In this current economy, with the government knocking education for its gross inefficiency and lack of results, urging it to adopt a business model when businesses all around are failing, U of All People has remained mostly untouched, probably because no one thinks it worth attacking.
Nobody thinks of supporting it, either. It has little assistance from the state, a laughable rate of tithing from the alumni network, and such a low profile in the community of Ennyville that many residents mistake it for the old Whirlpool plant south of town. “If you want more money and recognition,” the mayor of Ennyville, Bob Barter, told the Board of Trustees last month, “you need a five-year plan. Get us excited about what you’re doing.”
It’s true: as the bursar fills out IOU’s for tuition waivers, we clearly have no organized vision beyond paying the unsanitary waste bill next Tuesday. The boiler room below the half-finished gym is still making an alarming noise, and the entire biology department is teaching with microscopes dating to 1975. Yet everything from classroom space to the student social network is evolving, so why shouldn’t we? Accordingly, we’ve set up the 7W Committee to study Where We Were and Where We Want to Wind up. The president’s personal assistant even found our old mission statement, rotting in a file cabinet from the Nixon era, and we’ve tried to build on that.
Reach for the sky, the committee was instructed, but don’t fall flat on your face. Below are the notes from our brainstorming session.
Title: Something imposing, like “Gateway to Tomorrow”
Lead-in: U of All People was the first school to -- to what? To rack up a student retention rate of under 50 percent? We lead the way in Scantron testing. We look forward to (ending this meeting). Enough preamble. How about goals?
1. Global. Multinational. Extending the reach of something, embracing the 21st century. We’ve still got that satellite campus timeshare in Manchester, right? Work with that. Maybe predict an exchange program in Moldavia, or is it Moldova, by 2015.
2. Technology up the wazoo (don’t put it that way). Smart classrooms, smart students? Interconnected, which sounds better than connected. Can get grants for that stuff. Webcams in all dorms -- wait, sounds like an invasion of privacy. Wireless in the cafeteria by 2013?
3. Research. Right. Continuing a proud tradition of. Didn’t Dwayne Dwight in the chem department get a patent 10 years ago for something? Problem: how to light a fire under our nonproductive faculty. Which is almost all of them. By 2016, increase the number of published papers by 25 percent . Easy. 25 percent of nothing is still nothing.
4. Become better teachers. Ha. Increase the level of faculty-student communication through -- God, not more brown bag seminars. Utilize the most modern pedagogical techniques in an attempt to. Maybe we can just get Mona Desiree in mod langs to show up for her 8:00 a.m. French class.
5. Involve students more in school activities. Free drugs, student rec center with more than a broken ping pong table. By 2014, we hope to have a broken pool table, as well. Could also impose a dorm curfew to keep them on campus.
6. Better prepare students for the job market. What job market? Death out there. Maybe say something about usable skills. Post-graduation follow-up. We sent out that survey, right? Did anyone ever respond to it?
7. Increase public awareness of UAP by 15 percent. Too bad we fired our media relations staff last year. Five-year plan for changing motto from “U of All People: What You See Is What You Get” to “U of All People: A Nice Place to Study” to “U of All People: Absolutely Incomparable!”
Or at least put up some signs around campus to prevent people from thinking we’re the Whirlpool plant.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman.
Submitted by David Galef on September 16, 2011 - 3:00am
As recently as a dozen years ago at U of All People, the music department chose its new director by arranging a set of wooden chairs in a row, with one too many potential sitters. The outgoing director would put Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the record player, and while the violins stabbed the air, the candidates circled the chairs. When the music stopped, everyone grabbed for a chair to sit in, leaving one person standing. Some years, this process was repeated until one chair was left for two people, and the person who managed to grab the last chair succeeded to the post. Other years, depending on the whim of the outgoing head or the exigencies of the search, the first person left standing was drafted for the position. One year, the chair was awarded out of sympathy to the person who fell on her butt halfway through the proceedings.
Though this chair-selection process was deemed by the dean of inhumanities “too whimsical for the 21st century,” as a chair of a neighboring department who will remain nameless (but it’s Ed Courant of psychology) remarked, “Not a whole hell of a lot ever changes here, y’know?” Those of us in the history department think about this observation as we prepare to select a new chair for 2012. Here are our choices:
“Who amongst us will come forth?” muses Professor Manley Davenport, matching his fingertips together in what he hopes is a chair-like mannerism. “The brightest lack all conviction while the mediocre are full of passionate intensity.” He strokes his wispy beard, which he has been encouraging like a Chia Pet. “And then there’s me.” Where does he locate himself? Perhaps somewhere in between, but the incontrovertible part of Davenport’s claim is that no one really can pin down his political talents or beliefs, since his only foray toward activism was a six-month stint in the Faculty Senate, during which he attended no sessions at all.
