Humanities

Essay critiques how 'student as customer' idea erodes key values in higher education

When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, the university built a posh outdoor swimming pool next to the campus’s main recreational facility. But it wasn’t a lap pool or an Olympic-style pool. It wasn’t built primarily for exercise. It was a lounging pool, with serpentine borders, tons of deck chairs, shady palms, and a snack bar. It looked in every way like something that you might see at a fancy resort, minus the booze. That pool, built purely for the purposes of coeducational sunning and fraternizing, represents an investment that UT-Austin made into the social experiences of students, arguably a distant remove from the university’s academic mission.

I suspect that when you have a high-end and highly identifiable brand, as UT-Austin does, that such amenities help to further “sell” the university to well-heeled undergrads. For better or worse, universities can and will maintain enrollments, at least for a time, not by (or not only by) improving academic experiences, but by improving students’ material surroundings and social experiences. The logic of such expenditures — which are common and ongoing on different scales at many campuses nationally — makes sense only if we view students as customers, as payers of tuition that colleges need to rope in with sweeter and sweeter deals.

We are undeniably in an era where the governing model of education is one that conceives of students as customers. In fact, this cognitive model of how colleges and students relate to one another, that of a business selling to customer, is currently so deeply rooted in how we see and discuss higher education that it can be difficult to even imagine other frames or metaphors for the relationship between educators and those who access that education. In our era of economic survivalism, students are not only customers, but, insidiously, are becoming marks, the unwitting victims propping up an unsustainable model of education.

Here are some of the symptoms of the corrosiveness of the student-as-customer model:

  • We woo students with slick advertising. Some people feel that, as an industry, higher education over-recruits students. I’m not sure that we do or don’t. Yet, instead of asking the question of whether or not we over-recruit, we simply invest more and more in advertising and public relations endeavors designed to recruit more and more students, perhaps unsustainably so. The fundamental thinking, writing, and analytical development that takes place within the core of liberal studies education (while atrophying, still the core collegiate experience that connects students of all majors at most colleges and universities) benefits all students of all majors, and even students in two-year degree programs. Instead of investing in the liberal studies or general education elements of curricular experience, we recruit, recruit, recruit. Our institutions focus on the point of sale, often to the neglect of the delivery of the educational product.
  • We extend these student-customers an astounding amount of easy credit. If students are customers, they need money to spend. The student-as-customer model allows us to rationalize (actually, rationalizes for us) the cycles of student-loan debt that increasingly appear to mortgage many young graduates’ futures. Such logic also allows us to write off as unwise those students who accumulate large debts on seemingly “impractical” degrees, without acknowledging the larger cycle of recruitment and easy-credit through which such students are convinced to buy into, literally, their university in the first place.The burden of debt has been shifted onto students in the first place, because state legislatures appear to be less and less inclined to subsidize education, despite it demonstrated long-term benefits, on the very logic that students are “customers” and that we ought not underwrite individual purchases. Not even educational ones that benefit the culture and state at large.
  • We turn universities into brands. Marquee universities (think state flagships and famous private universities) trade primarily on their brand names. This allows universities to sell the perception of what the university achieves, rather than focusing attention and resources on academics. It also justifies potentially corrupt and exploitative athletic programs in the name of brand recognition and alumni contentment. The impulse to protect the brand also frequently compels universities to shirk responsibility when missteps or scandals occur, rather than immediately taking responsibility and corrective action.
  • We focus on growth for growth’s sake. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to grow academic programs and colleges and universities. But too many institutions grow for the sake of growing itself, because it is the only way to increase revenue. Such growth is unsustainable, on a variety of fronts. For example, in my state of North Carolina, state funding is tied in part to enrollment growth, and in an era where the state legislature has cut budgets to the bone, one of the few ways for universities to see increased funding is to increase the numbers of students on their campuses, with predictable complications.
  • We vocationalize higher education. In the student-as-customer model, students and their parents both begin to ask a “what am I buying?” question. A postsecondary education is not a guarantee of success. It is not the straight-forward purchase of a better future. It never has been. But when the entire educational system conceives of students as customers, a burden of responsibility shifts. It shifts from the student, whose responsibility might once have been to go out and put the education to use, to the university, which is increasingly seen as a half-way house to employment. Students, and those who “assess university success,” become fixated on their perception of the end product, a student seated in an office chair, and forget that education is a process, and one that students ought to continue on their own post-graduation. All sorts of higher order thinking is marginalized when we become exclusively fixated on getting students jobs. It is a prime example of privileging short term priorities over long term ones.

