Valerie Macon has resigned as poet laureate of North Carolina, just a week after she was appointed by Governor Pat McCrory, The News & Observer reported. Macon's appointment drew widespread criticism from literary figures and others in North Carolina, many of whom suggested that their Republican governor was trying to get in a dig at poetry by appointing someone who was not qualified for the position. Macon is a state civil servant whose work has been self-published. Further, her website (since removed) claimed incorrectly that she had been a Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet, when in fact she had been in a program to be mentored by a Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet. Past poet laureates in North Carolina have tended to be poets with numerous acclaimed collections (published by presses) and long teaching careers. Among the more detailed critiques of Macon's appointment is this one, in Indy Week.
The governor issued a statement after Macon resigned saying that he was bothered by “the way some in the poetry community have expressed such hostility and condescension toward an individual who has great passion for poetry and our state.”
The Modern Language Association report on the Ph.D. in languages and literatures has already succeeded in sparking a lively debate. Some commentators have welcomed the report’s general findings, while others have taken issue with its specific recommendations. Beyond these differences, a broad consensus has emerged that the current situation is unsustainable, and this recognition is key to moving forward. The relationship of doctoral education to the deteriorating conditions of the academic workforce demands transformative changes. If doctoral study is to thrive in more than a handful of elite institutions, the profession as a whole and at multiple levels must adopt a reform agenda. The urgency of change was the premise of the task force report, and change is what the critics of the report also demand.
The agreement goes even further. Like its critics, the members of the MLA task force that produced the report point to the persistently weak job market and the importance of advocating an increase in tenure-track positions. The report similarly criticizes the casualization of academic labor and the poor working conditions of most contingent faculty members. This advocacy stands explicitly in the tradition of the MLA, which in recent decades has analyzed and criticized these developments while providing resources such as the Committee on Contingent Labor’s two recent projects: “Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members” and a 2013 special issue of the ADE and ADFL Bulletin on contingent labor. I know my colleagues on the MLA Executive Council are committed to pursuing activism in this area and leading the scholarly association network toward collective action .
Yet the report does more than call for advocacy. It also calls for change within graduate programs, and this is where the consensus breaks down. Some critics of the report have staked out the position that the MLA should focus primarily on job market and working conditions issues and not on the academic programs in which our members teach and study. While the task force report underscores the importance of the labor question, it also recommends that the MLA engage the profession in considering internal reforms to serve graduate students more effectively. The difference between what the report says and what its critics argue is particularly clear on three points.
First, some complain that the report does not call for deep cuts in admissions to doctoral programs. Only such cuts, they argue, could address the weak job market in which there are more qualified candidates than tenure-track positions. In contrast, the task force report insists on maintaining accessibility to doctoral programs: Qualified students with an intellectual dedication to the fields of language and literature should have the opportunity to pursue advanced study. Access to higher education is a hallmark of a democratic society, and it is the precondition of diversity in our fields Still, if critics want to call for the closing of programs, which programs, one might ask, should be eliminated? How will closings not end up disadvantaging public institutions, where the majority of first-generation college students study? Calls to shutter departments rather than reform them most likely will play into the hands of university budget-cutters. The scope of the humanities in higher education in the United States already faces significant reduction. We should be fighting for the humanities rather than closing off advanced study, the key to their sustained presence in colleges and universities.
The labor market critics are proposing what amounts to a guild protectionism: by reducing access to doctorate education, the limited pool of degree holders will be guaranteed abundant and better jobs. This strikes me as a gross miscalculation that will only end with diminished opportunities for all students. In contrast, the MLA report envisions humanities education with a potential for growth in response to the expanded intellectual scope of our fields as well as to society’s changing needs in classrooms and beyond.
A second flashpoint of dispute is time to degree. The report recommends that departments design programs that can be completed in five years and provide sufficient financial support for students to do so. Some commentators have viewed this time frame as an assault on quality. The point, however, is that currently around half of doctoral students take more than a decade to complete the Ph.D., which represents an enormous investment in time with limited prospects for return on the academic job market. Furthermore, there are no legitimate grounds for median time to degree in humanities fields to be significantly longer than in doctoral programs in the natural and social sciences. There would be nothing wrong for humanities scholars to adopt potentially more effective educational practices from these other fields. We language and literature faculty members need to develop and share new ideas for mentoring students, and departments need to ask how programs might be designed more effectively. As the appendix of the report demonstrates, some departments are already leading the way through reform initiatives that integrate the intellectual demands of humanistic study with a prudent rethinking of program structure.
A third point involves career outcomes for graduate students. It should be obvious to all faculty members that, as the MLA's 14 studies of Ph.D. placement make evident, at best only about half of new modern language doctorate recipients find tenure-track positions in the same year that they complete their degrees, and under 40 percent when academic job opportunities contract, as they did in the 1990s and have again since 2008. (Figure 2 in "Our PhD Employment Problem, Part 1" shows the summary findings for all 14 surveys, 1978 to 2010.)
Departments have an obligation to make this clear to applicants, yet such candor alone does not absolve departments of the responsibility of providing students with opportunities for professional development that can serve them well on multiple career paths. That is why the report points to possibilities such as curriculums designed to develop transferable skills, enhanced engagement with technology, and more effective use of other resources found throughout the university. The report also underscores the importance of pointing students to diverse career possibilities, not by singling out students for job-market tracking, but instead by engaging the graduate student community in exploring a widened career arc.
Doctoral recipients have a rich set of skills — in communication, research, and leadership — and those who do not find a tenure line should not have to settle for poorly compensated contingent positions. Those who view a job as a college professor as the only legitimate outcome of doctoral education fall into that labor market trap. That’s why the report emphasizes the importance of discussing the broad range of career paths and providing students with the resources they need to expand their employment horizons.
Nonetheless, doctoral study should not be viewed exclusively as the pursuit of a career-oriented credential. It must also involve an intellectual passion for languages and literatures, as defined by our evolving disciplines. This is the foundation of successful graduate study. The qualities cultivated through intensive, long-term research and thoughtful, extended writing are not just transferable to other careers; they are valuable in their own right, just as it would be valuable to our culture as a whole — and particularly to the future of the academy — to have highly educated professionals who appreciate scholarly thoughtfulness and humanistic perspectives working throughout society. It has been pointed out in the public discussion of the report that many of its recommendations are not new. The academic community has been talking about these issues for a long time, and change is already under way. Time to degree is coming down, and some departments are initiating salutary program modifications. The profession has reached a tipping point, and the time has come for broad-based change. Doctoral study in the humanities fields contributes to the quality of society, it answers individual students’ desire for intellectual depth, and it is a vital piece in the intellectual diversity of universities. If we want to preserve it, we need to reform it.
Russell A. Berman is professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University. He led the task force that produced the MLA report.
In today's Academic Minute, Fred Jourdan, associate professor of applied geology at Curtin University, in Australia, discusses how he studies mass extinction through the lens of ancient volcanic eruptions. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
Australian newspapers are reporting that the Malaysian Airlines flight that was shot down Thursday had many passengers who were AIDS researchers or public health workers headed to the 20th International AIDS Conference, which convenes Sunday in Melbourne, Australia. The International AIDS Society, the sponsor of the meeting, did not confirm how many people headed to the conference were on the flight. A statement on the society's website says: "In recognition of our colleagues' dedication to the fight against HIV/AIDS, the conference will go ahead as planned and will include opportunities to reflect and remember those we have lost."
In today's Academic Minute, Erika Engstrom, professor of communications at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, discusses made-for-television portrayals of weddings and brides, and the way these glitzy Hollywood renditions are unrealistic. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association rarely admits to the need to revisit an infractions case, and particularly one that strikes at the core of academic integrity issues. So when the NCAA announced an unusual and embarrassing return to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to reopen an academic fraud investigation that first came to light in 2011 and resulted in narrowly constructed sanctions in 2012 that affected the eligibility of a single athlete, it marked another confidence crisis in whether the NCAA can control the powerful forces of big-time college sports.
The reopening of the case also served as a measure of vindication for those on the UNC campus and in the media who bravely withstood public ridicule and even death threats.
It is undeniable that academic cheating scandals have spiked in the past decade. A 2011 review by Inside Higher Ed found a significant rise in serious academic violations during the past decade. Some critics attribute the spike in cheating to the weakened initial eligibility standards of the NCAA’s academic reform initiatives, while others point to the inherent incentives garnered from winning.
Recent media stories document a trend of selective universities admitting athletes with woefully unprepared reading skills. They are handed to academic support advisers who manage them in predetermined class schedules and place them in academic majors that neither educate them nor prepare them for a career. The university’s traditional deal with the athlete is a bona fide college education in exchange for athletic talent. Too often the promise of an education is unfulfilled. The spikes in these fraud cases are but a fraction of the daily fraud perpetrated against athletes, and the second-class education given to them.
Several highly publicized academic scandals in major athletic programs have gone largely unaddressed by the NCAA. The University of North Carolina fraud case exposes numerous serious allegations of fraud and cover-up by athletic staff, coaches, faculty and administration, with an emphasis on shooting the messengers. The scandal has been a painful and costly journey for this great public university characterized by a steady leeching of damning indictments from former athletes and a former staff whistleblower in national media.
The focus of the scandal is on a former professor at UNC facing a felony charge (now dropped in exchange for cooperation with UNC) of receiving a $12,000 payment for a class he didn’t teach. In the interim, several investigations conducted at the request of the university administration have consistently concluded that this was not an athletic scandal.
In May 2014, the university contracted with Kenneth Wainstein, at $990 per hour, to conduct an independent investigation of the scandal. Advantaged by the cooperation of the professor and his former administrative assistant, Wainstein appears to be sharing his findings with the NCAA. Wainstein’s investigation has prompted a reexamination of the claims from Mary Willingham and others of a widespread and long-term academic fraud scheme designed to keep unprepared athletes competing.
The shared findings may expose the method used to protect the eligibility of underprepared basketball and football athletes through classes that were designed to secure high grades, demanded little time or work in the form of an often-plagiarized paper, and denied them the opportunity for the education the NCAA proudly advertises as its primary mission.
Although UNC offers the most recent example of fraudulent eligibility schemes to maintain prized athletes, recent history has demonstrated similar instances at other major athletic programs and a disturbing trend. In 2006, a scandal at Auburn University revealed unusually large numbers of directed readings courses from a “jock doc” to football players to enhance their likelihood of remaining on the field in exchange for no attendance and little work. In what is commonly known as major clustering, one sociology professor called his department a dumping ground for athletes. The NCAA did nothing.
In 2008, the University of Michigan discovered a similar scheme perpetrated by an athletics-friendly professor there who provided at least 251 independent studies courses to varsity athletes from 2004-2007 on the subject of study skills. The NCAA failed to act.
These three similar instances of obvious breaches of academic integrity to secure athletes’ eligibility shared the same reluctance of the NCAA to investigate further. It should not be surprising that NCAA rule changes in minimum initial eligibility standards and punishment for those institutions failing to meet progress toward degree standards in 2003, enacted under the banner of “academic reform,” brought increased pressure on schools to protect their investments in athletic talent.
Instead of acting on these lapses of academic integrity and educational abuses of athletes, the NCAA Academic Cabinet and Management Council spent months in an effort to study the definition of academic misconduct and when schools are obligated to report instances of fraud. After months of deliberation, not much has changed. Its new interpretation, issued in April 2014, looks very similar to the NCAA definition of academic fraud issued in 2000.
Academic fraud is not a complicated concept. For NCAA fraud to occur there must be two ingredients: an athletics nexus with the participation of athletics personnel or other institutional staff, and a fraudulent advantage affecting the eligibility of the athlete. Members of the NCAA cabinet described a reticence to interfere with institutional academic misconduct policies
Perhaps the new NCAA official interpretation defining what constitutes NCAA academic fraud spurred the reopening of the case at UNC, but the constant public outrage and allegations from athletes on CNN, HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel," Bloomberg News, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, the Raleigh News and Observer and others were more likely the catalyst.
Media have exposed athletes who are admitted to selective institutions with severe deficiencies in basic reading skills and systematically channeled through a series of fraudulent classes, friendly faculty and non-rigorous academic majors tailored to maintain eligibility. The fraud begins when admissions directors of selective institutions, at the directive of their their campus presidents, admit unprepared but NCAA-qualified athletes. The eligibility of these marginal athletes is cleverly managed with the assistance of some faculty.
The NCAA’s lax admission standards for student athletes incentivize schools to sacrifice integrity and the education of the athletes who will never “go pro.” Why do we continue to ignore the truth that each new recruiting class brings athletes who simply cannot do college-level academic work? It seems ludicrous to expect highly marginal athletes to maintain their coursework while they also work a full-time physical job with the risk of serious injury. The athletes deserve better.
To make good on the NCAA’s promise of a meaningful “world class education,” we should reconsider initial eligibility standards to ensure that athletes admitted to our institutions have obtained the necessary learning skills to be competitive in the classroom. Athletes admitted to our institutions should fall within one standard deviation of the academic profiles of their entering classes. This range of preparedness provides a reasonable skill level to compete with non-athlete classmates. At the very least, institutions must develop intensive, measurable literacy programs to support the educational needs of our underprepared athletes. The current academic culture appears to be a step removed from the instruction necessary for many of these students to be successful. Let’s be realistic about the priorities of students and work together with coaches to ensure that college readiness and academics are priorities.
It is critical that academic support programs are not physically or organizationally housed in athletics. All academic programming for athletes such as tutoring, supplemental instruction, and reading and writing support should be directed and monitored by educators hired by the university who work closely with the student body.
A higher education is a potential way out of poverty, but if we do not make certain that our gifted revenue sport athletes have mastered basic academic skills before they embark on serious college study, then we have not only failed these students, but we have exploited them too.
The NCAA has avoided its shared responsibility with member institutions to curb the widespread academic fraud and eligibility schemes so prevalent throughout our institutions engaging in big time sports. It is wishful thinking to believe the NCAA will reform itself in the radical means necessary to restore public confidence.
We believe that this is moment for faculty to express their outrage and join the battle. Tenured faculty members on the department, college and faculty senate levels must assume responsibility for the academic rigor and integrity of their institutions by insisting on transparency in grading trends. Rather than deliberate institutional castigation of whistleblowers for bringing allegations of serious fraud to light, faculty outraged about academic integrity at their institutions must act.
Gerald Gurney is an assistant professor of adult and higher ed at the University of Oklahoma and president of the Drake Group. Mary Willingham is a former learning specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The American Anthropological Association is the latest disciplinary association to decide to consider the role it should play in discussing and/or taking a stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The association's president is announcing to members that leaders of the group want to promote "a conversation" about these issues, particularly given the expertise of many anthropologists in the Middle East. Monica Heller, the president, also noted in a letter to members in the forthcoming Anthropology News that she was aware that such discussions in other disciplinary associations have been "divisive," and that anthropologists should be able to have a "respectful exchange" on the topic. There will be a special forum at the association's annual meeting in December, and perhaps special sessions. The association is also considering the appointment of a task force. Heller's letter stresses that while association leaders are not preempting moves by others to take various steps, the association is not at this time taking a stand on a boycott of Israel.
Heller's letter is based on a larger article she wrote with other AAA leaders that appeared in an earlier issue of Anthropology News.
The anthropology blog Savage Minds has run a series of posts in recent weeks in which two Ph.D. candidates in anthropology have, under a pseudonym, argued that the association should endorse a boycott. The first post is here.
As more states recognize gay marriage, universities consider whether to keep policies created to help same-sex partners who couldn't marry. And in states that still don't recognize gay marriage, some public colleges are starting to offer new benefits.
As a graduate student, I devoured the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek’s essays, articles, and, books. I did so in part because I found his analyses of the ideological subjective mechanisms underpinning the functioning of contemporary capitalism generally compelling, and more specifically relevant to my own work. I admired his theoretical acumen, but also what seemed like the sheer breadth of his knowledge.
Žižek, in other words, seemed to me at the time to know almost everything, and he was able to use that knowledge for theoretical gains. Although I, too, wanted to do what Žižek did, I was also painfully aware of my shortcomings. I would never know as much as he seemed to know, meaning that my contribution to “scholarship” would likely remain forever slight. Žižek was a superhuman genius, one of those rare individuals who could do it all; me, I was -- and remain -- a mere mortal.
Last week Žižek was accused of plagiarism for an article he originally published in 2006 in the journal Critical Inquiry. The article, “A Plea for a Return to Différance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua),” discusses Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements.
As numerous blogs and media outlets, including Newsweek, have discussed, the conservative blogger Steve Sailer first called attention to the article on July 9, noting that “it’s striking how much more opaque Žižek’s prose suddenly becomes when he switches to elucidating what are, presumably, his own ideas, such as they are." Later that day, a blogger gave more teeth to Sailer’s claim, posting a side-by-side comparison of Žižek’s article with Stanley Hornbeck’s review of MacDonald’s book, which had appeared in 1999 in The American Renaissance, a far-right publication known for featuring and advocating for overtly racist views.
