Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Intellectuals, Academics, and Talk

If you're an academic, or you want to be (in some sense, I fit into both of those categories), be sure to read this touching rumination by Timothy Burke on the many reasons why true, intellectually spirited conversation is, contrary to one's ideals and hopes, actually the exception in academia, rather than the rule. He talks about how the fact of tenure paralyzes intellectual talk (those without it don't want to possibly give offense, those with it don't want to have to know that much about their colleagues for life...), and even more importantly how the drive to publish--or at least, be "productive"--crowds out the sort of ambiguity and openness which real conversation (and, in some important ways, education itself) depends upon. I cannot agree more with his spirited final plea, "We should be more concerned with our quality of mind and less concerned with our production of scholarship, and place greater value by far on one good conversation about the nature of a good society than the publication of five journal articles." Of course (the cynic responds) as a tenured professor at an elite school (Swarthmore), Burke isn't risking much in making that statement. But then again, the Invisible Adjunct agrees with him as well, which is a good sign (though she acknowledges that Burke's hopes are countered by huge institutional obstacles). As for me....I'm currently waiting to hear back from a small liberal arts school, a place where maybe, just maybe, I might be able to live more in accordance with Burke's vision than I am presently. No one, if they really want to do be a professor, can turn their back on the tenure-track of course, no matter what form it comes in, and truthfully, I would be just as happy (and nervous) as I am right now if I happened to be waiting to hear about an offer from any decent school, of whatever size or mission. But at this moment, Burke's essay speaks to me strongly, because it asks exactly the questions which led to me to take a chance on the school I interviewed at in the first place.
Update: Kieran Healy plays devil's advocate and defends the sort of specialization which keeps people within their boundaries; in the comments which follow Kieran's post, Timothy Burke and the Invisible Adjunct both clarify their positions a bit: Timothy says that he's many talking about the strange absence of conversations within departments and disciplines, while IA says that for her, "it's not a question of abandoning specialization, but of recovering or recreating some larger framework which gives the pursuit of specialized studies relevance and meaning." Of course, any time you start talking about "larger frameworks" in any of the social sciences or humanities, people are going to call you a "romantic" or some other name which implies you have a very non-Weberian weakness for realism or meaning or community or metaphysics or history or what have you. IA realizes that, and bravely accepts "the charge of romanticism." As a profoundly romantic communitarian, I'm with her.