Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Academic Showbusiness

Paul sent me this link to a recent NYT op-ed piece. Here Bruni discusses the fate of two academics that get entangled in hollywood celebrity culture and appear to compromise their standards and standing in so doing. One of these leaves stuff out that one can guess he believes to be important so as not to embarrass an important "guest" (or financially compromise his sponsor) . The other promotes quack remedies for the sake of eyeballs. Before you tut-tut and wonder how this could happen, recall that this is a blown up version of what we see in our neck of the woods every day. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the little Language discussion we've been having (here) is the shriveled version of the same phenomenon. How shriveled? Well, they are talking "real" celebrity and mega-bucks and we are talking peanuts. To my mind, that makes our situation even more cringingly awful for we don't even have the excuse of the siren sounds of riches (cue: ruffling greenbacks and tinkling god coins) to fall back on. It's one thing to sell your principles, quite another to sell them so cheaply.

I am an old guy now so take what I say with a grain of salt. It is my impression that academia has become a branch of the entertainment industry, and not in a good way. Journals embargo scientific results until publication to maximize buzz, teachers are feted for their entertainment value, Nobelists are celebs, administrators want to make sure that our student customers are happy and not overly disturbed, and some journals will print anything so long as they attract traffic and generate revenue. It don't recall it ever being thus. But remember, I am an old guy and my memory is going. What I am pretty sure is that it should not be thus. That's not what academia should be. And we see this clearly when others embarrass themselves in the ways Bruni noted. But before you laugh, a little peak in the mirror might be salutary.


  1. You're right to be worried. So what do you recommend that people do about it? E.g., a young researcher who's trying to get a steady job and tenure in the current climate, when tenure committees in some institutions rely on h-index numbers. E.g., an academic department in the humanities that is facing threats because of sharp drops in majors, since students are seeking more 'practical' degrees. E.g., a field that is struggling to gain understanding, and that faces threats of severe funding cuts from government. E.g., a university that is trying to raise its student profile or enrollments in the face of cuts in state funding. What are the best ways to respond to these pressures?

    I love slippery slope arguments as much as the next person, but the NYT piece is about individuals seeking personal advancement, and making compromises due to corporate pressure. The Language flap on this blog was not, I think, about editors seeking personal glory.

    1. You are right to find differences between the various cases. But I also believe that they are not as different as I would like. There are various pressures to abandon minimal academic standards. Each deviation seems reasonable given the circumstances. One can always tell oneself a story about how this or that move or compromise is not that bad and will do some good. We do after all live in the real world and not the one we would like to live in.

      The first question is the right one: what to do? Well, I hope that one thing we agree NOT to do is sell our birthrights for some pea soup. Moreover, I would warn against the idea that such compromises really pan out well. The idea seems to be that if we just do this or that disreputable thing then it will be better. Why do we believe this? After all it's not like there has not been a lot of compromise to this point and the problems have aggravated. Why believe that a little more will finally stem the tide and allow the young to proposer and the righteous to succeed? So, I guess I reject the suggestion that this is even a reasonable strategy given where we are.

      This does not say what we should do. What we should be doing is trying to figure out how resurrect the climate of opinion concerning higher education in the post war period. There is a general skepticism that education and search for knowledge is a value at all. All must be justified consequentially (better jobs, booming economy, higher revenues). This instrumental justification of education has been a bust. It values science only insofar as it gooses technology. It values the arts only insofar as it leas to urban renewal and more tourist tax dollars. It values the humanities only insofar as it leads to better memo writers and content providers. If this ethos does not change (and it might not) then there is no real future for education anyhow. How to change it? Well engaging in intellectual activity and defending the university as such would help. But how to do this effectively eludes me. Believe me if I knew I would be doing that rather than what I do now. But, to repeat the theme I began with: I doubt that indulging these realities via successive and permanent compromise is really much of a solution. So given that it won't even work, why not stand on at least some principles?

    2. Not that I want to doubt your personal experiences, but to what extent are these actually new developments? As you say yourself, the "better times" you want to return to is the period from 45 to the mid 70s, when the academic sector was booming and students could get tenure-track job offers before they were even done with their PhD.

      But this time, too, was marked by a view of science as a means to very practical ends; the US government didn't start spending billions on research because of a sudden enlightenment but because scientists had proven themselves incredibly useful during WW2 (invention of the radar, decryption of the enigma, the Manhattan project, and many other applications). In addition, the US was in a cold war with the USSR, which among many other thigns entailed an intellectual and scientific arms race. So the ideal of enlightenment and constantly improving oneself was never a big factor at a political level and never enjoyed much mass appeal.

      [except for maybe a brief moment in history where it was a central goal of the labor movement, which played an important role in the creation of public libraries. This contrasts rather shockingly with the visions of New Labor nowadays and has been reduced to a debate about student tuition in many other European countries. But I digress, the main point is that these noble ideas are practically unsellable today, and one could also argue that they are socially irresponsible in that they put the well-being of privileged, highly educated individuals over that of society as a whole.]

