“It ain’t what I say, it’s the way that I say it.
That’s all, brother, that’s all.”
Let us say there is a well-meaning administrator – in particular, a college president – who wants to be sure that students at her institution are benefiting as much as possible from their undergraduate educations. Clearly, this is a central concern for any college president, since that is presumably a major reason for taking the job.
The president assumes that this is a goal shared by the faculty, since it is at the heart of their own vocation. Moreover, she has heard them speak of how their various disciplines teach not only specific subject matter, but important intellectual skills and habits of mind as well. The president also assumes that, since her faculty colleagues are themselves scholars and scientists, they will have an interest in discovering whether or not their teaching is having the desired effects. And is it not the case that true professionals wish to become better and better at their chosen work?
So, the president makes a carefully prepared presentation at a faculty meeting about “competencies” and “assessment.”
What result can be expected?
The outcome may be a positive one if the faculty community in question is already comfortable with these terms and their meanings; they may be willing, perhaps even eager, to consider how best to go about such a project or to improve an initiative already undertaken.
If, on the other hand, the faculty members have not been enculturated into the world of professional higher ed jargon, which is not the same as disciplinary jargon – or, if, for that matter, they have taken issue with some of it for well-considered reasons that require serious discussion – they will be sufficiently put off by the lingo not to bother attending to the message.
To be sure, there may be other reasons for opposition. Reports have surfaced from the higher education community about faculty members who are resistant to change and wish to go on doing things in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Nonetheless, it is worth attending to the Mae West principle: it is not just the content of the message that is important, but also how that content is being communicated.
Which bring us to “competency” and “assessment.”
“Assessment” has actually been faring better among faculty members in recent years insofar as it avoids what we might call nudnik positivism (i.e., forgetting Einstein’s famous observation that “not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts”) and as long as it is clear that the main goal is to make teachers better at their work, as opposed to fulfilling some misconceived external rankings system obligation. The term has thus been developing a more familiar, relatively congenial specific content, perhaps making it less necessary to use more elegant and traditional alternatives like “evaluation.” Though one should never assume.
What about the neologism “competency,” which some of us (this writer included) have avoided up to this very day? There is, to be sure, a persuasive grammatical justification for preferring “competency” to good old “competence”; this has to do with the distinction between mass nouns and count nouns. “Competence” -- like “water”, “butter”, or “common sense” -- is a mass noun, something you can have more or less of (or, in fact, none at all). “Competency,” on the other hand, operates as a count noun and is thus applicable to items you can have a specific number of – say, two, five, or 16, depending on how many you wish to list. Moreover, “competency” may be preferred over such traditional count nouns as “skill” (which may sound too narrowly technical) or “capacity” (often used of qualities that are innate).
And yet, there are reasons to distrust this term. Some have to do with the meanings it has been acquiring among change enthusiasts who seem to believe that the benefits of higher education can be achieved without significant interaction with actual, human, salaried teachers.
But, even leaving these issues aside and returning to the well-meaning among us who seek to incorporate the benefits of online resources into the essential student/teacher relationship: the very use of the term “competency” may shut down the channel because of what it seems to say about the speaker. Many inhabitants of the world of higher education – especially faculty members – are put off by professional higher ed jargon. If they find such jargon rebarbative (now, that’s a word to conjure with), they may view those who utter it as Aliens from Planet Administration.
Which brings us to a distinction made by sociolinguists and philosophers of language (who prefer greater precision in their analyses than Ms. West found sufficient) -- namely, the distinction between “illocutionary force” and “perlocutionary effect.” “Illocutionary force” refers to what a speaker intends in a communication. So, for example, when someone asks “Do you know what time it is?”, the speaker intends this as a request to be told the time. Should the addressee answer “Yes” and leave it there, that would be a failure of communication. Or, to put it another way, the perlocutionary effect (that is, the effect upon the addressee) will not have been the one hoped for.
So, returning to in the faculty meeting at issue here, the speaker president may strongly believe in the illocutionary force of terms like “competency” and “assessment,” while the perlocutionary effect on the faculty addressees may be roughly equivalent to “yadda yadda yadda.” In brief, if we want the illocutionary force to be with us, we must be ever mindful of the perlocutionary effect.
