Submitted by Robert Weir on September 20, 2005 - 4:00am
It is a commonplace that academic discussions of culture and society always pay homage to the unholy trinity known as Race, Class, and Gender. There is something calcified about that expression, which is a pretty good sign that we are in the realm of the cliché. The three terms are always recited together, and always in that order. While class may occupy the middle spot, it actually comes in dead last among the topics for analysis and debate. The other forms of "difference" somehow prove more urgent, or less awkward, or something.
And even when class does come up for reflection, there is the problem that Eric Hayot has recently pointed out in an article appearing at Printculture (a group blog with somewhat magazine-like qualities.) Hayot describes what you might call a certain lack of reflexivity by academics about their own class position. To be more blunt, it could be called an evasion of self-knowledge.
"Though academics are good at theorizing class when it happens to other people," as Hayot puts it, "in my experience they're not great at explaining or even seeing it as it operates in their own world.... Class in the American university is a subject that fades continually into the background, like a photograph that wishes incessantly the return to its condition as unmarked, unfixed film."
Such forgetfulness has consequences. It means that scholars are shirking the responsibility "to analyze, discuss, or attempt to alter their own community's class structures."
It's easy to imagine a reply to this -- namely, that higher education never really does "attempt to alter ... class structures," even if it does help some individual move up a notch or two. Rather, it serves to reproduce them, to reinforce them, even to fine-tune them. Inequality is not incidental to what a university does. Its real purpose is to sift, sort, and certify. No amount of egalitarian purpose will change that. (Please note that these assertions could be made with just as much conviction by either the most cynical or aristocrats or the lowliest of commonfolk.)
If so, the difficulty of thinking about where academics themselves fit in the class system would not be an accident. It would be, rather, a blind spot -- more or less like the one in the eye. A blind spot, in that literal sense, is the area on the retina that has no receptors. It's where the big nerve connects all the sensitive parts back to the brain.
The eyeball works as well as it does, not in spite of the blind spot, but precisely because of it. And so it may be that scholars tend, at best, to see class as something that "happens to other people," to borrow Hayot's nice turn of phrase.
Now, my own interest in this matter is not, as the saying goes, academic. Several years of moving along the boundary between the worlds of academe and of publishing have inspired (indeed, obliged) me to do a certain amount of reflection on the unstated assumptions about class that operate in each. And in large measure, this has been a matter of necessity. I grew up in a Southern, evangelical, working class family -- with part of that time spent living in, yes, mobile home communities, to use the most euphonious (if not euphemistic) expression available.
Social mobility is not always pleasant. As T.S. Eliot put it: "To be educated above the level of those whose social habits and tastes one has inherited may cause a division within a man which interferes with happiness." In spite of the chilly diction, or perhaps because of it, that is the one line from Eliot that has ever brought me to tears.
Don't worry, there's no memoir just ahead. The very thought of writing one feels like an ulcer announcing its debut.
Instead, I want to run through a very personal -- which is to say incomplete, skewed, and unsystematic -- list of recommended readings on the topic of class and intellectual life, academic and otherwise. None of the following titles offer the final word on anything. But all are useful for thinking, and they have kept me from yelling at people, at least for the most part.
Pierre Bourdieu is the one figure who Eric Hayot cites as an exception to the general rule that academics don't look at class as a factor within the academic world itself. In particular, he refers to The Inheritors, the sociologist's classic analysis of high-achieving students in France. That's a good place to start. But by all means also read Bourdieu's study of their professor in Homo Academicus, and his investigation of the nexus between higher education and government in The State Nobility. (See also this interview with Deborah Reed-Danahay, author of a recent study of his work.)
In Bourdieu, the examples are, for the most part, French. Hence they may seem very specific to a situation in which one city, Paris, serves as the hub of academe, politics, high culture, and business for an entire country. But in some ways, that just makes it easier to show how the power-grid of class works.
Bourdieu himself rejected any comparison of his thought to that of Thornstein Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class is now probably more often read as a work of literature than as sociology. Still, the points of resemblance are conspicuous. Reading Bourdieu on class and the university always reminds me of The Higher Learning in America, which Veblen originally wanted to subtitle "A Study in Total Depravity."
At the other extreme from the dense sociological prose of Bourdieu and Veblen, there is Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, by Paul Fussell, a literary scholar with a certain knack as elitist curmudgeon.
When the book appeared in 1983, it was a best-seller, perhaps because it fit so perfectly the tendencies of the moment. After all the cultural leveling of the 1960s and the economic anxiety of the 1970s, the pop culture of the first Reagan administration reflected a yearning that indicators of hierarchy and status might prove both legible and stable. It was the time not just of The Preppy Handbook, but of prime-time soap operas about rich people ( Dallas, Dynasty, etc.)
Fussell offered a nine-rung version of the class ladder -- marking off the gradations from the top (those with inherited wealth) to the lower depths (people in jail), treating each level as its own social world and cluster of attitudes and expectations. His exercise in pop sociology was not just witty, but also perhaps a bit cruel in the game it played.
In part, it aggrandized the American fantasy of ascent: Why else call the book a "guide"? But at the same time, Fussell was merciless in showing how impossible this fantasy really was. Acquiring the mannerisms and commodities preferred by one's "betters" would never really work. Signs of effort would always give the game away. And preferences would shift accordingly -- just enough to keep everyone in their proper place. (Fussell himself had no problem with that.)
But far more interesting than the chapters on the lifestyles of the rich and famous was Fussell's conclusion, which described what he called "category X." This was a cohort that didn't really fit into the status hierarchy he had just described.
You are born into a class. But nobody is born into X: "You become an X person," wrote Fussell, "or, to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensible....If, as [C. Wright] Mills said, the middle-class person is 'always somebody's man,' the X person is nobody's, and his freedom from supervision is one of his most obvious characteristics. X people are independent-minded, free of anxious regard for popular shibboleths, loose in carriage and demeanor. They adore the work they do, and they do it until they are finally carried out, 'retirement' being a concept meaningful only to hired personnel or wage slaves who despise their work."
In keeping with his method throughout the rest of the book, Fussell went on to write about the taste of X people -- their need to live in a neighborhood with good bakeries, wine stores, and "a sophisticated newsdealer, for one needs British, French, German, and Italian periodicals." In short, he summed up everything David Brooks ever had to say about the "bobos" (bourgeois bohemians). And he did in just under nine pages, written almost two decades before Brooks published his book.
Academics were only part of category X. (Other members included "actors, musicians, artists, sports stars, 'celebrities,' [and] well-to-do former hippies....") But I noticed something about the list of concrete pointers that Eric Hayot gave in his article for anyone planning on an academic career: It overlaps closely with Fussell's description of the X sensibility.
"It helps to have some sense of the geography of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco," advises Hayot, adding, "Paris and London are nice, too." He also suggests knowing something about wine.
"There's one surefire way, other things being equal, to identify an X dinner party," wrote Fussell. "All the wine brought by guests, no matter the quantity, is inevitably consumed, and so is more of the host's stock than he's probably anticipated." As for geography, "X people tend to be unostentatiously familiar with the street layouts and landmarks of London, Paris, and Rome -- and sometimes Istanbul and Karachi."
Along the way, Fussell draws something like the idealized self-portrait that scholars might well prefer to imagine for themselves: "X people constitute something like the classless class. They occupy the one social place in the USA where the ethic of buying and selling is not all-powerful. Impelled by insolence, intelligence, irony, and spirit, X people have escaped out the back doors of those theaters of class which enclose others.... And it's in the X world, if anywhere, that an American can avoid some of the envy and ambition that pervert so many."
Well, OK, so it sounded like academe right up until that last line. Even so, Fussell does supply a concentrated image of the ideal. For a more hardnosed look, you have to turn elsewhere. Fussell's book is still in print; at least, I could find a copy at a chain bookstore recently. But you might have to look around a bit for Terry Caesar's collections of essays on class and status in academic life, Conspiring with Forms: Life in Academic Texts (University of Georgia Press, 1992) and Writing in Disguise: Academic Life and Subordination (Ohio University Press, 1998).
Caesar is a columnist for Inside Higher Ed, but I have been reading his work since long before this online publication was so much as an improbable brainstorm. Probably the best place to start is his essay "On Teaching at a Second Rate University" (reprinted in the earlier collection). There are moments when Caesar has the wild candor of a Dostoevsky character, which can be either exhilarating or terrifying. Either way, you feel that unwelcome truths are being spoken with an unnerving indifference to the listener's comfort.
