Humor/whimsy

Conference Confidential

As academics eagerly scan the latest listings for conferences to attend, this season’s offerings promise a bumper crop of something for everyone: a chance to share one’s findings on missing commas in Madame Bovary at the Annual Meeting of the Flaubert Society of America, for example, present a paper on the vibrational frequencies of wind chimes at the High Energy Physics Colloquium in Berne, or just get the hell away from campus for a while.

For those of us at U. of All People, located in the depressed region of a state shaped like a bent potato, conferences present an opportunity to travel, to stay in a hotel room by oneself and enjoy a meal out that’s not at Taco Bell or Burger King. Of course, conferences are also occasions to exchange scholarly ideas and see far-flung colleagues we may have not slept with or even encountered for years. In short, we’re the same as academics everywhere. And here are some of our choices for the coming months:

January 4-5, 2008: Seventh Annual Conference on Cold Fusion in Salt Lake City, Utah. This year’s conference is titled “Harnessing the Power of Water in a Glass.” Sample topics include “Can Cold Fusion Solve Global Warming?” and “How to Procure a Grant without Straining Credibility.” Abstracts required; research highly suggested. Guest speaker: the Energy Czar.

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January 19-20, 2008: Inaugural meeting of the Arnold Frisk Memorial Society, a group devoted to preserving the memory of this prolific but unjustly forgotten author ( The Question of Whom, Writhe and Shine, A Sonneteer’s Diary). The meeting will take place at the Smithlawn Sanatorium in Bearville, Minn., where Frisk ended his days, surrounded by 70 unfinished manuscripts.

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February 1-?, 2008: Conference in Belize, subject yet to be determined, but what the hell, it’s Belize in the winter. Possible topics: something on pedagogy, maybe something in the humanities, or even better, the intersection of the humanities and the sciences because that brings in a lot more people.

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February 14, 2008: History Is Bunk: the one-day convocation of the D.H.T.A., Disgruntled History Teachers of America. 120 Main Street; Centerville, Anystate, U.S.A. Half scholarly presentations, half gripe session, this gathering is for those brave souls in the front of the classroom tired of teaching deadheads what happened in 1812. New addition: spousal support group and Valentine’s Day Party in Room 420 of the Holiday Inn.

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March 7-9, 2008: Esperanto (Sigh) Again. Overly optimistic linguists and language teachers of all persuasions gather in Tijuana to promote the hopeless cause of this doomed but eminently practical means of communication. Special guest speaker: an actor channeling the spirit of language reformer George Bernard Shaw.

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April 3-5, 2008: Sudoku R Us: Mathematics and Pedagogy for the 21st Century. Takes place on the campus of S.I.T. (Slobovian Institute of Technology) in upstate New York. Three days of workshops, lectures, and pure darn fun! Difficulty level: easy. Door prize for best mathematical costume at the Puzzlers’ Ball.

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May 1-3, 2008: Conference on Conferences. Takes place in a large upscale chain hotel in a major city. Papers may range from the art of scheduling events to the provocative topic “When Is a Session a Session and Not a Panel or a Forum?” Please indicate on entry form whether you’d like to be a moderator, a contributor, or that rarest of attendees, just an audience member.

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

David Galef is a professor of English and former administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Time's Up -- Or Else!

Three things caught my eye this morning, each conveying a “time’s up!” warning. First, while savoring my first cup of morning coffee, I encountered a long article on the front page of the Chicago Tribune’s Metro section covering former Illinois Governor George Ryan’s long-delayed passage from freedom to prison. Convicted in a corruption scandal case involving the Republican’s seedy and illegal practice of selling drivers’ licenses to truckers in exchange for large under-the-table contributions while he was secretary of state, the unrepentant Ryan lost his last chance to remain on bail when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to extend his freedom pending his appeal. Vying for my attention was a Trib front page story about federal interest in possible wrongdoing by the allies of Democratic Mayor-for-Life, Richard M. Daley, who allegedly have been pressuring landowners in the mayor’s home base of Bridgeport to sell to developers who, as it turns out unsurprisingly, are friends of the mayor. These alleged, shadowy practices are, thanks to intrepid investigative reporters and the feds, finally out in the light.

Upon finishing my coffee and retreating to my computer, I had my personal “time’s up!” moment when I encountered the last item in my e-mail: “Final Notice.” The sender was the University of Illinois Ethics Officer and its subject was the “Mandatory Ethics Training for Eric Arnesen.” The moment I had been dreading, when I gave it any thought at all, had arrived at last.

In my own defense, let me state clearly that I was not yet in trouble, for the deadline for completing this year’s “annual ethics training” was still a week away. However, officials for a state that regularly turns a blind eye toward corruption in the office of Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich are intent upon making the rest of us know the rules. (The latest revelations concern the large commission collected by the governor’s wife, a real estate agent, for a condo sale transaction on behalf of an Illinois businessman and campaign contributor; the purchaser was a “tollway lobbyist and a longtime Blagojevich insider," according to press reports. As it turns out, the condo seller received a $2 million no-bid contract -- subsequently increased to $2.5 million -- the day before the closing; since then he has received two additional no-bid contracts.)

But I digress. If I were to go off on a tangent for every city and state corruption investigation, well, I’d never get to the part about my ethics tutorial.

The clock is ticking. I have until 11:59 p.m. on November 14 to complete my online training ... or else. The “or else” consists of reporting my name to the Office of Executive Inspector General for the Agencies of the Illinois Governor. And then what? Penalties could include “a hearing before the Ethics Commission and/or the assessment of fines up to $5,000.” For professors at a perennially underfunded public research university where parking fee increases often exceed salary raises, five grand is not something at which to scoff. And if that threat didn’t catch my attention, the rest of the sentence did: Employees failing to “complete their online ethics training during the designated window will be subject to disciplinary action by the university.” Ouch. Granted, it’s not Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, but the very idea of being drawn into the university’s bureaucracy is frightening to faculty members accustomed to being ignored and left alone.

So I can’t put it off any longer. I log on to take my mandatory “interactive” “Web-based training course.”

First things first: After accessing the program, I am invited to create a new password of between 4 and 10 alphanumeric characters. I mistakenly enter an 11 character password -- “wasteoftime” -- but happily the program recognizes neither my sarcasm nor my counting error. I’m in. Up and running.

I must now pace myself. Can’t go too fast, for my “training actions and time may be monitored”! If I complete the program too quickly, then some unseen force may yank my “Certificate of Completion” and require me to pursue an unspecified alternative route to satisfying my ethics obligation. (Seriously – a colleague of mine was penalized last year for taking and passing the on-line test too quickly! Never mind that he got the right answers and demonstrated his knowledge of our ethics obligations. He was too fast – and essentially got pulled over and ticketed by the ethics police for exceeding the speed limit.)

We begin with the “why an ethics tutorial” issue via a multiple choice question:

The State of Illinois makes me take this annual ethics training because:

  • a) Ethical conduct is required of me as a state employee.
  • b) It is required of me by the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act.
  • c) Carrying out our responsibilities as state employees in an ethical manner helps to maintain the public’s trust in our state government.
  • d) All of the above.

If you guessed “d,” congratulations and move on. Now that I know that I’m doing my part to maintain the public’s trust in state government, I feel better. But other reasons, we are informed, include helping state employees “avoid inadvertently violating the law,” reminding us “that the state does not approve of ethics violations.” Given the track record of city, county, and state officials ... keeping a straight face is harder than I had expected.

So: What’s unethical? The tutorial, once we get past large quantities of material on the legislative history and administrative functioning of ethics legislation and the operation and powers of the Office of Executive Inspector General for the Agencies of the Illinois Governor (OEIG), which works with the Executive Ethics Commission (EEC) and the Office of the Attorney General, finally gets down to this.

