expertise on academic life

December 6, 2004

[Note: The timestamp is approximate. I do not remember the original date for this post, only that I wrote it in December.]

Like Timothy Burke and many other bloggers, I have found myself growing quite frustrated with the participants (including, or perhaps especially, myself) in the debate over intellectual diversity in the academy. While I still may write a longer post on the subject as it relates to the discipline of history, I simply do not have the time or energy to do so right now. However, I would like to highlight one of Burke’s main conclusions: that many of us are simply not asking the right questions. He writes,

“The question is how to reconstruct the everyday working of scholarly business, to open up the ways in which we legitimate, value and authenticate scholarly work, to change the entire infrastructure of publication, presentation and pedagogy. Academics have to change their internal standards along these lines, but people outside academia also have to work to rethink when and where they need and are willing to respect the advice of experts. More than a few of the current round of complaints from conservatives outside academia contain a general disregard for the entire idea of expertise or scholarly knowledge. This general reconstruction of knowledge and its architecture is the real business, and it can only be tackled well with a scrupulous disinterest in scoring partisan points, with an understanding that the forces which produce a liberal groupthink among academics could easily be reversed in partisan terms without disturbing the more fundamental and difficult issues at hand.”

Implicit in this critique is one of the thornier questions underlying the whole debate: is this one of those areas where we must rely on and respect the advice of experts? A “yes” answer would mean confining much of the debate to academics and admnisitrators, and would only intensify the accusations of elitism and insider groupthink characteristic of so many criticisms of academia. But a “no” answer carries with it the risk of devaluing academic scholarship and expertise in general, and suggests that professional organizations and academic institutions are incapable of policing and disciplining themselves.

This also raises a second, perhaps more troubling, question: Are there experts on the subject of academia? Certainly there is no shortage of academics, but how many of them have made the academic world itself the subject of their research and scholarship? I can think of people who have written on the history of the social sciences, on higher education in general, on historiography, on general trends and fashions in their respective fields – I can think of numerous guides to choosing a college, or getting through a Ph.D. program, or on how to make it to tenure, or how to get published – and I can think of people who have written memoirs or exposes of the professorial world – but I cannot think of any comprehensive examination of academia as a whole. (Or is this just a reflection of my own thin reading, and a marker of my ignorance?)

All of this leads me to wonder: do academics willfully avoid applying the full power of their skills and abilities to their own lives and works? Does the institutional organization of academic life actively discourage the study of the institutional organization of academic life? Sadly, I think the answer is yes: anyone who digs too deeply into tenure fights and peer review practices runs the risk of inflaming (or creating anew) powerful interpersonal conflicts – but that does not mean it is not worth the attempt. Unfortunately, all indications are that those without tenure who write on these topics will not stay long in the academy, while senior observers often find themselves estranged from their own profession – that is, if they have not done so already.

As a graduate student with an (unhealthy?) interest in such topics – but whose dissertation and research will not touch upon them – I suppose I am getting a head start: I already feel estranged.

%d bloggers like this: