Friday, February 6, 2015

Pardon the Interruption

Governor Scott Walker, Thinker

By Finbarr Curtis

Defending his recent proposal to cut 300 million dollars from higher education in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker instructed professors to work harder to make up the difference.  Many tried to correct the governor by noting all of the work that college professors do.  For my part, I have already written about how an education in the humanities is useful because it teaches students how to work.  The reason that I won't repeat this here is that it seems beside the point in the Wisconsin kerfuffle.  That is, when Governor Walker says that college professors need to work more, he doesn't mean that they need to spend more hours in the office.  As someone who did not do much work in college, Walker is aware that it takes a lot of effort to succeed in school.  Indeed, the students who became college professors were the kind of nerds who worked a whole lot harder than him.

What Walker really means is that the work that scholars do might be interesting to them but doesn't perform any practical economic function.  The harder that professors work, the lazier they are.  The lazy professor is destined to become an austerity archetype in the tradition of the surfing food-stamp glutton or the welfare mom.  Archetypes like welfare abusers or lazy professors persist not because they explain anything about social reality, but because they provide assurances that difficult structural problems can be fixed by reforming the personal habits of people who depend upon public resources.

I could list the many reasons why Walker is wrong.  But in this post I want to consider why his image of the lazy professor resonates with so may people.  It seems to me that the way that professors talk about their own work might contribute to popular perceptions of their laziness.  To this end, I would like to revisit the portrait of professorial labor found in Professor Laurie Zoloth's 2014 address to the American Academy of Religion.  In her address, entitled "Interrupting Your Life: An Ethics for the Coming Storm," Zoloth called on the AAR to take an occasional sabbatical by canceling its annual meeting.  Her hope is that by canceling the conference every seven years, the AAR could reduce the carbon footprint caused by thousands of academics flying from around the world to stay in hotels and eat meat.

It is fair to say that the majority of AAR members shared the environmental concerns that animated Zoloth's proposal.  Some objected, however, to Zoloth's assumption that scholars of religion should be in the business of telling people the proper way to be religious (she asked the AAR to fashion its policy by reference to the biblical concept of shmita as if it were self-evident that the Hebrew Bible was an authoritative text for all).  I am not interested in revisiting this argument except to say that it makes sense for the AAR to think about sustainability not because it studies religion but because all organizations have an interest in avoiding ecological catastrophe.

So I accept Zoloth's premise that faced with the existential threat posed by global warming, responsible citizens should think about ways to live sustainable lives and make the places where they work into more sustainable places.  This also means, however, that the sabbatical idea could be applied to anything.  Many would welcome the prospect of canceling one-seventh of our classes, or one-seventh of our football games.  We could publish one-seventh fewer books and chop down one-seventh fewer trees.

Some of these might not be bad ideas, necessarily.  The problem is that they are not going to happen.  These are not realistic proposals that will make work more sustainable.  Zoloth knows this and does not expect that the AAR will actually cancel itself every seven years.  There are too many practical reasons why the conference will take place.  For this reason, I will take Zoloth's address for what it is: a symbolic statement that hopes to make us reassess our priorities.

In my view, Zoloth's symbolism is the sort of thing that feeds into Governor Walker's stereotype of the lazy professor.  In most ways, Zoloth and Walker inhabit different universes.  Whereas she hopes to convince us to reduce our carbon footprints, he wants to drill for more oil.  Nevertheless, Walker's call for professors to work harder resonates with Zoloth's list of more productive things that professors could do with their time.  Take the way in which she describes why academics resist interrupting their work:
Is it a surprise that we understand interruption as a problem, the distraction of being in a world of necessary order?  The chaos of utter otherness of being—all that is not-self, coming at your door, all that is not-work, come calling, just when you are writing your big idea.
The trouble with academics, then, is that they are self-absorbed people who write about big ideas and see everything else as an interruption.  In other words, what Zoloth describes as academic work is the very thing that Walker thinks is not work.  Mostly, this is because Walker is wrong.  Zoloth works hard when she thinks and writes.  Part of why Walker disdains this kind of labor is that he himself puts very little effort into sustained thinking.  The kinds of ideas he proposes for governing are appealing because they take so little thought to understand.

Where both Walker and Zoloth are in agreement, however, is in their shared view that professors are people who expend resources doing things that give them personal satisfaction.  The image of scholarship as a solipsistic enterprise informs Zoloth's list of things that academics supposedly find distracting:
From what are we interrupted?  There are the thousand small serious interruptions, there are the questions of students, and their needs, there is the constant interruption which goes by the name of "administration," there are the petty cascades of email, the sense of news constantly on a crawl beneath the actual work of our lives.  There are bodies that need ordinal tending: children, the old, everyone who needs us to look at the drawing, to attend to the wound, to life them up in our arms, now.
To be clear, Zoloth is being ironic here.  She hopes to show that professors have their priorities out of whack.  To do this, she chides professors for immersing themselves in self-absorbed contemplation to the point that they neglect their students, their families, their communities, and even their own bodies.  For whom is this a problem exactly?  Who has the kind of job where the interruptions Zoloth describes would be felt as an intrusion into their ordinary work?

To answer this, we would have to imagine a university professor who is awash in resources.  These resources would support a life of deep contemplation, allowing a professor to ponder big questions in the solitude of reading and writing.  I would suggest that this is exactly what Walker thinks that professors currently do all day long.  Zoloth and Walker share the belief that professors have so many resources at their disposal that we need to think about ways of putting those resources to better use. 

Walker's and Zoloth's visions of the life of a professor do not resonate in the place that I work: a cash-strapped public university in which professors do what they can with the limited resources they have.  Answering the questions of students is not an interruption from my work.  It is my work.  Similarly, an academic conference is a place where I get a chance to work with other people and engage in conversations that can help me to do my work better.  Rather than defend the importance of academic work to a skeptical public, Zoloth affirms Walker's suspicion that we already have more than we need.  In her explanation of what professors can do instead of attend conferences, for example, she recommends an program of professorial noblesse oblige:
What if, on that day, we taught the poor, in local high schools, community colleges, or the prison, the hospital, the military base, the church, mosque, synagogue or temple.
One reason why Zoloth's call to lecture at community colleges might be jarring to many professors is that they already teach at community colleges.  Her call to reach out to the poor might also confuse the majority of university professors who work as contingent faculty and struggle to pay their bills.  Ironically, Walker's budget cuts are likely to hit hardest at precisely the kinds of schools that are already struggling with decades of shrinking public funding.  This is not an accident. Walker is fine with professors indulging their intellectual passions as long as this is paid for with private money.  His budget cuts to higher education will have the effect of every policy he pursues: they will redistribute resources from public to private institutions.  The rich will get richer and everyone else will work harder.

None of this is what Zoloth intends, of course.  In fairness to her, she is asking what she can do as a tenured professor in an elite private research university.  I am citing her sabbatical proposal not to single it out as exceptional, but because it serves as an illustration of how professors often talk about what they do.  My concern is that proposals to suspend our work provide rhetorical fodder for the Governor Walkers of the world who are all too happy to interrupt higher education.  Instead of interrupting our work to perform acts of private charity in places like high schools, prisons, and hospitals, then, we might be better served to give people who work in these institutions the resources that they need to do their jobs.

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