First, the long list of prohibitions. Can’t engage in “prohibited political activities” -- that is, can’t use “state work time, property, or resources” to campaign for political candidates or on behalf of political referenda (no fund raising, petitioning, or polling; no campaign leaflets on office doors, no selling tickets to the governor’s gala ball); can’t treat state job applications differently “on the basis of the applicants’ political affiliation” (tell that to the U.S. Justice Department and just about every state, county, and municipal hiring department in Illinois -- we’ve got a long history here in the Land of Lincoln!); can’t retaliate against subordinates who turn us in for ethics violations; can’t accept most gifts from lobbyists or business entities regulated by or doing business with the state; can’t place our interests or those of friends, relatives, or business associates “above those of the college or university of the state”; can’t work on that second job (could this be an indirect acknowledgement of low state salaries? Probably not....) on university work time; can’t hire our relatives based on our “relationship with them”; you get the idea. I don’t think I needed an interactive online tutorial to learn these straightforward rules. So a hint to state ethics folks: Go low tech. It might be more useful to print these banned activities on a bookmark we can carry around with us. It would be much cheaper than a Web-based program and probably more effective to boot.

Second, the shorter “must-do” list. If contacted by the ethics investigators, “participate” in the requested interview, be truthful in your testimony, and respect the confidentiality of the investigation (no First Amendment issues in the workplace, alas); and comply with mandatory work time reporting rules by accurately and periodically reporting our work time “to the nearest quarter hour.”

Seems pretty clear cut, no? In the examples offered to help us understand right from wrong, we find no grey areas. In one case study, we are told of a “multi-year scheme by a state employee who misappropriated more than $100,000 in public assistance funds” by falsifying documents “seeking reimbursement from the state for transportation services supposedly provided to the state by the employee’s spouse” (who, as it turns out, didn’t provide those services) and then “shredded much of the evidence supporting the scheme.” In another example, we learn about a state agency claims representative who “assisted others in processing hundreds of fraudulent claim applications” through “mail fraud.”

Now I happen to be one of the few Americans who does not watch "Law and Order," even on the treadmill at my local YMCA. But I don’t need an interactive ethics program to tell me that misappropriating money, falsifying and shredding documents, hiring a spouse who does not deliver contracted services, or processing fraudulent claims applications are either ethics violations or felonies. Would I be wrong or naïve to suspect that the perpetrators of these schemes would not have been dissuaded from undertaking their scams by knowing that theft, falsification, destruction of evidence, and the like are not ethical? If then Secretary of State Ryan and his cronies had taken our online interactive tutorial, would they have hesitated before accepting “bribes for between 1,000 and 2,000 trucker’s licenses,” in the Tribune’s words, resulting in at least nine highway deaths?

I can imagine an alternative “dialogue” example between Larry and Susan -- the two fictional employees who engage in didactic conversation in our on-line tutorial -- helping us to navigate what the ethics exam writers see as murky ethical waters:

Larry: This is great. I’m siphoning off tens of thousands of state dollars by submitting false patient claims and phony invoices. That should help cover the costs of my new Michigan cabin. Maybe I should hire a relative for a no-work job too.

Susan: Before you start those back woods renovations, Larry, you should know that misappropriating state money by lying, cheating, and stealing is not ethical.

Larry: It’s not? Well, what if I just shred the evidence? They’ll never catch me and I can fish to my heart’s content on long weekends made longer by submitting falsified time sheets.

Susan: I’m afraid that too is unethical.

Larry: I hadn’t thought of that. But what’s to stop me from going ahead and violating state ethics rules anyway?

Susan: More bad news, Larry. Under the ethics law, I have an affirmative obligation to turn you in.

Larry: But, but, but (sputtering)…. I will get back at you for doing this, Susan. You’ll rue the day you ever called me unethical.

Susan: Good news for me, bad news for you, Larry. I will “confidentially” report you and besides, there’s nothing you can do to punish me. You can’t retaliate from your supervisory position over me. If you do, you can be disciplined and I can go to court to seek unspecified monetary damages.

Larry: I guess you’re right. I just didn’t know the rules. Now that I do, I won’t submit those false claims, invoices, and time sheets, and I won’t retaliate against you either. Thanks for caring enough to share this valuable ethics information with me!

Susan: Think nothing of it, Larry. Just doing my ethical duty.

This imaginary dialogue raises new issue. As state employees, the tutorial informs us, we “have a duty to report violations of laws, rules, or regulations.” How? There is one toll-free hotline for “non-emergency” violations, another for “emergency” situations, including “illegal weapons” possession, “bodily injury,” or “criminal sexual assault.” Now, when I think about “illegal weapons” usage or “criminal sexual assault,” the phrase “potential ethics violation” is not the first one to cross my mind, even after the “911” and “help!” do.

Perhaps, however, I -- and my colleagues -- have genuine reasons to worry. In a multiple choice “Self Check” in the tutorial, we learn that “time reporting is mandatory under the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act.” Under the “Reminder of Key Laws, Rules, and Policies -- Personnel and Other Policies” section, we are further informed that as state employees, we are “expected to document the time that you work for the college or university accurately and on a timely basis.” Indeed, “time sheets must be submitted by each employee periodically and must document the time spent each day on official state (university or college) business to the nearest quarter hour.” Now I know for a fact that many -- perhaps all? -- of my faculty colleagues in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences do no such thing.

So there it is: A massive, universal ethics violation by my institution’s faculty. And here I am with a dilemma. Do I abide by the obligation to rat them out (rules against self-incrimination would allow me to exempt myself from my charges, right?) or do I violate the state’s ethics code by looking the other way? Imagine -- hundreds and hundreds of hearings and disciplinary actions, potentially resulting in widespread dismissals. Perhaps my colleagues would be replaced by a more ethical faculty, perhaps not. At least I do not need to live in fear of retaliation, since no one will know it was I who turned them in. And if they did, I can always seek disciplinary action and damages against those who strike back!

An alternative suggests itself. Perhaps the time reporting requirement to-the-nearest-quarter-hour doesn’t actually apply to faculty. It’s hard to imagine that the ethics czars don’t know what rules apply to which employees. But they state, categorically, that “time reporting” is required of all university employees and that time sheets must be submitted by “each employee” – no exceptions listed – to the “nearest quarter hour” – again, no exceptions listed. So I arrive at two possible conclusions: Either a) the tutorial is a poorly designed response to a poorly thought-out ethics requirement or b) it’s a secret plot to strip faculty of control over their time by falsely declaring that we are subject to specific rules that, in reality, do not apply to us.

Now, I am in no position to know whether “a” or “b” is the correct answer, since the question wasn’t on the “self-check” portion of the tutorial. Both, it seems to me, would be ethics violations. In the case of “a,” it is a misuse of state funds to produce a shoddy tutorial that wastes vast quantities of employees’ time and state dollars since, at a minimum, the public’s trust would be diminished if knowledge of this tutorial was revealed. In the case of “b” -- well, anything to strip faculty of control, under whatever pretense, is self evidently unethical. Whatever the case, I do know that I have an affirmative obligation under the law to report what I believe to be an ethics violation.

Having received my “Certificate of Completion” from the OEIG, I must know my stuff. I guess I’m obligated to pick up the phone to call my university’s ethics office to report potential violations ... by that very office.

At least I’m safe from retaliation. After all, the State of Illinois does not approve of ethics violations.

Author/s: 
Eric Arnesen
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Eric Arnesen, who successfully completed the on-line ethics tutorial again this year, is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

A Guide for Consumers of Theology

Our recent annual “America’s Best Churches” issue drew more than the usual deluge of reader and parishioner complaints. Hence it behooves me as editor of U.S. News & World Report to again offer a public explanation of our much-misunderstood church rankings methodology.

In thanking those who took the time to write, I would remind all in the community of believers that our rankings are intended as a public service to aid spiritual consumers in making one of life’s highest-impact personal choices. We claim no infallibility in our rankings. We strive to provide accurate, user-friendly data to allow seekers of quality worship to do their homework and grasp truth with full confidence that they are comparing apples to apples. Yes, we visibly spread the word about the handiness of our shopper’s tool, but we can’t be held responsible if certain churches choose, for example, to display, as a recruiting come-on, their U.S. News ranking on a banner atop their steeple.

We reject the assertion that church reputations are made or broken based on tables published once a year in our magazine. Nor do we find any signs that “America’s Best Churches” encourages a “one-size-fits-all” path to the mountaintop. Frankly, any American who would build an entire cosmological belief system on a two-or-three-point rise in a church’s year-to-year U.S. News ranking should probably stop, take a deep breath and meditate a bit on values, personal style, and the theistic limits of magazine journalism.

As proof of our good faith, we have always been willing to consider critiques of our research metrics and make warranted adjustments in our process for arriving at the rankings. That is why we have urged restraint upon those outspoken theologians who in recent months have been encouraging church ministers to boycott our informational surveys: A boycott will only make it more difficult for our researchers to compile a full portrait of America’s religious marketplace and present all good-faith competitors on a level laying field.

Neither our openness to methodological challenges nor our efforts to keep our influence in perspective, however, should be taken as a sign that houses of worship shouldn’t continue to seek ways to improve. Indeed, many of our reader complaints stem from feelings among congregants that our surveys failed to capture such measurable steps forward as energy-efficient stained-glass windows, form-fitting cushioned pews, and imported communion wine.

Some critics charge that our emphasis on counting average Sunday service attendance unfairly favors urban congregations over rural ones. But in recent years we have refined the formula for balancing the actual turnout with the local population’s potential. And we’ve enhanced accuracy by verifying the numbers reported by church secretaries with spot-checking through on-site visits by independent observers.

As “America’s Best Churches” has evolved over the past decade, we have adopted recommendations from our “loving critics” that we loosen some of the criteria that give higher rankings to the more doctrinaire denominations. We trust that this year’s methodology no longer penalizes parishes that favor folk masses or Christian rock over traditional organ music.

Our much-maligned “enforcement of dogma” measurement, which detractors complain is biased against Unitarians and favors Catholics and evangelicals, continues to prompt soul-searching among our nonsectarian team of clerical advisers. Suggestions for further improvements are welcome.

Matters of faith are -- don’t we know it -- highly subjective. The only dogma we maintain at U.S. News is a staffwide conviction that theology consumers who’re feeling their way to divinity should not be left to approach the deity without an up-to-date and well-packaged scorecard.

One admittedly self-interested point: It is true that “America’s Best Churches” has become one of our brand name’s top publishing successes. But as a private corporation, we don’t consider that a reason to do penance. We are hard at work on the first edition of “America’s Best Mosques and Temples.” We think you’ll find it enlightening.

Author/s: 
Charlie Clark
Author's email: 
doug.lederman@insidehighered.com

Charlie Clark is senior editor and director of press relations at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Academic Advising by a Bot

Recently, while doing some Internet research on the curriculum of programs that might compete with ours, I found myself on a Web site that refers prospective students to a variety of online degree programs. I won’t use its real name here, and will instead call it COLLEGEFORNOTHING.COM, but you’ve probably seen the services of entities like this when you use search engines. Since this was not what I was looking for, I closed the browser window, only to be offered the chance to chat about my educational and professional goals with a “live agent:” “Wait! A live agent is here to assist you with any questions you might have about online universities.” I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for free advice. Here is the full transcript of that conversation with the purportedly live agent, the epicene-named Morgan:

Morgan: Hey wait! We hate to see you leave! It only takes a minute to fill out our simple form, and you'll receive information about degree programs designed to meet your needs as a working adult. CLICK HERE to return.

Morgan: Just type 'HI' or 'Hello' in the space below to let me know you are there.

Me: Hi Morgan. I'm hoping you can help me.

Morgan: Hi, thanks for chatting with me.... to return to COLLEGEFORNOTHING.COM, just CLICK HERE.

Morgan: E-learning is driven by student-centered learning-so you get to decide how you work best.

Me: Do you have those degrees where you just pay your money and get your Ph.D.?

Morgan: Maybe you want to study at the same time each day for a set time. Maybe you need the support of other students via online forums and e-mail.

Me: That's not exactly what I asked.

Me: What programs can I do online?

Morgan: We have the following major categories of degree available: Business, Criminal Justice, Culinary Arts, Teaching, Engineering, Graphic Design, Healthcare, Hospitality Management, Legal/Paralegal, Liberal Arts, Nursing, Religious Studies, Science and Math, Technology.

Me: Culinary Arts? How do you teach cooking online?

Morgan: Earn your degree while you work. Distance learning is tailor made for busy working adult [sic]. You can now study on your own time, at your own pace, and out of the convenience of your own home.

Me: What e-learning platforms do you use?

Morgan: If you want a career in the culinary world, a formal education is the ideal way to get started. CLICK HERE to see all Culinary Degrees.

Me: Is there a hands-on component to the culinary arts degree?

Me: Morgan?

Me: Hello?

Morgan: With technology and current events constantly changing, college textbooks become quickly outdated. Online education has the advantage -- it's constantly on the cutting edge. For students and teachers alike, the Internet is their resource.

Me: I have a lot of questions--please try to keep up.

Morgan: Can I provide you with a link back to COLLEGEFORNOTHING.COM?

Morgan: This whole process is quick and easy to get going, so why not start right now?

Morgan: Discover the best way to pay for your online education. Our search service will find the schools that fit your needs.

Me: No, I have specific programmatic questions that you're not addressing.

Me: Can I just give you some money and you'll give me a degree?

Morgan: I'll try my best to answer your question. If the question is regarding a specific degree program or school, please fill out a short form for that school.

Me: Also, what religions are covered in religious studies?

Morgan: Remember if you looking to advance your education and jump-start your career then let us give you FREE college information! CLICK HERE to return.

Me: Can I become a minister?

Morgan: A religious studies degree program, whatever its focus, has the purpose of intellectually challenging its students -- of guiding you in the study of the diverse tenets and traditions of faith around the globe. As the world grows, so does the need and opportunity for the study of religion. CLICK HERE to see all Religious Studies Degrees.

Me: This has been illuminating--I hope the faculty is as well informed.

Me: Thank you for all your help.

Morgan: The process is short, simple, and free, and an enrollment advisor from the school will be better able to answer your specific questions and find the perfect degree program for you. CLICK HERE to get started or ask away.

Morgan: You're very welcome :)

Me: I feel I have the tools to take the next step in my educational journey.

Morgan: Or maybe you find you can really express yourself using chat boards and instant messaging, whereas you were too shy to speak up in a classroom.

Me: You're a great counselor -- can I hire you away from your job?

Morgan: With technology and current events constantly changing, college textbooks become quickly outdated.

Morgan: No this is not a scam. We have helped out many people in the past, let us help you out!

Me: Clearly.

Morgan: Online education has the advantage -- it's constantly on the cutting edge. For students and teachers alike, the Internet is their resource.

Morgan: Simply CLICK HERE to get started!

I decided to share this transcript because it would be perfect for this time of year as we wade through piles of papers to grade. But I leave more troubled than amused. In our online world, how many prospective students are reassured, comforted or directed by Morgan’s college advising?

Author/s: 
Jonathan Deutsch
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Jonathan Deutsch is assistant professor of tourism and hospitality at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York.

The Zen of Fenton

At U of All People, Dr. Henry Fenton rose from humble instructor to professor of sociology, then to dean of liberal arts and finally to assistant provost, before retiring. Somewhere in the late '80s, he converted to Buddhism, noting that all higher education was an illusion. His style of administration exuded great calm and judgment and was admired by all except the faculty, the staff and the students. A cardboard plaque outside his former office, paid for by anonymous sources, reads “Zen and Now.”

