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Comments, Critiques and Responses to 'Goodbye to All That'

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First, there were quite a lot of people who said things like, "Yep, that was pretty much my experience exactly." Others in academics related to what I had to say.

I've had numerous conversations about this on Facebook, including a few with professors who may or may not have been doing a deliberate self-parody with all the frippery, pretension and myopia one could imagine. Many more reminding me of the fullness of scholarly life that made me want to be a professor in the first place. I'm hardly contemptuous of scholarship or, as one guy put it, think "an ancient branch of learning" should just cease to exist since I spend most of my relaxation time reading works of history, at least half of which are by professional historians. For whatever reason many of the most vociferous and hostile responses came from law professors, which is odd, since the issues I was discussing have less to do with the legal academy than probably any other part of the university world, including the hard sciences.

Who knows?

But I wanted to focus more on the critiques, which raised some interesting points.

My old college professor Tony Grafton rightly made the point that that scholars aren't narrowing their fields of inquiry for the hell of it. Narrowing of focus is often the price of discovering genuinely new information, opening doors to new knowledge. And narrowness itself is probably too ambiguous a word to be useful in this context.

I do think that hyper-specialization and narrowness of focus has to follow a somewhat different calculus in the humanities than in the sciences for instance. Genetic or antiviral research can be narrow and totally cut off from anything any wider public ever needs to know. It justifies itself not just on knowledge in the abstract but various kinds of real-world efficacy. Does the treatment work? Does the nuclear warhead go off? Without going too far into a digression about the value of knowledge and learning entirely for their own sake, I believe the humanities can never truly cut themselves off from the larger public in the sciences can. But that's a complex argument for another day.

The most on point critiques or comments I received noted that in a few hundreds of words I wrote about being an academic in training, I never once mentioned the teaching, other than an oblique and inconsequential reference.

As TPM Reader SO'R put it ...

I read your post about your experience in academia with interest. One point I found interesting, and perhaps telling, in your narrative is that you do not mention teaching/mentoring students in your decision process about whether to become a professor. I too made a career change when I left working as a congressional aide on Capitol Hill,which I thought would be my dream job, to become a high school history and government teacher. Many of my students scratch their heads as to why I would make that decision but it isn't even close which job I think has a bigger impact on the world and which I find more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Bingo.

It is a telling omission both about my experience and the variety of academic life. I didn't quite think of it in these terms when I went to graduate school. But I wasn't going to graduate school to teach. I knew that was a big part of what I would do as a professor. But really I wanted to be a research historian and write history. I think I was decent at it; I enjoyed it. But I was never nearly as focused on it as my colleagues were. I was not passionate about it. That obviously weighed quite a lot on my decision-making.

A number of others made the very good point that the debate about the academy tends to get very caught up in a pretty small island of academic life which is housed in prestigious research universities. If you widen out your perspective to include the great mass of academics teaching at public universities and community colleges you get a dramatically different picture, one where teaching is at the center of the action.

As a self-explanation and critique, I should put out there that it was definitely that uber-Ivory Tower world I was looking to make a mark in.

TPM Reader JS is one of these. And there's a lot I loved about her note ...

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about your blog is your historian’s perspective - I’m one too! But I think this discussion of academics’ supposed lack of engagement with broader national debates overlooks something critical: the classroom as a public space for engagement in the national conversation. The 99% of us (yes, there are elites and drones in academia too) who pace Kristof aren’t “contributing” because we’re not writing op-eds or doing TED talks or blogging are too busy teaching. And I say this not as a complaint, but to remind your readers that we are impacting the dialogue in this country too. I teach in the CUNY system, probably the most affordable public institution left in the US. The majority of my students are immigrants, children of immigrants or other New Yorkers who are the first in their family to go to college. My students tell me all the time how their classes broaden their horizons and get them to think about their world in new ways. I myself teach modern German history: a student can’t leave my classes without confronting issues of democratization, the nature of leadership, what it means to exchange individual liberties for national security, the stakes of identity-based politics - I could go on. You mean to tell me that that is just mental masturbation with no effect on the polity?

Stereotypes of academics ensconced in ivory towers writing jargon-filled tomes no one will ever read are pretty hackneyed, and little reflect the actual world most of us who “won the lottery” and got academic jobs actually live in.

Following up on this point, it's worth restating what I made explicit in the original piece which is that this was mainly about me. Journalism and publishing is a very different profession than academics. I decided one made sense for me and another didn't. I think I made the right choice. I do, however, think my career has given me some insight into the relationship between the two and particularly how one might try or fail to bridge the two.