December 08, 2003

"Has the Bubble Burst?"

The problem isn't rivalries or other students or anything of the sort. It's not even professors, by and large, though there's always the occasional problem person.

It's that the horizons of graduate school shrink down to a very short and narrow perspective, and disallow the very ideas and explorations that many people regard (properly) as the essence of intellectual inquiry. This will not happen in any obvious way: no ogre will appear to forbid you anything. It will happen invidiously, slowly, pervasively: no one will actually do it to you, and never will you be able to put your finger on exactly how and when it is being done. Slowly but surely, however, you will be cut to fit a very particular professionalized and disciplinary cloth, and become a willing participant in innumerable rituals of abjection. Slowly but surely, you'll begin to accept the intimate intertwining of your life and your work, and pernicious forms of virally spreading authority and power by numerous other people, some of them quite distant from you in social terms, over that intertwined work-life.

-- Timothy Burke, comment to "Jane Bast, Undeterred"

Reading Timothy Burke's comment, I was reminded of Clifford Geertz's account of having led "a charmed life, in a charmed time," which allowed him to enjoy "an errant career, mercurial, various, free, instructive, and not all that badly paid:"

I entered the academic world at what has to have been the best time to enter it in the whole course of its history; at least in the United States, possibly altogether. When I emerged from the U.S. Navy in 1946, having been narrowly saved by The Bomb from being obliged to invade Japan, the great boom in American higher education was just getting underway, and I have ridden the wave all the way through, crest after crest, until today, when it seems at last, like me, to be finally subsiding...

...The question is: Is such a life and such a career available now? In the Age of Adjuncts? When graduate students refer to themselves as 'the pre-unemployed'? When few of them are willing to go off for years to the bush and live on taro (or even the equivalent in The Bronx or Bavaria), and the few who are willing find funding scarce for such irrelevance? Has the bubble burst? The wave run out?

It is difficult to be certain...All I know is that, up until just a few years ago, I used blithely, and perhaps a bit fatuously, to tell students and younger colleagues who asked how to get ahead in our odd occupation that they should stay loose, take risks, resist the cleared path, avoid careerism, go their own way, and that if they did so, if they kept at it and remained alert, optimistic, and loyal to the truth, my experience was that they could get away with murder, could do as they wish, have a valuable life, and nonetheless prosper. I don't do that any more (Clifford Geertz, A Life of Learning).

I know at least a couple of senior professors who share Geertz's perspective. They entered the profession and developed and matured as scholars and prospered as academics when things were quite different. They have a keen (and often melancholy) sense of just how different. It is worth listening to these senior academics. I think it's important for prospective graduate students to realize that it's just not like that anymore (that referring somewhat loosely to the Bubble: ie, to that tweedy, booklined, privileged and protected space of purposeful work and educated leisure and a life well examined and the rest of it.) Not that it ever was just like that. But it's even less like that now.

As Ian Samson describes it in a wonderfully evocative passage in his review of David Lodge's Thinks:

The university in his work is a cross between a Bower of Bliss and a Weeping Castle, a place full of intrigue and adventure, a realm of the senses in which ideas are made flesh, where the battle between good and evil is carried on by Kierkegaard-quoting antiheroes. Whereas anyone who has ever worked in a university knows it to be more like an out-of-town retail park, a realm of memos and little cacti in pots, in which endless seminars are conducted by semi- professional bureaucrats on the work of David Lodge. This is reality. Fortunately, Lodge writes allegory.
Posted by Invisible Adjunct at December 8, 2003 11:25 PM

Yeah, first post (once in a while there's some small joy in keeping ridiculous hours).

I suppose Professor Geertz is one of those lucky people from the era where a degree meant more than the privilege of trying to earn more credentials. An example from my field suffices: students of physics must now be able as undergrads to reproduce the argument which earned Einstein a Nobel prize. Grad students in physics are even worse off, and imagine my shock when I learned about postdocs! That's 'progress', I guess.

Good luck to all who have academic challenges (i.e., finals, grading, etc.) the next couple of weeks.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 9, 2003 06:04 AM

Well, is the form of academic life you're mourning here the "tweedy, booklined, privileged and protected" life, or is it in fact what Geertz is describing, which is not that at all?