Many on campus who knew the doctor cherish a signal event that touched them, such as the Writing of the Great Memo, which stretched from 1995 to 1999, or the Task Force of Enlightenment, which concluded that all the issues on its agenda would take ten thousand lifetimes to fix. Others recall the doctor’s dung-colored robe that was given to him by a visiting dean from Tibet, or the "Out" box on Fenton’s desk marked “satori” that was always, miraculously, empty. “Existence is suffering,” he would often intone, “but at least we’re better off than at a state university.” Even those who didn’t care for Dr. Fenton’s ways believe that he raised the art of administration to such heights, it appeared as if he were doing nothing at all.

Once, when inaugurating the construction of a new parking lot by symbolically wielding the first shovelful of dirt, he was asked by a lowly assistant professor, “Tell me, Dr. Fenton, how do you know where to start?”

The doctor scratched his head, looked into the middle distance, and smiled. “Any place where more parking is created will be welcome,” he replied. And with that, he heaved a clod of dirt into the assistant professor’s open briefcase. The assistant professor did not receive tenure, but the parking lot, now named the Henry Fenton Lot of Plenty, is revered by all who park there.

The following are some of Dr. Fenton’s more famous administrative maxims:

What is the sound of a committee with no one serving on it?

Start a study before there’s anything to look at.

Email circles endlessly in the ether.

Tenure cannot outlast death.

Before a meeting of the minds, one must have many prior meetings.

Every spring, the students return to Cancun.

Listen for the session inside the intersession: it is the sound of money.

While the faculty sleep, the pink butterfly wins the grant.

All budgets are an illusion.

To administer from home: this is contentment.

If we do not give ourselves raises, who will?

Walking along the path of rightness, here comes the provost.

Every graduation, the quad needs re-sodding.

The building of buildings acquires greater merit than the increase of faculty salaries.

Graduation is the beginning of all fund raising.

New curricula, new problems.

We are all disciples of the chancellor.

Academic scandals pass, and new ones take their place.

The wisdom of Miyazaki-sensei is useless unless he publishes his research.

Dean Ueda finally hung up on the irate alumna. The silence filled his office like a balm of nectar.

The Dean of Student Affairs is not what you think.

One foot in administration is two feet inside.

The art of saying no also involves saying yes and maybe.

The university is a universe unless it loses its accreditation.

Even a large donation cannot buy happiness. It can, however, purchase a new athletic facility.

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

David Galef is a professor of English and former administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Learning From Cats

Academic squabbles are often compared to cat fights, but as one who has owned cats for several decades, I’ve come to believe that such analogies are unfair to felines. Cats, for instance, instinctively know to terminate a chase when they would consume more calories than their prey would provide. And even the pugilist tabbies I’ve owned eventually learned to give wide berth to rivals who consistently bloodied them. All of this suggests that cats may be more evolutionarily advanced than a lot of academics. In the spirit of all those What I Learned from My Cat books now moldering on remainder shelves, here are eight academic debates left over from last year that aren’t worth the calories, let along the anguish.

1. What Do We Do About Poorly Prepared Incoming Students? How about teach them? It seems like I’ve been hearing the same tape loop since I was 18 and was told my generation was ignoramus-ridden because it had no training in Latin. Let’s just admit that each generation comes to the table with different skill sets and move on. This is the ultimate lost chase. What students ought to know is irrelevant when faced with a classroom of those who don’t know it.

2. The Great Books versus Multicultural Readings: This is another tired horse ready for pasturage. We’ve been fighting over the canon for so long that it has escaped the debaters’ notice that the passion for books has fallen from fashion. I, for one, am grateful when students read anything and get excited. If they want to declare Neil Gaiman graphic novels part of the canon, that’s fine with me if it helps us talk about myth, archetypes, and culture.

3. Should the Academy Operate According to a Consumer Model? If you answered “no,” prepare to be boarded; your ship has been vanquished. The high price tag of higher ed makes it a market-place commodity and it’s as naïve to assert that a college education is its own reward as to believe that the Olympics are a still bastion of amateurism. Whether we like it or not, kids shop for courses just like they hit the mall. Profs and departments can assume the crusty purist’s demeanor, or they can start making course offerings jazzier and sexier. The latter path leads to the vitality, the first to extinction. If you don’t believe it, ask a classicist or a labor historian.

4. Why Should Faculty Be Forced to Be Tech-Savvy? Because it’s the 21st century, we’re educators, and we need to communicate with students. Every campus has a few cranks who wear electronic illiteracy as a badge of honor. They walk about in crumpled garb, wax eloquent about the glories of their old Olivetti, and brag they don’t use e-mail. The rest of us tolerate them as if they were an eccentric aunt, and defend them when students grouse about them. Here’s a better idea: Give students the e-mail addresses of the department chair and the academic dean. Just in case they wish to register their complaints.

5. Should Colleges Be Required to Dip Deeper into Endowment Funds? Yes, but this debate is really not worth having as the future is clear: Either everyone will follow the preemptive lead of those well-endowed schools that have begun spending a higher percentage of their endowment, or Congress will act and impose the same 5 percent standard with which foundations must comply.

6. How Can We Improve Our 'U.S. News & World Report' Rating? Unless you’re a member of an embattled admissions department, who cares? The battle worth fighting would be a campaign to put all such Miss Congeniality-modeled guides out of business. I’d happily don armor for a federated effort to do that.

7. Are Campus Conservatives the Victim of Discrimination? Does anyone have any spare crocodile tears for the group that pretty much runs the country? What a silly debate. There’s a difference between being a minority and being a victim, just as there’s a difference between free speech and the guarantee that others will agree with you. When stripped to its basics the brief is that neo-cons feel uncomfortable in places like Amherst, Berkeley, Cambridge, and Madison. Well, duh! That’s like a vegetarian complaining about the menu at a Ponderosa Steakhouse. Oddly enough, one seldom hears pleas for more feminists at faith-based institutions, pacifists at military academies, or evolutionary scientists on the Mike Huckabee campaign staff.

8. Ward Churchill or David Horowitz? Neither please! If nothing else, can we resolve that in 2008 we will uphold the principle that propaganda of any sort has no place in the college classroom? That would also solve the conservative complaint above. Best of all, it would relegate the boorish Churchill and Horowitz to the obscurity they have so richly earned.

Everyone altogether now: Meow!

Author/s: 
Rob Weir
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Rob Weir is the author or editor of five books. He recently gave up a senior faculty position to pursue part-time teaching, involvement with professional organizations, and freelance journalism.

A Call for Professional Attire

In his Journals, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted a hotel’s faded elegance: “[T]he lobby is filled with tieless men wearing double-knit trousers.”

Tielessness: a bad sign everywhere.

Professors, it's been said, are the worst-dressed middle-class occupational group in America. Instead of being role models, we’ve convinced everyone to slum. As clothing theorist Nicholas Antongiavanni explains in The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style, “[M]any came to believe the protestation of academics that taste was nothing but a fraud perpetrated by the great to keep down the people.

It was not always so. In the academic golden age, outliers who refused to follow high standards were viewed with disdain. Edward Larson describes a law professor who, after being fired, represented Scopes in the 1925 monkey trial. John Randolph Neal could walk into a faculty lounge today and, without having evolved a bit, fit right in:

Neal never spent much time on campus -- often arriving late, if at all, for class, devoting class time to rambling lectures about current political issues rather than to the course subject matter, and giving all his law students a grade of 95 without reading their exams. The dean also complained about Neal’s “slovenly” dress, which later deteriorated into complete disregard for personal appearance and cleanliness.

At the trial, “[u]nwashed and unshaven as usual, [Neal] lectured the court in a manner reminiscent of his chaotic teaching style.”

During Paul Fussell’s teaching career, “practically compulsory was the daily get-up of gray flannel trousers and tweed jacket, often, of course, with leather elbow patches, suggestive at once of two honorable conditions: poverty and learning," according to Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear. When tweed was no longer boss, however, scruffiness became the standard. At Tom Wolfe’s Dupont University, “the current fashion among male professors ... was scrupulously improper cheap-looking shirts, open at the throat, ... and cotton pants with no creases -- jeans, khakis, corduroys -- to distinguish themselves from the mob, which is to say, the middle class.”

If we’re going to have a dress code anyway, we should be able to do better than “scrupulously improper.” I therefore propose a Uniform Uniform Code (a lawyers joke -- sorry) for professors. My effort to change clothes might not be fully successful, but there’s hope. As Michael Bérubé says, “[D]ressing fashionably in academia is like clearing the four-foot high jump. The bar is not that high.”

I. The Childlike Professoriate

Why the dress problem? Professors might be grown-ups chronologically, but, if you’ve attended faculty meetings, you know we haven’t gotten the behavior patterns right. Joseph Epstein writes:

One of the divisions of the contemporary world is between those who are prepared to dress (roughly) their age and those who see clothes as a means to fight off age.... I know of associate deans who never wear neckties. Others -- balding, paunchy, droopy-lidded -- have not had a fabric other than denim touch their hindquarters for decades. They, poor dears, believe they are staying young.

Roger Kimball adds, “There is something about the combination of denim and tenure that is inherently preposterous.”

Trying to look like students is partly self-denial, but scruffily dressed faculty also have highfalutin goals. Some sartorial underachievement is aimed at furthering a "nurturing" atmosphere. The classroom setting should be non-confrontational, it’s argued, with professors and students hangin’ out as buddies.

But it doesn’t work, except perhaps for sexual poaching. Radical economist Bob Lamb discovered “that if I buy my suits at Brooks Brothers and look like a banker, it is much easier to get Harvard students to believe what I am telling them.” Bonding is nice only if you don’t expect intellectual activity.

Dress once represented a quest for excellence, not leveling, as Donald Kagan noted in a paean to Joltin’ Joe:

[H]is day was not ours. America was a democracy, but of a different kind. Its people were more respectful of excellence, both of matter and manner . . . . People wanted to behave according to a higher and better code because they believed that in doing so they would themselves become better, worthier, “classier.” Those who are too young to remember should look at the movies and photographs of games at Yankee Stadium in DiMaggio’s day. The men wore white shirts and ties under coats and hats, the proper attire in public, even at a ball game.

Russell Baker thinks the shift to shiftlessness occurred in the 1960s:

People [then] had so much money that they could afford to look poor. Men quit wearing fedoras and three-piece suits to Yankee Stadium and affected a hobo chic -- all whiskers and no creases. Women quit buying hats and high-heeled shoes and started swearing like Marine sergeants.

People generally act better when they’re dressed right. If a professor is sending a signal of seriousness, of civility, students will pick it up. I defer to no one in admiring the Marines, but the world is not a better place when everyone is swearing like a Marine sergeant and dressing in hobo chic.

II. The Code

Here’s a draft Uniform Uniform Code:

Faculty members shall, when on college grounds or on college business, dress in a way that would not embarrass their mothers, unless their mothers are under age 50 and are therefore likely to be immune to embarrassment from scruffy dressing, in which case faculty members shall dress in a way that would not embarrass my mother.

That’s it. Brevity works. Unlike good clothing, a statute can’t cover everything.

Anyway, this is just a draft: Maybe your mother is better than mine for this purpose; the phrase “my mother” probably doesn’t work for a statute of general application; perhaps the key age for mothers should be 70 (80?). Whatever figure is used, it will have to be adjusted periodically to capture changes (downward) in mothers’ (other than my mother’s) standards.

So change what you wish, and then interpret the UUC reasonably. When in doubt about appropriate dress, check what people used to wear: it’s usually safe, as Arthur Benson noted, to dress in the “style-before-last.” For men, Fussell’s default rule works: “You can’t go wrong with the classic navy blue blazer and khakis.”

Sanctions for violators? I guess not. I’d like to take ‘em to the cleaners, but you’d wind up with idiots charging breaches of academic freedom. At a minimum, however, violators ought to be dressed down in public for dressing down in public.

III. The Tie

Are ties that important?

For men, yes. The tie is important because it’s always been important; its importance makes it important. You don’t change norms without good reasons for doing so.

Ties show seriousness -- respect for the subject, the students, and oneself (whether or not you really respect any of them). Fussell says ties “serve no purpose except vanity,” but striking a blow for civilization is a good purpose.

IV. Conceptual Difficulties

Skeptics of my project -- all poorly dressed -- see this as hopeless. I’ll deal with a few criticisms.

A. Geography

How, skeptics say, can I draft a uniform uniform code? Isn’t it inevitable that appropriate dress for the fruited plains will be different from that for the purple mountains?

Of course. When Florida professors teach in Maine, their dress should meet Maine standards and vice-versa.

That doesn’t mean anything goes. A flannel suit might not work in Florida in August, but shorts and sandals don’t therefore become de rigeur. Moms know how to dress in Maine and Florida and so should you.

B. The Sex Question

We have a sense of appropriate menswear -- Jeffrey Hart wrote that “any male professor who comes to class without a jacket and tie should be regarded with extreme prejudice unless he has won a Nobel Prize”” -- but this isn’t a males-only profession anymore. Who’s to say how the Hart principle should apply to women?

Me. The rule that applies is the feminine equivalent of the standard for men. Ask female associates at one of the Wall Street firms that haven’t succumbed to perpetual casual day whether there’s uncertainty about appropriate dress. They might not like it, but they know what to wear.

Are pants acceptable? Of course, in the right climate at the right time. Color of suit? It depends on what you’re doing. Ask your mother.

Besides, women profs have a style-guide, Emily Toth’s Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia. Some of Ms. Mentor’s more important standards are

1. Avoid poufy sleeves.
2. Dress frumpily.
3. Act like an old fart.

All good advice, and about all you need to know.

C. Outside Class

Maybe it should matter that a professor will not be teaching on a particular day. I’ll take this issue -- is class reserved for class -- under advisement, but the guiding consideration is: You’re a professional; dress accordingly. (I’m certainly willing to grant exemptions for anthropologists in the rain forest and sociologists going undercover.)

D. The Dissidents and the Tasteless

Skeptics note that some folks will flout any rules. If coat and tie are required, dissidents will break the code’s spirit by wearing CAT with shorts and sandals. You know who you are, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

And some will observe the letter of rules but with taste (or mother’s taste) that is unbelievably bad. Is any tie good enough? What about an iridescent green suit that whispers Chernobyl? Or suppose otherwise acceptable attire is covered with food that the academic, focused on the world’s intellectual work, is oblivious to. Rules are rules, but in enforcing them we should be sensitive to the feelings of those who are severely disturbed.

V. Political Over- and Undertones

Oh, I hear you say: Here’s another political reactionary (true enough) trying to impose his views on nonbelievers.

Well, others have a sense of propriety too. Ralph Nader dresses conservatively. The Green Party convention may have been a gathering of the Birkenstock brigades, but you almost never see Nader out of his gray suit, white shirt, and tie. Nader wants to be taken seriously, and so should you.
There is a political component to this. Jay Parini defends F.R. Leavis, who “made a name for himself by refusing to wear a tie at Cambridge.”

Leavis meant to appear intellectually isolated, but he was also advertising his leftism. That was desirable, says Parini, because “[t]eaching is, after all, a performance art.” Students find clues to “our attitudes toward the world, even our politics, in the styles we assume.... It pays to think of clothing as a rhetorical choice, and to dress accordingly.”

The rhetorical choice is why professors should dress in boringly similar, tasteful ways. By following the UUC, we limit the extent to which students speculate about us rather than study. Parini might want students pondering his politics -- an easy task -- but I don’t want mine ponderously pondering mine.

*****
Does any of this matter? Richard Posner, who can hide suspect attire under judicial robes, ridicules Jacques Barzun, who had written that “[t]o appear unkempt, undressed, and for perfection unwashed, is the key signature of the whole age”: “This is absurd, and not only because Americans, however casually they dress, remain fanatical about hygiene. It is absurd in its insistence that every change in culture, even so mutable an aspect of culture as the dress code, is fraught with menace.”

And, Posner wonders, a decline from what?

[M]ost declinists at least specify a benchmark. But it is difficult even to identify the golden age of formal dress. . . . Are coat and tie formality enough? Or must the soft collar give way to the stiff detachable collar, or perhaps to the ruff? Must women wear corsets, and must men dress (that is, put on a tuxedo) for dinner?

The judge gets the crowd snickering with his riff on the ruff, but he stretches his point beyond Spandex’s limits. Any well-dressed freshman should question Posner’s premise that, just because we can’t draw a bright line, no distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable are possible.

At a minimum, I hope we can agree on one thing: Teaching is a thongless task.

Author/s: 
Erik M. Jensen
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Erik M. Jensen is the David L. Brennan Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University. This essay is adapted from "Law School Attire: A Call for a Uniform Uniform Code," from the Oklahoma City University Law Review.

Study Abroad -- with Us!

At U of All People, we know a good thing when we smell it, and for a while we’ve envied other schools with lucrative foreign study programs in Paris and London so that students can learn French and English -- whereas all we have is a short-term exchange with the School of Applied Mechanics in Dumsk.

We’d like to change all that now, after hiring a new dean of liberal arts whose idea of travel stretches beyond Chicago, but apparently study abroad programs have grown so common, not to mention lucrative, that they poach students from each other. Got $7,500 to plunk down for a three-week biology course in the Galapagos (does not include cruise stateroom and snorkeling fees)? If so, we want your business and are willing to fight for it. Here’s what we’re prepared to offer:

Tired of being shut in seminar rooms for half the day while outside lies all of Seville, honking its horns? Try our open-air classes, which can take place anywhere from the top of a double-decker bus to a row of spread blankets on the beach. Catch a wave, check out that cute señorita, and discover the meaning of serendipitous learning!

Three months just to learn Italian verbs? Dud-io, get real! At U of All People, we understand that speaking a foreign language isn’t just about vocabulary but about absorbing the syntax of the culture. We offer restaurant Italian, club-hopping Italian, intimate Italian, and more! Let’s face it: do you want to know how to conjugate andare, or have a really good handle on the difference between spumante and gelato?

“All the comforts of home” may be a cliché, but it’s one we subscribe to. And that means we guarantee you dorm-style rooms wherever you go, special pizza and burger cafés, laptops and cell phones always available, and multiple ATM’s in every location. Got a craving for that favorite form of caffeine buzz back in the States? Our 24-hour courier service can obtain it for you at surprisingly unreasonable rates.

Scared of the tough Parisian prof who speaks an incomprehensible urban patois in between drags on his Gauloise? Worried about the grades you might get away from your coddling home institution? We’ve solved that problem by using hand-picked faculty from U of All People, professors just dying to go to overseas and therefore willing to jettison all professional standards. Check out teachers like “Doc” Munsey, the lit prof whose motto is “ A all the Way, from Paris to Calais!”

And speaking of courses, we’re creative in that area, too! We offer classes that are stimulating without being too consuming, enabling you to devote quality (and quantity) time to what really counts: checking out the action in the local bars. Here are some sample offerings for our upcoming spring semester in Prague: Shakespeare in Slavic Films, An Introduction to the Museums in Prague, and Emergency Czech.

If you (or your parents funding this boondoggle) still need more convincing, here are some more incentives:

  • Bad ear for languages? Nyet problema: in English, no problem! Many of our courses demand no contact with the natives, who hate America anyway, and for an additional fee, you can be accompanied by an interpreter wherever you travel.
  • Strapped for time? We offer terms as short as ten days—no, a week—no, three days—for those who have to get back to the States for that all-important frat party or charity fun race. You can learn a lot in a short space, especially if you don’t sleep.
  • Skirting academic failure and just want some time away? Our not-so-stringent requirements will make you smile, starting at a 2.0 GPA and only 10 credits already under your belt.
  • As for money, all tuition and fees may be paid on an equity basis to be arranged between you and your mortgage lender. We’re currently working on an indentured servant contract as an alternate route to payment.

So don’t delay -- check out what’s happening at U of All People Abroad today! Our new motto is “Going global!” and it’ll be true as soon as soon as we can work out those pesky visa arrangements.

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

David Galef is a professor of English in transition from the University of Mississippi to Montclair State University. His latest book is A Man of Ideas and Other Stories.

Graduation, Kotzebue, 2008

Faculty, community members, students and families arrived by snow machine, plane, or dog sled, or walked across frozen seas from surrounding villages. This is graduation in the Arctic at Chukchi campus, the northernmost branch in the University of Alaska System. Today, at commencement, it is a sunny and crisp 33 degrees. Younger residents don T-shirts and shorts.

Chukchi is situated in a place unimagined by most in higher education. The college, in Kotzebue, a settlement of 3,000 people, clings stubbornly to a gravel outcrop on the edge of the Chukchi Sea, where flat snow-covered tundra meets icy waters. Kotzebue is accessible by boat or air during three summer months; and by air, snow machine and sled in the winter.

Residents, students, and faculty live peacefully without ordinary facilities such as a dry cleaner, saloons, discos, or a car dealership. There are more snow machines and dogs than cars in Kotzebue. The town includes an airstrip for bush pilots. People headed to the landfill must pause for incoming and outgoing planes the way most students in America pause at a stop sign, looking for approaching vehicles. An itinerant hairdresser visits once each month and folks desiring a haircut schedule appointments. Only in late June and July are seagoing barges able to deliver gasoline. The price per gallon, nearly $6, remains until gas is delivered again this summer. Gas prices are expected to jump several dollars this July.

Life’s daily rituals and conveniences are all more extreme in the Arctic.

Kotzebue was founded in the late 1800s by the German Lt. Otto Von Kotzebue, sailing under the Russian flag. For 600 years the Inupiat Native occupied the area, trading ivory, baleen, various skins, wool, beads, bone tools and baskets with interior Natives and ocean visitors. As Russian traders and New England whalers introduced alcohol, firearms and disease during the 18th and 19th centuries, culture and commerce took a different turn.

Well-meaning missionaries, who endeavored to convince the “heathen” they were devil worshippers, also arrived. One legacy of exploration in the Arctic is, sadly, reflected in low rates of educational achievement for young men, and high rates of suicide, substance abuse and domestic violence, all problems that have been acknowledged by the elders and Alaska native leaders.

Graduation and commencement are celebratory as they are throughout the United States. There is great pride in finishing degrees. Chukchi campus also serves villages in the surrounding areas, through distance education programs. Students earn associate degrees, bachelor's and master's degrees.

The University of Alaska system is one of the few institutions that reaches inhabitants in rural and remote regions of the Arctic. UA scholars also engage in high-quality research on climate change, sustainable energy sources, high-latitude agriculture and in many other fields. On this day there are 20 hours of sunlight. Soon the sun will stay above the horizon for nearly a month; a far cry from winter, where, for a month or so, the suns rays rarely break the horizon, darkness prevails and temperatures sometimes drop to 100 degrees below zero. Residents are primarily Inupiat, joined by people of Asian, Siberian Yupik and Caucasian descent. Many are presently hunting waterfowl, seals and whales. For commencement, we are welcomed with muktuk, a specially cut section of whale blubber and skin -- a prized delicacy here.

