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Tag: "academia"

Economists

[ 55 ] August 22, 2012 |

I guess I always assumed that most economists were political hacks hiding behind academic credentials. I don’t have a problem with academics looking to influence public policy. But it is a fine line between supporting a political candidate and sacrificing professional credibility in service of that end. That’s true whether we are talking about economists going whole hog for Romney and falsely accusing Obama of destroying the economy or whether we are talking about Sean Wilentz embarrassing himself in service of his desire to be the Clintons’ Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Of course, one person’s hack is another’s principled academic.

Social Facts

[ 131 ] August 16, 2012 |

Greenwald, in the midst of an angry screed:

In a book critiquing the “terrorism expert” field, Jackson argued that “most of what is accepted as well-founded ’knowledge’ in terrorism studies is, in fact, highly debatable and unstable.“ He therefore scorns almost four decades of so-called Terrorism scholarship as ”based on a series of ‘virulent myths’, ’half-truths’ and contested claims” that are plainly “biased towards Western state priorities.” To Jackson, terrorism is “a social fact rather than a brute fact” and “does not exist outside of the definitions and practices which seek to enclose it, including those of the terrorism studies field.” In sum, it means whatever the wielder of the term wants it to mean: something that cannot be the subject of legitimate “expertise.”

I’ll let you decide whether Glenn is fairly characterizing the book Contemporary Debates on Terrorism.”Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda,” (my error). Here’s a brief summary of John Searle on social facts:

Searle maintains that brute facts are objective, and that social facts may be both subjective and objective. Brute facts are objective, in that they do not depend on our attitude about them. For example, mountains and valleys are physical facts, no matter what attitude we take toward them. On the other hand, social facts depend on the attitudes which we take toward them. For example, the value of a five-dollar bill is a social fact which depends on our agreement that a five-dollar bill is worth something.

However, social facts may be objective when they are commonly accepted, and when they are not a matter of individual preference or opinion. For example, the duty of a policeman to enforce the law may be classified as an objective social fact. According to Searle, social facts may be epistemically objective (in that they are not a matter of individual preference or opinion) but may be ontologically subjective (in that they depend for their existence on being agreed upon as facts).

And so no, “social fact” does not mean either a) something that cannot be the subject of legitimate expertise, or b) something that means whatever the wielder wants it to mean. Beyond “terrorism” here is a list of social facts:

Imperialism
Latin America
Taiwan
Generation X
International Law
College Football
The Great Plains
Racism
Suicide

Indeed, the notion that social facts were beyond the realm of legitimate study (even “expertise,” itself a socially constructed term), and that they mean whatever the wielder wants them to mean would be extremely surprising to Emile Durkheim.

None of this is to say that the field of terrorism studies has been particularly productive, or that specialists have done enough to separate themselves from amateurs, or that profound ideological biases affect even the best work etc. etc.  Focusing the critique on those points would be helpful and productive; willfully misunderstanding the basic building blocks of human social inquiry in order to pursue a half-baked, nonsensical vendetta is neither.

I Guess All Graduate Students Come From the Elite Classes. I Hereby Renounce My Ph.D. For Lacking Proper Skills in Snobbery

[ 192 ] August 1, 2012 |

So Inside Higher Ed ran basically the worst article ever written about how to be a good graduate student, by Katy Meyers, Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University:

Knowing wine used to be a skill that you were raised to possess. Wine was an ever-present entity on family dinner tables and at social gatherings. However, with the increasing standardization of wine, that has led to juicy high alcohol wines that all taste the same, there isn’t a need for this knowledge. Think about Barefoot or Yellow Tail- I’m not saying these are bad wines, but the taste they have is due to mass production techniques rather than being innate to the grape itself. Its similar to the production of light beers which has caused the loss of knowledge about actual beer styles.

