Further Thoughts on Nick Kristof and Public Intellectuals

by Corey Robin on March 12, 2014

I have a piece up at Al Jazeera America, “The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals,” which follows up on my post about the whole Nick Kristof/public intellectuals kerfuffle. Just an extension of some of the arguments I made there. Here are the highlights:

In the 1990s the philosopher and Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton ran an annual Bad Writing contest in order to highlight turgid academic prose. If the contest were still around, this passage from The American Political Science Review might be a winner:


For a body of n members, in which there exists a group large enough and willing to pass a motion, let the members vote randomly and declare the motion passed when the mth member has voted for it, where m “yes” votes are required for passage. Define as the pivot the member in the mth position and note that there are n! (read “n factorial,” that is 1 · 2 · … · n) such random orderings of n voters (that is, the permutations of a, b, · · · , n). Then define the power, p, of a member, i, thus: pi = ti/n!, where ti is the number of times i is pivot.


As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out, this is the kind of writing that has estranged the reading public from academia. A generation ago, political scientists were public intellectuals. We wrote lucid prose. We spoke to the issues of the day. We advised President John F. Kennedy. But now all we care about is math, jargon and one another.


There’s just one problem with what I’ve just said. That passage from The American Political Science Review appeared in 1962, the second year of the Kennedy administration.


Jargon has been the bane of academic life since there’s been academic life. Just read Immanuel Kant. Or Thomas Hobbes, who complained that the academic writing of his day was “nothing else … but insignificant trains of strange and barbarous words.”



At their best, intellectuals do more than package their research into digestible bits for policymakers or the public. They force us to think beyond the limits of the day, to ask the questions no one is asking. They are an invitation to imaginative excess and political trespass. Academic experts in the mainstream media reassure us with their authority; young intellectuals in the little magazines arrest us with their divinations.


It may be, however, that the economics that make little magazines and blogs possible also make them unsustainable. Many of these outlets rely on the volunteer or nearly free labor of writers and grad students or middle-aged professors like me. The former live cheaply and pay their rent with a precarious passel of odd jobs, fellowships and university teaching; the latter have tenure.


But grad students graduate, 20-somethings make families, and rents go up. Struggling writers in 1954 could flee to tenured positions in academia; their counterparts in 2014 will find no such refuge. Nearly three-quarters of all instructional staff at colleges and universities today are not on the tenure track. They’re insecure, contingent workers, an army of cheap and casual labor that make the universities go. While young writers can afford to do the kind of intellectual journalism we see at the little magazines, older adjuncts teaching five classes can’t.


Writers and academics who fret over the fate of public intellectuals may think they are debating vital questions of the culture. But their discussions are myopically focused on the writing habits of a rapidly disappearing elite. The vast majority of potential public intellectuals do not belong to the academic 1 percent. They are not forsaking the snappy op-ed for the arcane article. They are not navigating the shoals of publish or perish. They’re grading.


You can read it all here.


 

{ 176 comments }

1

Wonks Anonymous 03.12.14 at 2:05 pm

Did Dutton’s contest typically feature examples with that kind of mathematical formulae? That’s not what I normally think of as “prose”.

2

Robert 03.12.14 at 2:16 pm

Judith Butler won it one year. So I do not think the example was what the contest was looking for.

3

Ronan(rf) 03.12.14 at 2:25 pm

I never find the quant people to be the problem, as they assume you’re not going to understand the maths and are used to explaining their findings/theories in laymans terms (also they generally seem to study pretty specific questions which are easily explainable)
It’s the high theorists who will kill you with verbiage. Wowza.

4

Ronan(rf) 03.12.14 at 2:29 pm

Slightly tangentially, they should have given the German ex Arsenal goal keeper Jens Lehman a weekly column called ‘Lehmans terms.’

5

Main Street Muse 03.12.14 at 2:43 pm

As a contingent faculty person spending my spring break grading (and not working on my creative work), I agree that the contingent position makes it very difficult to have time for the intellectual pursuits.

Higher education is a leader in using contingent employees who make poverty level wages. It is no better than WaMart – and that’s a terrible shame.

The majority of students, who are going into high levels of debt to be educated at the university, are taught by contingent workers who are paid very little to do the important work of curriculum development, grading, meeting with students, etc. It’s a terrible model, one that needs to be thrown out and reformed completely.

Tenure, quite frankly, is a puzzling benefit. Someone please explain it to me. It seems to be used by some professors as an excuse for becoming stagnant. And in this day of self-righteous indignation, tenure seems incapable of providing professors with academic freedom – especially since the majority of those teaching are not granted this protection of tenure.

6

Corey Robin 03.12.14 at 3:06 pm

Wonks and Robert: You’re both right, of course, but I think that’s just the point. That writing contest was focused on a particular type of writing that its founder disliked. But aside from a partiality for disliking Butler’s style of writing, what actual criteria would disqualify an article like this, which is not in a mathematics journal and is not about math, but is instead in the premier American journal devoted to the study of politics, which is a field whose foundational claim, going back to Aristotle, is that it is the master science, an activity that concerns the whole of the citizenry? If the complaint against Butler is that she is speaking in an exclusive argot when her subject matter requires her to be speaking to fellow citizens, I’m not sure why political science shouldn’t come under the same scrutiny. If that’s the standard.

7

Daniel 03.12.14 at 3:42 pm

The complaint against Butler is not that the layperson cannot understand her, but rather the denseness of her prose masks the vacuity of her ideas. The passage you offer from Riker and Niemi is, once you learn the basic terminology, very clear, and cannot hide anything. Academic researchers writing in academic journals usually don’t write to be understood by someone with no knowledge of their field, but they should write in a way that promotes maximal precision and clarity so as to allow for a reasonable evaluation of what is good in it and what not.

8

Patrick 03.12.14 at 3:58 pm

Math is not jargon when you are making a point about numbers, even if that point is offered in support of a larger, non-mathematical thesis.

9

Trader Joe 03.12.14 at 3:59 pm

@5 Main Street

Exactly.

The model doesn’t make sense. There need to be fewer administrators and less dollars tied up in tenured faculty which would in-turn free up the resources to retain faculty, at appropriate salaries, over a longer period of time. There are far better means than “tenure” to insure the retention of core talent and simultaneously incentivize the intellectual productivity that made that person attractive to the organization in the first place.

The debt problem that modern students face just compounds a problem that has existed for a long time. The debt burden fosters a willingness to work for a few peanuts (since a few peanuts are better than none) giving schools even greater leverage in the already skewed supply/demand equation.

To the OP point I’ve regularly followed the ALD bad writing contest and a variety of verbose and confusing styles have proved victorious (if that’s the right word) the cited example would surely have been a contender and is indicative of language that seeks to impress rather than to inform or enlighten.

10

roger gathman 03.12.14 at 4:38 pm

The point about the function of math as an instrument of obscurantism seems to me to fall into two related arguments: first, quite sophisticated math can be used to make quite trivial points – the academic who does this garners prestige because the armature of math has made it seem like he or she is making a very sophisticated point, when actually he or she is blocking the making of a sophisticated point. You could translate the joke why did the chicken cross the road into mathematical terms, but it would still be a children’s joke. The second point, which I think is more important, is that mathematics can be used to divert the attention from important semantic issues – issues concerning the assumptions of ones arguments – to technical issues. In this way it does a real harm, since it operates to make paradigmatic assumptions immune from inspection. What happens then is that a conformist academic culture grows up that is actually allergic to what is, traditionally, the intellectual’s task – the discussion of assumptions, the questioning of certain privileged examples, the unmasking of disguised interests, etc. – and does its best to squelch it.

11

Main Street Muse 03.12.14 at 4:56 pm

“You could translate the joke why did the chicken cross the road into mathematical terms, but it would still be a children’s joke.”

1) Why translate this into math?

2) When translated into math, it’s likely no longer a children’s joke – or at the very least, it would not be a joke that would engage and humor children. Especially if Common Core math is used…

12

dBonar 03.12.14 at 4:58 pm

A question I can’t answer from a 5-minute google, but someone here may know. I understand that the percentage of tenure/tenure-track academics among all academics is going down. What about the percentage of t/t-t academics among all citizens of the U.S.?

13

anon 03.12.14 at 5:27 pm

People have a low esteem for public intellectuals because they tend to say dumb things. For example, many intellectuals in the 40’s and 50’s saw a regime of Stalinist terror as both a good and inevitable thing. Today, many public intellectuals take the position that Israeli Jews should willingly submit themselves to Islamist violence. That’s why the layman usually doesn’t take the public intellectual seriously.

14

Corey Robin 03.12.14 at 5:40 pm

Daniel: “The complaint against Butler is not that the layperson cannot understand her, but rather the denseness of her prose masks the vacuity of her ideas.”

That is *a* complaint, yes, but it’s not the main complaint that inspired Dutton’s Bad Writing Contest, which is where this whole discussion began. As Dutton put it: “Fed up, I resolved to find out just how low the state of academic writing had sunk. I could use the Internet to solicit the most egregious examples of awkward, jargon-clogged academic prose from all over the English-speaking world. And so the annual Bad Writing Contest was born…. If readers are baffled by a phrase like ‘disclosing the absentation of actuality,’ they will imagine it’s due to their own ignorance. Much of what passes for theory in English departments depends on this kind of natural humility on the part of readers. The writing is intended to look as though Mr. Fry is a physicist struggling to make clear the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Of course, he’s just an English professor showing off.”

And this: “The next round of the Bad Writing Contest, results to be announced in 1998, is now open with a deadline of December 31, 1997. There is an endless ocean of pretentious, turgid academic prose being added to daily, and we’ll continue to celebrate it.”

And this: “The Bad Writing Contest attempts to locate the ugliest, most stylistically awful passage found in a scholarly book or article published in the last few years.”

And this: “The Bad Writing Contest celebrates the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles published in the last few years.”

A lot of the focus was on needlessly jargon-y writing that could not be apprehended by the layperson. Incidentally, Dutton included Hegel and Heidegger in his rogue’s gallery. Butler was in a long line for him.

15

Jim Harrison 03.12.14 at 5:50 pm

If you work too fast at a construction site, the other workers will come down on you for it. Something similar occurs in academia. There’s an informal limit to what Nietzsche called “permissible sagacity.” I don’t doubt that much of the bad writing done by profs is simply bad writing, but the traditional foibles of assistant professors aren’t all that important in the scheme of things. What often offends in difficult work and does matter is the difficulty of the ideas imperfectly expressed and the unpleasant implication that we ought to follow the author into the further reaches. The failing we sanction isn’t stylistic but moral: trying to understand that much is either vanity or hubris and, in either case, a violation of union rules.

16

Bruce Wilder 03.12.14 at 5:56 pm

roger gathman:

The second point, which I think is more important, is that mathematics can be used to divert the attention from important semantic issues – issues concerning the assumptions of ones arguments – to technical issues.

Of course, a standard justification for mathematical modeling is just the opposite: it can divert attention from what are unimportant semantic disputes over the meaning of words or favored narratives, to allow a shared insight to form around the revelation of technical issues of system and function.

The passage from The American Political Science Review, which Corey quoted, isn’t particularly turgid. It is straightforward prose, explaining the notational setup, algebra to follow no doubt. It’s boring, but not confusing. And, according to the standard justification just mentioned, “boring” is a feature not a bug — it’s boring precisely because it is stripping away narrative meaning and baroque specifics to get at system and function in an abstract way.

The escalation into real academic nonsense does happen well after 1962. Reading published academic papers in economics from the 1950s or 1960s is a completely different experience from reading the corresponding journals today. Granted one is only likely to read “significant” articles from the past, and such a selection for quality is not possible in contemporary output, because one lacks perspective, the difference remains startling.

What I think happened is that the use of math escalated from fairly simple notation used as an alternative form of expression into massive calculation. The kind of intertemporal optimization required for economist’s oft-mentioned DSGE models, for example, is hard math — it’s laborious to learn and do, with any non-trivial values. The sheer effort of doing hard math tends to exclude the time and energy necessary to consider the economics — the human behavior — supposedly being modeled. The graduate student just works through the math, and reasoning is postponed indefinitely. The math required to do statistical investigations — what passes for “empirical” work — with regression analysis and the like is also often mind-numbing in its way. Mathematical notation forms a kind of machine, in which operations can be performed in a mechanical fashion, step-by-step. At its best, this is a powerful convenience, but, at its worst, it becomes a substitute for reason.

In some ways, I suppose, it is an old affliction. It’s what the scholastics were doing with the re-discovered syllogism. Still, I think I would argue that it has escalated significantly over the last couple of generations. This kind of report should be deeply troubling: http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/02/27/how_nonsense_papers_ended_up_in_respected_scientific_journals.html

As for its relation to the role of the public intellectual, consider the episode reported by Rajiv Sethi.
http://rajivsethi.blogspot.com/2010/08/lessons-from-kocherlakota-controversy.html

The President of the Minneapolis Fed, Narayana Kocherlakota, an academic economist with a highly prestigious c.v., gave a speech to a group of businessmen in a small city in Michigan, explaining the operations of Fed policy. Nothing could be more exemplary of the work of the public intellectual — at least the public intellectual, who is honored and well-paid and pressing a credible claim on political power, not the ambitious hipster without musical talent affecting radicalism.

And, basically, he revealed that his deep and sophisticated mathematical training had rotted his brain, as he attempted to explain the intuition behind a proposition that couldn’t make any intuitive sense, because it was nonsense. This wasn’t a disengaged intellectual addressing his tribe. This was a public official, chosen for his academic qualifications, addressing his constituents. And, he’s a friggin’ idiot.

17

Trader Joe 03.12.14 at 5:59 pm

ALD bad writing winners and runners up are all available here:

http://denisdutton.com/bad_writing.htm

18

Corey Robin 03.12.14 at 6:13 pm

Bruce Wilder: “The passage from The American Political Science Review, which Corey quoted, isn’t particularly turgid. It is straightforward prose, explaining the notational setup, algebra to follow no doubt. It’s boring, but not confusing.”

I suppose this gets into some subjective terrain, but I certainly found it confusing. I’ve now read it five or six times and still am not sure I’ve got it right. On the one hand, that could be my failure. On the other hand, if it is, I suspect it’s not a failure peculiar to me. I do have a PhD in this discipline, after all, and have even had a research article of mine published in the very same journal in question (APSR). I also definitely found that piece I cite in the OP to be turgid, in the sense that it’s congested prose that sets up a bunch of roadblocks and obstacles — at least to the non-initiate — to fluid reading. I’m not sure on whose behalf you were speaking — the voice of your statement made it seem as if you weren’t speaking on behalf of anyone, you were just stating objective fact — but again I suspect there are a great many educated readers like myself who would find this kind of writing heavy-going, laborious, congested, etc. The kind of writing that gets in the way of itself.

And what frustrates people like me is that the people who write like this don’t seem to have any awareness that readers like me wouldn’t understand what they’re saying.

19

Jeffrey 03.12.14 at 6:32 pm

I was distressed to see that the Judith Butler Random Text Generator appears to have vanished from the Interwebs. Probably needless to add, the Judith Butler Random Text Generator spit out prose qualitatively indistinguishable from Butler’s presumably non-randomly-generated texts. No universal Turing machine could have told the difference. I’m not technically inclined, but anyone with the facility to make it available again would be performing a real public service.