      These times also had their pop-stars (Einstein, Feynman, Sagan, Watson, Chomsky, Foucault, Sartre), heck, 50s sci-fi movies would have never existed without the sudden popularity of science. In addition, intellectuals held a lot more power over public discourse --- e.g. via op-ed pieces and the feuilleton --- and used this power in support of specific political goals; one common accusation against intellectuals nowadays is that they neglect their social responsibility by not engaging with the media often enough.

      The increasingly bloated administrative body and the switch to a students-as-consumers culture are probably more recent developments, and they have had some noticeable negative consequences (the former mostly for faculty, the latter mostly for the students themselves, I'd say). Both are natural outgrowths of changes in US culture and economy since the early 80s (less production, more finances and service, ubiquitous privatization), but they don't strike me as sufficient or necessary conditions for the kind of showman-ship you deplore --- quackery and whitewashing is as hold as human civilization. If it was indeed less common in the post-war era, then that was the exception rather than the norm.

      Taking all of this back to the question of how it might be fixed, you can probably tell from what I've said so far that I'm very pessimistic regarding any kind of positive change. Things will stay sthe same until the US falls behind some other country with respect to research (e.g. China) and thus becomes noticably less comptetitive on an economic and military level. And that still seems at least a few decades away. So in the meantime, you're better off making the best of the current situation rather than trying to change it.

      [PS: I am kind of jealous that Norbert has managed to maintain his idealism while I lost mine at some point in my early 20s.]

    3. A gruesome follow-up (not or the faint of heart): while Oz's behavior is despicable, Walter Freeman performed public lobotomies in the 40s, 50s and 60s (the ice pick variety), in front of an exalted audience. He even tried to "spice things up" by inserting picks in both eyes at the same time. Many scientists were already outspoken critics of lobotomies at this point, and many western countries had already banned the procedure...

      Celebrity culture is not a new thing, so whatever might have made the post-war era a golden age, it can't have been a lack of showmanship and scientists seeking a spot in the limelight.

    4. Chomsky's early work was partly supported by various branches of the military industrial complex. It's hard to imagine anything so theoretical getting funding from the same sources today. I wouldn't want to draw sweeping conclusions from one example, but I'd guess that on the whole it's harder to get money for basic research than it used to be.

    5. The abundance of money has a way of creating openings for things that are not money driven. The big fact of the period until the 80s was the abundance of money in higher education. This was in part due to the GI bill and in part due to competition with the Soviet Union. The west needed academic institutions not only to build the bombs and design the planes but also to produce art, culture and thought to compete with the USSR. Indeed, this is even how the higher ups thought of this, given their support for all sorts of activities that now go begging. Was this support altruistic? Nope, but it was there and the money created a space in which intellectual work and cultural work could be pursued in less mercenary ways. Was it a golden period. Hell no. Lots wrong. The USA and most of the west was still very racist and class ridden, but as far as the university went, it was a golden time where intellectual interests could be pursued because money was abundant.

      This has changed. Why? Well, in part because there is no more USSR to culturally defend against. The US won. However, the country is not poorer. It could still put lots of money into education and the arts. But there has been a shift and this has had its impact on universities. And the shift has been as much ideological as monetary (though it has been monetary). The whole world is not supposed to be run like a business. This is the worst thing that has happened to university life; the idea that everything has a price, students are customers, administrators are supervisors etc. The show biz aspect is part of this ethos. Was it different once? A little. Why? Because money flowed abundantly and so the pressure to BS so as to sell was less.

      So what to do? Who could argue about trying to make the best of the current situation. As my daughter would say, 'duh!'. But recognizing the current terrain may lead to some civilizing influence. You know, deciding to engage in BS full time and treating everything as if it were a salable commodity etc. rests on personal choices. I sometimes envy Thomas's thinking that it is ALL beyond anyone's control. Makes it easy to play along, no?

    6. Well as a non-tenured professor on a severely restricted work visa who had to pay a fee to the US government to offset the cost of their surveillance machinery and who can be deported for even minor violations involving "moral turpitude" I certainly have some incentives to play along ;)

      On a more serious note, I have no problem with putting up a fight, but I prefer to pick battles that I can win by myself. We both agree that the post-war era stands out for the sheer amount of available funding, and I don't see that money coming back anytime soon. The US is still the world's leading research powerhouse by a large margin, and unless some other country challenges this position politicians will be reluctant to spend money on increasing the margin even more unless it results in a predictable net benefit (just like a company that already has a market cornered has little interest in quickly cranking out new products). All efforts at this point are devoted towards preventing further cuts, and even this is a perennial and highly demoralizing struggle. I don't see any way to turn the tide, and I've explained why I doubt the efficacy of a science-pour-science message

      In the absence of actionable solutions, I focus my attention on issues where I have ideas as to what could be done or where somebody else has formulated a precise plan that I find plausible. This isn't one of them.

