Different types of buzzard have circled above my campus for many years, but they seem to be flying lower these days, searching for any dollars they can peck off the carcass of our institution. Some of these birds were beckoned by the notion that higher education is a corporation. They are eager to get a consulting fee, and oblivious to industry’s general failure to demonstrate excellence in anything. Others roost in state buildings. They like to poke holes in our budgets and throw a few dollars back to taxpayers. It keeps their own nest eggs safe from angry voters.
Buzzards have screeched for decades that we need to downsize and economize our operations. These birds always promise to restore “public confidence” about higher education, but none of them seems to care about restoring confidence within higher education. That requires a transfusion of spirit instead of surgery with shears. More than just new hows and whats for coping with hard times, we need to reaffirm the whys of our existence. I believe we need to re-sacrilize at least as much as we need to re-size our efforts and expectations.
Higher education is a secular church of science and service, and I have been a minor pastor in it for 30 years. The term, pastor, feels right to me, but I know that this claim is heresy to religious conservatives who believe that higher education is more Satanic than sacred. Some of my colleagues go along with them, because sacred references undermine their material instincts or their faith in values neutrality. Yet the notion of a secular church puts some high back into higher education. Sure, most of our colleges are secular these days. What about their soul?
We forget the soul of our work. Numbers run our lives. They tell us when we win, like when enrollment managers post messages that we went up four spots in this year’s U.S. News ratings. Now we’re the top liberal arts college in the northwest corner of Montana! Post that on the Web site, and applicants will flock to our gates.
Numbers tell us when we lose, too: just read yesterday’s market reports, or ask any professor why he didn’t get tenure. The numbers weren’t good enough.
Numbers are the boss of the secular institution and the bane of any holy one, because they turn unique phenomena into profane comparisons. Which tragedy was worse: NIU, Virginia Tech, Kent State, or Texas A&M? Let’s look at the numbers: “Well, how many students died at each place?” How many died? Every one of us died a little or a lot when our sacred space was violated by gunfire or flames. After that answer percolates, then bring on the PowerPoint presentations about crisis management techniques and systems. Those things are necessary, but they will not heal us.
We need some right brain mythology to balance our left brain obsessions with numbers. Karen Armstrong wrote that myth leads us beyond our experience and tells us how to behave. It gives us the right spiritual posture for action whether it’s in this world or the next. Jonathon Haidt wrote that people need mythology in order to think, and higher education needs the mythology of a secular church to tie it together while numbers pull it apart.
I am old enough to throw out complaints about newfangled things, and get words like “outdated” and “over the hill” tossed back at me, but I do not see myself as a nostalgist. A nostalgist wants the present to be the past, rather than the past to be present. I’m not claiming to be a historian, either. Our secular church is a metaphor borne by history more than any construction of bricks and mortar. Marcus Borg believes that metaphor is the truth that never was and always is. The spirit of the sacred has always guided our practice, and it can heal some of our despair today.
I don’t want to shout out the following ideas, because they might be measured by a number of decibels instead of merit, but I am happy to whisper that our operations are infused with the virtues of faith, hope and love, just like the operations in any holy enterprise that’s worth its salt. Scientists trudge through countless failures with high hope but low expectations that their next experiments will work. Faith drives the teacher who wants to make a student’s life better but never knows if she has, and love is, I would like to believe, the reason why any person becomes a professor. Good professors love learning; they love their discipline, and they want to be in a community that is built on this love. We call it collegiality. It’s the invisible factor in tenure decisions: good teaching, good research, good service, and good fit.
But our secular church isn’t identical to a sacred one, any more than it is identical to profane enterprise. It includes both and is beholding to neither. This secular church has its own affirmations of faith, fulfills them through good works, and uses ritual to support decision making.
Here is a basic affirmation:
Higher education is about the discovery, conservation and transmittal of middle sized truths that we do not presume to be ultimate, approach with honest doubt, convey with enlightened tentativeness, and connect to larger conversations for the improvement of society broadly writ.
The spirit behind this affirmation is Orthopraxy, not Orthodoxy, but the bishops and novitiates of higher education rarely utter, much less act upon, such stuff. They protect the theology that’s in their professional gospels. They determine which novitiates earn ordination, and convention dictates their decisions. An assistant professor’s output of publications is important, but where they are placed is equally important. The manuscripts must be reviewed by other clerics and appear in journals that have been stamped “approved.” If assistant professors write enough of these articles, say nothing that lowers their student evaluations, and serve on a few committees, then they get tenure, their license to be heretical now that the church has boiled enough original ideas out of their scholarship.
This description is overdrawn in order to contrast indoctrination activities with the activities of many faculty who are more concerned with the activities at their institution than the theology of the Church of any discipline. These professors of the parish teach undergraduate courses, advise student groups, work on committees, uphold the last remnants of shared governance, and otherwise fulfill duties that were given to student affairs and academic affairs administrators years ago, when research faculty complained about doing them. Nobody gets merit pay or promotions for doing this work, just as nobody pays attention to the mortar in walls, only the bricks. The bricks can’t imagine their need for glue, but the priests of numbers need to understand their need for parish professors in our secular church. Any ethical enterprise attends to its structural soundness. It is consistent and coherent, or else it crumbles into moral pretense.
Each year, I spend some time teaching graduate students about “mission,” “vision,” “transformational leadership,” and other ways to build value-rich and effective enterprises. In economically stressed times, the steps of good planning are ignored as much as its higher purposes. The budget might receive a dusting of protocol but administrative and academic activities are sundered and patched together without orderly and broad based scrutiny. Haphazard decisions are made and rituals are discarded.
