Friday, April 25, 2014

some skeptical doubts about tenure as protection of academic freedom

I started in earnest reading about academic freedom a couple months ago. I'm quite perplexed. Lemme try to sort out a couple perplexities.

Historically, in the US, academic freedom and tenure have been intricately linked. Tenure's key legitimating purpose, it is said, is to protect academic freedom: a tenured professor cannot be fired without due process, so that professor cannot be eliminated by a university administration merely for unpopular, controversial, or critical utterances. (If true, this would mean that non-tenured faculty and all contingent faculty have no de jure right to academic freedom.) An immediate question that arises is: what kinds of utterance? Critical of the university administration? Critical of colleagues? Unpopular in one's disciplinary field of research? Unpopular politically according to dominant ideologies in the US? Controversial regarding electoral politics or political issues? Or regarding sexual mores, or the high cost of gasoline?

In significant and well-known cases of tenured professors being fired, typically what has led to the firing are comments that are rather outrageous, from the standpoint of dominant political ideology in the US. For instance, Ward Churchill called the dead from the World Trade Center terrorist attack "little Eichmanns," which was nasty of him.

It is not clear that due process is routinely followed in these cases. Instead, an administration abruptly fires a professor, and legal and quasi-legal proceedings ensue. AAUP is called in to investigate, lawsuits are filed, all hell breaks loose. But it isn't tenure that protects this professor from being fired.

The cases in which tenure does protect a professor are probably not well-known, precisely because the effort to fire a professor that runs afoul of academic freedom fails because due process is followed and protects the professor. Because we don't hear about the case (no doubt the process would be confidential), such cases don't present evidence that tenure protects academic freedom.

My skeptical assessment of this situation is that one would take tenure to protect academic freedom basically on faith. One would also take on faith what kinds of utterance would be protected.

Thus my first perplexity: whether tenure, viewed as a process, is something that can protect academic freedom. Not if tenure works the way Marc Bousquet describes the process in How the University Works. My own take on it is maybe slightly less trenchant than the always delightfully trenchant (to me anyway; he rubs a whole lotta people the wrong way) Bousquet.

When I've heard or talked to tenure-track professors, candidates for tenure, about their work lives, academic freedom does not come up. Workload is about all they can talk about, and they barely have time to talk about that. They are desperate to publish as much as they can, to teach whatever they are told to teach, and to do whatever mundane committee work they are told they have to do, in order to satisfy and overwhelmingly exceed stated requirements for tenure. If academic freedom is supposed to cover unpopular, controversial, or critical utterances, tenure candidates do not have academic freedom, because they would never go anywhere near such utterances before reaching tenure. Plus, everyone they talk to tells them this.

So, once tenured, professors have academic freedom, and let that criticism flow forth, yes? No. Once tenured, professors seek promotion to full professor status, and they do so by continuing the work they did as tenure candidates. Although they may acknowledge that tenure protects them from dismissal, they know it doesn't protect them from not being promoted.

Besides their own pecuniary interests, tenured professors who are more obliging would be prudent to consider what consequences their critical comments might bring upon their academic departments, colleagues, research funding, and other benefits bestowed by administration. Very nice tenured, full professors are extremely cautious to avoid critical intramural utterance because they believe that administration will punish their criticism by denying tenure to their colleagues, or by denying their departments a much-needed tenure-track employment "line," or by cutting their budgets outright.

This leads me to a second perplexity, for another day: Perhaps academic freedom is not supposed to protect intramural utterance? Or is only meant to protect utterance within an academic discipline?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hegel's super-skepticism

At the end of the preliminary, critical section of the Encyclopedia Logic, Hegel notes that what has just transpired -- to wit, a thoroughgoing criticism of the history of philosophy of logic and ontology in 100 pages -- could have been achieved through skepticism about all presuppositions. In other words, instead of the detailed work Hegel has done, he could have begun by saying something like "hey, kids, you know what? Everything you thought you knew about logic is wrong. Now let's start over."

Why not just make that quick move? There's a pretty strong history of throwing out presuppositions and re-starting ontology. It's a move that allegedly permits foundational certainty, that means our knowing will be complete, real, 100% knowing, not only organic but also pesticide free and shade-grown, etc. Presuppositions, you see, are the genetically modified organisms of ontology. You're never entirely certain what they're made of or that they're going to work out the way you planned, and by the time you realize it, they've already irreparably mutated and cross-bred with everything you're growing. The skeptical move in ontology is the insistence that we start with virgin soil, virgin seeds, the pure sun, and water from untainted mountain sources. Start over again, you see, after razing what had been there before.

Hegel says doing so would be "sad," but more to the point, redundant, because the approach he's going to take to systematically construct ontology will do that work along the way. There's a constant negation of half-thought half-logic, abstraction and incompletion in Hegel's system. It picks up every single philosophical idea and perspective, both historically and systematically, and subjects each one of them to this negation. I can try to explain this basic move in Hegel's thought with the example of "immediate knowing."

