Being a Student - Living on the Edge of Evaluation

Two months ago, as the winter semester wound to its close, I read an intriguing note on miscommunication and measurement in grad school by William Tozier. He wrote

The point being: We often seem to forget how important issues of pragmatics and culture are in the pedagogic cycle. Instructors know the damned answer. The older the student is, the more confidence the instructor should have that the student also knows the damned answer. What an advancedinstructor should be doing is looking for cues that somewhere in that stranger’s head is a cultural framework and body of knowledge that together will suffice in the future. Maybe (for some weird reason we shouldn’t dwell upon) that graduate student won’t end up being a professor… I suppose… but in the meantime, a mentor should be seeing numerous cues that the student will soon be able to talk the talk, even outside this protected, nurturing creche that is graduate school.

So, two objectives: knowledge and communication.

To which I say, right on. The academy is all about acculturation and evaluation. And the evaluation never stops. There’s always another class to pass, another paper to be written and reviewed, another grant to pursue. Business felt a bit different. There’s always another customer to meet, another proposal to write or respond to, always another person to be hired. But there’s also a lot of room for slack. Blame may be placed but it seems like failure is less individual, more global or team based.

Being a student is a much stranger ontological position. You’re definitely not a member of the faculty, and you’re not yet a member of a profession. It’s a liminal position. I certainly feel in-between, uncertain about the future, not quite sure how to handle the present. Maybe it’s part of being in a master’s program as opposed to a PhD. Or perhaps it’s even worse in a PhD program.

Just last week Notional Slurry pointed me to a related post on academic recognition at Slaves of Academe. This essay links through to another commentary at the Chronicle of Higher Ed by Gary Olson about the need for more recognition in the academy. Olson’s main point is that the financial rewards of the academy are small, so the non-financial rewards of recognition need to be given more prominence. Olson claims that this focus on recognition is more common in the academy than business, but I have to disagree. After all it’s books like this that get shelved in the management section. In the end talking about recognition is just another way of ignoring the economics of the situation.

But the politics of recognition in the university are wrapped up in both economic and symbolic values. Olson cites the “stingy” nature of the reluctance to extend recognition to colleagues in the university, but really goes no further in exploring this phenomenon. Extending or refusing recognition is a game of power, played most often by those with something to prove or something to lose, and if you don’t know the rules of the game, you are toast. The simple fact of the matter is that colleagues and deans and provosts use the carrot and the stick in enforcing the accepted norms and guidelines of the institution and the profession.

Could it be that Stanley Fish’s argument about academics is right, that we are masochists because it makes us feel better about ourselves, our sacrifices turning us into morally superior beings? But moreover, what cultural glitch, what retardation of civilization, what missed step in human evolution, legitimizes this approach? The unspoken ghost rattling its chains in Olson’s commentary regarding the withholding of recognition, present but unnamed, is both the human capacity for unkindness and specifically how that tendency plays out in the academy. People are mean, we know that, but so many of us can’t reach the point of drawing a line: I will eat shit until this point. As the Fierceness was once fond of saying about academia, “These motherfuckers want you to eat shit, and not only eat shit, but smile while you’re doing it.” And I think that’s about right, depressingly enough. I’m a realist: I know you have to eat some shit sometime to survive in any institutional context. But we don’t have to accept that bargain completely and exclusively, in spite of the fact that many of us feel trapped by the dialectics of labour, exploitation, and elusive agency, even as we attempt to resist this sadistic game. Humiliation is part of it, if not the game itself.

Reading stuff like this puts me off the academy for a while, but I still come back. Something here is still worth it. I like to think it’s the education, the temporary freedom to learn new things without the immediate demands for a economic reward. It’s a way of deferring the ‘real world’ (which, in this case, means money) for a chance to satisfy your curiosity. There’s a value in that. I just wish that there were more ways for us to obtain that value than through a university.