Social Sciences / Education

Editing Matters

In the latest installment of their series on writing for the academy, Carmen Werder and Karen Hoelscher discuss the importance of proofreading and editing.

Not Just For Java

Magazines devoted to the finer points of lifestyle have developed a whole vocabulary for suggesting the atmosphere of refinement found in some homes. There are decors bearing names like Country House, for example, or Late Victorian. For a long time (well into our late 30s) my wife and I lived amid surroundings that one visitor dubbed “Late Graduate Student.” Ours was an apartment where old furniture went to die.

At some point, of course, we parted with the last of the cinder blocks and boards, investing in a set of very sturdy modular bookshelves that had the words “Made in Romania” stenciled on the back. It was the early 1990s, so you had this overwhelming sense that they had been manufactured (strictly for export) beneath a giant portrait of Ceausescu. But they were well-made, or so it seemed until late in the second Clinton administration, when they began to sag, a little, under the weight of the books.

Imagine shabby gentility -- then subtract the gentility. I flashed back to that ambience recently while looking over some new volumes from university presses that could be identified as “coffee table books.” Back then, I would have used that term derisively, in the spirit of sour grapes. In the meantime, our fortunes have improved moderately. The furniture matches. Our bookshelves are a marvel of engineering science. Now we even have a coffee table, proper, instead of a wicker chest full of old clothes with a piece of wood on top of it.

And yet years have passed without a coffee table book ever gracing it. This probably reflects a deep prejudice against the merely decorative – a feeling that books are for reading, not for use as objets d’art. (Some elements of the Late Graduate Student sensibility die hard.) But three new academic titles combine impressive graphic design with solid cultural value, and have earned their momentary place on top of the pile of magazines.

You have to wonder what went through the minds of the investors who funded Documents when the first issues of that now-legendary French cultural journal came back from the printers in the late 1920s. It was a deluxe publication, reproducing paintings by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, and it included photographs of artwork from Africa and the Caribbean. So far so good: The painters were already famous, and “primitive” cultural forms were becoming very fashionable.

But a photograph of a big toe, blown up to gigantic size? Accompanied by a philosophical essay on the significance of that part of the body? This was not a normal art magazine, even by avant garde standards. Copies are now rare. But thanks to Dawn Ades and Simon Baker’s Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and “Documents,” published by the MIT Press, it’s possible to get a feel for the journal in all its undiminished originality.

Hearing “surrealism,” you might think you know what to expect. Certain things seem predictable. (Anyone who has seen a Dali print knows all about the transfiguration of flame-resistant giraffes sodomizing the ukelele, right?) But the editor of Documents, Georges Bataille, was not actually a member of the “official” surrealist movement – he was considered, basically, just too weird. He set the tone for the journal by using it to practice a kind of delirious scholarship that is much drier, but somehow more hallucinatory, than the usual dreamlike juxtapositions of surrealist art and poetry. The first issue contained an essay by Bataille called “The Academic Horse,” which (1) contains several learned footnotes and (2) has something or other to do with horses. It would require several years of study to say more than that about it.

The editors of Undercover Surrealism have included papers by experts on Bataille -– sometimes sharing the same page with translations from the original journal, along with paintings, drawings, ethnographic photos, and reproductions from pulp magazines or Aztec guides to human sacrifice. This is as absorbing and enigmatic a book as you are ever likely to find.

While the writers and artists around Documents were pushing the surrealist insurgency to new limits in Paris, it seems, the Bolsheviks were sketching caricatures of one another in the Kremlin. Piggy Foxy and the Sword of Revolution: Bolshevik Self-Portraits, from Yale University Press, may interest even people who don’t share my fascination with all things Soviet.

The title is awful and easy to forget. Nor is the subtitle accurate, since very few of the drawings are self-portraits. But the editors, Alexander Vatlin and Larisa Malashenko -- researchers working in Moscow -- have prepared excellent short surveys of the history behind these cartoons, which for the most part were sketched on scraps of paper during long Politburo meetings in the 1920s and '30s. They also provide photographs and short biographical accounts of the individuals so caricatured -- which is helpful, since all but a handful of them are now quite obscure.

It’s interesting to see that Nikolai Bukharin -- the original for the character of Rubashov in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and perhaps the single most talented (and humanly appealing) figure in the Bolshevik leadership -- was also a gifted and witty caricaturist. Some of his drawings shape-shift his colleagues into animals. In his own self-portrait, he has a fox’s tail, while fellow “Old Bolshevik” Lev Kamanev appears as an overweight dog, absent-mindedly pooping.