However, a congregation usually comes together during a crisis and its ritual practices, from teaching through reorganization, can be used to promote order, community, and transcendence. Order without community is tyranny. Community without transcendence yields mutual despair.
Some critics would charge that affirmations, activities and rituals are not enough to support any organization’s claim to sacredness, whether the claim is made by higher education or officially religious institutions. To illustrate, a critic for the Christian Chronicle lamented the secular temperament in many Christian churches. They were working hard “to resemble surrounding technological and bureaucratic organizations” by relying on committee meetings, questionnaires, self-studies, and related paraphernalia. The author concluded that these secular churches needed to recover “transcendence, which means a recovery of faith. For it is only within a recovery of the perspective of faith that we may recognize and redirect false needs and identify secondary needs idolatrously masquerading as ultimate ones.”
T.V. Smith wrote that higher education is busy with mid-sized moral truths instead of Ultimate Truth. That is lofty enough for me. It does not dismiss empiricism, even if many fundamentalist faiths do, and it lets me work within a context of morality and myths as well as materials and measurements. Those myths support the notion that our work is vocational, a calling, and not just fodder for buzzards to pick over.
Those birds will always be up there, and they look pretty serene in the sky. I have to accept that. It’s just as true that I don’t have enough capacity or courage to change how our work is measured on the ground. So what am I left with? Not just the “serenity to accept the things we cannot change.” The mythical perspective of higher education contains some wisdom about what should be kept and what should be changed. Marcus Borg might call the secular church a “science-plus” perspective instead of one that is restricted to science minus everything that cannot be measured. Great colleges, great churches, and great art are never created when Rembrandts just paint by the numbers.
Robert B. Young
Bob Young is a professor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education and senior associate with the Center for Higher Education at Ohio University.
The continuing saga over the closure of Antioch College (including a plan to revive it) heightened concern that many storied, but financially stressed, liberal arts colleges may be in danger of closing in a time of economic turmoil. Antioch educated prominent Americans like the civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, and the Nobel Prize winner Mario R. Capecchi. The threatened demise of any innovative and influential college that has nurtured generations of leaders, scholars, public servants and social critics would be a loss both to higher education and our nation.
But the focus by reporters and educational policy makers on the potential closure of some colleges may mask a more serious threat to liberal arts colleges: a slow abandonment of their traditional mission in favor of a more “professional” orientation.
This longer-term and more significant trend was first highlighted by the economist David Breneman nearly 20 years ago in a 1990 article that asked, “Are we losing our liberal arts colleges?” At that time he concluded that many one-time liberal arts colleges were not closing, but gradually transforming into “professional colleges” as they added programs in vocational fields such as business, communications and allied health.
Recent research we have conducted using data from the National Center for Education Statistics confirms that the trend Breneman identified has continued. The 212 liberal arts colleges that Breneman identified in 1990 have now decreased to 137. Many former liberal arts colleges are evolving, consciously or unconsciously, into more academically complex institutions offering numerous vocational as well as arts and science majors. In the process, they may have lost the focused mission and carefully integrated academic program that for generations made small liberal arts colleges a model of high quality undergraduate education. Most likely this trend will persist.
In a recent interview, Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, predicted that 10 to 15 years from now there will be even fewer institutions that look like traditional residential liberal arts colleges. Little by little, we may be losing an alternative model of undergraduate education that has challenged and inspired many other types of higher education institutions to take risks, experiment, and improve the quality of their educational programs.
The gradual, and almost invisible, transformation of many “liberal arts colleges” to more comprehensive institutions is similar to another gradual trend that has reshaped the composition and the work of the American academic profession. Over the past three decades, colleges and universities have replaced tenure-track faculty positions with part-time and full-time term-contract positions -- a phenomenon Jack Shuster and Martin Finkelstein referred to as the “silent revolution” in their bookThe American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). This piecemeal process at most institutions was not the result of a careful review of academic staffing needs or a systematic effort to improve the quality of instruction and scholarship. Nor was it the outcome of a national debate on the nature of the academic profession in the 21st century.
Instead, as research on contingent faculty documents, most colleges and universities added part-time and term-contract faculty in response to immediate staffing needs or short-term budget constraints. The gradual but profound shift in the focus of many liberal arts colleges appears to follow a similar pragmatic but also very reactive pattern.
Change in higher education is inevitable and highly desirable. It is essential in order to craft a lean, efficient educational system capable of meeting the educational demands of an era defined by demographic diversity, economic uncertainty, rapid technological advances, and a global market place. The evolution we see in liberal arts colleges is symptomatic of a much larger evolutionary process underway throughout higher education. We recognize that liberal arts colleges and all of higher education must adapt to the demands of the times.
Our concern is not with change itself. Our concern is with the way change unfolds in our complex and loosely coordinated higher education system. Should evolution in higher education follow a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” course or should we intervene to preserve and update valued types of educational institutions because of the important roles they play in serving our pluralistic society?
The Value of Liberal Arts Colleges
The current saga of the U.S. auto industry may contain some useful lessons for higher education. Although the final chapter on this story has yet to be written, the news media has chronicled a national dialogue on the fate of the American manufacturing sector. Rather than letting U.S. automobile manufacturers disappear in the midst of a dramatic economic recession, we have decided as a nation to preserve GM and Chrysler but also to require them to retool and streamline their operations. This decision was driven by the belief that losing the backbone of our manufacturing sector would ultimately be harmful to our country.
It may be time for a similar dialogue on the shape of the U.S. higher education system and the place of liberal arts colleges within that system. For generations, small liberal arts colleges have demonstrated their educational value. As Thomas Cech noted in his article “Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education,” they produce scientists and scholars at a higher per capita rate than other types of postsecondary institutions. Furthermore, many leaders in business, politics, education, and other fields received their education at liberal arts colleges, as noted in the Annapolis Group’s report, “The Nation’s Top Liberal Arts Colleges.” In addition, liberal arts colleges have served as a valuable “test kitchen” for other more complex but less nimble higher education institutions.