The student-as-customer model, because it is premised upon unsustainable growth and unsecured debt, and government abandonment of its responsibilities, is the human equivalent of strip-mining. It is a wholesale mortgage of the future in exchange for fleeting short terms gains. The problem is not even necessarily in having a student-as-customer model, but in assuming that growth, rather than sustainability and equilibrium, is the only forward motion available to higher education.

We know that within the cliché-driven logic of our culture that if students are customers, then the old main street American, folksy business mantra that “the customer is always right” can’t be too far behind. We see the manifestation of the “always right student-customer” everywhere in academe: in grade inflation (who’s going to pay top dollar for Cs and Ds?), in the resort-ification of campuses (come check out our 90-foot climbing wall and palm-shaded socializing pool); in the hesitance to hold students accountable for their behavior (pick your high-profile college athlete crime example, or laughable university honor code); and in the near-pathological zeal with which higher education seeks to turn elements of the curriculum into swappable commodities (think of states’ efforts to create universally transferrable courses or blocks of “general education” or “liberal studies” credits, essentially an exercise in reduction to the lowest common educational denominator).   

On campus, the trite but powerful idea that the customer is never wrong also confuses the mission of our universities. In the language of business, the metaphor enables us to forget what our product is. The university itself becomes the product, rather than the education that the university provides. At one of my sister campuses, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, students have begun to speak out against a lavish new recreation center, arguing that it is an unnecessary cost and a distraction from the university’s primary mission.

Off campus, the same logic of student-as-customer cultivates another set of similarly alarming impulses. The mentality treats academic coursework as standardized parts within a Fordian, standardized academic assembly line. The metaphor drives legislation that treats universities as wayward corporations, rather than as the public infrastructure necessary to sustain a vital democracy.

If there’s an upside to thinking of students as customers, I think it is that the model reminds us that we and our universities are directly accountable to students. Ours is a role of service, direct service to the students we enroll, and indirect service to the society those students will populate and some day run. We are accountable to manage university resources — human, financial, and other — around the primary mission of providing education.  We are and ought to be accountable to students and to taxpayers. But the student-as-customer model makes us accountable to the wrong values, to purely financial motives, and at the neglect of the many idealistic, ethical, and democratic motives for expanding access to higher education.

 

Nate Kreuter is an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University and a career advice columnist for Inside Higher Ed.

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Why replacing humanities with '7 Habits' isn't wise (essay)

As Inside Higher Ed reported last week, the newest round of curricular mayhem instigated by Bruce H. Leslie, the chancellor of the Alamo Colleges, is to replace his district’s second three-credit humanities course requirement with a class based on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. (Leslie might have suggested Machiavelli’s The Prince, which seems closer to his style of governance.

The FranklinCovey Company plans to release a textbook specifically for EDUC 1300, Learning Framework, which will be required for every student taking the course. Perhaps Leslie read the 2013 version from Save Time Summaries, whose motto is “Save Time and Understand More”! The lengthy list of short takes in the Save Times Summaries series includes Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Tim Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0, and, most puzzling of all, Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander III (surely, reading this proof doesn’t require saving time -- presumably we have all of eternity). All that remains, for some enterprising individual, is a proposal for “7 Effective Habits for Dummies.”   

And the new core course can’t be too intense; work place seminars on the book generally run around two days, and after all, as Colleen Flaherty reported for Inside Higher Ed, Leslie’s inspiration was a kindergarten class that he visited, where one young scholar shook his hand. Chancellor Leslie, in fact, seems fixated on the handshake, something even my mother’s succession of poodles has mastered.  

It came up again in his rationale for revising the core: According to Flaherty, “Leslie said the proposed course is a measured response to calls ... to ensure that students graduate with ‘soft skills’ -- leadership, knowing how to shake a hand, how to manage time effectively -- and from his own personal experience. Several years ago, Leslie realized that some graduates hardly looked him in the eye or knew how to shake his hand... .” Perhaps they just weren’t all that into him.                                   

