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Posts Tagged ‘jeffguhin

technicians and intellectuals in sociology

I’m teaching a graduate course this quarter on the self and subject in history and theory, or so I call it.  It starts with Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests, then moves into the Enlightenment, with Smith’s Moral Sentiments, Locke’s Thoughts Concerning Education, and Rousseau’s Emile. After that, we move to the US, looking at selection of Emerson essays, Dewey’s Experience and Nature, and DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk.  We end with two and a half generations of feminism, going through de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Mahmood’s Politics of Piety. DuBois is a sociologist, Hirschman is an economic historian, and Mahmood is an anthropologist, but everyone else is a philosopher (and even for those three, these books are all pretty theoretical). Why teach this?

Well, partially because I find those books interesting and helpful in my own work. And this gets to an ongoing tension in the social sciences and, to some degree, also in the humanities, a tension I’ve written about here before. Are you a technician are you an intellectual?  You can be both, of course, and nearly all academics are very much intellectuals in their overall careers: we’re curious people (in both sense of the word I suppose), interested in lots of things outside our usual wheelhouses. Yet if you look at academics’ work, it can often take on a certain kind of normal science efficiency, marked by increasingly impressive methodological chops and theoretical parsimony. And, to be clear, that kind of work is really helpful. It’s good to know the kinds of things this research helps us know. I’m simply pointing out that such work is less about big questions or broad synthesis than it is about very particular questions and increasingly effective ways to answer them.

This isn’t a hard dichotomy: most of us are somewhere in between technician and intellectual, and different projects will call for different skills and approaches. And to be clear: I’m not saying one is better or worse, or smarter or more creative than the other. Intellectual and smart are not the same thing. Some of the most clever and compelling arguments I’ve ever seen in sociology have been exactly the kinds of arguments I’m describing here as technical.  And there’s a lot of wide-ranging intellectual explorations that ultimately take us nowhere (insert meta joke here). Yet that might explain part of the reason it’s so hard to be an intellectual in the way I’m describing it: it’s pretty common to try an impressive dive and land with a bellyflop. Better to stick to the straightforward stuff you have a good sense will work.  As my colleague Jacob Foster has written about regarding the hard sciences, going against normal science is high reward, sure, but it’s also very high risk.

(By the way, I wrote about this a bit in the piece linked above, but there’s an interesting way in which a kind of normal science approach can be accompanied by a commitment to solving social problems within sociology.  Which is to say the burden of big theory–or intellectualism–is often on sociological work that isn’t clearly about X or Y social problem. If you’re writing about a big social problem, there’s more permission to be a technician, whether qualitative or quantitative, rather than an intellectual. There’s no need to justify your empirical site theoretically; it matters on its own.)

So what do I mean by intellectual?  I mean people who read really widely, who bring in all sorts of non-sociological stuff into their writing, who use their empirical work as leverage to make really big arguments.  People like Claire Decoteau, Dan Winchester, Monika Krause, Courtney Bender, Julian Go, Omar Lizardo, Isaac Reed, Iddo Tavory, and Erika Summers-Effler*, among many others. They read and cite a lot of stuff that isn’t sociology. So do I. And so, I hope, will my graduate students.

*sorry for a typo in Erika’s name earlier!

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Written by jeffguhin

October 23, 2017 at 4:16 pm

surviving, completing, understanding, engaging, correcting

I tend to speak my mind at parties, especially when I feel like someone has said something inappropriate. I recognize it can get obnoxious and that there’s often not a lot of daylight between the big white guy sticking up for social justice and the big white guy pleased at the sound of his own righteousness. So I try to be careful about this, about the nature of terms like “correction” and “holding accountable” and “entering a dialogue,” all of which can too easily be a mask for a preening sanctimoniousness and, anyway, are a bit too heady when we’re having drinks at someone’s house or at some family thing and really it’d just be easier to talk about what somebody’s kids are up to this summer.

Sometimes when my partner senses I’m about to go off, she asks me to treat the situation like an ethnographer. Instead of disagreeing, ask questions: Why do you think that is? How does that work? Get a sense of how the world works.  It’s a trick I told her about five or six years ago, right when I was starting my first field work project, and it’s a method that makes any conversation interesting.  Everyone has a story, and everyone has a world.