Tasting wine is my favorite non-academic pursuit. If I gave up pursuing my PhD, I would probably go work on a winery. I grew up in the Finger Lakes Wine region, have taken numerous tasting tours in France, California and New York, and was on the 2010 Championship Blind Wine Tasting Team for University of Edinburgh. I’ve found that knowing wine is a surprisingly valuable skill for grad school. At those dinners with professors, I’ve used my wine knowledge to purchase the alcohol for the table, making sure to pick something that will pair with our meals. It is also nice to be able to engage in wine conversations with the ‘adults’.

So…….

“Knowing wine used to be a skill that you were raised to possess.” Is that so? All graduate students come from the elite classes! It’s a must! I know that when I was a kid, my parents, pulling in their solid $25,000 a year in the 80s, wouldn’t be watching TV after a hard day’s work. And they wouldn’t be just wanting to relax either. Nope. They’d put me and my brother in the car(74 Dodge Brougham if I recall correctly, at least for a time. When we were really well off, the 81 Plymouth Reliant K-Car, although ours had wood paneling on the side. Dad, if I’m wrong, tell me so.) and we’d head into the Willamette Valley wine fields. The Oregon wine industry was just starting in the early 80s, but my parents knew the only way I’d succeed in life is if I was raised to know wine. Chardonnay, Cabernet, whatever. My parents forced me to know wine. Really, if it wasn’t for their incredible sacrifice to teach me wine culture, where would I be right now? Cooking meth in a trailer on the edge of the Willamette National Forest, that’s where. After our wine excursions, despite the fact that my Dad was still covered in plywood glue, his arms full of wood slivers, and completely exhausted, we’d head home joyful with my new knowledge of wine culture. And really, was it even a sacrifice, since EVERYONE was taught wine culture in those days!

In all seriousness, the alcohol-related skill I was raised to possess was to get my Dad a Hamms after his 10 hour day in the plywood mill.

If I had a graduate student who pulled this snotty attitude when I was around, we’d be having a talk. First, the talk would be to quit sucking up. The second subject of the talk would be look around at colleges in the country and figure out what type of people you think you are going to be teaching, because it probably ain’t wine snobs who grew up in the Finger Lakes region and have participated in wine taste tests. The third subject of the talk would be my 10 minute rant about how not to think that just because you are a graduate student that you think you are better than regular people.

And really, what’s with the “adults” bit? I don’t know about the anthropology department at Michigan State, but this kind of thing would not go over AT ALL with most of the academics I know. When I meet a graduate student, the last thing I want to see is some put-on false sophistication. I can tolerate quite a bit from people, but not that. I want to see intellectual interest, hopefully the ability to communicate with regular people (these are graduate students and future academics so it’s hardly a given), and general camaraderie, engagement, and curiosity.

What I don’t want to see is pretension. I ain’t no damn “adult.” I’m just a dude who cares an awful lot about the past and the present and the future and making people’s lives better. If I can shape a few graduate students a tiny bit, that’s cool. But I ain’t more than that. I have some skills and do what I can with them, just like an auto worker, a plumber, or a public school teacher.

And if any graduate student tries to order wine for me (and really, if everyone knows this skill, shouldn’t the “adults” be doing it not only for themselves but for the “children,” i.e. graduate students), not only am I going to order 8 Coors Lights in a row, but I am going to proceed to talk VERY LOUDLY AND FOR A VERY LONG TIME about the snobbery of wine culture and how it is a betrayal of working-class America to think you drink better than other people.

God knows I have developed my own tastes in alcohol. Less in wine than beer and whiskey, but still. Quality wine is a great thing. But so is cheap wine and it doesn’t make you any less of a person to say, Hey! I have $3 and I want a bottle of wine and I am going to Trader Joe’s and getting a bottle of Three Buck Chuck. Or for that matter to get a 6-pack of Bud Light tall boys. And it damn well doesn’t make you a better person to put on airs about what wine goes with the fish when you are dining with your exam committee.

Most of all, thinking that being smart about wine or any other “adult” topic is going to help your graduate career is absurd. How about writing a good dissertation instead? The people I respect are those that do good work, regardless of economic background, social class, or taste in alcohol.

UPDATE: As a friend of mine said about this on Twitter, “It’s as though Charles Murray paid someone to write a piece making academics look like the elitists he thinks they are.” Boom!

We Are All the University of Virginia

[ 133 ] June 21, 2012 |

Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, on the ouster of the school’s president and the behavior of the plutocrats behind the plan. A few tidbits, but you should read the whole thing.

Dear Ms. Dragas & Mr. Kington:

I’m writing to let you know your grade for the Digital Learning Project, as part of your larger grade as Rector and Vice Rector. I wish I brought better news.

On the bright side, let me complement you on your font choice and the formatting of your emails. Further, they feature some unusual words, and a spirit of verve throughout.

But I’m afraid these bright spots pale in comparison to the problems: an immature analysis brought on by terribly shallow research.

I’m not surprised you drew this conclusion, given the sources you cite. Wall Street Journal editorials and New York Times op-eds are not considered primary sources in this context, Ms. Dragas and Mr. Kington. These are non-experts pulling together the opinions of experts as best they can. That’s what you are supposed to do, rather than parrot the opinions of others, however highly regarded they may be.

Now, I can just hear your protests: “You can’t judge my views on this matter from a few emails! And they were not based solely on a few New York Times columns!”

In other words, the project submitted does not reflect your best thinking on the subject.

I hear that a lot from students.

But I can only grade you on what you submitted, not based on my best guess as to what you were thinking. And maybe that’s part of the problem. If you had let me know what you were thinking, I might have been able to help make this project better. I’m not entirely ignorant on the subject of learning myself.

You have earned a grade of F for this project.

From the Code of Virginia, language on courses the University of Virginia must offer:

The following branches of learning shall be taught at the University: the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Anglo-Saxon languages; the different branches of mathematics, pure and physical; natural philosophy, chemistry, mineralogy, including geology; the principles of agriculture; botany, anatomy, surgery, and medicine; zoology, history, ideology, general grammar, ethics, rhetoric, and belles lettres; civil government, political economy, the law of nature and of nations and municipal law.

I don’t see anything here about “strategic management,” “proactive proactivity” or “leveraging strategic proactive proactivity management.” Which must suggest that neither Thomas Jefferson nor anyone else in the first 150 years of the University of Virginia knew what was important in higher education: maximizing profit in the pockets of the 1%.

Of course, such a vaguely worded statute is easy for modern corporate lawyers to get around–”We’ll offer 1 course of German and 1 course on Greek literature. But do we actually have to pay someone to teach it? They should pay us! It’s valuable experience for a Ph.D!”

Still, it’s worth keeping in mind.

Lest we think that UVA is an isolated case, here’s a couple reminders that the corportaization of both public K-12 and public universities is taking place at an increasingly rapid rate, with few questioning why capitalists should have any say at all over schools. North Carolina Republicans are pushing a plan funded by the heirs of Wal-Mart and Amway to send taxpayer money into private K-12 schools.

Meanwhile, the University of Missouri, which recently hired Tim Wolfe, a software executive with no experience in higher education as its president, has shut down its university press because it was costing the school $400,000 a year while at the same time paying its football coach $2.7 million a year. Wolfe may not have a Ph.D., but he is rich. For that matter, he doesn’t have a master’s degree either. Or a law degree. But he does have a B.A. in something called “personnel management” from the University of Missouri! And he’s rich! I can’t think of a better candidate to leverage some corporate strategizing in order to maximize potentialities! Starting with eliminating the university press.

Meanwhile, Wolfe’s starting salary is $450,000 a year
.

We are all the University of Virginia

The University of Virginia, Brought to You by David Brooks

[ 109 ] June 20, 2012 |

Oh for the love of god:

Both took time to comment on a major donor’s e-mail in which he suggested that university leaders study the way Stanford and Harvard Universities, among others, were having success online. The donor wondered in his e-mail if these developments are “a signal that the on-line [sic] learning world has now reached the top of the line universities and they need to have strategies or will be left behind.” Dragas replied: “Your timing is impeccable — the BOV is squarely focused on UVa’s developing such a strategy and keenly aware of the rapidly accelerating pace of change.”

