The Greek philosopher and scientist Theophrastus would probably have remained forever in the shadow of Aristotle, his teacher and benefactor (a very big shadow, admittedly) if not for a little volume of personality sketches called Characters he wrote at the age of 99. At least that’s what he claims in the preface. The first character type he portrays is called “The Ironical Man,” so it’s possible he was just putting everyone on.
After long years of people-watching, Theophrastus says, he resolved to depict “the good and the worthless among men,” although what we actually have from his pen is a rogues’ gallery of shady, annoying, or ridiculous characters – 30 in all – including the Boor, the Garrulous Man, the Superstitious Man, and the Man of Petty Ambition. It could be there was a second volume, depicting virtuous and noble personality types, which has been lost. Or maybe he intended to write one but never got started, or did but quit from boredom. When he focuses on weaknesses and foibles it is with relish. The Offensive Man “will use rancid oil to anoint himself at the bath; and will go forth into the market-place wearing a thick tunic, and a very light cloak, covered with stains.” The Patron of Rascals “will throw himself into the company of those who have lost lawsuits and have been found guilty in criminal causes; conceiving that, if he associates with such persons, he will become more a man of the world, and will inspire the greater awe.” And so forth.
It’s not hilarious, but the humor works, and the types all remain familiar. The adjustments a reader has to make between Theophrastus’s references to clothing and institutions in ancient Greece and everyday life today are pretty slight. It’s not hard to understand why Characters became a fairly popular work in antiquity and then again in the 17th century, when imitations of it became a literary fashion and an influenced early novelists.
The character sketch seems to have died off as a genre some while back, apart from for the occasional homage such as George Eliot’s The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, her last work of fiction. But I recently came across a sort of revival in the form of a series of sketches called “Typology of scholars” by Roland Boer, an associate professor of philosophy and theology at the University of Newcastle, in Australia.
A couple of weeks ago Boer won the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize (sort of an equivalent of the Pulitzer for Marxist scholarship) for Criticism of Heaven and Earth, a study of the ongoing interaction of Marxism with theology and the Bible – the fifth volume of which just appeared from the European scholarly publisher Brill, with previous installment issued in paperback from Haymarket Press. I would be glad to write about it except for being stuck in volume two. The news that volume five brings the series to a close is somewhat encouraging, but in the shorter term it only inspired me to look around at his blog, Stalin’s Moustache. (Anyone attempting to extract ideological significance from that title does so at his or her own peril. Boer himself indicates that it was inspired by General Tito’s remark “Stalin is known the world over for his moustache, but not for his wisdom.”)
In the inaugural post Boer explains that “Typology of scholars” was inspired by a single question: “ ‘What is a university like?’ someone asked me who fortunately had no experience whatsoever with these weird places.” Originally announced as a series that would run for a few days in December 2011, it actually continued for six months, though the last few character sketches are lacking in the piss and vinegar of the first several.
Like Theophrastus, Boer, too, has assembled a rogue’s gallery. Whatever the particularities of Australian academic culture, “Typology” depicts varieties of Homo academicus probably found everywhere.
So here’s a sampler. (I have imposed American spelling and punctuation norms.)
The Lord: “[T]he high-handed professor distributes funds, hands out favors, relies on a servile court of aspiring scholars to reinforce his own sense of superiority. And the Lord deems that the only people really worth talking to are other lords, visiting them in their domains, perhaps lecturing the local serfs.…
"[N]otice how the lord refers to ‘my’ doctoral students, ‘my’ postdocs, ‘my’ center, or even ‘my’ university. Our worthy lord may treat her or his serfs in many different ways, with benevolence, with disdain, as a source of new ideas that can then be ‘recycled’ as the lord’s own. So the serfs respond accordingly, although usually it is a mix of resentment and slavish subservience. On the one hand, the lord is a tired old hack who is really not so interesting, who may be derided in the earshot of the other serfs, and whose demise cannot come quickly enough. On the other hand, the serfs will come to the defense of their lord should an enemy appear, for they owe their livelihood and future prospects to the Lord.
“Of course, as soon as a serf manages to crawl into a coveted lordship, she acts in exactly the same manner.”
The Overlooked Genius: “The way the star system has developed in academia means that few of us are happy to remain incognito, quietly walking in the mountains and jotting in a small notebook, sending books off to a press and selling maybe four or five – like Nietzsche (although he was also pondering the advanced effects of syphilis).... In order to make it through the long apprenticeship, at the end of which someone who is forty is still regarded as ‘youthful,’ an intellectual needs to develop some survival skills, especially a belief that what he or she is doing is important, so crucial that the future of the human race depends upon it...... Our unnoticed genius spends his or her whole time asserting that everyone around him or her, in whatever context if not the discipline as a whole, is as dumb as an inbred village.”
The Borrower: “The Borrower may seize upon the papers of a colleague who has resigned in disgust and use them, unrevised, in a scintillating paper. Or the Borrower may ask a newly made ‘friend’ for a copy of his latest research paper, only to pump out something on the same topic and publishing it quickly – using established networks. Possibly the best example is a very creative head honcho at an unnamed university. Dreading solitary space, a blank piece of paper, and an empty mind, he would gather a group at his place, ply them with food and grog, and ask, ‘Now what about this question?’ After a couple of hours talk, he would say to Bill: ‘Why don’t you write a draft paper on this and then pass it around?’ Bill would do so, the others would add their revisions and he would ensure his name was on the piece.”
