Style and Substance

I knew next to nothing about NYU Professor Avital Ronell until the other day when I read this essay by Andrea Long Chu in the Chronicle of Higher Education (not a journal I’d ever read before either). I recommend reading it:

It is a devastating analysis of the flaws not just in a person but in the institutions and cultural habits that gives some individuals extraordinary power and influence over others. Now I’ve already mentioned that essentially that essay is my only source for the facts and background regarding the accusations aimed at Professor Ronell. However, what struck me about Andrea Long Chu’s essay was how extraordinarily well written it is.

There’s not any sensible way of separating content from the style but clearly, they are also, somehow, different dimensions of writing. Clarity of expression, painting both an emotional picture and a set of connected ideas, mixing quips with insight, all of these enable the reader to engage with the content. In short: I think that is a brilliantly written essay — I don’t doubt the truth of what was written in it but if it was all fiction it would still be brilliantly written.

Meanwhile, some of Professor Ronell’s supporters have written a counter-response which is available here:

Here’s a sample:

“My point is simply; your effort to fix justice is in vain. As a creature of social media and especially of twitterati, you must know that this ain’t the place for Arendtian deliberation. This is where the lynch mob thrives. Which world do you inhabit? Do you think your speech has no consequence? What deceptions of grandeur? In the real world, it does and with deadly repercussions. Innocents are murdered, towns set ablaze because some fascist posted conspiracy theories on social media. Get off your high horse. Time to return to school and start reading Derrida rigorously, yes that ghastly place you call hardcore deconstruction.”

Now, there is a fallacy we can all fall into of assuming that the ideas eloquently expressed are truer than the ones poorly expressed. However, the gulf is huge in this case because the response is written by somebody with, supposedly, not just advanced skills in the humanities but in literature. Clarity of thought matters. The purpose of reading Arendt or Derrida isn’t to simply pepper them through a paragraph. Yes, the study of literature isn’t intended to be ‘how to write better’ but if the net effect is that you end up writing poorly and express muddled ideas then surely we can conclude something has gone wrong somewhere.

A friend, who like me is not part of academia but whose work crosses orbits with academics sufficiently often to have semi-informed opinions, refers to a thing he calls “stupid people with Phd’s”. I’m not keen on the term “stupid” and in my friend is refering to people from the sciences but I know what he means: lots of really smart people with Phd’s but every so often you encounter people who don’t even seem to understand the discipline they have a doctorate in. The nature of academia and the power relationships that arise out of rewarding expertise and the unstable working conditions of people starting academic careers is doubly toxic – toxic at a human level but also toxic in that it can end up rewarding the wrong people.

Anyway, I’ve already strayed well beyond the extent of my own knowledge and experience.


19 thoughts on “Style and Substance

  1. Speaking as a spouse of someone in academia, one thing I’ve noticed over and over again is the way academics have little to no training of any kind in how to work with or for other people. Those who are placed in administrative positions often have little or no training in administration; instead they’re folks who got promoted up the ladder based on either their scholarly output or their personal connections. But they find it almost impossible to budget, or negotiate, or schedule, or even follow pre-agreed-upon procedures. Then all are surprised when something blows up. And most scholars got hired because they spent ten of thousands of hours in archives or in labs or by themselves developing scholarly skills, but no time getting used to actually having to work with people. They’re almost hermit-like in their lack of experience with the normal rules of inter-personal engagement.

    I used to work for a medium to large sized financial entity. It certainly wasn’t full of paragons of humanity, but the people who worked there learned very quickly that if you acted out in any number of different ways (saying racist things to co-workers, engaging in sexual or or other forms of personal harassment, lying endlessly about things they claimed to have done, just plain fucking up the things they were hired to do), then they might be warned or maybe just let go. That doesn’t seem to be the case in academia. Particularly if tenure is involved.

