Category Archives: universities

How Professors Think

Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment studies the process of evaluating and awarding grants in multi-disciplinary committees.  In this well-written and relentlessly object study (in the sense that Lamont has no ax to grind as far as I can tell and treats her subjects with respect), the author mainly I think is offering a counterpoint to Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that academic awards constitute a system of self-reproduction.  Instead, Lamont finds that even though evaluators certainly see the application through particular lenses, they nevertheless in general make a sincere effort to discover quality.  This process, however, takes place contextually through a series of negotiations in which a variety of factors shape decisions.  But while Lamont argues that the fate of each proposal is shaped by some amount of luck and that certain factors such as gender, location, and prestige of the applicant’s institution can work either for them or against them, faith in the fairness of the system is crucial to its operation.

One point that struck me was the importance of prestige, which shouldn’t be a surprise although it’s interesting to “overhear” committee deliberations that accept prestige markers so wholeheartedly.  While committees seemed to make efforts to distribute awards across a variety of institutions when it came to borderline cases, a prestigious institution and letters from prestigious scholars seemed to make a pretty big difference.  Part of the reason for this seemed to be the desire of committee members to impress each other as they engaged in deliberations.  At the same time, Lamont points out, this does not necessarily make the whole process a “fix” since employment by a prestigious institution and approval by a prestigious scholar can be genuine evidence of accomplishment.  Further, it is only one factor among many.

Lamont makes one point of particular relevance to literary scholars:  in multi-disciplinary competitions applicants from our field fare poorly.  (Historians, by contrast, do very well.)  She does not attribute this to a general disrespect for literary study but instead to a “crisis of legitimation.”  She characterizes literary scholarship as a field in decline, evidenced in part by its decrease in the production of PhDs.  (This was interesting to read, of course, since so much of the discussion around MLA has been about overproduction.  Just to be clear, though, she takes the decline as an indicator of the state of the field and does not necessarily recommend changing it.)   I have often assumed that most fields have key points of disagreement, but this turns out to be less true than one would think, according to Lamont.  Literary scholars who serve as judges remain in her observation deeply divided over both theory and multiculturalism.  Since the field doesn’t seem to have a central, agree-upon standard of quality, applications for funding are less likely to be successful.

Of course, we have heard a lot lately about the troubled nature of our field.  Usually this comes from two different directions: on the one hand, many call attention to the employment crisis, the increasing reliance on adjuncts, new burdens being placed on faculty, and decreasing undergraduate enrollments.  On the other hand, traditionalists object to the collapse of a particular cannon, interdisciplinarity, and identity politics.  Lamont’s study, though, offers something of a fresh perspective.  Without focusing on the economic issues or entering the canon wars, she sees a crisis of legitimation that seems to be damaging in a different, less-discussed context.



The Last Professors

Last week in New York Times Stanley Fish wrote about Frank Donoghue’s recent book, The Last Professors. Fish doesn’t so much review the book as summarize it, noting briefly and unhelpfully at the end that he timed his life perfectly so as not to be shut out of the professoriate. I won’t repeat the summary, but it’s worth reading, as is Donoghue’s book.

I would only add a couple of points that Donoghue raises but Fish doesn’t engage. To me, one of Donoghue’s most vexing suggestions is the connection he proposes between the research mission in universities and their current corporatization. Research expectations ballooned, he suggests, as universities competed for ranking scores. In some ways, Donoghue astutely notes, this pressure became particularly intense at state schools that could not rely on traditional forms of prestige. (As part of their alternative they also “branded” themselves through sports teams.) This research inflation certainly rings true from my own experience: when I started as an assistant profession at Florida State University in 1990, one could earn tenure on a book OR a series of articles, an option that had completely dissolved by the time I left twelve years later. Junior faculty, in fact, in the old days were encouraged to write articles so as not to put all their eggs in one basket.