    7. I don't think that you are being asked to put up a fight. First, being untenured you really are not in a position to do so. Second, as you note, it's not clear what the fight would be. But, I find the idea that given the "realities" the best thing to do is play along. There are positions more than doing nothing and short of playing along. And here is one thing we really should not do: compromise on what we know and indulge BS because it is popular. As for the rest, well, compromise away after due deliberation. Take DoD money? Put someone's name on a lab? Give popular lectures at the President's house for donors? All fair game. Trash your own field for eyeballs? Never. My standards are not high. But does Science really need to embargo work in order to make a big deal of the result? I doubt it. Does Language really need to pimp garbage to get downloads? I won't believe it till the numbers are spreadsheeted for me. Btw, what counts as moral turpitude in NY?

    8. Trash your own field for eyeballs? Never. [...] Does Language really need to pimp garbage to get downloads?
      Two points. It is indeed true that linguists have the same problem as many other humanities: they tend to put the fight against a dissenting opinion over the good of the field as a whole. This can be seen in grant reviews, where evaluations are much more positive in the sciences as this ensures the money stays in the field --- a nice case of enlightened self-interest. But leveling sell-out accusations against the primary outlet of the LSA (even if it's just one of the online spinoffs) can also end up doing more harm than good.

      Which takes me to my second point: do we already know the intended purpose of the Language review (beyond the vague PR-speak in the official statement)? Click-baiting is one possible explanation, but there's many alternatives that are much less depraved, including starting a discussion of the sociology of the field and how there can still be such a big divide. That is a question the LSA should be eminently interested in considering that its membership numbers aren't all that stellar.

      It might be worth inviting one of the editors to explain their position in a guest post, or you could ask them for an email interview (phone would be better as it's more dynamic and you can press them if they try to dodge some question, but it's also a lot more work to transcribe/edit). Bonus points for contacting two editors independently and comparing their answers :)

      what counts as moral turpitude in NY?
      The trick is that the list is never exhaustive since a lot is up to the whims of a judge, that way you always have to play it safe. Here's a sample of offenses that have been deemed to involve moral turpitude: any kind of felony, posession of drugs, bigamy, sodomy, abortion, gross indecency, oral sexual perversion, prostitution, soliciting people to engange in lewd acts or commit crimes against nature, animal fighting, issuing bad checks, transporting stolen goods, destruction of public property, crimes against the authority of the government (e.g. falsely issuing a narcotics prescription, using fictitious names and addresses in violation of postal laws, and tax evasion)

    9. The rhetorical question about pimping was following a suggestion by Colin, it was not something that I myself know to be true. I actually don't care about the motivations, only the effects. Whether this is being pursued for good motives or bad if it is intended to canvass a range of views it will necessarily mislead. I conclude this assuming that the range of views the editors are canvassing will not span from my own through Adger's all the way to Pesetsky's. Were that the span, i would have no objection. But i really doubt that and hence my objection irrespective of the editor's motives.

      I think that my views on this have lost what I took to be their focus. I have two related but different conceptions I have been pushing. First, that Evans' book is objectively junk, using very minimal standards of judgment. Thus it deserves excoriation by Language precisely because of its apparent popularity.

      Second that lingusitics like the rest of contemporary science is succumbing to the temptations of the entertainment industry.

      The two might be related, but they are separate points. I have erred in suggesting this as the cause of the Language i itiative (in response to such suggestions from others). This was an error. I have no idea why Language is pursuing its apparent initiative, and as explained, i dont care why. The effects will be equally baleful if mtives are be or mal -ign.

  2. With respect to practical actions, I think that there are much more concrete actions available to help along the sort of reform that you desire. The main task is to find student leaders and listen to them.

    Across the united states, graduate students have been unionizing (without much media attention), and within canada, graduate students have been organizing their strike actions over the objections of their unions. A large component of their demands are about shared governance. That is, they don't just want improvement in wages and conditions of work, but they also want a meaningful seat at the administrative table of their departments and their universities. I recently spoke on the radio in Chicago with a few people organizing around these issues at Columbia College in Chicago, and at two of Canada's largest universities {} -- our segment starts at about 55 minutes. Younger graduate students are willing to do bold and risky research and will get the goods if you help them get a seat at the administrative table.

    Here are a few concrete things you can do if you are a professor:

    1) if students are unionizing at your university, help them. consider reducing your workload or making your deadlines for homework more flexible. help them to enact a memorandum of understanding or some such to ensure that they get to make decisions on par with faculty wrt departmental decisions. help them win governance clauses in their collective bargaining agreements.

    2) there are organizations that are articulating the desires of students to rejig higher education so that it makes sense:

    consider kicking in some rubles or time if you can.

    3) students are also articulating their perception on how intellectual exchange happens in the modern university (see here for example:

    the tl.dr: conferences are being seen for what they are: money making machines that both exclude many people from participating based on their wealth, while being mostly focused on competing with your fellow language researchers for prestige.

    If there is a "corporate university" conference happening at your university, consider organizing an unconference that is free of charge and in an environment that is participant-directed. For example, in Toronto, we've had great success running multi-day conferences (not linguistics specific) where the conference begins with a white-board that is filled by participants for the talks they want to give. they essentially create their own schedule & the quality of the talks and audience participation is higher than at professional conferences.