When students took to the streets in Rome last November to demonstrate against proposed budget cuts to the university system, they introduced something new to the vocabulary of protest. To defend themselves from police truncheons they carried improvised shields made of polystyrene, painted, on the front, with the names of classic works of literature and philosophy: Moby Dick, The Republic, Don Quixote, A Thousand Plateaus…. The practice caught on. A couple of weeks later, another “Book Bloc” appeared in London as students and public-sector workers demonstrated against rising tuition.
By the time an enormous anti-Berlusconi protest took place in Rome on December 14, a group of Italian faculty members had decided on a syllabus of 20 titles worth carrying into battle. It’s all over the place: The Odyssey and Fahrenheit 451, Spinoza’s Ethics and Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, Foucault and Fight Club. And so when the forces of law and order descended on the protesters, swinging, it was a visual allegory of culture in the age of austerity -- budget-cutting raining blows on the life of the mind, though also, perhaps, the canon as defensive weapon.
The full list of works suggested by the wonderfully named Network of Rebel Faculty appears in Springtime: The New Student Rebellions, a collection of articles and images edited by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri; it was published by Verso in England earlier this year, and is appearing in the U.S. just now. Solomon was president of the student union at the University of London during the protests last year; the introduction, dated from January, has the feel of something written with the adrenaline and endorphins still flowing. Some of the pieces at the end of the book narrate and analyze the then-breaking developments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria. In addition to sections on France and Greece, there are documents and analyses from the student protests in California during the 2009-1010 academic year.
The effect is less that of an anthology than of a scrapbook -- with articles, photographs, and street posters taped in alongside printouts of Twitter exchanges and (every so often) excerpts from accounts of student protests from the late 1960s that tend to be jarringly inapposite. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” as somebody once pointed out. “And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” The relevance of the slogans of 1968 (with their assumptions about alienation amid growing affluence and free time) is now just about nil. Maybe we should forget them for a while. The student protests of the past two years have resembled wildcat strikes or factory occupations more than reenactments of the Free Speech Movement or Vietnam-era teach-ins.
That’s no accident. The role of the economic crisis in precipitating university unrest -- whether through rising postsecondary fees, shrinking job markets, or the inability of sudden fragility of neoliberalized states (unable to preserve social order through coercion alone but unwilling to shore up social services by raising taxes) -- seems clear enough.
In an e-mail exchange with Solomon, I asked if the world situation since the financial heart attack of 2008 were creating a shared ideology or a set of demands among student protesters.
“The general demands of the youth and student movements, are not necessarily codified,” she responded, “but they are quite clear. Firstly, there’s a cry of anger. Society has prospered, but now asks them to pay for the crisis and so often ignores their voices. The increasing marketization and cost of education, lack of post-education jobs and opportunities, ever-increasing living and housing costs, are forcing young people onto the unemployment lines, keeping them living with their parents longer and with little disposable income to enjoy life. Parts of society and government continue to demonize and vilify young people as dangerous and 'other,' as almost outside of accepted society.”
Part of the dissatisfaction -- at least as reflected in the sections of the book on European protests -- comes from the rise of “the enterprise university” as credentialing agency for a labor market that is constantly in flux. One chapter of Springtime, “The Factory of Precarious Workers” by Giulio Calella, says that recent reforms in Italy “would transform the university into a location for so-called permanent training” while “promoting competition among universities in order to put pressure on lecturers to increase productivity” and assessing every element of academic life as a “relationship between input and output” geared to maximum “customer satisfaction.”
Here an American idiom occurs to the American reader: “Yeah, tell me about it.” But Calella is anything but resigned to the situation he describes, and ardent in his protest at the narrowing of the pedagogical horizon:
“The slogan of the old university's professor, according to which anyone who entered the university was a ‘scholar, not a student,’ has been buried under the super-professional labels of the new laurea degree courses; the frantic pace imposed on full-time students; continuous assessments; bibliographies made of textbooks; and a de facto trimester system which impedes any attempt by the student to familiarize himself or herself with the subject, and therefore to develop any kind of critical approach to it. This is a deskilled and devalued pedagogy, the engine of a factory that produces precarious workers and fragments knowledge production by amplifying its specialized and partial character.”
Clare Solomon registered much the same complaint in our exchange. “We want a new type of education,” she wrote, “not just faceless, corporate entities pandering to the 'employability agenda' at the expense of real co-produced education. So this is more than just protest against rising fees.”
