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Tag: "academia"

Workers of the World Unite!

[ 27 ] March 24, 2011 |

Or, at least, “tens of thousands” of middle-class ivory tower academics across the United Kingdom.  Judging by the comments to this BBC article about the one-day walkout, it’s not a universally popular position.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t support the strike action, but would find it abhorrent to cross a picket line.  Hence, I’m at home today . . . working.  I get an unscheduled research day that I’m using to finish up my conference paper for the MPSA and progress on my paper for the WPSA next month (as well as an unplanned and un-budgeted day of unpaid leave).

Which, of course, is ironic, opens the question: is the nature of work as an academic compatible with the idea of withholding one’s labor through strike action?  I know several of my colleagues here at LGM experienced first-hand the organizing of graduate student TAs at the University of Washington, which I just missed out on due to having the temerity to graduate.  Unionizing graduate students and adjunct lecturers makes sense to me.  Here in the UK, we don’t have the benefit of a tenure system, and aside from those who have achieved the rank of full professor, we’re all on the same nationally negotiated pay scale (and poof, there goes my 0.4% pay increase this year) so I am somewhat swayed by the suggestion that a union can be beneficial in this context.  Yet, here I am working regardless, although I’m not giving the two lectures I was scheduled to deliver today.

Discuss.

Mapping Intellectual Heritage

[ 9 ] February 11, 2011 |

PTJ has an interesting idea:

I did a little digging and thus far have been completely unable to locate something that I would have thought that someone would have already assembled: an online searchable database that mapped adviser-advisee relationships in IR. So far as I know, there is no such thing. Not yet.

I think that a map like this would be a very useful tool for all kinds of research on the sociology of the field, besides all the ways it would serve as fodder for intriguing hallway and bar conversations at conferences (“I never knew that X was your grand-adviser; did you ever meet her? What was she like?”) It would also be a tool for a certain amount of reflexive self-discovery; I recently learned that my grand-adviser was a labor historian named Henry Pelling, and that my PhD adviser Ira Katznelson’s undergraduate thesis was supervised by none other than the brilliant American historian Richard Hofstadter (which makes Hofstadter what, exactly — a “grand-influence” on me? We may need a whole new vocabulary for this map). I can think of dozens of interesting questions one might productively ask if this data were available to help produce answers…

I want to keep this simple, so I am thinking of only asking people maybe three things: who was your PhD adviser, which institution granted your PhD, and (to capture “grand-influences” and other such people) which 2-3 contemporaries other than your formal adviser would you cite as important intellectual influences. [The phrasing of that last one is a little awkward, but what I mean is “don’t mention classic or canonical authors, mention people who were actually productive during your lifetime but are members of a previous academic generation.”

I think that this would be an exceedingly useful project; would also help track the influence of particular graduate programs across the discipline. There’s a good discussion in the comments of Duck about how the project might move forward. For my part:

Advisor: Jonathan Mercer (makes Robert Jervis my “grand influence”)
Institution: University of Washington
Influences: Elizabeth Kier (also served on my committee), Alastair Iain Johnston, Stephen Biddle

We’re Just Firing You — The Course is Safe!

[ 27 ] January 29, 2011 |

This attack on academic freedom — an adjunct hired to teach a course was fired by Brooklyn College administration after a state assemblyman sent a letter arguing that the syllabus and instructor were too critical of Israel — is depressing. First of all, there’s assemblyman Hikind:

Hikind, who said he earned his master’s degree in political science from Brooklyn College, told Inside Higher Ed that he reached these conclusions after spending “countless hours” reading the newly hired adjunct’s work. This included, chiefly, his unpublished paper, “Inventing the Martyr: Struggle, Sacrifice and the Signification of Palestinian National Identity,” in which he examines martyrdom as it “embodies ideals of struggle and sacrifice” in the context of national identity. Hikind said such works reflect an effort to “understand” suicide bombers. “There’s nothing to understand about someone who murders women and children,” he said. “You condemn.”

