30 August 2014

In the Kettle with the Boiled Frogs

By Arthurgcox (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 
via Wikimedia Commons
I've been using the wrong cliched metaphor. Dead canary? No. That way of framing the issue was based on a fundamental misconception of how things work.  It goes something like this: When higher education stopped being regarded as a public good, things changed.  More and more students selected their majors based on the likelihood of being able to pay off enormous amounts of college debt, and departmental influence started to be based on how much money they could draw to the institution, either through grants or through entrepreneurial initiatives. As a result the humanities and interpretive social sciences became less important to the institutions that supported them, they became less powerful (relative to other departments), and they now seem to becoming voice-less and disposable. Exhibit A: the Salaita affair, in which the Chancellor and BoT can't even be bothered to acknowledge a growing list of disciplinary petitions and boycotts, much less heed them. Moreover, the lack of solidarity manifested STEM and professional suggests that they have no sense that the precedent set here may, at some point, impinge on their academic freedom. The canary is dead and no one cares because the coal mine has turned itself into a place where STEM faculty can breathe the noxious air and canaries can't.

Even though I have espoused this view elsewhere on this blog, I'm starting to realize that I've got it wrong.

Let it be said that not all non-humanities/social sciences fields have been silent. Alan Sokal has written an open letter in which he points out the relevance of the Salaita decision for scientists:

Putting aside the bizarre notion that an idea can feel "demeaned" or "abused", the Chancellor's position implies that the University of Illinois will not tolerate biologists or physicists who are "disrespectful" (in her sole judgment) of creationists or even of creationism.

(Yes, that Alan Sokal.) His letter is posted on LSU philosopher Jobn Protevi's blog, along with a boycott pledge for natural scientists to sign.

The silence of the STEM here at UIUC that I described in my earlier post continues, although the conversations I've had with local faculty outside the humanities suggests that I did, in a key way, get it wrong. Let me, very unscientifically, advance a hypothesis that, while formulated on the basis of an egregiously small sample size, may nonetheless warrant more research.

Money isn't institutional influence or freedom here--at least not to the degree we (in the humanities) think it is. For those in STEM, it means being a subcontractor or a tenant farmer. Everyone has to perform a certain amount of teaching labor and cough up a certain amount of grant money, in exchange for a building to work in and an institutional affiliation. The general contractor/landlord can be capricious, tyrannical, and opaque. Shared governance inheres in the fact that most of the time the politicians, thugs, powerful interests, and protestors are scared off, permitting the subcontractor/tenant farmer to get on with the work at hand.

In this economy, the humanities are the folks camping in the woods. Sure, nobody really knows what they're doing out there, but whatever it is, it doesn't cost much money and isn't really hurting anyone, so nobody pays much attention. Exhibit A: The Salaita Affair, in which one of those happy-go-lucky sprites has unfortunately run afoul of the forces that ordinarily ignore them. The General Contractor/Landlord decided, as sometimes happen, to withhold her protection, and so the sprites, unused to these encounters and unfamiliar with the Landlord’s autocratic hand, are outraged. They need to just get over it--everyone else does!

The difference between the dead canary scenario that I outlined above and this one is the nature of the expectations it involves. Do faculty decisions get overturned? Are research findings vetted for their potential to offend powerful stakeholders? Is a certain amount of administrative overreach and malfeasance part of the price of doing business? Well, of course! The important thing (and this is the point everyone agrees on): the research goes on, and so does the money to support it. It is the height of arrogance, in this latter scenario, for those in the humanities to think that they exist outside these inevitable compromises just because they are too insignificant to face them on a regular basis.

I’m getting a better understanding of why the humanities people and the STEM people are talking past each other, not only on this issue but on the issue of union organizing as well (which suffers on this campus from a lack of buy-in from the STEM and professional faculty).

I’m also thinking about a third metaphor: boiled frogs. When and how did the water get so hot for so many frogs? Should we be worried that they didn't notice? We humanities frogs have been suddenly dropped into the boiling kettle, and it matters to us that it hurts.


  1. Your second scenario might accord with the self-image of the STEM folk (though remember that there are winners and losers in STEM nowadays, with power and money shifting from Physics to the Bio, Bio-chem and esp. Pharma fields).

    I do think that the money sloshing around to various constituencies in STEM cuts down some of the disagreement, and forces people to abandon long-held positions. But there are plenty of academic freedom issues related nowadays to things like climate science, energy etc, and politicians and lobbyists are happy to squeeze scientists the way they do everybody. But the biggest truth from scenario 2 is that the university as a single entity, The University as a single institution, reflects only a tiny fraction of everyone's working lives, whether they work in STEMland or the HumForest. On a daily basis, we live in smaller, disciplinary or subdisciplinary communities.

    So I suspect that at least part of the disciplinary split you're seeing is about the differing attitudes exhibited by the scientific and humanities fields towards permanent, unresolved disagreement. (Cf. Becher, Academic Tribes and Territories)

  2. Brilliant! This is a major work of translation.