Reducing Professorial Hot Air

Thrift, piety, and guilt conspire to give me good environmentalist habits. I bicycle to work every day. I periodically walk around our house, turning off lights and computers and the set-top satellite receiver on our television. Our tiny suburban lot has 10 trees on it, half of which we planted since moving in.

But I'm still a carbon-emissions nightmare, because last year I flew almost 50,000 miles, 40,000 of them for work. According to this carbon calculator (the only one I could find that lets you simply enter a total number of air miles), that means I produced 18.4 tons of CO2 by jet travel for my job. The site for An Inconvenient Truth says that the national average is 7.5 tons a year, so with work-related flying alone (i.e., irrespective of taxis, trains, and so forth, let alone my entire personal production of CO2), I've produced about two and a half times the ordinary American's exhalations. No matter how much I also pedal and plant, I'm a global warmer.

Nor am I alone, or even the worst offender. Almost since the beginning of air travel's commercial availability, academics have been leaving on jet planes. The opening of David Lodge's Changing Places shows why, as well as why it's so absurd:

“High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. They were protected from the thin, cold air by the pressurized cabins of two Boeing 707s, and from the risk of collision by the prudent arrangement of the international air corridors. Although they had never met, the two men were known to each other by name. They were, in fact, in process of exchanging posts for the next six months....”

To develop these airplanes and fly them safely humankind has spent innumerable hours and dollars and even lives, has waged wars and negotiated treaties, so that a couple of close-readers can shoot in opposite directions across the globe and spend half the year lecturing to a different set of pupils and provoking a different group of colleagues.” (And in Lodge's book, sleeping with each other's wives. Which real academics never, ever do.)

Yet, as Lodge also indicates, there's a reason for it: These two men know each other by name but have never met. Though two professors toil in the same field--though indeed they be intellectual intimates, joint proprietors of the same scholarly turf, the lines of their arguments crossing in quarrels and comity so often that they can no longer imagine what they would have said had not the other provided a constant counterpoint to their every professional utterance--they may never meet in life, only in footnotes.

And if your business is discussion and argument, think how woefully inefficient this mode of interaction seems, how frustrating! If you've ever tried to nail down an appointment by e-mail with someone, going back and forth several times only to pick up the phone in exasperation to speed the haggling over schedules, you have a microscopic sense of the enormous, glacial aggravation the normal mode of academic debate entails. You write a book or a journal article, which takes years. Getting it into print takes another year. If you're lucky you'll then get an informal e-mail response or (rarely) a letter. More often, though, a prudent interlocutor will prepare an equally sluggish reply, for a reply time of another two years. If you're lucky. It makes a square-rigger engagement look positively zippy.

So of course we fly: to conferences, either to give papers or to do preliminary screening of job applicants; to other universities, to give invited lectures; to take up temporary appointments in distant places just so we can, however briefly, talk at speed with our closest colleagues whom we otherwise never see.

But now the upswell of concern over global warming alerts us we cannot afford so much of this evidently essential interaction. What can we do?

We can of course carry on informal intellectual exchanges by e-mail, and many of us do -- as Lodge’s characters could not, in the old days. I could scarcely have pursued my scholarship during my three years living abroad without the Web.

But e-mail exchanges are private and so not in the spirit of scholarly discourse. We can therefore use more public fora, particularly blogs, for provoking higher-speed, but still substantial and somewhat prepared, academic discourse.

And we can generally publish more in electronic media, including online journals, making formal interaction more speedy. (Even so, the major hold-up in journals is often not printing, but peer review: but that's a different hot-air-related subject that might also stand e-improvement.)

For this shift to occur, we academics need to agree that we can read digital print, too. The Modern Language Association in 2005 rather shockingly found that 20 percent of the departments they surveyed thought digital publishing, even in peer-refereed journals, didn't count as scholarly output, and 40 percent had no experience evaluating such digital publication.

We need to agree that we can stand to watch either other on video through the Internets. More conferences and lectures must occur online, as the Miller Center of Public Affairs series do.

We probably can't give up glad-handing and personal job interviews altogether: evidently we read an awful lot of each other in these interactions. But if we're living the life of the mind, we need to do it as much as possible in our heads, and move from the mindset of "Can Blogging Derail your Career?" to "Blogging Can Save the Planet!"

Author's email: 

Eric Rauchway is professor of history at the University of California at Davis, and the author most recently of Blessed Among Nations:  How the World Made America, soon available in a Hill & Wang paperback. If you want to see him attempt the online scholarly discourse described here, you might have a look at Open University.

Old Boy Networked

There is no way around it: I am a member of the Old Boy Network. I attended an elite private liberal arts college, went on to earn my Ph.D. from a famous university and wrote my dissertation with an even famouser professor. And there is no doubt about it: Membership has its privileges. I am now part of a network of colleagues, mentors and classmates-turned-professors whom I will keep in touch with for the rest of my career.

Or at least I thought I was, until one day I woke up and found that I couldn't get on to JSTOR with my old grad student password.

And not just JSTOR. EbscoHost, Academic Search Premier, Chadwyck PAO -- all were suddenly closed to me. My alma mater had finally gotten its act together, realized that I was no longer a graduate student there, and withheld from my Web browser its Magic Fulltext Access Cookie.

Now lest my earlier mention of the old boy network seem smug, I want to point out that there is nothing wrong with leaving The Big Time for some more "provincial" institution. Indeed, some of us would argue that this is an improvement. For instance, you might actually get to teach someone something instead of neurotically obsessing about whether your work is going to transform your discipline more than the guy with the NSF grant in the office down the hall. But no matter how disenchanted you are with the elitism of old boy academic politics, there is no questioning the fact that elite research universities have resources that state schools can only  dream of. And this led me to wonder what exactly happens to the "old boy network" once it becomes, well, networked?

Back in the old days (so I am told) there were a variety of methods that professors used to keep in touch: telephone calls, mailing each other offprints of their articles, and of course recreating the collective effervescence of grad school by attending conferences where they all, temporarily, come under one roof again just like they did "back in grad school."

Technology has not changed much of how this works. There are conferences where we revert to type and talk, think, and drink with old friends just like we did in graduate school. We still call each other on the phone. Sure, the phones may not be plugged into the wall anymore, but the idea is still the same. Ditto with the demise of the genteel tradition of offprints and correspondence -- these days we are more likely to send a PDF of our work to our colleagues or just send them an e-mail. We can even check our old department's Web site and see what our professors have been publishing lately.

What I find interesting is that there are many technologies that allow old boys to network that they really haven't taken up. We don't really keep blogs, for instance. I mean sure, there are academic blogs. But the inherent publicness of this form means that our blogs tend to either be relentlessly careerist demonstrations of our knowledge of breaking news in the field, or else anonymous screeds about how much we hate our students. What we don't have is the sort of informal blogs filled with the "ohmygodmycatdidsomethingSOCUTE" kind of sentiment that -- admit it -- is typical of our correspondence with our friends and colleagues.

Social networking sites haven't -- to my knowledge -- taken off. I can use CiteULIke,, Friendster, FaceBook, MySpace, diigo, and so forth with the best of them. And sure, occasionally I'll check to see what my friends have added to their CiteULike bookmarks. But for better or worse, these sorts of tools haven't seemed to become a place where my real-life social networks come to get mediated.

The exception to this rule seems to be the e-mail listserv. Academics love listservs. They carve out exactly the right space between public and private that we need, and they use pre-existing technology that we understand. In the case of the lists that I subscribe to at least, there is plenty of proper academic discussion mixed in with decent helpings of gossip and joking.

It is not surprising, then, that since I have left graduate school and started as a professor I have come to value the way that the Internet keeps me connected to my alma mater through mailing lists. I still receive announcements about upcoming talks at my university and boy do I ever consider this to be a privilege. It keeps me in touch with who is doing what in my field and alerts me to new professors whose work I had not heard of before. There is no better way to vet the quality of a
professor's work than to know that they have been invited to speak Someplace Important by faculty who not only share your tastes, but have actually had a hand in making them.

I also am on my old department lists for dissertation proposals and defenses, which keeps me informed of what graduate students in my (former) department are working on. Hell, I'm even on the mailing list to receive information about job openings, despite the fact that I already have a job. A major part of what it means to be an alum of my program (or any program, I reckon) is that you are now plugged into e-mail lists which lend a strange sort of cachet. Never mind the endless requests for cat sitters and sublettors that I delete -- I never want to be dropped from my department's student mailing list.

There is also the Magic Fulltext Access Cookie. This is a big deal. The publishing industry is bleeding the academy white. Public universities like mine cannot afford to keep up with the cost of getting access to electronic journals. And in their attempts to find the money to keep at least some subscriptions, they often end up cutting paper journals.

Now it is true that my current institution has access to specialist journals that my alma mater does not. This is mostly because of our strong research focus in the Asia-Pacific. But overall there is no question that having access to my alma mater's electronic subscriptions was an enormous convenience. And more than that -- being able to use their cookie to access back issues of Cultural Anthropology Methods filled me with a deep and abiding sense that I was still loved and that they would keep my room just the way I left it even though I was now on the tenure track.

It seems clear to me that there is an opportunity in here somewhere for alumni associations to help keep their library budgets afloat by offering some sort of alumni rate for full-text subscriptions. I know that many colleges have some sort of deal for offering continued e-mail services to alumni. Could this be expanded to include Web space or other access to other services like RefWorks subscriptions? It may be that I overestimate exactly how many people would be interested, but one thing is certain -- this is the sort of thing that I have in mind when I think about getting my old boy
network network.

This also raises the issue of more formal alumni relations. I know that as a graduate student I have a different relationship to my alma mater than undergrads do, but the quarterly e-mails I receive from the dean of my former college about how much he needs my money strike me as flat-footed. I already gave them my money, and as far as I am concerned they can for more when I have paid off my student loans, thank you very much.

But more importantly: I am already creating and participating in my own digital alumni network. Like the other, analog one, it is growing organically out of my grad school experience in ways that no one, I think, really expected. Whether or not we will all start our own MySpace group is something that is still very much up in the air. But one thing is certain -- if my alma mater really wanted to show it still loved me, it would give me that magic cookie back.

Author's email: 

Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds.

The Disappointment of Portfolio-Based Teaching

When I was an art director, I loved the idea of showing my design portfolio to prospective employers. After seeing my best design work professionally produced and mounted on boards, I often received either an offer to work on staff, or at the very least, a chance to do freelance work for that advertising agency. I loved creating these pieces, and this format seemed to respect the artistic process more than the drudgery required of day-to-day work in the industry.

When I started to teach graphic design at a local community college, I used the portfolio format for my own students. Although they loved the idea of being able to discard their less effective pieces, I often wondered if I was accurately assessing their work. The outcome revealed an ability to produce beautiful artwork after much trial and error over the course of a semester; yet, the process did not seem to take into account the sometimes painful learning curve that most students experienced. Still, I continued using portfolios, convinced that the advantages outweighed the few negatives.

After being hired to teach composition, I was encouraged to use a portfolio system for my writing courses. What could be better, I thought? This would encourage (and reward) students for revising their work. Given a chance to assess their own writing, they would move from passively learning to actively participating in their own education. They could showcase their best work and have a chance to reflect on writing as a process rather than as a simple outcome. And best yet, I could see their work as a progression rather than as staccato assignments that fell during particular times during a semester. Knowing that portfolios were the standard at a number of colleges -- and in many ways, still considered "progressive" in my discipline -- I started gathering information from colleagues and industry publications to find out how to instill this process into my undergraduate courses.

