Wednesday’s Child: My job description grows again

Every year, my job description gets longer. Research and teaching, obviously, and a share of university administration ancillary to that. (For instance, preparing the Law faculty’s REF submission and, more dangerously, chairing my college’s Coffee Committee [OfCoff!].

For the professoriate, these things have always come with the territory. Now, however, I am also drafted as a delegate authority to assist the government in implementing its political agenda. The UK’s self-destructive policies on migration, including the admission of foreign students, are to be monitored by people like me. I have a duty to report how often I lay eyes on my visa students. (What if Oxford students are not really having panic attacks in the library but are actually off in Isis training camps?) I also have a ‘prevent’ duty to make sure they aren’t being sucked into terrorism. (What if they come to believe John Locke’s claim that one may make a violent ‘appeal to heaven’ whenever the rulers try to govern without consent?)

My own view—I wish the Vice Chancellor would endorse it—is that these new duties must not only be ‘balanced against’ my duty to support academic freedom and my Public Sector Equality Duty to advance the status of protected groups—they must be subject to them.  Academic freedom and social equality should be side-constraints within which any ‘prevent’ duty or duty to monitor migration is exercised. Otherwise, the essential bond of trust between teacher and student will be ruptured, and the status of our universities will be undermined.

Consider this. If I do not see a postgraduate student at least three times in eight weeks, I need to report that to the administration.   If I have concerns about why I have not seen her, I need to report those too.  If I fear a student is being ‘radicalised’ I also need to report that. How will I know? The University has a duty to train me: ‘We would expect appropriate members of staff to have an understanding of the factors that make people support terrorist ideologies or engage in terrorist-related activity.’ Of course, the University can’t know what ‘factors’ cause support for ‘terrorist ideologies’ until it knows which ideologies are actually ‘terrorist’. No worries— ‘BIS offers free training for higher and further education staff through its network of regional higher and further education Prevent co-ordinators. ‘ I am not making this up.

Today, I learn that the government is pressing ahead with legislation to ensure that the security services have access to a year’s worth of our online data, including a complete list of every website you accessed. (If you haven’t done so, download Tor now, and browse with nothing else until this legislation is repealed or, if you are in Scotland, until independence frees you from still more English insanity.) The availability of this information will feed into the duty to monitor migration and prevent terrorism.

It isn’t hard to see where this could lead.  I’ve only seen a visa postgraduate twice in eight weeks? Her email says she is away conducting research in Washington. But we can check to see if she has accessed our servers, and from where, and what she is searching for.  We have a duty to keep that data.   A student used to favour power-sharing in Northern Ireland but now jokes that the DUP needs a whiff of gelignite?  I can alert the university to check out his Facebook and Twitter feeds.  Indeed, I must. The statutory guidance says:

‘Radicalised students can also act as a focal point for further radicalisation through personal contact with fellow students and through their social media activity. … Changes in behaviour and outlook may be visible to university staff. Much of this guidance therefore addresses the need for RHEBs to have the necessary staff training, IT policies and student welfare programmes to recognise these signs and respond appropriately.’

It is clear that this government cares little about academic freedom, civil liberties, or social equality. More surprisingly, they seem to care little about the competitive position of our leading universities. (Our opposite numbers at Yale or Harvard are not burdened by any of this–nor by REF or TEF.)   So where are our senior administrators on the issue?  Where is UUK? Where is the professoriate of the ‘elite’ Russell Group of British universities?  I guess they are all off at free BIS training sessions on how to recognize and prevent radicalization among  students.  Or perhaps at job interviews at U.S. universities.

Wednesday’s Child: Bullshit Titles

One low grade, but pervasive, source of woe for today’s academic is bullshit titles.

The leading works on the philosophy of bullshit are Harry Frankfurt’s path-breaking, On Bullshit and G.A. Cohen’s brilliant essay, ‘Complete Bullshit’. A comment on each before I expose another kind of bullshit.

