Academic Self-Evaluation

In my last post, I created a fiction to make a number of points about teaching and attitudes within academia. To me, one point stands out: the pressure to conform remains strong on our college campuses and within our faculties. As in most other areas, we professors like to encourage others to be “like us” rather than strike out on their own by trying something new.

Though we love to talk about diversity, almost to the point of worshiping it, we are hypocritical acolytes. In some respects, we are as bad as the anti-gay evangelical preacher who gets caught soliciting sex in a men’s room.

Look at the ways we encourage conformity and not diversity. We demand that our students conform to style sheets in their papers, keeping presentation the same; we expect conformity to the dominant dialect of English; we generally judge our colleagues’ work by the “quality” of the imprint. And these are just the tip of that iceberg. Sure, there are arguments in favor in each case, but the fact remains: we insist that people toe the line as rigorously in academia as anywhere.

Yet we talk “diversity” all the time.

Sometimes it seems that on-campus diversity has been confined to a ghetto of superficial qualities associated with race, gender, and orientation. We dismiss attempts at inserting real intellectual diversity into our equations by establishing “norms” for inquiry that have as many unquestioned underlying assumptions as does, say, Intelligent Design. While we say we disdain situations where belief precludes and defines inquiry, we quickly turn away from examination of our own cherished convictions.

Let me take just two examples, choosing them because, as I believe, they underlie so much of over cultural dynamic, and these are the questions of race and class.

Most of us in academia feel that we, personally, have risen above considerations of race. There may be racists in America, but we aren’t among them. Yet, when you look at our lives dispassionately, it is impossible not to conclude that race colors them. We marry and socialize within our races, for the most part, and generally live segregated from other races. Or relations with colleagues from other races tend to be superficial, petering out beyond campus boundaries. Yet, when called on this, we tend to deflect it by saying it’s a question of class, not race. But that, though we refuse to admit it, begs the question.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that we academics are racist, not in the sense of believing in the inferiority of another race or of wanting enforced segregation. I’m merely saying that race colors our actions in ways much greater than we are willing to admit, let alone examine. If we were the honest seekers of truth we pretend to be, we’d be looking at racial issues in ways far different from the simple polarizing posturing we use today.

Class colors our actions and attitudes in much the same way, though it should not be confused with race (which happens more and more frequently). Most academics are perfectly at ease talking about “hillbilly,” “redneck,” and “white trash” Americans in a disparaging manner they would never use, were race part of the equation. But, when it is simply class, it seems OK to reject the “other.”

Yet it is as small-minded, as biased, to make jokes about Appalachians as it is to do so about Mexicans, say. Why are we willing to do one and not the other? What makes it OK to make fun of a mountain accent but not one from the inner city of Philadelphia? Isn’t the attitude ultimately the same, even if the butt of the joke is different?

It’s time we academics began to wake up from our self-satisfied dogmatic slumber and start examining these (and so many other) questions.

I’ll be writing more on this topic in coming weeks. As we fight to retain our “academic freedom,” we must show that we are living up to the responsibilities implied by that freedom. The only way we can do that is by rigorous self-examination of a kind I find sorely lacking on our college campuses.

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