Yet there’s a problem with treating the world we encounter like an ethnographer, and it’s helped me to realize that, as a sociological ethnographer, I have five different ways I can approach the world.  And bear in mind I’m a big white guy married to a woman, with a Ph.D. and a good job in a coastal American city, so privilege obviously affects all my interactions as well.  But I’ll talk about that more below.  So, here are the kinds of interactions I’m interested in: (1) surviving, (2) completing, (3) understanding, (4) engaging, and (5) correcting.  There’s a bit of a scale between them but they all blend into each other as well.

The first, surviving, is the scariest, and one I rarely have to deal with, especially now that I’m an adult.  These are interactions in which the balance of power means the situation is quite precarious for usually one of the actors but possibly both. Think of a woman dealing with a sexual harasser or an African-American dealing with an aggressive cop.  Or two people meeting each other in a Hobbesian state of nature. Trust isn’t clear and the point is just to get through it alive and with your health and dignity.

The second, completing, is pretty straightforward and is probably the one must studied by Goffman and Garfinkel inspired sociologists.  It’s the regular interactions we have when we meet people, some of which might well give us a kind of Randall Collins style emotional energy, but not necessarily. Thinking about using a cab, checking out at the grocery store, saying hello to coworkers as you walk past each other in the hall. Importantly, these can go in multiple directions. Completing can easily turn into surviving if the situation gets difficult (say the cab driver gets aggressive or says something bigoted).  It can also turn into engaging, which we’ll turn to later.

The third method of interaction, understanding, to some degree exists within each of these (after all, to survive an interaction you have to understand the person you’re surviving). However, for the other four methods of interaction, understanding is a means to an end.  In contrast, understanding as a category of engagement has understanding as its end.  This is what I mean when I talk about “becoming an ethnographer”: the goal is to figure out how people work: why they do what they do, how their multiple value spheres work together, how their networks and organization and institutions interact and build upon each other (or don’t).  That effort at understanding is not necessarily because you support them or agree with them, mind you.  It’s just because you want to understand.

The fourth, engaging, is what we usually talk about when we talk about democratic dialogue and Habermasian coffee shops and that kind of stuff. It obviously depends on understanding, but the goal is to be able to learn from others and an openness to being corrected not just on methods but even on deep commitments.  What’s critical here is that all sides are willing to have their minds changed.  You have to believe the best argument really can win.  Now this gets tricky for a host of reasons, not least ancient debates about sophism vs. the Truth with a capital T. Yet even more important is the question of whether it’s ever possible to have a conversation that’s even relatively autonomous from power.  For what it’s worth, I think it’s too convenient for academics to be completely cynical about this. Of course power colors everything, but if we didn’t believe better and worse arguments do, at least to some degree, matter, then we’ve all chosen a quite peculiar career.  But this is a much larger conversation I don’t have space for here. The point is that engaging is a means of talking in which both sides are willing to be corrected and come from a position of relative equality, if not equality of social position then at least equality as interlocutors.

The fifth, correcting, is pretty clear. It’s telling people they’re wrong. I’m not sure many of us are actually willing to be corrected, especially regarding things that are salient to our moral commitments. But we are willing to tell people they’re wrong, especially on social media. Yet the problem with correction is also an old philosophical one: who corrects the correctors? Also, how do I know what’s a non-negotiable that will bump my goal of completing, understanding, or engaging up to correcting? If you’re doing field work and someone says something offensive, do you just write it down? Do you say something? Do you critique it later when you’re writing up your notes?

And that gets to the tricky part for those of who do ethnography because we might well be doing “understanding” in our field work, but once we write, we’re not really doing “engaging” so much as “correcting”: the way we describe our respondents, in print, doesn’t give them (or folks reading the book who identify with them) much of a chance to write back.  That’s not necessarily a problem, but it is a tension.

These tensions aren’t just for ethnographers. All five of these kinds of interactions probably happen multiple times a day, maybe even multiple times in a single conversation.  Yet what’s tricky about them for me as an ethnographer (or even just me as a person at a party) is figuring out when to do which, when to lay down my ethnographer habits of understanding and pick up the citizenship work of engagement, and then when to go from engagement to correction, or to drop it all and try to just get by through completing the interactions that I have to do, talking about traffic and TV as I go to get another round.

