Why Nothing Gets Done

You know why I hate departmental meetings?

Because nothing ever gets done.

And you know why nothing ever gets done?

Because people – great, well-intentioned, brilliant, hard-working people – keep raising endless, nit-picking objections to every single proposal. As a result, every practical suggestion is drowned in a mass of clarifications, footnotes, parentheses that dilute the suggestion to the point where nothing of value can ever come out of it.

And this annoys me and raises my blood pressure to the point where you can boil a kettle on the nape of my neck.

I was asked to comment on a post that responds to the study of job market trends I linked earlier today. That post illustrates exactly what I find so obnoxious about so many of my colleagues. Its author berates the study’s creator for not mentioning that a global economic crisis started in 2008. Of course, people who have not suffered extensive brain damage in the past five years are not likely to remain unaware of the crisis but who cares about a minor detail like that when you have the perfect opportunity to nitpick?

The rest of the post offers a perfect example of academic self-loathing and temerity. “We need to sit very quietly,” its author seems to suggest. “Because actual human beings find us unacceptable”:

Because here’s the thing: people don’t like academics. They don’t. We can have a long conversation about the reasons why and the consequences, but that’s the fact.

I haven’t met any people who dislike academics, so I’m venturing a guess that they can be found among fans of Fox News and Duck Dynasty. In any case, they are very unlikely to frequent Rebecca Schuman’s blog where the study in question was published. So the idea that we will get “them” to like “us” by making it very clear we have noticed the recession seems a little too hopeful.

Nit-picking and self-loathing are small potatoes, however, compared to the quality that academics possess in excessive degree and that routinely drives me to distraction. I’m talking, of course, of drama-queenishness. I will always feel an alien in this culture of overwrought melodramatic self-pity:

They become, instead, merely more suckers in an economy full of suckers, losers in a society where the loser-winner split is something like 99 to 1. . . They want to represent their very real, very degrading labor market problems and poor working conditions as special, and the academy as a specially exploitative employer. But there is nothing special about us. The academy is a factory, like any other, and we’re all assembly line workers*, and until we accept that fact and work in tandem with the rest of the losers in a comprehensively broken economy, no positive progress will be made.

I read this and I imagine an aging provincial actor who has always played very minor parts and now has suddenly been given an opportunity to play Hamlet. So he wheezes, rages, and thrashes about, knowing that this is his first and last chance to shine.

This happens all the time with academics who slip into cheap melodrama without any provocation. And while we all declaim, preach and rant about the abject horror of our overfed existences, nothing ever gets done.

Of course, the author of the quoted post is still very young, so let’s hope that this is all just a pose and not his actual way of being. There is still time to ditch melodrama and self-pity. The army of academic drama queens does not need yet another recruit.

* Yes, this is from the same article that berates somebody else for antagonizing “them simple, uneducated folks.” Priceless. I’d ask my husband who has both worked as an assembly-line factory worker and done a PhD at Purdue (not at the same time, obviously) if these experiences were alike but I don’t want him to think I’m a spoiled brainless brat. 

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31 comments on “Why Nothing Gets Done

  1. It’s interesting that you indict me when you complain that nothing gets done; I am asking, precisely, for people to have a plan for doing something. That has been my entire point, throughout this whole debate: what is the theory of politics? What is the plan? You haven’t got one. You’ve merely got complaints about tone. Which is fine. But let’s call all this for what it is, please.

    If you think that the current spate of directionless, unfocused, and profoundly apolitical complaining can actually improve the plight of adjuncts, well– I wish you well. But I think you’re wrong.

    Incidentally: the point about assembly line workers is simply that academics, despite their occasional delusions, are in a society dominated by class war, and in that class war, they are on the bottom, and not on the top. So they can recognize their class interests and work in solidarity to confront a system-wide brokenness, or they can play-act the role of most oppressed. The latter does not get anything done.

    But then, you knew that.

    • “What is the plan? You haven’t got one”

      – Yes, I have practical suggestions. See here: http://clarissasblog.com/2014/01/14/lets-start-an-adjunct-revolution/ Also note the number of people who agreed to participate in my practical plan. Everybody else is ranting and bemoaning their sad fate.

      “You’ve merely got complaints about tone”

      – You will be shocked, but my blog is not limited to discussing your single post.

      “If you think that the current spate of directionless, unfocused, and profoundly apolitical complaining can actually improve the plight of adjuncts, well– I wish you well. But I think you’re wrong.”

      – I always love it when people ascribe their weird ideas to me and then passionately condemn me for things I never said.

