Archive for the ‘academia’ Category
In academic writing, we often get the sense that the author is playing a game. They aren’t really trying to address an important problem. Rather, they are trying to impress some audience. All academic disciplines have a version of this. The economist tries to impress the audience by the level of math they use. A sociologist tries to impress the reader with citations to obscure European social theorists.
It is interesting to ask, who are academics trying to impress? Here are some possibilities:
- Themselves – Very often, academics fall in love with a theory or a concept of rigor and they try to become as pure as possible. Their work becomes a way to enhance their self-image. This probably at work when writing is bulky and cryptic.
- A promotion committee – Like all people who work in organizations, we are trying to impress the people that promote us. The way we do that it is to show excellence within the mainstream. This is what probably motivates very polished, but very narrow research. It is also the emotion that pushes technique over substance.
- Journal editors – In my view, this probably results in the most confusing writing because journal editing is often chaotic process. Manuscripts routinely generate conflicting reviews and authors often play a game of “what have I got in my pocket?” Editors too often just say “try to address all reviewers” instead of choosing an angle for the author to work on. So many times, I feel as if journal articles abruptly shift focus, have short mini-sections crammed in, and so forth.
- Non-academics – Think TED talk. When we try to impress outsiders, we shift to interesting stories and ideas that play on sympathy. Important details get dropped.
Academia is an area with big egos and people are trying to build their careers. So writing that tries to an impress an audience is normal. But we do have another option, especially the lucky folks who have job security. We can attempt to write in simple and direct ways, and be patient, so we can get to enough of the details. In a way, we have a moral obligation to write clearly and without ego because our ultimate allegiance is to the truth, even if we live in a world of other people we need to impress.
On Tuesday evening, Charles Murray will speak at Indiana University. Not surprisingly, his visit has resulted in a bit of discussion on campus. A number of people have immediately wanted to protest the meeting and, like at many campuses, people want “answers.” A lot of my colleagues have acted honorably. While some have jumped to wild conclusions and recommended strong actions, most have done what scholars are supposed to do. They are asking questions, they are discussing the scholarly responses to Murray’s work, and they are organizing their own events.
Here, I want to lay out how I think about campus free speech. Basically, campus free speech is really about the ability of the owners, managers, and employees of an academic institution to discuss whatever they want in a civil environment. There is a lot of trust and tolerance built into this view of free speech. There are no boards that police campus events. There is no party that the campus represents. It is not the Indiana University of Liberals and it is not the Indiana University of Conservatives. It is simply Indiana University. Thus, if a small group of students and faculty obtain their own funding to bring in an outside speaker, so be it.
In this discussion, two important issues are raised and they deserve an answer. First, does permitting Murray to speak somehow legitimize or bring attention to “hate speech?” The answer is clearly no. Lots of ideas are taught and discussed in universities, including hateful ones, but that doesn’t legitimize them. For example, many Western Civilization classes and history classes will read Mein Kampf, in an attempt to understand national socialism and related movements.
Furthermore, it is not clear to me that Murray’s talk would even fit the definition of hate speech, which is that it is speech that “attacks” or “disparages” a minority group. His speech is about his book, Coming Apart. I have not read it, but it appears to be about the differences between working and middle class Whites. It may be right or wrong, but does not appear to be hate speech, as normally understood (“disparaging” or “attacking” remarks about an ethnic group). Finally, it would be unwise for universities to directly police speech. I rue the day that a committee of professors and students directly intervene in invited talks and seminars.
Second, people ask whether it is good or bad that conservative groups sponsor a talk. Once again, I return to the foundation of higher education. A university is not a community of liberals or conservatives. It is a community of scholars. Thus, funding – from any source – is not a problem so long as the funding is consistent with the ideals of independent scholarship. It is totally ok if a group funds scholarship that they like, so long as the student or faculty member is free to come to the conclusion they feel best reflects the evidence.