"Teaching at a second-rate university," Caesar writes, means "knowing, at least, that you're not worth knowing." It creates "a ceaseless condition of structural exclusion from any decision about what can and cannot be authoritatively said." It might be nice to imagine that academic life -- with its ideally "category X" outlook -- will foster a cosmopolitan generosity. Caesar writes of wishing for "a world where universities were more like towns, some, at least, so obscure that so much as to hear of their existence would prompt charm and wonderment." But no, not quite.
"Professionally," Caesar writes, "we move across a surface where only certain routes count, only certain places are comprehended as having depths, and only certain destinations can be found on the map."
When I heard that advocates of “Intelligent Design” were urging schools to "teach the controversy" between their view and Darwinian evolution, I was dismayed.
About 20 years ago, I coined the phrase “teach the controversy” when I argued that schools and colleges should respond to the then-emerging culture wars over education by bringing their disputes into academic courses themselves. Instead of assuming that we have to resolve debates over, say, whether Huckleberry Finn is a racist text or a stirring critique of racism, teachers should present students with the conflicting arguments and use the debate itself to arouse their interest in the life of the mind. I elaborated the argument in numerous essays and in a 1992 book, Beyond the Culture Wars, which is subtitled, How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education.
So I felt as if my pocket had been picked when the Intelligent Design crowd appropriated my slogan, and even moreso when President Bush endorsed its proposal, saying that "both sides ought to be properly taught" so "people can understand what the debate is about." As a secular left-liberal, I felt that my ideas were being hijacked by the Christian Right as a thinly-veiled pretext for imposing their religious dogma on the schools.
And yet, setting intellectual property questions aside, the more I ponder the matter and read the commentators on both sides, the more I tend to think that a case can be made for teaching the controversy between ID and Darwin.
Not that the sides in this debate are equal, as Bush’s comment suggests. If we judge the issues strictly on their scientific merits, the Intelligent Designers don’t seem to have much of a case. In a lengthy and detailed article in The New Republic (August 22 & 29), the evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne persuasively shows that the supposed "flaws" in the theory of natural selection that IDers claim to point out simply don’t exist. H. Allen Orr had made a similarly persuasive refutation of ID in The New Yorker (May 30), and these arguments have been further reinforced in articles by Daniel C. Dennett in The New York Times (August 28) and by Coyne again and Richard Dawkins in The Guardian (September 1).
Taken together, these writers make an overwhelming case that Darwinian evolution, if not a total certainty, is as certain as any scientific hypothesis can be. As Coyne puts it, "it makes as little sense to doubt the factuality of evolution as to doubt the factuality of gravity." From a strictly scientific standpoint, there seems to be no real "controversy" here that's worth teaching, just a bogus one that the IDers have fabricated to paper over the absence of evidence in their critique of evolutionary science.
And this would indeed be the end of the story if the truth or validity of an idea were the sole thing to consider in deciding whether it is worth presenting to students. But when we measure the pedagogical merits of an idea, its usefulness in clarifying an issue or provoking students -- and teachers -- to think can be as important as its truth or validity. In some cases even false or dubious notions can have heuristic value.
This point has been grasped by several commentators unconnected with the Christian Right who defend the teaching of the controversy. In a column of June 2000, before ID had become prominent in the news, Richard Rothstein, then The New York Times education columnist, proposed that students be exposed to the debate between creationism and evolution. And in a piece on the controversy earlier this year in Slate, Christopher Hitchens, asks, “Why not make schoolchildren study the history of the argument? It would show them how to weigh and balance evidence, and it would remind them of the scarcely believable idiocy of the ancestors of 'intelligent design.'"
Hitchens’ argument has been challenged by the editors of The New Republic, who caustically retort that getting kids to weigh and balance evidence is not exactly “what Bush -- or IDers -- want at all.” What they want "instead is to teach ID as a substantive scientific argument. If anything, what Bush is calling for is anti-historical, the exact opposite of what Hitchens praises." This is true, but so what? Hitchens doesn’t claim that his argument is one the IDers themselves would make, but only that students would learn something important about how to think from the kind of debate the IDers propose.
Secular liberals will object that Hitchens is overly confident that the good guys would win if the debate were aired in schools. In his scenario, the students would see the "idiocy" of ID’s ancestors and also presumably of its current advocates. What secular liberals fear, however, is that in many classrooms the scientific truth would be overwhelmed by dogma and prejudice.
Behind such fear -- and behind the liberal secularist objections to teaching the debate -- one senses the shellshock and impotence of the Blue-state Left in the wake of the 2004 election, and the worry that the Left will only lose again if it allows itself to be suckered into debating "values" with the religious Right on its own terms. This worry is deepened by the feeling that American public debate is not a level playing field, but an arena in which conservative money and Fox News control the agenda.
Though I share these fears, there seems to me a certain failure of nerve here on the part of the Left. After all, if evolution and intelligent design were debated in academic courses, the religious Right would have the same risk of losing as the liberal secularists -- maybe greater risk, if Hitchens is correct. In any case, it’s not clear that one wins a battle of beliefs by hunkering down, circling the wagons, and refusing to engage the other side. And if the Right has more money and media clout with which to shape such a debate, that may be all the more reason to enter the debate: if you don’t have money and media clout, arguments are your best bet.
Seen this way, the anti-evolution assaults of the Intelligent Designers and the creationist Right could be viewed less as a threat than an opportunity. This moral is suggested by a recent news story in The New York Times that reports that museum staffs that are being challenged by religious patrons to explain why they should believe in evolution “are brushing up on their Darwin and thinking on their feet” (September 20, 2005). One museum has developed training sessions for staff members “on ways to deal with visitors who reject settled precepts of science on religious grounds.”
What is most interesting in the article, and most germane to the recent debate, is the suggestion, reflected in quoted statements by museum people, that though this religious rejection of science may be misguided, it needs to be listened to and answered rather than ignored or dismissed, and that being forced to defend evolution can actually be a good thing. The implication is that it’s not unreasonable for patrons to press museum people to explain the grounds on which evolutionary science is more credible than ID or creationism. As one director of a paleontological research institution puts it, "Just telling" such patrons "they are wrong is not going to be effective." As another museum staffer advises docents, "it's your job not to slam the door in the face of a believer," and another says, "your job is ... to explain your point of view, but respect theirs."
Arguably, this is precisely the job of teachers as well, though admittedly museums serve different functions than educational institutions. If the goal of education is to get students to think, then just telling students their doubts about Darwin are wrong is not going to be effective. And teachers being forced to engage their religious critics and explain why they believe in evolution might be a healthy thing for those teachers just as it seems to be for museum workers. In fact, I would like to ask Coyne, Dennett, Orr, and others who have written so cogently in defense of evolution if they don’t feel just a tiny bit grateful to the IDers for pushing them to think harder about -- and explain to a wider audience -- how they know what they know about evolution.
Scientists like Coyne and Dawkins concede that debate should indeed be central to science instruction, but they hold that such debate should be between accredited hypotheses within science, not between scientists and creationist poseurs. That's hard to dispute, but, like Rothstein and Hitchens, I can at least imagine a classroom debate between creationism and evolution that might be just the thing to wake up the many students who now snooze through science courses. Such students might come away from such a debate with a sharper understanding of the grounds on which established science rests, something that even science majors and advanced graduate students now don’t often get from conventional science instruction.
How might such a debate be taught? Ideally in a way that would not become fixated on the clash of faith and science, which might quickly produce an unedifying stalemate, but would open out into broader matters such as the history of conflicts between science and religion and the question of how we determine when something qualifies as "science." At the broadest level, the discussion could address whether the ID-evolution debate is a smoke screen for the larger political and cultural conflict between Red and Blue states. Representing such a many-sided debate would demand the collaboration of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, a collaboration that could make a now disconnected curriculum more coherent. Such a collaboration would also answer the scientists’ objection that there just isn’t time to debate these issues, given everything else they have to cover. Then, too, explaining how we know what we know against skeptical questioning is not an add-on, but an intrinsic part of teaching any subject.
In any case, science instructors may soon have no choice but to address the controversy posed by ID and creationism. If many American students now bring faith-based skepticism about evolution with them into classrooms, as it seems they do, then there’s a sense in which the controversy has already penetrated the classroom, just as it has penetrated museums, whether ID or creationism is formally represented in the syllabus or not. Schools and colleges may not be teaching the controversy between faith and science, but it’s there in the classroom anyway insofar as it’s on some students’ minds. Teachers can act as if their students’ doubts about evolution don’t exist, but pretending that your students share your beliefs when you know they don’t is a notorious prescription for bad teaching.
