Review of 'Velvet Prisons: Russell Jacoby on American Academia'

Time has not been especially kind to Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Harvard, 2001). The frequent complaints about scholars wandering beyond their areas of expertise to pontificate on the Clinton impeachment feel like yesteryear’s editorials. The book’s statistical tables tried to quantify the influence of various thinkers and writers – as registered, for one thing, by Google’s turn-of-the-millennium algorithm. And even Posner’s overarching generalizations seem now to have been overcome by events. It retains some interest as a landmark, though, even at this growing distance.

Posner took the old notion of a “marketplace of ideas” in a new direction by treating the activity of public intellectuals as governed by supply and demand. “With hundreds of television channels to fill,” he wrote, “with the Internet a growing medium for the communication of news and opinion, and with newspapers becoming ever more like magazines in an effort to maintain readership in the face of the lure of continuously updated news on television and over the Internet, the opportunity cost to media of providing a platform for public intellectuals has shrunk.”

The ultimate consumer of the public intellectuals’ “symbolic goods” was the lay reader or viewer, who lacked (and presumably desired) the specialized information, the command and context, and the analytical tools used by the commentators. Unfortunately this also meant that the public was in no position to judge the quality of the goods being proffered. “The media through which the public intellectual reaches his audience perform virtually no gatekeeping function,” wrote Posner. “The academic whose errors of fact, insight, and prediction in the public-intellectual market are eventually detected can, as I have emphasized, abandon the market, returning to full-time academic work, at slight cost.”

Rereading the book now, I get the feeling that Posner had a satirical novel inside him that might have held up better than its nonfiction substitute. His model is specific to roughly the last half of the 20th century. It takes as a given the one-way flow of communication from academic specialists, through mass media, to a mass audience incapable of judging what it receives and unable to generate any “symbolic goods” of its own.

All that has changed, for good and for ill. The credentialed specialist and the uninformed layperson turn out to be endpoints of a continuum, rather than absolute opposites. Any given idea or analysis can now inspire a Socratic colloquy. Of course, it’s just as likely to inspire a howling mob of abject ignoramuses, but of course Socrates’s interventions in public discourse did not always turn out well, either.

The term “public intellectual” itself, according to Posner, “was coined by Russell Jacoby in a book published in 1987.” In fact it was first used by C. Wright Mills in 1958, but the phrase entered wide usage only in the wake of Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Mills and Jacoby were referring to something quite different from Posner’s cohort of moonlighting celebrity academics. Rather, they had in mind generations of writers and thinkers for whom the demands of either the university or mass media were a minor concern, if even that. My essay for Bookforum on the 20th anniversary of The Last Intellectuals discusses the cultural ecology that made such figures possible, and the changes rendering them all but extinct.

Since the book appeared, Jacoby has published a few more volumes, as well a great many essays and reviews, though seldom through an academic press or journal. And his position in the history department at the University of California at Los Angeles is sufficiently irregular – he is listed as “professor in residence” and does not have tenure – to suggest someone half in the door and half out. He lists among his awards the Moishe Gonzales Folding Chair in Critical Theory -- an homage to the late social theorist Paul Piccone, founding editor of the journal Telos. The improbable name Moishe Gonzales was the pseudonym Piccone used for some of his particularly scathing critiques of academic trends.

The news that someone had made a documentary about Jacoby came as a surprise. It also made me realize that, after reading him for more than a quarter of a century, I had no idea what he looked like. If the Posnerian public intellectual is a talking head, clearly the Jacobean variety is not – or was not, anyway, until the appearance of "Velvet Prisons: Russell Jacoby on American Academia," available on DVD and currently available for viewing as part of the Humanity Explored film festival hosted by Culture Unplugged, which describes itself as a “new media studio.” (Not sure how that would work unplugged, but never mind.)

Ten or 15 minutes into watching "Velvet Prisons," curiosity about its origins got the better of me, so I hit pause and made contact with Kurt Jacobsen, one of the producers and directors, whose name was familiar from various publications including Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture (here) where he is book-review editor. With Warren Leming -- an actor and musician who has directed a number of documentaries – he founded Cold Chicago Productions, which brought out two films before "Velvet Prisons," its latest release. (Another, "American Road," will be out this summer.) 

Jacobsen refers to the enterprise as Debtors Prison Productions, since “the budget came out of our thin pockets, like everything else we do.” In 2008, Leming invited Jacoby to come to Chicago for extensive interviews, running to six hours of footage. Jacobsen, a research associate in political science at the University of Chicago, held Jacoby’s work in high regard and was glad to participate in the interviews, although the project itself seemed unlikely to get much funding. “We went ahead because it seemed a needed thing,” he writes in an email note, “a necessary intervention.” The producers spent five or six thousand dollars out of pocket: “That leaves out the incalculables of hundreds of hours of free labor by myself and Warren and some others.”

"Velvet Prisons" sketches Jacoby’s intellectual development from high school through his years on the academic job market, while also working in brief characterizations of most of Jacoby’s books – some of them, such as Social Amnesia: A Critique of Contemporary Psychology (1975) and Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (1981),  in very broad strokes, to be sure.

“Our key challenge,” Jacobsen says, “was how to keep a solo talking head, no matter how provocative or profound, visually interesting. Initially we thought we might only hold the most dedicated viewers for half an hour but eventually worked out and settled on a 55 minute version.” The finished product incorporates historically pertinent film footage and book covers, as well as portraits of philosophers and sociologists, sometimes accompanied by passages from their work read in voice-over.

One particularly memorable and effective sequence appears in the course of Jacoby’s very sharp comments on the academic mores that marginalize writers with an interest in addressing a general and educated audience – an ethos that “rewards careerism and networking and backslapping” and people “making quiet non-contributions to micro-fields” rather than “taking it big,” as his hero C. Wright Mills encouraged young sociologists to do. As he begins to discuss the forces pushing scholars to focus on talking about their work only with one another, the screen fills with photographs taken in the meeting rooms and auditoriums of hotel conference centers. The chairs and the ambiance are always the same. (My immediate reaction, on first viewing, was to scan the pictures, expecting to find a familiar face.) How is this in any way preferable to what Posner complained about – the colleagues willing to provide grist for media blather mills? 

"There is nothing said in ‘Velvet Prisons,’ by the way,” Jacobsen tells me in the course of our e-mail discussion, “that does not resonate with my own experiences and observations in the darling groves of academe.” He calls the documentary “the proverbial labor of love, and lament…. [The] worst thing I've heard [about Velvet Prisons] is a British scholar friend calling it an ‘elegy’ -- and he probably has a point.”

He says that Jacoby “was very genial, quite modest and, I think, awfully shocked when we actually came up with the doc.” As a matter of fact, by that point Russell Jacoby himself had answered a request for his thoughts on the film, and they corroborated the director’s impressions.

“I did not think they were serious,” Jacoby responded by e-mail. “Why me? I did indeed sit for some interviews, but I really thought that I would never hear from them again.  I could not imagine the project going forward.  To my great surprise it did go forward.  It turned out they were serious.  I still don't get it. I'm in no position to judge it.  I find it embarrassing to watch.” His response to seeing himself hold forth on screen was “Who is that idiot?”

Hardly a fair assessment. "Velvet Prisons" will irritate some people very much, while many more will watch it with interest and sympathy and even decide to go read Jacoby’s books. All to the good, either way. But my own impression is that the documentary feels unfinished, perhaps because Jacoby’s interpretation of “American culture in the age of academe” is unfinished.

It is at very least in need of an update. Arguing that the pursuit of tenure distorts the development and ethos of young intellectuals has begun to sound like someone complaining that the visual quality of a film is ruined when put on VHS. It may be true, but it’s a problem for fewer and fewer people all the time. At the same time, Jacoby has little to say about the situation of the public intellectual now, with the means of communication between thinker and public in flux. "Velvet Prisons" itself is an example of instance of such change.

It would be worth having another documentary in which Russell Jacoby follows up the arguments left undeveloped in his cinematic debut. But that, alas, remains unlikely. “My cinematic debut,” he told me, “will converge with my cinematic exit.”


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Scholars reject idea that college costs can't be controlled

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Essay on the value of faculty jobs at teaching-focused institutions

People starting their academic careers shouldn't write off jobs at teaching-intensive colleges, writes Melanie Springer Mock.

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Essay on returning to teach at one's alma mater

Toward the end of one summer — 1994, to be precise — I arrived at St. Lawrence University as an 18-year-old freshman, excited yet nervous to begin my college career. I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer someday, though I didn’t really have an idea of what that would entail or how difficult it would be. I wasn’t particularly anxious about the classes I would be taking — though in hindsight, judging by my grades that first semester, I probably should have been.

No, my concerns were more social in nature. Would I like my roommate? Who would become my friends? Would the people who promised in my high school yearbook that we would be "friends forever" still matter to me, and I to them, by the time we saw each other again at Thanksgiving? Would I finally have sex? The answer to these questions were: Not particularly, a bunch of people, some, and no.

The last answer was the most devastating, to the freshman me, but all in all, that first year of college was a good experience. I read King Lear. I learned from my new female friends that feminists were not, as I had been led to believe, castrating man-haters. I saw my first Kurosawa film. I attended several meetings of the Black Student Union — for the first time, I experienced what it’s like to be the only white person in a room. I was in a play. I perfected my impressions of both R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and the B-52’s Fred Schneider, in order to entertain my friends on Friday nights fueled by cheap beer and Boone’s Farm "wine products." I read memoirs and essays by the likes of Tobias Wolff, Piri Thomas, and Maxine Hong Kingston that created and nourished my interest in creative nonfiction forms.

As that first year came to a close, I was a little stressed by final exams and papers, and somewhat concerned that I’d never get a girlfriend. Mostly, though, I thought college was an exciting, intellectually challenging, and fun place to be, and I knew I didn’t ever want to leave. So, with the exception of a short break due to some health issues, I really didn’t — I went to grad school, eventually earned a Ph.D., and have been employed on college campuses ever since.

I’ve recently returned to my beloved alma mater — which I’ve written about for Inside Higher Ed before — in order to teach creative writing and literature. This one-year visiting position came along at a time when, to be honest, I had been thinking about getting out of the academy altogether. Although I still loved teaching and writing and developing as a scholar and thinker, I had begun to feel, at the very least, like I did not belong — and could not stay — at the college where I had been working since 2008. There were many reasons for this feeling, but the important point is that I realized that I was unhappy where I was — that this was not the job I thought it would be. Worse still, I began to fear that the problem wasn’t that specific location, but rather that I’m not cut out for this line of work. So I returned to the scene of the crime, the place where I first learned to love literature, writing, and the academic life.

In "Once More to the Lake," E.B. White talks of returning to the lake where his father used to take the family on vacations, this time as a grown man with a son of his own. The essay is noteworthy for a variety of reasons, but kind of funny for his insistence that this place is just as he remembered it, even though he gives a list of things that have changed. "I could tell," he notes after observing the fact that the road leading to the camp was now paved, "that it was going to be pretty much the same as it had been before....” Or when talking about the nearby store: "Inside, all was as it had been, except...." Or the waitresses who serve them their pie, who were "the same country girls, there having been no passage of time, only the illusion of it as in a dropped curtain — the waitresses were still fifteen; their hair had been washed, that was the only difference — they had been to the movies and seen the pretty girls with the clean hair."