Given the increasing acceptance of the term “assessment," can we expect the same for “competency”? The very distinguished Derek Bok uses it – more often in Higher Education in America than in an earlier work, Our Underachieving Colleges. Faculty members in a number of institutions are using it – especially in reports submitted to foundations. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has recently been testing the usefulness of the term in identifying the desiderata of a high-quality liberal education.
As it happens, though, AAC&U’s president, Carol Geary Schneider, told me recently that she and others are finding the term “competency” too modest for the true goals of a mind- and horizon-expanding education. The AAC&U is planning to move to the term “proficiency.” an improvement in both substance and style that also serves better to engage the high standards of faculty members. Needless to say, Mae West would have her own reasons for preferring it.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation. She is also president emerita and professor of anthropology emerita of Barnard College.
Submitted by D.G. Myers on January 14, 2014 - 3:00am
Earlier this month I stepped into a classroom to begin the last semester of a 24-year teaching career.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not retiring. I am not “burned out.” The truth is rather more banal. Ohio State University will not be renewing my three-year contract when it expires in the spring.
The problem is tenure: with another three-year contract, I become eligible for tenure. In an era of tight budgets, there is neither money nor place for a 61-year-old white male professor who has never really fit in nor tried very hard to. (Leave aside my heterodox conservative politics and hard-to-credit publication record.)
My feelings are like glue that will not set. The pieces fall apart in my hands.
This essay is not a contribution to the "I Quit Academe" genre. (A more accurate title in my case would be "Academe Quits Me.")
Although I have become uncomfortably aware that I am out of step with the purposeful march of the 21st-century university, gladly would I have learned and gladly continued to teach for as long as my students would have had me.
The decision, though, was not my students’ to make. And I’m not at all sure that a majority would have voted to keep me around, even if they had been polled. My salary may not be large (a rounding error above the median income for white families in the U.S.), but the university can offer part-time work to three desperate adjuncts for what it pays me. (In case you're wondering, I had tenure at Texas A&M, where I was for 21 years, but relinquished it to come to Ohio State.)
A lifetime of learning has never been cost-effective, and in today’s university -- at least on the side of campus where the humanities are badly housed — no other criterion is thinkable.
My experience is a prelude to what will be happening, sooner rather than later, to many of my colleagues. Humanities course enrollments are down to 7 percent of full-time student hours, but humanities professors make up 45 percent of the faculty.
The imbalance cannot last. Doctoral programs go on awarding doctorates to young men and women who will never find an academic job at a living wage. (A nearby university — a university with a solid ranking from U.S. News and World Report — pays adjuncts $1,500 per course. Just to toe the poverty line, a young professor with a husband and a child would have to teach 13 courses a year.)
If only as retribution for the decades-long exploitation of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants, 9 of every 10 Ph.D. programs in English should be closed down — immediately. Meanwhile, the senior faculty fiddles away its time teaching precious specialties.
Consider some of the undergraduate courses being offered in English this semester at the University of Minnesota:
Poems About Cities
Studies in Narrative: The End of the World in Literature & History
Studies in Film: Seductions: Film/Gender/Desire
The Original Walking Dead in Victorian England
Contemporary Literatures and Cultures: North American Imperialisms and Colonialisms
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: Family as Origin and Invention
Women Writing: Nags, Hags, and Vixens
The Image on the Page
Bodies, Selves, Texts
Consumer Culture and Globalization
The Western: Looking Awry
Dreams and Middle English Dream Visions
To be fair, there are also four sections of Shakespeare being offered there this semester, although these are outnumbered by five sections of Literature of Public Life (whatever that is). Maybe I’m missing something, but this course list does not make me salivate to enroll at Minnesota the way that Addison Schacht salivates to enroll in classics at the University of Chicago in Sam Munson’s 2010 novel The November Criminals:
I could study the major texts of Latin literature, to say nothing of higher-level philological pursuits, all the time. Do you know how much that excites me? Not having to do classes whose subjects are hugely, impossibly vague — like World History, like English [like Literature of Public Life]. You know, to anchor them? So they don’t dissolve because of their meaningless? I’ve looked through the sample [U of C] catalog. Holy fuck! Satire and the Silver Age. The Roman Novel. Love and Death: Eros and Transformation in Ovid. The Founding of Epic Meter. I salivated when I saw these names, because they indicate this whole world of knowledge from which I am excluded, and which I can win my way into, with luck and endurance.