Professor James Septa still considers himself a maverick in the department, mainly to explain why few people say hello to him in the hall, but also why he’s had such trouble getting published. “They’re all afraid of me,” he confesses to anyone who’ll listen, including, lately, the increasingly uneasy students in his Brilliancy class. “I’m what you call a Young Turk.” His rallying cry is “It’s time to shake up this department!” His ideas include abolishing exams, holding weekly faculty meetings, and revising the major to include reading ability in one archaic language.
The reasoning behind Professor Sidney Lento’s bid for the chairship is, alas, all too clear. In a prophylactic maneuver, he cheerfully announces it to everyone. “Fact is, I’m nearing 70 and staring retirement in the face. Fact is, it’d be nice to go out with a higher base salary for my pension. Am I qualified? Fact is, I know this department better than anyone.” He doesn’t discuss his brief but disastrous term as interim head of graduate studies, and in any event, the lawsuit was finally dropped because the student in question dropped out.
"According to Plato, a philosopher-king should lead the state, and the best leader is someone who doesn’t really want the job.” Professor Thomas Vance makes this pronouncement with a superior smile, hoping you’ll follow his logic, according to which Professor Vance would make a superb chair. He’s been playing this act -- with the chairship and with his marriage to his now-ex-wife -- for seven years.
Other candidates include Professor Dorothy Danto, a member of the rear guard that lost its majority voting power after a flock of retirements in the late 90s. She wants a return to normalcy; i.e., when she could quash any upstart suggestion by summary dismissal. There’s also Nina Frudd, an adjunct who argues that it’s time for an adjunct to hold the post, but since no one listens to adjuncts -- “That’s precisely my point,” she claims -- her bid hasn’t even been recorded. It’s even been suggested that our office assistant, Rweilla Smith, be the chair, since she already runs everything. But Ms. Smith has already decided to leave academia once she gets accepted to a graduate program in social work.
Perhaps we should conduct an outside search, though that would mean 1) the administration would have to deliver a salary and course-release commensurate with the post, 2) we’d be hiring someone not from U of All People, i.e., someone who doesn’t understand all our arcane regulations and can’t be trusted. In the end, the administration may decide this matter for us. At the last School of Humanities meeting, the provost announced that the university intends to replace department chairs with a dean who oversees an entire division. Where the dean will come from is an open question, but it’s rumored that the music division is already lining up a row of chairs.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman, coming out in November.
The student who wrote in a semiotics exam that "language is a system of sins" could well have been referring to this year’s Times Higher Education "exam howlers" competition.
That entry, submitted by Daniel Chandler, lecturer in media and communication studies at Aberystwyth University, was one of scores sent in to the annual contest, in which lecturers are invited to share their favorite mistakes and misunderstandings.
I've been waiting forever for Sheila to call. I've never met her, but Sheila's the most powerful person at the university where I work. She is to the university president what Stanley Fish is to an adjunct rhetoric instructor with a basement office outside a Dumpster.
We at the University of Iowa pray to Sheila the Almighty daily. Tenure might protect us in the classroom, but outside we are vulnerable to all kinds of calamity. That's where Sheila comes in.
My current ordeal began when my workplace, the journalism school, moved to a new building. For six years, the school had been housed in a termite-infested dungeon where the closest bathroom was two floors down. I knew the elevator repairman by name. Winged creatures of many varieties took refuge in my office, including a bat that did not leave.
The only good thing about the old journalism building was its parking lot. I had a spot 100 feet from the basement door.
Sheila, you may have guessed, is the parking-lot-assignment queen at the university, which, despite what readers in Chicago or Los Angeles might think, is not located in a cornfield. Parking here, as at Loyola and Harvard and Wayne State, is as sought-after as 50-yard-line seats at the Iowa-Michigan game.
But the new journalism building is across campus, for God's sake! And a parking lot spot anywhere near the new building takes a professor emeritus to die. Stories circulate that faculty members have resorted to sending Hermes scarves and Stuart Weitzman pumps to Sheila as inducements to bump up their names on the waiting list. I like to think that Sheila is beyond such enticements, though. When you're as powerful as she is, what tangible item could be so enticing?
