists are a lot "softer," looser, fuzzier -- which makes status hierarchies more relevant.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 12, 2003 12:05 PM