20

Ronan(rf) 03.12.14 at 6:37 pm

The comparison would surely be if your model wasn’t understandable to someone with an understanding of modelling. Isn’t it the intro and conclusion to the paper that should be clear enough to explain what the paper itself is looking at/has discovered ? The technical details, the fact that someone without a background in maths doesn’t understand the model, isn’t really here nor there (afaict)

21

Patrick 03.12.14 at 6:43 pm

I know I defended the math passage earlier, but I should add for fairness that it is not a particularly easy to follow paragraph even if you know the math. Math is rarely made more clear by translating clean mathematical lines into paragraphs of narration. The problem as I see it isn’t math gumming up prose, it is prose gumming up math.

22

Corey Robin 03.12.14 at 6:53 pm

Ronan(rf): I’m not sure whom your comment was directed to, but all I would say in response is that I was working, in my piece, within the frame set out by Kristof. It was he who claimed that “a generation ago,” political scientists wrote for a public and that the turn to math is recent. I was merely pointing out that the heyday he points to — the Kennedy administration — suffered from the very problems he thinks are endemic to our time. And that was my only point in invoking in that article. Whether readers like myself are supposed to understand more than the beginning and the end of an APSR article is a different question and definitely far afield from the terms of the discussion set out by Kristof.

23

Ronan(rf) 03.12.14 at 6:57 pm

I was just speaking generally. I agree that Kristof’s position is idiotic and completely unsupportable though.

24

Corey Robin 03.12.14 at 6:59 pm

On a different note, we can debate back and forth all day about the virtues and vices of academic writing, but the point of my article is that that debate misses the boat on what’s actually going on in academia right now, what’s most driving whether academics write for the public or not. It’s almost the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

25

mud man 03.12.14 at 7:03 pm

That example would be less obscure if our “public intellectuals” had been taught enough non-specialist math to know what the word “factorial” means and perhaps even to understand that factorial growth is more explosive than exponential growth, even. That might be important even for a politician, or a political scientist.

26

Layman 03.12.14 at 7:06 pm

“I never find the quant people to be the problem, as they assume you’re not going to understand the maths and are used to explaining their findings/theories in laymans terms”

I prefer it when people use my terms. I need the revenue.

27

roger gathman 03.12.14 at 7:52 pm

Bruce, I guess I buy another explanation, put forward by Philip Mirowski’s Machine Dreams, about the way in which economics was diverted from its broader tradition to one in which the only economics was about “free markets” and the maths came in as a tool to make everything look like physics or at least engineering. Heilbroner (there’s a public intellectual for ya), in a review of a book by John Kenneth Galbraith (another) wrote a very succinct description of this process – in a vein quite separate from Mirowski. I find these two paragraphs interesting, because, if we transpose them from economics to other social sciences, we see the same process going on – call it the Randification of the social sciences (after Rand corporation, not Ayn):

For Galbraith, the red thread throughout the last century has been a fascination with price theory—that is, the way prices, wages, interest, and profits are determined. To my way of thinking, that view overlooks an extraordinary inflection point in the developmental curve of the discipline around 1870, dividing its classical forebears—Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, and in important ways John Stuart Mill—from its postclassical practitioners, starting with William Stanley Jevons and Léon Walras through the commanding Alfred Marshall, whose Principles was still used as a text when I first studied economics in the late 1930s.

Both groups, to be sure, were interested in what we call the “price mechanism,” but the classical founders investigated prices (including the prices of labor, land, or capital) under the aspect of “value theory.” They were not seeking to explain transient market prices or wages or rents so much as to discover the background forces that imposed a hidden order on them. The postclassical economists, in contrast, investigated the immediate forces—mainly demand schedules and availability of supplies—that gave rise to prices or income payments of the moment, rather than searching for long-run considerations, such as labor time, that might provide the underlying explanations for these prices or payments. After this change of emphasis, there was no longer a theory of value distinct from one of price.”

28

Bruce Wilder 03.12.14 at 8:12 pm

Corey Robin:

it’s congested prose that sets up a bunch of roadblocks and obstacles — at least to the non-initiate — to fluid reading. I’m not sure on whose behalf you were speaking — the voice of your statement made it seem as if you weren’t speaking on behalf of anyone, you were just stating objective fact

The evidence that you and I read quite differently comes up again. I read the quoted passage as conventional — it was following certain conventions for the narrative designation of mathematical notation, and the chosen notation, itself, was following convention. Back in the day, I was a student of Martin Shubik, whose work the article was following up on, and, so, I suppose, I’m familiar with those conventions. I guess, if you don’t recognize the conventions, or realize that the authors are deliberately following such conventions, it must seem an oddly, and maybe pointlessly, stilted way of writing, indeed.

As these things go, the English seems straightforward to me. The sentence structures are simple and declarative. The paragraph is not trying to persuade. The paragraph isn’t trying to make an argument. It just wants to expose the notation, so a mathematical expression can be used — in this case a ratio to be used to calculate an index of how often particular voters find themselves making a majority. It’s technical writing, but it’s not bad technical writing. It serves a technical purpose.

The Judith Butler prize-winner, by contrast, is gobbledygook.

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

The sentence structures are complex; the grammar and syntax, fractured. The jargon, if that’s what it is, doesn’t serve a technical purpose, since there’s no technical apparatus at hand — it’s just pretentious.

29

Metatone 03.12.14 at 8:12 pm

@Corey

I wasn’t sure how to post in this thread, because I basically agree with your points about how the changing nature of academic jobs affects the writing output for general consumption.

I was tempted to start on tenure, but it seems like one we’ve been over so many times.

In my experiences as an adjunct, any kind of impermanent contract starts to look like exploitation – not only because of the “how long is a piece of string” demands of students and administrators but also that as a non-permanent they are forever putting hoops in the way of your use of resources. It’s quite easy to end up spending money of your own on basic materials for classes because you don’t have time to fight the institution for it and you tend to want to not let the students down (or perhaps you’re worried about their evals or grades.)

There’s a paper in pre-print about the role of guilt that is interesting here:

http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/cmci/people/papers/gill/silence.pdf

30

Colin Danby 03.12.14 at 8:13 pm

Shorter Daniel: Anything I don’t get must be rubbish.

31

Metatone 03.12.14 at 8:41 pm

@Bruce Wilder

Perhaps I’m overtrained, but I don’t find it that hard to understand the gobbledygook paragraph you quote. But maybe this is your point about conventions.

(Which is not to say that it wouldn’t immediately benefit from being seriously rewritten for clarity and ease of reading.)

However, in my own area of recent work (Healthcare Organization Studies) what’s clear is that one big reason for tortured prose is a combination of inflexible journal structure and word count requirements alongside an every growing list of people and concepts which needs name checking if you’re going to pass the peer-review.

32

lupita 03.12.14 at 8:51 pm

For a body of n members, in which there exists a group large enough and willing to pass a motion, let the members vote randomly and declare the motion passed when the mth member has voted for it, where m “yes” votes are required for passage. Define as the pivot the member in the mth position and note that there are n! (read “n factorial,” that is 1 • 2 • … • n) such random orderings of n voters (that is, the permutations of a, b, • • • , n). Then define the power, p, of a member, i, thus: pi = ti/n!, where ti is the number of times i is pivot.

Translation:
Ten friends have come up with a list of five different cakes they would like served in each of their weekly gatherings. Catalina wanted chocolate cake for their next meeting and Genoveva wanted cherry cheese cake. So which should it be? “I know”, said Natalia, “let’s take a vote.” So they voted in random order with Berenice casting the sixth vote in favor of chocolate at which point they stopped voting.

The next week Roxana wanted pastel tres leches while poor Genoveva still wanted cherry cheese. They voted again in random order and, guess what? Berenice got to cast the sixth determining vote again! In favor of tres leches! “Hmm”, though Genoveva, “I wonder if Berenice has some sort of special power”.

The following week, Genoveva lost again to sponge cake with Berenice casting the sixth vote. “Three times she has done that!” marveled Genoveva, “just how much power does this woman have?” So she took the 3 and divided it by the probability of being selected to cast the sixth vote and got .0000008.

The following week only cherry cheese and carrot were left and, while Genoveva’s favorite lost again, at least this time the determining vote was cast by Anita. How powerful would that make Anita? One divided by 3,628,800 (the probability of being randomly selected to cast the sixth vote in a group of ten) is .0000003 which is quite powerful indeed but less than Genoveva.

The next meeting only cheery cheese was left but the friends voted anyway just for the fun of it and while Genoveva did not get to cast the sixth vote, at least she got to eat her favorite cake the next gathering. Exactly how powerless was Genoveva during these proceedings? Well, zero divided by 10*9*8*7*6*5*4*3*2, which is how we determine in how many different orders a group of 10 can arrange itself to vote, is zero.

33

js. 03.12.14 at 9:00 pm

In support of Corey’s thesis that the obtuseness of (some) academic writing is neither a new phenomenon nor limited to pomo types, I was trying to find Russell’s early papers on Meinong, we’re talking pre-“On Denoting”. If you think happen to think that the difficulty is presented by the material itself, see Russell’s own later writings. Couldn’t find it though, so you’ll have to trust me on this.

Also, the quoted Butler bit @28 doesn’t seem that bad to me. Sure it’s wordier than necessary and the contrast in the second half is less than totally perspicuous, but for a long sentence it reads surprisingly easily.

34

David Margolies 03.12.14 at 9:33 pm

Corey Robin 18: “I suppose this gets into some subjective terrain, but I certainly found it confusing. I’ve now read it five or six times and still am not sure I’ve got it right.”

Assume n=10 and m=6, then:

“For a body of 10 members, in which there exists a group large enough and willing to pass a motion, let the members vote randomly and declare the motion passed when the 6th member has voted for it, where 6 “yes” votes are required for passage. Define as the pivot the member in the 6th position and note that there are 10! (3,628,800) such random orderings of 10 voters (that is, the permutations of a, b, · · · , j). Then define the power, p, of a member, i, thus: pi = ti/10!, where ti is the number of times i is pivot.”

This is unclear: why isn’t pi = 1/10 — the chance that John is in position 6 in a random ordering of 10 people (one of whom is John) is 1/10. And in general pi = 1/n. But that is odd if it is what the author meant because it is uninteresting. Perhaps he means ti is the actual number of times John is in position 6 (looking at the organization voting records). But if the ordering is random, everyone’s power will be (roughly) the same small number. Perhaps the author means by the pivot not the person voting in the 6th place but the person casting the 6th Yes vote. That seems more interesting, and ti could be, therefore, the number of times John cast the sixth yes vote. The power numbers will all be small — even if there have been 10000 votes where the motion passed with John present (which is a lot), John could only be the 6th yes in <= 5000 votes (can't be the pivot ever if you vote in positions 1-5, which is 1/2 the time), so the power < 0.0134 and likely much less. But everyone will have a power and the numbers will now vary significantly among the members.

To be fair to the author, if there is a general statement of what he is getting at, it would have helped if that was included. (I am guessing that the pivot is the 6th Yes vote, and the claim is something like people like to be the pivot and so people are the sixth Yes vote more than you would expect given their voting patterns in non-pivot positions.)

35

Laleh 03.12.14 at 9:48 pm

I don’t find the Butler passage quote @28 nonsensical or vacuous, and I am not even particularly good at reading dense philosophical texts.

I have to say that the demand for lucidity is often philistinism masking itself in a sanctimonious demand for clarity. A great many writers who write difficult prose can be understood if one spends enough time understanding what they are trying to say. Corey mentioned Hegel and Heidegger up above. Marx’s discussions of value are similarly dense. Until you learn the vocabulary.

Yes, the ability to write lucidly is a gift, and yes, a great many academics don’t necessarily write lucidly, but I am curious as to why Judith Butler has become the target of so much opprobrium about writing. Could it be that the terms of her discussions of gender/sexuality (or structure/hegemony) are unfamiliar to the people who criticise her?

36

Harry 03.12.14 at 9:48 pm

Corey, according to your link, the total number of tenure line faculty in the US was 437778 in 2011. As a proportion of the working age population, how does that compare with 1954? Total guess, but given the large expansion in the sixties, I’d be surprised if the opportunities to become a tenured professor now are smaller than they were in 1954. Which is what you imply with “Struggling writers in 1954 could flee to tenured positions in academia; their counterparts in 2014 will find no such refuge.” Of course, it requires more work to enter academia than it used to, and it takes longer and more investment for someone to do that work — but that is just like other professions.

37

Kiwanda 03.12.14 at 10:21 pm

roger gathman:

…mathematics can be used to divert the attention from important semantic issues – issues concerning the assumptions of ones arguments – to technical issues.

Admittedly there’s a fair number of spherical cows floating around in any field that uses mathematical models. But such models can also actually help clarify assumptions: Arrow’s impossibility theorem implies that a set of fairly natural properties of a voting system cannot all hold simultaneously. Mathematics itself (as distinct from the use of mathematical models in some other field) is filled with attempts to understand the relationships among assumptions.

38

bob mcmanus 03.12.14 at 10:31 pm

28: Sorry Wilder, the Butler quote is lucid and economical, and my only problem might be that is fairly ordinary and unoriginal. I presume that is prefatory to something more complex and original. I read stuff that works from that base everday.

Foucault was a genius, maybe the social science genius of the 2nd half of 20th century, and the Butler is just explaining where anyone wanting to understand the social world and strive for social justice has to start.

Richard Seymour posted a terrific quote on why Foucault is essential:

“Foucault implicitly and explicitly draws on Marx’s arguments in Capital to help explain the logic for historical change. Foucault always introduces Marx as supporting evidence and never as a figure to be disproved. As Foucault makes clear (221), capitalism could not exist without the form of control that Foucault calls ‘discipline’ and discipline could not succeed without the rise of capitalism. In many ways, one of Discipline and Punish’s main projects in its treatment of class-struggle, power and knowledge is to provide a way for new students of Marx to escape the PCF’s increasingly unfruitful use of the terms ‘ideology’ and ‘false consciousness’ as explanations for why the working class submits to middle-class authority. … At its heart, Discipline and Punish is a stunning dismantling of the cherished bourgeois ideal of the individual and the political, economic and cultural valences of that concept. … Foucault uses Discipline and Punish to argue that the cultivation of the individual in these terms camouflages the middle class’s desire to become the dominant group within a capitalist economy. The scene of the contract obscures actual power inequalities, Enlightenment reason is linked to coercive force and the humanist mythos of the authentic personality of the individual has been historically constructed as a device to control threatening collectives, namely those of the working and lower classes.”

— Anne Schwan, Stephen Shapiro, How to Read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Pluto Press, 2011

39

bob mcmanus 03.12.14 at 10:38 pm

On 1/2 of the OP, I’ll quote from Christian Marazzi, Capital and Language, noting that he is only one of many authors dealing with precarity and the capitalization of the general intellect. What is happening to PHD’s is also happening to assembly-line workers, low-level coders, and well, all of us.

We have seen how the attention economy is the result of the
growth rate of technological devices for information access and the
need to accompany the supply of goods and services with devices
that capture the attention of consumers. On the supply side, the
New Economy is characterized by increasing returns by virtue of the
intangibility and reproducibility of its capital goods (the infinite
possibilities for cloning sof tware, for example) . On the side of
demand for goods and services, however, attention (its allocation)
has decreasing returns, because attention is a highly perishable and
scarce commodity.

