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16 March 2005

Not the easiest time

The continuing conversation about l’affaire Harvard dominates around here.  We even discussed it over dinner at the monastery last night.

The president of the university, Larry Summers, has described the last
two months as among some of the hardest of his professional life. 
And yesterday was probably one of his hardest days yet….

This coming from a man who dealt with world leaders and helped to manage the world economy.

We academics are not an easy people to work with.  ‘Course, from
everything I hear from faculty, neither is the university president.

Posted in IvoryTower on 16 March 2005 at 10:16 pm by Nate
11 March 2005

My actual work

Sorry there’s been little of late.  It’s been an up-and-down week on the academic front.

It will have to suffice to say that I’ve been getting some encouraging
words on my (very slow) progress, and some less (than) encouraging
words on it.  Some great help, some obscure help, some clear
guidance and suggestions, and some unclear suggestions.

I know they never promised that academic work would be clear, but some
paths are clearer than others.  And no matter what happens, you’re
supposed to get back up, pound your head against the wall until you
black out, and then wait to come to so you can start all over again.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum
provided a brief respite.  If you live around here, go see the
collection of the rich, eccentric, very tasteful, Anglo-Catholic fag
hag we know and love as Mrs. Gardner.  And if your
name is Isabella, you can get in for free

UPDATE (13 March): Over the weekend, the Globe ran a special report on the 15th anniversary of the Gardner Museum heist, the largest art theft in American history
Fascinating stuff, made all the more so by having just been there and
seen the empty frames where the stolen pieces used to hang.

Posted in IvoryTower on 11 March 2005 at 11:26 pm by Nate
11 February 2005

Tenure and free speech

This, of course, is why we have security of employment in the university
Otherwise, the conservative political masters of many state and private
universities and the liberal orthodoxy of many campuses would stifle
free inquiry.  It protects radical liberal Ward Churchill in the
same way it protects neo-conservative Harvey Mansfield.

And, as is true with most free speech debates, the people who object
most strenuously to the ideas expressed forget that they benefit from
the protections they object to when they say things unpopular.

Posted in IvoryTower on 11 February 2005 at 10:37 am by Nate
25 January 2005

Library fight at U of Chicago!

Ah, I love academics.

Now, for those of you who are not among the initiated, the keepers of
the flame of knowledge, the preservers of civilization itself against the barbarian mass of popular culture(ahem!),
you must know that the University of Chicago has a, um, reputation.

It is the MIT of the humanities and social sciences.  Just as MIT
students are known for being kind of strange and unnaturally dedicated
to their work (that is, they supposedly don’t leave their labs for more
than half an hour at a time, under an almost obsessive entrancement
with their work), so goes the reputation of Chicago.  They’re
crazy-intense.  Or so go the stories.

So Andrew opened up a can of worms the other day.  Then there were the responses: musings about being “regulars” at the libraryseveral combative posts on
grads v. undergrads (survey says that neither of these groups are as
important as they’d like to believe), and Andrew (true to form) has decided to simply drink.

wish my undergrads were like the ones jumping in on this
discussion.  I have several undergrads whom I have spent much of
my time with them teaching them how to do non-Google research (and
these kids aren’t dumb, either — although they’re no smarter than the
smartest kids at any major university, it’s just that there are more of
them here).  A friend of mine is the head of
instruction in part of the library system here at Harvard, and she has had more than a few undergrads who have spent three years here, but who have never set foot inside the main library.  How is this at all possible?

Library of Congress or the British Library).  We’ve got over 15 million volumes.  The library at Berkeley
was immense, and it actually feels small compared to the mammoth bulk
of what’s available here.  I have only once, in searching for an
obscure volume of poetry, run up against an item that we didn’t
have.  And the space on the inside of Widener have been renovated
recently, so it’s actually quite a pleasant place to work, in the reading rooms and
even in the stacks.  I wish I worked there more often. And it’s
all ours.  Harvard’s pretty snooty about keeping the hoi polloi out.  Berkeley this ain’t.

I think that my students may actually not know how to do
research.  I’ve found that even their Googling skills leave much
to be desired.  Recently, I pointed out to them that they needed
to evaluate their sources more carefully, and I pulled examples from
their papers, recreating their Google searches for them, and showing
them exactly how they arrived at those documents.  Then I showed
them that many of the sites they had used in their papers didn’t
progress past the first page of 10 results.  Then I pointed out
that several of these sites were, on some level, propaganda outlets for
someone with an axe to grind.  Which explains why the claims they
made in their papers didn’t cut it and why this had affected their

I have this feeling that if they had ever used a library that
wasn’t the undergrad library (which is a pretty standard undergrad
library — basic stuff, nothing really in-depth, nothing in there
that’s not in the main library, and plenty that isn’t), they might have
been more equipped to do real research.

