The Dangerous Academic is an Extinct Species

If these ever existed at all, they are now deader than dodos…

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It was curiosity, not stupidity that killed the Dodo. For too long, we have held to the unfair myth that the flightless Mauritian bird became extinct because it was too dumb to understand that it was being killed. But as Stefan Pociask points out in “What Happened to the Last Dodo Bird?”, the dodo was driven into extinction partly because of its desire to learn more about a new, taller, two-legged creature who disembarked onto the shores of its native habitat: “Fearless curiosity, rather than stupidity, is a more fitting description of their behavior.”

Curiosity does have a tendency to get you killed. The truly fearless don’t last long, and the birds who go out in search of new knowledge are inevitably the first ones to get plucked. It’s always safer to stay close to the nest.

Contrary to what capitalism’s mythologizers would have you believe, the contemporary world does not heap its rewards on those with the most creativity and courage. In fact, at every stage of life, those who venture beyond the safe boundaries of expectation are ruthlessly culled. If you’re a black kid who tends to talk back and call bullshit on your teachers, you will be sent to a special school. If you’re a transgender teenager like Leelah Alcorn in Ohio, and you unapologetically defy gender norms, they’ll make you so miserable that you kill yourself. If you’re Eric Garner, and you tell the police where they can stick their B.S. “loose cigarette” tax, they will promptly choke you to death. Conformists, on the other hand, usually do pretty well for themselves. Follow the rules, tell people what they want to hear, and you’ll come out just fine.

Becoming a successful academic requires one hell of a lot of ass-kissing and up-sucking. You have to flatter and impress. The very act of applying to graduate school to begin with is an exercise in servility: please deem me worthy of your favor. In order to rise through the ranks, you have to convince people of your intelligence and acceptability, which means basing everything you do on a concern for what other people think. If ever you find that your conclusions would make your superiors despise you (say, for example, if you realized that much of what they wrote was utter irredeemable manure), you face a choice: conceal your true self or be permanently consigned to the margins.

The idea of a “dangerous” academic is therefore somewhat self-contradictory to begin with. The academy could, potentially, be a place for unfettered intellectual daring. But the most daring and curious people don’t end up in the academy at all. These days, they’ve probably gone off and done something more interesting, something that involves a little bit less deference to convention and detachment from the material world. We can even see this in the cultural archetype of the Professor. The Professor is always a slightly harrumphy—and always white and male—individual, with scuffed shoes and jackets with leather elbows, hidden behind a mass of seemingly disorganized books. He is brilliant but inaccessible, and if not effeminate, certainly effete. But bouncing with ideas, so many ideas. There is nothing particularly menacing about such a figure, certainly nothing that might seriously threaten the existing arrangements of society. Of ideas he has plenty. Of truly dangerous ones, none at all.

If anything, the university has only gotten less dangerous in recent years. Campuses like Berkeley were once centers of political dissent. There was open confrontation between students and the state. In May of 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State. Ten days later, police at the historically black Jackson State University fired into a crowd of students, killing two. At Cornell in 1969, armed black students took over the student union building in a demand for recognition and reform, part of a pattern of serious upheaval.

But over the years the university became corporatized. It became a job training center rather than an educational institution. Academic research became progressively more specialized, narrow, technical, and obscure. (The most successful scholarship is that which seems to be engaged with serious social questions, but does not actually reach any conclusions that would force the Professor to leave his office.)

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The ideas that do get produced have also become more inaccessible, with research inevitably cloaked behind the paywalls of journals that cost astronomical sums of money. At the cheaper end, the journal Cultural Studies charges individuals $201 for just the print edition, and charges institutions $1,078 for just the online edition. The science journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta costs $20,000, which makes Cultural Studies look like a bargain. (What makes the pricing especially egregious is that these journals are created mostly with free labor, as academics who produce articles are almost never paid for them.) Ideas in the modern university are not free and available to all. They are in fact tethered to a vast academic industrial complex, where giant publishing houses like Elsevier make massive profits off the backs of researchers.

Furthermore, the academics who produce those ideas aren’t exactly at liberty to think and do as they please. The overwhelming “adjunctification” of the university has meant that approximately 76% of professors… aren’t professors at all, but underpaid and overworked adjuncts, lecturers, and assistants. And while conditions for adjuncts are slowly improving, especially through more widespread unionization, their place in the university is permanently unstable. This means that no adjunct can afford to seriously offend. To make matters worse, adjuncts rely heavily on student evaluations to keep their positions, meaning that their classrooms cannot be places to heavily contest or challenge students’ politics. Instructors could literally lose their jobs over even the appearance of impropriety. One false step—a video seen as too salacious, or a political opinion held as oppressive—could be the end of a career. An adjunct must always be docile and polite.

