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Essay suggests that professors use the word "I" more in their writing

A Duke professor recently used the magic word in an op-ed article she published, resulting in an invitation to visit a U.S. Senate office to discuss legislation affecting millions of children.

The magic word was "I." It's a word academics should include more often when writing op-ed articles for audiences beyond their campuses.

The professor wrote about her research showing orphanages in developing countries to be better than many Americans believe. She argued that well-intentioned legislation now before Congress would close too many orphanages and harm children unlikely to be adopted by nurturing families. The senator, one of the legislation's sponsors, was among those who saw the article.

That's impressive impact for a 750-word op-ed article, which requires far less time to write than a scholarly journal article or book. A well-written op-ed can change minds, sway hearts and affect policy. It can advance the author's career and the university's reputation. It also can serve the public interest, bringing faculty expertise to debates about everything from national security to the arts.

For faculty to play this role, however, they need to become more willing to use the word "I."

In the case of the orphanage op-ed, which our office edited and placed in several papers around the country, the author had the advantage of making an interesting point about a timely issue affecting children. What made her article compelling, however, was how she opened with a story about a Cambodian teenager who was forced to leave an orphanage and ended up becoming a "karaoke girl" who has sex with customers. The author wrote that this teenager illustrates the problem she has seen in several countries.

She maintained her first-person voice through her final paragraph, where she expressed satisfaction that Congress is addressing this issue and hopes the bill will be modified to continue supporting orphanages. To describe what she did in movie terms: She started with a "tight shot," pulled the camera back to show the "long shot" and used a character throughout to propel the narrative.

This approach is dramatically different than in most journal articles. There the author typically reveals the conclusion only at the end, festooned with caveats, after requiring the reader to wade through pages of experimental protocols or dense analysis. That approach simply doesn't work with a newspaper reader who is sitting half-awake at the breakfast table, flipping through the editorial pages en route to the local news and sports scores.

Academic articles also eschew the use of "I" or "me." Their authors learn in graduate school to rely on the power of their data and the brilliance of their arguments. Pundits should dazzle with their intellect, they're told, not with anecdotes or emotion. As scientists and others like to point out, the plural of anecdotes is not data.

That's true, of course, but also self-defeating when it comes to placing an article with the editors of op-ed pages, where competition can be intense. This reluctance of academics to come down from Mt. Olympus and share their stories is one of the biggest reasons why so many of them are disappointed when editors reject their articles. It's certainly possible to address an issue effectively with a third-person "voice of the expert," but academics should not consider this their only option.

My colleague Keith Lawrence and I have helped Duke faculty members and students place dozens of op-ed articles every year, something I also did while running an op-ed service for a decade at the National Academy of Sciences. We've learned that, all things being equal, articles fare better when authors share their own experience along with their professional analysis. If you are a physician-scientist who is concerned about national health policy, this means telling us what happened yesterday to Mrs. Jones, the woman who said she can't afford the medication you prescribed. If you are concerned about fracking, describe the homeowners who told you their water tastes strange.

You shouldn't violate anyone's confidentiality and you don't want to sound like a reality TV star. When you share your own humanity, however, your words ring truer. Readers care more about what you are saying. This is why presidents of the United States, regardless of party, place "real Americans" next to the First Lady when they deliver their State of the Union speeches. They know viewers will pay more attention to Lieutenant Smith, the brave soldier who just returned from Afghanistan, than to an abstract discussion about military policy.

Why do we have the Ryan White CARE Act and other laws named for individuals? Why do politicians on the campaign trail inevitably tell us about the family they met yesterday? For better or worse, human beings make sense of the world through examples. Academics who recognize this are not trivializing themselves or disavowing the intellectual rigor of their research. Rather, they are embracing reality and engaging readers effectively.

Americans who read op-ed pages are not stupid. They are more educated and engaged than the public as a whole. Many have expertise of their own. But they're also busy and, like all people, are wondering how an issue affects them personally. As they gulp a cup of coffee and race through the morning paper before heading to work, they want to hear real stories and voices.

They also want to feel a connection with the author. If you are a professor at Penn hoping to place an op-ed with The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, look for a way to mention something that makes clear you're a neighbor.

