Put a group of university presidents together in one room and it won’t take long for the conversation to turn to that pesky thorn that is now firmly entrenched and slowly festering in our sides: national and international university rankings. In the beginning, when these rankings were largely compiled by media outlets such as U.S. News & World Report or Maclean’s to attract consumers to special features focused on the pros and cons of campuses in the U.S. or Canada, the thorn barely touched us with a glancing scratch. Over time, however, the annual scratch became more and more insistent and harder to ignore. Now rankings are nasty and barbed thorns with the capacity to hobble — sometimes disastrously so — otherwise healthy, high-functioning institutions of higher learning. And they’re here to stay.
The problems with national and international rankings are numerous and well known. So well known, in fact, that the world’s most powerful ranking organizations — the World’s Best Universities Rankings conducted by U.S. News & World Report in partnership with Quacquarelli Symonds and the Times Higher Education Rankings — have been working diligently to revise ranking measures and their methods in an attempt to increase the accuracy and objectivity of the rankings.
A laudable exercise, but even with recent changes, the rankings remain flawed and misleading on many fronts. Too many measures continue to rely on the subjective judgment of faculty, employers or students who, in most cases, will have little, if any, knowledge of institutions or individual researchers far outside the realm of their own direct experience. No measure has been found that accurately captures the value and impact of humanities and social science research, and trying to quantify the quality of undergraduate teaching or student experience through a simple faculty-student ratio simply cannot stand up to scrutiny. It must also be remembered that many of the rankings only take into account research that is recorded in English, leaving much of the tremendous work and talent in countries such as China and Russia unrecognized and under-valued.
From my perspective, rankings are also missing the mark by failing to shine a light on some of the most significant benefits that universities bring to local, national and global societies. The focus of most rankings is on academic research outputs — publications, citations and major awards — that stand in as proxies for research quality and reach. While these outputs do a fairly good job of pinpointing the impact of a university’s contributions to knowledge, especially in science, technology, engineering and health sciences, they provide little indication of what kind of impact these advancements have on factors that the global community generally agrees are markers of prosperous and secure societies with a high quality of life.
Let me give you an example of what I mean: governments and policy makers everywhere now consider universities as economic engines as well as educational institutions. Public investments in research are increasingly directed toward research with the potential to translate into products, processes and policies — even whole new industries. This trend in research funding reveals a lot about the ways in which universities matter to governments, policy makers, regions and the public today, but the rankers aren’t paying attention.
Consider Israel. According to data on NASDAQ’s website, Israel has more companies listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange than any other country in the world except the U.S., and major companies such as Intel, Microsoft, IBM and Google have major research and development centers in Israel. Why? If you look at the data, you see a correlation between this entrepreneurial activity and the investments in and outputs from Israel’s universities.
Israel is among a handful of nations with the highest public expenditure on educational institutions relative to GDP, and it has the highest rate of R&D investment relative to GDP in the world. It also has the highest percentage of engineers in the work force and among the highest ratio of university degrees per capita. Many of the companies listed on NASDAQ were started by graduates of Israel’s universities: Technion, Tel Aviv University, Weizmann Institute and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to mention a few. Do international university rankings capture these economic impacts from research and postsecondary education in Israel? The answer is no. In spite of their tremendous impact and output, Israel’s universities are ranked somewhere in the 100 to 200 range.
Germany’s universities also tend to be undervalued in international rankings, even though Germany has had the strongest exports-led economic growth during the recession. By contrast, Britain’s productivity, growth and competitiveness lag far behind Germany, and still, British universities generally outrank Germany’s. According to OECD statistics, the proportion of higher education research and development funded by business in Germany is over twice that of Britain, which suggests the strong link between Germany’s globally competitive business sector and universities. Although many factors contribute to a country’s competitiveness, the role of universities, their quality and impact is an important factor.
My point here is not that universities should be ranked according to economic impact, per se. Instead it is to suggest that, if rankings are here to stay, then they should, at least in part, adhere more closely to measures that reflect the priorities for which universities are being held accountable today by their various stakeholders. Otherwise the rankings will continue to miss the mark and reinforce tired reputations and old hierarchies.
Indira Samarasekera is president and vice chancellor of the University of Alberta.
In early June, 33-year-old University of British Columbia graduate student Rumana Manzur was brutally attacked by her husband while visiting family in Bangladesh. He gouged out her eyes, permanently blinding her, and bit off most of her nose. This was done in front of their young daughter.
Stories like this can paralyze us, but they can also mobilize us to speak out. When the mainstream press covers this issue, they are, in effect, starting a public conversation. In responding to this coverage, we tell other parts of the story and create a larger conversation, advocating for unheard voices and voices that are discounted in the "official" discussions at our institutions.
Three of our writers have added their stories to this conversation in the essays below. Afshan Jafar talks back to mainstream media depictions of violence against women, particularly women in "non-Western" countries. Melonie Fullick asks us to think about the ethical obligations involved in internationalizing our institutions and the enduring need for feminism. Lee Skallerup Bessette writes that while she can only speak for herself, she is, nonetheless, obligated to speak on behalf of others.
Death by Culture?*
By Afshan Jafar
Rumana Manzur’s case is heart-wrenching, and terrifying. It makes this post a very difficult one to write. I believe that all forms of violence against women are reprehensible and criminal and should be exposed and punished. But when I see the media coverage of Manzur’s case and its reception by the readers/viewers, I am reminded of why the coverage of violence against women in Other, "non-Western" countries needs to be approached differently.
As a "third-world feminist" living and teaching in the U.S., I am constantly navigating various identities simultaneously in and out of the classroom. Every time I cover this topic in my courses, I am torn. Am I simply perpetuating the myth of other cultures as inherently violent, sexist, and backward? Or did I accomplish what I set out to accomplish? That is, instead of approaching these incidents as something "barbaric," I encourage my students to analyze them as practices that are embedded in particular economic, political, cultural and global contexts. I am haunted by the thought that instead, some of my students may still come away thinking that life in other parts of the world is simply savage and brutal. It doesn’t help to read commentsposted by readers of news stories such as those about Manzur. References to a barbaric or backward religion, or culture, the Middle East, “honor killings,” and the Stone Age are some of the first ones to show up. There seems to be no separation in so many people’s minds between the Middle East, South Asia, Islam, or the Arab world. One category easily replaces the other, which only speaks to how foreign and far removed from "our" reality these incidents seem.
This exoticization of violence goes hand-in-hand with various media putting a disproportionate amount of emphasis on the "extreme" cases of violence against women in other cultures. This has some profound and damaging consequences. First, we hear of the honor killings, stoning, etc., but not of the many other forms of abuse and violence — trafficking, bonded labor, rape, domestic violence — even though they impact larger numbers of women. Second, it makes it much easier for people to latch on to a horrific incident such as Manzur’s, which happened in a "third-world country" and breathe a sigh of relief that this didn’t happen here -- and come away thinking that only those "barbaric" people over there do such things.