He's describing dynamic risk-takers who are out there, making unpopular arguments, living under difficult conditions in order to do research, being "mercurial" rather than sedate and booklined, etc. There's a bit of an internal contradiction, in other words, in your take on all of this. What do you (and various posters) really envision of the academic life -- really want of it (beyond, quite reasonably, of course, legitimate employment)?

Robert Nozick, the Harvard political science professor who recently died, apparently never taught the same class twice in his long career. He was the sort of academic Geertz has in mind - intellectually restless, not seeking the comfort of the same course or the same set of ideas over and over again, etc. That sort of academic has always been a tiny minority. The majority of academics want a high salary, redundant and undemanded teaching assignments, a small number of students, a book-lined study, the sort of research that reliably issues in one article a semester and one book every couple of years, people deferring to them because they're professors, etc. Most academics have always been bland careerists of this sort rather than intellectuals like Geertz and Nozick.

Academia has a lot of contempt for people like these - think also of John Kenneth Galbraith, Christopher Lasch, Allan Bloom - because they write clearly, make fun of prestige-mongering, appeal to general audiences, have strong and compellingly expressed ideas, etc. They are the Geertz types.

Reread the Jack Miles piece you link to on your site - there are timid academic careerists whom nature never intended to have ideas and whom corporate universities have no trouble dominating; there are also a few kicky types (they continue to exist, and they arguably have an easier time existing in a bad job market and in a contemporary American university that doesn't know what it stands for and what counts as knowledge). I have in mind, for instance, the young historian at Brooklyn College who's been perfectly willing to fight and make a fuss to maintain his moral integrity. Granted that, whatever your type and background, you're going to have a hard time getting an academic job these days - but Burke's point and your own seems to have to do with what happens AFTER you get the job - the tendency of modern academic institutions to neuter you, etc. My response to that is that it's better to lose tenure at a deadhead school that can't recognize spirit and intellectuality than to be a tenured castrate.

Posted by: Carmen at December 9, 2003 11:27 AM

One of the issues is that there will always be some people for whom everything does work out in academia, lets call that the lucky .1% of academia, now if you think about it as that might be a bit high of a percentage, but for some people things do work out quite well. The problem is that other 99.9% which probably breaks down in some normalized distribution along a nearly infinite problem spectrums.

It might just be me, but I see academia as mirroring the general population dynamics of late industrial capitalism. So a .1% of the people who are Geertz-like would be similar to those that have accumulated the top .1% of capital, sure it is a different sort of capital...., but society to me, tends to break along similar lines. Now, the question is who in academia is parallel to those working in the service economy, the middle class, the working class, etc. etc.

Theoretically, I think we do a disservice by accepting the principle of 'academic exceptionalism'. If you start thinking about it, in terms of large populations, systems and norms, I think academia is not exceptional, it is not much than any other part of the socio-economic system.

Posted by: jeremy hunsinger at December 9, 2003 11:30 AM

I agree. We mystify academia, as if everyone in it is a Geertz, etc. We should be more realistic and realize that with hundreds and hundreds of junior colleges, colleges, and universities in this country the vast majority of academics are going to be teachers - some of them brilliant, some of them drudges, etc. And then a few academics will also do research - some of it brilliant, most of it dull and formulaic, etc.

My only argument (and the argument of Miles and many others) is that our few precious intellectuals - our Geertzes - need to be given a chance to breathe in the contemporary university. They are not going to have the problem Burke describes - starting out independent and smart and then getting gradually eroded away into irrelevance. They are constitutionally incapable of that (think of Thoreau for the American paradigm of this sort of personality). Rather, the problem is that their career, in the new repressive university (political correctness, speech codes, anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism), will be a constant fight - a fight that will draw their energy away from the questions they want to ask.

But in one important way I differ from the above poster: there IS an academic exceptionalism. It is based on the fact that intellectuals - most of whom are nurtured by and found within universities - generate the seriousness, the worldly understanding, the moral sophistication, that reflective people need in order to live responsible and meaningful lives. America is now the world's hyperpower - as Americans, we need, more then ever, to understand (among other things) wealth and power and how to use them compassionately (this all makes me think of Peter Singer, yet another Geertz-type). Without exceptionally intelligent historians, literary critics, and cultural critics of the sort we're discussing here, we lose bigtime.

