Stanley Fish is irritating, and not in a good way

Today’s Stanley Fish column about academic freedom & fantasies of academic exceptionalism offers a good example of his strengths and his considerable weaknesses as a columnist.

For example, I think this is both true and too-infrequently said:

But this is what many (not all) academics believe, and if pressed they will support their belief by invoking a form of academic exceptionalism, the idea that while colleges and universities may bear some of the marks of places of employment — work-days, promotions, salaries, vacations, meetings, etc. — they are really places in which something much more rarified than a mere job goes on.

As Fish implies, this seems nuts.  I think we can all agree that educational moments are special ones–the delight of seeing someone grasp hold of something in a difficult poem is a precious thing, for instance.  But there’s nothing “special” about the conversion of those moments into credit hours (for the students) and biweekly paychecks with benefits (for the lucky few, the tenure-track faculty).  It doesn’t sully the former to note the latter.

So far, so good.  But then he starts trolling indiscriminately through the case law to disprove the academic exceptionalism thesis, and he does so utterly without reference to the question of the decisions’ validity or merit.  I mean, he cites approvingly  Urofsky v. Gilmore, a 2000 case from Virginia, in which a the court upheld–as applying to professors–“a law requiring state employers to gain permission from a supervisor before accessing sexually explicit materials on state-owned computers.”

The point here is surely not that professors should be allowed randomly to surf porn sites.  The point is that the VA law was bad law: Overbroad and vague in its definitions, it puts up stupid impediments in the way of professorial work, and the work of other state employees, as well:

Virginia Code ¤2.1-804-806 (the Act) bans state employees’ use of state computers to access any “sexually explicit content,” broadly defined to include descriptions or depictions of “sexual excitement” or “sexual conduct” of virtually any sort. There is no requirement that the banned communications lack serious value, be “patently offensive,” or appeal to prurient inte-rests. The Act affects approximately 101,000 state employees, including thousands of professors, librarians, and other researchers at 39 institutions of higher education. It also affects museum curators, physicians and their staffs at the Commonwealth’s two medical colleges and their associated hospitals and clinics, and social service and health workers researching, investigating, and communicating with colleagues and the public about child abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual dysfunction, and sexual crimes. 

In other words, in this case the professors did *not* claim academic exceptionalism–they merely pointed out that the law is an ass.  (Full disclosure: I’m pleased to have been, years ago, the student of one of the professors involved in that case–Terry Meyers–whose interest in Swinburne would lead him, as we’ll see below, continuously afoul of such a law.)

In general, I sort of agree with Fish that academic freedom is a good thing, and we should argue for extending it to all, not ritualistically defend it for ourselves only.  But his argument ends up confusing two pretty different points: the idea that professors should exercise academic freedom with regard to the interests of their institution (a more defensible claim) and that, at least at public universities, they should exercise academic freedom with regard to the interests of the state.  That’s a less defensible claim because, as the Urofsky case suggests, frequently the state and the institution will be at loggerheads. Public higher education is a curious thing–we love it (said the professor at a public university) for providing access, but the expectation that faculty will do research and will teach according to disciplinary norms frequently leads to difficulties. It’s good for William & Mary to have a prominent Swinburne scholar on the faculty, and it’s counterproductive to that interest to make him beg for approval to call up Pre-Raphaelite material on his computer.

Professor Meyers has an entertaining/maddening column on his experiences with the case here.  It’s really unbelievable that Fish cites it:

The law leads to some curious situations. For example, as a state employee, I cannot (without permission) use a public-access computer in the university library to read Swinburne’s “The Leper” (which deals with necrophilia), although it is available from the University of Virginia by way of the Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA). But without having to seek permission, I can go to the stacks and read the poem in a book owned by the state. And the law does not apply to students, unless they work for a faculty member as state-paid research assistants. Nor does the law apply to members of the public who might want to read Swinburne—or even view virtual child pornography—on the library’s computers.

The whole thing’s worth reading.

(Posted, of course, from my home computer.)

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