How do these questions relate to our separate duties as citizens and scholars? It’s tempting to say the answer is that we all need to have a bit more courage to understand, engage, and even correct, especially those of for whom it’s not as common for interactions to suddenly turn into questions of surviving. But that’s also exhausting, and citizenship is a marathon, not a sprint.  And often there is something aesthetically pleasing in just figuring out how things work without always immediately turning a conversation into a moral struggle. (But then, given the inequalities our social world is built upon, those moral struggles are always there to be seen if we’re willing to see them.)

I’m not sure what the correct answer is here (as usual).  But it is something I’m trying to understand, and even, if I can, engage.

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

September 24, 2017 at 9:50 pm

what’s love got to do with it (sociology, that is)

“My conclusion became my calling: that justice is what love looks like in public, just as deep democracy is what justice looks like in practice. When you love people, you hate the fact that they’re being treated unjustly. Justice is not simply an abstract concept to regulate institutions, but also a fire in the bones to promote the well being of all.”

–From Cornel West’s autobiography, Brother West, (pg. 232)

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of love (or, at least, compassion, or care) in sociological work, and how that love or compassion can be in tension with a need for justice.  (By the way, there’s a lot of great sociology of emotions stuff about love, much of it about romantic love, but certainly not all of it.)

This tension between love and justice is probably most obvious in our work with students: think about the need for justice in coming down hard on a student you caught plagiarizing, even if you do believe the student’s story about it being the first time, he’ll never do it again, etc. (Though I’m suspicious of these first time offenders, just as I think it’s odd how many people get pulled over who’ve honestly never driven drunk not even once before that very evening).  These are hard calls, but what makes them questions of justice is, first, that wrongness ought to be addressed, and second that it would be unfair for certain students to get away with cheating, meaning they had to work much less than everyone else did.

(It’s interesting, by the way, the manner in which we sociologists can assume the importance of individual agency in these stories: because of course the cheater might well have taken an unfair edge in plagiarizing a paper or bringing in an answer key to the test, but what about the kid who went to the right schools or grew up in the right zip codes?  Of course, you might say—and I would say—that’s totally different.  The first kids are cheating. The second kids benefitted from an unjust social system but weren’t setting out to break any rules.  And that’s true enough. I come down really hard on cheating and plagiarism.  But I think it’s also awfully convenient to think the problem of unfairness and gaming the system is mostly a problem of academic honesty.  Of course, we all know that’s not the case: much of the work of our discipline is about challenging these individualist assumptions.  But I’m talking about the distinction between what we write about and then how we go about our normal daily academic lives. And that’s a harder distinction, at least for me.)

At any rate, justice vs. love is something I’m thinking about in light of Joel D. Anderson’s tweet: “I wish we had history classes that taught y’all about some civil rights activists other than MLK. Or at least about his non-love quotes.” It’s a very important point. One of the problems with the way a certain kind of person (especially a certain kind of white person) reads Martin Luther King is as saying we should all just love each other. King did think we should all love each other of course, but he understood accountability as a form of love so it’s not quite as nice and touchy feely as he gets read by often white conservatives. For King, justice comes out of love, but for some of these folks Anderson is talking about, love seems to come before—and even at the expensive of—justice.  Think of someone being a jerk to you and then you’re told just to forgive that person or at least to get along for the sake of the department, or family, or nation, or what have you. It’s the less powerful person who almost always has to do this getting along, and so a commitment to love can become a means and mechanism of repression. This, not coincidentally, is also a common and often quite justified criticisms of Christianity, something Martin Luther King, liberation theologians, and lots of other Christian thinkers have tried to work out.  If you’re part of a religion that says turn the other cheek, that’s well and good for your cheek: you do you.  But how do you justify letting someone weaker than you get their cheek slapped? How do you justify your failure to use power to right wrongs? Is Christian love actually the narcissistic fetish of masochists and the never really at risk?  I’ve hung out with a lot of Christian pacifists, and I know these questions are more complex than this framing: MLK’s own writing make this clear.  But it’s easy to get Christian love wrong, or any kind of love wrong.

