How professors can protect themselves from political attacks (essay)

Many Americans look upon an election year with trepidation – they worry about being deluged with phone calls before dinner; they grumble about their favorite TV shows being taken over by attack ads. For college and university faculty members, there’s another reason to worry: we’ve been made an easy target for politicians.

Some recent examples have brought this point home. In Congress, a bill passed the U.S. House to defund the political science program of the National Science Foundation. Notice, not defund the entire NSF, mind you, but the  $11 million annually that goes to support doctoral students and scholars in one specific field. (Full disclosure – I’m a recent NSF grant recipient in political science; read more about this project here.)

On the campaign trail, Rick Santorum made waves with his statements criticizing President Obama on the importance of college. This brought to light an earlier statement that he made at Ave Maria University. Santorum argued that Satan’s campaign to subvert American institutions started with the professoriate, because Satan "understood [the] pride of smart people…. They were in fact smarter than everybody else and could come up with something new and different -- pursue new truths, deny the existence of truth, play with it because they’re smart."

Repeatedly, the Republican nominee Mitt Romney has assailed President Obama for being a product of "the faculty lounge" – out of touch with the problems of everyday people and possessing dangerous ideas that will make America less secure (Examples here, here, here and here). There's already been a great deal of discussion about this matter – whether it’s the curiosity of someone with multiple degrees from his alma mater attacking it, or the presence of Harvard University faculty on his policy team.  Most recently, Stephen Carter from Yale has weighed in on the matter, politely asking Romney to stop.

For the record, I’ve never seen the inside of a faculty lounge; it could be that I’m not subversive enough for the brandy and Karl Marx-read-only-in-the-original crowd. My query on this matter is a tactical one: Why do these attacks persist, and what can we do about them? Carter invokes Richard Hofstadter’s argument that intellect is an inherent challenge to authority. While this is of course true, part of the problem lies within ourselves. At a time in which the very value of a college education is under attack, too many of us: faculty, administrators, and our professional associations, are silent about what we do in these ivy-covered buildings. Asking politicians to stop is not going to work. It is time to reframe the debate.

We need to take the offensive in justifying academic research. If scholarship is the mechanism by which we are out of touch, then it is our responsibility as scholars to better underscore (and indeed sell) what we’re learning about the world and why that matters. The good news is that this is something that many of us already do. We train graduate students to justify how their work contributes to broader debates in their theses and dissertations. In our own grant competitions, we are required to explain why our work is important – and indeed, why our proposal merits funding over hundreds of others. We report back to these same funders about what we’ve learned and how their investment in us has been used. What we need are mechanisms that allow us to better articulate and disseminate to nonacademic audiences what academic research is and why it makes a difference.

Fixing this problem is not merely a matter of marketing. It also requires changing incentives. Decisions about tenure and promotion are based on output in scholarly outlets, not the popular press. Individual faculty members will resist devoting energies to outreach as long as there are no professional rewards attached to it. Generating more outreach requires that universities value outreach about scholarly research just as much as they value the research itself . Universities send out press releases to announce athletic recruits and the retention of million-dollar coaches; surely the ideas in a book published by a philosopher merits attention as well. As the political science community has seen this past year, failing to justify what we do as scholars and why can have detrimental consequences.             

At the same time, universities need to better promote their own efforts in teaching and mentoring. Rick Santorum would not have argued that faculty are the first page of the Satanic playbook had he understood that the faculty lounge is increasingly staffed by adjunct faculty members who have few incentives to hold office hours, write letters of recommendation, and counsel students — and yet who do so all the time because of their commitment to their students. They do so much to keep the modern university running, and yet receive so little in return. Rewarding adjunct faculty for excellence, and publicizing that excellence, is a great way to reassert the importance of student learning.

Colleges and universities need to tell their stories to multiple audiences. This doesn’t merely mean prospective students or Congressional lobbyists; it means opening our doors and sharing what we do with the public. Universities become less easy targets when we promote how first-generation students become Congressional staffers and how the products of single-parent households can win nationally competitive scholarships. We do not merely pour facts into students’ heads. On many days, we change students’ lives.

American higher education is one of the greatest products ever devised for human betterment. We do not need slick slogans or fancy jingles to justify it. All that we need is to take the energy that we get from an interesting article, a fascinating finding, or a great class discussion, and share it. More attention to scholarly outreach and promoting teaching and mentoring can be our own attack ad as we work to elevate higher education in these challenging times.

Martin Edwards is associate professor at the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall University.

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Academically on Course

Has public higher education outlived its usefulness -- like cassette tapes and typewriters? Are our students "academically adrift," our institutions shams? Who benefits from this tale? Policy-makers and government officials are regarding public higher education as an industry that needs to operate on cheap labor in order to manufacture products. William Deresiewicz, Peter Brooks and Martha Nussbaum make clear the consequences: the dismantling of public higher education eviscerates the creation and perpetuation of knowledge, access to education, and the principle that an educated citizenry is the keystone of democracy.

The crisis in higher education must be redefined by those of us in public institutions who are living it daily. For us, there are two crises: the bowdlerizing of what learning means, and the critical need for a counter-discourse that will lead to material change in public attitudes and allocation of resources.

