Ode to Sheila

I've been waiting forever for Sheila to call. I've never met her, but Sheila's the most powerful person at the university where I work. She is to the university president what Stanley Fish is to an adjunct rhetoric instructor with a basement office outside a Dumpster.

We at the University of Iowa pray to Sheila the Almighty daily. Tenure might protect us in the classroom, but outside we are vulnerable to all kinds of calamity. That's where Sheila comes in.

My current ordeal began when my workplace, the journalism school, moved to a new building. For six years, the school had been housed in a termite-infested dungeon where the closest bathroom was two floors down.  I knew the elevator repairman by name. Winged creatures of many varieties took refuge in my office, including a bat that did not leave.

The only good thing about the old journalism building was its parking lot. I had a spot 100 feet from the basement door.

Sheila, you may have guessed, is the parking-lot-assignment queen at the university, which, despite what readers in Chicago or Los Angeles might think, is not located in a cornfield. Parking here, as at Loyola and Harvard and Wayne State, is as sought-after as 50-yard-line seats at the Iowa-Michigan game.

But the new journalism building is across campus, for God's sake! And a parking lot spot anywhere near the new building takes a professor emeritus to die. Stories circulate that faculty members have resorted to sending Hermes scarves and Stuart Weitzman pumps to Sheila as inducements to bump up their names on the waiting list. I like to think that Sheila is beyond such enticements, though.  When you're as powerful as she is, what tangible item could be so enticing?

Lot 3 is the sought-after prize for hundreds of my colleagues. So valuable is the slotted real estate in Lot 3 that entry privileges come with a gate. Occupants used to use an actual key to get in, but as a nod to the computer age, now they get those magical cards that, waved in front of a sensor, cause the gate to rise. The thought of swinging my mud-splotched chariot toward the gate, which would majestically rise as I cruise to a coveted stall, is nirvana.

Moving up on the wait list for Lot 3 is determined by a logarithmic formula developed by former cryptographers for the OSS. It's based on a complex formula of logarithms that include multiple determinates, including the number of years at the university and whether you are staff or faculty. In a blow to academic elitism, openings are alternated between staff and faculty; faculty rank has nothing to do with the selection process.

So what did I have to lose?  Everyone who wins at Powerball buys a lottery ticket however small the odds of getting all five numbers. Same with the track. So, I completed the on-line application form for Lot 3, hoping like the guys at OTB hope that their horses will win the trifecta.

So it'd cost me $40 a month. At least when I speak up at faculty senate meetings, my colleagues would listen.

One recent day, as I trekked toward my distant lot braving gusting winds, I wondered how many years it would take before I truly arrived. It is important to note that I tried not to personalize resentment toward Sheila. Bad karma does not move your name up the list.

When I checked my office phone messages and email, there were the usual urgent messages: "I need a signed ad slip for Advanced Forms of Deconstruction and if I don't get in, I'm going to the dean"; "The scholarship committee will not meet as planned"; "Catalogue copy for the new minor in mass communications was due today, so where is it, bozo?"

I was about to hang up, when the machine indicated there was one last message. Like a shaft of golden light from the heavens, it was Sheila's voice, as dulcet-sounding as I had dreamed it would be, a combination of power and calm. Her message advised me that a spot in Lot 3 had miraculously opened and it was all mine. Maybe a professor emeritus had gone off life support the previous evening, maybe a fitness-fanatic administrator had flipped the bird to the nation's dependence on fossil fuel and bought a bike. A gift is a gift.

But Sheila left a warning: To secure the spot, I must call back within 24 hours. I frantically punched in Sheila's number. Alas, the Parking and Transportation Office had closed.

I slept very little that night. I knew Sheila would keep her word, but I still fretted. Whoever caused the vacancy might change his or her mind. Long-lost family members might surface and raise objections about the do-not-resuscitate order.

As soon as I got up that morning, I called Sheila. "Come over and we'll give you your key to Lot 3," she said cheerfully.

What a job this Sheila has -- a combination of long distance operator for the Nobel Prize Committee, captain of the Publishers Weekly Clearing House Team and the good people at MTV's West Coast Customs.

Unable to believe what I was hearing, I was momentarily speechless. Sheila, I think, was shocked by my silence. She's used to shrieks, sobs, incoherent blabbering.

"You are still interested?" she asked, sounding almost hurt.

"Yes," I said, my heart pounding. "Yes, yes, yes, yes!"

Stephen G. Bloom is professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa and author of "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America" and "Inside the Writer's Mind: Writing Narrative Journalism."

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Sex and the Single Genius

There are many great books. And of weird books, the number is countless. Yet, paradoxically enough, there are not that many great weird books.

Sex and Character by Otto Weininger is one of them. The appearance next month of a definitive English translation, published by Indiana University Press, is a major cultural event - one that is, arguably, at least several decades overdue. 

First published in Vienna in 1903, Sex and Character is the product of a tortured genius. Or at least the work of someone remarkably devoted to playing that role. The author was 23 years old when it appeared. In its first incarnation, the book was Weininger's dissertation -- a more or less scientific account of the physiology of gender differences. In revising it, Weininger created a mixture of psychological introspection, neo-Kantian epistemology, and Nietzschean cultural criticism, along with a heavy dose of anti-feminist polemic. Toward the end of the book, Weininger seasoned the stew with a few dashes of  anti-Semitic vitrol. Then, a few months after seeing the manuscript through the press, he went to the  house where Beethoven died and killed himself. 

This did not hurt sales. And it sure did clinch the "tortured" part. The double impact of Weininger's work and his suicide created a sensation, and not just in Austria. The list of Weininger's admirers reads like a survey course in Western culture from the early 20th century. The most perfunctory roundup would include James Joyce, Karl Kraus, Robert Musil, Arnold Schoenberg, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. 

An unsigned English version of Sex and Character appeared in 1906, prepared by someone whose qualifications for the job evidently boiled down to possessing (1) a German dictionary and (2) the willingness, when necessary, to hazard a guess. The title page proclaimed this an "Authorized Translation" -- though it's still not clear who, if anyone, authorized it, and in any case the English edition omits whole sections of the original text. Ludwig Wittgenstein called the 1906 translation "beastly." But it is the one we monolingual Europhiles have had to rely on for almost a century. (Excerpts from it are available online, who knows why.) 

The Indiana edition of Sex and Character was prepared by a team of three scholars, two of them  professors of German, working from the text that Weininger revised just before his death. It includes some impressive scholarly apparatus, including a useful bibliography covering the secondary literature on this strangely influential book. There is also a somewhat bewildering overview of the problems with the earlier English version, which contained "hundreds of mistranslations, ranging from slight inaccuracies, through substantial mistakes, to downright howlers, at times saying the very opposite of Weininger's own statements." 

It is fairly easy to sum up Weininger's conclusions, but hard to capture the book's strange aura -- the quality that fascinated so many people a hundred years ago, and that still flashes up from its pages. Beginning with a plausible notion, the text moves, by degrees, through evidently rational steps that lead right up to the lip of a volcano, spewing the molten core of the author's madness. It's quite a trip.

Weininger's point of departure is the idea that there are some very basic notions that govern our way in the world -- that are, in effect, part of human consciousness even before we have worked out anything like a rational account of them. "Two concepts," he writes, "are among the oldest used by mankind to eke out a makeshift intellectual existence" -- namely, the distinction between Man and Woman. 

In the first section of the book (corresponding to the doctoral dissertation in psychology that he wrote in 1901), Weininger argues that the distinction between male and female is never absolute at the biological level. Rather, each organism contains a mixture of male and female physical traits -- with one or the other usually predominant, of course. "One could say," he writes, hitting the emphasis hard, "that in empirical experience there is neither Man nor Woman, but only male and female." (My hunch is that the original publisher of Sex and Character probably had to send out for extra italic letters.)

So far, so good. After all, endocrinology is on Weininger's side: The toughest Marine has some estrogen in him, and the most demure of seamstresses has a little testosterone in her veins.

Weininger proposes that the gender of each individual could be most accurately expressed as a kind of algebraic formula: so many parts M, so many parts W.  This leads to a couple of interesting consequences. One is the formulation of what Weininger calls "the discovery of an unknown natural law" governing sexual attraction. A person who is three quarters M and one quarter W will tend to be drawn to someone who is three quarters W and one quarter M.

The second major consequence is that Weininger is pretty sensible, for a guy of his era, about homosexuality, or "sexual inversion," as the preferred term back then had it. Some people have M/W fractions are close to 50-50. This, says Weininger, is no big deal. "Sexual inversion is not an exception to the natural law, but only a special case of the same," he writes. Indeed, according to Weininger, "the predisposition for homosexuality is still present, however faintly, in every human being."

At this point, Weininger sounds quite a bit like Alfred Kinsey. Reaching the end of part one of the book, you think "What a progressive guy! He's so far ahead of his time." And then you turn the page....

At the age of 20, Otto Weininger gave a paper at an international conference defending the value of introspection as a method of psychological research (as opposed to relying strictly on laboratory experimentation). The second part of Sex and Character is, in effect, the record of a very smart and very unhappy young man's efforts to create a system of ideas to make sense of what was going on inside him.

At the physical level, there is no purely male or female identity. But, Weininger writes, "it may be said with the greatest certainty that psychologically a person must necessarily be either male or female." He doesn't really explain how a rigid psychological distinction emerges from a broad spectrum of biological phenomena. Apparently it just does.

For Weininger, gender is not a natural phenomenon -- but it isn't a social construction, either. The distinction between Man and Woman is an absolute difference that defines human existence. Summing things up very briefly: Man is reason, culture, and the highest human values. Woman is irrationality, the state of nature, and the utterly amoral realm of sexual desire.

Put so starkly, this is puzzling. For one thing, "irrationality, the state of nature, and the utterly amoral realm of sexual desire" sounds like a description of a frat house. And the author has a hard time keeping the polarity intact. He drifts between misogynistic outbursts and passages that sound like criticisms of the patriarchal order. At times, such moments come within the same paragraph. "The most inferior man is still infinitely superior to the most superior woman,"he writes, "so much so that it seems hardly permissible to compare and rank them. Nevertheless, nobody has the right to belittle or oppress in any way even the most inferior woman."

Man is capable of grappling with fundamental principles and of becoming a genius. (Here, in particular, Weininger's tribute to his own gender is a kind of self-aggrandizing self-portrait.) But Woman, too, has access to a kind of universality. "Every complete mother labors for the species as a whole, she is the mother of all mankind, and she welcomes every pregnancy. The prostitute wants other women not to be pregnant but only prostitutes like herself." Not that Weininger has a Madonna/whore complex or anything. That's just the way the universe is.

So far Sex and Character may sound like the work of Larry Summers's evil twin. But then things shift again.

By the time Weininger finishes a chapter called "The Nature of Woman and Her Purpose in the Universe," the manic phase has launched his thoughts halfway to the stratosphere. When the subject of ethnic difference finally appears, the booster rockets fire, and Weininger goes beyond the moon.

Let's just skip the part about the femininity of the Chinese pigtails, and get down to fundamental analogy that preoccupies Weininger: Man corresponds to Aryan, while Woman corresponds to Jew. The spirit of modernity, he writes, is feminine and Jewish. It is "an age for which history, life, science, everything, has become nothing but economics and technology; an age that has declared genius to be a form of  madness, but which no longer has one great artist or one great philosopher; an age that is devoid of originality, but which chases most frantically after originality...."

In short, Weininger's introspective exploration of the cosmic meaning of gender leads him to the depths of the anti-Semitic imagination. Which makes his book a kind of rough guide to the inner world of another Austrian figure who would later leave his mark on the world, Adolf Hitler. Twenty years ago, Gerald Steig, an Austrian writer, called Sex and Character "the psychological-metaphysical prelude for National Socialism, including its variants."

But is that the only reason to read it? No, there's more.

Sex and Character did not simply denounce the modernist culture emerging in Vienna at the time, much of it the work of Jewish artists and writers. Weininger himself was Jewish. (More on his background in the next column.) His book was, in many ways, an embodiment of what he denounced. Nothing in Sex and Character is ever quite as clear-cut as it may seems. The sharp distinctions in the argument twist around, like the edges of a Mobius strip .....

On Thursday: Weininger and Wittegenstein, genius and gender, influence and psychosis -- plus, the most enviable acknowledgments page in the history of academic publishing.

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New Honor Codes for a New Generation

For over a decade, each of us has been actively engaged in a national effort to help colleges and high schools combat an ever-increasing rise in the incidence of academic dishonesty among students -- cheating on tests and exams, on written assignments, and on class projects. Both of us are concerned that higher rates of academic dishonesty -- and student attitudes toward it -- have the potential to do lasting damage both to America's colleges and to the larger society.

Some educators are responding to the challenge by collaborating in what we call a "new honor code" movement. We applaud this effort and believe it must be accelerated. A unique opportunity to do so is now at hand as a new generation of college students more receptive to ethical leadership is arriving on campus. 

Research confirms recent media reports concerning the high levels of cheating that exist in many American high schools, with roughly two-thirds of students acknowledging one or more incidents of explicit cheating in the last year. Unfortunately, it appears many students view high school as simply an annoying obstacle on the way to college, a place where they learn little of value, where teachers are unreasonable or unfair, and where, since "everyone else" is cheating, they have no choice but to do the same to remain competitive.  And there is growing evidence many students take these habits with them to college.

At the college level, more than half of all students surveyed acknowledge at least one incident of serious cheating in the past academic year and more than two-thirds admit to one or more "questionable" behaviors -- e.g., collaborating on assignments when specifically asked for individual work.  We believe it is significant that the highest levels of cheating are usually found at colleges that have not engaged their students in active dialogue on the issue of academic dishonesty -- colleges where the academic integrity policy is basically dictated to students and where students play little or no role in promoting academic integrity or adjudicating suspected incidents of cheating.

The Impact of Honor Codes

A number of colleges have found effective ways to reduce cheating and plagiarism. The key to their success seems to be encouraging student involvement in developing community standards on academic dishonesty and ensuring their subsequent acceptance by the larger student community. Many of these colleges employ academic honor codes to accomplish these objectives.

Unlike the majority of colleges where proctoring of tests and exams is the responsibility of the faculty and/or administration, many schools with academic honor codes allow students to take their exams without proctors present, relying on peer monitoring to control cheating. Yet research indicates that the significantly lower levels of cheating reported at honor code schools do not reflect a greater fear of being reported or caught.  Rather, a more important factor seems to be the peer culture that develops on honor code campuses -- a culture that makes most forms of serious cheating socially unacceptable among the majority of students. Many students would simply be embarrassed to have other students find out they were cheating.

In essence, the efforts expended at these schools to help students understand the value of academic integrity, and the responsibilities they have assumed as members of the campus community, convince many students, most of whom have cheated in high school, to change their behavior.  Except for cheating behaviors that most students consider trivial (e.g., unpermitted collaboration on graded assignments), we see significantly less self-reported cheating on campuses with honor codes compared to those without such codes. The critical difference seems to be an ongoing dialogue that takes place among students on campuses with strong honor code traditions, and occasionally between students and relevant faculty and administrators, which seeks to define where, from a student perspective, "trivial" cheating becomes serious. While similar conversations occasionally take place on campuses that do not have honor codes, they occur much less frequently and often do not involve students in any systematic or meaningful way.

The 'New Honor Code' Movement

A survey conducted under the auspices of the Center for Academic Integrity in the 1999/2000 academic year helps explain the benefits of honor codes -- even at larger campuses where academic dishonesty is often more common. Included in this sample were three colleges (including the University of Maryland at College Park) that have adopted what are known as "modified" honor codes. These modified codes -- adopted in recent years at a rapidly growing number of institutions -- differ from traditional codes in at least two  ways: unproctored exams are used only at the instructor's option and students are generally not expected to report cheating they might observe. However, modified codes do call for significant student involvement in promoting academic integrity and in adjudicating allegations of academic dishonesty.

They also impose strict sanctions for academic dishonesty (like suspensions or transcript notations), but do so in a context where education and prevention take priority over the threat of punishment alone.

Neither traditional nor modified honor codes eliminate all cheating, even serious cheating. However, the Center for Academic Integrity survey showed that only 23 percent of students at colleges with traditional honor codes reported one or more incidents of serious test or exam cheating in the past year, contrasted with 45 percent of students at colleges with no honor code. At the three modified honor code institutions in the study, 33 percent of the respondents self-reported an incident of serious test or exam cheating -- intermediate between the levels found on traditional honor code and no honor code campuses.

The Maryland Model
The modified honor code at the University of Maryland is now in its 14th year -- the longest history among modified honor codeinstitutions. Before adopting an honor code, Maryland relied almost exclusively on faculty members and administrators to report and resolve allegations of academic dishonesty.

For years, under this administrative system, the university resolved about 60 cases a year -- a tiny fraction of the actual incidents believed to be occurring. Immediately after implementing a modified honor code in 1990, case referrals jumped to over 100 annually, climbing steadily to a record 300 referrals in 2002-3 (while enrollment held steady or declined as higher admissions standards were imposed).

Although 300 cases does not capture the full extent of academic dishonesty at most large public universities, Maryland's new approach (especially the creation of an all-student Honor Council with significant authority to resolve allegations and educate their peers) sent the critical message that students cared about academic integrity and were willing to set and enforce high academic integrity standards. Empowered by this student support, an increasing number of faculty addressed and reported incidents of cheating that had often gone unreported previously.

An important element of Maryland's success is the fact that faculty members and administrators were already accustomed to seeing students as participants in campus governance. A student sits on the statewide Board of Regents and students make up 20 percent of Maryland's University Senate (a body that reviews and makes recommendations about core institutional policies). The impetus for this level of student participation was the campus revolutions of the 60's and 70's, which institutionalized student power and all but ended the concept of "in loco parentis" in American higher education. Ironically, those campus revolutions also laid the groundwork for the revitalization of an old academic tradition: student-administered honor codes.  

Honor Codes and 'Millennials'

The new honor code movement at American colleges will founder or flourish, depending on whether educators draw upon the best traits of the new generation of students now populating our campuses. This group, born on or after 1982, has been described by writers William Strauss and Neil Howe as the "Millennial" generation. No cohort of children has received such intense parental attention (shuttled relentlessly from day care to music lessons to soccer games) -- with results that appear to justify the effort.

Among teenagers, national data show significant declines in rates of pregnancy, smoking, drug use, violence, and suicide. On campus, the most observant college teachers and administrators report seeing a "different" generation of students, closer to their parents; more optimistic about the future, more engaged in community service, more academically oriented, more politically engaged, and less depressed.

No one suggests the Millennial generation will be an unequivocal blessing. One Millennial characteristic -- a strong peer orientation -- has potential for harm, and may help account for the higher rates of cheating observed in secondary schools. In their book, Millennials Rising, Howe and Strauss write that Millennials are "drawn to circles and cliques. Only three in ten report that they usually socialize with only one or two friends, while two in three do so with groups of friends."

A critical task for college teachers and administrators in the current decade is to help the Millennials reach their highest potential. Will the Millennial interest in rituals and traditions be used solely to revitalize homecoming parades and athletic boosterism -- or to enhance the campus ethical climate? Will the Millennials' peer orientation be allowed to undermine the core value of academic integrity, or protect it?

Committed and collaborative leadership will be required, emphasizing virtues likely to appeal to Millennial sensibilities, like trust, honesty, and community responsibility. If such leadership is provided, innovations like modified honor codes will prosper. If not, widespread cheating may become institutionalized in American higher education.


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Donald L. McCabe is professor of management and global business at Rutgers University and founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity. Gary Pavela is director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland at College Park and past president of the Center for Academic Integrity.

Keeping It Real

What did Jacques Lacan mean by "the Real"? I found out, sort of, by walking across my apartment in search of a copy of the recent re-translation of his Ecrits -- a volume replacing another (somewhat notoriously unreliable) translation released by the same publisher more than 20 years earlier.

When a manufacturer of toasters finds out that its toasters are defective, it will issue a recall. About halfway to the bookshelf, the light bulb went off: Time for a class action suit!

Suddenly, a rogue housecat interposed himself between my feet -- causing immediate "walk failure" and consequent wrenching of lower back.

Now, the Imaginary is for Lacan the dimension of the human human psyche that permits us to feel more or less cohesive. It is the raw material of ego identity. By contrast, the Symbolic includes all the systems we use for communication and exchange with others. It is "language," very broadly defined. But what about Lacan's third term?

Just to back up a little.... I'd been reading Slavoj Zizek, the wild and woolly cultural theorist, who is about as Lacanian as they come. He slings the lingo like a pro. But every so often, my reading comprehension disappears, like the steam from a bowl of cooling soup.

Zizek refers to the Real "escaping" the Imaginary and "errupting into" the Symbolic. Which is good to know, but not that helpful. It left me wondering: "OK, the Real -- what is it? And where?"

And then, out of nowhere, I got an answer. The Real is a silent but (potentially) deadly housecat. The realm of the ego's Imaginary dignity is violated. The order of the Symbolic is reduced to groans and obscenities. The Real is what leaves you on the floor.

Fredric Jameson, the lefty lit-crit guru maximus, once equated Lacan's concept with the Marxist notion of History -- a word that Jameson always capitalizes, like the name of a god. History, and hence the Real, he explained, "is what hurts."

OK, but does that mean my cat embodies History? (I've just founded a new school of thought. Either that, or the pain killers are finally kicking in.)

Zizek is known for illuminating Lacan's work with examples from daily life and popular culture. But Astra Taylor, who is now putting the finishing touches on a documentary on Zizek, figured that the film would work better if some of those illustrations were themselves illustrated. So the exposition will include animated sequences -- in short, brief psychoanalytic cartoons.

People who have spent time puzzling over Lacan's quasi-mathematical diagrams can only greet this news with both curiosity and the sense that, after seeing the film, they are probably going to have some really weird dreams.

In any case, Zizek: The Movie will premier at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco on April 21, with the subject of the film himself in attendance. And the filmmaker is preparing to tour college campuses with the documentary this spring, with screenings now scheduled for Emory University, the University of Georgia, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Taylor is still putting her travel plans together, so anyone interested in arranging a campus showing should contact her. For more information on the film itself, check out its Web site. Zizek: The Movie goes into general release this fall.

Also on the world-premier front..... Revolution Books, the largest chain of Maoist bookstores in the United States (not that they have had any competition in quite a while) is holding parties to celebrate the publication of From Ike to Mao and Beyond, a memoir by Bob Avakian, whose full and rather awesome title is Chairman of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.

The book sports blurbs by Cornel West (who says that Avakian's "voice and witness are indispensible") and Howard Zinn (who calls the memoir "a humanizing portrait of someone who is often seen only as a hard-line revolutionary"). The reader learns of the Maoist leader's love of doo-wop music, his passion for basketball, and his skill in the kitchen as a maker of waffles.

There is much to disagree with in the book. Avakian, for examples, refers to Stalin's "errors." It is hard to think of his lethal purges as some kind of epistemological blunder. The difference between "committing mistakes" and "committing atrocities" is not just semantic.

And yet the memoir itself is -- ideology aside -- incredibly interesting. The author is the son of a federal judge (now deceased) in the San Francisco Bay area. The book paints a fascinating picture of Berkeley during the 50's and 60's. The campus upsurge of the Free Speech Movement is just the start of a long march, with stops in China (during the Cultural Revolution), Chicago (where "Chairman Bob" becomes the maximum leader of a small party), and Paris (to which he relocates around the time Reagan comes into office).

Suffice it to say that the author will not be attending any book parties or news shows. I asked a representative of the publisher, Insight Press. She indicated that preserving the security of the Chairman is a high priority, while an appearance on Good Morning America is not.

Meanwhile, another volume by Avakian is due this month from Open Court, an academic publisher in Chicago. Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics is a collaboration with Bill Martin, a professor of philosophy at DePaul University. Portions of it are available online herehere, and here.

At one point, they note that the slogan "Serve the People," made famous by the little red book, could be used -- with very different intentions, of course -- at a McDonald's training institute. This is, on reflection, something like Hegel's critique of the formalism of Kant's ethics. Only, you know, different.

A footnote to history: In an article a couple of years ago, Avakian recalled taking a course on Paradise Lost when he was a student in the honors program at Berkeley. The professor teaching that course was one Stanley Fish.

Proof that higher education in America is in the hands of wild-eyed radicals? Is Fish's academic empire-building just a way to create a Shining Path to postmodern communism? And what about this "John Milton" character? Is it just a coincidence that the leader of America's Maoists once studied the poetry of a man who was the minister of propaganda for a revolutionary movement (the Puritans) that seized state power and executed the rightful king?

I report, you decide.

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Intellectual Entrepreneurship: The New Social Compact

Public research universities face enormous challenges in the 21st century: waning fiscal support, a loss of public confidence, and a persistent lack of diversity. Perhaps no challenge is more compelling, however, than the obligation to serve society. The time has come for increased commitment to and removal of barriers preventing collaborative, interdisciplinary, socially relevant research and learning.

Unfortunately, too often service is portrayed exclusively as "volunteerism," a university's third function, and interdisciplinary scholarship is viewed as less rigorous than and at odds with disciplinary knowledge. So conceived, service is destined to take a back seat to research and teaching and interdisciplinary initiatives at best become supplements or add-ons which compete for time and money and are incapable of fixing structural flaws in the way knowledge is arranged and delivered. The result is a lost opportunity for "academic engagement": collaboration across disciplines and partnerships with the community that might produce solutions to society's most vexing problems.

Pursuing academic engagement necessitates radically rethinking "service" and "knowledge," finding innovative mechanisms to organize and leverage academe's intellectual capital to transform lives for the benefit of society. It requires us to acknowledge that a university's collective wisdom is among its most precious assets -- anchored to, but not in competition with, basic research and disciplinary knowledge -- and that part of the significance of such wisdom is tied to its use.

While redefining and implementing more robust notions of service and knowledge will be arduous, the payoff could be enormous. Fortunately, there is a movement afoot at many public research institutions across the nation, a movement to bring higher education out of the 19th into the 21st century. With rising tuition, limited access to the nation's best universities, and increasingly complex social problems, many recognize that the need for public institutions to find meaningful ways to serve the citizens of their states is more important than ever. Universities must fulfill a social compact with their states. 

At my own institution, the University of Texas at Austin, a critical mass of faculty embrace this compact: academics best described as "intellectual entrepreneurs," citizen-scholars supplying more than narrow, theoretical disciplinary knowledge. They exemplify academic engagement, taking to heart the ethical obligation to contribute to society, to both discover and put to work knowledge that makes a difference.

Among them are a philosopher helping to increase the role played by ethics in corporate decision making, a neurobiologist and pharmacologist struggling to bring personal and public policies in line with scientific knowledge about alcohol addiction, a theater historian attempting to use performance as a mechanism through which ordinary people can change their lives, and a literary scholar who uses poetry to enable those in business and government to imagine what is possible.  

In 2004-5 these and several other faculty, along with distinguished members of the community (including the U.S. secretary of commerce, the chancellor the University of Texas System, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the executive VP and COO of a major health-care network), contributed to a series in the local newspaper exploring how to engender greater connections between the university and community to address society's most troublesome issues.
The arguments advanced by these writers may reflect some of what President Larry Faulkner had in mind in his February 13, 2005 speech the American Council on Education, when he called for a new "social compact." Confronting this quest to contribute to society and realize the ethical imperative to make a difference, however, is a stark reality: Inflexible administrative structures, historically embedded practices, status quo thinking and inertia. Until these obstacles are overcome, the current retreat from public life will not be arrested and the new social compact envisioned by President Faulkner will not be realized. 

Among the daunting challenges confronting universities aspiring to intellectual entrepreneurship and the resulting academic engagement are these:

  • How do scholars, who live primarily in a world of ideas, acquire the practical (e.g., rhetorical, business, design, technological, etc.) tools needed to develop and sustain projects requiring acceptance and investment by audiences both inside and outside the university -- skills typically disassociated from the scholarly enterprise?
  • How can faculty integrate, synthesize and unify knowledge to permit solution of complex social, civic and ethical problems? This is an enormous challenge in an academic culture that the former Brown University President Vartan Gregorian says "respects specialists and suspects generalists." How do we ensure the continued proliferation of specialized knowledge, while concurrently encouraging renaissance thinking?
  • How can faculty who engage in public scholarship -- who undertake projects like those pursued by the philosopher, literary scholar, theatre historian, neurobiologist and pharmacologist, described above -- flourish given restricted measurements for assessing performance enforced by universities and academic disciplines (e.g., journal publications tailored to small and insular audiences)? Incentive systems not only fail to encourage public scholarship, but may actually devalue research that doesn't fit neatly into the academic geography of one's home discipline and simultaneously contributes to society. What changes to institutional reward structures are requisite for academic engagement?
  • How can faculty maintain standards of academic integrity and objectivity, while participating in community projects in which they may become ideologically vested, serve as change agents or directly profit?
  • How should academic institutions adjust their methods for discovering and imparting knowledge in an ever-changing world?  Because historically original thought, lone discovery and disciplinary contribution have been considered more important than team work, what changes are needed to address effectively 21st century problems?  Complex issues such as health, the environment, education, cultural diversity and others demand multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary and collaborative forms of investigation.
  • How can academic engagement be achieved in an environment maintaining that research is two-dimensional, either basic or applied, a long-held, rigid dichotomy frequently invoked to deter faculty from venturing too far from theoretical knowledge?
  • How might the entrepreneurial thinking that universities successfully deploy for technology transfer analogously be used to empower all of the arts and sciences, to unleash a university-wide spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship? How might this agenda be pursued while remaining vigilant to the sanctity of the academic enterprise?
  • How can the university better apply its morally centered quest for truth to matters of public concern? How can it encourage public deliberation that benefits from many different opinions and challenges to received wisdom, without being perceived as relativistic or unpatriotic?

These are but a few challenges to intellectual entrepreneurship. Answers to these questions, which for so long have remained unarticulated, will not be easy to come by and cannot possibly be answered via the lone contribution of an essayist. Because awareness and diagnosis of the problem is the first step to solution, university presidents and their community stakeholders must encourage faculty to begin a rigorous and thoughtful conversation about how to make the academy -- culture that far too often resists change -- more responsive to the needs of society and structured in a manner best suited for the 21st century knowledge industry.

It is time for us to reflect on what must be done to harness and integrate the vast intellectual assets of universities as a lever for social good -- about what it will take to bring academics together on equal footing with those in the public and private sectors, collaboratively producing, jointly owning and using knowledge to change people's lives and improve the human condition.

To be clear, this quest to build a new social compact must not become a platform for disgruntled and gadfly faculty -- something that, as we witnessed in the debates of prior decades about teaching versus research, will make it far too easy for the reticent and nay sayers among us to dismiss the call for intellectual entrepreneurship as merely the diatribe of failed scholars who would have us abandon the research focus of universities. Instead, this topic should be pursued vigorously by our institutions' most prominent researchers who, while understanding the distinctive mission of academic institutions, also recognize the need to build connections across disciplines and between the university and community, and who refuse to apologize for being scholars. After all, creating a culture of academic engagement requires accountability and collaborative problem-solving in forthright public exchanges about how to enact change.

Public intellectual practice is a noble quest -- one that doesn't inherently or automatically require us to choose between a commitment either to research or service or between disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge.  President Faulkner's suggestion of the need for a new social compact, therefore, may be prophetic. In this spirit, I challenge university presidents and community leaders to set the tone: to create and lead conversations exploring how best to forge new, productive, synergistic connections between universities and society. Together we can make academic engagement more the rule than the exception; through collaboration, intellectual entrepreneurship will become a defining characteristic of our academic brand name, designating our institutions as truly innovative and exemplary sites of learning in this century.

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Richard A. Cherwitz is professor of communication studies and rhetoric and composition, and founder and director of the intellectual entrepreneurship program at the University of Texas at Austin. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the January 17, 2005 issue of The Scientist.

The Lecturer's Tale

A couple of years ago, a book appeared which might as well have had the title The Pedagogy of Zaniness. (Let's just call it that, to avoid giving it any more publicity.) The author was an academic; but more, he was also one wacky dude. And by following his instructions, you, too, could be a wacky dude, or dudette, as the case may be.

His argument was simplicity itself. To break through the wall of sullen indifference in a classroom full of students expecting to be entertained, professors ought to learn to tell jokes, make knowing references to contemporary pop culture, adopt the prevailing slang, and in general cultivate an ironic detachment from their own authority - as if much too hip to take "taking things seriously" all that seriously. 

It is possible that the author gave tips on what to wear and how to rap. I did not get that far in the book before dropping it with a shudder of disgust. 

Now, any competent teacher learns that you do what you gotta do to square the demands of presenting the course material with the limitations of students' previous knowledge and existing cognitive skills. Whatever works is, ipso facto, good. But The Pedagogy of Zaniness went way beyond pragmatism. Its outlook was one of abject surrender to "the World of Total Entertainment," as Philip Roth once called contemporary American culture. 

Perhaps the most important lasting effect that education can have is to instill a lasting sense of how much you will never know - but could, if you worked at it. But the instructional philosophy of Professor Yuckmeister boiled down to flattering kids for having watched a lot of TV. Maybe each class should end as the game shows once did, with the professor/host saying, "Don Pardo, tell them what they've won!" (Or "learned," if that is the word we really want.) 

O brave new world, that has such edutainment coordinators in it! 

Not everyone is celebrating the changes, of course. Last fall, The Midwest Quarterly published "Can We Discuss This? The Passing of the Lecture," by Stanley J. Solomon, who teaches film and literature at Iona College in New York. The journal itself isn't available online, though you can find out about subscribing to it via this quaint Web site

Solomon's essay is, in part a lament for the days when he devoted "about seventy percent of the class period" to lecturing - with the firm sense that his "methodology provided students with materials the could not get from books accessible to them." But he now recognizes the error of his ways, thanks to "the determined efforts of various theorists, many of them administrators who had not actually taught much in a classroom, or at all, but had read a great deal." From them, he learned that lecturing is "another form of child abuse, aimed at nominal adults, of course, but still young people presumably subjugated and entrapped in an environment controlled by an authoritarian leader" -- leaving them no self-defense except "to fall asleep to escape the painful environment they have paid so dearly to join." 

The author cites the recent pedagogical literature contra the lecture, making it clear that the idea of the traditional classroom as Foucauldian torture cell is, in fact, pretty much the received wisdom now, at least in some disciplines. (Probably more so in English and film studies than, say, microbiology or accounting.) For example, there is a recent
British book called Realizing the University in an Age of Supercomplexity by Ronald Barnett, who says that the formal lecture "keeps channels of communication closed, freezes hierarchy between lecturers and students and removes any responsibility on the student to respond." 

That oppressive rigidity has been replaced, writes Solomon, by the professor's more flexible role as "a discussion-leader, a questioner, a presiding organizer whose main task is to keep a discussion on track (not in itself an easy feat, but one that is manageable with experience)." 

The abolition of lecturing is not simply a matter of meeting the expectation of students for whom the talk-show host is the embodiment of discursive authority. The old arrangement was hard on professors too, notes Solomon. It "required concentrated reading and annotation of primary texts, research into secondary sources to assimilate [them] into my materials, and an organizing plan" for each session in the classroom. 

"The more I studied the advantages of discussion as a replacement for lecturing," recalls Solomon, "the more obvious the evidence of professional benefits appeared, simultaneously with a notable increase in my leisure reading and television watching." The age of the lecture is over. "Indeed," he writes, "the podium, the final resting place of lecture notes, and the little platform it used to stand on are relics of the passing hierarchical age." 

Still, there might yet come a day when people want to revive the practice. If so, the best place to start might be with a lecture by the late Erving Goffman called, simply "The Lecture." It was first presented at the University of Michigan almost 30 years ago, and can be found in his last book, Forms of Talk (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981).
Goffman was that rarest of birds, a sociologist who wrote with a minimum of jargon. And the fact that he often concentrated on the most routine sorts of interactions among people will sometimes leave readers with the sense that they aren't learning anything they hadn't already noticed. 

But just as there is deceptive complexity, so there is such a thing as deceptive simplicity. The cumulative effect of reading very much of Goffman's work is that you discover just how many unstated but very exact rules govern even the most "informal" of human interactions. Looking up from Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, you return to your own everyday life like an anthropologist visiting a strange new culture. 

In "The Lecture," Goffman did something a bit different. He analyzed, in effect, the presentation of self in academic life -- in particular, when a scholar is "holding the floor" in an auditorium. Most of his remarks pertain, not to classroom lecture, but to the sort of formal occasion when a university invites a distinguished person to give a presentation. 

But some of Goffman's model applies just as well to the classroom lecture, r.i.p. He notes that a common experience of "joint tasks, theater performances, or conversations" is that people "get caught up and carried away into the special realm of being that can be generated by these engagements." And the audience of a lecture might become similarly engrossed. "However," he writes, "unlike games and staged plays, lectures must not be frankly presented as if engrossment were the controlling intent." 

Take that, hipster doofus professor! 

"Indeed," continues Goffman, "lectures draw on a precarious ideal: certainly the listerners are to be carried away so that time slips by, but because of the speaker's subject matter, not his antics' the subject matter is meant to have its own enduring claims upon the listeners apart from the felicities or infelicities of the presentation. A lecture, then, purports to take the audience right past the auditorium, the occasion, and the speaker into the subject matter upon which the lecture comments. So [the] lecturer is meant to be a performer, but not merely a performer." 

All of which may be moot. Stanley Solomon's essay suggests that the art of the classroom lecture is disappearing -- and won't be missed. "That there was ever a time in history when students loved lectures," he writes, "especially those given in large lecture halls, seems so improbable a proposition that I cannot recall anyone venturing to make it, even in the old days, in recorded history or in literature." 

Well, for what it is worth, let me testify a little, just for posterity. When I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1980s, there was a professor who taught the basic course on European intellectual history from Descartes through (if memory serves) existentialism. It covered two semesters, and consisted almost entirely of lectures. 

As if that were not authoritarian enough, the prof announced, on the first day of class, that every figure we would be studying was important -- and that, in short, we had no right to form an opinion of their work. "Some of what you are going to hear," he'd say, "might sound ridiculous to you, and you might think that means you don't have to take it seriously. That's because you don't know anything. Even if they are wrong, their mistakes are important, and you need to learn to understand why they thought the way they did."

He then went on to give lectures that were utterly (to use Goffman's term) engrossing. The hall was always packed. Besides the hundreds of students who took the class as an elective, there were people who showed up without enrolling. During the final lecture each semester, the audience spilled out into the hallway, and invariably gave him a standing ovation. 

When the professor did not get tenure, a number of us were prepared to take over somebody's office in protest -- a gesture that he quietly discouraged. Since then, he has published at least three major works of scholarship; the last I heard, he had become the chairman of his department at another university. 

This professor never made jokes. There was no "sharing." And he didn't pretend to respect our capacity for judgment -- only our capacity to develop one. (At least eventually, with serious effort.) He just taught like a man with a mission, totally unwilling to let our ignorance get in his way.

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Don't Blame the Market

Like ancient Rome in its waning days, American higher education is corrupted by excess. According to a now infamous 2003 New York Times article, for instance, Ohio State University boasts a massive facility its peers call the "Taj Mahal," which features kayaking, canoeing, a ropes course and massages. Washington State University possesses the largest Jacuzzi on the West Coast, a tub that can accommodate up to 53 people. And that just scratches the surface. One reads regularly about tens of millions spent to install new football stadium skyboxes; about gourmet cafeteria cuisine; and even about student rioting to celebrate athletic success.

Examine for-profit colleges, however, and one observes quite the opposite. There are no water parks, skyboxes or Jacuzzis. Typical is a campus of DeVry University, as described by the Berkeley professor David Kirp in Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The "campus off Highway 88 in Fremont, California ... looks like one of the high-tech companies in the area. It's low-slung and functional, built with an eye to use, not aesthetics. With its long corridors of classrooms and labs ... it could be a community college, though without the gym or student center."

"Market forces" are often blamed for indulgences at traditional universities, as they are in the recent Futures Project report "Correcting Course," and for exploitation of students at for-profit colleges. But how can the market produce such contrasting corruptions: excessive opulence in presumably well-intentioned nonprofit universities, and dirty dealings at essentially amenity-free for-profit institutions? Moreover, how can for-profit schools' opponents continue to smear for-profit institutions as threats to students, as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) did in recent Congressional testimony, while traditional colleges are typically portrayed as ivy-walled treasures dedicated only to seeking truth?

To a large extent, the answer, at least to the second question, is a failure to understand the practical difference between "for-profit" and "nonprofit."

First, look at nonprofit institutions. "Universities share one characteristic with compulsive gamblers and exiled royalty," writes the former Harvard University president Derek Bok in Universities in the Marketplace, "there is never enough money to satisfy their desires." Bok's point is unmistakable: Universities always work to maximize their revenue. Why? Because, like most of us, they always have things they'd do if only they had more money. William F. Massy, a former Stanford vice president, calls it a drive for "value fulfillment" in his book Honoring the Trust, further explaining that "because value fulfillment is open ended, no respectable university will run out of worthwhile things to do." 

That makes sense. The term "value fulfillment," however, suggests that universities use additional money only for altruistic ends, while the reality is that nonprofit universities can be driven as much by greed as anyone else. For instance, as the Ohio University economist Richard Vedder explains in Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, university presidents often indulgently use new revenue "to fund large salary increases, add staff members ... build more luxurious facilities, and expand research projects."

For-profit institutions also try to maximize their revenue. But in addition to maximizing revenue, for-profit schools want to minimize their expenses. That's why they don't have any football stadiums or massage therapists. Simply, maximum revenue and minimum expenses yield maximum profit.

That does not mean, as their critics suggest, that they will necessarily exploit their students. The only way for-profit schools can maximize their revenue, after all, is by bringing in as many students as possible. They can't, therefore, reduce expenses to any point below which they can provide the education students are willing to pay for. Kirp's discussion of DeVry helps confirm this. "Instruction is more intense than in most community colleges and regional universities ... and it is often better as well." Moreover, "graduates do get hired ... DeVry's proudest boast has been that within six months of graduation, 95 percent of graduates are working, and not behind the McDonald's counter but at jobs with a future."

Are for-profit schools perfect? Hardly. As their critics regularly point out, for-profit education's past is checkered by scams and frauds. And it still has troublemakers. In January, "60 Minutes" aired an expose on questionable practices at Career Education Corporation, which runs 82 for-profit campuses. But general hostility to for-profit education, its past, and the ongoing scrutiny it receives as a result force for-profit schools to police themselves.

As Nicholas J. Glakas, president of the Career College Association, told members of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week, his association's members are "committed to and focused on compliance" with the law. "We have to be because of our past." He also explained, though, that accusations against for-profit schools are often sensationalized, noting that the "60 Minutes" piece focused on only "three students out of 100,000" at "2 of 82 branch campuses" of just "one publicly traded company."

So when scams occur in for-profit schools, or traditional colleges purchase ever-grander amenities, has the market failed? No, because a truly free market hasn't even been allowed to exist. 

According to the College Board, almost 60 percent of students in both nonprofit and for-profit colleges receive financial aid, primarily from the federal government. In addition, according to the U.S. Department of Education, more than a third of public universities' revenue comes from state governments rather than consumers. Supply and demand have been crippled. Because a large percentage of their funds come from state governments, public schools aren't bound by students' demands. Moreover, most students use other people's money -- in the form of taxpayer-funded grants and loans -- when deciding what they are willing to pay for at any school. 

The solution to the problem is to let the market work, and with the federal Higher Education Act due to be reauthorized this year, a window of opportunity is starting to open.  

Ideally, the federal government should cease providing grants and subsidized loans to students, and states should no longer furnish block appropriations for their colleges. Such solutions, though, are likely politically impossible.
What would be politically feasible, however, would be for states to do something like what Colorado will begin doing next fall.  Rather than sending funds directly to its colleges and universities, the state will send money to students, who can either take it to the state school of their choice, or use half of it at one of three approved private schools.

The federal government, for its part, should phase out all grant and loan programs for wealthy and middle-class students. For the poor, it could offer loans that students wouldn't have to start paying back until after they graduate and begin earning a college graduate's salary, making them ultimately responsible for paying for their own education, but allowing them to do so when they've begun to reap its benefits.
Making all consumers pay their own way through college would infuse effective demand into college financing. Suddenly, the frills of traditional higher education, or taking a chance on potentially shady for-profit schools, would look a lot less enticing. The market would finally get to work.

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Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom.

Going to the Bathroom

The other day I had my composition students in groups, ready to "peer edit," according to the latest pedagogy. Suddenly one student just got up, and started for the door. I glared at her. "Just going to the bathroom," she airly explained. I did not reply.

Wrong. I should have said or done something. We cannot have students wandering out of our classrooms at will. That way lies -- what? High school? Or do they ask permission from the teacher first in high school? Elementary school? This is where they are presumably taught to ask, and certainly where they must learn to discipline their bodily functions.

Most likely my student did not have to go to the bathroom. She just wanted to stroll a bit before bending to the task at hand. Another student might have been more aggressive, in order to demonstrate her dislike of the task, if not school itself. But in any case, what to do? If doing nothing seems wrong, shouting at the student to sit down does not seem right.

I have always thought of the bathroom as marking the moment of discipline in the college classroom. Any student mention of the bathroom, whether in good faith or not, becomes as impossible to deal with as it is inescapable. When students do anything in the classroom that merits the exercise of faculty discipline, professors are on their own. The easiest thing for everybody to do is to look the other way. There are few rules, unlike those in place for elementary, middle, and high school teachers.

Even if a student asks permission to go to the bathroom, what I want to reply is, "Don't put me in the position of having to answer such a question." But of course the teacher, as a teacher, is precisely in such a position -- on every educational level. Some provocations we professors acknowledge. Some we do not. Let the bathroom represent one we do not because it has to do with our authority over the student body.

This authority is at present elaborately monitored when it comes to sex. However, the prohibitions and penalties regarding sex are strikingly in contrast to their absence regarding anything else having to do with the student body. How can we explain this? After all, we can readily acknowledge that, outside or inside the classroom, no body remains entirely still, stable and quiescent.

It seems to me that on the college level we are all expected to be intellects. Hence, the discipline we exercise over our desires is ultimately no different than that we exercise over our bodily functions. Nonetheless, there is a difference, and that difference becomes quite dramatic in a classroom, which is, after all, the basic scene of instruction in formal education. The necessity to go to the bathroom disrupts this scene.

This is another way of saying, it seems to me, that the classroom can be disrupted. In practice, it matters how, and so the student who talks or mutters, rustles paper or puts his or her head down on the desk, may not be as bad as the one who interrupts a lecture without raising a hand, spreads out and slowly eats a whole sandwich, or leaves the classroom and returns repeatedly. In principle, though, any disruption calls for some response from the teacher.

What makes going to the bathroom so distinctive and uncomfortable is that, while still disruptive, it partakes of some necessity that is socially if not pedagogically acceptable. In most other cases, the professor can understandably lift a cry to the heavens, bemoaning how university life used to be, before hordes of student barbarians broke through the gates, with their plastic slurppies, their taco chips, their baggy clothes and their baggy values. But the bathroom we have always with us.

Do we not? The trouble is, if we have, why do I not remember a student ever leaving the classroom to go to the bathroom during my own college years? (Much less sleeping or eating.) Once during graduate school I remember a student was asked to leave, because he would not stop talking to the person next to him. He left immediately. The rest of us could not have been more shocked than if he had got up suddenly and squatted in front of his chair.

During my more than 30 subsequent years as a professor I remember a few students pleading bodily necessity in asking permission to leave. The first was a male, who basked in his boldness after he asked. I told him, "sure, you can go, but don't come back." Then it seemed he didn't have to go so urgently after all. I insisted, saying that I couldn't live with either his urethra or his anus on my conscience. The rest of the class laughed. Those were the days.

The rest of the students who pleaded have been more serious, more apparently stricken, and all female. Is the moment of the bathroom in fact a gendered one? It appears to be. Males are expected to exercise control over their bodily functions as an expression of being "male." Are females not expected to exercise the same control so strenuously, as a contrary expression of being "female"? Of course, whether or not this is true, female students if they either want to or must leave class can usually draw on a degree of mystified male latitude for anything to do with menstruation.

We return to the body, the repressed question of discipline in the college classroom, and what, if anything, to conclude. Other than recognizing the question, there is, I would argue, nothing to conclude.

Different professors will respond in different ways to classroom disruptions, and even to the same disruption represented by going to the bathroom. Some responses will be better than others, and some will probably always be hapless. So be it.

