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10 Questions for Discussing Menand
May 19, 2010 - 9:16pm

This week, faculty and staff at my institution will be getting together to discuss Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University.

Thought I'd share with you some of the questions I came up with to help guide our discussion. Any suggestions that you have for discussion questions (or answers to the questions below) would be appreciated.

The questions:

1. "The university literature department is not especially well suited to the business of producing either interesting literary criticism or interesting literary critics". (page 110) Menand argues that what the Ph.D. program is good at is "cloning" the next generation of (humanities) professors. Do you agree with Menand's statement? Do you see an effort in your department to recruit young academics that break the mold, or challenge the status quo, of your discipline and department?

2. Menand writes, "The academic profession in some areas is not not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself" (page 153). What does Menand mean by this statement? What issues does he see with how new professors are produced, and does he offer any solutions that you find either compelling or problematic?

3. According to Menand, "It is the academic's job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn't want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate." (page 158). How are we doing at this job? Can you point to specific instances where we, as academics, are paying back the academic freedom that we enjoy by challenging the larger (or campus) culture?

4. Today, approximately 22% of undergraduates major in business, while only 4% are English majors and 2% in history. As educators we tend to share the value that all students should have a broad, humanities based education (do we actually share this assumption?). How do these trends in undergraduate majors square with both our values and the realities of the new PhD generating graduate school structure?

5. Menand writes, "The world of knowledge production is a marketplace, but it is a very special marketplace, with its own practices, its own values, and its own rules" (page 158). Does this separateness of the academy that the author recognizes continue to serve the larger needs of students, payers and society? Or is the divide between the "knowledge production marketplace" and the larger market breaking down, particularly as funding (and endowments) erode and the demand to educate and prepare more students for the knowledge economy increases?

6. In the humanities the median time to receive a Ph.D. is 9 years. Menand argues that this process seems designed to create cheap teaching labor (ABDs) as opposed to qualified teachers (as grad students without a Masters degree will routinely teach across the U.S.). Should we follow Menand's suggestion to make the Ph.D. program easier to start and faster to finish, with new Ph.D.'s taking different jobs than the traditional tenure track route? Or will this only add to the problem?

7. The practice of requiring an undergraduate degree prior to a professional degree (in law, medicine, business etc.) is traced back to the 19th century and Harvard's President Eliot. The practice of "liberalization first, then specialization" defines our thinking about the modern liberal arts university. What do you see as the benefits and costs of this system that we have inherited? Are you involved in any initiatives (either in your own classes or in a larger sense) where theory and practice are combined in undergraduate education?

8. Menand writes that "The instinctive response of liberal educators is to pull up the drawbridge, to preserve college's separateness at any price. But maybe purity is the disease". (page 55) What do you think Menand is getting at in this sentence? How do Menand's views about the autonomy of academic work relate to efforts to challenge the status quo and evolve our institutions?

9. Menand notes that from 1945 to 1975 the number of undergraduates increased by 500% and graduate students by 900% (page 144), leading to a situation where we have more Ph.D.'s than the current demand for professors can accommodate. Is the solution to cut the number of graduate programs, and Ph.D.'s that are being created, or to do what Menand suggests and push Ph.D.'s into jobs outside of the academy?

10. Menand successfully straddles the worlds of academic success (English professor at Harvard) and a public intellectual (staff writer at the New Yorker). Should academics be trained, encouraged and rewarded to publish for nonspecialists and for a general audience?

Feel free to use any of these questions in your campus discussions of the Marketplace of Ideas.


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