David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2010 (page 1 of 2)

The Structure of University Education

We’ve gotta do it right

Within this system

Gonna take over

But within this system

Chicago, “It Better End Soon,” as quoted by Lester Bangs

It seems I’m late to the party over The Life of the Mind, discussing the problems of maintaining an intellectual life while pursuing an academic career in the humanities. The usual reactions seem to be either vehement, righteous agreement or scoffing at the author’s naivete that anyone could think that academia is anything other than a risky grind.

The Life of the Mind

Aside from the tremendous sympathy I have for those who are in unfortunate spots, this part of the discussion is largely redundant, as well as irrelevant. My two cents is that regardless of efforts of reform from within the universities, there are a couple of key factors that will cancel out their best efforts.

The democratization and class-flattening of university access over the last 50 or 60 years has produced two structural phenomena for academically-focused humanities departments that are not economically sustainable:

  1. The need to attract and retain a far larger number of low-paid graduate students and/or adjunct faculty than will ever attain a job in which they will have time to pursue “the life of the mind,” the ostensible goal.
  2. The need to attract a sufficient number of undergraduates who will overpay for large lecture courses so as to subsidize the rest of the faculty, seminars, and resources of the department, especially its graduate program.

The first is what I hear about constantly, but the second seems like the one that will be the ultimate forcing function. The low-paid adjunct/TA model can only go so far in reducing expenses in departments that aren’t economically self-sustaining, because the whole model is dependent on the second factor: as high a mean student-teacher ratio as possible across classes. (The median across classes is quite low, of course, which is why universities advertise that figure.) Even if graduate enrollment remained identical, reductions in lecture courses would be problematic, as David Leonhardt explains:

Because large lecture classes are cheaper for a college than seminars, freshmen are cheaper than upperclassmen. So a college that allows many of its underclassmen to drop out may be helping its bottom line.

So lecture enrollment and grad student enrollment need to be high, while the number of seminars and professors needs to be low. This is a squeeze. Kevin Carey’s excellent article about online education has this key point buried in it:

But the biggest cash cow is lower-division undergraduate education. Because introductory courses are cheap to offer, they’re enormously profitable. The math is simple: Add standard tuition rates and any government subsidies, and multiply that by several hundred freshmen in a big lecture hall. Subtract the cost of paying a beleaguered adjunct lecturer or graduate student to teach the course. There’s a lot left over. That money is used to subsidize everything else.

And with the rise of tuition and the flattening of wages over the last 30 years, this money source is inevitably drying up. The budding rise of online education will only speed the drought. Now, Carey is talking about college as practical job training. Those departments will have a problem but there will still be room for high-end theoretical and practical training in the sciences and social sciences, funded by grant money from DARPA and others. The humanities, by which I mean those fields which do not provide specific practical training other than for academia, will suffer far worse, only having the cushion of composition classes and the like to soften the drop in enrollment. In effect, it will be the final transition of college education from liberal education for the elites to job training for the middle classes.

Ultimately, I think it’s this factors more than anything that have led indirectly to the perversely self-defeating character of a lot of academic work in the humanities. The undermining of the classical liberal education paradigm has caused havoc to those who are attempting to work within it, even as some of them indicted its history. The recent archetypal example is Michael Berube, future head of the MLA, attacking his own discipline, which resulted in foolish rebuttals that only reinforced Berube’s claims (something Berube surely expected; I like him, he’s a smart guy, and he knows the score). For all his despair over the ineffectuality of cultural studies, but it’s telling that he cites its chief achievement as its analysis of its own socio-economic condition:

I’m not saying that it has had no impact. Cultural critics like Marc Bousquet, Cary Nelson, Andrew Ross, and Jeffrey Williams have written indispensable accounts of academic labor in America, and each has been inspired, in part, by some of the best work in the cultural-studies tradition, the branch that analyzes the social foundations of intellectual labor.

If the best defense Berube can give is its rear-guard action against its very own home–i.e., “We’re being exploited!”–then it is going to be difficult to make a case for its continued presence anywhere in a university. You can see this squeeze in much of the handwringing going on elsewhere. Steven Shaviro may have struck a blow for open access by refusing to let Continuum publish a piece of his under their draconian rights contracts, but it’s hardly the storming of the Winter Palace.

None of this is to pick on these people, only to point out that the “culture wars” are only a side effect of a longer-term economic process that is indeed mostly out of academics’ control. Like anyone who cares about these things, I have a bit of false nostalgia for the good old days that I never knew, but if cultural studies has taught me anything, it’s not to mourn the decline of an institution born in elitism and sustained by it.

Hans Blumenberg: Work on Myth, ch. 1

This is the second part of an occasional series as I work through this monster of a book, which to me seems far more dense than Blumenberg’s earlier The Legitimacy of the Modern World. (In the intervening years, he seems to have read many, many more books.)

Blumenberg started the book by placing humanity in an antagonism with its environment, and the problem caused when, as I mentioned in the first part, one can no longer just run away from the hostile things in the world. Myth then emerges as, he plainly states, a way of engaging with and shaping that which is beyond us. The formation of an ordered world of myth (and its sibling theory) produces “the capacity to be addressed…Every story gives an Achilles’ heel to sheer power” (p. 16; power here being that which exerts itself over us).

