Saturday, September 25, 2010

Is It Moot or Academic?

It is instructive, even memorable, to hear a group of sports fans arguing the relative merits of a particular team or two specific players, even more memorable and instructive if the two teams or players are separated by a generation or so.  Could Jack Johnson have taken Muhammad Ali, for instance, or the Brooklyn Dodgers with Gil Hodges at first and Pee Wee Reese at short versus the LA Dodgers of 1995/  No matter your entry point in the "discussion;" you can rely on the rising of cholers, an increased, often diversionary use of statistics, and yet more animated revival of a famous moment from a legendary sporting event.

It is another thing altogether to be privy to a battle of doctrine or theory being waged within a group of critics, each of whom has his/her visions and prejudices in place and running about much the same as a dog has fleas in place and running about.  Post modernism versus post colonialism.  etc.

And yet.

It is a thing of remarkable otherness to witness two or more academics in their scramble for the moral high ground.  All is relative calm and civility, in fact, all is that splendid word devised for such congruence, collegiality when the pathways of argument run more or less parallel as, say, anthropology moves for a time in step with sociology.  When the pathways begin to diverge, each academic becomes more anxious for the light of reason to appear to shine on his path to the exclusion of the other academic's path, particularly if there is a difference in discipline.  This, of course, sets forth in full regalia the straw man, Which is the more reliable, History or Sociology?  In response for this wish for solar preference, a buzzword is set free upon the discourse, a once a trial balloon but also a provocation.  Will this buzzword establish supremacy in the discussion at hand, thanks to its coded implication of knowledge of an inside bit of information?

It is often said by men and women engaged in law enforcement, specifically police work, that they are at greatest risk when responding to cases of domestic violence, but when we consider the coding and social ranking and caste system of the academic landscape, such encounters are mere flies buzzing about the head rather than mosquitoes seeking blood.  The academic equivalent of a duke is the department chair, who defers upward to a dean, who in turn defers to a provost, who kisses the ring of the president, who amusingly enough defers to wealthy alumni.  Below the department chair is the tenured full professor, followed in descending rank order by the associate professor, then the assistant professor, then the adjunct.  Buzzwords such as rubric or template are alarms sending some to drain the moats and raise the drawbridges,  Peer group and tenure committee are concepts designed to sound democratic but which are code for suffering and sufferance.  Most academics above the rank of a master's degree have had to develop a thesis or if you will Quixotic quest to demonstrate such qualities as research ability, relevance, primary and secondary source material, and ability to draw reasoned conclusions from assembled data.  They have had to defend their thesis, submitting to a committee with the mission of insuring focus, accuracy, relevance, and originality.  The written thesis must be defended in a rigorous debate, wherein the individual presenting the thesis is required to provide an articulate and lively assertion that supports its assertions.  In this process, many academics have undergone some form of abuse, possible humiliation, and the need to get back to square one to support the foundation of the essential argument.  One might think of this as a pecking system without being too far down the path of hyperbole.  One might also remember the likelihood of the abused becoming tomorrow's abuser, and what better target than a graduate student, a PhD candidate.

It has been a privilege, often a most boring one, to sit among "them," entertaining naughty thoughts as you took in the dynamic of the room, formed a sense of where in the entire structure the student resided.  As you learned, seemingly without effort, to enhance your vocabulary of profanity in Spanish, Italian, French, Polish, Russian, and Academic, you find yourself equipped to go forth in the world, able to support a thesis with verbal and signed aplomb, thus your credentials to attend and cope with a faculty meeting.

It is no surprise to you that you have close friends among the academic community and with one or two possible exceptions, some of your most considered enemies.  You and they are splendid targets to write about,  and of course you have, you do, and you will.

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