It’s tempting to quote a good deal more from Springtime, which will probably be a popular book among some layers of the student body over the next year. And the particular combination of issues it raises should earn it some attention from faculty as well. Despite the occasional nod to Boomer nostalgia (the lyrics to "Street Fighting Man" in Mick Jagger's handwriting, for example), the collection is really defined by a very contemporary overlap of problems: the economic pressures on all levels of education, on the one hand; and the difficulty of defining education's social value when the labor market can’t absorb many new graduates, on the other. (“A university diploma is now worth no more than a share in General Motors,” in the words of an acerbic pamphlet from the California protests.)
But as much as anything else, I hope that readers will focus on the pages devoted to the Book Bloc, which include photographs of its various incarnations at a number of protests. “Books are our tools,” reads a statement from Art Against Cuts, a British group; “we teach with them, we learn with them, we play with them, we create with them, we make love with them and, sometimes, we must fight with them.” There is a vitality to this formulation that is anything but bookish. It involves a sense of culture as an active process -- a verb you practice, rather than a noun you accumulate. And respect for one’s tools is, after all, the prerequisite for any education worthy of the name.
We hear these days of the "crisis of the humanities." The number of majors, jobs, and student interest in these subjects is dropping. The Boston Globe offered one report on the worries of the humanities in an article last year about the new Mandell Center at Brandeis University. The Globe asserted, "At college campuses around the world, the humanities are hurting. Students are flocking to majors more closely linked to their career ambitions. Grant money and philanthropy are flowing to the sciences. And university presidents are worried about the future of subjects once at the heart of a liberal arts education."
Such gloom must be placed in context. Doubts about the humanities have been around at least since Aristophanes wrote The Clouds. The playwright claimed that if a man engaged in the "new" Socratic form of teaching and questioning, he could wind up with big genitals (apparently seen as a negative side effect) due to a loss of self-control. But the Socratic humanities survived, in spite of the execution of their founder, through the schools of his intellectual son and grandson -- the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle.
I don't think that the humanities are really in a crisis, though perhaps they have a chronic illness. Bachelor's degrees in the humanities have held relatively steady since 1994 at roughly 12-13 percent of all majors. Such figures demonstrate that the health of the humanities is not robust, as measured in terms of student preferences. In contrast, the number of undergraduate business majors is steadily and constantly increasing.
So what has been the response of university and college leaders to the ill health of the humanities?
It has been to declare to applicants, students, faculty, and the public that these subjects are important. It has included more investments in humanities, from new buildings like the Mandel Center at Brandeis, to, in some cases, hiring more faculty and publicizing the humanities energetically. Dartmouth College's president, Jim Yong Kim, recently offered the hortatory remark that "Literature and the arts should not only be for kids who go to cotillion balls to make polite conversation at parties."
I couldn't agree more with the idea that the humanities are important. But this type of approach is what I call the "eat it, it's good for you" response to the curricular doldrums of humanities. That never worked with my children when it came to eating broccoli and it is even less likely to help increase humanities enrollments nationally today.
The dual-horned dilemma of higher education is the erosion of the number of majors in the humanities on the one hand and the long-feared "closing of the American mind" on the other, produced in part by the growing number of students taking what some regard as easy business majors. Yet these problems can only be solved by harnessing the power of culture, by understanding the ethno-axiological soup from which curriculums evolve and find their sustenance. Jerome Bruner has long urged educators to connect with culture, to recognize that the environment in which we operate is a value-laden behemoth whose course changes usually consume decades, a creature that won't be ignored.
It is also vital that we of the humanities not overplay our hands and claim for ourselves a uniqueness that we do not have. For example, it has become nearly a truism to say that the humanities teach "critical thinking skills." This is often correct of humanities instruction (though certainly not universally so). But critical thinking is unique neither to the humanities nor to the arts and sciences more generally. A good business education, for example, teaches critical thinking in management, marketing, accounting, finance, and other courses. More realistically and humbly, what we can say is that the humanities and sciences provide complementary contexts for reasoning and cultural knowledge that are crucial to functioning at a high level in the enveloping society.
Thus, admitting that critical thinking can also be developed in professional schools, we realize that it is enhanced and further developed when the thinker learns to develop analytical skills in history, different languages, philosophy, mathematics, and other contexts. The humanities offer a distinct set of problems that hone thinking skills, even if they are not the only critical thinking game in town. At my institution, Bentley University, and other institutions where most students major in professional fields, for example, English develops vocabulary and clarity of expression while, say, marketing builds on and contributes to these. Science requires empirical verification and consideration of alternatives. Accountancy builds on and contributes to these. Science and English make better business students as business courses improve thinking in the humanities and sciences.
If, like me, you believe that the humanities do have problems to solve, I hope you agree that they are not going to be solved by lamenting the change in culture and exhorting folks to get back on course. That's like holding your finger up to stop a tidal wave. Thinking like this could mean that new buildings dedicated to the humanities will wind up as mausoleums for the mighty dead rather than as centers of engagement with modern culture and the building of futures in contemporary society.
So what is there to do? How do we harness the power of culture to revive and heal the influence of the humanities on future generations? Remember, Popeye didn't eat his spinach only because it was good for him. He ate his spinach because he believed that it was a vital part of his ability to defend himself from the dangers and vicissitudes of life, personified in Bluto. And because he believed that it would give him a good life, represented by Olive Oyl.
Recently, an alumnus of Bentley told me over dinner, "You need business skills to get a job at our firm. But you need the arts and sciences to advance." Now, that is the kind of skyhook that the friends of the humanities need in order to strengthen their numbers, perception, and impact.
While I was considering the offer to come to Bentley as its next dean of arts and sciences, Brown University and another institution were considering me for professorial positions. Although I felt honored, I did not want to polish my own lamp when I felt that much in the humanities and elsewhere in higher education risk becoming a Ponzi scheme, which Wikipedia defines accurately as an "...operation that pays returns to separate investors, not from any actual profit earned by the organization, but from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors."
I wanted to make my small contribution to solving this problem, so I withdrew from consideration for these appointments to become an administrator and face the issue on the front line. And Bentley sounded like exactly the place to be, based on pioneering efforts to integrate the humanities and sciences into professional education -- such as our innovative liberal studies major, in which business majors complete a series of courses, reflections, and a capstone project emerging from their individual integration of humanities, sciences, and business.
Programs that take in students without proper concern for their future or provision for post-graduate opportunities -- how they can usewhat they have learned in meaningful work-- need to think about the ethics of their situation. Students no longer come mainly from the leisured classes that were prominent at the founding of higher education. Today they need to find gainful employment in which to apply all the substantive things they learn in college. Majors that give no thought to that small detail seem to assume that since the humanities are good for you, the financial commitment and apprenticeship between student and teacher is fully justified. But in these cases, the numbers of students benefit the faculty and particular programs arguably more than they benefit the students themselves. This is a Ponzi scheme. Q.E.D.
The cultural zeitgeist requires of education that it be intellectually well-balanced and focused but also useful. Providing all of these and more is not the commercialization of higher education. Rather, the combination of professional education and the humanities and sciences is an opportunity to at once (re-)engage students in the humanities and to realize Dewey's pragmatic goal of transforming education by coupling concrete objectives with abstract ideas, general knowledge, and theory.
I have labeled this call for a closer connection between the humanities and professional education the "Crucial Educational Fusion." Others have recognized this need, as examples in the new Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching bookRethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession illustrate. This crucial educational fusion is one solution to the lethargy of the humanities -- breaking down academic silos, building the humanities into professional curriculums, and creating a need for the humanities. Enhancing their flavor like cheese on broccoli.
Daniel L. Everett
Daniel L. Everett is dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University.
"Whoever cannot give to himself an adequate account of the past three thousand years," said Goethe, "remains in darkness, without history, living from day to day." That is an expression of a bedrock principle of liberal humanism, European-style. It takes the existence of the educated individual as its basic unit of reference -- its gold standard. But it also judges the quality of that existence by how much the individual has spent in acquiring a sense of the past. That expenditure also means, in effect, going into debt: You’ll never repay everything you owe to previous generations.
That outlook is, when you get right down to it, pretty un-American. It goes against the ideal of unencumbered self-creation that Emerson taught us –- in which we are supposed to throw off the burdens of the past, living always in the vital present. Fortunately, this is not hard to do. The first step is not to learn much history to begin with. (We are good at this.)
Even so, there may be an audience for E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, now available from Yale University Press, 70 years after it was first written. Imagine Goethe giving up the role of sage long enough to become a children’s author and you will have a reasonably good idea of the book’s content. It goes from prehistory up to the end of the (then-recent) Great War, with particular attention to ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the emergence of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.
As for the style ... well, that is something even more remarkable. The tone is wry, at times, without ever being jokey -- a kind of light seriousness that is very respectful of its young audience. Each chapter is perfectly calibrated to suit the attention span and cognitive powers of a 10 year-old, without ever giving off a trace of condescension.
The effect, even for an adult reader, is incredibly charming –- and, indeed, instructive, at least for anyone with the occasional gap in that interior timeline. (Quick now: Who were the Hohenzollerns? And no, a vague sense that they were German doesn’t count.)
In his later and better-known role as art historian, Gombrich commanded a really humbling degree of erudition, but always with a certain generosity towards his audience. That combination is very much in evidence throughout his first book – one written in what must have been very trying circumstances.
It was Vienna in 1935. Gombrich was 26 and had recently finished his dissertation. (Writing one "was considered very important," he told a presumably incredulous audience at Rutgers University in 1987, "yet it didn’t take more than a little over a year to write.") His immediate job prospects ranged from the nonexistent to the merely terrible. Besides, he was Jewish, and the writing was on the wall, usually in the form of a swastika.
He managed to find part-time employment with a publishing company. He was asked to evaluate a book on world history for children in English, to see if it might be worth translating. He recommended against it, but offered instead to write one directly into German. It took him about six week, writing a chapter a day. The volume did quite well when it appeared in 1936, though the Nazis eventually stopped publication on the grounds of its "pacifism."
By then, he was in London, working at the Warburg Institute (a major art-history collection, where Gombrich in time became director) and aiding the war effort by translating German radio broadcasts into English. Before leaving Vienna, he had agreed to write another book, this one for adolescents, on the history of art. That project that grew into a rather more ambitious work, The Story of Art (1950) – long the standard overview of European art history, from which generations of museum tour-guides have cribbed.
He wrote it – along with his more monographic works on iconography and on the psychology of perception –- in English. When his Little History was reprinted in Germany in the mid-1980s, he wrote an afterward for it; but he turned down offers to have it translated into English, preferring to do that himself, and to make some necessary revisions. It is not clear from the edition now available from Yale just how far Gombrich got with that effort at the time of his death in 2001. (The title page gives the translator as Caroline Mustill.) But he did add a postscript called "The Small Part of the History of the World Which I Have Lived Through" – summing up the 20th century from World War I through the end of the Cold War, and trying to put as optimistic a spin on that record as possible.
The preface by Leonie Gombrich, his granddaughter, quotes some introductory remarks he prepared for the Turkish edition. His Little History, he wrote, "is not, and never was, intended to replace any textbooks of history that may serve a very different purpose at school. I would like my readers to relax, and to follow the story without having to take any notes or to memorize names and dates. In fact, I promise that I shall not examine them on what they have read."
But the book has a strong and serious pedagogical intent, even so. And it comes very directly from Goethe, whose work Gombrich read incessantly as a boy. Upon receiving the Goethe Prize in 1994, Gombrich said that it was the author’s life and writing that taught him "the consoling message ... of a universal citizenship that transcends the confines of nationhood." That seems very much the point of the Little History, which tries to squeeze all of global history into just under three hundred easily read pages –- and I strongly suspect it was just that cosmopolitanism that the Nazi censors really loathed.
Of course, there are gaps and oversights. One that is really troublesome is how the entire history of the Atlantic slave trade is reduced to the dimensions of a brief reference to the Civil War in the United States. This has the effect of making it seem like a distant and cruel episode in the New World, rather than what it really was: A vast and centuries-long process that enriched parts of Europe, depopulated parts of Africa, and anticipated every aspect of totalitarianism possible before the rise of industrialization and mass communications.
Not that Gombrich leaves the history of colonial atrocity entirely out of the picture, especially in recounting the conquest of the Americas: "This chapter in the history of mankind is so appalling and shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it."
In many ways, then, the book is at least as interesting as the specimen of a lost sensibility as it is in its own right, as a first introduction to history. Gombrich later spoke of how much he had been the product of that almost religious veneration of culture that prevailed among the European middle class of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
"I make no great claims for the universality of that tradition," he said during a lecture at Liverpool University in 1981. "Compared to the knowable, its map of knowledge was arbitrary and schematic in the extreme. As is true of all cultures, certain landmarks were supposed to be indispensable for orientation while whole stretches of land remained terra incognita, of relevance only to specialists..... But what I am trying to say is that at least there was a map."
Professor I. M. Sari, a senior sociologist at U of All People, has recently published a study of administrators in higher education, a somewhat baffling enterprise for a researcher who claimed in his two-year grant from the Farquhar Foundation that he’d be addressing the effects of group dynamics in urban crowds. The Dean of Humanities is currently looking into whether Professor Sari can be penalized for blatantly disregarding the terms of his four-paragraph grant proposal back in 2006.
Meanwhile, what Sari has produced, in his recent article in Sociology: Not So Hard Science, is a detailed taxonomy of types, from chancellor to assistant chair. Below are some of his categories.
The Pushover: Usually occupying a lower rank, Pushovers will grant almost anything anytime, from extra travel funds to sabbatical requests, whether or not they have the authority to do so. Pushovers have an intense desire to be liked, and are popular until the faculty figures out what little power they have, after which they are routinely ignored in favor of more efficacious administrators.
The Naysayer: Occupying any level, the Naysayer is the opposite of the Pushover, categorically denying all requests on the assumption that faculty beg only for frivolous items and are not to be trusted. Naysayers tend to relish their negative roles, for which most faculty see them as having almost unlimited power, another benefit of refusing that third request for an office chair to go with the desk.
The Underling: Also known as toadies, Underlings are always deferring to the person who got them into office, usually a provost or, in the case of an Underling Provost, a Chancellor or President. As deans or chairs, Underlings may even be people of high integrity -- except when it comes to voting on that referendum against the president’s pet building project, at which point they become oddly silent.
The Quid Pro Quo Type: Usually at the level of a chair or dean, the Quid Pro Quo Type embodies the Latin phrase “what for what.” In return for a new office allocation, for example, the Quid Pro Quo Type may stipulate that the faculty member teach a section of Bio 101, or trade a new computer for extra committee work. Also known as wheeler-dealers, Quid Pro Quo Types pride themselves on their so-called fairness.
The Academic Turned Administrator: These types publicly feel for the faculty, continually reminding everyone that they, too, were once academics. They claim to anyone who’ll listen that they long for a return to teaching and research, until someone calls their bluff, remembering what lousy teachers they were and how little they published.
The Mother of All Administrators: Usually a woman but not always, the Mother of All Administrators is not necessarily the mightiest dean but rather a maternal presence who nurtures the faculty, sometimes in embarrassing ways. How else to explain the matching pen and pencil sets for all faculty in the political science department?
The Business Model: Perpetually talking about the bottom line, Business Model types hew strictly to economics, whether the topic is class size or parking. “Cost efficient” is their mantra -- until it’s time to talk about their $200,000 salary.
The Paper Pusher: a charmingly antique term, dating from the days before e-mail and texting, when faculty mailboxes would be clogged with flyers about arcane lectures and insurance benefit reminders. Nowadays, the Paper Pusher has morphed into a large-scale electronic disseminator, issuing everything from listserv memos to giant PDF’s that require five minutes to download.
The Philosopher King: originally a term from Plato’s Republic, the Philosopher King is an intelligent person who does not wish to serve but does so anyway out of a misguided sense of duty. Disliking responsibility, Philosophers rule with a light hand, unless they find that they start to like the job, at which point they become tyrants.
The Resourceful Type: This species, able to propose a workable agenda, cohere a divided department, or run a smooth meeting, operates both upfront and behind the scenes for the betterment of almost everyone, yet manages to preserve integrity and respect. Unfortunately, the last sighting of the Resourceful Type was spotted at U of All People in 1955 and is now thought to be extinct.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
In this year of the Great Newspaper Meltdown, it has become commonplace to quote Thomas Jefferson: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right,” he wrote in 1787, “and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Jefferson’s witty maxim, of course, was explicitly counter-factual. Like the state of nature or the social contract -- other speculative conditions with which Enlightenment thinkers analyzed the actual workings of society -- a government without newspapers was posited as a kind of thought experiment, an imaginary lens for bringing the needs of civic life into focus. The point was clear. Democratic self-government depends on informed citizens, and therefore on the news organs that inform them.
Yet the current crisis has brought us close to realizing Jefferson’s dystopian speculation. Since 2008 nearly 20 newspapers -- including dailies in Seattle, Denver, Detroit and Cincinnati -- have closed or moved to online publication in reduced formats. The Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle teeter on the brink of bankruptcy; my hometown paper, the Ann Arbor News, morphed this July into an online news site with two print editions a week. Among surviving dailies, there are draconian cuts in coverage; the Los Angeles Times has shrunk its newsroom by half. According to the blog Paper Cuts, U.S. newspapers eliminated 25,000 jobs in the past 18 months.
The causes of the calamity are well-known. A new class of corporate owners has shown itself willing to cut journalistic assets to secure short-term earnings. The brave new e-world of Craigslist and cable infotainment has kneecapped an older business model in which local ads funded local news. Many dailies retain loyal readers, for whom browsing the paper remains a rite of community affiliation. Yet even sustained circulation does not ensure solvency in the current business and technological environment.
These problems have simmered for years, but the recession brought them to a boil. And the resulting decline is measured not simply in readers, revenues and reporters’ jobs, but in civic vitality. With thinner sections and thinned-out substance, its columns increasingly barren of investigative reporting, cultural criticism and political analysis, the daily paper threatens to become a kind of civic fast food: empty calories for the body politic.
All this is well-known, as I said, and much-covered in the media. Why then rehearse it here, in Inside Higher Ed? What does the ordeal of the daily paper have to do with academic institutions?
Quite a bit, I think. For (as IHE itself underscores) we are not witnessing the demise of news gathering, but its transformation. These are revolutionary times; the ancient regime of the print daily is giving way to new modes of reportage, commentary and publication. Colleges and universities may have a powerful role to play in the emerging regime: as a host and partner for nonprofit, online news ventures that meld civic journalism, professional apprenticeships, and the Jeffersonian project of informing the public. Such ventures would help to re-secure the democratic function of the daily news -- and in the process, renew the public purpose of higher education.
The shape of the “new news” is still up for grabs. Indeed a freewheeling public brainstorm is well under way, concerning the institutional practices, professional norms, technological media, business models, and modes of writing by which the news should be produced and disseminated in the 21st century. The shift of many news organizations to online publication is only the most visible experiment.
U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) has drafted legislation to subsidize nonprofit news organs with federal tax breaks. A consortium of journalists, alarmed by the decline of the long-format reporting on public affairs, has launched Pro Publica, a foundation-funded initiative to produce and disseminate national investigative stories. Some critics argue that the “daily novel” of the newspaper will inevitably be replaced by a dispersed system of small-scale reportage and commentary: perhaps an online marketplace of plug-in subcontractors, reporting for hire, perhaps a network of neighborhood-based “micro-journalists,” perhaps a community of netizens, creating wiki-like news forums. Each of these scenarios (along with many others) raises its own questions about reliability, viability, availability and depth of news coverage.
We do not, then, face Jefferson’s nightmare of a government without news. But we may well face something even more corrosive. For it is possible -- extrapolating from the landscape of e-tail and talk radio, viral YouTube fads and Twitter gossip -- to envision a news ecology so fragmented, amnesiac and sensational that it starves the kind of informed, engaged, shared civic life for which Jefferson believed newspapers to be essential. Which pathway to the new news will best nourish democratic citizens? How might academic institutions advance it?
Our current news culture offers one clear answer: the academic blogger. Scholars like the Middle East historian Juan Cole (Informed Comment) or the law professor Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) bring real-time commentary and advocacy to the electronic public sphere. The intellectual blogosphere is often uneven in content and (for my taste) too snarky by half. Yet its commitment to critical analysis through open engagement -- “expertise on tap, not expertise on top,” as the saying goes -- mobilizes the resources of the academy for democratic deliberation.
Even the best prof-bloggers, however, cannot make up the civic deficit of the newspaper crisis. For blogging is not news-gathering. It supplements, but does not supplant, the public need for a daily, iterative, trustworthy ensemble of information (however incomplete and contested) about the doings of the world. It may seem counter-intuitive to imagine higher education contributing to the work of producing that ensemble.
But I would argue just that: Colleges and universities can offer a crucial response to the crisis not only by exporting peripatetic scholarly expertise, but also by playing host to campus-based ventures that cover local and state news.
For it is here, in the home regions surrounding our campuses, that the decline of the print daily poses the most corrosive threat to civic life. News gathering is suffering at every scale of coverage, of course, from the Darfur beat to the city council meeting. Yet in sites like nytimes.com, we can discern the emergence of sustained, online reportage of national and international issues by large news organizations. In contrast, the capillary coverage of local and regional affairs is on life support. Since 2003, according to the American Journalism Review, the cohort of full-time reporters covering U.S. state government has declined by one-third. Local business, education, and cultural reportage is even more threatened.
If these trends continue, the public affairs that most nearly touch our everyday lives -- school board elections, library censorship battles, state bond issues, social service regulations, land development schemes -- will become veiled from public discussion. Those with power will have a powerful incentive to inside dealing and corruption; those without it will have a powerful inducement to acquiescence. If we take seriously Dewey’s notion of democracy as a way of life, the regional impact of the newspaper crisis will be toxic for local communities -- and the toxins will inevitably trickle up into national politics.
