Reading: Our Professors Are Failing Us | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Reading: Our Professors Are Failing Us

ProfScam begins as an important and passionate critique of academia. It ends, unfortunately, as an antiintellectual rant.


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If you thought that Morris Zapp, the aggressively ambitious professor in David Lodge's novel Changing Places, was a sharp operator, then you've yet to meet the real thing. Or so Charles Sykes would have us believe. In ProfScam, Sykes argues that today's professorial entrepreneurs have subordinated the call of higher learning to a lust for self-aggrandizement through meaningless research, obscure publications, and savage campus politicking. They have abandoned teaching and learned to despise undergraduates. This, of course, is just while school is in session. You know the old joke about the four good reasons for becoming an academic: June, July, August, and September. The scandal of the academy, asserts Sykes, is this unique combination of naked ambition and laziness.

The indictment is savage. On pages five and six we encounter a "partial list" of professorial misdeeds that goes like this: professors are grossly overpaid; they have engaged in a "flight from teaching" and indeed actually punish good teachers; they are intellectually narrow, pursuing areas of research so specialized and slight that they produce nothing of social value; they hide this by writing in impenetrable jargon; they have replaced academic freedom with "thought control." Then we get some specifics: professors in the physical sciences have abandoned the campus altogether (but not the salary that goes with it) in pursuit of corporate riches; the liberal arts have been destroyed by the introduction of "theory"; the social sciences, similarly, have been invaded by absurd pseudoscientific methods. (Sykes is particularly scathing about the laughable tendency within the humanities and social sciences to crave the supposed objectivity of the physical sciences.) In short, the professors have "turned American universities into vast factories of junkthink, the by-product of academe's endless capacity to take even the richest elements of civilization and disfigure them into an image of itself."

ProfScam will delight many university students--and the legions of academics who care about teaching and despair at the injury done to language in so many academic publications. Sykes himself is a wizard of the well-turned phrase, deploring "curriculums that look like they were designed by a game show host" and the "feeding frenzy" of modern-day science professors in search of corporate bucks.

Alongside his more general analysis, Sykes reports on specific studies of academe, including a marvelous study of journal publishing in which previously published articles by well-known academics were resubmitted to academic journals under new, unfamiliar names--and rejected. Then there's the wonderful study undertaken by a researcher who hired an actor to give a seminar on mathematics and human behavior to a group of psychologists; the talk was gibberish, but that did nothing to halt the flow of glowing remarks from the professorial audience. (Although one prof did find it "too intellectual.")

The attack on the tenure-track system is also acute. As Sykes points out, tenure is just as threatening to academic freedom as it is nurturing, since junior faculty members must be in a constant state of anxiety about future prospects--a state hardly conducive to speaking your mind. Sykes goes on, in his concluding chapter, to call for the abolition of tenure. Though he might instead have supported the various teachers' unions in calling for greater employment security for untenured staff, he doesn't do so because he believes that tenure also prevents the removal of professors who cannot, or will not, teach well. This is a perfectly fine argument, but Sykes doesn't acknowledge that it conflicts with his previously stated concern about job insecurity having a bad effect on academic freedom. Rather than explore the difficulties of this question (public accountability versus academic autonomy), he settles instead--as is so often the case here--for an easy target.

Then there are the games of academe: The "publish or perish" game, in which thousands of instructors and professors across the land feverishly write articles that no one will ever read for the sole purpose of expanding their resumes. Or the thesis game: to qualify to teach undergraduates about a wide range of topics, a professor must write a huge, highly specific dissertation pitched at a level that defies the undergrad's understanding. This is madness, of course. Teachers are trained as researchers--a non sequitur, in Sykes's eloquent term. And then, yes, there is the grading game, in which professors and students strike an unstated bargain: the profs will hand down soft grades in exchange for increased enrollment, which will boost the department. Consequently grades are subject to inflation. (The answer to that, of course, though it's far too radical for Sykes, is to abolish grades.)

Sykes's arguments, like his prose, are often compelling, but the weaknesses of his approach are severe. ProfScam extends its arguments to unreasonable proportions. After a while you get the feeling that if Sykes could find a way to blame the professors for the crack epidemic, he would. Sykes has a field day ridiculing a prof who abandons the teaching of Great Literature in favor of the study of popular culture on the grounds that the former is too distant from his students' experience. Sykes doesn't stop to wonder how come the students hadn't already encountered Shakespeare in high school, or on TV. Universities work with what they get, not the ideal student that Sykes has in mind. And university students have already been "infantilized," to use a description coined by a professorial friend of mine, before they get to the campus. They also suffer from poor literacy--a problem that can hardly be blamed on university professors. The explanations for these difficulties are complex, and do not even lie solely in the educational system--although inflated enrollments represent one explanation--let alone with the professoriat.

