Monday, April 27, 2009

Citations: Useless and Boring

Mark Taylor wants to end the university as we know it. I was thinking we were about due for another call for radical change from a tenured professor. I hadn't heard one since MLA. Taylor's essay has the unusual virtue, at least, of wanting to see the restructuring happen from the top down, rather than placing the burden of transforming the profession on disenfranchised grad students. But Taylor's proposals are incoherent.

He wants interdisciplinarity (radical!), but he confuses interdisciplinarity with adisciplinarity.

He wants to avoid the pitfalls of "overspecialization," but simultaneously advocates for hyperspecialization (one university specializing in French studies, another in German).

He acknowledges that universities could never get along without cheap grad student teaching, but also argues that there is "no market" and "no demand" for new PhDs. This is clearly incoherent. Given the choice -- and this is reflected in college ranking algorithms everywhere -- having real, tenured professors do the teaching is always preferred. The point of going to a four-year school in the first place is that it's considered best to learn from people who are active in the field, who are institutionally supported in doing research.

The fact is that there is a huge demand for trained scholars, but like the WalMart nation we are, we want them as cheaply as possible. The difference is that people don't kid themselves that the cheap plastic goods from WalMart are equivalent to artisan-made products in the way that universities try to insist that farming their teaching out to inexperienced-by-design, officeless, unsupported grad students is the intellectual equivalent to giving students small seminars with professors.

But I'm even more bothered by Taylor's cavalier treatment of research being done by young scholars in his own field. So far as I can tell, it's a byproduct of a deep suspicion of specialized knowledge and possibly scholarship itself. Taylor writes,
Unfortunately this mass-production university model [proposed by Kant] has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
Taylor represents specialization as per se tending to uselessness -- as if knowledge were not an end in itself. So Taylor decides to make a joke out of some young scholar's work, using his position as a tenured professor at Columbia -- the kind who can get Op-Ed pieces into the NYT -- to ridicule his own field rather than attempt to inform the public about what it really does. Taylor pretends to be sympathetic to grad students, but to ridicule someone's dissertation in the pages of the New York Times is nothing but hostile. And, if he is talking about a real colleague's real student's real dissertation, unethical.

Taylor plunks the description down there as if it were supposed to be obvious that a dissertation on Duns Scotus's use of citations were trivial. But is it that there is something inherently trivial about this student's dissertation, or is it that Taylor himself is in the wrong gig? When a professor of religion cannot imagine why a dissertation on Duns Scotus might be important or useful, and when a scholar thinks that citations are necessarily trivial, then there's trouble. I'm not a specialist in medieval theology, but offhand, and as someone who studies modernism, I know that citation practices involve questions of authority and deference, intertextuality, bibliographic/genetic information about the author's sources, and philosophical positions on presence/absence that are probably fairly relevant to theology. I don't know enough about the project to evaluate it, but there's nothing about that description that should give anyone license to dismiss the project out of hand, unless that person is already hostile to the idea of specialized knowledge per se.

I get that impression, too, from another shot Taylor takes at citation in his recommendation that we abolish traditional dissertations in favor of multimedia projects for the post-print era. "[T]here is no longer a market," he writes, "for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text." Actually, there never was such a market, which is why we have university presses. The idea is that scholarly value might not be the same thing as market value.

But Taylor's evidence that academic books are arcane and useless is apparently that they come with a scholarly citational apparatus, which Taylor gently exaggerates for maximum mock-value: "more footnotes than text." Can he be serious? Citations are part of academic standards of intellectual honesty (quite a different thing from intellectual "property"). Citations acknowledge the research that one has done, and help others do their own research. Citations refer other scholars to one's sources and expand on points of contention in the field. Citations are fundamental to good research, but Taylor only alludes to citations as jokey stand-ins for what he sees as the problem with the university as we know it. There seems to be something deeper at work here than the usual discontent with How Things Are.

Calls to reform academia are fairly common. I've made some myself. Inherent in the genre is a tension between wanting to do away with large and entrenched structures and an awareness that much of what is good, and indeed foundational, about academia has been produced by those same structures (like, say, disciplinary methodologies). Taylor registers those tensions in moments like his proposal for interdisciplinary problem-based research groups.
A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.
A Water program sounds like an interesting, nay, even exciting idea. But as Taylor himself acknowledges, this would hinge on bringing together multiple disciplinary perspectives, not eradicating disciplinarity. That means it wouldn't work out to "[a]bolish permanent departments," as Taylor proposes at the beginning of the section, because methodological perspectives do not happen in a vacuum. I suspect more and more that the Humanities Are Dead (TM) essay cannot be coherent.

It is, on the other hand, perfectly possible to write such an essay without mocking a colleague's grad student in the pages of the New York Times.


Jeff said...

When you're a medievalist, you routinely see people throw examples out there, like his comment about the Duns Scotus dissertation, in which "medieval" is meant to signal "laughably obscure." While I share some of Taylor's concerns about hyper-specialization, I'd also bet money that the PhD candidate studying Duns Scotus is writing an intensely interdisciplinary dissertation that reflects advanced training in languages, paleography, history, historiography, philosophy, and theology. That student will probably also be ready to teach a wide range of undergraduate courses about the Middle Ages in general and religion in particular.

(Of course, most of the issues Taylor raises have been hashed over by the academic blogs for years now. I wonder if he's aware that calls for reform aren't new just because he makes them in the New York Times.)

Natalia said...

It hadn't even occurred to me that "medieval" was being used as shorthand for "trivial," but I think you're probably right. I think I feel an essay coming on.

Anonymous said...

Hey...where can we really find information about Scotus' citation use? My interest is piqued!