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MuppetIt’s moving day at EotAW. After calling WordPress our home for the past four years, we’re shifting to more academic-specific digs: the Chronicle of Higher Education. They’ve asked us to become part of their Blog Network, along with luminaries like the Tenured Radical, and who are we to refuse such esteemed company? Nobody, that’s who.

The new Edge is at:

Come on by. Check out the new place. Grab a beer. We promise the same skewed but deeply historical view of the world, full of disappointment and Muppets.

Lots of Muppets.

You know, one of the benefits of a liberal education is that one can learn to think critically, and this article raises more questions than it answers:  317,000 waitresses with bachelor’s degrees!  Time to panic and lament like in Player Piano that one is expected to have a Ph.D. in Food Delivery and Note-Taking!

Or, maybe, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.  If you took a snapshot of me right after college, you’d see someone who was working two part-time jobs. Oh, that education, wasted folding clothes at Dick’s Sporting Goods!  Wasted entering check amounts in the bowels of the bank!   Prob’ly shoulda gone straight to McDonald’s.

Of course, I was doing that because I needed to earn money to buy business professional clothing, for my job that would start in the fall.  What I need to know in order to make sense of those statistics is how long those workers are at that job, and what they earn over a lifetime.

Look, I know as well as anyone that the time where one could get a B.A. and be set for the rest of one’s life is gone, if it ever existed.  Degree inflation is insane.  But I don’t really see any evidence here that supports Vedder’s thesis that we’re educating all the wrong sorts of people (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) when the jobs he points to are ones where the overwhelming majority of workers don’t have a higher degree.  Educated workers are doing vastly better in this recession. The recession hit recent college grads pretty hard, judging by the unemployment rate.  It hit those with no college over three times as hard.

I have a lot more to say on this, but briefly: discourse on the value of higher education dangerously conflates what one will do immediately after graduation, or in any single job, with one’s entire life prospects.  It conflates what one should major in with whether a department is worth funding and with whether coursework in them is worthwhile.  These are different questions. The smart money says that they have different answers.

A fun poll asks us what 20th century philosopher will be read in 100 years.  What I find interesting about the list is that it depends on what you mean by read, and by whom?   Are the works to be read as coursework?  for pleasure?  for shaping politics?  Who is the audience?  Professional philosophers?  Trends die quickly,  and the birth of analytic philosophy may be regarded as no more than a passing fancy suitable only for 22nd century historians of philosophy.  (“A New Interpretation of Two Dogmas of Empiricism”; “Hesperus, Phosphorus, and American Cosmology post-1969″; ‘The Trolley, Ethics, and Ancient Rail Safety Protocols”; I will be here all night if I get started)  The general educated public?  Most of the authors on that list aren’t read now by non-specialists.

So much in the past depended on the survival of your manuscripts.  It’s also interesting to consider the differences in what of a philosopher’s work was thought to be interesting when they lived, and what resonates now.  Leibniz’s contemporaries couldn’t pore over his letters to figure out what was UP with the monads; basic courses including Descartes read the Meditations, not the Passions or Optics or Meterologie; and many philosophers published their now-canonical works posthumously.

It would be interesting to see what a list like this would have looked like in, say, 17th century France, or 1st BCE Greece, or 19th or very early 20th century America.

Our present-day philosophers will see more of their works survive, and philosophy is now professionalized more than it has been in the past, although that might mean just that the canon ossifies more quickly, rather than lending longevity to the works of the canonized.

Were I to recommend a course for being read in 100 years, I’d recommend writing on as many topics as possible, so desperate gleaners of the past can find something sexy in your work, and writing engagingly for non-specialists but with sufficient subtlety that the profession bothers to keep your works taught, and that they need to be taught in order to be understood.  You should probably try to be scandalous; atheism was popular for a while but that won’t get you as many clutched pearls today.  Finally, your work should be imperfect but in a tantalizing way.  You can have a principle that doesn’t quite work; you can equivocate on a key term so future scholars have something to do; you can write e-mails that clarify your thoughts.