As for eye contact, that can happen just as easily in a humanities course as in a class centered on a self-help book. I’ve encountered it hundreds of times: maybe it’s sparked by a line from a Seamus Heaney poem, or the final chapter of a novel by Zadie Smith, or a passage from  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a Slave: it’s the look of learning, the look that says, “I get it.” 

Perhaps in the chancellor’s dream course there will still be time for a short poem or a snippet from history or a mini lesson in how to say “Hello!” in different languages -- in weekly “Show and Tell” sessions, scheduled in between nap and snack times.  

And there may be additional reading. While the logical companion text would seem to be All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, other equally frightening supplemental possibilities include Who Moved My Cheese? and Fish! My recommendation is Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, if only because it includes the word Think in the title. 

Instructors at the Alamo Colleges are limited in terms of selecting their own texts, but they might also want to sneak in Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, if only for Gatsby’s Franklin-like self-improvement list, or what the little boy who so inspired Leslie on his fateful visit to that kindergarten class called his “data book.”  

Time permitting, students might also benefit from reading Langston Hughes’s “I, Too,” a concise and precise lesson in perception; Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a reminder of the dangers of procrastination, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater, a reminder of what highly effective people know: “Be kind.” Or, as Mr. Rosewater actually said, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies -- God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” 

The Save Time Summaries version of 7 Habits cut the original accompanying anecdotes, in the interests of time and space; this isn’t surprising, coming from a venture that also includes Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller on its list, with the promise of “From Start to Finish -- 20 minutes!”  

Now Chancellor Leslie’s lose/lose plan (see the discussion of Habit #4 of highly successful people) will do something similar for the students in his district. They’ll just have to wait for grad school curriculums in medicine, law, and business to find another course on the value of storytelling.  

Planners of those programs have recognized that storytelling -- both the telling and the listening -- are important. Narratives convey information and facilitate learning. Besides, it’s helpful to have a good tale to go along with that firm handshake.

But you don’t have to take the word of curriculum planners at Columbia University or Saint Louis University or Penn State University on the significance of storytelling -- just ask any five-year-old.

Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.

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Essay on negotiating academic job offers

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Get a Job!

But you won't get much of anything if you don't negotiate, says Cheryl E. Ball.

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Pulse podcast explores use of ePortfolios in higher education

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This month's edition of The Pulse podcast features an interview with Claudia Reuter, founder and CEO of SchoolChapters, which produces the Pruvalu electronic portfolio.

Reuter talks with Rodney B. Murray, host of The Pulse, about how colleges and universities are using Pruvalu for such purposes as institutional accreditation, assessment of student learning and faculty development.

Essay says that unbundling the faculty role may not be a bad idea

Of the litany of offenses commonly attributable to for-profit education, MOOCs, and other forms of distance education, one of the most incendiary is the thoughtless “unbundling” of the faculty role from the holy trinity of teaching, research, and service. This unbundling, a corporate approach to education, is blasted as a blasphemous affront to the core values that all educators share about teaching and learning. But as a recent presentation at the Association for the Study of Higher Education demonstrated, faculty unbundling has been happening for centuries.

Ever since the good ol’ days when Harvard University’s president was also the chief faculty member, admissions officer, and resident director, the faculty role has continually moved toward narrow specialization. As Sean Gehrke and Adrianna Kezar demonstrated in their paper “Unbundling the Faculty Role in Higher Education: A Theoretical Review,” events such as the formation of the student affairs profession in the late 1800s simply made official a trend that had been informally occurring for many years. The wholesale transition at many large research institutions to formalizing graduate assistants as the primary instructors in many courses unbundled the faculty role even more, enabling tenured professors to focus more on highly-valued research. But never in higher education have we seen such clean distinctions as we do now in the distance education sector.

At some of these institutions, one faculty member will design a course, another will provide the content, and still another will lead discussion and grade assignments. This approach is not a distinctly for-profit invention however, as some of the leading non-profits use this same strategy with their MOOCs. To listen to more traditional educators, this commodification of education is an atrocity. I would argue, however, that the current state in most colleges is actually more heinous. By forcing most faculty into a one-size-fits-all job description, we are not only using faculty resources poorly but diminishing educational quality in the process.

