in praise of the academic riffraff

All day I struggled with how to convey my reactions to Gary A. Olson’s article for the Chronicle of Higher Education last week. Some of that time was spent wondering why I should even bother. I’m still not sure. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to offer up this unfinished thought…

Last week, Gary A. Olson wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he strongly cautions against jettisoning “traditional monograph-style dissertations” in favor of digital scholarship. Claiming to have “received calls from a handful of deans and department chairs” who fear the damage to the reputation and careers of those in the humanities that such a shift would cause, Olson suggests that digital scholarship might not be scholarship at all. It’s too quick and short. It discourages our capacity for deep concentration and sustained engagement with research. It is not “appropriately vetted by responsible experts.” And, it seems to be (at least partially) motivated by a scholar’s desire to get “instant gratification” from others on their research.

In contrast, continuing to rely on the 300+ page dissertation enables scholars to maintain “proper” standards and still be rigorous in their efforts, both of which are central to ensuring that the humanities are valued in this scary time of increased budget cuts. It also enables those in the hollowed halls of higher ed to use the peer review process to keep out the riffraff, “the amateur or dilettante simply posting thoughts online.” Because without the elaborate peer review process of “top tier written journals,” presumably first introduced to grad students through the process of writing and getting their dissertation approved by a committee of experts in their field, written work is (probably) not serious and scholarly enough.

For Olson, or at least his “callers” (the anonymous “they” that he refers to throughout the short piece), the issue is simple: Expanding scholarship to include new forms, especially digital ones, is a threat to the humanities. It diminishes its value and lowers the standards of its scholarship. And, Olson asks, “Why should humanities scholars settle for lower standards for their own disciplines?”

Judging by the title of my post and the content of my blog, you might correctly guess that I am troubled by Olson claims. And I’m not alone. Just read the comments on his original piece. Or check out Sample Reality’s response post, Serial Concentration is Deep Concentration, over on his blog. Many writers have great, very thoughtful and studied, responses to why Olson’s argument is faulty. I’m not interested in re-hashing them.

Instead, I want to offer up some praise for (what Olson might refer to as) the academic riffraff; those scholars, thinkers, writers, teachers, and activists who refuse to settle for the limited and biased set of standards and proper behavior that many in the academy continue to promote. While these “standards” are supposed to ensure quality, they are often used to keep out ideas/practices/people that challenge privileged forms of knowledge production.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t have any standards? That there’s no way to effectively assess whether or not serious engagement is occurring? No. It means that academics need to spend less time policing the borders of who counts as a scholar and more time engaged in the difficult labor of repeatedly asking who benefits (and at whose expense) when “standards” and rigor are invoked. They also need to develop new ways to understand, engage with and evaluate research.

Many of the digital scholars that are critical of Olson’s claims aren’t part of the academic riffraff; they are successful academics who have managed to do critical and creative work online and offline in ways that earn them cultural capital within the academy. Indeed, it seems as blogging and other online engagements, have increased caché in the academy, or at least some pockets of the academy. So, my praise of the academic riffraff is not necessarily for digital scholars working within many academic spaces (although I do appreciate the work that they do). Instead, my praise is for all the thinkers, troublemakers, storytellers, academic rebels, adjuncts, graduate student teachers (and more) that get exploited, undervalued, dismissed, and rejected even as they engage in exciting, compelling, innovative, “cutting-edge,” transformative, revolutionary, and accessible work.

Not as a side note, but as an finished thought and feeling, I’m bothered by how this argument for “standards” and “rigor” is so easily gendered, raced and classed. It seems that the “academic riffraff,” those folks who are doing the most interesting and innovative work, have the least amount of privilege (and access to cultural capital). 

For more on the MLA controversy, see my previous post: tweeting your thesis? good. rethinking purpose of thesis?  better.

4 thoughts on “in praise of the academic riffraff”

  1. But doesn’t the institution depend on the kind of certification of knowledge that goes on with editing, peer review, hierarchically better journals, prestigious series and even star names, etc.?

    The point is not that an agenda doesn’t underlie the usual invocations of scholarly rigor and propriety, nor that this agenda is unavowed, nor that these values don’t sometimes quite damagingly serve elite interests. It’s that without the acknowledgment of these values, you might just be left with critical intellectuals doing their own theory and talking to each other on the web. The legitimation of the university in the eyes of its paymasters would be cut away from under its feet.

    I’m not sure there can ever be a single answer to the question of how to build a capital for oppositional thinking. Your post assumes it can go on without, that is, outside, the university, and sure, it can and does, but do we want to write off the site of socially authorised learning (as entirely as your post might suggest) as a base for its own critique?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Farmer Jack. I’m not interested in writing off or rejecting the university as an important location for knowledge production. Nor do I think functioning outside of it means functioning (totally) without it. Instead, I want to argue for the troubling (questioning not rejecting) of a system that is predicated on gate-keeping, protecting privilege and seeing other (“improper” or unconventional) forms of research as a threat. For me, troubling this system requires engaging in some difficult conversations about how and why we review and do research in the ways that we do. It also requires that we never stop thinking critically about who benefits (and at whose expense) from this system.

    I’m not sure if that exactly responds to your concerns–partly because I don’t know if I fully understood your comment and partly because I’m currently struggling with my own relationship to the university. Having devoted so much of my life to formal education (as a student and teacher), I’m deeply invested in it. Yet, I feel that in the last few years, I’ve really pushed up against its limits and experienced a deep sense of alienation because of it. Is it fatally flawed? I really hope not, but sometimes I’m not so sure…especially when institutions are unwillingly to rethink elite models that serve the interests of so few at the expense of so many others.

  3. I agree with what you say about the need always to think about who benefits from the university’s organisation of knowledge and the greater interest–morally and intellectually–of having to explore and explain why we do research as we do–rather than supposing that the interest of certain subjects is self-evident. Indeed, this kind of broad and almost bien-pensant agreement was the background to my comment.

    The narrow version of my point (badly and quickly expressed) was that the humanities needs a hierarchical set of credentialising or knowledge-producing mechanisms to get any kind of funding at all. If it can’t have science-type research findings, it needs pseudo-outputs in terms of publications and prestige. But less pragmatically, I also think that appeals to self-evidence are probably inseparable from the social legitimisation of cultural and esp. literary study, esp. in elite settings. ‘It’s Shakespeare! It’s Jane Austen!’, is the rhetoric–it’s intrinsically interesting and so self-evidently worthy of study at a great humanistic centre like Harvard or even a major state university. In that sense, a refusal to think about the politics of academic propriety might be internal to the elite university and its ‘liberal’ values.

    This is also the sense in which I’d suspect that the kinds of writing you’re interested in, questions you want to ask, trouble you want to stir up or social affiliations you’d want to make involve an exercise of critical reason that is also critical of the university itself. Personally (I’ve always been educated in elite universities, but never had a full-time position; have always been superfluous) I’d be prepared to sell out. One thing I do think about the selective schools I’ve taught at is how rarely they change any student’s values and goals: they come in wanting to be bankers and lawyers and go out just slightly more able to do so.

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