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Academic Minute: Humor and Tragedy

In today’s Academic Minute, Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado at Boulder explores what makes jokes about tragic events too soon. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Labor board says recess appointment ruling won't affect review of pending cases

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With two high-profile higher education cases under consideration, labor board says it will carry on as usual despite an appeals court's ruling that calls into question the legitimacy of its appointees.

Anger Over Economic Development Unit at U. of Toledo

Faculty leaders are questioning why the University of Toledo is putting money into an economic development unit -- University of Toledo Innovation Enterprises -- when budget cuts are increasing class sizes and eliminating sections, the Toledo Blade reported. Critics also are pointing to the $307,000 paid last year to Rick Stansley Jr., a former chair of the university's board. University officials said that there is no improper conflict, and that the agency is needed to promote the region's economy. But Mike Dowd, president of the Faculty Senate, said: "I don’t know how many universities have the former chairman of the board of trustees take a paid position from the university. Is providing funding for Rick Stansley’s activities a higher priority than providing the resources for the instructional mission of the university?"

 

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Essay questions whether applied Ph.D.s are useful for careers

Felicia B. LeClere considers the pros and cons -- for institutions and for grad students thinking about their careers.

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Essay criticizing President Obama and other politicians who appear to focus only on science

In his inaugural address, President Obama referred repeatedly to education – but exclusively to education in STEM disciplines, as if only those fields had a defensible public purpose. Sadly, this is no aberration: in December the White House issued a report entitled "Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise," which completely overlooked research in the humanities and social sciences, even in its brief history of the growth of research at American universities.

Such a narrow focus is surprising, as the president himself apparently consults historians (and probably other scholars); and  it is counterproductive, whether in strict dollars and cents terms or broader ones. Some politicians have gone further, aggressively asserting that various humanities and social science disciplines are useless, and attempting to impose higher tuitions on students who major in them, making it all the more important that those who know better actively affirm the value of teaching and research beyond the STEM fields.

I will focus here on the case for history: it is what I know best, and since history straddles the line between humanities and social sciences, many arguments for its importance apply to various allied fields. One might loosely group these into three categories, ranging from the most social scientific to the most humanistic. The first applies to lessons drawn from circumstances relatively close to our own; the second to learning about times and places we know are quite different. The third applies to research showing that some currently accepted ideas are actually fairly novel, and that people not so different from us saw did without them; engaging the concepts they used instead may help us see additional possibilities in the world, whether for good or ill.

Examples of the first category underlie almost any sound public policy debate, as well as many private deliberations. Take, for example, the 2009 stimulus bill. By itself, no mathematical calculation could assess the relative accuracy of the more-or-less Keynesian models suggesting that the stimulus would help the economy and the "real business cycle" models, which predicted that it would be an expensive waste. The difference lay in historical research about how various modern economies had responded to historically specific policy initiatives. Other examples abound, though most are less well-known: closest to home in this regard would be evaluating options for STEM investment in light of the vast literature on what has given rise to specific clusters of innovation in the past, and which innovations proved most beneficial. One would also expect development efforts to gain from examining research on past relationships among, say, education, urbanization, birthrates, and investment.

The benefits of research into the importance of understanding differences in the context of policy decisions abound, with special clarity emerging in what we might call "area studies" knowledge – an enormous part of the growth of U.S. research universities after WWII. Surely we could have saved lives and money had policy-makers known more about religious differences within Iraqi society, the political and social history of Afghanistan, or class relations and popular nationalism in Vietnam before military interventions in those places. The same, I would argue, goes for using research into the evolution of Chinese notions of ethnicity, nationality, race, and geopolitics to understand likely governmental and popular reactions to possible American policies on Tibet, trade, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and so on.

Perhaps less obvious, but equally important, is the usefulness of research that shows that many ideas we may take to be "natural," or at least of very long standing, are actually relatively new.. Some of these insights may be "just" a contribution to increased self-understanding, but others bear directly on public issues. Urgent debates over how fixed the concept of "marriage" has been come first to mind, but there are many more actual and potential examples. Recognizing that the term "ethnic group" is barely 75 years old reminds us how mutable are our understandings of the basis and implications of human groupings; that "gross national product" is of roughly the same vintage suggests maximizing that particular measurement is not inevitably the paramount goal of economic policy.

It hardly seems a stretch to think that a world facing our current challenges might benefit from awareness of other ways that people have thought about the relationship of work, citizenship, adult status, "independence" and dignity, or about consumption, economic growth, leisure and the nature of progress. Or to take some narrower examples, consider the implications of learning how relatively recently life insurance went from seeming like a morally dubious gambling on death to a taken-for-granted tool for managing risk. Or that, while (as Thomas Ricks noted in a recent Atlantic) almost no U.S. generals were removed from their commands for poor performance during Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, many were so removed during World War II – suggesting that the recent situation does not represent an inevitable feature of government, much less of hierarchy generally. Historical knowledge of this kind does not provide lessons as straightforward as “deficit spending can work,” but it can add significantly to our understandings of what is possible, for better or worse, and how things may become, or cease to be, unthinkable.

Research that produces these results, both testing earlier certainties and responding to new questions , thus seems a useful, even necessary complement to research in the STEM fields. Fortunately, most historical research is also relatively cheap, but it does not thrive on complete neglect.

Kenneth Pomeranz is University Professor of History at the University of Chicago and president of the American Historical Association. The views expressed here are his alone.

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Inaugural Poet Boosts Sales at U. of Pittsburgh Press

The University of Pittsburgh Press is printing new copies of two collections of poetry by Richard Blanco, the inaugural poet selected by President Obama, and the press is preparing to release a new volume, which will include the inaugural poem, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Orders are coming in fast. The books currently available from Pitt are City of a Hundred Fires and Looking for the Gulf Motel.

 

 

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Woman at Center of Fight on Papers at Boston College Dies

Dolours Price, who was once a key figure in the Irish Republican Army, was found dead in her home Thursday, and her death could change a fight over oral history records held at Boston College, the Associated Press reported. Scholars have been fighting to prevent the papers about the conflict in Northern Ireland from being turned over to British authorities, who have demanded access to the documents, saying that they are needed for criminal investigations. Many scholars have urged courts to block the records' release, saying that pledges to those interviewed -- including Price -- to maintain their confidentiality for set periods of time should not be broken. It is unclear how the death of Price -- which some are suggesting was suicide -- will affect the legal issues of the case, an appeal of which has been filed by researchers with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ed Moloney, who led the collection of the oral history records, and Anthony McIntyre, who conducted the interviews, pledged to continue to fight the release of the papers. "Throughout the last two years of our fight to prevent her interviews being handed over to the police in Belfast, our greatest fear was always for the health and wellbeing of Dolours,’’ Moloney and McIntyre said in a statement. ‘‘Now that she is no longer with us, perhaps those who initiated this legal case can take some time to reflect upon the consequences of their action.’’

 

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Where English jobs can be found (essay)

Let's be honest with students about the wisdom of going to graduate school in fields like English, writes Kevin Brown -- but let's remember, too, that there are jobs at non-brand-name colleges.

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Colleges start new academic programs

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What is this Waiting for Godot play all about? (essay)

If you are an enrolled student and have any questions, feedback, bug reports, suggestions, or any other issues specific to a particular class, please post on the discussion forums of that class. This is the most effective way to get heard, as both the teaching staff and Coursera staff routinely check the discussion forums, and your fellow students will also be able to answer your questions and help you resolve technical issues.
—Coursera Support Center

         

anyone out there know whats going on in this Beckett play?

something about death

doesn’t get to the point fast enough…like prof winkler

i literally skipped winkler’s last 3 lectures, but with 1500 students whose gonna know?

You get out of it what you put into it.

that’s what she said!

CAN SOMEONE PLEASE ANSWER MY QUESTION?

omg relaaaax

does anyone think godot’s ever gonna come?

that’s what she said!! lol

omg stopppp

he hasnt by the end of act 1

bet he doesn’t come at all. boy, will those two bums be disappointed!

*buns

lotta waiting in this sucker.

Know how long I had to wait on line at Best Buy on Black Friday?

look this isn’t the time

Ten hours. Ten fricken hours. But I got the TV!

then you should just watch the movie version

of what?

Waiting for Godot. can’t remember who stars in it, but it’s really slow. nothing ever happens.

???

Because nothing ever does. it’s like real life

Okay, I’m late to this discussion, but what’s the question?

What are those two guys waiting for, and why don’t they ever get moving?

Good question! Think it’ll be on the quiz?

Doesn;t matter. We can always cheat.

I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.

Anyway its peer review. I’m grading your quiz.

You mean Winkler doesn’t look at them?

You kidding? He’s a prof at Harvard!

but he’s up there every week, talking to us

That’s just a video. Probably made that months ago.

Maybe he’s dead.

You mean like Godot?

Plot spoiler!

its not about the plot, its like existential.

That’s some help.

It’s based on Freud’s trinitarian ego, id, and superego structure, asshole.

No, it’s all about the Cold War.

It’s Plato’s allegory of the cave.

WTF

I want an answer to my question. I’m going to e-mail Prof. Winkler.

You can’t.  It comes back “addressee unknown.”

Really? Thats like so existential.

That’s it. I’m outa here.

            They do not move.

Who typed that? Hey! Is that Prof. Winkler? Are you monitoring this? I wanna know, I wanna   know! And is this going to be on the quiz?

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

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