According to the education historian Frederick Rudolph, numerous educational innovations, such as freshman seminars, single-course intensive study terms, honors programs, and senior theses emerged from liberal arts colleges before they spread to other types of colleges and universities. Likewise, many second and third-tier liberal arts colleges have demonstrated a special talent for serving first-generation college students. Essentially, these small colleges with nurturing environments have served as a portal to liberal education for many students whose families have never before participated in higher education.
In a 2005 report on the impact of liberal arts colleges, Ernest Pascarella and his co-authors observe that the liberal arts college is unique in its total dedication to undergraduate education. Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini in their comprehensive study of college outcomes concluded that the liberal arts college in its traditional form provides a supportive psychological environment that promotes institutional impact on students. Pascarella and his 2005 co-authors concluded the attributes that have made the liberal arts college a powerful learning environment include “a strong emphasis on teaching and student development, a common valuing of the life of the mind, small size, a shared intellectual experience, high academic expectations, and frequent interactions inside and outside the classroom between students and faculty.”
Alexander Astin, professor emeritus of higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles, drawing upon extensive national research on higher education, reported that liberal arts college students expressed higher satisfaction with teaching and general education programs than students from other types of postsecondary institutions. Similarly, Indiana University researchers Shouping Hu and George Kuh found that students in liberal arts colleges, in general, are more engaged in their college experience than their counterparts in research universities and comprehensive colleges.
Many liberal arts colleges today are working to update their academic programs and better connect them with the outside world and career opportunities. Writing in a 2009 Liberal Educationarticle, Richard Freeland notes that these changes are driven by recognition that “a traditional liberal education may not, by itself, be a sufficient preparation for the adult world.” Freeland further reports that colleges such as Bates and Wellesley have established programs to enhance civic engagement and develop skills needed for constructive citizenship.
Many liberal arts colleges are trying to make liberal education more relevant and practical by making internships, study abroad, service learning, and other forms of problem-based and experiential learning opportunities available to their students. The challenge for all liberal arts colleges is to adapt their educational programs in a turbulent environment without losing their educational souls and distinctive identity. Can they preserve their core values and mission that have made them particularly effective educational institutions throughout the history of American higher education while adapting to the challenging demands they confront in the early 21st century?
Given their powerful educational environments and important contributions to society, it would be unfortunate to see liberal arts colleges disappear or become so few in number that they lose their ability to influence and inspire other types of colleges and universities. Yet national data on liberal arts colleges suggest that their numbers are decreasing as many evolve into “professional colleges” or other types of higher education institutions.
Fundamentally, the future of the liberal arts college is uncertain. The traditional residential liberal arts college offering a coherent educational program based firmly in arts and science fields and offering a shared intellectual experience to all of its students may be dying out. Or the liberal arts college may gradually be evolving into a new, more up-to-date form. Are we witnessing a process of extinction of the traditional liberal arts college or a healthy process of adaptation and evolution? Whichever process is underway, it seems to be largely unplanned and incremental rather than strategic.
What to Do?
In a dynamic society, change is inevitable and, in most cases, desirable. However, how change occurs is important as well. Do we let change unfold without direction or do we guide change through a careful process of assessment, dialogue, and strategic initiative?
The American liberal arts college has reached an important crossroad. We believe that assertive and coordinated action is necessary to stem the gradual demise of the liberal arts college sector. For this reason, we urge private philanthropic foundations with a tradition of supporting liberal arts colleges (for example the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Teagle Foundation) to take the lead with two important steps:
1. Convene a series of meetings to discuss the future of the liberal arts college with the goal of recommending specific actions to update and strengthen these institutions. These meetings should include a diverse mix of liberal arts colleges, voluntary college consortia, other major education interest groups, and representatives of the public at large.
2. Establish a competitive funding program encouraging liberal arts colleges to design innovative and entrepreneurial educational programs that preserve the best aspects of the liberal arts college model while adapting the model to the demands of a rapidly changing world. This initiative should encourage creative proposals within the liberal arts college framework rather than the addition of new programs on the margins that dilute the mission and intellectual coherence of these colleges.
The future of a core component of the U.S. higher education system is at stake. It is time for bold action before the liberal arts college sector becomes too small to be relevant and influential. It would be shameful if we allow the liberal arts college model to dwindle to the scale of an educational boutique accessible only to the academic and socioeconomic elite. We do not advocate a GM-style bailout for liberal arts colleges. However, we hope that one or more private foundations that recognize the important contributions of liberal arts colleges will step up to the plate and assume the vital leadership role that is needed before many more of these esteemed colleges disappears.
Roger G. Baldwin and Vicki L. Baker
Roger G. Baldwin is professor of educational administration and coordinator of the graduate program in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University's College of Education. Vicki L. Baker is an assistant professor of economics and management at Albion College.
Without intending it, I offended my friends by speaking a foreign language.
When I left a research center for the humanities and started work in a philanthropic foundation over five years ago, I wanted to know if a foundation could make a difference to the extent and depth of student learning in the liberal arts. To answer that question, I had to learn as much as I could about how students learn and how we know about their learning. Before long, I was studying reports such as the one produced by the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative (LEAP) that argued that liberal education ought to be understood not as exposing students to certain fields of knowledge, but as helping them to develop long-lasting cognitive and personal capacities. When I started using that phrase, I was on a slippery slope.