By attempting to overcome the resistance and the protest
against Fordist-Taylorist work with management techniques for the
“transfer of autonomy” and “personalization of work,” the New
Economy has given rise to reflective, cognitive, and communicative
work, the living labor of the general intellect, centered on the lin­guistic cooperation of men and women, on the productive
circulation of concepts and logical schemes inseparable from the
living interaction of people. This transfer of autonomy and
respon­sibility has led to an increase in the time dedicated to work and a
reduction in the amount of attention time necessary to absorb the
total supply of informational goods.

The crisis of disproportion between attention supply and
demand is structural , given that this gap, besides being human, is
monetary in nature. If in order to command attention it is
necessary to invest increasingly more money (in addition to holding the
intellectual property rights) , in order to sell/realize the supply after
eliminating the competition, it is necessary that, on the demand
side, the side of the consumption of attention, there is sufficient
disposable income to purchase the informational goods supplied by
the market. But in the attention economy, income, instead of
increasing, diminishes in direct proportion to the increase in the
amount of time dedicated to work.

40

bob mcmanus 03.12.14 at 10:42 pm

If that wasn’t clear my point is that the TA’s etc don’t necessarily need a lot more money.

They need a lot more attention time, and money doesn’t really buy “free” time for us proles anymore. Capital accumulates it.

41

lupita 03.12.14 at 10:44 pm

David Margolies @34

(I am guessing that the pivot is the 6th Yes vote, and the claim is something like people like to be the pivot and so people are the sixth Yes vote more than you would expect given their voting patterns in non-pivot positions.)

Senator Rodriguez: (Vote no, please vote no. I want to be the pivot vote)

Senator Puig: No. Torture is immoral.

Senator Rodriguez: (Yes! Two more to go.)

Sen. Pavlov: No. Torture is un-American.

Senator Rodriguez: (One more, just one more. Pleeease!)

Sen. Harrison: If I voted yes, I would go to hell, so I vote no.

Senator Rodriguez: (I get to be the pivot! I get to be the pivot!) Yes! I vote yes!

42

Tom West 03.12.14 at 10:59 pm

The ratio of tenure track to non-tenure track is dropping, but this seems to be a result of hiring a lot more non-tenure track positions, not that tenure track positions are becoming absolutely rarer.

Given that there’s not likely to be more money coming into academia, it would seem likely that changing the status quo would result in either the firing of the whole lot of non-tenure faculty to reduce the ratio back down (and forcing the faculty to teach more and research less), or the whole-sale replacement of tenured faculty with cheap replacements.

I’d like to believe that one could change the situation to something more equitable, but given our current society, any change is likely to be *towards* market rates for everyone (i.e. only cheap academics). I’m not sure its advisable to agitate for large-scale changes to a system that is already swimming against the currents of “the market is the answer to everything”. We may get changes, but I suspect they wouldn’t be in the direction we would like.

43

Kiwanda 03.12.14 at 11:10 pm

I assume that the people who understand the Butler quote also really enjoy the music of Schoenberg and the art of Mark Rothko, and if so, their lives are all the richer for it.

However, I prefer Martha Nussbaum’s version of the Butler passage:

“Marxist accounts, focusing on capital as the central force structuring social relations, depicted the operations of that force as everywhere uniform. By contrast, Althusserian accounts, focusing on power, see the operations of that force as variegated and as shifting over time.”

To those who understood the Butler quote: does this have the same meaning? If not, can you explain why not? If so, do you think that Nussbaum’s version is not an improvement over Butler’s original? (Yes yes, “just JAQing off”. But this will not be on the final.)

44

js. 03.12.14 at 11:48 pm

Well, Butler seems to be identifying the Althusserian view as one that takes “structural totalities” as its object and contrasting it with one—which she doesn’t give a name—where changes over time in hegemonic relations—i.e. changes in power relations—are brought into the consideration of structures. I take it that both views under consideration are (for Butler) broadly structuralist and also—very broadly—Marxist(-ish). So, I guess the contrast MCN is drawing doesn’t seem the same as Butler’s. That said, I’d take MCN’s writing over Butler’s any day.

And… Rothko? Really? I thought everyone liked Rothko now—it’s like dentist’s-office-safe. Louise Bourgeois? (Who I really like, to be clear.)

45

js. 03.12.14 at 11:53 pm

I should clarify that I know almost nothing about Judith Butler’s views/writings, so my previous is based solely on the quoted passage, and as such, may well be wrong.

46

Main Street Muse 03.12.14 at 11:55 pm

To Tom West @42 “…but this seems to be a result of hiring a lot more non-tenure track positions, not that tenure track positions are becoming absolutely rarer.”

Your sector is growing and the growth in hiring is non-tenure track. Tenured positions are absolutely becoming more rare in that bigger pool.

We’ve turned a corner in America – labor has no value any more, not in academics, not in journalism, not in customer service, not in middle management, certainly not in manufacturing. But we love our bankers! This story kind of makes me sick:

“The $26.7bn in bonuses Wall Street banks handed out in 2013 would be enough to more than double the pay for all 1,085,000 full-time U.S. minimum wage workers, according to an Institute for Policy Studies analysis of New York State Comptroller bonus figures released this morning.” http://bit.ly/1fwhm0w

47

Ed Herdman 03.12.14 at 11:55 pm

The crowning irony is that Riker and Niemi have made an overture to the attentive but mathematically less-literate reader with a parenthetical explanation of factorials. I wonder how many people have read that passage over time and needed that explanation…if you are that deep in you probably should at least know what a factorial is, though maybe some of these mathematical techniques are just more widespread than they were in the ’60s.

Maybe I’m not qualified to judge the Butler v. Nussbaum, but Nussbaum reveals things explicitly for the careless reader (who doesn’t know that Marxist thought is interested in structure, anyway?) while the Butler distracts the reader into wondering whether “repetition, convergence, and rearticulation” are actually each unique numerations of similar, yet distinct phenomena – rather than simple “rearticulation.”

The first half of the Butler wasn’t too bad, but the second half does not seem to include anywhere the information about Althusser that Nussbaum does. On sheer diversity of language, variegated > inaugurated. Variegated is one of those wonderful words that you should feel free to use sparingly because its meaning is essentially self-evident; if Nussbaum lost anybody due to that dusting of flavor, then probably they weren’t ready to be reading philosophy anyway.

I think that should be on the final, honestly.

48

bob mcmanus 03.12.14 at 11:59 pm

43: Nussbaum is very wrong on Marx, and you seem to have missed the below from 28, and that Butler is arguing against Althusser.

“and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects” …read again from there, or Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, although L & M don’t get it either.

Foucauldian Concepts of Power

“Relations of power are not in superstructural positions.” (Foucault, 94)

But no more on this. I was looking for my Jameson on difficult writing/reading. For now let’s just say that the Prof’s and eggheads can be as obtuse and challenging as possible or necessary, provided they are adequately feeding a healthy transmission mechanism, for instance students. That mechanism is now dysfunctional.

Capital especially V 1 Ch 1 is far from easy, we may not understand it yet. Yet we got the revolutionaries.

49

GiT 03.13.14 at 12:01 am

It looks like Nussbaum fudges the rewrite in a pretty basic way. “The structuralist account” and “Althusserian theory” are the same thing. The contrast is between Althusserian structuralism and Laclau and Mouffe’s Gramsci based post-Marxism.

It’s a pretty embarrassing misreading, both because the grammar of the original sentence doesn’t confuse this contrast (hegemony … marked a shift *from* Althusser… to a new conception…) and because a basic familiarity with the literature under discussion makes the reading silly. Althusser=iconic figure of structuralist Marxism. Hegemony (as developed in *Hegemony and Socialist Strategy*)=a critique of structuralist Marxism.

50

GiT 03.13.14 at 12:03 am

Whoops, should have refreshed before posting. I was replying to Kiwanda @43 and without reading the intervening posts yet, it looks like others have made the same point.

51

Colin Danby 03.13.14 at 12:13 am

Kiwanda: no, it doesn’t have the same meaning. It would help to have the quote in context (anyone have the reference?) but Butler is rather obviously pushing off against Althusser (“shift from”), though still leaving open the possibility of another kind of Althusserian theory. Second, there’s an argument about “temporality” going on in the larger text which has disappeared in Nussbaum, but you’d need to read more than this little fragment to figure out what that is! Third, “repetition” is a theoretically-important term, but you need to read a lot more Butler to get that.

The fundamental problem is the scholarly bad faith of people who yank one quote out of a larger piece, and a larger lit. Butler is here writing to people who already know their Althusser, and have some grounding in Continental thought in general. If you don’t know this tradition you won’t get Butler. And like most phil argument, you won’t get it by turning it into quotes.

52

Sasha Clarkson 03.13.14 at 12:15 am

The British ex-communist journalist, Claud Cockburn, wrote a book, Crossing The Line (1959), describing his personal journey through and beyond The Party.

Discussing his time at the Daily Worker in the late ’30s, he recalled (p50) that from time to time he and others tried to write in a more popular manner for the benefit of their readership. However, Comintern was committed to its jargon. One directive ” … written by some Muscovite genius which some other Muscovite genius had translated into the words ‘the lower organs of the working class must make still greater efforts to penetrate the backward parts of the proletariat’ … a lot of people learned the hard way how very difficult it was to explain to a half-dozen Russian and German Professors of Marxism why something they have said amounts, in English, to a rather dirty joke.”

53

geo 03.13.14 at 12:26 am

In the Nussbaum quote (for which many thanks, Kiwanda), if you substitute “Foucauldian” for “Althusserian,” I think it’s a fair translation of Butler. (Though who cares?)

My question is: what is “power”? Anything that structures social relations is a form of power; the (ie, my) definition of power is “the ability to structure or constrain or impel something — to produce some result — in the material or social world.” Capital (control of the means of production) is one form of power; physical strength is another; charisma is another; tradition/custom/habit/inertia is another. What can it mean to compare “capital” — a form of power — to “power”? Isn’t that a category mistake?

54

bob mcmanus 03.13.14 at 12:27 am

Ah, here:

Jameson on Adorno:”density is itself a conduct of intransigence… precisely intended to be read… against the cheap facility of what surrounds it, as a warning to the reader of the price he has to pay for genuine thinking.”

55

adam.smith 03.13.14 at 12:30 am

Since this thread has now definitely transformed into Butler v Riker:

I assume that the people who understand the Butler quote also really enjoy the music of Schoenberg and the art of Mark Rothko

I think this is actually gets to something about a lot of critical theory writing: It is meant to do something beyond convey information or arguments. Language isn’t just a tool to convey information, but at the same time part of what’s at stake. As many here will know, Butler justifies here language claiming that to be overly concerned with “linguistic transparency” prevents truly radical thinking/writing. I’ve talked to many theorists who find great pleasure in spending hours on three pages of Lacan, deciphering the meaning&nuances. The complexity and, at times, purposeful ambiguity (remember that time in the late 90s when it seemed like all crit-theory titles had clever parentheses to suggest double-entendres?) is part of the deal.

The justification used by formal modelers and economists for using math is the exact opposite. To wits, take Dani Rodrik:

[I]f we were smart enough, we would figure out whether the argument was complete and coherent and internally consistent, and what else it implied. It’s precisely because we cannot deal with that without putting it all down in an equation, that we do it.</blockquote
or Krugtron himself:

But there are also important ideas that are crystal clear if you can stand algebra, and very difficult to grasp if you can’t. International trade in particular happens to be a subject in which a page or two of algebra and diagrams is worth 10 volumes of mere words.

So the stated purpose of the quants is clarity, something that at least Butler purposefully eschews. Especially with respect to quants this isn’t the whole story – there are very valid critiques of mathematical formalism along the lines roger brings up @10, but I do think it matters that the traditions are coming at this from very different – pretty much diametrically opposed – positions.

56

adam.smith 03.13.14 at 12:31 am

(argh, blockquotes – last paragraph is mine).

57

GiT 03.13.14 at 12:34 am

Colin: Here’s the beginning of the essay. Includes the quoted paragraph. And it’s pretty upfront about addressing Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, which devotes some space to discussing what Laclau and Mouffe call “the principle of repetition”

https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/diacritics/v027/27.1butler02.html

And, as you note, repetition is pretty theory lade in that context. Heck, off the top of my head both Kierkegaard and Deleuze use the word to title a book.

58

Bloix 03.13.14 at 12:44 am

The move from:

(a) a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to
(b) a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation

brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and

marked a shift from

(a) a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to (b) one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Okay, there are words here that look to me like they’re not being used correctly.

Taking the first one of these:

Homologous means showing similarity due to having a common ancestor or origin (as in the similarity of bone structure between a human arm and a bat wing). It implies temporal change (two things that have branched over time).

So it is contradictory to say that a move away from a homologous view brings temporality into play. A homologous view of the structuring of social relations is necessarily one in which temporality plays a major role.

It looks to me like Butler doesn’t know what homologous means, which makes the rest into gibberish. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

59

john c. halasz 03.13.14 at 12:54 am

@58:

Homologous:

1. Corresponding or similar in position, value, structure, or function.

5. (Mathematics) maths (of elements) playing a similar role in distinct figures or functions

Claro?

60

js. 03.13.14 at 12:55 am

It looks to me like Butler doesn’t know what homologous means

Again without knowing much about Butler at all, I would bet a small amount of money that she means ‘having the same logos‘—that is, at a guess, in the view she is critiquing the same sort of account (logos) is supposed to explain how capital structures different social relations.

61

Colin Danby 03.13.14 at 1:01 am

Thanks, GiT – I was able to find the whole piece (Butler, “Further Reflections on Converstions of Our Time,” _Diacritics_ 27:1 Spring 1997) Two points for those still following: this piece is a brief afterword to an exchange between Butler and Ernesto Laclau, and the quoted bit is in fact Butler’s summary gloss on Laclau and Mouffe. So you’re getting a highly-condensed bit of philosophical summary written for people who have already done a lot of specific reading.

Again, this points to the bad faith of people who think they can start with a fragment at the end, puzzle out a few words (thank you for playing, Bloix!) and make large judgments.

Corey’s earlier comment re Dutton is astute: there’s a long tradition of polemic against the Continental phil tradition which, rather than learning it to argue against it, just rails against its language.

62

Colin Danby 03.13.14 at 1:06 am

PS though some of the older anti-continental polemics are at least entertaining, unlike Nussbaum. I remember something to the effect that reading Hegel rots your brain, but I can’t find it … any ideas?

63

Ed Herdman 03.13.14 at 1:34 am

Nussbaum has a rather entertaining account about how perhaps we’re just reading Butler wrong, assuming that the intention is to clarify. Nussbaum may just be victim of the difficulty of reading Butler – clearly, I think Nussbaum’s arguments about the social and practical aspects of theory is right on target, as is her insistence that ideas must be clear as to invite comprehension and critique.

I hope that bob is right here – that the transmission is just perhaps a bit dysfunctional, but that at the same time things don’t have to be Bob and Jane-level to be widely useful. It is definitely true that Nussbaum’s Butler isn’t a straight rewrite, at least not in terms of recording the same intention. I chalked that up to familiarity with the material – if there isn’t that familiarity then some of that is understandably in danger of error.

64

Bruce Wilder 03.13.14 at 1:46 am

Henry Aiken’s legendary complaint: “Reading Heidegger is like trying to swim through wet sand.”

65

roy belmont 03.13.14 at 1:54 am

“to think beyond the limits of the day, to ask the questions no one is asking.

the denseness of her prose masks the vacuity of her ideas.

