Getting Over Academic Anxiety: Menand

To law professors, what’s more important, placing an influential article in a leading law journal for teaching everywhere or serving with distinction on the Appointments Committee (and knowing what serving with distinction means)?

A consensus might say the Committee service is more important as an institutional matter but the article more important as a professorial matter, though institutional and individual virtues appear in both. But if there is a tension, should it be expected to produce much anxiety?

Can the tension be dissolved simply by declaring that academic identity and job description require attention to both, contributing to knowledge and its dissemination, plus appointing excellent or promising new colleagues—who will likewise contribute and disseminate knowledge?

Support for the dissolution view appears in a surprising context in a chapter in the erudite new book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, by Harvard University English professor, Louis Menand, author of the 2002 book The Metaphysical Club. The surprising context is one chapter in this four-chapter book exploring the current academic vogue of interdisciplinary inquiry. This phenomenon pervades all academic disciplines, quite clearly in law, though Menand’s focus is the humanities.

Menand notes that amid enthusiasm for this vogue, however, is a sense of anxiety about it. He probes the meaning of this anxiety and discovers it as a displaced anxiety about professorial identity. The vogue may be a critique of the disciplinary divisions of the modern university, a quest for the unification of knowledge.

But that is neither a new vision nor a particularly promising result. Something else seems to be going on and Menand considers that the vogue, and especially discussion about it, may be a screen for something else that is bothering academics: a perceived but unnecessary tension between professors as knowledge generators and as institutional and professional reproducers.

Academic departments and disciplines were consciously shaped, along with the founding of the modern American university, in the late nineteenth century. There is nothing inevitable about so dividing knowledge, but much appealing about it from the perspectives of administration and professionalization.

Most visibly, fields like law and medicine thrived beginning with the development of that model, minting credentials and promoting specialization setting those fields apart from others. (Lawyers teach lawyers and doctors teach doctors; lawyers can’t practice medicine and doctors can’t practice law.) The same happened in other departments, highlighted by peer review and the task of current professors producing and vetting the future producers of knowledge.

This professionalization bestowed authority, social and professional, upon members of the discipline and gained independence from outside influence. Though professionalism is partially achieved by such independence, it is only complete when the “association is no longer perceived as the true source of the professional autonomy.” The legal profession is complete in that sense, when a lawyer’s status derives not from the trivial admission to the bar, but from membership in an ancient profession, with special features, canons and traditions associated with such peculiar notions as “thinking like a lawyer.”

Yet, in recent generations, sensibilities shifted from strong respect for professional boundaries to considerable suspicion of them. Professionalism may have gone too far, into too many fields, meaning a decline in professional authority. That spelled skepticism of the disciplines, and academic departments. Concern arose whether the professors in different fields could talk with another. In a way, the fashion of interdisciplinary work is a response to this.

But, as a model or as an alternative to the disciplines and academic departments, it is not sustainable. It is difficult to give a credential in interdisciplinary studies, though there has been some movement to grant kindred degrees, such as in law and economics. Still there is limited professional identity in interdisciplinary studies. Even with law and economics (or law and any other subject, whether anthropology, biology, history, psychology, sociology and so on), law dominates. Law’s autonomy may decline, as some like Richard Posner theorize, but in all these interdisciplinary enterprises, law is always there and law is the defining and unifying feature.

That is so not only or even largely because of things that may be special about law as such (say “thinking like a lawyer”). It is also about the professionalization of the discipline, and department, as an administrative matter. Current law professors choose who will be future law professors—that’s why serving with distinction on the Appointments Committee is of considerable institutional value. And nothing about the rise of interdisciplinary studies is changing that. The structure of knowledge will not change by interdisciplinary inquiry, given the persistence of professionalization.

And this, Menand detects, may be what’s really behind the anxiety over interdisciplinarity. The rise of professional academic disciplines made research the university professor’s main mission, along with ratcheting up the requirements for academics, to get a job and to attain tenure and other promotions. Advancement becomes a function of national recognition by peers of the discipline—not local or institutional recognition across departments. The result can be anxiety about professorial identity. Are professors about knowledge generation and transmission or institutional and professional reproduction?

Menand draws parallels to the philosophy of art, which can struggle with determining whether a painting or sculpture or other object is really art (“an autotelic aesthetic artifact”) or merely a commercial good. For an academic, what does the status of professor mean, thoughtful scholar or institutional citizen?

These are “bad questions,” Menand cautions, because academics are both and there is no need to choose an identity between these possibilities. Art is both aesthetic and commercial; professors are both institutional reproducers and scholar-teachers.

And law professors seem to get this, suggested by ample enthusiasm for both aspects of identity. Appointments committees are the most important committee at most law schools and bloggers and others rivet attention on entry-level hiring and lateral movements; likewise, scholarly production and placement is the most valued contribution at most law schools and bloggers and others likewise pay a lot of attention to the process of submitting and placing articles in journals.

What about interdiscplinarity in law, the phenomenon shared across the university, of conjoining law with other disciplines as a means of inquiry? Perhaps there should no anxiety about it. But despite much enthusiasm, as Menand detects in other departments, there is often some anxiety. There remains much discussion on appointments matters about whether a candidate’s scholarship is too light on law (a psychology professor “dabbling in law”) or, sometimes, too much law and too little of something else (mere doctrinalism!).

For Menand, interdisciplinarity is a complex anxiety, a displaced anxiety about what professionalization has meant, along with concern about the formal boundaries of disciplines, and the role that administration and institutions played in developing and maintaining academic departments. It is ultimately an expression of frustration. In Menand’s words: “Interdisciplinarity is an administrative name for an anxiety and a hope that are personal.”

Maybe so. If so, we should all get over it. Go write that article, teach that class, and serve on the Appointments Committee—and find people committed to the generation and transmission of legal knowledge—in all its magisterial heterogeneity!

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