On the graduation platform, as caribou meander outside, each graduate tells a story, each becoming a commencement speaker. Some depict amazing journeys through time and distance. Words are also spoken by students born into a U.S. territory, prior to Alaska statehood in 1959. There are palpable signs of relief and joy about obtaining degrees, even as the changing physical environment forebodes a warning more immediate than the tight job market.

Polar bears are moving south and inland in search of food, one apparent result of the shrinking sea ice. Tell the whale and walrus hunter that global warming is untrue or overstated and risk a reaction of confused or mournful anger. In the Arctic, the debate on climate change loses its polemical steam. Seas are opening, temperatures are rising, glaciers are retreating, villages and languages are disappearing. Whether present conditions result from anthropogenic influences, or Earth’s natural cycles, is of little consequence.

The graduation story at Chukchi is similar to what has occurred in America over the last 250 years. Alaska is the newest end point of an engaging American story. After all, Philadelphia, Boston and New York, like Kotzebue, were wilderness towns, claimed for their economic potential by European monarchs and the Dutch West India Company, the first multinational corporation. Resources were taken out of Colonial America; public policy was dictated by powerful external corporate entities.

The history of the U.S., like Alaska, has been a triumph of local control and self rule over benevolent outsiders. People came to Alaska to be free, to escape prejudice and conformity, to transcend the icy stares of those who admonish us to fit in and lament our lack of qualifications to do so. Others were brought as slaves. Indigenous peoples suffered tragically as history repeats itself.

Alaska today remains a place where dreams are made through hard work and second chances. Kotzebue itself is a town that encourages people to start anew, to conquer adversity, and to strike out in ways not normally accepted.

Which brings me to my topic this commencement; the triumph of the human spirit in extreme places. Extremes nourish the creative spirit. Indeed, extremes on the frontier underpin the most essential traits in the American character: restless inquisitiveness, exuberant confidence, a masterful grasp of the practical, pragmatism, an acute sense of destiny.

Through adaptation and resilience, we overcome personal and physical challenges. We change the future by changing ourselves in the present. An extreme place is the common denominator. Inevitably extreme places sustain different life styles, new businesses and ideas. Alaska is a creative place. I am certain this trait is linked to a highly competitive environment where life’s essentials, shelter, food and community are hard won and cannot be taken for granted.

Commencement at Chukchi represents the possibility of a new beginning. Life can be lonely and harsh, but it is precisely the juxtaposition of challenge, opportunity and freedom that draws us here. In extreme situations can we learn to live in harmony or test our potential as human beings.

Author/s: 
Daniel Julius
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Daniel J. Julius is vice president for academic affairs for the University of Alaska System of Higher Education.

Two-Year in Hell

Raymond leaned back in his desk chair and let out a deep sigh. He was beginning to accept the fact that he wouldn't find a job this go-round. He reached into the bottom left drawer of his darkly patinated, sturdy old wooden desk and pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey. He poured two fingers of his familiar solace into an unwashed coffee mug, and surveyed his future.

It was already April. He could easily defend his dissertation and officially receive his Ph.D. this spring if he wanted to. But since it didn't look like he was getting any job as a real professor, it might be a better strategy to wait and graduate next fall or spring. Some schools might look askance at his job applications next year if he had unaccounted-for post-Ph.D. time on his vitae. And, lord knows, schools were all too eager to find any perceived imperfection. It helped them weed out some of the hundreds of applications they received from the hordes of jobless Ph.D.'s. So, he decided, he shouldn't officially get the degree yet, unless something developed quickly on the employment front.

But what would he do next year? He'd been a graduate student for seven years, and, barring some last minute need for an emergency replacement, his department wasn't going to give him another teaching assignment. He just might get part-time teaching work at one of the several universities in the area, but there were no guarantees. He might well end up working at a grocery store, or a bar, or, if things went really badly, at a convenience store or fast food place. He shuddered, thinking of the injustice of one of the bright young minds in his field selling beer and cigarettes to the scum of the earth, or asking some imbecile if he wanted fries with his order.

Raymond stared out the window of his office for a few minutes, morosely sipping his whiskey and imagining the very worst possible scenarios.

When he turned back to his computer, he was surprised to find a job listing glowing on the screen with what seemed to be an unusual luminosity. It was all the more peculiar since he was sure he'd turned off the computer before pouring his drink. Yet there it was.

Job Listing #666. University of Hell at Seventh Circle. Visiting Assistant Professor, two years (with possibility of converting to tenure-track position at culmination of two-year appointment). Beginning September 2009. Teaching load of forty-three courses per semester, with no more than thirty-nine preparations (i.e. instructor will teach more than one section of some courses). No official committee duties, but will be expected to contribute occasionally to departmental administrative work. Competitive salary, given local economy. Candidate must exhibit evidence of strong potential for both research and teaching, and significant flexibility in his/her expectations. For further information, repeat the name “Mizrakreth, Chair of Hiring Committee” three times.

Raymond stroked his chin thoughtfully. After a minute he began chanting “Mizrakreth...” After all, it couldn't hurt just to get a bit more information.

*****

Patrick looked up at Raymond. “What do you mean, 'University of Hell?'”

“You know, Hell. They apparently have some colleges down there.”

Patrick took his feet off the chair that students used when they visited during office hours, then kicked the chair a few inches and nodded at it, as an invitation to sit. “So your question is whether I think you should apply for a job in Hell?”

“Yes, right,” Raymond said, seating himself.

“Hell, the site of eternal torment for the souls of the damned.”

“Yeah.”

“Given that particular description of the place, an obvious answer seems to suggest itself.”

“No, come on. Seriously.”

“Do you have some reason to think that I'm not being serious when I recommend that you not freely choose to enter Hell?” Patrick asked.

“I know, I know, I dismissed it too at first. But put aside your preconceptions for a minute.”

“They're pretty deeply ingrained.”

Raymond ignored the comment, and explained, “Sure, it's Hell. And that's a minus. But at least it's an academic job. I mean, yes, there's the damnation and torment aspect, but at least I won't have wasted the last seven years of my life. I'll be using my education, you know?”

Patrick scratched at a spot in the middle of his forehead, and slightly scrunched his face. “How can I express this? You seem not to be recognizing something ... this is ... it's, it's HELL! People don't want to go to Hell! Very significant numbers of people restructure their entire lives so as to avoid going to this very place that you're eagerly traipsing off to! Are you crazy?”

Raymond's neck and cheeks flushed slightly. “Sure, you can afford to be a snob, with your job already in the bag. We can't all get cushy, hot shot jobs like yours,” he said, rising from the chair. “Excuse me for not living up to your lofty standards.”

Patrick held his hands out, palms up, and said, “What are you talking about? I got a one-year job at Eastern South Dakota State College. I have to teach four courses a semester. It'll be hell!”

Raymond bit his lower lip.

Patrick cleared his throat, “Uh, not literally Hell, of course. Sorry.”

In the silence that followed, Raymond reseated himself. Staring at the floor, he said, “I guess four courses a term is a lot, compared to some places.”

“And, ah, what's the teaching load in Hell?” Patrick asked.

“It's pretty heavy.”

“More than four?”

Raymond nodded.

“Five?”

“No.”

“More than five? Ray, how many courses do you have to teach?”

“Thirty-something, forty-something, I forget.”

“Thirty or forty per YEAR?”

“Semester.”

“What are you talking about? Raymond, there are some professors who go through an entire, long, fruitful, distinguished career and then retire barely having taught forty classes! It's not humanly possible to teach that many per semester!”

“But it's not that many preps. Mizrakreth said that sometimes you only have to prepare twenty or so courses, then for some of your courses you just teach the same material from the same notes.”

“And Mizrakreth is...?”