Great — BC is outsourcing its hiring decisions to someone who thinks there shouldn’t be any difference between academic work and Weekly Standard editorials.  (Wait until he finds out about the criminology department!) But there’s only so much I can blame Hikind; he didn’t, after all, make the final call. So how does the administration justify this? Well, it argued that Petersen-Overton was “unqualified,” but (as the fact that he was hired by the people best situated to evaluate his credentials reflects) the “requirement” that more than an MA and doctoral work at the grad center is required to teach at CUNY is entirely fictitious. Perhaps sensing that this won’t fly, the College offered another non-explanation that’s comic in its disingenuousness:

“There’s a lot of factors at play that seem to be connected, but aren’t,” he said. The issue isn’t one of academic freedom; in fact, Thompson said, the course will continue under a different faculty member.

Right — it’s not a violation of academic freedom to fire someone for political reasons, because…the college will still offer the same course, taught by a different instructor with a different syllabus (that will presumably be constructed with the knowledge that there will be a political veto over its content.) I guess is that what we’ll all have to look forward to in the post-tenure utopia…

…UPDATE.  Petersen-Overton with his own response:

Jok­ing aside, there are a num­ber of issues at stake here that clearly res­onate far beyond my own case and affect all stu­dent pro­fes­sors. An attack on aca­d­e­mic free­dom and depart­men­tal inde­pen­dence is trou­bling enough, espe­cially con­sid­er­ing the clumsy way I was denied due process by the admin­is­tra­tion in this instance. But the prac­ti­cal con­se­quences of the college’s deci­sion under­score the pre­car­i­ous posi­tion that adjuncts hold at CUNY. In the blink of an eye, I have been denied tuition remis­sion, access to sub­si­dized health care for my fam­ily and finan­cial com­pen­sa­tion for the spring semes­ter in a time of seri­ous eco­nomic uncer­tainty. If the college’s deci­sion stands, it should send a chill through­out the entire adjunct community.

Gender Inequality in Academia

[ 15 ] January 26, 2011 |

Still very much exists. [via]

APSA Panel on Political Science and Journalism

[ 7 ] September 4, 2010 |

I was in the audience for the APSA panel that Scott refers to below, although to maintain my anti-establishment cred* I sat in the back, away from the front row seats reserved for “major” political science bloggers.  I live-tweeted the proceedings, and unlike Dan Drezner managed to avoid comments about Ezra Klein’s hair.  The panel consisted of Marc Ambinder, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Mark Schmitt, and Mark Blumenthal.  Some impressions:

While Barry Pump is being a touch over-snarky, he’s right to note that the enterprise had a bit of the lecture to it, in the sense that the blogger/journalists were telling the political scientists what we needed to do in order to be relevant.  On questions of blogging, journalism, and political science I am very rarely stirred to defense of institutional academic polisci, but I nevertheless felt myself stirring.  “This is what you need to do in order to make us pay attention to you” was a regular refrain from the panel, and while there is some utility to that message, it can come in shapes and sizes that provoke more or less irritation.

In part because of the constitution of the panel, discussion was weighted very heavily towards quantitative work in American politics.  I found this very interesting, especially given that half or more of the blogging political scientists in the room worked in other subfields, using qualitative methodologies.  I asked a question on the topic, and got some interesting answers, especially from Matt Yglesias.  Yglesias noted that it was curious that quantitative Americanist polisci received the most attention, given that this subfield/methodology tends to produce work that is virtually impenetrable to outsiders.  In addition to the fact, however, that voting behavior data is near and dear to the hearts of the Beltway journalist community, Yglesias suggested that what many journalists were looking for from polisci was a “men in white coats bearing Truth” effect.  Voting behavior articles impenetrable to anyone not having four semesters of methodology under their belt were, once explained to journalists in single syllable words, quite useful because they allowed the journalist to write in terms of a Conclusive Study that Totally Determined the Veracity of Some Point Beyond Further Question.

