The Academic Vocation

1 June 2009, 1454 EDT

I spent the weekend in Jyväskylä, Finland, serving as the “opponent” — external examiner — on a dissertation about the first George Bush’s foreign policy towards Europe, and particularly the rhetorical justification of that foreign policy. Pekka Korhonen, supervisor of the dissertation and “custos” at the ceremony, is on my right in this photo; Aapo Jumppanen, the student who successfully defended his dissertation on Saturday, is on my left. Each of them is wearing a ceremonial Finnish academic outfit, or “frack,” as specified in the official regulations that I received upon agreeing to serve as Aapo’s opponent:

1. The doctoral candidate, custos and opponent should all wear similar type of clothes. Men should wear either a tailcoat with a black waistcoat or a dark suit; women should wear a black, long-sleeved dress with a small neckline without a hat. All can also wear the ceremonial gown of the University. The doctoral candidate chooses the style of clothing after talking to the custos. The opponent can also wear the ceremonial gown of his/her home university (not Finnish). The use of ceremonial gown is agreed upon with the porters of the administration building.

After successfully completing and defending his dissertation Aapo is now authorized to wear a doctor’s hat, which is a kind of black silk top-hat with the university logo on the front. (Pekka has one, and carried it at the ceremony as specified further on in the official regulations, but he doesn’t usually wear it on his head. This is apparently normal in Finland.) The regulations go on to prescribe certain verbal formulas that must be used at various times during the defense, when particular people may and must stand up or sit down, etc. It’s very elaborate academic theatre.

Remember, this is for a defense, not a commencement ceremony. This is an examination, and the candidate can fail if her or his answers are not judged satisfactory by the opponent (who has the sole discretion as to whether the dissertation is ultimately accepted as a piece of scholarship worthy of someone who is going to receive a doctorate as a result of it). As a result, the staging and the costuming adds to the gravity of the event, serving as a visual reminder that whatever academics are doing when they produce and defend their scholarly works, it’s not quite the same thing as we might expect to occur in a non-academic setting. That’s a reminder that we academics — particularly, perhaps, we U.S. academics — could use more of, because it underscores the distinctiveness of our endeavor vis-a-vis the worlds of business, government, or political activism, worlds that are continually threatening to absorb the academy and impose a very different logic on all of us.

Several weeks ago in response to one of Peter’s posts about hiring difficulties in academia, I promised a post of my own on the state of the contemporary academy — especially focusing on the question of whether one ought to go into academia, given Peter’s oft-expressed opinion here and elsewhere that the answer is a pretty unequivocal “no.” In fact, I don’t disagree that the answer for most people is and should be “no”; even moreso than for other professions, academia is simply not for everyone. I regularly give people, especially undergraduate students, asking whether they should go into academia the same excellent advice as my wife received when she first began thinking about going to seminary: if you can picture yourself being truly happy doing something else, then by all means go do it. Only go to seminary — or into academia — if you can’t imagine yourself not doing it and being happy. You do this because you have to, not necessarily because you want to; this is a vocation, not just a job.

For me the academic vocation, as I know I’ve said here many times before, means a dedication to teaching students and producing knowledge the worth of which stems mostly from its internal consistency and philosophical coherence. It’s a vocation rather than a job because, as Weber argued, it’s a basic orientation of one’s whole life rather than simply some set of skills that one deploys when necessary. To be oriented towards the academic vocation means to live for the systematic construction of scientific (in the broad sense) knowledge and the creative pedagogy by which spaces for letting learn are opened. The considerations of efficacy and efficiency that dominate most of the other spheres of modern life are, of necessity, set aside in favor of a concern with the rigor of reason, the clarity of vision, and the mystery of intellectual encounter: all those things that the hackneyed phrase “the life of the mind” doesn’t even begin to cover. There’s simply no room here for cost-effectiveness, or efficient delivery of information, or any of those other worldly considerations; there is only, as Weber said, “devotion to the subject.”

