Category Archives: the ivory towers of academe

June 21, 2013, 9:13 pm

The Joy Of Start Points

David Brooks clearly hadn’t read Ben Schmidt’s excellent analysis of the humanities crisis before writing today’s op-ed piece. Brooks argues that the humanities are going downhill because their practitioners have lost all passion for the topic:

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend an…

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June 10, 2013, 2:31 pm

A Crisis in the Humanities?

(Guest post! Ben Schmidt is the visiting graduate fellow at the Cultural Observatory at Harvard, and a graduate student in history at Princeton University. His research is in intellectual and cultural history and the use of computational techniques for historical research. He writes about digital humanities on the blog Sapping Attention. Beginning fall 2013, he will be an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University. He blogs at Sapping Attention. I’m glad to have him here to give his analysis of the crisis in the humanities. Thanks, Ben!).

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about falling enrollments in the humanities disciplines. The news hook is a Harvard report about declining enrollments in the humanities; the moral they draw is that humanities enrollments are collapsing because the degrees don’t immediately lend themselves to post-graduate jobs….

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August 1, 2012, 1:07 pm

Gore Vidal: pretty good historian, and a great character in US history.

I read Henry Adams before I read Gore Vidal, but I liked Vidal better. Both were funny, but only Vidal was having fun. Which is not something everyone understands, that you can have great fun at the apocalypse. It was perhaps his least American trait.

A critic complained about the versions of Henry Adams and Henry James that Vidal made up. Vidal responded, but they made me up. He shared with Adams an apparent sense that American politics ought to have belonged to him, and as it didn’t, American history would. As motives to write history go, it isn’t the worst. He knew that the affairs of the republic were run by a small group of people who wanted to protect its property. He judged each faction of the group more or less by its tendency to agree with him.

In consequence, he had mixed feelings about FDR, who employed his father and disagreed with his grandfather; he held enduringly…

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June 22, 2012, 5:06 pm

Some notes on Woodrow Wilson and the underappreciated harms Presidents can do.

Regular readers will know we frequently give time and attention to the best of presidents, with special regard to the underrated Franklin Roosevelt. But perhaps we should give equal time to the bad presidents whose badness goes insufficiently remarked – not just the mediocre presidents, but those whose harms go underappreciated.

Entirely coincidentally, I have an essay in the current Reviews in American History on Woodrow Wilson, apropos Cooper’s biography. Here’s the beginning of the essay, for the record:

In the 1912 election, the Democrats gained sixty-one seats to increase their majority in the House of Representatives and seven seats to get a majority in the Senate. Yet their presidential candidate, Woodrow Wilson, won fewer votes than William Jennings Bryan had in 1908, 1900, or 1896. Wilson also underperformed Democrats in Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, and elsewhere,…

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June 14, 2012, 4:46 am

New students for an Orwellian tomorrow.

Seen on campus.

June 11, 2012, 4:39 pm

“The real meaning of academic freedom.”

On Friday, UC Davis Provost Ralph Hexter issued this statement on academic freedom:

In March, 1953 the Association of American Universities (AAU) adopted a statement articulating “The Rights and Responsibilities of Universities and Their Faculties.” It includes these words: “A university must … be hospitable to an infinite variety of skills and viewpoints, relying upon open competition among them as the surest safeguard of truth. Its whole spirit requires investigation, criticism, and presentation of ideas in an atmosphere of freedom and mutual confidence. This is the real meaning of ‘academic’ freedom.”

A committee of our campus’s Academic Senate has devoted considerable time and effort to examining an assertion by a faculty member of the UC Davis School of Medicine that his academic freedoms were compromised by school administrators. Our Senate’s Representative Assembly earlier…

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May 25, 2012, 12:53 pm

My new course will be titled “US History: The Awesomeness of Awesome Americans.”

Updated to add, “Hello, Paul Krugman readers!”1

“A Crisis of Competence,” which bills itself as “A Report Prepared for the Regents of the University of California by the California Association of Scholars, A Division of the National Association of Scholars,” (hereafter CAS, for short) has garnered a great deal of attention. It was, apparently, the basis for Rick Santorum’s laughably false claims that California’s universities do not teach US history – though to be fair to the report, Santorum evidently misunderstood what was in it. It was the subject of an April 1 news story (no, not an April Fool’s) in the Los Angeles Times. And it was the basis for a May 20 op-ed in the LA Times. To be fair to the LA Times, its own editorial, on April 7, was skeptical of the report, describing it as “a mélange of anecdotes.”

This is correct: the paper’s methodology is highly suspect,…

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October 26, 2010, 7:41 am

Very quickly, because I’m using my humanities degree to get this order of fries.

You know, one of the benefits of a liberal education is that one can learn to think critically, and this article raises more questions than it answers:  317,000 waitresses with bachelor’s degrees!  Time to panic and lament like in Player Piano that one is expected to have a Ph.D. in Food Delivery and Note-Taking!

Or, maybe, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.  If you took a snapshot of me right after college, you’d see someone who was working two part-time jobs. Oh, that education, wasted folding clothes at Dick’s Sporting Goods!  Wasted entering check amounts in the bowels of the bank!   Prob’ly shoulda gone straight to McDonald’s.

