Madison professors fight to keep requirement for administrators to be academics

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UW Madison professors oppose legislative proposal to ban university system from requiring that campus chancellors and presidents have academic backgrounds.

Strategies for transitioning to a new career (essay)


Finding your passion in one particular area and cultivating it more intensely is a useful strategy, advises Adriana Bankston.

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Thursday, July 6, 2017
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Building Your Brand During a Career Transition

U California Updates Sex Misconduct Procedures

The University of California System last week announced new procedures for responding to alleged sexual misconduct by faculty members and staff, ABC 7 reported. The changes are supposed to provide more transparency, consistency and timeliness in investigations of assault after intense criticism of how the university handled assault and harassment cases on its campuses.

Investigations must be completed within 60 days of reports, and any disciplinary action must be decided upon within 40 days after that. Both complainants and respondents will be able to communicate with those handling their cases. For professors, a faculty committee will review any recommendations for discipline and advise the chancellor on each campus accordingly.

"Combined with our ongoing prevention strategies, these clearly defined frameworks strengthen our procedures for handling sexual misconduct cases and furthering a culture of safety and respect at the university,” Janet Napolitano, system president, said in a statement. The changes will take effect by Sept. 1.

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The importance of a core curriculum (essay)

In a recent salvo in what some observers call the “war on the core (curriculum),” Donal O’Shea, president of New College of Florida, points to the disadvantages of the ostensibly rigid and compulsory nature of too many fixed graduation requirements. He alleges that such a dynamic limits opportunities for intellectual exploration and development. Such criticisms might leave readers with the impression that colleges with strong core requirements leave students with little intellectual room to grow.

But naysayers rarely mention this: a thorough seven-subject general education sequence, such as the core curriculum for which the American Council of Trustees and Alumni advocates in its “What Will They Learn?” report, occupies at most 30 semester hours. It provides an unparalleled, diverse intellectual foundation for further study, while still affording students ample opportunity not only to complete their major but also to devote their attention to the topics that personally excite them.

Every educator will join O’Shea in his appreciation of the way that “serendipity” and discovery compose a major part of the excitement of liberal learning -- the “intervention of a gifted professor … taking an inspiring course or excitedly talking over an idea with a friend in a residence hall.” But colleges should not confuse intellectual exploration with the absence of structure and intentional scaffolding of intellectual growth or overlook how profoundly curricular standards help students distinguish between the serious and the trivial.

How does a course on Horror Films and American Culture at the University of Colorado at Boulder equate to an American history course designed to cover a comprehensive study of key events in our nation’s past? What about The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga, offered in 2013 at Indiana University, where the most frequent grade was an A-plus? These misplaced priorities are a predictable consequence of privileging curricular “serendipity” over sound curricular structure.

Students enjoy flexibility, agency and choice -- but they also need and appreciate direction and structure, rather than being left to pick and choose course sequences with limited intellectual coherence. How will students be ready for serendipity when it comes, if they lack the intellectual foundation required to meaningfully engage in those pursuits? A Lumina Foundation study found that students get “tangled up” when they are left with too many choices, lengthening their time to degree. Faculty members and administrators have an obligation to give students the framework they need to grow intellectually and graduate.

Attributing boredom and tedium to required courses, and excitement and joy to curricular choice, simply does not stand up to a logical examination of the facts. A required course can be taught well or taught badly, and the same is true of the most culturally relevant elective. Try telling graduates of core curricula at programs as varied as those at Columbia University, Hampden-Sydney College, Pepperdine University, the University of Dallas and the University of Georgia that their experience was stale and intellectually limited.

The decimation of clear requirements and frameworks is likely a major contributor to a growing sense of drift and disappointment among college graduates -- and their employers. Survey data show that while nearly all provosts believe their institution is doing an excellent job of preparing students for careers, employers sharply disagree -- particularly when it comes to writing and critical thinking. A survey of employers by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that only 26 percent deemed the critical thinking skills of their recently hired college graduates excellent. Just 23 percent thought that recent graduates were well prepared at “applying knowledge/skills to the real world.”

“Serendipity” is ultimately a poor substitute for academic leadership, for a board, administration and expert faculty coming together, determining the priority skills and knowledge that equip graduates for successful careers and informed citizenship, and then having the determination to reify those priorities in requirements -- not aspirations. Privileging faculty excitement over the needs of students -- about to face a ferocious, globalized job market -- is academic malpractice.

The survival of the liberal arts tradition demands that colleges act with urgency to clarify their requirements and expectations of students. Costs and sagging class enrollments are threatening entire majors and departments in essential subjects such as physics, philosophy and foreign language on many college campuses. Students at some liberal arts colleges are opting into vocational courses such as accounting and computer science.

Without rigor and cohesive requirements, the liberal arts will eventually confront a future of irrelevance. What’s called for here is a rigorous liberal arts education and facing up to our responsibility as standard-bearers in that process. Employers, taxpayers, parents and students are quite reasonably demanding more from higher education. Are we listening?

Michael B. Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

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How tenure-track and adjunct faculty joined forces to unionize at Notre Dame de Namur

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Deciding to unionize alongside part-timers could have backfired on Notre Dame de Namur’s tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Here’s how it didn’t.

An instructor analyzes how to discuss the "Hypatia" controversy with her grad students (essay)

Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I was on vacation and away from social media when the controversy at Hypatia blew up. Only when I returned to the office late in May and confronted my overflowing email box did I catch up on Rebecca Tuvel’s controversial article on “transracialism” and the ensuing outcry over it: the open letter to Hypatia calling for its retraction, the mea culpa from some of the journal’s associate editors, the defense of the article by the editor, the gleeful crowings of the mainstream press about the pettiness of the intellectual elite and, finally, a second open letter, from a group of what might be described as materialist progressives, decrying the signatories to the first open letter.

I had to swallow the story whole, rather than a course at a time. As a result, I’m not even sure I can even digest it all. Some points from both sides of the argument seem relevant, others not so much. The decibel level doesn’t help anything. Still, this question of how language may harm by (ostensibly) violating identity claims has become so prominent that I feel obliged to try to reckon with it.

I don’t work in philosophy or in critical race or sexuality studies, so I found my way into the contretemps by extracting a few potential teaching moments from it, focusing on the open letter’s criticisms of Hypatia’s editorial process and its call for changes to the same. Some of those issues are specific to Tuvel’s article, but a couple are technical problems -- with conceptual ramifications -- that every scholar deals with at least occasionally. Thinking about how to walk my graduate students through them, I hoped, would help me engage this controversy without getting bogged down in it.

The Obscured Bread-Crumb Trail

First, and maybe most banal, is a matter of citation practices, an aspect of scholarly knowledge production that I just can’t seem to convince my students is both fascinating and vitally important. Some of the most spectacular attacks on Tuvel’s article center on her use of the name that celebrity transwoman Caitlyn Jenner was assigned at birth, a process known as “deadnaming.” The author of the original open letter argued that by referring to Jenner in this way, Tuvel “uses vocabulary and frameworks not recognized, accepted or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields.” Tuvel defended herself by noting that Jenner uses that name in her memoir but admitted that was an insider privilege she’d unthinkingly claimed for herself, thus “perpetuat[ing] harm” to Jenner personally and to the trans community over all.

Reasonable people, both cis and transgender, might disagree about whether and how such a practice does harm. (It could also be argued that celebrities, by definition, sacrifice some rights to privacy that the regular folks retain.) When in doubt, it’s certainly most polite to use a person’s preferred name when referring to them directly.

But what about the more complicated case of referring to a trans author -- and to works that cite them -- prior to their official transition? If citations are a sort of intellectual bread-crumb trail that we leave for our readers to follow, how we name authors and represent other scholars’ engagements with their work is important, lest our own readers get lost in the forest.

For example: sociologist Raewyn Connell’s website notes she is the author of 1987’s Gender and Power (Stanford University Press), which was published under the “gender-neutral name R. W. Connell.” The copyright pages lists “R. W. Connell” as the author, as do WorldCat and the publisher’s website. How should the book appear in a bibliography? Contemporary scholarship that engaged with Gender and Power’s arguments referred to the author with the male name assigned to her at birth, and the Amazon.com page for Gender and Power does the same. Is quoting that scholarship “deadnaming”? If so, should we make a journalistic “silent correction” when we quote? Or selectively edit quoted material so that names never appear? Should the difference between the names across time be explained in a footnote, or does that, too, deadname?

This example is particularly real for me as I have directed many undergrad and grad students to Raewyn Connell’s work on masculinity, only to hear that “our library doesn’t own her book, so can I use this one by R. W. Connell instead?” That’s an easy correction in the classroom context, but it speaks to the problem of the obscured bread-crumb trail. The open letter’s call to Hypatia to “commit to developing best practices for naming trans individuals as authors and subjects of scholarly discussions” acknowledges as much. Systematic practices in this area, consistent across disciplines, would indeed be useful.

The other teaching issue raised in the open letter is more complex. Tuvel’s critics argued vehemently that her work “fail[ed] to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions (women of color) in its discussion of ‘transracialism.’” It thus fell short of Hypatia’s stated commitment to exploring a diversity of gendered and sexed experiences.

In the public commentary on the controversy, “sufficiency” has featured prominently. On one side are scholars who believe that Tuvel’s inattention to, for example, critical race theory allowed her to make a facile, bad-faith argument. Taking concepts like embodied racism and micropolitics seriously would have complicated or perhaps invalidated her own claims, this logic goes. To get around that problem, she just avoided this body of thought altogether. Compounding that intellectual gaffe is a political one: by not engaging critical race theorists, many of whom are people of color, Tuvel re-marginalized a vulnerable population and reaffirmed her white privilege.

On the other side of a yawning chasm are those who claim that as an untenured member of a philosophy department, writing for a philosophy journal (albeit a feminist one that describes itself as “richly interdisciplinary in orientation”), Tuvel is not beholden to critical race theory. Her article responds primarily to the work of one major figure in her field, feminist philosopher Sally Haslanger, who writes about race and gender from a foundation in epistemology, with attention to philosophies of justice. It is to these branches of philosophy -- not other scholarship, and not the social locations of other scholars -- that Tuvel owes deference. Many academics who have staked out this position seem to be professional philosophers aware of and, to various extents, comfortable with their field’s traditional (some might call it airless) rhetorical and argumentative style.

Could Tuvel have opened up her article to more fully consider and engage with critical race theory’s ideas about power and identity? That is a serious teaching question -- let’s answer it first in a deeply prosaic fashion. To wit: while calls for paradigm-shifting interdisciplinary scholarship have increased over the past few decades, the word limit for a typical journal article has not. Hypatia’s word limit is 8,000. Excluding citations, Tuvel’s piece comes in just at 7,900. Engaging with such ideas would have blown her word count out of the water.

Lurking beneath the language of “sufficiency” is a more troubling question: Should Tuvel have written the article without such engagement? Signatories to the open letter clearly believe she should not have. To write without such engagement is to cause harm.

Here is where the teaching issues of academic genres and audiences come into play. Though it’s not analytic philosophy by a long shot, Tuvel’s article is quite discipline specific -- a straight-up thought experiment that proceeds precisely along philosophy’s traditional “if A, then B; if B, then C or D, but not E” lines.

There’s a reason I’m a cultural historian: the abstractness of the one philosophy class I took as an undergraduate drove me nuts. All the arguments seemed true, but none of them seemed accurate -- at least not to the messy reality that I lived in. This sense came back to me on reading Tuvel, but 30-odd years later, I understand that this is just what philosophers do. Or rather, it’s something they can do.

And for good or ill, it seems it’s the thing Rebecca Tuvel wanted to do in this article. (Although I’d wager she thinks somewhat differently now.) Both her CV and her online presence suggest Tuvel is well read in bodies of scholarship -- like critical race theory -- that could have informed and given shape to an argument about transracialism. Apparently she didn’t want to write that article. For whatever reason, Tuvel seems to have been uninterested in authoring an article that used critical race theory to complicate Sally Haslanger’s claims about the constructed nature of race and gender. If we acknowledge that lack of interest, we can move to ask the real teaching question: Is it wrong?

The Act of Saying “I”

As I mentioned above, I may be a bad feminist: most of my graduate teaching shies away from questions of feminist methodology and focuses instead on writing. Specifically, to quote Joan Didion, I teach students that “writing is the act of saying ‘I.’” Within the context of graduate teaching, this means helping students figure out what they are arguing about complex and multifaceted topics with which they tend to have, in clinical mental health terms, deeply codependent relationships. On the road to determining what they are arguing, they must also decide what they are not arguing.

There’s a feminist dimension to this teaching, obviously: bell hooks calls the process “coming to voice”; it’s a version of “empowerment.” We invite graduate students to leave behind their undergraduate lives as talented assignment completers and become instead genuine authors. We succeed in that task when they lose some of their deference to us and the other clamorous voices they have encountered in their course work. Confidence in their own author-ity allows them to say both “this is my argument” and “that could be my argument, but it is not.”

Making such claims is scary; they entail a lot of responsibility. Traditional feminist pedagogy -- indebted to the ethics of care -- provides an easy jumping-off point for discussing the responsibility an author has to sources and audience. We have theory, we have practices, we have models for how to respect those parties.

But we lack a feminist discourse that grapples with the fact that, as Didion explains, writing is -- must be -- “an aggressive, even a hostile act … an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space.” To be clear, that aggression inheres not in the things one says (although one can certainly say aggressive things), but in the act of clearing space (in one’s head, on the page, in the scholarly conversation) for one’s own vision and voice. Writing in standard academic English, “the act of saying ‘I’” always already occurs over and against the voices of others. Writers dialogue with some of those voices, but to most of the others, they must say, “That could be my argument, but it is not.”

I’ve developed a few tried and true practices for shifting students out of assignment-completion mode and into the act of saying “I.” Extreme prejudice against passive-voice writing is one. A relentless classroom focus on “argument literacy” is another: understanding the university as an example of what former Modern Language Association President Gerald Graff calls “an argument culture” trains students in professionalism as well as in rhetoric. Teaching counterexamples -- writers like Didion, or Michelle Cliff, Gloria Anzaldúa and Alison Bechdel, who make their points through rhetorical means disallowed in scholarly discourse (narrative, collage, purposeful ambiguity) -- is one more. But I’ve never had a real-life case study of the costs entailed by saying, “This -- not that -- is my argument.” Tuvel’s piece presents a perfect teaching case, and it will be interesting to try it out in the classroom come fall.

A focus on these teaching issues does not resolve the existential question of “harm.” It doesn’t even shed light on the more mechanistic question of what constitutes “sufficient engagement.” At this stage of the game, those questions may not have answers -- at least not good ones. But I like to think that if anything makes me a good feminist, it’s a stubborn resistance to bad answers. For that reason, I’ll be eager to see if, once the heat of the summer dies down, other commentators on the Hypatia controversy can extract a little light from it all.

Trysh Travis an associate professor at the Center for Gender, Sexualities and Women’s Studies Research at the University of Florida.

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The right is using the comments of left-wing professors to delegitimize higher ed (essay)

By targeting the comments of presumably left-wing professors, the right is using free speech as part of their long-term strategy of delegitimizing higher education itself, writes Victor Ray.

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How the MLA changed its handbook for the better (essay)

We finally have a handbook that has writers thinking more critically about citation than we ever have before, writes Peter Wayne Moe.

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An alternate approach would have made the Evergreen State events less controversial and more educational (essay)

The controversy that roiled Evergreen State College in recent weeks stirred up a great deal of emotion within the campus community and the national media. It began because Evergreen students organize annual voluntary Days of Absence in which minority students and faculty members stay off campus -- not unlike the recent nationwide Day Without Immigrants. The students then observe a Day of Presence to reflect on the experience and reunite the community.

This year, however, the organizers said they wanted white people to remain off the campus, and a professor objected to that proposal in a message to an email list. Demands for the professor’s firing, protests and counterprotests, threats to safety, and the closing of the campus followed.

In part, the fracas resulted from a breakdown of the teacher-student relationship and a Crossfire cultural reflex: the faculty member chose to castigate rather than investigate the students’ actions, causing students to become defensive rather than inquisitive. In response, they felt the need to teach the teacher, who came off as dismissive rather than unconvinced of an inchoate but legitimate proposal.

The students’ intentions touched on what strikes me as an impossible problem. For in the end, questions perhaps should not have turned to “Who is right here?” but rather, “Who is white here?”

Defining Terms

A laudable tradition running back decades, absence projects underscore our nation’s interdependence among its diverse population. To remain logically consistent, Evergreen’s project was inevitably going to invite white people to participate. Indeed, why shouldn’t it? If it could be done, white people should be included in such a thoughtful project as Evergreen’s days of absence -- otherwise, they would ironically enjoy the privilege of being excluded from staged experiences of exclusion.

Inviting Evergreen’s white community members strikes me as ingenious, despite its being highly improbable, for reasons I’ll enumerate. White students and faculty might benefit from reflecting on what it feels like to be arbitrarily excluded and disadvantaged, although I wonder how many people might just enjoy one more day off from school or work. Concomitantly, students of color might see what I see: many privileges afforded by white identities also afford enormous opportunities to foment greater appreciation for the inherently interconnected nature of our society.