At this year’s MLA, the Delegate Assembly voted to request that the Executive Council form a committee to address the situation of increasing reliance on adjuncts. In the many discussions I have seen over adjunct labor, the issue of the research mission rarely comes up. But if you follow Donoghue’s argument, there is a direct connection: the research mission increased demands on the faculty on a competitive model. This and the excessive reliance on contingent labor are part of the same demand by a professional class of administrators for a corporate-style “constant improvement,” in one case for prestige and in the other case for cutting costs.

But even though Donoghue is distressingly convincing that these developments come out of the same educational-industrial complex, it also seems that at some point those two forces would collide. Unless the climate changes radically, any institution that abandons research will lose considerable prestige. Donoghue’s answer, in part, is that certain kinds of institutions have indeed stopped competing for prestige and focus exclusively on offering practical skills in exchange for tuition (Phoenix University, for example). But it’s hard to imagine this happening at more elite institutions. Universities and colleges between Harvard and Phoenix, then, will continue, I imagine, to be pulled between the two models, maintaining at least some tenured/tenure-track positions to advance institutional ambitions. Further, the contingent workers who teach most of the classes will need still some kind of advanced degree, so there will be the need for at least a few tenured professors to teach in graduate programs.

Of course, the model of a tiny graduate faculty enabled by a mass of underpaid adjuncts is cold comfort. Some unlikely alliances might be in order. While a speed-up in the research production line may have had less to do with the ideal of advancing knowledge and more with attempts to move rankings, the possibility of becoming more Harvard-like and less Phoenix-like might continue to appeal to some administrators, some parents, and some students. Further, while learning outcomes assessment has undeniable ties to corporate-style quality management, recent studies have suggested that, as one would expect, students taught in departments where many instructors do not have secure positions learn less. This case can only be made, however, by studying outcomes.

For Donoghue, though, we have already reached the point of no return. What do others think?

Even though Fish doesn’t offer much of a response to Donoghue’s findings, it is still interesting to see this issue discussed in such a high-profile venue.


Total Quality Management

Sorry, I’m still fixated on the Bousquet Wire post I put up yesterday, because it recognized something that I’ve been thinking about for some time: the fate of the “common good” among institutions intended to serve the public.  We see this dynamic as often in universities as in municipal governments, and in both cases the erosion of the common good occurs when these institutions find themselves ruled by a new complex of local and remote managers.  This cost-cutting style of management, supported by a language of continual assessments and self-improvements, seems to be favored by local managers struggling under the gaze of a yet more distant management class indifferent to local concerns.  And, of course, the language of institutional self-improvement cannot conceal the deep failure of these institutions as they attempt to meet people’s needs.

Significantly, The Wire paired its tales of institutional dysfunction in the public domain (public schools and police departments) with analogous tales of dysfunction in the corporate domain (the newspaper).  Though these interlaced narratives puzzled the critics (why complain so much about newspapers, the print critics wondered?), it seems to me that the show’s creators were trying, as Bousquet recognizes, to show that the cause of this dysfunction lay in a management style common to both, in which the primary obligation of the manager is to shrink his organization and his workers’ wages to the smallest size, so as to minimize its claims upon the public.  It is a quintessentially defensive institutional strategy, emblematic of the era in which Grover Norquist dreamt of cutting government to the size where it could be drowned in a bathtub.

Bousquet notices this cost-cutting dynamic running throughout the The Wire’s depictions of Baltimore, and he immediately applies it to the contemporary public university, where assessments and accountability receive far more administrative discussion and support than educational goals, and yet the results of those assessments seem curiously open to manipulation “from below”:

What the [The Wire] grasps is that private corporate and public institutional managers both employ “quality” in an Orwellian register in which a “quality process” is one of continuously increasing workload and continuously eroding salary and benefits, with a single, doltish mantra employed everywhere—in police departments, in social services, and school systems, just as on college campuses: the perpetual command to “Do More With Less.”

As [one critic] observes, what this actually means “is doing less with less and cutting corners to make it look like more.” Hence the need for assessment instruments that everyone inside an organization understands to be trivial and easily spun to nearly any purpose by agile institutional actors.

