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Fish Filet.

February 16, 2009, 9:28 am

In the comments to this post on last week’s Fish column, Jesse asks:

I read Fish often, but only from an uninformed perspective. I’m not an academic, so reading his pieces (and moreso the comments they elicit) provides a rare point of access into discussions on topics that otherwise I don’t get to discuss, quite frankly. But the comments reflect a consensus of Fish-crit. Can anyone offer a few bullet point criticisms of Fish or his most recurrent views? Is it mostly his pathos, or his actual positions? I may be begging “how” to read Fish, but only in the sense of a “how” among other “how’s”. Thanks!

Happy to oblige.   And since Fish has yet another poorly-argued barrel of drivel up today, timely, too!

The shortest way to express my annoyance with Fish is to say simply that he doesn’t answer Jesse’s fundamental question: what’s the academy like?   He has a rare opportunity and platform to explain the academy to laypeople, and he does it poorly.   The way I am going to describe this today: Fish consistently conflates tenure, academic freedom, and institutional culture.

During the course of the hiring season, my mother called.  My mother is likely representative of large swathes of the American public in her understanding of the academy, not being a highly-trained professional nor an academic herself.  She is Jo the Mom.  And she asked about my career path (e.g., “So why aren’t you visiting for Christmas?”), and I tried to explain how what I was trying to do was secure a tenure-track job.

“Oh,” she said knowingly, “so what’s next is then you get tenure.”

She said this much in the manner that you would say that the fourth grade follows the third, or that the sun comes up in the morning.   As a koan enlightens a novice, it hit me in that moment that the common complaint about the “tenured radical” is made without any understanding of what tenure is.

So my annoyance with Fish is that nothing he writes would allow her to understand the academy.   Academic freedom is a bit hard to define.  The usual analogy is with something like freedom of speech, but that strikes me as incorrect.   The two freedoms serve different functions, and interestingly, academic freedom is both more protected and more constrained than freedom of speech.

A better, though still imperfect, analogy is with something like the bar, or being a certified professional accountant, or medical doctor.    Academic freedom is simply the claim that legitimate evaluation of a research program should be done not by external political or administrative forces, but by peers.  This is why I say it is more protected, because it historically does not require a political system that acknowledges the freedom of speech and extends to speech outside of the classroom; and why I say more constrained, because it is not the case that any type of research is valued, and convincing one’s peers is not easy.

This sort of thing gives Fish conniption fits as he cherry-picks the NYT comments.  “It would be hard to imagine another field of endeavor in which employees believe that being attentive to their employer’s goals and wishes is tantamount to a moral crime,” he says.  Even spotting him a couple points for hyperbole, this is easy to answer.  The employer of a CPA may be a company like Enron.  The employer of a lawyer may be a banking firm seeking to evade a particularly troublesome piece of regulation.  The employer of a doctor might be a hospital desperately seeking to control costs at the expense of patient care.  In all of those cases, we, on the outside, think it wise when the professional rejects the bidding of those who pay the bills in favor of the standards internal to her profession.    In all of those cases, we think that being attentive to their employers’ goals and wishes at the expense of their integrity oughta be-a crime.

What’s somewhat unique about academic freedom is that it is traditionally construed to protect also speech not directly related to one’s work. (But even there, while being outspoken about a political issue might cost you a job at a law firm, it probably won’t be sufficient grounds to remove you from the bar.)  More on this in a later post, but note for now that it protects Fish’s job from his drivel in the NYT, and it protects eric’s blogging about the New Deal.   The way I look at it is that Fish is the price we have to pay for eric.

So, how is academic freedom protected? Tenure is simply the hiring contract that gives the commitment to academic freedom some heft.   It isn’t a job for life.  (As some departments are finding out in the down economy.) It doesn’t mean that there are no rules on how a professor spends her time, or about what she can teach.  (As Rancourt found out.) At my university, like many others, new courses must be approved by the dean; there are rules about what sort of writing and reading load is appropriate, about what percentage of the grade can be due to various classroom activities.   The department might set the content.  There are also rules on committee and service work.  Some schools have  loyalty oaths and faculty statements of faith.   You should see the document that is a list of rules on the permitted format of my dissertation.

And I think it would be helpful if the public perception of tenure reflected reality, which is that essentially, it’s a system in which one of the potential outcomes of one of your annual reviews is losing your job, and this can happen in cases where a person has been at a university for eight or nine years, has glowing student evaluations, a great number of books and articles, a reputation as an insightful and gregarious colleague and scholar.  Fish has an opportunity to do this.  He doesn’t.  That’s what makes my mom think that it’s something that happens to all professors, like aging.

But what really bothers me about Fish is the conflation of both academic freedom and tenure with a relaxed institutional culture.  Hence all of the cheap shots about academic schedules (they wander in at ten! they wear jeans! they have weird personalities and unstylish hair!), none of which has anything to do with academic freedom and probably wouldn’t be defended on those grounds.   But it’s consistently pointed to as a reason that academics don’t live in the real world, and that nowhere else would personal idiosyncrasies be tolerated.

Both of those claims are false.  The latter is true in all jobs where the institutional culture is such that personal idiosyncrasies don’t matter much to the performance of the job.  The common mistake is to compare the academy only to high-level corporate jobs with rigid institutional cultures.

As to the former, it makes the mistake common to five-year-olds who think that Teacher lives at the school, never eats, and never goes potty.  I know tenured faculty who wander in at 10, who, if you submit to them at 1am a feverishly written draft of a chapter will have to you 20 single-spaced pages of comments by 4:30am.

Note, if we’re interested in critiquing the system, distinguishing the questions is helpful.  Can we have academic freedom without tenure?  I don’t know; give me an alternative!  Let’s see if we think it would work!  Can we have academic freedom with a rigid institutional culture?  I don’t know, let’s think about it!   Perhaps there is a correlation between the state of one’s beard and the state of one’s mind.  Does being a professor with academic freedom mean that one should sound off on things outside one’s expertise in the public sphere?  Hmm, what a good question!

That’s not what Fish is doing.   That’s what doth irk.

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