Harvard Press Defends Publishing Controversial Book

University presses -- like other publishers -- know that not all reviews will be favorable, and generally don't respond to most critiques of their books. But the debate over a new book published by Harvard University Press has led its director to issue a defense of the decision to publish. The book in question is The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler, by Ben Urwand, a fellow at Harvard. The book has been praised by some for revealing the extent to which Hollywood avoided offending the Nazis, but has been harshly criticized by others for oversimplifying the history. The New Yorker has been particularly critical, with David Denby first publishing a negative review and then following up with a piece called "How Could Harvard Have Published Ben Urwand's The Collaboration?" In that piece Denby outlines what he considers to be numerous "omissions and blunders."

A statement from Harvard University Press says in part: "We stand by the integrity of our refereeing and editorial procedures. A thorough review process is standard at Harvard, where we take very seriously the imprimatur of the university’s name. Though not all reviewers agree with Urwand’s interpretation of the actions he describes, nearly 60 pages of notes and documentation enable readers to judge for themselves the strength and validity of his presentation. Via his agent Urwand has responded to Denby and the New Yorker, but as yet we have no indication that his response has been published."


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Essay on how 'Big Bang Theory' shapes the way the public views higher education

The most famous of us all are not real. True, scholars such as Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer were once recognized by almost any sector of the American public.  In fact, they were so well-recognized that Einstein’s hair and Oppenheimer’s pork pie hat were alone representative of their celebrity.

A theoretical physicist, an astrophysicist, an applied physicist, and an engineer are now arguably as well recognized as the Einsteins and Oppenheimers of days past.  The problem is that these men, Sheldon Cooper, Rajesh Koothrappali, Leonard Hofstadter, and Howard Walowitz, are not real. They are, in fact, the stars of CBS’s "The Big Bang Theory. "

Just how popular are the show and its stars? "The Big Bang Theory" begins its seventh season tonight and frequently rode atop Nielsen’s weekly ratings for sitcoms in past years. Beyond sheer volume of viewers, "The Big Bang Theory" has also garnered a wide variety of awards. This year alone, for example, the show was nominated for eight Emmys and took home top honors for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series (Jim Parsons, a.k.a. Sheldon Cooper) and Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series (Bob Newhart, a.k.a. Arthur Jeffries/Professor Proton).

Like a number of current sitcoms, the male protagonists are portrayed as being afflicted by variant strands of perpetual adolescence. If they are not working, they are playing online role games, hanging out at a comic book store, or ingesting successive waves of takeout. Of course, a sitcom must include a subplot of ongoing sexual frustration, and "The Big Bang Theory" does not disappoint. The lone exception is the theoretical physicist who views "coitus" – as he calls it – as a mere distraction from his work.  

Given the show’s appeal, what, if anything, does it tell us about the American public’s views of the academic vocation? Speaking on behalf of what the American public thinks is risky, but I fear we all may already know the answer — they find the show humorous because it, in part, correlates to opinions they already hold.  

For example, in one of the final episodes from last season, entitled "Tenure Turbulence," a tenured slot comes open in the physics department when a colleague dies. When discussing the possibility, the theoretical physicist with coitus avoidus, Sheldon, claims "a guaranteed job for life only encourages the faculty to become complacent." The astrophysicist, Rajesh, argues "people do their best work when they feel safe and secure." Regardless, they all initially agree whoever among them receives tenure should do so because of his ability to do the work, not because of faculty politics.      

Events then spin out of control as each one of them seeks to one-up the other in an arms race of university politics. The target for their outlandish behavior is Mrs. Davies, a member of the human resources office serving on the tenure committee. Leonard risks being placed on a stalker watchlist by making his way into the previously unexplored territory of the wellness center simply to “schmooze” Mrs. Davies while she exercises. Raj sends her a self-made video touting his academic abilities dating back to his early childhood. Not to be outdone, Sheldon provides Mrs. Davies, an African-American, with the DVD box set of "Roots."

Just when you think you have seen it all, the most outlandish behavior comes just prior to the deceased colleague’s funeral. Standing in the hallway, each one of them becomes aware of the depraved lengths the others will go in this political game. Sheldon asks his girlfriend, Amy, to remind him that an appropriate emotional response to a funeral is sadness. Perennially incapable of speaking to women, Raj is left to rely on alcohol to help him be more assertive.    

