Saturday, March 24, 2012

The politics of disciplinarity at the undergraduate level

We academics like our disciplinarity decidedly inter-, or at least we spend a lot of time saying so.

Yet we're also quite aware of deep-seated political (understood broadly) differences stemming from institutional structures, funding structures, and disciplinary cultures:

The physical sciences and philosophy are famously hostile to women and people of color. Humanists resent their relatively lower pay and status, but breathe a sigh of relief that they don't have to depend on large corporate grants, and cling fiercely to the intellectual autonomy they enjoy. Humanists are also quietly glad that nothing they make turns a profit, because they're disgusted by the notion that the university would own the patent for it. Science disciplines think the humanists don't do real research. Humanities disciplines think the scientists can't teach for beans and don't care to. Graduate students in the science disciplines resist unionization because they know if they're paid the same as the humanities grad students, they'll be paid less.

These are just a few of the political dimensions of disciplinarity within the university that I can think of off the top of my head.

We tend to think of these as internal squabbles, by, for, and among academics. We tend not to see this disciplinarity as particularly relevant to our undergraduates, who switch majors seemingly at whim and in any case seem to graduate knowing so very little about what we, steeped in it as we are, think of as "the discipline" and "the profession."

But it's increasingly obvious that disciplinarity's politics are not contained among us academics. They are profoundly present in our undergraduates' lives, and guess what? Undergraduates graduate. And their disciplinarity goes with them.

This is not a polemic against disciplinarity, by the way. I believe in disciplinarity: the notion that certain objects of study demand the nuanced development of methods for studying those objects. I believe interdisciplinarity is only meaningful when it truly engages multiple disciplines.

I am only observing that the political dimensions of disciplinarity, which are of course inevitable, are not just an academia thing.

Recently in higher education, there have been a number of flirtations with the idea of charging undergraduates differential tuition based on the income a graduate holding a degree in a given major can expect to command (assuming, laughably, that there is a job available in the aforesaid graduate's field). The University of California, where I did my graduate degree, is one of the schools that has entertained this notion.

I am not aware of any schools that have yet adopted such a tuition plan (which, needless to say, I find revolting). But the idea is always lurking, because undergraduates are continually subjected to anxious/reproachful queries about what their degrees are "worth," or whether college is "worth it." Thus the logic of capital that underwrites the university is made plain: education is a commodity "worth" what it will gain back in economic returns, not the leading-from or drawing-out of the Latin word e-ducare.

(Aaron Bady's excellent post on the subject is worth revisiting. I also highly recommend Historiann's pointed questioning of why it is that college is so often deemed "not worth it" specifically for poor people.)

This is just one example of the way that the politics of disciplinarity plays out at the undergraduate level.

I was reminded of another this afternoon when a certain Daily Cal article popped into my Twitter feed.

The Daily Cal is the student newspaper at UC Berkeley, one of the major centers of student protest around the systematic dismantling of public education, and where some thirteen protestors have been criminally charged for infractions like blocking the sidewalk and—in the case of Professor Celeste Langan, who walked toward police with wrists held together and said, "arrest me," and who was subsequently dragged to the ground by her hair—"resisting arrest."

In my last few years at Cal, it was obvious that the protests were led and sustained by students in the humanities and social sciences, while students in engineering, preprofessional majors, and the sciences often disdainfully said they had "real work to do" and rejected the idea of protest. Political activism, even on behalf of the university itself, was understood as profoundly extra-academic and extra-disciplinary by those students, while it seemed (and seems) a core value for many humanities students—not just a core personal value but also a core academic value.

The Daily Cal article is about the ASUC (Association of Students of the University of California) senate election. There are two major parties at UC Berkeley, in addition to the usual spate of single-issue and joke parties: Student Action and CalServe. CalServe has historically been an activist, antiracist, relatively liberal and occasionally genuinely leftist party, while Student Action has been more conservative and devoted itself to "student life" issues like promoting athletics and getting film screenings on campus. The article is titled "Student Action senate candidate’s past Facebook posts elicit controversy."

The mapping of national political alignments, local campus political parties, and disciplinarity is made plain by the Facebook posts in question:
In Facebook posts made in November, UC Berkeley freshman Andrew Kooker said, among other things, that “taking the easy way out and doing an easy degree” allows students to “have time to protest something.”

“The American Dream is to be in the 1%; to be ultimately successful in society,” he said in a post. “Granted, you and your liberal arts degree surely won’t yield any results like that.”

I have to take a moment to say: I've taught dozens of students like Andrew Kooker. He's a college freshman, new to college, new to the idea of having a major, who probably doesn't even have a major yet (most declare in the spring of second year). If he's a Berkeley freshman, it also means he's not a transfer student, which means there's a whole world of reality—junior college, working your way through school, really figuring out what you need out of an education—that he doesn't know about. If there's one thing a young person should be allowed, it's leeway to make mistakes, to hold dreadful opinions and then change them, to speak out thoughtlessly and not especially pithily and then have those words vanish. This student is young. I'm not condemning this student; to do so would be unethical. For all we know, or he knows, in two more years he'll be a happy Art Practice major. Or a happy engineering major! There's no holding a freshman to his beliefs about college majors, and as the article notes, Kooker apologized for the statement, saying it reflected a belief about the engineering major that he held when he entered UC Berkeley, but no longer holds.

But this particular student is not my concern, so much as the way that this instance models the political ramifications of disciplinarity. I remember my own undergraduate years, the way a certain physics concentrator would loudly proclaim that all non-physics majors were "bullshit concentrations." And the economics majors—at Chicago, well before 2008? Oh, goodness.

