Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Finger-painting with Derrida

For your perusal, the CCOA of the Day, a Conservative Critique of Academia that scores well on the test I have for 'em. But because I study something with "studies" in the name, I can't tell you what percentage we're talking. Math is hard! Anyway, it's about how the tweed-and-elbow-patch set have arrived at Occupy Wall Street, and how this is bad because the overeducated, underemployed humanities-types protesting should really be angry, not at banks, but at the profs themselves, who are evidently responsible for tricking wide-eyed undergraduates into majoring in things that aren't practical, or the Classics, because majors need to be practical or else what's the point, but also conservatives like Great Books so let's throw that in there without really justifying it. I mean, it's not as if even a single example is given of a professor visiting OWS.

Early in the piece, the author, Chris Tessone, inspires confidence when he reveals confusion re: who college professors these days are:

Professors and wannabe academics have flocked to the protest sites, welcomed with open arms by the poor, downtrodden BAs-turned-baristas and out of work MFAs at the movement’s core. Yet no one bears more responsibility for the dashed hopes and dreams of these overeducated, underemployed youths than America’s professorial class.
First off, who are "wannabe academics"? Is this some caste we're supposed to recognize? More likely these academic-types who are not in fact professors but want to be that are, oh, adjunct instructors and advanced grad students, or alums of grad programs now filing stuff while yearning for what might have been. Yes, the system's screwed up. Tessone gives us no reason to think anyone "academic" participating in OWS is even on the tenure track, if we are to give him the benefit of the doubt re: the presence of academic-types there. (And, thanks to Facebook and not Tessone, I know that plenty of grad students are indeed involved.)

Tessone, as per CCOA usual, mixes valid criticisms with knee-jerk and proudly ignorant attacks on academia. Does college cost too much? Yup. And maybe, as Tessone says, the "resort" aspect of some colleges is part of the problem.

But it's just a right-wing version of those coming after Joan Didion for her "privilege." He may be coming from a place of reasonable, but can't stay long, or he'd be expelled from the genre. Tessone has to be sure to gratuitously condemn "such disciplines as the performing arts, creative writing, and a myriad of 'studies' majors exploring narrow questions of ethnic, racial, and sexual identity." He has to, or else it's not a CCOA.

I am almost entirely certain Tessone has not even the slightest whiff of a clue what happens in a "studies" class. ("Decision Sciences," however...). Maybe if you make it abundantly clear you don't know what something is, you don't get to denounce it?

Anyway, as a triple offender - my dissertation is about Jews (particular!) and gender (fluffy!) and I'm in a joint program half of which includes the word "studies" (toenail-painting!) - I'm intrigued to know that what I do is "undemanding." Never mind the piles and piles of Great Books I read and was examined on to get to this point. Never mind that said Books of course inform my work. Never mind that whole doing research in a foreign language and contending with microform-induced nausea. Anything not entirely about white, Christian men, the only beings ever to walk this earth who represent The Universal, is by definition nonsense.

And it continues. Tessone informs concerned readers of "the cheapening of 'liberal arts' to mean 'any subject of study divorced from considerations of practicality or good taste.'" Kids these days! Not like in our day, when they'd all memorized all of Shakespeare, backwards, barefoot, and in the snow! "The liberal arts were once about studying how to live, informed by literary, philosophical, and historical accounts of how others conducted their lives. Students took a coherent set of core courses and immersed themselves in the Western canon.

OK, so coming from UChicago means my undergrad experiences don't count. But high school and grad school friends who went elsewhere somehow managed not to major in Silliness Studies, somehow managed to emerge having read a whole heck of a lot of "dead white males." Ah, but these were typically students at other good schools, public and private, big and small alike, fine, but not representative! Perhaps so, but where, precisely, are undergrads these days majoring in Nonsense Studies? At less-prestigious schools, undergrads may study something like "fashion merchandising" and thus not get much in the way of Great Books, but at what institution of higher ed are anyone but grad students and faculty devoting much of their work-time to the kinds of topics that inspire CCOAs? Is something like "fashion merchandising" CCOA-friendly, on account of it sure sounds vocational, or is this yet another example of college-as-fluff?

Tessone, no doubt under some kind of cosmic contractual obligation to make it over-abundantly clear how anti-"studies" he is, explains that his beef is with "programs catering to teenage sloth and narcissism, giving kids and their helicopter parents whatever they want for a buck, regardless of quality or rigor, reluctant to miss out on the student-loan-driven bubble now inflating." And if a program has "studies" in the name, it lacks quality, it lacks rigor, as rigorously demonstrated by Tessone. Oh wait, why would he waste time with that - CCOA audiences are long since converted! Does he go on? Yes, and where he goes is a place that's super-contrarian mixed with telling-it-like-it-is mixed with rah rah capitalism and banks and stuff crossed with anti-intellectualism. Well done!
The villain is not the lenders who played an incidental role in providing capital to creative writing majors, however. It’s the tenured bozos who gave them Derrida and finger painting in their formative undergraduate years instead of Plato and Aristotle (or a good course in computer-aided drafting).
Man oh man oh man. I graduated from college in 2005. I may be married and live in what may or may not count as the suburbs, but I'm in my 20s, a full-time student, and thus still "kids these days" loosely defined. And in my day, I've been assigned Plato, Aristotle, and - though it was utterly wasted on me, as it seemed to be on nearly everyone at the math and science high school where I took it, thus casting doubt, as far as I'm concerned, on its usefulness for the general population - drafting, one semester with computers, one without. No finger-painting and, more surprisingly given what I've been in school for for the past hundred years, no Derrida either.


Flavia said...

Hey now. A mere 10 days ago this almost-tenured professor and her definitely tenured spouse visited OWS for all of 30 minutes. So he's totally right! And an Occupant complimented me on my mink hat, which surely counts as being welcomed with open arms.

Had we had more time, we would certainly have organized a teach-in involving those little-know writers whom we teach week in and week out, Shakespeare and Milton

Phoebe said...

Ah, but it would surely be a class with a name like "Queering Shakespeare," in which there'd be no Shakespeare, even. Just finger-painting to express one's ethnic and gender identity. Maybe some Toni Morrison.

But seriously, yes, there are profs who support OWS and who show up. I know this, but there's no indication the CCOA's author does. Given that he begins by revealing himself ignorant that many who appear to be professors are in fact part of the humanities-educated precarious workforce. This omission - and the bizarre thing about "wannabe academics" - I genuinely don't know what that's supposed to refer to - gives the impression that this is yet another proud-to-be-ill-informed CCOA. An impression that the rest of the piece only confirms. It's never necessary to demonstrate a) that one knows what goes on in a "studies" class, or b) that what goes on lacks rigor. I mean, maybe there's a point buried underneath the muck, but what could it be?

Flavia said...

Oh, I know! I was making fun of him, too. (It's not like our gawking, generally well-disposed though it was, amounts to any kind of involvement.)

It's a terrible piece. I'm most struck by how incoherent the argument is for what ought to be taught in college: Aristotle, or auto-shop? Not that this is an incoherence unique to this piece, of course.

Love your title, though.

Phoebe said...


I did get that you, too, were mocking. (The "mink hat" bit was a giveaway.)

Re: Aristotle and auto-shop, Nicholas Troester and I are having a back-and-forth on it at his blog. Basically, as I understand it, CCOAs want a select elite to read Aristotle, but for everyone else to stick with vocational. But this piece was especially hopeless in not making that clear, in somehow suggesting that students ought to go from drafting class to Great Books, without it being at all clear why either leads to employability, or why studying topics that relate to gender or ethnic identity is so destructive.