Different, but the same. Timeless, yet pushed forward in time. I didn’t really understand White’s disorientation until I returned to St. Lawrence. As White returns to the lake as a father, I’ve returned to St. Lawrence as a professor. He feels, at times, his own father next to him — or perhaps within him, as if he has become his father by bringing his son to this place. I teach in "The Shakespeare Room" in Richardson Hall, dedicated to Emeritus Professor of English Thomas L. Berger, my own Shakespeare professor from 15 years ago, whose blown-up photograph hangs on the wall to my left as I do my best to lead a discussion on Emily Dickinson.

Professor Berger isn’t really beside me, just as White’s father is not with him, yet his presence on that wall reminds me of what type of professor I want to be — erudite, funny, and maybe a little bit intimidating to students who haven’t done the reading.

On days when it’s not too cold — and here in New York’s North Country, those days can be few and far between this time of year — I like to walk around campus. I made a point of showing my wife the dorm I lived in freshman year, where I met the friend who would later ask me to be the godfather to her son. I walked through the building that now houses the theater and fine arts department, but that used to be the student union, where we would occasionally get pizza or burgers at the Northstar Pub, which stopped selling beer after my freshman year but was still called "The Pub" when I graduated. The new student union — located in a more centralized area of campus — houses the Northstar Café, but the students still call it "The Pub" for reasons that are probably a complete mystery to them.

As I was walking home from a poetry reading on campus one night last semester, a student smoking in front of his dorm called out "Dr. Bradley!" and walked toward me in order to talk about class. I haven’t had a cigarette in years, but I almost asked him for one. It seemed like the thing to do. Smoke a cigarette, talk about what you’d been reading. How many times did I do just that with my friends? Those actors and singers and painters and writers who were all so into this world they were just discovering. How many cigarettes did I smoke, talking about Uta Hagen, or Annie Dillard, or Quentin Tarantino? Of course, we smoked inside, back then. It was the '90s. A different era.

White notes that the souvenir counters at the store offer "postcards that showed things looking a little better than they looked," which is sometimes how the past seems when we reflect. If I talk of loving college, I should also tell you that I frequently drove myself crazy, putting the finishing touches on a paper at 4:30 when it was due at 5:00, then running around campus with a disk in hand, trying to find an available printer (again, it was the '90s). There were those times, towards the end of the semester, when — out of money on my meal card — I had to eat sandwiches made of generic white bread and processed cheese slices for every meal. And there were the romantic relationships. They all started out fun, but frequently ended with someone crying.

Still, if the experience was sometimes painful, it was also always educational. I wouldn’t want to trade those experiences or forget those lessons — they’ve shaped the writer, teacher, friend, and husband I am today. And something about this experience of being back on this campus has reminded me — and I’m shocked that I needed to be reminded — that my students are having those very same experiences right now. They’re reading something that’s going to change their lives. They’re falling in love. They’re learning not to send e-mails drunk. They’re listening to the Velvet Underground for the very first time. They’re figuring out who they’re going to be as they begin their adult lives.

So much is different. Everything’s the same.

In my previous Inside Higher Ed column, I talked about remembering my own youthful mistakes when I find myself frustrated with my students. I’m glad to have such perspective — it sometimes saves my sanity — but I’m also glad to remember how awesome it was to be young, to be humbled by the realization that there was so much out there to learn. I had lost some of that enthusiasm in the years since my own undergrad days, but being here, seeing and identifying with these students, has caused me to remember. As a 21st-century academic, it’s awfully easy to get nervous and jaded — it seems like every day, someone from outside of the academy is throwing around words and phrases like "strategic dynamism," "innovative disruption" or "paradigm shift" that don’t really mean anything to me except that the speaker or author doesn’t think very highly of the work we do in the academy, or at least the way we do it. I frequently feel embattled or unappreciated, but this year at my old school has reminded me that I didn’t go to grad school to make politicians or business leaders like me. I went because I wanted to help young people have the same life-changing experience I had.