Certainly more rules and regulation about student behavior in class or teacher responsibility to discipline that behavior will only result in universities becoming more like high schools than they are. Already the specter of the assistant dean haunts college halls like the principal or the superintendent, and students recognize this. The more clever know that they can secure a hearing in the dean's office about virtually anything to do with their teachers.

The other day I heard of a teacher who is being e-mailed by one of her students from the previous semester. The student is demanding an explanation of her grade, and has stated that she will go to the dean if a satisfactory justification is not forthcoming. Presumably she knows that the institution (a small liberal arts college) requires that in such cases the student must first meet with the teacher and the department chair, prior to a meeting with the dean.

Of course the student wants her grade changed. The surprising thing is this: she wants it not an A- but an A. When I last heard, the student was still e-mailing, while the teacher, in order to avoid the chair, not to mention the dean, was considering just changing the grade, to hell with it. How to hear this and not long again for the days when, well, when students, even college students, asked permission from their teachers to go to the bathroom? But those days are gone.

What we have now is a cultural dispensation where the precious space of the classroom has been breached by everything from television monitors to Subway sandwiches and cellphones. At local levels, in specific ways, it still might be possible to dispute, contest, or restrict the circumstances. But not their larger authority. One may as well try to wish away e-mail, if not assistant deans. The route from inside the classroom to outside (and back again) is firmly and irrevocably in place inside higher education.

The bathroom now has a role, albeit a minor one, in this place. Why worry about it, from the student point of view? If you are in class, and you have to go, just go, or use it as an excuse to go. Meanwhile, there may be an air of nostalgia from the point of view of a teacher about the very idea of a student asking permission. Perhaps I said nothing not only because I felt so baffled by the student who just got up the other day. I may have suddenly felt wistful. The very idea of "disciplining" her in some way, once so distasteful, now seemed utterly charming and even sweetly poignant.

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Terry Caesar is the author or co-editor of seven books, including three on academic life, the most recent being Traveling Through the Boondocks.


This, That and the Other Thing

Intellectual Affairs has been running for just over a month now. It might be a good moment for a bit of housecleaning.

Readers have contacted me about some interesting developments apropos Ayn Rand, Jacques Derrida, and the history of academic freedom -- so today's column will have the element of variety going for it. Consider it a roundup of faits divers. After all, that sounds a lot more sophisticated than "news in brief."

Referring to the followers of Ayn Rand as "Randroids"  was probably not the nicest way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the author's birth. But it was positively kind by contrast with the really strange honor being paid to her soon by her devotees. They are all set to publish a volume that will document, at great length, how Rand coped with a private, and fairly humiliating, part of her life.

First, a little Objectivist history:

In 1968, the world of Rand's followers -- which included quite a few academics, as well as a young economist by the name of Alan Greenspan -- was shaken by the news of a split between Rand and her most famous disciple, Nathaniel Branden, the psychologist best known for giving the expression "self-esteem" its current inescapable popularity.

There had been a romantic liason between the author of The Fountainhead and the psychologist, who was 25 years younger. When Branden declined to continue the relationship, he and his wife Barbara were read out of the movement.

Many of the details later became available in The Passion of Ayn Rand, a biography by Barbara Branden. And they were confirmed by Branden's memoir, Judgment Day. (Long before their books appeared in the late 1980s, the couple had divorced.) In 1999, the complicated Objectivist menage was dramatized in a steamy (yet also not-so-hot) docudrama for Showtime also called  The Passion of Ayn Rand. A better title might have been Atlas Shagged.

In any case, the story will now be told again in the pages of a new book drawing on Rand's notes. For years after the split, Rand sought to dissect the "psycho-epistemology" of the Brandens -- in short, hundreds of pages of brooding over a failed love affair. The book is authorized by the Ayn Rand Institute, which holds her papers, the official and "orthodox" wing of her Objectivist movement.

Perhaps the most incisive comment on the volume comes from Chris Sciabarra, author of  Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and other studies. "Reading Rand's personal journal entries makes me feel a bit uneasy," he recently wrote in an online forum.  "As valuable as they are to me from an historical perspective, I suspect there might be an earthquake in Valhalla caused by the spinning of Ayn Rand's body."

The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics (Durban House Publishing) was originally scheduled to appear in time for the centennial of her birth, in early February. Its appearance has been bumped back. Expect an  earthquake in Valhalla sometime this spring or early summer.

The editing and translation of posthumous works by Jacques Derrida will be a cottage industry. And pity the fool who takes on the job of preparing a definitive bibliography.

It was with a sense of tempting fate that, in a recent column, I described the book now available in English as Rogues as the last book Derrida saw through the press during his lifetime. Anthony Smith, a sharp-eyed undergraduate at DePaul University, points out that a few months later Derrida published a volume with better claim to that distinction.

It is called Béliers: Le dialogue ininterrompu entre deux infinis, le poème. Through a little digging, I've learned that it has been translated as "Rams: Uninterrupted Dialogue -- between Two Infinities, the Poem," and will appear in a forthcoming volume of Derrida's essays on Paul Celan, the great Romanian-Jewish poet (and concentration camp survivor) who wrote in German. (Let me tempt fate again by guessing that the "rams" in Derrida's titles is an allusion to the Shofar).

Derrida first presented Béliers in Heidelberg in February 2003, as a memorial tribute to Hans-Georg Gadamer. The German philosopher, author of Truth and Method, had died the previous year at the age of 102. "Will I be able to testify, in a way that is right and faithful, to my admiration for Hans-Georg Gadamer?" asks Derrida.

Good question! I can't wait to find out. For one thing, it's news to hear that Derrida admired Gadamer. In 1981, when colleagues arranged for them to meet and discuss one another's work at the Goethe Institute in Paris, their exchange left Gadamer feeling (if one may translate freely from a more refined philosophical idiom) "pissed, dissed, and dismissed."

By 1992, Gadamer was still complaining that Derrida was "not capable of dialogue, only monologue." But perhaps that made the eulogy all the more eloquent. After all, Derrida did get to have the last word.

Finally, a correction to the recent column celebrating the anniversary of Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger's  The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, first published in 1955. The work was, I wrote, "long since out of print."

Well, that was at least half right. In 1996, Transaction Publishers reissued the first part of the book as Academic Freedom in the Age of the College, by Richard Hofstadter, with an introduction by Roger L. Geiger, who is distinguished professor of higher education at the Pennsylvania State University.

In his introduction, Geiger pays tribute to Hofstadter's gifts as both a historian and a writer, while pointing to some elements of his research that haven't held up too well. For example, Hofstadter overestimated how many colleges founded before the Civil War ended up failing. The problem was that his data set included institutions that never opened, or just served as secondary schools.

Until the late 19th century, very few American institutions of higher learning bore much resemblance to the contemporary research university. By e-mail, I asked Geiger how much contemporary relevance Hofstadter's study might have.

The project, Geiger wrote back, "was commissioned and written with the conviction that it was very relevant to contemporary America, circa 1955. Hofstadter, in particular, seemed to equate the ante-bellum evangelical colleges with the kind of xenophobic populism that seemed to support McCarthyism."

Actually, my question was about our contemporary situation, not Hofstadter's. But sometimes you have to wonder if that's too fine a distinction.

And a plea to you, dear reader. Please drop a line if you hear an interesting conference paper, or read an impressive (or, for that matter, atrocious) article in a scholarly journal. Should there be some earth-shattering, or at least profession-rocking, discussion taking place on a listserv, please consider passing that news along.

That's not really a call for gossip -- though, of course, if you have any, I'm all ears (as Ross Perot once put it, in a different context).

The simple fact is that the audience for Inside Higher Ed is self-selecting for intelligence. And you aren't reading this site because you have to, but because you want to. So you've got good taste as well. The really interesting developments in scholarly life tend to occur well below the radar of the academic presses, let alone the administration. I'd rather hear from one graduate student or adjunct with a finger on the pulse of her discipline than go to dinner with a provost who has an expense account and no clue.

Well, that probably sounded ruder than it should have. But you get the idea. We're not standing on ceremony here. This column is run "cafeteria style," or in the spirit of the coffee houses of Vienna from a century ago. If I'm missing something important, please don't hesitate to say as so.

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An Academic (Almost) Does the WB

America is the land of identity fraud.

