Notes from the Underground

Scott McLemee notices that scholars are creating a new sort of academic community. Or is that just the dream of a ridiculous man?

January 18, 2006

Normally my social calendar is slightly less crowded than that of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. (He, at least, went out to see the pawnbroker.) But late last month, in an unprecedented burst of gregariousness, I had a couple of memorable visits with scholars who had come to town – small, impromptu get-togethers that were not just lively but, in a way, remarkable.

The first occurred just before Christmas, and it included (besides your feuilletonist reporter) a political scientist, a statistician, and a philosopher. The next gathering, also for lunch, took place a week later, during the convention of the Modern Language Association. Looking around the table, I drew up a quick census. One guest worked on British novels of the Victorian era. Another writes about contemporary postcolonial fiction and poetry. We had two Americanists, but of somewhat different specialist species; besides, one was a tenured professor, while the other is just starting his dissertation. And, finally, there was, once again, a philosopher. (Actually it was the same philosopher, visiting from Singapore and in town for a while.)

If the range of disciplines or specialties was unusual, so the was the degree of conviviality. Most of us had never met in person before -- though you’d never have known that from the flow of the conversation, which never seemed to slow down for very long. Shared interests and familiar arguments (some of them pretty esoteric) kept coming up. So did news about an electronic publishing initiative some of the participants were trying to get started. On at least one occasion in either meal, someone had to pull out a notebook to have someone else jot down an interesting citation to look up later.

In each case, the members of the ad hoc symposium were academic bloggers who had gotten to know one another online. That explained the conversational dynamics -- the sense, which was vivid and  unmistakable, of continuing discussions in person that hadn’t started upon arriving at the restaurant, and wouldn’t end once everyone had dispersed.

The whole experience was too easygoing to call impressive, exactly. But later -- contemplating matters back at my hovel, over a slice of black bread and a bowl of cold cabbage soup -- I couldn’t help thinking that something very interesting had taken place. Something having little do with blogging, as such. Something that runs against the grain of how academic life in the United States has developed over the past two hundred years.

At least that’s my impression from having read Thomas Bender’s book Intellect and Public Life: Essays on the Social History of Academic Intellectuals in the United States, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1993. That was back when even knowing how to create a Web page would raise eyebrows in some departments. (Imagine the warnings that Ivan Tribble might have issued, at the time.)

But the specific paper I’m thinking of – reprinted as the first chapter – is even older. It’s called “The Cultures of Intellectual Life: The City and the Professions,” and Bender first presented it as a lecture in 1977. (He is currently professor of history at New York University.)

Although he does not exactly put it this way, Bender’s topic is how scholars learn to say “we.” An intellectual historian, he writes, is engaged in studying “an exceedingly complex interaction between speakers and hearers, writers and readers.”  And the framework for that “dynamic interplay” has itself changed over time. Recognizing this is the first step towards understanding that the familiar patterns of cultural life – including those that prevail in academe – aren’t set in stone. (It’s easy to give lip service to this principle. Actually thinking through its implications, though, not so much.)

The history of American intellectual life, as Bender outlines it, involved a transition from civic professionalism (which prevailed in the 18th and early 19th centuries) to disciplinary professionalism (increasingly dominant after about 1850).

“Early American professionals,” he writes, “were essentially community oriented. Entry to the professions was usually through local elite sponsorship, and professionals won public trust within this established social context rather than through certification.” One’s prestige and authority was very strongly linked to a sense of belonging to the educated class of a given city.

Bender gives as an example the career of Samuel Bard, the New York doctor who championed building a hospital to improve the quality of medical instruction available from King’s College, as Columbia University was known back in the 1770). Bard had studied in Edinburgh and wanted New York to develop institutions of similar caliber; he also took the lead in creating a major library and two learned societies.

“These efforts in civic improvement were the product of the combined energies of the educated and the powerful in the city,” writes Bender, “and they integrated and gave shape to its intellectual life.”

Nor was this phenomenon restricted to major cities in the East. Visiting the United States in the early 1840s, the British geologist Charles Lyell noted that doctors, lawyers, scientists, and merchants with literary interests in Cincinnati “form[ed] a society of a superior kind.” Likewise, William Dean Howells recalled how, at this father’s printing office in a small Ohio town, the educated sort dropped in “to stand with their back to our stove and challenge opinion concerning Holmes and Poe, Irving and Macauley....”

