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Political Differences with Potential Advisor


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I couldn't find anything on this topic when I searched for it, so I thought I'd try asking myself. 

 

I'm beginning an English PhD program in the fall, but I'm afraid that the school's foremost specialist in my field, who believes very strongly in political criticism, might profess very different political opinions from my own. I find that the questions and problems that he addresses in his work are exactly those that I want to write about, but he sometimes comes to different conclusions and accepts a different set of values. (The difference is between free-market liberalism and Marxism.)

 

So, my question: How much does any of this matter?

 

Will conflicting political opinions prevent him from working with me effectively, especially when the topic is bound to be so heavily political? Or will a dissenting voice actually prove quite helpful?

 

I'd like to hear if anyone's had this kind of experience.

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So, it actually matters which one you are? I'm guessing that you are the one that believes in free-market liberalism, and am going to taylor my response to that. 

IN THEORY, a dissenting voice--if it engages critically and fruitfully with the existing canon--will not be shut down. If you can read Marx and respond to Marx in such a way as to respect the ways in which critique grows out of Marx, while simultaneously showing how this is better served by a different approach, you will provide a good (and perhaps necessary) reminder to scholars that they cannot take their political positions for granted. (Sorta like Nozick in philosophy). So, in theory, no, you shouldn't have a problem. You are all adults.

On the other hand, if your resistance to certain strains of political criticism is unsophisticated and stubborn, or you do not put your objections (however incisive they may be) in terms that appreciate your advisor's work, then you will find yourself in social/intellectual hot water.  I think that this case is a little more difficult than it would be otherwise because, to my mind, so much of how we do political criticism in literary studies is indebted to a conception of social relations that is marxist. In other words, I kind of don't see how you do what Adorno or Fred Jameson does without granting them their marxism. Perhaps a free-market approach to this subject would be very useful (it'd show how this kind of interpretive move does not need a marxist metaphysics behind it), but there's a good amount of heavy-lifting to get there. 

However, I would also add: Assume you are all adults and maturely able to handle dissenting opinions, until it is otherwise proven. If you are that concerned with the difference, you should email your advisor and talk about your concerns. I think you'll be fine, to be honest, but if there is going to be any kind of MAJOR PERSONALITY DIFFERENCE, you need to know that ASAP, so you can plan your time in your PhD accordingly. 

Edited by echo449
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I agree with echo449 in that approach is going to matter here. I have seen people get burned in programs because of political disagreements--not because of politics, necessarily, but because they advertised those politics far and wide and were obnoxious/aggressive about them. (The best example that comes to mind is a guy who, during an election year, slapped a Republican bumper sticker on his car and actually spoke about "Obamacare" and "Obama's idiocy" in seminar. He got terrible grades from that professor and the next year was asked to leave the program. I don't know if one thing actually had to do with the other, but his political views were a topic of discussion among grad students and professors alike--everyone knew that he was a Republican and he didn't have a lot of fans.)

 

I think that echo449 also brings up a compelling point--that much of what we do rests on Marxist theory. But this is just part of the issue. Espousing a neo-liberal view of the marketplace is very politically tricky in university settings, as so much of the current funding scarcity and job crunch has been driven by a devotion to free market capitalism. A lot of people might view you as out of touch with the current climate or actively working against efforts to unionize. 

 

Then again, if you're good, you might get away with it. I know a PhD who subscribes to the free market like it's a religion, and he gets support--but only because he's good. If your views are unpopular, you better be really freaking brilliant. Really.

Edited by lifealive
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In my masters I found myself disappointed with the Hilary-style-liberalism of some of my fellow grad students. That said, I admit that my political education is ongoing and I try to see my colleagues that way too. Still, my general opinion is that the theory of the field is or should be far to the left of liberalism. Politics in scholarship is not a matter of preference that can be hidden while one talks neutrally about the object of literary studies or the object of rhet/comp. It's embedded in the knowledge-making procedures of the field itself. And it should be! So my guess is that, if they're doing it right, sooner or later your politics will be engaged with as part of the knowledge of the PhD. 