    Note that I’m not calling for the abolition of tenure. And I’m not pretending that corporate/business culture isn’t chock full of oppression and harassment. It’s just that from my personal experience, getting a PhD in a subject in no way qualifies the recipient to work in a mutually pleasant manner with other humans.

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    1. I’m not sure that is true for academics, at least more so than other workplace contexts (the Silicon Valley tech bro fiefdom or the worlds of finance capital, stand up comedy and entertainment, college athletics etc all spring to mind). The issue comes down to power and prestige — those who have it are forgiven things that most of the rest of us wouldn’t even dare to try. I know a lot of academics and can only think of one who is as arrogant and self-absorbed as Ronell appears to have been.

      I read a critique of this Ronell affair that said that it was in part due to the toxic idea of genius, and that genius cannot/ should not be constrained because they are not like the rest of us, they obey muses, are pure creativity etc. High profile names keep money flowing in and administrators overlook a lot for that reason.

      About this article, I read it a few days ago too, because so many of my friends were talking about it and am not sure I’d characterize it as brilliant, even on the level of prose. Despite my often-baroque ramblings in these comments, I actually prefer tighter, more direct prose. Chu’s article has too many florid metaphors for my liking, too many punchy catch lines at the end of successive paragraphs which was something I foundjarring. I’m also not convinced that grad students are “junior colleagues” exactly, along claims she makes. But I do recognize that it is common in high-profile, prestige departments at R1 schools (and other rareified workplaces) that there can be a lot of dysfunction and coercive power dynamics, especially these days when the chance of getting good, permanent jobs in humanities fields is minuscule. Like so many other things in the 21st century, we are leaving things worse than we found them and grad students (as well as all sentient beings) have cause to be righteously angry about that.

      Ronell’s behavior as reported was egregiously unprofessional, appalling and abusive.

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      1. “I read a critique of this Ronell affair that said that it was in part due to the toxic idea of genius, and that genius cannot/ should not be constrained because they are not like the rest of us, they obey muses, are pure creativity etc. High profile names keep money flowing in and administrators overlook a lot for that reason. ”
        An attitude I despise (and blogged about here: I know it’s probably inevitable that high performers/stars/geniuses will get special treatment, but I can’t stand the argument they should be allowed to behave like shits.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. It’s sometimes called the Peter Principle (for the guy who came up with it): If you do well, you’ll get promoted. When you reach the highest level you’re qualified for and do well, you’ll be promoted to your “highest level of incompetence.” As Regular Commenter says it’s not unique to academia.

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  2. Camestros, Just a brief note, some of Professor Ronell’s supporters are in other situations extremely thoughtful and engaging critics and scholars. I think that the issue is less a matter of ‘stupidity’ than a massive contradiction between their commitment to defending their friend (Ronell) and a set of political and ethical commitments that come out of their political work and scholarship that would require them to abandon the former commitment. Instead, we get incoherent writing that attempts to square something that can’t really be squared. It’s the same reason why I think a lot of the Sad Puppy justifications were so tortured and confused. They were involved in a similar act of self-justification on deeply faulty premises. I also think that Pixlaw is absolutely correct to note that academic get somewhere between no and almost no training for many of the human interactions that dominate their work life, anything from teaching to managing labs to training graduate students.

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    1. It may be true that academics “get between no and almost no training for the many human interactions that dominate their work life”, unless you count the 11+ years they tend to have spentin high ed (ie: as students and apprentices able to see and experience the models they encounter). Realistically, there is “between no and almost no training” for many other human interactions like relationships, marriages, divorces, parenting and yet somehow most decent people who care about others and about doing a good job manage to figure it out.

      Academics are no different — and actually probably somewaht better than — corporate and service industry middle managers and supervisors in handing interpersonal relations (as anyone who has ever worked for a manager in a restaurant or mall store can attest). To set academia apart from other workplaces is just perpetuating a myth that it is “an ivory tower” and not just a human-built workplace environment like any other.