Posted by: Carmen at December 9, 2003 11:59 AM

Correction: In Post #2, "undemanded" should be "undemanding."

Posted by: Carmen at December 9, 2003 12:05 PM

re: post 2

losing a tenure bid to stay so F-R-E-E sounds heroic until you consider student loans, family concerns, and finances. not all of us are Geertz-esque ubermenches by a long shot, but all of us need to make a living.

somehow, i am naive enough to think there is a wide intellectual continuum between castrated dweebs and world-builders, just like the fact that corporations need both entrepreneurs and middle managers.

Posted by: better left nameless at December 9, 2003 01:18 PM

The problem, though, is that the "castrated dweebs" (I love that characterization, btw) are the ones now fully running the show. And their modus operandi is to quell, squelch, and finally murder anything that strays from the party line or in any smacks of (gasp) originality. Nietzsche's description of them is apt here: we have created a race of technicians and engineers.

The irony, natually enough, is that most of the real engineers I've ever met are people very open to creativity, originality, taking risks, and they often show an openness to things literary and historical that would, or rather, should shame a member of the humanities professoriate. But alas, the humanties types aren't listening. They're busy researchingthe socio-political implications of the flatware used at Clarissa Daloway's party. Important stuff ... very heady.

Posted by: Chris at December 9, 2003 01:42 PM

The real ridiculousness here is the assumption that academic work must be risk-taking, ground-breaking, etc.

Most isn't. Most has never been. Most academic work is about the slow accumulation of knowledge over time. Most of us who work in periods other than the contemporary moment know this and don't pretend otherwise.

The fact is that the humanist academy is not full of evil apparatchiks crushing the dreams of would-be rebels and stifling innovative work in its crib. Yes, grad students' work (and that of junior faculty) will often be critiqued by senior colleagues and urged in certain directions. But this is nothing new. Moreover, it's a virtue: no one should get by in 2003 by writing a dissertation or article or book that was old hat in 1963. I often hear conservative English grad students complaining that their desire to write about literature and aesthetics has been squashed, that it's all theory. This amuses me, given that I was hired on the strength of a dissertation that combined a traditional focus on literary form with a theoretical interest in historicism--and nowhere in my dissertation did I name a single theorist, French or otherwise. Students are free to write about aesthetics: they're just not free to write about aesthetics without fairly and honestly taking the last 30 years of criticism (and theory) into account.

One of the great ironies of this entire stupid debate is that many of the same senior conservative colleagues who cry loudest about leftist, theoretical bias are the ones who were doing their damnedest in the 1970s and 1980s to stifle the innovative work that feminists and New Historicists and Marxists and others were trying to get published.

In my own field, and as late as the early 1990s, I witnessed this personally. The senior colleague in my subfield routinely blackballed any junior colleague's tenure bid if that junior colleague did anything remotely akin to theory--there hadn't been a junior colleague tenured in that subfield for twenty years. This same senior professor refused to serve on my field exam committee because he wanted nothing to do with the theoretical side of my proposal. Yet there was still a substantial traditional component to which he could have contributed.

Is anyone thus really surprised that many of the rebels of the 1970s and 1980s decided to get a little payback once they got into positions of authority? It doesn't make it right (in fact, it's extremely stupid and shortsighted), but it doesn't make it inexplicable either.

P. S. Geertz lost me about the time he claimed that it's two books for tenure. I can count the number of universities where this is the case on one hand and still have fingers left over--at least where English studies is concerned.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at December 9, 2003 02:17 PM

I think ILG conflates theory and criticism above. One must always demosntrate a firm hold on the critical minutae of one's field. But by the same token, the kiss of death in any job interview is to mention names like Benjamin, or Foucault, or Said, or Bhabha. To cite Jameson can be the beginnings of one's black balled career. And to raise the "specter" of Derrida is an act that will summarily end most candidacies.

Oddly enough, it seems new historicists and anti-theoretical old historicists make ... strange bed fellows.

Posted by: Chris at December 9, 2003 03:32 PM


I don't think I'm clear on the point you're making in #9 above.

