Sunday, April 03, 2011

CCOAdom further explained

The CCOA discussion continues. Withywindle has more thoughts; Isabel Archer and Britta promise theirs are forthcoming. I'm waiting!

In the mean time, to continue (or sum up, really) the discussion following Withywindle's post about Epstein's credentials, and apparently not to make it to Withywindle's next point, re: research, I think the important thing to take away is not whether the more rigid requirement of a PhD to teach at a university (in most, not all) fields these days is a good thing, but whether the conservatives most hot-and-bothered about academia are actually academics.

Googling the first few authors at Phi Beta Cons, for example, I find one assistant professor of marketing, and several college graduates affiliated with a conservative education think-tank (?). Now, obviously people can be journalists who cover X without being themselves participants in X. But the problem with the CCOA genre is that it tends to be more a repetition of the same old complaints, ones that someone who, for example, sat in - with an open mind - on one grad seminar about gender would be unlikely to make. What results is, people with no interest in being academics address an audience whose involvement with academia is limited to attending college and maybe professional school. Academia is generally agreed upon to be a terrible universe of liberals and libertinism; all new CCOA contributions are designed to merely confirm what everyone reading them already assumes.

My theory about this, as I've mentioned before, is that picking on academia is a real uniter for conservatives who'd otherwise have little to agree on - social conservatives can freak out about coeds on the student-insurance-subsidized Pill,  elitist-conservatives can fuss about how there's too little Plato or how too many mediocrities now attend college, and populists can roll their faux-rustic eyes at the fancy coastal book-learnin' that's never done anyone any good. It is more productive for conservatives to use academia as an entity to bash than for them to try to reform or (counter-) revolutionize it in ways that would make it more receptive to them or their ideas. So, under the guise of protesting academia's ways in order to change them, the real CCOA goal is to provide ideologically-diverse conservatives without anything to do with academia with common ground. CCOAs say they're upset that conservatives are poorly-represented and that academia tilts left. When in fact, this is something that helps their cause.

Granted, Phi Beta Cons is not everything, and it appears there are conservatives genuinely interested in altering the academy. I'm not likely to be on board with any but a fraction of their platforms, but I'd much rather see profs imposing Great Books (or, for that matter, Withywindle pondering the role of research) than yet another article about, say, a prof using rap - rap! OMG! the world is ending! - in the classroom.

Yet the trend, it seems, is to use academia as a symbol in the culture wars. For example: "NAS membership is open to all. This is a change as of October 2009. Before that NAS restricted membership to academics. We now encourage anyone who agrees with the principles we espouse to join." To be a member of the "National Association of Scholars" - a professional guild of sorts, one might think - you do not need to have diddly-squat to do with higher ed, you just have to think it's a den of iniquity. Given the timing of this shift, one suspects the economy played a role. But this is also consistent with the overall popularity of (I haven't followed this well enough to confidently add "newfound") academia as a way of generically riling up conservatives about Young People Today.


Withywindle said...

I'm not sure I'm ultimately convinced of the truth of this Conservative Glue theory; or perhaps not convinced that, if true, it's all that important. It may be common ground, but either 1) it's trivial common ground, which wouldn't effectively serve to unite conservatives; or 2) it's important common ground, which still leaves needing explanation why different groups of conservatives care so much about academia. "They just cling to their hatred of academia" doesn't quite seem sufficient as an analysis. It seems to me that 1) your Conservative Glue theory also functions as a way to dismiss the substance of such external critiques of academia, in essence by saying "oh, it's just a bunch of hucksters riling up the rubes"; and 2) it isn't necessary for a substantive defense against these critiques.

Phoebe said...

The theory is an attempt at figuring out why so much CCOAs come up with seems if anything designed not to be listened to by anyone in academia. Why the CCOA expresses his critique as a bemused-outraged 'can you believe what they're up to now?' I don't think it's a sign that conservatives really care about academia if what's happened is, they've found that articles bashing it get page hits at a level suggesting many subsets of conservatism have found something to agree with.

So no, I don't think someone ready to dismiss (to stick with the same example) Gender Studies off the bat, someone who doesn't know what "Gender Studies" is and who has an iffy sense of what even "English literature" for example means in an academic context... I don't think such a CCOA is owed a "substantive defense" of Gender Studies. I think those who work in that area should be able to defend what they do to those within academia who have their doubts, but to CCOAs who think the name sounds silly? Not so much.

