Review of Williams's <em>How to be an Intellectual</em>

Review of Williams's How to be an Intellectual

Chris Findeisen

In this review of How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University, Christopher Findeisen analyzes Jeffrey J. Williams’s assessment of higher education in the United States. Linking the decline of funding for universities and colleges, rising student debt, the exploitation of academic labor, and the digital humanities, the review examines the omission of accounts of “the not-so-remarkable everyperson academic, the untenured, the up-and-comers, and the downtrodden.”

As the title suggests, How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University is a collection of short pieces adapted from work published in venues ranging from The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Minnesota Review to American Literary History and College Literature. In 32 entries, Williams profiles academic superstars and interrogates topics such as student debt, the role of public intellectuals in contemporary political discourse, the rise and fall of cultural studies, and the emergence of literary theory and of the journals and editors that support it. Williams even reflects upon how his time working as a corrections officer informs his job as a literature professor and considers the etymology of the honorific descriptor “smart.”

If Williams’s implied audience is the subset of people who are cultured and educated but who also care about education and culture, the book’s appeal will no doubt be strengthened by its style, described by the author as occupying “the space between literary journalism and scholarship” (4). Like any good writer of non-fiction, Williams negotiates that space by analyzing and documenting the ways in which lived experiences are mediated by social structures, in this case the modern research university. Indeed, Williams is at his best when he explores the unexpected consequences of liberal education, like in his essay The Pedagogy of Debt. Here he considers his own life under the weight of student loans—”at forty-six and fifteen years out of graduate school” Williams still cuts a check to Sallie Mae every month (121)—and insists upon a truth about academic life that many in our profession still deny: not that school is expensive, but that undertaking its expense has serious consequences for the meaning and function of contemporary higher education. To borrow from cultural studies for a moment, a college diploma is more than a mark of distinction, or even an occupational credential. It is rather a metatext that is only interpretable in conjunction with the many other documents that make up a university life. Students in today’s post-welfare state university (his term) read Phillis Wheatley alongside Beyoncé and Sherlock Holmes alongside True Detective, but their understanding of both activities is filtered through the student loan contracts they read and sign before ever stepping foot in a classroom. As Williams notes, “[w]e might tell students that the foremost purpose of higher education is self-searching or liberal learning, but their experience tells them differently (129). When our students are asked to finance a $60,000 education with loans that will follow them into their forties, is it any wonder why they seem so concerned about the market value of their degrees? Students would be crazy not to be curious about how their diplomas will help them pay off their debt. Furthermore, Williams argues that students’ implicit interest in the relationship between higher education and political economy should be encouraged, not stifled, by those who teach the humanities. Isn’t it possible to make their experiences as student-customers of the 21st century corpor-versity an important part of what “self searching and liberal learning” is all about?

Another area where Williams successfully blends literary journalism and criticism is his essay The Neoliberal Bias of Higher Education,” which frames Neil Gross’s 2013 Why Are Professors Liberals and Why Do Conservatives Care? as a reaction to a particular way of thinking about university politics. By now the conservative attacks on liberal professors, made popular in the Great Academic Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s, have become cliché, and Williams has no reservations about describing them as such. Far more interesting is his analysis of the question itself—of the pervasive need to make the perceived liberal biases of professors a central concern of university discourse today. Gross’s explanation is simply sociological—liberal students self-select into graduate schools to be around People Like Them, and the numbers prove it: “In the data from 2006, about 9 percent identify as radical (meaning they call for the redistribution of wealth), 31 percent progressive (less about wealth but keen on social and cultural issues), 14 percent center-left, 19 percent moderate, 4 percent economic (but not cultural) conservative, and 23 percent strong conservative” (152). By their own accounts professors lean left at a 2:1 margin, but Williams is rightly critical of Gross’s analysis: “Gross seems to take professors’ political views at face value, but one might question whether those views are in fact a façade, abandoned when push comes to shove (for instance, during the graduate student strike at Yale, when many proclaimed leftist professors threw the union overboard and sided with administration)” (154). Of course it’s true that not every professed liberal academic is Michael Denning marching alongside graduate students on a New Haven picket line, and perhaps it takes a book that is not bound to the strict genre conventions of literary criticism to say as much. At the same time, Williams puts important critical pressure on Gross’s mischaracterization of the academic left: “Another possibility is that the kind of liberalism contemporary professors espouse—focused largely on cultural diversity and sensitivity to racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual difference, and not so much on economic equality and the distribution of wealth—goes hand in hand with neoliberal policies” (154). The force of the observation is that those who claim to be on the left aren’t really on the left at all, or at least their vision of what a leftist politics looks like has less to do with equalizing the value between the bank accounts of adjuncts and provosts than it does with equalizing the value between marginalized and dominant cultures. And although Williams insists in The Ubiquity of Culture” that we should adopt, in Nancy Fraser’s terms, a politics of both recognition and redistribution, the implicit indictment, in the neoliberal essay at least, is that if 91% of professors don’t think the redistribution of wealth is a central enough part of their political vision to check a box on a survey, can there be any doubt as to which direction the money flows in higher education today and why it flows there? 

