Experts’ Agonies (Houchang Chehabi)


Partial Analysis will feature conversations with kind and interesting people from various academic circles. Before launching the website, I met with Houchang Chehabi, a scholar of Iranian studies at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, to talk about his intellectual journey, as well as what it means to be a thinker, a moderate, and a mundanity.  

I’ve been in Boston for several days now, sticking my head into different universities, and I encounter many strange placards and very fancy-sounding names. The “Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies” – what is that?

Frederick S. Pardee—

Frederick S. Pardee – it’s a satisfying name, isn’t it?

He was – I should say is – a philanthropist.

But “global studies” – what is this?

Oh my. Well let me try something. Global studies is an approach to the world-

Well, yes, presumably! (laughs)

(laughs) Okay, okay. It’s an attempt to understand problems at the planetary level. That’s the definition we have. To be honest, the reason we put it in is because it’s a fashionable word. So we were the department of international relations, then somebody gave us 35 million dollars—

Frederick S. Pardee.

Frederick S. Pardee gave us 35 million dollars and we took a word that is fashionable right now. Global.

International history. International relations. Modern history. Political science. International politics.

Global history.

Global studies. What are we even doing here?

You’re asking if there are distinct lines between the subjects? Well, no. But there are tendencies. If the Pardee School distinguishes itself in any way from other similar departments, it’s in that elsewhere in America, like, for instance, at Harvard or at Yale, there has been a move away from expertise on a particular area, what is called “area studies”. So disciplines are considered more scholarly than areas. So as a political scientist I could write on Brazil, and then on Senegal. Area studies – what we do – is seen sometimes as a sequel of the Cold War. This has led to a degree of illiteracy, I think – you cannot know a country if you do not know its language, for instance. So when I was hired, the School was making an effort to hire people who are deeply embedded in a certain culture, a certain part of the world, in addition to being economists, or historians, or political scientists. One of my coworkers, for instance, is the former foreign minister of Montenegro. He joined the faculty in September.

(laughs) That I like.

We have people from the Czech Republic, China, India, Romania, Bahrain, Pakistan–

But are you portending to the same goal as the folks in other institutions? Understanding problems on the planetary level, is that what you do?

It’s tough to say what “we” do. I don’t know what “we” do.

You’re a global studies department composed of people who very closely study single areas.

Conversation could sometimes yield joint projects. But the structure of modern academia kind of militates against that. It’s much easier for me to coauthor a paper with someone from Stockholm than one of my colleagues, if we have the same approach. I’ve never done anything with my colleagues here.

Am I then truly speaking to a relic of the Cold War?

I suppose I was quite closely associated with Wolfgang Leonhard at Yale.

The “inventor of Kremlinology”.

Sent by the Soviets to East Germany to kick-start the German communist state. Then he had second thoughts and fled. First to Yugoslavia. Then to West Germany and into academic positions in Oxford, Columbia, Michigan. He had a much more sophisticated approach to the study of Russia because of this history. He knew the language behind the language, he knew the names and the faces. And, to some, that was a limiting factor. It was artisanship, not scholarship.

The thing about abstract theory, broad social theory, is that it’s in a perpetual need of validation. How many thinkers I wouldn’t have given a second look if somebody didn’t insist on their value. But when you know something in depth, you can be indelible.

You’re certainly delible. But maybe you’re not replaceable. And anyway, most people find such things boring. People pay a lot for school now, you know. And there’s a rush, there’s no time to really get to know a single place, its music, its literature, its philosophies, intimately. Earlier on, most of the well-paying academic positions in area studies were financed by the government because it was all connected to the diplomatic apparatus.

Why do Americans pay so much for college?

There are some simple reasons – my old Yale dorm room would not suit a current student. Most would run on home, or to other universities. College life now, the bed and breakfast aspect of it, is fitted like a five-star hotel.

Because of the influx of baby boomers?

More people study in universities now, a great number. And state funding hasn’t kept up with the expansion of facilities. Research is more varied now, and more expensive. The bottom line is that people are still willing to pay, they’re willing to go into debt for college. And the government is willing to give them the money.

I have seen that university accreditation is of amazing importance to people here. So much of the daily chatter has to do with who studies where, where you want to study, where you’re studying, and then, of course, where you studied. I imagine the cost of education is the key factor here; people pay so much, and they don’t know why exactly that is. But to me, then, the interesting further connection is how the state plays into American academia. How tight is that bond?