Despite their antics, Mrs. Davies recommends all three candidates for further review as a result of their considerable credentials. In a mere half-hour, however, a number of possible cultural stereotypes of the life of university faculty members are brought to light. One possible stereotype held by the larger public has to do with skepticism over the possibility of someone having access to a job for life. The second has to do with how such a job is earned.

Unfortunately, the best available data confirms the existence of both forms of skepticism. Although somewhat dated but arguably still the most authoritative of its kind, Neil Gross and Solon Simmons conducted a survey of "Americans’ Views of Political Bias in the Academy and Academic Freedom" back in 2006 for the AAUP.  A more recent iteration of this line of work is now found in Neil Gross’s Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? (Harvard University Press, 2013).

In general, Gross and Simmons found "Americans are generally supportive of the tenure system.... At the same time, about 80.7 percent think that tenure sometimes protects incompetent faculty, while 57.9 percent believe that giving professors tenure takes away their incentive to work hard." As a result, "only about 17.9 percent of respondents say the tenure system should remain as it is.”

In six-going-on-seven seasons, tenure is but one of the important issues portrayed in episodes of "The Big Bang Theory."  Part of the reason why we laugh, though, is the way it mirrors views held by the American public and possibly by even some of us. Tenure and other practices like it are too critical to the work we do to be unquestioningly portrayed in such a manner.

The challenge facing us, those of us who are real, is how our efforts persistently challenge such perceptions. Perhaps one day a sitcom will climb the Nielsen ratings portraying tenure as a practice so revered that it inspires nothing but the highest devotion to teaching, research, and service.              


Todd C. Ream is professor of higher education at Taylor University and a research fellow with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.  He (along with Drew Moser) is currently working on a cultural biography of Ernest L. Boyer.

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Providence College reverses ban on speaker who favors same-sex marriage, but questions remain

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Facing faculty and student outrage, college says it will permit an academic speaker in favor of same-sex marriage, under certain conditions.

Pitt Professor Charged With Using University Funds to Buy Drugs

Billy Day, a tenured pharmacy professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has been charged with using federal grant funds and university funds to buy drugs that he used for himself, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. He has been released on bond but has declined comment. The pharmacy chair contacted university police after he approached Day to ask about drugs he was buying. The police complaint says that Day said he was using the drugs for himself, and needed to go into a rehabilitation clinic.


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Faculty Strike at Bellingham Technical College

Faculty members at Bellingham Technical College, in Washington State, went on strike Tuesday and classes were called off until the strike is settled, The Bellingham Herald reported. The union said that there are serious differences on a number of issues, including compensation and workload.


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A New Class of MacArthur 'Genius' Awards

Academics were among the new class of MacArthur Fellows named this morning. The fellowship -- for which one can't apply and for which one receives $625,000 over five years, no strings attached -- is commonly called the "genius" award. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation named 24 winners, including Colin Camerer, a behavioral economist at the California Institute of Technology; Craig Fennie, a materials scientist at Cornell University; and Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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Review of Arlette Farge, 'The Allure of the Archives'

Originally published in France in 1989 and now arriving in English translation from Yale University Press, Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archives is a little gem of a book. A diamond, perhaps, given both its clarity and the finesse with which it’s been cut and set. It is an unmistakable classic: one of the great memoirs of the silent, day-to-day drama of research.

Yet it is not the story of a career. A reader unfamiliar with her name will soon enough recognize that Farge specializes in 18th century social history. (She is director of research in modern history at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique, in Paris.) One of her endnotes refers to the volume she published in collaboration with Michel Foucault in 1982, two years before the philosopher’s death. It was an edition of selected lettres de cachet from the files of the Bastille. (In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens portrays the notorious legal instrument as one of the aristocracy’s corrupting privileges, but Farge and Foucault showed that it was disturbingly easy for an ordinary person to take one out against a family member.)