I'm sure that, in certain interviews with certain schools, mentioning various theorists by name can be the kiss of death. But I know that this is not the case in all interviews and at all schools: while theorists didn't come up by name in my writing sample or job letter, I did discuss them by name in my interviews, often in response to direct questions by the interviewers. In fact, Jameson came up on several occasions, along with Raymond Williams and Henri Lefevre.

My sense was that, at the end of the day, mentioning theory was no more likely to blackball a candidate than any of several other statements or approaches--it all depends on who's in the room at the time and what their particular hobbyhorses are.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at December 9, 2003 04:10 PM

I have to agree with ILG here; Chris's personal experiences notwithstanding, its just as likely that not mentioning one of those icons will cost you a job. I imagine knowing your audience is important.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at December 9, 2003 05:02 PM

I think that the problem isn't which side won, but methodological self-consciousness itself. "Find a paradigm and enforce it". Combine this with specialization into subfields and you end up with dozens of enforced methodological orthodoxies.

I showed a friend a book once on a topic he was supposedly an expert on. He glanced at it, flipped through the bibliography, said "Oh, this is really terribly eclectic", and set it down without interest. And his subfield wasn't a powerfully successful one, but a mushy specialty within "Art Education".

Rorty's story of the professionalization of philosophy is the kind of thing I'm thinking of, but there are examples in almost every field.

I don't know whether it is possible for the university to be better than it is now, but I think that it once was better than it is. I think that some of the things people miss in the university have been deliberately excluded. I think that more eclecticism, generalism, and amateurism would be a good thing, but somehow I don't think that that's quite the clarion call that the world is waiting for.

When talking to people with similiar interests but more academic training, I'm frequently amazed at how timid they are, how incapable they are at thinking outside their imposed methodology, what ebormous areas of ignorance they have, and how sure they can be that certain kinds of ideas are wrong without knowing why.

Posted by: zizka at December 9, 2003 07:30 PM

Acadamia has become very specialized, to the point it is almost impossible for a lay person, however interested, to understand. This is the price we pay for advancement. People in the hard sciences have acknowledged this for some time. How many amature mathematicians do you know of who do not have formal training in the past 50 or so years? I cant think of any. I would imagine the same goes for the physics, chemistry,etc. Even in the social sciences this has began to happen. Ever look at professional economics/finance stuff? Hope you like math, a lot.
Sorry zizka, the age of the amature is almost over in majority of disciplines. We have progressed too far. Reminds me of an article Paul Krugman wrote while he was still writing at slate about the differences between academic and non-academic people in economics. Might be worth a look for people interested in why academics are sometimes very inaccessible to the general public. Here is the link :

(A little aside on krugman. Some may label him as a hack based on his stuff on the NY Times, but dont be fooled, he is a serious academic in his own right. His field is more on international trade. Usually good on the money when he writes on issues on trade. Not many people will attack him on those topics.)

Posted by: Passing_through at December 9, 2003 08:18 PM

Sorry Passing Through, that's true in some fields and not in others. I'm cool with the Krugman people call a hack. In philosophy, in particular, but also many of the social sciences, technical studies are being produced which are indeed difficult to understand but which do not justify their difficulty with accomplishment. Philosophy used to be a comprehensive and inclusive study but now it's one of the narrowest.

I am more an advocate of generalism than of anateurism. In history, for example, William McNeill and Jared Diamond do have the comprehensive scope. Diamond is an amateur as a historian, though he brings in high-level skills from historical genetics. McNeill is a fossil from an earlier age -- he was Toynbee's last defender in the historical profession and was very lucky to survive.

Posted by: zizka at December 9, 2003 11:32 PM

Is the academic job market in America really that bad right now? I'm doing a History PhD in the UK at the moment and I'm afraid to say we all still talk about the U.S. like it's the land of milk and honey.

Posted by: Claire at December 10, 2003 04:50 AM

For a recent PhD in the humanities, the odds of ever landing a tenure-track job are about 50%. This is based on the MLA's statistics, already several years out of date. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the odds are worse than that in English, at least. If you are an average candidate (that is, distinguised, published, personable) going to the MLA meat market, my guess is that you have a 10-20% chance of getting a tenure-track job this year.

Re blackballing: because the market is so competitive (any decent school will have dozens of suitable candidates), search committees can afford to indulge their biases by rejecting people for arbitrary reasons. It's much harder to do this in the tenure process--too much has been invested in the candidate, the candidate will have some allies, and so on.