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I think that differences in approach make it very difficult to work with people. A lot of people have told me that it's better to actually go with a supervisor who takes a similar critical approach with you but may not work on the exact same primary material, rather than the other way around. 

 

However, I'm finding it more and more difficult to figure out HOW to situate myself politically because I feel that there are increasingly more ideological differences within "leftist" criticism -- there are so many different factions now and they seem to be constantly warring with each other. I'm curious about this, because my current department seems very torn between Marxism and, maybe not overt free-market liberalism, but a strain of post-structuralism that rejects Marxist (and neo-Marxist) criticism in favor of what can often fall back into a sort of anything-goes liberalism (that ultimately gets us nowhere). It's actually quite frustrating, because I took seminars with two potential supervisors who are basically polar opposites in this regard. The liberal-leaning one dismissed historical materialist criticism as "outdated," and the Marxist basically told us that Foucault was insane and Deleuzians are, for all intents and purposes, complicit in the current neoliberal crisis. 

 

My problem is a bit different than yours, in that I don't necessarily completely disagree with either one of them; rather, I wish they'd realize how much they might gain from engaging with the "other theory" instead of dismissing it altogether? In my undergrad my profs were usually more forgiving in their interpretations of different strains of criticism (except New Criticism, lolol) -- maybe this is just a product of now being on my profs' level as a graduate student. It's also giving me a lot of anxiety, as I feel like I'm going to be seen as a traitor or something when I finally do pick one to be my supervisor, or I won't be able to get a LoR from one because they no longer support my work, or who knows what. Has anyone else experienced anything similar to this? 

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grubyczarnykot, as someone who is also wrestling with finding a post-structuralist, semi-Foucouldian semi-Marxian identity, I have sympathy for your predicament. If your description is accurate, I think your profs are doing themselves and others a disservice by being too dismissive. Too much old school Master Critique. My advice is to be honest by articulating with them a similar message that you have here. If they are worth their salt, they will recognize nuance. Just be sure you also know your stuff ;)

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Thanks everyone! All of these responses are very helpful.

 

Actually, I'm the Marxist. Thankfully, I think that this professor does not aggressively attack Marxism but rather does what he can within the realm of liberal political theory. 

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Ah! That's probably fine then. Worst-case scenario, if you and your advisor don't get along, you will have other people to help you out/ other people in the department who will support your methods. But being conversant in (what is probably) anglo-analytic political theory may be super useful in differentiating yourself down the road from other candidates, so maybe this is actually a boon!

Edited by echo449
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Thanks everyone! All of these responses are very helpful.

 

Actually, I'm the Marxist. Thankfully, I think that this professor does not aggressively attack Marxism but rather does what he can within the realm of liberal political theory. 

 

Oh, you'll be fine then. 

 

Now you've left me wondering who this guy is, though. :)  

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But let me guess, it was fine to talk about Romney's idiocy and have bumper stickers for Obama. Turning literature classes into political echo-chambers is a major reason why mainstream America doesn't mind universities slashing humanities departments.

 

(The best example that comes to mind is a guy who, during an election year, slapped a Republican bumper sticker on his car and actually spoke about "Obamacare" and "Obama's idiocy" in seminar. He got terrible grades from that professor and the next year was asked to leave the program. I don't know if one thing actually had to do with the other, but his political views were a topic of discussion among grad students and professors alike--everyone knew that he was a Republican and he didn't have a lot of fans.)
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But let me guess, it was fine to talk about Romney's idiocy and have bumper stickers for Obama. Turning literature classes into political echo-chambers is a major reason why mainstream America doesn't mind universities slashing humanities departments.

 

Nice troll bait. But not all political views are created equal.

 

And if you'd actually included the rest of my passage, you'd have had to confront the fact that this person was obnoxious and aggressive about his views, which turned people off. And no, we did not sit around talking about your hero Romney in the same way he talked about Obama. We had more important things to do, like talking about what we'd actually read that day, for class.

