Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education

By Kaufman, Michael W. | Academe, November/December 1999 | Go to article overview
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Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education


Kaufman, Michael W., Academe


Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education

Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt. New York- Routledge, 1999, 336 pp., $20

MICHAEL W. KAUFMAN

FOR THOSE WHO DWELL IN THE "city on a hill," the devil and his or her disciples lurk behind every rock and tree in the wilderness. Despite Cary Nelson's and Stephen Watt's perfurictory disclaimer that no diabolical conspiracy precipitated academe's thirty-year slide into a slough of despond, they contrive a view of the contemporary university that depicts faculty members as the besieged elect and their legions of opponents-administrators, trustees, corporations, legislators, and parents-as Satanic agents. As Nelson and Watt seem to see it, the adversaries are engaged in a struggle for the soul of the academy, and, in appropriate millennial fever, they sense that the apocalypse is near. The corporatization of the university is almost completed, and what stands between a benighted wasteland of strip-mall colleges, mail-order degrees, and migrating Okies teaching debt-ridden, career-obsessed students is a stalwart but dwindling band of tenured faculty whom they exhort to venture out of their bunkered fortress to challenge the dragon in its lair. Nelson and Watt have been immersed too long in Beowulf and Mallory, and need a healthy dose of Cervantes.

Such a Manichaean view of academe's plight poses at least two problems. The first is that even if we were to accept Nelson's and Watt's alignment of the forces struggling to control universities, then a quick reading of the preface to Academic Ke words suffices to convince us that the problem is even more intractable than the authors understand. After arguing that faculty must exercise collective force

"to reallocate power" on campus (emphasis in original), Nelson and Watt conclude their preface by stating that Academic Keywords is a book without acknowledgments. Why would two so congenial colleagues refuse to acknowledge those who contributed to this volume? Simply because their four dozen friends, whose stories, interviews, documents, and letters helped shape and substantiate this devil's dictionary and revolutionary wake-up call, "have all-with varying degrees of pass ion-volunteered a willingness to remain unnamed." It can only be hoped that these magnificent fortyeight, brave hearts all, are not Counted among the courageous cadre the authors expect to "exercise organized collective action to reallocate power on campus."

The second problem such dualism creates is far more egregious than the simple naivete of the first. As attractive as Nelson's and Watt's passionate convictions may appear, their single-minded intensity desensitizes them to nuance, effectively trivializing the great shaping forces and quantum social changes that constitute the radical challenge educators ought to be confronting. Nelson and Watt would profit from some study of chaos theory and the science of complexity or, at the very least, a visit to the Center for Complex Systems Research, which is housed on the campus where Nelson works. It may be easier for positivists, logicians, determinists, and teleologists to believe that today's academy results from a lopsided struggle between faculty and administrators over some rational, if ill-conceived, notion of what a university should be. But the truth, I suspect, is closer to what economists like to call a "random walk": higher education has developed through convulsive mutations and awkward adaptations to a rapidly changing and chaotic environment.

Nevertheless, there are some discernible patterns amid the chaos, and Nelson and Watt are at their best in reporting the carnage, not in analyzing the cause of the strife. They have assembled some very disturbing details about the deteriorating status of contemporary academic life. Nelson's two pivotal chapters, "The Corporate University" and "Part-Time Faculty," are quite fine; they provide succinct narrative lines and cogent argument and suggest some significant remedies.

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