The failing we sanction isn’t stylistic but moral: trying to understand that much is either vanity or hubris

the voice of your statement

also really enjoy the music of Schoenberg

It looks to me like Butler doesn’t know what homologous means, which makes the rest into

against the cheap facility of what surrounds it, as a warning”

Butler’s a dyke, and has positioned herself visibly and valiantly against the patriarchy and its capitalist scams -this isn’t obscure, or even particularly debatable.
She displays compassion, she displays erudition, and at the same time she displays an unapologetic refusal to cooperate with the swine terminus. Which has to disguise its grunting machinations with filtered access and prerequisites of participation.
But you can keep that in the handball court of academic spit contests for a little while longer.
It’s okay, it’s understandable, what else can you do?
Soon enough the down-translation of her vision reaches the common mind. And you’re fucked.
She’s talking about the real world. In the real world you’re a secondary player. It makes perfect sense to ridicule her from that position.
Butler’s a hard-ass. No wonder she’s being laughed at.
By those afraid of her.

66

Royton De'Ath 03.13.14 at 2:19 am

Now here’s a really fine example of a Public Intellectual in Full and Glorious flight:

This applies, in my view, to the towering seas, storms, droughts and mass extinctions of popular climate catastrophism. Such entertaining visions owe less to scientific climatology than to eschatology, and that familiar sense that modernity and its wasteful comforts are bringing us closer to a biblical day of judgment. As that headline put it for Y2K, predictions of the end of the world are often intertwined with condemnations of human “folly, greed and denial.” Repent and recycle!

Dutton was living and working in NZ in the full flowering of the New Zealand Experiment, which was the “most exciting political Rand-thing” to happen in the mid-80s outside of Chile. For members of the Libertarian Party, like Dutton, it was Free Market Heaven.

And. Geeze. What a surprise! Dutton was opinionated about all sorts of things that didn’t afflict ordinary people; he comes across as a bit, well, you know, dismissive?:
‘[h]uman beings, by and large don’t know what they’re interested in …’

Bad Writing Contests? Well, Dutton got there before Sokal and that’s what counts, yeah? And. Mmmm! What would the political leanings of all them Bad Writers be, I wonder?

If your eyes ain’t watering yet, what about the Centre for Independent Studies and In Praise of Elitism?

And, obits were, of course, Right-on:
‘A fan and friend of spiked, Dutton was consistently intellectually curious, whether he was challenging the urban religion of climate-change activism or chucking intellectual hand-grenades at the cult of cultural relativism’

That gush was written by one B. O’Neill. A chappie that got a serve from Richard Seymour for a stunning example of Public Intellectual f….wittery.
(Public Intellectuals from the Institute of Ideas, anyone?)

I agree with most of what you’re getting at CR, most of the time. I realise you are using Dutton as a hook to make some sort of point about Kristof, and more to the point, the employment conditions of aspiring PIs. But. I’m left with the sense that this riff is kicking all manner of things down the Rabbit-Hole.

If Dutton is, undoubtedly, representative of this: ‘At their best, intellectuals do more than package their research into digestible bits for policymakers or the public. They force us to think beyond the limits of the day, to ask the questions no one is asking. They are an invitation to imaginative excess and political trespass’ there’s no readily available evidence he gave one hot damn’ about precariousness (in employment or the environment).

67

Colin Danby 03.13.14 at 2:35 am

Thank you, that’s most interesting! A co-author with Charles Murray? You don’t say. And of course Nussbaum uncritically picked up Dutton’s gibes re Butler.

68

CDT 03.13.14 at 2:56 am

I’m a mere country lawyer and ex-reporter, but isn’t it self-defeating to be intentionally obtuse? I find I have better luck with judges when they understand my argument. Just because an argument is complex doesn’t mean it must be expressed in turgid prose and run-on sentences.

69

ezra abrams 03.13.14 at 3:06 am

people who have new, original, interesting ideas are not necessarily good at explaining them.
An example from DNA: DNA a long flexible molecule – like a rope, and like a rope can get twisted and coiled into complex structures called knots.
A mathematician figured out a way to express this in quantitative terms, using math, and he introduced the ideas of twist and writhe, which have some utility (the antibiotics nalidixic acid& ciprofloxacin rely on science which is based on twist and writhe)

however, no one who was a biologist understood the paper, so Francis Crick translated it into language that biologists could understand

also, iirc, W Gibbs published fundamental discoverys in the field of thermodynamics that no one understood, because his math was abstract.

70

roger gathman 03.13.14 at 3:09 am

37 – I don’t disagree. But I think on the academic bureaucratic level, where most papers in most social science journals come from, I think that the math has a peacock’s tail function – it is meant to be both seductive and aggressive, an ostentatious waste of energy establishing the academic health of the bird that sprouts it – or trying to.

71

LFC 03.13.14 at 3:29 am

note to mcmanus:
Virtually everyone, including people who haven’t read it and are not part. fans of Foucault, seems to think Discipline and Punish is important. (I have read some Foucault though not D&P.) As for Foucault being “maybe the social science genius of the 2nd half of 20th cent.,” you’d get a lot more pushback on that statement (incl. from me). I’m not even sure F. wd have liked being put into the “social science” bin. As for the Butler quote: even when read in its context, I think it wd be hard to maintain that the quote is “economical.”

Anyway, this is all tangential to the pt of Corey’s post, as he pointed out — apparently to no avail — above.

72

Bloix 03.13.14 at 3:37 am

#59 – no, not claro. I don’t know where your definition is from, but that’s not what homologous means. It is technical word with somewhat different technical meanings in chemistry, math, biology, and psychology. And the most common meaning is the one I gave (from biology and psychology) – showing similarities due to having a common origin. That is, having evolved over time.

If all you meant was “similar,” why would you choose a word whose most common meaning is precisely contrary to what you wanted to say?

73

Lee A. Arnold 03.13.14 at 3:40 am

Let’s not drag Schoenberg into this. The serenade op. 24 is terrific. Admittedly he isn’t often performed with the requisite style and panache, as he himself opined.

74

Lee A. Arnold 03.13.14 at 3:42 am

Speaking of public intellectyals, their main problem is: none of them can do synthesis. Academics think that synthesis is the adding up of analyses. It is not.

75

Bloix 03.13.14 at 3:43 am

#68 – and just to show that I can argue all sides:
“I find I have better luck with judges when they understand my argument.”
What this means is that you have better luck when you accept that you are not going to succeed if you challenge the judge’s acceptance of conventional wisdom, and you will do much better if you align your party’s position with his or her preconceived notions of proper behavior.

It doesn’t bother me that there are technical fields that I don’t understand. There are some that I wish I understood better (economics, evolution) and some that I accept that I will never understand and it’ s a waste of my time to try, and I don’t care anyway (particle physics).

But there are also some fields that, I suspect, are gibberish. There’s always been gibberish, and the fact that very intelligent people believe it and have posts in universities and win prizes and such doesn’t stop me from suspecting.

76

john c. halasz 03.13.14 at 3:59 am

@72:

I got it from a quick grab of internet dictionaries. It wasn’t hard. And I thought I already knew what the word meant. Basically def. 1. And def. 5 was also relevant in a “structuralist” context. (I actually didn’t know the biological technical usage and was surprised by it, as involving common descent. I would have thought it would have meant biologically similar in structure and function without common descent, as in the wings of birds and bats, but biologists must use some other term for that). But your intervention wasn’t a propos here, as restricting the word to a single meaning, in a single discipline, which wasn’t the one Butler was obviously working from. The word/concept is not simply “similar”, but rather something more like “formally similar or even identical in structure, but distinct in function or substance”. As in, e.g. the use of the same mathematics in physics and economics, but applied to completely different domains.

Claro?

77

Lee A. Arnold 03.13.14 at 4:11 am

Another problem for public intellectuals is that the new access of the internet drowns-out individual voices. People like J.K. Galbraith could become widely known because the old system had a smallish number of book publishers who promoted to the best-seller lists, like the NY Times. What else, who else, was there to read? Perhaps there were other writers as good or better, whose names we didn’t learn, because the book publishers already had full slates, or the writers unfortunately rubbed some editor the wrong way. Now everyone is in the same boat (though numerically it’s a huge cruise ship) while most of the remaining well-known public “intellectuals” are mass-market mediocrities who originated in the old mainstream media, courtesy of something like Gresham’s Law.

78

John Quiggin 03.13.14 at 4:27 am

I agree with David Margolies here. I think I can follow what is meant, but the answer seems to be either trivial or wrong. However, I’m not going to traipse through the algebra to check it out.

79

GiT 03.13.14 at 4:30 am

@76

I believe the biology pair is analogous vs. homologous. Homologous share common descent; analogous don’t. Makes sense in context, I guess. But of course no reason to think that the specific contrast in biology would apply in other contexts. Seems to me you could deploy the distinction around any number of criteria, based on whatever was appropriate to your domain.

80

js. 03.13.14 at 4:31 am

Just a bit of pushback against Colin Danby:

I agree that there’s a fair bit of bad faith polemic against the Continental tradition in general and poststructuralism and its offshoots in particular, but I also think that some of it may be warranted. I mean, I wrote a dissertation on Kant, so I know something about difficult writing, but as adam.smith and mcmanus point out, making the language inaccessible is part of the very point for poststructuralists. And I think its fair to think that there’s something deeply mistaken there. (Not giving the argument for this here, of course.)

Inevitably, such a criticism will come out as a criticism of the ‘style’, but again the style is supposed to be a marker of a conceptual and ideological point, so as long as you have the right target in view, I think it’s perfectly fair to criticize the style. I guess I really don’t see an argument for the thought that the inaccessibility is necessary for radical thought.

(On the other hand, I’m more than happy to rail against the ‘style’ of ‘analytic’ philosophy as well.)

81

Watson Ladd 03.13.14 at 4:53 am

That’s the Shapiro-Shapley value of a voting system being defined. If all members have the same ability to vote, it’s equal. Where things get interesting is where structural features give some more power, like a veto or extra votes. One example would be amending the Canadian Constitution: three quarters of the provinces representing at least half the population must agree. How powerful is Ontario compared to PEI, exactly?

82

adam.smith 03.13.14 at 5:01 am

For those who care about the political science example:
If you look at the Shapley and Shublik paper they cite, the “a priori power index” as presented is indeed trivial when applied to a unicameral legislature: every member has exactly the same power (a priori). Shapley and Shublik then extend this to a multicameral system where different chambers have different sizes – that makes the combinatorics a lot more complicated and the results no longer trivial (if they make sense as measure or a priori power is still arguable, of course).
Riker and Niemi only spend a quarter of a page very briefly presenting the Shapley and Shublik model, mainly pivoting (ha!) off the idea of the pivotal voter to then present their own, empirical power index, which is based on how often a legislator was in the winning coalition, weighed by the closeness and importance of each vote.

83

Colin Danby 03.13.14 at 5:11 am

Delighted to hear you wrote a dissertation on Kant, js! But where are you getting this “part of the very point” stuff?

84

js. 03.13.14 at 5:20 am

Thanks! As for the inaccessibility being part of the point, a full defense is beyond me right now—I’d have to go back to some long- and well-forgotten Derrida/Spivak stuff—but in the context of this thread, I was relying on bob mcmanus quoting Jameson @54 and adam.smith @55.

(I might try to come up a slightly less half-ass-y defense tomorrow. Anyway, cheers.)

85

adam.smith 03.13.14 at 5:34 am

I don’t know if all post-structuralists people share Butler’s views about language, but this is the NYTs OpEd she wrote after winning the “bad writing” prize: http://pantherfile.uwm.edu/wash/www/butler.htm

Language that takes up this challenge can help point the way to a more socially just world. The contemporary tradition of critical theory in the academy, derived in part from the Frankfurt School of German anti-fascist philosophers and social critics, has shown how language plays an important role in shaping and altering our common or “natural” understanding of social and political realities.

I think that (and the entire opEd) is an eloquent defense of why she writes like she does, but I do think it supports my claim, taken up by js. that difficult prose is part of the point.

86

Colin Danby 03.13.14 at 6:44 am

Both of you can do better than that. So far we have the commonplaces that philosophers sometimes use paradoxes, and that theoretical language is different from everyday language and has to be learned. We could get all that from Plato, no?

Jameson is a better candidate for the case js wants to make, because he does appear, at times, to argue that certain truths cannot be stated directly and can only be approached allegorically. But surely that is not a particularly “post-structuralist” view.

87

adam.smith 03.13.14 at 7:12 am

Sorry, for some reason you seem to think I want to turn this into an anti-Butler pissing match, I have no interest in that. I think it’s pretty clear that Butler sees a language that subverts—including the traditional meaning of words—as an important part of her work and that that makes her particularly hard to read. I’d call this purposeful, but if you want to describe it differently, I really have no beef in this fight.

88

dBonar 03.13.14 at 7:53 am

To follow-up on the question of Harry #36 (and to get away from the pointless fight over whether a particular piece of writing is difficult and/or meaningless), one of the links from the original post says that the number of full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty in the U.S. increased 8% from 2003 to 2011. Checking, the U.S. population increased a bit over 7% in that time. So, at least over the last decade, it seems to have become easier to become a tenured professor. At least, it would have been easier, except that it is such a popular job — and honestly, why wouldn’t it be — that more and more people want it. People who are then willing to take lower-paid and less secure work just to remain an “intellectual”.

Earlier, #12, I asked if someone has information on the number of tenured faculty going back farther. I’ve tried a bit more googling this morning, and it seems surprisingly hard to find. Lots of anguish and anger about the rise in non-tenured faculty as a proportion of total faculty, but very little systematic data about the number of faculty over time.

89

dBonar 03.13.14 at 8:04 am

To clarify my own comment in #88, I mention that I understand that the undergraduate population also expanded in that decade (and certainly has expanded since the 50s). I see that as encouraging the separation of two things that were conflated before; research and college-level teaching.

90

Nine 03.13.14 at 8:40 am

How is it that folks who complain about math modeling in economics can then turn around and insist with a straight face that Judith Butler is perfectly lucid if one only masters all the prerequisites of the discipline ? I’d argue that the prerequisites for economic modelling – calculus, real analysis, statistics etc, how many courses is that ? – are not only easier to acquire than the gigantic amounts of scholarship, marxian and otherwise, necessary to understand Butler but can also be seamlessly transferred to other disciplines though YMMV on that last bit. All the complaints regarding econ modelling – dubious axioms, obscurantism, scholasticism etc, etc – can be equally alleged against theory.

Also, there’s degrees of difficulty. Foucault is not really all that hard to follow, Butler and Derrida are incomprehensible to me. Marx, given his reputation, is so surprisingly understandable that I’d assumed it might be because his work is fundamental to that of so many others’ to the point of being ubiquitously cited. But Hegel even more fundamental and yet his stuff is the 7th circle of hell. Butler’s defense – notwithstanding Denis Dutton sounds like a world champion douchebag – about the healing properties of dense language etc is interchangeable with mysticism. Novelists and poets can get away with that sort of talk, not social scientists.

91

Nine 03.13.14 at 8:48 am

One last thing – the math in the “Stability of Coalitions” paper cited by Corey Robin is fairly undergraduate level basic (whether or not the model stands up). In no way can it be compared in obscurity of references to Butler.

92

Collin Street 03.13.14 at 10:13 am

I’m a mere country lawyer and ex-reporter, but isn’t it self-defeating to be intentionally obtuse? I find I have better luck with judges when they understand my argument. Just because an argument is complex doesn’t mean it must be expressed in turgid prose and run-on sentences.

