Arguing, Arguing, and Arguing

The endless political debates, arguments, accusations, and rants filling up our airwaves have worn down many of us. Personally, as I am on the eve of my annual Maine vacation, I look forward to a break from all of it. Even as I admit this, I also know that we have had earlier times when politics seemed mired in such murky depths. More importantly, every day every one of us are engaged in arguing about everything from politics to sports to religion, and the list continues.

Arguing can be exhausting and often seem pointless. However, there are other ways of looking at this. Stanley Fish, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom (New York: Harper, 2016), is a thought-provoking discourse on the nature of argument, and a timely one at that. Fish, the prolific legal scholar and humanist, gives us an assessment of the value of argument and how we should view it. No matter what practical insight one might draw from this book, we are reminded that our world is one of arguing, about everything and at all times. Fish suggests that we not try to avoid such discussion, but that we embrace it in ways that might produce positive ends.

The strength of Fish’s book, indeed of most of his books, is his clear writing, supplemented by numerous examples from a wide range of scholarship, current events, and popular culture. While presidential politics were not far from my mind, I was most interested in how Fish examines academic arguments, my daily environment Fish notes that the “basic economy of the academy” is as follows: “you advance and prosper to the extent that the solutions you offer to intellectual puzzles are found persuasive and are subsequently credited to as their originator. Promotions, honors, and influence follow” (p. 162). That’s a pretty good description of life in the academy, except that it’s missing the focus on generating revenue that seems to be a necessary part of the modern corporate university. Fish also handles, delicately, the issues the academy will not debate, such as Holocaust deniers, and grapples with the broader question of whether academic arguments matter all that much (I’ll let you decide what he concludes).

Preparing for a Full Archival Career: Research, Teaching, Mentoring, and Administration; Comments Made at the AERI Meeting, Kent State University, July 10, 2016


Academic life can be a great career, but only if you are truly prepared for it; if you are not prepared, it can be miserable, disappointing, and frustrating. My field, archival studies, is relatively young in its placement and role in the academy, having emerged (barely) in the 1930s, expanded in the 1960s, and established in the early 1990s (some might argue about the details of this chronology, but my personal experience and observation suggest that this is a good working outline of what has happened).

What I am writing here is based on notes prepared for the Archival Education and Research Institute (AERI) held at Kent State University in July 2016 (explaining why my focus is on faculty in archival studies). AERI, now in its eighth year, is important evidence of the maturing of graduate archival education in both the United States and worldwide (AERI has become an international conference and meets next year in Toronto). While AERI was formed to strengthen the field’s research, and this literature has both broadened and deepened, we still face many other issues and challenges.

In my own career I have striven to be a balanced academic, but can we claim that AERI is providing a balanced perspective for doctoral students and faculty? AERI has enabled us to have some substantial success in certain areas, such as strengthening research and publication, creating a distinct community (one that is international), and making archival studies a distinct field within the archival profession (including establishing it as a discipline within the academy). Some may quibble about some aspects of this, but I believe all will agree we have come a long and that AERI has played a significant role in the most recent decade. But we can still ask whether we have developed a sense of what faculty do or ought to be doing?

The matter of what faculty do is, of course, something that has been a topic of debate for a long time as well as an issue that some contend has been under siege in the modern university.  Here is a general assessment of faculty responsibility. They build and contribute to a record of scholarship, establishing their own expertise and adding to their disciplinary knowledge (and that of a repository of knowledge for society). Faculty conveys their knowledge via publishing, conference attendance, and teaching. They are advocates for their disciplines and programs. They mentor students and junior colleagues. Faculty collaborates with each other and works within their professional communities. And, finally, some take on administrative responsibilities.

However, it is in the realm of administration that we seem to have been the weakest. At AERI I have commented in the past on the ethics of teaching, expanding the nature of publishing to include public scholarship, and preparing doctoral students for faculty positions that are defined in well-rounded ways. Now, I am most concerned for how well we are preparing the next generation of administrators. The original motivating factor for AERI was strengthening research, and we have accomplished much in this. However, if we do not develop the next generation of administrators, we will not have the venues needed for graduate archival studies.

We often forget that there is a synergy between teaching, research, and other such basic functions. Teaching is, after all, a form of publishing. Being an active scholar, meaning reading and engaging in research, is essential for teaching courses that are current and forward looking. Teaching can also be used to target new potential areas for research and to enlist students in assisting in such work, with the added benefit of improving their research skills. But where does management fit into all this? There is little debate that students need help with learning about how to be administrators; they need a good working knowledge of this as they enter the workplace.

Preparing doctoral students to be administrators is the missing part of the AERI conferences. This is not surprising, of course, since the primary purpose of this group was to nurture research and publishing. But the circumstances have begun to change. The faculty who first banded together to create AERI is beginning to retire, affecting both AERI’s future and the future of graduate archival education in general. It seems that many doctoral students or early career faculty is focused nearly exclusively on their research and scholarly work, perhaps reflecting a general trend in academe. It raises the interesting question about how sustain or build graduate archival education programs. We need succession planning for the benefit of the future, but how do we do that if there is few interested in taking over such administrative posts? If this attitude had been prevalent a decade or two ago, we would not have the graduate programs we now have or, for that matter, AERI.

This is made more complicated by various trends in higher education. The declining number of tenured and tenure-stream faculty positions and the declining number of graduate students in some disciplinary areas are challenges complicating the future development of graduate archival studies, requiring a new corps of academic archival leaders. The positive growth in recent years of graduate archival education programs also has had another other consequence, increased competition for new students. This has been especially noticeable among the programs offering their programs via distance education; such programs tend to attract students (although not exclusively so) who are focused on credentials and who shop around for the best deals financially. There are many other variables affecting all this, such as increasing tuition costs for students and the present corporate mentality of many universities, creating many challenges for the future. This suggests all the more reasons for preparing future faculty to be prepared for administrative responsibilities, requiring that we help them to understand how the university works.

What do we do to prepare doctoral students for the reality of higher education that they will face in the future? We need to make them understand that the academic life is not just about research and publishing, as important as this may be. We need to get them into classrooms as instructors. In the archives field we need to encourage them to interact with practitioners; some of the emphasis on various theoretical approaches raises the question of the relevance of such perspectives on basic practice. We should introduce them to the growing literature on higher education, although, unfortunately, many faculty themselves neglect this area of scholarship. For example, Jonathan R. Cole, Toward A More Perfect University (New York: Public Affairs, 2016) evaluates, in quite some detail, matters concerning online education, funding, undergraduate and graduate education, higher education’s relationship with industry, and the role of faculty. Given that many doctoral students and faculty engaged in research about archives are concerned with matters of social justice, accountability, community, and so forth, Cole’s assessment of higher education is particularly relevant. Cole connects the state of higher education to his hopes for the future of the United States, stating that “over the next several generations I trust that our society will move closer to a true meritocracy for minorities, for women, for people with different sexual orientations. I trust that we will begin to appreciate difference more than we do today. We will have greater appreciation for cultural artifacts, for humanistic and creative thinking. Simultaneously, we will renew our belief in the ‘common,’ and that those who have been most fortunate in our society need to help those whose lives have been less so. I expect that we will reduce our level of anti-intellectualism and that we will value products of imagination, especially those that are embodied in the arts and sciences” (pp.322-323). There is no question, in my mind, that many archival faculty members are committed to fostering such a societal transformation (as well as documenting it).

Academics are not born; they are made. They learn to discern how to impose order on chaos, to be able to provide and receive criticism, how to develop regimens of research, to become experts in certain subjects, and how to be a colleague and develop relationships. None of this is particularly easy, but it is important. Preparing doctoral students to be competent researchers is only part of what they need to learn. AERI, as it continues to develop, needs to expand what it offers, especially if it wants to have a future.