Edited by lifealive
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Ha, I was actually pro Obama in the last debate, and was not a fan of Romney. I just can't stand the political hypocrisy so often found in academia, where everyone is accepted--as long as they vote Democrat. He may have sounded obnoxious, but what you focused on were things as innocuous as having a Republican bumper sticker. And so no mention of politics were made during an election year, except by this lone Republican, while you were trying to discuss Paul de Man? Forgive me for not believing you.

 

And what type of person are you who pronounces, "Not all political views are created equal"? People are allowed to have their own beliefs.

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heliogabalus, I can't tell if your misreading of this entire conversation is intentional or not. Other than livealive's parenthetical, it's pretty clear that people are discussing political methodologies--not how they vote in a presidential election. Of course, our research methodologies often reflect our personal political leanings, but Marxist/post-structuralist/Foucaultian/New Criticism/postcolonial approaches etc don't translate neatly to Republican or Democrat.

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Right, you addressed the parenthetical, which featured an anecdote about one very specific situation, by condemning our entire field. It's like listening to an in-depth, nuanced conversation about a complex topic, and when someone mentions her drunk uncle, you jump in to say THIS IS WHY YOU PEOPLE HAVE NO UNCLES BECAUSE YOU HATE ALL THE UNCLES while everyone just looks at you for jumping into a conversation mid-way and making wild generalizations about the people who are talking even though they have no problem with uncles. 

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As someone who definitely does NOT vote Democrat, I can assure you that your interpretation of our conversation is incorrect. You are, however, quite correct that many legislators want to slash humanities funding because it is one of the few places where the left still has a home, if even a tenuous one.  

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It was a fair effort at trolling, but luckily it didn't go anywhere. 

 

5/10 for mentioning a theorist that no one's discussed since the 1990s;

 

6/10 for invoking political relativism as something that people in the academy should aspire to (in a seminar no less);

 

7/10 for passive-aggressive, MRA-style "I'm too cool to really be invested in this discussion" rhetoric;

 

4/10 for transparently invoking the "I'm not a _____, but ...." 

 

3/10 for accidentally flashing your hateboner for all things literary "politics" on a literary study message board; 

 

2/10 for backpedaling on the parenthetical thing and getting reamed in the process.  

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What's been going on in the English subforum lately? I've been following along and it's just sniping, sarcasm, and sometimes flatout vitriol. Even once gentle posters have seemed to take a turn for the nastier....

 

I know we all don't have the luxury of a summer break, but put down the mouse, take a break, and go sit in the sun with an iced coffee or something. 

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What's been going on in the English subforum lately? I've been following along and it's just sniping, sarcasm, and sometimes flatout vitriol. Even once gentle posters have seemed to take a turn for the nastier....

 

I know we all don't have the luxury of a summer break, but put down the mouse, take a break, and go sit in the sun with an iced coffee or something. 

 

Yeah. It's very strange. I think we were kind of fortunate that this place was so wonderfully civil for nine months or so. I often hear GC spoken of in less-than-savory terms, and I guess this is why.

 

For what it's worth, however, the tone lately is approximately the same as the tone in many of the Chronicle forums. Maybe it's a sign of academic maturity to be jaded, cynical, snarky and gripey? Sigh.

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I bet a lot of it has to do with how even the application crew was never that great about dealing with the stress of stuff like the market (and political stuff is always hard to talk about over the internet among strangers), so once the active posts became primarily about those sorts of things, a lot of tensions came out. I would figure that this place will..uh...perk up once 2016's applicants begin posting in earnest. 

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I bet a lot of it has to do with how even the application crew was never that great about dealing with the stress of stuff like the market (and political stuff is always hard to talk about over the internet among strangers), so once the active posts became primarily about those sorts of things, a lot of tensions came out. I would figure that this place will..uh...perk up once 2016's applicants begin posting in earnest. 

 

No, it has nothing to do with the job market and everything to do with the trolling. Trolling sets me off any day of the week, especially when that trolling blames the humanities' lack of funding on its failure to accommodate a particular political agenda. 

 

But anyway, sorry for the snark. I'll curb it from now on. 

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