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Tag: "academia"

The Academic Future

[ 86 ] March 16, 2013 |

With MOOCs, the future is clearly what happened to the French Department at Southeastern Louisiana University. Fire all the tenure track professors, replace them with adjuncts, and continue offering the minor (or major as the case may be). Dare the professors to do something about it.

Of course SELU did this without MOOCs, but technology just facilitates the elimination of faculty.


The UVA Aftermath

[ 74 ] March 14, 2013 |

As you may remember, last summer, the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia attempted to push out UVA President Teresa Sullivan, basically because the corporate hacks on the Board didn’t think Sullivan was committed enough to leveraging synergies and proactive leaderocracy and such. It was a gigantic disaster that was beaten back because of widespread protests. The American Association of University Professors (my union which provided me with outstanding representation when URI attempted to disown me last fall. Let me tell you people, there is nothing as great as union representation. Which is why employers want to destroy unions) has issued a report after an investigation. The report doesn’t present a lot that’s new exactly, not surprising since the Board was so blatant and open about why they wanted Sullivan gone. But it does get at what it portends:

The breakdown in governance at the University of Virginia documented here was only partly a result of structural failure; indeed, the board ignored its own recently adopted guidelines on presidential evaluation. In much greater measure it was a failure by those charged with institutional oversight to understand the institution over which they presided and to engage with the administration and the faculty in an effort to be well informed. It was a failure of judgment and, alas, of common sense.

You should definitely read the whole thing if you are interested in these issues.

This is all part of the corporate strategy to turn universities into corporations
, with all the meaningless lingo, profit-hoarding at the top, and lack of respect for employees that entails. Boards don’t just not understand what universities do and how they are run, they don’t want to know. They are attempting to transform them into the same institutions that brought you The Great Recession, The Housing Bubble, Unsustainable Debt, and all your other favorite economic entertainments.

I have no illusion that I will retire as a professor. Not because I am going to leave voluntarily. And not because I won’t get tenure. Because the job won’t exist. Just yesterday we were talking about MOOCs and how corporations and states are applying the shock doctrine to higher education. This is the end of academic employment, with no benefits to anyone but highly-paid administrators and corporate investors. When Sullivan was reinstated, that was a small victory is a longer battle that we are losing–the battle to retain the world’s greatest higher education system. In the 9 months since the UVA debacle, I’ve seen no evidence that suggests I’m wrong.


[ 105 ] March 1, 2013 |

We have a small M.A. program in history at URI. I sit on the graduate committee. Some of the letters of recommendation I have read are truly appalling in their sloppiness, misspellings, etc. When I write a letter of recommendation for someone, I take that duty very seriously. Someone’s future is in your hands. How professors can write such awful letters is beyond me. I actually find it rather offensive so I’m glad the Chronicle took this on.

Almost Verbatim Emory University President James Wagner: “The 3/5 Compromise is a Model to Which We Should Aspire. Also, the Liberal Arts are Like Slaves and Should Be Treated As Such”

[ 89 ] February 16, 2013 |

The president of Emory University evidently lacks people to make sure he doesn’t say insane, horrible things.

During a Homecoming program in September, a panel of eminent law school alumni discussed the challenges of governing in a time of political polarization—a time, in other words, like our own. The panel included a former US senator, former and current congressmen, and the attorney general for Georgia.

One of these distinguished public servants observed that candidates for Congress sometimes make what they declare to be two unshakable commitments—a commitment to be guided only by the language of the US Constitution, and a commitment never, ever to compromise their ideals. Yet, as our alumnus pointed out, the language of the Constitution is itself the product of carefully negotiated compromise.

One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.




I think we can all be impressed by a bunch of elite southern white men discussing politics and coming to the Three-Fifths Compromise as ideal legislation. That one would say this publicly is even more bizarre–does he not have people to make sure he doesn’t actually articulate the incredibly offensive things he believes? Or, good lord could this be, is this the compromise editorial? If so, I don’t want to see the first draft.

But wait, there’s more. Because see where this ends!!!

Part of the messy inefficiency of university life arises from the intention to include as many points of view as possible, and to be open to the expectation that new ideas will emerge. The important thing to keep in view is that this process works so long as every new idea points the way toward a higher shared ideal, namely truth.