The instruments are supposed to be easily defeated. As upper management continuously urges lower management, who in turn urge the workforce: “Be creative” with the numbers. Being creative with the numbers allows managers to survive in their own culture of claiming ever-larger improvements in productivity while papering over the enormous human cost.

The human cost isn’t just the immiseration of the workforce. It’s also the failure of these intrusively and anti-socially managed institutions, “highly productive” on paper, to actually deliver the policing, health care, and education they exist to provide.

What I find most intriguing about Bousquet’s account of the university is the degree to which it echoes the complaints of journalists like Jon Talton, who diagnoses a newspaper industry in decline largely because it grew too monopolistic, money-hungry, risk-averse, and detached from local communities and their needs to sustain any “sense of a public trust.”  And once again, the indifference of upper management to the actual purposes and values of journalism have helped to erode whatever public support or authority journalism might have had at one time, while driving the most capable people out of the organization.  Sound familiar?

Which leads me to my final question: are universities run nowadays by people who can speak credibly about the public trust?  And what, exactly, would “the public” demand if it could ask universities to change their practices or their priorities?


Bureaucratic versus rhetorical views of the university, via James Boyd White

Yesterday was one of those exhausting days where I spent my whole time on-campus moving from one room to the next, working to persuade a succession of audiences, large and small, about the succession of topics that have momentarily defined my life: Michel Foucault, the historicity of sex and sexuality, the future of the university and our incoming president, classroom assignments, the college readiness standards coming out of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and of course, SACS accreditation and its Quality Enhancement Plans for my college.

As I try to understand the coherence, or at least the potential coherence, of what I do on days like this, I keep returning to a passage I found in James Boyd White’ s “Rhetoric and Law” about “bureaucratic entities, which can be defined in Weberian terms as rationalized institutions, functioning according to end-means rationality.  These institutions are defined by their goals, purposes, or aims, which they achieve more or less perfectly as they are structured and managed more or less well (299). 

Laura Rosenthal and I have previously discussed, on and off this blog, how much faculty time nowadays is spent servicing this Weberean view of the university, which is built into the entire process of public higher ed assessment and “accountability,” and which seems deeply hostile to, or at least indifferent to, the educational goals of the humanities.  And White drops into a footnote a revealing aside: “this bureaucratic language[of means/end rationality] is very deep in our ordinary culture as well; think of a conversation at a curriculum committee meeting where someone says, “Let us first state our educational goals and then determine how we can arrive at them.”  That is a dreadful way to talk about teaching, yet it is dominant in our world , and once the conversation has begun on those terms it is almost impossible to deflect it to address any true educational concerns.”  (n.1, 316-17) 

We should think for a moment about White’s use of the 1st person plural here, and how it functions rhetorically, and perhaps unintentionally, in comparison with the coercive “we” suggested by the Weberean hypothetical “someone” addressing him in the commitee room.  I suppose I would like very much to be part of White’s “we,” meaning those with a genuine feeling for “true educational concerns,” but feel that I belong instead to the other “we,” as part of the “ordinary culture” (whose culture? whose world?) in which “dreadful ways” of talking about education ordinarily, and as a matter of course, prevail, usually without debate. 

Is this simply the difference between private and public higher education nowadays?  That the well-known academic author securely situated in both the humanities and the professions can feel that he has scrambled far enough away from the Weberean apparatus of public policy that he can view it from the outside?  And what would be the point of debating the Weberean administrator who wishes to begin every discussion with goals and end with appropriate outcomes?

Nonetheless, for all my qualms about some of these aspects of White’s prose, I read the following passage with gratitude, because it captured so much of the rhetoric I am subjected to while doing my work at a public university, even as a teacher of the humanities.

In this way the government, of which the law [or the university–DM] is a part (and in fact the entire bureaucratic system, private as well as public), tends to be regarded, especially by lawyers, managers, and other policymakers, as a machine acting on the rest of the world; the rest of the world is in turn reduced to the object upon which the machine is acts.  Actors outside the bureaucratic world are made the objects of manipulation through a series of incentives or disincentives.  Actors within the legal-bureaucratic structure are either reduced to will-servers” (who regard their obligation as being to obey the will of a political superior), or they are “choice-makers” (who are in a position of political superiority, charged with the responsibility of making choices, usually thought of as “policy choices,” that affect the lives of others.  The choices themselves are likewise objectified: the items of choice [or what we might call “taste”–DM] are broken out of the flux of experience and the context of life so that they can be talked about in the bureaucratic-legal mode. 

