26 May 2015

Two Cultures, Shmultures

from http://theconversation.com/why-arts-and-
A peculiar silence has descended over campus. Partly it's because the students have mostly left for the summer, but it's also the silence of a lot of people waiting to see what happens next. Whether one cares or not, the chatter that was raging last fall on all sides of L'Affaire Salaita has ceased.  There's not a lot to say at this point. Some minor ripples percolate through the humanities faculty as FOIA'ed emails from last summer bubble up to the surface, but all there is really to do is await the outcomes of processes beyond our control: Salaita's lawsuit and the vote on AAUP censure.  Meanwhile, we figure out how to move forward within an institution where academic freedom is a matter of profound indifference.

"Nothing to be done!" my friend, the Countess of Useful Research, said to me the other day.  "What do you mean, nothing to be done!  Now is the time for all of you to exert pressure on the Chancellor! NOW before the AAUP votes!  While there's still time!  She needs pressure from the faculty that she can legitimately succumb to!"

I was nonplussed.  MORE letters?  Emails?  Votes of no confidence?  Public meetings?  They didn't make a difference in the fall.  Why would they work now?  Maybe an illegal wildcat walkout action? Kind of hard to pull off now that classes are over...

"Well what do you have in mind?" I asked.  "Are you going to galvanize support among your colleagues?  How?"

"Oh no," the Countess explained.  "I don't care.  But you guys care.  You should do something."

The Countess's research really is very useful.  It's not going to make anybody money, and it's not so obscure that its connection to Real Things that Matter is only accessible to experts.  Trust me, you're glad that the Countess is here, doing what she does. But once again, I found myself peering across that chasm, the one that L'Affaire Salaita laid bare. It goes beyond, way beyond, CP Snow's "two cultures": a place where dear friends with identical values, mutual moral and intellectual respect, similar life experiences, and congruent professional goals find themselves talking at institutional cross-purposes.

Let me note that there's NO way to try to explain each side to the other without coming across as self-serving.  Also: offer to tell someone how you think they differ from you and the hackles go up.  But I can't seem to stay away from the challenge of trying to figure out how people with more in common than not and bound together in a shared institution find each other so fundamentally puzzling.  

My latest in a series of theories about why the liberal arts and the remainder of the university (including the STEM fields) miscommunicate: practitioners of the liberal arts are unaccustomed to explaining themselves.

With no market forces to justify or sustain them, no corporate support, no significant funding agencies to supplicate, the liberal arts have historically depended exclusively on the widespread public recognition that they matter. And, frankly, they're pretty cheap: no need for labs, equipment, staff, space, material.

While there is widespread public recognition that other university entities matter (particularly the STEM fields), their work tends to cost more and there is the expectation that outside entities (public or private) will fund it, particularly in those cases where it has market value.

As a result, faculty outside the liberal arts are accustomed to a relentless grind of self-explanation, to a variety of audiences with a stake in their work.  Being called upon to justify themselves is just a routine part of doing business.  Liberal arts faculty, on the other hand,--apart from isolated bids for fellowships or occasional grants--are accustomed to explaining their work to each other and their students.

Everyone is feeling the constriction of publicly funded higher education.  As grant money dries up alongside state budgets, STEM faculty and liberal arts faculty alike are coping with dwindling resources. The difference is, non-liberal-arts faculty confront this reality with the tools they already have ready to hand: the capacity to explain why people should pay for what they have to offer.

The problem is not that liberal arts faculty have no such case to make--but the justification of a public good tends to inhere in the assumption that the public already recognizes it and values it.  The very fact of becoming a hard sell diminishes its intrinsic worth.  We offer a vigorous alternative to the stunted values of the marketplace, but we have yet to find a persuasive way to communicate that frame to the marketplace itself.  We who make living confronting the paradoxes of human life struggle to live within this one: the impossibility of asserting our relevance without validating the norms of relevance that we seek to transcend.

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