Numbers reveal a certain kind of information and conceal other kinds, such as what it means to be a human being. How do we quantify students’ experiencing the wonder of intellectual discovery, those moments when, as Rita Dove conveys so beautifully in her poem "Geometry," the ordinary is transformed into transcendent possibility? How is this learning accounted for when it occurs outside a public college course or institution, but is a direct result of both?

I prove a theorem and the house expands:
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.

As the walls clear themselves of everything
but transparency, the scent of carnations
leaves with them. I am out in the open

And above the windows have hinged into butterflies,
sunlight glinting where they've intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.

To those of us who teach working-class students that using their minds expands and transforms their lives, the data on spreadsheets is akin to thinking of students as if they were part numbers. In our classes, we propel students to grapple with the paradoxes of the "true and unproven" gleaned from different disciplinary perspectives. At semester’s end, we judge how well they’ve achieved this and other objectives and assign a grade. We can never assess, however, if, when, or how students integrate what they’ve learned into their psyches and experiences. Counting, quantifying, and measuring are not the only ways to make sense of what and how students learn. These methods do not illuminate the value of a college education to working-class students for whom privilege is not a birthright.

Stories and story-telling are other options, potent sources of information. Stories provide entrée to the inner life, "ourself behind ourself concealed," access to knowledge about what it means to experience learning. Stories humanize numbers on spreadsheets. They are a different kind of currency in an economy in which the exchange of ideas is the basis of community. Stories perform a multiplicity of functions as Robert Coles reminds us: they "point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course. They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers — offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings." Stories, the ones we and our students tell, make possible an alternate way of thinking about learning, success, and achievement in publicly funded academic institutions.

Here is such a story. I was on a New York City subway deeply absorbed in reading Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried when a young man sitting across from me noticed the book’s title and started talking to me: “I remember that story. That’s the story that begins with the description of what the soldiers are carrying. Oh, I remember that story. We read it in my freshman English class.”

O’Brien’s book is indeed memorable. A searing account of soldiering in Vietnam, the collection of interwoven stories probes the anguish of war while meditating on the porous boundaries among reality, truth, and fiction. Most spectacularly, O’Brien employs the metaphor of carrying to convey the gravity of heartbreak, senseless loss, and war’s breach of moral ethics. "First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey," the first story begins. "They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack." Within the first two pages, O’Brien develops the metaphor further by listing the literal objects the soldiers wore on their bodies, hauled on their backs, and stashed in their pockets.

The subway encounter between the young man and me is as symbolic as the literal weight of the items the soldiers carried: the interaction encapsulates the very best a liberal arts general education can achieve. Something in the O’Brien text, the reading, the discussion, and the college classroom experience entered into the student, changed the way he constructed meaning, and became part of his world. Like the soldiers who carry the material and psychological weight of war, the student carries the book and the experience of reading it with him, and that is what inspired him to initiate connection with a stranger on a New York City subway.

The experience in the general education classroom provided the model for the interaction. The young man wanted to create connection about being moved emotionally, his discovery of the meaning of metaphor, and his memory of that experience. The interaction between the young man and me sparked by the O’Brien text suggests that the general education classroom fosters community building. Unknown to each other, the young man and I are part of a community premised on the idea that learning, and communing about learning, are fundamental, unifying values. Not limited by class or status, the community is the Jeffersonian ideal of an enlightened democratic citizenry. All involved, including the English professor who taught the class, the public institution in which the student took the class, and the faculty who designed the curriculum and deemed it a requirement, are academically on course, guided by a compass that keeps the true meaning of learning in view. Best explained by Ken Bain, true learning occurs when students embrace “new mental models of reality” spurred by teaching that cultivates their abilities to question, judge, evaluate, and construct meaning out of facts and information. True learning is personal and intellectual transformation.

In the story I just told, what proves the student’s learning? The student may not have done well in his freshman English class. He might have failed the class, transferred to another college, or dropped out for a year or two. He could be a statistic on a retention or graduation rate chart. Outcomes, measures, deliverables: inadequate. What this student learned is ineffable, as difficult to wrap our minds around as Emily Dickinson’s claim that the Brain is wider than the sky.

The Brain -- is wider than the Sky –

For – put them side by side –

The one the other will contain

With ease – and You – beside

Dickinson’s dictum about the sanctity of the human imagination must guide us as we create a counter-discourse about the crisis in public higher education. Colleges and universities are not factories in which we produce widgets on an assembly line. Academics work with people, human beings whose height and weight can be measured, yes, but whose brains are wider than the sky, “For — put them side by side — /The one the other will contain/ with ease — and You — beside--.”

We need to create a competing conversation that honors the idea that brains are wider than the sky and deeper than the sea, “For — hold them — Blue to Blue — /The one the other will absorb — / As sponges — Buckets — do.” And we need to tell a collective story about what is right and on course about public higher education: the ways in which it defies an intellectual caste system and is currently one of the few places that comes close to realizing the American value of equality — in the diversity of faculty and students, and the pursuit of unregulated intellectual freedom.

Linda M. Grasso
Author's email: 

Linda M. Grasso is professor and chair of English at York College of the City University of New York.

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