After two years of teaching writing utilizing a portfolio system, I realized there were pitfalls. Some could be mitigated by a tight syllabus and clearly outlined course requirements; others seemed to cripple the outcomes that my department had deemed desirable.

First, all of my students were anxious about not knowing their in-class grade until the end of the course. In traditional writing classes, students received either a number or letter grade on each writing assignment. They could predict their final grades simply by keeping a tally of how they did on each essay and writing assignment. Faculty often listed how grades were figured at the top of each syllabus, making this even easier.

With the portfolio system, however, a large portion (sometimes as much as 75 percent) of a student's final class grade was based on their final portfolio - which was often comprised of four to six essays. This, of course, was turned in at the end of the semester. Students often took their final and walked away from the campus without any clear idea of how they were doing in their portfolio-based class. Faculty then graded the portfolio, figured the students' final grades, and often turned final grades into the registrar's office without administrative review. Students had no way of knowing how they did until their final grades were posted by the campus. The number of students requesting grade review often escalates with this system -- if only because the students feel powerless and confused by this form of "blind review."

I did everything I could to give students some information about how they were doing during the portfolio-based semester. I made due dates for assignments and gave them detailed feedback about each written work. Rubrics that showed areas for improvement may have helped students rewrite papers for their portfolio, but still gave them no tangible evidence of their grade to date. Even when students came to my office and we went over essays together, they still could not see how this information might be reflected in their class grade-to-date. I ended up wasting many precious class hours trying to reassure students about the portfolio process.

My undergraduates' constant requests to nail down their grade-to-date made me aware that the flexibility and abstract nature of the portfolio system generated absolute fear in many of them. They simply were not prepared to trust this system.

After fielding over 50 phone calls and e-mail messages from students in a state of panic about their grades two weeks before their final portfolio was due, I decided to make a change. The next semester, I initiated what I called "advisory grades." When a student handed in an assignment, I evaluated it, wrote down the grade the assignment would receive in its current state, and logged this "advisory grade" into our campus online grading software. I advised students that when they turned in their portfolios, these "advisory grades" would be eliminated. The new grade replaced the old.

Class-wide anxiety seemed to lessen because students were now able to see the grade their latest assignment had received -- and how they were doing in the class overall. Although this reduced the number of grade reviews that I suffered, it added an additional "step" in what was supposed to be a seamless venture. It also created a loophole. Students who approved of their "advisory grade" simply did not revise that assignment for the final portfolio. This, of course, negated one tremendous advantage of using the portfolio system -- the encouragement to revise.

Another concern was the responsibility of choice that we were now relegating to undergraduates. Some students saw the instruction to "pick the best four out of six" for inclusion in the portfolio as a way to avoid the most difficult and challenging work in my core classes. If my syllabus did not specifically state that all six assignments must be done, they would often only complete four. In this case, the all-important objective for students to evaluate and assess their work was now eliminated.

Even when I began stipulating that all six assignments were required, a fair number of underachievers would produce what I would consider a "token effort" for two out of the six assignments. For example, if I asked for a 10-page paper, these students would produce a one- or two-page rough draft, confident that they were going to exclude this assignment from the final portfolio.

I also noticed that students who were going to eliminate a particular work from their portfolio tended to skip classes that focused on that work; what they didn't realize is that they were missing lessons and concepts that were building to the next assignment. These students saw grades falling rather than climbing; the number of those who met me at the podium after class to complain increased. Disappointingly, these students often refused to make appointments to see me to catch up on missed work -- they only saw the holes in their education as missed chances to gain a few grade points.

The next semester I initiated a punitive attendance policy. I hated treating my undergraduates like high school students, but it was clear that the weakest students did not understand the value of a day's lesson that did not immediately translate into grade points. I also indicated in my syllabus that anything less than a full-length paper would be returned without credit. In response, my less motivated students then turned in what would look like a pre-write -- something so unformed that it could not be considered college-level work. My evaluation of these assignments was wasted time; I knew that these students would never return to these rough pieces to work through initial difficulties to master these concepts. And through the magic of the portfolio process, the poor grade that these works received was eliminated.

Next, when allowed to rework and revise only four out of six assignments, my undergraduates immediately discarded the assignments they found most difficult. It was as if the two assignments that asked the most of them did not exist. This meant that they were reworking materials whose underlying concepts they had, in essence, already mastered. Here, again, part of my curriculum was being eliminated. Students would no longer meet my course objectives with pieces and parts discarded.

When given a choice, students dropped the most challenging assignments. They may have seen this as a wise budgeting of time and effort, yet I felt as if they were making two important statements: one, my expertise in that area was not important; and two, they were telling my department that they did not value that particular outcome. In my courses, students often dropped the more difficult argumentative essay -- or more often than not, the long research paper required for the course. Yet these specific assignments were the ones that would have prepared my students most effectively for courses in other disciplines. And the painful reality was that my department's desire to be democratic was, in effect, allowing under-prepared undergraduates to dictate their own curriculum.

When it came to revision, my overachievers immediately started reworking assignments the minute they received feedback. Yet, 90 percent often waited until the last possible moment to revise their work. Somehow, viewing four major assignments that desperately needed revision seemed to de-motivate them. In an effort to help, I encouraged students to come see me outside of class.

Each semester, I added eight or nine additional office hours a week during the last two or three weeks of class, hoping to lift my undergraduates from mediocre work. Still, I would find myself almost completely undisturbed. Here and there, an honors student would appear with a revised paper in hand, hoping to move from 90 or  95 percent to a perfect 100 percent. My other students simply did not see the value of free one-on-one tutoring with their instructor -- or they were intimidated by the portfolio system. In either case, they did not receive the help they needed to improve their work as a whole.

I finally started initiating the occasional "in-class work day," and placed my students in a computer lab. Here they could rework their papers. I "floated" from row to row, viewing their writing and making suggestions. Still, a minute or two per student did not give them substantial feedback.

Last year, I started requiring my students to see me for a 15-minute consultation once during a critical time in the semester. Although these individual conferences proved fruitful, this short time period was not enough to look at more than one revised assignment. Students may have walked away with concrete ideas to improve an assignment; yet, unless they were tremendously motivated, their other assignments went untouched.

My expectation that students would revise all six assignments and then ask for help in choosing the best work for their portfolio was quickly revealed as a pipe dream. Even my honors students knew the value of their time. Better to spend time pursuing more grade points on the four works that "counted" than waste time on all six. Yet the idea that the students and I were going to view their work holistically was what had sold me on the use of portfolio systems. And my experience seemed to suggest that other than a few overachieving students, I was the only one doing any form of "global review."

As an active writer, I can't help but find the writing process interesting. I loved the idea of encouraging my own students to reflect on their own writing process. Maybe I secretly hoped that one undergraduate out of a hundred would suddenly see the beauty in this creative venture and change their major to English literature, rhetoric, or journalism. The one concrete assignment where I could find out more about my students' writing experience was a "letter to the instructor," which promised 10 points without regard to content. Set inside their portfolio, I hoped this 250-word note would give me the inside track to improving my course and engaging students in my next course.

Unfortunately, the majority of my students used this platform to plead for better grades. Of course, I empathized. One on occasion, I was able to intervene and suggest that a student ask for a medical deferment for the semester's work. But I could only view the work they produced -- not the stressed, and sometimes, troubled person behind it. And, of course, I was no closer to truly understanding their writing process and the obstacles they had faced in producing the body of work I demanded that semester.

A small number of my most accomplished students did take the time to review their work and seriously discuss what they saw as their strengths and weaknesses. On occasion, they complimented my teaching, thanked me for "keeping on them," or made a concrete suggestion for my course. I kept these few notes in a special file to be reviewed when I felt overwhelmed and disappointed. I later began to suspect that the concept of only "showing your best work" was setting students up for failure. Because their worst work was eliminated, their final in-class grade was higher than normal. This source of "grade inflation" created several problems. First, the jump to other courses was even more substantial. Many students who performed well in a developmental course that used a portfolio system then did poorly in a traditionally assessed transfer-level course that followed. By midterm, some students were failing. Shocked, they would initiate grade reviews by the dozens.

Colleagues of mine who did not use a portfolio system started to view those of us who did with a critical eye. "Just what were we letting these students get away with?" they often asked each other. Although there was no official discussion of these concerns, this division did not help our already fragmented department.

There was also dissent among instructors who used portfolio-grading systems. One instructor who taught a lower-level composition course allowed students to discard 4 out of 10 major assignments. He also stipulated that these six successful works would count for 75 percent of the student's final grade. The result was that he turned in a slew of A's and B's each semester. His format looked enormously successful on paper -- yet those of use who taught his former students were in for trouble.

Even if the next course used a portfolio system as well, even subtle differences in format would be devastating to the students' expectations. Asking students to eliminate two assignments out of six would reflect their true abilities more closely, resulting in less
"grade inflation." And with a portfolio worth 50% of a student's final in-class grade, there was more pressure on other parts of the course -- something that these students had not yet experienced at this level. The result was often constant complaint, and in some cases, grade review. I had questions, serious questions, about this process.

The portfolio system also required more work from already overwhelmed instructors. A colleague confessed to working at a university that required him and seven other colleagues to grade over 375 portfolios (each with three essays, including outlines, pre-writes, drafts, "final" papers, and rewrites) in one afternoon. After a "norming" session, each portfolio had to be blind reviewed by at least two instructors; a third would be used in a case where a portfolio grade fluctuated more than a half grade. Although my friend felt reassured knowing how he compared to colleagues when it came to assessing student work, he dreaded this day all semester. No number of after-review drinks at a local tavern washed away fatigue and a general sense of being taken advantage of by his university.

Most departments do not install such a demanding regimen; still, the constant review of work often necessitated many more hours from faculty than those teaching classes in a more traditional format.

In graduate-level courses, I was sure that many of the obstacles I faced would be lessened or eliminated; still, my department chair had strongly encouraged me to apply these principles to my pool of undergraduates. As a contract employee, I felt compelled to do the best I could. Upon reflection, I realize that the students that did well within the portfolio format would also succeed in a traditional class. The students in survival mode would attempt to work the system, just as they would with any course. I did not sense that the portfolio system was a complete failure -- but I had a nagging sense of discontent about the process.

In the end, I'm most concerned that my curriculum is being negatively affected by what is considered a progressive form of assessment. In other disciplines, it seems to be applied more effectively. In graphic design courses, students are motivated to succeed in their specialty. Many of my design students worked to improve their complete body of work -- if only to have a greater number of pieces to show potential employers. Even in the fine arts, students may move into an area of concentration, but often move back to master other formats as they grow curious or bored. In both of these disciplines, students are motivated by discovery more so than grade points; therefore, the portfolio system fits well with the curriculum.