Conversely the role of academic institutions as regional “stewards of place” (in the wonderful phrase of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities) offers an untapped asset for engaging the crisis. It is a truism of academic administrators to tout their campuses -- large or small, private or public -- as regional engines of economic development. Colleges and universities can serve as equally robust catalysts of civic development. Indeed in recent years they have generated a veritable laboratory of engaged practices (service-learning courses, public partnerships, community-based research) that infuse their educational mission with a commitment to place-based institutional citizenship. Campus news sites offer a new arena for such civic engagement. One of the academy’s most neglected assets, in short -- the rootedness of our intellectual capital in specific communities -- can meet one of the most glaring threats of the newspaper crisis.
Imagine, then, a national network of campus-based daily news sites. Newsrooms of professional journalists would cover local, regional, and state issues -- politics, economic development, work and labor, community affairs, art and culture, and (yes, that most important of community attachments) sports. The “dailynews.edu” website would be a nonprofit entity, overseen by a campus-community advisory board, but editorially independent. In place of a traditional editorial page, reflecting the views of its owner-publisher -- a wholly owned soapbox that will surely disappear with the print daily itself -- the news site would have a large, diverse op-ed section, a “Speakers’ Corner” for campus and community voices on public affairs.
Undergraduates and graduate students -- whether “J-school” enrollees, Communications majors, or simply veterans of the student paper -- would do apprentice reporting, editorial work, and administrative support. Indeed, in contrast to the traditional newsroom, campus-based journalists would include in their portfolio a healthy dose of mentoring and teaching. The bills for the venture would be paid through a blend (different for different institutions) of government funding, campus support, soft-money grants, and reader-donor contributions.
Far-fetched? Economically unsustainable? An egregious case of mission creep for overextended campuses that ought to stick to classroom teaching and traditional research? Perhaps: I can already imagine the skeptics gathering under the banner, Save the Fourth Estate on Your Own Time.
Yet before we dismiss “dailynews.edu” out of hand, I would point to several other campus initiatives -- all of them at odds with a back-to-basics vision of higher education, yet all of them success stories -- with which to assess the feasibility and value of this idea. Three initiatives come to mind as models. Indeed every detail in the previous paragraphs has been tested by one or another of them.
Most obviously, there are campus-based public radio stations. Many have news operations with vigorous state-wide coverage; Michigan Radio, for instance, based at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, boasts more than a dozen reporters, commentators, producers and news hosts. They rely on a nonprofit business model that successfully blends government, academic, foundation, and grass-roots donor support. To be sure, most public radio newsrooms are small, often struggling operations. Reporters and commentators tend to be spread thin in covering their home state; and they tend to have thin connections to their home campus, treating it more as a venue than a professional context for their work.
The second model embodies a broader connection to the regional community and a deeper connection to the academic enterprise: the extension service of land-grant universities. Like the newspaper, extension divisions exist to distribute useful knowledge, mobilizing the gifts of higher education -- applied research, expert training -- to inform and instruct the public. Their business model depends on a confluence of government subsidies and user fees, but it is widely accepted that such funding constitutes a useful investment of educational resources in popular instruction.
The third model is less obvious and more interesting: the constellation of institutions -- galleries and museums, theaters and concert halls, arboretums and botanical gardens -- often grouped under the rubric of “the creative campus.” It is notable that American higher education takes for granted the value of funding such institutions, with their distinctive mix of culture-making, public outreach, experiential pedagogy, and research. Their business model relies more on grants and university operating budgets, less on government subsidies.
Yet not unlike campus public radio or extension services, these institutions are in effect nonprofit subsidiaries, blending not only income streams but also cultural, civic and educational functions. The curators, set designers, sound engineers, and arborists of the creative campus tend to integrate their core conservation or presentation work with public programming and undergraduate mentoring. In fact museums and performing-arts centers are often vanguards of the civic engagement movement, serving as liminal spaces where campus, community, and culture-making come together in partnership. They suggest a model of news sites that might similarly combine journalistic practice, professional apprenticeship, and collaborative public work.
Of course this sketch raises more questions than it answers. “Dailynews.edu” would be a dramatic departure for both the press and the academy. Can colleges and universities undertake such an ambitious venture at a time of fiscal crisis? Can two such different traditions of free inquiry -- the daily montage of news-gathering, the distilled analysis of scholarship -- fruitfully accommodate each other?