This was both very interesting and quite troubling.  It was interesting because I get the sense that it’s true; journalistic depictions of political science work often take the character of “studies have shown” which is a way of making a Truth claim.  Qualitative work is more difficult to fit into the Scientific Truth framework, in addition to being more difficult to summarize.  It’s troubling because while most political scientists tend to realize how tenuous claims to social science “Truth” are, it’s unclear that journalists have the same sense.  Political scientists know that, even apart from the brutal quantitative-qualitative battle, there are serious methodological fault lines within quantitative political science that bring the delivery of Scientific Truth into question.  All of the battles over proper treatment of variables and the appropriate characterization of causal claims kind of disappear when a journalist wants to know what “studies have shown.”

The question of subfield prominence also bears more attention.  By and large, IR and comparative haven’t had the same impact on the journalist community in either their quantitative or qualitative forms.  I think that several major concepts/grand theories from both comparative and IR have found their way into the general policy conversation (deterrence theory, for example) but it’s more difficult to find uses of clear, sound political science research.  IPE might be an exception to this.  The immense political science literature on ethnic conflict seems utterly detached from the way that ethnic conflict is treated in the popular media.

I’m tempted to say that the boundaries between good journalism on international affairs and qualitative political science in comparative and international relations are relatively thin, but years of experience selecting books for the Patterson Summer Reading List tells me that this isn’t true.  An academic book and a journalistic account really are very different, even when they tackle vaguely the same subject.  The former includes a clear theoretical perspective, and the presentation of information is provided with some methodological structure.  Journalistic accounts operate according to different (although not necessarily better or worse) structures.  Moreover, I can certainly appreciate why journalists don’t have the time to delve into full investigations of the area studies and comparative literature, or even to read some of the longer academic books in the field; I’m an academic, and I barely have time to read books anymore.

What the panel didn’t really touch on, and what I’m interested in for obvious reasons, is the phenomenon of political scientists using the tools they’ve been given to speak to the audiences that journalists normally command.  I suppose that this gets back to the first point; why should political scientists really bother making their work accessible to journalists, when they could just make their work accessible to the audiences that journalists have?  While I am convinced that the current preferred model of political science interaction with the public (none) is untenable, I’m not certain that making ourselves relevant to a profession that’s dying faster than our own is the right way to go.

*Dr. Farley does not now and has not ever possessed “anti-establishment cred”.  He simply arrived late and didn’t want to look like more of a doofus by pushing his way to the front.

Statecraft and the State

[ 15 ] August 10, 2010 |

Reading this post reminded me that I had thoughts, a year or so ago, about the disconnect between how the academic literature breaks down the state and the way that policymakers consistently seem to fail to understand that other states have domestic politics. In particularly, I was frustrated by the belief, apparently endemic to the US pundit and strategic class, that authoritarian states don’t operate under domestic constraints, and consequently can do whatever they want. It’s not quite right to say that academy has figured out how to successfully integrate domestic politics into theories of foreign policy behavior, but we’ve certainly worked on the question. The policy community, however, seems almost utterly uninterested in this literature, to the extent that “well, Ahmadinejad/Putin/Chirac/Chavez/Milosevic/Calderon/Netanyahu/Kim could comply with our demands, but his domestic coalition would almost certainly fracture, and it’s tough to expect leaders to do things that will lead to their downfall” becomes a repetitive refrain.

Then it occurred to me that hey, I teach in a policy program, and I can teach pretty much anything I want for my elective, so better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Accordingly, last spring I taught Statecraft and the State, a course geared towards breaking down the idea of the unitary nation-state, of understanding the state as one actor within society, of appreciating the role of domestic politics in foreign policy, and finally applying these insights to Iraq and Afghanistan. I ran the course as a seminar, with a student leading discussion each week.

We started off with what I took to be the basics, including Weber’s Politics as a Vocation and Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States. The former lays out a basic definition for the state, while the latter gives a good account of how the state moved from being one coercive actor among many to becoming the central purveyor of societal violence. I included the Geary as a useful corrective about the myths behind nationalism, as well as the development of modern nationalism; I considered going with Benedict Anderson, but thought that he was a touch too academic for the course. In retrospect, I probably should have just gone with the Anderson.