Many of us with such privileges leverage them to inspire change. I suspect on a white absence day, an overwhelming number of courses would have gone teacherless, even those treating issues of injustice. Generating discussions about complex topics and leading them toward nuance rather than overgeneralization requires skill and expertise: white absence could make plainer that the training for those activities has historically been doled out disproportionately to white people. Students of color might also appreciate how often white students contribute meaningfully, if not always in the most elegant terms, to all number of difficult conversations.

Yet an Evergreen biology professor, Bret Weinstein, chose to voice his objection in an unfortunate form, sparking an already charged campus community into an explosion. As a faculty member at a liberal arts college, Weinstein might have chosen not to chide but to question the student leadership encouraging the participation of white people in absenting themselves from the Evergreen community. He knows as well as anyone how spurious biological claims about race are. Specifically, then, he might have posed the question, “Who are the white people in our community?”

I suspect the Evergreen student leadership would have to think quite some time before being able to start defining their terms. Let’s say I have an international student from a Central European nation in my class. Should I encourage her, as a white woman with no ties to America’s complex racial history, to avoid classes for a day?

Should I ask her if she’s Muslim first?

Or take my own family. There’s no question I’m a white guy, but my wife is Jewish and so are my children. Jews have faced so much discrimination throughout history that it would seem odd to request that they reflect on an incomplete understanding of what it means to experience arbitrary hatred. So, are my children white? I’d say yes … but I’d also say that in conversations about race in America, they are less white than I am. And as someone who was raised Catholic and knows acutely about the paranoia directed toward Catholics in post-Civil War and even Cold War-era America, I know that I would have not been considered white at moments in that past and now remain, however infinitesimally, less white than families with Protestant lineages. Keep in mind that Joe Biden’s Catholicism made him a historic U.S. vice president.

To this point, I’ve left staff members, traditionally included in Evergreen’s absence initiative, out of the conversation. Did Evergreen’s students determine if the college could offer adequate emergency health care without a large number of staff on campus? Would the dining halls run? Would all the buildings get unlocked, would the library be open, would facilities emergencies get proper attention, would Evergreen paychecks get processed on time and so on, without the so many staff members, often invisible, keeping the engines of the college running? Showing the vital contributions of staff might be the greatest object lesson from such a venture as a Day of White Absence.

A Rare Dialogue

Evergreen’s students initially acted bravely in standing up for a righteous cause. Tired of leaving diversity issues to “the other,” they took them to white people. Some took certain actions too far -- personally insulting the college president, whose academic research focuses on structural injustice, belies their faith in the very institution they purport to improve. When Weinstein moved the issue past the Evergreen students’ specific proposal to generalizing broadly about exclusion, the matter lost its local character and turned toward many already-defined national causes and concerns. Thus, George S. Bridges was left to moderate a campus discussion within pre-established terms, and (personal affections admitted here) he did just about all that a president can do -- which is not very much, as I see it, other than listen carefully and patiently to student concerns, issue a vague statement, and reaffirm commitments to improving diversity-related resources. More lasting solutions require time. Trust me, if not his own words: if Bridges had the answers, he would do all he could to implement them immediately.

In the end, Evergreen’s white absence project has failed so far for the very reasons it could yet succeed. It could inspire a dialogue we rarely have. What are we talking about when we talk about white people? To whom does it confer what specific privileges? “White,” perhaps more than any other racial category, eludes definition. One might say that the concept of white identity is a strategy in and of itself: a way of defining some people against an ineffable white selfhood such that it can be as inclusive as it needs to be and exclusive at it wants to be, both at the same time. It sorts people to degrees of greater and lesser inclusion, depending on circumstances, including who’s defining the category and for what purposes.

The problem thus remains: while the others always feels their otherness, the “other than” has not been adequately delimited. Maybe it can never be, though I hope it can. That a group of Evergreen students might not yet be able to articulate the reality of American white identity speaks less to their ideals and their ambitions than it does to the fact that the conversation does not seem to have gotten where it needs to go. Absent a will to instruct through reasonable questioning even -- or especially -- in fraught circumstances, I worry it rarely will.

Christopher Leise is an associate professor of English at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. His most recent book, The Story Upon a Hill: the Puritan Myth in Contemporary American Fiction, will be published by the University of Alabama Press this July.

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Cathy Sandeen updates her MOOC predictions

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Cathy Sandeen looked back at her past predictions and claims about massive open online courses to see how they’ve held up. Sandeen, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin Extension, provided new insights and predictions. She said:


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