Not only is identity theft on the rise, as criminals more readily exploit technology to steal their victim's identity, but Americans increasingly fake their own identity for financial, professional, or social gain. The ever-increasing powers of technology, combined with louder siren calls of celebrity and wealth at all costs, undermine our personal ethics, nurturing a land of dreamers and hucksters.  

For a while, I became one of them.

This summer I strolled into the WB studios in New York City. I arrived at the casting department to audition for their youth reality series Studio 7. The series would throw seven strangers into a deluxe Manhattan apartment for a week, filming their every move. The week would culminate in a quiz show competition, pitting the seven housemates against one another, awarding $77,000 to a sole winner.  

But there was a catch. WB, the network of sophomoric shows devoted to young folks, set a strict age cap for contestants: 24.

Rather than disclose my age, let's just say I'm at least seven years over the show's age limit. But I've been told countless times that I look 18.

During the "audition," casting directors submitted applicants to a pop quiz on politics and pop culture. The quiz asked various questions such as the name of the author of Against All Enemies: Inside America?s War on Terror (Richard Clarke); the name of the famous comedienne scribe of the hit 'tween chick flick Mean Girls (Tina Fey); the number of editions of NYPD Blue on air (five); and names of the contenders for the 2004 Democratic nomination. The casting directors also administered a lengthy questionnaire. In person and in writing, I kept it bubbly, doing my best to impersonate a vapid, trivia-savvy young dude.

The network folks demanded to know my strategy for winning the contest. Determined to be cast and to win, I described my Blonde Ambition strategy to casting directors. I told them that people often underestimate me. Therefore I'd "play blonde" during the show, fooling my competitors into a state of false ease. This strategy served me well in college, I told central casting. As an undergrad, I mastered an air of nonchalance, which gave the impression that this honorary blonde never studied. Of course, I secretly did. Such a strategy disarmed classmates.   

After taking the timed quiz, and submitting to a videotaped interview, the casting director photographed me, and I left the audition on my merry way.

Life went on. About three weeks after the interview, I got a call from the most senior casting director congratulating me. I'd been selected among many applicants as a contestant. I was thrilled. Visions of fame and fortune waltzed in my mind. Not so fast.   The studio demanded a slew of requirements before I could appear in the series to compete for the dough. I'd have to show that I didn't have HIV or hepatitis, and that I was in good psychological health. No problem, I thought. Then came the kicker. I'd have to supply a state-issued I.D. before entering the lush apartment housing the reality show's contestants. What a real dilemma.

What to do? On the one had, I reasoned that fraud is fraud. Telling producers I'm 22 years old is one thing. But falsifying state documents is quite another. Even if I chose to sneak my way onto the reality show set with a fake I.D., where in the world would I get one? On this matter, like all real world matters, I consulted my barber, Chris. My question generated surprise and pity from him, like why is this poor moron asking such a pathetic question. "Chinatown. Times Squares," Chris replied. ("Duh," I thought to myself. Chinatown. Times Square. The lands of the simulacra. Where else would I find a fake I.D.?)

So cash in hand, I scouted both Chinatown and Times Square for fake ID's.  In Chinatown, one prospective supplier shook his head. "You college students! What's the rush to be 21?" he asked. "Brother, soon you? You'll want those years back!"

"No, you don't understand," I corrected. "I don't want an ID to make me 'legal.' I want an I.D. subtracting years from my age! I want a reverse fake ID." Ultimately, I didn't find one. Securing a fake I.D., without any college contacts in a Republican-governed Disneyfied New York City is more difficult than you probably realize.

For weeks this venture into identity fraud kept me awake at night. It was a clichéd scenario of good angel, bad devil offering me contradictory advice. A devilish voice berated me for not taking the risk and competing in the reality series. "Fool! If reality show contestants regularly lie about their sanity and criminal record, what?s so bad about shaving a handful of years from your age?" Angel: "Forging documents -- no matter the end -- is always a bad idea."

The scholar in me couldn't resist the philosophical quandaries. Obviously, forging another person's identity is wrong. But what about my own? Doesn't my identity belong to me? Sure, in the public sector, we have established identities to maintain public security, to distribute public benefits, to understand our nation's demographics, etc. But in my private life, is "revising" my identity so bad?

Ultimately, I wish this tawdry identity crisis had only been about winning some money.  Unfortunately, I realized this crazy episode -- a Stanford Ph.D. successfully auditioning for a WB reality series, then agonizing what to do -- concerned more than money. This awkward pursuit of a fake identity had more profound roots than I initially realized. This identity dilemma reflected a wellspring of anxiety over aging -- and even turmoil over being a gay intellectual.

For the better part of a decade, my academic life enabled me to lead a very busy social life, and my social life fed furious bouts of workaholism.  On the one hand, the often self-designed working hours that grad students and professors keep permit a hyperactive nightlife. As a professor, one doesn't have a boss hovering over one's shoulders.  When asked by interviewers three reasons why I entered the Profession, I've always been tempted to reply "June, July, and August." On the other hand, our work comes home with us, as technology keeps us emotionally yoked to the constant demands of the profession.

For me, the very nature of intellectual labor and my Protestant work ethic fueled a nearly insatiable hunger to enjoy also the ephemeral frisson of gay nightlife. (Or did the insatiable hunger fuel my choice in careers?) Alas, this gay nightlife feeds one's nostalgia for youth, like an implacable beast. Our society's worship of youth and beauty is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than among urban gay men. Johnny Symons' documentary Beauty Before Age offers a gay male perspective on a stereotypically female issue, social mania over youth and physical beauty. This mania, according to this trenchant doc, is intensified in gay circumstances because of a single-sex male-dominated sexual milieu; the lack of positive older gay role models; and the ways in which AIDS both intensify and confuse the fear of aging. Indeed, I personally know gay men who began Botox treatments by their 30th birthday. Gay social life in cities equals a coarse contemporary ode to Dorian Gray.

As a philosopher said, our virtues often double as our faults. In my case, youth -- or my youthful appearance, more precisely -- has been a source of pride and pain. On the one hand, I have internalized our national fixation with youth. I had completed my doctorate from Stanford well before turning 30, secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) wanting to play the part of the prodigy professor. Spending all of my 20s in New York, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley, I accepted as gospel the supposed virtues (market assets, really) of youth: newness, beauty, energy. When people commented on my young appearance, I feigned disgust.  "What a lame comment," I complained, rolling my eyes.  But, in my mind, such an observation never failed to register as a compliment, no matter its intention. (Such comments never failed to flatter me -- even though some people clearly meant them as barbs.) It didn't bother me that I'm constantly carded.

In the past decade, Silicon Valley and Hollywood ratcheted up the national worship of youth, endlessly celebrating their dreams and feats.  The culture industry invents and markets the apparel, the cosmetic fixes, the digital gadgets, the entertainment filler, and the requisite drugs (legal and illicit) to keep us young.  In short, the culture converged into one huge blob worshipping all that was fast, shiny, facile, and new.

Especially when combined with America's anti-intellectualism, youth worship has created a toxic cocktail for my identity and self worth. From Benjamin Franklin's scolding Protestant proverb, "Better done than said" to Nike's ad campaign "Just do it!" America has always fancied deeds over words. In its most extreme form, our obsession with action over reflection becomes rank anti-intellectualism. Not only does America often favor action, it spews a deep suspicion and hatred for intellectualism, or the life of the mind.

It comes as little surprise, then, that wisdom -- best associated with age -- is undervalued in this society, while youth and active vigor are put at a premium. Thus I've carried mixed baggage over being an intellectual in a can-do young society. A society that cherishes certain forms of achievement over others. Our social values coax us that unless you're making money -- or you see yourself on television -- you haven't achieved much. Like my American just-do-it brethren, I've always felt very ambivalent and unimpressed by my own academic accomplishments. 

But slowly I've come to realize that my obsession with youth -- my own and other people's -- bordered on crippling stasis. The premium on looking, feeling, acting, and being young bears large responsibility for the country's chronic cultural vapidity. This premium has often held my judgment and intellect hostage, as I grew too willing to embrace expedience, mediocrity, emptiness, and/or the lowest common social denominator.

Well, ultimately I declined WB's offer to compete in its show. Given my advancing years, I'll just have to hold out to compete legally on Survivor XXVIII, where contestants compete to survive the world's most brutal island: Manhattan.

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Rich Benjamin is a cultural critic in New York City. He earned his doctorate in media studies from Stanford University.


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