One of the best commentators on academic politics and practices is Erin O’Connor, who runs the blog Critical Mass. She’s an interesting story, a classical liberal who left a tenured post in English at Penn to teach in a private high school in New England. She has a recent post on a job opening at a university. First, the job description:
The departments of Women’s and Gender Studies and Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville invite applications and nominations for the Audre Lorde Chair in Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality, to begin August 1, 2007. The Audre Lorde Chair is a tenure-track, assistant professor position jointly based in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and the Department of Pan African Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. We seek a candidate who can contribute to the intellectual life of both departments and whose teaching and research emphasis is the intersection of race, gender, class and sexualities across national boundaries. The Audre Lorde chair will teach courses in both Women’s and Gender Studies and Pan African Studies, and will develop coursework in lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer studies. A preferred area of focus is the study of social activism along and across these axes of difference, and the optimal candidate will serve the university’s urban mission by enhancing both departments’ connections with the local community.
Such descriptions are common in the humanities and social sciences, common enough to convey to many a neutral set of scholarly values. O’Connor’s analysis of the job ad nicely lays out the tendentious, political agenda at work:
One of the things that is most remarkable about the contemporary academy is how the institutionalization of advocacy–in the form of various affirmative actions, and in the form of the academy’s overall leftward tilt–has yielded not only departments whose missions are more overtly political than scholarly but jobs that merge academic specialization, political affiliation, and demographic particulars in such a way as to produce endowed, tenure-track openings such as the one announced above. Yes, the description says “a broad variety of candidates” is invited to apply, but one suspects that this variety is tacitly understood to exist within a narrowly circumscribed set of parameters having to do with political affiliation, sex, race, and even sexuality. This is a job description that is not just looking for someone with a particular expertise, but for someone whose expertise is tied to specific demographic and political factors; in other words, the ideal candidate for the Audre Lorde chair will be someone whose scholarship will be complemented by a particular phenotype, a particular set of preferences, and a particular set of non-scholarly commitments. . . .
The whole post is well worth reading.