In today’s Academic Minute, Marjorie Cooper of Baylor University explains research examining why religious belief doesn’t always translate into ethical behavior. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
I attended a group dinner this May to say goodbye to five faculty members who are leaving the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Four of them are among my closest friends, people with whom my partner and I have maintained professional relationships and socialized with regularly for years.
Of course faculty members lose friends to outside offers, retirement departures, or negative tenure decisions all the time. Sometimes we are able to sustain those relationships at a distance. Inevitably, students we care about leave town every year. And friends die or grow apart. We may not like it when some of these things happen, but, like others throughout academe, we attend these farewell dinners and adjust.
This dinner was different. Our friends this time were leaving under duress. Two took very early retirement. Two took outside offers. They all cited the same reason. They could no longer tolerate working under irrational and malicious administrators. After years of faculty protests being ignored, they were seeking the only relief available to them: getting out of town by any means possible.
For most faculty members, the impossible administrator is usually a department head. I always advise colleagues confronted with an incompetent or destructive head to bide their time. Do not protest too early. Let frustration build to mass discontent. It usually takes three years. Once a dean is confronted by a faculty rebellion against a chair, he or she will feel sufficient political cover to act. Even a dean cannot hold the ground against a campus tsunami.
This time, however, it was not a department head who was the problem. The head in question feels equally beleaguered. The sources of frustration were administrators further up the ladder. One was irrationally and incompetently destructive. One was consistently dishonest. And two were using their administrative positions to carry out personal vendettas. Complaints had been made, and ignored. There was no recourse, no mechanism through which to seek justice. The collective response to their departure interviews: "You’re leaving. You’d say anything." One of these friends who is known to be extremely judicious said this at the dinner about the administrators in question: "They’re rotten to the core."
That is not what he would say about every failed administrator. The University of Illinois just lost a president to a forced resignation. He foolishly squandered his good will and pretty thoroughly alienated the faculty in the system and finally even the Board of Trustees who hired him, but I certainly never considered him a monster. But universities do have monsters in high places. At a local American Association of University Professors chapter meeting this month it was acknowledged that our failed president was hardly the most wantonly destructive administrator. Yet the faculty members who gave formal presentations
pronounced shared governance alive and well on campus, and advocated greater collegiality — rather than structural change -- as the way to strengthen and maintain cooperative bonds among faculty, administrators, and the board. How many careers have to be damaged or ended by rogue administrators before faculty members will admit broader reforms are needed?
Toward the administrators who were an invisible presence at our dinner, faculty discontent has a long history. But nothing comes of it. The university administration’s daily functioning is grounded in both line authority and line loyalty along the administrative chain of command. Administrators will not challenge that protocol unless they feel they have no choice. With administrators who hand out rewards to select faculty, universal rebellion rarely coalesces, though in some of the examples I am referencing it has come pretty close.
Can anything be done? Under collective bargaining faculty usually have stronger grievance procedures and thus access to procedures not in the hands of senior administrators complicit in misdeeds throughout the chain of command. But nothing would prevent a campus like my own from instituting good grievance procedures even without collective bargaining, nothing, that is, except those faculty members and administrators who benefit from and prefer the status quo. Which means it will not happen without collective bargaining and unless faculty members take a cold collective look at conditions campuswide.
Meanwhile, my friends are leaving. There was no component of sweetness for most of us at the dinner. Sorrow dominated. Along with the sense that those of us remaining on campus are serving on poisoned ground. Unchecked administrative abuses undercut morale decisively and convince faculty members it is a mistake to think of themselves as members of a community.
Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.
The Middle East Studies Association on Thursday released a letter it sent to The New York Times, criticizing the newspaper for refusing to run a letter to the editor by 151 faculty members objecting to an ad that the newspaper did run. The ad -- by the David Horowitz Freedom Center -- identified 14 "professors of hate" who the center said advocate a boycott of Israel. The ad called for these professors to be "publicly shamed" and urged alumni and students to contact the presidents of the professors' universities. The opening of the ad noted that boycotts of Jewish stores were an early tactic of the Nazis. In response to the ad, 151 professors wrote a letter to the editor of the Times, arguing that the ad unfairly linked their criticism of Israel to the Nazis, distorting their views.