Hegel says that one position on knowing is that we immediately know: this knowing cannot be justified in terms of what else we know, or in terms of our evidence, or anything. It is exactly like faith. This form of knowing isn't unfamiliar. Take this: "I know that this dog is speaking to me with the voice of god." Now, a claim like that cannot be given evidence. It cannot be justified in terms of other things the speaker knows (you can't say, "... and I know this because..."). This idea can only be asserted as true, and this assertion can only rest on itself. Immediate knowing, as a position about knowing, says that knowing cannot be tested or proven.

The skeptical move here would be to say that we shouldn't believe anything merely asserted, because it presupposes that the speaker isn't crazy, that a dog could possibly speak, that there is a god who could and would speak through a dog, etc. etc., and thus debunk the claim to know.

Hegel's claim is this: not only can't there be evidence either for or against a claim to immediate knowledge, but the claim to immediate knowledge can't be immediate. If "I know this dog speaks to me with the voice of god" can only be asserted as immediate knowing without any justification, that assertion, to have the content that it has, to have the meaning that it has, cannot be asserted immediately. "I know that this dog is speaking to me with the voice of god" requires that the proposition itself, to have any meaning at all, says something that even the speaker must be able to evaluate the truth or falsity of -- or else it is not a claim to know, at all. In other words, it can't be immediate, because it is in relation to something else that would be able to tell us whether the sentence is well-formed, says something predicable, etc.

What I think this means, about Hegel's view of philosophical positions about knowing, is that every positive stance about knowing that commits the error of being one-sided is not merely false (which they are, because they are one-sided), but that none of them can be meant as they are meant. Every philosophical position-taking is hypocritical.

Every philosophical position-taking is hypocritical.

"Except Hegel's?" you're asking. Or your dog is asking.

Yes, except Hegel's... insofar as Hegel doesn't take a position. The truth is the whole, if played out consistently, means that he can't take a position (or, technically, that if and when he does, he then undermines it).

So, skepticism isn't skeptical enough, because it's only skeptical that positions are true, or that any position could be true. Hegel's skepticism is that the position isn't what it is, and the position-taker can't take the position.

Far frickin out.

Monday, April 21, 2014

academic freedom, an introduction

I suppose most people who teach in one of America's Colleges and Universities™think about academic freedom once in a while. I've been thinking about it lately in relation to the stuff I've done on faculty ethical responsibilities and what they could mean for faculty who work in precarious employment situations. At times, I have asserted that academic freedom does not exist for a lot of us, but that something similar applies for some of us, because of institutional neglect and ignorance of our roles and even existence. I call this similar thing academic license, to distinguish it from an ethically and politically bounded concept like academic freedom. Academic license would be the condition of one's work, opinions, research conclusions, and public statements not mattering enough to be subject to surveillance or limitation. It would be, undoubtedly, totally precarious. Under academic license, what I do and say would not matter at all up until the very instant that, for whatever reason, or for no reason, it leads to my dismissal. Since this is the condition of precarious academic employment in general, the idea of academic license merely provides a way to emphasize that, institutionally, the content of what precarious faculty do never matters.

I'm starting some deeper research on academic freedom. My early feeling is that most of what's discussed as academic freedom is missing a major point. A great deal of the discussion of academic freedom concerns political ideology, faction, public statements by professors met by official responses, and efforts by what we call neoconservatives to target academics and academic programs that they find offensive.

Here's the thing: when I read about Horowitz and Campus Watch and all those people trying to stop academics from criticizing US imperialism or the symbolic violence of compulsory heteronormativity, I think about my own ideas about such issues. They make up the idea of campus radicals in order to rile their mobs to attack socially critical academics. But I'm at least as radical as most of their prominent targets. Why don't they target me?

(I suppose this reveals that I'm a little envious of the Certified Academic Big Shots who are famous enough to matter to crazy people. Most of them make a lot more money than me.)

They don't target me because I don't exist. They don't target me because my stupid university barely exists. (As I've said before, I love my stupid university.) It's not the ideas that matter to them, it's the publicity, obviously, because they operate the same way terrorist groups do. The vast number of America's Colleges and Universities™are like my stupid university, in that we're like the water supply. If they wanted to kill the ideas, they'd attack the water supply. But they want to scare, so they attack the big buildings, which here is metaphorical for Certified Academic Big Shots.

Much much more on this to follow, I expect. For now, here's another idea about my own condition of academic license.

I am not starting this as a "research project." I have no "research projects," because my research does not exist: it has no meaning at my stupid university, and I have no place of prominence in my academic field, largely because of my non-ranking employment status. I have no measure for tenure or promotion to meet, because I am ineligible for either. Publishing an article or book on this research is not a goal. I don't have a goal, other than to scramble my ideas of academic freedom a bit, think strange thoughts, and write strange sentences. That's not a "research project," because, as people who know me can testify, that's pretty much just my way of life.

I'm working on academic freedom basically for the same reason I started reading Hegel again (heavens help me), which is the same reason I start anything at all: to flirt.