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      1. As someone who just went through graduate school a few years ago, I would say that a lot of the basic processes that are discussed above are fairly opaque to grad students. Grads for instance have representation at faculty meetings, but are thrown out when employment decisions are made, are usually not involved the processes of funding etc. Teaching training tends to be minimal in my experience and not particularly valued. There has been a tendency to introduce professionalization into the conversation in the past few years. I saw it started about half way through the program, but that tends to cover a narrow set of concerns, publication, job interviews, etc. I’m not necessarily interested in radically separating academic work from other work situations, but there are some pretty simple things that could be done to make some of the more miserable parts of the process a little less miserable, for instance, job interviews.


  3. Actually, academics do get training in human interactions and dealing with graduate students and undergraduate students. There are quite a lot of rules; how many depends on the particular field. They go to seminars and training sessions about those rules. They have discussions and panels and training at academic conferences held by academic organizations that make those issues a priority to improve the field. Their teaching is rated and analyzed, etc. So no, academia structurally as a whole is not the feudal dystopia the first writer kind of gets wound up in making out. Graduate students are not technically indentured labor. They are given jobs as part of the package for them to be able to do graduate school (like scholarships,) they are often unionized, and there are rules about how they can and cannot be employed by profs. They are seldom kicked out of programs once they are in them. (Which is not to say that professors don’t have tremendous power over them, particularly in the sciences.)

    What people have a problem with is understanding that teaching is not the first role of academics. Research and publications (scholarship) are. Even at universities and liberal arts colleges where teaching is more of the dominant focus than research, research is still the critical component in academics’ careers. It’s how an academic can move from one place to another, it’s how you get tenure which in turn allows you to pursue a wider range of research and it’s how you are evaluated within the field by your peers, journals, etc. It’s also how you bring money into the university — money that goes to funding both the professors who bring in the grants and donated funds and other professors in the department as well. That research goes on year round and may take professors away on research trips. People get confused because they think that professors are essentially hired hands whose main concern is customer service to students, as if it’s a retail service business. But that’s not what professors are hired for. (That is what adjunct professors are hired for — straight teaching or lab management in the sciences.) They are hired for their academic research — their scholarship — and they then pass on their research and their knowledge of the field to undergrads and/or graduate students, the latter to which they are also mentors, often for the grad students’ whole careers. Teaching and mentoring are important parts of academics’ jobs, just not the central job. It’s not like high school.

    The organization of professors in a department is as a guild. There is no boss, no overseers. Everyone has equal votes in most things, including new hires for the department, with the full, tenured professors having equal votes in some other things — and also expected to do service jobs such as director of the graduate students, etc. One of those service jobs is to serve as chair of the department for a limited number of years, which none of the senior faculty really want to do and generally goes to those who can function the most diplomatically with other profs in rotation. There are numerous advantages to this situation for both professors and students. But it also means that sometimes departments become dysfunctional with difficult people being allowed to behave badly and cause problems that nobody wants to deal with, and if the chair is not good at the (unpaid) job and the dean and provosts in charge of the department are not good at the job, then there can be very bad responses and the channels for dealing with complaints don’t work right, including for professors dealing with bad behavior from their fellow professors. It depends on the university and on the particular department, rather than being an institutionalized thing across the board at all American universities.

    At NYU’s comparative literature department, the department is clearly dysfunctional, which makes the essay writer’s frustration totally understandable. Ronell was abusive, and the department, the chair and the administration allowed her to be so. Other professors in that department clearly also have problems and used threats. And Ronell’s accuser of sexual harassment also seems to have proof. Ronell’s defenders seem to be mostly hung up that she is a woman and her accuser is a man. With the essay writer and others coming forth with issues about Ronell’s behavior as well, the same system we would want to work with a male professor and a female graduate student should be working here. But a lot of university administrations shy away from these issues because it’s complicated and expensive when the professor then sues. And people are launching defenses of Ronell that are no different from the ones launched for male professors in this situation. Their rhetoric is all “style” because it’s the same rhetoric that is always applied.

