What are the duties of reviewing?

So I am contributing a book chapter on transport for a handbook on environmental ethics, and I got a critique of an earlier draft from a philosophy Phd student, who put in all sorts of lovely suggestions, but at the end, in a final comment, says, “I think you need to restructure the whole thing.”

Arrrrrrrrrgh. Now, it’s entirely possible that I have made a mistake in structure, but I re-read the whole thing and I don’t see the need to restructure. And moreover…I would never tell anybody to restructure without suggesting a possible structure that strikes me as an improvement. I got to wondering: is this a field difference? Structure in argument is so important to philosophy; perhaps it would be bad form for a reviewer in that context to tell others how to structure an argument. It’s possible. For me, the “restructure” comment seems a bit facile; of course you can structure an argument multiple different ways. I structured it the way it made sense to me. If it doesn’t make sense to you, tell me why to at least give me a lead on what I might do differently. Or if your own structure is so fabulous, go write that chapter and leave me to mine.

As a reviewer, when I complain about something, I feel some duty to suggest an out. Of course, some things can’t be fixed, but then there are rejections on the one hand and suggested caveats on the other. There are methods fixes. It’s not your job to educate other other authors, but pointing people to possible solutions strikes me as the least a reviewer ought to do.

It’s one of the problems with service-related work in an environment of university corporatism. Reviewers aren’t paid, usually, and as a result, they rather feel like an author and journal editor should be grateful for whatever reviewers feel like giving, and many a time when I am reviewing a particularly problematic piece I, too, get fed up and think “It’s not my job to figure out your problems for you.” And yet something a bit more than “This blows” also strikes me as in order.

I’m going to go teach today because I (still) think teaching is one of the most honorable things I do

Despite American anti-intellectualism, the popular perception that I do nothing of value as a tenured professor, those who are joyously clapping their hands about MOOCs and the “higher education bubble” and their belief that I will be replaced by a recording of Michael Sandel, I still think showing up to work with students is both wonderful and honorable.

Public intellectuals and pastry cooks

So Nicolas Kristoff wrote a piece for the NYT entitled Professors, We Need You. The piece set off a lot of reactions from academics, which have ranged from takedowns to critiques. The column is pretty easy to pick apart because it claims to refute anti-intellectualism at the same it reinforces the same lazy tropes always leveled at intellectuals, thereby echoing and reaffirming the status quo of anti-intellectualism: nobody listens to professors, and it’s all the professor’s own fault for clinging to outmoded thinking (secluded monks in an academy) incoherent writing, except for the anointed few like Jill Lepore (because, you know, there’s no competition in writing for the New Yorker and we could all do it if we just tried.) And all those communist lefties in the academy. They are a problem. Economists are ok, though, because the Republicans like them.

As Erik Voeten points out, public intellectuals are actually here, and many of us do work very hard to make our work and our fields accessible to people outside of our field, including voters. Just because Kristof isn’t bothering to read us, it’s not as though we don’t exist.

Moreover, the “blame the academics” approach willfully ignores an important point that Easily Distracted made: it’s not easy for anybody to be heard, let alone heard correctly, in today’s political world :

Kristof might ask–using himself as a test–what exactly is dependent upon this input that he thinks is lacking. If what he means by accessibility is “I want professors who agree with what I already think, and I want them to say so clearly”, that’s very different than saying, “There’s something I don’t understand, something I can’t do, something beyond my knowledge”. The former is just hunting for a few more bits of costume jewelry to burnish the finery of the powerful. The latter would be a welcome invitation, but given that it starts with humility, don’t hold your breath.

Indeed. Why are economists such elevated darlings in the political economy? Because they are really that much more rigorous and objective than a philosopher or historian? Or is it because they promise the powerful access to even more magic beans?

There’s also the fact, as Corey Rubin points out over Crooked Timber, that Kristof’s examples of “good public intellectuals” are two very, very privileged women, Jill Lepore and Ann Slaughter, who come from the most exalted spheres of the academy–Princeton and Harvard. The platform from which they are approaching the media with their material is one helluvalot different than most academics who, by the very numbers, have transformed into a predominantly temporary workforce teaching four to five classes a semester for low pay. These are not the conditions by which people glide into the same level of influence as the Jill Lepores of this world.

Finally, there are exceptional journalists with whom it is a pleasure to talk to. Then there are dolts who, if you ask them to keep two ideas, let alone ideas in tension, in their head at once, their eyes glaze over. Which brings us back to the point from Easily Distracted: if you don’t want complexity, and all you want is a solutions factory from the academy, there are plenty of academics and “independent researchers” who will bludgeon you with their simplistic solutions to schill themselves as celebrities to sell their books. We could probably, in fact, use less, rather than more, of that. Urban decline? Forget the messy and complicated problem of racism, schools, and policing. Lemme tell ya about the magic of bike lanes! That’s the fix you need! And that’s the fix you want because it’s tangible and requires you to change not all if you don’t feel like it. (And remember, I think bike lanes are awesomesauce. By all means. I’ll even the buy the green paint. But Los Angeles strikes me as a city that is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and while I’m sure bike lanes do improve many wonderful things, it’s the not the thin of the wedge there.)