For Frankfurt, bullshit is characterised by its intentional indifference to the truth. Bullshit may be false, or vague, but it’s all the same to the bullshitter, who doesn’t care whether what he says is true or false, so long as he is filling the airwaves. (Frankfurt notes that there is a lot of such bullshit in politics, but I hear plenty in seminars too.) Cohen’s bullshit is non-intentional. It is a kind of hopeless obscurity—bullshit is unclarifiably obscure. Operationally, one can test for Cohen bullshit by adding (or removing) a negation sign to a proposition. If that makes no difference to its plausibility, then it is probably just bullshit. (Try this one at home: ‘Performativity cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability.’)

I believe that there is also a third kind of  bullshit, though it is probably best not to call it Green Bullshit. This bullshit is familiar from a certain kind of book or article title.   A couple of examples should be enough. Since I don’t want to ruin anyone’s career (including my own) I’ll just make up them up.

  • (A) Agency, Structure, and Power: The Milk-Marketing Board of Ruritania, 2007-2009
  • (B) Realising the Juridical: The Roman Law of Dogs in Later Imperial Sources

These titles are, in an obvious pre-theoretical sense, utter bullshit.

Now, a casual observer might think it is only the title before the colon, what I will call the ‘ante-colonial trope’, that is bullshit.   A tempting hypothesis. Certainly the terms ‘structure’ and ‘juridical’, in the senses of (A) and (B), often suffice for a diagnosis of bullshit.   But the deeper bullshit here consists in the relation between the ante-colonial trope, with its clouds of absurd puffery, and the subtitle, the little intellectual fart, that follows. Bullshit titles thus exhibit a kind of relational bullshit.

Note also that the subtitle, while suggesting a work that is careful, controlled—small, even—itself need include no bullshit. Since bullshit titles, in the present sense, are relational, you may think that a trivial point. How could there be relational bullshit in one of the relata, taken its own? But this ignores the possibility of nested bullshit relations, and the possibility that the subtitle itself might also contain non-relational bullshit of the Frankfurt or Cohen sort:

  • (C) Queerying the Performative: The Iterability of Irritable Drag Queens after Obergefell v Hodges

It is important to distinguish bullshit titles from merely stupid titles (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus), cutesy titles (Justice for Hedgehogs) and clunky titles (Prenuptial Agreements and the Presumption of Free Choice: Issues of Power in Theory and Practice). Clunky titles in particular are sometimes mistaken for bullshit. The distinction is subtle, but one indicator is that, in the clunky, what sounds like an ante-colonial trope normally appears in retrograde position, and does not have the fart-concealing function of the classic trope. Instead, it merely functions as a lame comment on, or irrelevant elaboration of, the main title.

I conjecture that there are relationships, causal and perhaps conceptual, between truth-avoidant bullshit and obscurantist bullshit on the one hand, and relational bullshit on the other. But that requires further research. So too why there is so much bullshit (of all kinds, really) in the social sciences and in law. Perhaps readers can help with that.

For now, following in the footsteps of the Buddha, ‘I teach only suffering and the end of suffering’. Extinguishing the special kind of suffering that is bullshit is complex, but here is a simple path to reducing it. No subtitles. Ever.

In particular, never allow doctoral students to use subtitles. Either there is good reason to study three years of decisions of the Milk-Marketing Board or there isn’t. (By ‘good reason’ I mean dissertation-wise. It’s a low standard.) If there is, they should have the courage of their convictions and make the subject their title. If there isn’t, do not allow them to waste their intellectual careers on trivia and then package it up in a bullshit title. That just brings more woe into the world.

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Wednesday’s Child: Academic Over-production

Today’s woe is scholarly over-production.

