Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Axe-Wielding Assaults on Tea Kettles

Scott M. asked me the other day whether the MLA had affected my feelings about what I'd like to do with my life; that is, if getting some firsthand experience of that aspect of academic life had given me any useful insights.

I replied more or less as follows:

I'm not sure it affected my ideas about graduate school either way. The complaints I heard were about what I expected: it's hard to find jobs, harder to find good jobs, dissertations take a long time to finish, top-name schools aren't necessarily giving top-quality educations, etc. In a way, the most discouraging part was attending a panel ("Nothing and No Thing in Marlowe, Jonson and Spenser") and remembering how ridiculous academic work can be. The topics are interesting, but the results often seem so futile. So you wrote a well-received paper on the Faerie Queen from a Heideggerian perspective. You made a good argument, maybe got your promotion, but you haven't really achieved anything, changed anything. Next year someone else will say something different about the Faerie Queen, and no one will remember what you said in the first place. I don't know. The rules seem so arbitrary. Is anything ever accomplished?

His response was to link me to this column (the longer I know Scott, the more it seems that there is no topic on which he has not, at one point or another, written a column). It gets to the heart of something that has long bothered me about academic work, via the image of "chop[ping] a tea kettle,'" meaning "that a person makes a lot of noise without accomplishing anything."

Apparently that's a Yiddish idiom. Of course, it reminds me of the title of this blog (chosen by Fiona, to no one's surprise), which is taken from a well-known Vonnegut quote: "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae."*

Anyway. Scott uses the expression specifically in reference to academic conferences, but it could apply to many aspects of academic life and ritual. It's something I noticed a lot when I was taking lit theory, in particular. We had to read a lot of, oh, de Man and Derrida and Habermas and Grice, and much of that was thought-provoking and occasionally fascinating, but I often felt that I didn't get the point. I did some writing for that class that I was very proud of, but it felt like exercise, you know, or a game: you have to make x argument under y rules, but there isn't really goal z. It was more like something you'd do just for the sake of it, just to see if you could. (And it makes your brain feel strong.)

If you're a professor, of course, you don't write these papers just because you can. You do it (so I understand) because you want to get tenure, because you are not guaranteed stability or income until you have published a certain number of articles and books, until you have presented at a certain number of conferences or obtained a certain amount of grant money. And every profession has its red tape, of course. It just seems like academia has way more.

I do like the idea of contributing to the body of human knowledge. And teaching, of course (apparently female professors tend to take pride in teaching above other aspects of their work; the same is not true of male professors). Maybe anyone in the humanities is doomed to having an inferiority complex because achievements in the sciences are often so much more tangible.

I'm wandering again. But I'm curious about how other people view this. What do you see as the point of academic work? (Or of conferences, lit theory, or book reviews, for that matter.) Is it all just chopping of teakettles, or armored assaults on hot fudge sundaes?


ADDENDUM: Randall Munroe has something to say about this.


*Fiona, why didn't you title the blog "Armored Attacks on Hot Fudge Sundaes"? I'm lost.


Alice said...

The type of "science" I do (and as I type this I'm at a conference on quantum information processing, whatever that is) seems just as pointless when you're doing it. Maybe people medical research feel differently. Everyone's so specialized that it's hard to believe that you're actually making any kind of substantive contribution (and maybe we're not). I'm gradually reaching the conclusion that all this may just be for people a good deal more pedantic than I and that I'd rather, like, go make stuff.

Lit theory is kind of neat because there is an element of art in writing it, even if that doesn't show up except cases of extreme awesome. Not that I'd want to make a career of it personally, but the ideas contained therein at least hopefully mean something to somebody in a more fundamental way than, say, proving a lower bound on an obscure computer science problem does.

annie said...

I think "assaults" is a more evocative word than "attacks".

This post (and the column linked to) offer some new insight while prodding at a topic I've thought about a few times. Or maybe less insight than a feeling of unresolved communication.

If you ever manage to try answering "so what?" let me know.