What's wrong with academia

James G. Carrier (jgc5p@UVA.PCMAIL.VIRGINIA.EDU)
Thu, 3 Mar 1994 07:21:17 EST

3 March, 1994


The discussion of what is wrong in academia leads me to raise some issues
that seem not to be attracting much attention in the replies that I have

1. The first issue is positive discrimination. First a bit of personal
background. I am a white, middle-class, middle-age male with an excellent
list of publications (i.e., with what is supposed to count as `good
credentials'). I am looking for a real job in a respectable institution, and
have some experience with the disadvantages of my ascribed status. It does
not make me happy to be told that I am too male and too white. However, that
unhappiness relates only to my desire to get a job. I recognize that there
are real advantages at the collective level in employing more people who are
not like me in academia (as elsewhere). Not least, the generation of a demand
for people other than white males will encourage such people to undergo the
training necessary to make themselves suited for those jobs, seek those jobs
and get them. (I am assuming that the academic job market is not materially
different from other job markets, where increased demand leads fairly quickly
to increased supply.)
In other words, I am less impressed than some others seem to be by the
argument that we should elevate process over result. The process by which
departments decide who to hire may be discriminatory (`No White Males need
apply') and may thereby violate a cultural value of individual equity and
opportunity. However, the collective result in terms of academic employment
is desirable. `Even-handedness' is no less suited as a device for iniquity
than is `discrimination': The law in its impartiality prohibits both the rich
and the poor from sleeping under bridges.

2. The second point is whether white, middle-class males can adequately
represent (I believe that phrase was used) the diversity of the population of
the United States. Embedded in this point is a set of assumptions that are
more problematic than they seem at first glance.
If `adequately represent' is to be taken in a statistical sense, then
the answer is, trivially, no: an academic department that is 80 percent
white, middle-class males can not represent the population of the United
States. To achieve that representation, dig out the appropriate information
from the census and hire accordingly.
If `adequately represent' means `analyse and discuss the social location
of', then I see no reason why any given white, middle-class male is debarred
from representing. Occupying a social location does not, so far as I can
tell, make one privileged as an analyst of that location. I live in Virginia.
I know less about Virginia than I do about London shopkeepers in 1800 and
than I do about Manus villagers in the 1980s. The mere fact that I have lived
over half of my life in Virginia does not make me particularly qualified to
`represent' Virginia.
Rather, the notion of adequate representation seems to rest on two
problematic assumptions.
One is that social identities vary in the degree that they embody an
essential nature, with race and gender being the obvious candidates for high
embodiment. Obviously these are social identities that get a lot of play.
However, I would like to see careful studies of the importance of other
social identities in people's lives before I list these as the only ones
worth worrying about. (And I would suggest that people think carefully before
deciding that these are the only ones that are worth worrying about.)
Further, I am made nervous by the assumption that there is something inherent
in race and gender that justifies privileging them in this way. Is (1) being
black (e.g.) or being female _per se_ the issue? Or, (2) is it being a member
of a social category that has been defined and treated in certain derogatory
ways? Or, (3) is it being a person who has experienced a certain sort of
social interaction to a certain degree? If it is not the first of these
options (or not _primarily_ the first), then we have to ask certain
questions. For instance, if it is the second, then we need to look for what
other social categories may be pertinent (class is an obvious candidate).
Alternatively, if it is the third, then the very notion of category itself
becomes suspect, except as a useful but dangerous and essentializing
shorthand for more complex social patterns that are variables rather than
essences. (Sorry to go on about this, but essentialism is running strongly
through this correspondence, and it worries me.)
The other problematic assumption is that representation entails
conveying some largely ineffable feeling, some sense of `what it feels like
from here' or `how things look from here'. I say that this is `largely
ineffable', for if it is not, then it is open to the regular techniques of
competent scholarly analysis and can be represented by any competent scholar
who has done the research.
This aspect of adequate representation, then, seems to fall back on both
the notion of essential categories (but again, only those categories that are
socially recognized and approved as categories -- lower class again being the
obvious contrary case) and the notion that only insiders can know what the
category means.

I raise these points in my usual contrarian spirit.


James G. Carrier

29, University Circle / Charlottesville, Virginia, 22903
(804) 971-2983 / jgc5p@virginia.edu