That’s it exactly. The Minnesota course list does not indicate a whole world of knowledge. It indicates a miscellany of short-lived faculty enthusiasms.
More than two decades ago Alvin Kernan complained that English study “fail[s] to meet the academic requirement that true knowledge define the object it studies and systematize its analytic method to at least some modest degree,” but by then the failure itself was already two decades old. About the only thing English professors have agreed upon since the early ’70s is that they agree on nothing, and besides, agreement is beside the question. Teaching the disagreement: that’s about as close as anyone has come to restoring a sense of order to English.
In 1952, at the height of his fame, F. R. Leavis entitled a collection of essays The Common Pursuit. It was his name for the academic study of literature. No one takes the idea seriously anymore, nor does anyone ask the obvious follow-up. If English literature is not a common pursuit -- not a “great tradition,” to use Leavis’s other famous title -- then what is it doing in the curriculum? What is the rationale for studying it?
My own career (so-called) suggests the answer. Namely: where there is no common body of knowledge, no common disciplinary conceptions, there is nothing that is indispensable. Any claim to expertise is arbitrary and subject to dismissal. After 24 years of patiently acquiring literary knowledge -- plus the five years spent in graduate school at Northwestern, “exult[ing] over triumphs so minor,” as Larry McMurtry says in Moving On, “they would have been unnoticeable in any other context” -- I have been informed that my knowledge is no longer needed.
As Cardinal Newman warned, knowledge really is an end in itself. I fill no gap in the department, because there is no shimmering and comprehensive surface of knowledge in which any gaps might appear. Like everyone else in English, I am an extra, and the offloading of an extra is never reported or experienced as a loss.
I feel the loss, keenly, of my self-image. For 24 years I have been an English professor. Come the spring, what will I be?
My colleagues will barely notice that I am gone, but what they have yet to grasp is that the rest of the university will barely notice when they too are gone, or at least severely reduced in numbers — within the decade, I’d say.
The news that Purdue University likely overstated the impact of its early warning system, Course Signals, has cast doubt about the efficacy of a host of technology products intended to improve student retention and completion. In a commentary published in Inside Higher Ed, Mark Milliron responded by arguing that “next-generation” early warning systems use more robust analytics and will be likely to get better results.
We contend that even with extremely robust and appropriate analytics, programs like Course Signals may still fall short if their adoption ignores the most pressing piece of electronic advising systems — their use on the front end, by advisers, faculty and students. Until more attention is paid to the messy, human side of educational technology, Course Signals — and other programs like it — will continue to show anemic impacts on student retention and graduation.
Over the past year, we have worked with colleges in the process of implementing Integrated Planning and Advising Systems (which include early warning systems like Course Signals). The adoption of early warning systems requires advisers, faculty and students to approach college success differently and should, in theory, refocus attention on how they engage with advising and support services. In practice, however, we have found that colleges consistently underestimate the challenge of ensuring that such systems are adopted effectively by end-users.
The concept of an early alert is far from new. In interviews, instructors and advisers have consistently reminded us that for years, students have received “early alert” feedback in the form of grades and midterm reports. Early warning systems may streamline this process, and provide the reports in a new format (a red light instead of a warning note, for example), but the warning itself isn’t terribly different.
What is potentially different about products like Course Signals is their ability to connect these course-level warnings to the broader student support services offered by the college. If early warning signals are shared across college personnel, and if those warnings serve to trigger new behaviors on their part, then we are likely to see changed student behavior and success. In other words, sending up a red light isn’t likely to influence retention. But if that red light leads to advisers or tutors reaching out to students and providing targeted support, we might see bigger impacts on student outcomes.
