faculty

Professors Criticize Gen Ed Changes at Concord U

Faculty members at Concord University, in West Virginia, voted no confidence in Vice President Peter Viscusi Thursday, The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported. Professors are angry about the way general-education requirements were substantially reduced. They say that the administration tried to make the changes without any faculty review, and that when the faculty were permitted to review proposed changes, professors' views were ignored. The university's board chair said the board backs the administration.

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Personal liability insurance shifts the burden of risk from the institution to the individual (essay)

This past summer, members of the Organization of American Historians received an email titled “An easy way to protect yourself and your job.” A targeted advertisement, the email offered OAH members the chance to join K-12 teachers and affiliates of other academic associations in applying for professional liability insurance at a discounted rate.

As a news article published by Inside Higher Ed described, this type of solicitation raises a number of important questions. Is such coverage necessary? Are policies like the ones advertised a good investment? Why do organizations like the OAH sponsor these plans?

Those are important questions, but as historians of insurance, risk, labor and capitalism, we believe we must also think critically about the risks that professional liability plans are designed to manage and the political dimensions associated with the sale of such policies. In particular, we have found that private liability coverage shifts the burden of managing risk from the institution to individuals. Moreover, the privatization of on-the-job protections can threaten collective organizing and shared governance in higher education.

The Problem of Precarity

The state of faculty members at colleges and universities is clearly precarious. At best, tenure-track positions offer the possibility of long-term job security, a reasonable teaching load and contracts that guarantee certain rights and benefits. For adjuncts, postdoctoral fellows and visiting professors, however, where the next paycheck will come from is an uncertainty that must be navigated on a term-to-term or year-to-year basis.

As temporary employees, faculty members have good reason to be afraid. Their jobs are insecure, they have access to limited resources and they cannot trust the institutions they work for to protect them. Nor can they trust their own students -- at least according to insurance marketing -- since each one is a potential legal adversary. Regardless of whether or not a hyperlitigious environment prevails in higher education, private insurance sold on an individual basis is a palliative to such concerns.

If faculty members do indeed face systematic liability problems, then these problems deserve a systematic response. Taking out insurance policies as individuals will not eradicate precarity in higher education. In fact, the expansion of privatized security mechanisms might even make such problems worse. Professional liability insurance implicitly asserts that individual instructors should be treated as isolated defendants in workplace matters.

The Politics of Private Insurance

We must assert a basic premise: all insurance is political. Insurance redistributes resources, dictates responsibility and creates and determines the collective bodies through which risk is managed. Americans have become accustomed to thinking about Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act as programs that have social impacts and are thus worthy of public discussion and debate. Private insurance should demand similar political attention.

Private insurance in the United States has always coexisted with other sources of security. These have included extended kinship networks, mutual aid organizations, fraternal societies, unions and, more recently, federal and state governments. While private insurance can work in partnership with those institutions, insurance companies’ pursuit of profit means that the issuers of private policies have different motives than those of more representative, noncommercial security providers.

Many Americans imagine insurance as a highly technical industry that deals rationally with objective facts and statistical data. When it comes to marketing, however, insurers regularly appeal to our subjective selves. They invoke fear and depict the world as uncertain and unsafe. For the past half century, insurance companies in America have sold their product as a means to self-sufficiency and independence, and an option that responsible individuals choose in order to demonstrate foresight.

In that context, it should come as no surprise that the uninsured and those covered by public security programs are depicted as dependent and irresponsible. Those who are capable of purchasing private insurance are seen as deserving of security, while those who cannot afford such luxuries (those most in need of security) are not.

Advertisements like the one in question sell an easy route to “peace of mind.” But they also sell a vision of a prudent self who takes control of an uncertain environment by capably managing her own risks. The individualization of risk -- the notion that we are each responsible for ourselves and not to each other -- is a central tenet of neoliberal cost-cutting. In respect to preserving academic freedom, shared governance and the right to collective organization, academics have understandably resisted policies that would isolate them as employees. Private liability insurance that encourages educators to go it alone should be viewed with like-minded suspicion.

Marketing Matters

Our point here is not to accuse the OAH and other professional academic associations that offer members similar plans of perpetrating a scam. But questions of intention and transparency should accompany any solicitation that bears what appears to be the tacit endorsement of a private, commercial product.

The OAH, in numerous other forums, has rightfully endeavored to facilitate discussions among faculty members, graduate students and adjuncts concerning what can be done to better the situation of historians who are the most vulnerable workers. Participants in those conversations have emphasized the role that self-governance can play, whether through unions or other means, in allowing faculty members to determine what protections and rights they need and deserve.

Whether or not the OAH is heartened by the recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate students are indeed workers, and therefore allowed to organize and engage in collective bargaining, is unclear. No email was sent to members articulating this one way or the other. That is in line with the OAH’s general stance that it is an association dedicated to professionalization, access to resources and advocacy for history as a discipline and field of inquiry. If OAH members want to take this stance they can vote to do so as a body, or issue such a statement on the level of committee.

But that is the very point about which we hope to raise critical awareness. Personal liability insurance is political, even if it comes in a commercial guise. It conditions educators to identify risk as something that needs to be managed individually. It encourages employees, consonant with other trends, to accept that “employment at will” means they cannot rely on colleges and universities to stand by them in circumstances where they are held liable for performing their jobs.

Finally, there is something ironic about an association like the OAH sponsoring insurance for supplemental purchase, as a service to be potentially rendered, in order to contend with problems that stem from the increased tendency of students to view their education as coming with consumer rights. One of the instances that Forrest T. Jones and Company, the policy provider, cites as an example of a paid-out claim involves a civil suit that a student brought against a professor after being placed on academic probation, resulting in the student’s dismissal. All parties involved might have been better served by an arrangement where such disputes are governed first and foremost by review boards comprised of students, faculty members, administrators and other stakeholders. If contractualism must prevail, let it be on the level of arbitration clauses that operate as preconditions of enrollment and employment. Let both plaintiffs and defendants be responsible to their peers.

Better Paths to Security

All instructors should feel entitled to seek out protections from the institutions that employ them, and, in the language of the advertisement in question, aim to obtain a “relaxed” state of mind. But we would certainly advocate for a path to security that travels through collective measures like unions and other efforts to achieve shared governance. Even in the absence of union representation, employers should take the lead in managing liability, if for no other reason than to ensure that their instructors do not sacrifice critical teaching practices out of fear of being sued. Asking individual faculty members to go it alone, and to assess their own professional liability on a case-by-case basis, is at best a Band-Aid to the current state of precarity. No educator should have to purchase from a private company protections that they should be guaranteed through employment.

Caley Horan is an assistant professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Andy Urban is an assistant professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University New Brunswick.

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The need to be culturally aware when advising students (essay)

As an adviser to college-age students, it could be easy for me to say “major in what you love” and be done. Research shows that employers often recruit for transferrable skills, and there is no direct correlation between one’s major and career. In fact, Forbes magazine has presented research findings indicating that only 27 percent of college graduates are working in a job that relates to their major.

The story I most like to tell is of a former student who studied religion and went on to immediately work for a National Basketball Association team in marketing and sales. However, I then recall one of my most challenging advising situations with an Asian-American student whose passion was English, but her parents held to the idea of a “practical” major that would assure her employability. In that situation, an English major alone would not be the option for her -- she could never satisfy cultural values surrounding interdependence and filial piety and be content with following her passion. This situation resolved itself with a compromise: she double majored in English and finance.

Google the phrase “Does your major matter?” and you will find that most articles out there succinctly state, “Nope, doesn’t matter.” Yet, sometimes, it does. To be better advisers, we need to consider the cultural baggage a student brings to a conversation when discussing their major.

We should not presume that factual arguments surrounding employability, regardless of major, will suffice in discussions with parents and other family members. That can appear ethnocentric, as it fails to consider cultural values and norms that are outside American ideologies of independence. If we continually advise without understanding diverse students’ practical concerns, while appreciating their distinct cultural value systems, we inadvertently project the idea that independence is the norm and interdependence is an erroneous way of thinking. In short, we add to the already pre-existing dissonance that a student is bringing to the academic discussion.

For example, one student whom I queried recalls focusing on biology and medicine because she wanted to make her parents happy. While a discussion with an adviser about alternate options would have been fruitful, advisers who merely espouse majoring in one’s own personal interest could have devalued the real, interdependent factors at play in her decision-making process. Although some experts such as Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci may argue that decisions made based on one’s own interests may be less depleting than those based on external factors like family wishes, a confounding variable must be considered: If the intrinsic beliefs of interdependence are held strongly, how does a college-age student balance that conflict?

When I asked a Korean international student about her major, she said that had her parents not been happy with her major, she would not have been happy herself. A Nigerian-American student said to me, “The family that helped you get to a point where you could make a choice between what you love and what pays better: When it comes time to choose, how could you not choose them? [It] is no longer a choice between two careers but a choice between loves -- the love for your family and for your career. It also becomes a choice between two futures -- one where you are happy and your family miserable, or vice versa. That is when you look at how they helped you get to where you have this choice, and you realize that there is really no choice.”

Happiness in pursuit of one’s own interest may then sacrifice happiness in areas of interdependence. The question for advisers is how our own cultural values influence our advising and potentially devalue the cultural history a student brings into our office.

As culturally competent advisers, we need to allow students the space to share their employability concerns, ask the questions of where their concerns come from and engage in conversation about how feasible it is for them to minimize family conflict (if it is incongruent to their well-being) while pursuing a passion. It is our responsibility to ferret out reasons why a student may not readily adopt the idea that majoring in a passion is a path to consider -- and that it may not necessarily be the “right” and “only” path a student can and should take.

As we advise, it is also important to consider acculturation in discussions with students from diverse backgrounds. For Asian-Americans, studies have shown that differences in acculturation levels between parents and young adults can lead to an increased likelihood of family conflict. But they have also highlighted the importance of family social support in mitigating psychological and bicultural stress.

In addition, many studies continue to indicate differences between white American college students and those from ethnic minority groups. Thus, when we as advisers only advocate following one’s passion, we should ask of ourselves if we are microaggressors, telling students that is the only right way to engage in education. This generation of college students will probably be the first that does not outstrip their parents in earnings. Therefore, a practical major and earnings potential are a real and true concern for our student population.

That is not to say, however, that we, as seasoned advisers, should not continue to encourage students to major in their areas of interest. Indeed, our goals are to help students discover what they enjoy and want to engage with more deeply, and to encourage them to consider education as part of their engagement in developing their identities. Surely, we can all easily identify a vast number of students who have majored in what one may consider an “impractical” major and gone on to make more money than we, with our doctorates, may ever see.

But given the vastly different backgrounds of the students whom we advise, to be an effective adviser, to connect and encourage, we must also be cognizant that our roles will also entail tactful discussions that go beyond merely saying, “Do what you love, and it will all work out.”

June Y. Chu is dean of Pierson College at Yale University.

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Professors Unionize at Minneapolis Art & Design

Full-time and part-time faculty members at Minneapolis College of Art & Design have voted to unionize and to be represented by the Service Employees International Union, The Star Tribune reported. College officials said they were disappointed with the vote but would negotiate in good faith with the new union.

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An academic tries unsuccessfully to publish a book in the popular press (essay)

This is a story about a story. A story that might be worth millions of dollars. It’s also a cautionary tale for academics who dream of writing best-selling books.

One day in early 1999, I found myself awaiting the retrieval of books in the main reading room of the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. I was completing the research for my doctorate in history at Georgetown University. Passing the time by strolling through the alcoves circling the giant room, my eye caught the spines of a group of slim volumes resting on a shelf. They were a series of oral histories compiled by the LA84 Foundation, an organization assembled by the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Committee that was tasked with, among other things, providing scholars and students with historical materials related to the Olympic Games. One volume contained an interview with Gordon Adam, a member of the University of Washington’s gold medal-winning crew team in Berlin in 1936. Having been a collegiate oarsman, I started reading Adam’s story.

It was riveting. Adam grew up poor on a farm in the Pacific Northwest. He worked at a salmon-canning factory in Alaska to make enough money for college and then enrolled at the University of Washington in the depths of the Depression. He decided to try rowing -- at the time a major intercollegiate sport -- and in his oral interview, he told a marvelous tale of how he and his teammates topped Eastern Ivy League competition for the right to represent the United States in Berlin. He recalled traveling to Europe, his impressions of Nazi Germany and seeing Hitler at the opening ceremony. He finished by describing his crew’s stirring come-from-behind victory over Italian and German crews in a very tight race.

Although that oral history had nothing to do with my dissertation or research, I knew I’d stumbled upon a great story. Global in scope, cinematic in its drama, this story -- I felt strongly -- would sell. I copied the oral history on the library Xerox machine, tucked it away in a file, and told myself someday I would research and compose a book on it.

Life moved on. I finished the dissertation, accepted a visiting assistant professor position and gained a tenure-track job. I focused on securing tenure by publishing my scholarship on radio and journalism history in top journals. I also worked on improving my teaching and agreed to enough service commitments to fill up my time. All the while, however, I kept gathering material on that 1936 crew team. I “collected string,” as they say in journalism.

The University of Washington put me in touch with surviving members of the crew, some of whom I interviewed, and I discovered the original CBS recording of the race broadcast at the Paley Center for the Media. I contacted Dan Raley, one of the last sports editors of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for more information on the crew, and he generously shared his materials and thoughts.

Then I received tenure, and I started to seriously pursue the book. I wrote a book proposal, a sample chapter, a magazine-length version of the story and even a 750-word op-ed about this incredible Olympic moment. I never considered composing the story as a dry academic or scholarly tome. Nor did I have literary pretension. Rather, I wanted to bring the story alive and engage the public journalistically, reporting the facts interspersed with the words and voices of the Olympians themselves. The story, it appeared to me, required little embellishment.

Crickets. I pitched the material everywhere. I actually had started pitching it as a book proposal and magazine article even before I got tenure, using the news peg of the 2006 and 2008 Olympic Games. I tailored my approaches to every kind of outlet as precisely as possible. For example, I pitched the story to the Chronicle Review, emphasizing how impoverished Depression-era college kids used intercollegiate athletics to learn about the world. But my magazine article pitches were either rejected or ignored by Slate, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian, the New York Times Magazine and elsewhere. In fact, my version of the story was continually and consistently turned down as an extended essay, a newspaper column and a book proposal by numerous editors, literary agents and publishers. I got almost no feedback. I stopped counting rejections when they passed 60.

Still, I refused to give up. In 2012, with the London Olympics on the horizon, I again pitched the story everywhere. Josh Levin, an editor at Slate, liked it. He published it as “Six Minutes in Berlin” and made it the centerpiece of their 2012 London Olympic coverage. The article exploded on the web, lasting four days as Slate’s most-read feature, generating a long comment thread and thousands of social media recommendations.

Emails flooded in. Literary agents that had previously rejected the book proposal now inquired whether I would be interested in representation. One major publisher that explicitly prohibits the submission of unsolicited manuscripts wrote and asked me to send the book manuscript.

Then, just as quickly, silence. It turned out that, one year before, Viking Press had inked an enormous deal with an author named Daniel James Brown to write the story of the 1936 crew. That book, titled The Boys in the Boat, came out in 2013 and remains near the top of the New York Times nonfiction paperback best-seller list as of this writing. Brown’s book tells the story of Joe Rantz, one of the rowers, and the significant investment by Brown’s publisher in the success of The Boys in the Boat made others reluctant to take on a competing project.

An important New York literary agent told me as much over the telephone. The publishing industry, he explained, was under enormous economic stress. The book trade was getting slaughtered, he said, and big publishing had essentially evolved into a cartel (my word, not his). Publishers simply could not compete with each other by bidding competitively for the same stories, and once Brown got his contract, any chance I had of publishing “Six Minutes in Berlin” as a book had evaporated. No major publisher would waste their time or resources undercutting another major publisher’s list.

That was bad enough. But then The Boys in the Boat came out, and much to my surprise, my interviews with two oarsmen were cited by Brown. I only shared transcripts with the oarsmen themselves -- coxswain Bob Moch and Jim McMillin -- both of whom had died in 2005, before Brown met Joe Rantz or began his research. Somehow copies -- the only ones I shared -- ended up in Brown’s hands. He and his publishers undoubtedly knew I was working on my own book because of the publication of “Six Minutes in Berlin” in Slate in 2012. The interviews proved remarkably illustrative of occurrences in the boat during both the national championship and the Olympic gold medal races, and it disturbed me greatly to see information I had collected published elsewhere without my permission.