Another article — this one forwarded from Kington to Dragas — was the “The Campus Tsunami,” by the New York Times columnist David Brooks, predicting massive change from the MOOCs, and also predicting that the new model will involve much more learning from professors who are not at the college or university a student attends.

Various theories have been traded among UVa-watchers in the last 10 days about the source of conflict between Sullivan and the board, and the e-mail records suggest that online education may have been among them. In her statement on the day the board announced Sullivan’s departure, Dragas used language similar to some of the columns that were being shared among board members, saying “We also believe that higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions.”

The next time you see me, I’ll be at the bottom the cliff I just jumped off.

Texas: The Anti-Constitution State

[ 27 ] May 29, 2012 |

Connecticut need not worry about Texas trying to steal its nickname. Because the Lone Star state does not care about the Constitution except for its grotesquely expansive view of the 2nd Amendment.

In the fall, Sissy Bradford took a public stand — unpopular with many in San Antonio — about separation of church and state. She was briefly in the news and her view prevailed. Since then, she has received e-mail threats because of her stance. This month, she told the story of those threats to the alt-weekly in San Antonio, which ran an article about them. And the day the article came out, Texas A&M University at San Antonio told her that she would not be teaching in the fall, despite her having previously been assigned four courses.

As the debate played out over church-state issues, Bradford started to receive threatening e-mails. One of the e-mails reflects the tone. It started with: “As a professor, do you have the right to live?” And it described Bradford ending up in a coffin, concluding “After that you will reign with your father Satan.” That e-mail message and a series of others were turned over to the university police department, Bradford said.

Bradford believes that the university did not take the threats seriously. She shared her frustrations with The Current, a San Antonio publication, which ran an article in which she discussed the threats, as did some students who backed her. The university police department confirmed for The Current that an investigation into the threats had been opened, and closed, and declined to discuss details.

The day the article appeared, Bradford received an e-mail from William S. Bush, interim head of the School of Arts and Sciences at Texas A&M-San Antonio, that said in its entirety: “I’m writing to inform you that the School of Arts and Sciences will not be able to offer you any classes in the fall semester. If you wish to discuss this matter further, please submit a written request to Dr. Brent Snow, provost and VP for academic affairs. Please note that he will be traveling abroad until Tuesday, May 29.”

There are other issues at play here too, particularly the lack of labor protection for the majority of academic labor. But of course a university in Texas would not support a faculty member noting something clearly laid out in the Constitution. Because in Texas, the Constitution only matters if it advances the agenda of right-wing conservatives. Otherwise, it is a document to eviscerate.

The Humanities Ph.D.

[ 75 ] May 17, 2012 |

Kaustuv Basu discusses an effort at Stanford to reduce the time it takes students to receive a Ph.D. in German Studies to 4 years. Spearheaded by former MLA President Russell Berman, a member of the department, the initiative seeks to shorten the time it takes for students to complete a humanities Ph.D. Essentially arguing that decade-long Ph.D. adventures are no longer competitive or realistic in the modern university marketplace, these ideas would move students onto one of two tracks–prepare for an academic or a non-academic job.

How would this be accomplished? First, departments would fund students throughout the year, including in the summer, when research often is impossible for lack of money. Second, it would demand professors work more closely with their Ph.D. students to keep them on track and not let people drift for years, as happens to so many Ph.D. students (including myself for awhile). Many other changes to the structure of graduate programs would be needed as well.

A few specifics:

“In anthropological terms, academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture: you may feel some private guilt at letting a chapter go unread for two or three months, but a much stronger force would be the public shame you’d feel at coming unprepared to a meeting with two of your colleagues,” he said. “It’s also ultimately a labor-saving device for the faculty as well as the student, as the dissertation can proceed sooner to completion and with less wasted effort for all concerned….” With frequent meetings, the students doesn’t lose time on “unproductive lines of inquiry” or “tangential suggestions tossed out by a single adviser,” Damrosch said.