Not always. People interpret your words according to their understanding of the world and their understanding of your position. And different people understand things differently, which means that your “clear” words mean different things to different people. So do your “obscure” words, of course… but the miscommunications from using “clear” words are closely linked to your listener’s own perspective [signal-dependent, “distortion”], whereas the miscommunications from obscurantism, though larger, are much more random [“noise”].

Or, obscurantism lets you reduce certain easy/trivial misinterpretations, at the cost of sometimes failing to communicate anything at all. Whether this is a good idea or a bad idea really depends on your exact circumstances. [including what-it-is-you-want-to-communicate, which means that we can reliably expect that some fields would find obscurantism more useful than others].

93

Manta 03.13.14 at 12:27 pm

“It may be, however, that the economics that make little magazines and blogs possible also make them unsustainable. Many of these outlets rely on the volunteer or nearly free labor of writers and grad students or middle-aged professors like me”

How is that different from scholarly journals? They also live on the free labor of academics to make the product than they then sell to libraries.

94

RJB 03.13.14 at 1:52 pm

I’m probably way too late to this thread to get many responses, but I have a question no one has been able to answer for me. I hear the “75% of higher ed faculty are contingent” statistic quite a bit. But teaching loads of contingent faculty are wildly variable, from the overworked recent grad teaching two four-course terms a year to the moonlighting polyglot who teaches one section of a foreign language every year or so. Does anyone know of statistics on what % of higher ed coursework is taught by contingent faculty, rather than just head counts?

I don’t think Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) calculations are very useful to answer this question, because a FTE tenure track faculty member often teaches half of what an FTE contingent faculty member would. So it would need to be a % of credit hours offered by each type, or % of credit hours earned (incorporating student enrollments).

Sorry if this has been answered somewhere upthread–I made it about halfway through and the discussion seemed heading a different direction.

95

JW Mason 03.13.14 at 2:13 pm

The digest of education statististics is the go-to source. What you’ll find there (Table 290) is that since 1970, there has been a large increase in full-time faculty combined with a larger increase in part-time faculty. So while full-time teaching jobs have decreased as a share of post secondary teaching jobs, they have increased as a share of all jobs in the country. Another way of looking at this is that, while the odds of getting a tenure-track teaching job have certainly diminished for people in grad school, they have not diminished (they’ve probably gotten better) for people in general. And of course this is even more true for groups that were unlikely to go to grad school 40 years ago, especially for women. Without dismissing the frustrations of the academic job market, I think it’s hard not to see this as progress on balance.

96

dBonar 03.13.14 at 2:28 pm

Thank you JW Mason. I expected that was the case, bit did not have the numbers.

Of course, it does not answer the question about what the “right” percentage of tenured academics is. It does give a somewhat different spin on the idea that as a society we are wasting talent by not better supporting young want-to-be academics.

97

Corey Robin 03.13.14 at 2:42 pm

Hi Josh. That’s very helpful.

Two questions for you:

1) Don’t you also have to take into account how many more people are going to grad school today than were going in 1954? Or 1970? In other words, if the overall number of full-time TT positions has increased, but nowhere near as much as the number of part-time, non-TT, AND a lot more people are going to grad school today than before (I don’t know if that’s true or not), isn’t it still safe to say that the idea of an independent intellectual a la Daniel Bell or Irving Howe, both without PhDs mind you (and my specific comment in the piece was a response to the notion that independent writers could become TT professors today as they did in 1954), coming to a TT job would today be much harder than in 1954?

2) The rise in TT positions: Are these at the community college level or four-year college level? And if the latter, at what teaching load are we talking about?

I don’t want to get into a larger debate about whether education today is better than before, and opportunities for it and so forth — and I know you have a particular position on that, but it’s really independent of the point I am trying to make here — but I’m really interested in whether the conditions of doing the kind of public writing are getting worse than better today, given the kinds of workloads (and precarity) that are coming to dominate the academy as a whole.

98

Neel Krishnaswami 03.13.14 at 2:43 pm

I’m a mere country lawyer and ex-reporter, but isn’t it self-defeating to be intentionally obtuse? I find I have better luck with judges when they understand my argument. Just because an argument is complex doesn’t mean it must be expressed in turgid prose and run-on sentences.

I’m a logician, but I have no objection to dense verbal pyrotechnics.

Formalizing things is really hard, and it’s pretty common that you have to explain to yourself and your colleagues what you are getting at in English, before you can start writing down equations. But, because you don’t have a clear enough understanding of your problem to formalize it mathematically, you almost certainly don’t understand it well enough to explain it in simple English, either.

So you end up reading (or often, writing) turgid philosophical prose filled with phrases like “a proposition is true just when it is possible to construct a verification of it,” and you get angry if someone tries to rephrase your definition, because it’s obvious that the “clarification” completely changed the meaning, and it’s so hard to explain *why* it’s obvious. Eventually, you do end up with a formalization (my example was drawn from a realizability interpretation of constructive logic), and then you can explain why the English rephrasing worked differently.

I should note that this is not a terminating process. Once you have a formalization of your original thought, it invariably reveals new distinctions that you couldn’t see before, and so you have to return to philosophical prose to start explaining those!

The turgid philosophical prose I produce and consume is usually some mildly heterodox form of analytic philosophy (the most useful book I read in grad school was Michael Dummet’s The Logical Basis of Metaphysics, which is a work of genius, but hardly a jewel of literary style), but it seems reasonable to me that other mathematicians could draw on Continental philosophy as a guide/inspiration in their research. I would expect it to call forth some rather subtle mathematics, though, since self-reference is rather mathematically delicate, and the things Continentals like to write about (the social processes creating language, power, knowledge, social belief, etc) are all inherently self-referential.

99

JW Mason 03.13.14 at 4:00 pm

Corey-

Here’s how it looks to me:

Over the past 40 years, the population of the United States has increased by 50%. Over this same period, the number of PhDs granted by US universities has almost exactly doubled. The number of people enrolled in graduate school also seems to have more or less doubled. Over this same 40 years, the number of full-time teaching positions in US colleges and universities has also exactly doubled. The proportion of those teaching jobs at 4-year schools declined modestly during the 1970s — from around 80% to around 70% — and has been stable since then. The proportion of full-time jobs that are tenure-track has also declined modestly but is still over two-thirds. On the other hand, there has been a big increase in the number of part-time teaching jobs. On the one hand, this means that the proportion of postsecondary teaching jobs that are fulltime has fallen from 80% to just half. But on the other, it means there are more jobs overall. In 1970, there were 12 postsecondary teaching jobs for each new PhD. Today, there are 19.

So compared with 40 years ago, the typical person receiving a PhD has a substantially better chance of getting a teaching job of some kind. They have the same chance of getting a full-time teaching job. And they have a moderately worse chance of getting a tenure-track job at a 4-year school.

On the other hand, if our universe is all people resident in the United States, then the chance of having a tenure-track job at a 4-year school has not changed over the past 40 years, and the chance of having any other kind of postsecondary teaching job has increased.

In other words, we have essentially the same number of tenure-track positions as a generation ago, PLUS a bunch of new adjunct positions. How we evaluate this depends on the question we are asking.

If the question is, “How has the space for public intellectuals within higher ed changed over the past 40 years?” then the answer depends on whether you think teaching at a community college offers more support for intellectual work than the non-academic job that person would otherwise take. If you think yes, then the space for public intellectuals within higher ed has increased. If you think no, it has stayed the same. But I don’t think there’s any way you can say that people wanting to do intellectual work were more likely to be able to support themselves doing academic work 40 years ago than they are today.

100

Main Street Muse 03.13.14 at 4:41 pm

JW Mason: “In 1970, there were 12 postsecondary teaching jobs for each new PhD. Today, there are 19.”

What are the 19 jobs? Are they tenure-track? Or are they 4-4 lecturer loads? Or are they adjunct? This gets to the heart of what Corey is saying. Your post is vague.

According to an Academic Workforce report (http://www.academicworkforce.org/CAW_portrait_2012.pdf) notes this:

“According to data from the United States Department of Education’s 2009 Fall Staff Survey, of the
nearly 1.8 million faculty members and instructors who made up the 2009 instructional workforce
in degree-granting two- and four-year institutions of higher education in the United States, more
than 1.3 million (75.5%) were employed in contingent positions off the tenure track, either as part-
time or adjunct faculty members, full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, or graduate student
teaching assistants.”

There may be more “jobs” but they are not secure; they pay very low wages; and they leave no opportunity for intellectual pursuits. Or show me data that says otherwise, not just a blanket stat that there are more jobs.

101

Colin Danby 03.13.14 at 4:59 pm

fwiw, “Nine,” the complaints you get in CT comments from earnest lefties that economists are obfuscating when they depart from everyday speech echo Kristof and Dutton’s plaint, just from a different ideological angle. I’ve got no problem with mathematical formalization, anywhere.

I don’t see “healing properties of dense language” in Butler, but you may be a more careful reader than I.

102

JW Mason 03.13.14 at 5:00 pm

In 1970, tenure-track teaching jobs represented 0.16% of US employment. In 2011, tenure-track teaching jobs still represented 0.16% of US employment.

103

JW Mason 03.13.14 at 5:09 pm

Sorry, I meant, of the US population. As a share of total employment, tenure-track postsecondary teaching jobs have increased from 0.36% to 0.42%.

It simply is not the case that there are fewer good teaching jobs than there once were.

And this non-decline, by the way, is a major political victory for our side. Leftists really must shake the habit of rewriting our success stories as defeats.

104

Main Street Muse 03.13.14 at 5:09 pm

To JW Mason – are you saying that because tenure-track jobs have the same .16 percentage of overall US employment, all is well with higher ed? It appears that tenure track jobs have remained steady as the higher ed sector has grown. And the gap has been filled with low wage workers who get no health benefits, no retirement, no job security from their work.

What do you make of the statistic that 75% of those employed as teachers in a higher ed institution are contingent? That’s not relevant in your mind? Perhaps it’s an inaccurate stat? To me, it’s a reflection of our work culture as a whole – a drive to make labor – of all kinds – contingent and cheap.

Seems that the Ph.D.s who graduate today have a significantly higher chance of remaining “contingent” workers, rather than landing a tenure-track position. I don’t see how that’s good for higher ed – not for the faculty or the students 0r for research.

105

JW Mason 03.13.14 at 5:11 pm

are you saying that because tenure-track jobs have the same .16 percentage of overall US employment, all is well with higher ed?

No, I am not. That would be a stupid thing to say now wouldn’t it?

106

CDT 03.13.14 at 5:24 pm

@75/Bloix

“But there are also some fields that, I suspect, are gibberish. There’s always been gibberish, and the fact that very intelligent people believe it and have posts in universities and win prizes and such doesn’t stop me from suspecting.”

Indeed. There’s a difference between using technical jargon – which, by the way, is even discouraged in legal writing these days – and gibberish. Lots of academic writing, especially in the philosophy area, seems to be that.

107

CDT 03.13.14 at 5:35 pm

@92, Collin:

“Or, obscurantism lets you reduce easy/trivial misinterpretations, at the risk of failing to communicate anything at all.”

That seems to be the most generous interpretation, with the other two possibilities being the gibberish and masking mediocrity theories. Again to borrow from the law example, usually when the other side’s argument doesn’t make sense, it’s because it’s not supposed to, as it would fail if expressed clearly.

This approach to writing reminds me of Boonling, a language made up by high schoolers near Mendocino in the early 1900s as a joke that eventually became a minor regional dialect. That, too, required one to memorize agreed gibberish terms in order to communicate with other insiders.

108

dBonar 03.13.14 at 5:59 pm

Main Street, it could imply that – for potentially many different reasons – too many people are getting PhDs.

109

dBonar 03.13.14 at 6:08 pm

Again with extending my own thought.

I may like to sing. I may want a career as a rock star. I may even be good enough to sing in my local choir. That doesn’t entitle me to a multi-million dollar recording contract, nor guarantee that anyone wants to listen to me.

Depending on your social-political persuasions, you might want the government to grant me a basic income sufficient to spend my days singing. That still doesn’t guarantee that anyone actually wants to listen to me. And, no matter what your political persuassions, it is hard to imagine arguing that the safety net should ensure a supply of groupies.

As more and more people go to college and more and more people go to graduate school, the same can be said about PhDs looking for secure academic positions.

110

Dave 03.13.14 at 6:43 pm

Shorter Corey Robin: Academics do write for the public. For example, check out these grad students.

111

Main Street Muse 03.13.14 at 8:31 pm

To JW Mason – “And this non-decline, by the way, is a major political victory for our side. Leftists really must shake the habit of rewriting our success stories as defeats.”

Is it a victory for higher ed that 75% of higher ed faculty are contingent faculty? Or is that irrelevant? I don’t see the victory you see.

DBonar @108 – I still don’t understand how there are too many Ph.D.s if the majority of college instruction is done by contingent workers with Ph.Ds. There is work available – it is being filled by marginalized workers who are paid very little. In the olden days, this was called “exploitation of labor.”

112

Erik 03.13.14 at 9:57 pm

Main Street Muse, others: yes, it does seem the 75% stat is wrong, see http://mattbruenig.com/2014/01/14/false-statistic-76-percent-of-american-faculty-are-adjuncts/

JW Mason: those statistics are fascinating, thanks. If you look at the stats in the link above, it does seem that full time tenured faculty have declined significantly as a proportion of teaching staff. I’m still trying to form a picture in my head of what this means in terms of larger labor trends.

113

adam.smith 03.13.14 at 9:58 pm

@MSM -
the statements:
1. Contingent labor is a real problem in academia.
2. The fact that we have as many full-time tenure track positions as 40 years ago is a political success.
3. Contingent labor is not the main reason behind the lack/decline of publicly engaged academics (if there is even such a lack/decline).

Can all be true simultaneously. To accuse JW Mason of denying 1.) because he believes 2.) and makes some arguments for 3.) is silly.

114

js. 03.13.14 at 10:12 pm

it does seem the 75% stat is wrong

Actually, your link backs up the claim that 76% of higher ed faculty are contingent faculty, which is all that I think was ever claimed on this thread. It is true that people sometimes misuse “adjunct” to refer to all contingent faculty (which includes non-tenure track FT positions and also I think grad students who are teachers), but MSM’s statement @112 is quite accurate.

115

js. 03.13.14 at 10:30 pm

In 1970, there were 12 postsecondary teaching jobs for each new PhD. Today, there are 19.

Do you mean _open_ jobs? That seems odd because it would imply a _massive_ labor shortage, which doesn’t seem to be in evidence. (Or are you counting a course as a job [for adjuncts], so that if an adjunct teaches 4/4, she’s doing 8 jobs! That can’t be what you mean, surely.)

On the other hand, if you’re talking about positions in general, not necessarily open ones, I don’t see why the number is particularly relevant to the state of the academic job market as it exists today.

116

adam.smith 03.13.14 at 10:43 pm

On the other hand, if you’re talking about positions in general, not necessarily open ones, I don’t see why the number is particularly relevant to the state of the academic job market as it exists today.

It is because rates of exit are roughly constant. That’s taken the relatively long view, though. Obviously it doesn’t have much to say about the jobmarket in a specific year—especially a crisis year with lots of hiring stops.

117

LFC 03.13.14 at 10:57 pm

JW Mason @103:
It simply is not the case that there are fewer good teaching jobs than there once were.