Posted by: THB at December 10, 2003 08:56 AM

Does anybody know the odds of getting tenure-track jobs in other disciplines? I would gather that 50% seems quite good actually, provided that the remainding 50% moves out of the academic market into non-academic ones. If everybody stays in, wages will continue to be bidded down. (cant blame the universities I am afraid, if everybody linger around in academia, leading to a larger supply than demand. To knowingly offer more money than necessary to hire someone is inefficient and proberbly fiscally irresponsible)

On the subject of English THB, I wonder if there are jobs avaliable if people are willing to move outside the country. I mean places like china and japan are in need of people to teach english.And no you dont have to speak their native language very well to work there. Almost all coporate types who get stationed in china/japan dont speak the language very well either. I have seem recruitment for economics/business type phds to teach in china, so they actually do recruit here, and they pay in US dollars. So it follows that english phds should be in demand in places like this. Anybody know anything about this?

Posted by: Passing_through at December 10, 2003 10:07 AM

Remember that the 50% probabilty of landing a tenure-track job in English is "ever," not each time one goes on the market. And most of the candidates who do not get tenure-track jobs remain on the market, year after year. I would guess that they attrit very rapidly after three years on the market, but that still means that this year there will be about 8-10 qualified candidates for every tenure-track job.

One thing I've noticed is that assistant professors are moving around a lot. Newly-minted PhDs are often competing for entry-level jobs with much more experienced junior faculty.

Regarding overseas jobs: I have seen B.A. and M.A. graduates take jobs teaching English abroad, but that is not what doctorates in literature or history are trained to do, though they could do it. I think jobs like these are viewed as temporary adventures by B.A. and M.A. graduates.

Posted by: THB at December 10, 2003 10:25 AM

Regarding probability of tenure track offers in other disciplines:

Conditional on a candidate applying for every tenure-track post he/she is remotely qualified for (i.e. not being choosy with regard to prestige or location of the institution), the chances of a decent job candidate in economics getting a tenure-track offer are close to 100%.

This estimate is based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, so the usual qualifiers apply.

Posted by: Matilde at December 10, 2003 10:26 AM

Carmen, I think you may be channeling the ghost of Ayn Rand. The vision of heroic struggle against bureacratized mediocrity has a seductive charm, I readily concede (although I fear what it seduces us toward), but it is funny how, when this intuition hits the ground, someone's example of a courageous intellectual generally ends up being someone else's exemplar of foggy thinking (Geertz, Nozick, and Bloom wouldn't be especially high on my list, for instance, although I enjoy reading and teaching their books).

Posted by: loren at December 10, 2003 11:14 AM

Loren -- not really very funny, because accusations of "foggy thinking" are the first weapon in the bureaucratized mediocrity's arsenal.

Any native speaker of English with a BA can go almost anywhere in the world and break even for the trip by teaching English. Someone who has a PhD and wants to settle overseas can make a good career. In a few places (S. Korea and Saudi Arabia, IIRC, but I'm out of date) it's actually quite lucrative. I think that by and large the rule is that you have to want to live there. (Or in Saudi, you have to be able to endure the place). S. Korea seems to be at the top of every list.

My friends who went to graduate school all seemed to become narrower in what they were willing to think. Not because they understood the fallacies of certain ways of thinking, but because they had learned that they were expected to think only in certain ways. They also seemed almost proud of the fact that, as specialists, they had enormous areas of ignorance.

It may be changing. In economics, for example, Brad DeLong talks a lot about economic history and some about political economy. I think that makes him an exception, though, but he's an exception at the top of the heap.

Posted by: zizka at December 10, 2003 12:04 PM

I'm kind of struck that "enjoying teaching and reading their books" gets stuck in as if that's a minor saving grace in contrast to some unnamed non-foggy thinking people. Isn't that the quintessential slam by the specialist at the generalist or popularizer? Ok for reading and teaching, but naught else, as if achieving teachability and readability is a simple affair, simply achieved, the first lap in a long race?