The heart of the course was the combination of Joel Migdal and James Scott. Migdal places the state as an actor within society, one purveyor of “narratives” within many. The state can’t simply do what it wants; it competes with other actors in order to provide services and communal understanding. In order to reinforce the idea that the state and the State are different things, we then moved on to James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. The students loved Scott, but I think that it ended up being just a little bit too powerful for the course. The students did a good job with Scott, but from that point forward interpreted everything within the context of his argument about high modernism. The Migdal, on the other hand, didn’t catch on nearly as well, and the Migdal is pretty important to tempering our understanding of Scott. This is to say that discussion became a little bit too state-focused, and not enough society focused.

We then moved to some works that straddled the academic policy divide. On the academic side, we read Jack Snyder’s Myths of Empire and Robert Putnam’s the Logic of Two Level Games. The latter was my concession to the 50% or so of our program that deals with economics and trade policy, although the concept works with any negotiation. On the policy side, we read the Beginners Guide to Nation-Building, which was really a guide to state building. This was written as a template for US foreign policy agencies to approach state-building in places like Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It’s an interesting, readable document that crystallizes many of the lessons learned over the last fifteen years. It also suggests just how terrible the US approach to state-building has really been.

The Iraq and Afghanistan sections both went pretty well. I had not previously read Charles Tripp, and found his History of Iraq an absolute gem, especially for this course. He takes what amounts to a state and society approach, discussing in depth the relation between the Iraqi state and the various vested interests in Iraqi society. We also read Ali Allawi’s The Occupation of Iraq, which is a crushing narrative of the various failures of the US occupation that also focuses on state and society. For Afghanistan the Robert Crews edited volume had some quite good articles on the rise of the Taliban and its statecraft, including a nice discussion of the reasoning behind the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan; the author argued that Al Qaeda pushed for the demolition in order to drive a wedge between the Taliban and the international community.

Altogether I think that the course worked, although if I teach it again I’ll make some changes. I would have liked to devote some attention to Iran, not because I suspect that my students will soon be nation-building there, but rather because it’s the focus of international coercive efforts and because its internal politics are of great consequence for those efforts. Unfortunately, I probably won’t teach the class for a few more years. I’d be interested in hearing alternative approaches to the same subject, however. I’m also curious whether anyone else has ever developed a class entirely in response to a pet peeve.

This Will Only Spur Further Aggression…

[ 4 ] June 17, 2010 |

This sounds like appeasement.

We are pleased to announce the University of Kentucky will provide a one-time, lump sum payment for eligible faculty and staff during the 2010-11 fiscal year. This one-time payment is designed to reward eligible faculty and staff at a time when economic conditions have limited our ability to offer annual merit increases.

Though we regret being unable to offer annual merit increases to our outstanding staff and faculty this year, our University administration has worked in recent months to identify more than $6 million in one-time funds needed for the one-time payment: Over 80 percent of non-UK HealthCare employees will benefit as a result.

No, Really?

[ 17 ] March 31, 2010 |

According to The Guardian, “managers” hired by universities in the UK have increased a modest 33% in the last five years.  Academic staff have increased by 10% in that time (not my department, depending on how you spin the numbers, we’ve either held steady or lost one half of a FTE), students 9%.  While it’s SOP amongst my colleagues to complain bitterly at the encroaching tyranny of administrators and bureaucracy, I consoled myself by believing that it is just grumbling, and if we didn’t target the nebulous bureaucracy, we’d find something else.  In other words, yes, we can be whiners.  However, that does not appear to be the case, as much in this article rings true.

Front line administrative staff, the wonderful people I interact with on a daily basis and who do a necessary job in a professional manner, have been cut back and consolidated on my campus in the past year.  They’re less accessible to both academics and students, and there are fewer of them.  It’s just speculation on my behalf, as I have no idea how many managerial level administrators my campus has added in the last five years, but anecdotally, I do seem to be receiving a considerably larger volume of intrusive emails from a number of different directions since I started at my current institution seven academic years ago.  It’s not a leap to speculate that financing these email senders has come at the cost of the front line staff.