For example, consider Professors Smith and Wesson. Professor Smith loves the classroom and has a knack for it. He dedicates significant time to class preparation and student feedback. He’s beloved by his students, but not quite respected by his colleagues because of his relative absence of peer-reviewed publications. Professor Smith has a weak research agenda and will be denied tenure next year because of this lack of productivity — a looming reality that distracts him away from what he does best.

Professor Wesson has no such problems. An able researcher and writer, she publishes prolifically and received tenure last year. Her research draws significant attention and funding to her department. But because she can’t quite buy out all of her courses, her students are annually afflicted by her dry lectures and perplexing tests. She is unresponsive and openly disinterested in anyone but her graduate assistants. Her advisees often leave her supervision and instead work with Professor Smith, conveniently freeing Professor Wesson to focus more on her research agenda and graduate students.

To be fair, this could be a bit of a caricature. But like any good caricature, this picture draws attention to the dominant characteristics of the subject. What it reveals is that a one-size-fits-all model ends up rewarding research, penalizing teaching, and poorly serving students.

This approach stands far and away from what we know about effective organizations. Gallup, publishers of the StrengthsFinder assessment, shows again and again how organizations that utilize their employees’ strengths are more productive and have a more satisfied workforce. That means that if an institution were to adopt an approach that enabled each faculty member to specialize in his or her areas of strength and interest, faculty members would be happier, students would be better served, and the organization overall would be much more effective.

On paper, the shift is simple. Instead of hiring three faculty to each teach two classes a year, advise 10 students, secure a few grants, and write two peer-reviewed articles, each faculty member would specialize in (or carry a higher volume of) one of the areas for the whole department. A researcher could, dare I say, just do research and advise the few students who shared that agenda. A teacher could focus on understanding and honing the classroom craft and spend less time on committee work. Each department would tweak its balance according to the unique strengths and interests of its faculty and could use new hires to recalibrate that balance as time went on and interests or personnel shifted. In sum, excellence in research would not be valued at greater or lesser levels than excellence in teaching or service. Instead, excellence would be valued in every area. If what Gallup says is true, this strengths-based department would outperform a traditionally-oriented one by leaps and bounds in terms of total research output and teaching quality. After all, what faculty would honestly argue with getting to spend more of its time doing what it wanted to do while simultaneously benefiting its institution?

The reality is much more complicated, though. Teaching, even at many liberal arts institutions, is at best a second-rate cousin to research production, and quality of advising or service may not even be truly considered in the tenure and promotion process. Thus, many colleges have backed themselves into a corner by espousing the equal values of teaching, research, and service while only truly rewarding research.

This discrepancy between an institution’s mission and its rewards structure is most apparent at universities that already seem to take this diverse approach by designating certain faculty members as lecturers (teaching), research associates (research), or coordinators (service). Experience shows that these roles do not command nearly the same level of prestige or job security that a traditional faculty member experiences. Consequently, a shift toward a true strengths-based approach would necessitate a concurrent shift in policies, and more importantly, institutional culture. And since a cultural movement of this caliber would directly conflict with the values cultivated by the research universities that grant most faculty members’ doctorates, these changes are no insignificant matter.

I don’t pretend to have any magic solutions to make those shifts happen. I can say with some assurance that it would need to start with strong senior leadership and a willing (or at least adequately dissatisfied) faculty. But if these changes are worth making, then the conversation is also worth having. Perhaps rather than denouncing for-profits or MOOCs for unbundling the sacred faculty role, faculty members should welcome the challenge and propose their own ways to do so.

Josh Wymore is a doctoral student in the higher education program at Pennsylvania State University.

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Court ruling takes stand for faculty free speech

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Federal appeals court issues strong statements about the importance of protecting speech by faculty members in public higher education.

Review of 'Zizek's Jokes'

Nothing sharpens memory quite like regret, so I cannot help noting the anniversary of a tossed-off phrase that has come back to haunt me many times over the past 10 years.

In early 2004, I began writing an occasional series of two- or three-paragraph squibs on the latest publications and doings of the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where it ran under the title "Žižek Watch." In the subhead for one such mini-article, I referred to him as "the Elvis of cultural theory." The expression took wings and has been repeated on more occasions than any sane person could track. (As of this writing, it gets 79,000 returns from Google.)