I hope not: for it is precisely the disruptive possibilities of this idea that make it so intriguing. Campus-based news sites pose transformative implications for both the press and the academy. They might catalyze new forms of journalistic education, less pre-professional, more organically connected to liberal learning, writing pedagogy and student engagement in public affairs. They might serve as a much-needed laboratory for the civic journalism movement. And conversely they would energize the civic engagement movement within higher education, grounding our sometimes grandiose commitment to public work in the frictional, daily encounter with our communities and their stories.
It is well-known that Thomas Jefferson saw the founding of the University of Virginia as one of his signal achievements. It would be fitting if the nation’s network of “academical villages” (as Jefferson called the Charlottesville campus) might contribute to renewing the democratic function of the daily news. Such a venture would reclaim the role of the news in public life -- and the role of public life in higher education.
David Scobey is a cultural historian and the Donald W. and Ann M. Harward Professor of Community Partnerships, Bates College.
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.
At U of All People, we’ve had a 5/5 teaching load for as long as we can remember, which means almost no time to spare for non-essentials like eating or breathing. And with class size capped at 75 students, many instructors crack under the strain of grading 700 lab reports or a quarter-ton of essays on the causes of the Civil War.
Within the ranks of the English department, however, is an astonishing anomaly: Professor N. F. Eckshul, last year’s winner of the More or Less Best Teacher of the Year award, seems to have a great deal of time to spare -- time he spends avoiding committee meetings and not publishing. The methods for his ultra-efficient pedagogy have remained obscure, since the last time he had a class observation was 20 years ago. But just this month, Professor Eckshul, announcing his retirement, has decided to share what he calls his Ten Teaching Commandments:
1. Break up the class into small groups that can “teach themselves.” Give each group a project: interpreting a text, writing a paragraph. This activity can use up anywhere from five minutes to the entire class period. Pretend to monitor the students’ progress by occasionally dropping by each group and making helpful suggestions, such as urging the students to listen to each other. Group presentations should take up any remaining class time.
2. Rather than giving students new assignments, which are hard to think up and evaluate, have the students work on a portfolio, consisting of material written and rewritten and re-rewritten, until the entire semester’s work consists of three perfect pieces suitable for framing. When students complain about the tedium of this sequence, sternly intone about the importance of the revision process.
3. Why correct the students’ work if you can get them to correct each other’s material? Set up a system of peer review, where one student, no matter how inept, reads and comments on another student’s work, and so on down the line. Have the students present their reviews in class. If this set-up leaves you with too much unused time, continue the process with a peer assessment of the peer reviews.
4. What student hasn’t thought on occasion, “Hey, I could be in front of the room, doing what the teacher’s doing”? Fine. Ask each student to lead one class “as an educational experience.” No need to prepare for that day. Just sit back and relax, but take care to furrow your brow occasionally and look as if you’re taking notes.
5. When giving exams, always give true-false, fill-ins, or multiple-choice tests, rather than complicate matters with messy interpretations that require time-consuming judgment calls when grading. Using Scantron forms can even eliminate your role in grading entirely while preserving an illusion of objectivity.
6. If you must assign final papers, don’t bother appending any comments, since students won’t bother picking them up from your locked office. If one or two tiresome students really want to look at how you marked their final work, warn loudly that angling for a better grade leads to an automatic markdown.
7. Grade inflation is here to stay -- embrace it! Giving A’s makes everyone feel good, as well as nullifying any complaints about unfair grading policies, discrimination, and even sexual harassment. Just as important: it’s far less work to mark an A paper than a C+ effort.
8. Make yourself as inaccessible as possible before and after class, as well as canceling office hours whenever possible. Just before any time slotted to meet with students, scribble something indecipherable on your door about attending a meeting or convention. And if students can be absent when sick, why can’t you? When really pressed, hint at “personal matters.”
9. Make sure that your first and last classes of the semester are null-content, or at least require no teaching. The initial class can be finessed by simply handing out the syllabus and course requirements and warning the students that there’ll be real work next week. The last class can be filled with anecdotes and reminiscences. During the semester, show a lot of videos.
10. Schedule review days before exams, after exams, at the end of a curriculum section, and any time you need a break from real teaching. If you still need a break after that, use PowerPoint.
Of course, David Galef would never, ever use the techniques described in this column, but what do you think? Please break into small groups and present your findings in the Comments Section.