Going back to Ivy League Grad's comments in #8 and earlier, I would agree on one hand that disproportionate praise heaped upon popularizers, generalizers and "path-breakers" obscures the importance of the specialist monograph in the cumulative growth of knowledge--and I'm whiggish enough to believe that knowledge does grow and improve and cumulate, even in the humanities. My own preference would be for a sort of institutional division of labor: small liberal arts colleges as the habitus of generalists, connectors, public intellectuals, teacher-scholars, and research universities as the redoubt of specialized, highly academic, "gap-filling", cumulative scholarship, without necessarily insisting that it's one or the other.

On the other hand, as to some of ILG's other points, I'm struck that in saying that the humanist academy is NOT full of apparatchiks, etc., and that all the hysteria is misplaced, ILG then proceeds to talk about attempts by some scholars to blackball and exclude others over questions of methodology, including attempts directed at ILG's own graduate study. Kind of sounds like the picture some of us have been painting, you know? I would never claim that the current dominant generation of theorists and scholars were not the victims of tyrannical behavior in their own training--that is why I find it all the more ironic to see new historicists, social historians, etcetera etcetera striking out, sometimes with striking machivellian malice, at the next wave coming up behind them--and I'm amused and irritated for the same reason to see some senior conservatives who earlier wielded their power with gay abandon now decrying the loss of civility and free inquiry and pluralism, etc.

I'm inclined for that very reason to think that there is some institutional imperative here that is shaping academic life in particular ways, that much of this is not explicable in terms of the individual misbehavior or ethical failure of particular scholars. That imperative seems to me to be a composite of tenure, confidentiality, the incentive structures that disciplines and institutions maintain, the impact of certain forms of specialization, the market logics of obtaining academic employment, and the demographic shift in academia from a generation of privileged, vaguely ne'er do well WASPs who went into academia like the third sons of the nobility went into the clergy in the late medieval era to a generation of middle to upper-middle class professionals who approach academia with some of the same careerist entrepreneurial spirit that their peers approach the law or medicine.

You don't have to look at that composite structure in a purely declensionist manner, as the descent from a world we have lost, but I do think you can criticize the place we find ourselves in. I'm wondering why, given what ILG relates, that ILG doesn't see it the same way: his/her repudiation of the "apparatchik" sketch exists oddly alongside anecdotes that seem to confirm that sketch.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 10, 2003 12:38 PM


I think that some of my more heated, universalizing rhetoric was in response to Chris's Post #7 use of statements like "the 'castrated dweebs' . . . are the ones now fully running the show" and "their modus operandi is to quell, squelch, and finally murder anything that strays from the party line or in any [way] smacks of (gasp) originality." It's the "fully" and "anything" and "in any way" that got my dander up, and I can see where I responded in kind.

As for bits of my self-narrative you reference, I would just note that the scholar I had trouble with was a very traditional, very conservative one. The point was less to say that there is no such thing as an academic apparatchik than that apparatchik-dom is hardly the province of poststructuralist scholars exclusively.

I do feel that the level of apparatchik-ness has extreme variabiliity as one moves from institution to institution. Chris's experience in English studies differs radically from my own, and I recognize its validity. But I do feel that many commentators here on IA's site tend toward global pronouncements about the academy that resemble in no real, serious felt way my own experiences as first a graduate student and then a scholar.

That one colleague aside, my project has never received any arbitrary, negative response. I've always been able to teach what I want in the manner in which I want. I combine traditional and theoretical approaches and have yet to be "blackballed" for it. Nor have I seen this done to colleagues of mine in a routine, regularized fashion.

I realize that, from many posters' perspectives, I am extremely lucky in my experiences. So I don't want to set up my anecdotes as "the truth." But they're also not "false"--and I'd like to see that taken into account as we discuss ways of addressing the serious structural and institutional issues you mention in your post.

Put another way, I agree with you: we don't need to bring the culture wars into a discussion of adjunctification, hiring, tenure, etc. A lot of what plagues the academy today predates Derrida's "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." So we don't need to replay the debate about theory.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at December 10, 2003 02:52 PM

Tim: "I'm kind of struck that `enjoying teaching and reading their books' gets stuck in ... isn't that the quintessential slam by the specialist at the generalist or popularizer? Ok for reading and teaching, but naught else ..."

It may be, but that's not what I'm up to.