Urban problems, just like most social problems, are unpleasantly complicated and take entirely too much time to explain, let alone address. And not many people seem to really want to hear it. Boil it down. Make it easy. Make it something fixable in three easy steps that don’t require me to pay money, change the way I think, or suggest that me and people like me aren’t wonderful in every way. The problem is fat people and Republicans (or Democrats, depending your Sacred Outlook.)

As Socrates would put it, be a pastry cook.

And that’s the major reason I get impatient with myself and the opportunities of public intellectualism. It’s the basic problem presented in Plato’s Gorgias. Sophists were public intellectuals. Throughout the course of the dialogue, it becomes more and more apparent that Callicles loves the demos, both out of genuine patriotism, but also because he loves fame. He loves the attention of playing to crowd. And playing to the crowd has limits in terms of knowledge creation. It rewards rhetorical trickery of the type that Polus engages in (vivid, emotional, polemic) and in tames intellects, like that of Callicles, because he dare not risk saying something unpopular.

It also has me recalling my Thucycides, which I have been rereading in my spare time. I haven’t read Thucydides since high school, and cracking it open again after reading Josiah Ober’s wonderful discussion in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens has me thinking about the role pretty speech and fame-seeking had in fragmenting the Athenian polis after Pericles.

Nor does it help that ambitious universities want to score the big name who can engage with media on media’s own terms. There are better and worse outlets, and understanding that landscape is yet another communication problem for the contemporary academic to solve, along with the 50+ complicated people who show up twice a week to (I hope) engage with the learning community that academics are meant to foster. The for-profit media is a tough place; the nonprofit media can be a backwater and a choir. You do the math as to what that means for academics with complicated ideas.

How far off campus should universities be responsible for?

Attention conservation notice: In loco parentis arguments always come up around colleges, but I very much doubt colleges ever were the innocent places that they are in prelapsarian narratives about higher ed. However, if we aren’t going to see our mission as shaping young lives (I do, but that’s me), then other influences will step in. But: when dealing with risk assessment and privileged young men, why aren’t we confronting that privilege and belief about personal invulnerability just as much as admonitions to universities that they shouldn’t allow students to live off campus?

My own beloved USC has been caught up in this question, as they were sued by the parents of two students fatally shot off campus. The case is heartbreaking, but I keep bumping up hard against the fundamental problem that the murders happened off campus, in my neighborhood, West Adams. If the students had been shot in Venice (it happens), then would USC still be perceived as at fault? USC doesn’t own my house or belong to my neighborhood association. Perhaps they should, but…where would the geographic boundary of their perceived responsibility end?

These students were from China, and I think there is a lot going on culturally as well;as one of my brilliant students pointed out, gun violence in the US really has no analogue anywhere else, and students should know this before coming here.

In our case, it’s particularly confusing because at the same time the parents were suing USC, it was signing very expensive community benefits agreement for a relatively small development north of campus. So the parents were suing the university for…failing to gentrify a neighborhood that was accusing it of gentrifying. When you are big, powerful, relatively wealthy institution, these contradictions form the world, and my heart is not bleeding, really, for anybody but the family and friends who are devastated, but I am having trouble wrapping my head around what USC should do and should have done differently.

I find myself thinking about these issues this morning because I read Caitlin Flanagan’s yucky piece of commentary in The Atlantic Cities on the Dark Power of Fraternities this morning in the Atlantic. Clearly intended to be one of those long forms that everybody fawns over for its insight, it’s incoherent and self-indulgently long, and I almost gave it up at various points. The piece begins with droning on and on for paragraphs about a set of stupid injuries that occurred at a frat party, exploiting exactly the lurid and puerile details that she supposedly wants us to worry over. She claims that fraternities are shaping America’s leaders, which is a point, but there are many issues at play in that, like the self-selection of families who want to send their sons into that and the upbringing/acculturation that occurs before frat life.

In any case, the violence and lawlessness that Flanagan so gleefully relates is not the fault of parents, the fraternal organizations, but universities, their “knock-knee’d overlords” (wtf does that even mean?):

To begin with, the fraternities involved themselves very deeply in the business of student housing, which provided tremendous financial savings to their host institutions, and allowed them to expand the number of students they could admit. Today, one in eight American students at four-year colleges lives in a Greek house, and a conservative estimate of the collective value of these houses across the country is $3 billion. Greek housing constitutes a troubling fact for college administrators (the majority of fraternity-related deaths occur in and around fraternity houses, over which the schools have limited and widely varying levels of operational oversight) and also a great boon to them (saving them untold millions of dollars in the construction and maintenance of campus-owned and -controlled dormitories).

Yes, but, erhm. These are comparatively affluent students, by Flanagan’s own assessment. I’m pretty sure there are developers who would have served the demand for nice off-campus housing.

That said, if the universities annexed those houses and then leased them to the frats, at least the houses would be to university safety standards. Of course, there’s always the chapter getting national permission to buy another house off-campus, but the university could refuse to allow any off-campus house to affiliate with the university.