The phrase will outlive me. Last year it appeared in an article in the journal Critical Inquiry, as well as in a Canadian dissertation on the concept of totalitarian evil in the work Hannah Arendt. Someone will eventually write a book using it as a title. Remembering the line always make me cringe, as if from mild food poisoning. For the most salient quality of "the Elvis of cultural theory" -- judged, by any standard, as a characterization of Žižek's work or career -- is its near perfect meaninglessness, verging on hopeless and absolute stupidity.

Unless you know the inside joke, anyway. By my count, roughly two people in the world are in on it. So to mark the anniversary, it is time finally to put the backstory on the record.

The idea for "Žižek Watch" came from my editor at the time, Richard Byrne, an estimable playwright and cultural journalist with family roots in the Balkans. These days Rich is at the helm of the University of Maryland Baltimore County's UMBC Magazine, of which he is the founding editor.  We shared a fascination with Žižek's close but complex relationship with the Slovenian post-punk band Laibach and the avant garde movement around it. Given the pace of his output (two or three books a year, just in English) and the growing frequency with which he had begun appearing in odd corners of the mass media, it felt like a matter of time before he graced The National Enquirer, or at least Weekly World News.

So it was that through a chain of associations that "Žižek Watch" alluded -- very much in passing -- to the definitive song about the improbable ubiquity of a tabloid phenomenon: "Elvis is Everywhere" by Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper.

 


And the rest is, if not history, at least a decade-long lesson in the sliding of the signifier across the greased skids of digital-age publicity.

A footnote in one article from 2005 did trace "the Elvis of cultural theory" back to its first appearance, albeit without identifying the origins of the phrase as such. But by now, context is irrelevant. The expression has long since escaped meaning. And even though nobody seems to get it, does not the very circulation of my remark participate in what Žižek identifies as the "mystery" of jokes -- that they seemingly appear "all of a sudden out of nowhere," produced by "the anonymous symbolic order" through "the very unfathomable contingent generative power of language"?

So writes Elvis, or somebody, in the introduction to Žižek's Jokes (Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?), published by MIT Press. It is an anthology of the theorist's shtick, not an analysis of it. The cover describes it as "contain[ing] every joke cited, paraphrased, or narrated in Žižek's work in English (including some in unpublished manuscripts), including different versions of the same joke that make different points in different contexts." The sources of the collected passages are given in the book's endnotes, followed with a brief yet oddly repetitive afterword by a novelist and songwriter from Scotland who lives in Japan and writes under the pen name Momus.

The claim to be exhaustive is difficult to credit, and so is the rationale offered for its existence: "The larger point being that comedy is central to Žižek's seriousness." Along with his frequent digressions into popular culture, Žižek's use of jokes has lent his books an appearance of accessibility that accounts for his fame with a broad audience. But that quality is misleading. Žižek practices a form of what Freud called "wild psychoanalysis," with contemporary culture as the analysand. The remarks, quoted earlier, about the free-floating and anonymous nature of jokes are just Žižek's paraphrase of a point made in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, where Freud interpreted the erotic and aggressive drives manifested through manipulation of the funny bone.

By spelling that out, I've just told you more about why "comedy is central to Žižek's seriousness" than Žižek's Jokes ever does. In the afterword, Momus speculates that "the joke has become for Zizek what algebra is for his old ally and rival Badiou: the most concise way Žižek knows how to sum up a universal situational shape." The idea might well be developed further,  preferably by someone who knows that Badiou's interest is in formalized set theory rather than algebra. But as formulated it is more a gesture than an insight

A gesture serving mainly to distract attention from two striking things about the book. The first is that Žižek's Jokes makes unavoidably obvious something that it was still possible to overlook 10 years ago: the dynamic role of cut-and-paste in Žižekian production.

Žižek once said that his completed theoretical edifice, spanning several volumes, would amount to a Summa Lacanica rivaling Aquinas's Summa for both scope and cohesion. But along the way, he has met the growing demand for his work from the editors of books, magazines, and newspapers by tearing off suitably sized chunks of whatever manuscript he had in progress. Sometimes he tweaked things to make it appear like freestanding  essay or topical news commentary. And sometimes he did not, though publication was almost certain either way. (I know of one case where the author of a book tried, without success, to have the introduction commissioned from Žižek removed since it had nothing to do with the volume in question.)

