About Academia

About AcademiaLast week I went to a panel discussion organized by the curators of Antoni Muntadas’s current exhibition at SFU’s Audain Gallery: “About Academia”. The show itself is interesting enough–though its aesthetic aspects are obscure at best–consisting as it does of a series of interviews with figures such as Carol Becker, Noam Chomsky, David Harvey, and Doris Sommer, academics mostly based in elite institutions in the US Northeast who are asked to reflect upon the politics of the university.

The purpose of the panel was, in like manner but with a focus on the Canadian and specifically the Vancouver context, to pay “critical attention to the structure and function of the university, and [investigate] the complicated, often contradictory relationship between the production of knowledge and economic power.”

But I have seldom seen a more incoherent and disjointed dialogue of the deaf. Panelists variously told personal anecdotes, spoke in broad platitudes, and/or simply outlined their own research interests with little or no attempt to address the supposed themes of the discussion. Especially given what a small and self-selecting subset of the university was actually represented–more or less left-leaning Humanities professors; nothing from, say, the Sciences or the student body–the fact that it seemed utterly impossible to generate any kind of conversation was little short of pathetic.

Ultimately, the person who came out best was the one representative of management–a UBC Associate Dean, whose perspective was limited but pragmatic. But again, what was most of concern is that there was no conception of the university as an institution for the production, exchange, and dissemination of ideas. We saw rather a display of single-minded specialization, disciplinary fragmentation, and speech that expected no audience or response.

If this is the state of academia today, then it deserves all (the neoliberal corporatization, public opprobrium or dismissal, withdrawal of state subsidy, and so on) that it gets.