Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Modest Proposal for the Reform of Academe

…found searching archives for something else & now reblogging a 2010 repost from The Faster Times, attributing belatedlyapologizing profusely, linking thrice for good measure, bookmarking & adding the college section to reader. The section is not large but choice, especially for those taken with the quirky. Incidentally, "modest proposal" is a popular reform title, especially for higher ed. A series? Not all meet Swiftian standard: this one does. I will definitely do this more often

College section blogger, medievalist ~ fencer Ken Mondschein (PhD Fordham + studies at BU, SUNY Buffalo, Harvard) writes...

QEDMost every commentator on academe has mentioned the sorry state of higher education: A decades-long oversupply of Ph.Ds, an undersupply of jobs, and the use of cheap adjunct labor for everything from teaching intro writing classes to supervising theses to cleaning the president's office. Despite the fact that tenure-track jobs are rarer than hen's teeth, that venerated institution has come under attack, as well. Critics charge that tenure gives professors license to be unproductive layabouts or maniac wingnuts, but there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it unless said tenure-possessor burns down the administration building or runs naked through freshman orientation. 

But I am not here to kvetch: I am here to offer solutions. It seems to me that all of these symptoms of current malaise of higher education could be solved in one sweeping stroke, were we only to reintroduce dueling to the academy.
I speak here not of the sissy-boy mensurs "fought" by German frat boys in case some time-traveling frauleins from the days of the Kaiser should turn up to swoon over their scars, but of lethal combats fought on the quad with sword, sabre, or pistol. These rencontres need not be lethal, but the possibility of death or at least serious injury should be present. By this system, we can restore the glory days of higher education.

The benefits would be manifold. Academic listservs would no longer need moderators, for an armed society is a polite society. Bad book reviews could be instantly avenged. University health plans would benefit as well: The less fit would be culled, and the need to keep in fighting form would make "assistant professor gut" a thing of the past, thus improving overall health. Conferences would likewise be kept more civil, as we can see from the following imaginary exchange between astrophysicists:
Professor Abraham: And, as we can see, by compensating for the constant of background radiation… do you bite your thumb at me, sir?
Professor Samson: No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I do bite my thumb.
Professor Abraham: Do you quarrel, sir?
Professor Samson: You forgot to carry the one, you addle-pated Caltech alum. Go MIT!
Professor Abraham: My second shall be calling upon you.
Most relevantly, the baby boomers now grown fat and complacent in their tenured posts would be forced to retire or make way for new blood with nimbler feet and steadier hands. Rather than all the plum positions going to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton alums, we would have a more meritocratic system where job searches would seek candidates with less pedigree, but better-educated trigger fingers. The flood of graduates causing the oversupply of labor that has us awash in adjuncts would be dammed, as well: Who wants to go into a field in which doing one's job could find one stretched out on a cold slab? Such thrill-seekers would be better and more productively employed in the Marines, or perhaps teaching in an inner-city high school.

The tenor of academic discourse would likewise only be improved for the better. Can we imagine the theoretical turn ever having taken place if its proponents had had to defend themselves at first light? It is hard to argue that the sword blade piercing one's thoracic cavity is only the construction of a capitalist society when it has collapsed one's lung. 

It's all about money,
and of course, if you add a K for "kunst" to "money," you get "monkey
Of course, some changes from the ancient code duello would also be necessary. To avoid inconveniencing university administrators and undergraduates, we would specify that challenges would be fought only during sabbaticals and summer vacations. Likewise, in case of party being unfit to fight by virtue of age, the old duelist's code provided for a substitute. This proviso would need to be eliminated. One might argue that graduate students could serve in this capacity: Besides being manifestly expendable, they are easily replaced, and the possibility of having to fight some young Turk of an assistant professor over some slight to one's dissertation mentor's ego would keep grad applications down to a reasonable level. This, however, would be manifestly unfair—both for those who work at undergraduate colleges and thus have no grad students, and for those at lesser-funded universities. Under our new academic code, one must answer for one's own sins with sword in hand, rather than recruiting a stable of ninja-advisees to guarantee impunity of discourse.

Some might likewise make that our code exhibits gender bias, arguing that women would be unable to meet men on equal footing. After all, men are, on average, taller, stronger, and have more reach. We counter that such persons are themselves guilty of outmoded thought. Since the 1960s, the number of women in higher education has grown enormously, based on the simple premise that a woman's labor, mind, and contribution to society is in every way equal to a man's. I say, let this principle of equality be carried over to the dueling ground. (This would also be an excellent means to redress the imbalance of female scientists, as most women in academe drive hard in all areas of their lives, including fitness, while most scientists are pasty, lab-bound, and flabby.)

Finally, we must not forget that our ultimate responsibility is to our students. Surely it can not be to their advantage to have experienced professors continually being perforated? However, considering the matter carefully, it would seem that the introduction of dueling could only cause the quality of undergraduate instruction to increase across the board. There is nothing quite like one's imminent demise to focus one's mind. How one would savor anew the pleasures of teaching freshman comp, knowing that, ere the next sunset, one might be in one's grave, never again to discourse upon the gerund! How great the urge to be popular with one's students, so that an ample crowd of mourners would show up—or, at the very least, that they wouldn't be glad that you bought it! And how disciplined our classrooms, the students knowing that their professor is a crack shot or handy with a sabre!

My arguments are clear, and the premise can not be counter-argued: Those who are unable to face their adversaries on the field of honor have no business in the lecture hall.

A voi! 

A Modest Proposal for the Reform of Academe


  1. How wonderful: Jonathan Swift would be proud of his protogé! I especially guffawed at this: "we would specify that challenges would be fought only during sabbaticals and summer vacations."

    What a wonderful find: thank you Vanessa! Ana


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