The next thing I knew, I was asking whether colleges and universities were translating that understanding of liberal education into clear learning outcomes. The phrase did not come tripping off the tongue, but the question was such an important one that I went right ahead and asked whether their practices were truly and effectively aligned with these outcomes. Were scaffoldings in place to help students move from one cognitive level to a higher one?
Despite its efforts to strengthen teaching, almost no one at the humanities center had spoken this lingo -- or asked such questions. When I started to do so, I found myself making the strange hiss sounds of “assessment,” a sound so savagely obnoxious that my friends began to hint that I was opening the gates to the barbarians.
I tried to conciliate them by substituting the term “evidence” for “assessment,” but they were too smart for that. And when I found I needed to investigate the various instruments that had been developed to help measure student learning, it was clear to many friends that I had gone over to the dark side. Terms such as NSSE, CLA, HERI, and CIRP were shibboleths that marked me as one of them.
It did no good to explain these were just convenient acronyms for titles in plain English. The titles themselves gave the show away: the National Survey of Student Engagement, for example, was clearly code for an alien view of education. The surveys were quantitative, a classicist friend noted with horror, warning me that “You can’t measure the human soul with numbers.”
Even worse, when I learned that the NSSE surveys had produced an empirical base for identifying a few high-impact practices, ones that demonstrably improved student engagement, learning, retention and graduation rates, the terms were so off-putting that in some quarters the ideas behind it could, as they say, gain no traction.
One friend -- who has somehow remained so despite my wayward behavior -- told me I needed to find some way to “translate” phrases such as high-impact practices into language more acceptable in the more ethereal reaches of the academy.
But I had done enough translating in my days as a classicist; now I was more interested in changing practice, and that, I realized, meant changing discourse. My theoretically minded friends had taught me one thing, after all. Discourse shapes practice.
Or, freely translated, “You have to talk the talk before you can walk the walk."
So I went on to other ophidian sounds, asking how higher education could successfully make systemic and systematic changes. Teagle Foundation grants for this purpose were going well, but the sibilants still sounded pernicious in many ears. Nor did it help to “translate” systematic into the phrase continuous quality improvement. That had few sibilants, but an unmistakable whiff about it of a Toyota factory or some other banausic enterprise.
The new mode of speech had a disconcerting inflection as well as an annoying vocabulary. For example, the stress in the “teaching and learning” moved disconcertingly from the first syllable of the dactyl, “teach’ing and … ” to the penult in the spondee, “learn’ing.” That reflects the emphasis in the new discourse on student learning. It expects students to take responsibility for their education rather than leaving the burden on “great teachers” and “good pedagogy.” Goodbye, Mr Chips. Hello daily development of cumulative cognitive and personal capacities.
Although it continues to give offense, the new discourse has in the last year or two passed a tipping point. It has now become the dominant mode of arguing, thinking and doing something about higher education.
There are two reasons, I believe, for this. First the accrediting organizations now insist on clear learning goals and rigorous assessment of progress toward them. And they are “drilling down” to the department and even course level to see what is being achieved.
More important, however, is a second reason: Faculty members who approach teaching in this way report that it is energizing, empowering, refreshing. It’s a welcome change from endless debates about the literary canon, or the curriculum. They say the terminology is no more opaque than the vocabulary of the economists, or the language we philologists use in establishing the stemmatics of ancient texts, or the useful technical terminologies developed in reader-response theory, deconstruction, and subaltern studies.
Every craft has its discourse, and every discourse shapes practice. It’s the results that count. It’s worth learning some new vocabulary when new friends whose speech I have come to understand are saying that they like having students who are more intensely engaged in learning, and taking greater responsibility for their education. They even talk about greater “satisfaction.”
How’s that for a change in discourse?
Robert Connor is president of the Teagle Foundation.
The topic of mandatory unpaid days off, also known as Fun Furloughs, has occupied the minds of many faculty and staff members at U of All People. This year, the number of such days off has been set at half a semester for faculty and a full semester for staff. To enforce the terms of the contract -- take the time off or get fired -- the university has created a new administrative department called University Enforcement. The current enforcer was hired from the Acme Debt Collection Agency, and his first act of office was issuing this communiqué to the university listserv:
As most of you already know, except the loafers who’ve been vacationing in the Cayman Islands, we have a full-fledged recession on our hands at U of All People. The state is running a deficit of $5 billion, and the governor is trying to trim costs wherever he can. Obviously, he looked first at the educational sector, where bloated salaries and irresponsible perks have caused most of the financial crisis. In short, it’s time for accountability.
What is a furlough, exactly? According to the dictionary, it can mean: to dismiss, usually for economic reasons; to grant a leave to; or a temporary leave of absence from military duty. We’re talking about the first meaning, or maybe the second, though I’m used to dealing with the third. Compared to a short stretch in prison for nonpayment of debts, or the breaking of a leg for similar reasons, it’s comparatively painless. Think of it as a welcome break from monotony. And consider yourself lucky you still have your jobs, though in fact we had no intention of making layoffs, simply counted on your bowing to the threat, and turned out to be right.
Now, in case you’re getting ideas of taking a trip to Spain on your unpaid vacation, please note the following:
You may not take off any days when you would ordinarily would be teaching, which does not mean you can take off days when you might be teaching extraordinarily.
You may not take consecutive days off, a stretch that might indicate you do have a function, after all.
You may not enjoy your time off. This order comes directly from the provost, who hasn’t enjoyed herself in years.
You may not take the extra time to demonstrate in front of the governor’s office against education cuts.