Augustine thought justice was rooted in love: Cornel West is showing his Augustinian roots in the quote I opened this post with. Justice is a super complicated concept for Augustine, so it’s not worth getting into it too much here, but what I want to focus on is only that ideally justice and love (or charity) work together but in practice it’s often a hard slog. To be merciful or to bring down the hammer?  To show compassion or to condemn?  Augustine had to deal with all of this stuff as at once a theologian and a leader (the tension within his own work between these two roles forms a key problem in contemporary Augustine scholarship), and while he was convinced it could all work together in the city of God, here in this world it’s a much bigger problem.

Contemporary political theorists would use different terms, thinks like irreconcilable goods for instance, but the problems are much the same. People die. Human suffer.  Injustice prevails, and so does a lack of love.  But why does love even matter?  Is love worth thinking about as something sociologists (or citizens) should do?

As a thought experiment, one can imagine a world without love that still had some kind of procedural justice, though the source of that justice—why people care about maintaining it—would be a complicated problem. It’s much harder to imagine a world without justice that had any kind of love, at least on a societal level.  There might be individual loving people, but then anyone could just attack them in a Hobbesian nightmare, and that would be that.  And so, again, love can be a privilege (in all senses of that word) or else a private means of self-preservation.  And to ask someone else to love can mean to ask her to forego justice, or to demand of them an emotional response that it is not yours to ask.  (I was recently at a great panel on the sociology of emotions at ASA, and Jessica Fields talked about how white women will sometimes demand love from the people of color they set out to “save” in schools or other locations).

So what does this have to do with sociology?  Well we sociologists often talk a lot about justice, but we talk a lot less about love, perhaps for some of the reasons I’ve listed above.  But as I think about our work, so much of it is about love: love of our students, of our colleagues, of our teachers.  We don’t love all of these people of course (we may even hate some of them) and this love is often, as always, cruelly stratified and unequally parceled out.  Yet the criticisms don’t discount that our hearts matter in our work, more than some of us might want to admit.

It’s also worth thinking about our research, especially for those of us who do qualitative work that requires actual interpersonal interactions.  How are we supposed to think about encountering injustice in a field site?  How are we supposed to think about our emotional responsibilities to those we’re studying? (Or our implicit or explicit expectations of their emotional responsibilities to us?) Many of us might want justice for our respondents, but what does it mean to say we ought to love them, or at least to care about them?  What does that mean?  We all agree we’re not suppose to treat our respondents unfairly, not to take advantage or to use, and then we all struggle with the fact that we are nonetheless using others’ stories for our own promotion and publications, our chance at relative (academic) fame.  This is true despite the fact that many of our respondents want us to tell their stories, even if maybe not in the way we wind up telling them. What’s love got to do with it?  Or, if not love, care?

And how is this story different when we’re studying elites rather than the oppressed or white nationalists rather than the working poor? Are there some about whom we should care more?  Or care less? It’s a tricky question because, as that last dualism suggests, these categories might not contradict: you can be very rich, full of white privilege, and still grow up terrorized by homophobic or sexists parents. You can be truly screwed by late capitalism and spew terrible bigotry at marches and on social media.  We all know this.  And we have ways to think about how this relates to questions of justice, of what society owes and what each of us owes to society.

Yet the big question remains. Who are we to love? And how are we to ask others to love?  We might ask people to love us (or simply expect it), and we could also ask them to love others.  There are various problems here, not least that as, Dostoevsky wrote (and Dorothy Day often repeated), “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”  These are questions anyone who’s loved an addict knows well.

How is it anything but unjust to ask those who are already suffering to, oh yeah, love those who make you suffer?  I’m struck by the tremendous hope in that article that came out around a year ago, the one about the white nationalist kid who a Jewish friend took in, gradually convincing him to shed his hateful ideology.  It’s an awe-inspiring story, and it made me cry (as do, to be fair, various detergent commercials).  But if the story as a story is lovely, the story as a fable is chilling: not only do the marginalized have to take shit.  They also have to save souls.  Amidst increasing calls to understand where white nationalists are coming from, I can’t help but think of this problem. Of course, verstehen doesn’t necessarily mean compassion: a prisoner can understand a captor’s worldview quite well without any sort of care or compassion for him.  But it’s often the case that in understanding people we come to like them: in figuring out why they work the way they do, we find points of commonality, ways we’re not so different. Love might well be too strong a word, but I’m struck by how many people I’ve come to care about.

