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University Professor: the Reason Academia Is Useless

“Socrates and all the other great Greek masters emphasized the importance of leisure as part of education. In our Calvinist world, this has become a major sin.”

If you think about it, most Christian visions of heaven are nightmarish (no sex, singing hymns all day). One particularly frightful prospect of heaven is captured by the popular T-shirt: Jesus is coming, look busy! Alas, the Lord doth not like slackers. So, I suppose that in heaven, you have to pretend that you are working, at least while the big boss is around.

On Earth, it is not that different. Anthropologist David Graeber has been aware of this for quite a while, and his clever 2018 book Bullshit Jobs goes on to explain how a growing sector of our advanced capitalist economy is about pretending to be doing a lot, but actually doing little.

As Graeber explains it, this was typical and expected of Communism and its vow to reduce unemployment to zero. But, it comes as a surprise that this phenomenon is even more salient in capitalism. Isn’t capitalism about efficiency? Not so, according to Graeber. Yes, capitalism is relentless when it comes to production. But, there are still remnants of irrationality. Automation has dispensed with lots of workers. But, in a society deeply embedded in a Calvinist work ethic, it is not nice to have people lurking around doing nothing. So, they must be hired to just pretend: to do what Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.” In Graeber’s taxonomy, these jobs come in five types: “flunkies,” people whose only function is to make their bosses look important; “goons,” people who aggressively defend their employers; “duc tapers,” people who solve glitches in systems, but who do not solve the actual problems of systems; “box tickers,” people who just fill out forms to give the impression that something important is going on; and “taskmasters,” people who assign lower-rank employees something to do, in order to keep the game going.

Graeber wrote his book on the basis of a large data set that comes from testimonies of anonymous informants who describe how pointless their jobs are. Graeber is himself an academic, and he provides a few examples of how there are also aspects of BS in academic jobs. I wish to expand on that, by sharing my own experience as a professor, having taught on three continents.

Automation has not had a large impact on academics yet, though perhaps in the not-to-distant future, it will. In my experience, if you do not enforce an attendance policy, students will not come to class because, hell, they can watch your lectures on Youtube from previous semesters—or just read your Power Point slides. Ideally, education should be conducted in the Socratic maieutic style with engaging in arguments and all the rest; but, increasingly, university administrators want us to become “box tickers” above anything else. Nobody cares if the class was engaging; the really important thing is to meet the requirements of some accreditation paperwork and, for that, there are a lot of boxes to tick.

That will consume most of your time. In office hours, once in a blue moon, a student will come to discuss actual class content. But, the department head (or, in Graeber’s terminology, any other “taskmaster”) will ask you on a daily basis to ask you to fill this or that form about how well you met the goals in teaching a course. In teaching, you often cannot deviate much from the script. Socrates would certainly be called to task. That script is made up of CLOs (Class Learning Outcomes), Bloom’s taxonomy verbs, PLOs (Program Learning Objectives), and other bureaucratic staples. It is almost guaranteed that nobody will read these reports, and certainly there is no way of verifying if these reports reflect actual class interactions; but you still have to make sure you write the report they want you to write because some bureaucrat from an accrediting body may pick on you. Of course, there are many, many ways of fooling accreditors with sham reports (and accreditors are fully aware of this, too), but, somehow, the process goes on. The important thing is to look busy, especially to students and—more importantly—to the parents that are paying tuition.

I have taught in universities in emerging countries. Naturally, in those places, this is even more the case. Harvard and Oxford already have a name, so they can fully dedicate themselves to real contributions to education. But, universities in countries like Qatar, India, or Brazil have to work hard on “visibility,” and that basically means pretending to do impressive stuff, which, in a university context, amounts to ticking a huge number of boxes for accreditors from First World countries. It is pretty much what Richard Feynman called a “cargo-cult mentality”: in the Pacific Islands, Natives would imitate many aspects of American military life (building rifles, air strips and airplanes with canes), hoping that this would also deliver the cargo Americans brought—of course, to no avail. By the same token, however, university administrators in emerging countries want to imitate Harvard and Oxford in all sorts of form-filling, somehow magically hoping that this box-ticking will provide Nobel laureates for alumni. 

Despite all this BS, a professor still derives satisfaction from interacting with students— no matter how limited that time is. But, when it comes to research, it gets even worse. Again, always with the ultimate goal of “visibility,”a professor is expected to publish articles under the university’s name. This will consume even more time. In fact, if a student comes to your office to talk about any academic issue, you are likely to dispatch him quickly because you want to go back to the article you are writing. Ultimately, talking to the student adds nothing to your report; instead, finishing the article is an important milestone in your box-ticking tasks.

Graeber cannot emphasize enough that BS jobs are even more prominent in capitalism than in Communism. And, indeed, this obsession with publishing articles has proven to be quite profitable to ruthless capitalists. So-called predatory journals will charge an outrageous fee just to get your article published with no review whatsoever. So, you basically pay to tick the box. More BS.

Academic institutions are becoming increasingly aware of this problem, and some librarians have been careful enough to come up with a list of dubious journals. But even many of those journals that remain on the list of legitimate publications have some BS aspect to it. Now, of course, research and publishing are important things. But, again, research itself has become a form of box ticking. Hardly anybody will ever read these boring articles in The Journal of Blah Blah Blah. But the important thing is to get it published.

If you try to make the articles a little bit more engaging, so that it may actually reach more people, a reviewer will tell you that your language is not “academic enough” and will reject it. Hell, that reviewer wants academics to appear smarter than the common Joe, so, in order to look impressive, he asks you to write in verbose language that only fellow box tickers will seem to understand. So, even if you admire someone like Alan Sokal for having exposed the ridiculous post-modern jargon that is used in most journals (at least in the Humanities, anyways), you still have to use phrases such as “deconstructing the patriarchal narrative of…”, or “biopower in a pre-phallic utopia…”; otherwise, you will not be able to tick the box. 

