Ph.D. Octopus

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Communicating between the Academic and Non-Academic Worlds

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by Danny

Yesterday, I finished a first draft of my dissertation. This is not to brag or invite people to congratulate me (although, to be honest, I did briefly consider posting something about my finishing on Facebook, primarily to receive congratulations). What I want to discuss here is the deep ambivalence I felt/feel upon finishing. If six (!) years ago, you had told me that my dissertation’s first stage would end with a whimper, not a bang, I would’ve been surprised if not shocked. No matter what, I would certainly not have expected to feel, frankly, so ambivalent.


Now that I’m done, what do I have? A 600-page tome that needs to be cut down by at least one-third, if not one-half; a sneaking suspicion that few people will ever read this thing; and nagging questions about whether it was worth the time and investment, given the abysmal academic job market. This is not to say that I don’t love what I do, or that I regret spending my 20s studying a relatively arcane subject. It’s just to say that, surprisingly, I do not feel the sense of accomplishment I expected to upon starting this endeavor.


My Dissertation

Perhaps this is just the nature of completing a project that you’ve worked on for so long that it becomes a part of you. (Though one would expect feelings of sadness, rather than ambivalence, if this were the case.) I mean, I’m impressed with what I’ve done, certainly, and think that I did produce some relatively worthwhile new knowledge. But I think the major cause of my ambivalence is the deep difficulty that I have/will have communicating my dissertation’s argument to non-academics. And this leads me to a question that has been talked and blogged about a lot in the past decade: the relationship between academia and the non-academic world.

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Written by Danny Bessner

March 30, 2012 at 12:12

Hard Truths and a Heavy Heart for the Humanities

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by David

A Scholar Who Probably Had More Career Options than I do

I love the humanities. I love my discipline of history. I do intellectual history, meaning I use literary and philosophical sources as well. I love literature. I love philosophy. I love art and art history. I see value in studying the humanities for their own sake. I think teaching the humanities can impart important life and career skills, including critical thinking, clear writing, and logical argumentation. I think the content of a humanities education is useful too, and not just for cocktail parties, but for learning the lessons of history, examining moral questions, identifying the aesthetic value of cultural production, and appreciating peoples of different backgrounds.

Despite all this, I support (some) cuts to the humanities at the university level. Not because I want to. But because there is no real choice. Let me explain.

I’ve read a lot of articles about how shitty it is to be pursuing a doctorate in the humanities these days, but none on what that means for professors. Until now. This article in The Chronicle of Higher Education is a must-read for doctoral students and their professors. The gist: graduate programs are shrinking, and with that, professors have fewer doctoral students to train, thus damaging one major reason they became professors in the first place.

“The only place I can really use some of the research I have is at the graduate level, and now I don’t have someone to impart it to,” says Anthony Colantuono, an associate professor of art history at Maryland, whose department held a retreat this month to talk about how to maintain a vibrant graduate program while admitting only a couple of students a year…. “You want to pass that on; otherwise it could be lost for good,” he says. With fewer graduate students enrolling, that loss is a real threat. “We are all terrified by this,” he says, “because as researchers we’re committed to graduate teaching.”….

The history department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison cut its new graduate admissions in half this past fall, to just 21 students. “Why train people if the outlook for professional historians is not nearly as good as it was five years ago?” asks Laird Boswell, director of graduate studies in the department….

[Frank] Donoghue, the English professor at Ohio State, has written a forthcoming article for the journal Pedagogy about the phenomenon. “The privilege of teaching a graduate seminar every year, or at least every two years, long ago came to become an expected perk of faculty teaching jobs at Ohio State,” he says. “It clearly can’t be anymore, but who gets seminars and who doesn’t has become an increasingly significant factor in faculty morale.”

This sucks. And yet, as the article notes, Penn State’s history department has come to grips with this reality and is adopting a new strategy in response. They’ve cut “entire subfields,” and are no longer accepting students pursuing 20th century US history, medieval history, or modern European history.

“This is the way of the future, and we’re way ahead of the curve here,” says Michael Kulikowski, chairman of the history department, which was featured at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association as one of 10 departments doing innovative things. “People have been talking about the oversupply of unemployable Ph.D.’s in the humanities for several decades, and I think we’ve found a part of the solution. We are concentrating on areas where we can place students competitively.”

Furthermore, there are some graduate students who are ok with this, namely, the ones who still get in. I’ve been saying this for a long time, as a member of NYU’s proto-union, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, or GSOC, and at history department grad student meetings. The biggest complaint is always always always lack of money, be it summer funding, or money for childcare, or research, or dental insurance. Well if we had half as many history students, there’d be more money to go around, and all those problems would be solved. And there’d be fewer people competing for the dwindling number of jobs.