On a certain level, not very tight at all, because of the mechanism of tenure. But then there’s the revolving door between state, business and education that especially affects the undergraduate levels of some prestigious universities. There’s the journalism industry, which absorbs academics into very current issues. And then, of course, there’s all the people who cannot get tenure. Adjunct professors are one of the most discriminated classes in America. You mentioned before the unionizing graduate students at Columbia. But graduate students are more privileged than adjunct professors – they get to learn! Such a professor has a Ph.D. and is, strictly speaking, perfectly qualified to teach his field, just as qualified as anyone else. But he gets placed into a cycle of instructing undergraduate level classes, gets little financial security, an inconstant, though constantly low, wage. If you’re teaching five or six classes each semester, you have no time for research. Especially if you’re active in several universities.

And you cannot further accredit yourself, cannot build a career, and you’re stuck in a dead space, yes yes. You speak from experience?

I went through something similar at Harvard. I could not do the things they asked of me to be granted tenure.

What things?

Oh, you know, some very mundane things. Directing my studies in a certain way, comporting myself with the right people. And eventually I was left without a position within Harvard, and, for several years, jumped from one university to another. Often I didn’t know how I would pay my rent in several months. Many adjunct professors live on the brink of poverty. Even in the Boston area, where we are privileged by the number of local universities – so you can teach at Tufts, at Brandeis, or Suffolk. There’s dozens of institutions here, over fifty. But over that time, I built up my own independent body of work, because no one was dictating my approach. It was a very rugged, but creative period. People began to know Houchang Chehabi and his studies. And then I was granted tenure by Boston University.

You’ve been lucky?

Very lucky, yes. But I’ll tell you – I was granted tenure. After many years, I could live comfortably. And that’s when I was hit by a clinical depression. This was a very dark period in my life.

There is something strange about the concept of a rebel looking for tenure, but I’m just being crude.

One of my big regrets is becoming a scholar of Iran. I was placed into this position when I came to America, because of my background. I actually have no formal degree in Iranian studies. I received most of my schooling in France, those were the deeply formative years of my life, first at the Université de Caen, then Sciences Po. I came to France as an outsider, with none of the schooling that my peers had received. When I first wrote an essay in university, someone sat me down and said: “This is not how we write essays. You need a structure, three points.” A lot of people, when they think of French intelligentsia, they think of Derrida or Deleuze, and it seems like a very disorganized culture. But different corners of the French academia subscribe to very strict structural standards for their debate. When I came to Sciences Po from Caen, they harangued me once more, because my writing was again structured incorrectly. Understanding their conventions was a difficult learning process. It felt limiting and I rebelled at the time. When I arrived to Yale I said: “freedom!” It seemed as though finally I could write how I wanted. But, over time, I’ve returned, in my thinking, to those French methods.

At Yale they pressed you towards Iranistics. So there are varieties of freedom.

Oh yes.

Where is your home?

This is difficult. I’ve lived in the United States for the great part of my life. I carry France with me. And most people see me – I see myself as – Iranian. But I’m also a great traveler, I’ve been all over, I’ve tried to understand many varieties of people.

What is the content of that France, the one that is with you? Is it a securing sense of distance from the American messiness?

I can grant that. As I said, I haven’t done anything professional with my colleagues here.

And you were maladjusted at Harvard.

Maybe. And I have no interest in absorbing things I’m uncertain about into my professional work. I have no interest in staying current, which is almost blasphemous for a political researcher. I have no interest in writing for the New York Times

American academia, by my armchair diagnosis — though what other diagnosis could there be, really?

Not many.

American academia is torn by two forces – that smug elitist impulse, the “be above it” principle, and – and – that very American desire to be correct. Not just right, but correct. So even when it dismisses cultural phenomena as unworthy of attention, it does so in a paranoid, shuddering way. What’s the use of outstretching your hand if you’re only doing so to push something away?

I think you’re probably right. It’s true that many people seek validation in an aggressive, confrontational way. We spoke about this – the desire to have an audience, to be respected by your colleagues, to be given medals and awards by government officials. I disapprove of the way graduate students are taught, where their earliest research papers rely almost solely on critiquing and picking apart past research. It’s not the same as in the New York Times, where arguments get more brutal, but it is in the culture.

My first experience of that was probably the public argument between [Robert] Skidelsky, [Paul] Krugman, and [Niall] Ferguson about the economy, about austerity and Obama. It was sheer showmanship. 

