Academic Knowing (1)

“Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?” (Roman Jakobson, speaking on the prospect of hiring Vladimir Nabokov to Harvard.)

One of the abiding concerns of this blog is to defend the dignity of distinctly “academic” work. This is tantamount to defending the value of academic credentials (bachelor, master, professor, etc.), which, ideally, signal that the bearer possesses academic skills, which is to say, that the bearer is “knowledgeable” about a particular subject in some distinctive way. There are of course countless subject areas for you to pursue and I try to keep my advice general enough to apply to all of them (at least in the social sciences and humanities). “Inframethodology” is the name I give to my (sometimes morbid) interest in the sort of knowing that a university degree implies. It is of course possible to be good at poetry and finance without holding an academic post, but what I want to insist upon is that merely this “being good at it” does not in itself qualify you to hold one.

Whether you’re studying poetry or finance, you’re learning about something that also happens in real life. Indeed, even poetry and finance are themselves “about” something more “real”: poetry is about our emotions; finance is about our money. (Simplifying somewhat, poetry makes emotions available to people who might not otherwise have them. Finance makes money available to people who might not otherwise have it.) Now, my question is: how much can you learn about these things without actually doing them? How much can you learn about poetry without writing a poem? (How much can you learn about emotions without feeling them?) How much can you learn about finance without actually issuing a bond? (How much can you learn about money without making any?) These, I want to say, are “academic” questions.

But they are by no means trivial issues. It is possible to know what a Shakespearean sonnet is without ever writing a single one. And it is possible to write one merely as an exercise, without any desire to be published or likelihood of being read. It is, similarly, possible to know what a collateralized debt obligation is without ever buying or selling a single one. It is possible to design one entirely “in theory”, for the sole purpose of passing an assignment and without any chance of earning a penny. None of this knowledge is worthless just because the student hasn’t tried it out in practice. And the student’s knowledge can be meaningfully tested in an exam situation.

As academics, I believe, we have to appreciate this particular kind of knowing. We can’t be ashamed of our distance to practice, the “knowing-doing gap”. We have to boast of our ability to name the working of parts of things we can’t build, to understand their history and purpose in culture, to implicate them in their social functions. A scholar of Elizabethan literature will be able to tell you, probably better than any working poet, how the sonnet has developed over the centuries and how this has affected the language we use to express ourselves.  A professor of finance can tell you not just what the legal structure of a CDO is but what role these instruments played in the financial crisis of 2007-8. You don’t have to be a Wall Street banker to understand the financial system. Indeed, like poets, I think our bankers may be a bit too “invested”, if you will, in what the rest of us make of their business to be entirely trusted. It’s a good thing we have academics to approach their products a bit more dispassionately.


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