With undergraduate classes, however, a great number of students are motivated to "get the core over with" so they can go on to classes in their major. Anything that helps them scale back the amount of effort and still achieve the same grade in these bread-and-butter classes is desirable -- no matter what the effect on the curriculum. No matter how instructors struggle to hold the line, the portfolio system encourages "grade inflation" that is not only damaging to an undergraduate's academic experience, but to faculty, administrators, and to the college as a whole. This system also allows undergraduates to discard what may be tremendously important portions of the core class curriculum long before they are qualified to be making such decisions. These losses will be felt down the line in future classes, other disciplines, and even in future careers when the student is far from the university's reach.

Author's email: 

Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.

Eros Unbound

Valentine’s Day seems an appropriate occasion to honor the late Gershon Legman, who is said to have coined the slogan “Make love, not war.” Odd to think that saying had a particular author, rather than being spontaneously generated by the countercultural Zeitgeist in the 1960s. But I've seen the line attributed to Legman a few times over the years; and the new Yale Book of Quotations (discussed in an earlier column) is even more specific, indicates that he first said it during a speech at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, sometime in November 1963.

Legman, who died in 1999 at the age of 81, was the rare instance of a scholar who had less of a career than a profound calling -- one that few academic institutions in his day could have accommodated. Legman was the consummate bibliographer and taxonomist of all things erotic: a tireless collector and analyst of all forms of discourse pertaining to human sexuality, including the orally transmitted literature known as folklore. He was an associate of Alfred Kinsey during the 1940s, but broke with him over questions of statistical methodology. If it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else; by all accounts, Legman was a rather prickly character.

But it is impossible to doubt his exacting standards of scholarship after reading The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography (University Books, 1964) -- a selection of Legman's papers reflecting years of exploration in the “restricted” collections of research libraries. (At the Library of Congress, for example, you will sometimes find a title listed as belonging to “the Delta Collection,” which was once available to a reader only after careful vetting by the authorities. The books themselves have long since been integrated into the rest of the library’s holdings, but not-yet-updated catalog listings still occasionally reveal that a volume formerly had that alluring status: forbidden yet protected.) Legman approached erotic literature and "blue" folklore with philological rigor, treating with care songs and books that only ever circulated on the sly.  

Some of Legman's work appeared from commercial publishers and reached a nonscholarly audience. He assembled two volumes of obscene limericks, organized thematically and in variorum. The title of another project, The Rationale of the Dirty Joke, only hints at its terrible sobriety and analytic earnestness. Sure, you can skim around in it for the jokes themselves. But Legman’s approach was strictly Freudian, his ear constantly turned to the frustration, anxiety, and confusion expressed in humor.

Not all of his work was quite that grim. Any scholar publishing a book called Oragentialism: Oral Techniques in Genital Excitation may be said to have contributed something to the sum total of human happiness. The first version, devoted exclusively to cunnilingus, appeared from a small publisher in the 1940s and can only have had very limited circulation. The commercial edition published in 1969 expanded its scope -- though Legman (who in some of his writings comes across, alas, as stridently hostile to the early gay rights movement) seemed very emphatic in insisting that his knowledge of fellatio was strictly as a recipient.

Defensiveness apart, what’s particularly striking about the book is the degree to which it really is a work of scholarship. You have to see his literature review (a critical evaluation of the available publications on the matter, whether popular, professional, or pornographic, in several languages) to believe it. Thanks to Legman’s efforts, it is possible to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a proper sense of tradition.

Legman was a pioneer of cultural studies, long before anyone thought to call it that. He served as editor for several issues of Neurotica, a great underground literary magazine published between 1948 and 1952. Most of its contributors were then unknown, outside very small circles; but they included Allen Ginsberg, Anatole Broyard, Leonard Bernstein, and an English professor from Canada named Marshall McLuhan.

As the title may suggest, Neurotica reflected the growing cultural influence of Freud. But it also went against the prevalent tendency to treat psychoanalysis as a tool for adjusting misfits to society. The journal treated American popular culture itself as profoundly deranged; and in developing this idea, Legman served as something like the house theorist.

In a series of essays adapted from his pamphlet Love and Death (1948), Legman cataloged the seemingly endless sadism and misogyny found in American movies, comic books, and pulp novels. (Although Love and Death is long out of print, a representative excerpt can be found in Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester's collection Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium, published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2004.)

Legman pointed out that huge profits were to be made from depicting murder, mutilation, and sordid mayhem. But any attempt at a frank depiction of erotic desire, let alone of sex itself, was forbidden. And this was no coincidence, he concluded. A taste for violence was being “installed as a substitute outlet for forbidden sexuality” by the culture industry.

Censorship and repression were warping the American psyche at its deepest levels, Legman argued. The human needs that ought to be met by a healthy sexual life came back, in distorted form, as mass-media sadism: "the sense of individuality, the desire for importance, attention, power; the pleasure in controlling objects, the impulse toward violent activity, the urge towards fulfillment to the farthest reaches of the individual’s biological possibilities.... All these are lacking in greater or lesser degree when sex is lacking, and they must be replaced in full.”

Replaced, that is, by the noir pleasures of the trashy pop culture available in the 1940s.

Here, alas, it proves difficult to accept Legman's argument in quite the terms framing it. His complaints about censorship and hypocrisy are easy to take for granted as justified. But the artifacts that filled him with contempt and rage -- Gone With the Wind, the novels of Raymond Chandler, comic books with titles like Authentic Police Cases or Rip Kirby: Mystery of the Mangler -- are more likely to fill us with nostalgia.

It's not that his theory about their perverse subtext now seems wrong. On the contrary, it often feels as if he's on to something. But while condemning the pulp fiction or movies of his day as symptomatic of a neurotic culture, Legman puts his finger right on what makes them fascinating now -- their nervous edge, the tug of war between raw lust and Puritan rage.

In any case, a certain conclusion follows from Legman’s argument -- one that we can test against contemporary experience.

Censorship of realistic depictions of sexuality will intensify the climate of erotic repression, thereby creating an audience prone to consuming pop-culture sadomasochism. If so, per Legman, then the easing or abolition of censorship ought to yield, over time, fewer images and stories centering on violence, humiliation, and so on.

Well, we know how that experiment turned out. Erotica is now always just a few clicks away (several offers are pouring into your e-mail account as you read this sentence). And yet one of the most popular television programs in the United States is a drama whose hero is good at torture .

They may have been on to something in the pages of Neurotica, all those decades ago, but things have gotten more complicated in the meantime.

As it happens, I’ve just been reading a manuscript called “Eros Unbound: Pornography and the Internet” by Blaise Cronin, a professor of information science at Indiana University at Bloomington, and former dean of its School of Information and Library Science. His paper will appear in The Internet and American Business: An Historical Investigation, a collection edited by William Aspray and Paul Ceruzzi scheduled for publication by MIT Press in April 2008.

Contacting Cronin to ask permission to quote from his work, I asked if he had any connection with the Kinsey Institute, also in Bloomington. He doesn’t, but says he is on friendly terms with some of the researchers there. Kinsey was committed to recording and tabulating sexual activity in all its forms. Cronin admits that he cannot begin to describe all the varieties of online pornography. Then again, he doesn’t really want to try.

“I focus predominantly on the legal sex industry,” he writes in his paper, “concentrating on the output of what, for want of a better term, might be called the respectable, or at least licit, part of the pornography business. I readily acknowledge the existence of, but do not dwell upon the seamier side, unceremoniously referred to by an anonymous industry insider as the world of ‘dogs, horses, 12-year old girls, all this crazed Third-World s—.’ ”

The notion of a “respectable” pornography industry would have seemed oxymoronic when Legman published Love and Death. It’s clearly much less so at a time when half the hotel chains in the United States offer X-rated films on pay-per-view. Everyone knows that there is a huge market for online depictions of sexual behavior. But what Cronin’s study makes clear is that nobody has a clue just how big an industry it really is. Any figure you might hear cited now is, for all practical purposes, a fiction.

The truth of this seems to have dawned on Cronin following the publication, several years ago, of “E-rogenous Zones: Positioning Pornography in the Digital Marketplace,” a paper he co-authored with Elizabeth Davenport. One of the tables in their paper “estimated global sales figures for the legal sex/pornography industry,” offering a figure of around $56 billion annually. That estimate squared with information gathered from a number of trade and media organizations. But much of the raw data had originally been provided by a specific enterprise -- something called the Private Media Group, Inc., which Cronin describes as “a Barcelona-based, publicly traded adult entertainment company.”

After the paper appeared in the journal Information Society in 2001, Cronin says, he was contacted “by Private’s investor relations department wondering if I could furnish the company with growth projections and other related information for the adult entertainment industry -- I, who had sourced some of my data from their Web site.” That estimate of $56 billion per year, based on research now almost a decade old, is routinely cited as if it were authoritative and up to date.

“Many of the numbers bandied about by journalists, pundits, industry insiders and market research organizations,” he writes, “are lazily recycled, as in the case of our aforementioned table, moving effortlessly from one story and from one reporting context to the next. What seem to be original data and primary sources may actually be secondary or tertiary in character.... Some of the startling revenue estimates and growth forecasts produced over the years by reputable market research firms ... have been viewed all too often with awe rather than healthy skepticism.”

Where Legman was, so to speak, an ideologue of sex, Blaise Cronin seems more scrupulously dispassionate. His manuscript runs to some 50 pages and undertakes a very thorough review of the literature concerning online pornography. (My wife, a reference librarian whose work focuses largely on developments in digital technology and e-commerce, regards Cronin’s paper as one of the best studies of the subject around.) He doesn't treat the dissemination of pornography as either emancipatory or a sign of decadence. It's just one of the facts of life, so to speak.

His paper does contain a surprise, though. It's a commonplace now that porn is assuming an increasingly ordinary role as cultural commodity -- one generating incalculable, but certainly enormous, streams of revenue for cable companies, Internet service providers, hotel chains, and so on. But the "mainstreaming" of porn is a process that works both ways. Large sectors of the once-marginal industry are morphing into something ever more resembling corporate America.

“The sleazy strip joints, tiny sex shops, dingy backstreet video stores and other such outlets may not yet have disappeared,” writes Cronin, “but along with the Web-driven mainstreaming of pornography has come -- almost inevitably, one has to say -- full-blown corporatization and cosmeticization.... The archetypal mom and pop business is being replaced by a raft of companies with business school-trained accountants, marketing managers and investment analysts at the helm, an acceleration of a trend that began at the tail-end of the twentieth century. As the pariah industry strives to smarten itself up, the language used by some of the leading companies has become indistinguishable from that of Silicon Valley or Martha Stewart. It is a normalizing discourse designed to resonate with the industry’s largely affluent, middle class customer base.”

As an example, he quotes what sounds like a formal mission statement at one porn provider’s website: “New Frontier Media, Inc. is a technology driven content distribution company specializing in adult entertainment. Our corporate culture is built on a foundation of quality, integrity and commitment and our work environment is an extension of this…The Company offers diversity of cultures and ethnic groups. Dress is casual and holiday and summer parties are normal course. We support team and community activities.”

That’s right, they have casual Fridays down at the porn factory. Also, it sounds like, a softball team.

I doubt very much that anybody in this brave new world remembers cranky old Gershon Legman, with his index cards full of bibliographical data on Renaissance handbooks on making the beast with two backs. (Nowadays, of course, two backs might be considered conservative.) Ample opportunity now exists to watch or read about sex. Candor seems not just possible but obligatory. But that does not necessarily translate into happiness -- into satisfaction of  "the urge towards towards fulfillment to the farthest reaches of the individual’s biological possibilities," as Legman put it.