It’s cold here in Canton right now — one day this week, it didn’t even get above zero — but you wouldn’t know it from all the activity happening on campus. There are informational meetings for students interested in studying abroad in the Czech Republic and Thailand. There’s a screening of the film "Argo." The student organization dedicated to environmental activism is having a vegetarian dinner, open to all interested students. There are athletic events. And, of course, there are classes. I’m not saying that these are activities special to St. Lawrence — I’m sure if you work on a college campus, similar stuff is happening around you. But sometimes, I think, the stress of our jobs causes us to forget what an awesome place a vibrant campus can be.

At the end of White’s essay, he talks of feeling "the chill of death" as he watches his son prepare to swim in the rain, but my recent experience with students at my alma mater has reminded me of how powerful it can be, to be surrounded by the warmth of lives that are really just beginning. I don’t know where I’ll be in a few months, but I’m glad for having learned this lesson this year.

William Bradley is visiting assistant professor of English at St. Lawrence University.


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American Adjuncts in France

France is known for numerous laws that protect workers. But adjuncts who teach at American programs at France have few of these rights, The New York Times reported. As a result, many report that their pay is based only on time in class and that they have few if any rights when they are ill or otherwise unable to work.


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Essay on pursuing an alternative academic career

Brandy Schillace explains how she is transitioning from a tenure-track position to an alt-ac career.

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Study analyzes who publishes in leading economics journals

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Younger scholars no longer dominate in top journals, study finds. While women have made gains in their share of articles, their proportion far lags their representation in the discipline.

Academic Minute: Women and Sleep Apnea

In today’s Academic Minute, Paul Macey of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Nursing explains why the symptoms of sleep apnea can be worse for women than for men. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Pro-Palestinian Event -- and Protest -- at Brooklyn College

An event featuring speakers calling for a boycott and other sanctions against Israel took place as scheduled Thursday evening at Brooklyn College, The New York Times reported. Some politicians have called on the college, part of the City University of New York, to call off the event, but the college (with backing from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others) has declined to do so, citing academic freedom. About 150 people held a protest outside the event.

The Nation published the prepared remarks of one of the speakers -- Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. "The principle of academic freedom is designed to make sure that powers outside the university, including government and corporations, are not able to control the curriculum or intervene in extra-mural speech," she said. "It not only bars such interventions, but it also protects those platforms in which we might be able to reflect together on the most difficult problems. You can judge for yourself whether or not my reasons for lending my support to this movement are good ones. That is, after all, what academic debate is about."

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Essay on House Republican leader's attack on social science research

This week, in what was billed as a major policy address, Virginian Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader, called for eliminating the research "funds currently spent by the government on social science — including on politics of all things...."

It is jarring indeed when a ranking national leader in a House of Representatives initially created to reflect the political will of the people proposes to do away with (or redirect, to be accurate) all research support for disciplines — including political science — that are patently basic to the fortunes of democracy and to Americans’ capacity for global leadership.

The only thing more chilling than the actual substance of such a policy proposal is the growing frequency with which similar pronouncements now appear. The fact is that the liberal arts and sciences are under sustained assault from policy leaders at both the federal and state levels. The liberal arts tradition, combined with the can-do strengths of the professions, has provided this country’s competitive advantage from the founding to the present. But indifferent to history, policy leaders seem bent on a voluntary undoing of American strength in studies that are fundamental both to democracy and to the global economy. Thomas Jefferson, the Virginian who helped articulate the integral connections between the liberal arts and democratic freedom, would surely be appalled.

Of course, the assault on the liberal arts tradition does not really extend to science and mathematics fields, even though these fields are an integral part of that tradition. Rather, it is the humanities and several of the social sciences that many public leaders have come to see as irrelevant (or worse) to America’s future. Notwithstanding the dizzying pace of change in the economy, policy leaders seem to imagine that a tighter focus on patently job-related fields of study now in short supply — STEM and selected "career fields" -- can somehow build the full range of skills and knowledge American society will need, as a whole, in the era of global interconnection we’ve already entered.

