Exploring higher education's endless status games (essay)

A while back, I was reading letters of support for an award, and one of the letters contained a demeaning characterization of the home academic department of the candidate. While praising the candidate to the skies, the letter writer portrayed the department -- one of great prestige outside the candidate’s university -- as being of marginal status in the eyes of people in other academic disciplines within the institution. The letter writer wanted to assure anonymous evaluators like me that the candidate was of much higher intellectual quality than the candidate’s discipline would suggest.

Boy, am I sick of this academic snobbery.

What I read is not without its irony, however -- worthy of the most trenchant portrayals of academic life. (Think David Lodge’s Small World or Richard Russo’s Straight Man.) The discipline of the snooty letter writer is one that I heard routinely ridiculed when I was studying and then teaching in an English department.

And so it goes in the academic status games.

Applied disciplines (such as journalism, nursing, management) have less status than “pure” ones: philosophy, biology, mathematics. And within disciplines, there is typically a status hierarchy, with theoretical pursuits having more dazzle than applied work. Art history and musicology trump the making of art or music. The theoretical mathematician has the status edge on the applied statistician. The literary theorist sits on a higher rung -- much higher -- than those in academe who teach writing.

Of course, such status dynamics are not absolute -- they are ignored, even subverted, by some faculty members, and an institution’s history and current reality come into play, as well. And in our era of the “entrepreneurial university” and economic accountability, traditional academic status markers might increasingly lessen in importance; what will count will be enrollment numbers and the employability prospects of a given major.

Still, as someone who has spent decades at a research university running a tutorial center and a freshman composition program, and then residing in a school of education -- all quite low in that disciplinary hierarchy -- I can tell you that judgments of intellectual virtue based on disciplinary affiliation are alive and well. They factor into all sorts of behaviors and decisions, from departmental funding to faculty promotion to the letters written for honors and awards -- like the one I read.

We have not even considered the more pronounced status differentials among various units at the college or university: for example, student services versus academic departments. And then there are the loaded status distinctions that people make among the different kinds of institutions of higher education in the United States: the community college versus the state college or university versus the research university -- with research universities scrambling to climb to the top of their own heap.

All professions generate status distinctions, so why should the field of higher education be any different? Fair enough; I take the point. But the thing that gets to me in all this is that distinctions are made through narrow and self-interested attributions of intelligence that hardly reflect the variety of ways people use their minds to acquire and apply knowledge, to reason, plan and solve problems. Furthermore, intelligence doesn’t reside inert in a discipline or a kind of work or in one segment of a system rather than another; intelligence emerges in activity and in context.

The attributions of intelligence I’m concerned with have much more to do with the preservation of power and prestige and turf rather than helping us all -- faculty members, administrators and students -- improve on what we do. Faculty members don’t get better at teaching by luxuriating in their bona fides or looking down on the department across the quad.

This last point about getting better at educating is at the center of a recent book by one of my colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, Alexander Astin, an expert on higher education in the United States. In Are You Smart Enough? Astin argues that colleges -- especially “elite” colleges -- are more concerned with acquiring status markers of intelligence (high GPAs and test scores among entering students, faculty publication numbers, and so on) rather than creating the conditions for students to become more intelligent during their time in college. Instead of the competing to attract students already identified as smart, Astin wonders, what if colleges put increased effort into helping more students become smarter through greater attention to teaching, mentoring and enrichment activities? It’s a provocative and important question.

Back now to that letter. Over the years, I’ve spent time in many sectors of higher education, from a medical school to a community college tutoring center, and one of the things that has most struck me is the distribution of intelligence across the domains of the enterprise. To be sure, I’ve observed the routine pursuit of trivial research, uninspired teaching, unimaginative management and tireless self-promotion. A whole host of sins spread across areas of study and levels of the system. But I’ve also witnessed insight and inspiration, deeply humane problem solving, and moments of brilliance in both a writing and a mathematics classroom, a counseling session, a meeting of tutorial center coordinators, a laboratory, and a library. No little domain has a lock on being smart.

Mike Rose is a research professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education and The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker (The New Press, 2012).

Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Trans students need to be able to legally change their names on official college records (essay)

A major concern for trans people today is the process of legally changing one’s name, as well as one’s gender marker, on official college records, writes Katriel Paige.

Job Tags: 
Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 

Ways to articulate the long-term value of English and language studies (essay)

Inside our higher education institutions, we are often asked to reflect on who we are, whom we want to become and how we wish to get there. I am chair of a combined department of English and modern languages at my university, which has recently engaged in a new round of strategic planning. Our current effort is in response to the appointment of a new dean of arts and humanities, who began serving in the position this summer.