Uma Narayan, in DislocatingCultures, describes the common explanations of violence suffered by women in the non-Western world as a "death by culture," where culture becomes an explanation that needs no further examination by the reader/audience, while at the same time it doesn't actually tell the reader/audience anything specific. But it is always only women in Other cultures that suffer a "death by culture," and we don't employ that kind of reasoning to violence that we see in the Western world. The fact is, domestic abuse and violence against women and girls is a serious issue in Western countries as well, but these issues rarely receive the attention they deserve. People are fascinated with the story of Manzur in the same way that they are sickened by a story of an 11-yearoldgirlbeinggangrapedbyseveralmen. How could somebody do that?, we ask.
But though we don’t see the second case of the Texas girl as an example of American culture as barbaric (and thus we come up with no answer to our question), we do come to this conclusion in Manzur’s case (and answer our question with vague notions of tradition, custom, or culture). The popularity of “death by culture” type of explanations of violence (and by extension what these imply about the unenlightened state of these cultures) is part of the reason why Manzur's incident has translated into a call to bring more South Asian women for an education to Canada. While giving more women an opportunity to be highly educated is certainly something that should be pursued as a worthy goal in and of itself, this line of thought implies that education will work to "enlighten" these cultures and somehow prevent domestic abuse from happening in the future.
This post is not meant to imply that women's oppression is the same everywhere. There are various degrees of oppression, and some practices are more horrific than others; some cause more suffering than others. Nor is it meant to imply that coverage of violence against women is a bad thing. Quite the contrary. I am happy to see the support that Manzur's case has generated in Vancouver. But sometimes artificial dissimilarities blind us to the underlying and significant similarities between practices around the world. Is it really any less barbaric when a woman is shot or stabbed rather than blinded or whipped?
When I see pictures and videos of Manzur, it brings me to tears. I wish we could all see in her face the anguish and despair of the millions of women across the globe, including in our own countries, who are victims of systemic forms of violence and abuse. Perhaps, then, more stories would inspire action than a mere "Tsk, tsk. How cruel."
*I have taken this phrase from Uma Narayan’s chapter"Cross-cultural connections, Border-Crossings, and "Death by Culture": Thinking about Dowry Murders in India and Domestic Violence in the United States” from her book Dislocating Cultures.
Originally from Pakistan, Afshan Jafar is an assistant professor of sociology at Connecticut College. Her recent book, Women's NGOs in Pakistan, uncovers the overwhelming challenges facing women’s NGOs.
Untold Stories of Internationalization
By Melonie Fullick (Canada)
When UBC Fulbright scholar Rumana Manzur travelled to Bangladesh to see her family in May 2011, her husband refused her permission to return to Canada to complete her master's degree. He accused her of cheating; when she argued back, heattackedherviciously, gouging out her eyes in front of their young child — a daughter who will now bear her own emotional scars for a lifetime.
This shocking assault on a promising female student highlights an aspect of the internationalization of universities that is rarely trumpeted in policy discussions and news coverage of higher education.
"Internationalization" is not simply a neutral exchange of ideas and people, a seamless movement of "excellent" ideas and scholars from one nation to another. And the less examined, negative and contradictory side of internationalization seems to flare up in conflicts that we don't know how to resolve, conflicts of "culture" that inevitably affect lives and raise serious ethical concerns.
A recent example is that of Australia, where Indian students have suffered raciallymotivatedattacks and consequently the number of Indian applications to Australian universities has dropped. This has a direct effect on the economic sphere, since Australia can no longer expect to generate revenue from Indian enrollments. Canadian universities are nowcourtingstudentsinIndia with an eye to stealing Australia’s dwindling share of the market.
Offshoring higher education creates a different set of ethical dilemmas. Issues of socioeconomic class, gender, politics, and sexuality arise when we look at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. Recruited from only the most elite high schools worldwide, students from privileged circumstances receive better aid packages than regular NYU students, but they are not allowed political protest, or to engage in “homosexual acts” on campus. In a country where activists can be arrested for criticizing the government, what are the implications for this elitistoutpost? What kind of "world citizens" will be educated there?
These examples highlight problems with the predominant idea of university education, one still based on a Western, liberal model where the university is an "island" of tolerance and reason, a bastion of democratic values. What happens when the walls are breached by racism, sexism, and homophobia; when the island must stay afloat amid authoritarian politics?
There is no reason behind the violence inflicted on Rumana Manzur, and such actions can't be tolerated.
And though gendered violence is more prevalent in countries where women's rights are restricted, it’s not merely a “foreign” phenomenon. The attack also reminds us in a very discomforting way of the violence againstwomenthatpersistsinthiscountry (Canada), particularly for indigenous women. This is abuse that happens in "our own backyard" and even in our homes, much of it still unreported.
Recently in a lecture for a class on gender and society, I heard several young women voice the opinion that feminism is no longer necessary. I’d argue that it’s still necessary everywhere and that Rumana Manzur’s case provides another grievous example of why that’s the case. Perhaps this is one of the less pleasant — though most vital — lessons we can learn from internationalization.
Melonie Fullick is a Ph.D. student at York University, in Toronto, Ontario in Canada who writes about postsecondary education, policy, and governance. She can be found at speculative-diction.blogspot.com.
I can only speak for myself
By Lee Skallerup Bessette (U.S.)
Why do so many of us fail at being good women? What are the consequences for failing to achieve the stereotypes of a given time, place, and culture?
I have recently started a new weekly feature on my blog for the summer: BadFemaleAcademic. In it, I try to confront the gender stereotypes that female academics face. The post that thus far has generated the most amount of traffic was my post about beingawife. I wondered on Twitter why that may be; the answer lies in the negative connotations associated with the word "wife," particularly in parts of academia and feminist circles. For many of my readers, to be wife is to be less than, subservient and submissive, possessed.
When I read about RumanaManzur, graduate student at UBC, I was struck by the many things we have in common: we are exactly the same age; we are both wives, mothers, and academics. She now lies in a hospital bed, on the other side of the world, permanently blinded, unable to ever see her daughter again. Her career may also be over, depending on the rehabilitation resources that are available to her. I sit at my kitchen table, in my house (which I co-own), trying to find the words to express what I am feeling right now.
I feel deeply saddened that a woman who is described as "happy, brilliant, studious, and devout" was tortured because she sought to better herself (and, one would imagine, her family’s economic situation) through education. My heart breaks for the young daughter who apparently witnessed the maiming, at the hands of her own father, Manzur’s husband. Her husband even tried to blame it on her, saying that she had been unfaithful. As if that justified blinding and disfiguring his wife, the woman who is the mother of his child, the person he supposedly loves. I feel impotent rage that this could, that this does still happen to women who are like me.
But she, obviously, isn’t like me; nor I, like her. I feel fortunate that I was able to choose my husband, that he respects me and my career, and that we are to a large extent equal partners in our relationship. We agreed when we were going to have children, how we are going to raise them, and that I should return to work. Our house and our car are in both of our names, but I also have assets that are exclusively mine. How can I, in my privileged position, write about what Manzur has endured?
In fact, how can I even write about the “oppression” or, more accurately, inequality that I face? There is a viral video going around, FirstWorld Problems. It is a funny rap done by an upper-middle-class white teen aged boy, exposing the ridiculousness of the complaints uttered by (one would imagine) his peers. There is, of course, a danger in calling these complaints "first world" as they can negate the very real inequalities that exist in the West, but I can’t help but think that my "complaints" are indeed, first world and from a place of privilege.
I have the freedom and the ability to blog and write about the inequalities that I experience in higher education. Indeed, we tend to hide behind the veil of privilege and class, behind the assumption that inequalities don’t, can’t exist in such enlightened spaces. We are made to feel guilt or shame because, really, we should feel fortunate, if not grateful, that we do not face the kind of oppression that Manzur and her daughter have just been subjected to.
We need to do more to allow women to speak out and speak up for themselves, encouraging education, equality, and real protections. Although I feel compelled to speak on her behalf, I refuse to try to speak for her.
I can only speak for myself.
Think global, act local. I will continue to work to expose the inequality here, with the aim of making everyone more sensitive to the equalities that exist everywhere. One thing that I can do today is write this post at University of Venus and share the issue with our readers at Inside Higher Ed and elsewhere. I can remember that when I write, I am but one voice in a larger family of women, many of whom cannot speak for themselves. But I can write, speak, teach, and fight. I have the privilege of refusing silence. So I will.
Lee Skallerup Bessette is originally from Canada and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Alberta. She can be found at collegereadywriting.blogspot.com.
University of Venus is read by graduate students and college presidents, faculty and provosts, staff and administration. In reaching this broad readership, we feel an urgency to respond to issues, knowing that what we say matters and that it often informs decisions that are being made at the highest levels.
One thing that each of us can do right now is notice those who are not speaking and work to create spaces and situations where they will feel empowered to speak. If we don’t hear their stories, we can’t advocate for meaningful change.
Reading the scholarship devoted to the phenomenon of blogging sometimes calls to mind a comment that Jackie Gleason is said to have made about people who review TV programs -- that it's "like writing about a car wreck for an audience made up entirely of eyewitnesses."
Not that researchers shouldn't gather data from LiveJournal, or make connections between the blogosphere and Jurgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, or whatever. But even the most impressive work tends to tell you something you already know, more or less.
For example: A recent number-crunching analysis of political blogging during the 2004 election demonstrated, among other things, that conservatives have created a dense online social network -- one with strong links among sites, that is, making them an effective medium for focusing on a particular topic or message.
Bloggers to the left, by contrast, have created a much less compact and efficient network. The tables and charts that the researchers prepared to demonstrate this are impressive enough. Even so, it all adds up to something slightly less incisive than an observation made, sooner or later, by anyone watching American political life: that there is an almost instinctive tendency on the part of self-identified "progressives" to cooperate just long enough to form a circular firing squad.
To be fair, the ideas and methods used in blog scholarship are sometimes more thought-provoking than the immediate results. That's especially true, it seems to me, with research using models of how networks emerge and function. (Then again, there is always something a little awesome about finding that "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" that Eugene Wigner pointed out in the natural sciences also applies to human behavior en masse.)
But with an awful lot of work on the content and context of blogging, you have the Jackie Gleason effect in purest form. It isn't anybody's fault. The problem, arguably, is endemic to just about any kind of qualitative (that is, non-statistical) research on a new social phenomenon. In short: how do you get from offering a description to forming concepts? The conundrum may be even tougher with an emergent cultural form such as blogging -- one prone, that is, to incessant labors at self-definition, self-promotion, and self-mockery.
So what would a really interesting and exciting piece of qualitative research on blogging look like? And how would it get around the problems of overfamiliarity with the phenomenon (on the one hand) and blogospheric navel-gazing (on the other)?
To get an answer, it isn't necessary to speculate. Just read "The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging: On Language, Culture, and Power in Persian Weblogestan," by Alireza Doostdar, which appears in the current issue of American Anthropologist. A scanned copy is available here. The author is now working at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, where he will start work on his Ph.D. in social anthropology and Middle Eastern studies.
"Weblogestan" is an Iranian online slang term for the realm of Persian-language blogs. (The time has definitely come for it to be adapted, and adopted, into Anglophone usage.) Over the last two years, Western journalists have looked at blogging as part of the political and cultural ferment in Iran -- treating it, predictably enough, as a simple manifestation of the yearning for a more open society. Doostdar complicates this picture by looking at what we might call the borders of Veblogestan (to employ a closer transliteration of the term, as used specifically to name Iranian blogging).
In an unpublished manuscript he sent me last week, Doostdar provides a quick overview of the region's population: "There are roughly 65,000 active blogs in Veblogestan," he writes, "making Persian the fourth language for blogs after English, Portugese, and French. The topics for blog entries include everything from personal diaries, expressions of spirituality, and works of experimental poetry and fiction to film criticism, sports commentary, social critique, and of course political analysis. Some bloggers focus on only one of these topics throughout the life of their blogs, while others write about a different topic in every new entry, or even deal with multiple topics within a single entry."
He notes that "a major factor in the widespread adoption of blogging" in Iran "has been the Unicode standard, which has made it possible for people to write and publish easily in the Persian script." Nor does it hurt that it is easy to set up a blog -- or to use a pseudonym. The result has been the creation of a medium that cuts across social and geographic boundaries. In his manuscript, Doostdar says that his work bought him into contact with "high school and university students, journalists, literary critics, Web designers, women's rights activists, and statesmen, living in Tehran, Toronto, Berlin, New York, London, Prague, and Paris, along with numerous other anonymous and half-anonymous bloggers scattered around the world."
Except for the part about writing Persian script using Unicode, this is a familiar picture of the blogging world. It is, in effect, a neighborhood within what Manuel Castells identified, some years back, as "the network society" -- a global "space without a place." And Doostdar's account of the routine practices among Iranian bloggers will also ring a bell with their American cousins. There are group blogs, "trackback pings," comment fields, blogrolls, and even emoticons (the horror, the horror ;-).
At one level, then, it sounds like a new chapter in the worldwide spread of homogenizing mass media. The more globalization-friendly spin on this would be that blogging is a tool with which Iranians are creating a culture that challenges the fundamentalist social order.
Fortunately, Doostdar's work does not stick to either of these scripts. His paper in American Anthropologist looks at a controversy that raged during the final months of 2003 -- the bahs-e ebtezaal or "vulgarity debate," a heated discussion of the place of blogging in Iranian culture. On one side were members of the roshanfekr class -- meaning those writers and intellectuals possessing an "enlightened mind," but also a certain degree of education, sophistication, and social prestige. The term, writes Doostdar, "has historically come to represent one who is conversant with modernist or postmodernist discourses, is a humanist, feels a certain commitment toward the well-being of his or her won society, and continually and publically [criticizes] the values, norms, and behaviors of that society."