Milliron says, for example, that with predictive analytics, “student[s] might be advised away from a combination of courses that could be toxic for him or her.” But such advising doesn’t happen spontaneously: it requires advisers to be more proactive in preparing for and conducting each advising session. They must examine a student’s early warning profile, program plan and case file prior to the session; they must reframe how they present course choices to students; and they have to rethink what the best course combinations are for students with varying educational and career goals, as well as learning styles and abilities. Finally, they may have to link students to additional resources on campus — such as tutoring— and colleges need to ensure these services exist and are of high quality.
For this process to occur, advisers need to be well-versed in how to use the analytics, and be encouraged to move past registering students for the most common set of courses to courses that make sense for the individual. But because most colleges remain uncertain about the process changes that should occur when they adopt early warning systems, they are unable to provide the training that would help faculty and advisers make potentially transformative adjustments in their practice.
Even if colleges do adequately prepare faculty and advisers for this transition, there is much we still don’t know about how students will perceive and use the data and messages they receive from early warning systems. These unknowns may influence the extent to which the systems impact student outcomes.
For example, if students perceive early warnings as a reprimand rather than an opportunity to get help, they may ignore the signals or avoid efforts of college personnel to contact them. To anticipate and mitigate these kinds of potentially negative responses, it is important to understand how all students, not just those who use and enjoy early alert systems, experience and react to such signals. As Milliron notes, we need to figure how to send the right message to the right people in the right way.
Early warning systems are only tools, and colleges will have to pay closer attention to changing end-user culture in order to maximize their effectiveness. Currently, colleges are skipping this step. At the end of the day, even the best system and the best data depend on people to translate them into actions and behaviors that can influence student retention and completion.
Melinda Mechur Karp is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. Also contributing to the essay were Jeff Fletcher, a senior research assistant, HooriSantikianKalamkarian, a research associate, and Serena Klempin, a research associate.
In recent weeks a number of Modern Language Association members have talked with me about MLA Resolution 2014-1 to be voted on in Chicago on Saturday by the organization’s Delegate Assembly at the MLA’s annual meeting. The resolution "urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” Several people expressed doubt that any counter-evidence could be presented to question the conclusions advanced by the background paper distributed by the resolution’s proponents. They then typically advanced to the next stage of the discussion, wondering what arguments could possibly be raised to defeat the resolution. The background paper sounds reasonable, even factual, if you aren’t well informed or up-to-date about conditions in Israel and the occupied territories. The people I talked with concluded it was an open-and-shut case.
Until now, MLA members have been in the same situation as the American Studies Association members who voted on a boycott resolution in December: They have only been presented with one side of the case. But a group of MLA members have now put together a detailed document exposing factual errors, contested claims, and misleading conclusions in the background paper available to MLA members on the association’s website. Like the resolution’s proponents, they have drawn on material gathered by non-government organizations with an interest in the subject. Rather than an objective report, the pro-resolution background paper is now revealed to be essentially the prosecution’s case. The document prepared by the resolution’s opponents amounts to the case for the defense.
The case for the defense rebuts both arguments and examples put forward by proponents of the resolution. It shows that many international scholars work and teach in the West Bank. It demonstrates why visa denials may not be “arbitrary.” It shows how the documents supporting the resolution are flawed and unreliable, including some that are now out of date. And it shows how Israeli visa policies are comparable to visa policies elsewhere. There are fundamental disagreements of fact between the two sides.
The members of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly have thus become triers of the facts, acting to evaluate what are fundamentally a set of evidence-based issues: what are the conditions at Palestinian universities? Are faculty members from other countries who wish to do so able to teach there? Are Palestinian faculty members able to engage in professional travel? What Israeli security concerns that affect access are or are not valid? What travel rules should an existentially threatened country in a state of perpetual war feel justified in enforcing? Does Israel have the right to exclude foreign faculty who advocate violence?
It is fair to say that MLA members are not necessarily well-informed about the first questions and are not professionally equipped to answer the last three. They would ideally have to listen to weeks of expert testimony and questioning before voting on the resolution. Instead they will hear an afternoon’s debate by English and foreign language professors. If the resolution passes, it will then be subjected to a vote by the association’s 30,000 members.
The MLA is to be applauded for requiring a democratic vote by its members before a resolution is formally adopted by the organization as a whole. Unfortunately, neither the Delegate Assembly nor the MLA’s 30,000 members have been equipped to be triers of the facts. Indeed MLA’s members are not required to read the documents supporting or contesting the resolution. Nor will they even be able to sit in judgment and hear arguments. They would be free to vote on the basis of their prior convictions, much as many of the ASA’s members surely did. Many ASA members no doubt voted approval simply because they were angry at Israel. They took the only organizational opportunity they had to express their disapproval of Israeli policy. The efficacy or advisability of academic boycotts aside, they registered their general convictions. Indeed there is no guarantee that members of the Delegate Assembly will read the two sets of background documents before voting.
Unfortunately, the context and basis for voting on the MLA resolution are worse still. Whether or not you support academic boycotts is fundamentally a matter of principle. Principle alone can guide a vote. But the MLA resolution is fundamentally fact-based. The process the MLA uses is not adequate to the task of establishing the facts. It is fatally flawed, or at least it will be if the Delegate Assembly approves the resolution.
Before the American Association of University Professors censures a college or university administration, it reviews documents submitted by both faculty members and administrators, tasks staff to prepare a review of relevant issues and key questions needing answers, and selects a team of faculty knowledgeable about academic freedom and shared governance to visit the campus in question to interview interested parties. The AAUP then drafts a full report reaching consensus on the facts. The AAUP also shares the draft report with administrators and faculty members on the campus and requests comments. The revised report is published for comment. The organization’s 39-member National Council reviews the report and votes on whether to recommend a vote for censure to the annual meeting. This is the kind of process required to decide a fact-based case in a responsible and professional manner.
But the MLA is not merely contemplating censuring a university. It is basically censuring a country for its policies. When did MLA conduct site visits to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank? When did the MLA give Israelis an opportunity to respond, a procedure the MLA’s rules would seem to require? Where is the consensus report evaluating arguments pro and con and giving MLA members a disinterested basis on which to vote? If the Delegate Assembly votes to approve the resolution after this flawed process proceeds, it will have undermined the credibility of the organization and gone a long way toward transforming it from a scholarly to a political one. It does not augur well for the group’s future as a widely endorsed advocacy vehicle for the humanities.
On the other hand, the Delegate Assembly has an opportunity to reject the resolution. Set beside one another, the two sets of documents make it clear that a good deal more objective evidence would be needed to prove the prosecution case. To follow through on the jury trial analogy: when the documents for and against the resolution are compared, the DA at the very least must conclude there is “reasonable doubt” the resolution is justified.
That is not to say that Israel should not take the risk of loosening the security restrictions under which Palestinian universities operate. That would be one component of a plan for jettisoning control of the West Bank, something Israel may have to do unilaterally if negotiations continue to fail. But it is to say that MLA’s ill-informed resolution and inadequate procedures have no role to play in the process. In an era of continuing adjunct abuse and politicians declaring the humanities of no economic use, the MLA should concentrate instead on saving a profession endangered in its own country.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
From H.G. Wells to "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," the literary and cinematic history of time travel offers two lessons of overriding importance. The first: Watch your step, especially when going backward in time. Everything you do, or don't do, will have unintended consequences. You could end up killing your grandfather in childhood by accident. Twist cause and effect into a pretzel of paradox and you'll probably wish you hadn't.
Lesson two: Be wary of visitors from the future. This advice will be superfluous in the case of evil Schwartzeneggerian robots programed to kill, but it holds good more generally. Even with the best possible intentions, whatever time-travelers from the future say will mess with your sense of possessing free will. Without that, you might as well stay in bed in the morning.