A two-hour oral exam, meetings each semester with “dissertation-stage” students and their committee members, and clearer feedback for students are part of the graduate program in the comparative literature department now. “We also introduced a monthly forum for students to share and discuss their own work; and an ambitious series of professional development talks, on everything from article submission to dissertation planning to alternative careers,” Damrosch said.

The University of Colorado, University of Minnesota, and Harvard are also considering changes, with Colorado already beginning to implement a short Ph.D. in German.

I find all of these ideas interesting, thought I can see good arguments both for and against. I do like the idea of Ph.D. programs shepherding their students more effectively, reducing unnecessary obstacles, and thinking harder about careers. On the other hand, as Rob Townsend of the American Historical Association notes in the article, can fully formed dissertations be completed this quickly? That’s a good question; in history at least, I do feel the overall quality of dissertations would suffer, largely because students would have to commit too quickly to a specific track rather than explore the sources and literature and see where they lead you. Others in various tweets and Facebook posts noted that this might only increase the already high number of humanities PhDs since a 4 year commitment will appeal to a lot more people. Also, would splitting students into multiple tracks create a second-class PhD? Plus, it’s not like most departments are very savvy on non-academic careers for their students to begin with; after all, everyone in those departments succeeded in achieving an academic job. How well will they steer students into employment?

Obviously there’s a lot of questions that need answering. But it’s hard not to welcome the rethinking of the humanities PhD. I’d certainly be interested to see what people have to say in comments here, given backgrounds, experience, etc.

The Next Step in Destroying Academic Labor

[ 128 ] April 18, 2012 |

Our highly valued commenter John Protevi leads us to the latest plan to eviscerate the humanities: get undergraduates to grade papers for free!

Koller, an artificial intelligence specialist who has taught computer science at Stanford since getting her Ph.D. there at age 25, said that the challenge of assessing student work in humanities-oriented MOOCs could be addressed through a system of “calibrated peer review.” Human readers, plucked from the ranks of the course registrants, could read short essays written by their peers and rate them according to a rubric developed by the professor. A critical mass of deputized students should be able to evaluate an essay “at least as [well] as a pretty good [teaching assistant],” Koller said in an interview.

I think I’ve written about Koller before though I can’t find any references to it, but I love the idea of a university professor spending her career dedicated to helping universities not hire academic labor. It must be very rewarding. And hey, get rid of all the TAs and we can hire another administrator for 125,000 a year!

Stupid or Lying: Wildly Overpaid Faculty Edition

[ 164 ] March 25, 2012 |

The Kaplan Test Prep Daily has determined that American faculty are overpaid:

But college costs have risen faster than inflation for three decades and, at roughly 25 percent of the average household’s income, now strain the budgets of most middle-class families. They impose an unprecedented debt burden on graduates and place college out of reach for many. This makes President Obama’s recent statement that college is “an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford” an especially urgent message.

As a career-long academic and former university chancellor, I support this position. But I disagree with the next assumption, that the answer to rising college costs is to throw more public money into the system. In fact, increased public support has probably facilitated rising tuitions. Overlooked in the debate are reforms for outmoded employment policies that overcompensate faculty for inefficient teaching schedules.

Right; the reason for the increase in college tuition is “insufficient teaching schedules,” not the massive increase in administrative costs. This is helpful; we now know that David Levy is lying about cause and effect, and can adjust our expectations for the rest of the op-ed. This is aggravated by a second (obvious) fallacy; the “insufficient” teaching time is almost invariably made up for by cheap, temporary, low cost adjunct faculty, lecturers, and grad students. Having senior faculty double their teaching load wouldn’t have faculty costs; it would simply push out the very low cost workers we now hire to fix the “shortfall.”

Though faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks, they continue to pay for teaching time of nine to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks, making possible a month-long winter break, a week off in the spring and a summer vacation from mid-May until September.