    Conservatives will try to scream that this shows the “hypocriticalness” of feminism, as if women’s equality is based on how well individual women behave (i.e. not equality.) But this isn’t an issue of feminism or just academia. It’s an issue of our rape culture, how we normalize sexual assault as okay or not assault at all. We do this particularly if the offender is a man, but we also do it for all offenders of all types of victims. It is unfortunately a dysfunctional defensive reaction to having to deal with horror and with failure. Better to deny that such things happened then have to deal with them and with the fact that our perceptions had been blind or wrong. Better to blame the victim and/or accuse the victim — and other complainers — of fraud. It is something that has to be dealt with everywhere because it is everywhere.

    There are universities that are taking major steps in changing this, including taking on lawsuits they very well likely will lose to affirm that they are going to protect their students. Academics as a whole — each guild of them across universities — are also making changes, including increased training and policies. And it is also going to become, I suspect, a bigger legal issue rather than just an academic disciplinary one. Universities cannot afford to keep ignoring these issues regarding professors or administrators. And a lot of them don’t. But some of them do. A lot of them have old professors or administrators profoundly out of step with modern equality issues.

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    1. Kat –

      Actually, I don’t disagree with much of what you said. But in many ways your second and third paras illustrate the point I was trying to make. People who are successful in academia are often the ones who spend most of their time, first as grad students, and then as professors, deep in the archives/the lab/whatever in order to generate publishable material. Those who publish most move up the ladder, those who publish least, don’t. So in many ways the prizes go to those who have the least experience in human interaction because they’ve spent the most time in the lab/the archives/whatever.

      Secondly, I’m not claiming that teaching is an important part of most professors’ jobs. As you point out, the system is set up to reward things other than teaching (i.e., research). We could argue about whether that’s a good or bad thing, but it is what it is.

      Thirdly, although I have no good data to back this up, I suspect that most faculty/grad student unions are at public universities. So far as I know, most private colleges and universities aren’t unionized. I will admit that this is merely an impression and I’m more than willing to changer my position when I see some actual stats.

      Fourth, I’m also willing to limit my remarks to those faculty born before, say, 1975. The younger faculty I’ve met have been generally a lot more reasonable and humane than those born before that date. I’ll point out that Dr. Ronell, born in 1952, fits into the first group.

      Fifth, one point of personal experience: My spouse is a tenured faculty member at a state university in what many people perhaps mistakenly call the US ‘midwest’. The school likes to pretend that it’s a second-tier (aiming for first) research university. In reality it’s a third tier school. Neither they nor any members of their department have EVER received any diversity training, any training to prevent sexual or other forms of harassment or any administrative training of any kind. And the grad program they teach in has no such training at any time.


      1. A lot of the issues that occurred in the situation discussed really wouldn’t fall under aegis of the union grievance system since it deals with academic mentorship, rather than the workplace. I’d be fairly surprised if any university would sign a collective bargaining agreement that would allow for union intervention within that context. It certainly isn’t allowed in the context of the University of California situation, and I would be surprised if it did in the recently signed NYU contracts. (In fact, in most situations, graduate students are only covered by the contract when they are specifically teaching assistants and not when they are research assistants, although those students also tend to get the benefits of the contract. The state of California just recently passed a law allowing for research assistants to organize, so it will be interesting to see what the results of that process.)


    2. Kat, I agree that the university has a lot of structure, but there really isn’t a lot of training on how to work within that structure, for instance lab management or hiring decisions. Academic training does a lot of work to cover research, which is important work, but very little to cover the social and institutional relations that exist within the university. There is some training for teaching, but this tends to be minimal and tends to be a one time event. Evaluations tend to not be a very good representation of teaching ability and are not a substitute for training. It’s also important to note that most people leaving the institution will be filling precisely those poorly paid, insecure, adjunct positions that you mentioned, if not taking on other work. Again, as above, this is a matter of personal experience and one that is informed by a lot of conversations I’ve had with people as a union steward and organizer at the grad student level.

