Sunday, September 25, 2005

Why be a Professor? Why Publish?

For once, it's not me asking those questions, but someone else. Here's an interesting thread on laurafedora: my friend and fellow PhD aspirant LPS wonders whether working the academy is "worth it," in the sense of making "anyone's life materially better." In particular, she contrasts publishing critical articles with political activism.

The comments and LPS's responses are really thoughtful and varied. Normally, I'm all about doctoral students' angst, but this time for some reason I mounted a limited defense of academia from the premise that fostering self-criticism and introducing new and different ideas to students is a good thing and that publications and conferences help you to continue to learn how to do that for yourself. But I also like the discussion of the relative merits of humanities vs. social sciences, and Robin's well-taken point that there are more and better ways for academics to engage in the process of criticism and idea-making than the narrow world of academic publication. (This, among other reasons, is why we need folks like Robin in the world(s) of journalism, media, policy, and business: to remember -- and publish! -- his friends in the academy.)

Also, just for the record, I still think that the big challenge of the 21st century involves bigger bowls of noodles. But then again, I'm hungry, so I might be in the minority on that one.


Leonard said...

Fuck! Does everyone have a blog now? Is email forever gone? Can't we put together a listserve? For Pete's sake, you kids have no respect for the way we did things in the mid 90's.

-- L

Gavin said...

I'm with Len on the listserve thing. I'm so far on the outs that I find out about LPS's post through Tim's blog, and by the time I throw in my two cents, everyone's moved on.

But for anyone who cares, here's what my two cents were:

While Tim seems to have an excellent approach to [Laura's] question a.) because Tim always has excellent thoughts on anyone's questions, and b.) because Tim has a great deal of firsthand experience with Ph.D. candidate existential angst, let me try to approach this with a bit more of my own bastardization of the academic and the practical.

In a very real sense, the only life that you're going to materially improve as an academic is your own. This is espcially true in the theoretical and the critical fields as opposed to the human and natural sciences, but the trade-off is that you're probably not going to screw up anyone's life all that much either. Remember Mr. Nobel.

That said, there is a great deal of value in the academic life. Considering the altruistic value of the life well lived is a relatively modern development. While Plato did want to create the ideal republic, most of his writing (and most of his better writing, in my own, relatively ill-informed opinion) has to do with personal conduct, or at least micro-social behavior as opposed to macro-social behavior.

There is an important point there: throughout most of history, human conduct has been focused on the small group. It's no accident that even the New Testament commands us to love our neighbor as opposed to loving all of mankind. Perhaps even Jesus isn't so concerned over whether you love someone that you've never met.

Tim has already mentioned the benefits of teaching, and if you're satisfied with micro-societies, then there are few more powerful ways to touch someone than to be a good teacher.

At the same time, however, there is what I consider to be a great lie in cultural studies, and it grows out of a fallacy that I've had to come to terms with even in thinking of myself as an "artist" as opposed to a "critic."

No work of art, no ideological critique will ever save the world. At best you give people tools, but for the most part you simply share ideas with people with similar interests.

I'm not going to argue the assertion that "all art is political," but that truism often seems to mislead people into thinking that by engaging the artistic world that they can have an impact on the political world.

If you really want to help people in the meaningful ways, join the Peace Corps, volunteer with Habitat For Humanity, become a lobbyist for Greenpeace. Even better, perhaps, become a farmer and give away your surpluses (assuming that you're able to keep up with your mortgage payments). Put noodles in people's bowls. There are starving people, and there are things that can be done.

Then again, perhaps you'll do as much good if you become a professor and donate every penny above what you absolutely need to live to hunger organizations. In my opinion, you'll get a lot more done that way than shouting and carrying a sign in front of your local legislature.

But, in the long run, doing a lot to help your students may be better than doing a little to help someone a continent away.

Jim C said...

While I certainly understand the angst of the doctoral student, isn't the exchange of ideas really one of man's best achievements through the ages. It is only through the exchange of thoughts that the best can be derived. While publishing is useful, it seems to me to be one-sided.