The Politician: “It can truly be said that the politician is one who has never had a thought without reading or hearing it somewhere else. What really sets the juices going, however, is the thought of wielding ‘power.’
“So she or he salivates at the thought of a committee, leaps at the chance for a heavy administrative role in which power can be lorded over others, sleeps with this one or that higher up the rung in order to gain crucial insights that may come in handy, who spends long hours pondering his next move to gain access to the powers that be.
"With their feudal-like structures, universities lend themselves to labyrinthine intrigue, favors done, gaining the ear of a heavyweight, eliminations carried out through humiliation and whispers, the bending of rules in order to edge ever upward.… The Politician is probably one of the saddest of all types, since the power you can accrue in a university is bugger-all.”
The Big Fish in a Slimy Pond: “A great temptation for some of us in that attractive life of academia: this is, obviously, the situation in which one may be a big shot in one’s own little circle. ... [able to] hold forth on any topic with absolute abandon…. “
The moment of truth for the Big Fish comes when faced with “a big conference, or perhaps a new and larger circle of scholars who actually know something, or a situation slightly more than a group of fresh-faced, worshipful students. … [O]n the one visit to the big arena, our knowledgeable scholar opines that no-one knows what they are talking about, since all those hundreds of papers from around the world are worthless, so it’s not worth going again. Or they are too traditional and I’m just too much of a radical for them all, so I’ll give that a miss….
“Instead, the apparently big fish can return to the small, stagnant pond, getting fat on pond slime and the perceived authority that comes from being the person with one eye among the blind.”
(It's worth mentioning that he example of the Big Fish that Boer gives is "the theologian who becomes an expert in, say, feminism, or cultural criticism, or Marxism, but stays purely within theology where she or he is a real 'authority.' God forbid that you should actually spend some time with real gender critics, or Marxists, or psychoanalysts." His character sketch is a self-portrait, or at least piece of a self-satire.)
As noted earlier, imitations of the character sketches of Theophrastus became popular in the 17th century, when (maybe not so coincidentally) the novel was starting to take shape as a distinct literary form. Plot was, in effect, the boiling water into which authors dissolved the little packets of crystallized personal psychology found in Characters and its knock-offs.
It occurs to me that Boer’s “Typologies of the scholar” reverses the process: It’s an academic novel, except in freeze-dried form. That’s not a problem, since plot is rarely an academic novel’s strong point. What the reader enjoys, typically, is character as caricature -- and Boer’s approach is arguably a lot more efficient.
Adjuncts at two Vermont institutions -- Burlington and Champlain Colleges -- have voted to form unions affiliated with Service Employees International Union. The union is organizing adjunct faculty members across the country, in metro-wide and regional efforts, as part of its Adjunct Action campaign. Burlington and Champlain are the first colleges in Vermont to see unions as part of that effort. At Champlain, the tally was 118 to 30, out of 219 eligible faculty members. The tally at Burlington College was 23 to 4, out of 46 eligible voters. Donald L. Laackman, Champlain's president, said in a statement that the college will "do its part to work productively with the SEIU in the best interest of our students and all our faculty." A Burlington official did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The paper was written in 2005 and never meant for publication. But it appears “Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List” has found a potential spot in the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology. Although the paper consists of just those seven words, over and over again, a journal review form states that the submission from Peter Vamplew, associate professor of engineering at IT at Australia’s Federation University, is “excellent.” Thing is, Vamplew didn’t write the paper; he merely forwarded a copy of the bogus article written by two other, now-associate professors of computer science, David Mazieres, of Stanford University, and Eddie Kohler, of Harvard University.
They reportedly wrote the paper nearly 10 years ago, to protest spam conference invitations. Vamplew recently used it to respond to what he thought was a spam invitation to publish in the open-access International Journal of Advanced Computer Science. In response, the Federation University professor received the aforementioned praise -- and directions to wire $150 to a given account to proceed with publication.
Jeffrey Beall, associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado at Denver, first reported the story on his blog, Scholarly Open Access. The website includes a running list of over 650 publishers of what Beall has called “predatory” journals: those of questionable quality that require authors to pay publication fees.
Via email, Beall said of the incident: “It's clear that no peer review was done at all and that this particular journal (along with many like it) exists only to get money from scholarly authors. The open-access publishing model has some serious weaknesses, and predatory journals are poisoning all of scholarly communication.” He also said the story indicates that academics are tired of spam invites to contribute to questionable conferences and journals.
In response to a request for comment, the editor of the International Journal said via email: "This is your work, you are publish any where any time but another person publish this work is is fraud and copyright. So you are send me a camera ready paper and payment slip as soon as possible." The editor did not sign a name, but the journal's website lists its editor-in-chief as Rishi Asthana, professor of computer science and engineering at Manglaytan University. (The spelling is different from that of Mangalayatan University, in India.)
