It’s now just barely november 1 where I live, so my plan to blog 500 words a day is begun. There’s a post at Rough Theory about a proposed use of blogging by an Australian university. I would not participate in something like that at my own university if it was offered, not with this blog anyway. I already wish I’d been anonymous and feel a bit odd (mix of bad and good, like flattered but embarassed too) when people I know in my off-line life find out about the blog. This is mostly a control thing. I want to be able to write whatever I want. I can’t be as complainy or hostile with my name on it as I could be anonymously. That’s probly a good thing, makes me a better person and whatnot, I suppose.

Anyhow, university. Ettiquette seems like a weird thing in university. Like, universitarians have what I think is an odd culture, from the bits I’ve seen of it. I don’t like a number of things about being here. At the same time, I would say I’m quite comfortable in it but I’m not happy about that, if that makes sense. I worry about becoming somebody I wouldn’t really like.

I got into a disagreement recently about what is and is not appropriate in terms of difficulty to teach to first year students. I was told that it’s not a good idea to teach much of v1 of Capital to first years, because they can’t handle. That’s false from my experience teaching, and it feels doubly condescending – about the students and about my teaching ability. The conversation of course played out in a super civil way, according to the standards of politeness, but I was pretty unhappy about it.

On a related note, someone I know used to work as a lawyer before going to grad school. They told a story about this, saying that at law firms despite a variety of very clear hierarchies the work was often very non-hierarchical intellectually: people on a case collaborate and give very direct feedback in order to make the case as strong as possible. This is not so much the case in grad school, at least in the humanities. This person was asked by a faculty member to read a work the faculty member wrote. The person gave critical feedback. The faculty member was offended and noted that this sort of behavior in interaction between graduate students and faculty was not the norm.

My friend Colin told me once that he heard a philosophy professor comment that he believed philosophy departments often have more healthy departmental cultures because people are used to vigorous argument and debate which is not taken personally. I don’t know if that’s true, but I have certainly experienced a lack of non-personal but vigorous debate outside of philosophy in the humanities. And how. In some situations there’s a sort of game which appears to be played by continued agreement. Whatever is said, one assents to and moves on to another comment. I used to worry that it would make me dumber (then I got too dumb to worry about it anymore). This is part of what I’ve heard described as the “Herd of Independent Minds” phenomenon, I think. The students I teach do this, though I’m much more patient with them. They’re very solicitous of each other – people are quick to say yes and to say “I’m not disagreeing” (often followed by “but” or following after “but still” before or after some point of what seems to me very clear disagreement). I understand some of that impulse. I grew up in a household where disagreement often meant fighting. Nonpersonal disagreement was hard to come by. And I very much want people to like me. But it’s a pernicious impulse which codes affection as agreement and disagreement as disaffection.

On a related note, I recently read a piece of academic work which I thought was very bad. I mean, it was well written, but it used a lot of theory that is just foolish and wrongheaded in my opinion. Things that struck me as obvious contradictions, and big words and passing reference to theorists without unpacking or explaining, and in a way that struck me as performative – a sort of two step move of first garbing oneself with authority via authoritative verbal and citational posturing then effectively making a fallacious argument by appeal to one’s own authority. It’s really, really hard to respond to work like that. I generally don’t like to attack – I don’t like conflict (I want to be liked, like I said) but more than that I don’t want to hurt anyone in anyway – and when I have such a strong and wholly negative reaction it’s hard to say anything but to attack. I also think that there’s a sort of ethical matter to this. One can attack tenured academics, but not non-tenured ones. Attacks can impact people’s jobs, which impacts their lives. The level of material damage that one might do (like a scathing review of a work if really accurate might conceivably mess up someone’s tenure review) to a person’s job is partly a function of how far along they are in the academic life cycle, and should determine how harsh one is and how (and to whom) open one is about one’s views.

And now I’m off to bed.

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