The City University of New York.
Artillery Row

Don’t kiss me, Kate: purging the American academy

Was Kate Pickering Antonova Twitter storm an unintended announcement of academia’s irrelevance?

In a recent bout of American academia witlessly racing to demonstrate its degradation, Kate Pickering Antonova, an associate professor of history at the ailing City University of New York’s Queens College, took to Twitter to unleash bitter invective against six vastly more visible intellectuals who, she feels, “have nothing of value to add and never have,” and “produce vapid, superficial, baseless clickbait.”

This was “not to cancel them,” she pleaded immediately after a categorical declaration that “no one should ever publish” them, “ever again,” but in fact it was. Once eliminated, Antonova felt, they and perhaps others like them could be replaced by “THOUSANDS of underemployed adjuncts” with what she believes to be “the education, writing skills, and perspective to contribute SO MUCH MORE.”

The intellectuals whom Antonova would like to expel from public life and replace with contingent university instructors of whom she personally approves are the famous journalists Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks, celebrated academics Steven Pinker and Niall Ferguson, and the recognizable internet writers Matt Taibbi and Matt Yglesias.

All of those to be purged are males who have recently spoken out against ‘cancel culture’

Despite, or perhaps because of, her Columbia University postgraduate humanities education, Antonova did not support her shrill charges against these gentlemen with any empirical evidence – at least not before she temporarily switched her Twitter setting to “protected” as the internet storm clouds began to swell. Nor did she state what the “thousands” of adjuncts she claims to know might contribute from their unidentified “perspective,” or how any of it would offer “so much more” than, for example, Pinker’s landmark cognitive science studies, which have received nearly 100,000 Google Scholar citations. Antonova, herself a tenured full-time university faculty member, appears to have none.

All of those to be purged, however, are males who have recently spoken out against “cancel culture,” and almost all of them are white and heterosexual. Sullivan, Brooks, and Ferguson are of the political right (though one might wonder about Brooks), while the others are contrarian liberals who have suffered much worse censure for their unorthodox views than a Twitter screed by an obscure college professor of whom they have no reason to take any notice.

In the absence of an argument from Antonova about the content or merits of their work, we might safely assume that she believes these characteristics alone are sufficient to call for them to be denied basic civil rights, just as a large part of our society now seriously believes, and angrily demands that all others recognize, that all white people are racists and that virtually all masculinity is toxic (until recently they also insisted that no woman ever lies about sexual harassment, but that went out the second Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was accused). A fair amount of the academy, where diversity of opinion scarcely exists and is not tolerated if even suspected, likely agrees with her.

Specialising in history has long ceased to be a realistic path to virtually any sort of success

But there is more to it. Antonova (an American apparently married to a Russian) is a colleague in my former and now almost moribund academic sub-field, Imperial Russian history. Ironically, given her Twitter outburst, her most visible scholarly work is a book about a nineteenth-century Russian noble family and its evolving sense of the private sphere in a changing society. Back when I still bothered with academia, I was among the relatively small number of people who read it, partly because my wife comes from such a family, but also because the book was tangentially relevant to my own research on a Russian composer and critic who came from a similar social milieu. More recently, Antonova published a self-proclaimed “essential” guide on how to write historical essays. I have not read that undoubted page turner – and somehow survived two decades of involvement in university-level history education without consulting her writerly advice – but its presumptuous title suggests that there is only one way (hers) to write history. Antonova also has a viewable blog and Facebook account that largely dwell on the plight of her profession and particularly of her hard-hit public institution, which is haemorrhaging massive financial loss and seems unlikely to improve at any foreseeable time.

Like the subjects of her scholarly monograph, Antonova is an obvious product of her time and place. Her moribund sub-field sits within the larger academic historical discipline, which is crumbling in popularity and can no longer attract or employ any significant amount of new talent. Following decades of slow decline, the number of undergraduates pursuing history majors in US institutions plummeted by another 50 percent in just the last ten years, in significant part because few students have any use for its off-putting overreliance on abstruse social science theory and the related identity politics nonsense that used to be merely annoying but is now getting people brutalised and killed in American streets.

Abandoning empiricism has rendered history useless for any profession requiring rigorous analytical skills

Even before the economic consequences of Covid-19 devastated academic employment prospects on a mass scale, specialising in history had long since ceased to be a realistic path to virtually any sort of success. Abandoning empiricism rendered it useless for further study in law or any other profession requiring rigorous analytical skills, for which history had long been solid preparation. The remaining mash of critical theory, grievance studies, and social awareness might get the eager young wokeling a job as an activist or community organizer, but he/she/it would be much more inclined to hate the American dream than to live it. Even the occasional student who simply has an interest in history is now far likelier to track into something more useful and lucrative, particularly since the popular and appealing topics that university-based historians rarely touch – military history, diplomacy, linear political narratives, biographies of “great men,” and so on – are booming and increasingly accessible to just about anyone via a wide array of far less expensive and even cost-free formats outside of academia.

Indeed, as a former practitioner, I can say with some authority that the best books on Imperial Russia, Antonova’s own sub-field, and in many others, are now produced by writers who survive, thrive, and reach far more people than she ever will precisely because they are not bogged down by burdensome university affiliations and the heavy baggage they come with, or by the antiquated and highly limited systems of knowledge transmission that date back to the nineteenth century she writes about.

Predictably, history departments like the one in which Antonova teaches at CUNY Queens are among the first to suffer crippling financial cuts, hiring freezes, and general deprioritisation by administrators who understandably see ever less value in them every time they review enrolments and look at the bottom line. As an already underfunded public institution deriving more than two-thirds of its budget from the beleaguered coffers of New York State and New York City, the CUNY system is facing an announced reduction of nearly $32 million in public funding next year and has already gone on an adjunct firing spree.

No matter how much Antonova whines on Twitter, many of those adjuncts, whom she would like to elevate to public intellectuals in the place of those non-diverse, cancel culture-resisting males of whom she so obviously disapproves, will no longer be even marginally involved in academia. If there is anyone whom they should blame for their looming para-professional mass extinction as they line up for public assistance or get real estate licenses, it is people like her – arrogant colleagues who think very highly of themselves for no particular reason, made their scholarly fields unappealing and inconsequential, and still have the conceit to turn green with envy over the superior communication skills, social capital, savviness, ambition, and, very often, far more pleasant personalities that allow non-academic intellectuals to achieve success and fame in articulating their ideas in the public sphere. Antonova may soon be blaming herself for that in a world where even tenured professorship is no longer off the budget cutting table.

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