The Department of Persecution Studies

In my darker moods, I sometimes suspect that all academics, regardless of their specialty, are engaged in the same pursuit: searching out and exposing the systematic oppression of… whatever department or program the faculty member speaking at the moment happens to belong to. No matter what field of study they work in, faculty seem to cultivate and even cherish a sense of victimhood. Somebody else has a bigger office, or a newly renovated building, or more support from the administration for their pet projects. Faculty with big offices and renovated space complain about the location, and professors with institutional support for their pet projects complain about overhead charges and the hassle of administrating the extra money. Everybody either complains about the calendar, or the fact that other people are complaining about the calendar.

Deep down, we all hold endowed chairs in the Department of Persecution Studies. God knows, I’ve contributed a few monographs to the subject myself.

This is, of course, a variant of the observation that “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.” In reality, of course, nobody is doing particularly well. The administration of your typical college or university is making difficult decisions about allocating scarce resources to the huge number of departments and programs clamoring for that money, and outside of a few really exceptional cases, there’s very little to suggest that they’re actively favoring anybody. It’s a tough climate for everyone, and nobody is going to get all of what they want. But, of course, anybody who stops demanding more, more, more will get shut out by default, so it’s a constant state of squabbling. And, of course, any college or university faculty is staffed by really clever people, so everybody can marshal a host of arguments that at least sound convincing, until you hack through some of the more florid verbiage and figure out what the actual claim is.

I was talking about this with a colleague recently, but what’s landed this on the blog is this breathtaking bit of nonsense from Leon Wieseltier that I blame Ben Lillie on Twitter for making me read. This was a commencement address at Brandeis University, and as stupid as it is overall, I have to give Wieseltier credit for sheer chutzpah– it takes balls to stand up in front of a graduating class and immediately write a big chunk of the students off by addressing yourself to those from a single disciplinary category.

Fundamentally, of course, Wiseltier’s speech arises from the Department of Persecution Studies. It’s founded on the same narrative of decline that’s the basis for so many other similar rants, despite not being true in terms of “numbers” and “arithmetic”. And the parts of it that aren’t aggrieved entitlement are empty piffle, a trait which, sadly, it also shares with most of the genre.

But then, the same sort of thing can and has been said about a lot of “science under siege” rhetoric from my side of the Two Cultures divide. With just as much justification.

And you know what? I spend way too much time thinking about this bullshit. So I’m going to try to take a sabbatical from the Department of Persecution Studies. I’m going to make an effort to stop reading and contributing to academic grievance blogging, and focus on positive things instead. To some extent, I’ve been doing this for a while unannounced, but I’m throwing it there publicly on the theory that having said it will provide extra incentive to stick to it. I don’t know how well it will work– much as I would like to, I can’t escape dealing with cross-Cultural infighting in my day job, and some of that is bound to spill over– but I’m going to try to stay out of futile faculty bickering on the Internet, and focus on thinking and writing about the good side of science instead.

(This will, of course, be the point where a gigantic unavoidable Two Cultures flamewar breaks out and sucks all the metaphorical oxygen out of the room. Because irony is like that.)

4 thoughts on “The Department of Persecution Studies

  1. Science envy is common among humanities faculty, and in particular they really, really dislike the idea that science actually knows something. Here’s a review of Curtis White’s new book Science Delusion. Curtis is chair of DPS.

  2. Oh, you are so, so right. Department of Persecution studies, I know quite a few people who work there full-time, and I’ve probably given a few such lectures myself. I’ll try to cut back.

    It’s such a good way to win an argument, though. Nobody works as hard as I do! Nobody does as much with as little!

  3. Two or three paragraphs into the Wieseltier piece, I was half expecting a call to a Butlerian Jihad. He stopped short of that point, but his rhetoric sounded a lot like the justifications made in the Dune universe for prohibiting such machines.

    Even non-academics can get endowed chairs in the Department of Persecution Studies. A whole bunch of our political discourse is driven by claims–most of them easily refuted by “numbers” and “arithmetic” (as Berube so elegantly put it)–that life was so much better in $PAST_ERA than it is today. It’s been like that for a long time: Ko-ko’s “little list” includes “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone/All centuries but this, and every country but his own”.

  4. There is a relatively simple explanation for much of the infighting.

    In any ecosystem, competition will be most severe between organisms that are most similar.

    This is intuitively obvious because they are competing for the same food sources and the same niches, and within a given species, competing for mates.

    Now apply that with a bit of psychological insight into detecting the subjective state that occurs when reason is subordinated to emotion (mindfulness meditation is good for learning how to pick this up), and people “should” be able to cool it and behave more reasonably.

    As well, academics across all disciplines should organize together to press for structural changes in government policy, for example a truly progressive income tax, that would produce more funding overall for universities and for science. This has the added benefit that fighting common enemies tends to increase social cohesion, so there should be a positive feedback effect at some point.

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