That language is a little gray, but the meaning is more romantic than it sounds. What Legman is actually celebrating is the exchange taking place at the farthest reaches of a couple's biological possibilities: the moment when sex turns into erotic communion. And for that, broadband access is irrelevant. For that, you need to be really lucky.

Author's email: 

Stop Telling Foreign Scholars to Stay Home

For decades foreign scholars have visited the United States to meet with their counterparts in this country, to present a paper at an academic conference, or to take up an appointment at an American college or university. These visits have been immeasurably beneficial to this country in advancing knowledge in all academic fields and in strengthening ties with other nations.

Under the current administration these visits have continued, but as evidenced by a series of visa decisions over the past three years, the administration’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas has been alarmingly weak.

In August 2004, the administration revoked a visa that had earlier been issued to Professor Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen and a renowned scholar of the Muslim world, to begin an appointment as a tenured professor at the University of Notre Dame. Ramadan had previously been able to travel freely to the United States, and currently he has an appointment at the University of Oxford and is serving as an advisor on anti-terrorism policies to the British government.

In responding to a lawsuit filed by the American Association of University Professors and other organizations in behalf of Ramadan, government lawyers said that Ramadan had not been denied entry because of his views about terrorism, contrary to what the government initially stated, but refused to specify why or to act on the visa. And then, in response to a federal court’s ruling that was skeptical that a sound legal basis exists for the administration’s continuing to deny entry to Ramadan, the government told Ramadan that it declined to renew his visa application because he had donated some $900 to two Palestinian relief organizations that in turn gave money to Hamas, a designated terrorist organization. Ramadan had previously disclosed these donations to U.S. consular officials.

In September 2004, the Department of State denied visas to 65 Cuban scholars one week before they were to participate in a conference sponsored by the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) to be held in Las Vegas. The blanket visa denials were unprecedented in their scope; a State Department spokesperson said that the action was “consistent with the overall tightening of our policy” toward Cuba. The department took the same action in March 2006 against 55 Cuban scholars who were to have attended a LASA conference in Puerto Rico.

In June 2005, Professor Waskar Ari, a citizen of Bolivia, learned that he was not to be issued a visa and therefore could not begin his faculty appointment at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln that fall. Like Ramadan, Ari had been a frequent visitor to the United States, where he obtained his Ph.D. in history. The administration has given no explanation for this decision.

A year later, in June 2006, government officials barred Professor John Milios of Greece from entering the country to attend an academic conference at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Milios, who had been in this country on five separate occasions between 1996 and 2003, was halted at JFK international airport, where he was questioned about his beliefs and associations. He reports having undergone similar questioning by the American consul in Athens when he returned to Greece.

The most recent incident occurred in October 2006, when Professor Adam Habib, a citizen of South Africa, was, like Melios, denied entry into the country upon his arrival at JFK airport. He had been scheduled to meet with officers of the Social Science Research Council, Columbia University, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Bank. A frequent visitor to the United States, Habib initially thought that perhaps he was mistakenly barred entry because he had once been detained as a political prisoner under South Africa’s apartheid regime. He abandoned the notion of bureaucratic error when the American consulate in Johannesburg informed his wife in early January of the State Department’s extraordinary decision to revoke her visa and those of their two small children for travel to this country.

No doubt these visa-denial decisions are colored by circumstances particular to each one. For example, the administration’s refusing entry to Cuban scholars, like its Cuban policy more broadly, has been heavily influenced by anti-Castro politics in Florida, a factor not at play in the other visa decisions.

The common thread in these decisions is that in none of them has the administration questioned the reasons given by the foreign scholars for visiting the U.S. as being false or even suspect. At a time of genuine concern about threats to national security, it is perhaps not surprising when the government overreaches in guarding our borders. Certainly this administration is not the first to keep foreign scholars out of the country. But a bad practice is not improved by repeating it.

The administration, instead of instilling confidence that it knows what it is doing to stop foreign visitors from harming us, invites cynicism when it bars scholars who wish to enter this country for legitimate academic reasons. With these decisions, it hampers our ability to learn from those whose experiences and knowledge can enrich our understanding of vital issues.

These visa decisions also teach the wrong lessons to foreign scholars. Barred from entering the country without explanation or for reasons that defy common sense, they are left with the impression that our government fears ideas almost as much as it fears bombs. That may be a false impression, but the administration has only itself to blame for decisions that encourage this kind of thinking.

Various groups have sharply criticized the government’s decisions in specific cases, but every opportunity should be pursued to remind the academic community and those outside it of the basic and central point that keeping legitimate scholars out of the country damages freedom. Also needed is more effective Congressional oversight of the visa process and of visa decisions that may impair the free circulation of ideas. And positive action by both the executive branch and Congress on new visa recommendations proposed by a coalition of organizations may help guard against the misuse of the visa system.

Plainly the government should erect high barriers to thwart real threats to the nation’s security. But it should abandon barriers to the visits of foreign scholars to this country and encourage the freest possible international movement of scholars and ideas. Such a policy could be a powerful means of enhancing the nation’s well-being.

Author's email: 

Jonathan Knight directs the program in academic freedom and tenure for the American Association of University Professors 

No Sacred Cows

My decision to eliminate the football program at Mansfield was the most difficult decision of my 38-year career in higher education. There was no joy in it; no feeling of accomplishment; no feeling of victory. Instead there was a deep sense of loss and sadness. As a president of six months, there could be few more challenging situations to face. In the reaction to the decision, it is clear that many people in higher education believe it’s either impossible or foolish to eliminate a football program. I share my experience not because I want to urge others to eliminate their programs, but because colleges can’t be places where anything besides academics can be permanently off the table. There are institutions and circumstances where football must be on the table -- and where it can be eliminated, even by a woman president.

For Mansfield, the issue started with our budgets. The costs of football had been escalating for several years and the university’s attempts to keep up with them were diverting resources from the academic program. It was clear that Mansfield was too small an institution to support any longer a Division II football team.

Once I started to raise questions about these issues, I was warned that football was a sacred cow and eliminating the program could never be an option. I was warned to be prepared for the wrath of football alumni, and for criticism that I did not appreciate football because my background academically and professionally was the theatre, and that as a woman I had no appreciation of football. “She is an actress. What can she know about athletics? How can we know she isn’t acting when she speaks to us?” I was warned about every possible negative outcome from such a decision including the loss of enrollment, revenue, diversity, community and alumni support. None of the warnings changed the reality facing the university: We could no longer afford football without cutting academic programs and academic support services. That I would not do. That was the absolute that made my decision firm.

Mansfield University is a member of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Division II in all of its sports, including women’s soccer, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, softball, women’s field hockey, and men’s and women’s cross country and track and field, and football. We are competitive in almost all of these sports and are taking steps to enhance our remaining sports programs. The president’s cabinet explored several options -- including moving to Division III, to an independent conference, and putting the program on hiatus. Still, the reality we faced was that the cost of football had become too great for us to bear.

There was never a question about the value of football. A football program is an important asset to any institution, so long as the institution can afford the program. The athletes learn skills such as ensemble building, problem solving, focus, strategic thinking, work-ethic, commitment, responsibility, courage and determination -- skills that enhance a liberal arts education. The program often provides access to students who might not otherwise go to college. The games also add to the vitality of campus life. Our team has not done well in recent years -- we did not win a game this past season and won only twice in the last three years. But my decision was not based on our record. It was in large measure a budgetary decision.

There comes a time in the life of many small institutions when the question must be asked, “What can we afford to do well and what can we no longer afford to do well?” There can be no sacred cows in such a discussion. The institution must examine the cost of academic, athletic, and academic support programs, determine priorities and reallocate resources to serve the priorities. And it must be committed to act on those findings.

The funding issues. Mansfield provided approximately $383,000 a year to football; student activity fees and supplemental funding provided another $76,000. Scholarships cannot be funded from state money or student fees; they must be funded from private gifts, usually from football alumni. Mansfield was able to provide only $56,000 a year in scholarships, the lowest in our conference. Additionally, the university had the poorest facility in the conference. The field needs extensive work, the field house and stands are dilapidated and the press box is even worse. None of these costs could we afford. And, if football remained, Title IX compliance would mean additional women’s sports would need to be added.

Mansfield is a small liberal arts institution, 3,200 full-time equivalent (FTE), with strong professional and graduate programs. We are committed to student leadership development and a liberal arts education. Students select Mansfield  because the education is based on individual work with exceptional faculty and staff and high academic standards. The feel of a Mansfield education is much like a private college but at an affordable public price. As a small rural institution, our enrollment will likely always remain between 3,000 and 4,000 students. Our students are often first generation college, from a rural area and from low to middle income families. State support is mainly based on enrollment. In order to bring the institution into fiscal alignment in the FY 2008 budget, it became clear in September of 2006 that we needed to make major reallocations to support established academic priorities and to provide stronger support for the other sports.

Making and communicating the decision. The decision was made by the president’s cabinet with the support of the Council of Trustees. Although we did our best to inform everyone in an orderly manner that respected individual investment, I am convinced that there is no good or right way to communicate well such a consideration and decision. Anyone who was not among the first to hear about the issue first felt that communication was poor; anyone who heard first felt the issue was sprung on them. The time line and process for communication was complex, but there were some critical communication strategies that I believe relieved much tension and provided clarity for those most affected.

1. I visited individually with each member of the Council of Trustees prior to the decision in order to explain the rationale, hear their opinions and determine whether or not they could support such a decision. The chancellor, the PSAC commissioner, and a former Mansfield president, who was also the former football coach of the institution, were also consulted prior to the decision. Key campus leaders, the athletic director, the head football coach, the directors of the marching band, and the faculty advisor to the cheerleader squad were consulted. All of these, although sad to lose football, saw advantages to the decision. This communication effort took place over a five-day period of time; each person was asked to maintain confidentiality. However, after five days, word was out on campus that the elimination was under consideration.

2. The football team members were told. As president, I attempted to visit each player individually to explain the decision, field their questions and provide support.

3. We formally announced to the campus and alumni that elimination was under consideration and requested responses from faculty, staff, students and alumni.

4. We gave the coaches’ union the mandatory two weeks to respond and considered their response.

5. I responded to every e-mail and written response, with the exception of two that were especially uncivil.

6. The cabinet, staff, alumni, and development offices did the same.

7. The Student Affairs Office worked with students to provide them an opportunity to understand the decision, to ask questions and discuss.

The final decision was made two weeks later with the stipulation that a task force of football alumni would be formed to determine the conditions under which reinstatement of a football program could be considered sometime in the future.

What was gained by the decision? The institution has made a cut in expenditures that will help balance our budget in FY 2008 and beyond.  As enrollment and retention increase, funding will be reallocated to academics. Student activity fees and scholarships have been reallocated to the other 13 sports that have not been adequately funded in the past. The institution will likely be Title IX compliant.

What was lost? The value that the game can teach young athletes about life and personal development; the vitality that the game provides on Saturdays. For the institution, it may mean a possible temporary drop in enrollment, a possible drop in gender balance, a likely drop in alumni giving and disengagement by football alumni. In my mind, the most serious loss, and the most difficult to restore, may be the loss of diversity. We are vigorously looking at ways to restore the level of campus diversity provided by football and we are taking steps to minimize the other possible negative outcomes.

One of the reasons the decision was made in the fall semester was to ensure that any athlete who wished to transfer could do so in time to sit out the semester to be eligible to play in the fall. All student athletes who remain with us, and there are several, will retain their scholarships through their four years of eligibility.

What was the reaction to the decision? Understandably a number of football alumni are devastated and some are angry. Although many football alums would dispute the statement, I appreciate and respect those feelings and the accompanying anger. Having never played the sport, I can only imagine what it is like to see a program you love disappear. I believe I understand when I make an analogy to the loss of a theatre program, a decision already made at Mansfield last year. There are a number of football alums who understand the decision and feel that if we cannot afford to support the team well, we should not have a team at all. Most of the students, faculty and staff were saddened, but accepted and understood the decision. Many expressed support that the institution was prioritizing academics and making tough decisions. The local community, with few exceptions, was supportive of the decision.

The football athletes and coaches conducted themselves with professional behavior and understanding. We all can learn from them about character. The PSAC conference leadership was understanding and helpful. There were no demonstrations; the last game was played without incident; I was not accosted by students; my car was not pelted with eggs; my house was not wrapped in toilet paper; commencement was conducted with dignity.  The students could not have done more to honor the dignity of the game. But I will never forget standing in the rain, in the stadium during the last two minutes of the last Mansfield game, the score 41 to 0 and feeling the weight of responsibility and loss. I have rarely felt sadder or more alone in a crowd. I knew that a 115-year legacy was ending on my watch.

Where does that leave us at Mansfield? We are an institution whose top priority is clear: In good financial times or bad, it will always be academics first. As the spring semester begins we are left with sadness at the loss of something valuable, but hopeful that its return can occur somewhere in the future.

This December was my first commencement ceremony as a university president. One of  the football team leaders was graduating. I expected that he might not want to shake my hand when receiving his diploma. I did not want to force him to do so. I wanted to respect his feelings. I will never forget my feeling when instead of rejecting my handshake he wrapped his huge arms around me and said, “It’s all right.”

Author's email: 

Maravene Loeschke is president of Mansfield University of Pennsylvania.

Setting the Record Straight

As participants in the debate regarding appropriate strategies for assessing learning in higher education, we agree with some of the statements Trudy Banta made in her Inside Higher Ed op-ed: “A Warning on Measuring Learning Outcomes.” For example, she says that “it is imperative that those of us concerned about assessment in higher education identify standardized methods of assessing student learning that permit institutional comparisons.” We agree. Where we part company is on how that can best be achieved. 

Banta recommends two strategies, namely electronic portfolios and measures based in academic disciplines. One of the many problems with the portfolio strategy is that it is anything but standardized and therefore unable to support institutional comparisons. For instance, the specific items in a student’s portfolio and the conditions under which those items were created (including the amount and types of assistance the student received) will no doubt differ across students within and between colleges.  In short, the portfolio is not standardized and therefore cannot function as a benchmark for institutional comparisons.

The problem with Banta’s second strategy, discipline specific measures, stems from the vast number of academic majors for which such measures would have to be created, calibrated to each other (so results can be combined across majors), and updated, as well as the wide differences of opinion within and between institutions as to what should be assessed in each academic discipline.  Banta is concerned that “if an institution’s ranking is at stake [as a result of its test scores], faculty may narrow the curriculum to focus on test content.”  However, that problem is certainly more likely to arise with discipline specific measures than it is with the types of tests that she says should not be used, such as the critical thinking and writing exams employed in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) program, with which we are affiliated.

Thus, while we agree with Banta that there is a place for discipline specific measures in an overall higher education assessment program, the CLA program continues to focus most of its efforts on the broad competencies that are mentioned in college and university mission statements.  These abilities cut across academic disciplines and, unlike the general education exams Banta mentions, the CLA -- which she does not mention by name, but is implicitly criticizing -- assesses these competencies with realistic open-ended measures that present students with tasks that all college graduates should be able to perform, such as marshalling evidence from different sources to support a recommendation or thesis ( see Figure 1 for sample CLA scoring criteria and this page for details).

We suspect that Banta’s criticism of the types of measures used in the CLA program stems from a number of misperceptions about their true characteristics. For example, Banta apparently believes that scores on tests of broad competencies would behave like SAT scores simply because they are moderately correlated with each other. However, the abilities measured by the CLA are quite different from those assessed by the general education tests discussed in Banta’s article, such as the SAT, ACT and the MAPP. Consequently, an SAT prep course would not help a student on the CLA and instruction aimed at improving CLA scores is unlikely to have much impact on SAT or ACT scores.

Moreover, empirical analyses with thousands of students show that the CLA’s measures are sensitive to the effects of instruction; e.g., even after holding SAT scores constant, seniors tend to earn significantly higher CLA scores than freshmen. Differences are in the order of 1.0 to 1.5 standard deviation units.  These very large effect sizes demonstrate that the CLA is not simply assessing general intellectual ability.  

Banta also is concerned about score reporting methods, such as those used by the CLA, that adjust for differences among schools in the entering abilities of their students. In our view, score reporting methods that do not make this adjustment face very difficult (if not insurmountable) interpretative challenges. For example, without an adjustment for input, it would not be feasible to inform schools about whether their students are generally doing better, worse, or about the same as would be expected given their entering abilities nor whether the amount of improvement between the freshmen and senior years was more, less or about the same as would be expected.

The expected values for these analyses are based on the school’s mean SAT (or ACT) score and the relationship between mean SAT and CLA scores among all of the participating schools. This type of “value added” score reporting focuses on the school’s contribution to improving student learning by controlling for the large differences among colleges in the average ability of their entering students. 

Banta objects to adjusting for input. She says that “For nearly 50 years measurement scholars have warned against pursuing the blind alley of value added assessment. Our research has demonstrated yet again that the reliability of gain scores and residual scores -- the two chief methods of calculating value added -- is negligible (i.e., 0.1).” 

We suspect the research she is referring to is not applicable to the CLA.  For example, the types of measures she employed are quite different from those used in the CLA program. Moreover, much of the research Banta refers to uses individual-level scores, whereas the CLA program uses scores that are much more reliable because they are aggregated up to the program or college level.

Nevertheless, it is certainly true that difference scores (and particularly differences between residual scores) are less reliable than are the separate scores from which the differences are computed. But how much less?  Is the reliability close to the 0.1 that Banta found with her measures or something else? 

It turns out that Banta’s estimates are way off the mark when it comes to the CLA. For example, analyses of CLA data reveal that when the school is the unit of analysis, the reliability of the difference between the freshmen and senior mean residual scores -- which is the value added metric of prime interest -- is a very healthy 0.63, and the reliability of institutional level residual scores for freshmen and seniors are 0.77 and 0.70, respectively. All of these values are conservative estimates ( see Klein, et al, 2007 for details). Even so, these values are far greater than the 0.1 predicted by Banta, and they are certainly sufficient for the purpose for which CLA results are used, namely obtaining an indication of whether a college’s students (as a group) are scoring substantially (i.e., more than one standard error) higher or lower than what would be expected relative to their entering abilities.

Banta concludes her op-ed piece by saying that “standardized tests of generic intellectual skills which she defines as ‘writing, critical thinking, etc.’ do not provide valid evidence of institutional differences in the quality of education provided to students. Moreover, we see no virtue in attempting to compare institutions, since by design, they are pursuing diverse missions and thus attracting students with different interests, abilities, levels of motivation, and career aspirations.” 

Some members of the academy may buy into Banta’s position that no standardized test of any stripe can be used productively to assess important higher education outcomes. However, the legislators who allocate funds to higher education, college administrators, many faculty, college bound students and their parents, the general public, and employers may have a different view. They are likely to conclude that regardless of a student’s academic major, all college graduates, when confronted with the kinds of authentic tasks the CLA program uses, should be able to do the types of things listed in Figure 1. They also are likely to want to know whether the students at a given school are generally making more or less progress in developing these abilities than are other students. 

In short, they want some benchmarks to evaluate progress given the abilities of the students coming into an institution.  Right now, the CLA is the best (albeit not perfect) source of that information.

Author's email: 

Stephen Klein is director of research and Roger Benjamin president of the Council for Aid to Education, and Richard Shavelson is Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University.

Legitimation Crisis

Imagine that there is a reactionary and theocratic regime somewhere in the world -- one that routinely violates human rights, censors newspapers, harasses labor unionists, and punishes women for “sex outside of marriage” (even when they committed that "crime" by being the victims of rape). Suppose the regime does all this, and more, while enjoying friendly relations with the United States. Not so hard to picture, I'm afraid, realpolitik being what it is. We used to give big fat foreign-aid checks to the Taliban, remember.

But let's go further. Let's imagine that (in spite of everything) there are eloquent and courageous critics of the status quo within the country who fight to get a hearing. They organize, they demonstrate, they publish; they exploit every opportunity available to put forward an alternative vision of their society. The dissidents find that their fellow citizens, especially young people, are interested in what they have to say. They also often find themselves, no surprise, in prison.

Furthermore, let's picture the ranks of that opposition as filled with eloquent and well-read academics and intellectuals -- men and women who turned out, hard questions already formulated, whenever Jurgen Habermas or Antonio Negri showed up to give a lecture.

Courageous, committed, and smart.... What's not to like? Wouldn’t their peers in the United States want to do everything they could to support the dissidents? Wouldn’t there be solidarity groups, and teach-ins, and militant slogans hailing their cause as urgent and just?

Okay, now suppose that all of the above were true -- except for the part about the regime having U.S. support. Suppose, rather, the thugs in charge were full of anti-imperialist sentiment, ready to denounce most of the evil in the world as an American export....

You probably see where this is going.  

“In hundreds of conversations I’ve had with Iranian intellectuals, journalists, and human rights activists in recent years, I invariably encounter exasperation,” writes Danny Postel in Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, a recent addition to the Prickly Paradigm pamphlet series distributed by the University of Chicago Press. “Why, they ask, is the American Left so indifferent to the struggle taking place in Iran? Why can’t the Iranian movement get the attention of so-called progressives and solidarity activists here? Why is it mainly neoconservatives who express interest in the Iranian struggle?”

Postel, a senior editor of the online magazine openDemocracy, sees the Iranian situation as a crucial test of whether soi-disant American “progressives” can think outside the logic that treats solidarity as something one extends only to people being hurt by client-states of the U.S. government.

“Of course we should be steadfast in opposition to any U.S. military intervention in Iran,” he writes; “that’s the easy part. But it’s not the end of the discussion. Iran is, as the Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini puts it, ‘a state at war with itself.’ Progressives everywhere should take sides in that war and actively support the forces of democracy, feminism, pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression.”

Postel’s title is a nod to Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading “Lolita” in Tehran, of course -- but also to Habermas’s work of social analysis from the book from the early 1970s, Legitimation Crisis. The role that recent European critical theory has played in Iran is a topic revisited by Postel in the booklet’s four sections -- one of them being a reflection on Michel Foucault’s journalistic writings on the Iranian Revolution, and his failure to discuss it after the clerical dictatorship was established. The highlight of the book is an extensive interview with the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo that deserves the widest possible audience. (Fortunately it is also available online.)