You may ask: What’s left for me to take off from? Good question. While on furlough, you may refrain from attending committees, except those we deem urgent; meeting with students, except where they appear needy; using the library -- and who does nowadays, anyway? -- and answering e-mail unless you receive one of those messages stamped with a “!” for high priority, like this one. Whether you eat lunch in the overpriced faculty dining hall on a furlough day is up to you, though we are, of course, not responsible for any damage to your person on that day, gastric or otherwise. After much bargaining back and forth, however, the administration has agreed to let members of the local AFT wear placards that read “Please don’t talk to me today. I’m on furlough.”
This is not an attempt to deprive you of salary, though the furloughs will, in fact, result in at least a 50 percent reduction per semester. If the furloughs appear not to have a significant impact on your teaching, you may expect an increase in the number of furlough days next year.
What should you tell your students? Nothing, preferably. It will only confuse them. But if the news does somehow leak out, here are some lines of defense we urge you to take:
1. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 2. “I’ve been missing a lot of sleep lately, and it’s finally catching up with me.” 3. “Teach isn’t going to die for a while, he’s just going to be ... away.”
How to feel about these furloughs:
1. It’s not me; it’s the system. 2. Everybody needs a furlough now and then. 3. You deserve a break today.
Unfortunately, the administration is unable to avail itself of the furlough system this year because of the indispensable nature of its operations, wherein even one missed hour would result in the gears of the university breaking off tooth by tooth. You who are cogs, we salute you.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
I fell in love with him first over the phone. A man older than my father, a man I hadn’t yet met in person, a man about whom I knew little except that he was kind to me, but someone who was different in obvious and profound ways from the people I encountered every day.
In 1984 I had just started a full-time job as an editorial assistant. I was fortunate to be working for an editor who saw it as part of her mission to educate me. Susan would invite me to sit in on her hectoring conversations with authors, where she would tell them, harsh and didactic in both her tone and her language, exactly what was wrong with their thinking. She would explain to me how manuscripts get shaped into books, what the expectations of a reader are and how the author can’t afford to frustrate them. She talked a lot about fairness. She was the first proud Reaganite I ever thought was smart.
A part of my job, after I’d finished typing up correspondence, preparing projects to go into production, trafficking copy and marketing materials, and answering the phone, was to line up readers to report on manuscripts. This was just as Oxford was starting to publish scholarly books, and it was an easy way to build a list. Peer review counted more than an editor’s good judgment and took less time. Susan had only to look quickly at the first few pages and decide whether or not a project was worthy of being “sent out.” She’d give me a list of names, or tell me to call one person (usually an author) and ask for suggestions. This was one of my least favorite parts of the job. You’d have to make a zillion phone calls, and leave hundreds of messages. Sometimes academics were nice, but they were rarely in their offices. They could be mean or pompous, and would sometimes lecture me on the manuscript they hadn’t yet read. I imagine that now, with e-mail, things are a whole lot easier.
Sometimes I’d strike out so many times I would end up with a reader who wouldn’t be a natural extension of the scholars on the original list, which is probably how it happened, because now I can’t believe that Susan would ever have asked me to call him as a reader. He was surprised at being asked to do something for Oxford. But he talked to me in a way that other readers -- busy, name-brand academics -- didn’t.
He wondered what it was like to do my job. (I loved it. Really? he said. You love your work?) Where had I come from? (College -- I’d started working at Oxford one day a week before I’d even graduated. He asked which college, and then didn’t say much.) Where did I live? (Manhattan. He’d grown up, he said, in Brooklyn. His accent, in fact, reminded me of my grandparents who still lived there.) Where had I grown up? (In the boonies of upstate New York.) My parents’ jobs? (My father was a bitter, third-rate academic at a state university.) Future plans? (No plans -- I took this job instead of going for my dream, working on a dude ranch in Wyoming. Too bad, he said, that my dream hadn’t quite worked out. Yet.)
I can’t remember what manuscript I’d sent him, or what he sent back in his reader’s report. I do remember that Susan was surprised to see a report from him and to hear that we’d had a long talk. And I remember that not long after, he called to say that he was going to be in New York City and wanted to come by the office. Come by, I said.
He wasn’t anything like what I expected. He was tall, very tall, and athletic-looking, with a strong face, and salty dark hair. He was handsome in ways that I didn’t think a sixty-year-old man could ever be.
We sat in my office and chatted. He told me about his kids -- there were two, both older than me. Mostly, though, he wanted to know about me.
How much is there for a 22-year-old girl to say about herself? I talked about my work. I talked about how this job was like being in graduate school. I got to learn not only about publishing, but about a whole bunch of academic fields I hadn’t gone deep into in college, where I read mostly English literature, a little bit of criticism, and dabbled in philosophy. Now I was immersed in political science, sociology and, when Susan could sneak it in, history. Oxford was then divided -- in divisive and rancorous ways -- by traditional disciplinary lines and editorial jealousies, and fears of “poaching” buzzed like flies in the hallways.
We editorial assistants had our own sources of strife. Some had to work for bosses who were, if I’m to be honest, bat-shit crazy. Others were chained to their desks, barely allowed to leave the building for lunch. Most didn’t get the kind of author contact I was allowed, because most editors didn’t share their jobs as fully as Susan did. I got to go to important meetings while my friends were typing. I went to lunches at fancy expensive account restaurants as long as I got the Xeroxing done.
I told him about the opportunities being handed to me, the fact that I didn’t even know, most of the time, when I was talking to people who were famous in their fields. I was paid to read, I told him, to learn. It was a great job.
Later, he would confess that he told his students about me -- that I was one of the few people he knew who was truly happy with her work. Now I don’t know whether to believe this; I suspect he said it to make me feel good and that he knew that someday I would realize that things were not so simple.