Yet even this is in many ways a story about privilege: I’m a big guy, a white man married to a woman.  I have plenty of social and cultural capital and while I’m not chock full of economic capital, I’ve got a good job and I’m doing quite well relative to the rest of the country. It’s easier for me to care. And it’s therefore easier for me, quite obliviously, to ask others to care as well, unaware of their cultural position and of the very real possibility not only of insult, emotional abuse, and epistemic violence but plain old physical harm.  The world is often a scary place, and its scariness is not parceled out equally at birth.

This isn’t anything new for the oppressed of course, and like I mentioned above, it’s also not a new way for the powerful to keep on keeping on.  But I worry that dismissing the role of love in our lives is too stark a response to these dilemmas, not least because it’s empirically disingenuous.  We seem to keep loving.  And by we I mean the people we study (love is an important object of sociological analysis) but also I mean us, the sociologists, the teachers, the students, the researchers, the friends, the family members, the citizens.  How does that love work? How should it work?  And how can it be a means of making justice public rather than keeping justice at bay?

Written by jeffguhin

August 23, 2017 at 8:21 pm

the role of polemics (and emotions) in academic work

I’m here in Montreal at various pre-ASA conferences, and people are still talking about “Talk is Cheap,” Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan’s provocative article about the problems with interviews and the superiority of participant-observation.

I don’t want to get into the argument of “Talk is Cheap” in this post (I wrote about it a bit here) but instead want to think about the role of polemics in academic writing. Some (including Professors Jerolmack and Khan) might reject the characterization of Talk is Cheap as polemic but I’m calling it that because, well, it’s brought about the kinds of reactions polemics often get: most folks I’ve heard talking about the article disagree with it, some of them with fairly intense emotion, and many of the responses I’ve read have been disagreements, some also intense. People characterize the article as having too blunt a point, missing important distinctions, being right in a lot of senses but taking the argument too far, etc. They’re also often upset by what they characterize as the argument’s aggressive bluntness. I don’t want to get too much into the weeds on this (there has already been a lot written about this article) but the title alone can at least be an index to what I’m talking about. Interviewers felt that their entire methodology was being called “cheap.”

Whether or not “Talk is Cheap” is itself a polemic, those kinds of characterizations are often what we refer to when we call something polemical. Look up the definitions of polemic and you’ll usually get words like aggressive or attack but if you dig into the usages of the word, they tend to have connotations of simplicity for the sake of an especially damning critique. That’s not to argue that polemics are simplistic: they’re often quite intellectually ornate. It’s simply to say that the basis of the critique is powerful because it is so damning. If there are two kinds of arguments, the boring and the wrong, then the polemic errs on the side of the wrong, but it is rarely if ever boring. It makes a real argument, rather than a series of hedges and calculated clarifications.

Such arguments can raise emotions because they miss those subtle distinctions, but also at least potentially because they force us to think about our priors in ways that might make us uncomfortable, maybe because those priors aren’t as stable as we might think. Yet if we can get past our frustrations at what these polemics get wrong, I think it’s worth considering how they move conversations forward, forcing people to consider more fully their assumptions and their own commitments.

There is a cynical defense of polemics, which is that they gain dozens more citations than a more careful article from what some refer to as “hate-cites.” This is a tried and true method in philosophy, where there is even more incentive and possibility for seemingly ridiculous but fascinatingly provocative arguments. Yet think about how that works in philosophy: to argue, for example, that we are all brains in a vat forces other scholars to think harder about why that’s ridiculous, to clarify their own assumptions and methods and empirics. The emotional character of a polemic adds to this (again: the definition always has aggressive and attack). We are taken aback, forced to think on our feet, getting pulled into a conversation we might otherwise have avoided or felt comfortable moving past. I don’t think there’s any necessary reason for this to be cynical. It can even be fun.