Gerald Graff is a professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (W. W. Norton, 1992) and Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2003).
Tenure conversations, those hardy perennials, spring up among public university trustees on somewhat predictable cycles, provoking a ritual engagement well known to veteran academic administrators.
The cycle often begins when a new trustee looks carefully at the bundle of tenure recommendations that come from the campus, or multiple campuses of university systems, each year. These carefully crafted recommendations look remarkably similar. The recommendations praise all candidates for their excellence in teaching, research and service; all candidate files have glowing excerpts from letters solicited from outside reviewers; and the recommendations always outline the candidates’ publications, teaching accomplishments and service achievements.
In addition, in most public university settings, this summary includes other information on the process, including the vote totals for and against each candidate at the department, college and university levels. Although on some occasions there may be a split vote, most tenure recommendations come forward with very large majorities in favor at all levels.
Trustees do not quite know what to make of these summaries. Should they try to understand the careers of the people proposed for tenure? Should they worry that all the recommendations say almost exactly the same things in the same ways, implying perhaps a routine approval process rather than a rigorous review? What is their responsibility as trustees in approving these tenure recommendations, which usually imply 25 to 30 years of continuing institutional financial obligation? How can trustees have a useful opinion when they have not participated in the process and do not see the full dossiers? What would be the consequences of failing to approve a tenure recommendation endorsed by the president?
Uncomfortable with the rubber stamp character of these decisions, the new trustee will typically put the question of the entire tenure process up for discussion. While a few may actually challenge the concept of tenure, most trustees, whether they like it or not, recognize that a frontal attack on this core concept of the American academy is a futile exercise. Even so, they think, “Well, maybe we must have tenure, but if these campuses never turn anyone down, maybe we need to make the process more rigorous.” So they ask for data on how many candidates the campus rejects and on the percent of a department’s faculty that is already tenured. They ask how it is that everyone’s file they see has excellent ratings.
University administrators respond in similarly predictable ritual fashion. “We are very rigorous,” they say. “We wash out the weak cases before they get to the tenure decision, by advising those who perform below our standards that they should seek employment elsewhere.” In most universities, some form of annual review of all non-tenured faculty exists, and these reviews, we tell the trustees, ensure that only the best candidates for tenure survive. “This rigorous prior screening,” we say, “explains why we approve almost all those who come up for tenure.”
When the concerned trustee expresses some skepticism about this rationale for the high success of candidates for tenure and asks for data on the failure rate, the administration falls back to a comprehensive review of the process by which institutions acquire faculty. The screening, they say, begins with a national recruitment of only the best candidates. So the campus starts out with presumptive winners and has already rejected most of the potential losers.
Clever administrators calculate the failure rate for tenure by counting from the time of first hiring, especially if the campus uses the lecturer as an entry-level position sometimes converted to tenure track assistant professor. They demonstrate that of all those with Ph.D.’s or almost Ph.D.’s hired for teaching purposes, quite a few never make it to the tenure decision point.
The administration outlines the elaborate bureaucracy and review processes that allow only the best to survive the ordeal and provides reams of information on the process. Department-specific criteria (articles matter in some departments, books in others, for example) produce multiple versions of guidelines used throughout the institution. Examples of the documentation required by the college or school and the paperwork sent to the provost and then on to the president fill the package provided the trustees. With a final flourish, the campus hands over the elaborate campuswide description of promotion and tenure guidelines established by faculty committees and approved by presidents and often the board of trustees itself.
The determined trustee may ask for a policy discussion by the board, and the board usually agrees. A meeting takes place, and in systems, there can be many provosts and chancellors or presidents, as well as a battery of system officials, all who bring expertise, experience, data, and perspectives.
In the discussion, the trustee learns that the process is complicated and that the decisions reflect expert judgments. In a nice way, the assembled administrators gently inform the trustee that in general board members do not know enough to evaluate the full dossiers of the candidates because the subject matter is well beyond trustee expertise in most cases (as it is beyond the expertise of most administrators as well).
The administrators make clear that absent this tenure process conducted as it is, replicated with minor variations at almost all competing public institutions of higher education, no campus can compete for good faculty because good faculty will only come to a place that does tenure exactly the way the university does it. Finally, someone mumbles about lawsuits, union contracts and other nasty consequences of failing to sustain the status quo.
At the end of the meeting, everyone agrees that tenure is a complicated and essential thing. They agree that the institution must be conscientious and careful because the investment implied by a tenure decision is a major commitment. They agree that it is not good for a department to be filled entirely by tenured or non-tenured faculty, but they also allow that it is a bad idea to have rigid tenure quotas. The trustees leave the meeting recognizing that this is beyond their ability to control, frustrated that they cannot get a grip on the process, concerned that the institution may not be doing the right thing in a rigorous enough way, but completely without any mechanism to address the issue.
The administrators go home, having spent great amounts of time and killed many trees for the paperwork, and report to their faculty that they have once again held off the trustee philistines who would have destroyed, absent the strong stance of the administration, that most cherished characteristic of academic appointment, the permanent tenured professorship.
The hardy perennial has once again flowered and died, to lie dormant until the next season of trustee discontent.
"We only wake you up for the important meetings." --N.Y. Yankee co-workers to George, on an episode of "Seinfeld"
In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a group of people is seated together at one end of a table with upraised hands. The caption reads: "It's unanimous: effective immediately, we spread out around the table."
One of the things that has always most fascinated me about meetings is the agreement that must be already in place before the meeting takes place. Surely not, whatever else, including the arrangement of seating itself! And yet another of the things that has always fascinated me about meetings is that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted about them. Not even seating, as confirmed by meetings that begin -- much like classes -- with everyone present bid to either spread out or form themselves in a circle.
Who does the bidding? Not only the chair. Indeed, one could make a case that academic meetings are distinctive either because authority is regularly delegated (in departments, to the heads of other committees) or else always open to decentralized procedures of various kinds (often the establishment of sub-meetings). To whom is the bidding to be seated made? Not only to departments -- just to continue with this organizational "unit." Or rather not only to departments whose membership is fixed; for many years I was part of a department that fudged the question of whether the secretary could attend meetings and fumbled the question of whether adjuncts were part of the department by requiring them to leave before voting on anything began.
What about the meeting's agenda? Surely at least these are agreed upon? In theory, agreement is secured by publishing or circulating an agenda beforehand. In practice, though, consideration of anything during a particular meeting is often not limited to the agenda. Just as often, the meeting really heats up when something additional is either added or something unforeseen erupts.
I still recall my very first department meeting. I don't remember whether it had an agenda. I do remember the moment when a senior member jumped up from his seat and began cursing the chair. The subject wasn't some new disciplinary perspective. (I had assumed this was what departmental meetings were about.) It was about a private quarrel between the two men, involving the fact that a student had fired a gun into the living room window of one of them.
Later I found out that the senior man was a retired CIA agent. The person who told me this was himself a former CIA agent. What? How could I find myself in a department, two of whose members were CIA? I thought this was the sort of circumstance that happened in academic novels! These were the same novels, of course, in which meetings were mentioned, but not described.
If a department is not reducible to its meetings, are its meetings reducible to the department -- or is the department, in turn, reducible to its members? For many years in my own former department, I used to feel that we would have better meetings if we had a better department, and we would not have a different department until we had different members. In time, we did. But the members were arguably worse. However, the department meetings were occasionally better.
Now I'm not sure what to think about such meetings, except that when all is said and done, on the part of just about any group, meetings are inherently boring, forever driven by a few people who like to hold forth about curriculum planning or the latest Vision Statement from the administration. Everyone else -- especially the untenured -- feigns polite interest, unless something of personal consequence appears. If it doesn't appear, well, there is always the next meeting.
Once I knew a woman new to American academic life who professed herself stunned at the sheer tedium of so many meetings during which so little was accomplished. One day she was near tears. "Most of what's discussed is completely superfluous!" I blurted out in response: "Don't forget: the purpose of the meeting is to have another meeting." It was suddenly as if somebody else had uttered these words. Maybe somebody else once did to me -- after a meeting.
After a meeting: ah, this is a golden time, when frank talk can ensue with intimates about what really happened, how predictable it was that so-and-so said such-and-such, and whether -- given the administration, the chair, the union, the alignment of the planets -- the final vote would ultimately mean anything. Meanwhile, too bad there had to be a meeting at all, that exquisitely formal affair in which much was considered and little decided.