We began having lunches. I flexed a fledgling expense account to take him out when he came to New York, and I made time to see him on the occasions when I got to travel to Boston. I would always ask what he was working on, acting like a big girl editor. After my first year at OUP I left Susan to work for the American history editor, so this would have made sense, but it didn’t interest him in the least. His work was different from most of Oxford’s list; in many ways, I later realized, we were the mainstream he was reacting against.
Once he called me up to say that he had written a play about Emma Goldman; it was being produced in New York, directed by his son. He gave me the information and I said I would go. He told me to introduce myself to his son. I went to the play -- enraptured by the fact of knowing the playwright -- but was too shy to track down his son, who was tall and handsome like his father.
One day, over lunch in Boston, I grilled him and made me tell him his story. It’s a familiar one, by now: He was the son of Jewish immigrant, and began his career as a rabble-rouser at age 17. At that point I had moved to Brooklyn, and he talked about the Brooklyn Naval Yard, about meeting Roslyn, his wife. He talked about joining the Army to fight on the side of good against evil. “I was a bombardier,” he said. He said it twice, as if he could hardly believe it We were eating lunch, maybe at Legal Sea Foods in Cambridge, and I knew he was telling me something important. He told me about the box he’d stuffed all his army belongings into -- his medals, his papers -- and that he’d written “Never again” across the top.
He told me about teaching at Spelman College and his work during as part of the civil rights movement. He told me about getting fired.
And then he talked about Boston University and about John Silber. He said that he taught the biggest course at the university and that he wasn’t allowed any teaching assistants. The president had offered him some, he said, if he cut down his class size. Way down. He was on the eve of retirement, but said that he wanted to stick around just to irritate Silber.
At that point, I hadn’t read A People’s History of the United States. I knew Howard Zinn only as a professor who had read a manuscript for me and become, unexpectedly, my friend. And then I read him, and fell in love with him in myriad other ways. For his bravery. For his lucidity. And of course, for the generosity and authenticity of his vision. I have met labor historians who have no truck with laborers; defenders of social justice who say racist and sexist and plain old bigoted things after a cocktail or two.
There are many others who can talk about how Howard Zinn changed not only their lives, but the world. I am well aware of my good fortune. When I needed the figure of a good father, someone wise and kind, challenging and encouraging, I did a slipshod job at work and called him to read a manuscript.
Rachel Toor teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University, in Spokane.
Late last month, following a protest by House G.O.P. leader John Boehner and the Catholic League president William Donohue over its imagery of ants swarming over a crucifix, the National Portrait Gallery removed a video called “A Fire in My Belly” by the late David Wojnarowicz from an exhibition. (See this report in IHE.) Over the past week, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles painted over a mural it had commissioned from an artist named Blu; the mural showed rows of coffins draped in dollar bills. MOCA explained that the work was “inappropriate” given its proximity to a VA hospital and a memorial to Japanese-American soldiers, but has invited the muralist to come back and try again.
All of this in the wake of last spring's furor over the cartoon series South Park’s satirical depiction of Muhammad (or rather, its flirtation with that depiction). I didn’t pay all that much attention to the controversy as it was occurring, since I was still getting angry e-mail messages from Hindus who objected to a scholarly book for its impiety towards their gods. It felt like I had absorbed enough indignation to last a good long time. But there’s always plenty more where that came from. People feel aggrieved even during the holiday season. Actually, just calling it “the holiday season” is bound to upset somebody.
So it may not make sense to use the word “timely” to describe Stefan Collini’s new book That’s Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect (published by Seagull and distributed by the University of Chicago Press). The topic seems perennial.
A professor of intellectual history and English literature at the University of Cambridge, Collini is also the author of Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (2006) and Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics (2008), both from Oxford University Press. His latest volume is part of a new series, “Manifestos for the 21st Century,” published in association with the internationally renowned journal Index on Censorship. As with his other recent work, it takes as its starting point the question of how criticism functions within a society.
The word “criticism” has a double meaning. There is the ordinary-usage sense of it to mean “fault-finding,” which implies an offended response almost by definition. Less obviously tending to provoke anger and defensiveness is criticism as, in Collini’s words, “the general public activity of bringing some matter under reasoned or dispassionate scrutiny.” Someone may find it absurd or perverse that there are critics who think Milton made Satan the real hero of Paradise Lost, but I doubt this interpretation has made anyone really unhappy, at least within recent memory.
Alas, this distinction is not really so hard and fast, since even the most dispassionate criticism often involves “a broader analysis of the value or legitimacy of particular claims or practices.” And it is sometimes easier to distinguish this from fault-finding in theory than in practice. “Such analysis,” writes Collini, “will frequently be conducted in terms other than those which the proponents of a claim or the devotees of a practice are happy to accept as self-descriptions, and this divergence of descriptive languages then becomes a source of offense in itself.”
Not to accept a self-description implies that it is somehow inadequate, even self-delusional. This rarely goes over well. An artist showing coffins draped with dollar bills, rather than flags, is making a polemical point -- in ways that a scholar analyzing the psychosexual dimension of religious narratives probably isn’t. But offense will be taken either way.
Such conflicts are intense enough when the exchange is taking place within a given society. When questions about “the value or legitimacy of particular claims or practices” are posed across cultural divides, the possibilities for outrage multiply -- and the problem arises of whether critique amounts to an act of aggression.
Let me simply recommend Collini’s book, rather than try to synopsize his argument on that score. But it seems like a good antidote to both clash-of-civilizationists and identity-politicians.
“Criticism may be less valued or less freely practiced in some societies than in others,” he writes, “but it is not intrinsically or exclusively associated with one kind of society, in the way that, say, hamburgers or cricket are. And anyway, different ‘cultures’ are not tightly sealed, radically discontinuous entities: they are porous, overlapping, changing ways of life lived by people with capacities and inclinations that are remarkably similar to those we are familiar with. While there are various ways to show ‘respect’ for people some of whose beliefs differ from our own, exempting those beliefs from criticism is not one of them.”