      I should note that I’m not entirely convinced that the current situation is really a good representation of graduate school, after all, most graduate students are not going to schools like NYU and are in public institutions, although it does certainly gesture towards some of the informal abuses of power that can occur within the aptly named ‘guild system’ of the university.


    3. High fives for all the academic spouses surrounded by academics!

      Pixlaw: “People who are successful in academia are often the ones who spend most of their time, first as grad students, and then as professors, deep in the archives/the lab/whatever in order to generate publishable material. Those who publish most move up the ladder, those who publish least, don’t. So in many ways the prizes go to those who have the least experience in human interaction because they’ve spent the most time in the lab/the archives/whatever.”

      Their research tends to put them much more in contact with other humans than squirreled away in a dusty tower somewhere or underground lab. Labs are hubbubs of human activity with professors running experiments with students, collaborators, having to deal with corporate, government and other institutions for funding and grants, lectures, panels and presentations at conferences, peer reviews, faculty meetings, etc. Social scientists experiment with people, quite often students. They are doing research trips where they interview person after person, often very prominent people. The humanities and historians certainly have dusty archives to research and various arts professors are creating art, but they are also interviewing people and working with them at institutions, doing research trips, etc. And they all submit their work to journals, where they are peer reviewed, where they have to interact to make revisions, and network, network, network.

      So as much as we like the stereotype of the absent-minded, introverted, eccentric professor buried in the library, the majority of them are extroverted, articulate people persons, quite often interviewing terrorists in Iraq or coordinating lab experiments with colleagues in universities about the globe, and that’s usually the personality of the most successful of them. Ronell is certainly such a person — she’s not out of touch with people (not sure if she is out of touch with German literature.) People who break boundaries tend to have a very good grasp on where those boundaries are so that they can manipulate them. They tend to be very good at dealing with people and persuasive at making an argument in their defense. That’s how they get a lot of people on their side believing them and not the victims of their behavior. Abusers might be abrasive, but they don’t tend to be awkward.

      “I suspect that most faculty/grad student unions are at public universities. So far as I know, most private colleges and universities aren’t unionized.”

      Private liberal colleges tend not to have graduate students much, being focused on undergrads. It’s certainly more common at state funded universities, depending on the state. My point about grad student unions was that it is one of the things that provide rules for how graduate students are treated and can be worked at universities. Even if they don’t have a union, there are rules and procedures and terms of graduate packages, and there is training given to professors about those rules.

      That doesn’t mean that some professors don’t abuse those rules or that all professors don’t have a lot of power over their graduate students’ situation — which is exactly why they should not be seeking sexual relationships with them in any situation. But it isn’t quite the indentured serfdom that Chu was kind of indicating (a bit of style over substance in an otherwise fair personal essay.) It also does vary because there are different types of graduate students with different processes. My brother-in-law is a law professor. The terms of publishing and work for him are different, with some overlap, than that of my husband’s, and his law students do different things than my husband’s graduate students. Ronell was clearly abusing the policies for her graduate students, as well as playing favorites, which is not against the rules but certainly can set up situations for abuse if a professor is dysfunctional and in a dysfunctional department.

      “Neither they nor any members of their department have EVER received any diversity training, any training to prevent sexual or other forms of harassment or any administrative training of any kind. And the grad program they teach in has no such training at any time.”