The Boys in the Boat is a good book, but it’s not history. It’s not the book I would have written. It’s peppered with inaccuracies and embellishments. One of the reasons my manuscript took so long to compose was that I possess a doctorate in history, and verifying information by cross-referencing sources requires an enormous amount of time. In other words: accuracy matters. I’m not bothered by the slight copy-editing errors that pop up in The Boys in the Boat that are endemic to any manuscript -- such as when Cornell University, not Columbia University, is inaccurately credited with victory in the first Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta.

But I am disturbed that inaccuracy and embellishment is apparently acceptable when writing history for popular audiences. For example, Brown offers this dramatic opening to the race broadcast: “At 9:15 a.m., the voice of NBC’s commentator, Bill Slater, began to crackle over KOMO’s airwaves in Seattle, relayed from Berlin.” But according to NBC’s records in the Library of Congress and numerous other sources, Bill Slater was in London that evening preparing to cover the next day’s White City track meet featuring Jesse Owens. The rowing final in Berlin actually started at 9:02 a.m. Seattle time, and anybody tuning in to NBC would have missed it because the network widely publicized the wrong starting time in newspapers around America. Only those people tuning to CBS would have caught this Olympic exclusive. Yet these facts don’t deter Brown. “NBC’s Bill Slater was screaming over KOMO’s airwaves in Seattle,” he informs his audience at a particularly dramatic moment in the race narrative. This did not occur.

A lot of ink has been spilled recently about the need for academics to write for wider audiences. Much of the criticism presumes that academics prefer to write and speak in impenetrable rhetoric designed to limit communication to only people initiated in the cloistered world of scholarly interchange. I don’t doubt that this problem exists. But many critics have no idea how many scholars -- like myself -- have attempted to write for wider audiences but found ourselves blocked by gatekeepers in the publishing industry. Although I’ve published numerous essays and newspaper columns for wide public readership, and I believe my book proposal proved my ability to deliver clear, serviceable -- and even engaging -- prose, no publisher took a gamble on this first-time author coming out of academe.

This story, however, might have a happy ending. Although Daniel James Brown has a best seller and the revenues from his movie deal for The Boys in the Boat, I continued pursuing my project. I reshaped my manuscript to more closely align with academic standards and fit the constraints of scholarly publication. I then sent it out to academic publishers.

Obviously, Brown’s best seller significantly damaged the trade market for “Six Minutes in Berlin.” But the University of Illinois Press responded positively to the parts of my manuscript about Olympic broadcasting. No single volume exists on the birth of global sports broadcasting as developed by Nazi radio authorities. If I were willing to interweave this larger story about global telecommunication history into the narrative of the rowers, who gained brief national celebrity from their victory, they told me they would be interested. But I needed to satisfy peer reviewers and severely limit the word count. The first peer reviews proved encouraging, and a contract was signed. Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics will be published this month.

But I won’t make a million dollars.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Inside Higher Ed reached out to the publisher and author of The Boys in the Boat for a response to this piece, and they had no comment.

Michael J. Socolow is an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine. Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics will be published this month by University of Illinois Press.

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Rowing teams race to the finish line at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne Shutters Programs

Indiana-Purdue University at Fort Wayne is suspending or eliminating a number of academic programs as part of an academic prioritization process, a state agency’s recommendation that the institution become a Purdue-only campus and an attempt to close a several-million-dollar budget gap, caused in part by declining enrollment, The News-Sentinel reported. Degree programs in French, geology, German, philosophy and women’s studies are suspended, effectively immediately. Eight additional majors within existing departments, six teaching programs and four graduate programs have been shut down. The university is planning a teach-out program for currently enrolled students. Tenured faculty members in affected programs will be reassigned to different departments. The future of the campus’s nursing, dental education and medical imaging programs is still under discussion. Degree programs in environmental geology and environmental policy were cut previously, in July.

“To use a real estate analogy, Purdue is in a position where it will be acquiring properties,” Andy Downs, professor of political science and Faculty Senate president at Indiana-Purdue, told The News-Sentinel. “They want to make sure they get good properties. [Indiana University] knows what it's getting.”

An online petition with more than 1,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon seeks to save the women’s studies program, saying that it is “growing in size, with more majors than ever. It also generates more than twice in revenue than what it costs to operate the program. This is clearly not about cutting costs.” In a letter announcing the changes to faculty members, Carl Drummond, vice chancellor for academic affairs and enrollment management at Indiana-Purdue, said that after a meeting last week with state university system leaders, he “had failed to recognize or appreciate previously … that in the minds of the trustees these two processes [of campus realignment and academic prioritization] are inexorably linked.”

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Faculty Strike at 14 Pennsylvania Campuses

The faculty union for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education announced a strike, starting this morning. The banner at right is from the union's website.

The union has been operating for more than a year without a contract. System officials and union leaders negotiated through the weekend and on Monday and Tuesday, and the union had vowed to strike today if no agreement was reached. The system -- with 14 universities and more than 110,000 students -- presented what it called its "last best offer" on Tuesday night. The union's representatives for negotiations remained at the table on the chance the system would resume negotiations. Both sides dispute details about the public statements made by the other.

The system characterizes itself as having made numerous proposals that would help faculty members, and says it is being as generous as financial conditions allow. The union -- the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties -- has said that many parts of the system plan would endanger academic quality.

The union president issued a statement Wednesday morning -- shortly after the strike was called -- offering to return to the bargaining table at any time. “At 11:35 p.m., we made a last attempt to negotiate through back channels,” said the president, Kenneth M. Mash. “We waited until 5 a.m. We are headed to the picket lines, but even on the picket lines, our phones will be on, should the state system decide it doesn’t want to abandon its students. They'll know where to find me at 5:30 a.m. I'll be outside the chancellor's office at the Dixon Center on the picket line.”

The system has said that students are required to show up for classes unless advised otherwise by campus officials. One campus, Kutztown University, issued a statement Tuesday that "students are to report to all classes as usual on Wednesday, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations." West Chester University issued this guidance: "Students should plan to attend their scheduled classes every day and may leave if a professor does not arrive."

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How academics can use Twitter most effectively (essay)

Patrick Iber provides guidance on how to make Twitter work for academic purposes.

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Harvard and TAs Agree on Union Election

Harvard University and its would-be graduate student union, affiliated with the United Auto Workers, on Tuesday agreed on terms of a union election, to be held Nov. 16-17. The election agreement is similar to one made between Cornell University and its American Federation of Teachers- and National Education Association-affiliated graduate student union organizers ahead of a major decision in August from the National Labor Relations Board. That decision, which involved a graduate student union bid at Columbia University, paved the way for graduate student unions at private institutions.

Both the Cornell and now Harvard decisions are significant because they signal that the administrations of both institutions will accept the outcome of any union election, and that both sides will avoid potentially lengthy legal oversight by the NLRB. Administrations at some other private institutions have signaled that they will fight graduate student union bids following the NLRB’s August decision. Both teaching and research assistants at Harvard are seeking representation by the UAW.

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Essay on wave of sinister clown sightings and Orrin E. Klapp's 'Heroes, Villains and Fools'

In late August, residents of Greenville, S.C., began reporting to police that one or more clowns had been observed attempting to lure children into a wooded area. It was an odd moment in a year that had already seen more than its share.

Since then, reports of sinister-clown activity (e.g., threats, assaults, the brandishing of knives and standing in place while waving slowly in a menacing manner) have gone viral throughout the United States, with a few now coming in from elsewhere in the world. Professional clowns are distressed by the damage to their reputation, and Ronald McDonald has gone on sabbatical for an indefinite period.

Like many anomalous phenomena -- UFOs, for example, or appearances by Elvis or Bigfoot -- clown sightings tend to come in waves. The recent spate of them has been unusual in both its geographical range and its emotional intensity -- although I suspect that coulrophobia is in fact the normal, even default, emotional response to clowns in any context. A study of children’s response to hospital decorations conducted by researchers from the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Sheffield in England found that “clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them frightening and unknowable.” And over the past 30 years or so, a strain of pop-culture iconography has tapped into that basic anxiety and amplified it with a series of overtly horrific clowns.