I once had a colleague who told of a friend who had counseled him thus: the best way to endure meetings was to smoke a pipe. People saw the pipe, not you. For better or worse, these days are now gone. We who must continue to meet today have fewer weapons at our disposal to do battle against the inevitable fatigue. Idle scribbling on a print-out of the agenda or the last minutes: Is this the promised end?
Of course I appear too cynical. Some issues of course demand meetings. Just don't ask me to give examples. Some meetings prove to be absolutely necessary. Blame me if it seems these particular ones are usually the most boring. Lastly, we must agree at least that a department simply cannot conduct itself without meetings. Yet is there no better, more efficient way for it to do its business?
I've heard of departments that try to do so exclusively through e-mail. This might work, especially in excessively factionalized departments. But then the department deprives itself of a chance to be visibly recreated as a collective whole. Such deprivation is not accomplished without peril. Another way to put the issue: the purpose of meetings is to have a department.
Members may teach alone. They usually research alone and they certainly write alone. But each belongs to a department (and through it, to an institution). Meetings are crucial in assuring members of their own common cause, ranging from curricular change to tenure votes.
We can bemoan meetings. We can't easily give them up. Consider the situation of adjuncts. Most departments are virtually forced to dream up occasions for adjuncts to meet, under the auspices of "professional development" or institution-specific "strategies."
Here the purpose of the adjunct-only meeting is not so much to have another meeting. (Many in attendance could be gone by next semester.) The purpose is to have the meeting (and therefore a "department" of sorts) in the first place! Are adjuncts thereby constituted as a group? Of course not. Not only do such matters of high moment as curricular change fail to concern them.
Adjuncts are excluded from even such lowly questions as the selection of new textbooks. Indeed, consolidating ideals of any sort -- apart from the scandal of there being adjuncts at all -- are not available to them; adjuncts are paid to teach, not to attend meetings about teaching -- or anything else. And yet, there must be meetings for them to be "encouraged" to attend, lest their professionalism itself be endangered. Of course, once they do, just once, another meeting is theoretically possible, and then all seems well.
No matter, somewhat paradoxically, that freedom from meetings, in fact, is the usual virtue of their lot regularly invoked by adjuncts themselves! Everyone is expected to smile knowingly. (Unless full-timers suspect sour grapes. ) Nobody, it seems, is expected actually to like meetings. Just so, though, all are expected to acknowledge their abiding necessity, therefore to attend the next meeting.
In sum, one cheer for meetings. Readers will recognize my allusion to E.M. Forster's famous essay, "What I Believe," wherein he gives democracy a grudging two cheers. One is because it admits variety. The other is because it permits criticism. The departments of my experience admit variety, but far more grudgingly than in Forster's democracy. Worse, they permit little real criticism. Nothing is harder at a meeting than to raise some fundamental objection to an item or an issue, and then expect to have it thoroughly treated.
Forster's democratic model is Parliament, whose deliberations, I suspect, would put most academic departments to shame. Not only because Parliament abides the individual "nuisance" intent on exposing some abuse. Not only because Parliament is virtually mandated to "chatter and talk." But also because Parliament's "chatter," claims Forster, is "widely reported." In comparison, a department's deliberations are of course impeccably -- not to say, preciously -- private.
One cheer for meetings seems to me quite enough. There had better be one because, academically, we're all in it together, and we somehow manage to remain so (unless we're adjuncts) even through our mostly dreary, ill-starred meetings. Also, one cheer gestures at the existence of more departments than an individual can easily imagine, where variety actually speaks on a regular basis (even without tenure!) o where criticism remains an animating voice. Meetings, finally, are just one of those fateful things about academic life that most of us have to tolerate, when all is said and done (though preferably not at another meeting), like non-committal deans, rude office staff, and students who won't turn off their cell phones. Meetings we will always have with us. But please God, not next week, and not too late in the afternoon.
Terry Caesar's last column was about college presidents.
The end-of-the-year departmental party was held at a lovely private club near the ocean just a few miles away from campus. The din was great; colleagues laughed and talked. I finally escaped the noisy room and stumbled outside. There were a group of colleagues -- the grammar queen was there, standing in the grass along with six other professors. A man on the hiring committee, a friend who ran a poetry contest every year, two men who both advised students on majors, a woman who taught developmental writing so well that students followed her from course to course, and a colleague who was best friends with our department chair.
I said, "Hey" to my poetry contest colleague; he turned. He was holding a joint. After taking a quick hit, he motioned to me. I shook my head and leaned back. The grammar expert grabbed for the uneven cigarette, took a hit and passed it to the next English instructor. As I stood there in a swirl of sweet-smelling smoke, someone shoved a half-empty bottle of Chardonnay in my hand. "Bottoms up, bottoms up, bottoms up!" they chanted in unison. Shamed, I passed it to the next colleague. I stepped back out of the circle, lurched back into the rented hallway and made my way to the women's bathroom. Confused, I locked myself into the stall farthest from the sinks and waited. Ten minutes later, and a bit more composed, I escaped to my car.
As an undergraduate, I had no idea that professors partied. As a grad student, I was too busy shuttling from job to campus to notice some of my professors slinking off to a dark bar six blocks from campus. Now that I work in the business, I've started to notice that there is a distinct difference between the professor who does a little wine tasting on the weekends and the ones who can't seem to control their use of drugs or alcohol -- regardless of the effect on their work, their relationships, even their self-respect.
I sometimes get a shaky feeling in my stomach when I hear the stories: My colleague at lunch who confessed to me that she downs three or four drinks quickly, in succession, each night. My office-mate who told me that a glass of wine makes grading papers easier. My department chair who keeps a bottle of Jim Beam in his desk. A friend in administration who is fighting a charge of driving under the influence. A colleague who holds his office hours in a cafe so he can sip an imported beer. And just when I think I'm overreacting, I remember a departmental secretary who brazenly told me that she locked her three-year-old in the bedroom as she and her husband smoked dope every night. Unable to fire her for incompetence on the job, the community college where I worked chose to rewrite her job description so that she could not be rehired for her own position.
Why the overindulgence? I've had the chance to talk to colleagues at over a dozen campuses -- a lucky side effect of being off the tenure-track -- and several compelling factors crop up again and again:
Camaraderie: Bonding over a pint is big. As a form of relaxation, it's more affordable than golf and more quick than a long hike in the woods. In fact, the drinking tradition in academe is as entrenched as it is in advertising -- it's just the most accepted lubricant to sharing intellectual ideas (and avoiding that big stack of grading). Unfortunately for some it comes with a big price tag. In 1992, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse found that the American economy loses $80.9 billion a year because of drug-related problems; of that, $66.7 billion is directly attributed to alcohol abuse.
Heavy workload: Most professors are overextended. Many perform research and teach; some have to work overloads or summers to make ends meet. The result? A feeling of entitlement -- and a desire to "cut loose." End-of-the-year parties and informal get-togethers can be triggers, as well as post-committee meetings at restaurants that host $1.50 drinks. It's fun, but when fun runs into work, everyone suffers. According to a 1998 study by JSI Research & Training, 60 percent of alcohol-related work performance problems are attributed to employees who occasionally drink too much during a lunch hour or on a work night.
Expectations: Professors are just people. But in the community, they may be looked at as some sort of "intellectual example" that many non-academics don't relate to. Although this kind of elevated status may be welcome at first, over time many professors complain that they feel isolated and set apart. As a copywriter in advertising, I found it easy to strike up conversations with strangers or acquaintances. "You're kidding? Do you do commercials? Hey, you know that Taco Bell commercial with that little dog? I love that commercial." Today when I identify myself as an English composition instructor, the responses are consistently negative, as in "I hated English in school. It was my worst subject. Oh, I'm sure my English is just awful." Conversation over. Like me, some professors will crawl home to the work of Hesse or Joyce; others will go further and avoid contact with non-academics altogether. Yet isolation is not good for those with a propensity for drink or drugs.
Work hours: To the new Ph.D., being able to set your own hours and name your office times sounds delicious. In time, however, many professors find that they have odd blocks of time which are not optimum for grading or seeing students. For adjuncts and full-time contract instructors, many teaching jobs also demand night or weekend teaching -- which may leave an instructor exhausted and resentful. Feeling left out of family events and often unable to see friends with regular nine-to-five jobs, professors may find themselves taking comfort in a married friend, a bottle of schnapps or a joint. In a 1992 study, the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse connected increased rates of alcoholism with jobs that had little supervision and high mobility -- a spot-on description of faculty positions.
