Being an academic often means the occasional (or even frequent) shot of existential doubt. “Does any of this stuff matter? Have I just been wasting my time?” (By the way, it is entirely possible to respond affirmatively to both.) And of course, the Great Cham notes that the scholar’s life is often melancholy, baby.
But at the same time, some folks have made a career out of choosing egregious examples of loopy research projects and using those as a means of casting aspersions upon entire fields, even entire disciplines (said the guy in a Humanities department). Such are not necessarily representative. Roger Kimball goes after an easy one, for example, in the case of an ecofeminist American Studies practitioner:
[M]y fellow connoisseurs of repellent academic nonentity will not want to miss “Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies,” by one Greta Gaard, “an ecofeminist writer, scholar, activist, and documentary filmmaker.” (According to an opus called Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches, she is “one of the most influential ecofeminist scholars.” Ponder that.)
[…] Despite the inadvertent comedy of its title, “Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies” really exists, and my is it in earnest. How many things had to go wrong — intellectually, socially, morally — to account for prose like this:
Because milk is produced by female mammals, a feminist perspective seems to offer a logical foundation for such inquiry. From the start, feminism has been a movement for justice: at its heart is the centrality of praxis, the necessary linkage of intellectual, political, and activist work. Feminist methodology puts the lives of the oppressed at the center of the research question and undertakes studies, gathers data, and interrogates material contexts with the primary aim of improving the lives and the material conditions of the oppressed. Using standard feminist methodology [standard feminist methodology?], twentieth-century vegan feminists and animal ecofeminists challenged animal suffering in its many manifestations (in scientific research, and specifically in the feminized beauty and cleaning products industries; in dairy, egg, and animal food production; in “pet” [note the scare quotes] keeping and breeding, zoos, rodeos, hunting, fur, and clothing) by developing a feminist theoretical perspective on the intersections of species, gender, race, class, sexuality, and nature. Motivated by an intellectual and experiential understanding of the mutually reinforcing interconnections among diverse forms of oppression, vegan feminists and ecofeminists positioned their own liberation and well-being as variously raced, classed, gendered, and sexual humans to be fundamentally interconnected to the well-being of other nondominant human and animal species, augmenting Patricia Hill Collins’s definition of intersectionality to include species as well.
I’m not going to try to defend stuff like that, but at the same time, it seems like Kimball is just skimming the cream. (Sorry — I couldn’t resist. There were actually nine jokes I could have made there, but I lactate. I’m really milking this, aren’t I?) The inmates haven’t entirely taken over the asylum.
Another version of all this can be found at Lol My Thesis, a Tumblr-style collection of folks boiling their undergrad (and sometimes grad) research down to the fewest possible words. I’ve looked through a few pages, and my favorite thus far is “You can write a 120-page thesis on a 119-page book.”
There’s more humility in scholarship than pieces like Kimball’s might have us believe.