Over time, reading Žižek became an experience in déjà vu, with passages from one volume reappearing in others or, in one case, twice in the same book. Žižek's Jokes takes this to a new level. He wrote nothing new for it. Even his two-page introduction consists of one long paragraph from an earlier book. It is a remarkable accomplishment and I do not imagine he will be able to surpass it.

The other striking feature of Žižek's Jokes is how grim the experience of reading it quickly proves to be. In accord with Freudian principles, they revolve almost entirely around sex and/or aggression, often involving racist or misogynist sentiments. All of which is fine when they appear as specimens in a cultural critique  --  where they might even elicit a laugh, given the incongruity of seeing them in a context where Hegel or Heidegger have set the terms for analysis. But running through them one after another, in the service of no argument, is deadening. It ceases to be shocking. It just seems lame. Maybe he should be known as "the Jay Leno of cultural theory?" (If, you know, Leno had Tourettes.)

Of course it's also possible that Žižek has a hidden agenda -- that he's sick of being considered hilarious by people who aren't really interested in Hegel, et al., and so has decided to destroy that reputation in the most efficient way possible. And I'm not even joking about that. It makes a certain amount of sense.

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Discussion among two adjuncts about bias against people with non-recent Ph.D.s

Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts

Two adjuncts consider the jobs available to them, and those closed off.

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Essay by MLA executibve director about the debate at association over the Middle East

As many of you know, controversy swirled at the 2014 Modern Language Association convention, before, during, and after. I’m still receiving dozens of messages from individuals with no connection to the MLA, some of which contain hate speech, others offering a more reasoned perspective. Only about two dozen members have communicated with me directly about the controversy, but hundreds participated in discussions at the convention, including the open hearings of the Delegate Assembly, the assembly meeting itself, and the session responsible for one part of the controversy. I want to give my perspective on these events and clear up some misunderstandings of how things at the MLA work.

Although approximately 7,500 convention attendees had a chance to experience more than 800 sessions and the Chicago meeting was successful in achieving its intellectual and social goals, one session generated inordinate attention: “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” This special session was evaluated by the Program Committee, which accepted about 60 percent of the approximately 500 session proposals it received. At the Program Committee meeting in May 2013 (long before the American Studies Association met in late November), members discussed the merits of this proposal and determined, using the committee’s guidelines, that the proposer made a cogent argument for the topic, its treatment, and the qualifications of the panelists to achieve the stated objectives. As sometimes happens, the Program Committee, which I, as executive director, chair, made suggestions for revising the session description. The committee wanted attendees to know that the “roundtable is intended to promote discussion of strategy, ethics, and academic work in larger world contexts through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and that the topic was “how to respond to this boycott or how to evaluate academic boycotts more generally.” The proposer accepted these suggestions, as the description of the session in the program reflects.

Subsequently, following its November meeting, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli universities, an action that received considerable (and mostly negative) media attention. And that is when the phone calls and email messages started coming in to the MLA. I received warnings of what would transpire if I didn’t cancel the session. I was approached by two individuals representing large outside groups that opposed the MLA session. One person asked me to use my position to call off the session or instead allow people with an “opposing view” to be added to the program. Another asked for space at the convention so a group could stage a “counterpanel.” I denied both requests, just as I would have for any other topic.

Why? Because the MLA supports the fundamental right of its members to organize convention sessions according to the policies and procedures of the association. Convention programming is member-driven. Not all sessions can please everyone, of course. Some convention attendees will go to a panel and think “Hmm, those presentations I just heard were rather one-sided,” and then they will make their voices heard by offering a pointed comment or asking a tough question. That’s why we convene: to address issues — sometimes difficult and complicated issues — in scholarship, professional matters, and, yes, public policies that affect scholars, teachers, and students.