Then there is a five-step process of the development of myth, beginnign with the undefined, superior, hostile Other (pp. 22-23):

  1. The Other becomes the Other One, via the process of giving a name or names to the Other. (This is clearer in German, where the journey from das Andere (abstract Other) to der Andere (personal Other One) is a function of the grammar.) This lays the ground for personification and engagement.
  2. A physiognomy of the Other One is generated, along with accompanying behavior patterns and character, setting the grounds for the laws of engagement with the Other One.
  3. The concept of fidelity emerges, by which the Other One will reliably show favor to those that…the Other One favors, in accordance with the physiognomy and laws.
  4. Humans may enter into a covenant of some sort with the Other One: if you do what it wants (which may well not be possible), the Other One will deliver on its promises.
  5. The covenant is superseded by “an absolute realism of the commitment of divine favor to men,” where we and the Other One are in it together, so to speak, and the world is friendly.

The last two stages are Judaism and Christianity, at least in the history that Blumenberg chronicles, and anyone who has read Hegel will see the Protestant-influenced German movement from the Jewish world of Talmudic law to the Christian world of Christ’s love. Except that Blumenberg is quite clear that the Christian cycle fails to solve the problems of the covenant-based myth: evil, suffering, etc. Like all myths, he says, it moves the problems of its predecessor around, but this is hardly an undisputed achievement. So theodicy continues to exist and the supposed friendliness of the world is always in doubt; the myth is under constant threat of replacement.

So far this is indeed very Nietzschean, but Blumenberg is much more historically savvy, or at least he wants to present the problem as one that lives on in theory itself. (Nietzsche was more content to wave away theory; Blumenberg is not an anarchist.) And he has a small coup in the first chapter to show his insight.

If we look back on the multiplicity of the historically accumulated theories of the origin of religion, they sort themselves out into two main types. The first is represented by Feuerbach, for whom the divinity is nothing but man’s self-projection into heaven, his temporary representation in a foreign medium, through which his self-concept is enriched and becomes capable of retraction from its interim state of projection. The second is represented by Rudolf Otto, for whom God and the gods arise from an a priori and homogeneous original sensation of the ‘holy,’ in which awe and fear, fascination and world anxiety, uncanniness and unfamiliarity are secondarily combined. Must one not also expect both theories to have their corresponding phenomena, which just haven’t been separated, descriptively, by the name “religion”?

p. 28

To paraphrase: the theories of the origin of religion merely recapitulate religious experience itself rather than providing explanation. In other words, we have not come so far from myth as we think. And, Blumenberg hints, it applies just as easily to philosophy, which so often appeals to either (a) a holistic identity of divinity and man (Spinoza, Hegel, transhumanists) or (b) some kind of radical alterity by which the Other is apotheosized and related to mystically (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Levinas, Badiou). At least as I read him, Blumenberg’s ambition is to portray these religious and philosophical mechanisms as aspects of a single, more fundamental mythical (or perhaps more accurately, metaphorical or meaning-generating) mechanism.

Something about Israel and Palestine

Quoted without comment from Agha and Malley’s Three Men in a Boat, published in 2003, other than that this section has stayed with me in the years since it was published and still seems applicable:

Sharon sees the roadmap as a nuisance, Arafat as a diversion; Abu Mazen alone views it as worthwhile, but then again principally as a potential way out of the current mess. None of the three sees it for what it purports to be: a plan designed to reach a final settlement within three years. Not one of them truly believes in the logic of its gradualist, staged approach to peacemaking, which amounts to Oslo under a different name. Like so many plans before it, it is not its direct practical outcome that matters so much as its political effect—how its various actors will exploit it to maximize their very different, even contradictory goals.

In this, Sharon and Arafat bear striking similarities. Neither is in any particular hurry. Sharon believes that time is on his side, enabling him to continue his longstanding territorial expansion and bit by bit to further weaken an adversary he feels is already on the ropes. Arafat considers time his trusted ally as well. At the end of the day the Palestinians will still be there, and Israel, sooner or later, will have to relent. Neither man seems to fear the chaos and tumult of the present; each seems to believe he can endure it better than the other can. Power, they have learned, comes from surviving instability, not from seeking to end it. Both understand that to project a sense of desperation is already to have lost the war. Both know that roadmap or no roadmap, the battle must go on, in a shape and with an intensity yet to be determined.

Lyonel Feininger: Mystic River (1950)

Mystic River

One of my favorite Feiningers, from late in his career.

Jules Feiffer: Backing Into Forward, A Memoir

There is no mention of I Want to Go Home in this book.1


1 As much as I love Feiffer’s drawing, The Great Comic Book Heroes, and Little Murders, there has always seemed to be an emptiness in his writing, or maybe not an emptiness but a pointlessness, the same pointlessness found in Philip Roth or William Gaddis. Feiffer’s self-anointed position is that of truthteller, the man who excoriates hypocrisy and reveals the unconscious anxieties of society. Call it the Yaddo mindset. The problem, on display in the memoir, is that when the same standard isn’t applied to one’s self, it’s rather embarrassing. By burying the worst (I hope) thing that he was ever associated with (“It could have been a lot different, a better movie, if I had been present,” he says in his Onion interview), Feiffer seems to be practicing nihilism in the service of self-aggrandizement, a forgivable sin in all but the self-anointed truthteller. He has always been at his best when at his most visceral, in Tantrum and Little Murders, and at his worst when in the role of a condescending observer, as with Carnal Knowledge and, alas, much of his own strip.

Attention truthtellers: do not write your autobiography!

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