A cynic’s guide to academic departments

Mathematics: Mathematicians get to make up anything they want as long as it’s consistent. They therefore have a tenuous connection to reality and tend to be susceptible to crank notions.

Statistics: Supposed to be about nothing in particular: a statistician can tell you how to analyze data gathered from any field of inquiry. This works exactly as well as the notion that you can manage a company without having to know anything about the industry it operates in.

Computer Science: There is some interesting math concerning the basics of computers. Too bad computer science is largely devoted to tasks such as improving accounting databases and data mining for government surveillance of citizens, and therefore inherits some of the smallmindedness of its applications.

Physics: The dishonest science. Physicists love talking about black holes and quarks, about the beauty of distant galaxies and the power of equations. They do this to distract themselves and everyone else from the fact that most funding comes their way in hopes that it will lead to better electronic gadgets or more devastating weapons systems.

Chemistry: Better living through chemistry—an eminently practical science that gives clear-cut results in the lab, which can be directly applied to tangible uses. In other words, its risks being intellectually unambitious and sometimes rather boring.

Biology: The science that explores the wonders and beauty of life itself, seeking understanding of plants and animals in their intricate complexity. Biologists mostly investigate life by looking at dead things under microscopes, and performing excruciatingly dull biochemical experiments with bits and pieces that are too small to see under microscopes.

Geology: Used to be on the cutting edge of intellectual life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Agricultural science: The smelliest science. Its mission is to remove all traces of taste from food.

Engineering: You build things. There’s lots of money coming in. This leads some engineers into delusions of grandeur. Since they are the ones engaged hands-on with the real world, they figure they know something deep about the universe and can tell everyone else how to do their jobs. The worst cases are engineers who become part of political movements who want to order human society along “rational” lines.

Psychology: Clinical psychologists try to help disturbed people, often basing therapies on theories that sound like they were jokes made up by authority figures to see what they could get away with. Experimental psychologists find this disreputable, preferring to run tests on college students to gather real data. They then use powerful statistical techniques to help them overgeneralize.

Sociology: Sociologists collect lots of numerical data, even if it’s often in terms of orderings rather than genuine magnitudes. Then they do statistics with this data, mainly because there doesn’t seem to be much else one can do. This occasionally leads to policy recommendations that are much more expensive to produce than by flipping a coin, but with much greater levels of false confidence.

Political science: If “science” appears in the name of a discipline, this is very often because it is not a science.

Anthropology: Since our global so-called civilization has wiped out the way of life of most “primitive” societies, anthropologists these days have less opportunity for old-fashioned fieldwork. Many have to make do with wringing hands about how impossible it is to understand The Other without an insiders perspective.

Archaeology: Archaeologists can look forward to a career using toothbrushes to uncover ancient garbage. They then try to compensate for all the tedium by trying to derive profound conclusions about lost civilizations from well-brushed potsherds.

Economics: Known as the “dismal science.” This description is half-right. Economics is the astrology of the modern era. Except that it’s much better funded, and it’s powerful enough to make billions of people miserable.

Philosophy: The art of gazing at Aristotle’s navel. Philosophy is full of opportunities to ask Deep Questions from armchairs, and to conjure up theories about them without worrying about pesky reality tests. It is the field with the highest ratio of self-importance to actual intellectual accomplishment.

Religious studies: Theology disguised for secular universities. The object is not to study religion but to come to a happy affirmation of all faiths, provided they can be tagged as supernatural or transcendent in some fashion. The great benefit of having religious studies departments is that it keeps the different religions from fighting amongst themselves.

History: A really good field to specialize in, if your horizons are limited to trying to write a 900-page book on “Early conceptions of the metaphysics of head lice and mothers-in-law among late teenaged Swabian goatherders, 1234-1246.”

Classics: Used to have an evolutionary rationale, via the handicap principle. You advertised your superior social position and financial security by the fact that you could afford to have studied such a useless thing as long-dead languages. Classics suffers from neglect in less aristocratic societies.

Literature: Students get interested in studying literature because they like interesting stories, or because they’re no good with math. By the time they get their doctorate, they will have turned into zombies devoted to the production of verbal diarrhea associated with the latest fad in literary criticism.

Linguistics: It’s hard to say anything nasty about linguistics. Which can only be because linguistics is such a dull, inconsequential backwater that it’s impossible to find anything to satirize about such a gray nonentity. But that would be an incredibly nasty thing to say. Interesting paradox.

Communications: This seems to primarily involve journalism or public relations. Under the suspicion of being professional liars, in either case. The PR people get paid much better.

Theatre: Some skills, like math or science, probably have to be learned and practiced in an academic setting. Having departments of theatre just seems like a case of the need for having academic credentials attached to everything.

Art: Art departments are an indirect way to subsidize art. The more interesting question is, where do people learn how to write the pretentious gobbledygook on the labels in art museums?

Music: Dedicated to the preservation and study of dead forms of music that have lost the capacity to entertain large audiences. Would have even less of a constituency if not for the high middle-class demand for material suitable for snobbery.

Business: The main intellectual use of business schools is to highlight the hypocrisy of political conservatives. They love to complain about the leftish ideological orientation of humanities departments, while business schools, whose missions explicitly support the interests of the business classes, command much higher levels of funding, students, and influence on the modern campus.

Accounting: It’s impossible to say anything about accounting without taking a cheap shot. Accountancy is its own punishment.

Finance: Also known as the department of conjuring, dedicated to the art of creating the illusion of economic value by the shuffling around of paper.

Marketing: Sort of like Communications, except that they’re more honest about the fact that they’re all about trying to sell you a bill of goods.

Education: The most idealistic, selfless students want to give back to the community by going into teaching. They get punished for their naivete by being condemned to herd indifferent teenagers in environments of minimal intellectual stimulation. Education departments are there to ease the transition into hell by deadening any intellectual spark that remains in aspiring teachers.

Pre-professional departments: People have to learn their trade somewhere, and presumably a university is as good as any other setting. The Arts and Sciences departments are grateful for the presence of pre-professional students, since they can impose various distribution requirements on those students, justifying the employment of numerous faculty and graduate students in the Arts and Sciences.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    All these departments are distractions from the real purpose of a university.

    Which is having a successful football team, which will encourage alumni to donate money.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03743116454273042629 Sheldon

    “Archaeology: Archaeologists can look forward to a career using toothbrushes to uncover ancient garbage. They then try to compensate for all the tedium by trying to derive profound conclusions about lost civilizations from well-brushed potsherds.”

    Actually, we use shovels and other less delicate digging instruments alot more than people think. But then digging can be a pretty rare activity as well. The garbage part is spot on, which is widely acknowledged in the profession. Some times you arer lucky if you get pot sherds, depending on where you work, it could be just broken flint stone. But the truth of the matter is, I have been staring at computer spread sheets and GIS software for weeks now, and look forward to actually breaking some ground, even if it is for some relatively uninteresting artifacts. And presently, I don’t even get to attempt any profound conclusions!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18114144408557198744 Zachary

    Thank you, Dr. Edis. That is fantastic.


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