Habermas’s concept of “legitimation crisis” refers to periods when, as his translator sums it up, “the ‘organizational principle’ of a society does not permit the resolution of problems that are critical for its continued existence.” That notion may apply to Iran now. The viability of a regime has gone seriously into question when it feels threatened, not just by war clouds on the horizon, but by its own young people’s interest in studying philosophy.

But after reading this short book, I had to wonder if there might be another legitimation crisis under way – one affecting American scholars and activists who see themselves as progressives, who thrill to that oft-repeated demand to "speak truth to power." An unwillingness to extend support to the Iranian opposition puts into question any claim to internationalism, solidarity against oppression, or defense of intellectual freedom.

I sent Danny Postel a few questions by e-mail. Here’s a transcript of the exchange.

Q: You contend that the American left has shown an unseemly reticence about supporting oppositional movements in Iran: human-rights activists, feminists, journalists critical of the theocracy, etc. You say that there has been a double standard at work -- a tendency to express solidarity with movements if, but only if, the regimes they oppose are American client states. Is that something you've done yourself, in the past? If so, what made you question that tendency?

A: I came of age politically in large measure through the Central America solidarity movement of the 1980s. As I say in the book, our solidarity with struggles for justice in places like El Salvador was simultaneously a struggle against U.S. policies in the region -- namely, its support for death squads and murderous regimes. So there was a confluence between what we were against and what we were for: it was all of a piece.

But in a case like Iran, being against U.S. aggression and military intervention -- which we should indeed oppose, and strenuously -- doesn’t necessarily tell us how to think about the internal situation in Iran, or logically lead to a position of solidarity with the kinds of oppositional movements you mention. There’s no direct or obvious link, in other words, between what we’re against and what we’re for with respect to Iran. Most leftists are better at thinking about the first half of that equation, and tend to get confused (or sometimes worse) when it comes to the second half.

So yes, my political consciousness was very much formed within that paradigm, the framework of anti-imperialism. In the 1980s I was definitely less than enthusiastic about the idea, for example, of supporting dissident movements in Eastern Europe. I never sympathized with, and indeed was appalled by, the Soviet empire. Somehow, though, the prospect of standing in solidarity with those resisting it from inside just didn’t stir me.

In retrospect I’m self-critical about that. I now think people like Mary Kaldor (from Helsinki Citizens Assembly)  and Joanne Landy (of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy) -- among others on the Left -- were spot on in simultaneously opposing U.S. militarism and supporting democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Eastern Europe. I retroactively stand with them and wish I had been with them at the time.

Realizing that I got it wrong on that front is partly why Iran is important to me. Though I don’t discuss it much in the book, the parallels between Eastern Europe and Iran are manifold -- many of the philosophers and political thinkers who inspired Eastern European dissidents loom large for Iranian dissidents today (Arendt, Popper, Berlin). But the more direct reason for my engagement with Iran is personal: two close Iranian friends, over the course of countless conversations and e-mail exchanges, convinced me that something truly remarkable was happening in Iran, both politically and intellectually. The more I read and explored, the more I was hooked. And I’ve been asked to get involved, for example in the Committee for Academic and Intellectual Freedom of the I nternational Society for Iranian Studies, through which I’ve made more friends. Some of my friends in Iran have been jailed. So my involvement in the issue has become very personal.

My book is an attempt to engage the Left in an argument about Iran. We -- myself included -- have gotten a lot of things wrong. I desperately want us to get Iran right.

Q:  So how do you account for the persistence of the blindspot? Is it intellectual laziness? A preference for moral simplicity? At the same time, isn’t the desire to avoid saying anything that could be useful to the neocons at least somewhat understandable?

A:  One doesn’t want to generalize: There are different reasons in the cases of different people. I would say that each of the factors you mention plays a part. In some cases it’s one more than the others; in many cases it’s a combination.

Yes, I do think the desire to avoid saying things that could be useful to the neocons is somewhat understandable. But it can also be a cop-out. It was actually more understandable back in 2002-5, when the neocons were endlessly frothing on about their support for democracy and human rights in Iran and it wasn’t as clear to the naked eye how bogus those claims were. Over the last year, however, there’s been a palpable and significant, though largely unnoticed, shift in neocon rhetoric about Iran. They rarely talk about democracy and human rights anymore. They now frame their stance in the terms of Iran as a security threat, with a rotating focus on (depending on the month) Tehran’s nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah, or its role in Iraq. And they’ve ratcheted up the threatening rhetoric, many of them explicitly calling for a military attack.

That puts them at direct odds with the democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran, who are unequivocally opposed to any U.S. attack on their country. With the outbreak of the Israel/Hezbollah/Lebanon war in July-August, several neocons came out of the closet, if you will, as supporters of a war on Iran, calling, in the pages of The Weekly Standard and elsewhere, for the bombing to begin. Since that time there’s been virtual silence from the neocons about democracy and human rights in Iran. How can they claim to support either, when democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran stand diametrically opposed to them on the question of attacking Iran?

That lie is up. What is now blindingly clear to the naked eye, for anyone who cares to look, is that the neocon agenda vis-à-vis Iran has never been about democracy or human rights. What the neocons want in Tehran is a pro-U.S. and pro-Israeli regime; whether it’s a democratic one or not is an entirely secondary matter to them. And Iranian dissidents know this, which is why they want nothing to do with the neocons. Note that the funds the State Department earmarked last year for democracy promotion in Iran met with a resounding thud among dissidents, who see right through the neocons and their agenda.

This is not only a critique of the neocons, though; it’s also a challenge to those on the Left who have bought into the neocons’ Big Lie about being the bosom buddies of Iran’s dissidents. Due to intellectual laziness, a preference for moral simplicity, existential bad faith, or some combination thereof, lots of leftists have opted out of even expressing moral support, let alone standing in active solidarity with, Iranian dissidents, often on the specious grounds that the latter are on the CIA’s payroll or are cozy with the neocons. Utter and complete tripe. Perhaps, as I say, understandable in the past, when it wasn’t as transparent what empty hogwash the neocons’ posturing was. But now that the neocons’ real cards are on the table and their pretense of solidarity with Iranian dissidents has been shattered, the Left can no longer use the neocons as an avoidance mechanism.

Leftists should be arguing not that we might say things that the neocons could put to nefarious ends but, on the contrary, that neocon pronouncements about Iran are fraudulent and toxic. The neocons are hardly in a position to employ anyone’s arguments about human rights and democracy in Iran when they themselves have forfeited that turf. Indeed it’s not the neocons but rather liberals and leftists opposed to attacking Iran who turn out to be on the same page with Iranian dissidents on this Mother of All Issues. It is we who stand in solidarity with Iranian human rights activists and student protesters and dissident intellectuals, not the Bush administration or the American Enterprise Institute.

I intend this point to be both disabusing, on the negative side, and a call to arms, on the negation of the negation side, if you will: Iranian dissidents are actively seeking the support of global civil society for their struggle. Not the support of the Pentagon or the neocons or foreign governments, but of writers, intellectuals, and human rights activists. We ignore their message at both their peril and our own.

Q:  Intellectual life in Iran sounds much livelier than one would expect under a theocracy -- if also no less precarious. If you could ensure that every American academic knew about at least one or two of the serious debates taking place there, what would they be? If there were a Tehran Review of Books (maybe there is one?) what would be the recent headlines?

A: The Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo speaks poignantly to this question in our dialogue. Citing Sartre’s line, “We were never more free than under the German occupation,” Jahanbegloo observes: “By this Sartre understands that each gesture had the weight of a commitment during the Vichy period in France. I always repeat this phrase in relation to Iran. It sounds very paradoxical, but ‘We have never been more free than under the Islamic Republic’. By this I mean that the day Iran is democratic, Iranian intellectuals will put less effort into struggling for the idea of democracy and for liberal values.”

Habermas was struck by this on his visit to Iran in 2002. A young Iranian political scientist told him that, despite the many constraints and problems in Iran there is, as Habermas paraphrased him, “at least a political public realm with passionate debates.” There really is that palpable sense of vitality in Iranian intellectual life, a feeling that debates about democracy and secularism are deeply consequential in a way that they aren’t here. And yes, the element of precariousness looms large. In a dark irony, within weeks of Jahanbegloo making that observation, he was arrested and spent four months behind bars .

Iranian intellectuals are constantly navigating the Islamic Republic’s red lines: magazines and journals are routinely shut down; scholars and journalists are in and out of prison -- or worse. But as Jahanbegloo’s Sartrean observation suggests, that precariousness plays a huge role in giving Iranian intellectual life its vibrancy and sense of urgency.    

There is, as it happens, something like a Tehran Review of Books — it’s called Jahan-e-ketab, which would translate World of Books. And there’s an intellectual journal called Goft-o-gu ( Dialogue). And fancy this: Iran’s leading reformist newspaper, Shargh, had on its staff (until the government banned it in September) a full-time “Theoretical Editor.” Imagine an American newspaper -- not a quarterly journal or a monthly or weekly magazine, but a mass-circulation daily newspaper -- having a “theoretical” section! That alone speaks volumes about Iranian intellectual culture.

What you find in the pages of Jahan-e-ketab and Goft-o-gu and the late Shargh and a philosophical journal like Kiyan, before it too was banned in 2001, are debates about things like modernity ( tajadod in Persian, a huge theme in Iran) and secularism; liberalism and democratic theory; feminism and human rights; universalism and value pluralism. A recent issue of Goft-o-gu, for example, featured an essay on Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” and another arguing against the tendency to blame outsiders for Iran’s problems (what the historian Ervand Abrahamian once cleverly called “The Paranoid Style in Iranian Politics”). There are also intense discussions going on among religious intellectuals about things like the separation of religion and the state; whether Islam can be synthesized with universal human rights; and the proper place of faith in public life.    

If you were to compare the tables of contents of Iran’s leading journals of critical thought with their counterparts in the West, the similarities would be striking, particularly in terms of the thinkers around whom the debates tend to revolve: Kant (of whose writings there have been more translations into Persian than into any other language over the last decade), Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Arendt, Popper, Isaiah Berlin. Interestingly, these ideas often serve as the nodal points for secular and religious debates alike. Akbar Ganji, one of Iran’s leading dissidents, is currently abroad assembling a book of conversations he’s conducting with the likes of Habermas, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor, Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen, Robert Bellah, and Nancy Fraser, among others. There you have it.

Q: You note that the oppositional movements in Iran are emphatically not asking for support from the U.S. government -- let alone military action. At the same time, it sounds as if some intellectuals and activists there, finding no solidarity among their peers on the left abroad, end up warming somewhat to the American neoconservatives, who at least pay attention to them. How is that contradiction playing itself out?

A: The Iranian journalist Afshin Molavi speaks to this when he observes : “I know far too many Iranian leftists who have gone neo-con as a result of their feeling of abandonment by the American and European left. I wish they had not gone that route.”

But as I said earlier, things have changed on this front. Afshin wrote those lines in June 2005. That was much more the case then than it is now. The neocons have thoroughly squandered any sympathetic vibration they might have enjoyed with Iranian dissidents in the past. Their adoption of a belligerent and bellicose stance toward Iran has severed any pretense of standing in solidarity with progressive forces in Iran. Indeed that bellicosity has served to make the situation for Iranian dissidents and human rights activists dramatically more perilous.