      “Incidentally: the point about assembly line workers is simply that academics, despite their occasional delusions, are in a society dominated by class war, and in that class war, they are on the bottom, and not on the top”

      – Ah, another rich Marxist! Cool, I dig you, people. You are always too cute for words.

      “But then, you knew that.”

      – If it’s true that your PhD is in rhetoric, then oy vey.

    • I don’t disagree with your post as much as some others here seem to do. I think they are reacting in part to tone and that they have not seen your other post, http://fredrikdeboer.com/2014/01/16/hey-professor-whats-your-plan/#comments

      At my non-urban, non-R1 school, in my department, we don’t use adjuncts, partly because we don’t believe in it but also because we wouldn’t be able to get them if we wanted to.

      This does not mean we have solved everything, and I agree with you that the broad contexts have to be considered. Someone just turned me onto this book and I have bought it, but not read it yet; I think it is going to be a major revelation. http://www.upne.com/9533641.html

        • I have now read some of it. He is very good on the adjunct issue in the 1976 original and also the 1995 preface. I have to read more to be able to talk about his analysis in a more global sense.

    • It’s very difficult to exist among people who don’t even blush when they begin on these overblown melodramatic rants. They are all “slaves” and “victims” and “dispossessed” and God knows what else. Very obnoxious.

        • “Exist among people who are slaves, victims, and dispossessed? Do you live in a refugee camp?”

          – You laugh, but I actually once participated in a discussion with somebody who argued that the life of an American academic is not that much better than the life of a prisoner of Stalin’s GULAG. A Yale Marxist this academic was.

      • It seems to me that groups of people advance their collective interests by making, as it were, chemical changes in the environment around them. Just as different forms of animal and vegetable life alter their environments to maximise their chances of survival, groups congregate together and emit this primeval ooze, which looks a lot like religiosity. That there is no consistency between their professed aims and values and the ooze they emit is no real criticism of this phenomenon. A defensive weapon doesn’t have to look like and spell out exactly who you are in order to be effective. In fact, it is far more effective if it looks nothing like you and just appears automagically when you need it.

        All the same, an environment protected in this way becomes slimier and less interesting to those of us who do not need, or cannot use, that sort of protection.

        • And here is musteryou, who always has an original take on everything and never says the expected thing.

          Yes, I think this is a very powerful image that explains a lot. There is definitely an aura of religious worship to the whole thing. I mean, self-flagellation is definitely there.

          • Identity politics and political correctness performs this function, I have observed. I have looked into this over more than a decade and what is surprising is that those who proclaim a politically correct stance seem to go out of their way to avoid actually actualising their proclaimed goals. So it seems that they were merely seeking a protective device, so that they could go on with their own chosen activities.

            • This is very interesting. I never considered the possibility that this might be the explanation for the self-defeating attitudes of so many academics I know.

              • It’s defensive in some way, although I would not say how, right now. I can see how the identity politics posture is defensive. Those who adopt this can often make their way up in society in a socially mobile way, but they do not get their hands dirty having to deal with the actual people whom they claim to champion. They’re just defending themselves from criticism that they shouldn’t have the power they are trying to claim.

                Academia may just have a case of the bad conscience in knowing that there is systemic violence in the world but not having to endure it. So it proclaims itself to be suffering as a way of creating a better conscience for itself.

      • This is why I am not interested in the Schuman version of the adjunct movement, though: narrow viewpoint, hysterical rhetoric, utterly inappropriate appropriation of civil rights rhetoric. It’s a labor issue for sure, but comparisons to Jim Crow (or whatever) are not accurate / not helpful as analyses.

  2. Thank you musteryou for some thought-provoking ideas.

    With regard to Marxism in academia, I am reminded of Kimball’s book on ‘the Opium of the Intellectuals.’ Amongst other self-serving functions, the prevalence of Marxism in academia seems to give its users some sense of superior, impenetrable uniqueness, an in-group effect, allowing them in their coven always to stand apart from but especially above those who do not share their views. It’s reminiscent of the quorum sensing effect observed in bacteria.

    ‘It is very important for pathogenic bacteria during infection of a host (e.g. humans, other animals or plants) to co-ordinate their virulence in order to escape the immune response of the host in order to be able to establish a successful infection’

    http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/quorum/what.htm

  3. One of my takeaways from this is just what purpose is tenure serving here?

    I know the drill about academic freedom but the reaction of tenured faculty to the systematic and purposeful decimation of their profession is to nitpick and deny and run around sighing oh dear! oh my! and generally being as useless as tits on a boar hog.

    If this is how they react to a direct assault on their profession why should anyone trust them at all about anything?