And, ultimately, you also have to embrace the predominant ideology of academia. It’s no secret (again, at least in the Humanities) that scholars lean more and more to the Left (or, a particular postmodern branch of the Left, to be more precise), so the only way you can survive is, indeed, by writing about the evils of capitalism, patriarchy, white privilege, and so on. It is double BS; it takes a huge chunk of your time to write things nobody will ever read, and, additionally, you end up writing about things that you, yourself, don’t even believe in. But, hey, at least you get to tick the box and increase your H-Index, or whatever academic metric the cargo-cult mentality so heavily focuses on.

With this rant, am I shooting myself in the foot? Am I making a case for professors like me to simply be laid off because ours is a BS job? Not necessarily. Graeber himself acknowledges that—unlike telemarketers or personal assistants—educators are not essentially BS jobs. You will always need someone to teach someone else something, and it is doubtful that a robot will ever do it with the same touch that a human being can have.

However, apart from the automation aspect, as I have argued above, educational jobs are becoming BS—because fewer administrators want scholars to be idly sitting with students talking about the meaning of life. Socrates and all the other great Greek masters emphasized the importance of leisure as part of education. In our Calvinist world, this has become a major sin. So, what we need is university administrators to rethink the academic ethos and value learning and knowledge for its own sake, rather than as a form of box ticking to look impressive. 

In the worst-case scenario, if robots eventually do take over education efficiently, and academic jobs become hopelessly BS, then it is hard to resist Graeber’s logic, and we will have to admit that Universal Basic Income is the only viable solution to the problem of massive lay-offs in an efficient economy. If you come to think about it, it is not such a bad idea, and Socrates would not be so opposed to it. After all, as opposed to the Sophists, he was not paid to teach, but he did receive money to, basically, do nothing. That allowed Socrates to engage in the kind of dialogue that made him the great human being we all know.

Junior Torrent is the pseudonym of a university professor, frustrated musician, and soccer fan.

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Paulo Guimarães
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Paulo Guimarães

I can relate to this so much. When I was undertaking my BA I quickly realised that in order for me to get good grades, all I needed to do was acquire a certain vocabulary and follow the ideological line expected. I ticked all the BS boxes and got remarkable grades considering how little effort I actually put into my work. Like the author, I’m a frustrated musician and soccer fan. Plus, I considered pursuing a path in academia back when I was in university. I wonder whether that’s coincidental haha

C_C
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C_C

David Graeber is full of crap. He’s the guy who coined the phrase ‘we are the 99%’ after he was denied tenure at Yale. y’know, a problem all us 99% can really sympathize with – being rejected for guaranteed lifetime employment earning $100k and working 30 hours per week.

he’s an anthropologist, not an economist. he’s clueless outside his field.

Peter Evans
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Peter Evans

A great idea would have been to discuss this with someone with a business management degree in “Operations”. All of this has been long defined (more than 20 years ago for myself). The system is not designed to be “ideal”, “efficient”, or “effective”, or “scientific” or “robotic”. Leadership comes from above, and no one in the “above” has any reason to be any of those things. The employees are simply the thing you need to get the stuff out the door, provide the service (lip), and targets minimum performance. Why? Cronyism. That is the real story.

AuH2O
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AuH2O

I was in college back in the 1970s & admired my academic adviser; actually, the first person I met when I arrived on campus. He was an instructor–no PhD; B.A. Hopkins, M.A. Harvard; & all on the G.I. Bill (Korea)–in the German Dept., & I later learned at that time he’d been teaching there only about 5 years. Yet, he was known thruout the campus; & grad. students from the schools of agriculture, engineering, & social work sought his counsel on their dissertations. Moreover, on his own dime, he scoured this essentially southern state for high school recruits with otherwise good grades that were NOT in the scholarship pipeline; meaning, minorities. But he soon left teaching, especially after the college of arts & sciences set up its own official minority recruiting office & told my adviser his services in that realm were no longer desired. His experience, my experience left me with a sour taste for academia of any kind; altho now in retirement I still read old college textbooks… Read more »

Kevin
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Kevin

Brilliant analysis of my life as a bs academic, but I spend a lot of time dodging the taskmasters.

Bart Anderson
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Bart Anderson

So this i clearly written from someone in the arts. The best scientific research is still being conducted in Universities, and posting that “Academia is useless” just creates bullshit headlines that feeds into the discrediting of expertise and actual knowledge. We are at a point in human history where we need people to know the difference between opinions and evidence based knowledge. This article does not contribute positively to the cause.

Peter Evans
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Peter Evans

You don’t seem to have thought this through. As someone that still thinks academia is useful we would expect otherwise. Less than 5% of what I learned at the university level was ever translated to “real life” and I held jobs in a half dozen senior positions. Why? There is no way you are going to educate the Boards of Directors with academic knowledge so that they will actually use what has already been generated 30+ years ago. No WAY any more knowledge needs to be considered. “Do nothing which is of no use.” Miyamoto Musashi, 1612 A.D.

Jake
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Jake

Loved the article. It exposed me to some new ideas like the cargo cult mentality, which was great.
I came to the conclusion we need UBI a few years ago. I have never had a job that was actually required work.

A large portion of my jobs have been BS and the actual value producing parts were easy enough to automate and optimize with a few scripts and workflow planning. I spend 35 out of ~40 hours of my work week working as a freelance coder at my “day job”.