Eileen M. Murphy, vice president of corporate communications at the Times, told Inside Higher Ed via e-mail that the letter was rejected based on policy. "The decision not to run this particular letter to the editor was based on the fact that our letters space is reserved for comment about our journalism, both news and opinion, not about paid advertisements," she said.
The Middle East Studies Association's letter questions that logic. "With this decision, the Times has failed in its duty to act in the public interest by fostering the open and vigorous exchange of ideas and opinions and by giving those who have been subjected to defamation by means of a paid advertisement a reasonable opportunity to respond," the letter said. "We call on TheNew York Times to offer the scholars and teachers who have been personally attacked, and those who support them, the opportunity to respond to the vicious allegations made against them by an organization which, unlike those of us in the academic world, seems to possess both the desire and the means to engage in character assassination in the pages of TheNew York Times."
A spokesman for the Horowitz Center said that the group had not yet responded to the Middle East Studies Association letter.
Employees of the eight universities of the Ivy League have donated $375,932 to President Obama's re-election campaign, and $60,465 to the campaign of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Bloomberg Businessweek reported. One unit of one university -- Harvard Business School -- has employees who give more to Romney than Obama ($14,000 to $11,400).
If you didn’t know any better, you might think that the main thing conservatives learn in college English classes is how to complain about college English classes.
Shortly before his recent and untimely death, conservative entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart reminisced about the English and American studies classes he took as an undergraduate in the late '80s and early '90s. Those classes, he said in an interview with the National Review Online, were representative of "any humanities department, USA." Going into them, he had expected to read "the Founding Fathers" along with authors like "Mark Twain": stuff he assumed would offer a 'benign approach to the American experience." But he was shocked, shocked, that his courses did not offer that "benign approach."
Now, it’s not clear what parts of Mark Twain that Breitbart expected to be "benign." His ruthless critiques of the slave system in Pudd’nhead Wilson? His disgust with organized religion in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? His vocal opposition to American foreign policy as vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League? It seems possible Breitbart accidentally confused Mark Twain the guy with Mark Twain the boat, at Disneyland. (Which is, admittedly, a pretty benign pleasure cruise.)
But the real problem, Breitbart continued, was that he "was hearing the words 'deconstruction' and 'semiotics' a bit too many times." He eventually concluded English classes weren’t really English classes. Instead, they were classes in — ominous pause — "cultural Marxist theory."
Dissatisfaction with college English classes has long held a special place in the conservative imagination. In perhaps the earliest modern example, William F. Buckley Jr. devoted his first book to criticizing liberal orthodoxy at Yale University in the late 1940s. Because "the field of English literature and poetry" was one in which “values are heavily involved,” he declared, the English classroom was especially prone to “value-inculcation.” (Needless to say, he didn’t seem to think it inculcated good values.)
Since then, a number of right-leaning writers haven’t been able to resist the urge to generalize, to speculate about what goes on, in English classes. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has claimed that in English classes, the "study of literature as an art form" has been entirely replaced by "Theory," presumably of the "cultural Marxist" variety. Michael Ellsberg thinks that the type of writing taught in an English class is so "formulaic" that "passable versions of it can be produced automatically by a computer program." Similarly, Judith Halberstam, an English professor who wouldn’t otherwise agree with Breitbart about anything, has declared that English professors aren’t really "doing" English anymore. Bruce Fleming also thinks that college English classes aren’t really teaching English, just a parade of isms -- "structuralism, deconstruction, Foucauldianism, and multiculturalism" — that distract from a different, and somehow more authentic, program of study.
The more theatrical of these Cassandras try to link what they assume is the content of an English class to an overall decline in English as a college major. William M. Chace, former president of Emory and Wesleyan, attributes a decline in the number of English majors to changes in the content of the English classroom. "No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature," he declares. Like Breitbart, Chace thinks the problem is that English professors just aren’t doing English anymore. Instead of "English or American literature," he writes, classes are now filled with non-literary subjects like "comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust." (Because everyone knows survivors of the Holocaust never wrote literature. Take that, Elie Wiesel, you cheap hack!)