This is the standard that should be applied to liberal groups, like the Soros Foundation, or conservative groups, like the American Enterprise Institute, which often donate to campuses. In terms of the Murray talk, the faculty who helped organize the talk – some of whom I know personally – have also invited liberals, such as E.J. Dionne, and conservatives, such as a recent talk by Bill Kristol. The Murray talk seems to be consistent with inviting a fairly broad spectrum of commentators, even those who are in the opposite camp.
Finally, let me end with a discussion of the source of Murray’s notoriety. It is not Coming Apart, it is The Bell Curve. That is the book that most people are alluding to when he is accused of hate speech. In all honesty, it is the only work by Murray I have read in its entirety. I read it in the 1990s to see what all the controversy was about.
It’s a mixed bag in my view. The book’s main goal is to argue that IQ research is not a sham and that it is a variable of importance for studying life outcomes. This is actually a fair point and it is consistent with a lot of sociological practice, but not its rhetoric. For example, how many models of achievement or status control for “academic ability?” Answer: tons. In the mid-20th century, it wasn’t unusual for sociologists to have a regression with IQ in it, such as Blau and Duncan’s The American Occupational Structure. Even today, many surveys will include measurements of cognitive ability. The GSS even has a verbal test in it so the researcher can adjust for IQ.
But The Bell Curve goes farther than that and makes many dodgy claims. For example, it claims that American cities will become segregated by cognitive ability, which may or may not be true. Then, there is the very short section on group differences – including racial differences – in IQ, which should be treated with great caution. But, for me, most people skipped over the most non-sequitur claim in The Bell Curve, which is that cognitive limits should be the basis of public policy (e.g., cutting social support makes sense since it won’t change IQ and thus behavior). This strikes me as bizarre. If low IQ individuals have limited life course chances, shouldn’t they be the first to get help? Even on its own terms, The Bell Curve stretches a lot of evidence and argument to reach the authors conclusions on policy.
The bottom line is that the university should be a place of free speech, even speech that may disgust us. There is a difference between unpopular opinions or distasteful opinions and truly hateful speech. Murray says a lot of things I disagree with (e.g., his recent move to restrict migration, which is a bad policy) but he is not in the realm of the politician who incites people to violence (e.g., see Trump’s infamous “Get ’em out of here!” moment), the student who loses their temper, the student’s who physically attacked and injured a professor at Middlebury College, or the faculty member who directly calls for brute force against journalists.
Let him speak. Show up if you want to, or not. Either is fine.
in NYC fall 2017 semester? looking for a PhD-level sociology of organizations course to take? (or visit?)
Are you a graduate student in the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium?* If so, please consider taking my “Soc. 84700 Organizations, Markets, & the State” class at the Graduate Center. At student request, I am teaching this class on the sociology of organizations this fall 2017 on Mondays @11:45am-2:45pm, starting Mon., Aug. 28, 2017.
I will email enrolled students in advance of the semester’s start to solicit input about topics and assigned readings based on their interests, in addition to the classics of organizational research. When I last taught this class in spring 2014, we were lucky to have Nicole Marwell, Jeff Sallaz, Michel Anteby, and Caroline W. Lee visit to discuss their research, and Fabio had dinner with us after presenting at CCNY. One of the aims of the class, besides learning substantive content, is to develop a local community of emerging scholars with links elsewhere.
On that note, if you are an organizations researcher who is located or will happen to be in the NYC area during fall 2017, please email me about stopping by the class to present on your research. We’ve also had some great discussions of professional development with guests, as participants are eager to learn about different kinds of institutions and career paths.