In America, “intellectual” is an adjective. You can sometimes behave intellectually, almost by accident. In France, it can be a noun. You can find polling research that shows how many of the French consider themselves to be intellectuals, vast numbers. French journalists can be intellectuals. French writers can be intellectuals. But in America, we don’t consider journalists or even artists to be intellectuals. And when a professor, who might possibly be called an intellectual, takes on journalistic standards, the word becomes futile. Part of the “intellectual” label is erudition. I’m capable in eight languages. And a part of it is passion for your subject. By saying passion I don’t mean fervor, but courtesy, respect. My American colleagues can disagree vociferously, even stupidly, but if they meet, they’ll be perfectly pleasant to each other. On the other hand, the French lash out, even throw punches, in personal encounters. But their structured argumentation will be passionate in the correct sense – courteous, directed. Maintaining universal interest, but avoiding dilettantism – that is an intellectual’s puzzle.

So it seems like you’re positing the intellectual, as a figure, as much more of a private entity than most Americans would think. Do you see the act of speaking out as a key feature of intellectualism?

I don’t know. You can be a hermit intellectual, sure. I do think you have to be a bit like a Cynic in your style of living. Not behaving – living. You’re asking if that style requires one to maintain a distance from society?

If intellectuals can ever be a majority, to word it differently. 

Well, you can look at it another way. A style can be adopted with some end in mind. To me the contrast here is often between ethics and aesthetics. I think the French intellectual culture distinctly often strives for beauty. That’s something I adopted from my years there. I’m guided by a sense of aesthetic appreciation for what I learn about. In other intellectual cultures, certainly many Asian ones, but also some in Europe and the Middle East, the gestalt of the intellectual style is an ethic. It’s prescriptive in both the broad and the narrow senses. That’s a more utilitarian way of viewing education.

And America seems to dismiss the intellectual style altogether. What happens when you prod at the system with economic tools? How do the inconvenienced – those adjunct professors, say – differ in intellectual character from the tenured?

I’ll say this – French academics, in large, are far worse off than Americans. Almost incomparably. But that only seems to bolster the value of the intellectual label. It wouldn’t work this way in the States, it doesn’t.

Of course there’s the cliché of the ivory tower; the odd and fey types have historically looked for refuge in academia. Is this possible in America?

The lesson would be that refuge comes from much more than simple translocation. The culture bleeds in everywhere. But it’s also not fair to call these people generally “odd” – people escape to academia for different reasons.

Do you feel as though you escaped?

Yes, I’m part of the type you describe.

Your escape is from indelicacy?

You could say that. Or an attempt at it.

Many also retreat to academia out of anger, so they can fire at society from a safe repose. But that is more French, it seems, because there’s a clearer boundary between intellectuals and the other segments of society. My question would be if this anger is typically ideologically motivated. Can ideology – that is, anger, non-courtesy – be intellectual?

My urge would be to say no, but the evidence indicates otherwise. There’s also many types of ideology. The American ideology is a meritocratic system building from an even plane. French equality is very different from American equality – it urges courtesy and equivalence in event of difference – fraternité.

America instead eliminates categories. How have you been ideologically tempted in your life?

Not in any particular way. In my environment, the primary ideologies were Marxist, which I resisted very strongly because of the example of Eastern Europe. Though I did come to read and value Marx as a thinker after the Cold War ended. And the other ideology was fascism, of course, which I thankfully avoided. I think that, long ago, Marxism may have influenced the public debate just enough for nationalist sentiments to seem inappropriate. And even when I was highly frustrated for a long time after losing my spot in Harvard, any frustration I might have had did not take on an ideological flavour. The closest I’ve come to a being emotionally invested in an academic position is, it’s the topic of discriminated religious minorities in Iran. Iran encompasses a variety of religions. It always stirs me when people forget that.

So we’re in this interesting position, as we draw to the end, where you can be decidedly against blind confrontation, you can be largely counter-ideological, but still feel a tension with society, still be something of an outsider. How does all that characterise you as an educator?

Here I am a moderate too. I have a readership in Iran, I’m a bigger name there than here, and I try to show Iranians that they are not that different from the bordering countries, that they are not that different from Westerners. But I also try to show them, and readers from here too, that there are significant fundamental differences between Iranian and Western societies that should not be neglected.

Reconciling in event of difference. Thank you. I mentioned to you that I just recently came to America. Tell me, for you, is all travel – leisure?

Oh, categorically.

Boston, Massachusetts, September 2016

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