Of the hundreds of messages I received, almost all cast aspersions on the MLA just for holding the session that was approved by the Program Committee. One person after another declared that the panelists (and, by extension, the whole association) were motivated by hatred, bias, and a covert intention to promote an association-wide academic boycott. The letter writers invoked academic freedom, which seemed to mean that the MLA must be compelled to present what they thought attendees should hear. That’s certainly not how the American Association of University Professors views academic freedom. Cary Nelson, former president of the AAUP and one of the most outspoken critics of the session’s content, said that the “AAUP’s position on academic events is that they do not have to incorporate opposing points of view. I agree. It is the job of those who disagree with speakers to organize their own events to promote the positions they support."

Think about it: the MLA faced a virulent attack for allowing a conversation to happen. And a conversation it was. The session moderator posed questions to the panelists that challenged their views. Audience members lined up at the microphone to state a range of opinions during the half-hour discussion period. The “countersession” (held independently of the MLA at a hotel near where the MLA session took place) went forward — and was even announced at the MLA session.

An academic conference is a meeting of peers: the structures are overseen by members, and the meeting is intended for them. Members — and only members — can organize sessions. Can nonmembers offer opinions of the work we scholars do? Of course. But should they be allowed to reengineer our convention programming to reflect their views and values? Of course not — nor are MLA members entitled to stage a panel at a conference of another professional membership association, even when they hold strong opinions on issues of vital importance.

Members gave me advice. One suggested I quietly work behind the scenes to create a countersession to the roundtable on academic boycotts. Another encouraged me to find a way to have the Program Committee ensure that sessions of an “activist” nature have a “pro-contra” character in the future. Although my job would have been a lot easier if both suggested courses of action had been undertaken this year, I refuse to interfere once the Program Committee makes decisions, unless a procedural error is made (for example, if we were to misplace a submission). I believe that our members have the right to have proposals peer-reviewed by the Program Committee without the constraint of having them set apart as “activist” and as thus requiring special measures for balance.

As for the “right to enter” resolution, there are three things to say. One: members in good standing have the right to submit resolutions (see art. 11.C.3 of the MLA constitution), to discuss them (at the convention and on the MLA Web site), and to vote on them. Two: resolution 2014-1, approved by the Delegate Assembly, concerns the right of American academics to enter the West Bank. Please read what it says. Three: the resolution cannot become a statement of the association unless it clears two more hurdles (see art. 11.C.7 of the MLA constitution), including the requirement that “resolutions forwarded to the membership must be ratified by a majority vote in which the number of those voting for ratification equals at least ten percent of the association’s membership.” Despite the conclusions to which numerous outside groups, nonmembers, and even some members have leaped, the MLA membership has not yet ratified this resolution. If the resolution passes the Executive Council’s fiduciary review, it will be up to the MLA’s approximately 28,000 members to decide what happens next. The vote of the membership follows a monthlong period in which any member may post a comment on the members’ section of the MLA Web site.

This is a conversation that should happen, and I encourage MLA members to participate in it and to vote on the resolution. Despite majority votes, neither of the two 2013 resolutions cleared the 10-percent bar. Not enough members chose to submit an electronic ballot and have their say. If my in-box is any indication, 2014 is turning out to be quite a different year.

Rosemary G. Feal is executive director of the Modern Language Association.

Essay suggests a path forward for the MLA on the Middle East

The Modern Language Association is the largest professional organization for humanities faculty in the country. Its Executive Council will soon make two decisions that may well have substantial impact both on public perception of the humanities and on the influence that humanities disciplines can have on public policy. Long after the flawed and embarrassing process that brought two resolutions to the floor of the association’s Delegate Assembly for debate is forgotten, the actions of its leaders — and potentially its members — will signal what role humanities faculty can play in public life.

The Executive Council must first decide whether to send Resolution 2014-1 to its 30,0000 members for a vote accepting or rejecting it. The resolution singles out Israel for restrictive travel policies for foreign visitors that are hardly unique in the world. Indeed the resolution’s proposers were unable to present any statistical evidence proving that American faculty were often prevented from entering the West Bank to pursue teaching or research. One of the resolution’s proposers went so far as to proclaim it was outrageous to expect anything more than a few anecdotes in the way of supporting evidence. MLA Scholars for Faculty Rights, a new group formed to combat these and future ill-advised association actions, was able to demonstrate that only one anecdote was actually credible.

Instead of putting it to a vote, the Executive Council can return the resolution to its Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee for reconsideration or revision. That may well prove the path of least resistance, but the DAOC has not proven itself to be a reliable judge of policy initiatives. The resolution originally protested restrictions on entry both to the West Bank and Gaza. After MLA Scholars for Faculty Rights pointed out that Egypt (not Israel) controls the major entry point for Gaza, the resolution’s sponsors made a great show of removing Gaza from the text. The DAOC then announced that, as a result of that change and the deletion of the claim that Israel’s visa denials were “arbitrary,” it was now willing to recommend the resolution for adoption. But in fact Delegate Assembly members were aware the DAOC had been planning to put forward the original version with its endorsement as well. The DAOC’s public change of heart was merely play acting.

What the Executive Council could do instead is to issue a new statement both affirming its earlier stand on faculty travel and updating it to reflect current professional concerns, meanwhile asking the U.S. State Department to monitor all, not just one, foreign country’s treatment of visiting faculty. Such a resolution might also take note of the fact that the U.S. record of providing free access to international faculty has been rather less than ideal.

Here is how such a resolution might read: "Throughout the world there are countries that present serious obstacles and extended delays to foreign faculty, including American citizens, seeking entry to do research or take up either temporary or permanent teaching positions. Since the U.S. record in approving visas to foreign faculty members is uneven at best and includes instances of faculty being excluded for ideological reasons, reasons that undercut both academic freedom and our democratic values, the MLA Executive Council is addressing this issue without any illusion that our own country is blameless in this matter. We also recognize that some nations have valid security concerns that justify delays in offering visas or even denial of entry. But exaggerated security concerns and even xenophobic cultural traditions can also impede travel that would benefit all parties. We believe maximizing freedom of entry and access for faculty worldwide will facilitate international understanding and enhance research and teaching everywhere. We urge all countries to adopt policies that honor that principle. The MLA Executive Council also asks the U.S. State Department to investigate reports of unwarranted delays or exclusions of entry and report annually on patterns of faculty access to other countries.”

The Executive Council will also have an opportunity to decide on what, if any, action to take on an “emergency resolution” whose consideration was rejected by the Delegate Assembly. There seemed a certain interested pique in the way the person running the meeting announced it would be referred to the Executive Council despite its consideration being voted down. Once again, the document came forward with assertions, not evidence, this time claiming supporters of the American Studies Association resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli universities were the victims of intimidating emails and public attacks. Having received a number of critical emails myself, I find it easy to believe there is plenty of hyperbolic rhetoric on both sides of these debates. So what to do? The resolution will be received in public as a back door gesture of support for the ASA position.

But once again the MLA Executive Council could try to represent all its members, rather than take a position guaranteed to alienate many. And it could take a stand in the interest of broad principle. Here again is a draft of the kind of even-handed statement MLA’s leaders could issue: “As both local and national debates about the Arab/Israeli conflict and the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis have intensified in recent months, some faculty members and students have been subjected to hostile criticism from people outside the academy. The MLA recognizes that when faculty or their professional organizations take positions on matters invoking passionate commitments both here and abroad they have to expect strong responses not conditioned by campus standards of civility. We nonetheless decry instances when verbal attacks cross the line into intimidation. We also strongly reject attempts by outside groups to intervene in hiring and promotion decisions to oppose candidates whose views they reject. Such interventions in campus decision-making threaten academic freedom and the independent self-governance that make our academic institutions strong. Yet faculty and students have no way to control the rhetoric of the public sphere. Perhaps the best we can do is to lead by maintaining the example of campus civility.”

I do not personally pretend to be a disinterested observer in these matters. I have long argued that the occupation of the West Bank was destroying the soul of Israeli democracy. I support a two-state solution. More recently, I have suggested that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank unilaterally if negotiations continue to fail. And I endorse a boycott of West Bank industries as a targeted form of economic pressure, though I stand with the AAUP in opposing all academic boycotts. The fact that I take these stands does not prevent me, however, from standing back and trying to decide what would be in the best interest of a profession that includes a wider range of views than my own. The draft statements I offer here are offered in that spirit. They also reflect 20 years of experience in writing comparable policies for the AAUP.

 

Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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