Andrew summarizes:

I think it is fair to say that folks, no matter their academic
identity, who talk on cell phones, or who spend their time in the
reading rooms socializing and seldom venture into the stacks have a
very different relationship with the library than I do. They can do
these things anywhere else, the coffee shops across the street, for
example, but there is only one place where I can geek out of reference
material, smell old dusty leather, and bask in the kind of silence
created only by 10 foot book stacks running 100 feet in both directions.

I’m glad that there are undergrads who are like this.  I just hope to
meet some more of them than I already have.  And I wish that there were
some more grad students who liked this sort of thing.  Some of the most
interesting books I have read were in the Rare Books Room of the awful,
dark, troll-cave-like, Anglo-fascist-architecture Cambridge University Library
Rare Books was severe, austere, a “pencil-only room,” but it had
windows, creaky old books, and some of the oddest people I have ever
seen in a library.  And having been in a number of academic libraries,
I’ve seen some weirdos.  It was comforting and endearing in a strange, Britishly
uncomfortable way.

Love your library, people.  And please keep (or start) using it.

Posted in IvoryTower on 25 January 2005 at 11:05 pm by Nate
21 January 2005

More of my thoughts on The West Wing

If you still like The West Wing (or at least used to), you should check out this book, Considering Aaron Sorkin
It’s available for pre-order right now from the publisher (and I’m not
quite sure that this means you’ll get it before you would in a retail
outlet), but won’t show up at Amazon and bookstores until April.

I note that I am a contributor, with my piece, “Virtue From Vice: Duty, Power, and The West Wing.”  So, yes, this is something of a shameless plug.

Posted in IvoryTower on 21 January 2005 at 9:10 am by Nate
11 January 2005

Secular academics and religion

Some advice for my fellow academics, gleaned from several days of
conversation made and overheard.  Sometimes I feel like a tour
guide.  Others I wonder at the lack of knowledge.

  1. Please know something about the terms you use
    Don’t just throw them about because they sound aspersive and will get a
    particular hoped-for reaction from your listeners.  Know that
    fundamentalists, evangelicals, and Christians may and do all refer to
    separate groups of people.  Similarly, just because”Methodist” and
    “fundamentalist” end in the same ending, “-ist”, this does not mean
    that there’s any synonymity there.

  2. Overall, it might help to know something about religion in general
    What do people actually believe?  How do we account for the
    significant diversity within religions?  Ask yourself this
    question: “Do all [political scientists, sociologists, economists,
    etc.] believe the same things?  Do they fight over what things are
    important?”  Assume that religions might operate similarly. 
    Remember that religion is a social phenomenon, albeit one that’s
    possibly more widespread than any other in time or place.  So to
    generalize about religion unknowledgeably allows only the demonstration
    of ignorance.  Case in point: the Roman Catholic Church no longer
    celebrates Mass in Latin, nor does it teach that Jews were Jesus’s
    killers.  In fact, in the case of the latter, just the opposite is
    true: the RC Church goes to great lengths to apologize for its role in
    anti-Semitic activities through the ages, teaches (at least in the
    Western World) its adherents lots about Judaism (some might even argue,
    more than it teaches them about Catholicism or the Christian Bible),
    and has formally apologized for its complicity in many evils
    perpetrated about Jews and asked for forgiveness.

  3. By the way, you have to understand religion
    It’s a massive, forceful (good and not), and affective.  It’s here
    to stay.  If you are interested in the world, you have to learn
    about it to make sense of the world that we live in, where the
    non-religious are an extremely small group.  We now know that
    “progress”, “liberalization”, and such do not automatically secularize
    people; the opposite may in fact be the case. But even in religion’s
    non-extreme versions (i.e., most of it, but what does not generally
    make the news), it still explains a vast amount of what’s going on with
    people, why they live as they do, why they act consistently or not, who
    they see themselves as, and all the repercussions that can come from
    those.  As an educated person, it would simply be irresponsible to
    not know something substantive about religions and their adherents.

  4. Your negative experience with some congregation, denomination, or a religion may not be generalizable
    It’s a good bet that it is not. 
    Yes, it’s true that those were formative experiences for you, but that
    doesn’t mean that you can say much beyond that.  Example: you may
    have found Christianity intellectually unsatisfying in your youth or
    even be discouraged from being intellectual in your faith (just
    as I did and was told), but that does not mean that the whole religion
    is devoid of
    intellectual content nor that you would still find it such.  You
    have changed, the particular congregation you grew up in may have
    changed, and the world may be more complex than the community in which
    you had experience.

  5. “Religion” does not equal “stupid.”  I have noted this before
    Plenty of very intelligent people are religious; I’d like to think that
    I am a decent example here.  Plenty of the religious aren’t
    particularly dumb.  In fact, they may be more educated in some
    forms of social life than many secular academics.  Many Christians
    and Jews know more about literature than secular people, because they
    have a background in the scriptures that provide much of the
    inspiration for that literature.  Could many contemporary American
    Christians stand to bring more intellectual rigor and questioning to
    their faith?  Yes, of course.  But who is there to teach
    them, if we as academics tell them that their religious life is
    incompatible with the life of the mind?  For one thing, it’s not
    true, and for another, we fail them if we don’t teach them how to think over what to
    think. Finally, academic credential or progressivism or both do not
    equal intelligence — I’ve heard plenty of stupid, stupid, stupid
    reasoning come from the pens and mouths of the progressive and the
    academically credentialed.  Sometimes, my fellows academics, “the
    Christians” are smarter than you.

