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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

How to Write Real Good

Kaia Shivers, as posted by herself on InDesign

Now this is chilling.

It has come to the point that not being able to write a grammatical sentence is no bar to becoming a writing professor. Skin colour and sex are what qualify or disqualify you.

This exposes, I think, a fatal flaw in the entire academic exercise. It is all based on “peer review”: which means, those who already hold the job get absolute discretion over who else gets the same job. This is true for academic publication, and even more so for hiring and tenure at universities.

This is an automatic conflict of interest. You get to choose your competition. What are your incentives to select the best? Aren’t they instead to select always and only someone clearly worse at the job than you? This also puts a premium on group solidarity and on not rocking the boat, saying nothing that is going to upset your colleagues. As in, no new or revolutionary ideas that might alter the field. This almost forces the creation of a class mentality: us against the outsiders.

This now manifests itself in the academy’s universal “left wing” ideology. It is the academy openly against the interests of those outside the academy, or its wider web of social allies. Against the interests of the economy, of the culture, of the average woman and man, of the nation.

The argument for it, of course, is that only “experts” can judge good work in their field.

This is true enough, I guess, so far as it goes, but it works only if you have some other reliable scheme for picking your first experts, who then pick all other experts. Otherwise, the whole thing rests on an infinite regression. And the experts you choose must also always be impeccably moral, an improbable assumption, with a devotion to truth and knowledge for its own sake, or they are not going to choose their successors well.

This might work if the whole thing rested on a sincere religious foundation—if professors were selected at least in part on their faith and moral character. Keeping pay for professors relatively low would also help: it means the job would tend to attract in the first place only those to whom knowledge and the pure pursuit of truth were more important than personal or material considerations.

Medieval scholars in debate.

Traditionally, our university system in the West indeed relied on both of these foundations. A university professor had to be an ordained minister or priest. Universities were confessional. Harvard and Yale were Congregational; Princeton was Presbyterian: Colombia was Church of England. Queen’s was Presbyterian; U of T had separate colleges for the various denominations; McMaster was Baptist; Western and Bishops were Anglican; and so forth.

The further back you go, the clearer the religious character.

And pay for profs was modest.

We have been systematically sawing off this branch on which we sat.

In the old days, too, the mettle of professors was established by public lecture, and by public debate. So there was some input from the general population.

If we are going to fix the crisis in our universities, we are going to have to go back to these practices.

Otherwise, we get writing profs who write like this:

Teaching Statement: Taking from Paolo Freire, “knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention” with pedagogies that resist hegemonic regimes of knowing when those who are learning are as empowered and humanized as those who are teaching.

My philosophy is to offer a safe space for students to cultivate intellect, understand and develop personal and collective agency, connect with peers, and actively participate in their own learning. The two main objectives in teaching is to facilitate learning by helping students to gain the necessary skills to take control of their own learning — and eventually use their intellectual growth and skills as productive global citizens.

I focus on assisting students in developing critical viewpoints, while sharpening their skills of written and verbal analyses and articulation in current and historical themes; and employing multimedia and interactive pedagogical methods.

It is tiresome to translate this into English: it is language written deliberately to obscure meaning, which is a moral offense against language, and especially against teaching and learning, which it is designed to prevent. But the meaning is chilling:

Knowledge is something you invent yourself to suit your own purposes. My philosophy is to teach nothing. I give them assignments, then sit and judge. But I do teach them to be “critical” of current themes—in other words, I mark them on whether they share my politics.

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