Thursday, December 1, 2011

giveth, taketh away, etc

This essay, from a Dr. Zachary Ernst of the University of Missouri, has been making the rounds, or a certain kind of the rounds. I have some things to say about it, and you should read it. Start, though, from this: this is someone using the protection of tenure to whine about tenure. It is the argument of someone who is criticizing the way in which institutional protection is distributed while clad in that protection, without any consideration that this tension is worth exploring, or that it perhaps undermines his position. Coming from my position as an impoverished graduate student, without the benefit of tenure or institutional protection or permanent employment or the middle class income it brings, this strikes me as a special kind of cowardice, a preening, proud kind. Take that, first, for context.

Dr. Ernst has complaints. They are, in my estimation, not quite minimally convincing, but then there's little indication that convincing others is the purpose of this kind of argument. Dr. Ernst's relationship to tenure is complicated; he pays lip service to its intellectual benefits, but he seems deeply antagonistic to the elementary notions that undergird the institution. He mutters darkly about the "worst politics" that one encounters in the university, apparently among those who feel that left-wing politics should be permissible in exactly no professions. (I have never yet met a conservative or libertarian who complained about bias in academia who wasn't, in the end, equating bias with "you aren't flattering my preconceptions.") He additionally has nothing but showy contempt for the fact that his peers have different ideas about what should be valued in scholarship, not seeming to care or understand that differences of opinion in what is best for the pursuit of human knowledge are precisely the reason for tenure. He is endlessly proud of his pugnacity but decries the "bullying" of others. In every respect he appears to be a man who loves to swing but not to be hit.

Indeed, you can search the piece all you want, but you won't find anything resembling self-criticism, or the notion that, when considering why his career is perhaps not what or where he intended, he should first ask whether there is something lacking in his body of work. The notion that in fact the beginning of responsible inquiry of this kind should require an examination of the self, waged as publicly and unsentimentally as the essay in question, has apparently not been considered. In any event, Dr. Ernst is unhappy with the systems of professional advancement within the university. He feels that the disciplinary promiscuity of his work is not valued in the university and that this is self-evidently antithetical to the academy's purpose. (That he sailed through his tenure review, by his own admission, somewhat blunts this criticism.) As is typical of polemicists, Dr. Ernst believes that as he is, so is the world. Coming from outside his field, the notion that across the university writ large is not friendly to interdisciplinarity appears unlikely, but I'm qualified to say. As someone with wide-ranging interests myself, I am inclined to value interdisciplinarity, but I also know that the fadishness and grand claims of working across departments often produces poor research. It is perfectly possible, after all, that interdisciplinarity is not properly valued in his field and that this has little or nothing to do with what is making him unhappy.

As for his unhappiness with the professional academic life... take a number. Here is what it means to be an adult: you have to eat shit. Repeatedly. You do things you don't want to do. You are forced to endure indignities. Your rewards have very little to do with your talents or effort. People who are less deserving are promoted while people who are more deserving are ignored. Life isn't fair, not in the academy or anywhere else. Yet Dr. Ernst is deeply unhappy with the way that professional laurels are distributed within the university (understandable) and also of the conviction that his unhappiness matters (absurd). Let me ask: in what professional field is there a perfect system of reward? What job is not riven with petty corruptions of "meritocracy"? Which jobs, I'd like to know, promise and deliver a fair system of review and promotion, free of politics and patronage and fashion?

I can tell you this: the vast majority of professions offer not even the minimally transparent or fair system of advancement that the university affords. And what almost no professions offer is the ability to openly and publicly complain about their systems of advancement. If Dr. Ernst were to undertake his criticisms in almost any other field, he would be on the unemployment line. Like all of his many privileges-- privileges that stem from the same institutions he deplores-- this goes unexamined. Dr. Ernst is a good example of a dynamic I have observed again and again in academics: he flagrantly romanticizes the university, and then tears down the university for failing to live up to that romantic vision.

Dr. Ernst says repeatedly that his argument stems from a simple assumption: that the university is resistant to change. I don't know that, in fact, his arguments follow. I'm no philosopher. But in any event, I reject it. Yes, I know; the Internet is rife with complaints about higher education, a few legitimate, most not. But I find the idea that university has not evolved and grown in great measure given enormous change to simply not be credible. I can only offer anecdote in response to his own. I will say this: there are 80 human institutions that have existed in the same form for at least 500 years. 65 of them are universities. Those human institutions that do not evolve wither and die. I do not believe that the university writ large would still exist if it were of the character that Dr. Ernst has described. You won't find this a popular position.