Such a schedule may be appropriate in research universities where standards for faculty employment are exceptionally high — and are based on the premise that critically important work, along with research-driven teaching, can best be performed outside the classroom. The faculties of research universities are at the center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals.

Unfortunately, the salaries and the workloads applied to the highest echelons of faculty have been grafted onto colleges whose primary mission is teaching, not research. These include many state colleges, virtually all community colleges and hundreds of private institutions.

Okay, so two possibilities. The first is that Levy is too stupid or ignorant to appreciate that faculty positions at most private universities and “state colleges” do in fact include research requirements, and that salaries at institutions that don’t have a research requirement are considerably lower than those at research institutions. I’ll allow it’s possible that the man is either a moron, or is ignorant of the basic structure of the profession. The other (more likely) possibility is that he’s simply lying, and expects his audience to know nary a thing about the actual structure of faculty compensation in the United States.

As I understand it, my contract is fairly common for my field; 40% teaching, 40% research, 20% service. Do the math; this means that 60% of my job performance is evaluated on terms other than teaching. I’m at an R-1 university, but I’ve seen a lot of contracts at other schools that are similar, and at schools where the research load is less the teaching load is heavier. Indeed, at UK it’s not uncommon for non-tenure track Lecturer positions to include service and research requirements, above and beyond a much heavier teaching load.

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.

In case you’re wondering, 12-15 hours per week is a 4:4 load or a 5:5 load; I have NEVER encountered anyone able to undertake such a load on less than fifty hours per week of actual work. Indeed, I’d guess closer to sixty hours. I simply cannot believe that Levy is ignorant of this; he’s just lying. He wants his readers to believe that an assumption of 1:1 inside-outside the classroom is standard, which is simply absurd, even if faculty do their best to ignore student e-mails and grade completely through scan tron. And it should be noted that research and service requirements are ON TOP OF THIS load.

If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase. Many colleges would not need tuition raises or adjustments to public budget priorities in the near future. The vacancies created by attrition would be filled by the existing faculty’s expanded teaching loads — from 12 to 15 hours a week to 20, and from 30 weeks to 48; increasing teachers’ overall classroom impact by 113 percent to 167 percent.

Critics may argue that teaching faculty members require long hours for preparation, grading and advising. Therefore they would have us believe that despite teaching only 12 to 15 hours a week, their workloads do approximate those of other upper-middle-class professionals. While time outside of class can vary substantially by discipline and by the academic cycle (for instance, more papers and tests to grade at the end of a semester), the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth.

And again with the “ignorant or liar?” Increasing senior and tenure track faculty to a 6:6 load or 7:7 load would amount to considerably worse instruction, with considerably less cost saving than Levy would have you believe; the faculty would primarily replace low cost adjuncts and graduate students. But at least we can agree that “the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth.” Levy also invokes the “but they get the summers off!” myth, as if books read themselves, articles write themselves, and syllabi organize themselves.

As it happens, I love my job and most of my colleagues like theirs.  I quite enjoy teaching, and am lucky enough to have a relatively low teaching load (although a higher service requirement than most). I wish that promotion and tenure decisions involved more consideration of teaching than they do, and I think that the way my discipline has focused on research (and the kind of research it has focused on) will prove detrimental in the long term, as state legislatures become increasingly disinterested in underwriting work that their constituents don’t give a damn about.  But Levy’s argument is simply mendacious; that Kaplan Test Prep Daily decided to give him a platform is unsurprising, but disappointing.

 

Tough Day for Academic Labor

[ 37 ] March 23, 2012 |

Last year, faculty at the University of Illinois-Chicago formed a union that combined both tenure-track and adjunct faculty in the same bargaining unit. Seeing a threat to its exploitation of cheap academic labor, the university administration sued. Although the union had won small victories at several points through the legal process, yesterday an Illinois Appeals Court ruled against the union and stripped the union of its bargaining power. The university says it has no problem with recognizing the two unions as separate, but as it, like just about every other school, moves into destroying its tenure-track labor force and replacing it with cheap adjuncts to fund skyrocketing administration salaries, it clearly saw a union of unified faculty as a threat.