Creativity myth: The Liberal Arts is awash with writers and artists. And everyone knows that drinking goes as well with the old Remington (or new iMAC) as it does with the pottery wheel. A colleague of mine lost a contract due to drinking and had to have his chapbook of poetry self-published. Although it contained some striking examples of his work, colleagues wondered what he could have accomplished if he hadn't been relying on bourbon and fighting with his (now) ex-wife. About a year ago, a colleague of mine, a recognized literary scholar and drinker, killed himself. When the person he loved would not return his affection, he drank some hard liquor, wrote a note, went into his basement, and shot himself. Stunned, students and colleagues attended an on-campus memorial and read his works aloud. Awed by the beauty, we cried, knowing that he would not be greeting us in the hallways, teaching rows of students, or attending poetry slams.
Simpletons will, of course, simply say that the solution is to "just say no" to drinking or using illicit drugs. I believe that the answer is far more complex than that. There are no campus police to gently take the pint and paper cup from our hands. There are no 20-question cards that will guarantee someone in trouble will seek diagnosis and treatment. There are no handbooks that will compel a professor to "do the right thing" when to do so would leave him or her completely alone without companionship.
There are, however, some interesting stories cropping up in media that suggests that those in power are concerned. In Britain, reports of grade school teachers overindulging lead many to also conclude that higher education is affected as well. In the United States, we have enough high school and college instructors drinking to excess to encourage a move to make employee assistance programs available to every educator. In fact, in 2004, the University of Michigan developed a self-screening instrument to assist not only students, but also staff and faculty members, in diagnosing drinking problems.
And some believe that assistance by mental health experts will help. Studies have found that efforts by employers to sponsor help for employees result in fewer sick days, more productive days on the job, and fewer accidents. In a 2004 membership survey, Alcoholics Anonymous reported that 3 percent of its members are educators. Through intervention, official reprimands from higher-ups, or self-diagnosis, some have received help for their out-of-control drinking or drug use.
In general, attitudes may be changing. I went to a barbeque with colleagues on Sunday. No beer or wine was served -- just soft drinks and mineral water. When I asked about the hostess about her "no bar" bar, the Humanities instructor simply said, "Well, the kids are around." Her boyfriend, an Instructional Tech-head, nodded in agreement. Two adjunct instructors tossed a foam football around and someone turned on a television to watch a game. I could hear a neighbor's lawnmower buzzing in the distance and realized that I didn't miss the nonsense one bit. There was something simple about enjoying a grilled burger with three kinds of potato chips, knowing that I would remember it the next day.
Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.Â
Sometimes our tools are our politics, and that’s not always a good thing. Last week, the Copyright Clearance Center announced that it would integrate a “Copyright Permissions Building Block” function directly into Blackboard’s course management tools. The service automates the process of clearing copyright for course materials by incorporating it directly into the Blackboard tool kit; instructors post materials into their course space, and then tell the application to send information about those materials to CCC for clearance.
For many, this move offers welcome relief to the confusion currently surrounding the issue of copyright. Getting clearance for the materials you provide to your students, despite the help of organizations like CCC, is still a complicated and opaque chore. Instructors either struggle through the clumsy legal and financial details or furtively dodge the process altogether and hope they don’t get caught. With the centralization offered by CCC and now the automation offered by this new Blackboard add-on, the process will be more user-friendly, comprehensive, and close at hand. As Tracey Armstrong, executive vice president for CCC, put it, “This integration is yet another success in making the ‘right thing’ become the ‘easy thing.’”
Certainly, anything that helps get intellectual resources into the hands of students in the format they find most useful is a good thing. I have no doubt that both the CCC and Blackboard genuinely want the practical details of getting course materials together, cleared, and to the student to be less and less an obstacle to actually teaching with those materials. But I’m skeptical of whether this “easy thing” actually leads to the “right thing.” Making copyright clearance work smoothly overlooks the question of whether we should be seeking clearance at all -- and what should instead be protected by the copyright exception we’ve come to know as “fair use.”
Fair use has been the most important exception to the rules of copyright since long before it was codified into law in 1976, especially for educators. For those uses of copyrighted materials that would otherwise be considered an infringement, the fair use doctrine offers us some leeway when making limited use for socially beneficial ends.
What ends are protected can vary, but the law explicitly includes education and criticism -- including a specific reference to “multiple copies for classroom use.” It’s what lets us quote other research in our own without seeking permission, or put an image we found online in our PowerPoint presentations, or play a film clip in class. All of these actions are copyright violations, but would enjoy fair use protection were they ever to go to court.
But there is a dispute, among those who dispute these kinds of things, about exactly why it is we need fair use in such circumstances. Some have argued that fair use is a practical solution for the complex process of clearing permission. If I had to clear permission every single time I quoted someone else’s research or Xeroxed a newspaper article for my students -- figuring out who owns the copyright and how to contact them, then gaining permission and (undoubtedly) negotiating a fee -- I might be discouraged from doing so simply because it’s difficult and time-consuming. In the absence of an easy way to clear copyright, we have fair use as a way to “let it slide” when the economic impact is minimal and the social value is great.
Others argue that fair use is an affirmative protection designed to ensure that copyright owners don’t exploit their legal power to squelch the reuse of their work, especially when it might be critical of their ideas. If I want to include a quote in my classroom slides in order to demonstrate how derivative, how racist, or maybe just how incompetent the writer is, and copyright law compelled me to ask the writer’s permission to do it, he could simply say no, limiting my ability to powerfully critique the work. Since copyright veers dangerously close to a regulation of speech, fair use is a kind of First Amendment safety valve, such that speakers aren’t restricted by those they criticize by way of copyright.
This distinction was largely theoretical until organizations like CCC came along. With the help of new database technologies and the Internet, the CCC has made it much easier for people to clear copyright, solving some of the difficulty of locating owners and negotiating a fair price by doing it for us. The automatic mechanism being built into Blackboard goes one step further, making the process smooth, user-friendly, and automatic. So, if fair use is merely a way to account for how difficult clearing copyright can be, then the protection is growing less and less necessary. Fair use can finally be replaced by what Tom Bell called “fared use” -- clear everything easily for a reasonable price.
If, on the other hand, fair use is a protection of free speech and academic freedom that deliberately allow certain uses without permission, then the CCC/Blackboard plan raises a significant problem.
The fact that the fair use doctrine explicitly refers to criticism and parody suggests that it is not just for when permission is difficult to achieve, but when we shouldn’t have to ask permission at all. The Supreme Court said as much in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose (1994), when Justice Kennedy in a concurring decision noted that fair use “protects works we have reason to fear will not be licensed by copyright holders who wish to shield their works from criticism.” Even in a case in which permission was requested and denied, the court did not take this as a sign that the use was presumptively unfair. Fair use is much more than a salve for the difficulty of gaining permission.
Faculty and their universities should be at the forefront of the push for a more robust fair use, one that affirmatively protects “multiple copies for classroom use” when their distribution is noncommercial, especially as getting electronic readings to students is becoming ever cheaper and more practical.
Automating the clearance process undoes the possibility of utilizing, and more importantly challenging, this slow disintegration of fair use. Even if the Blackboard mechanism allows instructors simply not to send their information to CCC for clearance (and it is unclear if it is, or eventually could become, a compulsory mechanism), the simple fact that clearance is becoming a technical default means that more and more instructors will default to it rather than invoking fair use.
The power of defaults is that they demarcate the “norm”; the protection of pedagogy and criticism envisioned in fair use will increasingly deteriorate as automatic clearance is made easier, more obvious, and automatic. This concern is only intensified as Blackboard, recently merged with WebCT, continues to become the single, dominant provider of course management software for universities in the United States.
Technologies have politics, in that they make certain arrangements easier and more commonplace. But technologies also have the tendency to erase politics, rendering invisible the very interests and efforts currently working to establish “more copyright protection is better” as the accepted truth, when it is far from it.
As educators, scholars, librarians, and universities, we are in a rarified position to fight for a more robust protection of fair use in the digital realm, demanding that making “multiple copies for classroom use” means posting materials into Blackboard without needing to seek the permission of the copyright owners to do so.
The automation of copyright clearance now being deployed will work against this, continuing to shoehorn scholarship into the commercial model of information distribution, and erase the very question of what fair use was for -- not by squelching it, but simply by making it easier not to fight for it and harder to even ask if there’s an alternative.
Tarleton Gillespie is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University, and a Fellow with the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society.
Submitted by Alex Golub on October 24, 2005 - 4:00am
When asked to list the top 10 problems facing the academy today, I bet most professors would include the "commodification" of education. By that they mean a sort of creeping penetration of market-forces into the academy such that earning a B.A. is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from, say, buying a Camaro.
