In Response to Douglas Dowland

On 4 February 2018, Douglas Dowland’s “How Academe Breeds Resentment” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education (and I am aware that there is a delay in my comments about it coming out; I have to write about it when I see it). In the piece, Dowland investigates the question implied by the title, asking “What is it about academe that makes [academics] such experts of resentment?” He then suggests several answers: the structures of academia, the inherently skeptical nature of intellectual inquiry, the exposition of relative powerlessness that accompanies progress through academic structures. After, Dowland argues both that resentment needs to be set aside–insofar as it can–as a lazy substitute for actual thought and as a means to resist the extra-academic pressures that work against intellectual inquiry and the structures that support it.

There are some problems in the piece. (That I point them out may be a bit of irony, since Dowland discusses the slide from critiquing the objects of scholarly inquiry to critiquing the scholars themselves.) One that stands out is the relatively cliché nature of some of the examples and assertions made in the piece. For example, Dowland writes:

Consider some typical targets of academic resentment:

  • A professor has been given a lighter teaching load than others, and the rest of the department resents it. What they do not know is that the professor is an alcoholic in recovery.
  • The assistant dean for international affairs is late to every meeting–obviously not pulling her weight. She is also a mother whose work-life balance requires that she answer emails during her son’s soccer games and stay up for hours of late-night internet conferencing with recruiters from time zones across the world.
  • A student misses class frequently and asks his professors for notes. The student is also working overtime to pay his last tuition installment and save up for the next one.

The passage reads in a way that echoes motivational posters, which is other than optimal. Similarly, the repetition of an already-old call to come together smacks of long-help platitudes that are long-held because they have not been–and are not likely to be–enacted, and for the very reasons Dowland cites.

That said, the argument that resentment should be set aside because it is intellectually lazy is a compelling one. There is something of a prevailing assertion that intelligence and cynicism are yoked together, and resentment is often identified as an underpinning of cynicism. (If I may borrow something of a cliché, myself, I might make a note about sour grapes.) Because it is so often seen as such, the one becomes a stand-in for the other–and it is far easier to dismiss something out of a (real or affected) jaded weariness than to actually consider it. And while the consideration can lead to a negative view of the thing considered, it can, at times, lead to a greater and deeper love of that thing–but love is hard, and the academics I have known and been are not the less human for their intellectualism; they are as prone to taking the easy path because it is easy as most any other group.

As in any other group, it is a tendency to be resisted.

Maybe, though, giving me a hand is something to be embraced?

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