As someone who has followed and admired Žižek’s work I was initially disappointed, to say the least. Finding out that one of your favorite authors has plagiarized is the intellectual equivalent of learning of the infidelity of one’s partner. I also, however, wasn’t surprised. Four years out of my graduate program and now in a full-time faculty position, my views of scholarship and its production are less naïve than they once were. To be blunt: it’s simply impossible for someone who keeps Žižek’s schedule, which includes various appointments and a rigorous, international lecturing schedule, to singlehandedly read and research broadly and publish as much as he does. Whether in the form of research assistants or, as appears to be the case in this instance, plagiarism, the actual production of scholarship often depends on others, whose work often remains largely unacknowledged.
Žižek himself seems to indicate as much in his response to the allegations. In response to a request from the website Critical Theory (not really known for its love of Žižek, it is worth pointing out) for comment on the allegation, Žižek expressed “regret” over the incident, but explained it as follows: “When I was writing the text on Derrida which contains the problematic passages, a friend told me about Kevin MacDonald’s theories, and I asked him to send me a brief resume. The friend send [sic] it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought. Consequently, I did just that – and I sincerely apologize for not knowing that my friend’s resume was largely borrowed from Stanley Hornbeck’s review of MacDonald’s book.”
Cite too much, and your work is derivative; cite too little, and you get accused of not knowing the literature, sloppiness, or in some cases plagiarism.
If my Facebook feed is any indication, many have not found Žižek’s response satisfying -- and I’ve seen more than a few make the comparison to what students say when they’re accused of plagiarism. It’s unsatisfying because it strikes us as dishonest and unconvincing, something that someone says after being caught because there is nothing better to say.
My question is why we find that response unsatisfying. Putting aside Žižek’s intentions and “what really happened” (which we can’t, of course, know), I would suggest that underneath a lot of the dissatisfaction among fans and critics are unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a scholar and to produce scholarly work. What is unsatisfying in Žižek’s response, in other words, is not the lame passing of the buck to his “friend” but the fact that Zizek relied rather heavily in this instance -- and likely in numerous others -- on the work of someone else.
“That’s what citations are for,” someone will say -- “that’s the whole problem with what happened here.” True, Žižek should have cited his source here, and given his reliance, probably should have just put quotation marks around the whole section in question. But it’s worth pointing out that even if Žižek had done so, he would have been criticized for relying too heavily on “secondary sources” for his argument. In other words, “real” scholarship places a value on uniqueness and novelty, which requires a careful balance when it comes to citation practices. Cite too much, and your work is derivative; cite too little, and you get accused of not knowing the literature, sloppiness, or in some cases plagiarism.
Yet this balance often conceals the fact that we rely on “secondary sources” all the time without necessarily citing them (who hasn’t looked up something on Wikipedia -- without citing it -- to get some bearings?). Conversely, we often pad our arguments with citations to things we haven’t read well or at all. Not only because that’s what's expected but also because doing so allows us to cover our arguments with a supposed mastery of a literature that is virtually impossible for any one person to master. Whoever says that he or she hasn’t done as much either is lying or hasn’t published.
Despite all the talk in the humanities over the past few decades about the death of the author, the inexistence of the subject, the collective production of knowledge, intertextuality, networks of information, and so on, our publication practices and expectations haven’t caught up.
In practice, our notions of scholarship continue to assume an autonomous, substantial ego who is the author of his or her works; when that ego does acknowledge its debts to others, it does so only by citing other autonomous, substantial egos. “Theft” is a good critical concept that helps to destabilize power structures and explain the production of subjectivity -- until, that is, someone steals ideas from someone else.
All of this is not really to defend Žižek, nor is it to suggest replacing current scholarly conventions with an “anything goes” approach. In raising questions surrounding the accusations against Žižek and his response, I’m not necessarily advocating for plagiarism.
I am, rather, saying that the whole affair raises issues in how we understand the production of scholarship. We’re all mere mortals, so perhaps it would be best to lower our expectations with regard to what we do, really acknowledge our debt to others, and allow practice to catch up with theory.
That applies especially, I think, to the “star academics” who shape current discussions and fields, like Žižek. Despite the charges of plagiarism, I still admire and find value in his work, so I’ll continue to read what he has to say. That’s not to say that I’m not disappointed -- I, like other admirers, am, so I might take what he has to say with a few more grains of salt. But such disappointment is a good reminder that we’re all mere mortals, Žižek included.
Hollis Phelps is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Mount Olive. He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-theology (Acumen 2013).