Sunday, December 26, 2010

40. Faddishness prevails.

You probably associate fads with fashion and junior high school, but fads are very much a part of modern academic culture. Whole disciplines and sub-disciplines rise and fall in popularity, as do certain ideas and personalities, the influence of which will often cross disciplinary boundaries. The pernicious effects of this faddishness are most often felt by those who study something that is out-of-fashion at the time they enter the job market. The most savvy (if un-idealistic) graduate students will choose their programs of study and dissertation topics with an eye to what is fashionable. Just hope that your choice is still fashionable a decade hence.

If you have any doubts about academic faddishness, consider the French intellectual Michel Foucault (1926-1984), whose name and ideas have proven wildly popular in academic circles. To see just how popular he is, try a little experiment. Google the name “Foucault.” Now Google the name “Aristotle.” This is an imperfect experiment, given that there is more than one Foucault, etc., but the results should surprise you. Is it even remotely possible to consider the influence of Foucault in the same league as that of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)? You can almost be forgiven for thinking so after a few years in graduate school.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

39. You are asked to do the impossible.

If you have never seen a graduate-level reading list, you may be in for a surprise. The largest part of your reading load is usually assigned as preparation for your comprehensive (or general) exams, but individual courses also require a great deal of reading. Reading lists are so long that it really isn’t possible for anyone but the fastest readers to read the hundreds of books and articles that are assigned in a typical graduate program. Part of the high graduate-school drop-out rate is no doubt the result of well-intentioned students making this terrible discovery the hard way.

Enormous reading loads persist despite the overall decline in academic expectations (see Reason 6). The reading lists are so long in part because of the unbelievable volume of academic literature that is constantly published (see Reason 33) and in part because professors are reluctant to shorten lists to a manageable length in a climate in which long reading lists are considered de rigeur. The consequence of this has been the redefinition of “reading.” A successful graduate student quickly learns that to “read” a work of scholarship is simply to grasp its basic argument (usually made clear in the introduction) so that there is time to move on to the next book. Retaining what you have read even using this abbreviated form of reading remains a challenge when you are faced with a list of 200 or 300 titles.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

38. The tyranny of the CV.

Another example of terminology-inflation in academe (see Reason 35) is evident in the “curriculum vitae.” What in most other walks of life is referred to in standard American English as a résumé (an already pretentious three-syllable French word) is in academic professions referred to by an even more pretentious six syllables of Latin. (The former term, incidentally, is much older than the latter.) But the inflation does not end there. In most real-world contexts, résumés are as brief and to-the-point as possible, but the typical professor’s CV is pages and pages long. It is so long because it lists every paper that he has ever presented at a conference, every article, book chapter, or book that he has ever published, every class that he has ever taught, every grant that he has ever received, every honor with which he has ever been bestowed, and often every professional organization to which he pays a membership fee.

Of course, this means that there is now an expectation that a strong CV will be many pages long. Graduate students with an eye on the academic job market, therefore, have to start worrying about collecting items for their CVs early in their graduate programs. In fact, you will spend far more time in graduate school doing things for the sake of putting them on your CV than you will ever spend pondering what you are studying for its own sake. Unfortunately, if you want an academic job, you really don’t have a choice in the matter.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

37. The university does not exist for your sake.

While the modern university increasingly exists for the sake of those that it employs (see Reason 32), it still does a good job of creating the impression that it exists for the purpose of undergraduate education. There are too many parents paying enormous tuition bills for it to do otherwise. Modern campuses boast elaborate student exercise facilities, more and more comfortable student housing, and ever-fancier student-union buildings. The vast majority of the people who experience university life are undergraduate students, so it makes sense that universities work to enhance this experience. Part of the incentive to do so is the desire to produce happy alumni who will later contribute to their alma maters.

Although graduate students today tend to have much longer programs of study than undergraduates (see Reason 4), and therefore remain on campus much longer than undergraduates, they represent a smaller proportion of the student body. Furthermore, at any given time, a large proportion of graduate students are receiving funding from the university, rather than paying tuition to it. They will represent a far smaller share of the university’s alumni, and because most of them will presumably go into academe, they can’t be counted on to produce much in the way of alumni donations. There is little incentive for the university to pay much attention to the graduate student experience, so it typically doesn’t. As employees, teaching assistants (like adjunct professors) are impermanent, and thus are not among the university's stake-holding employees. It is an interesting experience to spend years of your life as an ancillary part of an institution designed to serve the 18-year olds who surround you every day.

Monday, December 6, 2010

36. “So what are you going to do with that?”

Once your listener has gotten over the initial perplexity caused by your admission that you are a graduate student (see Reasons 24 and 30), the next question will usually be, “What do you study?” And you will answer, “anthropology.” Then the next question will be, “Well, what exactly do you study?” And you will answer, “I study the use of body art among Polish metal workers.” And then the next question will be, “So what are you going to do with that?”

You know exactly what you hope to do with that. You hope to find a tenure-track job at a college or university where you will teach anthropology to generations of students, some of whom will go on to graduate school and write esoteric dissertations of their own (see Reason 29). For some reason, however, this is hard to articulate in a conversation. One problem is that you can see a certain absurdity in this cycle of which you are now a part. Another is that you know just how hard it is to get a tenure-track job, and you may not have a Plan B. As a result, this question, which you will face repeatedly, is always an awkward one to handle. Your answer will usually end up being something along the lines of “teach,” and your listener will nod, immediately grasping the absurd cycle himself and finding it even harder to relate to you than he did three questions earlier.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

35. Mumbo-jumbo abounds.

It is difficult to exaggerate the degree to which mumbo-jumbo has permeated academe. The problem is especially egregious in the humanities, but it exists everywhere in the modern university. Mumbo-jumbo takes many forms, but it is closely associated with the desire of far too many academics to be perceived as sophisticated at the cost of clarity or meaningfulness in the most fundamental sense. Four years before dissolving its Department of Physical Education completely in 1997 (by which time "P.E." lacked any connotation of sophistication), the University of California, Berkeley, renamed it the Department of Human Biodynamics. But terminology-inflation is only the tip of the mumbo-jumbo iceberg.

In the sciences, sophisticated terms are necessary to describe extremely specific phenomena. Faced with an endless need to publish, academics in the humanities have also developed a complicated vocabulary, but whether or not it is genuinely sophisticated is a matter of debate. A complex arrangement of complex words can serve as a smokescreen for nonsense. In 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal famously submitted “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”—an article intentionally full of nonsense—to Social Text, a journal published by Duke University Press that currently describes itself as devoted to “a broad spectrum of social and cultural phenomena from a radical perspective, applying critical theory and methods to the world at large.” After the journal accepted and published Sokal’s article (without subjecting it to peer review), Sokal revealed the hoax in an article published in Lingua Franca. The experiment had little effect, however. Articles with titles like Sokal’s appear constantly. If you find that you can’t initially write such a paper yourself, the Postmodernism Generator will write one for you. You can still build a career in academe on mumbo-jumbo, but before you give it a try, ask yourself if you can do so with a good conscience.