At Emory of late we have had many discussions about the ideal—and the reality—of the liberal arts within a research university. All of us who love Emory share a determination that the university will continue trailblazing the best way for research universities to contribute to human well-being and stewardship of the earth in the twenty-first century. This is a high and worthy aspiration. It is tempered by the hard reality that the resources to achieve this aspiration are not boundless; our university cannot do everything we might wish to do, or everything that other universities do. Different visions of what we should be doing inevitably will compete. But in the end, we must set our sights on that higher goal—the flourishing liberal arts research university in service to our twenty-first-century society.

I am grateful that we have at our disposal the rich tools of compromise that can help us achieve our most noble goals.

As a historian, where does this lead me? I mean, I already know that we liberal arts people probably do in fact count as 3/5 of a person when it comes to university decision making, but if university presidents are going to openly compare us to slaves, well I just can’t wait for the future. Why even pay us at all? The strike of a whip should force us into line!!!

A Solution in Search of Some Data…

[ 87 ] January 31, 2013 |

This is an odd idea:

Should Colleges Ban Double Majors?

Tucked in a list of suggested reforms issued last week for how U.S. colleges could increase graduation rates is a recommendation that schools “narrow student choice” in order to promote completion. It’s an interesting idea — one that seems to go against the notion of college as a place to explore options and experiment with courses in divergent fields — that is all the more curious since it is included in an open letter from the nation’s six leading higher-education organizations.

“Sometimes we create a culture of dancing for more years than you have to, rather than getting out the door,” said Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University and chairman of the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, which issued the Jan. 24 letter. ”I think institutions have a responsibility to reset that balance.”

Do double majors improve a student’s marketability?

Whether a second major actually makes a student more attractive to an employer is unclear — little data exists on the subject.

Do double majors slow degree progress, or prevent graduation?

At the same time, however, Tepper says his research does not suggest that students who double-major are more likely to drop out of college. He also found that having an additional major increases the time it takes to earn a degree only slightly, if at all.

And so…

So why, then, are prominent figures in the higher-education community promoting the idea of narrowing student choice?

“I’m not sure that the word ‘narrow’ is quite the right word, it’s clarity that we’re really trying to achieve,” said Gee after embarking on a media tour to promote the letter. “I believe very strongly in the liberal arts education. We don’t want to take away those options. We want to provide clarity to students for how they can get through the system much faster — that would be the way that I would put it.”

Well, that clears things up. Without data to indicate that double majors actually slow progress, seems to me a touch premature to suggest that they ought to be banned. Also seems that “banned” here effectively means just that a student cannot be granted a credential for taking a sufficient number of courses in a second major. I don’t understand why denying a student a credential (even if it doesn’t seem to add much to job market/grad school attractiveness), should be an institutional priority.

If I had to guess, I’d say one problem is that double majors create messy statistical and accounting issues that administrators find unpleasant.  I’d also guess that administrators are desperate for any means of pushing students through faster, as graduation rate affects ranking, and that they’re willing to try just about any kooky scheme for making that happen.  Student intellectual curiosity is an inconvenience.

Is a Duke Degree Worth the Paper It’s Printed On?

[ 81 ] September 21, 2012 |

It’s hardly surprising that a school full of the douchiest basketball fans in the world like Duke would also lead the nation in grade inflation. I mean, when you have worse grade inflation than Harvard, you are really saying something. Do Duke students just get an 4.0 when they write their tuition checks?

The Conservative War on the Liberal Arts

[ 78 ] September 15, 2012 |

Katie Billotte rightfully exposes the decline of the liberal arts in higher education as an important facet of the conservative war on anything institution in this country that might create free-thinking people.

Education is a political act. For over half a century, the conservative movement has waged a political war on liberal arts education. They have waged this war because they know that without the skills we are provided by a liberal arts education citizens must abdicate our power. They know, like the Greeks and Romans did, that only those with the ars liberalis can do the job of citizens. That is why we must not allow the liberal arts to be further attacked, economically or ethically. A democracy without citizens will not long survive and citizens are only those who have mastered the ars liberalis.