Williams states up front that he wants the essays to “hang together like an album of pictures,” but a better simile for the book would be the other kind of album (6). Like most good records, Williams’s collection of essays is a variation on a theme, and if there’s a refrain that holds How to Be an Intellectual together, it goes a little something like this: there was a brief moment in history, not so long ago, when we funded higher education in this country. Beginning in 1944 with the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (G.I. Bill), and continuing through the National Defense Education Act (1958) and the Higher Education Act (1965), millions of people were brought through colleges and universities at little to no cost to themselves. The price of this investment was shared among the American public, but so too were the benefits: increased economic mobility, broad public prosperity, democratic institutions, representative culture. But ever since the 1980s or so, something has been rotting in the state of academia. Smart people can’t find jobs. Good journals can’t find support. And undergraduates are beginning their adult lives indentured by an educational system that was designed to bring them out of poverty, not place them immediately within it. The book is not afraid of rehashing the problem every few pages, from different angles, and it’s equally unafraid of asking about what we can do to fix it.

In keeping with the general thrust of the book, Williams supports his mode of inquiry through a mixture of facts, critical analysis, and biography. But of the 10 profiles Williams includes—Michael Walzner, Gordon Hutner, Terry Eagleton, among others—nearly all describe professors who are byproducts (and shapers) of the welfare state university. If the purpose of the essays is to shed light on the system in decline—indeed, to suggest that the system’s very existence has in some sense become a trace that ideologically holds the whole crumbling enterprise together—why not dedicate more space to the people and ideas that the post-welfare state university has produced in response? Readers of How to Be an Intellectual will not find profiles of professors who study rhetoric and composition, perhaps the fastest growing unit in English departments and, if enrollment numbers mean anything, the necessary financial backbone of the whole enterprise. And we don’t see profiles of creative writing professors, even though their integration into the faculty has been a central component of the welfare state university, as Mark McGurl has convincingly argued in The Program Era (the double irony here being that Williams is not only a professed admirer of George Orwell and the important critical function that creative non-fiction serves, but he’s also a practitioner who ends the book with a number of his own creative non-fiction essays). Williams has done admirable work as editor of the minnesota review, but his curation of this set of profiles, as opposed to others, raises questions about how effectively one can tell the story of the post welfare state university without actually talking to the people who have been pushed to its margins. Readers would benefit from learning about the lives of the not-so-remarkable everyperson academic, the untenured, the up-and-comers, and the downtrodden. After all, for all the talk of famous scholars who came of age during the heyday of the post-45 boom, there have been forty cohorts worth of academics whose experience of that system exists as nothing but another kind of fiction. They, too, have stories to tell.

In fairness, Williams comes closest to interrogating this shift in The Statistical Turn in Literary Criticism” where he suspects Big Data literary labs like those at Stanford “will be yet another way to make use of cheap, graduate student labor, or to create a subclass of literary lab workers, overseen by the professor-manager running the lab” (64), but instead of profiling Franco Moretti or Alan Liu to get their take on the issue—or, even better, someone who is a member of the subclass of literary lab workers—readers get M.H. Abrams reflecting on a lifetime in an academic world many readers will barely recognize.

One of the biggest implications of the digital humanities is that it poses both a technological and a qualitative challenge to criticism as such. The range and speed with which computers can produce information provides access to knowledge that was once beyond the scope of human comprehension. But hasn’t this become true of Little Data as well? Perhaps some of the most galvanizing criticism of the university today comes not from lengthy (but indeed excellent) peer-reviewed scholarship in the tradition of Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works, Bill Readings’s University in Ruins, or Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University, but rather in self-published accounts of the perils of academic life written by the people who it has harmed—not those who pay their debts with full professor salaries, but those who can barely pay them at all. Circulating her experiences on the web, academic gadfly Rebecca Schuman, right or wrong, will probably reach more people than Williams’s book because she has embedded her voice within a network of self-published critiques of higher education. Although it’s certainly true that Williams offers more substantive evaluation of the university than Schuman, the omissions in How to Be an Intellectual beg the question as to whether the medium has become the message, as the web enables its users to speak a certain truth about the academic world without the need for a curator at all.

Whatever the form criticism might take—composition studies, literary close reading, digital humanities—if it doesn’t acknowledge the material base of its own production, the research obscures rather than clarifies, dehumanizes rather than liberates. How to be an Intellectual is a book that keeps that frame in focus, and contributes to our understanding of how criticism is produced by people who are themselves products of critical institutions.  

Work Cited

Williams, Jeffrey J. How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.