No one keeps up with the literature. There is too much. Some of the causes are well known. In addition to an over-supply of people (which increases the number becoming academics), there is institutional pressure to publish almost anything. We end up with what my former colleague Harry Arthurs calls a ‘production-driven research culture‘. Enabling this, there are also too many journals—especially in the US, where student-run law reviews proliferate, pumping out oceans of poorly chosen work that is then often edited so as to make bad writing even worse.

Less well understood are two internal factors.   Young academics seem increasingly keen to adopt  a ‘line’: an outlook capable of generating an article on almost any subject. In addition, the Facebook generation seems addicted to ‘likes’: watching their SSRN or Google Scholar hits rack up, never mind whether anyone is reading or engaging with their work. A word of woe about each of these.

The ‘Line’

I don’t blame rookies for working a ‘line’. I have seen promising young scholars fail to get appointments because they were thought to lack one—‘She seems smart; but I don’t see what her line is’.   Or, ‘He wasn’t very responsive. I asked him what his view implied for my work on inter-state trucking law and he had nothing to say.’

Law and economics is a famously productive defence against such stupid criticisms; so too are the utilitarian and neo-Kantian machines that clank and chug along in their charming, steampunk, ways. Whatever their demerits, they have the merit of never leaving one without an opinion, and of leaving no doubt in others’ minds about what one’s ‘line’ is.

But there is a downside. Probably, no such ‘line’ could be faithful to the law we have, or to the law we ought to have. And if you have a ‘line’ you will need self-restraint in knowing when it isn’t worth pursuing. I imagine people thinking, ‘But I’m sure you are all wondering what my theory has to say about the Roman law of dogs.’ Actually, no; we aren’t. We know what your theory has to say about things of general interest: that is why it is a ‘line’. And what matters—to those who care—about the Roman law of dogs is the doctrinal lore. We already know that if dogs’ happiness is happiness then we should count it, and if dogs matter because they make people happy, then we should optimize the distribution of dogs.   And we already know that, outside a public order of Right no one really owns a dog. They may have dogs, yes (and the dogs may make them happy)–but they do not have their own dogs.   Like tic-tac-toe, these games are fun to play, but only with a child.

Working a ‘line’ also tends to generate long articles. Before you’ve spun your story, you can have twenty pages on the history of the ‘line’ and, after you’ve done it, you can consider twenty pages of objections, including those that would only occur, as Bernard Williams once put it, to the malicious or the clinically literal-minded.   Best of all are objections coming from a different ‘line’. ‘Lines’ live off each other, symbiotically. This produces still more writing.

The ‘likes’

Followers, views and downloads are the new academic’s equivalent to ‘likes’.   They live in hope of the SSRN message that tells them the paper they posted last week, in the dead of the summer, scores a top-ten download. Or that academia.edu shows they have had viewers, or even followers, in Bhutan.

Now, no one can ‘like’ what you don’t write. And once written, you need to get it out anywhere and everywhere.   The otherwise admirable SSRN enables bad behaviour here. It is like taking whisky to an AA meeting. Since there is no substance editing in its journals, people need to rely on their internal editors to exercise restraint.  Few manage.

Often, there is often no editing of any kind. For example, In current number of the Philosophy of Law Ejournal (Vol. 8, No. 125: Aug 18, 2015) there are 12 papers, only two of which are even about the philosophy of law. The Social and Political Philosophy eJournal is as bad, or worse. Now, I do not really think that their authors imagine that the following papers are any kind of philosophy: ‘‘It’s Not for a Grade: The Rewards and Risks of Low-Risk Formative Assessment in the High-Stakes Law School Classroom’, or ‘What leads to Homeless Shelter Re-Entry: An Exploration of the Psychosocial, Health and Contextual Demographic Factors’. More likely, they were unable to resist ticking every conceivable box on the upload form, hoping for one more ‘like’ from someone, somewhere.

I am not sure how to cope with the pressures of the ‘line’ and the ‘like’.  And I don’t think it is always blameworthy to yield to them.  But in addition to external pressures to over-production it is certainly producing a tragedy of the intellectual commons.