Many an over-active ego has turned to autobiography on far slimmer grounds than that. But in spite of its personal and even intimate tone, The Allure of the Archives is never primarily about the author herself. She instead writes about a subjectivity that exists only upon entering the reading room – or perhaps while trying to find it during the first visit.

As much as an institution, the archive is, for Farge, the site of a distinct array of experiences. It is defined by rules, habits, worries (especially with fragile documents), and a kind of ambient awkwardness that she evokes perfectly. “The silence of the archives,” she writes, “is created out of looks that linger but do not see, or gazes that stare blindly. No one escapes these wandering eyes, not even the most obstinate reader, his face clouded by work.”

In the midst of that tense, watchful silence, the patrons jockey for prime desk space, or drive each other to distraction with coughs and nervous tics. Locating the documents you want requires initiation into the cabala of archival reference numbers. Even if you have one, it “often will only direct the reader to another serial number that will itself only give access to a new series where other serial numbers await.” For guidance, one must turn to the superintendent of the reading room: “She reigns, gives advice that bears a strong resemblance to orders, speaks very loudly, and does not understand what she does not wish to understand, all the while constantly ruffling the pages of her morning newspaper.”

Her descriptions are very true to life, even an ocean away from the French archives she has in mind. The part about reference numbers may sound like comic exaggeration. It isn’t, or at least it corresponds to my last visit to the Library of Congress manuscript collection some years ago.

But all of it is just the setting for the necromancy of research – calling up men and women who are long dead and utterly forgotten, speaking for the first time in two or three hundred years. The dossiers Farge explored in her research consisted of police and judicial records as well as reports to His Majesty on what the rabble of Paris were doing and saying from week to week. A whole layer of informers – called in slang mouches, “flies” – kept track of rumors and complaints making the rounds. (They were, in effect, flies on the wall.) Also in the files are slanderous and subversive posters with traces of grit clinging to the back after the authorities ripped them down.  

Police interrogations (transcribed for use during an investigation, then filed away and eventually warehoused) document the everyday happenings, criminal and otherwise, of urban life. Most of those speaking left no other account of their lives. Nor could they; even those who could read a little had not always learned to write. Having become accustomed to reading the faded or erratically punctuated documents, the researcher may undergo a sort of rapture: “the sheer pleasure of being astonished by the beauty of the texts and the overabundance of life brimming in so many ordinary lives.”

At that point, a danger becomes evident: “You can begin to forget that writing history is actually a kind of intellectual exercise, one for which fascinated recollection is just not enough…. Whatever the project is, work in the archives requires a triage, separation of documents. The question is what to take and what to leave.” And the researchers answers it by coming to recognize the patterns that emerge from one document to the next: the unstated assumptions made by those on either side of the interrogation, the changes in tone or preoccupation recorded over time.

The historian learns to frame questions that the archive knows how to answer – while remaining open to the secrets and surprises to be found in the boxes of paper that haven’t been delivered to her desk yet.

“In the archives,” Farge writes, “whispers ripple across the surface of silence, eyes glaze over, and history is decided. Knowledge and uncertainty are ordered through an exacting ritual in which the color of the note cards, the strictness of the archivists, and the smell of the manuscripts are trail markers in this world where you are always a beginner.” Farge's memoir is adamantine: sharp, brilliant, perfect, and created to last.


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Essay on how academics should deal with letters of recommendation


They are an important responsibility, but you don't need to agree every time you are asked, writes Nate Kreuter.

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NLRB Will Review Adjunct Union Bid at Pacific Lutheran

The National Labor Relations Board has agreed to review Pacific Lutheran University's request to that it reconsider a regional board official's recent decision to allow the university's adjunct faculty to vote on forming a union. Pacific Lutheran objected on a number of grounds, including its religious nature. The national NRLB issued a brief statement that said: "The employer’s request for review of the regional director’s decision and direction of election raises substantial issues warranting review solely with respect to the assertion of jurisdiction over the employer and the determination that certain faculty members are not managerial employees." The local Service Employees International Union, with which the adjunct faculty union is affiliated, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


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Academic Minute: Microbes and Termite Digestion

In today’s Academic Minute, Kenneth Noll of the University of Connecticut reveals why termites would not be a threat to your home without the help of microbes. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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