However there are lots more people applying for the open ones, esp in certain fields, than there were in the 50s, 60s, and prob up through… well, I’m not sure when the change comes in the applicant-to-open-job ratio. But by the late 70s, I’d say everyone already ‘knew’ that the US academic job market was tight. It’s prob ticked up and down since then w the overall economic picture, but the 60s-era market has never returned. No doubt a bit of that is a result of more women and minorities in grad school, which we shd welcome, but much of it is prob rooted in the policy trends (contingent workers etc) already discussed. (Plus, of course, grad schools are cranking out too many PhDs, esp in certain fields.) I don’t have the magic solution for any of this, needless to say.

118

EWI 03.13.14 at 11:49 pm

Professor Morgan Kelly of UCD, quoted in the Irish Times this week:

[…] Prof Kelly said the international evidence was that “dumbing down” and making fewer demands on students resulted in their learning less.

He said that while UCD had almost no administrators 15 years ago, it now had two for every academic.

The number of academics at UCD had fallen by 20 per cent between 2007 and 2011, resulting in many of the university’s best people being lost.

He said that in the department of economics, some who left had done so to take up higher-level positions elsewhere.

He said the education system needed to start making bigger demands of students and “to start failing people again”.

The university was not being run to provide education, in much the same way the Health Service Executive was not being run to provide health services, he said.

The “big breakthrough” for the administrators would be the introduction of student loans, because then they could raise the fees universities charged.

http://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/dumbing-down-will-screw-up-economy-morgan-kelly-warns-1.1718394

119

Alan White 03.14.14 at 12:01 am

I have no hard data, but my strong impression is that more and more non-Leiterific teaching institutions have embraced or moved toward the 4/4 for those even on TT. When I got the job here in Wisconsin in 1981 it was TT but 4/4 full time (I was hired 1/2 time TT believe it or not, but soon moved to full time). That was perceived then as an unusually tough load for a public university position. Now many institutions in other parts of UW have the same load, and I’ve seen many more advertised positions across the country increasing teaching loads for the TT over the years. So even for many TT faculty, the time devoted to the classroom leaves little time for public engagement, since whatever time they might eke out otherwise for writing is for professional development for promotion and the like.

An additional problem, as the OP mentions, is that even with the expansion of media such as this blog, the audience is typically small and does not reach the kind of public that big circulation media like Fox News, MSNBC, The NYT can. And those media have pretty finely-grained filters on who is allowed to publish. It wasn’t always like this more regionally at least. In Wisconsin Milwaukee used to have two major dailies in which one could publish letters and opinions, and from the 80s into the late 90s I frequently did that. Then they merged into one paper, editorial stances moved pretty firmly toward the center-right, and getting a letter into the editorial page has become a real challenge. Not only that, but academically-affiliated intellectuals who do manage to get something in the paper now frequently do not attach that affiliation to commentary, because it is seen as politically risky to do so given that many states now are effectively run by powerful conservative forces inimical to public education, and retaliatory actions against public institutions are certainly not unknown (at least in these parts). Thus this reduces the perception that academia is engaged in public debate even more.

But I whole-heartedly agree that the adjunctification of higher education has been most likely the biggest factor in reducing the impact of scholars on matters of public interest.

120

JW Mason 03.14.14 at 1:32 am

adam.smith gets it. Otherwise, this conversation is getting into “but this one goes to 11″ territory.

121

Main Street Muse 03.14.14 at 2:02 am

To Adam.Smith @113 “To accuse JW Mason of denying 1.) because he believes 2.) and makes some arguments for 3.) is silly.”

What are you talking about?! I have never accused JW Mason of denying anything. I’ve asked him how he feels about the increase in contingent labor in academia. He’s declared the fact that tenure track positions remain the same percentage in US population today as 40 yrs ago to be a victory to brag about. I don’t share his sense of victory.

And you are being sloppy when you say “…we have as many full-time tenure track positions as 40 years ago…” We do NOT have the same number of tenure-track positions as 40 years ago. We have, according to JW Mason, the same percentage of tenure-track positions in US population as we did 40 years ago.

However, if you look at JW Mason’s own table, the percentage of full time positions is now 50% – 40 years ago, the percentage of full time positions was nearly 72%. That’s a significant drop. Given that lecturers and adjuncts teach more classes than tenure-track, I’ll bet it’s possible that 75% of the instruction in higher ed is from contingent labor.

Still not seeing that victory. That’s for the tenure-track professors to feel…

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Main Street Muse 03.14.14 at 2:10 am

To Eric @ 112, your man Matt links to AAUP report to make his assertion that the 75% stat is wrong – unfortunately he did not actually read the report, which states:

“Combining the contingent employment categories as described above, the graph shows that more than three of every four instructional staff positions (76 percent) are filled on a contingent basis.”

Read the report here: http://www.aaup.org/file/2012-13Economic-Status-Report.pdf

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GiT 03.14.14 at 3:15 am

“We do NOT have the same number of tenure-track positions as 40 years ago. We have, according to JW Mason, the same percentage of tenure-track positions in US population as we did 40 years ago.”

…while the percentage of the population enrolled in college during any given year has been increasing, right? So not a victory relative to that proportion (tt positions::college students).

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JanieM 03.14.14 at 3:35 am

It is because rates of exit are roughly constant.

I’m not following this thread carefully [so insert disclaimers], but I’m not sure this is true. From The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper, in 2006:

Why are professors getting older? The data suggest two reasons. One is MIT’s rapid expansion in the 1960s and 1970s — the size of the faculty grew from about 620 in 1960 to about 950 (near its present size of 983) in 1970. This large block of “baby boomer” hires largely comprised young assistant professors, many of whom are now reaching the final phases of their careers.

A second reason is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. This law, passed by Congress in 1967, forbade most employers from setting a mandatory retirement age — but in 1986, universities were granted a special exemption that let them mandate that professors retire after age 70. In 1993, this exemption expired, and since then universities have been unable to force retirement of their tenured faculty.

Not every college necessarily followed MIT’s pattern, but as someone who did some jobhunting as a new Ph.D. in the late 70s, I have personal experience of how much harder jobs were to come by than they had been a few years earlier. The analysis in The Tech suggests that the effects of the 60s boom in funding/hiring are still being felt.

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js. 03.14.14 at 4:10 am

adam.smith:

It is because rates of exit are roughly constant.

JWM:

adam.smith gets it. Otherwise, this conversation is getting into “but this one goes to 11″ territory.

JWM, I have absolutely no idea what your second sentence means (genuinely). As for the rest, the point adam.smith made, and which was evidently your intention, occurred to me, but I’m still not convinced it’s relevant. (Shorter: tenure lines can get cut; indeed they do.)

For one thing, there’s good reason to think—including in the data you cite—that the way academic hiring and academic jobs work is and has been changing. Most simply, again, there’s much greater reliance on contingent faculty. And obviously, all sorts of institutions are making significant investments in MOOCs and such, which if they were to take off (admittedly _huge_ if), would radically change the nature and, relevantly, number of academic jobs. So the fact that rates of exit are constant in the long run doesn’t automatically imply that the ratio of the number of PhDs awarded to tenure lines will stay constant, and this ratio I do think is the important one.

Secondly, I would like to see some breakdown in the numbers by discipline. I don’t know the numbers, so this is broadly anecdotal, but my sense is that in the humanities at least, the job market is much worse than it was ten or six years ago. Now of course a good bit of this has to with the crash in 2008, but note that we’re not talking one crisis year, we’re talking six crisis years, and counting.

Now of course, this may all balance itself out in the next ten years. On the other hand, the university where I did my grad work recently cut out their Classics and (I think) German depts. Just fucking cut ‘em out. And we’re talking about an R1 institution here. And of course these are not isolated cases (as I’m sure you know). Maybe they’re adding neuroscience lines? Which, hey, good on neuroscience, but there is good reason to think that the humanities job market is especially fucked right now, which might get covered up in the aggregate numbers.

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Erik 03.14.14 at 6:10 am

Main Street Muse, js.: You’re right. I should have read more carefully. When I hear “contingent” I think part-time or temporary work. I guess non-tenure track positions at universities are considered “contingent”.

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Erik 03.14.14 at 6:10 am

That is, full-time non-tenure track positions are counted as “contingent” in the report.

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dBonar 03.14.14 at 6:37 am

Eric #126. That seems like a very biased choice of words (I realize it wasn’t your choice). In that sense, most people are ‘contingent’ worker – most of us don’t work in fields with any idea of tenure. So the spin that somehow ‘contingent’ status is automatically a problem reinforces my view that part of the issue is a feeling of entitlemt. The PhD is simply not as much of an elite status as it was 2 or 3 generations ago.

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dBonar 03.14.14 at 8:03 am

To connect back to the original post. I think the original post is wrong in thinking there is a problem because some hypothetical set of public intellectuals is being wasted “grading”. In particular, wrong in bringing in two ideas that are only tangentially related — the rise in the number of “contingent” academic positions, and the idea that there is a “rapidly disappearing elite” of public intellectuals.

I think the “contingent” academics are a distraction from the discussion of public intellectuals because the number of tenured academic positions per capita is not decreasing. More people seem to want those jobs, so the competition is harder, but there is not a decreasing pool. There could be more nuanced arguments that the nature of tenured academic posts has changed, or that the distributions of positions among departments has changed, but the broad-brush statement that a higher percentage of “contingent” workers in academia is the cause of a decrease in the number of public intellectuals seems too simplistic.

I’m not sure if the original post means that the academic elite who used to be public intellectuals is rapidly disappearing or whether he was referring to a different group. Perhaps the argument was that there used to be a pool of people able to make their livings as non-academic intellectuals, but that those types of livelihoods are disappearing leaving the people who would have taken them pounding on the doors of academia (and perhaps ultimately reduced to “contingent” status and “grading”). The “[fleeing] to … academia” suggests that isn’t what was meant though. The “disappearing elite” appears to be a reference to tenured academics, and they don’t seem to be disappearing.

I can’t get away from thinking that this is a first-world problem. We are (as a society) so wealthy that many of our college graduates can continue having dorm-room conversations (with deeper jargon and better road-trips) well into their 20’s. Unfortunately for them, some find that no-one really wants to listen to their ideas no matter how much they want to spread them. Should we have the same level of angst over people pushing 30 who are working at a record store and still trying to start a killer band?

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Trader Joe 03.14.14 at 11:54 am

@125 js

“adam.smith gets it. Otherwise, this conversation is getting into “but this one goes to 11″ territory.”

This is a reference to the (awesome) cult movie This is Spinal Tap and specifically a scene in which bass guitarist Nigel Tufnel insists that his amplifiers are louder than everyone elses since the dial on his amplifier goes up to 11 when everyone else’s amplifiers go up to 10…..the obvious point being that its not data calibration that is important, its the data itself that is important – or in this context, more positions means more positions and the proportion to the population or number of PHDs or other ratios are secondary.

I’m a bit more on Main St. Muse’s side of this argument, but JWMs data is what it is. I’d advocate for essentially zero tenure track positions and that resources be better allocated across both parts of the spectrum – some tenured faculty are clearly valuable to the organization and should merit appropriate pay, perks and resource – some are not and should enjoy the same job insecurity as anyone else who doesn’t produce some sort of value to the organization….academic freedom and time to pursue writing etc. are important but that doesn’t seem to be a constraint to output within tenured faculty, only within non-tenured.

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Main Street Muse 03.14.14 at 1:31 pm

Eric @ 127 – JW Mason’s data looked only at “full-time faculty” – and did not differentiate between tenured and contingent full-time – in his stats, 50% of the faculty in higher ed are full-time. Data matters – his does not say tenure makes up 50% of the pool, only “full-time” instructional faculty.

And read the AAUP report – here’s more on the issues posed by the reliance on contingent faculty:

“As has been detailed in numerous other AAUP reports, individuals employed in contingent academic positions have limited academic freedom, since their employment is subject to termination or nonrenewal without due-process procedures that are vital as protectors of academic freedom. Faculty members with contingent appointments risk dismissal if they challenge students by assigning significant reading loads or in-depth writing assignments. Graduate student instructors who raise controversial topics in their seminars can be deprived of their assistantships or even expelled from their programs.

“In most cases the individuals employed in contingent positions lack the institutional support necessary to do their jobs effectively, whether that be in the form of technology, private office space for consultation with students, or access to funds for travel to academic conferences.

“Too often, our colleagues in contingent positions are also excluded from meaningful participation in shared governance, as documented in the recent AAUP report The Inclusion in Governance of Faculty Members Holding Contingent Appointments.”

This speaks to Corey’s original point. Thanks for sharing a source that supports his thesis.

Tenure-track/tenured may have same percentage of the US population as it did 40 years ago – but it is a tiny fraction of the higher ed instructional staff now. A Pyrrhic victory at best. My state is looking at getting rid of tenure completely – they passed legislation last year to end tenure in the elementary and secondary levels. The complacency of tenured professors will make that process easier when they go after higher ed tenure.

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Corey Robin 03.14.14 at 2:13 pm

I confess that I’m terrible with numbers and tables, but if I’m reading Josh’s and other people’s statements correctly, and looking correctly at some of the tables he points us to, this is what I’m seeing:

1. There is an increase in non-full-time instructional staff.
2. Of the full-time instructional staff, there is an increase in the non-TT faculty and either a decrease or non-increase of the TT faculty (I can’t tell if it’s a decrease or non-increase b/c the tables Josh points us to track overall percentages, and in this thread people are constantly conflating TT and full-time, which are not the same).
3. Of those TT jobs, the question of whether they are at four-year colleges or two-year community colleges, and what the teaching loads are of the former, has not been addressed. It’s very possible to me — indeed, seems more than likely — that the number of TT jobs today has a higher percentage of two-year community college staff and, at the four-year level, a higher percentage with higher teaching loads than before. That means of course that though the TT #s are consistent or less, the composition of those jobs is different than before. They will have less time for writing, whether that be academic scholarship or public writing.
4. There is an increase in the number of grad students getting PhDs.

Again, I’m a total cretin when it comes to this kind of stuff, so I apologize if I’m missing something (and if I am, it’s an honest mistake, not me trying to fudge things), but it seems to me that what this means is that getting a TT job today is a lot harder than it used to be. More PhDs, and either the same number or fewer TT track jobs (and again, with the possibility that those TT jobs are at places with very high teaching loads that preclude the opportunity for writing or at least feature diminished opportunities for writing). The jobs that are more likely to be gotten in academe are either non-full-time, or if they are full-time, they’re more likely to be contingent as opposed to TT, and if they are TT, a greater number of them than before may come with much higher teaching loads than before.

So when I think about this from the perspective of the debate about public intellectuals, which is where this all began, I go back to Russell Jacoby’s book from 1987 which kicked off this debate. Jacoby’s argument is, in short, that there used to be independent unaffiliated intellectuals who would write for little magazines, and b/c rents were low and other economic factors, they could essentially support themselves outside of academia. He was thinking of people like Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy, and so on, who made a career for themselves as writers in the 1930s, outside academe.

But then things changed after WWII. It got too expensive, he says, to sustain that kind of life. And academia was there, waiting with open arms. Either for men like Daniel Bell and Irving Howe, who became big-deal professors at Harvard and CUNY, but never got more than a BA (I think End of Ideology was what Bell submitted as his version of a dissertation). Or after them, for men and women who might have become independent intellectuals but were now lured into academia instead. So they got PhDs, wrote dissertations, and became bad writers and stopped writing for the public.