Often Sykes is merely cheap. He throws in some comments drawn from student evaluations, which, he tells us, "are seldom given much weight." Some dissatisfied students from a Yale economics class are deployed to catalog the poverty of their professor's teaching. Well, I have some experience of this. I once taught a class where student evaluations ranged from "this class is so good it's hard to believe the instructor is real" to the back-down-to-earth put-down that "this is the most boring class I've ever taken." Combing the evals for a few choice insults is easy--just another exercise in simplistic prof-baiting.

Elsewhere ProfScam moves beyond its attack on the professor and into a critique of the curriculum. Sykes naively objects to the introduction of theory into the study of literature and the arts, seeing this as an excuse to smuggle political questions into the lecture theater. As if the existing dominant definitions of literature and art were not political. Typically, he plays the old trick of ripping chunks of prose on semiotics out of context, rendering them incomprehensible.

Sykes is, in fact, all too quick to pounce on an easy target and give it a good journalistic kicking. He's been through the index of the Journal of Popular Culture (hardly, to put it kindly, the leading intellectual force in its field) and pulled out a long list of very silly research projects. He then uses them to portray the entire field as a scam.

Finding courses with titles like "Anthropology of Play," "Music Video 454," "Sport and Political Ideology," and "Introduction to Cinematic Coding and Narrativity," Sykes is long on ridicule and short on argument. But his position is self-contradictory, as he shifts from hyperbolic condemnations of the study of popular culture to the statement: "Somewhere in the professoriate's endless curricular shell game, the universities lost track of the need to teach critical thinking, writing skills, or even basic knowledge about the world." Maybe so, but if teaching critically about the mass media doesn't fulfill these aims, I can't think what would.

Academia, Sykes correctly argues, is overly concerned with obscure and unimportant topics that are researched purely because they haven't been researched before--thus making suitable raw material for a PhD. Yet when Sykes encounters critics and scholars who are trying to make sense of mass-media forms like Miami Vice and The A-Team he is unable to resist the cheap shot. How absurd, he suggests, to waste money and intellectual effort on such trivial pursuits. One of his examples of an obviously pointless research project is very telling: "Women's Shopping: A Sociological Approach." Well, of course, put women and shopping together and you clearly have a worthless subject for investigation, right? Wrong. Academic work on shopping, fashion, TV, and so forth overcomes the elitism and irrelevance of a great deal of work in the humanities and social sciences and focuses attention on topics that are actually important in the lives of students and people in general. Perhaps much of that work is trivial and stupid (a problem found as well in Sykes's profession--journalism), but Sykes is way off the mark when he invokes this as support for his thesis. If analyzing the mass culture that pervades the lives of nearly all our students isn't an effective way to produce research and teaching that is "relevant," what is?

Soon ProfScam abandons legitimate targets altogether in favor of a wholesale attack on contemporary social and cultural theory. And it is here, more than anywhere, that the book simply overreaches. Sykes doesn't know the material well enough, and his account of the work of contemporary cultural theorists is a travesty. It moves from the nursery slopes of the Journal of Popular Culture to the work of literary theorist Stanley Fish without any apparent realization that it has encountered a serious intellectual project.

And an essentially conservative agenda is exposed along the way. Like so many conservative pedagogues, Sykes reveals himself to be profoundly antiintellectual when he favorably quotes a disillusioned English professor thus: "I know that the reading of Homer, Dante, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, or Yeats is of great and unique value not because of any argument, not from any theory, nor from training, but rather from deeply felt experience." This is a great disappointment. It turns out that the self-appointed guardian of truth favors belief over knowledge. And we find that the critic of the professoriat is happy to have some professors impose their own deeply felt experience upon the curriculum--provided, that is, that they don't ask any awkward questions about the canon.

Sykes thus gradually erodes his own position. Beginning with an important and passionate critique of the abuse of professorial power, he then shifts to an examination of the increasingly obscure and specialized nature of academic knowledge. So far, so good. But then the study of popular culture and the use of theory in the study of art and literature are taken together as case studies designed to expose the professors as ridiculous fools. The move is illegitimate and undermines the argument, since the new approaches to culture are partially designed to engage with the real interests and experiences of students. Missing this point, Sykes is, in no time at all, defending the academy--that is, the conservative, elitist, atheoretical academy--in its efforts to sustain the intellectually indefensible privileging of certain elite Western cultural forms over others. Soon he has made the disastrous shift into straightforward antiintellectualism (we defend Eng Lit not on any rational or theoretical grounds, but because we feel like it), which robs his critique of the professors of much of its credibility. In the end, he presents not argument but an insulting travesty of debate that would earn any of my students a very poor grade indeed.

ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education by Charles J. Sykes, Regnery Gateway, $18.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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