23 August 2014

The Trial of Rebecca Schuman's Tractatus

Rebecca Schuman hates academia so much that she gets paid to write a regular column for Slate.com about it. And she positively hates on anyone who fails to recognize her viewpoint and faun over her logic. Fully realizing that for her the road leading to fame and glory as an education pundit is lined with blazing righteous indignation about all of the problems in higher education she sees and knows can be corrected if we just get rid of all the tenured and tenure-track faculty, who, of course, are egotistical jerks, Schuman writes contempt with unmatched panache and is a leading stylist in the art of derision. She manages almost always to write about problems everyone agrees are problems in ways that makes it seem that she is the only one with the adroit logic to see and solve the problem. Her solution is simple: fire everyone. And probably burn all the libraries too. And destroy the buildings. And ignite effigies of philosophers that do not meet with her approval. And, after all of that, recommend truth and reconciliation commission for adjuncts and students, who have been traumatized by the horror that is the tradition of universities for centuries.
Her latest salvo has been aimed at a problem that everyone loves to hate: the smarmy, self-satisfied, mirror-staring Professor – who Schuman identifies as always being HE – who assigns his own books and forces his students to buy them at an exaggeratedly high cost in order to milk the naïve suckers for every penny they are worth and simultaneously bask in the adulation of their young minds. Nobody – and I mean nobody – likes this guy.
But like so many stereotypes that Schuman roles out to satisfy the anti-intellectualism of her audience and to give herself the opportunity to engage in smug sanctimony, the myth is ever-so-much larger than the reality. But even if HE were not, even if these gigantic and poorly founded myths of the grasping professor were true, so what? Let’s talk about this for a second.
Firstly, Schuman allows that there might be professors in STEM who could have written something so arcane that their book is the only one out there that students can buy. Secondly, she insinuates that adjuncts might have a reasonable case for doing this as well because of their exploitation. She doesn’t mention, of course, that business professors might do this because it makes good business sense, a point that would serve – I presume – of making a pedagogically significant point to business majors. Of course, there are also engineering professors who might write books too that are original and substantive. In other words, the only class of people who work in universities who positively should not assign their monographs are the people Schuman most despises: tenured humanities and social sciences professors. So a rule applies to them, which applies to no one else who works in universities. And Schuman doesn’t have a problem with that. Why?
The presumption she makes is that there really isn’t anything new worth saying in the humanities and social sciences. And, if there is, then surely lots of scholars have said those things, and so all of these works are the ones that students should be given to read. Now that might be the case when it comes to, say Kafka and Wittgenstein, but it is simply not the case in many instances. Consider one of my favorite books – Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and the Historians.
This book is a brilliant anecdote about the nature of historiography. I have no idea if Russell ever assigned it in his own classes – but if he needed to, then he damn well should have done so, because there is no other text like it. Got that? Not one. And his lesson is so clear, so straightforward, and so precise, that the work is absolutely perfect for educating first year students. Get that? The existing literature really might be too challenging for the intended audience. Perish the thought that this might happen. That feat is substantial, and it reveals that Russell has a remarkable sensitivity as a professor to what students need. Oh, and did I mention that the book is also remarkably original in its handling of this old topic? That’s right; it also models excellence in scholarship. But never mind all of that – according to Schuman he’d be a smarmy money-grubbing jerk if he made the mistake of making the students pay for it.
But let’s not stop there. Consider the professor who edited a book, with a class specifically in mind. Schuman is remarkably quiet on this subject in her essay. Would it really be different to assign an expensive edited volume - as for instance The Neurological Patient in History - as opposed to an expensive monograph? I doubt that most students would make the distinction, and they would probably follow Schuman into the ugly wilderness of believing that their professor - in this instance me - was endeavoring to line his or her own pockets. Of course, there are sometimes very good reasons for editing books, not least because you can get world class experts together, give them a unified theme upon which to comment, and then ask them to please write their essays in a way that might be more easily comprehended by undergraduates. Did I mention that they would be the world experts? Perhaps Schuman would see a distinction here between monographs and edited volumes. But her complaint amounts to the same thing. Because editors of books do also get paid when the books are purchased. The nature of royalties is that they tend to flow to the person who does the work. By the way, edited books tend to be more expensive than monographs.