As an adjunct I am not privy to the way this trend has altered the wider institutional structure of higher education, beyond noticing that that very little of the tuition my students pay finds its way back to me. However, as someone who regularly teaches service courses I have extensive experience with bread and butter teaching, and I am familiar with what "commodification" is supposed to mean in this context: the idea that professors are expected to produce "customer satisfaction" in their students, and students are supposed to actually "enjoy" the classes they take.
The blogosphere is full of rants by tenured, pseudonymous faculty members about how terrible this sort of thing is. I must admit, I've always been skeptical that these fears are overblown. Too often, concerns about commodification seem to be nothing but the digital version of the litany of excuses that cynical, mediocre teachers have made since time immemorial. What is often missing from this sort of kvetching is some sort of positive theory of pedagogy -- a vision of how things ought to be, which is more than some warmed over nostalgia for The Good Old Days. In my opinion, it's not about the money, it's about the relationship: There are a wealth of interactions that are mediated by monetary concerns, and some of them are good and some of them are not. The question is then which of them you as an educator choose to model yourself on. I think of myself as my students' personal trainer: I help them develop minds -- rather than buns -- of steel.
Like pretty much everyone, I cringe when people demand "customer satisfaction" or when people suggest that "academic freedom" means a student's freedom from exposure to viewpoints they dislike. But are these the biggest problems we as educators face? In my experience, a more worrying development is an emphasis on credentialing rather than educating. Students who I've encountered at the various universities where I've adjuncted are less worried about achieving a state of satisfaction than earning an A, and approach classes more concerned about the cultivation of their transcript than their sensibilities.
These students don't think of college as something to enjoy; they think of it as a sort of amoral, Hobbesian struggle where they will use any means necessary to produce a college record that will get them a job. Obviously, trying to get a great grade in a course is not exactly antithetical to learning, but underlying this concern with credentialing is a very particular understanding of what is being bought and sold when tuition changes hands. While this shift of emphasis from earning an A to actually learning something can be subtle at times, it does ultimately make it difficult for my students to understand what I am doing when I act as their personal trainer.
I like the image of the personal trainer because it provides a positive account of what people are getting for their money without modeling my job on retail or fast food. I provide students an opportunity to undergo a personal transformation -- an opportunity which they may or may not take advantage of. If you want to loose 20 pounds of intellectual flab, you can spend three hours a week in classes with me and I will show you how to do it. But I can't make you do anything, and if you never exercise at home by doing your home work and reading, you are never going to acquire the lean, rock-hard intellect that so many employers swoon over.
To be sure, if you stick around long enough you will have a piece of paper that certifies that you graduated, and that's a useful thing to have. But ultimately what I try to provide my student are capabilities, not certifications. I want them to come out of my classes more able to become whoever they want to be than they were before I met them. Unlike the mediocre professor who argues that their students can't learn, I firmly believe all of my students are capable of undergoing this personal transformation provided I can live up to my end of the bargain. Of course, just because they can doesn't mean they will. So I believe that while I can lead my students to water, I can't make them think. That last step is up to them.
Another reason I like the idea of the personal trainer is that it helps underline another, very un-PC aspect of the teacher-student relationship that I believe in quite strongly despite the prevailing egalitarianism of our times: I don't think students necessarily know what they want or need out of an education -- like Odysseus or Cinderella, they need patrons willing to use their awesome magical powers so that they can fulfill their destiny. I'm often struck by pedagogies that oppose the commodification of education with a notion that instead of producing customers who are satisfied they should be turning out students who feel "empowered." My hunch is that this sort of talk is already infected by a commodification which these teachers consider to be so tainting. I'm reminded of a line I heard recently from (of all people!) a Unitarian pastor who remarked to me that he didn't want his congregants to have a better self-image -- he wanted them to have better selves.
Similarly, I believe that empowering students and making them feel empowered are closely related but sneakily different educational strategies. Indeed, if there is one thing that I learned in my decade-long career in graduate school, it is that a mix of guilt, anxiety, and raw animal fear is a much surer path to greatness than confidence in your own abilities. My point is not that I think students learn best when they are miserable. My point is simply that, unlike the Spice Girls, I do not often ask my audience what they want, what they really really want. I just let them know that they are going to get it. To this extent I think teaching is like the menus of truly superb prix fixe French restaurant, which often simply read "five courses of fish in progressively complex sauces." They didn’t elaborate, because the chef was clearly more capable of deciding what you ought to eat than you were. The client, after all, waits on the soufflé -- not the other way around.
This example of fine dining illustrates yet another reason I'm suspicious of critics of the "commodification" of the classroom: they treat "the business world" as one pathological, undifferentiated whole, when in fact there are a variety of different kinds of relationships that people have with those they pay. Music lessons provide an even more embodied exemplification of how a relationship might be mediated by money and yet be more than merely "commodified": the deeply incarnated, emancipatory joy I felt the first time my voice teacher made my body produce effortless high A's was almost as intense as the luminous, geeky bliss I had felt years before after finishing Heidegger's analysis of das Mann in the first division of Being and Time. It was something that I knew was right the first time I felt it, and yet it was something I was not able to do on my own. So in some ways the chef, the professor, and the voice teacher are aligned: Even if we know what students want better than they do, we've all seen that click of revelation in their faces when they realize that they have finally gotten it. And let's face it: You probably wouldn't be reading this if you yourself had not had the scales fall from your own eyes at least once in your life, and are now addicted to being on the teaching end of that experience.
I recently read a blog entry from the superb Web design company 37 Signals, where the designers noted that "nobody knows what they really want before they get it. Not consumers, not conference goers, not programmers, and certainly not clients. Delivering greatness requires you to let go of the safety in mediocrity where you just do as you’re told." For people working in an industry where the client is always right, this is quite an insight. But this shouldn't be news to us in the academy. 37 Signals’s willingness to come to where the flavor is helps to remind educators wary of creeping consumerism that companies that Get It -- and 37 Signals is certainly that -- are moving in the exact opposite direction of the trend that they fear. It turns out that business is done best when it is inspired by models of vision and mentoring drawn from the academy, and not the other way around. Is the taint of filthy lucre so great that we should be afraid to borrow back if we see something we like?
Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa while looking for permanent work. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.
I know I'm not the first parent to lose a child to college. And after years of teaching college freshmen myself, I would have thought I’d have more familiarity with this rite of passage. I was wrong.
But one thing's for certain: From now on I am unlikely to view the freshmen I teach in the way I once did.
I have always preferred to see my first-year students as young adults, ready to learn to think on their own. My only obligation to them was to challenge their minds and rate their progress. Occasionally, I caught a glimpse of the wider truth about them. One time, a freshman tentatively raised his hand at the end of a discussion of a social theory of religion, his face etched with worry. Was it possible, he asked, to be a sociologist and still believe in God?
I felt a dull ache as I suddenly realized that challenging minds and traumatizing children could equally well fall out of my well-intended lesson plans. I scrambled to reassure him that science and faith are different realms of meaning that we can embrace without contradiction.
Another time -- Sept. 11, 2001 -- I faced a very different reminder that students are someone’s children, too. Just before giving my lecture that morning, I learned of the attack on the World Trade Center. Before I could reach the podium I was confronted by students in tears asking if they might miss class because they were looking for parents who worked at the World Trade Center or who were otherwise affected by the attack.
Without warning, the parent in me sat down the professor. I felt ashamed that my professor’s role required them to ask permission for such desperate business.
Later in class one young woman asked a question that humbled my professional self: "Are we safe, here in Boston?" We all knew the two planes that had targeted the twin towers had left from Boston’s airport, only a few miles from our lecture hall. Were other horrors likely to fall from the sky onto our classroom buildings and dorms?
The professor in me didn't have the answer, but the parent within felt required to respond. It occurred to me that my own son was in his very first week at his new high school near the airport, located directly under the flight path of commercial jets. I did my best to reassure other people’s children that lightning was not likely to strike twice, so soon, with the authorities now on alert.
There have been other moments like this, when I could feel the parent trying to nudge aside the professor. Occasions such as brave, heart-rending explanations about assignments being missed because a parent had died, or because a husband had been killed, leaving my 19-year-old student a widowed mother of two babies of her own.
Dispassionate responses, however understanding, seemed empty at these moments, but the professor always kept his distance -- from both the student and the prodding parent within.