As part of the planning process, I gathered data on numbers of majors and minors, the number and rank of instructional faculty, the range of courses we offer, and some ideas about where we’d like to be in three to five years. I also reflected on a proposed new mission and a list of values. It’s that list of values that also got me thinking about other values, particularly the market value of English and language study in the current political and economic climate.

It’s no surprise that our majors are often pressured to explain what they will do with their degrees or how they will lead to a particular job. Those of us who benefit from the privilege of teaching and advanced study in these areas also sometimes fail to provide a clear and coherent argument for the value of this study and its application in students’ lives and their future livelihood.

In response to those concerns, we should be able to articulate clearly the areas of study we offer and how the practices we offer translate not only to excellent understanding and performance in the classroom but also to preparation for the world beyond it. So I’d like to share a brief perspective on the value of English and language study in hopes it might be helpful to others who are also looking for ways to demonstrate why study in these areas matters.

The Three Areas of Study

In my view, we offer basic and advanced study in three interrelated fields: language, literature and culture.

Language. At the most basic level, we provide study in how ideas are communicated through language. English focuses on ideas communicated in written language and teaches students to read and write those ideas in introductory and advanced composition courses, including professional and creative writing. Other language courses in English concentrate on rhetoric (the persuasive aspects of language) and on linguistics (the structure, logic and development of language). Modern language courses focus on ideas communicated in languages other than the student’s first written and oral language and teaches students how to read, write, speak and listen to those ideas. The department also offers courses in advanced conversation and composition, as well as in linguistics -- such as those in the acquisition of first and second languages.

Literature. Beyond introductory and advanced courses in reading, writing, speaking and listening, we also promote the study of literature in a variety of genres, including fiction, poetry and drama, as well as related areas like folklore, film and comics. We offer these courses at the introductory level based on topic area, region of the world and time period. They may also focus on a particular author, historical period, region, topic, gender or race/ethnicity.

Culture. We also provide study in how ideas are communicated through culture. Language and literature are not created or consumed in a vacuum. As we study language and literature, we account for the many cultural influences that shape how language and literature have been developed and might be received by others. Those cultural contexts include religion, history, philosophy, politics, economics, globalization, science, gender, race/ethnicity and sexual orientation. As a consequence, English and language study can be understood as interdisciplinary fields, interested in a wide range of academic areas that contribute to and reveal themselves in language and literature.

The Four Habits of Learning

In addition, we promote study in the areas that I’ve outlined by developing student consciousness, conscience, conduct and confidence.

Consciousness. To be conscious means that we are awake to and mindful of ourselves and our surroundings. Through the study of language, literature and culture, we develop the habits of careful and continuing attention to the foundational roles that language, literature and culture play in determining our identities and our relationships with others and the world. In other words, the development of a “language consciousness” helps us attend to the choices that we and others make about the words we use, the names we assign, the definitions we rely on and the benefits that come from using language correctly, clearly and ethically. For instance:

  • The development of literary consciousness helps us attend to the poetic, narrative and dramatic choices in our own lives
  • Poetic consciousness helps us attend mindfully to the beauty, courage and wisdom available in everyday life.
  • Narrative consciousness helps us awaken to the story of our lives and the degree to which we see ourselves as the authors of our destiny or victims of the stories others wish to tell.
  • Dramatic consciousness helps us focus on the conflicts in our lives and the degree to which we decide to see ourselves playing a role in a comedy or a tragedy.
  • And the development of cultural consciousness helps us see the variety of cultural forces that contribute to freedom and oppression in our lives.

In other words, we promote study in language, literature and culture to create an ongoing and heightened awareness of our relationships with ourselves, each other and the world.

Conscience. Given this improved and active consciousness, we then have the opportunity to activate and deploy our conscience to imagine the moral consequences of decisions we make. In the study of language, we evaluate the choices we make in communicating with others, in the names we call others, in the terms we use to define reality and in determining the needs of our audiences. In the study of literature, we evaluate the ethical dilemmas characters face in the stories, poems and plays we read.

To what degree do these characters deserve our admiration, our friendship, our empathy or our condemnation? And in the study of culture, we evaluate those human factors that have created more opportunity, understanding and hope -- as well as those that may have created less. There is no conscience without consciousness, and in English and language study, we are continually attentive to the moral consequences of choices available in language, literature and culture.

Conduct. An improved conscience resulting from heightened awareness leads to informed conduct. The degree to which this conduct leads to moral action is dependent upon habit formation. In the study of language, we are concerned about the appropriate and beneficial uses of language -- not just to serve the ends of the student writer or speaker but also for the student’s audience and community.