I’m simplifying but that’s essentially his argument. Now whatever you think about that argument, it seems to me that today the situation is very different. Unlike 1954 — I hope people now see the referent to Jacoby there — an independent intellectual can’t just easily parachute into academia with a tenured position (there being a lot more competition, as everyone here admits, for those slots), and certainly not without a PhD. And should s/he get a PhD, as even Josh acknowledges, the possibility of getting a TT job, which is what gave these proto-public intellectuals back in the day the chance to write, etc., are much harder. (And again if that TT job is in a community college, forget it.)

That was essentially my argument in that piece that I cite in my OP (and I urge you to read the whole piece and not just the excerpts), admittedly very telescoped. I haven’t seen from this thread exactly why my argument is wrong. But again I’m hopeless about numbers and charts, so I’m more than happy to be shown I’m wrong. But if I am, can someone tell me where exactly where/how I am going wrong in my argument? Either factually or with a flawed assumption?

Re assumptions: my big assumption is that if you have a very high teaching load, you’ll have less time for writing. We have a 4/3 teaching load at CUNY senior colleges. On these semesters when I’ve had to do that (admittedly it’s been a while, but I’ve been very lucky in getting course release; most others are not), my entire semester has been devoted to teaching, with no time for writing. But at the junior colleges, the teaching load is even higher.

My other assumption is that if you’re part-time and want a fulltime (contingent) position, or fulltime contingent and want a TT position, you’re going to be much more focused on the scholarly writing — if you even have the time for it (a big if) — and thus not going to do public writing. Either b/c there’s no time or b/c it can be looked at skeptically by hiring committees.

One last thing: My main point in this debate about public intellectuals is that it is focused, as I say, on a very small minority within academia. An ever dwindling minority, in fact, referring to the overall percentages. I think that’s pretty uncontroversially true. Outside that very small minority (and percentage, growing smaller) that’s worried about publishing in the right journals, the question is not the APSR v. the NYT, or if it’s in the APSR, math v. lucid prose (which is how Nick Kristof essentially posed it). The question is: can I support myself on a slew of non-full time academic jobs OR can I figure out how to get some job security if I’m fulltime but without tenure or access to the tenure track. That today is the overwhelming reality for most academics. At least according to the numbers.

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Corey Robin 03.14.14 at 2:36 pm

Sorry, one emendation/correction: In the original stats that I cited in my Al Jazeera piece, if you follow the link, it says that TT faculty have gone from 405,000 to 437,000 from 2003 to 2011. That’s an 8% increase. I don’t know how that fits, however, relative to the 1970s; perhaps it was a gain after a setback? Anyway, I thought I should point that out. So when I wrote in my previous comment that “of the full-time instructional staff, there is an increase in the non-TT faculty and either a decrease or non-increase of the TT faculty (I can’t tell if it’s a decrease or non-increase b/c the tables Josh points us to track overall percentages,” I should have probably said, “there is an increase in the non-TT faculty and either a decrease, a non-increase, or a relatively speaking very small increase…” Like I said, terrible with numbers and charts.

I did notice in one of the charts Josh posted that the overall percentage of instructional staff WITH tenure (so not TT, and these are at institutions with tenure systems) declined between 1993 and 2012 from 56% to 48% (how that fits with the AFT stats I cite in my OP I have no idea). And in keeping with what I just said in my previous comment, of those with tenure, it seems there’s been a large much larger decline in tenured positions at four-year institutions than at two-year institutions. And lastly the number of institutions of higher ed that even have tenure systems has declined dramatically (62% in 1992, 45% in 2012).

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dBonar 03.14.14 at 3:01 pm

Thanks.

A less contentious and less numeric consideration than my earlier ones. What would it take to get back to the pre-WWII state? Given we have the internet, presumably intellectuals don’t all have to live in Manhattan to communicate. Could we get more public intellectuals by having more young ‘chatterers’ moving to Detroit?

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Erik 03.14.14 at 3:57 pm

Thanks for the excellent summary, Corey.

Main Street Muse: I’m not sure who you are arguing with. Yes – JW Mason’s data looks at full-time faculty with differentiation tenure status. And I’m quite happy to have pointed you at data that reinforces your point.

As for classifying full time non-TT faculty as contingent; well, I don’t have a real opinion on whether that makes sense. I work, for instance, as full time staff for a university. By the AAUP measure, my employment is contingent. Of course, it’s quite possible that full-time, non-TT faculty are much more likely to be laid off than staff, lack offices, or have issues with academic freedom.

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bianca steele 03.14.14 at 4:06 pm

That was essentially my argument in that piece that I cite in my OP (and I urge you to read the whole piece and not just the excerpts), admittedly very telescoped.

I definitely did not get that this was the “point” of your earlier post, maybe because I remember hearing about Jacoby’s book around the time it came out. He was lamenting the fact that intellectuals were becoming almost exclusively academics, I thought, not necessarily instructing would-be intellectuals that they had to get Ph.D.’s and university appointments or give up. From that point of view, the fact that publications have requirements that not all academics can meet, and that sometimes favor non-academics, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are a variety of models we could have: people write and then get tenure later (like James Wood, say), people get tenure and then have a platform to write on general topics (whether for a general audience or for other academics), people write on general topics before they have tenure and maybe before they have a Ph.D., people with Ph.D.’s are considered to have been trained to write on specific topics for a general audience, and probably more. As a non-academic, and I hope not as such automatically assumed to be hostile to academics (because that’s not the case), it isn’t obvious to me that the most desirable model is to make it easier for college teachers to publish on general topics for a general audience, simply because nobody else has the time or money to do it (either).

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Jacoby’s point was more subtle than that and he should be considered to support your argument here.

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Chatham 03.14.14 at 4:18 pm

Could we get more public intellectuals by having more young ‘chatterers’ moving to Detroit?

I’d first like to see why being a pure intellectual as opposed to someone who has a full-time job and writes as a hobby is preferable. From what I’ve seen, the hobbyist tends to do a better job.

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Corey Robin 03.14.14 at 4:42 pm

Bianca: ” He was lamenting the fact that intellectuals were becoming almost exclusively academics, I thought, not necessarily instructing would-be intellectuals that they had to get Ph.D.’s and university appointments or give up.”

He was lamenting that, you’re right, and I don’t see anywhere that I even suggest that he was instructing would-be intellectuals to get a PhD or give up.

But his point was that there were material reasons why public intellectuals were disappearing: on the one hand, it was increasingly difficult to make a living writing for little magazines; on the other hand, the lure of academia, with all of its comforts and cushions, was taking intellectuals away and putting them inside the iron cage of the ivory tower (to mix all sorts of metaphors). My point is that while the economic constraints he spoke up are still there (unless, as someone suggests upthread you move to a much cheaper place, which I know several young writers are doing; it is easier today with the internet to do that), the academic cushions and comforts are being taken away. So we’re in a very different material environment. That’s all.

So, on the one hand, we’ve seen in the last few years, as I show in my Al Jazeera piece, an explosion of the kind of public intellectual work that Jacoby was hoping to see. Much of that work in little magazines, however, is either done or sustained by grad students or adjuncts at a very young stage in their lives. But I wonder whether that’s permanently sustainable. Either b/c these folks are going to move on and require more, economically, than this lifestyle can give them OR b/c as competition for TT jobs increases, there will be less incentive to take the sorts of risks that public writing requires.

On the other hand, it’s certainly possible that as the bottom drops out — the bottom being a hope of a TT job — people will take more risks.

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Harold 03.14.14 at 5:26 pm

The original model or Ur American public intellectual wrote:

“ Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to: Read manuscripts, write books and articles to order, write forewords or introductions, make statements for publicity purposes, do any kind of editorial work, judge literary contests, give interviews, conduct educational courses, deliver lectures, give talks or make speeches, broadcast or appear on television, take part in writer’s congresses, answer questionnaires, contribute to or take part in symposiums or ‘panels’ of any kind, contribute manuscripts for sales, donate copies of his books to libraries, autograph books for strangers, allow his name to be used on letterheads, supply personal information about himself, supply photographs of himself, supply opinions on literary or other subjects.

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James Wimberley 03.14.14 at 5:32 pm

Back to Kiwanda in #43 and Martha Nussbaum’s paraphrase of Butler.
It’ s superficially comprehensible, but meaningless. “Marxist accounts, focusing on capital as the central force structuring social relations, depicted the operations of that force as everywhere uniform. By contrast, Althusserian accounts, focusing on power, see the operations of that force as variegated and as shifting over time.”
What force? The “Marxist accounts ” as described are that (a) there is a “central force structuring social relations” and (b) that force is capital. The “Althusserian accounts” are apparently (a) there is a “central force structuring social relations” and (b) we don’t know what it is. Or is the antecedent of “that force” supposed to be “power”? If so, why not say it?
I don’t know who’s at fault here: Althusser, Butler, or Nussbaum. But the argument does not give me much incentive to swim through more wet sand.

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SusanC 03.14.14 at 6:05 pm

Some of the postmodernist writers are notorious for their prose style, and have even been subject to the accusation that their style conceals a lack of meaning (ie. that even the writer’s academic peers don’t understand it). This latter accusation is often extremely unfair, in that members of the target audience actually do understand the technical terms.

Corey is presumably not making that kind of Alan Sokal style criticism of the American Political Science Review article: for anyone used to reading mathematics, it’s a pretty clear account of how to compute a quantity they are calling the “power” of a member.

A more credible accusation would be along the lines of: why should I want to compute this mathematical quantity? why should I care? A good piece of scientific writing will usually have some sort of introduction that answers those questions, and justifies inflicting mathematics on the reader. (Referee’s reports along the lines of “Summary: paper is mathematically correct but of no practical relevance. Must reject.” are quite possible for some journals.)

Or more broadly, that gratiutious and irrelevant mathematics is plaguing disciplines like economics in much the same way that bad imitations of Jacques Derrida’s prose style are commonly found in Continental Philosophy. You could even argue that there are common structural factors between economics departments and philosophy/English literature departments that are incentivizing both kinds of writing (Hey! You could even make a mathematical model of that! With calculus and everything!)

Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. Though I’ll admit there is sometimes pressure for gratiutous mathematics.

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JW Mason 03.14.14 at 6:07 pm

either a decrease or non-increase of the TT faculty

Nope. In 1991, there were 387,000 tenure-track jobs. In 2011 (the most recent year we have data for) there were 511,000. That’s an increase of 32%, considerably larger than the increase in total US employment over those 20 years.

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geo 03.14.14 at 6:36 pm

What js@125 said. If I recall, Jacoby made the point that, even then, the number of business/technical majors was soaring, that of humanities majors plunging. If the growth or stability of tenure-track jobs is all on the business side (being, like Corey, statistically challenged, I’ll leave that for others to ascertain), then it’s hardly the “political victory” that JW sees it as.

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Corey Robin 03.14.14 at 7:45 pm

Josh: I acknowledged in my second comment immediately following 133 that I was wrong about that. But here’s what I’m still not clear on:

1. Is that increase from 1991 to to 2011 making up for previous decreases? In your earlier comments, you traced things back to 1970, so I’m wondering where these TT numbers are relative to that.

2. How much of the increases, whatever dates we choose, are at two-year colleges where the teaching loads make writing of any sort virtually impossible, and of the increases in the four-year colleges, what sorts of jobs are we talking about, i.e., with what kinds of teaching loads? And as Geo and others said above, are these positions in the liberal arts or in business schools or other types of majors — the reason being that we’re interested here in (or at least what brought me to this issue is an interest in) the conditions of public intellectual life. If these jobs are in accounting departments, we may not see much of an interest in public writing of the sort that inspired my article.

3. You say above that the number of PhDs granted has doubled since 1970. By how much has the number of TT jobs increased since 1970?

Since I am assuming — perhaps wrongly; happy to be corrected — that the number of TT jobs has nowhere near doubled since 1970, but that the requirement of having a PhD in order to get a TT job is now nearly universal, it is not correct to say that one’s chances (“one” being a person with a PhD) of landing a TT job are today much more difficult than they were in 1970?

And since I’m assuming that a TT job with a low teaching load makes it easier to write than does a TT job with a high teaching load, and that any type of TT job makes it easier to write than does any contingent faculty job (unless the teaching load of the contingent faculty is very low and that faculty’s wage is supplemented by family money, a spouse’s high earnings, or some other job that requires little time but pays well), is not my concern that the material conditions in academia today for writing anything — forget public intellectual v. academic scholarship — are significantly worse than they were in the 1970s warranted?

I concede there are many more teaching positions today than before. What I’m less clear on is that these positions make it easier for someone with a PhD to write than those conditions did for someone with a PhD in 1970.

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bianca steele 03.14.14 at 8:27 pm

Corey @ 138

First, I apologize, I thought you were talking about your first post responding to Kristof, and I see in the later comment you mention the link in the OP, which I hadn’t clicked through to. So that’s what I was discussing.

What I meant to address was this idea that there’s a kind of set job path: if you’re interested in ideas and not money, you stay in academia, you don’t move on to the private sector, even into publishing and related fields. Similarly, if you want to write or review novels for a living, or write about current events and things, you get a degree in English literature or in writing, and you get a job teaching one of those things, teaching that’s inseparable from participating in nominally “private sector” literary culture (or you get a degree in one of those and use your academic connections and credentials to get writing gigs, until you get the publishing-world equivalent of tenure); if you want anyone to listen to your ideas about politics, you get a Ph.D. in political science; if you want to reform corporate management practices, you become a b-school professor; and so on. It’s a set of assumptions about professionalization and credentials (and the relations between theory and practice), and it seems very recent to me (and possibly not accurate even to the recent past).

I’m sure little of this is sustainable in the long run. But the percentage of letters to the editor of the New York Times that are signed with academic affiliations is going up (unless it’s already at one hundred), not down (and the same probably holds true of their reviewers, especially on Sundays). So this seems like an intra-academic debate, but then I’m not sure why it would interest the Times’s readers or Al Jazeera’s.

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Main Street Muse 03.14.14 at 9:57 pm

Here’s a story on two professors at Columbia University who were laid off for not bringing in enough grant money. http://bit.ly/1cGUD2e

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John Quiggin 03.14.14 at 11:25 pm

As regards economics/finance/business, I think Kristof’s critique is pretty accurate. Academic economists aren’t contributing to policy debate as much as they used to. That’s certainly true in Oz, where many prominent academic economists (Arndt, Corden, Gregory, Gruen, Neville) were well-known public figures in the 1970s, and where hardly any are today. And the “notably rare exceptions” of Krugman and DeLong (plus some people on the other side like Barro and Cowen) don’t compare to the days when Friedman and Samuelson were writing for Newsweek, and when other leading figures, as disparate as Arrow and Galbraith, were also pretty active in policy debate.

And unlike in the fields Corey is talking about, I don’t perceive a large group of younger economists, eager to contribute to public debate, but pressed down by the conditions of the academic labour market (Noah Smith is the only young econoblogger who comes immediately to mind for me, though I’m sure I’ve missed some, or assumed them older than they are) . The market for economics PhDs is pretty good: anyone with a decent job market paper can expect to land a TT position somewhere and there are plenty of fallbacks outside academia. But the socialisation is to produce and value more elaborate versions of the kind of thing cited in the OP. In general, I’d say, the younger the audience among economists (assuming they’ve been to grad school) the more hostile or uninterested has been the response to the kinds of criticisms I made in Zombie Economics.