None of this is surprising, but the organizational metaphor of the university as a machine constitutes a form of rhetoric that has been so internalized by all parties that no one involved–not administrators, not students, not legislators, not even the voting public–can perceive this as a metaphor anymore.  It is simply “how things work,” or how they should work ideally , and there seems little point in debating the terms upon which public support is given, however it is given.  Whatever agency university faculty might have seems to be predicated on their ability to master this kind of rhetoric, and use it for their own purposes.  How long would a department chair last, if she simply refused to compare the cost/benefits of lecturers vs. T.A.s for composition instruction?

So this is how we arrive at a culminating description like this one of bureaucratic thought, which is perfectly anti-rhetorical in its desire to keep discussion on its own terms, without any acknowledgment of its limits:

This [bureaucratic mode] commits the system to what is thought to be measurable in material ways; to short-term goals; and to a process of thought by calculation.  the premises of cost-benefit analysis are integral to the bureaucracy as we normally imagine it.  Whatever cannot be talked about in these bureaucratic ways is simply not talked about.  Of course, all systems of discourse have domains and boundaries, principles of exclusion and inclusion; but this kind of bureaucratic talk is unselfconscious about what it excludes.  The world it sees is its whole world. 

And, as White concludes: “The overriding metaphor is that of the machine; the overriding value is that of efficiency, conceived of as the attainment of certain ends with the smallest possible costs.”  And how else could we describe the attitudes, if not of our administrators (and some part of any administrator’s job includes answering questions like these), then certainly of the state legislatures who dole out an ever-shrinking proportion of money to higher education in their states, while attempting to dictate on all sorts of matters of curriculum.

And yet what I spend increasing amounts of time on is talk.  Persuading various constituencies within the university to agree upon something.  Coming up with arguments to present to visiting politicians.  And sitting in what has to be at this time one of the most anachronistic entities ever devised, a university “Faculty Senate” whose deliberations are guided by Robert’s Rule of Order.  Where else nowadays does anyone even read, let alone consult, Robert’s Rules of Order?  We have “assemblies” and meetings, but those kinds of heavily formal and rhetorical assemblies and meetings represent one of the last obstacles to the complete takeover of the university by the Weberean, administered model.  And I think at most research 1 universities, the rhetorical model of governance doesn’t stand much of a chance against the corporate money that flows through those places, or the voter initiatives that rumble through like a lost herd of bison.

When I think about the possible rhetorical responses to this kind of bureaucratically enforced myopia, I think one of the most effective strategies is to focus upon consequences, because this diminishes any “choice maker’s” aura of managerial competence, once you can show how easily foreseen problems followed a particular decision.  If there has been a widely-acknowledged organizational catastrophe, what decisions (whose decisions?) led to this outcome?  Was a short-term goal, narrowly conceived and incompetently executed, pursued to the exclusion of lots of other possibilities?  Etc. Etc.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s easy to question (or debate) these kinds of styles of administration or management, until some kind of scandal or catastrophe captures a wider public’s attention.  But that’s where I think our opportunities begin.


the rhetoric of inquiry in the long eighteenth

Because I understand everything 20 years too late, I’ve really been enjoying a volume called The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences (ed. Nelson, Megill, McCloskey) (Wisconsin, 1987) for its essays on the “rhetoric of inquiry,” because it offers a really impressive example of the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship we are always being urged to practice. 