Of course, if you try this, you probably won’t get hired or get tenure.  Fortunately, that also fits a well-patina’d tradition.

So this is not cool. It’s a little better in context, where Kealey is writing on the sin of “lust” as one of the seven deadly sins of the academy, and it’s meant to be lighthearted.  But it really should go without saying that female students are not “perks” and it’s entirely possible that the curvy young woman asking for help on an essay just wants help on an essay, and good advice would not say “look, but don’t touch”, but “be a professional.”

The problem here is not the common claim that Kealey was brave enough to voice that “look, don’t touch” ethic that all professors have towards their female students but are terrified to mention because of the fear of PC police.  It flirts with establishing the idea that female students should expect to be ogled, and as long as one goes home and tackles the wife* afterwards in lieu of taking up with the student, there’s no harm done.

*All professors are married men.**

**One wonders what the wife thinks about thoughts of undergrads spicing up their sex life.

One may question the pedagogical value of final exams, especially when one is in the midst of grading them, but the plain truth is that in-class exams afford a somewhat unique opportunity for feverishly scrawled… artwork (reproduced via Paint here):


The problem of induction, illustrated.

Happy grading, everyone.

Is it absolutely necessary for the image gracing the cover of the most recent issue of the official mouthpiece of my professional organization to depict something that, when seen on my desk by a colleague from another department, compelled her to ask where a viper fish would even get a detachable penis to whack off against a shrimp-wielding toucan? Do other departments not laugh at us literary folk enough already?

Why does this same issue contain a write-up of a forum from the 2007 MLA convention? Did it really take two years and change to transform that panel into something print-worthy? So I take it the first sentence is supposed to read:

In contributions to this 2007 panel of the division on Comparative Studies in Romanticism and the Nineteenth Century, titled “Untiming the Nineteenth-Century: Temporality and Periodization,” periodization, a venerable mainstay of comparative literarature safeguarded by its apparent neutrality, is critically arraigned.

Lest you think I’m mocking the author of this sentence, Emily Apter, let me make this absolutely clear: Apter’s introduction is lively and interesting—historicists like myself tend to be interested in arguments about or against periodization even when we disagree with them—but how well is her intellectual project of two years previous served by appearing so belatedly? How well is her intellectual integrity represented by an error so basic only a typesetter could have made it?  These are the standards against which necessarily inconsequential (because) online conversations should be judged?

Maybe I’m still in a foul mood, but I don’t think so.


A fortunate few people out there have lately received calls from prospective employers, deans or department chairs, offering tenure-track jobs. Congratulations, fortunate few. In this historically bad year for academic jobs, your success is particularly noteworthy. You’re either very good, very lucky, or some combination of the two. And if the past is prelude, you also might be a bit miserable.

It’s that misery I want to talk about, if you’ll bear with me. One of the dirty secrets of the academic job market is how much it can suck to land a position. Mind you, it doesn’t suck nearly as much as not getting offered a job. Unemployment is a really bad thing; a paycheck, by contrast, is a good thing. Still, it can suck a lot.

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Dear Texas Legislature,

I am given to understand that you are considering making it legal for students over the age of 21 to carry concealed weapons on campus.   The thought is that doing so would prevent mass murders like the one that happened at Virginia Tech.

It’s a pleasant daydream for these Walther Mittys.  One can imagine any number of ways, all out of bad action movies.  The tall young professor with the twinkling blue eyes, his class interrupted by a gunman, athletically rolls under the desk, brings up his weapon, and fires two shots into the torso of the assailant… the alternachick literature prof who had been a pacifist until she learned the error of her ways in Guatemala, pulls her weapon from her organic hemp rucksack, and wounds the gunman in the leg…. the elderly don with the tweed blazer and bowtie, calmly firing his antique revolver, ejaculating “You shall not interrupt my lecture on Charlemagne, you cur!”

(“It says, ‘Puppies bark for it’, on the box.”)

