Robert Jensen thinks that UT acts too much like a factory. He’s wrong.

Travis Knoll

On Sept. 4, UT journalism professor Robert Jensen penned an op-ed in the Austin Post titled “With Truce at the UT Factory, Time to Face Tough Choices.” In the article, Jensen defended the University “from right-winged attacks on critical thinking” and criticized the University’s close relationship with private industry. Jensen also criticized the pretensions of academia and of “self-indulgent professors” in the humanities that conduct research that “doesn’t much matter.” Jensen raises some important points, but his exaggerated language oversimplifies UT’s educational mission and ignores its potential benefits to the public.  

Jensen is right that a lack of intellectual courage in academia discourages practical solutions to pressing questions. Nevertheless, the best instructors know how to balance complex theory with practical applications. For example, in his article “Neoliberal Multiculturalism: The Remaking of Cultural Rights and Racial Dominance in Central America,” UT anthropology professor Charles Hale explains how the illusion of multiculturalism can be appropriated by institutions such as the World Bank  that grant cultural recognition but also potentially stymie legitimate efforts by indigenous activists at autonmous economic development. The title is a mouthful, and at first glance, the study might seem of little use to many students. But the article smartly explains the risks and rewards of indigenous activists working within the globalized capitalist system. It gives examples of activists who have turned the system to their advantage. Any student working to make change could learn a lesson from Prof. Hale’s research, regardless of how “self-indulgent” Jensen might deem the work.  

Moreover, though the tone of Jensen’s article seems to imply that political activism is a must, professors can critique existing systems without being blatantly militant. For example, English professor Douglas Bruster. As a former research assistant for Bruster, I can vouch for his engagement in the classroom. While he is not particularly partisan, his syllabus puts Shakespeare’s sonnets warning us of the frailty of our temporary monuments side by side with Andrew Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode,” forming a subtle yet effective critique of military ambition and societal acquiescence.

Though Bruster’s research topics are specialized and might seem inapplicable to most, his willingness to take on research assistants from outside his field shows a desire to give others transferable research and critical thinking skills. The key for professors is not to give up their “uninteresting research” but to balance it with rigorous teaching. Professors like Bruster were key in teaching me to develop interdisciplinary connections inside and outside the circles of academic theory.

Jensen’s pessimism regarding this equilibrium is ironic. Having taken one of his classes and consulted him on some of my own research in masculinities, I have no doubt that he strikes this balance between provocative teaching and solid scholarly research. However, by saying that the University is failing its students, Jensen ignores the practical resources available on campus and in the Austin community, such as the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Workers Defense Project (which he had a part in promoting).  Both of these organizations were brought to my attention by UT faculty.

The University is already doing its part to open doors for students. It’s our job to walk through them, no matter how frustrated that makes Jensen. 

Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas.