faculty

Academics who speak out against injustice are experiencing a backlash (essay)

Faculty members, particularly those of color, have suffered a backlash for speaking out against injustices, denying them opportunities for professional growth and advancement, writes Sandy Grande.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017
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Academic Blackballing

Why "Game of Thrones" shouldn't be used in an effort to recruit future medievalists (essay)

In May, Olivia B. Waxman reported for Time magazine on a fall 2017 class to be taught at Harvard University. The class is called The Real Game of Thrones: From Modern Myths to Medieval Models and will be collaboratively taught by Sean Gilsdorf, a medieval historian, and Racha Kirakosian, a specialist in German studies and religion. Waxman’s short article is part of a veritable media avalanche readying us for the beginning of season seven of the successful HBO series July 16. After all, GoT airs in more than 170 countries, has won more Emmys than any other prime-time series and is simply “the world’s most popular show” ever.

With their field suffering from the significant downward drift in student interest for humanities disciplines in the last decade, some medievalists have been eager to embrace the exceptional popularity of GoT. This summer’s International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds in Great Britain, for example, featured a replica of the famous Iron Throne from the series. More seriously, in a 2015 report on a meeting about the career chances of young medievalists, Lisa Fagin Davis, the executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, summarized her colleagues’ (albeit anecdotal) claims that shows like GoT may well have increased undergraduate demand for medieval studies courses. Confident in the appeal of her area of specialty as well as her colleagues’ qualities as classroom teachers, she stated, “We all know that once we get them in the door, they will want to be medievalists.”

The instructors of the fall 2017 Harvard seminar, who are similarly outspoken about their class as a “recruitment tool” for medieval studies and the humanities, tell us what they intend to do once they have lured the undergraduates “in the door”: to demonstrate how the TV show “echoes and adapts, as well as distorts the history and culture of the ‘medieval world’ of Eurasia from c. 400 to 1500 CE.”

I have two objections to this approach: first of all, I don’t think that our most noble goal as educators should be the survival of our own discipline. Such an attitude may have been acceptable during the pioneer days of installing the humanities at the newly reformed universities of the late 19th century. And even then, the likes of Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche accused humanities scholars of “being of use only to themselves” while scholars of law, theology and medicine remained connected with the general public by producing judges, lawyers, priests and medical doctors. Today, we understand too much about the constructed nature of historical periods and academic disciplines not to realize that the Middle Ages may be, as Nancy Partner once aptly put it, an “amoebic construct justified by nothing firmer than the uneven thinning out and eventual demise of Roman provincial government in Western Europe for a beginning, and, at the other end, the self-congratulating pronouncements of a few Italian intellectuals” who maintained they “definitely wrote better Latin than anyone who had lived since Cicero.”

My second objection against turning GoT into a “gateway drug” for making future medievalists is that neither the TV show nor George R. R. Martin’s narrative is really situated in “the ‘medieval world’ of Eurasia from c. 400 to 1500 CE.” True, Martin has claimed that the fictional societies he created are “strongly grounded in history” and meant to serve as a corrective against what he calls the “Disneyland Middle Ages” abounding with “princes, princesses and knights in shining armor.” However, unlike the similarly gritty anti-Disney series The Last Kingdom (BBC, 2015) or Vikings (History, 2013), which fictionalize identifiable historical persons, eras, events and regions, GoT is completely devoid of such authenticating anchors. Instead, it offers a world that is self-contained, with its own geography, languages, cultures and distinct nonhistorical temporality -- a place entirely “neo,” so to speak. Rather than creating traditional kinds of historical authenticity and authority, it engages in a myriad of cultural references that have a vaguely medieval feel (by the way, I think it’s a premodern feel, because the show also echoes the Wars of the Roses and imperial Rome).

GoT, thus, presents a simulacrum of the medieval -- neither an original nor the copy of an original. The most prominent precursor for this “neo” world is, of course, the one created by J. R. R. Tolkien, whose characters, plots and themes, infused as they originally were by Tolkien’s own academic study of the Middle Ages, now independently and contingently populate thousands of computer games and other neomedievalist cultural productions.

If I am right about GoT’s neomedievalist core, applying the traditional methods of literary studies, folklore or history may not be particularly effective at helping students make sense of it. The Harvard instructors, for example, seem to place particular emphasis on demonstrating to their students the epistemological superiority of original medieval texts and artifacts. As one of them explains, “When I read medieval verse epics with my students, they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s like in Game of Thrones.’ No, if anything at all, it’s the other way around. Isn’t it partly our job [as professors] to use that interest and go deeper?”

Going deeper here means, in a troublingly originalist sense, that including GoT in a college classroom should serve to identify a contemporary production’s distinct sources and analogues in medieval history, literature, religion and legend. The goal of the serious medievalist seems to be to move swiftly from the reel to the real Middle Ages, to abandon the shadowy postmodern representations of medieval culture to focus on medieval culture’s own self-understandings. The latter, although of course also highly subjective, seem to offer more truth value by virtue of being “old” (and within the instructor’s area of expertise).