Of course, I was doing that because I needed to earn money to buy business professional clothing, for my job that would start in the fall.  What I need to know in order to make sense of those statistics is how long those workers are at that job, …

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June 4, 2010, 9:13 pm

Step Two: Lock your books in a trunk so they can be re-discovered.

A fun poll asks us what 20th century philosopher will be read in 100 years.  What I find interesting about the list is that it depends on what you mean by read, and by whom?   Are the works to be read as coursework?  for pleasure?  for shaping politics?  Who is the audience?  Professional philosophers?  Trends die quickly,  and the birth of analytic philosophy may be regarded as no more than a passing fancy suitable only for 22nd century historians of philosophy.  (“A New Interpretation of Two Dogmas of Empiricism”; “Hesperus, Phosphorus, and American Cosmology post-1969″; ‘The Trolley, Ethics, and Ancient Rail Safety Protocols”; I will be here all night if I get started)  The general educated public?  Most of the authors on that list aren’t read now by non-specialists.

So much in the past depended on the survival of your manuscripts.  It’s also interesting to consider the…

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September 24, 2009, 11:23 am

In which I am not perky.

So this is not cool. It’s a little better in context, where Kealey is writing on the sin of “lust” as one of the seven deadly sins of the academy, and it’s meant to be lighthearted.  But it really should go without saying that female students are not “perks” and it’s entirely possible that the curvy young woman asking for help on an essay just wants help on an essay, and good advice would not say “look, but don’t touch”, but “be a professional.”

The problem here is not the common claim that Kealey was brave enough to voice that “look, don’t touch” ethic that all professors have towards their female students but are terrified to mention because of the fear of PC police.  It flirts with establishing the idea that female students should expect to be ogled, and as long as one goes home and tackles the wife* afterwards in lieu of taking up with the student, there’s no harm done.

*All…

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May 13, 2009, 3:17 pm

DOOOOOOM.

One may question the pedagogical value of final exams, especially when one is in the midst of grading them, but the plain truth is that in-class exams afford a somewhat unique opportunity for feverishly scrawled… artwork (reproduced via Paint here):

doooom

The problem of induction, illustrated.

Happy grading, everyone.

April 27, 2009, 7:22 pm

Concerning the inherent superiority of printed text to irresponsible online drivel.

Is it absolutely necessary for the image gracing the cover of the most recent issue of the official mouthpiece of my professional organization to depict something that, when seen on my desk by a colleague from another department, compelled her to ask where a viper fish would even get a detachable penis to whack off against a shrimp-wielding toucan? Do other departments not laugh at us literary folk enough already?

Why does this same issue contain a write-up of a forum from the 2007 MLA convention? Did it really take two years and change to transform that panel into something print-worthy? So I take it the first sentence is supposed to read:

In contributions to this 2007 panel of the division on Comparative Studies in Romanticism and the Nineteenth Century, titled “Untiming the Nineteenth-Century: Temporality and Periodization,” periodization, a venerable mainstay of comparative…

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April 17, 2009, 10:08 am

Written from a place of extraordinary privilege.

A fortunate few people out there have lately received calls from prospective employers, deans or department chairs, offering tenure-track jobs. Congratulations, fortunate few. In this historically bad year for academic jobs, your success is particularly noteworthy. You’re either very good, very lucky, or some combination of the two. And if the past is prelude, you also might be a bit miserable.

It’s that misery I want to talk about, if you’ll bear with me. One of the dirty secrets of the academic job market is how much it can suck to land a position. Mind you, it doesn’t suck nearly as much as not getting offered a job. Unemployment is a really bad thing; a paycheck, by contrast, is a good thing. Still, it can suck a lot.

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March 31, 2009, 4:16 pm

Also, it would make grades more… final, if profs were packin’.

Dear Texas Legislature,

I am given to understand that you are considering making it legal for students over the age of 21 to carry concealed weapons on campus.   The thought is that doing so would prevent mass murders like the one that happened at Virginia Tech.

It’s a pleasant daydream for these Walther Mittys.  One can imagine any number of ways, all out of bad action movies.  The tall young professor with the twinkling blue eyes, his class interrupted by a gunman, athletically rolls under the desk, brings up his weapon, and fires two shots into the torso of the assailant… the alternachick literature prof who had been a pacifist until she learned the error of her ways in Guatemala, pulls her weapon from her organic hemp rucksack, and wounds the gunman in the leg…. the elderly don with the tweed blazer and bowtie, calmly firing his antique revolver, ejaculating “You shall not …

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March 20, 2009, 9:48 am

We have a winner!

This year’s Bancroft Prizes (nsfw) have just been announced. And I’m delighted to say that Thomas Andrews, friend of this blog and of this blogger, has won for his outstanding book, Killing for Coal. The other winners are Pekka Hämäläinen, for his extraordinary The Comanche Empire, and Drew Gilpin Faust, for This Republic of Suffering. If you’re interested, I reviewed Faust’s book here.