Chris Fleming on the tyranny of trendy ideas

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A few months ago Chris Fleming expounded on “cool” here. Now the Western Sydney University professor has an article in the current Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Tyranny of Trendy Ideas.” Chris, a former fellow beneath our palms, cites Stanford’s own “rich history of chasing trendy, meaningless causes.” Who can forget, he asked, our fling with MOOCs, the brief rise of the micro-Master’s degree, or farther afield, the University of Texas at Austin’s infamous “Project 2021”? “The susceptibility to fashionableness is revealed by a single oft-heard campus word: innovation.’ It’s a word we need to at least be wary of; it may one day be proved that even uttering it shuts down those parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and rational deliberation.”

A few excerpts:

Those of us who work in higher education consider ourselves above anything as ostensibly “cheap” and trivial as the whims of fashion. Our labor, including our research and contributions to university governance, is a serious endeavor marked by painfully obvious similarities to, say, those solemn 13th-century monks grinding out transcriptions of Aristotle’s Poetics at the University of Paris. … Behold our integrity to those who doubt it: We hath Latin mottos, Greek fraternities, and convocations that resembleth wizard conventions. (Not that we aren’t amenable to change: The maces carried by presidents and chancellors, for instance, are now purely symbolic; we have opted for other, more effective weapons, like restructures.) But by and large, we believe ourselves to be beyond the ephemeral. As every freshman course in “critical thinking” reminds us, the dull, unhappy burden of the rational mind is to follow the evidence where it leads, not the bandwagon.

And yet not. While we do understand this as an ideal, most of us know — at least during broken sleep or after the fourth beer — that ideals are unreliable witnesses. In fact, it may well be the university’s self-serious insistence on being above the whims of fashion that makes it so vulnerable to it. Like anti-vaxxers, we become entirely more susceptible to something precisely because we think we’re not.

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Fleming demonstrates fashion…

Your choice of theorist was to be German, French, or Italian, not Spanish, Iranian, or Turkish. (Spanish, Turkish, or Iranian novels were great, though. If you wanted to stay with English you needed to look at either Dallas, soft porn, or the oeuvre of Roger Hargreaves.) You should have been familiar enough in the language of your favored theorists to be able to say “world-historical import,” “discursive formation,” and “being-toward-death,” but incapable of “My name is Simone,” “I’d like a cheese sandwich,” or “Which way to the Louvre?”

But to say that “fashion” influences us might seem to offer us little — even if true, it’s not particularly helpful. Maybe we can be clearer by saying that academics need to balance two opposing imperatives: the implicit demand to follow a herd and the requirement to appear trailblazing. Like all moderns, we disdain slavish imitation at the same time as desiring the security of the crowd. Fashion exists, if nothing else, to allow for precisely that possibility; it permits us to speak out of both sides of that consummately modern mouth.

In this context, one version of a good article — one that has a good chance of getting published — is one that implicitly spouts an orthodoxy at the same time as screaming about something minor. You agree, for instance, with everything Foucault says, except for the fact that he continually ignores Brazil, or the periodic table, or your supervisor’s criminally unsung trilogy. It’s a sure-fire formula in which much of the paper is able to write itself. All disciplines are, to a greater or lesser extent, faddish, even if any particular fad is later shown to be inadequate or myopic, or perhaps — as my undergraduate students might put it — just really lame.

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This is not to say that the way fashion operates within the university is identical to any form outside of it. Unlike the fickle — and, from the outside, reassuringly absurd — shifts seen on the catwalk, fashion inside the university appeals to more than just a change in aesthetic allegiance — it invariably invokes images of rationality and progress. (Of course, the mere fact that rationality and progress are invoked doesn’t mean they manifest themselves any more than invoking a dead aunt will result in her attending Thanksgiving.)

Read the whole thing here.


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