Please don’t get me wrong: I do not advocate against medievalists’ involvement in reading and critiquing GoT. Quite the opposite. And I do not advocate against reading GoT against the backdrop of medieval sources and analogues. However, that can only be the beginning. After all, none of the main causes advanced to account for GoT’s popularity (attractive world building, thriller-fiction pacing, complex characters, sexposition, bait-and-switch plot, escapist fantasy, intricate power play, clever play with archetypes, diverse female characters, guilt-free barbarism and violence, Sopranos-like family drama) is exclusively related to medieval culture.

Clearly, an impactful cultural phenomenon like GoT deserves to be read as a self-standing cultural artifact, not as a derivative of its potential medieval models or a pretext for sustaining an academic discipline. So far, too often, medievalists have shown a narrowly parasitic relationship with medievalist and neomedievalist cultural productions. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1983), Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale (2001), J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (1997-2007) or Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) were a) used mainly to show the continued relevance of medieval studies and b) subjected to the same binary academic reception: What’s authentic and nonauthentic; what distorts history, and what doesn’t?

Instead of such an uninspiring approach, we should rather ask, why do our societies continually seek to connect with their premodern roots, consciously or unconsciously? What imagined aspects of premodern culture continually attract reinvention, recreation, re-enactment and re-present-ation, and why? And how does the centuries-long reception of premodern texts drive the work of contemporary artists, writers and scholars? I predict that answering these more complex questions will better demonstrate the value the humanities add to a college education.

Richard Utz is professor and chair in the School of Literature, Media and Communication at Georgia Tech and Johann von Spix Visiting Professor at the University of Bamberg, Germany.

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Union Contract Includes Gains for Duke Adjuncts

Duke University and its new part- and full-time non-tenure-track faculty union reached a “historic” agreement, the bargaining unit announced Wednesday. The tentative three-year deal would be the first faculty union contract at a major private university in the South, according to Service Employees International Union, with which the Duke instructors are affiliated.

The contract would cover 275 professors and include job stability in the form of multiyear teaching appointments and pay increases of up to 46 percent for the lowest-paid instructors (the average per-course pay increase would be 14 percent over three years and 12 percent for salaried instructors). Other gains include Duke employee benefits, pay protections for canceled courses and a professional development fund. Duke declined to comment on the deal until it is ratified, according to The News & Observer.

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University leaders say they need to improve communication on science with public

Research university leaders see wake-up call in data on sharp partisan divide on higher education and deep cuts proposed by Trump.

How to find mentors and be a good one yourself (essay)

What sustains faculty members are relationships with others, write Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra, who outline how to identify mentors and how to be a better one yourself.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017
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Faculty-to-Faculty Mentoring

OpenStax Pairs Course Content and Learning Platform

As reported in Inside Higher Ed, OpenStax, the free textbook publisher based at Rice University, is expanding beyond books.

The publisher on Monday launched Tutor Beta, an online learning platform. Initially available in three courses -- biology, physics and sociology -- this fall, OpenStax plans to expand it across all the subject areas in which it publishes content.

New Tech Service for Student Success Management

As reported in Inside Higher Ed, EAB, a research and technology services company, says the time is right for an enterprise-level “student success management system,” or SSMS. EAB has coined -- and trademarked -- the term SSMS, and said it intends to compete in a m

Google Reportedly Funds Friendly Academics

Google funds academic researchers to help sway opinion and public policy, The Wall Street Journal reported. Over the past decade, the search engine has reportedly financed hundreds of research papers to help fight regulation that could harm it, via stipends of $5,000 to $400,000. Some researchers share their papers prior to publication, allowing Google to make suggestions, according to thousands of pages of emails obtained by the Journal through open-records requests to more than a dozen institutions.

The professors in question don’t always disclose Google’s backing, according to the Journal. Paul Heald, a professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, reportedly pitched a paper on copyrights to Google and received $18,830 to fund it, yet the 2012 publication made no mention of the relationship. “Oh, wow. No, I didn’t. That’s really bad,” Heald reportedly told the Journal, saying that the money did not influence his findings, and that Google gave him no conditions. “That’s purely oversight.”

Google also pitched academic papers with working titles and abstracts to willing academic authors, a former employee for the company told the newspaper. Google told the Journal that it has always “maintained strong relations with universities and research institutes, and [has] always valued their independence and integrity. … We’re happy to support academic researchers across computer science and policy topics, including copyright, free expression and surveillance, and to help amplify voices that support the principles of an open internet.”

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Author discusses ideas in his new book, 'The Toxic University'

Author discusses his new book, which argues that politicians and “zombie leadership” in higher education are destroying academic values.

Inside Digital Learning: 7 Guidelines for Online Course Development

In this week’s “Inside Digital Learning” newsletter:

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Inside Digital Learning: 7 Guidelines for Online Course Development
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Inside Digital Learning: July 12, 2017, newsletter

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