On Languages and Academic Gatekeeping

[ 90 ] March 21, 2012 |

So I was in a bit of a Twitter argument last night with Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the Modern Language Association (@rgfeal) over the issue of humanities Ph.D. students reaching fluency in non-English languages. The MLA is now advising that English Ph.D. programs require “advanced competence” in at least one non-English language. This would be a higher level than most English (and history) programs require, which is usually being able to pass a translation test.

There are many good reasons to learn languages. I hardly need to spell out the multiple reasons why. And maybe, theoretically, it makes sense for English Ph.D. students to learn another language. I am unconvinced by the arguments laid out by the MLA, but OK, it’s not my field. For the history student, I argue that the need to learn languages should depend entirely on what you are studying. If you are a historian of Latin America, you definitely need Spanish and/or Portuguese, but maybe instead an indigenous language. If you are a U.S. historian who works on immigration or transnational issues, than you need to learn the relevant languages for your research. There’s no question about this. But I also question whether there is a strong reason that a Ph.D. program should require languages of students who aren’t going to use them. Instead, maybe they should have alternative programs of equal rigor that train them in the skills they need to be a successful job candidate in the 21st century.

Let’s take me for an example. I am, by training, an environmental historian of the United States. I work on loggers in the Pacific Northwest. Theoretically, it would be useful for me to learn Norwegian or Swedish, although I have not run across a single newspaper or diary in those languages in my research that deals with logging in any major way (there are some newspapers in those languages for urban communities and maybe there are a few tidbits in there, although urban newspapers from the region/period in English have almost nothing on what I am looking for). But it doesn’t matter because my school didn’t offer those languages. I took a couple of years of Spanish courses instead. I could have tested out but instead I wanted to at least try to learn the language. I did, to a limited extent, although it was always my lowest priority as a graduate student so I didn’t spend as much time with it as I wanted. I’ve since done a good bit of traveling in Latin America so my Spanish has gotten better over time.

But while learning Spanish is objectively good, was it a valuable use of my time during my Ph.D. program? No.

To be clear, I am absolutely not taking the position that U.S. historians who don’t learn another language should have it easier. I am instead arguing that Ph.D. programs ought to train students in the skills they need to survive in their field and on the job market. As an environmental historian, I wish I had been trained in GIS, biology, and forestry, rather than Spanish. That would be more useful for me. For a legal historian, training in intro law courses might be very helpful. For a historian of technology in the second half of the twentieth century, computing languages could be of great value.

And as scholars change, they need to learn new tools. I am throwing around different ideas for my next project (including one on breweries, urban change, and city environments that everyone says I should do but we’ll see). One strong possibility is to expand my discussion of logging to look at how the timber industry invests in southeast Asia after 1898. If I do that project, I will probably have to gain a working knowledge of Tagalog. And that’s great. That is a tool I will need.

So what is the nature of my argument with Feal? Her argument is, effectively, that, and I quote, “Because anyone w a PhD in the humanities should know a lang other than own.” Not good enough. She goes on, after I told her it wasn’t a real reason, “How about: because every historian in the entire world outside UK and its former colonies knows a lang other than Eng?” Well, maybe. Again, doesn’t this depend on your field? For me, while there are active environmental historians in nations such as India and Finland, most of their publications that I know of are in English. That’s not to say that maybe I shouldn’t learn Tamil or Finnish, but I don’t think those aren’t the languages Feal wants me to know. It’s French and German and maybe Spanish or Italian.

Possibly the crux of the disagreement isn’t about languages at all, but about what humanities do. After one of my responses, Feal said, “Following that logic, history should be a tool for work. There goes 95% of yr UG stydents!!”

Well, yeah.