Here is not an assumption but merely an observation. The university has always been the target of a particular kind of resentment, from both within and without. It is the resentment of those who believe themselves to be unappreciated geniuses. I became aware very early on that the Internet is filled with people who resent and distrust the university because they became convinced, at an early age, that they were gifted, and that the failure of higher education to recognize the full flower of their genius was a great crime. So convinced of their own brilliance, they can't fathom any reason that they might go unrecognized other than the systematic failure of the institution of scholarship. When Dr. Ernst speaks about how philosophers believe "that entrenched belief systems may be overthrown by a single person," I hear the curdling exasperation of so many who felt that they were that single person, and that the university was obliged.

I'm not saying that Dr. Ernst is such a person; I don't know the man. But I know that they litter the Internet like flotsam. And I often encounter, in the world of academics, a group of people (both women and men) who walk around in a kind of daze, unable to understand why their work isn't being celebrated. They seem to believe that they were entitled to recognition before they arrived. Dr. Ernst is not in the position of these people; he is employed and tenured at a major university, in a field where the brutal competition for jobs ensures that anyone so employed and so tenured has been greeted with profound success again and again. His publishing history is the type most of us can only envy. (You would be amazed at how complaints about which research is valued evaporate, when one is defending one's own published, recognized work.) Looking at his CV, I can only hope to achieve what he has achieved, is achieving. Yet despite his considerable reason to give thanks, his essay is soggy with entitlement. That's ultimately what's at issue here. I don't question Dr. Ernst's right to complain about his department, the field of philosophy, or the many pathologies of academia. But what he says is riven with entitlement and defined by a strange incuriosity. Neither is conducive to the pursuit of human inquiry.

Dr. Ernst's essay concludes with a complaint about the difficulty his wife has encountered in obtaining tenure in his department. I don't have the evidence to evaluate his case, but I know enough about the world and sexism to not doubt for a second that a a self-confident women would have faced hardship in employment and promotion, regardless of her profession. It seems beyond probable to me that his wife has face these hurdles, and I'm very sorry for them. The fact that her university has disassembled its system of internal review is a major failure, and if Dr. Ernst is faithfully and accurately reporting the way that his wife has been treated, the conduct of those responsible is deplorable. I am just crude enough to point out that it is precisely the people with the "worst politics" who have insisted for decades that this kind of corrosive sexism has to be opposed.

It seems clear to me: Dr. Ernst should resign. He feels, after all, that the system of professional advancement and recognition in his department is deeply broken, that the wrong types of work are being recognized, that he is not receiving high enough raises, and that his wife has been wronged and insulted. Clearly, he should terminate his own employment there. Of course, that would involve material hardship for him and his family. But that's the thing about principles. They come at a cost or are worth nothing.

Whether he actually quits will tell you everything you need to know.

Update: My commenters are deeply critical of this post, and rather convincingly so.


Anonymous said...

I didn't read "worst politics" in his as necessarily meaning liberal vs. conservative politics, as opposed to "office politics." Beyond that tossed-off phrase, what evidence is there that he's talking about liberals?

Freddie said...

Little, it's true. I'm probably being overly sensitive.

another philosopher said...

"Dr. Ernst's essay concludes with a complaint about the difficulty his wife has encountered in obtaining tenure in his department." Is that how you read the structure of the piece on the whole? I must confess to finding that to be very wide of the mark. The issue about his wife isn't epilogue to a piece on faculty dynamics & such; rather, everything about faculty dynamics & such is prologue to the argument he wanted to make about his wife's tenure case.

I think if you view it in that interpretive light, you might want to revise your (over)reading of what's going on in the first half of the essay. He's not crouching like a coward behind the wall of tenure; he's exemplifying what tenure lets you do, that his wife has been (by his lights) screwed out of being able to do. He gets to be a gadfly, in part because he's a male and (thus) has been able to get tenure, and this little samizdat piece illustrates it nicely. His wife, it seems to him, has received one of academia's major scarlet letters for doing the same, and having the misfortune to have two X chromosomes while doing it.

He's not _whining_, Freddie -- he's _pissed off_.

Alex Waller said...

"Life is shit, the University is shit, jobs are shit, in fact there's probably not a single job that isn't rife with systemic, unfixable shit. And the fact that anyone thinks their opinions matter is shit too. I'm pretty sure you can't find me a single example of something not-shit-covered."

Are you really so cynical? It makes me sad.
The fidelity of Dr. Ernst' arguments aside, if my wife were slighted and prejudiced in a way that was so patently clear to me as this scenario is to Dr. Ernst, my righteous indignation would probably make it onto the internet too. It is for that reason that I cut him a bit more slack than you do. But then again, I have not publicly defended tenure as loudly or frequently as you, so I can understand (to a degree) the strength of your reaction here.

Freddie said...