There are members of the roshanfekr classwho write for blogs, but they have other outlets as well, including newspapers and magazines. On the other side of the debate were Iranian bloggers who were "not intellectuals by social function or profession." The practice of blogrolling and cross-referencing allowed some of them to gain "popularity and a reputation within the community of bloggers."
But it was precisely the "focus on a contextual constitution of self" (with its attendant rituals of backscratching and mini-celebrity) that made blogging a venue for "a radically different set of priorities" from those of "the more 'noble' genres of traditional journalism and literary composition" practiced by the roshanfekr class. "In blogging," writes Doostdar, "speed often takes precedence over thoroughness, outlandishness over rigor, and emotive self-expression over dispassionate analysis."
In October 2003, Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi. a prominent journalist and literary critic, referred to "the stink of vulgarity in Weblogestan" -- complaining about the spelling errors, sloppy language, and low argumentative standards prevailing among bloggers. And as a nice touch, he did this on his own blog. The effect, as Doostdar put it, was to unleash "a cacophony of blog entries, online magazine articles, comments, responses, and counterresponses that continued for several weeks."
Some of the non- roshanfekr who denounced "intellectualist pretense" appear to have taken extra care to make errors in spelling and grammar when they replied. (As Doostdar puts it, they tried to "metapragmatically index themselves as linguistic and cultural rebels by being deliberately careless.")
And you can feel the seething bitterness of one blogger who denounced a prominent journalist and short story writer: "Keep mistaking this place as a literary conference when others consider it to be an informal and safe place for chatting. Come sit down wearing a suit and tie and mock those who are wearing jeans."
The populist tone is familiar. Change the accent, and it wouldn't sound out of place on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. And yet the lines in the Iranian vulgarity debate were not drawn for the convenience of American pundits.
For one thing, it isn't the familiar story of democratic reformers versus fundamentalist mullahs. It's more complicated than that. The liberalizing influence of the roshanfekr intelligentsia, "although significant, is still small relative to the dominant traditionalist clergy," writes Doostdar. "Their strongest cultural and political leverage is most likely among academics and in the domain of print media..." Going online gives them "a much less restricted environment for publication and cultural-political action" -- but in a space where "just about anything can (and does) get published and there is no authority to enforce linguistic and cultural standards."
The result? Well, consider the case of Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi, who launched the initial salvo against "the stench of vulgarity in Weblogstan." Shortly afterward, he created a Web page with links to online editions of fiction that is censored in Iran. But according to Doostday, some "charged that he wanted to stifle free speech" with his criticism of vulgarity, "and compared him to government censors."
On Thursday: Using a Soviet dissident theorist's work to think about the blogopshere Also: is there a "pious spirit of blogging" in Iran?
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The "vulgarity debate" that broke out among Persian bloggers in late 2003 (discussed in my last column) has no exact parallel in the American scene. But as Henry Farrell pointed out last week, some of the same tensions can be felt along the borders where blogging intersects with established professions and institutions of journalism and scholarship. And no surprise, either: While Iranian academics and writers were initially provoked by the bad grammar and guesswork spelling that prevailed in Weblogestan, the deeper issue is structural - a divide that cuts through any culture.
In his paper for American Anthropologist, Alireza Doostdar makes a brilliant (and neatly executed) leap from the terms of the vulgarity debate to Pierre Bourdieu's critique of Kant's distinction between "pure" and "vulgar" taste. "A vulgar work," as Doostdar paraphrases the argument, "is that which is facile and fools the senses into submission instead of provoking one to think about deeper meanings." The ability to "rise" from the sensuous to the conceptual is a function of education. And that, in turn, makes distaste for "the vulgar" one of the automatic dispositions -- in Bourdieu's lingo, the "habitus" -- of those who have accumulated a certain degree of economic, social, and cultural power.
I hesitate to provide even this much of a summary of the argument. Not because it's too complicated, but because it can be too easily -- vulgarly, even -- converted into an apology for boilerplate populist resentment, whether against "the media elite" or "tenured radicals" or "bourgeois intellectuals" (depending on the ranter's preferred mode of denunciation).
Providing tools for lazy polemicists was never Bourdieu's point, in any case. (For a good overview of the connection between his anti-elitist politics and his intellectual project, check out this recent article by Loic Wacquant.) It would be interesting to know what Bourdieu himself, who died more than three years ago, might have made of Weblogestan. But my impression is that Doostdar's analysis of the Iranian "vulgarity debate" is very much in his spirit. "If I had one 'activist' intention in writing this paper," he said in an e-mail message recently, "it would have to be alerting the 'intellectualists' [by which he means Iranian academics and journalists] of the fact that they are being blind to the power dimensions of their own discourse."
Doostdar notes that, while the high tide has receded, the vulgarity debate keeps washing over the Iranian blogosphere. "Time and again," he told me, "the same issues are raised again in different contexts, and within new discussions. Most recently, someone wrote a long essay on how paying too much attention to the 'statistics meter' affects one's writing, suggesting that the writing on many blogs was cheap because of this obsession with 'hits.' "
And the ferocity of the initial dispute was the product of another tendency that isn't limited to Persian Weblogestan: "The very fact that bloggers need to be 'provocative' in order to be read," says Doostdar, "has an important bearing on the intensity of the debates among them" -- including the arguments over how they understand the blogosphere itself.
In the course of his paper, Doostdar makes one analytic move -- a reference to the work of Soviet cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin - that (I'm guessing) won't stir up a lot of controversy among much of anybody. Instapundit won't denounce him for it. Atrios won't start an open thread inviting people to discuss the consequences for Social Security. And the literary bloggers won't quit complaining about The New York Times Book Review long enough to notice. So be it. But Doostdar offers a striking idea whose implications are worth pondering.
In short, he contends that blogging is best understood as what Bakhtin called a "speech genre" -- one of the basic terms in his heroic and open-ended project of rethinking the relationships among life, language, and literature. The idea could be applied to blogging anywhere in the world. But it's hard not to notice how much richer the historical subtext becomes when the scene is Iran. To appreciate the resonances, it may help to have some background, so let's digress from Doostdar's paper for just a moment.
The Soviet literary scholars who first rediscovered Bakhtin's work in the 1950s and '60s tended to read him as a critic of the Communist regime -- a fair enough judgment, given that he wrote about Dostoevsky (never a favorite of Marxist critics) and Rabelais (whose celebrations of joyous and messy excess were deeply antiauthoritarian in spirit). Those early admirers also assumed that Bakhtin himself was dead. He had published just a few works under his own name between the 1920s and 1940s. So it was entirely reasonable to guess that he been killed -- as likely as not, in state custody -- somewhere along the way.