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Written by David Weinfeld

March 20, 2012 at 21:57

Posted in Academia, education

Jeremy Lin: of course it’s About Race, and it’s Not All Smiles

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by David

On February, 13, 2012, Floyd Mayweather Jr., the racist, woman-beating arrogant jail-bound criminal, who also happens to be the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world and current welterweight champion, made a stupid, racist tweet. Here’s what Mayweather tweeted:

Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.

Mayweather is an asshole. He’s not backing down. And as Washington Post sportswriter Jason Reid notes, Mayweather is mostly wrong. Jeremy Lin’s story is unique: he went to Harvard, he’s an evangelical Christian, he was undrafted, he was sleeping on his brother’s couch, then coming off the bench for the New York Knicks, and now he’s an NBA star.

But there’s at least a kernel of truth to Mayweather’s obnoxiousness. The Jeremy Lin story is big because of everything else. It’s huge because he’s the first Chinese-American in the NBA. And that’s OK.

I’ve finally caught on to the Linsanity. Normally I don’t watch any more than the last two minute of regular season professional basketball games, but I’m making an exception here. We don’t get cable, but I’ll even shlep out to the Columbia med student housing common room to watch the Linsanity.

And it is exciting. Heck even Tiger Mom Amy Chua tweeted that her and her family are “huge” Jeremy Lin fans, and linked to this article, which attributes Lin’s success to tough Asian parenting. But I cry (or call) foul. This piece, by Gish Jen, is more accurate, highlighting the rebellion, the anti-stereotype that Jeremy Lin represents. Because Lord knows that if Amy Chua had a ten-foot-tall son she’d still be shoving a violin in his hands before allowing him to shoot hoops.

I’m exaggerating, of course. But only a little. Because I know this story. It’s why I celebrate Kevin Youkilis and Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, and why the movie Airplane can make a joke referring to “light” reading, a leaflet of “Famous Jewish Sports Legends.” These Jews, like Jeremy Lin, are exceptions. Sure, there will be more. But most Jews, and most Asian Americans, will go on to more conventional, but still successful paths. Because that’s what their parents want for them, and that is what is expected of them.

And so the real tragedy behind the Jeremy Lin story is here, hidden in a New York Times story about Stuyvesant High School, maybe the toughest and most competitive high school in the country, where thousands of students take a difficult exam, and only the highest scoring are admitted. It’s worth noting this on the last day of Black History month of 2012. Stuyvesant High School has 3295 students. A whopping 72.5% of them are Asian. Forty are Black. Forty. Not Forty percent. Forty students, total, equal to 1.2 percent of the student population. Another 2.4% are Hispanic. These are the Jeremy Lins of the American high school system: Black and Latino students who succeed against the odds, disproving the stereotypes, fighting structural inequality that dates back generations, even centuries. Read the article. It’s harrowing.

So let’s applaud Lin’s success in the NBA. It’s awesome, and need not be denigrated in any way. He’s a pioneer for Asian-Americans in sports. But this story is about race, and when we take a step back, it’s not a happy story. So let’s get our priorities straight.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 29, 2012 at 20:46

Black History Month Spotlight: Howard University

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by David

Founders Library at Howard University

This past week, I went to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at the Founders Library at Howard University. I was doing research on my dissertation on Horace Kallen and Alain Locke. Howard University, founder in 1867, is the most famous of American Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Locke was a professor there for many years. My research, however, was focused on Locke’s time at Harvard University, where Locke was an undergraduate from 1904-1907.

There’s considerable irony to Locke’s attitudes and career. At Harvard, Locke had to skillfully navigate between the various groups of people there: the wealthiest WASPs who wanted nothing to do with him (like Teddy Roosevelt Jr., the president’s son), middle class gentiles and Jews who befriended him despite the racist sentiments they may have held, as well as the small but not insignificant number of other Black students. Interestingly, with a handful of exceptions, Locke wanted nothing to do with his fellow African Americans at Harvard, thinking them crass and beneath him, unwilling to take advantage of the social opportunities Harvard provided and opting instead for self-isolation and segregation. This included pseudo-celebrities like the grandson of Frederick Douglass. On one more than one occasions, Locke referred to his African American peers at Harvard derisively as “niggers” in letters home to his mother.

Just how accurate Locke’s assessment of his fellow Black students was remains to be seen. But it’s ironic that after graduating from Harvard and attending Oxford as the first Black Rhodes Scholar, Locke took a job at Howard University. None other than Booker T. Washington helped him secure that job. The Washington stressed industrial education, Locke imbibed his “self-help” attitude, transferring it to the cultural sphere. This was the spirit behind the Black Arts movement of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance, for which Locke served as intellectual godfather.