This is what the chair of the Association of University Administrators (christ, they have their own interest group) has to say on the issue: “Universities, she says, are simply larger than they were two decades ago.” [. . .] Roles such as marketing and human resources have grown so that universities themselves can expand in a more ordered and coherent way. “It’s an important part of the direction of a university, because if you don’t have the right people you can’t deliver.”

Have universities really grown enough in the past five years to justify a ratio of administrators / academics / students at 33% / 10% / 9% ? Or, perhaps universities are losing sight of their core mission, which presumably is the creation and dissemination of knowledge?

In other news, I’ll be at the Western Political Science Association meetings in San Francisco tomorrow through Saturday, disseminating some knowledge I’ve helped create.  And drinking a beer or two.  (I understand that both SL and DW will be there as well).  I’ll also be slightly jet lagged, as I only arrived on the West Coast yesterday afternoon, and I fly down to SF tomorrow morning departing Oregon at 630am.  It’s a rare occasion to catch me wearing a suit and a tie.

If I don’t get a post up tonight on LGM about our paper, I’ll get it up Saturday or so.  I like to think it’s interesting.

Saturday Misc Blogging

[ 1 ] March 27, 2010 |

1. Poetic justice.  Shorter: states that had tight-fisted approaches to health care in general and medicaid in particular are worried about the burden imposed by the health care reform law. Longer: “But even with more federal help, the challenge for states like Alabama, Arkansas and Texas that now offer only limited Medicaid coverage will be substantial.”  Opinion: Cry me a fucking river.  Texas, for example, restricts Medicaid to working parents who earn 20% of the federal poverty level.  With the new law allowing medicaid access to families of four at 133% of the poverty level, or slightly over a comfortable $29,000 per year, who in hell was Texas covering in the first place?  I’m not going to draw the obvious connections between this generally enlightened trio.  The state I spend the majority of my US time in, Oregon, has relatively solid coverage, so they’re not going to get hurt too bad.

2. Obligatory British election.  The Tory lead is holding relatively steady at about 4 points.  As I’m not in the office, I don’t have my vote share -> seats matrix handy, but this smells strongly of a Labour plurality in seats.  If the difference in seats between the Tories and Labour is close enough, Nick Clegg will be there, ready and willing to officiate.  I’d like to see a formal Lib-Dem / Labour coalition in the event of a hung parliament, but I’m not counting on it.  I suspect we’ll have a minority government, from either party, that will hobble on for a year at most.

Don’t get too excited by this new MORI poll of the marginals.  While the Reuters headline needlessly downplays the Conservative’s chances as a result of this poll (the swing to the Tories in these seats according to this poll still outperforms their swing nationally) the poll covered constituencies won by 10% to 18% in 2005.  This represents a liberal interpretation of “marginal”.

The annual budget doesn’t seem to have caused much of a stir, save for how it’s going to hammer Universities with cuts of up to 14% in the UK (but we knew this already) leading to a large number of compulsory redundancies amongst academic staff.  Fortunately, our top leaders, the Vice Chancellors, see their pay increase 10% to 20% in the last year alone, with many earning more than the Prime Minister (who I am to understand has a less demanding job).  Full disclosure: the VC of my institution earns more than Gordon Brown, but we’re enterprising, so we can get away with it.

None of us should worry, really.  This being the Labour government, we have been offered 20,000 additional university places for students for the next academic year in the same budget that slashed university funding by £900 million through 2013.  I don’t know how they do it.  It’s magic.

The other aspect of the budget that has pissed people off is the 10 pence tax rise on (hard) cider of all things.  Cider’s sort of popular down here in the Southwest, and Devon, Somerset, and Dorset (real) ciders can be some of the best in the world.  It’s a good thing my partner scheduled her visit to Plymouth for last week, where she consumed a fair amount of the local cider, saving ten pence a pop.