Tenure has enemies; the university has enemies. They are coming for us every day, in full force, with wicked intent. They will take any possible argument they can assimilate to attack us. And if they succeed in dismantling what they want to dismantle, the plight of women scholars will get worse, not better. I see no path to reform from Dr. Ernst expressing his complaint this way. There are ways to highlight and criticize the injustice that he believes his wife has suffered that don't spend so much time, well, being about him.

kris said...

I have a lot of respect for you Freddie, but I don't get what you're saying at all. I think you didn't really read this correctly at all.

this is someone using the protection of tenure to whine about tenure.

Not at all. He recognizes that academics need to be protected from unfair firing and to have academic freedom. (That's his opening.) He is pointing out that universities have found a way to use the current tenure system to limit academic freedom by keeping tenure from those who -like Socrates would've- challenge and question the admin and orthodoxy. Moreover, under the awful rule of current administrators -including tenure along with other features of academic politics- has made problems like sexism much worse.

It seems clear he wants to reform academic hiring, politics, etc. but to leave in place strong protections for academic freedom and job security. If you disagree, you should email him and ask him just to check before jumping to conclusions.

I am a lecturer with a PhD in philosophy and everything he says seems completely plausible.

while clad in that protection

First, this is an odd ad hominem even if it were true.

But his wife, a person he seems to love as much as himself- didn't get that protection! That was the whole point of the essay. He was saying how capricious (and sexist) it is that he got that protection and she didn't when she deserved it more.

Indeed, he seems to want protection (academic freedom and job security via some means) for all academics and to make sure that the admin can't discriminate against lecturers and tenure-review-failers. He doesn't want tenure to be granted by some ridiculous, arbitrary, mostly male, committee influenced by the goals of the admin. (See the case where Finkelstein wasn't given tenure.)

He mutters darkly about the "worst politics"

Ernst's CVs indicates he does really formal and not politicaly controversial stuff.)

I was surprised you didn't see this and that you'd say this. Odd.

He additionally has nothing but showy contempt for the fact that his peers have different ideas about what should be valued in scholarship, not seeming to care or understand that differences of opinion in what is best for the pursuit of human knowledge are precisely the reason for tenure.

His point is that in contemporary analytic philosophy, group think has gotten worse and worse as people have become specialized in narrow fields. I have a PhD in philosophy and can confirm this is a serious problem, though some would debate how serious. (Others would say the advantages outweigh the problems.)

It is true -I think most philosophers would agree- that if you work out the details of some reasonably well accepted position -say the causal theory of names- you are more likely to get a job and get publications than if you have positions that are critical of well accepted positions.

Here is what it means to be an adult: you have to eat shit.

Irrelevant. We should always aim at changing things to make life such that we all have to eat less shit. I think Socrates said something like that. :)

kris said...

A better criticism of Ernst would've been to point out that although there are problems with tenure (including the ones he points out), he doesn't suggest a better system that would meet the aims he claimed to be in favor of at the beggining of the essay.

That is to say, he claims to be in favor of job security and the kind of academic freedom that allows you to be critical, even of your bosses and your peers. But if we get rid of tenure, won't the admin have more power. On the other hand, if we revise tenure, how do we revise it? He needs to be specific. Or, if he believes we should all get tenure, how would that work? What are the barriers to doing that?

Ernst needs to address those issues to be persuasive.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

To whine about tenure?

"the only remaining institutional protection for faculty is tenure."
"Despite my belief that tenure is crucial to the proper functioning of the university system, I can’t
say that I blame anyone who sees tenure as nothing more than a guaranteed paycheck, handed out to aging professors until they collect their pensions."

His argument seems to be:
• Tenure is crucial for protecting academic freedom
• Tenure committees often grant tenure to mere conformists, rather than those who've done good work
• Thus, tenured faculty fail to take advantage of the privilege of tenure
• Case in point: My wife was unfairly denied tenure

He is just plain not saying anything faintly like what you seem to accuse him of saying. And your response to that in the comments has been even worse. If you're saying "the university has enemies, therefore anyone who criticizes any aspect of the university system must be destroyed," well that's just lame.

The whole piece is, it's true, more than a little whiney. But hearing Freddie de Boer complain that someone is too getting too worked up about an injustice in the academy might be kindly described as risible.

another philosopher said...

"There are ways to highlight and criticize the injustice that he believes his wife has suffered that don't spend so much time, well, being about him." Huh? He's offering his own case primarily as a point of comparison for his wife's -- which, again, is the main point of the essay. He's saying: "I got tenure by my university's standards, as I should; and my wife's tenure case, by all objective measures, is a better one than mine; so it sure looks like some sort of fix was in that produced her negative tenure vote."