What about anthologies? Imagine a professor assigning students short stories of feminist authors from 1960s Africa. For years, students pay for expensive course packets of photocopied and rare short stories – that the professor found but for which did not hold copyright. After years of tiring of the effort of producing these packets, the professor decides to approach a publisher about putting together a collection for a textbook. The press would immediately understand that the professor was doing this for his or her class, and that fact would likely be one of the reasons that they would agree to publish the work in the first instance. Not only has the professor simplified the work to herself or himself, the cost to the students is now lessened. And guess what: the professor, being a leading expert on the topic (who loves teaching the topic), has also produced a book that contains materials the vast majority of which other scholars were unaware. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
How about this awful scenario? The professor is famous (that is enough to promise Schuman's scorn). Students want to take a class with him precisely because of the work he has done. Let us imagine this hypothetical scenario: the author is a noted scholar of Marx – say, for instance, David Harvey. For the course, he assigns Marx’s Capital and he also assigns his book A Companion to Marx’s Capital Volume 1. Why does he do this? It is easy to understand without any effort at all. He doesn’t want to spend his time lecturing on the context and meaning of Capital (which he does well in the book), but he is aware that students do want to know what he knows about that topic. However, he wants to spend his energy wholly devoted to helping students read and study the text of Capital, which isn’t exactly easy. He does, however, appreciate that students taking the course will want the benefit of his analysis of Marx as well. My God. Suffer the thought that a famous professor, who people do want to learn from because he is famous and is also an outstanding lecturer, might provide his students with the tools for improving their experience in his class.
All of these scenarios happen all of the time. For the thoughtless, such acts are always purely in the search of adulation and cash. But this simply captures how poorly people understand the role of writing in the university. Because what Schuman never respects is this one simple fact: at least these professors CAN write books. It is every bit as easy for students to take classes from people who rely upon extremely expensive, mass-produced factory textbooks. These cost a fortune, are written by people who understand education only as regurgitation, and who sweeten the deal by giving professors all of the supporting materials (powerpoints, exams, quizzes, software, pictures) for free. Presto: professors who use these materials can turn their classrooms into efficient factories. They can parrot the lecture notes someone else wrote for them. They can test students on materials without even being sure of the veracity or logic or correctness of the exams. And they can do so without penalty. Had Schuman written about this problem, then it would be simple enough to thank her heartily for pointing out the disgusting way such horrible and thoughtless and anti-intellectual teaching is promoted every day in the corporate university. But you know – that would require that she write about a real problem. What distinguishes her writing is that she always follows the path of obviousness – imagine if she had advised students to drop courses with textbooks and search out faculty with real publications!
Her thoughtlessness doesn’t stop here. The reality is that most professors – tenured or not – are not the rich scoundrels they are made out to be. Some of them have children with severe disabilities. Some of them have huge and poor families in developing countries. Some of them are single parents. Some of them were poor for years, before they got on the tenure track. And some of them might even want to get rich. Why should professors in the humanities and social sciences have to give up growing their income when no one else does? And why should we blame them when we don’t know their circumstances. The reality is that most professors only know how to do one thing – the thing they write about. Most of them also love the topic enough to write several books on that topic and they desperately want other people to experience their joy. But all of that context is too much nuance for Schuman. She knows best, which is to say that she knows stereotypes and diatribes and innuendo and character assignation but nothing about human beings and social facts.


  1. Stephen, you are on a roll. This essay is brilliant.

    Of course, you couldn't discuss everything, but there's still another reason professors assign their own books—they might feel a debt of gratitude to their publisher. I know I do. In our field there are very few presses willing to publish our research. If we don't support them the remaining few might decide it's not worth their while. For that very reason I no longer assign articles from course packets. Books need to be read, and you know what? Students remember them.

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