The Paradoxes of Post-Modern Academia

brace-yourselves-classes-are-startingI generally keep a decent finger on the pulse of higher education, or at least I flatter myself that I do. Anyway, the debates that I’ve seen over the last year, and, in a low-level way, occasionally participated in, seem fraught with contradictions and inconsistencies on both sides. That’s not necessarily off-putting to me, because as a medievalist (and increasingly an early modernist as well), I appreciate a system of thought that has contradictions. All Weltanschauungen do, and, as Christopher Martin notes in An Introduction to Medieval Philosophy, a few contradictions don’t mean that you jettison the system. They’re just points you need to keep working on.

But there are some major points of contradictions and paradox in academia today that need working on, because they matter to how academia keeps moving forward in the 21st century. Whatever “moving forward” means. They are things that I certainly ponder as I make my way in the world. Because my time these days is very limited, I can’t provide extensive chapter and verse on these things (which bothers me as an historian, but there it is).

In no particular order, here are what I see as the paradoxes of higher education today:

–We want to be treated as a legitimate labor movement, but also want the kind of job security (tenure) that hardly any jobs get any more.

–We want our work to be recognized as impactful and deserving of (full-time-with-benefits) funding, but don’t want to accept the right of legislatures and administrators to ask for quantifiable data to prove this.

–We decry “gatekeeping” whenever it prevents us doing what we feel like doing–not a reflex typical of a labor movement–but ignore the fact that we wouldn’t hold our current positions without a significant amount of gatekeeping.

–Riffing on the above: We want to tear down hierarchies, except when it comes to our status viz-a-viz, say, grad students, or anyone who doesn’t hold a doctorate as we do.

–We insist that the current structures of academia, training, and publishing are outmoded and do not accurately reflect our impact or expertise, but propose alternatives with no realistic guarantee of quality or sustainability.

–We want to flip the classroom, but still be recognized as authorities on the subject in the classroom.

–We decry the corporatization of higher education, ignoring the fact that the “golden age” never existed, and the fact that it is business, finance, economics, and, at bottom, Wall Street that keep universities functioning at all.

–We want to break down the divide between academia and the rest of society, but still insist that our academic structures retain value and should be funded.

–We believe in creating massive centers for innovation that propound solutions out of reach of many educators.

–In a variant on the above: We insist on universal education and its value, while advocating strategies and pedagogies that actually work best with those fortunate enough to have had a good primary education.

And last, but perhaps most remarkable,

–We are shouting and kicking now,  when our freedoms and lack of accountability are coming under attack in our own universities, but who among us discovered his or her “inner activist” when the same things happened to primary education?

…Um…Talk amongst yourselves, as Linda Richmond would say?

One Reply to “The Paradoxes of Post-Modern Academia”

  1. I’m sorry to be commenting on this (and to have discovered the blog behind your Twitter feed) so late.

    As someone who’s been out of higher education for six years (following a ten-year stint as an adjunct), I’m most peeved when I encounter the fourth paradox on your list. Not that I expect tenured professors to step down and offer their jobs to those of us in the abyssopelagic zone—that sort of beatific generosity would verge on lunacy—and I don’t resent those who’ve landed secure, prestigious professorships through some irreproducible combination of hard work and luck. It’s just the endless, hollow talk about tearing down hierarchies that truly grates. Of course, I now enjoy a very pleasant distance; I imagine it’s far worse for graduate students who aren’t at liberty to point out the obvious hypocrisy of those who control their futures.

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