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Serving Time: the 6-Year Rule

When she interviewed at the university, my friend Jill asked very few questions. During the first year, she found a mentor and worked on improving her teaching techniques. She received excellent reviews from the chair, her peers and even her students. Frequently described as "thoughtful" and "amusing," a number of students followed her throughout the English sequence.

Inspired by her ability to take even dry subjects and make them seem lively and relevant, the chair began asking her to teach other courses in the humanities. By her fourth year, Jill was teaching a graduate course each semester, in addition to the "nuts and bolts" English courses in which she was an expert. Confident that she  would be teaching at this Midwestern university for some time, Jill bought a house. Although it was no mansion, this duplex would allow her to keep her two dogs downstairs while she had a paying tenant upstairs. She loved the old-fashioned trim dividing the walls, the creaky wooden stairs, the octagon shaped window in the front room. She imagined that she would grow old here.

She had found her paradise. She had a job she loved, a campus  that valued her, students that would stop her outside the Buehler’s Buy-Low to say hello, canine companionship and a group of close-knit friends. She belonged.

What happened in the sixth year of her employment was a shock. The chair of her department told her that although she had excellent reviews and the campus had no complaint about her work, she was being let go. Her initial three-year contract had lapsed into a yearly renewal; after this coming year, she would have no job. She had sat  there, hands trembling, refusing to cry. She asked what had happened. The chair had said dryly, "Haven’t you heard of the six-year rule?" At home she found her faculty handbook and flipped to tenure. Buried on the fourth page of that section were the terms that would now crush her future:

"Tenure… is acquired de facto in the seventh year of a faculty member’s full-time service in the tenure-accumulating ranks, unless the faculty member receives notice during the sixth year that the seventh year of employment will be 'terminal.' Tenure de facto is automatic. It is conferred without a tenure review solely by reason of the faculty member’s appointment."

Because Jill did not have a Ph.D., she was not eligible for tenure; indeed, she had never hoped for tenure. With this rule, she saw that the campus had never intended to keep her for any time; it was one thing to be renewed every year -- it was another to find that for the administration she was a temporary employee, bound to be terminated.

She felt angry. She felt betrayed. She had built her life around her teaching schedule there. She had invested her time, her energy and her heart. Her reward was six years of paid work and a notice not to return.

Bitterly, she was moved to action, readying her résumé and making phone calls. By the time she had packed her office, she had a part-time job with another local university preparing high-schoolers for college. She ate at home every day, packing a thin sandwich to carry in her eight-year old car when she worked during the day. When her health insurance ran out, she simply prayed not to get sick. After her tenant upstairs moved out, she walked the floor, realizing that she did not even have six dollars to replace the ruined baseboard by the front door. The house where she had hoped to retire had suddenly become a luxury that she would surely lose.

I met Jill at the coffee shop she used to frequent. Although she sat in front of the bookshelves that day, there was no colorful ceramic mug of coffee on the wobbly table next to her chair. When I offered to buy her a cup of tea, she adamantly refused. Proud, she would rather sit thirsty than accept charity from another. We talked for hours. I could see how students and faculty would be drawn to her. She was unpretentious, thoughtful -- even funny as she reflected on the process that has left her pocketbook empty and her soul disappointed.

I never felt awkward around her -- even though I could see that, in effect, I was the enemy. The Midwestern university that had been her home for her formative teaching years was to be my newfound employer. In two months time, I would be walking those same halls, talking to the same faculty members, teaching the same population and answering to the same department chair.

Like her, I was hired as a non-tenure track instructor. Like her, I have only an M.A., and no Ph.D. Like her, I was not told of this limitation that would result in my shortened career there. If I thought this was bad, the worse news is that this "six-year" rule is enforced at universities all over the United States. Not only had Jill and I unwittingly become fixed-term instructors, but tens of thousands of non-tenured instructors all over the United States will find themselves on the street at the seven-year mark.

Initially I had been thrilled about the offer, and thought of this town as a place to retire. One of the reasons I had accepted a job there was not only because of the prestige of working for a university, but because the  department chair and dean had gone out of their way to treat me with kindness before and during the interview.

Months later when they made me an offer, I had presented them with an awkward situation -- I had  already accepted an interview with a community college on the East coast. Both the dean and department chair told me that if I did decide in favor of their university, they would simply reimburse the other campus for any expenses already paid out. At the time, I was impressed. These administrators didn’t even know the folks at this small community college. Yet, they were taking the high road. Considering the impact of my decision on another, they had sought to make it right. It was a heady moment for this applicant. It made my decision very easy. Go with the campus that takes care of their own.

Now, I feel cautious. Yes, even though I have been asked on no less than 13 other interviews since I signed a three-year contract with the Midwestern university, I have decided to stick with my original decision. In August, 2005, I will be there, working to teach freshmen- and sophomore-level English composition.

Before I found out about the "six-year rule," I'll admit that my attitude was noticeably different. I had planned to decorate my shared office: posters for the walls, a rug for the floor, a bookcase for my favorite  texts. I had also surfed the house-for-sale sites online, frequently printing out "zero percent down for first homebuyers" and "low down for first-time qualifiers" advertisements. I had investigated the town with a fervor that I had never felt for my own town. I had three historic books on the area and loads of sites bookmarked that described the small zoo, the combination science and art museum, the used book store, the mall, the weather -- everything.

I really thought of this move as my last in education. After six years of adjuncting in California, I was finally going to make a home in the Midwest. With the  terrific reviews I had always received, I was convinced that I would be renewed until retirement; this stability would allow me to develop as an instructor and really work at retaining students year after year. The idea of a place to really contribute (and to retire) made me smile.

Now I think of this university as a place that I will park myself for three years. I have been forewarned by colleagues not to wait until the axe falls to move on -- but to start looking at the end of each academic year. To turn down no offers to interview, to take every chance to make my résumé look good, but not to stick my neck out for the campus that will provide me with only a limited chance to teach.

It’s a sad turn of events. Yes, I will teach as well as I can, but I will not be thinking of aligning myself with a particular pedagogy, with a carefully chosen mentor, with one lucky student population. In effect, I will be an adjunct again -- gauging time spent on each project or assignment, time spent with each student during an office hour, minimizing preparation time when I can, and most importantly, always thinking of where I will work next. The rolling contract system has ensured that knowledgeable, qualified (even inspired) instructors such as my friend Jill and myself will not find a home in the university system.

I understand that in 1940, the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges were thinking of keeping instructors from being strung along when the associations adopted the policy that set up six-year rules. In a superficial way, I understand that non-tenured instructors would be judged on merit at the end of their probationary period (although my friend was given no such review). I applaud the concept of tenure; someday, too, I will have the security, the freedom to teach as I see fit, to interject the controversial opinion now and then, to really give all that I have to one campus, knowing that I will be rewarded with a career lifespan of support.

Of course, this will not happen for me in the university system proper; instead, I will be shopping at community colleges for a long-term position. Should I be able to afford a Ph.D. at some time, I  may consider the university system again; perhaps not.

Some have suggested that the tenure system be abolished. I don't agree. But "de facto tenure" was created 60 years ago to protect contract employees from abuse. The idea was to force the university system to actually give tenure to long-term instructors who had served good time and produced viable results. Now, with a bulging market of a hundred applicants (even thousands) for each full-time teaching position, universities no longer hire on contract with the idea of giving tenure later. Instead, they lure desperate non-Ph.D.s with an initial three-year contract with the vague promise of renewal year after year.

Part of my argument is with the university administrators who allow this "six-year term" information to be buried in 157-page documents rather than having it clearly stipulated in the job description. I know from experience that there are a few faculty members on hiring committees who feel poorly about deceiving inexperienced university candidates. In an online forum, one departmental secretary confessed that she felt "like part of a conspiracy" when the chair specifically told her not to inform potential candidates of this term limit.