It's true that the percentage of undergraduates majoring in English has declined over the last 40 years. Chace makes much of the fact that English majors composed 7.6 percent of the undergraduate population in 1971, and only 3.9 percent in 2004 — a decline of nearly 50 percent. But in fact, English’s current popularity is actually closer to its historical norm now than it was 30 years ago. It’s the early 1970s that were the anomaly, not today.
All American universities expanded dramatically in the aftermath of World War II. From 1945 to 1975, undergraduate enrollments increased by almost 500 percent. This growth was unprecedented, but also unrepeatable. In the grand scheme of things, though, it was just a temporary blip. Degrees in all of the liberal arts — not just English — declined from 1900 to 1945, then grew from 1945 to about 1973, and then began to decline again.
So it’s simply not true that curricular changes caused a decline in the popularity of English as a major. After all, the percentage of mathematics degrees fell over the same period by about 66 percent. And they don’t teach much "cultural Marxist theory" in math courses. (Probably.)
But what’s interesting about this latest flock of lit-crit Chicken Littles is not that they’re saying anything that’s actually true, but that people think it could be true.
There are at least two things going on here. The conservative dislike for English classes depends on ill-informed generalizations about the day-to-day business of the English classroom. But it also depends on an assumption that the day-to-day business of the profession of English is somehow not the business of the members of that profession.
To put it another way, a guy like Andrew Breitbart would never have thought to assume he knows what happens in all of the hundreds of classes nationwide in, say, cardiac surgery. And he would never have tried to inform a professor of surgery about the proper content of a course in surgery. Yet he had and others have no problem confidently stating that they know what happens in all English classes, and that they also know what should happen.
The first of these critiques — that all English classes, everywhere, are doing a particular thing uniformly — is the hardest to rebut, mostly because it's such an insane critique in the first place. There are nearly 2,400 four-year colleges and universities in America, and the vast majority of them offer some sort of education in English language and literature. That means there are tens of thousands of English courses every year. I don’t know what goes on in all those classes any more than Breitbart did or anyone else does. But I will say that their generalizations don’t ring true in the slightest.
Every English literature class I have ever taken, taught, or observed has spent the vast majority of its time on exactly what all these writers claim is missing: the study of literature. In my experience, English classes do pretty much what they’ve always done. Students read literature closely, and then talk about how it works and what it means. The courses I teach in American literature today contain pretty much the same authors you would have expected 20 or 30 years ago: Twain, Emerson, Dickinson, Douglass, Melville, Wharton, and so on. Of course, people teach some newer authors, too (Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo tend to show up often), and some authors are not taught quite as frequently (D.H. Lawrence, for instance), but English departments are not eternal guardians of a frozen literary heritage. They change a little over time, sure, but they still do what you’d expect.
For that matter, Breitbart’s English departments did pretty much what you’d expect, too. He had to take two semesters of American literature at Tulane University, and as Mark Howard and Alexander Zaitchik have reported, students in those courses were assigned to read Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Hawthorne, Stowe, and so on. Not much "cultural Marxist theory," in other words.
I'd venture to guess that this basic classroom focus on individual literary works is far more common than not. If you like, you can check for yourself. Just type "English literature syllabus site:.edu" into Google, without the quotation marks, and see what people around the country are teaching in their English classes.
But this still leaves the other problem, about who determines the proper content of a college classroom. Even if English professors were to stop teaching Shakespeare, or start teaching nothing but “cultural Marxist theory” (whatever that is), those changes would nevertheless be a result of the normal practices of the profession of English. If such a thing were ever to happen, it would be because new knowledge had been formed, new books and articles written, new best practices established. This does not mean that English is an intellectually bankrupt profession, but rather simply that it is a profession, and a profession is defined by the decisions of its members.
When conservatives declare that English classes don’t teach literature anymore, what they’re really trying to do is deprofessionalize the profession of college-level English. In a profession, such as law or medicine or academia, the members of that profession have the ultimate verdict on its practices, credentialing process, and knowledge base. Cardiac surgeons — and not conservative commentators, journalists, or the government — have the final say over the norms and practices of cardiac surgery. Finance professors have the final say over the norms and practices of the academic study of finance.
And English professors have the final say about the content of a college English class. For someone to pretend otherwise, even if that someone is an English professor, is to suggest that an English class somehow exists apart from the practices of the English professors teaching that class. You can't complain about English professors not teaching real English because what English professors teach is real English — even if you think it shouldn’t be.
