'How to Be an Intellectual'

Author of new essay collection discusses the intellectual's role in the era of the "post-welfare state university."

November 11, 2014

Its title notwithstanding, How to Be an Intellectual (Fordham University Press) is no instructional manual. Rather, in his new book (more tellingly subtitled "Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University"), professor and higher education writer Jeffrey J. Williams examines what it means to be an intellectual: what the role entails, how it might best be performed and, perhaps most importantly, how it has changed along with American higher education.

The book's 32 essays cover a vast stretch of territory, from profiles of prominent critics to the impacts of student debt to an analysis of how universities are portrayed in film. But they are broadly shaped by Williams's tendency to take an "institutional perspective": as he writes in the book's introduction, "...I look to see how our institutions make us, framing the way that we do literature, culture, and criticism, as well as how we in turn make our institutions." The book thus draws connections between the "post-welfare state university" (that is, the shift by which institutions have been "forced to operate more as self-sustain entities than as subsidized public ones") and everything from the importance of being "smart" to the "conceptual shrinkage" in literary theory.

In an email interview, Williams -- who is professor of English and of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University -- discussed some of the book's major themes and his view of the critic's role. (Those still looking for a step-by-step guide, alas, will have to seek answers elsewhere.)

Q: You write that How to Be an Intellectual isn't intended to be a "guidebook" or a "prescription." How, instead, would you say the book's content relates to its title?

A: Much of the book looks at the way contemporary critics, philosophers, and other suspicious characters have defined themselves as intellectuals. While I certainly wouldn’t mind if the book became a bestseller in the “How to” section, the title comes from the lead essay, about Richard Rorty and Andrew Ross, and how they represent different models and generations of intellectuals. So it’s more of an insistent question, and answers are not always peaceable. At one time, Rorty attacked Ross for his political failings, but Rorty led more by bully pulpit than example, and I think Ross has since developed the better model since, of the scholarly reporter.

A big part of the story in the past 40 years is the migration to academe, which, rather than bemoaning it, I take as a neutral fact. In my opinion, those who aspire to an intellectual vocation are not just scholars in a field but somehow move outside their academic warrens to explain our culture and to look at the politics of culture. For myself, I never wanted to be an academic; I wanted to be an intellectual, so I’m interested in how other people have gone about it.

Q: "Journalism and scholarship usually inhabit different planets," you write, but you hope that your book "resides between the two." What is the advantage of this approach, which you call "criticism without footnotes"?

A: I think that we need a renewed critical writing. Much criticism is poorly written, directed to no audience except the rather tone-deaf “C.V. line,” and without much point except a minor modification in the “scholarly conversation.” But it’s too easy to complain about academic criticism, and that’s not my sport. (Not to mention there’s bad writing all over, in journalism as well as academe.) The book makes clear there’s a lot that I value in academic work, and it isn’t always immediately accessible (I’m one of the editors of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, for instance). I think an important task is for us to explain these ideas that have gotten lost in the solipsistic thickets of the research juggernaut. I don’t just mean that we should make our wares more accessible, but that we should take some of the lessons of serious literary journalism, of the kind that Louis Menand does, or Edward Said, Susan Sontag, George Orwell, and Walter Benjamin did. So it’s not an accident that the book is composed of essays; historically it’s probably the main form of criticism, and I’m taken with the essay that aims to explain an aspect of our culture to ourselves.

Q: While the essays in the book cover a range of subjects, many of them reflect a consistent theme: the relationship between what you call the "post-welfare state university" and what it means to be an intellectual. How do you view that relationship?

A: I used to think that the university was a boring topic, peripheral to the real work, which for me was studying literature. If you were interested in baseball, you might be aware of the stadiums or ownership, but you’re interested in the players and the teams. However, after working in higher education for a few years, I came to see it more fully as a workplace, as a cultural channel, and as probably the central social institution of the last century. Health care is obviously important, but the university takes a key civic role (one that Jefferson touted) and is a central institution in producing class equality or inequality.

So I’ve come to reflect on the way that it has shaped intellectual life in the U.S. Also, while a main line of criticism over the past 30 years has been to historicize literature, for the most part we had not historicized criticism itself. (That’s starting to change with a rising generation.) So I have tried to understand some of the history of how we got here — as a social institution, and also how the university has affected and shaped what we do in our intellectual work.

Q: You repeatedly characterize the casualization of academic labor — i.e., the scarcity of tenure-line jobs and the rise in the use of adjunct faculty — as one of the most pressing issues in higher education today. Do you see any indications that this trend might be reversed? If so, how?

A: One thing we need to be absolutely clear about is that the evisceration of decent academic jobs is not a result of “supply and demand.” If you look at the statistics, college attendance has increased through every decade of the past century, from about 4 million in 1960 to 15 million in 2000 and more than 20 million now. There have been small fluctuations, but it has always gone up. So the demand has, without any doubt, risen. The change is in the design and imagination of teaching jobs, and that has been a result of policy, perhaps ad hoc but nonetheless deliberate.

