Tuesday, May 03, 2005

How easily it could have turned out all different 

I had promised to get back to Thomas Benton's essay in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and reading it again early this morning reminds me of how close I was to an entirely different life.
I had just gone through 16 years of Roman Catholic schooling -- from first grade through college graduation. I had never even read Marx. My classmates might as well have been speaking a foreign language -- although, after a few years, I began to notice it was a language many of them understood imperfectly. Graduate seminars are often salted with loquacious poseurs whose knowledge of theory is little more than a collection of buzzwords and one-size-fits-all templates.
Only my college was Catholic -- I was raised Methodist, but St. Anselm was just across the river and I wasn't mature enough to leave home yet -- and I read Marx as a philosophy minor. This was in the 1970s when you were expected to finish in four years. Had I been given any opportunity, I would have double-majored in philosophy, and then been in those seminars with the loquacious poseurs.
But that's what graduate school in the 90s seemed to reward. Seminars rarely had examinations; the only requirements were participation and the submission of a final essay, written in the idiom of some school of theory that one had never been formally taught but was expected to know.
Change "idiom" to "math". We did not have many "seminars", and those that did occur were opportunities for us to hear other economists come speak about their research, of which we knew little. What I learned mostly was how to serve wine and cheese to the faculty afterwards - I got the coveted job of buying the wine too, from which came what little I know of wine. All of which is to say: Graduate school is a place where you wait to grow up as a scholar, but the classes, seminars and workshops have little to do with it.
Even if you were doggedly self-motivated, it was impossible to develop your scholarly methods in a conscientious manner. There was simply too much to learn. I was just becoming familiar with some of the ever-expanding literary canon -- and the historical and biographical contexts in which those works were embedded -- but it was simply assumed that everyone understood theory. Why else would anyone be in graduate school in the humanities?

Meanwhile, I was teaching for the first time (strangely, without any pedagogical training), preparing for two foreign-language examinations (mostly useless for an Americanist), working as a research assistant (good experience), and searching for venues to present and publish my badly written seminar papers (premature but demanded by the job market).
So you might wonder how one does learn to do the job? In my case it was a mentor who took me in, had me copy-edit his scribblings that he wrote every morning by the side of his pool or in the afternoon on an Orange County beach, and who eventually let me fill in some blanks. One day we're writing papers together. And then you teach principles of economics and you know that you have to break down and build back everything. At least in my case, economics, there's something to rebuild, unlike in the humanities to listen to Benton.
It is impossible to discuss the culture of graduate school without caricature. English departments often become intellectual echo chambers uninterrupted by any external critical voices. In a process called "incestuous amplification," outsiders are demonized, and insiders are forced to conform or face social ostracism.

Professors, in general, have the luxury of appearing moderate and open to competing ideas, but insecure students often research the opinions of faculty members to ensure that they will be on the correct side of any apparently open dialogue. The powerless seize on small expressions of political opinion from the powerful and embrace these views even more radically in order to prove their loyalty and worthiness.
But there's a payoff, right? Yes, for the fortunate few.
The great luxury of a tenured position -- which, with any luck, is on my professional horizon -- is the time to become genuinely learned: the time to let your intellectual portfolio mature, instead of investing in the latest academic get-rich-quick scheme.
I watch numerous younger faculty read the journals in economics looking for "what's hot", and for a hook that allows them to send a paper with a relatively minor point to a major journal. It's the quick road to tenure, to an appointment at another school further up the Carnegie scale. But it's a sucker's game, as economics teaches in tournament theory.