In short, a great deal of one’s sense of cultural “belonging” was bound up with community institutions -- whether that meant a formally established local society for the advancement of learning, or an ad hoc discussion circle warming its collective backside near a stove.

But a deep structural change was already taking shape. The German model of the research university came into ever greater prominence, especially in the decades following the Civil War. The founding of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 defined the shape of things to come. “The original faculty of philosophy,” notes Bender, “included no Baltimoreans, and no major appointments in the medical school went to members of the local medical community.” William Welch, the first dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, “identified with his profession in a new way; it was a branch of science -- a discipline -- not a civic role.”

Under the old regime, the doctors, lawyers, scientists, and literary authors of a given city might feel reasonably comfortable in sharing the first-person plural. But life began to change as, in Bender’s words, “people of ideas were inducted, increasingly through the emerging university system, into the restricted worlds of specialized discourse.” If you said “we,” it probably referred to the community of other geologists, poets, or small-claims litigators.

“Knowledge and competence increasingly developed out of the internal dynamics of esoteric disciplines rather than within the context of shared perceptions of public needs,” writes Bender. “This is not to say that professionalized disciplines or the modern service professions that imitated them became socially irresponsible. But their contributions to society began to flow from their own self-definitions rather than from a reciprocal engagement with general public discourse.”

Now, there is a definite note of sadness in Bender’s narrative – as there always tends to be in accounts of the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft. Yet it is also clear that the transformation from civic to disciplinary professionalism was necessary.

“The new disciplines offered relatively precise subject matter and procedures,” Bender concedes, “at a time when both were greatly confused. The new professionalism also promised guarantees of competence -- certification -- in an era when criteria of intellectual authority were vague and professional performance was unreliable.”

But in the epilogue to Intellect and Public Life, Bender suggests that the process eventually went too far. “The risk now is precisely the opposite,” he writes. “Academe is threatened by the twin dangers of fossilization and scholasticism (of three types: tedium, high tech, and radical chic). The agenda for the next decade, at least as I see it, ought to be the opening up of the disciplines, the ventilating of professional communities that have come to share too much and that have become too self-referential.”

He wrote that in 1993. We are now more than a decade downstream. I don’t know that anyone else at the lunchtime gatherings last month had Thomas Bender’s analysis in mind. But it has been interesting to think about those meetings with reference to his categories.

The people around the table, each time, didn’t share a civic identity: We weren’t all from the same city, or even from the same country. Nor was it a matter of sharing the same disciplinary background – though no effort was made to be “interdisciplinary” in any very deliberate way, either. At the same time, I should make clear that the conversations were pretty definitely academic: “How long before hundreds of people in literary studies start trying to master set theory, now that Alain Badiou is being translated?” rather than, “Who do you think is going to win American Idol?”

Of course, two casual gatherings for lunch does not a profound cultural shift make. But it was hard not to think something interesting had just transpired: A new sort of collegiality, stretching across both geographic and professional distances, fostered by online communication but not confined to it.

The discussions were fueled by the scholarly interests of the participants. But there was a built-in expectation that you would be willing to explain your references to someone who didn’t share them. And none of it seems at all likely to win the interest (let alone the approval) of academic bureaucrats.

Surely other people must be discovering and creating this sort of thing -- this experience of communitas. Or is that merely a dream? 

It is not a matter of turning back the clock -- of undoing the division of labor that has created  specialization. That really would be a dream.

But as Bender puts it, cultural life is shaped by “patterns of interaction” that develop over long periods of time. For younger scholars, anyway, the routine give-and-take of online communication (along with the relative ease of linking to documents that support a point or amplify a nuance) may become part of the deep grammar of how they think and argue. And if enough of them become accustomed to discussing their research with people working in other disciplines, who knows what could happen?

“What our contemporary culture wants,” as Bender put it in 1993, “is the combination of theoretical abstraction and historical concreteness, technical precision and civic give-and-take, data and rhetoric.” We aren’t there, of course, or anywhere near it. But sometimes it does seem as if there might yet be grounds for optimism.


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