My son’s going off to college this fall has further unsettled this delicate ballet of roles and responsibilities. When he tells me that a professor has insisted that he must take the exams as scheduled, even though they are oddly slotted in the middle of his other courses' meeting times, a protective shout builds up in me: HE’S ONLY A KID! SPARE HIM IMPOSSIBLE SCHEDULING CONFLICTS FOR COURSES YOU TELL HIM HE NEEDS! And while you’re at it, keep your office hours so that you are available to answer his questions and address his concerns, ask him how he's doing as a new student, encourage him to ask questions and make comments in class. DON'T TREAT HIM LIKE A NUMBER. PAY ATTENTION TO HIM. KNOW HIS NAME! He's unique, a whole person, a child....
Already, the professor in me rises to object. I'm not responsible for children; I’m educating adults. I can’t take time for all of these students. I need to protect my research and writing time.
I realize that I will continue to experience this sort of tension, and that I won't always like my resolutions. Reflexively, I will sometimes blanch at lines of students awaiting my office hours and fail to remember names and interests of students.
But now I suspect I will be less accepting of those responses. As I ask of my son’s professors, I will increase my effort to know names, encourage students to seek more feedback outside of class, ask them how their semesters are going, and smile at even long lines at office hours -- or face the knowing disapproval of the parent within who recognizes other people’s children when he sees them.
Peter Cleary Yeager
Peter Cleary Yeager is a professor of sociology at Boston University.Â He is co-author of Corporate Crime and author of The Limits of Law: The Public Regulation of Private Pollution.
I had told him about it, but it wasn’t until I’d been called for an interview that my non-academic boyfriend started to get nervous. I drove myself home from the airport and left messages on his answering machine that night, the next day and the day after that. When he called me three days later, it sounded as if he was calling from miles away. By the time I had put the phone down, he was on his way over to pick up the few things he’d left at my apartment. After I cried, I lay in bed that night, hands and feet unfeeling, staring at the ceiling. I guess I’d known that interviewing out-of-state would put pressure on us; what I didn’t know was that it would immediately end the relationship. Six months of dating was just not enough time to build a relationship that we could both hold on to. I didn’t land a full-time position until 18-months late. In that time, I refused to date anyone.
I simply could not put another kind, interesting, funny man through this horrible process. In the end I landed in the Midwest, with only my dog for company. Although I immediately made friends on-campus and off, I found it difficult to consider dating. First, I was not in a tenure-track position. In my mind’s eye, this meant the same process as before. Three years on contract with this university, then moving on. Why bother starting up something that might end up in heartbreak? Yet close girlfriends here and in my original home state urged me to “get in the game” again -- if only to keep from hiding out. I finally did allow myself a few experiences.
I’ve been on a coffee date with an adjunct in my department. Although we are both in the humanities, our similarities end there. A six-year age difference made me feel ancient. And his constant reference to an ex-girlfriend who wasn’t really an ex- made me wary. Disinterested, I didn’t follow up his phone calls, but e-mailed short notes that bordered on professional instead. He has since drifted back into his muddled long-distance relationship -- although I hear that he recently asked our department secretary about other single women at the university.
Urged by my local lady friends, I went on a movie and dinner date with a man who drives trucks for the garbage company. Nervous, I dressed up too much and felt out of place in the movie theater in hose, a dark skirt and sweater. We chatted about nothing special that night -- a nice thing for a woman who’d been out of circulation for some time, but I could not find much to hold on to. He talked about the Navy and his route; I talked about classes and my family. After long pauses and awkward moments, I had that dreaded moment about halfway through the evening where I wished I’d been at home watching television with my dog. This man’s deep interest in marriage and my transient status didn’t help. By the end of the night, I stepped from his Pontiac feeling a bit sad. On the phone the next day, I got honest and told him that I didn’t think we had enough in common. When pressed, I said that I’d also feel guilty keeping him from his quest for a wife. Later he told friends in common that he agreed it was the best thing to do; he didn’t see that much in me. I smiled and nodded my head. He was absolutely right.
Academics frequently think they’re “all that” as my students like to say. And that sense of entitlement gets us into all sorts of trouble. Many of us, including me, are self-centered. That makes a true peer relationship difficult. If a professor also needs ego-feeding, there will be trouble in their partnership outside the office.
"It’s as if he wanted me to applaud for him every night when he came home," confessed my colleague’s ex-wife. "Believe me, I was impressed by his dissertation, his presentations, his research, his papers -- even his thoughts -- but at some point I had to ask myself, ‘What happened to me?’” She is now dating a corporate executive in the area. "It’s just so much easier," she told me over a latté, “I finally feel like I count for something.” Others I’ve interviewed have confessed that professors have a way of making them feel like “mere mortals” rather than peers. And many of these non-academics have more than one college degree, a vast life experience, and vivacious personalities. Although not shrinking violets, they simply could not make a place with a professional who either were tremendously accomplished -- or had an inflated view of his or her worth.
It seems as if relationships between academics and corporate-types have some hurdles to overcome -- yet a number of my faculty-buddies swear by them. “When I finish my job, I want to leave work at work,” says one business instructor I know. When he was married to another instructor, they talked incessantly about their jobs. A year after their relationship crashed, he confessed that he was only interested in dating “non-academics.” He felt relieved that he could start building a life outside of academia. “Don’t get me wrong,” he told me, “I love my job. I just want to stop thinking about it at some point.” He is currently dating a woman who owns a small business.
An accomplished Ph.D. in English rhetoric married his longtime girlfriend who used to wait tables. “She’s real-life educated,” he told me. Her life experience and intellectual curiosity count for a lot. When he comes home to chat about Deleuze and Espinoza, she holds her own -- and quotes the Dalai Lama, which enriches the conversation. My professor friend has a standing commitment to dedicate Sunday to their relationship (and to her two children of a previous marriage) -- and he keeps late-night grading to a minimum. Although they technically have a “trailing non-academic spouse” type marriage, it feels like a peer relationship to both.
A woman friend of mine who teaches humanities at a community college believes that her non-teaching husband brings something unique to their relationship. Because he is in administration in an academic setting, he understands the general issues. He’s also mastered the art of knowing -- truly knowing -- his wife. When she straggles in from a long, frustrating department meeting with a heavy bag of papers, he often says, "You look stressed. Is there anything I can do?" On other occasions, he trots off to the kitchen to make dinner for them both without comment. Some days, when she gets home sooner than he does, she sets in on the household chores, knowing that he will be tired when he gets home. According to her, they have a match made in heaven.
Another advantage is that non-academics have more regular hours -- which may encourage an academic to adopt a more normal working schedule. Many of my friends, tenured and adjunct, have confessed that knowing their significant other is going to be home in three hours forces them to manage their time more wisely. And a non-academic love often encourages academics to make friends outside of the ivory tower -- which can be a nice balance to a bookish, research-dominated life.
For some, however, this match has problems. A tenure-track professor I met told me she hated dating outside of academia -- if only because she did not feel valued. “I dated a municipal court judge who pitied me the whole time. Even though I was presenting at conferences, lecturing, and publishing, he simply couldn’t understand how someone would work for so little money.” Fighting a feeling of “less-than,” she finally stopped dating him. She simply got tired of defending her career.
“He thinks that when I’m presenting at a conference, I’m vacationing,” a colleague confided. Her husband, a contractor, resented her university-funded travel; this difference of opinion brought much tension to the relationship. She also told me that he does not understand her at-home work. “Oh, I forgot. You’re not working today,” is his comment, with requests to pick up his dry cleaning and grocery shop. The time between semesters becomes a battle as he pressures her to make repairs on their classic Victorian house while she is desperately trying to read new textbooks, rework syllabi, course outlines, and assignments -- all while writing to publish. Unless they have owned their own small business, non-academics may not understand the idea of “working” while at home. And the resulting tension can be devastating to a relationship. This is not the only place where academics and their non-academic spouses do not agree. Making money (or not) and how one defines “success” are big concerns.
A liberal arts professor I know dated a man who worked as a marketing manager with a large, successful printing company in the area. When she complained about having papers to grade, he simply answered, “Why don’t you get a job where you don’t have to do all that scut work?” As she sat there, stunned, a handful of student work in her lap, he continued, “Hell, you’d make more money in advertising or something like that anyway.” Not only did she feel unsupported, but she also sensed that he did not understand that she did not teach for money -- or because she had no other skills. When interviewed, she told me that she chose this field because she wanted to live the values she’d been “spouting for a decade.” After studying Buddhism and considering “right livelihood,” she decided she wanted to work at something that contributed to (rather than breaking down) society. And a sense of being able to give back (rather than take) helped her through some non tenure-track years. For successful non-academics, status may be measured by a bank account -- which frustrates academics. The couple’s value system is simply mismatched -- and it is only with the greatest amount of effort that difference may be bridged.
