As pervasive as it is perilous, the recurrent use of two words — "real world" — crystallizes many problems confronting the academy today.
The term gestures toward all spheres beyond the so-called ivory tower; an advertisement in the New York City subways lauded the "real world" experience of teaching in the New York Police Academy. But often this expression more specifically refers to the world of business. When it simply serves as shorthand to distinguish those realms from the university, the reference may be innocuous. And yes, professors and academic administrators indubitably benefit from learning from and collaborating with their counterparts outside those proverbial ivy-covered walls. As a faculty representative, I worked closely with the trustees of Carleton College on a presidential search; these interactions repeatedly demonstrated to me their shrewdness in evaluating people and the practical needs of any organization, thus dissipating lingering prejudices about the business world and reminding me that its variety complicates generalizations about it.
More often, though, contrasting the "real world" outside the academy with its putatively unreal counterpart within is pernicious for three interlocking reasons. First, the two words in question often frequently reflect and encourage self-denigration, even abnegation. Many people outside the academy regard its denizens in the way nuns are sometimes dismissively seen -- as exemplars of a life that in theory one may respect but in practice one greets with bemused condescension. Academics themselves sometimes on occasion refer to the "real world" because they have internalized such judgments. The strategic use of those two words in influential studies of higher education can reinforce these prejudices and insecurities. Thus Louis Menand’s Marketplace of Ideas tellingly defends pre-professional and vocational courses, in contrast to the traditionally defined liberal arts curriculum, in terms of their fulfilling "real-world goals."
Second, by implying that alternative values are unrealistic — indeed, naive -- these two words are likely to justify the increasing importation of certain troubled and troubling "real world" business practices. This shift has been tellingly encapsulated as the recent corporatization of the university, notably in Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. The lamentable reliance on adjuncts is all too reminiscent of the emphasis on outsourcing in the business world. It is equally dangerous uncritically to copy hierarchies prevalent though not universal in business communities, as the trustees at the University of Virginia learned to their cost. Higher education’s star system went to school on Wall Street (and quite possibly in Hollywood as well). And "scorecards" that rate universities by the amount of money their graduates make after graduation similarly impose the worst values of the corporate milieu.
Third, distinguishing the "real world" of business from the unreal world of the academy misrepresents for better and for worse the longstanding workings of our institutions of higher education themselves. The very term "real" is clearly slippery ("reality TV"? "The Real Housewives of Orange Country"?); but many connotations — not all of them grounds for rejoicing-- do in fact already apply to the academy. To the extent that the adjective gestures toward the competition among ambitious people, many academics and leaders of their institutions not only read books about those issues but also, so to speak, wrote the book on them. The frequent references to “branding” within the academy demonstrate that marketing executives could teach certain admissions officers and other administrators nothing they have not long known about the half-truths that practice can foster.
But in fact the university is also a world committed to, indeed exemplary of, the "real" in more positive respects. Arguably our attention to using language carefully — teaching writing is surely a significant part of the mission of institutions of higher education — in fact encourages conveying a real picture, expressing what one really intends to say. Our emphasis on critical thinking, notably the marshaling of evidence, trains students to distinguish the real from the specious and self-serving. Alternatively, even if one subscribes to the poststructuralist credo that language can never express reality, we can still encourage those students to discern and distinguish positions along a spectrum between reality and deceit. In so doing, we achieve one goal central to a liberal arts education: building the very faculty of discernment — a capacity that, besides its many other potentialities, can and should encourage a re-evaluation of the expression "real world."
Heather Dubrow is the John D. Boyd SJ Chair in the Poetic Imagination at Fordham University. Among her publications are six single-authored monographs, a co-edited collection of essays, an edition of As You Like It, and a volume of her own poetry.
Metropolitan State University has paid its summer course instructors – a week late, the Pioneer Press reported. Administrators said last week that paychecks had been issued to several dozen instructors who did not receive their paychecks on time. The lump-sum payments were for thousands of dollars in some instances.
The Twin Cities-based university’s collective bargaining unit, the Inter Faculty Organization, representing faculty in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, also has requested "detailed, enumerated," line-items on their paystubs going forward, and an audit of six years’ worth of faculty pay and benefits, citing a history of payroll problems.
University administrators could not be reached for comment Friday.
A student at Virginia College’s Augusta, Ga., campus has been arrested for allegedly giving her pregnant professor a tainted snack cake. Diane Ambrose was charged with reckless conduct after offering her professor a sealed cake she had injected with a foreign substance through the wrapper, WRDW-TV reported. The Richmond County Sheriff's Office says the 12-week-pregnant professor developed a stomach ailment two weeks ago, after eating the treat. Another student knew about Ambrose's alleged plan, but didn’t tell the professor until she knew she had become sick.
Virginia College did not return a call for comment on the condition of the professor and Ambrose's student status. Ambrose, arrested Wednesday, was out on bail Thursday.
Nassau Community College adjuncts have been on strike this week, following the Board of Trustees’ rejection of a proposed contract settlement it said it couldn’t afford.
The Adjunct Faculty Association, an independent union representing 2,600 adjunct faculty, has been without a contract since 2010. The union's proposed contract would have lasted through 2018, and offered a retroactive pay raise of 4.9 percent each year, costing $14.5 million, Long Island Newsday reported. The college said the total cost would have been $63.4 million.
Adjuncts went on strike Monday and plan on continuing to picket each afternoon. Public employees are prohibited from striking under the Public Employees Fair Employment Act and Nassau adjuncts will be fined two days' pay for each day they strike.
Union leaders could not immediately be reached for comment. In a statement on the union website, Charles Loiacono, president, called the fine “a very small penalty for standing up for the agreement that we have negotiated with the County; and it’s certainly nothing compared with the indignity and disrespect shown to us by the [board].”
In an e-mail, Alicia Steger, a college spokeswoman, said: "A professor who teaches a three-credit [course] gets about $5,100. That is the highest of the colleges in the area. We have heard numerous reports from adjuncts who teach elsewhere that they would love to teach at NCC. So, that is our answer to the claim of unfair working conditions."
More than 100 members of the Faculty Senate -- a little less than half the body -- moved this week to hold a special meeting by the end of the month to vote on postponing the plan. Such an action is rare for the Faculty Senate, Brent Yarnal, professor of geography and body president, said in an e-mail.
Employees have complained about details of the plan since they were announced this summer, including punitive surcharges of up to $100 monthly each for not completing a biometric screening, smoking and covering spouses eligible for health insurance through their own employers. Faculty and staff members also have raised privacy concerns about the uploading of years of personal medical information onto a third-party provider's website and the nature of the questions in a mandatory, online wellness profile, such as those about drinking habits and mental health.
University administrators have repeatedly said that serious intervention is needed if the university is to tackle skyrocketing health care costs, predicted to increase by 13 percent next year, and that previous, voluntary programs to mitigate costs have not been effective. All information collected and its uses comply with federal health care privacy laws, Penn State has said, including that it is only reported to the university in aggregate form.
Brian Curran, professor of art history and president of the institution's new advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors, called the meeting "a major victory for us."
A university spokeswoman did not return a request for comment on the Senate matter. It is unclear if the body has the authority to delay the plan, even if it votes to do so.