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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A fragmentation of the academy

I had a dream last night that everyone in my French class was asked to introduce themselves and explain their interests, and several women announced quite convincingly that they were taking French because they were working on their PhDs in ballet. The implausibility of this did not fully register with me until I actually arrived in class this morning and heard them talking about their English comps.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On varieties of professionalism

Although the category "from today's Maroon" has long since been retired from this blog, I thought this news would be a good occasion for revival:
President Robert Zimmer is dating a faculty member after separating from his wife and moving out of the President’s house in September. Zimmer’s wife, Terese, is a director at the Urban Education Institute and will continue to live in the president’s house in Zimmer’s absence...Crain’s Chicago Business connected Classics professor Bartsch with Zimmer in an article Friday.
Now, some might react to this revelation with sentiments like "disgust" or "indignation" and think maybe cheating on one's wife with a colleague is not "appropriate behavior" for a university president, but these people would clearly be wrong. As everyone in this article insists, all the policies designed to keep things under control have been complied with:
Zimmer notified administrators and trustees about his relationship, University spokesman Steve Kloehn said, to prevent even the appearance of impropriety...Alper said Zimmer handled the situation professionally. “President Zimmer has been forthcoming with me and the board regarding his family situation. The president has gone out of his way to ensure that there is no conflict of interest, or appearance of a conflict, stemming from his personal life. I am satisfied that his actions are in accord with the policies of the University,” Alper said. “President Zimmer has my full support.”
This is great news. Now that making your embarrassing and destructive behavior public is all it takes to "prevent even the appearance of impropriety," be "professional," and get support from one's bosses, the next coworker of mine who annoys me will be getting punched in the face. But no worries! I will disclose the incident to my superiors so as to be in compliance with policies, and then everything will be hunky-dory.

Right?

Monday, February 15, 2010

The opposite of all my arguments having already been made by other people

Coming up with an argument so original that no one has ever written anything about it before, but only, as it turns out after weeks and weeks of research, because it's totally wrong.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Nietzschean university

Blog peeps who are still reading this, hello. I am returning briefly from opinionizing hiatus to comment on this Alabama horror show and then retreat again into the silent ether. Here is why: as a devoted reader of University Diaries, I have developed a perverse but ongoing interest in varieties of academic frauds and the ways they illuminate the workings of higher ed more clearly than all the careful rule-abiders combined. One species of this genus is the superstar with a troubling or even criminal past that is forgiven in the name of intellectual potential.

Examples of this species include Gina Grant, Billy Cottrell, and now, Amy Bishop. The particular circumstances of each differ (including the extent to which the universities involved could or did know these people's histories), but what they share is the benefit of passing through an education system (let's call it "meritocracy") which has so totally divorced intellect from character that it is willing to excuse even murder in order to assure the success of those who demonstrate potential brilliance. Genius is a great thing, we learn from these cases, a thing far above the moral order and the petty institutions of punishment and social stigma in place only for deviants too stupid to think their way out of them. In fact, it is possible that the moral order only exists to keep the low-IQ crowd from acting out.

In a rare display of principle, Harvard revoked Gina Grant's admission when her past was discovered, but Tufts evidently had no qualms against admitting students guilty of a little bit of murder in their youth. Billy Cottrell may have blown up some cars, but we cannot let that bit of tomfoolery "deprive society of the theoretical advancements only a person of Cottrell’s intellect can make" say our great scientists, who vigorously oppose his imprisonment on account of how geniuses are above the law. And now Amy Bishop, who as a Chronicle blogger writes (and intelligent points in the Chronicle may be as rare as elite schools making moral decisions, so savor while you can), succeeded "because she was smart and because someone was willing to take care of her, the system forgave her--only to have her attack and kill those who represented another kind of system, one that did not reward her to her satisfaction, twenty-four years later." There are of course many other excuses floated for these people--abusive mothers, brainwashing eco-ideologues, the "pressure-cooker" tenure system--but all of them seem to me to excuse intellectual potential at all costs.*

I don't know enough about the history of "genius" to know quite where this phenomenon's roots are buried, but there is one incident that suggests a germ. As all UChicago first-years know, there were once two nice boys in the College who took their Nietzsche a little bit too seriously and decided to go beyond good and evil one day with a chisel and a local kid. And when they came up just short of success, their clever lawyer asked, "Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? … it is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university."** A truer (and less intentionally so, at that) description of this eludes me. No wonder all the small-time academic frauds like Suzanne Pomey and Kaavya Viswanathan end up in law school.

*I'm sure many people with histories of youthful legal infractions or character flaws (Miss Self-Important of the brief high school suspension incident among them) turn out ok as adults, proving correct the universities who admit them hoping they will change their ways given enough academic stimulation. And yes, it is also true that universities should not obsess over superficial demonstrations of good character like volunteerism as some kind of antidote to the intellect/character divide, since even serial killers can probably figure out how to stuff a resume with humanitarian displays. These caveats aside however, I think the problem of excusing heinously immoral behavior in the name of genius persists.
**Ok, yes, this is totes from the Wiki page, but I also skimmed the text of the speech before I decided to stick with the quote that Wiki thinks is most telling. Archival research, check.