I would like to rid the air of a lot of smog about this: this was the choice of people, not the economic weather. So it can be changed, as any policy can be. If suddenly university administrators across the country came to a consensus that it was inhumane to employ people in the shabby ways that many do, this would change immediately. Or if there were a governmental policy regulating academic labor, as there is in France, where there are much stricter regulations on contingent positions, and where there is less inequality than we have, then it would change. It used to be a goal to attain full employment. We have phenomenal wealth and productivity has risen over the past two decades, so our structure of unemployment and underemployment is managed in this inequitable way. There are groups like COCAL and the New Faculty Majority that have proposals, but I think we need to regain the imperative for and good of full employment for college teachers.

Q: You're also concerned with the impact that the "post-welfare state university" has on its students. In "The Pedagogy of Debt," you argue that, "Debt is not just a mode of financing but a mode of pedagogy." What are some of the lessons that debt imparts to students?

A: Sometimes the lessons we teach are very different from the lessons we’d like to think we’re teaching. My brother, who has had a long career teaching school, told me a story about a study asking grade school students what traffic lights meant. For green they of course said “go” and red “stop.” But for yellow they said “speed up.” We say higher education is for various goals — critical thinking, or cultural tradition, or citizenship, or job preparation — but if people finish college with serious debt, then it has effects far different from those advertised.

We tend to think that student debt was a problem only since the economic problems of 2008 and Occupy, but it arose with deregulation and other policies in the 1980s. I’ve detailed the facts and figures in several essays, but I’ve especially thought about how student debt is an experience not unlike indenture, and it leaves lasting scars. It teaches lessons in civics — rather than a social good, higher ed is an individual good, atomizing us instead of democratizing us. It teaches lessons in economics — rather than a public obligation that we all contribute to and benefit from (I’d like my neighbors’ children to get an education), it’s a private concession, and a majority of students become instruments of the world of finance almost automatically at 18. It also teaches career choices — forget about being a schoolteacher; you want to go into finance. And it teaches a mode of feeling — of personal self-interest and of anxiety, or worse.

I was a student debtor, and it took me 20 years to pay mine off. (I could tell you stories about going to Payday Loans, even while a tenured professor.) But even more than that, I’d talk to my students and some of them have serious debt. That just does not seem right: they are too often being ushered into a world of duress, which is a perversion of what we are supposed to do in education.

Q: What is your view of the so-called crisis in the humanities? What, if anything, should be done about it?

A: I have a different perspective on this than most people: the large majority of students I see and people I talk to still want to read literature, watch films, look at art, hear music, or talk about big philosophical ideas, or recount history, or meditate on the meaning of life. Just as little children want to draw, sing, make rhymes, play games. Given the messages students get about the humanities, it’s actually quite remarkable that so many still want to do them. So, rather than backpedaling, I think there’s a crisis not in the humanities but in the heart of our culture that’s totally given over to financialization, profits, the next new shiny product. That’s not what I live for, nor do I think many of my students aspire to live for; I live for the people around me, not things, and writing is a way to try to connect with people.

One particular development we should resist is mechanized education. It’s called online or digital because that’s better promotional rhetoric, but it mechanizes what is a human function. Education is a human experience, not a commodity, and it suffers from mechanization. Would we want to mechanize experiences like going to church? Other relationships? And this is not nostalgia: cognitive scientists have demonstrated that education actually works through empathy more than anything else. The technicists like to act as if professors are recalcitrant, but any teacher worth their salt tries new methods all the time; the change is being enforced by administrators who want to cheap on the labor and technological companies who will profit from the retooling.

Q: You write that "politics start in one's workplace" — so, for the faculty members and other intellectuals reading this who may share some of the same concerns: where might they begin?

A: For me, it’s first to do things as a critic: to report on topics people don’t readily know, as on student debt; to analyze things that using skills I learned from theory; to debunk shibboleths; and sometimes to explain and advocate better policies, although not always. I make no apologies for having an academic role, as a critic, and also as an editor of minnesota review for a long time, where I featured a good deal of work calling attention to issues like academic labor when it was under the radar, and I now co-edit a book series with Johns Hopkins University Press on “Critical University Studies.” Sometimes these things leach into the policy field, which has happened with my work on student debt.

Some obvious things to support are unions, whether the recent union movement at University of Illinois-Chicago or your own graduate student organization. Finally, though, I have an aversion to preaching, so I don’t have the formula for salvation. I’ve advocated better policies on student debt, which is an issue I connected to, but I think one has to figure it out for oneself, what one connects to and one feels strongly about, and what presents itself.


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