A staff member I know in Human Resources confided that she "could almost feel an audible exhale" when she lifted stacks of six-year term faculty from the "active" file cabinets to the archives. She says that she feels badly, but knows there is nothing she can do. "These are people, you know," she told the student assistant whose job was to load files into cardboard boxes to be filed in an almost-abandoned building a mile away.

Information breeds responsibility. But then, I’m an instructor who withholds nothing in my syllabus. On the first day of class, students know exactly what is expected of them and how to earn a winning grade. They even know how many minutes into the class hour constitutes a tardy, as well as a bi-monthly accounting spelling out what their in-class grade is and how they achieved that. It’s also clear to my students how the essays count -- exactly how they count -- into their final grade. Although I may parcel out assignments in English composition, I do not hold back on information about how my students are expected to perform. Though it means lots of thought, working and reworking of syllabi (and an extra sheet of paper), I believe that assisting adults in making solid decisions involves informing them rather than letting them stumble across the information when it is too late to do anything to influence the outcome. But then, that’s just how I work.

Flawless reviews and gushing letters of recommendation may suggest that others find my techniques (and underlying belief system) appropriate for higher education. The good news is that this budding file-folder will ensure that I continue to work in academia -- wherever I am valued.

Perhaps I am naive in my evaluation. But I know there is a heart out there somewhere. In tapping it, I ask that the American Association of University Professors consider abolishing or rewriting the "six-year rule." Let's stop the creation of a roaming, transient "third-class" of full-time adjuncts and return to the meaning of "de facto tenure" -- protecting our professors rather than allowing them to be abused.

Author's email: 

Shari Wilson is the pseudonym of an adjunct at several colleges in California. In the fall, she will join the ranks of untenured full-time instructors at a university in the Midwest where she will stay, of course, no more than six years.

Ambiguous Legacy

There will be a meeting tonight in Washington to celebrate the life of James Weinstein, the radical historian and publisher who died in Chicago last Thursday. The news was by no means unexpected. But the gathering is impromptu, and it will probably be small.

I suppose one thing we will all have in common is an inability to refer to the deceased as "James Weinstein." He was Jimmy. It's a fair guess that the turnout will include union organizers and progressive lobbyists and a few journalists. There will undoubtedly be an academic or two -- or several, if you count the defrocked, the ABD's, and the folks who otherwise decided (contra David Horowitz) that university life is not necessarily conducive to being a leftist.

Many people know that Weinstein's book The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925 (first published in 1967 and reprinted by Rutgers University Press in 1984) started out as his dissertation. After all this time, it remains a landmark work in the scholarship on U.S. radicalism. But only this weekend, in talking with a mutual friend, did I learn that he never actually bothered to get the Ph.D.

Diagnosed with brain cancer, Jimmy spent the final weeks of his life in bed at home. He gave a series of interviews to Miles Harvey, an author and former managing editor at In These Times, the progressive magazine that Jimmy founded. The body of reminiscences is now being transcribed, and will join the collection of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University.

"We both knew we were in a race against time," Miles said when we talked by phone over the weekend. "We mined a lot of interesting stuff. Jimmy was the Zelig of the American left."

The son of a prosperous businessman, he worked for years in electronics factories as a rank-and-file Communist union member. One of his anecdotes from that era is something of a legend -- has become, even, a part of history. One day a comrade asked Jimmy to give a ride to a taciturn fellow doing party business of an undisclosed nature. A few years later, he recognized the passenger as Julius Rosenberg. (Suffice it to say that Weinstein's future biographer will probably find a day-by-day account of his life during the early 1950s in the FBI surveillance files.)

Jimmy left the party in 1956, as part of a major exodus in the wake of Khrushchev's denunciation of the crimes of Stalin. He was never apologetic about his membership. But neither was he even slightly sentimental about it.

Well before massive documentation from the Russian archives settled the question, he dismissed the arguments of those who insisted that the American CP and the Soviet spy apparatus in the U.S. had to be considered as completely distinct entities. Any good party member would have been glad to help out, he said: "We would have considered it an honor." (Jimmy himself never received that distinction. According to Miles Harvey, the request that he chauffeur Julius Rosenberg has less to do with Jimmy's reliability as a revolutionary than it did with the fact that he was one of the Communists on hand who owned a car.)

The fact that he once said this at a public event, where non-leftists could hear him -- and that he did so during the Reagan administration, no less -- is still held against him in some circles.

The usual pattern, of course, is to abandon a rigid, dogmatic political ideology -- and then to adopt another one. People spend entire careers boldly denouncing other people for their own previous mistakes. It's easy work, and the market for it is steady.

 

Jimmy followed a different course. To begin with, he had never been all that keen on the ideological nuances of the Communist movement. He certainly knew his Marx and Lenin from studying at the party's famous Jefferson School of Social Science, in New York. But somehow the doctrinal points counted less than what he'd picked up from all those years as a union activist. At least that's the impression of his friend Jim McNeill, another former managing editor at In These Times. (McNeill, who is now an organizer for the Service Employees International Union.)

Nearing 30, Weinstein decided to go to graduate school to study history; and his instinct was to dig into an earlier period of American radicalism -- when it spoke an idiom that was much less purely Marxist, and a lot more influential. Up through World War I, the Socialists successfully fielded candidates in local elections and even get the occasional member into Congress. And Eugene Debs, a figure beloved even by those who didn't share his vision of the proletarian commonwealth, could win nearly a million votes for president while imprisoned for an antiwar speech.

Weinstein's research was, in short, a glimpse of an alternative that had been lost. It wasn't simply a matter of government repression, either. There were streaks of doctrinal puritanism, of apocalyptic revolutionism, that eventually proved corrosive. "In large part," as he later put it, "the failure of the American left has been internal." (Whether or not he made the connection isn't clear, but his own experience in the CP would tend to confirm this. As bad as McCarthyism had been for the party, members started quitting en masse once they had to face the truth about Stalin.)

Boiled down, his conclusions amounted to a demand for a major upheaval in the culture of the left. What it needed for the long term, in effect, was a healthy dose of pragmatism. It would also mean learning to think of reforms as part of the process of undermining the power of the profit system -- rather than implicitly seeing reforms as, at best, a kind of compromise with capitalism.

Had he done only that initial study of the Socialist Party (finished in 1962, though only published five years later), Jimmy Weinstein would merit a small but honorable spot in the history of the American left. But in fact he did a lot more.

Today's academic left is very much a star system. Jimmy never had a place in it. If that bothered him, he did a good job of keeping quiet about it. But just for the record, it's worth mentioning that he was present at the creation.

He was part of the group in Madison, Wisconsin that published Studies on the Left between 1959 and 1967. It was the first scholarly journal of Marxist analysis to appear in the United States since at least the end of World War II, and an important point of connection between the American New Left and international currents in radical thought. (The first translation of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," for example, appeared in Studies.)

Jimmy's brief memoir of this period can be found in a volume edited by the radical historian Paul Buhle called History and the New Left: Madison, Wisconsin, 1950-1970 (Temple University Press, 1990). There has long been a tendency to treat the intellectual history of the American left as unfolding primarily in New York City. This is understandable, in some ways, but it introduces gross distortions. It's worth remembering that one of the major publications serving to revitalize radical scholarship was the product of a group of graduate students at the University of Wisconsin. It appears that Buhle's anthology is now out of print. But what's more surprising, I think, is that more research hasn't been done on "the Madison intellectuals" in the meantime.

In keeping with Miles Harvey's characterization of Weinstein as "the Zelig of the American left," we next find him at the Chicago convention of Students for a Democratic Society in 1969. That was the one where -- just as the antiwar movement was starting to get a hearing on Main Street USA -- rival factions waved copies of the Little Red Book in the air and expelled one another. (Want evidence that the left's deepest wounds are self-inflicted? There you go.)

Repelled by the wild-eyed hysteria and terrorist romanticism of the Weather Underground (of which, one of his cousins was a member), Jimmy helped start another journal, Socialist Revolution, which was always more cerebral than its up-against-the-wall title might suggest. In 1978, it changed its name to Socialist Review. (This abandonment of "revolution" inspired a certain amount of hand-wringing in some quarters.) It was the venue where, in 1985, Donna Haraway first published her "Cyborg Manifesto." For years afterward, the rumor went around that SR was about to drop "Socialist" from its title, to be replaced by "Postmodern." But in fact it continues now as Radical Society -- a distant descendant of its ancestor, by now, though it still bears a family resemblance to the publications that Jimmy worked on long ago.

Jimmy's last major venture as a publisher -- the culmination of his dream of converting the lessons of radical history into something practical and effective, here and now -- was In These Times, which started as a newspaper in 1976 and turned into a magazine sometime around 1990. A collection of articles from the magazine's first quarter century appeared in 2002 as the book Appeal to Reason -- a title echoing the name of the most widely circulated newspaper of the old Socialist Party.

Pat Aufderheide, now a professor of communications at American University, was ITT's culture editor from 1978 through 1982. She writes about the experience in her book The Daily Planet: A Critic on the Capitalist Culture Beat (University of Minnesota Press, 2000). A whole generation of people were entranced by the countercultural idea that "the personal is the political" -- or its academic doppelganger, the Foucauldian notion that power was everywhere and inescapable. These were recipes, she notes, for "self-marginalization and political fundamentalism" on the left.

"For In These Times," writes Aufderheide, "politics is the prosaic complex of institutions, structures and actions through which people organize consciously for social change.... Richard Rorty would put it in the reformist left category. It is read largely by leftists who do organizing or other practical political work, through labor unions, universities and schools, churches, nonprofit organizations and local and regional government. These are smart people, many of whom are not intellectuals, and who mostly come home late and tired."

The importance of reaching that public -- indeed, the very possibility of doing so -- tends to be overlooked by many people engaged in left-wing academic discourse. ("Our comrades in armchairs," as activists sometimes put it.)

In her book, Aufderheide recalls dealing with "a vocal contingent of academics" who were "always ready to pounce on lack of subtlety, creeping cheerleading, or sentimentality" in the magazine's cultural coverage. "Their critical acuteness, however, often seemed exercised for the satisfaction of intellectual one-upmanship," she writes. "When I begged them to write, to point me to other writers, to serve on the board, there was almost always a stunned silence."

The problem is self-perpetuating, Perhaps it comes down to a lack of good examples. And in that regard, Jimmy's death is more than a personal loss to his friends and family.

It's worth mentioning that, along the way, he wrote a number of other books, with The Long Detour: The History and Failure of the American Left  (Westview, 2003) being his last. It was also his favorite, according to Miles Harvey, whose series of deathbed  interviews will, in time, serve as the starting point for some historical researcher who has perhaps not yet heard of James Weinstein.

To be candid, I didn't care for his final book quite as much as the one he published in 1975 called Ambiguous Legacy: The Left in American Politics. The books are similar in a lot of ways. I'm not sure that my preference for one over the other is entirely defensible.

But it was Ambiguous Legacy that Jimmy inscribed when we met, about 10 years ago. My copy of his first book, the one on the Socialist Party, he dedicated "with hope for our future." Only later did I look at the other volume. Beneath the greeting -- and before his signature -- he wrote: "The legacy is more ambiguous than ever."

Author's email: 

Scott McLemee was a contributing editor for In These Times between 1995 and 2001. His column Intellectual Affairs appears here on each Tuesday and Thursday.

Fear of Phishing

I direct the journalism school at Iowa State University, where professors are among the most astute about the increasing specter of online risks, including "phishing." But even in this informed, digital environment, one of my journalism professors was lured by a fraudulent e-mail message and came close to having his bank account drained.

Phishing is an attempt at cybercrime. It is also a subgenre of spam -- replete with logos from such corporations as Pay Pal, eBay, and Wells Fargo -- typically notifying e-mail recipients about "suspicious" use of an account and directing them to a link so that they can input personal data, including account numbers and passwords. Despite the investment in spam filters and procedures at college technology centers, phishing e-mail still manages to bypass IT watchdogs at some of our most security-minded institutions, including my own.

When I complained about this to our Solution Center, I was told to adjust my spam filter. So I and other professors obliged. As a result a few timely e-mail messages got sent to the digital trash heap, including one with the subject header “Wolfgang’s Offer,” in reference to a grant opportunity from Wolfgang Kliemann, our associate vice provost for research.

The spam filter probably associated the subject line with a pitch to buy music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

We readjusted our filters accordingly, and the phishers infiltrated our e-mailboxes.

All of us have received this kind of e-mail, of course. And most are easy to dismiss until the right set of circumstances combine: a message carrying the logo of a bank where you happen to do business and a service that you happen to use, which hooked our professor with a subject line that read: “Possible fraud to your account. Please answer.”

Here is the message that he received:

Our department recorded a payment request from Expedia - Online Travel Agency to enable the charge of $619.49 on your account. This amount is supposed to cover the cost of a 5 days reservation (25-30 October / 2004) at a Five Stars Hotel located in New Delhi / INDIA.… THE PAYMENT IS PENDING FOR THE MOMENT. If you made this reservation or if you just authorize this payment, please ignore or remove this email message. The transaction will be shown on your monthly statement as "Rama Bangalore-Hotel". If you didn't make this payment / reservation and would like to decline the $619.49 billing to your card, please follow the link below to deny the payment. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, and appreciate your assistance in helping us maintain the integrity of the entire Wells Fargo system.

He bit the bait. He also agreed to tell his story to Inside Higher Ed, but without use of his name. "As you read the message," he says, “you’ll see the sense of urgency it conveyed. Without thinking, I opened the message” which led to “an official looking Wells Fargo page, with the colorful stagecoach banner across the top and a request for my account number and password.

"I typed both in. I immediately received a message saying my password was incorrect, please try again. Which I did. I must have attempted to use in every password I have ever used in my computer life. After about the fifth rejection," he says, "a light went on in my brain—I shouldn't be giving out my password!"

Panic set in. He envisioned his checking account being cleaned out. He contacted Wells Fargo, which issued a fraud message. A representative urged the professor to close his bank account.

Michelle Scott, vice president of public relations for Wells Fargo, says the company takes phishing seriously. It has an ongoing public education campaign and last year launched a comprehensive Web site for fraud prevention, detection and resolution.

"Thankfully, I didn't lose any money," the journalism professor and Wells Fargo customer says, "but I did have to throw away two boxes of checks and open a new account. I also had to reissue a couple of checks I had written to pay bills."

Our professor acted quickly and lost no money. But that isn’t always the case at research institutions with large online populations. For instance, five students and two staff members at the University of Michigan fell victim to a phishing scam, as reported by The Michigan Daily.  The student newspaper, in another article, noted that "people reported having large sums of money disappear from their bank accounts."

In the aftermath of these incidents, Paul Howell, chief information security officer at Michigan, received dozens of inquiries asking what people can do to stop the e-mails. "The answer to this question usually lies in anti-spam technology," he says. "And when that fails, awareness and education are the next best defense."

Most of us believe we will never succumb to a phishing ploy, especially since so many of them are easy to spot as frauds, thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the English language -- which can be more effective in filtering spam than current high-tech methods. A quick sampling:

  • "Please follow steps for verification process" and "visit Regions Bank Security Center,” from a cyberthief who has yet to master use of definite articles.
  • "If your account informations [sic] are not updated within the next 72 hours, then we will assume this account is fraudulent and will be cancelled [sic].… We apreciate [sic] your support and understading [sic], as we work together to keep eBay a safe place to trade” -- from a cyberthief who cannot spell or do syntax (the grammatical kind).
  • "It came to our attention that your account may be suspected of fraud. We ask our users with exposed accounts to confirm their identity with PayPal every once in a while, in order to upkeep the safety of our environment," from a cyberthief who opened his thesaurus to “periodically” and chose “every once in a while.”

We can chuckle about such e-mail, especially if we do not do business with these corporations. On the other hand, says Jane Drews, information technology security officer at the University of Iowa, “Some of these phishing e-mails are amazingly believable.”

In fact, one from eBay looked remarkably genuine up until this sentence: "Please update your records by the 15th of Mai."

“Mai” is German for “May.”

I asked our computer support specialist, Jeremy Haubrich, to trace the path of the e-mail message, betting it came out of Germany.

The message, he said, was sent through a California-based direct marketing firm that has an anti-spam statement on its Web site. "So they would probably be interested to hear that one of their customers or some illegitimate user is sending phishing mail through their system," he added, noting that "all of this is conjecture" since domain names can be forged. "By the way," he added, the message claims to be from the California firm, but the address it was sent from "appears to be some sort of German communications company with a Web site that looks like it hasn’t been updated since the mid-90s."

I sent the phishing email to the California firm, receiving this reply: “This definitely looks like it was masked by the company in Germany.”

Bingo.

We may have located the country whence the offending emails came, but there was little anyone could do immediately about the situation.

Fred B. Schneider, a computer science professor at Cornell University and director of the Information Assurance Institute, states, "It is notoriously difficult to trace a forged e-mail’s return-address back to the actual sender, because the Internet protocols were not designed to protect against return-address forgery."

In light of that, Schneider believes that spam filters are the answer (at least in the short term). "To prosecute phishing requires finding the perpetrator, whereas to filter and remove phishing e-mail at receiver sites do not -- it just requires that spam filters be installed and kept current." Moreover, he adds, using filters "is a local action, which can be taken by IT technical staff," whereas prosecuting phishers is external and complicated. "Self-determination is a comfort."

Other IT security chiefs concur with that assessment, including Michael Bowman, information security officer at Iowa State. "We try to keep the community aware of phishing schemes and the problems with spam in general," he says, putting security notices on university Web sites and occasionally working with student journalists at the ISU Daily. Nevertheless, Bowman admits, "It is a challenge to publicize a new scheme before someone receives the phishing e-mail."

Michael G. Carr, chief information security officer at the University of Nebraska, notes that his institution also treats phishing as spam “and tries to prevent such communiqués from ever reaching an e-mail inbox.”

While phishing is a subgenre of spam, Carr concedes, and "may very well be statutorily defined as a type of fraud or attempted fraud," reporting such activities to law enforcement has not been effective because of:

  • Jurisdiction. “Generally, phishing originates outside the state of Nebraska and, usually, outside the United States. Consequently, local law enforcement and the state Attorney General’s office, while interested in preventing these types of crimes, do not have jurisdiction over the culprits.”
  • Amount of damages. "If end users are alerted to phishing schemes and are aware of how to not become victims, then there are no actual monetary damages. The result is an attempted fraud similar to an attempted burglary where the crook jiggles the door knob, finds the door locked and moves on. Right or wrong, most security professionals see phishing as a ‘no harm, no foul’ issue."
  • ROSI. "The Return on Security Investment does not necessarily warrant the time, cost and energy to research the phishing origins and report the incidents to law enforcement because of the aforementioned reasons."

The ROSI factor can increase along with the level of risk if the phishing process -- little likelihood of prosecution, a lock-your-door philosophy, and a proved method to bypass filters -- is used to tap fear instead of a person’s bank account. Would IT security respond more vigorously if the same process was used to disseminate messages en masse that affected institutions psychologically rather than a few individuals financially?

I can’t get too specific here because of ethical reasons. Suffice to say that in the past institutions have acted swiftly to track racist threatening e-mail messages sent within the United States; but other scenarios from abroad, where most phishing e-mail messages emanate, now are possible. After all, sparking fear in the populace is a priority of enemies of the state, and as such, research institutions might contemplate securing grants from Homeland Security to patch the breached spam filter system before it is used against universities with sensitive government contracts.

Paul Howell at Michigan and Jane Drews at Iowa agree.

"I think your question is a good one," Howell states, "in that it would likely prompt more discussion around preventative measures.

"I don't know what the ultimate solution is," Howell adds. "Perhaps digital signatures will be implemented and people will not accept e-mail from those (whose identity) they can't authenticate."
Jane Drews believes that the “answer has to be ‘yes’ to your question” about the phishing process afflicting fear instead of financial loss. What you are suggesting,” she continues, “is where, what, and how shifts in the equation occur.” An increase in “fear, uncertainty, doubt or other psychological issue, or for that matter any kind damage,” is likely to spur “an increase in resources to detect, track, prevent, and prosecute.”

“Don’t misunderstand,” she concludes, “people are working hard to counteract this threat. But I believe the most successful way today is through education. Technology solutions to counteract the threat will surely become more successful, too.”

Michael Bugeja is the author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford University Press). His last column examined Duke's iPod experiment. For news and information about phishing, visit the Anti-Phishing Working Group and the Phishing Chronicles.

Not So Wilde

Our long national nightmare is over ... at least until next time. The trial of Michael Jackson has now moved into the phase of "post-production," as they call it in Hollywood. Now work is under way on the voice-overs and flashbacks -- and the crews are getting ready to start broadcasting the next celebrity legal circus.

On Monday -- just a day before the verdict was announced -- Elaine Showalter published a short essay in the Los Angeles Times comparing Jackson's trial to the legal ordeal of Oscar Wilde in 1895. "Wilde too was a celebrity, as a writer and as a performer," she wrote. "Like Jackson, Wilde was seemingly brought down by self-destructive acts." In each case, "accusations of homosexual pedophilia have struck a deep chord of moral outrage."

"Wilde," according to Showalter, "was convicted of what the Victorians, with their gifts for euphemism, called 'gross indecency.' Despite the specific charges against him, gross indecency also seems to be the underlying accusation in the Jackson trial."

It's by no means clear that the term "gross indecency" could be regarded as euphemistic, even in the Victorian context. By contrast, Wilde's reference during the trial to "the love that dare not speak its name" was a memorable case of euphemism yielding eloquence.

The problem with Showalter's essay turns on more than semantics, however. Sure, there are points of similarity between the trial, but even a brief comparison of them shows that the differences are huge. Some currents in American culture might be dubbed Victorian -- if only through an abuse of analogy. The real connection between Wilde and Jackson is a little less obvious, though, and perhaps more worrisome.

Now, to be honest, I did not follow the recent trial very closely. The nature of this kind of spectacle is that, unless you make every effort to remove yourself from the "flow" of current media, a certain amount of information imposes itself on your awareness, come what may.

The Wilde trial fascinated its public because it was the revelation (a momentary glimpse) of something ordinarily hidden. The Jackson trial, by contrast, was an instance of what Jean Baudrillard has dubbed "the obscene" in the postmodern sense -- a mode in which nothing is concealed, in which every sign or bit of information manages to circulate. ("Obscenity begins," as Baudrillard puts it, "when all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication.")

Reading the transcripts of Oscar Wilde's trials (there were three of them), one thing you soon notice is that his creative work and his vision of the world were under just as much scrutiny as his private life. If anything, his aesthetic sensibility (in particular, his insistence that art and morality had nothing to do with one another) was slightly more horrifying to the authorities than his sexual tastes. The power of Wilde's art to corrupt the minds of the young incensed the Victorians even more than what he did with any given teenage male prostitute.

The standoff between the attorney Edward Carson's high-minded outrage and Wilde's defense of art-for-art's-sake makes for a transcript that reads like an excerpt from one of Wilde's plays.

Carson: A perverted novel might make for a good book?

Wilde: I don't know what you mean by a "perverted" novel.

Carson: Then I will suggest Dorian Gray as open to the interpretation of being such a novel?

Wilde: That could only be to brutes and illiterates. The views of Philistines on art are incalculably stupid.

Carson: An illiterate person reading Dorian Gray might consider it such a novel?

Wilde: The views of illiterates on art are unaccountable. I am concerned only with my view of art. I don't care twopence what other people think of it.

Carson: The majority of persons would come under your definition of Philistines and illiterates?

Wilde: I have found wonderful exceptions.

Carson: Do you think that the majority of people live up to the position you are giving us?

Wilde: I am afraid they are not cultivated enough.

Carson: Not cultivated enough to draw the distinction between a good book and a bad book?

Wilde: Certainly not.

Carson: The affection and love of the artist of Dorian Gray might lead an ordinary individual to believe that it might have a certain tendency?

Wilde: I have no knowledge of the views of ordinary individuals.

Carson: You did not prevent the ordinary individual from buying your book?

Wilde: I have never discouraged him.

Were sparks this brilliant ever struck during the past few months? Did the relationship between Jackson's art (or entertainment, rather) and his life ever come up for questioning?

Who can doubt that, were Jackson to announce his intention to take up residency in Massachusetts so as to marry a longtime boyfriend of suitable age, the response of most fans would be to send a card expressing best wishes?

Let's not pretend that nothing has changed in 110 years. I bet Hallmark has the design all worked out.

Wilde was accused and convicted of defying the norms of his day. That was the source of the case's resonance, at the time. And Wilde himself embraced (in however complex and ironic a manner) the idea that he had violated the established code. Later, when asked how he survived prison, he responded: "I was buoyed up with a sense of guilt."

Today Wilde looks heroic. What to his contemporaries would have seemed like incorrigibility, we now honor as fidelity to his own nature.

In any case, the hold of Wilde's case on the public mind was -- and still is -- a matter of his grand transgression. It bears scarcely any resemblance to the fascination evoked by Michael Jackson, who embodies something quite different: regression. His retreat to a childlike state appears to be so complete as to prove almost unimaginable, except, perhaps, to a psychiatrist.

Freud wrote of a neverending struggle between the pleasure principle (the ruling passion of the infant's world) and the reality principle (which obliges us to sustain a certain amount of repression, since the world is not particularly friendly to our immediate urges).

Wilde was the most eloquent defender that the pleasure principle ever had: His aesthetic doctrine held that we ought to transform daily life into a kind of art, and so regain a kind of childlike wonder and creativity, free from pedestrian distractions.

Like all such utopian visions, this one tends to founder on the problem that someone will, after all, need to clean up. The drama of Michael Jackson's trial came from its proof that -- even with millions of dollars and a staff of housekeepers to keep it at bay -- the reality principle does have a way of reasserting itself.

And now that the trial is over, perhaps it's appropriate to recall the paradoxical question Wilde once asked someone about a mutual friend: "When you are alone with him, does he take off his face and reveal his mask?"

Author's email: 

Finding Her Place

There’s nothing like a class reunion for putting you in your proper place.

Last weekend I went to my first one – the 25th anniversary of my graduation from college. In years gone by, it never seemed like a good time to go back to my alma mater,  La Salle University. First I wasn’t making much money. Then I didn’t have a kid, own a house, or have tenure. My classmates, to judge by the alumni publications, were all well into six-figure incomes and had at least three kids each by the time of our 10th or 15th anniversary gathering. I couldn’t bear to go.

But this year I ran out of excuses. I’d published a fair amount, including a book; I’d served as department chair; I’d been promoted to full professor. I had little or nothing, professionally or personally, to be embarrassed about anymore. I could hold my head high amongst my peers from the class of 1980.

So I set off for the five-hour ride south on I-95 to Philadelphia. I planned to stay at my mother’s house, to arrive two hours early, shower, fix my hair, and change into the fabulous new outfit I’d bought for the occasion -- the first new clothes I’d bought in ages. Five hours later I was still two hours away from my college, listening to a Harry Potter book for the fourth or ninth time and cursing myself for not having gone to the public library for a new book on tape.

The reception I’d been looking forward to, the one where I’d see all my old friends from the school newspaper, was fast approaching, and I was not. There was no time to drive to my mom’s to shower and change. I would have to go straight to the college in my jeans and sneakers and change in a bathroom.  

But then it hit me. I work at a college; I know the way alums are treated. So I called the alumni office and explained my plight. No problem, they assured me. They had a spare townhouse in which I could shower and change and still make it to the reception on time. I did so and arrived at the reception, clean, before any of my friends who actually live in Philadelphia.

I’d never been an alum before, not in person. It was all new to me -- the open-bar parties, the crab-cake hors d’oeuvres, the alumni office staff treating me like visiting royalty. I guess they never know who has money and who doesn’t, so they’re nice to everyone.  

I had a great time at the reception, which honored one of my favorite teachers, the economics professor who runs the college’s honors program. It was great to see him and to see him praised. In his speech, he even singled me out, which seemed to me to be patently unfair to the arguably much more successful alums in the room, including the many lawyers, one of whom is a state representative. They were old news, as they’d all been back before. I was the prodigal, back after 25 years.

The dynamics among my friends, the college newspaper set, had not changed a bit. One old sports editor still made fun of the counterculture choices and left-wing politics of another former sports editor; my old roommate laughed at both of them and did her best to keep the peace. The old photo editor, now a corporate lawyer, retained his photographer’s distance from the action, fond of all parties and unwilling to take sides. The state representative drifted in and out; I wondered whether she was saving me from the awkwardness sure to arise if we ended up in a political conversation.

The photo editor and I went off to tour the college’s excellent art museum, and I found myself in a different kind of conversation, one much more familiar in recent years. The museum’s curator, it turns out, is an alum of the institution where I teach. She and I talked about the college, its new president, the new strategic planning committee, and what the campus was like when she attended.  Now I was on safe ground, representing the life I currently lead without having to explain it. This was a persona I found easy to inhabit, and it was a bit of a relief after negotiating how to talk to people I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years.

The next night was the class of 1980 dinner. I’d looked at the RSVP list and had known almost no one except my roommate, so a lot was hinging on whether we could sustain a conversation through an entire dinner. We’d already exchanged photos of our children the night before; what if we had nothing left to say to each other?

As I approached the student union building tentatively, not sure where the dinner was, I stopped to chat with some dining services staff who were taking a break outside in the late-afternoon sunshine. One of them admired my new outfit, and I told her how excited I’d been to find it, in a little import shop not far from my house. We talked about the price (not bad at all, they commented) and the various accessories, and they envied me the little shop. I confessed to wanting to look good in front of a bunch of people I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years.  They told me not to worry: “You got it going on, girl!” I hoped they were right.

After chatting with the college’s president over drinks -- how much easier it is to talk to a college president now -- I sat with my old roommate at dinner and was relieved to find that we liked each other still, or was it again? She was working for a charitable foundation after years at big accounting firms, and I was amused to see the new schmoozing skills she’d acquired in her fund-raising work. I’d seen those skills before, in our own development office staff.

At yet another party after the dinner, I stopped to talk to an elderly woman who’d been at our class dinner but whom I didn’t remember from any of my classes. She told me that when the college first went coed, in the 1970s, some of the male students had suggested to her, a 55-year-old worker in the cafeteria, that she take some classes.  She enrolled in the evening division, tuition free for college employees, and finished up the year I did, with a degree in sociology. The college helped her get work at a women’s shelter, and she worked there until she retired 10 years later. She was so grateful to the college, she said: “They were the best years of my life, when I was taking those classes.”  

I think I eventually figured out where I fit in that funny anthropological experiment that was the reunion. Somewhere between the cafeteria workers who liked my outfit and the lawyers and corporate vice-presidents with whom I got re-acquainted at the parties, I found myself as an alum. No need to compete in terms of social class or income when you have a Ph.D. and an academic job. No need to be embarrassed (or proud) about driving the little Ford or not sending my daughter to private school. The class position of the academic had social capital enough, for better or worse, to pull me through. Talking to the curator, the athletics administrator, the college president -- there I was in familiar territory. Hearing from that retired alum about what her bachelor’s degree had meant to her -- the story was different from the ones I hear at my current institution’s reunions, but the genre was the same.  

That’s why my old professor was pleased to see me -- I had staked my claim in the same place he had, in higher education. He remembered me as a working-class kid from the suburbs, and he was happy to have helped me see my way to a career in academe. I’m happy about it to, and I’m glad I gave the reunion a chance. Maybe I’ll do it again in another 25 years.

Author's email: 

Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.

Mind on Fire

The pioneering American literary theorist and philosophical wild-man Kenneth Burke once opened an essay with a line that has lately been echoing around the inside of my skull -- in that half-remembered form such things have 20 years after you've read them, and in the wake of many a brain cell's destruction. A hunch suggested that it might have been reprinted in his collection The Philosophy of Literary Form.

For a bookworm entering middle age, it comes as a relief to discover that such a vague recollection is accurate, after all. It's also comforting, somehow, that the hardback edition of Burke's volume first published by Louisiana State University Press in 1941 is actually much sturdier, after all this time, than the more recent reprints of it from the University of California Press.

It took only a minute to find the passage in question. "The colyumist's dream," writes Burke, "is of a book that lays down its thesis in the opening sentence, expands it through the entire introduction, repeats it with variations through several hundred pages, and winds up by summarizing it in an epilogue."

Two thoughts: (1) Yes, that does sound quite a bit like a description of Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, and (2) No, "colyumist" is not a typographical error, on Burke's part on or mine.

Reading that passage long ago in a paperback copy that has long since disintegrated, I scribbled a marginal annotation from some dictionary which defined "colyumist" as the writer of short, satirical items of commentary for newspapers. (Hence it overlaps with, yet is not quite identical to, "columnist.")
But now, a check of the Oxford English Dictionary, magnifying glass in hand, turns up no entry for colyumist. Nor did I find any trace of it in the online resources gathered in a reference librarian's secret stash of bookmarked research tools.

In fact, "colyumist" would seem like a Loch Ness monster of word, if I hadn't found it defined (in more or less the sense I recalled ) in Gilbert Seldes's The Seven Lively Arts (1924) -- the book that, for all practical purposes, founded cultural studies in the United States, long before anyone had a name for it. (A succinct overview of the grounds for that claim can be found here, in a news article about Michael Kammen, the author of a biography of Seldes.)

Burke's account of a book that stays relentlessly on-message comes to mind, lately, for a couple of reasons. Maybe I should be clear that he did not mean it to be a recommendation. His point is that such a volume would have little use except as fodder. And in fact, he's using that description as a
foil for writing about someone he calls  "a colyumist's nightmare," William Empson, the author of Seven Types of Ambiguity, whose work Burke says he finds something new in each time he rereads it.

A new biography of Empson has come out recently (or rather, the first of two volumes of a biography, which might just be overdoing it).

So that might be part of what's stirred up the memory. But there is also the fact that I'm at the early stage of writing a book -- and at the other extreme from anything resembling the monotonous lucidity Burke describes.

Each fact, each idea, every dim intuition seems to connect to all the others. At times this is exciting. The brain blazes; hours of concentration prove effortless.

And sometimes it's a pain in the ass. The problem being that you cannot write a book out of a pure intuition of possible linkages. (Not unless you are a novelist, or the author of one of those fictions of cohesive personal identity known as a memoir.) For a work of nonfiction prose, you have to gather a lot of information -- and then control it.

So it's disconcerting to find that your ideas are swarming without a center They keep running to the bookshelves to prove themselves. And if it turns out -- as I'm finding it often does -- that no scholar has written anything on some topic absolutely essential to the project, then a kind of panicky weariness kicks in. It feels like being obliged to reinvent the wheel without knowing what a circle looks like.

Well, come what may, the roller coaster shuts down at least twice a week -- for the duration of work on this column. Which ordinarily covers topics far removed from my navel.

Indeed, I can't help thinking, at this point, of Don Marquis, a newspaperman who "always had a good
second-rate talent for verse, and a good first-rate understanding of humanity," as Gilbert Seldes put it in 1924. In "A Colyumist's Prayer," Marquis wrote

Make me (sometimes at least) discreet;
Help me to hide my self-conceit,
Give me courage now and then
To be as dull as are most men.
And give me readers quick to see
When I am satirizing Me....

Amen to that, brother! Amen to that.

Author's email: 

College in the 40s

Graduation is seven months away. For a 22-year-old undergrad whose post-baccalaureate plans are nebulous, this might seem like forever. Not for me. In January 2000, at the age of 42, I returned to college after a long academic hibernation. I've been a part-time college student ever since, creeping up on a long-delayed graduation.

There is no single, overriding reason why I returned to college after so long away, but I felt trapped between a spouse wrapping up work on her M.A. in journalism and a son in high school who demanded to know why his college dropout father was pushing him into higher education. Unless I returned to college immediately, I would soon be the least-educated person in the house. Baylor's then-generous tuition remission program for employee family members -- my wife is managing editor of an academic journal -- eased my concerns about the financial burden of returning to school and ensured that Baylor was the only university to which I applied.

Since returning, I have been challenged in unexpected ways. Baylor does little to accommodate nontraditional undergraduate students, offering no weekend classes and few evening classes. Some offices close during the lunch hour, and entire buildings are sealed tighter than Tupperware promptly at 5:00.

Initially, I held a traditional full-time job, and I often flew across town with minimal regard for traffic signals, hoping to beat the English department's noon lock-down. Each time I arrived to find the office door handle still warm from the hand of the person who locked it, I taught new and imaginative curse words to Baylor's abundant squirrel population.

Back then, registration and payment of tuition and fees required a day off work, a beach ball-sized bladder, and the endurance of a sequoia as lines moved slower than frozen molasses. While Baylor's adoption of electronic solutions reduced my frustration by allowing me to register and pay fees online, the university's constant upgrading of hardware and software soon outpaced my personal budget. Now I must travel to campus just to find a computer powerful enough to complete these tasks.

Even though I successfully overcame real and imagined obstacles, I had no specific plan when I returned to school. At first, I enrolled in one course each semester. I soon realized that I would qualify for AARP membership while I was still receiving student discounts, so I began doubling and tripling my class load.

When presented with the opportunity to move from conventional employment to self-employment, I embraced it. Rather than forcing my class schedule fit my work schedule, I could adjust my workload to fit my class schedule. This becomes increasingly important as I approach the end of undergraduate life, when only single sections of required courses may be offered each semester.

Hardest to adjust to was the realization that I am no longer young. Desks are too small for someone who gained his "freshman 15" and then spent nearly 30 years developing middle-aged spread, and what's left of my hair is now more salt than pepper.

Despite raising one of my own, members of the wired generation confound me. While my family didn't own a television until I reached third grade, my classmates came out of the womb clutching a computer mouse and a cell phone. A once-peaceful walk across campus is now interrupted at every step by the nonstop chatter of the connected, and the beep, chirp and moan of student cell phones regularly disturb classes.

When I was born, there were only 49 states, and I soon learned that most important events in the constitutional history of the United States have happened during my lifetime. This means that my fellow students study history, while I study current events.

In many classes, I've been the oldest person in the room, leading to an awkward sorting out of social convention. Will the instructor treat me with the respect due my age, or with the disdain appropriate for an undergrad?

At the beginning of each semester, professors often question students' about their future plans, and my classmates mention doctor, lawyer and engineer. Me? I want to be a Social Security recipient because there isn't enough time between graduation and retirement to actually have a career.

When I tell my wife about some of my class discussions -- discussions where life experience clearly colors my opinions -- she says, "Don't frighten the children." And it's difficult not to think of my classmates as children, even though many of them are in early adulthood, because my 21-year-old son is among them, and I often find myself enrolled in courses with members of his high school graduating class.

In a university where students of my generation can probably be counted in single digits, there's little opportunity to develop friendships. Even sincere attempts make me feel like the creepy neighbor my mother always warned me about.

But I have tried to experience college life the way a traditional undergrad might.

  • I've eaten cafeteria food, quickly realizing that the cast-iron stomach I had as a teenager is now one of the seven largest methane producers in Texas, and I must monitor my diet.
  • My wardrobe slowly devolved, and T-shirts emblazoned with one of Baylor's many logos are now my apparel of choice.
  • I joined three academic fraternities, but soon decided that my days as a chaperone ended with my son's high school graduation party.
  • Although I've yet to pull an all-nighter, I've certainly had my share of late-nighters, not opening my textbooks until my family finally retires for the night.
  • Along with other Baylor students, I've sat in the stands through losing season after losing season of football, and sat glued to the television as our women's basketball team advanced through the NCAA tournament to take the title.

While my son speeds through college without stopping for marriage, children and career, I relish the few advantages of being a college student at my age. I especially enjoy the reaction at the local multiplex when I request the "student discount," and my wife takes great pleasure in telling people that she sleeps with a college student.

I'll be 48 when I finally receive my B.A. in professional writing, having spent six years finishing half of my undergraduate requirements. At this glacial pace, dare I even consider grad school?

Author's email: 

Michael Bracken is a 47-year-old senior at Baylor University. His latest book is Yesterday in Blood and Bone, a collection of short stories published by Wildside Press.

Report from the Academic Committee on Plagiarism

To the Dean of Academic Affairs:

Our special committee on plagiarism has concluded its research.* Below are the highlights of our findings.

                                                                 ------

Students are growing lazier about the whole process of copying, not even bothering to change fonts in a cut-and-paste excerpt or otherwise disguise their tracks. When asked why he inserted an entire page printed in Black Forest Gothic in a paper written in Courier, a student in freshman composition expressed surprise: "If you start changing things, that’s cheating, right?"

The path of least resistance continues, often refreshingly low-tech. A Psychology 200 instructor reported a student handing in a Xerox of an article with the author’s name whited out and her own inserted. "I did the best I could,” confessed the student. "I didn’t have my laptop with me, and I was in a hurry."

A student in an Art 303 seminar handed in a paper that had been plagiarized from another plagiarized paper, which was plagiarized from an earlier paper, which in turn seemed to be derived from another source. The instructor finally traced the work back to a papyrus scroll residing in the Cairo Museum.

In another recent case, a student handed in a paper that had been copied from the Lycée Populaire, all in French, though the student himself knew no French, and the course was an American literature survey.

Some of the faculty feel particularly betrayed, no longer sure of their ground. One instructor bemoaned "the lack of standards these days, when students are willing to plagiarize even mediocre texts.” He referred to a paper he’d recently received that duplicated a D+ paper he’d graded and returned the previous semester.

After one comp-lit lecturer told his students that plagiarism derives from the Latin plagium or "kidnapping," he received a ransom note: “Unless you leave $500 in small bills by the rostrum in 101 Henry Hall, you will see your darling lecture next in a paper for a world lit survey class at U Neau.” Luckily, proctors were able to apprehend the perpetrator playing a tape to the voice-recognition software at the Information Technology Center.

                                                        -------

Spotted: a new trend called plagio-riffing, where students get together and mix and match five or more papers into one by sampling and lifting choice paragraphs to the beat of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (plagiarized from “He’s So Fine”).

                                                        -------

How to tell if a student work has been plagiarized, Old and New:

Old: It looked suspiciously well typed.
New: It has a Web address printed on the bottom.

Old: It read like a) Thomas Jefferson, b) the student’s girlfriend, or c) Abigail the Academic for Hire, from the tutoring agency down the street.
New: It reads like document #1209583 on Cop-an-Essay.com.

Old: It had key phrases that didn’t fit with the rest of the student’s diction. Example: “The height of the Roman empire represented the pagan apotheosis of imperial grandeur, but the seeds of its decline were inherent in its decadence, and to me that sucks."
New: Since all the writing looks like a pastiche of web-based gibble-gabble, we’re still studying this problem.
                                                    -------

Making the punishment fit the crime for those caught plagiarizing: Have the student copy the same sentence over and over again. Note: reproducing without permission has an additional meaning in China, as our resident Sinologist has pointed out.

                                                    -------

According to a report from another university’s home page, over 70 percent of all students admit having used sources without acknowledgment, and plagiarism is “growing by leaps and bounds.” Any resemblance between that report and ours is purely coincidental.
                                               _________________________________

    * Note: The committee would have released its findings last year but for the unfortunate incident of committee member Professor Renquist’s "borrowings" for his latest book. The case has been settled out of court.

Author's email: 

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).

Silence in the Stacks

Some months back, one of the cable networks debuted a movie -- evidently the pilot for a potential show -- that inspired brief excitement in some quarters, though it seems not to have caught on. Its central character was someone whose grasp of esoteric knowledge allowed him or her (I'm not sure which, never having seen it) to command the awesome mysterious forces of the universe. Its title was The Librarian.

The program was, it seems, a reworking of a similar figure in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That's in keeping with the fundamental law of the entertainment industry once defined by Ernie Kovacs, the great American surrealist TV pioneer: "Find something that works, then beat it to death."

At another level, though, the whole concept derived from a tradition that is pre-television, indeed, almost pre-literate. The idea that a command of books provides access to secret forces, the equation of the scholar with the magus, was already well established before Faust and Prospero worked their spells. The linkage has also left its trace at the level of the signifier. Both glamor, originally meaning a kind of witchy sex appeal, and grimoire, the sorcerer's reference book, derive from the word grammar -- one of the foundational disciplines of medieval learning, hence a source of power.

Today, it's much rarer to find the whole knowledge/power nexus treated in such explicitly occultic terms, at least outside pop culture. As for librarians, they are usually regarded as professionals working in the service sector of the information economy, rather than as full-fledged participants in contemporary intellectual life. That is, arguably, an injustice. But the division of labor and the logic of hierarchical distinctions have changed a lot since the day when Gottfried Leibniz (philosopher, statesman, inventor of calculus and the computer, and overall polymathic genius) held down his day job running a library.

The most persistent aspect of the old configuration is probably the link between glamor and grammar - the lingering aura of bookish eroticism. At least that's what the phenomenon of librarian porn would suggest. The topic deserves more scholarly attention, though an important start has been made by Daniel W. Lester, the network information coordinator for Boise State University in Idaho. His bibliography of pertinent livres lus avec une seule main ("books read with one hand") is not exhaustive, but the annotations are judicious. About one such tale of lust in the stacks, he writes: "Most of the library and librarian descriptions are reasonable, except for the number of books on a book cart."

