Article on Mark Zborowski, scholar and spy

Among the passengers disembarking from a ship from that reached Philadelphia in the final days of December 1941 was one Mark Zborowski -- a Ukrainian-born intellectual who grew up in Poland. He had lived in Paris for most of the previous decade, studying at the Sorbonne. He was detained by the authorities for a while (the U.S. had declared war on the Axis powers just three weeks earlier, so his visa must have been triple-checked) and then released.

Zborowski's fluency in several languages was a definite asset. By 1944 he was working for the U.S. Army on a Russian-English dictionary; after that that he joined the staff of the Institute for Jewish Research in New York, serving as a librarian. And from there the émigré’s career took off on an impressive if not meteoric course.

He joined the Research in Contemporary Culture Project at Columbia University, launched just after World War II by the prominent anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead with support from the Office of Naval Research. Zborowski oversaw an ethnographic study of Central and Eastern European Jewish culture, based on interviews with refugees. It yielded Life Is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl, a book he co-authored in 1952. Drawing on Zborowski’s childhood memories more than he acknowledged and written in a popularizing style, it sold well and remained in print for decades.

The volume’s reputation has taken some hits over the years -- one scholar dubs it “the book that Jewish historians of the region loathe more than any other” – but Zborowski enjoyed the unusual distinction of influencing a Broadway musical: the song “If I Were a Rich Man” in Fiddler on the Roof was inspired, in part, by a passage in Life Is With People. He later turned to research on cultural differences in how pain is experienced and expressed, culminating in his book People in Pain (1969). Once again his published work got mixed reviews in the professional journals, while the author himself enjoyed a kind of influence that citation statistics do not measure: a generation of medical anthropologists studied with him at the Pain Institute of Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco. He died in 1990.

If the details just given represented an honest account of Mark Zborowski’s life, he would now be remembered by scarcely anyone except specialists working in his fields of interest. The narrative above is all factually correct, to the best of my knowledge. But it omits an abundance of secrets. Some were revealed during his lifetime, but even they come wrapped in the mystery of his motives.

The fullest account now available is “Mark ‘Etienne’ Zborowski: Portrait of Deception” by Susan Weissman, a two-part study appearing in the journal Critique. Weissman, a professor of politics at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., published the first half in 2011 and expected the second to follow shortly, though in fact it will appear in print only later this year. (Both can be downloaded in PDF from her page at Academia.edu.)

Etienne was the name Zborowski used while infiltrating anti-Stalinist radical circles in France for the GPU and the NKVD (forerunners of the KGB) during the 1930s, and he continued surveillance on opponents of the Soviet Union during his first few years in the United States.

“He is remembered by his students and colleagues as warm, generous and erudite,” writes Weissman. “Personally he neither stole documents nor directly assassinated people, but he informed Stalin’s teams of thugs where to find the documents or the people they sought. Zborowski infiltrated small leftist circles, made friends with its cadres and then reported on them. He always ratted on his ‘supposed’ friends. He saw [one woman] daily for nearly five years, and she helped him in countless ways. What did he give her in return? Only her survival, something not afforded to other Zborowski ‘friends.’ Once his orders switched and he no longer needed to report on her activities (or that of her husband), Zborowski simply stopped calling this constant friend, who defended him, gave him money and helped him with that precious commodity denied to so many, the visa to the United States.”

Weissman chronicles Etienne’s destructive role among the anti-Stalinist revolutionaries in Europe while also showing that his precise degree of culpability in some operations remains difficult to assess. Important missions were sometimes “nearly sabotaged by conflicting aims and lack of coordination between Soviet espionage teams.” And spy craft is not immune to a kind of office politics: reports to “the center” (intelligence headquarters) were not always accurate so much as aspirational or prudent.

Overviews of Zborowski’s covert life have been available for some time – among them, his own testimony to a Senate subcommittee on internal security, which was not especially candid. Weissman’s study draws on earlier treatments but handles them critically, and in the light of a wider range of sources than have been brought to bear on his case until now.