“You Sir Have the Boorish Manners of a Yalie”

[ 146 ] August 31, 2012 |

These days I usually leave the indignant to Loomis, but seriously?

Harvard University will consider instituting an honor code as it investigates whether at least 125 undergraduates cheated by working together on a take-home exam in the spring. Officials said they intend to start broad conversations about academic honesty, including why it is vital to intellectual inquiry, in the wake of what is believed to be the largest such episode in recent school history.

“We really think we need to work harder,” said Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education. “We do think it’s an opportunity to really put out before the community how much we value integrity.”

School officials said Thursday they discovered roughly half of the students in a class of at least 250 people may have shared answers or plagiarized on a final. They declined to release the name of the class or the students’ names.

125 students from the most privileged backgrounds in America couldn’t be bothered to do the work in (what I understand to have been) an introductory government course. It’s not as if Harvard undergrads need to cheat their way to a 4.0 in order to have any job prospects; simply by graduating they have much better prospects than the unwashed masses of undergraduates laboring in public schools around the country, not to mention those who aren’t fortunate enough to be able to attend college.

And it’s not precisely that I’m surprised at this garbage, either; the elite crust that has produced the undergraduate cohort that currently attends Ivy League institutions obviously hasn’t made overmuch effort to establish or reinforce standards of honor, integrity, and fair play. Nevertheless, I can’t help but to be extraordinarily irritated by this particular instance of academic dishonesty, and to hope that Harvard takes harsh disciplinary measures. Gotta nip this kinda thing in the bud; don’t want these kids to grow up to be Doris Kearns Goodwin or Fareed Zakaria, after all.

The Downfall of Higher Education

[ 90 ] August 27, 2012 |

Bruce Bawer, an old white male and writer of anti-Islamic screeds, seems to think that the downfall of higher education is in the “studies.” You know, black studies, women’s studies, gender studies, etc. Classes dedicated to non-white males, which Bawer believes constitutes the opposite of a proper education. Oh poor old “liberal” white males. Things were so much better in the 60s, when white men sat in college classrooms reading sensible white males like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Anyway, Andrew Delbanco is having none of it
, writing a devastating review of Bawer’s new book. Delbanco recognizes the real problems in higher education:

This deliberately intemperate book is a useful reminder that liberal education always faces threats from one kind of intolerance or another. It is ultimately a footnote to Allan Bloom’s 1987 best seller, “The Closing of the American Mind,” to which Bawer pays homage in his subtitle. He’s right to lament the continued decline of the kind of education that Bloom defined as helping “students to pose the question . . . ‘What is man?’ in relation to his highest aspirations” by guiding them to and through “the alternative answers” to be found in great works of art and thought. But in updating that argument, Bawer overlooks the greatest threat to today’s universities. Today, corporate-minded university presidents spout platitudes about “outcome metric” and “game-changing” technologies, while faculty members struggle to piece together a living with multiple part-time jobs, and students search for marketable skills that, they hope, will help them pay off their education debt.

In his foreword to Bloom’s book, Saul Bellow described his friend and University of Chicago colleague as “a front-line fighter in the mental wars of our times.” Taking up arms on behalf of Bloom’s cause 25 years later, Bruce Bawer is fighting a rear-guard action against an enemy who has largely ceded the field to a new philistine army that has no interest in the culture wars. The humanities and “soft” social science departments that Bawer mocks are sinking into insignificance — partly, to be sure, because they have purveyed the kind of buffoonery he decries. Meanwhile, a more formidable enemy has arrived in the form of resolute utilitarians who discourage students from seeking what Bawer wants for them: the chance, through arduous reading and reflection under the guidance of dedicated teachers, to discover themselves.

I will only disagree to the extent that I don’t think there’s a lot of “buffoonery” in the studies departments. Sometimes some of those courses could be more rigorous, but then you could say that about any traditional major in the liberal arts.

Of course, another huge problem is the gigantic con being played against our college students, wherein capitalists and their purchased politician friends push them into online degrees that employers don’t value and do them very little good.


[ 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:

Latin America
Generation X
International Law
College Football
The Great Plains

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’.


“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!

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