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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Keeping conservatives out of academe

A friend writes to say, “So how come you haven’t said anything about all these post-election reports on the ‘liberal domination’ of universities?  Don’t you know that this is going to be one of the Right’s next offensives in the culture wars, as evidenced by the House of Representatives’ vote to revise the Higher Education Act of 1958 so as to provide direct federal ‘oversight’ of international-studies programs and individual scholars, not to mention David Horowitz’s ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ and the attempt to get state legislatures to compel all academic departments to hire for ‘ideological diversity’?”

Well, yes, I do know about all this.  In fact, folks, I’m writing a book about it.  So get off my case.  I’ve even read Brian Leiter (twice!), Juan Cole, and (back in August) The Blue Bunny of Battle (the artist formerly known as the Pink Bunny of Battle) on the subject, all of whom are really smart and all of whom have pretty much said what needs saying.

But the immediate reason why I haven’t posted anything on the subject is that I’ve been too damn busy making sure that my department doesn’t hire any conservatives this year.  We have two positions open in Rhetoric; we’re interviewing candidates at the MLA in late December, of course, and we’ll be conducting campus visits in the first five or six weeks of the new year.  I’m not on the search committees, but I am the ad hoc political advisor to those committees, and it’s my job to screen all the application letters and writing samples to make sure that no conservatives sneak through.  And it’s hard work.  It’s hard, hard work.

First of all, you have to understand that there are literally thousands of politically conservative Ph.D. candidates in the field of English language and literature, just as there are untold thousands of political conservatives applying for academic jobs in the visual arts, in special education, and in philosophy.  Over the last ten years, we’ve tried to head them off at the pass by telling them that graduate school involves anywhere from five to ten years of rigorous study culminating in the production of a 300-page work of original research, and that when they’ve completed all that while living hand-to-mouth on stipends or taking out student loans, then they get to go on the academic job market with the knowledge that they have about a one-in-three chance of landing a tenure-track job and making somewhere in the high 40s.  But they just won’t listen.  These bright young twenty-something conservatives just will not be deterred from the pursuit of scholarship in the arts and humanities, and they’ve been clogging our graduate schools to the point at which we’ve simply had to institute hiring quotas to keep them from joining the professorial ranks and eventually overrunning us.

So don’t believe any of my liberal and leftist colleagues when they say (a) they never inquire into the voting records of prospective job candidates, (b) they don’t believe that a candidate’s voting record is a reliable predictor of, say, his position on the Habermas-Lyotard debate or her understanding of the intersection of postcolonial theory and eighteenth-century studies, or (c) they can’t tell the candidate’s politics from the application materials alone.  Of course a professor’s voting record is important, of course it’s a reliable index of his or her intellectual interests, and of course you can tell from the application materials.  Take for example the candidate who claims to be studying “the rhetoric of individual agency and national identity in discourses of republicanism in post-Revolutionary America.” The word “republicanism” is the tipoff, folks, and so that dossier goes right in the circular file.  Or take the letter of application that says, “my work concerns the emergence of the ideology of the domestic ‘subject’ in early Victorian England.” The code word there is “emergence,” and if you have to ask why, you ain’t never gonna know.  86’d.

Sometimes it’s not so easy as this, though-- sometimes you need to hold the paper itself up to the light and check for the watermark.  But most of the time, the conservatives give themselves away long before the interview stage.  And that’s why liberals dominate departments like mine.

Next topic:  how my liberal friends in the theater industry are keeping conservatives out of off-Broadway productions of The Music Man!

Posted by Michael on 12/08 at 10:18 AM
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