Academia and The Real World: What's the difference?

This morning, I came across this entry at Collin’s blog about a Stanley Fish article in CHE called “The Case for Academic Autonomy.” In the nutshell, Fish is saying that academia ought to be autonomous from the “real world” in the sense that we academics ought to not merely respond to market forces, we shouldn’t try to make ourselves more like businesses, etc.

Collin’s take on the article is that Fish is misreading what Mark Taylor means by “networks” and what Taylor concludes in his book. I am at a disadvantage there because I’m not at all familiar with Taylor’s work (though it certainly sounds like something I ought to read), and I’m also not familiar with what Collin refers to as a “spectacularly miscalculated keynote” speech Taylor gave at a C&W a few years back. Which one, Collin?

Anyway, on the CHE site I also came across this article, “The Grand Poobah,” written by Frank “not his real name” Miller. By “Grand Poobah,” Miller means his new role as the graduate coordinator in his department, which is described as at a large midwestern research university. From the way he describes the job, it certainly sounds like an English department. Miller is a newly tenured faculty member, and he’s afraid that he will move away from “scholarship” and become an “administrative hack.” He writes “The relationship between the terms ‘academic career,’ ‘scholarly discipline,’ and ‘teaching vocation’ has never seemed more complicated to me.”

A couple of things strike me about all this:

* In my own department, I had put my name in to be the graduate coordinator for the next three years and I didn’t get it. On the one hand, I was (and actually, still am) displeased about this because of the departmental politics that were involved. On the other hand, not getting this has renewed my interests in my scholarship, which has been fun and something I can do on my own terms, more or less.

* Like Miller, I don’t have any interest in full-time academic administrator positions– you know, department head, dean, etc. I can’t say that I’ll never be an administrator since “never” is an awfully long time. But I’ve always believed that being an administrator is like having a “real job,” one where you are expected to be there 9 to 5, where you have to wear nice clothes, where you end up pushing a lot of paper around, etc. If I wanted to do that, I’d leave the academic world for the “real” world, which pays a lot better.

* Having said all that, Fish and Miller both remind me in different ways that being “an academic” means more than being a “scholar,” or even a “teacher/scholar.” I’ve had two different tenure-track jobs at “regional college/universities,” schools that focus on undergraduate education and that are considered “opportunity-granting” institutions. At both places, I’ve done “administrative” work where I was given release time. On an interim basis, I was a WPA and I ran a writing center at my previous job, and I used to be the “computer guy” of the department at this job, doing things like maintaining a computer lab and running the department web site. But beyond these “official” administrative roles, I also find myself spending a fair amount of my time as a professor doing administrative stuff– advising students, going to meetings in the department and beyond, etc.

I don’t think my experiences are all that unusual, especially for folks in composition and rhetoric. I think most professors, even those who don’t have any explicit administrative duties, actually do a lot of administrative work. And because of that, I think the definition of “academic career” that Miller is talking about is indeed always in play, even if you don’t take on any official administrative duties. I suppose it’s possible to be an academic whose only obligations are to sit around and be really smart, but those positions are few and far between.

* And for me, this raises questions about Fish’s desires for an “autonomous academy.” When he says “the walls between the academy and society,” what does he mean by “the academy?” And isn’t “the academy” a key component of contemporary “society?”

I kind of understand what Fish is getting at, and I even agree with it a bit. Schools ought to not be run like businesses; rather, schools ought to be run like, well, schools, meaning the goal should not be to turn a profit through finding “synergy” with “customers” or whatever. Our goal should be to provide students with access to an education.

But really, the world of academia is “the real world,” or at least it’s a part of it. Students attend schools because of societal pressures (e.g., a college degree will help you get a better job), not purely for academic pursuits, and people work at schools because of societal pressures (e.g., working at a school as a teacher, administrator, staff person, janitor, and so forth is a job that pays the bills) and not just the love of knowledge. Don’t get me wrong– being a college professor is a great job, but it’s still a job.

If the academy really were separate from society, maybe the job aspect of it wouldn’t be necessary. Maybe it would be sort of like being a monk or being Amish, communal living where all of my day-to-day needs and pleasures would simply be part of the lifestyle. Of course, if the academy really were separate from society in this fashion, I wouldn’t be in the academy.

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