Locke had an ambiguous relationship to his own Black identity. He was proud of his family lineage, and of the achievements of great Black artists and intellectuals. He taught at a Black university. He led a Black arts movement. He eventually came to see himself as a race leader. Yet he was never entirely comfortable with large swaths of the Black community.

Alain Locke (1885-1954)

And I guess this is sort of the point. When I visit Howard, I find it utterly fascinating. I grew up in a thoroughly middle-class/upper-middle-class Jewish environment in Montreal, Canada. Both my parents have doctorates, my father is a professor. I’ve always been totally at home in academic environments.

Without engaging in too much stereotyping, I imagine that for many Howard students, that is not the case. Here is an environment where when I walk around, I’m one of a handful of non-Black people around, and yet nearly all the Black people around me are thoroughly educated undergraduate or graduate or law or medical students or faculty.

One of my first thoughts when visiting Howard was that if I was African American, particularly if I was African American from a poor background, I would find it very empowering. I think it would be more empowering than for a Jew to attend Brandeis, for example (which now has many, I’ve heard of possibly even 40% non-Jewish students). Certainly more empowering than Yeshiva University, which has only Orthodox Jewish men (and boys).

I remember telling this to some of my (white) friends, and they wondered whether they might find Howard stifling, rather than empowering. Too much homogeneity and that sort of thing.

But I really don’t think I would feel that way.

At Howard, there is actually tremendous diversity: Black people of a variety of origins, those whose families came to America as slaves, those from a multitude of countries for Africa or the Caribbean, people of mixed race (with any number of races), people speaking many languages, practicing different religions (or no religion), people gay and straight and bisexual and transgender, with a variety of political leanings and academic interests and socio-economic backgrounds, people of different sizes and shades and hues and features and clothing and hairstyles.

This is of course obvious, perhaps banal to state. But Alain Locke found the 1904-1907 Black community at Harvard rather stifling. I wonder what he would think of Howard today? Or of Black students at Harvard today? I don’t have the answers, and as a historian, I never will. But it’s fascinating to speculate.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 27, 2012 at 16:43

The Dangers of Collegiate Athlete Worship

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by David

Yale Quarterback Patrick Witt aka Captain Douche

As a Harvard alum, I suppose I could take some obscene pleasure in the recent revelations about Yale quarterback Patrick Witt. You know, the guy who chose to play in the Harvard-Yale game instead of attend his Rhodes Scholarship interview? Yalies celebrated his upholding team and school loyalty over personal prestige–even as Harvard crushed Yale in The Game, 45-7. Except, according to this New York Times story, Witt rescinded his Rhodes application not because of the scheduling conflict, but because of a sexual assault allegation issued against him by a fellow student.

This was already a bizarre tale. Witt’s coach at Yale, Tom Williams, had lied about having been a Rhodes Scholarship candidate himself to suggest that he was in a prime position to advise his star quarterback. Then we find out that the campus paper, the Yale Daily News, had known about the sexual assault charges and been sitting on the story for months.

The thing is, I don’t take any pleasure in this at all (nor should anyone). Instead, we should lament the perils of athlete worship, which has reared its ugly head recently, most notably in the rioting of Penn State students over the firing of the late and disgraced Joe Paterno, protector of alleged child-rapist Jerry Sandusky.

I don’t know if Witt is guilty of sexual assault. But as the NY Times piece indicates from his prior arrests, he has a clear record of extreme douchebaggery. What we have here is a problem of the over-emphasis of collegiate athletics, and particularly the worship of male college athletes. These are people whose already inflated egos are fed from the moment they arrive on campus. This problem can lead to an equally inflated sense of privilege. Sometimes, this privilege just creates more and bigger douchebags. But other times, it can create atmosphere where real crimes go unnoticed, unreported, or unpunished.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 28, 2012 at 22:55

Posted in Academia, education, sports

Devastating Cuts to Public Higher Education

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By Peter

Education is increasingly become a central domain over which class conflict is being fought in the 21st century. Will corporate “Education Reform” succeed in privatizing our nation’s high schools, turning them into union-free charter-schools? Will there be any affordable public colleges in ten years? Will the burden of education be borne by society? Or by individuals who must go massively into debt to finance their own education? Is high-quality education a social good that benefits the whole community? Or is it a commodity, a form of individual social capital that each person should finance themselves through debt?