      That’s unfortunate, but it varies. Republican controlled states obviously are going to try to avoid having it and our current white supremacist theocrat of an education secretary is certainly trying to nationally get rid of harassment training and regulations. But my husband started out teaching in a third tier red state public university that did have that training. Which several professors did not understand but several decades in it’s a bit better, at least in some parts of the country and certainly New York. Just recently at an annual conference he went to held by one of the academic associations, they were having brainstorming groups about these types of issues and he was in the how can men be better allies to women faculty and graduate students in networking, conferences, etc. group. So as guilds, professors are working on it and universities have varied from utterly horrible to brilliant at it. Even when there are no formal harassment seminar trainings, there are rules about handling graduate students that professors are perfectly well aware of and academic norms. There is also sadly a bit of a pass the priest around thing going on for years with some universities where harassing professors are allowed to walk off to another job at a university that is not made aware of their rep. And this is coming back to bite a number of universities and so in some places that is changing too. Universities can less afford to ignore the minority of predatory profs, even if they are prominent, because a number of the big scandals that have come out in recent years over sexual harassment and sexual assault on campuses has definitely hit them in terms of reputation and getting students. It certainly isn’t a consistent set-up nation-wide but NYU does have some codes and Ronell seems to clearly have violated them.

      Robert Wood: Yes, it is not a great time to be a Ph.D. student, especially if you’re planning to use it to try and get into academia. The funding is not there, too much money is diverted to administration, sports and facilities building and universities are relying too much on the horribly run adjunct system. Corporate feudalism has definitely infected a lot of institutions. The MA’s have it a bit better, although with the current state of U.S. and state governments and the draconian feudal attitudes of corporations, maybe not. And the MFA students are routinely in a bad situation where professors have way more power over their situation than they should have if the MFA student is trying to get into academia. Again, there are different types of graduate students and because it is a type of guild system and because university administrators hail from both faculty and non-academic, often corporate backgrounds, dysfunction can occur at all levels and in many departments at different universities. You can have a pretty good department, but if the one or two more messed up people are allowed to run wild by the rest of the department (if they are aware of it,) and the administration and they manage to persuade a few allies, then you have a real problem. (This also tends to squash your prospects at job talks at various universities, as you probably know.)

      In this case, Ronell is a prominent woman prof in her field and her allies seem to be obsessing far more on what it’s going to mean if such a woman then is also an abuser, rather than on the student who faced a difficult situation and supporting complaints from others. This same problem goes on with prominent men professors. It’s part of how they get away with stuff for a long time. It is a society-wide institutionalized problem, made into a thornier thicket due to the guild system and situation of graduate students in academia, and the reluctance of institutions and companies to wade into that thicket and deal with it, however expensive and complicated. It’s not just a matter of professors being sequestered away — which they really aren’t — and bad with people — which most of them are not. It is also the difficult problem of getting people to stop centering themselves and their reputations — as Ronell’s allies are doing in defending her and thus their own reputations as smart, fair people — and to instead work on concrete solutions for protecting and supporting students, graduate students, vulnerable faculty, etc. at high ed institutions. Chu should not have gotten vituperative responses for saying she believes Ronell’s accuser and talking about her own experiences with her. That’s a sad failure of the whole system.

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  4. Wow, the two pieces couldn’t be more stylistically dissimilar. Chu’s piece is thoughtful, systematic and precise. The second piece reads like an edgy undergrad absolutely desperate to show how smart they are but missing the point of the piece they’re critiquing.


  5. “There’s not any sensible way of separating content from the style but clearly, they are also, somehow, different dimensions of writing. Clarity of expression, painting both an emotional picture and a set of connected ideas, mixing quips with insight, all of these enable the reader to engage with the content.”
    The Puritans (or so I have read) thought the opposite, regarding fancy word play as a kind of Jedi mind trick distracting listeners/readers from the facts.

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  6. I have never heard of this woman, but since she’s supposedly a Germanist I checked out which aspects of German literature she focussed on. Turns out she has written about Goethe, Nietzsche and Heidegger.


      1. Oh yes, I’d forgotten about that.

        My reaction was mainly, “Wow, out of all of German literature, she had to pick what are probably the three most overanalysed writers. And two of those are actually philosophers.”


      2. I’d heard once that Marty “Slowpoke” Heidegger had picked up a lot of his philo-gun-slingin’ from Johnny the Cowboy, but that he fell in with a bad crowd and was never the same after the Second Shootout between his crew and the Allied boys ended so badly.

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