    What’s needed for teaching at a university level (once a person has demonstrated competence) is a living wage and a reasonable level of job security (commiserate to those of other state employees). I’m thinking the whole idea of tenure is an archaic remnant of a guild mentality that is not serving any useful purpose and it’s the behavior of tenured faculty that has led me to that.

    • The author of the post is a graduate student, I believe.

      I work in a unit that is over 50% non tenure track. Because we do not offer tenure track, we do not get as high quality people as we could. Also, these people are not evaluated on the same standard as the tenure track ones. So, it is effectively as though they had been hired to tenure with no evaluation. This is the future you are asking for when you ask to abolish tenure.

      • I don’t think anybody here is anti-tenure. I think the point is that tenured people are often the first ones to champion these really horrible changes imposed by the administration.

        The very first person to accept without a single objection the teaching of an extra course for free is tenured and a Full Professor. Of course, now when i refuse to have my contract voided in this underhanded and illegal way, I will hear, “If even X agreed, then how can you refuse and still expect to be given tenure? Where is your spirit of collegiality?”

  4. Tangentially, but related: In The Name of Love
    “There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers”

    There’s discussion of academia. Of course none of the insights are particularly new, just crystallized in a way I haven’t seen before. Anyone who freelances artistically runs up against the same phenomenon as well.

    • In my observation, a lot of academics whinge endlessly and melodramatically or they start acting like having a vocation means you should never be concerned about earthly things like working conditions and pay.

      I’m personally at the point where I love nothing so much that I’d want to spend the majority of my time underpaid and in crappy working conditions. I recognize that those conditions would cause me to hate what I once loved.

  5. Fixing the problems of higher ed will require a redistribution of priorities and resources, particularly in the R1s. As its stands in those institutions, graduate students, research, and grants = prestige. Teaching undergraduates (particularly nonmajors) = grunt work best left to grad students and contingent faculty. So long as this is the case, we’re going to have a hard time making a persuasive case for what we do to the tax- and tuition-paying public and the misallocation of resources will perpetuate itself. (Please understand that I’m not advocating and end to research–just an end to the pervasive research-above-all mentality that pervades R1 humanities academia, driven in part by administrative expectations based on the STEM fields.)

    http://goodenoughprofessor.blogspot.com/2014/01/my-pet-elephant-in-room.html

    http://goodenoughprofessor.blogspot.com/2014/01/that-elephant-again.html

    • It is interesting because I always wanted to be at an R1, for the resources and the good graduate students, but not so as to get away from the undergraduates (even though it is true, I would rather not teach most *freshmen*, I am very interested in teaching undergraduates generally). But seeing what is going on at these places, I am starting to be happy I am at a lower-tier place where, paradoxically, we might be able to exert more quality control.

    • ” As its stands in those institutions, graduate students, research, and grants = prestige. Teaching undergraduates (particularly nonmajors) = grunt work best left to grad students and contingent faculty.”

      – Yes. Absolutely true. And then such programs lose all majors and hold panicky meetings asking “Where do those students go?” I’ve seen that happen and it was mind-boggling how everybody managed not to notice that students were disappearing right between the low-level courses taught by instructors and the time when they could finally take the “really important” courses with the resident tenured geniuses.

  6. This is so true. When I have time, I want to write something more about this, about (some, NOT ALL) academics’ tendency toward nit-picking over agreeing on larger points; toward *having* to be right, exactly right, instead of agreeing on larger points; toward total defensiveness instead of, again, agreeing on larger points; toward competitiveness and “winning” over collaboration. There are so many in academia who are not like this at all–but in my (albeit limited) experience, those that are often get into positions of power, and are also the ones who comment, ceaselessly and tirelessly, on CHE articles. I once wrote an article about how Tom Friedman is a neoliberal douche and his hagiography of the MOOC is the worst, and I had a minor–MINOR–grammatical “infraction,” and half of the comments were just about that, because otherwise everyone would just have agreed with me, and we can’t have THAT CAN WE.

    • Nate Silver carried out an extremely important, time-consuming project. As I understand, you invested money into bringing it to light. We should all be using, reblogging, spreading the word and analyzing this crucial data. Instead, people descend into these self-righteous nit-picking events that probably make them feel like true activists.

      • I wonder if the real Nate Silver will eventually demand I stop calling him “Adjunct Nate Silver.” But my rule is–you want to guest blog anonymously, I get to choose your nickname, and as the undisputed Stats Man of the academic job market, it fits. BTW, I ate at Koppermann’s today–my usual two meals at once :).

    • That was a really important, crucial photo that I think we should all print out, hang on our office walls and stare at every day. I could do without this post but the photo is priceless.

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