Stanley Fish: still wrong
Stanley Fish is sticking to his guns this week, in the New York Times, declaring that the university has the right to insist on work rules for profs. I sent two comments in, unfortunately not taking the time to write them carefully. Here they are, with some improvements and a note in italics.
No, Professor Fish, you’re wrong. You see, your model of the limits of academic freedom presupposes that the university has the unconstrained right to impose standards and expectations more or less at-will upon the mere profs.
Your implicit Platonism conceives of the university as existing above and independently of the university community in an arm’s length employment relationship.
But the key problem is the provenance of the standards and expectations you’d allow the university to impose. In a factory, an unskilled worker is perhaps rightfully directed to sweep the floor in a certain way by a supervisor who, perhaps, received training from sanitation experts.
Note that we can already foresee a problem here. If the sweepers are trained, the knowedge of “good cleaning” (which is harder than you might imagine, as Barbara Ehrenreich poiints out in her book, Nickel and Dimed) belongs to them as well as the firm after a probationary period, because, despite the proprietorship model of knowledge which Fish assumes, “information wants to be free”. After a certain period, good janitors in a well-run janitorial company are like ideal professors in that they self-supervise and mentor, maintaining only a fiction of tutelage.
But, the standards and expectations of a university apart from a small set of merely logistical expectations are themselves academic and the output, the work product, of administrators and professors, where the administrators are most often former and current profs.
What annoys the professor is that despite his professorial status, he has no input into these expectations, which when asserted as strongly as you’d like become Leninist in the sense that merely discussing their adequacy (whether it is appropriate, for example, to forbid a professor of art history to show nudes using a university computer) tags the prof as a malcontent, a Rancourt, and an enfant terrible, not tenurable.
Enlightenment breaks neatly into two parts: what we’ve learned as teachers is taken from us, modified, and then delivered back in terms of a pre-enlightenment authority *lest we get rowdy* even when we weren’t gettin’ rowdy, at least until you started doing your thing, “Professor”.
Now, as to your comments about professors being snarky twerps who demand privileges denied to the ordinary working stiff (I’ve reworded them thus for clarity): most professors, like David Noble of York University, the author of a well-received study (Forces of Production) on machine tool automation, call for workplace democracy even for the people who clean floors.
They do not call for “anything” as this buffoon Rancourt seems to call for because they are not universities trying to ape the corporation, which in its pursuit of profit is prepared to go to extremes more extreme in their direction than Rancourt goes in his. Rancourt apes the profit-maximizing corporation in a world driven crazy, not by obscure professors, but by corporations and banks demanding “bailouts”.
Professors, unlike the madcap Rancourt, call for the simple right to be recognized and treated as cultivated grownups who can, for a specific art class in my example, determine whether the students would be offended by, or learn-from, Goya’s Naked Maja.
Furthermore, the very idea of civil and open-ended discussion, including discussion of discussion’s rules and preconditions, is an origin of the modern university. A congress of tailors and wine merchants will beat their apprentices and hide their secrets and thus destroy knowledge. American banks suppressed warnings of the effects of collateralized debt obligations by their technical employees, destroying knowledge.
Openness and dialog, and participation as a community in the ongoing creation of mutually agreed upon rules, originated in the 18th century and is a cornerstone of the modern university…as opposed to the seminary, trade school, borstal, corporation, or prison. You seem to be unaware that the frozen and undiscussable reification of the output of the university community by overpaid administrators is enlightenment in reverse, and less characteristic of the recent American university, and more characteristic of Latin American universities of the Seventies, and yes indeed, German universities under, yes indeed, Hitler.
Let me see if some personal experience can clarify what I mean.
I was a staff member at Princeton University between 1987 and 1992, and not a member of the faculty, yet I asked for and received permission to attend a demonstration, on my lunch hour, against the South African ambassador prior to the end of apartheid.
No Rancourt I, I chose not to endanger my supervisor’s position by not going without asking permission. She said that it was university policy to allow this activism and thanked me for asking permission.
At the same time, the university made a community decision to suspend its rules for non-university people in the case of John “A Beautiful Mind” Nash who was permitted to use university facilities during a period of his life when he was suffering from schizophrenia. During this time I was directed to assist him with programming.
As you probably know, the result of this magnamity, of the very sort the corporation cannot legally extend because of the legal doctrine of fiduciary responsibility to shareholders as opposed to former employees, Nash was belatedly recognized as one of the fathers of modern operations research.
I’d come to Princeton from a corporation in Silicon Valley that so combined abuse of employees with a set of overgenerous perks that one night, while I was working on software, a group of drunken employees damaged corporate facilities…because, in some measure, of the way they were being treated, and subject to surplus repression lest they get ideas above their station in life.
Professor Fish, no matter whether it discommodes you, Adorno is right. People rightfully expect to be subjects as well as objects of their lives.