Monday, September 27, 2004

Well, I'm back. Continuing discussion with Rose Nunez

Back from a hurricane-dodging vacation (where I finally caught some snook after eight years of on-and-off trying) and now having dug out from the accumulated email detritus, I can respond to this post by Rose Nunez. You can scroll down to find the links to the continued discussion.

I had said that Rose's treatment by some particular professors was "academic malpractice." Rose replies that
Malpractice implies an isolated violation or couple of violations of professional principles, committed by a small number of incompetent or arrogant members of the profession. Instead, I see the problem as being much more widespread, even a direct outgrowth of professional principles that are bad to begin with.

She continues by pointing out that if someone treated her with medieval medicine during the Middle Ages, this wouldn't necesarily be malpractice.

I get the point, and I don't think I expressed myself as well as I'd have liked. My point was not so much that being a predictable leftist was academic malpractice (because if that's the case, then Rose's analogy holds), but that the treatment of a student by professors that she describes--placing ideology above objective truth, especially when it comes to dealing with students--is in fact malpractice. And my evidence is exactly that Rose was discouraged enough by academia not to continue her studies in medieval literature. Obvious loss to the profession.

Look, I understand that everyone has their ideological committments. But responsible academics can be professional enough to teach students with whom they disagree. If they can't, then they don't belong in the profession.

Rose also writes: "But as long as philology and classicism were part of the mission, literary academics had to respect some minimum standard of empirical verifiability." Well, yes. I think one of the biggest problems facing not just English, but a whole host of other professions (journalism, law, history) is that at some point in the 1970's we turned a very wrong corner. Whether it is famous professors like Edward Said, journalists like Dan Rather and Jayson Blair, or Massachusetts SJC judges, we've come to a time where, apparently, it is ok JUST TO MAKE CRAP UP. This is, as I've said in other posts, a very bad thing, because the information culture we live in requires good information.

The 'solution' if there is one, is blowback: people reacting, like one of my correspondents did to the Dan Rather forgeries, by withdrawing respect and support from journalists, professors, lawyers, and comparing them unfavorably to engineers, doctors, and others who have to get things right. That's not a recipe for fast change, but academics are quite vain about their social respect, and when it starts to go, they'll notice.

Maybe it's because I'm a medievalist, but I just don't see the avoidance of concrete facts that Rose laments. This could very well be true in modernism, and I have said before that I simply can't read PMLA anymore, but, particularly in Anglo-Saxon, you can't get away with making stuff up.

Rose's point that professors don't hear other professors as much as students do is true at most places, but probably not here at Wheaton, where we visit each others classes with some frequency and where there are regular faculty lunch talks as well as our simply eating together every day in the faculty dining room. But Wheaton is almost certainly not representative. The biggest problem in the profession as a whole is the disconnect between teaching individual students and all the other stuff faculty members do. When the feedback loop is broken, bad things happen. As we're seeing at Harvard right now.

You should have feedback loops from your students, your colleagues, your non-academic neighbors, and the interested readers who read your blog. Seriously. But, particularly for famous, cocooned academics at big name universities who live in faculty ghettos like Cambridge or Palo Alto, you lose those feedback loops. Then, I think, your work becomes lousy and you end up having graduate students do your semi-original thinking for you. And the profession is set up so that we get stuck for decades with people who've done nothing of any great use since having one excellent idea in 1973 (Mr. Bloom, I'm looking at you).

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