  6. Stereotype and disdain for the religious verge on the hypocritical
    Look, I’m not trying to accuse any person of actually being a hypocrite
    here.  But there is more than a small disconnect when we
    stereotype the religious as [fill in the blank] or we look down on the
    religious because they are not open-minded.  These are precisely
    the sins I hear the religious most often accused of committing. 
    But there’s no power in the criticism if we have to do such to make the
    point.  What I think this comes down to, often, is that some of us
    academics are unhappy that those who are religious don’t share
    our values.  But some of us who are religious could complain that
    intellectuals (and, I might add, other co-religionists) don’t share our

This is not to say that academics and intellectuals are anti-religious,
anti-Christian, or anything like this.  I’ve found many of my
fellow academics who are interested in religion, and for whom I provide
a safe person to talk to about the matter.  And this is not to say
that similar criticisms and suggestions don’t apply to many of the
religious people in our society.

But to hold each other to standards that neither will live up to itself
strikes me as more than just ignorance — it is an active violation of
the standards that each community professes to live by, whether it be
the quest for knowledge and discovery, the Law, or the Gospel.

UPDATE (17 January): While wandering about the interweb, I found an article that says some of the same things as I did.

Posted in IvoryTower on 11 January 2005 at 12:23 am by Nate
24 November 2004

Republicans in academia

A week ago, the Times had an article about Republicans in academia
Or, rather, why they are scarce.  I submitted a manuscript reply
but they did not want to use it.  So I publish it here.

Timeless values, not
politics, lie at the heart of academia

            What role
should conservative or liberal politics play in the life of a university
today?  According to The Times,
two studies of campus politics seem to indicate that

Posted in IvoryTower on 24 November 2004 at 4:34 pm by Nate
23 November 2004

Student excuses

Since I teach undergrads, I get a lot of excuses.  But they’re
usually pretty lame.  On days when papers are due, computers have
serious problems three hours before the deadline, printers go on the
fritz, roommates have emotional crises that must be tended to, and so

They’d be less insulting if there were more believable.  But
they’re usually pretty unoriginal, and the same “problems” come up all
the time, and they also seem much more common than I have ever noticed

I try to tell them that I’m pretty good at sniffing out the relative
veracity of stuff like this — it’s my business after all.  But
that rarely seems to settle into heads, it seems.

Posted in IvoryTower on 23 November 2004 at 9:44 pm by Nate
17 November 2004

State of academic work

is a great article from the Guardian in the UK, detailing the work
environment many of us find ourselves living with in academia

The situation looks broadly similar in the US, except that one can
actually get tenure here (although not at Harvard), which may reduce a
few of the pressures.  But not until one gets tenure.

This outlines some of the problems rather well:

“Every job comes with its own internal psychological
contract,” Kinman says. “The deal that most academics make with
themselves when they enter the profession is that they will be trading
a lower salary for greater autonomy and flexibility.

“When they discover that not only are the pressures as intense – if not
more so – than in other professions, but that much of their workload
has been reduced to bureaucracy, they feel cheated that the contract
has been violated. They are in effect mourning the loss of the job they
thought they had.”

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at
Lancaster University and a leading researcher into work-related stress,
says: “People have this view that academics are people who have long
holidays, teach a bit and then play with some research,” he says.

“People don’t have sympathy for us. They will have sympathy for doctors
and nurses. Who trains the doctors? We do. Who trains the nurses, the
social workers, the teachers? We do. Who trains all the people they
worry about? Us. These attitudes add to the problem. We don’t perceive
ourselves to be valued.”

Life as an academic is as hard as any other
profession.  I may only spend 5 hours a week “teaching”, but I
have at least that amount of prep time, grading (more if a big paper
comes in), and a couple more hours a week in student contact. 
Then there’s my own research to do.  And I live with another

One of the major reasons I chose the profession was to have the
latitude to do what I want to do, even if there’s a lot of work in
it.  If we lose that, we’ll lose many academics.  If I got
bogged down in campus bureaucracy, I’d certainly think about finding a
new way to use my doctorate.  And I don’t think I am the only one
of my colleagues who feels this way.

Posted in IvoryTower on 17 November 2004 at 9:55 am by Nate
11 November 2004

More political science grad students blogging

Just discovered a group blog of PS grad students, primarily at Chicago,
but from a few other universities also.  Cruise over to Political Arguments and take a look.

Posted in IvoryTower on 11 November 2004 at 9:51 am by Nate