Lot 3 is the sought-after prize for hundreds of my colleagues. So valuable is the slotted real estate in Lot 3 that entry privileges come with a gate. Occupants used to use an actual key to get in, but as a nod to the computer age, now they get those magical cards that, waved in front of a sensor, cause the gate to rise. The thought of swinging my mud-splotched chariot toward the gate, which would majestically rise as I cruise to a coveted stall, is nirvana.
Moving up on the wait list for Lot 3 is determined by a logarithmic formula developed by former cryptographers for the OSS. It's based on a complex formula of logarithms that include multiple determinates, including the number of years at the university and whether you are staff or faculty. In a blow to academic elitism, openings are alternated between staff and faculty; faculty rank has nothing to do with the selection process.
So what did I have to lose? Everyone who wins at Powerball buys a lottery ticket however small the odds of getting all five numbers. Same with the track. So, I completed the on-line application form for Lot 3, hoping like the guys at OTB hope that their horses will win the trifecta.
So it'd cost me $40 a month. At least when I speak up at faculty senate meetings, my colleagues would listen.
One recent day, as I trekked toward my distant lot braving gusting winds, I wondered how many years it would take before I truly arrived. It is important to note that I tried not to personalize resentment toward Sheila. Bad karma does not move your name up the list.
When I checked my office phone messages and email, there were the usual urgent messages: "I need a signed ad slip for Advanced Forms of Deconstruction and if I don't get in, I'm going to the dean"; "The scholarship committee will not meet as planned"; "Catalogue copy for the new minor in mass communications was due today, so where is it, bozo?"
I was about to hang up, when the machine indicated there was one last message. Like a shaft of golden light from the heavens, it was Sheila's voice, as dulcet-sounding as I had dreamed it would be, a combination of power and calm. Her message advised me that a spot in Lot 3 had miraculously opened and it was all mine. Maybe a professor emeritus had gone off life support the previous evening, maybe a fitness-fanatic administrator had flipped the bird to the nation's dependence on fossil fuel and bought a bike. A gift is a gift.
But Sheila left a warning: To secure the spot, I must call back within 24 hours. I frantically punched in Sheila's number. Alas, the Parking and Transportation Office had closed.
I slept very little that night. I knew Sheila would keep her word, but I still fretted. Whoever caused the vacancy might change his or her mind. Long-lost family members might surface and raise objections about the do-not-resuscitate order.
As soon as I got up that morning, I called Sheila. "Come over and we'll give you your key to Lot 3," she said cheerfully.
What a job this Sheila has -- a combination of long distance operator for the Nobel Prize Committee, captain of the Publishers Weekly Clearing House Team and the good people at MTV's West Coast Customs.
Unable to believe what I was hearing, I was momentarily speechless. Sheila, I think, was shocked by my silence. She's used to shrieks, sobs, incoherent blabbering.
"You are still interested?" she asked, sounding almost hurt.
"Yes," I said, my heart pounding. "Yes, yes, yes, yes!"
Stephen G. Bloom is professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa and author of "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America" and "Inside the Writer's Mind: Writing Narrative Journalism."
Minutes of the English Department Meeting, April 23, 2005
Meeting begins at 4:15 instead of 4:00 as scheduled because somebody forgot the keys to the faculty lounge.
The chair, Professor Bigley, brings the meeting to order.
Professor Twistwhistle, our Renaissance scholar, remarks that today is Shakespeare’s birthday.
Question posed by Professor Durrell: Why do we have to attend these time-wasting meetings? Seconded by Professor Aarondale. Professor Bigley asks if this is an issue we intend to vote on. Professor Durrell says something not worth repeating, then repeats it.
The chair brings the meeting to order again.
Discussion of library subscription cuts: because of budgetary deficits, necessary to suspend at least a dozen periodicals. Suggestions by Professor Smythe: Modern Philology, Ancient Philology and that semiotics journal requested by the assistant professor who left for Rutgers last year. Professor Kzykak: Why keep up Pop. Cult. Review? Only idiots who can’t read like that journal. Professor Smythe begs to differ. Professor Kzykak: Beg all you want. Professor Aaronson: What about Critical Inquiry or PMLA? General hilarity. The chair brings the meeting to order again. Will put list of periodicals in faculty mailboxes, and please mark off 12.
New course proposal, put forth by Professor Smythe: English 3XX, Women and Vampires, cross-listed with Gender Studies. Questions: Where is the reading list on the proposal? Why is there no final exam? What the hell has cultural studies done to academic standards, anyway? (Kzykak) Professor Smythe begs to punch Professor Kzykak in the nose. The chair brings the meeting to order again. Vote taken. English 3XX defeated 6-4.
Professor Kzykak suggests we hire a bailiff for these meetings. Ms. Cunningham, our administrative assistant, comes in with Girl Scout thin mints left over from her daughter’s cookie drive. Five-minute time-out.
Professor Twistwhistle hints that today is somebody important’s birthday.
Report from Professor Bowdler for the committee on undergraduate electives. Professor Bowdler not present. Need volunteer to act as judge for this year’s Quiz Bowl. Professor Bowdler elected in absentia by unanimous vote.
Proposal from the dean to establish a teaching-observation protocol. Discussion of McCarthyism. Professor Dale, our theory person, wishes to discuss the impossibility of objectivity. Professor Aaronson: Right. You can’t judge my teaching. It’s too subjective. Professor Smythe: Not any more than some anonymous clown in Kalamazoo assessing my research. Professor Aaronson: Are you referring to—? Professor Smythe: Yes, but never mind. Let’s keep my spouse’s unsuccessful promotion review out of it. Professor Dale refers to the post-subjective subject. Professor Aarondale: What about this [deleted] administration? Delegate Professor Aarondale to draft counter-proposal for observation of dean’s office.
Not on agenda, but Professor Ernesto wants to talk about plagiarism in student papers. Floor open. Questions: Is there really a problem here? (Smythe) Professor Ernesto: What’s the percentage of student work that’s suspect? Really, that high? Why don’t we just castrate their damn laptops? That’s obviously where it’s coming from. Professor Dale notes that the act of appropriation may sometimes be an homage. Professor Ernesto grabs Professor Dale’s briefcase and shakes out all the papers. Yells, "This is an act of appropriation, not an homage!" Professor Dale threatens to deconstruct Professor Ernesto. The chair brings the meeting to order again. Directs task force of Professors Dale and Ernesto to look jointly into student plagiarism.
Professor Twistwhistle hums "Happy Birthday."
Brief ad hoc discussion of faculty retirement. Questions: What does it take to break tenure, anyway? Will the dean consider funding a new Renaissance line?
Meeting adjourned at 5:00, an enjoyable time had by all. Thank God the responsibility for taking down these minutes is rotating, and it’s Professor Aarondale next month. Hear that, Aarondale?
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).
There’s a wonderful scene in the 1979 film Manhattan that is parody, but as in most satire, perilously close to reality. Ike (Woody Allen) and Mary (Diane Keaton) are strolling in the Guggenheim Museum when Mary starts rattling off the names of members of what she calls the "Academy of the Overrated." Among the academy’s charter members: Norman Mailer, Gustav Mahler, Carl Jung, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Walt Whitman, Vincent Van Gogh and Ingmar Bergman.
Woody is beside himself. He can’t believe anyone would trash those so close to his heart.
Flash-forward to a meeting I attended recently. The journalism school at the University of Iowa is deservedly getting a new building, a marvel of technological and architectural wonders dedicated to teaching the wonders of communication to would-be 21st Century journalists. A colleague and I were selected to coordinate a day-long dedication for the new school, and through the benevolence of a benefactor, have a small pot of money to spend to attract a big-name speaker or two.
As in everything academic, the decision won’t be mine alone. The j-school will be sharing its new space with a hybrid, the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature, and because universities like to act democratically, representatives from the two disciplines need to agree on who the speakers would be.
On the j-school’s list were such luminaries as Donald Barlett, James Fallows, Donald Graham, Bill Kovach, Daniel Okrent, James Steele and Bob Woodward.
Just as I finished circulating this A-list of names, a young professor from Cinema and Comparative Literature sneered. "Well, I'd hope we wouldn’t invite Woodward!" She was almost spitting.
"What's wrong with Woodward?" I asked, my blood pressure beginning to spike.
"Well, I just don’t think he’s a very good journalist!" the professor snarled.
A momentary pause for anyone who’s been living in a cave: Bob Woodward has taken us into the lives of Americans as diverse as the two George Bushes, Bill Clinton, John Belushi, the former CIA chief spy William Casey, the Supreme Court justices, Colin Powell and Alan Greenspan. With help from Carl Bernstein, he was responsible for showing Richard Nixon the White House door. Woodward has been one of America’s most gifted newspapermen for more than 35 years. He has changed how Americans look at our country and how journalists write about it.
Considering all the above, I stared at this Judas in my midst, my mouth forming an O-shape. I looked around the table for a nibble of support but got none. Just as I was about to jump on the table to protest, my own colleague from the journalism school joined Judas, voicing her assessment of Woodward as an opportunistic sellout.
The emboldened professor from Cinema and Comparative Literature hopped on the thread. "We definitely wouldn’t want Woodward," she said now with finality.
"But then who?" I asked.
"Well, I could see inviting Sy Hershman."
This cinema-and-comparative-literature professor was so chummy with the investigative reporter and New Yorker political writer Seymour Hersh, who broke the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal story, that she was comfortable enough calling him Sy, but somehow couldn’t get his last name right.
The rest of the discussion, as far as I could follow, involved how corrupt journalism is and how complicit the school is to take money from the likes of giants like Gannett, Lee Enterprises and other models of corporate greed.
After gathering my wits, I suggested that we ought to have two separate days of dedication -- one where academics could trash the corporate model of journalism, and another where professional journalists could talk about ways to enhance and improve American journalism.
Absolutely not, the professors around me railed. There should be one and only one program. The journalists (well, maybe not Woodward) should be invited to the dedication to learn from the academics. We need to publicly humiliate, flog and pummel these propagandists. Lock the doors so the lapdogs can’t escape. Call C-SPAN to document the bloodbath.
I’m not making this up.
What’s the lesson? Just another case of academic elitism at its most basic and sniveling core?
What happened is not new or different from how the academy has historically looked at anything popular or successful. Popularity means corrupt, and corrupt means without merit, worthy of scorn -- a ticket into the Academy of the Overrated.
That recent incident recalled a similar instance of incorrigible academic elitism I experienced when I was an untenured professor and about to submit a book proposal to a trade publisher. A tenured faculty member told me, point blank, that if a trade publishing house were ever to publish my book, I should be prepared to kiss tenure goodbye. Naïve and new to the job, I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"You mean to say that if a reputable publisher, a place like Knopf, Doubleday or Harcourt, were to publish the book, and if it were to get positive reviews in places like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and a great number of people were to read the book, I wouldn’t get tenure?" "That’s right," came the acid response from the full professor. "Trade publishers will print anything that’ll sell."
As though writing a book that the lay people read would be bad.
I had never heard of anything so undemocratic in my life. Almost a decade later, I still feel the same way. I understand that there is a place for serious scholarship, which by nature has a limited audience. But I was a journalist, teaching in a journalism school. The definition of good journalism is to break new ground, and in doing so, reach as large an audience as possible. The idea is to discover and inform -- not really so different from the role of a university professor.
I’m glad to report that the full professor soon left the university, the book came out, I got tenure, was promoted, and life has been rosy ever since. But the professor’s elitist drivel still sticks in my craw because his snobbery runs so rampant in the academy today -- as what I experienced with the dopey professor from the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature.
Frankly, I doubt whether Bob Woodward would even want to come to Iowa in the first place. The real action these days when it comes to improving journalism isn’t in the critical-cultural halls of academe. No surprise. It lies with smart, savvy reporters and editors pushing the limits of corporate media ownership by producing the kind of journalism that demands to be disseminated and read, stuff so good that no one can ignore it.
It’s hard to be a journalist today given economic constraints, not to mention a surging patriotic mandate from a large part of this nation that dictates to be critical of the government is to be Un-American. In my mind, to do journalism well today is a form of heroism.
For more than a century, the credo of millions of American journalists used to be “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That magnificent credo still flies proudly at several rarified media outlets. God knows, such journalism is needed today. The way journalism is practiced today at many newspapers and electronic outlets is mediocre, often embarrassing. For many reasons, much mainstream journalism has entered a new kind of Dark Age.
But journalists shouldn’t -- and won’t -- put up with ivory-tower snipers pointing AK-47s at their real-world heads. Few newly minted journalism/mass communication Ph.D.s today have any familiarity with the great journalists of our times -- Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, John McPhee, Hunter S. Thompson, David Halberstam, Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh, to name a few. Mention John Hersey, Rachel Carson, James Agee, Lincoln Steffens, H.L. Mencken, Hannah Arendt, Ida Tarbell and you’re likely to get blank stares. Doctoral students today receive few incentives to study journalists. Today’s graduate students in the field study critical-cultural theoretical icons who, I’m afraid to say, have little real understanding of today’s working press.
It comes as no surprise, then, that there’s so little scholarship that has contributed to improving the quality of journalism. I doubt whether scholars really want to do that, anyway. For most scholars, such activity would be considered beneath them — sort of like publishing a book that people could actually understand.
Stephen G. Bloom
Stephen G. Bloom is professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa and author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America and Inside the Writer’s Mind: Writing Narrative Journalism. He has worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and San Jose Mercury News, and is co-founder of the Iowa Journalists Oral History Project (http://www.uiowa.edu/~acadtech/journalists/index2.htm).