3. I have been unplanned in my absence from blogging duties for the past couple of weeks.  Work has dominated, with the end of term, admin duties, several manuscript reviews to write (when it rains it pours), and the two papers I’m presenting in San Francisco at the WPSA (this upcoming Thursday no less) and Chicago towards the end of April at the MPSA dominating my time.  Also, add in weekends playing single dad to my daughter, and the visit of the aforementioned occasional cider drinking love of my life for a week from Oregon, I’ve had precious little time for much else.  I’m off to the US for a month on Tuesday, so I’ll have more time.  Hint: if you’re an editor of a political science journal just itching to send off a manuscript for my perusal, and are not one of the three who have sent me manuscripts in the last month, now is the time to do it.

Changes

[ 0 ] March 1, 2010 |

When this blog was launched nearly six long years ago, it was a Seattle-based blog, as all three ‘founders’ were graduate students in the political science department at the University of Washington. Shortly thereafter my two founding co-bloggers headed east to take tenure track positions in New York and Kentucky. I remained in Seattle, and spent the next several years adjuncting all over town and not finishing my dissertation. Eventually, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, I managed to get a full time non-tenure track lecturer position and finish my dissertation. These two accomplishments were a tremendous relief, emotionally and financially. However, the funding for my position has been increasingly difficult for my department to sustain, and it became clear it would not be renewed forever.

In the Fall of 2010, this blog will lose its last connection to the city of its founding. I will leave the persistent and urgent uncertainty of my career to date behind (at least for six years) as I will make the increasingly and distressingly rare leap to the ranks of tenure track faculty. I will be taking up this position at the University of Dayton in Ohio, where I will teach a range of political theory courses as well as an introductory course in comparative politics and a course on comparative democratization. Academically, this is an improbably ideal step for my career; the teaching/research mix and general intellectual environment at UD is just about perfect for my tastes and talents, and I’m remarkably fortunate, and given how many talented, sharp and accomplished people in my field who remain un- and under-employed, humbled to have been offered this job.

The difficulty, though, is leaving Seattle, a place that is very much my home. I have never lived outside Western Washington, and the city and region have become constituitive of my identity to no small degree. With the exception of my whirlwind 36 hours of a campus interview, my only experience with the state of Ohio has been a couple of hours on a layover in the Cleveland airport, and my only experience with the midwest has been a handful of visits to Chicago. So I’ll be heading east this summer with some trepidation. So, people of the internets: the purpose of this thread is to solicit advice, suggestions, warnings, and endorsements regarding any and all aspects of life and living in Dayton, SW Ohio, and the midwest more generally.

Why ISA is Different from the Olympics

[ 0 ] February 17, 2010 |

Blogging will be light over the next week while I and many colleagues descend upon the city of New Orleans for the International Studies Association Annual Conference – or, as I explained cheekily to my students yesterday, the “Olympic Games of IR geekdom” – a gathering where scholars from different schools of thought and methodological perspectives contend for the limelight, pitted against one another through the force of sheer intellect and passion for the study of world politics.

Upon further thought however, this probably ranks among the worst metaphors I’ve ever employed, for if there are any international relations scholars as megalomaniacal about their craft as are the athletes skating and boarding and luging their way toward gold up in BC, there is certainly no one in the academy cheering them on to such excess the way NBC has done the past few days.

Consider the coverage pair-skating competition, which I watched night before last before departing. So maybe it’s a sign of devotion to their careers that gold-winning pair-skaters Shen Zue and Zhao Hongbo had to forego normal married life to live out of separate dorm rooms as they traveled to competitions; and that sweethearts on separate pairs of the US figure-skating team spent Valentine’s Day competing against one another on the ice; and that pair skater Yuko Kvaguti gave up her Japanese citizenship to pursue her Olympic dream. But valorizing the fact that Yao Bin, coach of the winning Chinese team, devoted his life to coaching a gold-medal winning team to the exclusion of being present for his son’s birth and childhood? (Because of his travel schedule, his wife named the child “Far Away” in Chinese.) I read such tales as signs of the dreadful interpersonal imbalance inflicted upon athletes and their families by the vissitudes of Olympic culture, but to sports commentators, these stories apparently signify Olympian credentials and global greatness.