As a corollary, this implies cultivating a willingness to listen to critiques of our own deeply embedded self-descriptions. No easy thing -- for "so natural to mankind," in the words of John Stuart Mill, "is intolerance to what it really cares about." Amen to that.
Suppose you are an ambitious, gifted college student with a passion for your major and the potential to become a world-class college teacher. You are precisely the person parents and taxpayers want to be teaching tomorrow’s students. Furthermore, private and public spending per college student has grown faster than median household incomes for the past three decades, suggesting that people are willing to pay more for your services. You want this career, parents/taxpayers want you to have this career, and they are willing to pay for it; what wonderful prospects!
During your undergraduate studies you were introduced to several luminaries in your field who receive considerable attention from the news media and are often on the lecture circuit. They are well-known for their six-figure salaries and commanding positions in your discipline. So far, it’s all good. Except …
Unfortunately, the luminosity of the luminaries has nothing to do with their teaching prowess; it is entirely due to their scholarship. There is a thriving market for senior scholars in higher education -- a market that brings plenty of release time from teaching, along with high salaries and fame.
There is no corresponding market for world-class teachers. No one in higher education becomes famous or well-compensated for exceptional teaching. How could this happen, since the students, parents, and taxpayers (those who pay the bills) have only a passing interest in research, but an abiding and personal stake in high-quality teaching?
Before we address that question, it is important to note there are many social benefits to be derived from an efficient market for senior scholars; the existence of that market is not the problem. Only spite and envy would ban the market for scholars as some ill-conceived “fix” for the imbalance between teaching and research. The correct response is to learn why we have a market for scholars and no market for teachers.
The critical reason why one market exists and the other does not is the information available to potential employers. Potential employers of professors have sufficient information to judge scholarly productivity, but virtually no information that would allow them to judge teaching productivity.
Institutions seeking to hire exceptional scholars can identify productive scholars at other institutions. The information they need is provided by outside sources that are independent of the scholar’s home institution, the scholar in question, and the potential employer. That information comes from the journals where the scholar publishes, books they’ve written, citations by other scholars, and their reputation among other scholars in the field.
None of this information exists for gifted teachers, and as a consequence, a potential employer seeking gifted teachers cannot identify those candidates. This creates a real problem for the potential employer. The teacher’s home institution may know who is an exceptional teacher and who is not, but too many institutions don’t even bother to find out.
If the potential employer makes an offer to a candidate and that candidate is in fact a gifted teacher, the home institution will make a counter offer. If the candidate is in fact a poor or average teacher, the home institution will not make a counter offer and the potential employer is likely to hire a poor or average teacher. This leads to what economists call “adverse selection” for job offers to potential teachers. Since the prospective employer knows it is likely to hire a poor or average teacher rather than an exceptional teacher, it does not make offers designed to attract exceptional teachers, and the market for exceptional teachers does not exist. Clearly, this problem is made worse by tenure, since tenure greatly increases the cost of making a bad hiring decision. In short, the “market for superior teaching” has unraveled due to insufficient information about teaching quality.
What does this mean for our prospective college teacher? First, he or she will not be able to find a Ph.D. program that specializes in preparing world-class college teachers; all the Ph.D. programs try to produce scholars, even when their own faculty members are not good enough to adequately train a new scholar. Most of these second- and third-tier Ph.D. programs could succeed in training teachers, but they do not because all the rewards in the faculty tenure and promotion process go to scholarship.
Second, the lack of a market for teaching creates a real dilemma for a new Ph.D. starting an academic career. If he starts his career on the teaching track, his future employment opportunities are limited to the teaching track since it is the information attached to research output that enables outside job offers and he will not have time to do research. Further, if he gets tenure through teaching, he will never be able to move to another comparable institution with tenure; the tenured teacher is stuck at his home institution and his employer knows he is stuck. On the other hand, if he starts on the research track, there is a chance he can move up the quality rankings, gaining more salary and fame if he succeeds as a researcher.
Now, suppose we have two fully informed young people: one aspires to be a world-class scholar and the other aspires to be a world-class teacher. They are about to make their career choices. The fully informed potential scholar chooses an academic career and the fully informed potential teacher decides to apply her talents to some other career. The few talented potential teachers who choose college teaching careers are those who derive significant personal satisfaction from teaching (despite the lack of public acclaim or financial rewards) or are very risk-averse (they crave the economic security provided by a tenured position).
What does this mean for college prices and quality? Since there are few rewards for teaching, faculty members focus too much on scholarship. Rather aspiring to be well-balanced teacher/scholars, faculty members become slaves to scholarship. We have a similar result for institutions. “Mission creep” among colleges and universities is partially due to the imbalance in the rewards for teaching and research. Colleges and universities try to become research institutions, rather than world-class undergraduate teaching institutions. As great teachers are discouraged from becoming professors, and as professors are discouraged from focusing on teaching, undergraduate teaching quality declines steadily over time.
Some may argue that an active research agenda improves teaching quality, but the evidence proves otherwise. A meta-analysis of the studies looking at the relationship between research and teaching by John Hattie and H. W. Marsh finds that they are completely unrelated. Nor is it hard to imagine why -- more research means less time for teaching.
Why has this obvious imbalance existed for so long? First, the average faculty member has nothing to gain from correcting the problem. This is obvious if the average faculty member is a scholar, but, it is also true if the average faculty member is a teacher, as the average teacher is by definition not a world-class teacher (out of the entire population of potential teachers, the current system weeds out a disproportionate share of good teachers and encourages the rest to focus on research, meaning that the current crop consists of below-average teachers).
