Free Dartmouth
5/20/2005 01:31:00 AM | Andrew Seal

Academic Kohn-troll

Hi, I'm Andrew Seal. Like the DFP 08s, I also recently got posting privilege here. (I'm an 07 who also writes for the Free Press.)

I apologize, this is rather long for a first post.

I read Meir Kohn’s editorial on the nature of the balance between teaching and research at Dartmouth College with some appreciation, but also with some serious reservations. Appreciation because I feel that he makes a few very good points and is blunt and forthright, but reservation because he fails to see the narrowness of his perspective on these matters (and writes like an econ prof).

I realize that it seems foolhardy or rash for me, an undergraduate, to criticize a professor at an Ivy League institution with seven pages of CV for holding a narrow perspective on what it means and what it takes to research, but I do believe that, perhaps under word or space constraints, he may have produced a view of research that is not fully representative for all departments or fields and misrepresented the needs of students at the undergraduate level and particularly the needs of students at a liberal arts college.

Professor Kohn’s suggestion that “guest worker” visiting faculty be replaced by regular faculty is surely an excellent idea, but to suggest that “the College should hire and tenure solely on the basis of the quality of research” is a bit too absolutist to really be constructive. While he does make a caveat that exceptionally poor teachers should be “weed[ed] out,” Professor Kohn does not take into account just what the average student needs from their classes.

The practice of requiring students to fill distributives necessarily means that in a great number of classes, there will be students that are taking classes only in order to fill those distributives. They simply do not need to be taught cutting-edge research because that information will crowd out the more fundamental concepts and methods that should be taught first. If it is possible to shoehorn pioneering research into the brutally short ten weeks we have, all well and good, but for many classes, teaching basics should be prioritized over introducing ultra-new research.

There are a great many of these types of classes at our school—classes that are either surveys or slightly specialized surveys, like Modern American Drama or Political Ideas. For most, the goal is not to make experts out of the students by filling them full of leading edge theories, but to make very well-rounded people of ideas, to give students the tools to pursue our interests unto the ends of the earth if we so choose, and to be there with us in that pursuit (at least until graduation). It is simply irrelevant for many professors if they have access to soon-to-be-published theories about cosmic rays if they are simply trying to teach their students the difference between a white dwarf and a red giant. In my understanding, graduate school is designed to be the place where students really grapple with the leading intellectual lights of the day that are currently making waves. The old “walk before you run” adage is highly applicable here.

I believe the research end of academics to not necessarily entail a teleological, product-oriented method of churning out articles like sausages. Stuffing a CV is a way to get tenure, not to teach. Research, in my understanding, should entail the effort to keep abreast of the most recent publications, especially in one’s concentration. I do not believe it is absolutely necessary to be the one publishing these books to have a good grasp on what is being published, what is being debated, what is being experimented on. One can be the editor of a well-respected journal and have a much better understanding of what is going on in one’s field than even the pioneering researcher. One can develop friendships and working relationships across the country and keep in touch, updating and being updated by one’s network of friends and colleagues. One can attend important conferences. It is not totally, absolutely essential that a professor be the torch-bearer in order to be in the light. It’s not essential to be “working on the frontiers of a discipline” in order to see the lay of the land.

Ideally, producing the leading-edge research is the case, but it is no gross fault of a professor if their research is not groundbreaking. There is much important and valuable work done that either validates previously revolutionary theories or experiments or that fills in holes left by the visionaries that give us those cataclysmic new theories. This is worthwhile scholarly work, yet it is not on the frontiers.

Professor Kohn also takes issue with the type of research carried out by the humanities and in “parts of the social sciences,” calling it “post-modernist, neo-Marxist claptrap.” Well, since this piece is already long enough, I’ll just ask, how does he explain the effect of writers like Judith Butler or Edward Said, two academics who have had serious effects far afield from the Ivory Tower, have had significant impact on the way entire communities are perceived and received and on the ways those communities perceive themselves. They are exactly that “claptrap” Professor Kohn denigrates, and to his own loss.

Links to this post:

Create a Link


Post a Comment

The Free Press

Alums for Social Change
The Green Magazine
The Dartmouth
Dartmouth Observer
Dartmouth Review
Inner Office
The Little Green Blog
Welton Chang's Blog
Vox in Sox
MN Publius (Matthew Martin)
Dartmouth Official News

Other Blogs

Arts & Letters
Body and Soul
Blog For America
Brad DeLong
Brad Plumer
Campus Nonsense
Crooked Timber
Daily Kos
Dean Nation
Dan Drezner
The Front Line
Interesting Times
Is That Legal?
Talking Points Memo
Lawrence Lessig
Lean Left
Legal Theory
Matthew Yglesias
Ms. Musings
Nathan Newman
New Republic's &c.
Not Geniuses
Political State Report
Political Theory Daily Review
Queer Day
Roger Ailes
Talk Left
This Modern World
Tough Democrat
Volokh Conspiracy
Washington Note
X. & Overboard

Magazines, Newspapers and Journals
Boston Globe Ideas
Boston Review
Chronicle of Higher Education
Common Dreams
In These Times
Mother Jones
New York Review of Books
New York Times
The American Prospect
The Nation
The New Republic
The Progressive
Tom Paine
Village Voice
Washington Monthly

Capitol Hill Media
ABC's The Note
American Journalism Review
Columbia Journalism Review
Daily Howler
Donkey Rising
The Hill
National Journal
NJ Hotline
NJ Wake-up call
NJ Early Bird
NJ Weekly
Political Wire
Roll Call

Search the DFP
Powered by Blogger

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Dartmouth College or the Dartmouth Free Press.