There are several books that I find flawed (sometimes deeply) in one or several critical respects. Nonetheless, I keep returning to these books, either because they are rich with historical details, penetrating observation and commentary, a joy to read, or (typically) some combination of these virtues. Personally, I put Geertz's "Negara" and Nozick's "Anarchy, State and Utopia" in this category. I also teach with these books, and not just to point out examples of, say, how not to make causal conjectures about power, or arguments about the consequences of self-ownership. I also keep using these texts because they are rich and rewarding in so many respects, and many of my students to date have taken a lot away from them, whether or not they agree with specific arguments and inferences.

I offer these examples not to start a debate about methodology in the social sciences or the virtues and failings of libertarian thought, but rather to set up what seems to me an obvious point: even if we could get widespread agreement on the charge that universities are dominated by mediocre careerists stifling heroic intellects, I fully expect heated disagreement when it comes to specifying who, exactly, is an exemplary intellectual, and why. It's a bit like getting agreement that Hollywood has done violence to the idea of the film, and then trying to give force to that indictment by getting people to agree on truly great films that Hollywood ought to be making.

Posted by: loren at December 10, 2003 03:26 PM

Loren: right, and I would say that's another example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

ILG: I very much agree that vastly too much is being laid at the doorstep of poststructuralists or theorists or what have you. The problem, whatever it might be, is a much more structural and persistent one than that. I also agree that there can be enormous local variation from institution to institution, even within a single institution, and that a very few people acting in particular ways can easily serve as a "tipping point" that shifts a bad situation to being a fairly good one and vice-versa. Certainly for all that I'm a strong critic of academia, for example, my own local situation is blessed in almost every respect, including in terms of my colleagues and their generosity.

Posted by: Timothy burke at December 10, 2003 03:42 PM

Passing Through writes that "Acadamia" (a new kind of nut?) has become so specialized that no layperson, however interested, could understand it; this, PT writes, is "the price we pay for advancement." Uh, no. As for PT's examples from the sciences, most mathematicians, physicists, and the like can indeed, if they're pretty good writers (Richard Feynman was one of many) make a good deal of what they do perfectly comprehensible to interested laymen.

There's a lot of language up there about the championing of brilliant, inspiring, public intellectuals in the academy as "Ayn Randism" and "ubermensch" thinking. Oy.

And there are potshots taken at various examples I and other posters offer of such people (Geertz, etc.).

What can I say? The last person you'd expect to express phobia and resentment of exceptional, public-minded intellects would be an academic - but there you have it. Gotta tamp our best thinkers down, or next stop fascism.

Oh - and Geertz did not say that every university demands two books for tenure.

Posted by: Carmen at December 10, 2003 05:14 PM

From the Geertz piece:

"Tenure is harder to get (I understand it takes two books now, and God knows how many letters, many of which, I have, alas, to write), and the process has become so extended as to exhaust the energies and dampen the ambitions of those caught up in it."

If you take Harvard and Yale out of the equation (where tenure is essentially denied junior scholars by default), I'm not sure who is left to demand two books. Stanford? Chicago? At the Research I's and some of the elite liberal arts colleges, you need to have a second project, sure--and preferably a track record in articles or conference papers that work on that project is moving apace. But I'm at a loss to identify programs in which you must have one book published and a contract for a second to get tenure.

(All of the above is only true for English studies--I make no claims about other disciplines.)

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at December 10, 2003 05:24 PM

Sorry Carmen
"if they're pretty good writers (Richard Feynman was one of many) make a good deal of what they do perfectly comprehensible to interested laymen."

Not true. Feyman was an interesting writer, but only about intro physics. The stuff that he does for a living isnt any more accessible to anyone. QED with just words? Similarly if you were to look at krugman's books and his academic stuff, nothing much in common. Talented writer/scientists can write simple technical stuff for the common person. Not the kind of research that they do.

Posted by: Passing_through at December 10, 2003 05:57 PM

Carmen: "the last person you'd expect to express phobia and resentment of exceptional, public-minded intellects would be an academic - but there you have it. ..."

The problem is not with the "the championing of brilliant, inspiring, public intellectuals in the academy." Hey, all for it, sign me up. My problem is with hero worship masquerading as constructive critique. I don't think academia is really the place to champion anyone, although I'm all for championing a commitment to knowledge and wisdom. Indeed, what you see as "potshots" and "resentment" are, in my view, instances of what is valuable about the academy: we question and probe and examine until we find plausible assumptions, a persuasive argument, a decent model of how things work.

