Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Why The Academy Sucks

On the surface this is just another alpha-male, chimpanzee-style spat. A certain Vivek Chibber tried to push Mr. Louis Proyect down a peg, and Mr. Proyect pushed back twice as hard. As Mr. Proyect has the bigger megaphone, he won the confrontation easily.

Now that's really very strange. It turns out that Vivek Chibber (Ph.D., Univ of Wisconsin) works at New York University (NYU) in the sociology department, where he is an associate professor (meaning he has tenure). NYU is one of America's most renowned colleges, where the sticker price for a year of study exceeds $44K. Contrast this illustrious perch with Mr. Proyect's: a man of uncertain (probably non-existent) academic rank, and likely without even a doctorate. My academic colleague (for I am also a professor) should have been able to brush off Mr. Proyect with a flick of his wrist. Instead, he comes across (accurately) as a loser.

Now I've never met Professor Chibber--indeed, I'd never even heard of him until now. I have nothing against him personally. But his plight is so representative of problems in academia that I can't help but use him as an example. He is the author of two books: Locked In Place (2003) and Postcolonial Theory And The Specter Of Capital (2013). The latter is described as
A provocative intellectual assault on the Subalternists' foundational work.

Postcolonial theory has become enormously influential as a framework for understanding the Global South. It is also a school of thought popular because of its rejection of the supposedly universalizing categories of the Enlightenment.
So I went to Wikipedia to look up subaltern and discovered that the concept is part of a much larger category known as Nonsense Theory. That is, it is meaningless to anybody outside the rarefied, reality-deprived, esoteric circles of academe. Nobody is going to read this stuff.

OK--not nobody. It appears that Mr. Proyect reads at least some Nonsense Theory, but he is kind enough to write about it succinctly and clearly on a free blog, omitting only all the extraneous verbosity. For this we mere mortals can be thankful, and for this Mr. Proyect has earned a sizable readership. In other words, he has a megaphone.

Mr. Proyect is an example of an independent scholar. He receives no paycheck and is beholden to no one. His influence resides only in his ability to acquire an audience, and does not depend on credentials or publications. I admire and respect this. Please note--I don't agree with a thing Mr. Proyect says. I think Marxism is nuts, and I haven't watched a movie in two or three years. But wrong and irrelevant are two different things. Mr. Proyect is wrong, but very relevant. Professor Chibber is wrong, and totally irrelevant.

Another more famous example of an independent scholar is Stephen McIntyre, of the Climate Audit blog. Mr. McIntyre (no Ph.D.), more than any other single individual, is responsible for the demise of the global warming movement. Some of us believe he's won the scientific argument, but there is no question that he's won the political argument.

Some academics also become independent scholars--Tyler Cowen comes to mind. Yes, he's a super-credentialed bigwig at George Mason University, but his real influence comes from the blog, Marginal Revolution (that I read religiously). Further, he is co-founder of MRUniversity, which aspires to offer excellent, on-line economics education to a global audience for free. In other words, he's biting the academic hand that feeds him.

So how is it that the overpaid, highly-credentialed, ultra-distinguished Associate Professor Chibber has gotten so far detached from reality to take Nonsense Theory seriously? His problem, ultimately, is the Internet. Back in the good old days, peer review had merit. Print publication was expensive and had to be rationed. The peer review process facilitated that rationing in a reasonably fair way.

But publication on the web is free--there is no reason to ration it, and thus no more reason for peer review. In this environment the bad parts of the peer review process dominate. Peer reviewers are a small circle of like-minded people who referee each other's papers. Peer review is no longer about merit, but instead it's about who you know and how much you flatter them. This has become a glaring problem in climate science (where the peer review process has been discredited), and it leads to Professor Chibber's delusion.

Professor Chibber is talking to the wrong people. Instead of potential referees, he should seek out that larger group of educated citizens who are interested in social progress. In a word, he needs Mr. Proyect's audience. People who read The Unrepentant Marxist will also read the books that Mr. Proyect recommends (just like I choose from Mr. Cowen's suggestions). It's a pity that Professor Chibber has damaged his odds of favorable mention on that blog.

But that's not the worst of it. Independent scholars are self-financing. Mr. Proyect earned an honest living during his career, and Stephen McIntyre served as a mining engineer. By contrast, Professor Chibber is a paid flack, sucking up to the referees and the academy, because without their good offices he'd be out on the street. And ironically, apparently the guy claims to be a revolutionary! Sheesh--I'm more of a revolutionary than he is.

So we have undergraduate students--suckers all--paying up to $44,000 annually to support Professor Chibber's brown-nosing. This is a scandal. Now I have no objection to Professor Chibber writing anything he wants to write, but he has absolutely no business expecting it to be subsidized by 19-year-olds. Fortunately, I think the business model of schools like NYU is broken, and it is plausibly likely that Professor Chibber will end up unemployed at some point. I have nothing personal against him, but I desperately hope that happens soon.

If there is any injustice in this world, it's crackpot college professors living off the backs of the screwed generation.

Addendum: OK--I admit it, I really do dislike academics. This despite the fact that many (most) of my best friends are academics. I consider it a dishonest, disreputable, parasitic profession. Clearly there's an emotional driver behind my attitude. It may be because my career has not been as successful as I wanted it to be, or it may be that I wouldn't want to join any club that would have me as a member. Be that as it may, I could write several essays on Why The Academy Sucks, and will undoubtedly return to this topic in the future.

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