Every threatening pronouncement from Washington strengthens the hand of the most reactionary and repressive forces in Iran and puts the opposition in ever more dire straits. The irony is that Ahmadinejad is actually on the defensive at home, facing growing disenchantment — but, as Ali Ansari and many others have pointed out, the hawks in Washington are tossing him a lifeline. The neocons are Ahmadinejad’s best friends, and are doing massive damage to the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran.

For these reasons, sympathy for the neocons among Iranian dissidents is nil. But that doesn’t translate into an automatic love fest with the western Left. Progressives in the west have to make an effort to connect up with our Iranian counterparts, to enter into a dialogue with them.

Q:  Is there anything specific that oppositional intellectuals in Iran need now, in particular, from any Americans who are in solidarity with them?   

A:  The number one thing we can -- and must -- do here is to prevent the U.S. government from taking any military action against Iran. That is the Mother of All Issues right now. It’s the sine qua non for any solidarity with dissident intellectuals and human rights activists; the minute the first bomb is dropped the democratic struggle in Iran will be derailed for the foreseeable future, maybe for decades. That message has to be articulated as emphatically as possible over and over until Bush and Cheney leave office.

I’ve long believed a U.S. military attack on Iran to be highly unlikely, and I still think the chances are against it -- but the signals emanating from Washington over the last several weeks have me thoroughly worried. Let’s just say we should prepare for the worst and be on offense rather than defense. We can't wait until it’s too late. There’s a preponderance of arguments against military action on Iran. In fact it’s disturbing that it’s even being discussed. But among the myriad arguments one can offer -- the most obvious being the humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe it would unquestionably produce -- one of the most important, it seems to me, is that the democratic struggle in Iran would be dismantled by it.

It’s already in serious peril just by virtue of the threatening storm currently gathering momentum in Washington. This is the Present Danger, if you will: even if the current maneuvering is actually posturing calculated to bulldoze Tehran, which many suspect it to be (and let’s hope they’re right), it’s an extremely hazardous game with potentially cataclysmic consequences and has to be brought to an end immediately.

It would be highly useful for antiwar activists in the west to know what democratic dissidents, human rights activists, women’s rights activists, and liberal intellectuals in Iran have to say on the issue of a US attack on their country. Most antiwar activists in the west would be hard pressed to even name an Iranian dissident, let alone rehearse their arguments. I’d like to see that change.

Antiwar activists and progressive intellectuals in the west should know, and be prepared to say extemporaneously in public debate, what the likes of Shirin Ebadi , Akbar Ganji , Emadeddin Baghi , Abdollah Momeni , and Ramin Jahanbegloo think — most pressingly, what they think of a US military attack on Iran, but also what they think about the human rights situation in Iran, the nature of the Islamic Republic, and what members of global civil society can do to support them. Indeed we should be in conversation with them, and with many other Iranian progressives — writing articles about them, inviting them to speak at our universities, learning as much as we can about them. To use something of an old-fashioned formulation, we should make their struggle ours.

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A Dean's View of the MLA Report

In one of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, wrote, "Time is like a river made up of events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too." This sense of being a part of a time of incessant change animates the 2006 report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. Begun in 2004, it is a rich, important document for anyone who wishes to reflect upon the contemporary rivers and streams of change of the academy.

I come to the report as a dean, specifically a graduate dean of arts and science in a large research university. Unlike Marcus Aurelius, I am no emperor. I find it a privilege to be a dean, even though the job has tempered my habitual optimism with stoicism. To oversimplify, the report treats the theme of change in the profession of modern languages and literature in three ways: the structural changes in United States higher education since World War II and their consequences for the humanities, especially for humanities faculty members; changes in the granting of tenure and promotion that people feared might happen but that seem not to have happened, at least not yet; and changes that ought to happen if the profession is to be wise, academically and socially useful, and robust.

Among the most important changes that the report explores is the well-documented rise of positions, full-time and part-time, that are off the tenure ladder. Tenure is increasingly limited to research universities and more affluent liberal arts colleges. Yet again, the rich are getting richer.  As a dean, I miss in the report a passionate yet logical definition and defense of tenure that I might use for several audiences --- the tuition-paying students who quickly turn to instant messaging in a class taught by a member of the Dead Wood Society, the trustees who wonder why academics should have job security when almost no one else does.  I can make such a defense, and have, but if tenure matters -- and an implicit conviction of the MLA task force is that it does -- then the defense must emanate from all of us who believe in it.

One pervasive anxiety explored in the report concerns a student’s life after the doctorate. The MLA report estimates that of every 100 English and foreign language doctoral recipients, 60 will be hired to tenure-track positions within 5 years. Of them, 38 will be considered for tenure at the institution where they were hired. Of them, 34 will be awarded tenure. The report, unfortunately, cannot say what happens to the 22 who leave the institution where they were hired before the tenure ordeal.  In my experience, some get recruited to another institution. Some drop out because they will believe they will not get tenure. Some take administrative jobs within higher education, and are judged as administrators, but still do vital scholarship and teaching. Some go on to non-academic careers, for which graduate school in the humanities still insufficiently prepares them.

As a graduate dean, even as I wonder about the 22 doctoral recipients who leave the institution that first offered them a tenure-track job and even as I celebrate the 34 Ph.D.s who do get tenure-track jobs, I feel that now well-honed guilt, anger, and concern about the 40 who are not hired to tenure-track positions within 5 years. To be sure, some deliberately and happily choose not to go on in academic life, but others would prefer to become academics. Despite all the national studies, including this report, about the oversupply of doctorates in the humanities, self-interested, faculty-controlled graduate programs are still too reluctant to limit admissions, still suspicious about doing regional coordination of graduate curricula and courses, and still petitioning for more financial aid and more students to teach. It is vulgar to call this a case of “Bring in the clones,” but the phenomenon yet again reveals, I have sadly concluded, how much easier it is to act on behalf of one’s self and one’s family, here the department or program, than on behalf of more abstract and psychologically distant goods, here the well-being of potential graduate students and of the profession as a whole.

The MLA report’s signal contribution is the call, by an impeccable committee of leading humanists, for a serious rethinking of scholarship and scholarly inquiry, which would then have ramifications for the conduct of academic institutions. I can see nothing but good coming out of such a rethinking, to be undertaken both nationally and locally, faculty member by faculty member, department by department, and institution by institution, as each articulates its particular role in the academic and social landscape. These roles will and should differ. Each will be important. The royal road to national prominence can take a number of routes and be paved with a variety of materials --- from yellow bricks to high-tech composites.

More specifically, the MLA report urges us to ask why the monograph has become the pinnacle of scholarly achievement, “the gold standard.” Why not the essay, or a series of linked essays? Why not other forms of scholarly achievement? And why must the dissertation be a “proto-book?” Why indeed? Is there any other form that the dissertation might take? I once had a conversation with a leading Renaissance scholar shortly after I became a graduate dean. “What is the most important reform in graduate education?” I asked. “Change the dissertation,” she said. Surely what matters about the dissertation is less the exact format than a form that displays what this capstone activity must display: respect for past work coupled with originality, independence of thought, and the capacity for sustained inquiry. Rhetorical flair would be nice, too. I have also argued for some years that the humanities graduate curriculum needs a vigorous overhaul, offering more common courses that programs share, including some introductory courses that would comprise a general education for graduate education. Among them could be, at long last, a required course in the ethics and history of scholarship.

Moreover, because of those new communications technologies, much scholarly inquiry is now being done digitally. Some of the most important work about and in digitalized scholarship is appearing from university presses, an invaluable resource that the task force correctly praises and for which it seeks more institutional resources. Yet many departments are clueless, all thumbs in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase, in doing evaluations of digital scholarship that respect peer review. Of the departments in doctorate-granting institutions that responded to the MLA’s survey, 40.8 percent report no experience evaluating refereed articles in electronic format, and 65.7 percent have no experience evaluating monographs in electronic format. This finding is similar to that of another useful study, here of five departments, including English-language literature, at the University of California at Berkeley. It concludes that what matters most in judging scholarship is peer review, but e-publishing is still tainted because peer review does not seem to have touched it sufficiently. Scholars are willing to experiment with digital communications. However, for nearly all, the “final, archival publication” must still appear in a traditional format. Only if faculty values change, the Berkeley report correctly suggests, will scholarly communications change. Deans may propose, but faculty actually dispose in questions of academic and curricular values.

The MLA report rightly argues that the academy tightly couples the canons of scholarly accomplishments with the awarding of tenure and promotion.  In brief, a faculty member gets the latter if s/he respects the former. Even as the report asks for a re-evaluation of these canons, it offers a series of recommendations for the administering of a transparent, fair tenure and promotion process. For the most part, these are sensible, and indeed, I was surprised that they are not already installed as best practices at most institutions. Of course, if possible, institutions should give junior faculty start-up packages if the institution is to require research and publication.  Of course, “collegiality” should not be an explicit criterion for tenure, because it might reward the good child and punish the up-start. However, a dean cautions, because tenure is forever, at least on the part of the institution, it is legitimate to ask how a candidate will contribute to the institution’s long-term well-being.

From this admonitory dean’s perspective, the report strays into boggy ground in its brief analysis of appropriate relations between someone up for tenure and the external letters that a tenure dossier now requires. “Candidates,” it states, “should have the privilege and the responsibility of naming some of their potential reviewers (we recommend half)." Candidates, the report further argues, should be able to exclude one or two figures whom they believe might be prejudicial.  This is a really bad idea. If tenure candidates were to have this power, the dispassionate and collective objectivity that is the putative value of peer review would be lost, and self-interest would fill the vacuum. Moreover, the temptations of cronyism, which external letters were meant to squash but which still flourishes among tenured faculty, might appear in a junior guise, accompanied by various modes of ingratiation with the powerful in a field who might then write a sweetly affirming letter.

Strangely, sensitive though the MLA report is to the growth in the number of non-tenure track jobs, and to the meaning of this growth, it is less radical than it might be in imagining the role of full-time, non-tenured scholars within an institution. The report argues, “The dramatic increase in the number of part-time non-tenure-track faculty members puts increased demands and pressure on all full-time tenure-track and tenured faculty members in many areas for which the casualized work force is not -- and should not be -- responsible: service on department committees and in departmental governance; student advising; teaching upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses; directing dissertations; and, less concretely but no less importantly, contributing to intellectual community building in the department and outside it, in the college and university….” But surely a qualified non-tenured faculty member should be able to be a significant academic citizen. Surely the report does not mean to construct such a hierarchy of faculty members with the tenure-track faculty as the philosopher kings and queens and the non-tenure-track professors as credentialed drones. If the report had more fully defined and defended tenure, it might have explored more adequately the distinctions and the overlap between not having and having tenure.

Let me not end with caviling and quibbling, but instead reiterate my respect for the conviction expressed by the task force about the profession’s relation to change.  It concludes, “It is up to us, then, the teacher-scholars of the MLA, to become agents in our academic systems and effect changes that reflect and instantiate appropriate standards of scholarly production and equity and transparency for our colleagues, our institutions, and our society.” Or, if a mere dean might revise the language of both a strong committee and an emperor, we neither helplessly observe nor flaccidly drift in the rivers of time. We shape their banks. We dam them or divert them or find new springs with which to refresh them. We build our rafts of thought and boats of words and navigate them. Bon voyage to us all.