If this sounds like a religious vocation, that’s no accident. Weber deliberately used that resonance of the term in his writings, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s appropriate that the companies that make academic robes also make ministerial vestments, I think, since in both cases the garments serve to highlight the otherworldliness of the activities for which they are worn. They’re kind of a public notification that we’re definitely not in Kansas (or official Washington, or the corporate boardroom, or the NGO headquarters) anymore; we’ve stepped outside of and back from those realms, at least temporarily, so as to gain a bit of perspective on them. What we do when we operate as academics is to take those mundane relams and the logics that inform them and subject them to critical examination; that’s very similar to what ministers and priests do when they reflect on the secular world from their own distinct religious perspective, but the difference is that for academics the important thing isn’t — or at least, isn’t just — to render a transcendental normative critique of the actually-existing world, but to systematically produce knowledge of that world. Both ministers and academics also help their students by creating spaces for encounter and thinking and learning, spaces that are in the first instance distinguished by their separation, even temporarily, from the flow of everyday life. In that way, academics and ministers/priests are engaged in activities with a close family resemblance to one another.

Now, i am not so naive as to ingore the facts that a) what I have just presented is an ideal-type, a utopia of the inner logic of the academic vocation that is rarely realized in practice; and that b) academics have often functioned as spokespersons for one or another mundane segment of society, or used their academic post and the prestige that accompanies it as a platform for the pursuit of worldy goals; and that c) too much otherworldliness can lead to stultified doctrines, creakily arbitrary obstacles to fresh insight, and and bitter interpersonal politics (the old saying that the fights within academia are so intense because the stakes are so low rings very true, as long as we understand “low” to mean “low from the perspective of the mundane world”). Academia’s not perfect, and it’s even moe imperfect now than it was when I first started doing this fifteen years ago — budgets are tighter, and there’s more pressure to demonstrate productivity than used to be the case. And tenure seems to be dying, as more and more universities move towards contingent “flexible” staffing solutions — an unwelcome intervention of a business logic into the academy, but one that virtually no institution can avoid these days unless they somehow managed to keep their endowment safe from the general financial market collapse (and even some that did see an opportunity to save money, and so they jump on the bandwagon even though they don’t actually need to do so). There are proxy battles of the manifestly absurd kind, in which a political division gets sublimated into an argument about curriculum design that gets further manifested in a clash about how to run faculty-meetings or who gets to invite speakers to campus for what purpose. And students, especially doctoral students, sometimes get caught in the middle of all of that.

No, academia is not a pretty place sometimes, and it’s not universally living up to its vocational demands. But — and this is a very big “but,” something that probably ought to be italicized and capitalized and bolded like so: BUTthere is no other place where we even come close to those demands. In business, the bottom line is “make money.” In government, it’s “serve constituents and get re-elected.” In activism or policy analysis, “influence decision-makers.” All of those make it much, much harder to fulfill the academic bottom line: “get a critical perspective on the actually-existing present.” We might never quite achieve it in academia because of all of the inroads made by the mundane world — both those incurions that we can see, and those that maybe we can’t see at first but that later get pointed out to us when we engage in the self-reflection that ought to be central to the academic life, both for individuals and for institutions — but at least we have, so to speak, constitutive sanction to try.

That kind of permission is a rare and precious thing, something that we ought to be very conscious of sustaining by the very act of engaging in the rites and rituals of academic life. These days in U.S. academia we relegate our robes — our uniforms — to commencement; we would never think of wearing them to a dissertation defense, because we often forget ourselves and fall into thinking that what goes on when we discuss a dissertation is the same kind of thing that goes on when we discuss a business-plan or a marketing strategy or the draft of a political speech. It’s not. Those other, mundane settings are dominated by the logics of efficiency and efficacy, and having an effect is the primary goal. Not so in a dissertation defense, where the logic ought to be about the rigorous consistency of the account and the author’s ability to express and articulate a set of philosophical considerations that are — at least in the social sciences — then translated into analytical tools for the interrogation of the actually-existing world. “Efficacy” and “efficiency” have no place here. Wearing medieval robes helps to underscore that fact, and serves as a visual reminder of our distinct academic vocation: this is not a boardroom, this is not a campaigh headquarters, this is not a shopping center, this is a space of learning.

And that, despite the financial and employment challenges, despite the imperfections of the colleges and universities that actually exist, despite the continual need to fight to preserve what is and should be distinctive about the academic life, is why one goes into academia. There are no other good reasons. You do it because you have to — and because the world, even though it may not acknowledge it all the time, needs some segent of society to systematically reflect on it, preserve its traditional cultural and intellectual endowment, and envision alternate possibilities for its development. That’s the vocation — and if you, like me, can “do no other,” then welcome aboard. I never said it would be easy.