To be clear, it’s not nice to be (or to feel) attacked. And there’s a way in which academics take quite personally what they do and how they do it, so that a critique of methods can be a critique of selves. (Not to mention that sometimes such critiques of moral commitments are explicitly part of the critiques of methods or arguments.) I often talk about how I’d like for academics to be capable, in the same act, of criticism and kindness. And there are questions, when talking about polemics, about who is criticized (and by whom) and their relative capacity to respond to the critique, etc. etc. But, well, people get passionate and say passionate things, and sometimes those passionate arguments (and their equally passionate responses) produce some important movements.

Of course, it’s possible that intellectual life could move forward by just thinking carefully about new ideas as they show up, and it’s an empirical question how often that’s the case. But the sociology of emotions helps us to see how even intellectual life is also a deeply emotional life. How we react to polemics (and how they function in moving social life forward) helps us to recognize how emotions do work in intellectual exchange. Along these lines, I disagree with quite a bit (though certainly not all) of “Talk is Cheap,” but I’m extremely grateful for how it’s forced me to think (and feel).

There are other kinds of emotions we could think of, of course: an encouraging warmth rather than a rallying frustration. But the question, for me, is what gets us excited, passionate, eager to respond. And for some of us it’s simply a great idea. But for others it’s the joys of working out the argument in, well, an argument, even a fight. There’s more to write here, but it’s worth thinking more about the ways in which emotions help intellectual conversations (and arguments) to move forward and the role of polemics in that emotional work.

 

 

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

August 10, 2017 at 2:56 pm

should grad students stop publishing? (or: why philosophers need sociology)

(This is a guest post from Samuel Loncar in response to David Velleman’s “The Publication Emergency”)

In his recent post at The Daily Nous, David Velleman of New York University and Philosopher’s Imprint argues that graduate students should stop publishing articles and that departments and journals should create organizational pressure to prevent student publications.

Professor Velleman’s post addresses an important and real problem. Velleman’s proposal, however, is an example of good thinking that becomes ineffective because it is inadequately informed by the broader institutional context in which the problems it addresses are occurring. The argument (stop letting graduate student submit to journals and stop counting their publications towards tenure) is premised on this idea: the problem of graduate student publication in philosophy is a problem created only or primarily by trends within philosophy, which makes it amenable to resolution through alteration of the practices of professional philosophers.

Let’s consider whether this is reasonable. First, it is plausible that professional philosophy, like every discipline, has some space of relative autonomy – that is taken for granted and clearly correct. Second, however, it is not only plausible but obvious and sociologically demonstrable that philosophy, like every academic discipline, is subject to transdisciplinary forces and trends. So the relevant question, with respect to this premise, is: whether the move to graduate school publication has arisen primarily due to transdisciplinary – that is, broader academic trends – or trends primarily within academic philosophy. The answer to that is: the burden of proof lies overwhelmingly with any professional philosopher to argue that it isn’t a result of transdisciplinary trends. Why? Because the same pressure exists now across all disciplines. Grad student publishing is a pressure not created by any single discipline but by the system in which disciplines exists, and is directly related to the general increase in publishing, documented, for example, in Andrew Abbott’s work. It is still theoretically possible that, acknowledging this, one could say: but let’s still try something in our little corner of academia. But this becomes questionable as to its 1) unintended consequences (which commenters on the site already noted) and its 2) professional prudence.

The most likely effect of Velleman’s proposal would be to harm those most vulnerable in academia (graduate students and assistant professors), whose job and tenure prospects are determined not by any single professor but by the entire academic system, as represented by the deans, provosts, etc. of their universities, many of which not only would not accept Dr. Velleman’s ideas, but would simply count the lack of publications against a prospective hire or tenure applicant.