But hey, you want to make and defend lists of really smart people who might serve as models for academics young and old? Fine. Here are my criteria: live an examined life, question assumptions, figure out how things work, find persuasive arguments. If someone succeeds in doing any of these things in their lives -- in academia or anywhere else -- then I'm impressed (although that won't stop me from pointing out what might be flawed arguments or dubious assumptions, not because of resentment or phobias but because ultimately I champion an intellectual process, not particular intellectuals). My list would in fact include Geertz and Nozick, but also people like Kurt Godel, Barbara McClintock, and John Rawls. Would they make your list?

Posted by: loren at December 10, 2003 07:00 PM

my last point came out strangely (the substance, not format). I mean: sign me up for championing brilliance and inspiration and public-mindedness, but not for worshipping particular individuals who embody one or several of these virtues to varying degress.

Posted by: loren at December 10, 2003 07:15 PM

Kurt Goedel is not a good model. He seems to have been insane.

Posted by: zizka at December 10, 2003 07:25 PM

zizka: "Kurt Goedel is not a good model. He seems to have been insane."

Yes, by the end of his life he had severe mental problems, but he was brilliant and unconventional. Not all intellectually worthy lives have happy endings. Or perhaps more constructively: we can find something inspirational about an intellectually remarkable life, even if it is in other respects deeply tragic.

Posted by: loren at December 10, 2003 08:10 PM

On the subject of using your skills to teach English as a foreign language. I used to do it in Italy. From what I've seen it's not a career option unless you are passionately devoted to teaching the language and you have really good people skills. I got very little satisfaction from teaching a language I had never put any effort into learning.

Posted by: Claire at December 11, 2003 04:56 AM

"8 to 10" applicants for every job?

We just had 70 applications for two positions in cultural and media studies, fields with higher than average employment rates (for the humanities, that is).

Posted by: jean at December 15, 2003 10:25 PM

I followed up an earlier recommendation to read Marc Bousquet's article in College English. His criticism of the market model of academia doesn't really make much sense to me. He just seems to think that there must only be a single market. There isn't. Universities can choose both the number of tenure track vs non tenure track faculty, senior vs. junior (i.e. number of tenure decisions), part-time vs full-time, PhD vs. non PhD and grad-student TAs vs the rest. Then in each sub-market they can either set wages or decide how many to hire... and wage rates are different across the disciplines in the US. Perhaps what we are seeing is increased specialization and division of labor. In areas where there are good possibiltiies to raise outside funding, hiring of PhDs is up, research only faculty are up and the problem with grad students is a lot aren't getting much teaching experience. In humanities disciplines the opposite is happening.... I haven't seen much casualization in geography or economics or related disciplines. In geography the problem seemed to be more of lots of assistant profs being hired on the tenure track but not granted tenure. Now I have moved into economics, most departments look rather top heavy to me, I am surprised that almost no new PhDs seem to publish anything till a couple of years after getting the degree (and requirements for tenure seem low), our adjuncts worry that they will be fired and we will hire new tenure track faculty - in my department there is one temporary lecturer for every four tenured/tenure track/permanent faculty. Our university says grad students shouldn't teach, which we try to get around by various tricks.... this is an engineering dominated institution...

The American Economic Association reckons that almost all the new PhDs going on the academic job market each year get a job. They publish an annual report on their website. In the last year this may have been somewhat less successful due to fiscal trouble at state colleges. Not all new PhDs want an academic job of course and some want one in their home (foreign) country which is where most economics grad students come from.

Posted by: David at December 19, 2003 01:30 AM

After reading through a number of blogs on Invisible Adjunct, I have one thought: wouldn't it be nice if all these smart people being screwed over by the system could get together, find a source of finance, and establish a school characterized by the encouragement of inventive work, the recognition that original thinking is not necessarily fashionable, the avoidance of malicious pigeonholing of others, the valuing of intellectual generosity, and a commitment to a humane, imaginative, and risk-friendly philosophy of faculty hiring!

Or would that be too divisive?

Posted by: flu in san diego at December 23, 2003 05:46 PM