*If you are a student at one of the below schools, you may be eligible, after filing paperwork by the GC and your institution’s deadlines, to take classes within the Consortium:
Columbia University, GSAS
Princeton University – The Graduate School
CUNY Graduate Center
Fordham University, GSAS
Stony Brook University
Graduate Faculty, New School University
Teachers College, Columbia University
New York University, GSAS, Steinhardt
…an international conference on Global Resistance in the Neoliberal University organized by the union will be held today and tomorrow, 3/3rd-4th at the PSC, 61 Broadway.Scholars, activists and students from Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, Greece, India and the US will lead discussions on perspectives, strategies and tactics of resisting the neoliberal offensive in general, and in the context of the university in particular.You can visit this site for a link to the conference program:Due to space constraints, conference registration is now closed. But we’re thrilled by the tremendous interest in the event! You can watch a livestream of the conference here: https://www.facebook.com/PSC.CUNY. If you follow us on our Facebook page, you will receive a notification reminding you to watch.We look forward to seeing some of you tonight and to discussing the conference with many of you in the near future.
Phil Magness is at it again. In a recent blog post, he presented the results of a very simple exercise. Go to the Modern Language Association web site, search for the number panels on specific authors (e.g., Shakespeare or Toni Morrison) and compare with the number of panels you find if you search for topics relating to politically controversial topics like climate change. The results? I will quote Phil here:
So…I decided to take a look. The following rough tallies show the number of MLA 2017 sessions that included at least one paper or presentation on an overtly political topic.
- 22 sessions featured one or more presentations on environmental justice themes (e.g. climate change, ecology, animal rights/extinction, and resource extraction)
- 15 sessions featured one or more presentations on “globalization”
- 39 sessions featured one or more presentations on “postcolonialism”
- 8 sessions featured one or more presentations on adjunct activism or “contingent” academic labor
- 10 sessions featured one or more presentations invoking “neoliberalism”
- 3 sessions featured one or more presentations on the politics of boycotting (usually tied to the Israel-Palestine conflict)
Some of this is standard fare, especially in Critical Theory-infected disciplines. But I was also curious how it stacked up against what most people think of as the scholarly domain of English professors, which is to say the standards of the literary canon. For comparison, here are the number of sessions that include at least one paper on a prominent literary figure’s work:
Whenever I write about jobs and graduate school on this blog, I usually get one or two people who accuse me of “careerism.” For example, when I wrote about how to be productive a few weeks ago, the following comment was posted by jon:
What Fabio was talking about is probably careerism. Most successful scholars, may I say, unfortunately do follow that trajectory. But there are a few great ones that don’t. Only real geniuses are productive. Average good scholars are remembered for only one or two pieces of masterful works. This is most obvious in hard science such as mathematics and physics, and I don’t know why it wouldn’t apply to social science.
The previous comment, by Santosh Sali, elaborates:
Reading the post – gives me few impressions,
1) Being productive is about making “work-around” for serious, solo, committed work.
2) Academia is all about “Publishing” . And “teaching” doesn’t matter or it is “mundane” n trivial aspect.
3) So then where is original “contribution” of researcher? How will system assess/evaluate it?
4)Also using doctoral scholars, post-docs to work with is “collaboration” or “something else”.
5) also I have genuine doubt, these suggestions – will bring “breadth” in your work, what about “depth” – isn’t that people enter academia for this? (Or probably I am in utopian world).
A few responses. If by “careerism,” you mean “you wish to rewarded and promoted for doing good teaching and research,” then yes, I am absolutely a careerist. If you mean by careerism means “avoiding doing good work and focusing only on raises and promotions,” then, no, I do not mean that and nothing I wrote supports that.
Rather, my recommendations are about working smart. For example, let’s take Santosh’ #2 point – “academia is all about publishing.” Actually, I never said that. As any faculty member will tell you, academia is about many things. In a liberal arts college, you will do lots and lots of teaching. Even in a research university, professors will spend a lot of time prepping lectures, meetings with students, and grading papers. I know I do! Academia is also about administration and service.
The tricky thing is how to balance all these demands. My suggestion from the post boils down to a few ideas: work in groups; recognize diminishing returns; recognize work that can be minimized or avoided. At no point did I saw that you should do poorly in the class room. Rather, you should try to recognize that there may be a way to be an excellent teacher without creating more work for yourself. Same with research. Sure, *some* types of research *might* require a lot of solo work. But normally, most work improves with collaborators. So if you want to improve at your job, give these ideas a chance.