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What Academia is Really About

I love academia, I think it's critical for society. But as with all things that exist, sometimes it's as goofy as the people comprising it. During the final few months leading to my master's thesis submission, I got to observe two academics (a political scientist and an economist) peacock their natural biases. My thesis was on technocracy and populism, I had abruptly switched from economics to political science for ideological and emotional reasons. Students have to attend a compulsory master's thesis seminar, which coincidently was being taught by the economics professor who was the supervisor of my suddenly abandoned economics project. It was just me and another student mentored by the aforementioned prof. An intimate class.

He was a well-meaning professor. The kind whose presence and parlance indicate meticulousness. Moreover, friendly and approachable. My political science thesis supervisor was more of the hard-boiled no-nonsense kind. She was tough but fair. She had torn me a new one after I had been slacking in writing my first chapter for two straight months. Facts were spat. I deserved it. I reflected and changed my erring ways, with sincerity and fear. Since then I had made decent progress in work, but after such a blasting one can only keep guessing. Nothing would ever feel the same. Still, I do, in fact, owe the professor of politics (my supervisor) for some actual schooling on determination, drive and focus.


I was determined to finish my thesis by the beginning of the coming year. My classmate in the seminar took a more lackadaisical route, she was just coasting. The seminar class was more of a formality to get compulsory credits; you were to do two presentations on your thesis project and begin writing preliminary drafts. I was way past that point. I had a french fry on my shoulder and a gun to my head. My presentations were overflowing with details on operational definitions of variables, methodology, hypotheses and everything.

Now the thing about economics is that it tries too hard to be "scientific". It really wants to be "scientific", and "rigorous". They define economic models, ones for trade, economic growth, etc. Each model always has its drawback, variables it overlooks, and is somewhere an inadequate approximation of reality. Political science is more lexical, new terms and concepts are operationally defined. The term "technocracy", for example, has slightly different meanings in different contexts - it could mean a regime of technology or a regime of instrumental rationality (check out my thesis!). Dealing as it does with the political, with rhetoric, discourse and the affective nature of meaning-making for both politicians and the public is more flexible - it has to examine hard empirical statistics but also the more psycho-subjective elements.

That being said, all social sciences have a complex of not being "scientific" enough, it's just that Economics is really uneconomical in the amount of fucks it gives. Just too much. Being the most mathematical and abstract of disciplines, it likes to dunk on the others. And I don't even think it's deliberate anymore, they are just moulded that way as impressionable undergrads, they are self-conscious but not self-aware, y'know.

I was stressed out for my first presentation, but I powered through. I summoned a genuine and earnest concern about any feedback I was going to get. The clarity of my research's purpose, the hypotheses and all, everything was suspect - did I articulate it right, does the research question actually make sense? Generalized angst. The econ. prof. went like:

"That was a detailed presentation, thank you. Really, a lot more than was expected of this introductory presentation. So your project is in an advanced state. I just have one major see it often happens that in disciplines like politics and more humanities kinds of subjects, there are new terms thrown about, a lot of jargon used. So, you must be careful with that."

"Okay professor, sure.", I took it to heart. And then proceeded to ask other neurotic questions about the clarity of the hypotheses, the text and so on.


Manipulation of numbers & words. Obfuscation.

Gender-neutral mansplaining. Whataboutery.

That's what it's about.

I had by now two chapter drafts ready and was going to meet my supervisor for feedback. Our first face-to-face meeting, everything had been on zoom previously. She had since told me that my thesis was back on track and that she was pleased with the progress. I was relieved. I think she sensed my angst about the whole thing though, for she went on to elaborate and say that I had indeed got my act together with this project. I told y'all, tough but fair. Not wanting to let my humble spirit of sincerity waste, I discussed how to proceed further, the confusions I had with the material and all. And in the end, I brought up the internalized concern of jargon.

"one feedback I got in my presentation professor, is that I should watch out for the use of jargon..." I said.

That's when she lost her lid.

"To hell with that criticism.", her calm demeanour shifting to a snarl.

"What do they know? If we use a term, there is a good reason for it. To differentiate concepts. You have operationally defined them, right? Then all they have to do is read! It's not our problem if they aren't educated enough to follow the text", she preached passionately.

Like a soldier being rallied by their captain, I was stirred. "Fuck yeah," I thought, "why should I justify myself to the inbred economists and their are-we-scientific-enough complex." That was the subtext of her rant.

"Okay, professor", I saluted.


About a month had passed. I reworked some of my chapters. I also reminded myself what it was all about. I had taken up political science because it felt more applicable, I had felt the mathematical, rigorous, and conservative economics was restrictive in the scope of research. Especially for humble master's students and maybe even PhD candidates. Ideologically, I had made my mind up - mainstream economics exists only to justify late-stage neoliberal capitalism. It's not like political science (and other social sciences) do not have the complex of not being 'scientific' enough, but they also have not yet abandoned the fact that they study human beings and human systems, not rock formations. We still study human affect, rhetoric and all the messy subjectivities that distinguish human enterprise from behaviours of the inanimate (least of all because we kinda know what and how we think and feel).

These were just some of the thoughts that helped me cope with the fact that I had abandoned the discipline of the powers to be, the discipline of big business, central banks and planning commissions. But I had conviction. One which grew exponentially the further I researched and wrote. It's automatic when you dedicate your hours and weeks to a subject, you just feel like you know the stuff. So, when the second round of presentations for the seminar rolled around, I was in a belligerent mood.

I wrapped up my presentation with decisiveness this time. I lectured impassionately. The prof. and the other student listened. And when I finished, I was more or less done with explaining the project. Like my supervisor said, "It's not our problem..." Cavalier? Yes. The right attitude? Debatable. As expected the econ prof. remarked concerns about the jargon again. I then proceeded to gaslight him.

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