A faculty-administration agreement has cleared the way for a faculty union (including both tenure track and non-tenure-track faculty members) at the University of Oregon. The union -- organized jointly by the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers -- first submitted cards indicating that the professors wanted to unionize. The administration objected to the make-up of the bargaining unit, but negotiations resolved those differences, and the process of union certification is now expected to proceed. The new union is the result of a campaign by the AFT and the AAUP to jointly organize more faculty members at public research universities. Union organizers pledged to use collective bargaining to improve working conditions for all instructors in ways that would also improve the quality of education.
Robert Berdahl, interim president of the university, issued a statement in which he said that "we have acknowledged from the beginning that our faculty has the right to organize. We did not oppose the organization effort nor did we support it. We simply recognized the rights of those who chose this route." His statement added: "While the University of Oregon has a long history of working with collective bargaining units on our campus, a faculty union will present unique questions that must be addressed. This will be particularly true when we account for tenured and tenure-related faculty. For example, tenure-related issues typically involve peer review. The peer review process is an essential means by which universities have always assured the achievement of quality; it must remain central to how we evaluate faculty in the future, even with a union overlay."
More than 300 professors from around the world have signed a petition asking Appalachian State University to reinstate Professor Jammie Price, according to a news release. Price's supporters planned to hand Provost Lori Gonzalez the petition on Wednesday. Price was suspended last month after showing an anti-pornography documentary in her sociology class. The video, which she checked out from the university library, included explicit scenes. Price was suspended after students complained that she had created a hostile learning environment by, among other things, not adequately warning them about the documentary's content. Price's advocates believe her suspension is a breach of academic freedom.
Scholars of Dracula gathered last week at two academic conference in Britain to mark the centenary of the death of Bram Stoker. Times Higher Education reported that attendees expressed concern that American obsessions with vampires are hurting understanding of the relevant Victorian literature. Clive Bloom, emeritus professor of English and American literature at Middlesex University, said that "Gothic studies have become institutionalized and safe. We need to return to a more visceral and scary notion of the Gothic. We need to stop using Freud and go back to de Sade – it’s all about perversity and the will to power." Bloom also said that the "Americanization of the vampire," as reflected in the Twilight books, was unfortunate. In those books, Bloom said, "the dangerous violent aristocrat has become the dark boy no one talks to and who’s eternally 17."
Thomas Hobbes said that if he had read as much as others he would be as ignorant as they. Today most university faculty lack Hobbes's aplomb, and everyone complains that there's simply too much to read. The flood of books, articles, and blog posts never stops. (And here's one more!) Academic norms require that scholars "engage the literature," but the potentially relevant literature is enormous, especially for those who aspire to some kind of interdisciplinary approach. And at many universities, declining budgets and increasing administrative duties threaten the little time left for reading.
To make matters worse, academic culture seems carefully designed to maximize worries that one hasn't read enough. The convention of obsequious citation ensures that everyone thinks others have read more than they have. And now some journals are trying to raise their impact factor by pressuring authors to pad their articles with superfluous references — pressure experienced by one in five academics, according to a recent study.
How many times have you heard someone publicly admit to not having read a key book in their field? Never. Perhaps you know the game "humiliation" from the David Lodge novel? If not, just nod and smile in feigned recognition, then secretly go look it up. Of course, those with more cultural and professional power may be able to afford admitting they haven't read something — "You know, believe it not, I've actually never read Hamlet" — but by breaking the norm, they reinforce both their status and the norm itself.
There are no simple fixes, but here are two basic approaches to managing the overload of "must read" publications: demarcate and associate.
The first approach separates necessary from unnecessary reading, good from bad. Some handy demarcation criteria appear in the philosopher Harry Frankfurt's charming book On Bullshit. (It was all the rage during the Bush administration, but it's still worth reading, especially since it's extremely short.) Frankfurt says that bullshit is not the same as lying. Bullshit is speech or action that reveals an utter lack of concern with truth (presumably in areas where some kind of truth matters and can be discerned through established criteria, which is more problematic than Frankfurt admits). Frankfurt thinks that mass democracies are especially prone to bullshit, because they encourage every citizen to say something about every subject. Another source of bullshit is our confessional culture of personal authenticity and sincerity, based on the mistaken assumption that it's easier to understand yourself than the world. And although Frankfurt doesn't discuss it, one of the most fecund sources of bullshit is the doctrine of publish-or-perish, which fosters concern with professional status rather than saying something true and important. Other things being equal, cutting the bullshit from your reading list probably entails avoiding publications that are so obsessed with their own narrow disciplinary concerns (we've all been there) that they never get around to addressing other people or things.
You might object that you need to read at least some of a book to know that you don't need to read more, which leads to the second approach: association. Rather than focus on separating good from bad, try to see how good, bad, and everything between fits together. Learn how in Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read. The title sounds like a guide for bullshitters, but Bayard challenges common assumptions about what it means to read a book in the first place. He notes that everyone interprets books differently, and the moment you finish reading a book you start forgetting it. What's most important about a book is not the details of its content, but its place in a cultural discourse. So a person who's recently heard about a book, maybe read a review and skimmed a few pages, could have more to say about it than a person who read it cover-to-cover a few years ago. Bayard uses a refreshingly humble citation system: UB: unknown book; SB: skimmed book; HB: heard about book; FB: forgotten book. And yes, to repeat every reviewer's joke: I actually read Bayard's book, whatever that means.
Maybe I could have skipped to the last chapter, where Bayard argues that, for the critic, books should fulfill the same function as nature for the writer or painter: "not to serve as the object of his work, but to stimulate him to write." He says that "what is essential is to speak about ourselves and not about books, or to speak about ourselves by way of books." Maybe so, in part. But then Bayard writes, "In the end, we need not fear lying about the text, but only lying about ourselves." Even for a literary critic, that sounds like the sort of narcissism that would drive Frankfurt nuts.
So, no surprises here: the answer must lie in both identifying what's worth reading and learning how it fits together with everything else. That may help one find an appropriate balance between reading and writing, between understanding the world and expressing oneself.
Enough said. Now I have some reading to do.
Mark B. Brown is associate professor of government at California State University at Sacramento.