A distinct, related, and properly philosophical issue that Velleman does not raise is why philosophers publish they way they do anyway, and why their publications are perceived to have any cognitive value. This is a major problem for any serious academic, given the abundance of work and the fact that no one can read all of it, and is one I have written about in an argument about disciplinary philosophy (“Why Listen to Philosophers?” in Metaphilosophy). It’s important because Velleman is grabbing the tip of an iceberg and trying to wrestle it out of the ocean. That’s not going to work without considering the sociological and institutional framework in which the problems exist and need to be theorized. There is a chain of assumptions, for example, in contemporary academia that run as follows: the university exists to create and transmit knowledge; the humanities are like the sciences in that they produce and transmit knowledge – that’s why they belong in the universities; the sciences are the paradigm of what counts as knowledge; the sciences are journal based fields; journals are reliable indicators of cognitively valuable material; peer review is the main mechanism of ensuring this legitimacy; so humanists need to publish journal articles to belong in the research university. Whatever one thinks of that chain of reasoning, it is neither self-evident nor unquestionable. Moreover, the philosophical significance of these broader issues about the academic system of publication and prestige require thoughtful consideration in order to assess any concrete problem downstream of them, like the fact that there are too many submissions to journals. Until academics, including professional philosophers, can at least acknowledge and adequately describe why their work takes the institutional form it does, it seems unlikely they can resolve the problems arising from those institutional dynamics. Such description and theorization of disciplinary forces is what I am doing in “Why Listen to Philosophers?” and my current book project. (It’s also being taken up in work by Robert Frodeman, Adam Briggle, and others.)

Until professional philosophy acknowledges the novelty and significance of its institutional location and the fact that most of even the canonical figures in its own conceptualization of the discipline were not professors and did not share the contemporary view of professional philosophy, it seems unlikely it can philosophically and practically deal with the problems posed by its embeddedness in the research and now corporate university, one dimension of which is the pressure to publish and its attendant problems.

To do that, philosophers will need to start taking sociology, among other disciplines, much more seriously, since it provides so much useful data and theory relevant to understanding the institutional dynamics of the modern university and professional system.

Samuel Loncar is a doctoral candidate at Yale and the editor-in-chief of the Marginalia Review of Books.

Written by jeffguhin

August 5, 2017 at 5:52 pm

on inequality and academic publishing (and how google scholar is like the sat)

How does our publishing define us?  And why is publishing the way professors are defined?  Chad Wellmon* and Andrew Piper have a really interesting paper that combines historical work on the changing definition of a professor alongside some nice quantitative work on who winds up publishing where:

 In the case of contemporary university assessment, the relative value and authority of individual scholars and institutions are directly linked to “research outputs.” Publications are discrete objects that can be counted and compared. They have become the academy’s ultimate markers of value, especially in the humanities and humanistic social sciences where other markers of quantifiable value such as grants and private funding are less prominent.

Wellmon’s a professor of German and has written a book about the invention of the modern university, so it’s no surprise the article takes a deep dive into the German roots of what we modern academics do. Then we get to the article’s quantitative second half, which comes out of Andrew Piper’s really interesting work on the digital humanities (like text mining the novel!)

So what do they find?  It turns out where you work matters for where you get published, but even more important is where you went to school. My one criticism of this finding would be that humanities professors at non-elite schools just don’t need articles for tenure or status: the humanities they’re looking at are still mostly monograph games. My hunch is you’d find a bit more parity if you looked at monographs, especially as correlated with where people work (though where they went to school might look about the same as Wellmon and Piper find in reference to articles).

Yet the irony of a focus on publications is that it was supposed to make things more equal! As Wellmon and Piper tell the tale, to be a professor in days gone by was to depend on patronage networks and relatively arbitrary methods of evaluation. So then we say, wait, okay, we’ll look at publishing.  That will even things out!  Yet it turns out the rich still just get richer, and we haven’t replaced patronage networks so much as changed the patronage sources and forms.  It’s a weirdly similar story to the SAT, which was intended to make a smart kid from a public school in Kansas commensurable with a prep school kid from Rye, New York.  Yet the SAT didn’t quite work like that, for reasons sociologists of education have been studying for some time.  And it turns out Google Scholar doesn’t work like that either.  Yet one of the biggest problems here is that both Google Scholar and the SAT seem to work.  After all, professors X and Y can both submit to the same journal with an equal shot, just like students X and Y can take the same SAT on the same day. And to go back to “incalculability” wouldn’t work either:

For many in the humanities, it is precisely the process of Weberian rationalization, embodied above all in counting mechanisms like the REF or Google Scholar, that have contributed to the ills of the current system. Only an emphasis on the “incalculable” or ineffable nature of humanistic practices and objects of study can preserve the health of intellectual inquiry into the future. And yet the history of scholarly publication that we have tried to outline here tells us a different story: the recourse to measurability in exercises like the REF is not something administratively new but part of a much longer attempt to undo ensconced systems of patronage and loosen forms of institutional favoritism and cultural capital. The recourse to accounting for publication was implemented in the spirit of transparency and intellectual openness. The urge among some humanists to resist this tradition absolutely and as a matter of principle would only retard attempts to redress longstanding patterns. The invocation of incalculability has to date served as a highly effective means of maintaining hierarchy and the concentration of power, prestige, and patronage––cultural capital of all sorts.

So what do we do? They’ve got a modest suggestion:

What we need in our view is not less quantification but more; not less mediation but mediation of a different kind. It is not enough to demand intellectual diversity and assume its benefits. We need new ways of measuring, nurturing, valuing, and, ultimately, conceiving of it. We need alternative systems of searching, discovering, and cultivating intellectual difference. We need platforms of dissemination that don’t simply replicate existing systems of concentration and patronage, just as we need new metrics of output and impact that rely less on centrality and quantity and more on content and difference.

Read the whole thing (it’s free for now).

*I looked at an early version of this paper for Chad (he’s a fellow at the IASC where I did a post-doc).

Written by jeffguhin

July 22, 2017 at 2:24 am

how to meet with a professor at a conference

It’s getting close to ASA, and you might be a grad student who wants to meet with a professor. That’s great! You should do it! Or you should at least try. Here are some tips for meeting professors at conferences. (By the way, it’s even better to try these at smaller conferences like SSHA or SSSR. ASA is crazy and huge and people’s schedules are often packed with all sorts of work and grad-school friends and collaborators and editors and all sorts of other stuff).

Before the Meeting

  1. Do it now. It’s not too late (a lot of folks are making their schedules now) but wait much later than now and a lot of folks will be pretty booked.
  2. Make sure the e-mail is friendly but also keep it formal.  As a rule, call people by their title (Professor X) until they sign their e-mail with a first name or you’re told to call them by the first name. Explain, in the e-mail, why you want to meet and how the author’s work has been helpful for your own.
  3. Have a good reason for the meeting. Generic networking is fine for receptions and stuff like that, but if you’re e-mailing someone to meet, you should be able to explain pretty quickly how their work relates to yours and why meeting in person would be helpful.
  4. In terms of who you meet, always emphasize relevance over status. The best meetings I’ve had at any of these conferences are usually not with the stars of my subfields but with assistant or associate professors or even other grad students whose work I find really exciting and relevant to my own. Plus, these people tend to have more time.
  5. Do not be presumptuous. Make clear in your e-mail that you understand the professor might be too busy or otherwise occupied. You don’t have to be obsequious, but make sure you don’t come off as entitled. Nobody owes you their time or attention.
  6. Don’t form global impressions based on one encounter. You don’t get an e-mail back means you don’t get an e-mail back.  It doesn’t mean the professor is mean, or you come off as stupid, or anything else.

During the Meeting

  1. Have fun! Obviously be professional, but this isn’t a job interview.
  2. Come prepared to discuss things about their work you find helpful and how it links to your work.
  3. Ask questions about that person. Sometimes when I’m nervous, I talk too much about myself because I don’t know how to handle silences. Try not to do that. This is a conversation, not a way to talk about and sell yourself.
  4. Don’t get personal about the other person unless they invite it first and even then, better to listen respectfully and keep it professional. The same usually goes for getting too personal about yourself. (Of course, different situations elicit different selves, etc, but as a rule this is usually pretty solid)
  5. Don’t do any big asks. Maybe someday you’d like to collaborate with this professor or even have them on your committee. Hold fast there tiger.

After the Meeting

  1. Send an e-mail thanking the professor for their time.
  2. In the e-mail, you might send a link to your work but remember, nobody owes you their time or attention. Don’t presume.

Good luck and have fun.  And I’ll see you soon, I hope!

Written by jeffguhin

July 15, 2017 at 8:32 pm