The consistency of this volume’s essays, the high calibre of the contributors (Richard Rorty, Renato Rosaldo, James Boyd White, Jean Bethke Elshtain, etc.), and the remarkable degree of focus achieved by its varied group of contributors make this an outstanding collection.  What lends the volume its coherence is its convincing depiction of the university as a place where persuasion is always happening, all the time, in every research discipline, no matter what method or methods it supposedly relies upon.  So despite the protestations of the social sciences and their rhetorical reliance on method, the diverse scholarly practices and inquiries of the university can be seen as a whole, if and when we see their common reliance on social, disciplinary, and institutional mechanisms of persuasion.

Of course, the bright future promised by this kind of volume–think about what could happen, what vistas would open up, the kinds of community and conferences we could create, etc. etc., if we just followed this research agenda–has not quite worked out.  This is the only benefit of reading something important 20 years too late, the latecomer’s modest advantage of being able to gauge the accuracy of an author’s predictions, or, really, to assess the acuity of an author’s historical self-awareness.  I have some thoughts about why the future didn’t work out the way the contributors hoped or expected, but I’ll address that in another post.

For the practicing 18th century scholar, I’d say that there are two major take-aways from this volume: the first is the historical, transdisciplinary, transdiscursive importance of the seventeenth century denigration of rhetoric, which helped to produce an alliance of scientific and philosophic method that continues unabated to this day, for all the embarassments that both the hard and soft sciences have experienced since the turn of the twentieth century.  As the editors note, this discursive alliance remains with us still as part of the modernity that we all “suffer,” and whose “dichotomies of subject and object” “gave fresh force to opposing truth and rationality on the one side to conversation and rhetoric on the other” (6).  (This convergence of modernizing and anti-rhetorical thought is also evident in the Sprat volume we discussed over the summer, and Habermas himself may not be free of such modernizing suspicions of rhetoric.) 

When I look at writing in our period, I see a three-way tension between the epistemological impulses of 17th and 18th century systems of knowledge-production, the still-powerful Ciceronian or Humanist elements of elite discourse, and the more diffuse energies of populism and the out-of-doors “public.”  The push-pull of these mutually antagonistic elements creates a lot of the generic and discursive instabilities and contingent opportunisms found throughout the Long Eighteenth.  Witness, for example Wollstonecraft’s distrust of the feminizing ornaments of Burke’s rhetoric in her Vindication, and her own embrace of a rationalist yet recognizably Protestant, dissenting discourse of conviction and demonstration in her political writings.

The large-scale historical and discursive stakes of the Enlightenment rejection of rhetoric is something that Bender and Wellbery’s essay on “Rhetoricality” treats very well, but it is also a major turning-point in every history of rhetoric I’ve encountered.  And yet how much do we discuss this turn against rhetoric in our undergraduate or graduate courses?  For all that, I think this topic of the decline of rhetoric deserves at least as much multidisciplinary emphasis as all the other “rise” narratives we routinely discuss in our respective fields, including the rise of the public sphere, –of the novel, –of the middle class, and so on.

The second takeaway from this volume would be the difficulty of conducting genuinely interdisciplinary research without an underlying assumption about the rhetorical or conversational nature of scholarship.  This is something that understandably came up during our NEASECS panel, but I’ve also been thinking about it in the context of my work on SACS accreditation and QEPs for my university and college.  What I have discovered is that while some disciplines encourage such scholarly conversations, and others do not, we all nonetheless receive considerable intitutional pressures to claim interdisciplinarity for our scholarship and research, even while many of the local and quotidian incentives go in the other, more safely specialized, direction. 

This set of tensions institutionalized within the modern university, which I regard as one of the historical legacies of the Enlightenment rejection of rhetoric, is also responsible for many of the ambiguities surrounding the “rhetoric of inquiry” since 1987, which resulted in the establishment of Rhetoric as a specialized field of inquiry adjacent to (and often competing with) literary studies, and the continued rejection of rhetoric by the other human sciences.



UPDATE: Since this book existed pre-internet, I had to hunt for links, but I did find two link for those not inclined to walk over to a real library.  Here’s a heated debate (via JSTOR, registration req.) between Peter Munz and one of the volume’s editors, in the Journal of the History of Ideas (1990).  And, as usual, Bruce Robbins has a nice take on these issues in his own piece on Interdisciplinarity from the same year.