Many academics approach op-eds as an exercise in solemnity. Frankly, they'd improve their chances if they'd lighten up. Newspaper editors despair of weighty articles -- known in the trade as "thumb suckers" -- and delight in an academic writer who chooses examples from popular culture as well as from Eminent Authorities.

Most of all they want to see the magic word "I." More academics should use it.

David Jarmul is the associate vice president for news and communications at Duke University.

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Essay on why faculty members shouldn't work only for love of their field

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Tyro Tracts

Academics need not only to enjoy their work, but also to pay their rent, writes Nate Kreuter.

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Poetry gets some serious pop culture play (essay)

We may be turning and turning in a polar vortex, with April, or what folks in the creative-writing biz call poetry month, seeming like an impossible dream, but poetry is nevertheless in the air right now. In Walt Whitman’s case, it’s on the air: Apple’s ad for iPad Air, “Your Verse,” which debuted on January 12, includes lines from Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” — as read by Robin Williams in a monologue from “Dead Poets Society” — ending with

           The question, O me! so sad, recurring—what good amid these, O me, O life?

                                              Answer.

            That you are here—that life exists and identity,

            That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Two shorter 30-second versions — “Light Verse” (possibly the first time in literary history that the word “light” has been used in reference to Whitman, and a misrepresentation of the opening of “O Me!”) and “Sound Verse” — which begins with “To quote from Whitman, ...” have since aired.

This series represents Whitman’s second starring role in contemporary advertising: a 2009 ad campaign for Levi’s featured excerpts from two Whitman poems, “Pioneers! O Pioneers,” recorded by Will Geer for Folkways Records in 1957, and “America,” read by Whitman himself in an 1890 wax-cylinder recording.

It isn’t so hard to imagine Whitman embracing subsequent new technology. The opening alone of his “Song of Myself” — “I celebrate myself,” later revised and expanded to “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” — marks not only the start, as a number of critics have argued, of modern poetry, but also arguably the start of social media.

If the ego of that I drives and sustains the work, there is also room not only for his sprawling catalogs of life but also for “you,” the reader, who appears as early as the second line. The point was, always, connection: Whitman believed that poetry could heal a nation torn apart by financial concerns and ugly politics and policies (see David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography). To adapt Wordsworth’s sonnet on Milton, “London, 1802”: “[Whitman], thou should’st be living at this hour; /  [America] hath need of thee: she is a fen/ Of stagnant waters...”

Whitman isn’t the only poetic presence evoked this month; another 19th-century giant — the one who said, “I’m Nobody. Who are you?” — has also made a public appearance.

Here’s Emily Dickinson — showing up ironically and wonderfully — in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” in Rebecca Mead’s essay on the Dickinson projects of poet and visual artist Jen Bervin (“Back of the Envelope” Jan. 27, 2014). What an image: Dickinson, dressed in white and wearing oversized sunglasses, arriving in Manhattan among fanfare, being driven to a borrowed townhouse, then shutting the door, pouring a glass of wine, and reading about herself in The New Yorker.

Why do I find these recent appearances of Whitman and Dickinson so exhilarating — so hopeful? Aside from the pleasure I take in finding any mention of poetry outside of the time frame of April/Poetry Month, it’s heartening to come upon these references in the midst of reading article after article on the death of the humanities.

For, if there have been times of personal and/or professional doubt when I wanted to say, with Marianne Moore, “I too dislike it” (“Poetry”) or when I wanted to side with W. H. Auden’s pronouncement, early in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” that “poetry makes nothing happen,” there have been many more instances when I have had to acknowledge the truth that Auden arrives at by the end of that same poem: it is poetry that will “Let the healing fountain start.”

As Ezra Pound said, “Poetry is the news that stays new.”

The news is mixed, of course. It reminds us, as Mary Oliver observes in her poem “Poppies,” that “of course, / loss is the great lesson” — but even in its — and our — darkest moments, poetry continues to answer one of our deepest needs, summed up by a character in Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club: “I wanted to be found.”

That is the secret of poetry’s fresh (psychic) news: quite simply and quite complexly, poems find us, and then they encourage us, as Jorie Graham says in “Afterwards,” to “begin with the world.”

Five Anecdotes:

We are in the car, for I am driving my three children somewhere — in those years I was always driving them somewhere — when my 7-year-old son asks me from the back seat, “You like poems, right?” I tell him yes. After a beat of several moments, he asks me, “Do you like bugs?” “Some” I say, suspecting that he has a secret agenda. Several weeks later on Mother’s Day, he brings me the gift he has kept hidden in his room, his pick from the “Reading is Fundamental” Program, which allows students to select a book to keep. He chose, for me, Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, a collection of 14 poems about insects. I use the book, along with Kenneth Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red, for years in writing workshops in elementary schools.

It is early on Thanksgiving morning — 3:00 a.m., the dark night of the soul. I am sitting with my father in a cubicle in the ER. He came in here over two hours ago, in pain. The nursing home called me just after midnight, and I told them that I would meet the ambulance. Now my father is sleeping peacefully; I study him: his still-beautiful hands and the striking high cheekbones of his face. I let my mind empty, and lines from Stanley Kunitz’s “The Testing Tree” arrive: “The heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.” And then I remember hearing Kunitz himself reading the lines and how the members of the audience, a good-sized crowd on a warm September day, wept. Now, my father is sleeping; across the city, my mother lies awake, waiting for my phone call.

One spring break, I go to the private facility where my sister is a therapist, to conduct a writing workshop. The facility has a program that reunites women with their young children. I prepared for the workshop by gathering several poems about mothers and children, and then, at the last moment, I added William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls.” At the workshop, I hand out copies and read the poem. There is a moment of silence, and then one woman asks, “Are we supposed to fill in the blanks?” A second woman says, “Wait, it’s already a sentence.” And then a third woman looks up — she is tapping the end of the poem, the image of broken but shining “pieces of a green / bottle” — and she says, “It’s us.”

My father’s favorite poem is by Billy Collins: it’s “The Country,” the one about the fire-starter mouse, “the creature / for one bright, shining moment / suddenly thrust ahead of his time.” We always start with this. Then I say, “Here’s another one I think you’ll like, and he says, “All right,” and he folds those (beautiful) hands in his lap, as I read “I Chop Some Onions While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice,’ ” which never fails to bring me, like the speaker in the poem, close to tears, and my father says, “That’s a good one. Thank you.”

On another day, I compliment Katie, a young woman working at my father’s nursing home, on her striking new tattoo: it’s a delicate feather, on the inside of her wrist. I ask her what made her choose that design, and she starts to explain that there is a poem that she has always loved. “Yes,” I tell her, “Emily Dickinson! ‘Hope is the thing with feathers,’ ” and Katie’s eyes light up. “That’s it,” she tells me, “that’s exactly it.”

Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.

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International Studies Association Tables Blogging Policy

After a surge of protest from its members, the International Studies Association announced Wednesday afternoon that it would table a proposal to ban its journal editors from blogging

Harvey Starr, the association's president, said in an email to the Governing Council of the ISA that he intends to task the Committee on Professional Rights and Responsibilities to explore the "idea of balancing academic freedom and potential conflicts of interests" that blogging present. The committee will spend a year gathering input before making any recommendations at the 2015 annual meeting.

"Along the lines of the ISA Code of Conduct, our aim was to protect academic freedom while fostering civil discourse and freedom to express valid professional evaluations of the work of others in the contemporary world of social media -- and to the issues that can arise with people confusing the personal blogs of the editors of ISA journals with the editorial policies for their journals," Starr wrote. "Clearly, however, this is a far more complex issue, and your voices have been heard."

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Academic Minute: Ancient Rivers in the Sahara

In today’s Academic Minute, Tom Coulthard of the University of Hull reveals the presence of ancient rivers that flowed across the Sahara Desert. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

 

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International Studies Association proposes to bar editors from blogging

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After the International Studies Association proposes to ban journal editors from blogging, infuriated faculty members take to their blogs.

Review of Andrew Ross, "Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal"

The golden age of unsolicited credit-card applications ended about five years ago. It must have been a relief at the post office. At least ten envelopes came each week -- often with non-functioning replica cards enclosed, to elicit the anticipatory thrill of fresh plastic in the recipient’s hot little hand.

For a while, I would open each envelope and carefully shred anything with my name on it, lest an identity thief go on a shopping spree in my name. But at some point I gave up, because there were just too many of them. Besides, any identity thief worth worrying about enjoyed better options than trash-diving for unopened mail.

Something started happening circa 2006 or ’07. More and more often, the very envelopes carried wording to the effect that approval for a new card was a formality, so act now! With the benefit of hindsight, this reads as a last surge of economic acceleration before the crash just ahead. But at the time, I figured that credit-card companies were growing desperate to grab our attention, since many of us were throwing the offers away without a second glance.

The two alternatives -- turbocharged consumerism on the one hand, the depleted willingness (or capacity) of consumers to take on more debt, on the other -- are not mutually exclusive. It was subprime mortgages rather than overextended credit cards that brought the go-go ’00s to an early end, but each was a manifestation of the system Andrew Ross writes about in Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal (OR Books).

Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, was active in Occupy Wall Street, and Creditocracy bears a few traces of the movement, both in its plainspoken and inclusive expressions of anger (this I like) and its redeployment of old anarco-syndicalist ideas (that, not so much).

One commonplace account of the near-collapse of the world financial system in 2008 is that it was the product of consumer hedonism at its most irresponsible. It was just deserts for people playing Xbox on jumbo flat-screen TVs in subprime-mortgaged houses they shouldn't be in. Whatever the limits of its explanatory power, this interpretation allows for a pleasing discharge of moralistic aggression. Hence its popularity. The most familiar argument opposing it places the blame, rather, on bankers, brokers, and other criminals “too big to jail.” It was they who were greedy and short-sighted, not average people.

Besides the more obvious similarities, what these explanations share is an implication that the disaster could have been avoided with some self-discipline and the understanding that hyperbolic discounting is a very bad habit.

Ross leans in the anti-plutocratic direction, but he proves ultimately less interested in the morality of anyone’s decisions than he is in the framework that permits, or demands, those decisions in the first place. The system he calls “creditocracy” turns out debt as fast and efficiently as Detroit once did automobiles, and just as profitably:

“Financiers seek to wrap debt around every possible asset and income stream,” he writes, “ensuring a flow of interest from each…. [T]he tipping point for a creditocracy occurs when ‘economic rents’ – from debt-leveraging, capital gains, manipulation of paper claims through derivatives and other forms of financial engineering – are no longer merely supplementary sources of income, but have become the most reliable and effective instrument for the amassing of wealth and influence.”

At that level of description, Ross has simply given a new name to what Rudolf Hilferding, writing a hundred years ago, called “finance capital.” But what Hilferding had in mind was the merger of banking and industrial capitalism – the marriage of big money and big factories, with monopoly presiding. Creditocracy, by contrast, “goes small,” insinuating itself into every nook and cranny of life. The relationship between creditor and debtor takes many different shapes, some more overt than others.

When you take out a student loan or a mortgage, your submission to the financial system is more or less deliberate, and in any event explicit. It runs deeper, and proves less purely voluntary, if you have to use credit cards in lieu of unemployment insurance. The credit relationship is much more efficiently disguised if it takes the form of an unpaid internship – the “exchange” of your time and skills for intangible and impossible-to-quantify  credit” toward a future job, if you’re lucky.

And if that doesn’t pan out, you might end up working in one of the less desirable positions at Walmart or Taco Bell, among other corporations that banks have persuaded, Ross writes, “to pay their employees with prepaid debit cards that are only lightly regulated.” The banks then “charge the users fees to make ATM withdrawls and retail purchases, along with inactivity fees for using their cards. Almost all of these are minimum or subminimum wage employees, compelled to fork over a fee to enjoy their paycheck." (The practice was described in a New York Times article a few months ago.)

In next week’s column, I’ll consider Ross’s analysis of how the impact of creditocracy on education amounts to a ruthless exploitation, not just of present-day society, but of the future. We’ll also take a look at the comparable argument in a new book called The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books) by David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy of education and legal studies at the University of Delaware.    

Until then, I’ll sign off by mentioning that someone has just sent me an application for a $40,000 line of credit. This must be evidence of that “recovery” one reads about. If so, we’re in real trouble.

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Northern Arizona Won't Interview Former Army Psychologist With Ties to Abu Ghraib

Larry James, a former Army psychologist and associate vice president for military affairs at Wright State University, won't be invited to campus to interview for a position at Northern Arizona University, a spokesman said late Tuesday. The announcement came after a week of protest from students and faculty over the fact that James was in the running to become the new dean of the College Social and behavioral sciences. Protesters raised concerns about his role as a process evaluator for interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War and at the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Many of their concerns came from James's own book, Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib. In that book, and in various interviews, including one last year with Inside Higher Ed, James says he witnessed abusive behaviors by both prisoners and U.S. military personnel, but that he worked to make the situation better. James was assigned to the prison only after the initial revelations about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and his job was to assess and recommend procedures to prevent future abuses. But some critics said his association with the prison is enough to make his appointment to an academic post inappropriate, and others challenged his explanation and the findings of several independent investigations that James was not party to the abuses at Abu Ghraib. They point to a 2010 complaint filed with the Ohio State Board of Psychology by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School alleging that human rights violations continued after James arrived.

Protesters called for university to block James from coming to campus to interview. In an open letter to students and faculty posted on the university website this week, Laura Huenneke, provost, and Dan Kain, vice provost for academic personnel at Northern Arizona said: "Sadly, some individuals (including students) are seeking to prevent his interview and visit. Intimidating flyers are being posted anonymously, and messages have been flying around campus urging people to 'check out' the person via Google or other quick web searches. This behavior is inconsistent with the university’s commitment to civil discourse and fair evaluation of individuals. Indeed, our search process has consistently instructed committee members NOT to search the Internet to learn about candidates, both because of the inaccuracies promulgated on the web and because of the potential for discrimination. Our process is built around our deep respect for giving everyone a fair chance in the hiring process."

In response, Romand Coles, professor of community, culture and environment, posted his own letter, saying: "The concern for evidence-based investigation, accurate representation of what we know, and our best efforts at reasoned deliberation are values I too hold to be absolutely vital to the scholarly enterprise and democratic discourse. Yet based on these standards I come to a very different conclusion about the character of the conversation and work that has been conducted around this search thus far."

On Tuesday, a spokesman said via email: "Dr. James’ leadership skills and record of accomplishments in higher education made him a strong candidate for this position. In searching for a dean, NAU's goals include finding the right match between a candidate’s skills and the college’s needs. After extensive discussions on campus, Dr. James’ candidacy will not be pursued and he will not be visiting campus."

James also sparked student protests and raised faculty concerns last year during his candidacy for division executive director in the College of Education at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He did not get the job, but neither did the other finalist. The post went unfilled.

James did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Coles did not offer additional comment.

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Adjuncts and Affordable Care Act

Tom Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, was among several business leaders and policy experts to testify before the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee Tuesday on the effects of the Affordable Care Act's so-called employer mandate. The law requires large employers to provide health insurance to employees working 30 or more hours per week, or face fines. Snyder said that the college already had reduced some adjuncts' hours and had to compensate by hiring others in anticipation of the law taking effect in January. Many other colleges and universities have done the same during the past 18 months, capping adjuncts' maximum course loads to ensure that aren't full-time, benefits-eligible employees under the law.

"Because of the unique role of the adjunct in the community college, the end result may be less access for the students and the inability of faculty to stay with one college,” Snyder said, noting that adjuncts' hours include not only contact time with students but also preparation time outside of class. The president said Ivy Tech supported the idea of expanding access to health care, but that it would cost the college system up to $12 million annually to provide all its employees working 30 hours or more weekly with health insurance.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy group, testified in November to the House Education and the Workforce Committee about how institutions' responses to the law were hurting adjuncts. She was not invited to Tuesday's hearing. 

Via email, she said: "The problem with colleges like Ivy Tech doing it is that they are not putting the mission of education first. The mission of higher education is not to figure out ways to cut costs by cutting faculty-associated costs; the mission of higher ed is to invest in the people who make education happen -- the teachers and the students."

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Book argues that adjunct conditions must be viewed as civil rights issue

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New anthology from a longtime adjunct activist Keith Hoeller stresses equality for adjuncts in terms of pay and other benefits, compared to their tenure-line colleagues.

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