All of this means that university faculty are less and less likely to threaten any aspect of the existing social or political system. Their jobs are constantly on the line, so there’s a professional risk in upsetting the status quo. But even if their jobs were safe, the corporatized university would still produce mostly banal ideas, thanks to the sycophancy-generating structure of the academic meritocracy. But even if truly novel and consequential ideas were being produced, they would be locked away behind extortionate paywalls.

The corporatized university also ends up producing the corporatized student. Students worry about doing anything that may threaten their job prospects. Consequently, acts of dissent have become steadily de-radicalized. On campuses these days, outrage and anger is reserved for questions like, “Is this sushi an act of cultural appropriation?” When student activists do propose ways to “radically” reform the university, it tends to involve adding new administrative offices and bureaucratic procedures, i.e. strengthening the existing structure of the university rather than democratizing it. Instead of demanding an increase in the power of students, campus workers, and the untenured, activists tend to push for symbolic measures that universities happily embrace, since they do not compromise the existing arrangement of administrative and faculty power.

It’s amusing, then, that conservatives have long been so paranoid about the threat posed by U.S. college campuses. The American right has an ongoing fear of supposedly arch-leftist professors brainwashing nubile and impressionable young minds into following sinister leftist dictates. Since massively popular books like Roger Kimball’s 1990 Tenured Radicals and Dinesh D’Souza’s 1992 Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race on Campus, colleges have been seen as hotbeds of Marxist indoctrination that threaten the civilized order. This is a laughable idea, for the simple reason that academics are the very opposite of revolutionaries: they intentionally speak to minuscule audiences rather than the masses (on campus, to speak of a “popular” book is to deploy a term of faint disdain) and they are fundamentally concerned with preserving the security and stability of their own position. This makes them deeply conservative in their day-to-day acts, regardless of what may come out of their mouths. (See the truly pitiful lack of support among Harvard faculty when the university’s dining hall workers went on strike for slightly higher wages. Most of the “tenured radicals” couldn’t even be bothered to sign a petition supporting the workers, let alone march in the streets.)

But left-wing academics are all too happy to embrace the conservatives’ ludicrous idea of professors as subversives. This is because it reassures them that they are, in fact, consequential, that they are effectively opposing right-wing ideas, and that they need not question their own role. The “professor-as-revolutionary” caricature serves both the caricaturist and the professor. Conservatives can remain convinced that students abandon conservative ideas because they are being manipulated, rather than because reading books and learning things makes it more difficult to maintain right-wing prejudices. And liberal professors get to delude themselves into believing they are affecting something.

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Today, in what many call “Trump’s America,” the idea of universities as sites of “resistance” has been renewed on both the left and right. At the end of 2016, Turning Point USA, a conservative youth group, created a website called Professor Watchlist, which set about listing academics it considered dangerously leftist. The goal, stated on the Turning Point site, is “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

Some on the left are delusional enough to think that professors as a class can and should be presenting a united front against conservatism. At a recent University of Chicago event, a document was passed around from Refusefascism.org titled, “A Call to Professors, Students and All in Academia,” calling on people to “Make the University a Zone of Resistance to the Fascist Trump Regime and the Coming Assault on the Academy.”

Many among the professorial class seem to want to do exactly this, seeing themselves as part of the intellectual vanguard that will serve as a bulwark against Trumpism. George Yancy, a professor of philosophy and race studies at Emory University, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, titled “I Am A Dangerous Professor.” Yancy discussed his own inclusion on the Professor Watchlist, before arguing that he is, in fact, dangerous:

“In my courses, which the watchlist would like to flag as ‘un-American’ and as ‘leftist propaganda,’ I refuse to entertain my students with mummified ideas and abstract forms of philosophical self-stimulation. What leaves their hands is always philosophically alive, vibrant and filled with urgency. I want them to engage in the process of freeing ideas, freeing their philosophical imaginations. I want them to lose sleep over the pain and suffering of so many lives that many of us deem disposable. I want them to become conceptually unhinged, to leave my classes discontented and maladjusted…Bear in mind that it was in 1963 that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. raised his voice and said: ‘I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination.’… I refuse to remain silent in the face of racism, its subtle and systemic structure. I refuse to remain silent in the face of patriarchal and sexist hegemony and the denigration of women’s bodies.”

He ends with the words:

“Well, if it is dangerous to teach my students to love their neighbors, to think and rethink constructively and ethically about who their neighbors are, and how they have been taught to see themselves as disconnected and neoliberal subjects, then, yes, I am dangerous, and what I teach is dangerous.”

Of course, it’s not dangerous at all to teach students to “love their neighbors,” and Yancy knows this. He wants to simultaneously possess and devour his cake: he is doing nothing that anyone could possibly object to, yet he is also attempting to rouse his students to overthrow the patriarchy. He suggests that his work is so uncontroversial that conservatives are silly to fear it (he’s just teaching students to think!), but also places himself in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was trying to radically alter the existing social order. His teaching can be revolutionary enough to justify Yancy spending time as a philosophy professor during the age of Trump, but benign enough for the Professor Watchlist to be an act of baseless paranoia.