Britta said...

Oh no! I wrote a really long comment, but it looks like it disappeared. Since it seemed to post the first time, hopefully Phoebe can liberate it from blog comment purgatory. If not, I'll rewrite it when I am less annoyed.

Britta said...

Ok, so, this is going to be an extremely condensed version of the comment that seems to have completely disappeared into the hungry maw of the blogspot comment monster.

My main points were: 1) Withywindle: the comments you bring up (many weeks ago) to my earlier points are valid, but there does exist a brand of CCOA, mainly found in College Republican organizations and the like, of white dudes to take personal affront to having to read anyone who is not a similarly privileged white dude.

2) Sex and race bias are so pervasive in academic that even leftist academics carry them, so its not surprising those who do not subscribe to gender/race/social equality as being even more so.

3) In most disciplines, it seems like there are enough huge rifts in theory (e.g. structuralist vs. post-structuralists, formalists vs. functionalists, humanists vs. anti-humanists, classic liberals vs. romantic/statist whatevers, Marxists vs. everyone else, etc) that don't conform to right/left dichotomies, that focusing on left vs. right wing academia isn't really where the politics of academia lie.

4) Finally, most academics are pedantic nerds in the first place, and also privilege things like "excellence" and "rigor," and are not looking to wholesale through out the Western canon. Profs who bring dildos, or who are obviously political in a close-minded fashion bring upon the censure of the "liberal" or "lefist" peers who are committed to rigorous scholarship. Also, while there may be a small pool of academics who are committed to fads or trends or being famous, most people study obscure enough topics where "politics" in the mainstream sense can't enter in.
I'm in one of the few disciplines not ending in -studies that is accused of being airy-fairy and overly political (which can be true in certain departments), but by and large we are just as stodgy and nerdy and into obscure topics as anyone else.

Phoebe said...

Sorry to be so late with this, but Britta's Long Comment, at last!

Ok, more thoughts on the CCOA: First, in highly abbreviated response to Withywindle, there really do exist CCOAs which object to women and minorities in "the canon." They might be more from the College Republican camp and less the conservative professor camp. There's enough bias a against women and POCs being capable of "deep thoughts" from non-Conservative academics (Try listening to Marxists discuss, say, Simone de Beauvoir), that it shouldn't be shocking that people who don't see themselves as committed to gender and racial equality as also denigrating female and non-white thinkers.

Secondly, I think the whole political liberal/conservative split just doesn't map on to academia very well because there are so many other large divides that occupy academics' time and attention: structuralist vs. post-structuralist, formalist vs. functionalist, Marxist vs. everyone else, humanist vs. anti-humanist (and related, pro vs. anti-Enlightenment), etc. These debates are large and heated enough, and the positions are varied enough, that just as there might not be one coherent CCOA, there's also no one type of academic "thought" to critique. Also, these might overlap in some ways with certain political views, but none of them map on directly. Indeed, "liberalism" and "conservativism" as we know it share roots in both the Enlightenment and its Romantic backlash, and can't be simply segregated into the product of one strain of thought vs. the other.

Given all this, the problem is that CCOAs turn into a Marx brothers' "whatever you say I'm against it" type thing.

Finally, as Phoebe has mentioned before, while maybe certain fields or certain departments are prone to trendiness, I think in general there's an aversion to poor or non-rigorous scholarship held by academics across the field. While academics might be on the whole more to the left of the spectrum, but they are also for the most part pedantic nerds. Grad school is also miserable and unglamorous enough that anyone who starts it hoping to wear hipster glasses and spend their time at obscure foreign film screenings will probably end up dropping out and doing an MFA instead. (We have a student like that, a parody of the Conservative caricature of a pomo leftist grad student--e.g. calls everyone she doesn't agree with racist & sexist, despite being white, and is always "calling people out on their shit," etc. She spends most of her time whining about how she could have been a model doing coke in San Francisco or NY instead of hanging out in Hyde Park with nerds. As far as I know no professors seem that interested in working with her, and she has very few friends. We give her until her funding package runs out.)

Given that PhD admissions rates are falling to in some places under 5% (and some places it's down to 1-2%), it's not like any hack who spouts a love of iconoclasm and free love can get a full-funded grad spot.