September 20, 2012

Can You Change the World … As an Academic?

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This past summer, I participated in a program at the University of Chicago designed for students interested in pursuing Ph.D.’s in the near future. For two months, I had the opportunity to engage in academic research and take graduate-level courses in critical theory and writing. This was very valuable because I was able to get a better picture of what being a graduate student in the humanities and social sciences entails. Even though the overall experience was a good one, I must admit that I was — and still am — concerned with the didactic approach of many Ph.D. programs in these fields.

Although it is somewhat simplistic to generalize — didactic approaches can vary greatly between schools and academic departments within a single institution — the truth is that many top schools, like the University of Chicago, heavily emphasize theory when approaching or producing knowledge. For example, during most of my class discussions at UChicago, instructors had a tendency to focus on debates that were abstractions of real-world problems. Of course, if we are going to discuss gender inequality, it is important to talk about Judith Butler and Michel Foucault — just to name a few. However, understanding how the social dynamics behind gender inequality work should not be treated as an end in itself, but as a means toward another end.

A didactic approach heavy on theory tends to focus on fully understanding a subject, so as to be able to assess an identified problem. But that is about it; not much is discussed about possible solutions. Some scholarship heavy on theory does offer solutions to these problems but, not surprisingly, they rarely provide practical solutions outside the realm of academia. I believe that this is the case because in any academic discipline, scholars are confined by a specific discourse, set of rules, methods, etc. However, when theory is emphasized, the level of attention given to these factors is heightened to the level that trivialities or factors of less importance — such as the use of a word — can become fundamental. This, in turn, overshadows the importance of providing practical solutions to real-world problems; of removing academia from an ivory tower and connecting it to society.

As a result, the probability of challenging conventionalities in the field is minimal. I have no doubt that many people would like to or have tried to change the rules of the game, but the politics behind academia have not made it easy. Orthodox scholars frequently use their seniority power to be very protective of conventions within their disciplines. Indeed, change is very difficult. But the reality is that the status quo will not bring different results. As we often hear around, “insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, and expect a different result.” It is perplexing to see that many of the brightest minds in our nation cannot realize this.

I have now been a student for more than 17 years. At this point of my life, I feel prepared to be a teacher; to influence others and make a difference. How can I make a difference? By producing knowledge; because knowledge is power. But when is knowledge power? I believe that happens when it becomes instrumental. I enjoy researching, becoming an expert in a field and identifying problems. However, this is just part of the puzzle; the means toward finding a practical solution  — or part of a solution — to a problem that directly affects our social reality. Sometimes, a Ph.D. and a career in academia  — depending on various circumstances, such as the institution or the discipline — may not be the best option to achieve this goal.

I know that this trade-off between theory and practice in academia is an old story for many professors and graduate students. This column, however, is directed to those undergraduate students interested in pursuing graduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences. I feel that every one of you has the right to know what you are getting into before making such an important decision.  However, I do not want to discourage any of you. Although it is hard, many talented scholars are able to affect society directly within the boundaries of the academic world. And if you achieve this, it would be one of the most self-gratifying moments of your life.

Abdiel Ortiz-Carrasquillo is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at aortiz@cornellsun.com. I Respectfully Dissent appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: AJ Ortiz