But the role librarians play at the present time brings them closer to the most pressing issues in American cultural life than any cheesy TV show (or letter to Penthouse, for that matter) could possibly convey.

Their work constitutes the real intersection of knowledge and power -- not as concepts to be analyzed, but at the level of almost nonstop practical negotiation. It is the cultural profession most involved, from day to day, with questions concerning public budgets, information technology, the cost of new publications, and intellectual freedom. (On the latter, check out the American Library Association's page on the Patriot Act.)

Given all that, I've been curious to find out about discussions by academic librarians regarding current developments in their profession, in the university, and in the world outside. A collection of essays called The Successful Academic Librarian  is due out this fall from Information Today, Inc. Its emphasis seems to fall on guidance in facing career demands. But how can an outsider keep up with what academic librarians are thinking about other issues?

Well, the first place to start is The Kept-Up Academic Librarian, the blog of Steven Bell, who is director of the Gutman Library at Philadelphia University. Bell provides a running digest of academic news, but for the most part avoids the kind of reflective and/or splenetic mini-essays one associates with blogdom.

My own effort to track down something more ruminative turned up a few  interesting blogs lus avec une seule main run by librarians, such as this one. But this, while stimulating, was not quite on topic. So in due course I contacted Steven Bell, on the assumption that he was as kept-up as an academic librarian could be. Could he please name a few interesting blogs by academic librarians?

His answer came as a surprise: "When you ask specifically about blogs maintained by academic librarians," Bell wrote earlier this week, "the list would be short or non-existent."

He qualified the comment by noting the numerous gray areas. "There may be some academic librarians out there with an interesting blog, but in some cases I think the blogger is doing it anonymously and you don't really even know if the person is an academic librarian. For example, take a look at Blog Without a Library. I can't tell who this blogger is though I think he or she might be an academic librarian. On the other hand Jill Stover's Library Marketing blog is fairly new and pretty good, and she is an academic librarian -- but the blog really isn't specific to academic libraries.... Bill Drew of one of the SUNY libraries has something he calls BabyBoomer Librarian but it isn't necessarily about academic librarianship -- sometimes yes, but more often not."

Bell listed a few other blogs, including Humanities Librarian from the College of New Jersey. But very few of his suggestions were quite what I had in mind -- that is, public spaces devoted to thinking out loud about topics such as the much-vaunted "crisis in academic publishing." It was a puzzling silence.

"I can't say any individual has developed a blog that has emerged as the 'voice of academic librarianship,' " noted Bell in response to my query. "Why? If I had to advance a theory I'd say that as academic librarians we are still geared towards traditional, journal publishing as the way to express ourselves. I know that if I have something on my mind that I'd like to write about to share my thoughts and opinions, I'm more likely to write something for formal publication (e.g., see this piece.) Perhaps that is why we don't have a 'juicy' academic librarian out there who is taking on the issues of the day with vocal opinions."

And he added something that makes a lot of sense: "To have a really great blog you have to be able to consistently speak to the issues of the day and have great (or even good) insights into them -- and it just doesn't seem like any academic librarian out there is capable of doing that. I think there are some folks in our profession who might be capable of doing it. But if so they haven't figured out yet that they ought to be blogging, or maybe they just don't have the time or interest."

Now, that diagnosis may perhaps contain the elements of a solution. The answer might be the creation of a group blog for academic librarians -- some prominent in their field, others less well-known, and perhaps even a couple of them anonymous. No one participant would be under pressure to generate fresh insights every day or two. By pooling resources, such a group could strike terror in the hearts of budget-cutting administrators, price-gouging journal publishers, and even the occasional professor prone to associating academic stardom with aristocratic privilege.

Full disclosure: I am married to a librarian, albeit a non-academic one, who knew about the World Wide Web (and the proper grammar for using various search engines) long before most people did. She has proven to me, time and again, that librarians do indeed possess amazing powers.
They also tend to have a lot to say about the bureaucracies that employ them -- and the patrons who patronize them. 

An outspoken, incisive, and timely stream of commentary on the problems and possibilities facing academic libraries would enliven and enrich the public discourse. If anything, it's long overdue.

Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One of his previous columns was on the pleasures of reading encyclopedias.

Letting Down the Soldiers

These are challenging times for members of today’s military. Not only are servicemen and women called upon for extended combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, some on the home front are being asked to lengthen their careers or return to active duty from the Reserves.

Given the sacrifices that they are being asked to make, it is disturbing that many military families can’t seem to get fair treatment on tuition at state colleges and universities.

In Virginia, a state legislative committee recently rejected a measure designed to improve the quality of life for military employees and their families who are stationed in the Commonwealth. Introduced by Del. Viola O. Baskerville, the bill included a provision to extend in-state tuition benefits at public colleges and universities to active-duty members of the armed services, their spouses and dependents. Many of these military service members and their families are either stationed in Virginia for a period that is too short to qualify for residency or they move so often that they prefer to keep their residency in either their state of birth or state where they plan to eventually return.

Those who opposed the bill generally cited fiscal concerns,  but the impact in terms of a total state budget would be miniscule.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the question of whether in-state tuition is made available to military families, the current answer is a patchwork quilt of different policies from state to state when, pardon the pun, a uniform policy should be in order.

In 2002, a U.S. Army-formed working group examined the in-state tuition policies of states and found that most, but not all, provide in-state tuition rates to military families when they are stationed in state.
The working group recommended an "ideal" in-state tuition policy that would provide:

  • in-state tuition for service members and their families in the state of legal residence;
  • in-state tuition for military and family in the state of assignment; and
  • continuity for the duration of a student’s degree program once a student has started (even if his or her parent is reassigned to a base in another state or outside the country).

A slim majority of states, 26 in all, have adopted all three components of the recommended policy. In 18 others, in-state tuition is available to both military residents and assignees, but continuity of the benefit, once started, is not always available. And in five states -- Massachusetts, Vermont, Michigan, Indiana and South Dakota -- policies are left up to individual public colleges and universities to decide, creating uncertainty and stress for military families.

That leaves only one state, Virginia, which as a matter of policy does not offer assigned military families the opportunity for in-state tuition at any public college or university. This situation deserves special scrutiny because Virginia ranks No. 2 in the nation when it comes to military dollars invested, trailing only California. Military bases are a key part of Virginia’s economy, with spending exceeding $34 billion a year and 208,000 people employed at 147 installations.

Doesn’t it seem odd that, of all the states in the top 10 for military investments, only Virginia does not follow all three of the recommended guidelines?

Six of the top 10 states in military investment -- Texas, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, Connecticut and Washington -- have changed their policies within the past two years, in order to comply with the recommended guidelines. Two other highly ranked recipients of military investment, Florida and Arizona, were already in compliance with the recommended policies. The largest state in terms of military investment, California, follows all three guidelines, though its continuity program is weak, offering only one year of in-state tuition after reassignment out of state.

The men and women of our armed forces risk their lives in service to our country. These families should not be asked to bear a greater economic burden in educating their children than their civilian neighbors across town.

Now is the time for all states, especially Virginia, to adopt a consistent, three-pronged policy that would mandate in-state tuition for military families, as well as offer continued in-state tuition once higher education has begun. This seems the least we can do back on the home front for the millions of men and women who are serving our country in uniform.

Author's email: 

James A. Boyle is president of College Parents of America, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to empowering parents to best support their children on the path to and through college.  Headquartered in Arlington, Va., College Parents of America reaches more than 25,000 current and future college parents.

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