“Chair of the hiring committee. A mid-level sub-demon. He seemed pretty upfront about the whole thing. Admitted it was a heavy teaching load, but he pointed out some advantages, too.”

“Such as?”

“Well, of course, it is a job in humanities, and you know they're not easy to come by. Besides that, the teaching could be a plus in a way. I'll teach a bunch of different courses, and that can only look good on my vitae. And it sounds like, in recent years, there's more of a trend for people to get good jobs after working a year or two as visiting professors, instead of right out of grad school.”

“So it's a temporary job?”

“Oh, sure. A two-year. I wouldn't want to live there forever. But you have to pay your dues nowadays. And I assume I could leave after just one year if I really don't like it.”

“Does the contract say that?”

“I haven't actually seen the official contract yet. There's a lot of red tape down there, apparently. Mizrakreth said it would probably be okay, we'd have to play it by ear.”

“I'd get it in writing,” Patrick advised. “They might be sticklers.”

Raymond nodded. “Anyway, from what Mizrakreth said, it's not as bad down there as the media makes people think. They've really been working on improving the place.”

“Wouldn't that defeat the whole 'eternal torment' business?”

“Look, a lot of places have worked on being more livable. Cleveland, Pittsburgh,” Raymond said. “Newark, I think.”

“None of which are located in the netherworld per se. Nor designed for the express purpose of providing unremitting agony for the residents. I hardly think Hell is that interested in urban planning, or sprucing things up.” Noticing Raymond's dour look, Patrick softened his tone. “At least don't sign anything until you've visited the campus.”

“That's kind of a problem, actually. They don't have the money to bring people in for on-campus interviews for temporary jobs. If it was a tenure-track job, that'd be a different story. The economy down there hasn't been so good lately.”

“So what's the pay, anyway?”

“Well, Mizrakreth wasn't sure. It's not really his decision. The administration'll decide, based on my experience, etcetera. But he assured me it'll be competitive.”

“Read the fine print, okay?”

A pudgy, youngish man with curly blond hair walked into the room and set his backpack on a desk by the door. “What's up?” he asked.

“Raymond's thinking of applying for a job in Hell,” Patrick answered.

The pudgy man paused, looking at their faces to see if they were joking. After a few seconds, he asked, “Tenure track?”

“Naw,” Raymond answered. “Two-year.”

“Those can be rough. You just get settled in, you have to move again.”

“It could be converted to tenure-track after two years, though, if everything works out.”

Patrick raised his hand and said, “Which of course would mean spending more time in Hell.”

“Still,” the pudgy man said, “Tenure-track is tenure-track.”

*****

“Karen, we need to talk,” Raymond said.

He was sitting on her couch, holding the last slice of the pizza they'd ordered. She sat in her favorite chair, nearby. They had just finished watching a syndicated rerun of The Simpsons. Karen turned to look at him, and, as always, he was struck by the intensity of her gaze. It seemed like all illusions would wither under the force of her intelligent, gray eyes. He wondered, not for the first time, if he was crazy to leave her. Though he truly cared about her, he comforted himself with the thought that there'd be other women. What was important right now was not to hurt her any more than was unavoidable.

Setting down his pizza, he asked, “Remember that two-year job I told you I applied for, a week or so ago?”

“Sure. The Hell job.”

“Right.” He hesitated. “They offered it to me, and I think I'm going to take it.”

She nodded slowly.

Raymond continued, thoughtfully, “So, we've talked before about what we'd do if I got a job somewhere. I guess what we decided was that it depended partly on how far away it was and how workable a long-distance relationship would be.”

“And Hell is really far away,” Karen said. “I guess it is, anyway. Is it another dimension, or what?”

“Yeah, a different plane. So, I guess it seems to me that we shouldn't try to keep up a monogamous relationship. In the end, it doesn't seem like a good idea to me. But how do you feel about it?”

“You're right,” she said after thinking a moment. “And it's not like we haven't seen this coming. To be honest, I can't say I'd be that enthusiastic about visiting you down there. I think the best thing is probably to say we don't have any commitments.”

“None at all, you mean?” Raymond asked, then quickly added, “Right, you're right. No commitments. Although it's not as if I have plans to meet a lot of women in Hell or anything. How much dating could there be?” He absently picked up the slice of pizza and took a bite, then added, “I suppose that in Hell in general, there might be some orgies and things, but nothing appealing.”

“Didn't you say it was in the seventh circle of Hell?” Karen asked.

“Right. University of Hell at Seventh Circle.”

Karen slightly shook her head, and said, “Probably no orgies there. Lust, carnal sins, that stuff's supposedly on the earlier levels. Second or third circle, I think.”

“Really? It's all divided up like that?”

“Well, I don't know this. It's just vague memories of stuff I've read. The seventh circle is supposedly for violent criminals, murderers and the like.”

“Murderers?”

“Also, it's hot. Flaming cinders falling from the sky, river of boiling blood, burning deserts. Again, 'supposedly.' This is all just hearsay.”

Raymond had been chewing his bite of pizza for a long time. Now he swallowed.

Karen put her hand on his reassuringly. “Like I said, this is not reliable information. Maybe it's not like that at all.”

Raymond nodded stoically.

“Do you like succubus?” Karen asked.

“Succubus?” Raymond asked. He tilted his head, and said, “Well, sure, you know I like...”

“No, that's not what 'succubus' means,” Karen said. “They're some kind of female demon. Actually, maybe the plural is 'succubi.' They might be available.”

“I don't know about that,” Raymond said. “But I'm not even thinking about women down there. I'll be so busy teaching, I won't have any free time.”

“The regular women, I mean the damned ones, they'd probably have some complexion problems. You know, blisters, charring. From the heat. If they have bodies at all. Maybe they're not corporeal.”

Raymond sat silently for a while, then picked up a napkin and wiped his mouth.

Karen reached over and squeezed his free hand and said, “Sorry. Let's not talk about it any more.” She moved to sit next to him, and put her arm around his shoulders. “I hope things work out for you, Raymond. I really do.”

*****

Raymond ran into the mouth of the cave to escape the swirling firestorm. Burning flakes of ash had completely ruined his sportcoat. He'd been shielding his pile of syllabuses by hunching over them as he ran, but now they spontaneously burst into flame from the ambient heat. He dropped the syllabuses and blew on his fingers, muttering “Damn!” He quickly looked around, not sure if he might incur some special penalty for saying that word here.

His students were already there waiting for him in the cave/classroom. It didn't look like a promising bunch. There were indeed a great many unpleasant blisters, and various other wounds and scars. Some students were chained to their iron seats, and Raymond could hear and smell their flesh sizzling. They produced small streams of either smoke or steam, which would no doubt distract the other students. Most everyone was moaning, which also did not contribute to the learning environment. There were three students whose eyes had been gouged out, leaving gaping, bloody sockets. Raymond couldn't see how this was related to the heat, and guessed they must be transfer students. To accommodate them, Raymond made a mental note to be sure to repeat all his main points in a clear voice, even if he wrote them on the board. In the corner was a humanoid-looking tree. Its bark smoldered, and it groaned.

Raymond walked to the front of the room. He tried to introduce himself, but was drowned out by ghastly wails from beyond the rough-hewn rock wall. He put his mouth near the wall and shouted, “Excuse me!” repeatedly, and then, “Hey, we're having a class here!” He accidentally brushed his lip against the wall, and jerked his head back in pain. A blister was already forming on his lip from the hot stone, and his shouting hadn't affected the racket next door. In the second row, a woman's hair caught fire.

“Tough crowd,” he said under his breath, and shook his head. Then, “Two years, two years.” He tried very hard to remember if converting the job to tenure track was his option, or the administration's.

Author/s: 
Richard Dean
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Richard Dean wrote this story well before applying for his current job at the American University of Beirut, and also before applying for his previous job at Rutgers University. By no means is he comparing either place to Hell.

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