Besides material from Stalin-era archives (consulted when she was in Russia during the 1990s) and the decoded Venona intercepts of Soviet cable communications from the 1940s, Weissman obtained court transcripts from Zborowski’s trials for perjuring himself before Congress. (He received a retrial after appealing his first conviction, but lost and served four years in prison.)

She also used the Freedom of Information Act to request the pertinent files from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There were surveillance reports, of course, and interviews conducted by FBI agents -- with some pages all but entirely blacked out -- but also a piece of evidence about Zborowski that has been hiding in plain sight for 50 years.

The Feb. 28, 1965, issue of the Sunday magazine of The New York Times contained an article called “The Prison ‘Culture’ -- From the Inside.” The author identified himself as an anthropologist (“and as far as I know the first member of my profession to study a prison culture from the inside”) and used the pseudonym “M. Arc.” They seem like pretty clear hints to his identity, but no one seems to have made the connection until Weismann opened the dossier.

“The article is a scholarly, well-written account of life inside,” she notes, “with a critical look at the criminal justice system … and [it] has been widely cited and reprinted in prison sociology texts.”

Part of his hidden curriculum vitae, then. “True to form,” Weismann writes, “Zborowski put the focus entirely on the subject at hand, revealing virtually nothing of himself.”

And that really is the mystery within the mystery here. It’s difficult to square Professor Zborowski (amiable, conscientious, a little bland, perhaps) with the sinister career of Etienne, a man who made himself the closest friend of Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov and quite possibly set him up for murder. (Afterward he tried to wrangle an invitation to the Russian revolutionary’s compound in Mexico, but another assassin got there first.)

In a conversation with Weissman by phone, I mentioned being both fascinated by her research (mention Trotsky in something and I’ll probably read it) and left puzzled by the figure she portrayed. And puzzled in a troubling way, with no sense of his intentions -- of how he had understood his own actions, whether while carrying them out or across the long years he had to reflect on them.

“While in prison,” she told me, “he kept insisting to the FBI that he was good citizen. He never expressed remorse. There’s nothing in his papers about his politics, nothing about his own beliefs.” The reader perplexed by Weissman's “portrait of deception” is in the same position as the scholar who investigated him: “He’s a puzzle I couldn’t solve.”

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Image Caption: 
Mark Zborowski

Scholar will live for a year as David Bowie to study the singer

Smart Title: 

Professor at Britain's Kingston University plans to dress and live as the singer for a year in new style of immersive research.

Essay on advice for academics starting their careers

Philip Nel has some ideas for those seeking to land on the tenure track.

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

M. D. Anderson Shifts on Tenure, Shared Governance

M. D. Anderson Cancer Center is taking steps to increase shared governance and due process following its June censure by the American Association of University Professors. U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven, retired, the University of Texas System’s new chancellor, directed the center to establish a shared governance committee to serve as an advisory body to President Ronald DePinho as he establishes a more “democratic” system of governance, The Cancer Letter reported. In a letter to DePinho, McRaven asked the president to address long-standing concerns about due process in the center’s “term tenure” system, which were at the heart of the AAUP censure in June. (Many critics also maintain that M. D. Anderson’s seven-year, renewable tenure policy is not tenure at all.)

DePinho and Gary Whitman, professor of radiology and radiation oncology and chair of the Faculty Senate, announced the formation of the committee to faculty members last week. Michael DeCesare, a professor of sociology at Merrimack College and chair of AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance, wrote in a post on AAUP’s “Academe” blog, “Hopefully, the administration’s moves toward improving academic due process and instituting a shared governance model indicate that it is actively working toward getting itself removed from the AAUP censure list.”

Ad keywords: 

Local NLRB Says Seattle Adjuncts May Count Ballots

Adjuncts at Seattle University may count their impounded union election ballots, a local National Labor Relations Board office said in a decision released Tuesday. The university is planning an appeal. The NLRB office's decision was issued several months after the national board sent a string of cases involving adjunct union bids at religiously affiliated colleges back to their respective regional offices for re-evaluation. The re-evaluation was based on a new framework for determining the NLRB’s jurisdiction over religious colleges and universities established by the board in its December decision regarding Pacific Lutheran University. In that case, the board decided that based on a number of factors, the adjuncts who wished to form a union could do so because their jobs were not religious in nature. Over all, the decision asserted that just because a college or university has a religious affiliation doesn’t mean non-tenure-track faculty can’t form unions.

Local boards have ruled similarly in recent months in cases involving adjuncts at Duquesne University and St. Xavier University, which, like Seattle, are Roman Catholic. SEIU and pro-union adjuncts took the ruling as good news. In a statement, Anne Hepfer, an instructor of English, said she expected the national board to reject the request for review that the university signaled it was planning to file. “Why is our administration continuing to waste precious tuition dollars in an attempt to impede my colleagues and me from forming a union?” she asked.

Via email, Dean Forbes, a university spokesman, said Seattle wasn’t surprised by the decision and intends to file a request for review with the national board -- which could be the first step in a court fight over NLRB jurisdiction over the university. “The petition is a necessary procedural step that preserves the university’s options to seek court review of the newly established criteria by a divided NLRB for determining whether it has jurisdiction over religiously affiliated colleges and universities,” Forbes said. “The issue is not whether employees may unionize. Rather, the issue is whether the government should have influence or control over the religious mission of Seattle University.”

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities had no immediate comment. William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said it’s “probable that at least one of the at-issue religiously affiliated colleges will challenge the NLRB’s assertion of jurisdiction in court” if the national board eventually rules in favor the adjunct unions.

Ad keywords: 

Study suggests bias against black academics during presentations

Smart Title: 

Study suggests bias against and expectations of 'performance' from black faculty members during academic presentations.

Journal, Citing Ethics Concerns, Retracts Paper

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has retracted a paper by Guangwen Tang, a professor at Tufts University, raising concerns about the ethics of her research in China, The Boston Globe reported. Tang went to court without success to try to block the retraction of her paper on children with a vitamin A deficiency who were fed genetically modified rice. The journal said that Tang could not produce evidence that the parents of the children were informed of the nature of the study. Tang declined to comment. A statement by Tufts to the website Retraction Watch, which first reported on the matter, said in part: “No questions were raised about the integrity of the study data, accuracy of the research results or safety of the research subjects. The decision to retract a paper is ultimately a matter between the journal and the authors, and we must respect an academic journal’s editorial process and decisions.”

Ad keywords: 

Teaching Long-Term Critical Thinking

A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that there’s a dependable way to foster long-term improvements in students’ critical thinking skills. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of British Columbia developed a framework consisting of cycles and decision making based on comparisons between data sets or data and models, and applied the learning structure to 130 students in an introductory physics lab.

During a series of simple physics experiments, the students received instructions to compare new data to existing data, and to decide how to act on those comparisons based on statistical tests. For example, students used a stopwatch to time a pendulum swinging between two angles of amplitude. Rather than just conducting data and comparing them to equations in a textbook, as a control group of students did, the students in the modified course were instructed to make decisions based on the comparison. What should they do to improve the quality of their data and better explain the difference between their results and the equation in the textbook? Students chose everything from conducting more trials to putting the team member with the biggest finger on stopwatch duty. Their data improved, along with their understanding of the process.

Even after the instructions were taken away, the students in the test group were 12 times more likely than a group of 130 students the previous year (the control group) to propose changes to improve their data or methods. The test group students also were four times more likely to identify and explain a shortcoming of the model using their data.

The test group students demonstrated similar critical thinking skills in a second course the next year, suggesting that their learning was long-term. Lead author N. G. Holmes, a postdoctoral researcher in physics education at Stanford, and her co-authors argue that the framework they developed could be adapted to a range of settings beyond physics. The study is available here.

Holmes said via email that "giving students the space to make decisions about how to follow up on an experimental result, with careful guidance, ingrained critical thinking long-term. … I think this adds to the existing literature a concrete, yet simple way to structure how these skills can be taught with lasting improvements. It is a demonstration of how to teach expert-level skills in context that can be generalized outside a particular classroom."

Missouri Ends Subsidies for Grad Student Worker Health Insurance

The University of Missouri notified graduate student employees that it will no longer pay for their health insurance, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported. In a letter to students, the university said businesses like theirs were prohibited from “providing employees subsidies specifically for the purpose of purchasing health insurance from individual market plans,” in accordance with the Affordable Care Act. A university administrator attributed the change to a recent interpretation of the law by the Internal Revenue Service, saying that health care plans such as Missouri’s Aetna package for grad students are “individual market plans” and therefore exempt from employer subsidies. Other Missouri employees use one of a number of “employer-sponsored plans” and are therefore unaffected, the university explained in an online memo.

The university said not complying with the law could result in fines. It is reportedly using the $3.1 million originally budgeted for health insurance subsidies for graduate student employees to create one-time fellowships of between $600 and $1,200 for those affected, to be spent at their discretion. Starting in the spring, graduate student employees will have to pay completely out of pocket for health insurance.

Graduate students have taken to Twitter and other social media to express their outrage and concern about being able to pay for health care. John Meador, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, told KOMU that the university effectively “eliminated my ability to function as a graduate student. … They knew about it. I believe they could have warned us earlier.” The university became aware of the issue in late July and consulted lawyers and various national organizations for advice before notifying students late last week.

The change could affect other graduate student employees elsewhere in the U.S. Andy Brantley, president and chief executive of College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said via email that several colleges and universities have "expressed concern about this issue, and we have been working with other higher ed associations to get clarity from the IRS." He added, "We are hoping the agency will issue a short-term waiver as it deliberates application of the [Affordable Care Act] in these situations so colleges and universities can move forward this year without fear of liability."

Ad keywords: 

Essay calls for a new approach to college textbooks

The Book Industry Study Group just reported that 52 percent of college students surveyed agreed that “I would rather pay $100 for a learning solution that improves my result by one letter grade and reduces my study time by 25 percent than $50 for my current textbook.” As a professor, I am troubled by declines in the effort many in my classes are willing to put into doing the reading I assign. But as an administrator, I also recognize students’ concerns with scoring high grades, juggling internships and part-time jobs, and minimizing expenses.

Multiple factors are at play here: grade inflation, social pressures, student debt, the iffy job market. Further relevant is the time students report studying each week (now an average of 15 hours, down from about 24 in the 1960s). Yet one of the major culprits is the price tag on textbooks and other course materials, estimated at around $1,200 a year -- assuming you buy them.

Faculty members and students alike are in a quandary over how to handle textbook costs, especially for those hefty tomes often used in introductory courses. Increasingly, students are opting not to purchase these books -- not even rent them. Digital formats (and rentals of any kind) tend to be less expensive than buying print, though frequently the decision is not to acquire the materials at all. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group reports that two-thirds of students have refrained from purchasing at least one assigned textbook because of price.

Recently, American University ran focus groups with our undergraduates, looking to get a sense of how they make textbook decisions. For courses in their major, they are willing to lay out more money than for general education classes, which they perceive (often wrongly) not to require much work anyway. Over all, the common sentiment is that spending more than about $50 for a book is excessive. And of course there are plenty of college textbooks with prices that exceed $50.

This message was reinforced by an anecdote shared with me by Michael Rosenwald, a reporter for The Washington Post. While interviewing American University students for a story on college reading and book-purchasing habits, Rosenwald asked, “Who buys course materials from the campus store these days?” Their answer: “Freshmen,” revealing that once students settle into campus life, they discover less expensive ways to get their books -- or devise strategies on how much reading they'll actually do.