In this light we see the devastating cuts to public higher education:

Total state support for higher education declined 7.6 percent from the 2011 to the 2012 fiscal years, according to an annual report from the Grapevine Project, at Illinois State University, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers. As a whole, state spending on higher educa­tion­—after being supported by the recovery-act money for three budget years—is now nearly 4 percent lower than it was in the 2007 fiscal year. Twenty-nine states appropriated less for colleges this year than they did five years ago.

As public colleges that were formerly free or cheap increasingly rely on donations and tuition to fix their budgets the line between public and private college further erodes. Increasingly the only difference between, say UCLA, the public school, and USC, the private school, is that UCLA gets a nominal portion of their budget from the state. At both schools, of course, students can only even come close to affording tuition through back-door Federal subsidies, via Pell Grants and various student loan deals. The average student starts life burdened with $25,000 in student loan debt (and going up every year). Its very plausible for a student to attend a public university (like say $22,000 a year UConn) and have almost $100,000 of debt when they are 21.

All of which brings out the generational warrior in me. If I hear another old white Fox News watching person talking about how he had no problem making it, back when tuition was negligible and good jobs were aplently, I’m going to fucking lose it.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

January 26, 2012 at 21:28

Posted in education

The Deep Roots of Conservative Victimhood

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The roots go much deeper.

By Julian

Last week, Newt Gingrich reinvigorated his presidential campaign with a fiery appeal to conservative victimhood. Questions about his past infidelities, Gingrich explained, reflected the liberal media’s efforts to destroy the conservative movement. “I’m tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans,” he thundered. Cue the multiple standing ovations from the rapt audience of South Carolina conservatives. Never mind the fact that Gingrich had helped build his career by denouncing Bill Clinton’s commitment to “family values” while he himself engaged in extra-marital affairs. For those in this audience, all that mattered was that they had found a politician willing to voice their grievances against the all-powerful liberal establishment.

The right-wing populism that Gingrich so effectively marshaled at last week’s debate is often contrasted with a more reasonable brand of conservative thinking that supposedly flourished in a past golden age. In this declension narrative, touted by Mark Lilla in his controversial review of Corey Robin’s new book, The Reactionary Mind, a sophisticated conservative intellectual tradition has recently descended into the swamplands of populist demagoguery. As Lilla explains, “Most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley and George Will and the ascendancy of new populist reactionaries like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and other Tea Party favorites.”

The problem with this view, as others have pointed out, is that American conservatives have been bashing the “liberal elite” now for going on six decades.  It’s part of their DNA. William Buckley Jr., the most influential intellectual in the postwar conservative movement, might have rejected the conspiracy theorists at the John Birch Society, but he also supported massive resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, wrote a book defending Senator McCarthy, and praised the fascist government in Franco’s Spain. While he could be witty and charming, Buckley was also merciless in attacking a liberal elite that he believed had come to dominate (and enervate) American society since the New Deal.

In fact, Buckley launched his career in 1951 with a book that claims liberals had used “academic freedom” as a tool to monopolize higher education and suppress conservative thought. During a period in which over 100 professors lost their jobs because of the Second Red Scare, Buckley asserts that conservatives were academia’s true victims. In God and Man at Yale he also calls for the elimination of peer review and tenure in favor of a system that would allow those who pay for colleges and universities—typically parents and alumni—to determine their ideological content: “For in the last analysis, academic freedom must mean the freedom of men and women to supervise the educational activities and aims of the schools they oversee and support.” Universities needed to be run by the people who paid for them, not a band of unaccountable academics. It’s hard to imagine a critique more populist in character.

To be fair, right-wing appeals to populism explain why conservative intellectuals helped inspire a mass movement rather than a club for disenchanted, antediluvian curmudgeons. Still it’s worth remembering that intellectuals such as Buckley gained fame and notoriety by providing learned support for causes such as McCarthyism, Massive Resistance, and the firing of liberal faculty at Ivy League Universities. They provide a blueprint for today’s Newt Gingrichs, not an antidote.

Written by Julian Nemeth

January 25, 2012 at 21:39

A Montreal Jew at Harvard: The Insularity Contest

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by Weiner

When I first read this piece by Misha Glouberman in The Paris Review about being a Montreal Jew at Harvard, I felt an instant rush of familiarity. Was Glouberman not telling my own story about 20 years earlier? I felt as if I could have written the first paragraph:

I grew up in Montreal and went to an upper-middle-class Jewish day school where kids had parents who maybe owned a carpet store or maybe were dentists. And then I went to Harvard for college. And it was pretty weird.