So people don’t need to be worried that we’re witnessing the "death of English" as a result of English professors not teaching literature. First of all, it's not true. English majors still read Shakespeare, Twain, Emerson, Austen, Milton, and all the rest.
But even if such a thing were true, the sky still wouldn’t be falling, simply because of basic professional norms. After all, no one worries that professors of medicine aren’t teaching students how to use leeches like they did in the Middle Ages.
But one thing these sorts of attacks on the content of the English classroom tell us is that English, far from being irrelevant, apparently matters a lot to conservatives. Decades after the "culture wars" of the 1980s, conservatives and commentators of all stripes are still using the English classroom as a convenient shorthand for American universities as a whole.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s important to do so honestly. English departments still teach all the stuff you remember them teaching. But English departments are also composed of members of the profession of academic English, and professions are, like it or not, self-regulating.
After all, if someone like Andrew Breitbart can’t tell a dentist he should pull your teeth, then he also shouldn’t tell English professors they should teach The Fountainhead.
Stephen J. Mexal is assistant professor in the department of English, comparative literature, and linguistics at California State University at Fullerton.
At U of All People, as one of our sociologists, Professor Q. A. Wagstaff, once put it, “Faculty and staff eventually leave either vertically or horizontally.” As it happens, Wagstaff left with his own faculties intact, though the same cannot be said for the sociology faculty, which spent the next five years trying to regain the hiring slot. In any event, since many of our professors got their jobs in the late '60s, when all you had to do for a tenure-track position was cough in the right direction, more than a few are beginning to feel that it’s time to move on.
Sometimes poor health or a desire to travel motivates the decision. More commonly, as Professor Kahn Federitz in the history department noted, “The thought of facing one more set of student essays on the Civil War makes me want to puke.” For whatever reason, in the last few months, not a week has gone by without a retirement party. Professor Wagstaff, operating from a think tank of his own devising in his basement, has even drawn up a formula for these events, soon to be published in American Sociological Review of American Sociology. Below are the necessary steps, only slightly embroidered.
1. Settle on a time inconvenient for everyone, including the retiree. 1:30 on a Wednesday, when everyone’s either teaching or at a meeting, is a popular slot. Procure a room, though the Men’s Studies Caucus has taken over the function area in the Frump Humanities Building, and Students for Nondemocratic Change are occupying the cafeteria again. End up in the faculty lounge, with its shaky sconces and once-wine-dark carpeting, where the lumpy beige couch could also use a retirement party.
2. Shake down the department for a gift, the gold watch of yore having long ago given way to an online gift certificate that expires within a year. Choose the most untrustworthy faculty member to make the collection, the professor who misses his office hours with no note on the door — but who perhaps was hired by the retiree and now, two decades later, wants to return the favor. Add some scuffle about who’s kicked in and how much. At the last minute, if worried that the gift is insignificant, add a small Lucite plaque.
3. Plan a reception by working with Scrump-Chess, the campus food service that both overcharges and underserves, yet, miraculous in these hard economic times, remains the university’s caterer. Plan several menus but end up with the same cookies and weak iced tea that have been served since 1980. Possibly provide a punch bowl with a ladle that slowly submerges in the sticky, over-sweet brew.
4. Tap a few aged colleagues to make speeches, usually ancient anecdotes that have lost all relevance to everyone but the few principals involved, one of whom is dead. “I remember when the department needed some extra students for Soc. 120, and the only way Tom and I could get some was by going to the dormitories at six a.m. and beating a gong we stole from the music department.” Such stories are more poignant than funny: they conjure up an era when people in academia seem to have enjoyed more freedom and had more fun than is possible nowadays.
5. Discuss what the retiree plans on doing after leaving the institution. In the old days, a standard response was, “Finish my book.” The unspoken but heartfelt response is “Not grade any more papers.” Usually included in the plans is a lengthy vacation -- Morocco? Kenya? -- at an unseasonable time of year -- “Max and I are packing in October.” The return home occasions a period of boredom and casting about, followed by a request to teach an occasional class at adjunct rates. After all, where else can the retiree find a captive audience for recycled anecdotes about sociology?
But meanwhile, a polite round of applause, please. And then, the rest of you, get back to whatever it is you still do.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).