For faculty members, the challenge is to find a workable balance between the amount of reading we would like those in our classes to complete and realistic expectations for student follow-through. While some full-length books may remain on our required list, their numbers have shrunk over time. These days, assignments that used to call for complete books are being slimmed down to single chapters or articles. Our aspirations for our students to encounter and absorb substantial amounts of written material increasingly rub up against their notions of how much is worth reading.

The numbers tell the tale. That same Book Industry Study Group report noted that between 2010 and 2013, the percentage of students indicating that classes they were taking required “no formal course materials” rose from 4 percent to 11 percent.

Student complaints are equally revealing. When Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone came out, I assigned the book to a group of honors undergraduates, eager for them to experience careful, hypothesis-driven, data-rich social science research. One member of the class balked. In fact, she publicly berated me, demanding to know why I hadn’t told the group about the “short version” of the book -- meaning an article Putnam has written years earlier, before his full study was completed. She went on to inform the class what she had learned from a teacher in high school: books aren’t worth reading, only articles. The rest of what’s in books is just padding.

The author and teacher in me cringed at how this young woman perceived the intellectual enterprise.

For students, besides the understandable limitations on time and finances, there is the question of value proposition. If the objective is learning that lasts, maybe buying the book (and reading it) is worth it. But if the goal is getting a better grade, maybe not. All too often today, it is the grade that triumphs.

One player that faculty members generally leave out of the equation is the publishing industry, including not just the companies whose names are on the spines but the people who print the books, supply the paper and ink, and operate the presses. Recently I spoke at the Book Manufacturers’ Institute Conference and was troubled by the disconnect I perceived between those who produce and distribute textbooks and those who consume them. As students buy fewer books, publishers do smaller print runs, resulting in higher prices, which in turn reinforces the spiral of lower sales.

A potential compensatory financial strategy for publishers is issuing revised editions, intended to render obsolete those already in circulation. In reality, students often take a pass on these new offerings, waiting until they appear on the used book market. Yes, sometimes there is fresh, timely material in the new versions, but how often do we really need to update textbooks on the structure of English grammar or the history of early America?

When speaking with participants in the book manufacturers’ conference, I became increasingly convinced that the current model of book creation, distribution and use is not sustainable. What to do?

There is a pressing need for meaningful collaboration between faculty members and the publishing industry to find ways of producing materials designed to foster learning that reaches beyond the test -- and that students can be reasonably expected to procure and use. I would like to hope that textbook publishers (who I know are financially suffering) are in conversation not just with authors seeking book contracts but with faculty members who can share their own assignment practices, along with personal experiences about how students are voting with their feet regarding purchasing and reading decisions.

To help foster such dialogue, here are some suggestions:

  • Gather data on shifts in the amount and nature of reading that faculty assign, say, over the past 10-20 years.
  • Reconsider publishing strategies regarding those handsome, expensive, color-picture-laden texts, whose purpose is apparently to entice students to read them. If students aren’t willing to shell out the money, the book likely isn’t being read. Focus instead on producing meaningful material written with clear, engaging prose.
  • Rethink when a new edition is really warranted and when not. In many instances, issuing a smaller update, to be used as a supplement to the existing text, is really all that’s needed. (Think of those encyclopedia annuals with which many of us are familiar.) Students -- and far more of them -- will be willing to pay $9.95 for an update to an older book than $109.95 for a new one. McDonald’s learned long ago that you can turn a handsome profit through high volume on low-cost items. The publishing industry needs to do the math.
  • Make faculty members aware of the realities of both textbook prices (some professors never look before placing book orders) and student reading patterns. I heartily recommend hanging out in the student union (or equivalent) and eavesdropping. You will be amazed at how cunning -- and how honest -- students are about their study practices.
  • Encourage professors to assign readings (especially ones students are asked to pay for) that maximize long-term educational value.
  • Educate students about the difference between gaming the assignment system (either for grades or cost savings) and learning.

The results can yield a win-win situation for both the publishing industry and higher education.

Naomi S. Baron is executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.

Editorial Tags: 


Subscribe to RSS - faculty
Back to Top