Tuesday, January 24, 2006

"You got it all wrong."


Profession is published by the MLA every December. It's a weird mix of interesting articles and tendentious self-promotion by the 'big names' in the profession, and I don't always get around to reading it, but this year I did. One essay, by someone named Louis Menand, is actually somewhat interesting, not so much for his thesis or his conclusion (which I predicted from the first two paragraphs), but for some of the internal discussion.

Menand notes that the scandalous time-to-PhD average for English (a psychotic 9.8 years--UPDATE--that's time enrolled to complete the degree; if someone takes a year off, that's not included in th 9.8) is an intellectual problem as much as it is a labor problem, noting that "the profession is not reproducing itself so much as cloing itself" (very well put), and "there appears to be little change in dissertation topics in the past ten years. Everyone seems to be writing the same dissertation, and with a tool kit that has not altered much since around 1990." Oh, this is so, so, so true, (Drout says, after having read over 100 applications). Menand suggests that if it were easier to get out of a doctoral program, people would be willing to take more risks and challenge the paradigms. I doubt that length of time in a doctoral program is the only force (and Menand doesn't say it is the only one) at work in the stifling intellectual conformity on display in the files I read, but I'm sure it is a significant factor.

I think Menand is a prisoner of his generational myopia in his celebration of "humanists' skepticism about empirical forms of knowledge," and his idea that the best thing that humanists have to offer is "criticisms of ethnocentrism" (Yawn!), but he really hits the nail on the head with this:
Critical inquiry requires young Turks to keep it alive, and it is hard to see many out there on the horizon. There is a post-theory generation, bristling with an "it's all over" attitude, but when people of my generation look at the post-theory people, we recognize them immediately. They're the theory people. And their attitude is not "You got it all wrong." It's "Stop repeating yourselfs; we know this stuff better than you do." The profession could use some younger people who think that the grownups got it all wrong."

So, please, I'm speaking from the heart here, when I say, with utmost respect:

You got it all wrong.

Now, that out of the way, can we please move ahead with new forms of theory and new approaches? Can powerful people like Prof. Menand (I assume he is powerful) stop supporting the retreads and immitators and go searching for the new and the exciting? Can people please not say with a straight face that "the interaction of public space and private space" is "exciting"? (No. It is done to death, trust me on this). Can everyone please admit that tired sexual/textual puns are really not particularly groundbreaking? Does the fact that they don't even get a snicker anymore give you a clue that they're old? Let's see PMLA publish some articles that aren't same old, same old. Let's try to support the "new voices" (as, to its credit, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists has done, recently sponsoring sessions at Kalamazoo).

Like any of that would ever happen. People of Prof. Menand's generation are happy to talk revolution, but, well, we all have enough experiences of baby boomers and revolution talk that I don't need to expand.

[By the way, although I think that the theorists of the 80's did get it all wrong (or much of it wrong), I have no interest in going "back" to New Criticism and its presumed good old days in 1957. We need to come up with something new and exciting. The New Criticism's tedious "ambiguity this, ambiguity that" is just as boring as the "polyvalent this, polyvalent that" or the "ooh, look. A binary! Let's deconstruct it! for the one millionth time!" approaches of the post-structuralists.

I'm proofing the galleys of my first attempt, but it's not that we need everyone to go out and adopt my theory: we need lots of people to be coming up with new, different, theories of their own.]
and then when the baby-boomers either retire or die we can have some real fun...

UPDATE: Natalia said...Would you consider Moretti's current work theoretically innovative? YES!!! And I just read over 100 applications for a position in 18th-century (where there were novels, unlike medieval lit, which is why I wasn't previously familiar with Moretti) and not one single person mentioned his work. Not one. It's funny that as I was following that link, I was taking a break from proofing the section of HTW where I work through the Dan Sperber materialism stuff that was being quoted.
That said, I have a hunch that I'd disagree with Moretti's conclusions, but that's not the point. The point is that the approach is different and interesting.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

How (One Part) of the "System" Works

As do most academics, I think very little of the U. S. News ranking of colleges. The formula that is used to calculate the ranks has (in common with far too many other things in social science, sadly) a whole pile of constants that can charitably be described as "numbers we pulled out of our butts." For example, let's say, arguendo, that freshman retention rate is somewhat important (I don't actually thinks so, but bear with me). Then we can assign it some percentage of the total score for the school. What percentage? Well, we can construct elaborate post-facto rationalizations, but really it's a number that we pulled out of their butts (how could you tell is 7% was more accurate than 15% or 2% as a reflection of the importance of this piece of data).

But even people like me who think that the U. S. New rankings are crap (sorry, but anyone who thinks a general undergraduate degree at Michigan is more intellectually rigorous than one at Carnegie Mellon hasn't spent any time at both schools) often pay attention to the "academic ranking" part of the formula. For most of us in academia, that's all that matters in terms of the "rank" of the institution.

Well, even that piece of data should now be called into question, because I've just learned how it is calculated. The "academic ranking" is determined by a survey of college Presidents and Provosts about their opinions of schools in the same category as the schools they preside over (i.e., they use the survey of liberal arts college Presidents and Provosts to rank those colleges). That's it. That's all the data.