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This year’s Bancroft Prizes (nsfw) have just been announced. And I’m delighted to say that Thomas Andrews, friend of this blog and of this blogger, has won for his outstanding book, Killing for Coal. The other winners are Pekka Hämäläinen, for his extraordinary The Comanche Empire, and Drew Gilpin Faust, for This Republic of Suffering. If you’re interested, I reviewed Faust’s book here.

In the comments to this post on last week’s Fish column, Jesse asks:

I read Fish often, but only from an uninformed perspective. I’m not an academic, so reading his pieces (and moreso the comments they elicit) provides a rare point of access into discussions on topics that otherwise I don’t get to discuss, quite frankly. But the comments reflect a consensus of Fish-crit. Can anyone offer a few bullet point criticisms of Fish or his most recurrent views? Is it mostly his pathos, or his actual positions? I may be begging “how” to read Fish, but only in the sense of a “how” among other “how’s”. Thanks!

Happy to oblige.   And since Fish has yet another poorly-argued barrel of drivel up today, timely, too!

The shortest way to express my annoyance with Fish is to say simply that he doesn’t answer Jesse’s fundamental question: what’s the academy like?   He has a rare opportunity and platform to explain the academy to laypeople, and he does it poorly.   The way I am going to describe this today: Fish consistently conflates tenure, academic freedom, and institutional culture.

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Clutching Pearls

Stanley Fish’s latest warning about the dangers of academic freedom is a work of surpassing nonsense. As usual, Fish would have his readers forget that academic freedom is threatened by the accelerating pace at which temporary lecturers are replacing tenure-line faculty at American colleges and universities. And he’d be grateful if onlookers would also ignore the fact that academic freedom isn’t guaranteed, that many scholars — sometimes even those who are dedicated to their jobs — are fired because their colleagues don’t believe they merit tenure. Instead, Fish focuses on the bad apples who hide behind the shield of academic freedom, getting away with all manner of misdeeds. Which, sure, does sometimes happen, though far less frequently than consumers of Fish’s drippings likely believe.

In this instance, Fish writes about Denis Rancourt, a physicist at the University of Ottawa. Rancourt, it should be said, sounds like buffoon:

Rancourt is a self-described anarchist and an advocate of “critical pedagogy,” a style of teaching derived from the assumption (these are Rancourt’s words) “that our societal structures . . . represent the most formidable instrument of oppression and exploitation ever to occupy the planet”…

It turns out that another tool of coercion is the requirement that professors actually teach the course described in the college catalogue, the course students think they are signing up for. Rancourt battles against this form of coercion by employing a strategy he calls “squatting” – “where one openly takes an existing course and does with it something different.” That is, you take a currently unoccupied structure, move in and make it the home for whatever activities you wish to engage in. “Academic squatting is needed,” he says, “because universities are dictatorships . . . run by self-appointed executives who serve capital interests.”

Rancourt first practiced squatting when he decided that he “had to do something more than give a ‘better’ physics course.” Accordingly, he took the Physics and Environment course that had been assigned to him and transformed it into a course on political activism, not a course about political activism, but a course in which political activism is urged — “an activism course about confronting authority and hierarchical structures directly or through defiant or non-subordinate assertion in order to democratize power in the workplace, at school, and in society.”

So gosh, yes, Fish must be right: if academic freedom protects a miscreant like Rancourt, it must be a terrible thing. But wait! Administrators at the University of Ottawa are now “recommend[ing] to the Board of Governors the dismissal with cause of Professor Denis Rancourt from his faculty position.” Which is to say, he may be fired. So Fish’s claim that someone like Rancourt, so long as he’s working in the halls of academe, will be “celebrated as a brave nonconformist, a tilter against orthodoxies, a pedagogical visionary and an exemplar of academic freedom” is drivel. In his conclusion Fish admits as much, allowing that Rancourt isn’t resting comfortably under the parasol of academic freedom. So the first several hundred words of the column were just a misunderstanding, then? And academic freedom functions properly after all, Professor Fish? “But only till next time,” he answers. That sound you hear, readers, is the clutching of pearls.

Luckily for Fish, he’s a regular contributor to the New York Times, which means that he’ll keep his bully pulpit even though he’s clearly incompetent.

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