It used to be said that college needs to prepare graduates for "appointments not yet made" and the complex challenges that lie ahead. But no longer. In March 2011, the National Governors Association called for greater investment in college studies more directly tied to labor market demand, noting that, to do this, the United States might need to cut back on its traditional embrace of the liberal arts. In Florida, there is a proposal to charge less for STEM majors and more for others, including other liberal arts, while the governor has spoken out publicly against anthropology as a worthwhile major. In North Carolina, the new governor, egged on by conservative pundit William Bennett (who holds a Ph.D in philosophy), shared his view that public funds should not be spent to subsidize useless majors,  with a particular nod to gender studies. A majority of the 2010-12 class of the US House of Representatives has gone on record with its judgment that political science should no longer be eligible for funding from the National Science Foundation.

There is no need, of course, to defund the humanities: federal support has long ago shriveled to a tiny trickle for the entire range of humanities enterprise, history, philosophy, religion, global and cultural studies, languages, literature and more. Yet the global challenges Americans now face make the humanities and social sciences more central than ever before, not less, to our competitive future — as an economy and as a democracy.

How can we possibly imagine that the U.S. can continue to lead in a globally interdependent world when most Americans already know far too little about global histories, cultures, religions, values, or social and political systems — the very subjects that humanities and social sciences scholarship can help us explore? How will Americans usefully contribute to the freedom and well-being of women, children and families around the globe if leaders decide, going forward, that scholarship related to women is a waste of time and money?

In a series of national surveys, employers themselves — the supposed beneficiaries of the intended educational narrowing -- have called for more focus on global knowledge, a goal impossible to achieve if the social sciences and humanities are set aside. Illustrating the shortfalls they already see, employers who were asked to grade recent hires on various desired learning outcomes gave those graduates a failing grade on their global knowledge and understanding.

This nation’s signature tradition of grounding students’ college studies — whatever their major --  in a strong core of liberal arts and sciences inquiry has helped form generations of citizen innovators who, in turn, have made the United States a powerhouse of economic dynamism and creativity. This is the reason Steve Jobs observed so frequently that the "marriage of liberal arts and technology" was a key to Apple’s worldwide success. But strong learning depends on scholarly vitality. If scholarly work in specific fields withers away, there is no way that graduates’ and citizens’ accomplishments in these same areas can flourish.

Ironically, as our leaders work proactively to dismantle the liberal arts tradition in America, leaders of our chief competitors in Asia are embracing it. In Hong Kong, for example, the educational system is being reformed to add “liberal studies” -- meaning the humanities and social sciences — and general education in the arts and sciences at all levels, in the schools and across a university curriculum now expanded from three years to four. Asian policy leaders, it seems, see the value of the liberal arts tradition far more clearly than American policy leaders.

It is time for American leaders — educators and employers alike -- to say plainly and in concert that the current policy assault on the liberal arts is dangerous — dangerous not only to the quality of higher education, but dangerous also for America’s global leadership, for our democracy, and for our economy.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free," Thomas Jefferson observed in 1816, "it expects what never was and never will be.” Two years later, in a report of the commissioners for the University of Virginia, Jefferson offered his masterful — and still startlingly relevant in the current context — summary of the goals of education:

To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas … in writing; To improve by reading, his morals and faculties; To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either; To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; … to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed. To instruct the mass of our citizens in these, their rights, interests and duties … are the objects of education.

If we read this statement carefully, it becomes plain that these goals can only be achieved by an education that centrally includes learning in the social sciences and humanities, including, most certainly, the study of political life and democratic principles.

The notion that our democracy will survive, much less thrive, if we deliberately disinvest in research and learning in core disciplines that are essential both to democratic and to global capacity is a sobering folly indeed.

Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.


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