I cannot imagine the President-Elect of the ISA, David Lake, being introduced to give his address this Thursday with commendations for neglecting his children, partner and country in the service of his commitment to the study of world politics. On the contrary, the ISA as a profession now includes childcare at its conferences, publishes articles in its journals on how to make the tenure, promotion and publishing process in the profession more amenable to families, and includes panels and workshops on work-life balance.

Why I wonder do we valorize athletes for exhibiting the very dysfunctional Type A tendencies that most of us are lobbying in our own professions and personal lives to counteract?

[cross-posted at Duck of Minerva]

When the Shore is Out of Sight

[ 0 ] January 6, 2010 |

Via James Joyner, I’m wondering whether this really characterizes a common experience in higher ed:

All course materials, including weekly presentations, must be submitted months in advance. This, I’m told, is not only to ensure that books are ordered and copyrights cleared, but also for the various documents to pass along the line of administrative staff whose job includes vetting them in order to be sure no rules have been violated, then uploading them in the appropriate format. Moreover, a syllabus, we are constantly reminded, is a binding legal document; once submitted, it must be followed to the letter. Omissions or inclusions would be legitimate grounds for student complaint.

While the focus is on online courses, many of the generalizations seem to be intended for all college teaching. Speaking for myself, I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced anything like this. The last time anyone in authority “vetted” anything about a syllabus of mine was probably the autumn of 2000, when I began teaching my independent courses. Is the passage of syllabi through layers of administrative staff something common? Moreover, while I’ve often heard the claim that a syllabus is a “binding legal document,” I’ve always found that it means much less than it implies. I appreciate that there are faculty who attach pages of legalese to their syllabi, but a) this has always been voluntary at any institution I’ve been affiliated, and b) it’s not that onerous a task once you have the legalese; you simply attach the same handout to every syllabus.

Gone, then, are the days when I could bring my class an article from that morning’s New York Times. Now, when I stumble on a story, book or film that would fit perfectly with the course I’m currently teaching, I feel depressed, not excited. I can mention it, sure, but I can’t “use” it in the class.

Really? You can’t bring a New York Times article to class and have the students read it? I find this… implausible. For one, including the reading of the New York Times as a class requirement in the syllabus is a remarkably easy way to cover many sins. Second, while I’ve heard many student complaints in my time that I’ve believed to be illegitimate, I don’t think I’ve ever heard something quite as stupid as “she made us read a New York Times article that wasn’t on the syllabus.” More importantly, I can’t imagine any administrator actually taking such a complaint seriously.

Nor can I reorient the course in mid-stream once I get to know the students; I can’t change a core text, for example, if I find they’ve all read it before; I can’t change the materials to meet student interests or help with difficulties, as I once did without a second thought.

Indeed, I suppose that a restrictive syllabus does make it mildly more difficult to completely restructure a course halfway through the semester, or to change out major texts that the students have, in many cases, already spent money on. I guess I’m unconvinced that either of these are bad things; one of the points of a good syllabus is to allow students to plan their semester, structure their time, and choose the most helpful course of study.

And so, while I guess that some frustration at “educrats” is merited, I’m not terribly compelled by any of the above complaints. Indeed, I’m sometimes inclined to think that faculty may be a touch too attached to some of the overly feudal aspects of their positions; it’s really not necessarily to the benefit of undergraduate students that faculty be given nearly complete freedom over how to structure their courses, especially when some of those courses are required. As we all are constantly reminded, teaching undergraduates is very rarely the reason that particular faculty are hired or retained, and I can’t fault elements of administration for believing that there are aspects of undergraduate teaching that should be monitored. Another way to say this is that while I think that there should be considerable deference to the faculty vision of how specific undergraduate courses should be constituted, this deference ought not be total. Finally, I’m still deeply skeptical of the ability of teaching evaluations to act as guides to good and bad teaching.

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