I'm particularly interested in this moment in the article, in which the student election politicizes engineering:

Andrew Albright, the ASUC presidential candidate for CalSERVE– which has historically been Student Action’s primary rival student political party – said it was “shameful” for Student Action to include Kooker on their senate slate.

“When (Student Action) says ‘every student, every year,’ who are we talking about?” Albright said, referencing the party’s slogan. “Student Action’s main base are engineers and Greeks – Mr. Kooker’s comments reflect that.”

"Student Action's main base are engineers and Greeks." What is this tiny universe? It's an election in a place where everyone by definition goes to college, which serves as a strange political microcosm. Certainly no one in any national election is going for "the engineer vote." No one's even going for the "academic vote"—such a tiny, pointy-headed minority are we, whose political irrelevance must be proclaimed loudly over and over.

And yet, as we see, the political irrelevance of the academy—and of our arcane, oh-so-internal interdisciplinary squabbles—must constantly be re-announced only because the academic disciplines do ramify. They are matters of policy, of ideology, of politics.

And then, too, they are matters of knowledge—the reason we all got on board in the first place.

[UPDATE 3/26: This piece by Emily Jensen in the McGill Daily likewise reveals the politics of disciplinarity: the McGill Department of English Student Association (DESA) held a town hall that led Jensen to conclude that political activism is a form of "education, happening outside the lecture hall." She writes:
Previous to the town hall, I had a very selfish reason for not fully supporting the strike: I did not wish to forgo the opportunity I currently have to attend the incredible classes I am enrolled in. But I am one of the people for whom the opportunity to attend those classes has never been challenged. I have never been asked to give up that opportunity; to be asked to do so now is a reminder of just how valuable it is. It is perhaps a necessary step to take to attempt to make that opportunity equally accessible to everyone.

However, someone intimated that the strike would have more negative consequences for our GPAs than our government, and it is not ridiculous to suggest that missing class would impact our GPAs. But, quite frankly, my GPA can suck it. My parents are not paying out the nose for a piece of paper that says I have a 4.0. I wouldn’t have chosen McGill if that were the case. In losing the opportunity to inch closer to that 4.0, aren’t I gaining the opportunity to participate in another type of learning? Isn’t engaging in discussion and standing with my fellow students as valuable a learning experience as taking lecture notes? The ultimate goals of the experience outside the classroom may not be as easy to achieve. If they are, then you have still helped yourself take down one barrier to pursuing a degree. This includes the added bonus of having helped more than yourself.


UPDATE 4/01 It's come to my attention that this post was linked in the comment thread to the original Daily Cal article, where it was characterized inaccurately. The commenter construes this post as in some way supporting Andrew Kooker's comments or suggesting that they are not objectionable (or, say, wrong), which is of course quite backwards. My point is rather that anti-intellectualism and the politics of disciplinarity are quite a bit bigger than any given college freshman.

By the way, that comment thread is its own little cesspool of horror, where you can see the politics of disciplinarity, and the death of the art of rhetoric, in full swing.]


m said...

One school, at least, has already implemented the policy of differential undergrad tuition: University of Michigan (where I am currently a student). The tuition varies by college, with Engineering being the best example, but since Computer Science is in the college of Arts & Sciences but veers toward the money-making assumption about engineering, it also gets differential (higher) tuition at the upperclassmen level.

I was a computer science major as an undergrad, and this kind of system would have strongly discouraged me from pursuing the degree. As a woman who was often the only woman, or one of perhaps two or three, in a class of 40-60 students, this has serious implications for the demographics of the major, which are already an issue.

I also have to say that as a computer science undergrad with a double major in history, I held that unfortunate attitude: CS is "real work" whereas history is something fun I did on the side, something not really relevant to anything but history and academia itself. I'm now a PhD candidate in the history of the book (within an area studies department - humanities, in other words), and I see now the patronizing and narrow-minded attitude I have. But it is so prevalent that even I - and I naively considered myself broad-minded - held it for a long time, and actively mocked those outside the "hard" sciences because of it.

It's so pervasive, and I'm glad that you addressed the fact that what is often written off as academic squabbles and pissing matches impact undergrads profoundly as well.

Ryan Shaw said...

See also: "techies" vs. "fuzzies". [1] [2] [3]

One of the reasons I liked my major is that it was one of the very few spaces at Stanford that hadn't totally institutionalized the ridiculous techie vs. fuzzy thing.

BorderWars said...

I write the BorderWars blog, specifically the post about Techies vs. Fuzzies.

@ Ryan Shaw - I'm sort of amused with the "Stanford Apprentice" website. their definitions of "Techies vs. Fuzzies" is really funny. The Fuzzy team has two MS&E Majors, one of whom is also CS. The only pure fuzzy is a History major. Both teams have Econ majors.

Econ and MS&E can be bridge majors, the E stands for Engineering after all.

One of my favorite classes at Stanford was in SymSys... a language class with Clark.

Natalia said...

I'm very behind on responding to blog comments, as you see—my apologies!

M, thanks so much for your comment. I hadn't realized Michigan had implemented differential tuition; I would love to know what faculty there think about this. I agree that differential tuition would have discouraged me from doing work in the sciences as an undergrad. I did fine in the sciences, but I always had this narrative (true? untrue? impossible to say; I was 17!) that my native talents lay in literature and languages. I would never have had the courage to ask my parents to pay extra to major in something that wasn't "what I was good at." (And it's likely that they couldn't have paid it even if I'd asked.)

I was pleased to see that Elijah Meeks linked your thoughtful expansion of this comment in JDH.

Ryan, one of the things I like best about you is your ability to move fluidly between quantitative and qualitative registers without giving short shrift to either.