It certainly seemed weird at the time. And sometimes it still does. But upon further reflection, I realize that it wasn’t that weird. Sure, Harvard was and is a unique institution. I suspect going there for college is a very different experience than going to Penn State or UCLA or any university in Canada, England or elsewhere in the world. But it’s probably not all that different from going to another Ivy League school, or Stanford or MIT.

More important, in one crucial way, Harvard is like everywhere else: there are good people and bad people, interesting people and boring people, and yes, even smart people and dumb people. In fact, I’d argue that the Montreal Jewish community is a far weirder environment than Harvard was. I’ll try to explain what I mean by examining Glouberman’s essay in more depth, and sharing some of my Montreal, and especially my Harvard experiences.

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Written by David Weinfeld

July 14, 2011 at 16:00

The Critic is a Judge, the Judge is an Academic

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by Luce

It’s already known that for Janet Malcolm, no profession is sacred, not even her own. Yet while remaining hyper-aware of her role as journalist in her latest book Iphigenia in Forest Hills, she also assumes the mantle and mentality (with intense psychological portraits) of lawyer, judge, and executioner, not to mention father of the dead, daughter of the accused, state-appointed law guardian, and alleged murderess. Some might call it a performative contradiction, but then again she sees all the characters in the trial as performers with deep contradictions. Perhaps she’s merely joining the gang, or perhaps her own performance is intended to highlight the inconsistencies that surround her.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills recounts the murder trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, a physician and member of the Bukharan Jewish community in Forest Hills in Queens, accused of hiring a hitman to murder her ex-husband after a court ordered their young daughter be transferred into his custody. I recommend it wholeheartedly. About her protagonist, Malcolm writes, “she couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.” This appears on page 32 of 155 pages, and by the end the reader is left with no further conclusion than that. Either we remain satisfied with this impossibility, or we start doubting Janet Malcolm’s authority. But why doubt Malcolm’s authority rather than someone else’s? Take the judge for instance: Robert “Hang ‘em” Hanophy, whom one juror (apparently hand-selected for his gray everydayness) says (on page 96) is “real and down to earth and serious about his job. And funny. He had a good sense of humor.” But nearly 90 pages before, Malcolm has already described Hanophy as “a man of seventy-four with a small head and a large body and the faux-genial manner that American petty tyrants cultivate.”

I keep noting the timeline of the book because it tells us something about what Malcolm’s doing here. Malcolm doesn’t ask the reader to reach his or her own conclusions as testimony is laid out; she doesn’t pander to expectations of objectivity. The jurors and judge are already biased toward actions and behaviors that seem legitimate to their own understandings, and Malcolm isn’t about to let them get the monopoly on prejudice. Yet while Malcolm gives her narrative precedence, the nature of the written form allows her thoughts to become interwoven with those of other characters’; the reader flips back and forth to re-read a  Malcolm characterization of someone an interviewee has presented in a very different light. And so Malcolm’s own narrative can be retroactively challenged. While I was initially convinced by Malcolm’s claim that Borukhova both couldn’t have and had to have killed her ex-husband, at some point I began to doubt that she couldn’t have. Despite this deep paradox, Malcolm is more convinced that she knows Borukhova’s character than I am (though in a recent Paris Review interview, Malcolm admits, “As I went along I felt I undestood her less and less… [Borukhova] becomes who you imagined she is.”) Flawed legal evidence abounded, and Borukhova appeared to be a successful career woman, a devoted mother, and quite possibly an abused wife, but none of this convinced me that she couldn’t have done it.  Perhaps this makes me the radical relativist to the contrarian Malcolm, characterizations that make generational sense given her birth in 1934 and mine in 1983.

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Written by Kristen Loveland

May 11, 2011 at 07:00

The Kushner Affair and Academic Freedom

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by Nemo

Most observers seem to agree that the CUNY Board of Trustees made a boneheaded move by vetoing an honorary degree that the faculty and administration of John Jay College had planned to award to the playwright Tony Kushner. When you have people like Jeffrey Goldberg and Ed Koch attacking you for going too far with your “pro-Israel” activism, you know you probably went overboard. In fact, the trustees themselves seem to have realized the error in their ways, since they have now decided to overturn their previous decision.

Tony Kushner

Now, there were many reasons to criticize the board’s initial move to deny Kushner the degree. These include its unprecedented heavy-handedness (this was the first time that the board had overruled a motion for an honorary degree), its gross mischaracterization of Kushner’s views on Israel, and the obvious attempt it represented to narrow the range of acceptable debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even some of Kushner’s harshest critics believed that the vote to deny the honorary degree was patently unfair and gave Zionism a bad name. This is to their credit.

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Written by Julian Nemeth

May 10, 2011 at 15:31


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