In the study of literature, we are concerned with the appropriate and beneficial actions of protagonists and their authors, on the quality of student responses and the degree to which the evidence and logic of those responses demonstrate friendship and responsibility to the words and story and characters on the page. In the study of culture, we are concerned with the cultural forces that mold human behavior and the human behavior that, in turn, shapes and reshapes cultural forces.

Confidence. Informed and successful conduct leads to the reduction of anxiety in the performance of assigned or self-initiated tasks. Our aim is to provide students opportunities to:

  • be more conscious of themselves and the world; to understand the choices available to them in language, literature and culture;
  • make informed and beneficial decisions in these areas;
  • follow upon those decisions with appropriate action in reading, writing, speaking and listening; and
  • be rewarded with a growing self-confidence about their abilities to be successful in similar and related situations.

Additionally, one of the more significant benefits of attaining confidence is the desire to gain even more awareness about the role of language, literature and culture in their lives. In other words, increased confidence initiates even further progress in consciousness, conscience and conduct, leading in turn to further confidence.


But does the acquisition of the habits and skills that I’ve just outlined make our students marketable? Young readers and writers are attracted to words, poems, stories, drama, other people and other cultures when they promote consistent habits of heightened awareness, moral understanding, right conduct and fearlessness. There is no guarantee, of course, that all university graduates of language, literature and culture will consistently demonstrate these four behaviors, just as there is no guarantee that business, computer science, criminal justice or nursing majors will demonstrate the skills and knowledge learned in their disciplines. But no other academic domains provide basic and advanced study in the distinctly central human inventions of language, literature and culture with the larger aim of improving consciousness, conscience, conduct and confidence.

Obviously, moral awareness, decision making, action and courage cannot be purchased, but they can be put to good use in the context of the market. Many graduates of English and language study find positions or continue study in such fields as the law, publishing, teaching at home or abroad, copyrighting, web design, translation, and human resources. Meanwhile, study after study of business leaders reveals that they wish the graduates they hire would be more responsible, read and write better, cooperate in teams, and make better decisions.

At the end of the day and into the future of work, what is necessary to develop is not only a valuable and marketable skill but also lifelong and creative learners who are awake to their lives and their work, trusted to make the right decisions about each, ethical in the tasks they perform, and confident in their responsibilities to themselves and others.

Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University. His most recent collection of poetry, Local Bird, is from Lamar University Press.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 

Two college professors train students to critique institutions in far more responsible ways than Trump does (essay)

Of all the outlandish and absurd claims Donald Trump has made in the months since he announced his candidacy for president, the most recent -- that the news media and global elite are conspiring to rig the election against him -- is one that we take most umbrage with. Who are we? Two English professors at a community college who have spent the last year studying and teaching the difference between conspiracy theories and institutional critique.

As avid readers of Thomas Pynchon and viewers of The Wire, we’ve developed a pedagogy that asks students to analyze how institutions might or might not be illegitimate or criminal. And to us, Donald Trump’s claim seems weak. Where’s his corkboard? Where are his out-of-focus black-and-white photos? Where is his string connecting the evidence?

Yet, he’s right to focus our gaze on institutions. There are legitimate critiques to be made about the many forces, institutional and otherwise, operating against all of us. Having institutional knowledge and the ability to understand what competitive forces exist is required of any educated person. Polls have shown that Donald Trump’s largest support block are those with just a high school education. Those are, in fact, our students who have just enrolled in our English 101 composition classes.

It is dangerous to confuse comparatively uneducated with not smart. One doesn’t need a college degree to suspect and know that often, as Hillary Clinton has said, “the deck is stacked.” And many educated as well as uneducated people are likely to propose sweeping generalizations like Donald Trump -- such as “it’s all rigged” -- as evidence for their opinions.

But when we teach the difference between conspiracy theory and institutional critique to our students -- when they practice institutional analysis with corkboard, photos and string, and when they write essays that must have credible sources -- they are more likely to understand that social justice and consequential critiques are possible only if we study the details.

In our classes, most students grasp how a former House majority leader is profiting by doing things like trying to help drug companies avoid paying federal taxes. They also get how he may only be a piece of a larger problem, both in the way tax avoidance is lobbied for in this country and how an entire industry of consultants’ sole purpose is to help companies become more efficient at avoiding paying taxes.

They grasp the injustice when they uncover that there have been little to no consequences for financial institutions after the 2008 economic meltdown. They understand how police departments often reveal information about wrongdoing only in the wake of protests or public outcry. They understand that the complexity is vast, but in order to be authors of consequence, they need to have coherent evidence of the contrary. Stating that the system is “rigged” is a lie that becomes the truth by the power of acquiescence.

In their own investigations, our students have outworked Trump in articulating and supporting claims of institutional criminality. They have identified and investigated organizations and conspiracies that range from the local, like a Queens, N.Y., Wing Stop or Popeyes franchise, to the global, like corrupt government contracting in India and Italy. It’s unpredictable which institutions students will choose to investigate: the New York Police Department, for-profit universities, the Iranian leadership. But, if there is some suspicion of injustice, our community college students are on the case.

They have, on their own initiative, cold-called whistle-blowers at animal rescue agencies, walked into police stations and asked for the names and ranks of the precinct’s officers, and interviewed anonymous informants. In short, they have done the work of heroic investigators, the kind you would hope an engaged citizen in a democracy would undertake.

With those projects, students are engaging in the kind of work we witness in binges of popular television crime shows like Breaking Bad or True Detective, where investigators tack photos, maps, names, evidence to corkboards, office walls -- whatever they can find -- to allow viewers to vicariously sense that, yes, the rapidly connecting world that feels beyond our comprehension is being pieced together one bit at a time.

We ask, why leave these problems to television fantasy? Why not ask students to make sense of senselessness as an exercise of critical citizenship? Why not expect the same of our public figures?

In other words, if Donald Trump were a first-year community college student, all signs indicate he’d be a lazy one. We’d send him back to do more research. He has made a claim, but his critique would be classified as an empty conspiracy. If he presented this claim that it’s all “rigged,” we’d say, Mr. Trump, show us your corkboard, your photos, your documents, your works-cited page. Show us some work. You will not pass unless you do.

Jed Shahar and Benjamin Lawrance Miller are assistant professors at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
iStock/Predrag Vuckovic

How to develop curricula that are inclusive of transgender students (essay)

Stacy Jane Grover gives advice on how to avoid curriculum choices that exoticize, tokenize and discipline the experiences of transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

Job Tags: 
Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 

Academics can provide expertise and perspective in somewhat surprising ways (essay)

Many of us in academe might find that we have important expertise to share in surprising ways, writes Jason D. Seacat.

Job Tags: 
Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

Study suggests that gossip fails to punish senior scholars

Smart Title: 

Informal system of warning colleagues about senior scholars who engage in inappropriate behavior doesn’t really protect anyone, study finds.

STEM Jobs and 'Ideal Worker' Women

Some research attributes gender imbalances in the sciences, technology, math and engineering in part to women’s deliberate life choices; in other words, getting married and having children keeps some women out of the workforce. But a new study suggests that even women with undergraduate STEM degrees who planned to delay marriage and child rearing were no more likely than other STEM women to land a job in the sciences two years after graduation. The men most likely to enter STEM occupations adhered to significantly more conventional gender ideologies than their female counterparts, expecting to marry at younger ages but also to remain childless, according to the study.

Still, the study attributes the majority of the gender disparity in transitions into STEM jobs to women's underrepresentation in engineering and computer science studies.

The Missing Women in STEM? Assessing Gender Differentials in the Factors Associated With Transition to First Jobs,” published in Social Science Research, analyzes data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. It tracks young people’s career aspirations that year and their career paths periodically thereafter and focuses on 163 women and 353 men with undergraduate STEM degrees. Over all, 41 percent of women graduating with a STEM degree were employed in a STEM job within two years of completing college, compared to 53 percent of men -- a statistically significant difference, the study says.

The researchers attribute their major finding, in part, to employer bias against women and women’s underrepresentation in STEM majors. Another major reason for the employment gap was women’s underrepresentation in STEM majors (especially outside of the life sciences), the study says. And men in the study were more likely than women to have traditional views about women being responsible for housework and child care, leading the researchers to suggest that some women found the STEM climate too conservative to work in; many women in the study found non-STEM work.

“These women have the characteristics of the ideal worker. They expect to have few family distractions and work in STEM both within five years and at midlife. They really have strong aspirations,” Sharon Sassler, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University who co-wrote the study, said in a statement. “But they were no more likely to enter STEM jobs than women who anticipated marrying young and having two or more children.”

Sassler said this dynamic exacerbates the gender imbalance seen at other points in the career pipeline. “If women aren’t getting into these STEM jobs, then they’re not there to mentor other women. They’re not there to climb the ladder and help with hiring.”

Q&A with authors of book on austerity in public higher education

Smart Title: 

New book argues for change after decades of policies that authors say are strangling public higher education.

Grad departments need to prepare students for careers beyond academe (essay)

Humanities departments need to recognize today’s job market and change the tenure-or-bust attitude that’s still too prevalent on many campuses, writes Marcus Cederström.

Job Tags: 
Ad keywords: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
iStock/Zack Blanton


Subscribe to RSS - faculty
Back to Top