So it's no wonder that the older and more established a school is, the higher it ranks (a point made by many critics of the U.S. News rankings: there's an almost perfect correlation between age of school and rank -- with a major exception being Brandeis, which ranks very high despite being very young, a point about which they should be justifiably proud).

But can a survey of Presidents and Provosts, who are very, very busy people, really show anything about what's actually going on at so many schools. Unlikely. I doubt that the President of, say, Pomona, has a clue about how good (or bad) the English department is at Wheaton.

On the other hand, the system does potentially generate some good results: Presidents and Provosts come from a huge variety of academic specialities, and they are so busy that they probably only read the leading journals in their own specialities, so the only way to get your college's name in front of these people is to scatter your seed very widely. If each department in your school (and each subspeciality in your department) publishes in leading journals, you'll be more likely to catch the attention of those Presidents and Provosts. So, if you're a President or a Provost, a good strategy for making the ranking system work for your school is to encourage your faculty to do a lot of research and publish widely. That should translate into support across the curriculum, or at least far enough across the curriculum to have work appear in the major journals read by Presidents and Provosts (my guess is that there are relatively fewer Presidents and Provosts from the Fine and Performing Arts -- though ours is; go Wheaton! -- and so working the system this way might be more difficult).

You can also see why research that gets picked up in the mainstream media is so valuable for colleges: the people doing the ranking, Presidents and Provosts, are far more likely to read about your research if it gets picked up in the New York Times than if it is in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology despite the fact that the intellectual standards and likely accuracy of JEGP are about 1000 times that of the NYT).

My conclusion: in many ways the system is bogus: it almost certainly furthers the continuation of an outdated picture of the system, (i.e., which departments were strong when Presidents and Provosts were mere faculty a decade or two ago), and it almost certainly perpetuates a rich-get-richer dynamic (i.e., the English department at William and Mary could be a bunch of useless old fossils who haven't published anything good since 1973 -- n.b., I do not know if this is true--but the school is so old that it picks up a good ranking anyway, because everyone has heard of it, and so the higher rank attracts better faculty and more students and more money, etc). But the good news is that one good way to "game" the system and raise your ranking is to support your faculty and attempt to disseminate their research.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Good News, Bad News

Sorry no posts for so long. I've been enjoying the relaxing break that we lazy college professors get every year when we do nothing for a month or so and then return to our jobs of luxury.

The day after New Year's email brought good news and lots of additional work. I have had a couple of articles out at journals since the end of July, one which I discussed here. That one was given a very gracious, positive, "revised and resubmit" by a much more prestigious journal than the one that had rejected it back in November. The other was accepted by Oral Tradition, but I also had to do some significant revisions. I also had a deadline to finish my own J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia entries and my Introduction, and I had to write my syllabi -- this coming semester is going to be great, with an advanced Beowulf in OE course, a Tolkien-only course (offered for the first time at Wheaton and also for the first time open to the general student population) and the second half of the Math / Science Fiction course. I also have to finish up the course book for the Fantasy course with Recorded Books (we recorded that in two marathon days in NYC in December), write the SciFi course for Recorded Books (we'll record that in two marathon days in NYC in March), do the editing and layout for Tolkien Studies volume 3 (due to the printer soon), and write the paper I'm giving at the "Form and content of instruction in Anglo-Saxon England in the light of contemporary manuscript evidence" in Udine, Italy in April. And my daughter started a new school, which has made life hectic.

And this all has to be done before the galleys for How Tradition Works arrive on the 20th (Finally!!!!!!!)

But, things are good and I hope to have a response to the comments on the previous post (in particular the distressing story related by M. Smith) soon.

Now, quick story about the inexorable nature of fate, or just being cursed: We recorded 13 of the 14 lectures for Recorded Books in NYC back in December -- and I had a really terrible cough that I suppressed with about 8 times the recommended dosage of cough medicine, sucrets, hot tea, etc. (mmmmm, woozy). By the time we got to the last lecture, we were cutting it very close to my missing my plane. So we bailed out on it, decided to record the last lecture at a studio in Boston, and I left. Of course I had Mario Andretti as my cab driver, and we got to La Guardia in 20 minutes (at 3:30 p.m.). Then my flight was cancelled and then the replacement delayed for 5 hours due to weather (so obviously I could have finished up the last lecture without any trouble beyond my wrecked voice).
So we schedule studio time in Boston for the end of the next week. In the meanwhile, the stomach flu works its way through the family (son on Friday, wife on Sunday, daughter on Tuesday). By Friday, I am sure that I have somehow escaped the stomach flu. Go to the studio, do the lecture, and during the last ten minutes I start sweating profusely. I figure I've taken too many cough drops, finish up, and leave. Let's just say that I did not miss the stomach flu, and missed having a very bad time at the studio by about ten to fifteen minutes, and sorry about that patch of sidewalk in front of Symphony Hall. So perhaps the final lecture for the Fantasy course was in fact cursed. I hope it comes out ok. If we were to try to record it again, a runaway milk truck would probably crash into the studio or an escaped python would strangle me.