I do wonder about Flanagan’s perception that on-campus housing is the be-all and end-all. If college is adulthood with training wheels, then living off-campus has a role to play in that. I do understand the point, but we have moved away from company town ideas about institutional responsibility. If a Google employee gets drunk and falls off his balcony in a tony San Francisco apartment complex at a party with other Google employees, is it Google’s fault for not supplying housing on its campus for its workers? She discusses this as a matter of choice:

The answer to this question has been steadily evolving ever since the 1960s, when dramatic changes took place on American campuses, changes that affected both a university’s ability to control student behavior and the status of fraternities in the undergraduate firmament. During this period of student unrest, the fraternities—long the unquestioned leaders in the area of sabotaging or ignoring the patriarchal control of school administrators—became the exact opposite: representatives of the very status quo the new activists sought to overthrow. Suddenly their beer bashes and sorority mixers, their panty raids and obsession with the big game, seemed impossibly reactionary when compared with the mind-altering drugs being sampled in off-campus apartments where sexual liberation was being born and the Little Red Book proved, if nothing else, a fantastic coaster for a leaky bong.

American students sought to wrest themselves entirely from the disciplinary control of their colleges and universities, institutions that had historically operated in loco parentis, carefully monitoring the private behavior of undergraduates. The students of the new era wanted nothing to do with that infantilizing way of existence, and fought to rid themselves of the various curfews, dorm mothers, demerit systems, and other modes of institutional oppression. If they were old enough to die in Vietnam, powerful enough to overthrow a president, groovy enough to expand their minds with LSD and free love, then they certainly didn’t need their own colleges—the very places where they were forming their radical, nation-changing ideas—to treat them like teenyboppers in need of a sock hop and a chaperone. It was a turning point: American colleges began to regard their students not as dependents whose private lives they must shape and monitor, but as adult consumers whose contract was solely for an education, not an upbringing.

Welcome to neoliberalism where all institutions, including public ones, are supposed to be run like businesses.

Another point strikes me as worthy:

Moreover, fraternities tie alumni to their colleges in a powerful and lucrative way. At least one study has affirmed what had long been assumed: that fraternity men tend to be generous to their alma maters. Furthermore, fraternities provide colleges with unlimited social programming of a kind that is highly attractive to legions of potential students, most of whom are not applying to ivy-covered rejection factories, but rather to vast public institutions and obscure private colleges that are desperate for students. When Mom is trying—against all better judgment—to persuade lackluster Joe Jr. to go to college, she gets a huge assist when she drives him over to State and he gets an eyeful of frat row. Joe Jr. may be slow to grasp even the most elemental concepts of math and English (his first two years of expensive college study will largely be spent in remediation of the subjects he should have learned, for free, in high school), but one look at the Fiji house and he gets the message: kids are getting laid here; kids are having fun. Maybe he ought to snuff out the joint and take a second look at that application Mom keeps pushing across the kitchen table.

This is the sort of paragraph that makes me want to send both Flanagan and her editor back to college themselves. The first is an assertion that frat members are generous with alumni donations. She states it confidently. So she must have numbers. Where are those? Why isn’t that a whole paragraph itself? It strikes me as a very important point.

The second is a pretty good, vivid, colorful image that again strikes me as somewhat confused. Let’s dispense with one problem with focus–the digression about what he should have learned in high school. Damn straight–I’m 100 percent with Flanagan there. God how I wish that public schools were teaching for free what they could be, but they can’t because of so many issues it makes my brain catch on fire to think of them. (And many of them unrelated to things that school administrators and teachers can control.)

Then there’s the real point she makes: frats sell college to Stoner Steve. But what does that mean? Stoner Steve is ill prepared for college, lazy, and unmotivated. We get that.Ok. But I’m not sure it’s a terrible idea for him to go to college. I could see his story turning out a lot of ways. He gets in with other stoners and gets worse and sets himself on fire. (Bad.) He gets in with guys whom he respects, and whose approval therefore craves, because they contain all the manly man misogyny he has harbored for years of having a mother tell him what to do while bitches withhold sex he deserves by right, and his peers exert influence on him in ways that his mother and a college prof never could: get drunk and party, but make sure you get an A in intro to marketing or you won’t get into B school and your life of treats, toys, and sex will come to an end. The social mores coming out of that are a problem, but not necessarily for Steve himself. Loathsome, yes, but not entirely bad for Steve himself.

So the college does not admit him because he’s a lazy stoner, and he stays home and gets stoned with the same friends he gets stoned with now, or by himself since that is possible, too?

Should a college town like Iowa City or Blacksburg just give up having a mayor and city council and have their universities just run the whole show? A company town. Why not? It’s not like those universities don’t have, by far, hegemony in local politics anyway.

I’m puzzled, and I don’t know what I think. I do know that I haven’t been persuaded by Flanagan’s mess of an article, which makes me angry largely because I think she had the opportunity to write something important and she went for cheap shots with labored jokes to be all-too-clever instead. Her core point, which is that when people were more controlling of young people, fewer young men set themselves on fire. I suppose that is true. But one does wonder about the state of the world when an institution has to be responsible for dashing the bottle rocket from an 18 to 22 year-old’s hands. Shouldn’t, at some point, his friends and his own sense step in?