Heedless of all this hard-won wisdom, Robert J. Nemiroff, a professor of physics at Michigan Technological Institute, spent a couple of months in late 2013 looking for signs of chrononauts among us. His paper "Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers" (coauthored with Marcia Goodrich, an editor of two Michigan Tech magazines) was posted at the scientific preprint repository arXiv on the day after Christmas. Its findings -- not to leave anyone in suspense -- were that chrononauts seem not to have left a digital footprint.
A reader pointed out the link a few days after the article appeared, and I set out to interview the author. The effort was complicated by the fact that Nemiroff was in transit to Washington to attend the American Astronomical Society meeting. We were able to talk by phone on Sunday morning – a day before he and his students discussed their search at a poster presentation.
The design and execution of Nemiroff's project are easily explained, but first a word about the state of time-travel research. It is focused, at this point, on speculative viability rather than engineering. Stephen J. Hawking is probably the best-known exponent of an argument against the possibility of time travel. But some of the more phantasmagoric entities in particle physics behave in ways suggesting that they move backward in time, albeit in unimaginably small fractions of a second. It is, in short, an open question. Two entries in online philosophical encyclopedias (here and here) provide rich overviews of the current state of the discussion.
With time travel, most experiments are thought experiments, but Nemiroff went in search of empirical evidence. "The question of time travel was bouncing around in my head," he told me. "If it were possible and had happened, how would you know?"
The topic came up this past summer during the weekly poker game among Nemiroff and some of his students. They started kicking around ideas, and an approach took shape. If time travelers had visited us, the best evidence would be references to events or developments well before they occurred. A book from 1967 mentioning President Obama, for example, would be pretty hard to explain on any other basis.
The next step was combing through enormous masses of text in search of the "informational traces" (as the paper calls them) left by presumed chrononauts. Nemiroff and his students came up with a number of events and names -- "Pope Francis," for one, since the current pontiff is the first ever to use that name -- and went looking for anachronistic references. The task would be impossible without search engines, of course, while hashtags and Google Trends made it easier to find needles in the haystack.
Or not find them, as it happened. It turns out Dr. Who has not been passing through, or at least not posting on Twitter.
Some commentators have responded, paraphrasing broadly, "Well, duh." But the paper itself points out that the project's design also covered another possibility: that "information itself could be sent back in time," rather than people. Indeed, the retro-transmission of data seems at least somewhat more credible than the idea of human time-jumper. It "would be a type of time travel that might not directly involve the backwards transport of a significant amount of energy or momentum," the paper notes.
"This might be considered, by some, a more palatable mode of backwards time travel than transferring significant amounts of matter or energy back in time, as the later might break, quite coarsely, local conservation of energy and momentum. For example, were the same person at different epochs to stand next to themselves, the energy tied into their own rest mass seems not to have been conserved. Similarly, instantaneous time travel to the same place on Earth might violate conservation of momentum, as the motion of the Earth around the Sun (etc.) might delegate a significant change in momentum for a corporeal object even over a time scale of minutes."
Passages like that make it difficult to calibrate how much tongue Nemiroff had in cheek when undertaking the project. So I asked him outright.
"The whole thing was somewhat whimsical," he said. At the same time, he considered it "a real research project," driven by the primal scientific feeling of curiosity. And the brainstorming required also had pedagogical value: "Students learned a lot about classical physics, about how time and special relativity works, while I learned more about social media. I’m 53. I don’t use hashtags that much and didn't know about Google Trends. So it was a matter of the history of physics and the hypermodern world colliding in a cool way." It also exemplified a basic principle Nemiroff learned from his mother: "She said that philosophers used to talk about how many teeth a horse had. When somebody counted them, science was born."
Nemiroff submitted the paper to three journals, each of which rejected it without even sending it out for review, so he decided to make it available through arXiv. The online repository, while not practicing the full-court peer-review process, does screen submissions to keep out the alchemists, perpetual-motion engineers, and suchlike. Acceptance of the paper by arXiv, like the poster session at the astronomers' meeting, is a sign that time travel remains a topic for serious scientific consideration. "It's not likely," he told me, "but you can’t point to laws that preclude it."
For that matter, his reported findings don't rule out the possibility of time-travelers among us. They might be very discreet about what they know. Besides, as the old saying goes, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.