Playing Nice in Academia


In academia, there will always be some good-natured (and sometimes not so good-natured) eye-rolling. At the beginning of September, for the first of a long series of Friday academic lectures, my department had booked a SCHOLAR. Now, this SCHOLAR came from a BIG NAME SCHOOL, and the fact that he was a professor emeritus might give some indication of his age. I deplore -isms of any kind, but this SCHOLAR had been prolific before my parents had been born. He was the epitome of a doddering professor. And yet, my department had raised a considerable amount of money in order to bring him to our campus, and had blown half their copying budget making posters to plaster the school with advertising this SCHOLAR. The talk was advertised as something about performance and learning and…well, it’s hard to exactly remember. Because what this SCHOLAR presented really had nothing to do with what had been advertised. In fact, this scholar had no argument. What he prattled on about for 45 painful minutes was…plot summary of old films.

Yawn.

Here’s hoping Riley doesn’t ever find my thesis…or else she might call for the dissolution of the entire discipline! (Image Credit:http://www.umanitoba.ca/virtuallearningcommons/page/1738)

Sometimes, for whatever reason, academia is boring. Even if it’s in the area of my degree, I find myself back in 11th grade math, staring out the window at the highway that ran past my high school and wondering how much longer the agony would continue. Sometimes, much like my 11th grade math class, academia is boring because it just really doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it’s boring because a paper goes on for more than 30 minutes. Sometimes it’s boring because the topic seems tired and overdone. Sometimes it’s boring because the presenter lacks vocal intonation. Sometimes it’s boring because you can’t understand the person who’s speaking, which is very much a reality in a world that embraces scholars from many different countries and language backgrounds, which is great for diversity and academia in general but does not always lend itself to comprehension. (Full disclosure: I once spent an entire semester not understanding a word my Children’s Literature Professor, who was Scottish, said. My notebook from that course is filled with a lot of question marks.)

Boring, however, only scrapes the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes, academia can get contentious. Scholars disagree, and sometimes (be it through written or verbal communication) they disagree with each other. Strongly. And not always very nicely. Scholars can be bullies with the best of them.

Sometimes, however, academia crosses a line into offensiveness. A recent blog entry, published April 30th on The Chronicle of Higher Education website entitled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations” by Naomi Schaefer Riley is a great example of when I feel academia crosses the line. Riley disagrees with the entire subject area of black studies, which many traditional, stuffy scholars might place in the same category as cultural studies, women’s studies, or Asian Pacific studies. While Riley is certainly entitled to her opinion, the vitriolic rant she goes on transcends the abstract and goes into the real. In fact, Riley goes so far as to attack current graduate students in black studies. She cites their dissertation titles and a line or two from their abstracts in order to dismiss the category, saying things like “The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.” Ouch.

As a current graduate student, this kind of personalized attack cuts me exceptionally deep. After all, I would defy you to find an academic scholar who hasn’t, at one point or another, looked at hir work and wondered “What is the point of all of this nonsense?” While I’m not going to get into the racism that may (or, some have argued, may not have) permeated Riley’s post, what is sad is that she attacked individual students in a discipline without having all the facts. People who read my thesis title and prospectus might be equally dismissive, which is a sad truth. What Riley might be overlooking that a major part of obtaining a degree is in improving individual skills, such as researching, critical thinking, editing, and other skills. Sure, your thesis or dissertation may not be the next great theory or discovery, but in the process of creating the thesis or dissertation you as a person have grown.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has since fired Riley, which I’m tempted to think was the right move. What do you think?

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Filed under Academic Advice, My Experiences

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