“We are mired in unavoidable and despicable practices of betrayal, forced to blindly obey useless gossip or perform pantomimes of truly important values made ridiculous by endless, unanswered repetition…”
The following is a guest post from Amy Olberding, Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. It is part of the series of weekly guest posts by various authors on Daily Us this summer.
by Amy Olberding
My husband is an academic, sinologist in our history department. Last year, he was appointed to one of our university’s administrative advisory committees for “women’s issues.” It doesn’t matter which one since they all seem to work the same way. He had volunteered to serve wherever help was needed and they put him on the committee – hitherto made up of all and all women – without apparently informing or consulting the committee itself. So there he sat on Zoom, worried he’d been forced upon colleagues who might not want him there. He volunteered to help in any way, but also tried to blend in, feeling that doing or saying too much was not his place. He told me about the job, a job I knew well, having myself served and even chaired such a committee years ago.
My husband’s committee was interested in advocating for parental leave (teachers really don’t have any to speak of) and pay equity (also, little evidence where we work). These were exactly the questions that my own committee addressed a decade ago. This duplication and repetition is the way of things. So many university committees are reduced to putting serious, interested people to work on supposedly improved recommendations, the recommendations are then summarily ignored, and then a new group of people are put to work to start all over again. As long as committee populations keep spinning, one can have all sorts of seemingly salutary efforts going on that never go anywhere.
Other types of efforts enjoy, even briefly, more administrative interest and momentum. Around 2014, the faculty was expected to work on ambitious plans to cultivate enhanced research, a five-year initiative called “Aspire 2020”. All kinds of faculty hours and effort have gone into designing not research, but plans to find out how the research might proceed. Meetings large and small took place, groups and sub-groups were formed, working groups too. But in 2016 or 2017, the whole thing just drifted into the ether, never to be heard from again. It would soon be superseded by a newer initiative purportedly dedicated to the same style of “improvement” (but branded differently) until that too drifted away and an alternative presented itself. It is also the way of things.
In short, we are flooded with projects from the Potemkin village, always busy erecting comfortable facades as facades for total poverty of meaningful action. We paint and repaint the false facades of the university, slathering on the currently fashionable hue among managerial types – ‘aligning’ our departments with ‘strategic priorities’, ‘verticals’ or ‘pillars’. We are conscripted to play industrious villagers, helping with the simulations. We may not have “excellence” in research or “gender equity”, but we seem to be busy with it.
Waste has lately come to hit me harder than it used to. This is due in part to the pandemic and a sense of national decay, broader heartaches that make the consignment of human effort to facade production a particular kind of harmfulness.
I am quite convinced that, whether we like it or not, human beings are shaped by the practices in which they engage. My sense of this has gained new strength during the pandemic, not just because so many existing social practices have crumbled, but because mine have changed. Living in isolation on a farm for over a year, I rarely walked on concrete and became more used to seeing wildlife than people. The work I did around the place was the kind you can’t massage with empty rhetoric and gestures – if your task is to rebuild the creek crossing, there’s only if your job may or may not resist spring rains; if you’re alone with an injured animal that can’t be saved, you can’t coo it better, but you should just shoot it. None of this or similar work can be based on words, even less on a garish and empty rhetoric. Its raw immediacy does not benefit from a mare’s nest of verbal “strategic planning”, “anticipated outgrowths” or “targeted initiatives”. On the whole, such work rejects even “excellence”. Coming back to my other style of work, joining the “family” of Potemkin University, was therefore difficult. I am disgusted by the form our practices would make me take.
My lament may be unique in some of its detail, but it has of course been widely noticed and even satirized by many – enough to worry me even writing this about becoming a familiar type. I could be the bitter harridan, protesting the seemingly rosy “efforts” I have widely found to cover up grossly unjust systems; I could be the aging, jaded exhaustion that skewers the vanities by which we must earn our bread; I could be the naive idealist who stubbornly refuses to understand “how things work”. I could, in short, be one or more caricatures that feature regularly in the writings of academia and us who populate it. Maybe a combination of all of that is what I am. To this I can only say, no matter. I am also, and in a now less definite way, still a philosopher.
Philosophy is not (intrinsically) removed from the hard and inflexible substance of material reality, substance which offers resistance and many challenges. We build works that we hope won’t be washed away, but we know that can happen, and the tension that comes with building works that will be tried and tested by forces outside of ourselves is significant. This is the heart of our practice. Whether as a philosopher or a farmer, I attach great importance to contact with reality and its multiple tensions. But the tensions that our workplaces induce and maintain have their origins elsewhere. Much of the bureaucracy, committees, and governance of academia strikes me as not only false fronts and facades, but particularly resistant to correction by, or even contact with, reality. It’s often just bullshit. And, alas, bullshit to participate in and even help produce. Worst of all, if one were to put forth the seemingly seditious thought that this is all waste and farce, the answer might well be: What’s your point? In other words, it’s not like the others haven’t noticed. The villager Potemkin who announces that “hey, we don’t build real houses here!” is the one who kind of missed the point of it all.
Potemkin University practices have long been at odds with what academics are specifically tasked with doing. We can discuss, probably endlessly, what education and universities are for, but I dare say that no scholar sees our burden as the repetitive production of boring, nonsensical fiction or endless restatements of the obvious. Yet this is what our jobs require. We are mired in unavoidable and despicable practices of betrayal, forced to blindly obey pointless gossip or perform pantomimes of truly important values made ridiculous by endless, unanswered repetition. Much of “faculty governance” has been reduced to this. It’s hard not to feel corrupted by this form of practice, especially now, in a time that stretches and continues with raw and pressing immediacy. If nothing else, the waste of mortal hours it represents should be appalling.
Blog posts are supposed to raise a discussion issue and mine hasn’t yet. So here’s a question for those of you who work in places like the one I’m describing: how do you deal with the tension – the tension between meaningful study work and the cynically meaningless efforts that fill the workplace everywhere with the university? How might we reconcile the forced and empty practices of contemporary academic culture with all the precious things that drew us to academia in the first place? How do we break this useless, corrosive and pointless tension – the contact with reality that we should all want and the forced exile that so much institutional culture demands?