But opinion about academic and non-academic spouses seems to be split squarely down the middle. I have colleagues past and current who swear by their academic loves. A strong bond often develops among professors -- to some it makes sense to seek a partner who suffers and celebrates the same issues. For most it is not just the idea of “summers off,” but a deeper match when it comes to the rhythm of the academic lifestyle. The demands of the job, combined with research and papers, can be daunting. And having a significant other who really understands can help pave the way to a couple’s success. Academic partners also seem more focused on career -- and often have similar interests when it comes to politics and social lives.
“My first husband never wanted to go out to the theater or to the symphony. And I suppose it could be coincidence, but my second husband [an academic] not only loves those things, but also encourages me to see independent films, visit the local art museum and go to poetry readings.” My friend, a foreign-language instructor, is grateful for a companion on these visits. And although a non-academic spouse could have these interests, it is sometimes more likely that an academic spouse will have them. Academics are big readers, too. Those who read books, papers and publications in their own industry often also read for enjoyment -- or simply to broaden their horizons. Not only can this be a source of inspiration and conversation, but also indicates an interest in things outside of one’s experience.
Understanding and helping manage the pressures of academic become easier when you’re already “in the soup” with a love partner. A history professor I know confessed that even though his wife’s Ph.D. was in another area, she was the perfect partner when it came to timing, workload and hours. “She is able to read my needs just by looking at my face and the stack of papers on my desk,” he told me, “It’s such a relief not to have to explain over and over again why I have to take three hours after dinner to draft an outline for a chapter of my dissertation. She’s already been there.” The academic spouse not only understands at a deeper level, but can provide support in a way that non-academics can’t. Two humanities professors I know are co-authoring a paper; they are husband and wife. One confided that this ability to combine their brainpower in this way makes their relationship “that much more complete.”
Although reading one another’s paper or dissertation does not seem like a common event (or even expected), the support is there. One poet I know often runs his work through his wife before he talks to his editor; although her specialty is social work, she often catches small inconsistencies -- and, even better, she really understands his body of work and how that reflects the man. Having a spouse or loved one at a conference or workshop not only can be a bonding experience, but can also lead to discussions that may result in a much-needed lesson for class, or a paper to be presented at a later conference. With academic couples, the sounding board is already there -- and as a friend of mine likes to say, “up to speed.” In some cases, a comparable level of education can provide a foundation for a successful relationship. Yet there may be tensions. The ABD may feel that their Ph.D. toting spouse is a constant reminder of what they have yet to accomplish. And finding jobs that allow a couple to stay together is a near-impossible task.
A new colleague took a position with our university four weeks before the semester started. His wife, on contract to teach at a campus 2,000 miles away, is now desperately trying to land a position in the same area. My colleague told me that they had been apart for three months -- with another seven to go -- if they’re lucky. Or it may be another academic year before they’ll be able to live together again. “We call every night -- but it’s not the same,” he said, “I love her.” But his voice is wistful and he seems confused. I sense that he feels isolated. Although he has cultivated some acquaintances in his new town, he doe not feel as though his experience is complete without his life partner. Single women academics often don’t feel comfortable socializing with a man who is dedicated to a “ghost-wife,” and he often feels like a third-wheel at parties where academic couples meet. The long-distance academic marriage is often an awkward union at best. At its worst, the situation will literally kill the marriage.
One instructor friend who specializes in distance learning says that personality, priorities, values and ability to communicate are the deal-breakers -- not what one does for a living. I think that she is right. Hasty judgments about who makes the best husband or wife can’t be made. Just as there are some absolute clods in academia, there are some wonderfully accomplished, smart and interesting people working for government or private industry. With friends in and outside of academia, I feel as though I am taking advantage of all that the world has to offer. Cutting one group out seems overly focused and elitist. And in our nation, which seems to value entrepreneurialism and individualism at all costs, narrowing the field of human contact seems unwise to me.
Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.
Of all the tasks that confront a tenured community college professor, perhaps the least useful is the tri-annual self-evaluation. This year, I’m on the Pasadena City College committee that is reviewing the evaluation process for tenured faculty members, and last week I was handed the administration’s proposal for the new “Self-Evaluation Review of Professional Performance.”
It’s never been clear to me that anyone in the administration, from our department chairs to academic vice presidents, ever actually reads these self-evaluations. For tenured professors, reviewed once every three years, the main administrative concern is with student and peer evaluations of teaching. (We, of course, have no publishing or research requirements at the community college.) In the dozen years I’ve been at the college and involved in union politics, I’ve only heard of a handful of tenured colleagues receiving negative over-all evaluations from the administration. None have ever been dismissed. As far as I or anyone else I’ve asked knows, a poor self-evaluation has never been used against a tenured faculty member.
Here are three of the proposed questions for our new evaluation:
1. How has your perception of your role as a faculty member changed/developed since your last evaluation?
2. After taking time to reflect, what more could you do to provide students with a successful learning experience?
3. What can the college do to support you in your professional goals and development?
These are very different from the queries on our old self-evaluation forms, which simply asked us to list the courses we taught and what achievements, if any, we had had since our last evaluation. Reading these new questions, I’m struck by the increased emphasis that the college puts on never-ending personal and professional growth. These are questions to be answered by men and women who already have the security of lifetime employment, who (barring a felony conviction or gross incompetence) will never be forced to apply for another job again.
With the first question, I’m stumped. In 2002, I thought that my job as a professor was to be a good and interesting teacher, an attentive mentor, and an amiable colleague. That’s what I thought in 1999 and 1996, too. I suspect it will be my definition of a good faculty member in 2008, 2011, and beyond. But I suspect that that’s not the answer the administration wants. What shall I tell them? That I have suddenly discovered an interest in “student success”? (That’s the great buzzphrase on the lips of the Ed.D.’s who run the joint.) That it finally occurred to me to start getting my grades in on time? That I’ve at last thought better of telling sexist jokes to my women’s studies class? The notion that we ought always to be “professionally developing” suggests a career trajectory that resembles nothing more than a 30 or 40-year adolescence. Teenagers reinvent themselves with predictable regularity; the new model of faculty development seems to suggest that we do the same.
The second question is the shiny new academic version of that great interview trap question “Tell us your greatest weaknesses.” (As I recall, the correct answer to that question is “I’m a relentless perfectionist, and sometimes I’m too hard on myself.”) What more could I do than I am already doing to provide my students with a successful learning experience? Well, I could drop three-quarters of them in the first week, so that I would have more of an opportunity to mentor those who remained. I could become a far more dedicated activist to the cause of lowering textbook prices, so that my students would actually buy the books instead of trying to pass my classes on lecture notes alone. I could set up a Starbucks franchise in the corner of my classroom, so that the overworked and the over-videogamed could stay awake for a 9:00 a.m. lecture on Carrie Chapman Catt or Cato the Elder.
On the other hand, if the administration defines success as a passing grade, I could eliminate the requirement that my students form coherent English sentences. I could encourage the use of Wikipedia entries as a substitute for research papers. I could give A’s to the deserving and undeserving alike. I could, ala the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland after the races, announce that “Everyone has won, and all must have A’s”.
My colleagues and I are busting our collective behinds to reach students with limited English skills, who work three jobs, who are single parents, who are struggling with addiction. We teach five, six, and seven classes a semester, 35 to 40 students each. We have no readers or T.A.’s. But regardless, the new self-evaluation form insists that there must be more we could be doing. No matter how hard we’ve been trying, the question implies, the administration (staffed as it is by those who have rarely spent time in the classroom) feels strongly that we ought to be able to identify still more that we could be doing. Am I the only one reminded of a good old-fashioned Maoist self-criticism session?
As for the final question -- what more can the college do for us -- this is the one query that I’m confident will get an enthusiastic response. Yes, for starters, you can pay us more. You can reduce our teaching loads so that we can spend more time with our students. But above all, you can stop treating us like perpetual teenagers, doomed to a world of perpetual self-criticism and reinvention. Some of us will change over the course of our career for the better, some for the worse. And some -- not an insignificant number, either -- will continue to bring to the classroom what they have always brought, teaching at 50 much as they did at 30. Will their students be the worse off for it? I suspect not.
Hugo B. Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He teaches and blogs about such issues as the interplay of faith and sexuality, American history, and masculinity.