every not so often, helen, trust me
Helen DeWitt seems to have been trying to defend Alain de Botton yesterday in a couple of posts on her blog. I’ll admit that it’s a little hard for me to see what she’s getting at – seems to me a lot of goalpost shifting going on there, whereas Caleb Crain’s initial review seems to me perfectly clear. DeWitt seems to want to fault Crain for not recognising that there are forms of work that aren’t compensated. I’m pretty sure he’d be on board with that, but it’s not what he’s getting at. He’s getting at the fact that AdB can’t stop condescending and generally sneering at the workers that he interviews / features in a book as they don’t live up to some sort of silkgloved idealisation that he arrives at by looking at work from a distance…. I see the problem, sure, with the first sentence, but that’s not really the point that’s up for grabs, is it? And her implicit argument that somehow Crain is more at fault for not naming Bourdieu (why Bourdieu in particular rather than any of the other many, many theorists of work?) than De Botton is baffling. Anyway, a bit hard to make sense of, all this. But on the other hand, this paragraph of DeWitt’s is easy to make sense of, and not only to make sense of, but to call it out as bullshit:
Every so often an academic reads several hundred examination scripts and is appalled by the ignorance, the tendentiousness, the lack of sophistication – and so tackles the problem by taking a paid sabbatical and writing a book showing what proper treatment of the subject looks like. What the academic does not do is show how the subject can properly be treated in a 4 45-minute 1000-word essays. Nor does the academic show how his mastery of the material is to be achieved by candidates who are holding down part-time jobs, who can’t buy books, who are kicked out of their halls of residence three times a year to make way for conferences. If one were to give all several hundred candidates a paid sabbatical, and if one were then to permit them to organize treatment of the subject on their own terms, at book length, a substantially higher number might be expected to achieve respectable results. If one simply locked each candidate up with a computer and gave him/her unlimited time to write to a specific word count, a substantially higher number might be expected to achieve respectable results. We don’t do that, so what we see is, unsurprisingly, that a small number of students can both learn under unfavourable conditions and display knowledge coherently under unfavourable conditions.
I understand that this is deployed as some sort of allegorical device, a parallel instance, but… WTF? Hard not to sense a bit of slippage from the footnoted academics mentioned and “the academic” as a generic breed. * But I know, we academics are sooo spoiled. Let me just assure you of a few things, readers:
a) the implied storyline here, despite the fact that DeWitt seems to know of an actual example of this sort of thing happening, is ridiculous. Just to be empirical about it, I’ll knock on my department head’s door today, tell her that I’m still feeling a bit frustrated about the exam scripts I marked a few weeks ago, and ask her if I can take next term off in order to write something that sets the little buggers right about a few things.
b) there are problems with academia, teaching, but the lack of compassion of instructors for students, lack of understanding for the busy lives they lead, is not one that stands out from the bunch. Believe me, we are in solidarity with the students on all of this – it only makes our lives and work harder when they are overworked, bookless, worried about administrative issues, empoverished, and lacking the appropriate amount of time it takes to finish their assignments properly.
c) “What the academic does not do is show how the subject can properly be treated in a 4 45-minute 1000-word essays.” Yes, I don’t spend tons of time writing about that because, in term, I spend oh about 10-15 hours of contact time actually doing that, face to face. And 10-15 hours contact time, as anyone in the business knows, comes along with 20-40 hours non-contact preparation time.
d) We don’t write our books out of frustration with our students. Sorry. I am not sure what was going on where and when DeWitt went to university, and I’m sure the assholery and general poshness runs a bit thicker at the Oxbridge places than elsewhere, but this is simply not the case anywhere I’ve ever been, and I’ve been a lot of places now, very posh and not so posh.
I’m not sure if DeWitt’s going for some sort of complicated performative endorsement of AdB’s blinders-on condescension here, but whatever it is it makes as little sense as either an element of her argument (if there is one… hard to know…) or as an “every so often” bit of jobsite portraiture.
* Where do we find the slippage in question? Note the present tense of the first sentence… and the fact that the two guys mentioned were teaching at the Oxford of yesteryear when they wrote their books, where sure there were poor kids, but probably not the basketcases in bulk needed to make the posh prof / pathetic student body scenario work in the way DeWitt needs it to….