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Catharine R. Stimpson is dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University and a past president of the Modern Language Association.

Nominated for President, Haverford and Wesleyan

Haverford and Wesleyan have more similarities than differences. The Common Application works for students. Why not for presidents? Search Committees are regrouping in the new year. Time for my pitch.

I can’t imagine two better opportunities: small, liberal arts colleges with superb faculties, overflowing libraries and no serious roof leaks. Why do the trustees of each persist in a game neither can win? Haverford will never be Swarthmore nor will Wesleyan be Williams or Amherst. And, so what? Both faculties deserve a champion, not an explainer.

Let’s start by blowing the whistle on the tired formula for elite higher education -- accept only the perfect; incarcerate and coddle for four years; pass on to the dreariest jobs. No clothes on this emperor.

When will elites concede that students who began competitive sports, classical music, and SAT prep in utero have finished traditional college long before freshman year begins? Students said so in the buried New York Times article "The Incredibles." The reaction of mighty Stanford to students arriving with a B.A. full of Advanced Placement credits: Simple -- ignore AP exams, for credit or placement. Among my crazy ideas is that education is a process for everyone -- students and faculty -- to learn and to stumble and to grow.

As president, I’ll redraw the playing field. A liberal arts education is about curiosity and imagination and creating solutions from connecting disparate facts and ideas. Let Wesleyan or Haverford guarantee to create citizens with the courage to pummel the new problems of the 21st Century, not more who prattle back standard answers. Forget U.S. News college rankings. Tie my pay to the Washington Monthly rankings, which measure net contribution to a better world.

Keeping my lowest-qualified-bidder policy, I’ll take either presidency for the lower of $175,000 plus a house or half what the trustees have on the table. (Current reported base is $270,580 at Haverford and $372,120 for Wesleyan.) No raises for my stay. Measure my performance by what we scrounge and reallocate for faculty salaries, research and student aid.

As qualifications, I’ve put the liberal arts to use throughout the public and private sectors. I’ve come in on budget through storms in business and as CFO of a public university. I cannot believe the game today where trustees pay high chief executive salaries in a system where the stock excuse, house included, is always “Sorry, can’t do it. Not enough money.” Am I published? Click here for my credo on the challenge to humanities and liberal arts. I will end the official hand wringing over how no one understands the value of the liberal arts. The fault, dear colleagues, is not in our critics but in ourselves.

My common platform:

  • I will eliminate half the curriculum.I don’t mind which half. (Note: Not half, or any, of the faculty.) All students, faculty and staff will take the Myers Briggs personality type assessments and get to work on people skills. Listening, communicating and collaborating -- how to operate in a world that doesn’t care about your SAT scores. To foster these skills, for all courses the entire class will receive the lowest grade achieved by any student in the course. Those who don’t understand my point prove the utility of this approach. A graduation requirement will be the principled-negotiation training my friend Jeff Weiss of Vantage Partners is pioneering at West Point and has taught at Dartmouth for years. (President, faculty and staff will take a refresher every year.) West Point should not be ahead of Wesleyan or Quaker Haverford in conflict resolution.
  • Myers Briggs and principled negotiation will be the foundation for the skills to deal with evil and dishonesty and survive. At Haverford, Peace & Conflict Studies is not a major and covers the arms-length, as it were, geopolitics topics, not personal skills. Soon enough, elite graduates with student loans and urban rents to pay will be in white-collar meetings where someone is flat-out lying or about to dump sludge into a watershed or look the other way on fairness to workers. Martyrdom is easy and futile. In failing to address these real conflict skills, elites in particular ensure bad decisions ahead.
  • A fund raising moratorium. Excellent education teaches resourcefulness, not gluttony. Haverford, to its credit, notes that the $450 million endowment leaves the college “well-positioned financially.” Good, but the next page of the presidential prospectus is “Institutional Advancement.” Wesleyan trustees need a whack with a presidential mace: “Our endowment per student, however, is substantially less than our competitors. We must manage our resources with both boldness and prudence and sustain high levels of fund raising into the future.” For 2,700 students, Wesleyan has a $600 million endowment. Some values for students: “I’m only a Rockefeller, not Bill Gates. Woe is me!”
  • No more buildings. Cede the build-and-gild race to colleges without imagination. A challenging education, not real estate, must attract top students. Students with 1600 SATs who think luxury living is a factor? No one I’d waste a Haverford or a Wesleyan education on. Trustees need a refresher walk down the Stoa in Athens.
    Besides, my daughter has found that the fancier the science labs, the duller the teaching. Both campuses have too many buildings. As president, I’ll convert a building to supportive housing for homeless families. The college, to ensure a grounded education, will commit to putting these families out into the world again. I will join the Middletown (Wesleyan’s hometown) leaders and their plan to eliminate homelessness.
  • How about a class project for senior-year course requirements? Four more years of independent assignments, tests and papers is redundant. Higher education, especially at the elite liberal arts colleges, must align with the cross-disciplinary problems of the world. Higher education must be a laboratory where students can learn to structure unstructured problems. At Wesleyan, for the first class of seniors, we’ll start with clean water for the planet. The next, adequate health care for all children. The full spectrum of liberal arts figures into any solutions. Graduation will be presentation of the financed plan to the world. Plus, all graduates will have created fine new jobs for themselves. At Haverford, we’ll resume the Quaker interest in peace. The troubles at Guilford show, at a minimum, that we are a long way from facing down the emotional complexity of this century. Sustainable peace has plenty of scientific, economic and political elements. Why has Haverford lost the plot on peace? As a project, to inspire the world, why not write and produce a Quaker "24" television series? With the same drama and excitement, only having the choppers fly to the rescue before anyone is mad enough to consider terrorism? I’m not kidding.
  • Military recruiting on campus is fine by me. For the Quakers, the military presence reminds us of peacemaking yet to do. I will urge students to ban recruiting by Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorganChase, McKinsey and such. Our students will realize that these errant commercial interests -- enabling pollution and layoffs and greed -- do more harm than any military ever has. I will levy a tax on academic departments whose majors take those jobs. I’m a realist. The world needs banks. Those jobs, though, are too easy. Our graduates will hire these firms, not work for them.

Most Sundays find me at a Quaker Meeting and that adds to the appeal of Haverford. My offer (rebuffed so far) to the Haverford search committee: I’ll lead a day-long workshop on how Quaker principles may be the ones to create the ideal 21st Century education. The Haverford prospectus seeks candidates with “An appreciation for the Quaker heritage of the College and the Quaker practices that permeate its culture.”

The ideas work, though, for Wesleyan. Quakerism includes people of all faiths. Our meeting has a Seder. In what an education seeks, what better question than Quaker founder George Fox speaking in 1694 at Ulverston, England?

“You will say, 'Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst THOU say?” (Emphasis added.)

The point is not Christianity; it’s “Think for yourself!” Fox offers a good question to open any class.

As to the necessity for bigger endowments and more buildings, we will consider "A Plea for the Poor," the 1793 essay by John Woolman, near the top of the Quaker canon. As a theme, Woolman connects excess by some as a cause of poverty for many others. The chapter on schools, for example, asks, “Are great labours performed to gain wealth for posterity? Are many supported with wages to furnish us with delicacies and luxuries?... Are there various branches of workmanship only ornamental -- in the building of our houses, hanging by our walls and partitions, and to be seen in our furniture and apparel?”

A word on presidential searches -- fodder for a library of future anthro Ph.D.s is just sitting there. (Click for the full rites at Wesleyan and Haverford.) In the beginning is The Vacancy. The Trustees appoint the Search Committee, including faculty and students. The Committee retains (never “hires”) The Search Firm. These priests, chiefs, elders and shamans join to create the Primary Artifacts – The Advertisement and The Job Prospectus. The Artifacts restate information easy to find on the college Web site. Letters go out seeking the greatest leaders in the world. The Search concludes with parades, ceremonies, costumes, medallions and totems.

My own study of Presidential Search ritual cycles affirms a curious point that I was slow to discover. These Searches are not looking for anyone. Candidates will emerge from a well known and able pool of academics, preferably with an Ivy League Ph.D. Why not just say so? I asked my Local Anthropologist, Parker Shipton, professor at Boston University. Parker -- M.Litt., Oxford, and Ph.D., Cambridge – invoked his kindly, patient-with-my-ignorance voice. Check out the writings of anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, Parker said. The Search Ritual Cycle is “habitus,” our embodied habits, what we do to remind us of who we are. The Search is a reaffirmation and renewal for The Tribe, not A Search, he explained. What, then, is a reunion? Parker sighed and went to tend to his actual students.

Market stabilization is the other Search objective – familiar to economists and, in higher education, out of regulatory reach for now. The Advertisement signals to the market the intentions of the Searching Tribe. Scholars reading only these ads year after year would have no idea of any troubling issues in higher education. No one seeks a president to address the scathing 2006 critiques by, say, the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education, or by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Not found in any ads, though you don’t have to be trustbuster to catch on: “Let’s deliver more learning for less money at lower prices.”

A friend who’s an eminent academic nominated me for Haverford. A Wesleyan parent received The Letter and nominated me. The Chair of the Wesleyan Presidential Search Committee did, to his credit, reply to my nominating friend. On decent paper, too. OK, until the middle of the second paragraph.

“However, a member of the committee or our search consultant, Spencer Stuart, will only contact the person you nominated directly if we believe their qualifications represent a good match for the position. The Board of Trustees will select Wesleyan’s 16th president in the spring. Please find enclosed the Position and Candidate Specification that the Search Committee has written based on feedback from the Wesleyan community.”

Send the Specifications after asking for nominations? My nominator felt less thanked than scolded. (Close textual opportunity for anthropologists: In the last sentence of the “However” paragraph, “president” is lower case while “Board of Trustees” is not.)

As with most tribes, power figures into The Search. An unsolicited nomination or application generally guarantees total silence from The Search Committee. One ardent rejection-- three voice mails from The Search Firm -- I have had, though, was for a post I said I didn’t want to apply for. “What a great job. I’d love to, but they’re not going to pick me. I’m window dressing,” I said more than once. When a High Chief persisted, I even wrote to take my name out of consideration. A few weeks later, the voice mails. Who was I to reject myself?

I explained these rites to the Quaker friends who urged me on at Haverford. When queries, albeit Friendly, about my own spine arose, I relented. I called a High Priest, close to The Search. “Does Haverford really want to talk with someone with management experience who is passionate about the liberal arts and how Quaker values fit into education today? Or is The Search for a fine academic, Ivy League Ph.D. preferred?” A brief silence: The Ph.D.

Which brings me to my question for the Haverford Trustees: Given Quaker principles and such simple search criteria, whose idea was the massive four-color search Prospectus? (Look on the right at this link.) I sent a copy to graphics pros for an estimate: $25,000 at least, and more if new photographs and text were commissioned. That’s almost whole a scholarship for some Haverford student now crippled with too many student loans.

Should the day come, we’ll use the brochure for the opening question for my Haverford Trustee workshop: “What canst thou say?”

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Wick Sloane’s Inside Higher Ed column, The Devil’s Workshop, appears as needed. He is an end user of higher education.


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