Further, teaching institutions have little incentive to correct the problem. If they compete for students by publicly promoting their exceptional teachers, they run the risk of having those teachers hired by another institution, and they strengthen the teacher’s negotiating position with respect to the institution. In other words, recognizing the exceptional teachers increases their mobility and raises the probability they will be hired by others. Even among teaching institutions, colleges do not invest in the personal reputations of individual teachers; they always tout the high-quality teaching of their faculty as a group (everyone is above average). While there are a plethora of campus teaching awards and recognitions, they count for little outside their home institutions. Prospective employers know that most institutions do not make a serious attempt to measure individual value added and that leads teaching awards to be more political than they should be.
Even if the home institution sincerely wants to compete on the basis of high-value-added teaching, it has no way of changing the environment it operates in. If it is the only institution to identify and promote their exceptional teachers, those teachers can be lured away by other institutions, and the rest of the faculty will resent the recognition given to exceptional teachers (current teaching awards do not lead to this behavior because no one knows what a teaching award at different institution signifies).
What Can Be Done?
The “holy grail” of higher education reform should be the creation of a market for exceptional college teachers. The vigorous market for scholars provides the keys to this project. First, the information required does not have to be perfect in order for the market to be efficient (the information about scholars is not perfect). Second, the source of this information should be independent of the individual teachers, their home institutions, and their potential employers. There is great hope that the Web will be the requisite outside platform. Intercollegiate teaching tournaments are another possibility, as are digital course offerings.
The key requirement is a mechanism for excellent teachers to establish their reputations independently of those who have a vested interest in the outcome. Once that happens, teachers will no longer be filtered out of the pool of professors, as they are now. As a result, great teachers will enter the profession in greater numbers, and existing professors will have incentives to improve their teaching as well.
Robert Martin and Andrew Gillen
Robert Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College and author of The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality (Edward Elgar, Ltd., forthcoming). Andrew Gillen is the research director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
In these financially perilous times, campus administrators are looking for places to slash costs, whether that means a universitywide hiring freeze or axing the French department. Even if the measure saves only a few dollars, the act itself is significant. When stubborn trustees or even the uneducated public inquire what the college is prepared to sacrifice to stay afloat, the provost or her henchmen must have some answers.
This air of pragmatic desperation has certainly infected the atmosphere at U of All People, where Provost Jeanne Dark has begun all meetings with the invocation “Every crisis is an opportunity.” UAP President Lenny Grouper, the third school head in as many years, has indicated his nervous assent.
Just as desperate, departments and programs are coming to terms with negative raises and zero office supplies, even as they make their annual cases to deans and higher-ups for more money. These pleas are a curious balancing act of a forlorn tone to show need, and can-do optimism to avoid Provost Dark’s pulling the plug on the program. Below is a sampling of recent e-mails.
From: "Dirk Hartwell" <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: 2011/02/14 Mon AM 09:53:21 EDT To: <email@example.com> Subject: 2011-12 budget
To Professor Moriarty, Dean of Humanities:
As you probably know, the psychology department converted its last remaining lab into a combined mail room and office space last year, selling off our pigeons and cages on eBay for a grand total of $352. Because of the increase in class size, from 25 to a cap of 120, we’ve had to bend our curriculum to fit. The good news is that we’ve inaugurated two new courses for the larger sections, Psych. Ed. and Mass Thinking, and though we have no one to teach them because of the untimely departure of Professor Spitch to U Hoo (where the cap on comparable classes is 27½ ), we’re soldiering on. I won’t even mention what we’ve done with our lab rats.
We all recall what happened to the French department last year during its fiscal crisis, so this isn’t exactly a plea for funds, just your solid support and perhaps a promise not to cut our last office staff member, Hilda Trupp, who’s thinking of getting married. If you want the larger picture, think of it this way: where would America be without psychology?
Date: 2011/02/14 Mon AM 10:18:21 EDT To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: music and money
To Dr. Mamon, Dean of the Arts:
Why, oh, why is music always the first in line during funding cuts? Our one concert grand is permanently out of tune, and our piano instructor is giving lessons on the side during class breaks just to make some extra money. The chorus needs funds to travel to Salt Lake City for its annual competition with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. At the very least, you could provide us with new instruments. The children -- I mean the students -- will be so happy!
On the plus side, we’re putting on five concerts this year. Be sure and show up on March 6th, when we’ll be playing your favorite, “For the Love of Money.”
From: "George Manly" <email@example.com>
Date: 2011/02/14 Mon AM 11:22:18 EDT To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: fiscal fitness
I know -- we all know -- that you’re looking to cut costs, but please don’t look in the direction of the business school, especially not as we’re just climbing out of the recession. You don’t want to cripple our recovery, do you? Shrinking enrollments shouldn’t be reflected in our take-home pay. As you’re aware, most of our faculty have deliberately chosen to teach in the academy (except Ben Krupt), when they could be pulling down six figures in private industry, if this were still 2007 and they had those jobs.
All I’m saying is that we need to pump some more money into the economy, starting with the full professors’ salaries. As for the others, the trickle-down effect will work if we just give it time.
From: "Johnny Feare" <email@example.com> Date: 2011/02/14 Mon AM 12:13:14 EDT To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: the usual
It’s that time of year again, and it’s the same song as last time. I’ll keep it real simple. We need $100,000 more for football recruitment. Maybe $25,000 more for incidentals. This is a small request. Did I say $25,000 extra? I meant $50,000. We had a real good season last year. We’re doing pretty damn well now, too, but we could be doing better. And you know what the alums will say if we let things slide. You want to keep your job, don’t you?
David Galef is a professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.