So, there's just no problem here whatsoever with his talking about himself, in this way and for these argumentative purposes. What really seems to be bothering you here is, rather, that he didn't make the essay more about _you_, or rather, your own particular battles you (quite rightly) want to have in this arena. There are many different battles to be fought here, and it's a bit silly to chastise someone for their fighting some set of those battles that just happens not to include your own preferred one. Maybe such chastisement would be appropriate if Ernst's arguments were ones that would undermine your own in the battle you want to fight. But as several commentators have pointed out here, that's just not the case.

I think if you took a deep breath, and re-read the essay afresh a bit more through the lens of the author's objectives, and not so much through your own, you would find that you're both on the same side.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Well I guess according to Freddie there is nothing at all wrong with the current hiring and promotion practices of US universities. One thing that I noticed both in Dr. Ernst's essay and in working outside the US is that tenure is a poor substitute for unionization. Where I work now we have no tenure, but a strong union. If academics were not so snobbish in considering themselves professionals rather than workers they could solve a lot of the problems Dr. Ernst talks about through unionization. But, since according to Freddie there are no problems then there is no need to unionize.

Freddie said...

boo birds 1, Freddie 0

kris said...

Well, the boo-birds have a point, but you have a point too, Freddie. And good on you for admitting that you may have been mistaken.

Tenure has enemies; the university has enemies. They are coming for us every day, in full force, with wicked intent. They will take any possible argument they can assimilate to attack us.

This much is very true. Ernst should know that it is true and he should've addressed this problem in the essay.

I reread the essay, and I can see how Freddie is sort of right. If you critique some aspect of tenure, you have a duty to distinguish your position from the right wing lunatics who would destroy the tenure system entirely. And you have a duty to be explicit about it. If you fail in that duty, your arguments almost certainly will be bent and reworked and then used for nefarious purposes.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Worth noting, too, that even if Freddie's characterization of the essay were at all accurate, this would be incredibly lame: "this is someone using the protection of tenure to whine about tenure". That is about as intellectually sound as Michelle Malkin raging that Warren Buffett has no right to complain about the US tax system. One can benefit from a system yet see clearly its inequities, and want them changed (as Freddie presumably feels about many systems he's benefitted from). This is just wretched all the way up and down.

VL said...

Writing while enraged did not help Ernst's essay. Sexism was clearly at play in the multiple events Ernst recounts about his wife's career, and his detailed history of his own career in the department was necessary to provide a backdrop for the comparison. Nonetheless, I found the opening of the essay disturbingly naive and his broad-side against university/academic culture unjustified. Specifically, and Freddie is right to press this point, tenure itself is not the root of evil that Ernst seems to feel it is, and academia is not some last hold-out against progressive change.

In fact, judging from various academic blogs I've been reading lately, many academics have no idea how much more freedom they have than they would in the corporate world. I am not saying we simply should be "grateful" for what we have--gratitude doesn't radicalize anyone, and there is much that needs to be improved. But I _am_ saying that greater knowledge of the various forms of coercion exerted in the private sector would be very enlightening to most academics-- and likely motivate them to become more politically involved.

For a probing account of repression in the private sphere, I recommend Corey Robin's "Fear: history of a political idea." He documents abundant evidence of corporate control over even bodily functions, invasions of privacy, the rigid hierarchies that severely limit workers' basic freedoms, including freedom of speech (which is protected only in the public sphere--or under tenure). Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed takes a more personal look at specifically blue collar work, but it's also eye-opening. In fact, I gather that those of us who have chosen academia have done so in part because of the comparative freedom it offers. With that freedom comes responsibility, though, to be intellectually rigorous and self-questioning. One thought I had while reading Ernst's essay was that not giving his wife tenure might have been a decision taken by certain members of the department to encourage the couple--self-described as noisily contrarian--to leave. Granting tenure means you're going to be stuck with someone for the long haul; if they're difficult to get along with, it hurts their professional chances in many ways.

ovaut said...

Freddie, Prof Ernst's piece reads first of all to me like an exercise in uxoriousness.

Main Street Muse said...

This year, I have the rare opportunity to lecture at a state university. I come as an outsider to the academic system.

And I have no idea what advantages tenure brings, other than for the professor to know that his job is set for life. If tenure brings a grim paralysis, if a tenured professor starts slacking simply because he has tenure, then tenure is damaging to the goals of a university (and to the goals of ambitious scholars).

If tenure allows disparate voices to be heard without fear of reprisal, perhaps it is a positive tool (though it seems from Ernst's essay that there is always reprisal for dissent in the form of political backstabbing rather than firing.)

However, my experience outside of academics has shown me that politics exist in every institution; sexism can be found in every institution (in varying degrees); and change is challenging for every institution.

However, tenure is granted only to those in academic institutions.

Still not sure why tenure helps the institution and the professors with their goals. But again, I am an outsider to the insular world of academia.

David said...

Freddie, you probably don't have a bigger fan out there, but I am finding it difficult to believe we read the same essay.