Some of the recently reported incidents involved people wearing commercially produced horror-clown masks. Whatever deep psychological wellsprings may have driven the clown sightings of previous years, the current cycle is, at least in part, a performance of mass hysteria -- an acting out of uncanniness and anxiety, with some individuals playing the menacing part in an almost standardized way.

Trying to make sense of this funny business, I did a search of my digital archive of journal articles, conference papers and whatnot in hopes of finding a paper -- by a folklorist, maybe, or possibly a psychoanalyst -- that might help elucidate the clown question. The most interesting material to turn up was by the late Orrin E. Klapp (1915-1997), a sociologist, whose first book was Heroes, Villains and Fools: The Changing American Character (1962).

Sections of it originally appeared as journal articles; a few of them made passing reference to clowns and clowning. But in these pieces, Klapp is interested in something more general: the range of fairly informal labels or categories we use to characterize people in the course of ordinary life. Examples he gives are “underdog,” “champ,” “bully,” “Robin Hood,” “simpleton,” “crackpot,” “cheat,” “liar” and “big shot.” (“Clown” is one of them, of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

What intrigues Klapp about such labels is that they reflect, but also enforce, prevailing values and social norms. Some express a severe judgment (“traitor”) while others are relatively inconsequential (“butterfingers”). New labels or epithets emerge from time to time as others fall out of use; they are part of the flux of everyday life. But Klapp argues that the labels implying particularly strong judgments fall into three general categories that do not change much with time: the hero, the villain and the fool.

“The most perfect examples of heroes,” Klapp writes in one paper, “are to be found in legendary or mythical personages who represent in a superhumanly exaggerated way the things the group admires most.” Villains are “idealized figures of evil, who tend to countermoral actions as a result of an inherently malicious will,” prone to “creating a crisis from which society is saved by a hero, who arrives to restore order to the world.”

The contrast between hero and villain is clear and sharp, but not exhaustive. “If the villain opposes the hero by exaggerated evil traits,” writes Klapp, “the fool does so by his weaknesses, his métier being failure and fiasco rather than success. Though an offender against decorum and good taste, he is too stupid or ineffectual to be taken seriously. His pranks are ridiculed rather than severely punished.”

These three almost archetypal figures are seldom encountered in their purest form outside of fairy tales or superhero comic books. But most of the labels applied to people in the course of ordinary life can, in Klapp’s view, be subsumed under them. (The underdog is a kind of hero; the traitor a form of villain; the fanatic a variety of fool.) The symbolic figures and the everyday labels alike “help in the preservation of values” and “nourish and maintain certain socially necessary sentiments” -- such as “admiration of courage and self-sacrifice, hatred of vice, contempt for folly” and so forth.

Preservation of consensual values and the proper nourishment of socially necessary sentiments were major concerns of American sociologists of the Eisenhower era -- and Klapp’s framework was, in that respect, both normative and normal. But there’s more to his argument than that. He worried that mass media and propaganda techniques could exploit or corrupt those sentiments: Klapp’s papers on villainy and vilification in American culture concern, in part, the then recent success of Joseph McCarthy. He also deserves credit for paying attention to the significant ideological baggage carried by ordinary language.

The clown, in his schema, definitely falls under the heading of the fool -- but with a difference. As someone deliberately accepting the role, inducing ridicule rather than just succumbing to it, the clown exemplifies what Klapp calls the paradoxical status of the fool as “both depreciated and valued: it is at the same time despised and tolerated, ridiculed and enjoyed, degraded and privileged … He also acts as a cathartic symbol for aggressions in the form of wit. He takes liberties with rank; and as butt or scapegoat receives indignities which in real life would be mortal insult or conflict creating.”

Klapp draws close to an insight into a type of clown he doesn’t seem to have recognized: the menacing kind, in Greenville or elsewhere. For the clown, on these terms, has reason to want revenge, to wreak havoc as much as the villain does. (Here one also thinks of a certain political figure with an orange face, unnatural hair and a strange combination of extreme self-centeredness with no discernable self-awareness.) The stock of widely accepted heroic figures may be at an all-time minimum, while neither clowns nor villains are in short supply, and it’s getting harder to tell them apart.

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