So, as regards Josh’s observations, I’d guess that there are more TT jobs overall, but less for the kinds of people who would see being a public intellectual as a good thing.

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adam.smith 03.15.14 at 12:39 am

JQ – I think that’s massively understating the public writing of academic economists:
There is the line-up at the NYT, including its economix blogs as well as regular Sunday business columns (Jared Bernstein, Nancy Folbres, Simon Johnson, Casey Mulligan). There are, obviously, fewer young economists, but apart from Noah, Karl Smith – at Modelled Behavior and FT Alphaville comes to mind. Obviously Steve Levitt and, though we may want to wish him away, Steve Landsberg. Stevenson/Wolfers also come to mind. If you count non-traditional economists like Galbraith in the past, you’d also count Robert Reich who is publishing and filming and whatever else very actively.
There are the development economists who may not write as many newspaper/magazine columns, but have put out a large number of mass-market books (Sachs, Easterly, Collier, Banerjee/Duflo, Acemoglu/Robinson) and, in a slightly different field, Rogoff/Reinhart.
Finally, there is a significant number of economists who don’t spend a lot of time writing for the public, but are very good getting their findings out: Piketty/Saez, Chetty, Fryer, Heckman come to mind right away.
So, without any judgment on who is responsible for this or if it’s a good thing – Kristof is correct that academic economists are very, very effective in shaping public debate in the US.

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LFC 03.15.14 at 12:54 am

As I recall, Kristof wrote in the column that, unlike economics, sociology is dominated by leftists and therefore has marginalized itself. I thought that was somewhat inaccurate and sort of unfair to sociologists, and also failed to note that the disciplinary lines betw, e.g., sociology and political science are blurry in the case of some writers. Just thought I’d throw this in fwiw.

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W R Peterson 03.15.14 at 1:08 am

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Ed Herdman 03.15.14 at 7:15 pm

The first thing that sticks out about that Foreign Policy article comes in the intro:
“…disciplinary departments like political science, which focus on “pure” research.”

Any PoliSci major working through a good program should run across a class in quantitative methods, which is of course about turning pure research into pure application. Indeed, programs with a quantitative area are obviously suited for practical use. More theoretical programs like much of analytic philosophy can potentially get there, too, though the distance between theory and practice is often wider there.

Such a strange comment from a magazine that you’d expect has at least tangential contacts with political science programs and graduates from recent years.

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adam.smith 03.15.14 at 7:25 pm

@Ed – I think it’s spot on. Of course you _can_ use skills learned in a polisci graduate program for policy purposes: But if you just want a data analyst, why not get an economist with an econometrics specialty, an applied statistician, or someone along those lines?

It’s very much true that academic political science doesn’t reward or promote research that’s directly policy relevant. Even if you look at a blog like the Monkey Cage, most contributions there are focused on understanding politics, only very occasionally on specific policy ideas. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think in the medium run, better understanding leads to at least better policy _ideas_ if not necessarily better policy. But there’s also no use denying this.

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Ronan(rf) 03.15.14 at 7:47 pm

Theoretically you could hire someone more qualified in a specific area (ie a statistician economist etc) but (1) some jobs also want people trained in ways of thinking specific to pol sci(2) there’s a lot of demand

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adam.smith 03.15.14 at 8:17 pm

Ronan do you have any evidence for 1)? It seems to me that there are quite few jobs looking specifically for a political scientist and hardly any job outside academia that isn’t more likely to be filled by someone with a public policy or public administration degree (or depending on the nature of the job, by a lawyer or economist).
I don’t know if you’ve done graduate work in polisci at a research-focused department, but I don’t think I know anyone who has (including myself) who would think it has prepared them particularly well for a policy job or even policy analysis.

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LFC 03.15.14 at 8:42 pm

E Herdman:
a class in quantitative methods, which is of course about turning pure research into pure application.

I was under the impression that classes in quant methods were usually about how to give “pure” research a statistical/mathematical cast. Nothing necessarily “applied,” in the sense of policy-oriented, about it. (But I cd be wrong there.)

I read the linked FP conversation last night and was somewhat underwhelmed by it. Among other things, one of the participants, whom I won’t name here, talks about ‘grand theory’ and ‘middle-range theory’ in ways that don’t really correspond to my understanding of the terms. Then in another part of the conv., S. Walt says policy schools shd teach more history and law. I’m for that, but that’s not what people go to Walt’s institution and comparable ones to get a master’s degree for. They go, for the most part and as I understand it, to get some “practical” skills and a smattering of other things. That’s why the MPP curriculum at Walt’s institution, say, is what it is. (I shd say I have no first-hand knowledge of the Kennedy School, where Walt teaches, i.e. I’ve not been a student there, but that’s my impression.)

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LFC 03.15.14 at 8:53 pm

P.s. I agree that certain “programs with a quantitative area are obviously suited for practical use.” But that’s not the same as saying that a quant methods class or sequence in a standard U.S. pol sci dept is going to be so oriented. I wd think it varies depending on program, prof, etc. (My own experience in grad school was rather atypical so I won’t even go into it.)

One of the main axes of the FP conv was the distinction betw the so-called intl affairs schools, the members of APSIA (Assn of Prof Schools of Int Affairs), which typically grant a large # of so-called “terminal” masters degrees, and the depts of pol sci, which typically don’t. If one is not familiar w that difference in institutional “mission” one isn’t going to understand a lot of what the FP conv, such as it was, was about.

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Ronan(rf) 03.15.14 at 9:50 pm

Adam smith , na I have no evidence/phd/quant skills ; ) I can’t respond now as on phone but I don’t buy the woe is me line re phd grads (in pol sci anyway) PARTICULARY wit quant skills (I’ve been in careers where qualitative phd skills are well regarded as well) specific quant skills are VERY much in demand (and (specific areas like comp soc sci)
Policy is a different kettle of fish (and come on, policy in the us!?) but this is only from my phone so will elaborate when near a comp.. Questions are how much the phd works against u( following ur passion versus workin ur way up in an organisation) when your willing to compromise .. What skills youre willing to develop (languages stats etc)..no, pol sci doesn’t train u for a policy job BUT it trains u to know what a policy job requires .. Look, this isn’t coherent here so I’ll elaborate when back by a comp, but needless to say I’ve been in a job market WITHOUT these advantages so have an idea that if person x is willing to settle/lower aspirations theyll be fine !

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adam.smith 03.15.14 at 11:53 pm

Ronan – you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not complaining about the general job market prospects of me and fellow polisci PhDs. We’re not economists or engineers, but people with polisci PhDs find jobs outside academia if they’re interested, absolutely. And as a rule of thumb people with more quant skills find jobs more easily.
My comment was in response to Ed Hermann, who responded to a discussion specifically on the topic of how relevant academia is to the policy world. He implies that the distinction between pure research polisci programs and more policy oriented schools like Kennedy, Fletcher, Maxwell et al makes no sense since the quant skills you learn in a polisci program are highly relevant to policymaking. All I’m saying is that it’s a very relevant distinction — in terms of what is taught, in terms of why people enter the program, and in terms of where they end up. See als LFC’s comments, with which I agree 100%. Teaching people policy relevant material (or even focusing on quant skills particularly useful for policy) is simply not high on the agenda of any highly ranked (broadly speaking – I’m talking about at least top 40 here) pure political science department.

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Ronan(rf) 03.16.14 at 3:27 am

Ah, I got ya Adam s. I’m gonna gave to start reading more slowly

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Meredith 03.17.14 at 4:57 am

I have learned much from this discussion, and have many questions. I’ll just pose this one (well, two): how many public intellectuals of the late 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s (is that the period we’re being nostalgic for?) were men? and how many of those men were married to women who devoted their lives to sustaining those men and the children they shared? I don’t ask these questions peevishly. Just saying that it’s a lot easier to find the time for public engagement, on top of myriad other commitments and duties, when someone else is doing all the cooking, laundry, and diaper duty. Don’t want to make too much of this point, but I think it’s not trivial.

As for “the public intellectual.” I’m thinking of the way I grew up with the New Yorker and Atlantic and Saturday Review around the house. In college I discovered the I. F. Stone world (although my parents knew about it and had friends a part of it, it wasn’t reflected in family bathroom reading). And even I. F. Stone was relatively accommodationist. What I’m wondering here: was the post-war “public intellectual” a watered-down version of the working class radical intellectual of the pre-WW II-years? An honest, naive question, but I do pose it out of some misgiving about celebrating “the public intellectual” over that more greatly to be lamented loss, “the working class intellectual.”

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TM 03.17.14 at 8:00 pm

This is slightly tangential but since “turgid academic prose” has been brought up as a topic, I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the Sokal hoax. You remember that Sokal wrote his nonsense paper, which got accepted by a reputed journal, in order to expose the “decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities”. Unfortunately he was right, as demonstrated by the latest brouhaha about computer-generated nonsense papers accepted by Springer and IEEE publications.

http://retractionwatch.com/2014/02/24/springer-ieee-withdrawing-more-than-120-nonsense-papers/

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The Temporary Name 03.17.14 at 8:08 pm

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TM 03.17.14 at 8:20 pm

dbonar 12: “What about the percentage of t/t-t academics among all citizens”

I’m not sure about that but definitely, the tenure track faculty to student ratio is significantly going down. Student numbers have increased much more than faculty, even including instructors. The number of administrators in higher ed, on the other hand, has well kept pace (e. g. http://uarktransparency.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/administrators-in-higher-ed/)

You can usually find data about individual institutions on their Office of Institutional Research web sites or at the federal IPEDS database (http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/Default.aspx). You’ll find the same pattern everywhere.

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js. 03.17.14 at 8:27 pm

Unfortunately he was right, as demonstrated by the latest brouhaha about computer-generated nonsense papers accepted by Springer and IEEE publications.

Except that as per your link, the retracted papers were all CS papers. So even if Sokal ever had a point to make about the humanities, this would seem to have zero bearing on it.

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TM 03.17.14 at 8:47 pm

Harry 36 and also JWM 102: “I’d be surprised if the opportunities to become a tenured professor now are smaller than they were in 1954.”

They are definitely smaller relatively to the pool of possible candidates, i. e. PhD holders interested in academic careers. Just think of how many PhDs a typical professor advises during their career: dozens, sometimes hundreds. But there’s only one position to be refilled once the senior professor retires. There is no doubt that academic careers are far more precarious than they were a generation or two ago.

One should mention in this context that the share of women graduates has increased from almost zero in say 1960 to 50% or more while their representation in tenure-track faculty is stuck around 1/4 to 1/3. Women are hired at near or even above parity only for instructor jobs without job security.

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TM 03.17.14 at 9:34 pm

js 164: I meant to say that Sokal was right but the problem he identified is not restricted to the humanities, as demonstrated by the IEEE case. My apology for not expressing myself clearly.

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Colin Danby 03.17.14 at 9:50 pm

Thank you, TM!

Now if someone would just bring up Zizek and nihilism, not necessarily in that order, my bingo card will be full.

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TM 03.17.14 at 10:01 pm

I’m afraid I can’t help you with Zizek.

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TM 03.17.14 at 10:24 pm

Another bit of statistics relevant for the academic career prospects discussion.

In 1991, there were 1.1 million workers in the labor market with a PhD. In 2012 that number was 2.8 million, that is a 145% increase. (See https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/data/historical/people/ table P-20; this data includes all workers 25 years or older. Table P-24 lists only the full-time workers.) According to JWM’s table 290 (http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d12/tables/dt12_290.asp), the number of full-time instructional faculty increased 42% in the same period. Most or all of that increase is in non-tenure track positions.

The cumulative increase is relevant since the competition for academic job openings isn’t just recent graduates – many applicants have been laboring years in precarious positions, post-docs and adjuncts and so on.

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TM 03.17.14 at 10:25 pm

Another bit of statistics relevant for the academic career prospects discussion.

In 1991, there were 1.1 million workers in the labor market with a PhD. In 2012 that number was 2.8 million, that is a 145% increase. (Census historical income tables, table P-20; this data includes all workers 25 years or older. Table P-24 lists only the full-time workers.) According to JWM’s table 290, the number of full-time instructional faculty increased 42% in the same period. Most or all of that increase is in non-tenure track positions.

The cumulative increase is relevant since the competition for academic job openings isn’t just recent graduates – many applicants have been laboring years in precarious positions, post-docs and adjuncts and so on.

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W R Peterson 03.18.14 at 12:44 am

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William Berry 03.18.14 at 1:47 am

Meredith @160:

“What I’m wondering here: was the post-war “public intellectual” a watered-down version of the working class radical intellectual of the pre-WW II-years?”

In my (in this instance, more humble than usual) opinion, I think so, Yes. And you are right about the disappearance of the working-class-intellectual being a great loss.

The same is true of the information and opinion purveyors of the media (you did mention I.F. Stone). With respect to more mainstream reporting, I can’t think of any post-war reporter of the caliber and left credentials of a George Seldes, e.g.

And, I should probably just let this one go, but it’s hard not to say something: the irony of the squabbling boys not bothering to address, in comments, the issue you raise in your first paragraph cannot have escaped you!

Bob McManus, JCH, et al: Good job on the defense of post-structuralism and Judith Butler. Dare I suggest that Surly Searlians, especially those who haven’t bothered to learn the lingo (yes, “jargon”, but in the technical sense) of post-structuralist thinkers, should keep their uninformed opinions to themselves?

Never mind that attacking the most important gender studies thinker of our time as being shallow and vacuous (she’s gray-headed, now, but didn’t she used to be blonde?) really set off the MRA alarm in my brain!

But that’s another story, I guess.

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Lew Dog 03.18.14 at 6:13 am

There is no shortage of working class intellectuals. You and yours just don’t give a shit what lower class people have to say.

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Mario 03.18.14 at 3:25 pm

Science as whole has become a much tighter market. Growth in jobs proportional to the growth in population is not a relief. The 70’s were indeed an inflection point. There’s a great article on that with curves and figures and stuff here, but ignore the opening paragraph, which gives the impression it is about cosmology.

The big and singular intellectual figures of decades past existed mostly because there were huge barriers to entry in the magazine market, so mags had a lot of leeway in deciding who to give a voice (and whom not). And whenever someone got it, he/she was widely read almost by default. There was a tight editorial control over what was published and thus read. This is gone now due to the mythical tube contraption, which in my opinion is a good thing.

I have very little sympathy for adjuncts and their plight, because it is their self-defeating, self-exploiting behaviour patterns which have brought about this adjuncting mess. Why are wages low and conditions bad in that segment? Because there is always someone with a pathological attachment to academia willing to do the work for half a stale bone to gnaw. Losers.

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js. 03.18.14 at 7:14 pm

how many public intellectuals of the late 40′s, 50′s, 60′s, and early 70′s (is that the period we’re being nostalgic for?) were men? and how many of those men were married to women who devoted their lives to sustaining those men and the children they shared?

This question, posed by Meredith @160, seems very much to the point, and fits in perfectly well with Corey’s focus on the material and social conditions that made a certain sort of “public intellectual” viable at a certain time. I’d love to see it be discussed more, in another thread if not here, esp. as I myself don’t have any particular insight here.

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SusanC 03.18.14 at 7:15 pm

For some reason this thread makes we want to cite Doug Zongher’s Chicken Chicken Chicken.

It has a reputation as one of the classics.

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