History should be a tool for work. It should be a tool for the work of many of us. And our students are in fact leaving the history major because they don’t see it as valuable for their future. Holding onto the belief that people should major in humanities because they will be smart has its own value, but it’s also not enough to compete in the reality of the 21st century university marketplace, particularly among students with working-class backgrounds. We need to show our students that history does have concrete value for their future, including BUT NOT ONLY, that it will make them more educated and interesting.

The MLA’s stance shows a surprising amount of blindness to the realities of the modern university in multiple ways. Large Ph.D. programs in English often serve as cheap labor forces to teach intro writing courses that no one really wants to teach. Universities are pushing programs to be more integrated in market forces, not less. The idea of the multilingual humanities Ph.D. goes back at least to the German model of the late 19th century (as a historian, this is where the modern field starts so maybe it is even earlier), an elitist time when academics came from the upper echelons of society. We are today in a time of a rapidly transforming university where learning other languages has zero value to university administrations.

This additional language requirement is a way to reduce Ph.D. numbers that will have the effect of limiting the ability of certain people who came out of very poor public schools (like myself) to achieve the higher degree without a severe detour in my studies. And for what point? Just because we should? That’s not much of a reason to me. Yes, learning languages opens the mind to a new way of thinking, but that’s a relatively unconvincing argument to the Ph.D. student who will never use the language professionally, who has limited years of university funding, and who is not independently wealthy and can therefore tack on the additional years to their program in order to become fluent in multiple languages. Maybe the MLA wants to reduce the number of Ph.D. students and maybe that is a good goal in a time when it is very hard to find a tenure-track job. But I have strong objections to going about it in a way that totally ignores the political and financial pressures on modern higher education and on top of that adds pointless barriers that will exacerbate the already significant class divide in academia.

Rather, Ph.D. programs need to work with students to provide them the tools they need to survive in the 21st century marketplace, whether Hmong or GIS, French or advanced statistics. How learning German does that for a U.S. historian whose closest connection to Germany is distant ancestors/beer is completely unknown to me.

I am sure many of you disagree with me, but I do hope you can provide an argument that moves past gatekeeping.

On Paradigms Mattering

[ 25 ] February 13, 2012 |

Interesting results from the TRIP survey on IR scholars:

It turns out that in the case of using military force against Iran, thirty percent of self-identified realists advocate the use of force in the event that Iran acquires a nuclear weapon. This is substantially higher than the number for liberals (19%), constructivists (18%), or “other” approaches (16%). So, comparing across paradigms, realists are the most enthusiastic about war with Iran. This finding contrasts with recent claims by Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler that a realist paradigm encourages restraint towards Iran. But, it is worth noting that large majorities of IR scholars from all theoretical camps, including realism, are overwhelmingly opposed to war with Iran, even “if it were certain that Iran had produced a nuclear weapon.”

However, while realists appear far more enthusiastic about war with Iran than their liberal and constructivist counterparts, they are less likely to support the use of force in all the other cases we studied. Whether we are talking about a successful military intervention that has recently occurred (Libya), or hypothetical cases (Syria and Sudan), realists are much less supportive of the use of force.

In the Libyan case, liberals claimed to be the most enthusiastic supporters of the use of military force (71%), followed by constructivists (62%), while just over half of realists (51%) supported the use of force. The relative paucity of realist support is consistent with what the Godfather of Realists, Ken Waltz, recently told Foreign Policy magazine when he was asked whether he supported U.S. participation in the use of force against Libyan government forces. Waltz said, “No. No American national interest was at stake” .

The Syrian case illustrates very little appetite on the part of IR scholars for military intervention by the U.S. no matter what their theoretical disposition; but realists are the least enthusiastic with only 13% supporting the use of force. Roughly 25 percent of both constructivists and liberals support military intervention in Syria.

I don’t even remember what I listed for my paradigmatic affiliation. I feel like a realist constructivist with liberal tendencies, but I don’t think that was an option. Nevertheless, it’s interesting and somewhat gratifying that paradigmatic affiliation apparently matter for consideration of foreign policy. Otherwise, it would just all seem so pointless. More at the link.

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