It turned out, however, that Bakhtin was actually teaching at Mordvinian State University in Saransk. In effect, Russia's greatest cultural theorist was working at Boondocks A&M -- a situation preferable to most of the alternatives available at the time. By the time he died in 1975, his writings were the basis of a school of cultural theory that, while officially tolerated, was radically at odds with any ideology claiming to offer the final word.
The definitive Bakhtinian notion is dialogue. As he told a prominent Soviet magazine in 1970: "A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another meaning: they engage in a kind of dialogue, which surmounts the closedness and one-sidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures.... Such a dialogic encounter of two cultures does not result in merging or mixing. Each retains its own unity and open totality, but they are mutually enriched."
Maybe that sounds like standard contemporary multi-culti diversity-speak. But saying it took real guts -- and the implications of Bakhtin's argument are by no means merely therapeutic.
He says that meaning exists only in dialogue. Every sentence is, at least implicitly, the answer to someone else's sentence -- which was, in turn, a reply to another's utterance, etc. The greatest works of literature (and Bakhtin was the sort of theorist who could use a term like "the greatest works of literature" without the slightest hesitation) were the ones that never stopped producing meaning.
It is not that we foist new meanings on Shakespeare, he told that Soviet magazine in 1970. "He has grown because of that which actually has been and continues to be found in his works, but which neither he himself nor his contemporaries could consciously perceive and evaluate in the context of the culture of their epoch."
So what does any of this have to do with blogging? Well, a posthumous anthology of Bakhtin's work appearing in Moscow in 1979 contained an essay called "The Problem of Speech Genres" (now available in English) that had been composed during the academic year 1952-53. A Soviet reader did not need a footnote to catch the echo contained in that date. As Bakhtin drafted it, Stalin had been secretly preparing a fresh round of purges (happily interrupted by his death, late in the spring semester.)
Unlike the Iranian academics and journalists expressing contempt for the "vulgarity" of blogger discourse, Bakhtin offered an account of culture that didn't draw hard and fast lines between "high" and "low" forms. Just as there are genres of classical literature (tragedy, comedy, epic and so forth), so there are genres of expression and dialogue in ordinary life.
"Each sphere in which language is used develops its own relatively stable types of these utterances," wrote Bakhtin. In a sense, your routine exchange with the barista at the coffee shop in the morning is just as formalized, in its way, as the number of syllables in a haiku. While Bakhtin coins the term "speech genre," he does not restrict its application to spoken language. A business letter or newspaper article is an example of a speech genre.
Of course, some speech genres are fairly simple, and some are extraordinarily complex. Bakhtin emphasizes that the complexity of a speech genre is not a matter of how difficult its content may be. Rather, some genres are more open to dialogue than others. They can mimic or borrow from other genres, or suspend their own de facto rules. For Bakhtin, the unique power of the novel as a literary form comes from its virtually infinite capacity to absorb and transform the entire universe of speech genres.
The blog entry, then, is a what Bakhtin would consider a complex speech genre, at least potentially. (Less so than Dostoevsky; more so than spam.) "Each individual comes to a blog with a stock of speech genres at her disposal," writes Doostdar. Some of the "vulgar" forms of expression in Weblogestan are the written approximations of familiar practices of oral communication. "The frequent use of ellipses in many Persian language blogs and comments is part of an attempt to compensate for [the] uprooting of the genre from its oral context, by simulating gaps in oral speech that work as cues for turn-switching, as when a speaker remains silent when it is his interlocutor's turn to speak."
Add to that the capacity to link to, or otherwise incorporate, an incredible array of online content -- and to engage in dialogue with other people -- and blogging starts to seem very Bakhtinian indeed. Not that he would have expected much of it to achieve exactly Shakespearean greatness, of course. As he wrote in 1970, " Everything that belongs only to the present dies along with the present."
Now, for a long time there was a tendency to read Bakhtin's concepts as a more or less disguised plea for pluralism, liberalism and sundry other anti-totalitarian virtues. That is understandable, but maybe not quite up to dealing with just how complicated his situation and his ideas actually were.
I tried to address some of this in a review-essay, a few years back. Suffice it to note that the problems are far knottier than I let on - and that it might be a good idea for Western enthusiasts to be skeptical of any reading of Bakhtin that makes him sound like a prophet of sweetness and light.
In any case, we should be all the more dubious about assuming that the speech-genre of blogging itself is somehow intrinsically open, anti-dogmatic and emancipatory. The desire to do that is especially strong in regard to Persian Weblogestan, of course. It is certainly the impression you get from most journalistic accounts in the American media. But an unpublished paper by Alireza Doostdar -- a careful analysis of an Iranian blog called Munkarat ("forbidden actions") -- raises some issues that go far beyond the debate over "the vulgar spirit of blogging."
Munkarat is a religious blog whose title, notes Doostdar, will remind readers of a passage from the Koran - as well as the "morality police force set up shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979." The commentator who runs the site is a social critic, of a kind, devoted to "express[ing] his personal beliefs" about the "ugliness" of contemporary Iranian society. He also posts a large number of devotional entries honoring the Prophet, the Ayatollahs, and those who were martyred during the war with Iraq in the 1980s.
Reading Doostdar's paper after a long visit with Bakhtin's work, it is striking to see how much the "open" speech genre of blogging can absorb from Iran's fundamentalist culture - in particular, the hey'at and the Student Basji Organization.
A hey'at is an unofficial but regularly structured congregation of men who assemble (often at a member's home) to perform religious observances. With its streaming audio of prayers and its blogroll of others sharing the owner's beliefs, [ital]Munkarat[ital] creates a kind of online community of piety.
As for the Basji ("mobilization'), it is "one of a handful of major student organizations in Iran, with offices in most, if not all, universities in the country," with close ties to conservative political and religious forces. One of its basic activities is maintaining a bulletin board to inform the campus of the group's views.
"As a member of an organization like the Student Basji," writes Doostdar, "an interested student may collect newspaper and magazine clippings for the bulletin board, write political commentaries, participate in discussions about organizational policy vis-a-vis school issues or problems related to the wider society, mediate discussions in meetings and seminars, or help organize events." All of which, in effect, continues online -- with the blogosphere offering a bulletin board large enough to be seen by anyone who reads Persian.
The owner of Munkarat, writes Doostdar, sees his blog as part of "the 'arena' or 'battlefield' where cultural wars (and in the larger scheme of things, political, economic and military wars) are fought between the forces of the Revolution ... and the forces of the 'enemies.' "
In a sense, he is perfectly correct to see it that way. Weblogestan, whatever else it may be, is the scene of endless conflict. For my part, I am cheering for the people who go into the Munkarat commentary fields to gripe about its piety and to demand a secular and democratic society.
It sounds like quite a few of them do get rather vulgar about it. But sometimes you have to expect that sort of thing.
Tasi. Stavanger. These are the names of actual cities. For me, these constitute something more: actual names from among the most remote locations in the fantasy structure of my career. I have never been to either city -- in Moldovia and Norway, respectively. (Fifteen years ago, the one had a Fulbright position, while a few weeks ago I noticed the other as the location of a job vacancy.) Yet how not to dream of going? I have always had a desire to work somewhere else.
Where? Just about anywhere. I used to joke with a former colleague about attractive job descriptions I chanced upon. It seemed he had already once applied to every one of the departments in question, and he always knew something precise about the geographical setting of each university. So much for my fantasy, whether or not somewhere I had no desire to go in Texas was actually (according to him) quite pretty, or somewhere else maybe more attractive in Indiana was in fact the most godforsaken place on earth.
Usually, though, the most important thing about a particular place is that it has simply been, or rather represented, Elsewhere. Anywhere can be elsewhere. At various points in my career, all sorts of places have suddenly and seductively appeared, from Waterford, Maine to Portland, Oregon. To apply for a job at respective universities there was to quiver at the romance of Arctic temperatures or to thrill to -- well, I never decided precisely what Portland evoked, although I could fancy myself bent over some dense volume at Powell's Books while drinking a steaming cup of latte.
What about the job descriptions? Finally, they never mattered. The institutions only mattered a little more. The decisive consideration was always geographical location. According to my fantasy terms, anywhere was just about an equivalent term with Elsewhere, although if I chanced to have some personal knowledge of a place, I usually ruled it out. (The region too remote, the town too small, and so on.)
Otherwise, I could not do so, at least for the purposes of an initial application. No wonder, therefore, that I virtually never got any interviews. My interest in any one specific position was not academic enough!
No wonder, also, that eventually I began to seek out employment opportunities abroad. Not only is the imaginative category of Elsewhere best -- most exotically -- represented by the Foreign. Many universities throughout the world cannot easily be known in terms of the exact circumstances of their location. So more or less through chance have I found myself, for example, teaching at one of China's most provincial universities as well as one of Brazil's most prestigious. In each case, I was content. I had gotten the location I had desired.
Just as good, the respective departments had no agonizing politics, the students no recalcitrant identity, and the universities no problematic status. To be fair, I'm sure there were issues in these respective places about which both professors and students felt great passion. But neither the issues nor the passion intruded upon a visitor's experience.The nice thing about teaching abroad is that you are just passing through.
Back home, on the other hand, there remain the colleagues with whom you try not to make eye contact in the halls, the students who still have to be told repeatedly not to leave their seats to sharpen pencils, and the deans who assure parents and congressmen that the reputation of the university has never been better. That is, back home you are an academic, for better or worse, in sickness and in tenure, till death or retirement do you part.
Elsewhere? Pure fantasy for most tenured people. Tasi? High-flyers only get invited to such places, for one-day improbable conferences on even more improbable subjects. Stavanger? Who knows who applies there?
Maybe they are people who never got a Ph.D., or tenure, or a break. But in any case, you yourself have to worry about tomorrow's meeting of the Curriculum Committee, not to speak of next week's seminar preparation, the cost of the upcoming summer's new roof for the house, or, surely by then, the reader reports for your manuscript that the press has had for, it seems, years. In three or four more you can apply for a sabbatical and then take the family to, well, London. But right at this moment London seems as much a fantasy as Londrina.
What about off the tenure track? There is undoubtedly a whole class of people in the United States for whom the Tasis and the Stavangers of the world are remorselessly real places because they are the only ones where full-time employment can be obtained. In addition, prior to 9/11, certain universities in the Middle East had larger academic expat communities, where scholars enjoyed salaries and private schools for their kids that they could only dream about back in the U.S.
In any case, though, few of these people are (or were) adjuncts. Granted, adjuncts do not have to serve on committees. In theory, they are free to go anywhere. In practice, few even dream of it. If there is an Elsewhere, it is just across town or 40 miles down the road -- or else more defined by the availablity of a tenure-track job than geography or culture. Not only are adjunct circumstances remorselessly local. Adjuncts have no security. You can only have a fantasy structure to your career -- you can only have a career at all in the fullest or most meaningful sense -- if you enjoy job security.
Rather than beginning my own career at somewhere in Missouri I had never heard of I began it at somewhere else I never heard of in Pennsylvania. Perhaps this is why Elsewhere has remained so vivid to me. What if I had made the wrong choice? However, in today's terms, at least I had a choice to make. Opportunities are more scare today.
Those fortunate enough to reside in full-time, tenurable positions now are likely to have secured them with few, if any, alternatives (except becoming adjuncts). In this respect, it seems to be one thing to have working conditions in which a fantasy structure of escape or travel is embedded. It seems quite another thing to have work that neither elicits nor provokes a fantasy structure to begin with.
And yet, these two things may not in the end be so different after all. Readers may recognize the title of this column to be the same as the title of one of Philip Larkin's poems. Larkin does not romanticize Elsewhere. He begins, "lonely in Ireland." Yet, strangely, he cherishes his separateness. Back home in England, he has "no such excuse." It would be more "serious" to refuse his own customs and establishments.
"Here," the poem concludes,"no elsewhere underwrites my existence."
Should this be the case? In the poem it simply is: the very conditions of our permanent lives require an "elsewhere."
Just so, I would argue, the academic conditions of the present moment, especially the most pure -- settled, tenured, on the road to the next promotion and well past the last mortgage payment -- virtually mandate being underwritten by elsewhere. But of course one could just as well argue that 'twas ever thus. Some imagination of such places as Tasi and Stavanger enriches our lives both as members of our communities or as separate individuals.
Our dreams of being somewhere else are every bit as important as the realities of being professionals in one place. Indeed, it is because we are professionals that we can have such dreams at all.
Normally I would be averse to going public with the internal affairs of the Flat Earth Society. But this is not the time for silence or misguided diplomacy. The failure of our leadership to throw the Society's full support behind the Academic Bill of Rights is little short of scandalous.
It is time to put an end to the constant stream of indoctrination in America's college classrooms on the part of "scholars" only too willing to serve the interests of the globe-manufacturing lobby. Students should be given a chance to use their own rationality and powers of observation. Remember, the so-called "theory" of spherical-earthism is just that -- a theory. (I mean, come on! It's just a matter of common sense. The world can't be round. The people in Australia would fall off.)
At the same time, the Society has nearly liquidated its treasury in placing a bulk order for a new book by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist, called The World is Flat. The cover is, to be sure, very impressive. It portrays two ships and a small boat sailing dangerously close to the edge of the earth. However, I am now reading the book, and am sorry to report it is not nearly as good as we all had hoped.
Friedman argues that the rapid spread of high-speed digital communication has created conditions in which skilled labor in now-impoverished countries can be integrated into a new economic order that will end extreme disparities in wealth and development. The world will be less uneven, and in that sense more "flat."
It's a book about globalization, in other words. Which makes the title (not to mention the artwork, which has given me nightmares) very sneaky indeed.
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure that the Flat Earth Society is still active. (It has a Web page, though that doesn't mean much.) But a recent reading of Martin Gardner's classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science is a reminder that it was in 1905 that the Rev. Wilbur Glenn Voliva became General Overseer of Zion, Illinois -- a town in which church and state were, at the time, pretty much identical. Voliva ministered to the Christ Community Church and enforced strict blue laws, while also carrying on the scientific research necessary to prove that (as Gardner puts it) "the earth is shaped like a flapjack, with the North Pole at the center and the South Pole distributed around the circumference."
He offered a reward of $5,000 to anyone who could prove otherwise, and never had to part with what any of his money. It is good to know that, 100 years later, Voliva's scholarly efforts may yet win a hearing in the American academic life -- thanks to the tireless efforts of David Horowitz.
As for Thomas Friedman .... well, his version of flat-earth doctrine is bound to have an impact on academe, even if no professor ever opens his latest volume. The people flying in business class read Friedman's books -- and that includes plenty of university administrators, those acting CEOs of the knowledge economy.
Nor will it hurt that The World is Flat is, in effect, one long plea to corporations, government officials, and any other policy-makers who might be reading to invest in higher education as the nation's top priority for the future. In a world where more and more jobs can be done more cheaply, in new places, people need constantly to update, refine, or change entirely their toolkit of knowledge and skills.
Friedman has a knack for harvesting the information, opinions, and gut instincts of some of the most powerful people in the world. He boils it all down into some catchy slogans, and voila! You've got a bouillon cube of the conventional wisdom for the next two or three years.
He is bullish on the long-term benefits of the global market -- with that congenital optimism tempered (occasionally, and just a little) by the experience of having served as a Middle East correspondent. And he shows a faith in the power of corporations to become good global citizens that is either inspiring or willfully obtuse -- depending on whether or not you are annoyed by the fact that The World is Flat contains exactly zero interviews with labor leaders.
It is his instinct towards globalization boosterism that gives the edge, so to speak, to Friedman's thesis on what he calls "flatism." In short, his argument is that the technological infrastructure now exists to make it economically rational for more and more kinds of business to be conducted in a way that is dispersed over networks that span the entire world. Outsourcing no longer means shifting manufacturing offshore -- or even having the less-skilled kinds of service-sector jobs (data keypunching, for example) done in another country.
Work requiring more sophisticated cognitive skills -- bookkeeping, computer programming, or the analysis of medical test results, for example -- can be done in India or China at much less expense. Jobs thus become more mobile than the people who do them.
Friedman's main point is that this is not a trend that will take shape at some point in the future. It is happening right now; the trend will not reverse. And the American political parties and the cable news programs are not telling the public what is happening. They are, as Friedman puts it, "actively working to make people stupid."
Instead, "companies should be encouraged, with government subsidies or tax incentives, to offer as wide an array as possible of in-house learning opportunities," thereby "widening the skill base of their own workforce and fulfilling a moral obligation to workers whose jobs are outsourced to see to it that they leave more employable than they came."
Friedman also favors "an immigration policy that gives a five-year work visa to any foreign student who completes a Ph.D. at an accredited American university in any subject. I don't care if it's Greek mythology or mathematics. If we cream off the first-round intellectual draft choices from around the world, it will always end up a net plus for America."
I n a way, Friedman has come to his own version of some of the ideas that Manuel Castells developed some years ago in the three large volumes of The Information Age. There, the sociologist worked out an account of how the "space of flows" between parts of a dispersed economic network would transform the "space of places" (that is, the real-world geography) in which people dwell.
As with Friedman's notion of "flatism," the increased productivity and ceaseless disruption of network society were basic to the picture that Castells drew. But he also stressed something that Friedman -- with his abiding cheerfulness -- tends to downplay: Skills, knowledge, and wealth accumulate at the dispersed nodes of an economic network, but some parts of the world fall outside the network more or less entirely.
Most of Africa, for example. Last year, a study found that 96 percent of the continent's population had no access to telecommunications of any kind. Given the unavailability of drinking water and medical supplies, that is probably the least of anyone's worries. But even with the recent increase in wireless access in Africa -- thereby potentially getting around the scarcity and unreliability of more traditional landline telecommunication -- it is unlikely that part of the world will be "flattening" anytime soon. (Some might see the glass as 96 percent empty, but I suppose someone encouraged by Friedman's book would consider it 4 percent full.)
Meanwhile, it is difficult to feel much optimism about Friedman's proposal for beefing up the resources for increasing the educational opportunities of the American workforce. At least for now, the public discourse on higher education is caught in a particularly narrow and regressive set of undercurrents.
It's possible to joke about how the Rev. Voliva's scholarship in flat-earth studies might finally start getting their due. But matters are serious when scientists are forced to resort to references to Lysenkoism to describe the government's science policy. And higher education itself is the focus of a barrage of ideologues who seem to have confused The Authoritarian Personality with a manual for self-improvement.
It would be good to think that the national agenda could change -- that the notion of "flatism," whatever its limitations, might help spur increased public commitment to continuing education. But then, as Friedman also says, certain politicians and media outlets are "actively working to make people stupid." With that part, at least, he's being realistic.
Scot McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
As major participants and drivers in the process of globalization, Americans have a remarkable ambivalence about the rest of the world. We want to be engaged, loved, respected -- and obeyed. We seek collaboration, but on our terms. We embrace the international difference that most closely resembles ourselves: English speaking, Western European, or Latin American. We speak glowingly of international travel and study abroad, but most of us seek out places that approximate our home environment.
Our colleges and universities encourage study abroad, develop internationalization initiatives, and welcome international students, but American students and faculty flee from the serious study of languages other than English. We teach the literature of our international trading partners in translation because so few of our students can read anything of substance in someone else’s language. And, as we usually do in American academic circles, we worry about all this a lot.
The Institute for International Education publishes statistics and reports through its Open Doors series that give us a picture of how we engage our global colleagues. The good news is that more and more students study and travel abroad than ever before, most students understand that their future requires an engagement with the greater world outside our borders, and just about every college and university has some kind of international commitment in its curriculum.
The bad news is that few students take foreign languages and few institutions require them to do so. Only literature, history, and other area-studies specialists show any interest in the deep understanding made possible through immersion in language, and the numbers of students in these majors does not appear to be rising. Although everyone recognizes that our national security and prosperity demand experts with full proficiency and cultural literacy in a wide range of thinly taught languages, we find neither the national funding nor the student interest in developing these skills.
Often, our leaders in business and industry tell us how important international expertise has become, but they frequently hire well educated native speakers to lead their overseas operations, and offer little or no premium to American managers who have particular language skills. Our students, observing the career paths of highly successful people, learn quickly that while the business world values international travel and living experience, it sees only modest benefit from in-depth understanding of a specific language or culture.
Indeed, specialists in language and culture often fear relegation to mid-level corporate niches while their generalist colleagues move around the company in different jobs in different places, advancing quickly up the corporate ladder. Even our State Department, charged with the obligation of keeping the country tuned to our global relationships, rotates Foreign Service officers from post to post, producing globally aware individuals with great breadth and minimal cultural and linguistic depth.
NAFSA, an organization of international student and study abroad advisers, published a Report of the Strategic Task Force on Education Abroad. As I read it, I am not sure what to make of it. It calls for us to increase study abroad opportunities and asserts that language proficiency matters, but it recognizes that most students want to go where people speak English or where the U.S. already has significant cultural and historical familiarity (Europe and Latin America).
It calls for more engagement but notes that most students want to participate in semester programs rather than yearlong programs. It celebrates a dramatic increase in the number of students seeking study abroad opportunities but finds the numbers too small to meet the need.
Here, as in other reports of similar nature on different topics, we have a worthy objective presented by people who have the right idea and a clear sense of what we should do. At the same time, we have universities and colleges that cannot drive their students to study a language to any degree of proficiency, who cannot enforce any form of required international curriculum, and who squirm uncomfortably as they argue that a semester of study abroad will produce globally competitive leaders.
Perhaps our students and their employers are telling us something we do not want to hear. Maybe language and culture are much less important for global success than the subject competence that adds value to a business or a product. Maybe they know that only those who make language and culture their major area of study can approximate the abilities and skills of an ordinary educated native speaker.
Maybe they recognize that the years of study needed to acquire foreign language fluency in America will yield much less future income than similar effort invested in accounting, finance, physics, computer science or legal studies.
It is not what we want to hear, we internationalists, we specialists in language and area studies, we culture vultures who live and breathe the dramatic variety of the world’s people. It is not what we want to hear, but when our students’ behavior overwhelmingly fails to match our beliefs, we probably should listen more carefully.
To: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings
Re: University Presidents Summit on International Education
A week or so ago, at the University Presidents Summit on International Education, you honored us with an event delivered with class and style uncommon in executive branch engagements with university presidents and chancellors. As I’m sure you noticed, we enjoyed the attention, respected the intent, and appreciated your personal and effective participation, as well as your mobilization of key actors including the President and First Lady. As we all returned to our campuses to reflect on the messages, themes, and programs discussed, and you return to the critical business of government, a reality check on our conversation seems in order.
International education in all its many forms has been a major agenda item in American higher education forever, and over the most recent 30 years or so, colleges and universities have conducted a constant conversation about internationalizing the curriculum and improving the campuses’ ability to bring the world home.
This agenda, which reappeared in many of the comments by the university and college presidents in attendance, is really not a federal obligation. The task of internationalizing or globalizing our campuses belongs to the institutions. If internationalizing is a major campus concern, like teaching chemistry, the campus will find a way to do it because it will be central to the campus’s academic and student programs. If a campus requires federal money to support a major change to its curriculum or to rethink its purposes, the campus is not likely to be effective anyway. I would recommend that you thank us for such insights, and return to the main purpose of the summit: language skills.
Success in this proposed joint venture requires that both the federal government and the universities speak clearly and precisely about what you want and what we can do.
We in the universities and colleges have much experience in taking tightly focused government programs and diffusing their intent to flow money into activities more central to our interests. If you fund language and area studies, we will leverage the language effort to get more resources for area studies, literature studies and culture studies. These are good things, but they do not address the national need you articulated at the summit, learning language.
Further, we in the colleges and universities are expert at avoiding effective performance measurement. If the nation needs college educated graduates functionally literate in a number of less commonly taught languages, the only way to get this result is to fund programs that will test the graduates. If you want us to graduate students with a command of spoken and written Arabic, Urdu or Mandarin, you need to fund a program that delivers money to institutions that demonstrate the functional literacy of its graduates in these languages through standardized tests. Otherwise, we will train people for you who can read some things in some languages, have traveled and lived in the countries where some of these languages are spoken, but who may or may not have functional usable literacy.
We are good at redefining objectives. If the federal government wants to help create college graduates who have high quality skills related to living and working within other languages, it must fund specific programs in specific countries focused on the acquisition of testable specific language skills. If we go to India, and live primarily with English speaking communities, we will return with cultural awareness and many good stories to tell about our experiences, but we will not have acquired functional competency in a foreign language or culture. You must be specific about what you want, specific about how you will know when you get it, and specific about the test you will apply to validate the learning accomplished. This is difficult in cultural studies, but it is not at all hard in language acquisition.
If we struggle with clarity and effectiveness in our international objectives and programs, our counterparts in the federal government -- especially the State Department, the Defense Department, and some of the intelligence agencies -- send conflicting messages about the importance of language and area studies expertise. While we hear that in-depth knowledge of countries and languages is essential to the defense and prosperity of the nation, we also know that the State Department and the Defense establishment tend to rotate their employees from place to place, country to country, language region to language region, devaluing in the process true expertise in either language or culture.
We also know that the career track to high level assignments in both State and Defense place a premium on generalist experience and knowledge and little emphasis on high levels of expertise in any particular language or culture. We are also unsure whether language competency is of any particular advantage for positions within the Department of Education.
You could do some things to improve the incentives for students to think of language related skills as major assets for careers in State, Education or Defense. For example, you might institute a language competency premium for mid to high level employees in the executive branch, a bonus addition to salary for those capable of maintaining a high level of language competency throughout their careers (tested on a periodic basis). You might consider longer term assignments overseas or in region specific offices or agencies as premium assignments with enhancements to salary or other benefits that would demonstrate that the enthusiasm for functional language skills is highly valued, much in the same way combat duty and other difficult assignments carry a premium.
These comments speak to the task of making the skills associated with uncommonly taught languages valued in the real world that our students watch with clear-eyed intensity. They know that in the great American Midwest, for example, the daily need to know someone else’s language is minimal. We can travel for days without needing to speak anything but English. We see corporations hire language experts and culture brokers from among the nationals of countries where they trade and work, not from among the language fluent American college graduates.
Students see that only a few individuals in high government positions speak another language fluently, and almost none speak uncommonly taught languages. They see no premium for acquiring and maintaining a competency in difficulty to learn languages, and so they leave the language skills to native speakers, language and literature experts, and some area studies specialists.
To achieve your goals, you will need to help us focus on testable language skills, incentives for careers that use functional language skills, and support for overseas experiences that produce high levels of language performance.
We had a wonderful time at your summit, and the two of you are to be congratulated for what you are doing to improve education in the K-12 arena, facilitate the visa process, and address the constant challenge of encouraging the exchange of scholars without compromising national security. We are grateful for the respect reflected in the quality of our treatment during the Summit, and we are all eager to work with you.