The results are in. Inside Higher Ed recently released its third annual survey of college and university faculty members, focusing on perceptions of online learning. It showed that faculty:
Remain highly skeptical about the efficacy of online education
Consider the instructor-student relationship essential for learning
Believe that ownership of online courses belongs with them
Feel there is too little support for online course development
Don’t want outside companies to create their courses or curriculum
I suppose these results could be taken as bad news for those of us in the online education world. But to me, they all make perfect sense.
I shared faculty skepticism about online education for many years. True, my mind has been changed in recent years by online courses I’ve encountered that are easily as rich and meaningful as face-to-face courses. But caution is still warranted. Without careful and creative design, online courses can – and often do – amount to a stale collection of materials with little power to motivate or inspire.
By the same token, the most well-designed course can fizzle when the digital tools it relies on don’t work as they should. Moreover, it’s increasingly clear that online courses aren’t the right modality for all students or, for that matter, all instructors. So I not only understand faculty skepticism; I appreciate it. It’s to instructors’ credit that they want proof before they jump on this bandwagon: not only the evidence that online education works but also when, how, and with whom.
I also agree wholeheartedly that instructor-student (and student-student) connection is critical for effective online learning. Online courses require more, not less, from instructors: more communication, more engagement, and more feedback. If online courses are to serve students well, they will likely be strenuous both to build and to teach.
That having been said, when faculty build online courses that foster meaningful engagement, they often find the experience deeply satisfying. I’ve worked with faculty who feel more connected to their students in online courses than in their face-to-face courses. And I’ve heard students say the same. The trick is creating these connections over geographical distance. And that requires excellent tools, excellent pedagogy, and institutional incentives that make it worthwhile for faculty to invest the necessary time and energy.
Of all the results from the survey, the one that strikes home most for me is instructors’ conviction that they should develop and own the courses they teach. Amen to that! I recently spoke with an administrator at a university that has steered hard in the direction of publisher-created online courses. He sneered at my company’s faculty-driven approach to course creation, maintaining that faculty ownership of courses is a thing of the past.
I respectfully disagree. If meaningful education were just about content, we never would have needed universities, just libraries. But it isn’t. Education is about apprenticeship and mentoring: about putting disciplinary experts and students together, where the passion of the teacher for his or her field brings the subject to life and influences the students’ desire to learn more.
That relationship can’t be replaced by mass-produced courseware, nor can faculty bring the same passion to their teaching if they are merely facilitating a course someone else created. Teaching your own course your own way allows you to show students what you yourself love and find meaningful about your discipline. It’s central, not peripheral, to effective teaching. So I am in complete agreement with faculty that they and no one else should control the process (as well as the product) of online course creation, just as they do with residential course creation.
At the same time, I don’t see how faculty can possibly own the process of online course creation when the institutional support they receive for creating these courses is so often inadequate.
Online courses are a different animal than residential courses. They have to be designed extremely carefully for clear, intuitive navigation, coherence, and reusability. They require far more construction in advance of the semester than residential courses and thus a significant investment of time upfront. And they demand technical acumen that not all faculty members possess.
Instructors need help to do the job well. And not just casual, intermittent help: intensive help. Sometimes the necessary resources are available in-house through campus teaching and educational technology centers, but not nearly often enough, as the survey makes abundantly clear. It’s little wonder that faculty lose their taste for developing and teaching online courses if the support they need – never mind recognition for their efforts in the promotion and tenure process! – is missing.
And that brings me to the final point from the survey: faculty members don’t want outsiders developing or marketing their programs. Again, I can’t disagree. While I think there is a reasonable role outside partners can play in helping universities develop online courses and programs, it’s clear to me that we need a different model than the one currently offered by the big online enablers.
For one thing, rather than combining marketing, course development, and student retention services into one monolithic – and expensive – package, these services need to be disaggregated, so universities can pick and choose what they want and need from outsiders. Moreover, outside partners have to be flexible. Instead of providing one-size-fits-all solutions, they need to help universities identify the problems they’re trying to solve (e.g., linking remote campuses, increasing active learning, offering continuing education courses, generating incremental revenue, expanding access…) and work with universities to accomplish their particular goals.
Finally, the relationship must be collaborative. Universities have valuable expertise at their own teaching and educational technology centers. Outside partners should work closely with these units to fill in gaps, expand resources, and increase the institution’s capabilities. The goal should always be capacity building and empowerment, not long-term dependence.
So, yes, the results of Inside Higher Ed’s survey seem at first to paint a bleak picture for online education, but to me the results are encouraging. They confirm my sense that we can’t let outside companies take over the process of online course and program development and reduce faculty to mere subject matter experts.
At the same time, we can’t leave faculty on their own to sink or swim, without adequate resources or support. If we want to produce challenging, engaging online courses and programs we need to provide faculty with top-notch tools and ample pedagogical and technical support and put them back where they belong: in the driver’s seat.
Marie Norman is senior director of educational excellence at Acatar, a Carnegie Mellon-based company that helps faculty develop effective online courses. She has taught anthropology for over 20 years and is co-author of How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.