Much of the revolutionary academic resistance to Trump seems to consist of spending a greater amount of time on Twitter. Consider the case of George Ciccariello-Maher, a political scientist at Drexel University who specializes in Venezuela. In December of 2016, Ciccariello-Maher became a minor cause célèbre on the left after getting embroiled in a flap over a tweet. On Christmas Eve, for who only knows what reason, Ciccariello-Maher tweeted “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide.” Conservatives became enraged, and began calling upon Drexel to fire him. Ciccariello-Maher insisted he had been engaged in satire, although nobody could understand what the joke was intended to be, or what the tweet even meant in the first place. After Drexel disowned Ciccariello-Maher’s words, a petition was launched in his defense. Soon, Ciccariello-Maher had lawyered up, Drexel confirmed that his job was safe, and the whole kerfuffle was over before the nation’s half-eaten leftover Christmas turkeys had been served up into sandwiches and casseroles.

Ciccariello-Maher continues to spend a great deal of time on Twitter, where he frequently issues macho tributes to violent political struggle, and postures as a revolutionary. But despite his temporary status as a martyr for the cause of academic freedom, one who terrifies the reactionaries, there was nothing dangerous about his act. He hadn’t really stirred up a hornet’s nest; after all, people who poke actual bees occasionally get bee stings. A more apt analogy is that he had gone to the zoo to tap on the glass in the reptile house, or to throw twigs at some tired crocodiles in a concrete pool. (When they turned their rheumy eyes upon him, he ran from the fence, screaming that dangerous predators were after him.) U.S. academics who fancy themselves involved in revolutionary political struggles are trivializing the risks faced by actual political dissidents around the world, including the hundreds of environmental activists who have been murdered globally for their efforts to protect indigenous land.

“University faculty are less and less likely to threaten any aspect of the existing social or political system…”

Of course, it’s true that there are still some subversive ideas on university campuses, and some true existing threats to academic and student freedom. Many of them have to do with Israel or labor organizing. In 2014, Steven Salaita was fired from a tenured position at the University of Illinois for tweets he had made about Israel. (After a protracted lawsuit, Salaita eventually reached a settlement with the university.) Fordham University tried to ban a Students for Justice in Palestine group, and the University of California Board of Regents attempted to introduce a speech code that would have punished much criticism of Israel as “hate speech.” The test of whether your ideas are actually dangerous is whether you are rewarded or punished for expressing them.

In fact, in terms of danger posed to the world, the corporatized university may itself be more dangerous than any of the ideas that come out of it.

In Hyde Park, where I live, the University of Chicago seems ancient and venerable at first glance. Its Ye Olde Kinda Sorta Englande architecture, built in 1890 to resemble Oxbridge, could almost pass for medieval if one walked through it at dusk. But the institution is in fact deeply modern, and like Columbia University in New York, it has slowly absorbed the surrounding neighborhood, slicing into older residential areas and displacing residents in landgrab operations. Despite being home to one of the world’s most prestigious medical and research schools, the university refused for many years to open a trauma center to serve the city’s South Side, which had been without access to trauma care. (The school only relented in 2015, after a long history of protests.) The university ferociously guards its myriad assets with armed guards on the street corners, and enacts massive surveillance on local residents (the university-owned cinema insists on examining bags for weapons and food, a practice I have personally experienced being selectively conducted in a racially discriminatory manner). In the university’s rapacious takeover of the surrounding neighborhood, and its treatment of local residents—most of whom are of color—we can see what happens when a university becomes a corporation rather than a community institution. Devouring everything in the pursuit of limitless expansion, it swallows up whole towns.

The corporatized university, like corporations generally, is an uncontrollable behemoth, absorbing greater and greater quantities of capital and human lives, and churning out little of long-term social value. Thus Yale University needlessly decided to open a new campus in Singapore despite the country’s human rights record and restrictions on political speech, and New York University decided to needlessly expand to Abu Dhabi, its new UAE campus built by low-wage workers under brutally repressive conditions. The corporatized university serves nobody and nothing except its own infinite growth. Students are indebted, professors lose job security, surrounding communities are surveilled and displaced. That is something dangerous.

Left professors almost certainly sense this. They see themselves disappearing, the campus becoming a steadily more stifling environment. Posturing as a macho revolutionary is, like all displays of machismo, driven partially by a desperate fear of one’s impotence. They know they are not dangerous, but they are happy to play into the conservative stereotype. But the “dangerous academic” is like the Dodo in 1659, a decade before its final sighting and extinction: almost nonexistent. And the more universities become like corporations, the fewer and fewer of these unique birds will be left. Curiosity kills, and those who truly threaten the inexorable logic of the neoliberal university are likely to end up extinct.

Illustrations by Chris Matthews.

Author: Yasmin Nair

is a writer, academic, and activist in Chicago. She is a co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the Volunteer Policy Director of Gender JUST.