These images, most from the 1920s, are for the most part good-natured. But that changes within a few years. “The revolutionary camaraderie and tradition of collective leadership,” note the editors, “slowly succumbed to suffocating ideological intolerance and personal dictatorship.” The cartoons by one Valery Mezhlauk during the early 1930s tend to be a lot edgier -- and in some cases, they are grotesquely obscene. Very few of the Bolshevik leaders portrayed here survived the decade. Those not arrested in 1937 usually disappeared in 1938. This book is a glimpse inside the world that disappeared with them.

Somewhat more likely to generate a feeling of loss is the recent closing of CBGBs -- the rock club in New York that became the epicenter of the American punk scene. In fact, you can feel nostalgia for the place despite never having actually attended a show there, as a recent segment on the Onion Radio Network satirized very effectively.  

But loud and interesting guitar noises were just part of the do-it-yourself cultural revolution fostered by CBGBs. Up is Up, But So is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992 , edited by Brandon Stosuy and published by New York University Press, is a gigantic collection of texts and images from the days of punk, post-punk, and post-everything in the Lower East Side and Soho.

The anthology is a kind of time capsule drawn from fanzines, posters, and small-press books. (Quite a few were probably run off by people at their day jobs, while the boss wasn’t looking.)

The selection is uneven, of course. It would be hard to read around in Up is Up for very long without remembering the line from Truman Capote: “That’s not writing, that’s just typing.” But then that’s to be expected. The nature of cultural experimentation is that some experiments don’t work. What makes the collection work is the feeling you get of looking inside a really messy laboratory while everything is still in progress.

Most of the material is drawn from the holdings of the Downtown Collection at NYU’s Fales Library. The editor, who is a staff writer for Pitchfork, sketches an account of the cultural scenes documented here. But it’s clear that the archive still has plenty of stories to yield up to historians. In the meantime, Up is Up, But So is Down will doubtless be an inspiration to bohemians yet to come. I imagine them keeping it by their bedside, rather than on a coffee table. 

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Going South

From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/09/10 Mon AM 09:41:21 EDT
To: <>
Subject: travel request

To Professor Michael Wall, Chair, English Department:

This has to do with the travel budget for the coming academic year. As we discussed last spring, I need something on the order of $700 for the annual Joyce conference, held this year in Miami, December 3-5. I saved the department money last year by using Blackboard exclusively rather than hand out Xeroxes, and in any event, this shouldn’t break the bank, right? Let me know soon, please, because I have to book the flight.


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/09/17 Mon AM 09:40:11 EDT
To: <>
Subject: research request

To Myra Puckwith, Head of Research Office:

According to our department chair, Michael Wall, the entire travel budget for the English department has been frozen for fiscal 2007-08—or was it retroacted to the level of support in 1968 because of some administrative fiat? Something like that. Accordingly, he suggested that I contact you about a research grant for this December. I’m a James Joyce scholar, and I need to study the Joycean archives in Miami for a book tentatively titled Southern Joyce. I can provide full details of my proposal, including the new RPP (Research Planning and Perspectives form) from your office, along with a statement of purpose, for your perusal. Just let me know.


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/09/22 Mon AM 011:45:03 EDT
To: <>
Subject: equipment grant

To Don Donaldson, University Procurement:

Myra Puckwith at the Office of Research read my proposal for research in Miami this December and sent me to you. Normally, a small equipment grant isn’t something that fits me, but given the circumstances, I’d like to purchase a used 1997 Honda Civic that should be able to get me to Florida and back, and which could be used for other academic trips, as well. I’ve already priced such a vehicle at Al’s Autos, and the price is surprisingly reasonable: only $700. I talked with Mark Meyers from the Physics department, and he says that last year he received $5,000 toward the cost of a new tachyon accelerator. As far as I know, the English department has been quite modest in its requests for equipment. Here’s hoping that you’ll honor my request.


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/09/28 Sun PM 011:42:30 EDT
To: <>
Subject: request for teaching funds

To Fred Carson, Pedagogy Coach:

Pursuant to the bulletin you sent around last May, asking for innovative teaching proposals: I gather that you didn’t get many responses. In any event, here’s one I’ve been thinking about, though for a long time I wasn’t quite sure about how to put it into execution. Why not a film presentation of a great author’s critics at work? Since my specialty is the work of James Joyce, the 20th-century Irish writer, I’d like to go with that subject. Students really could benefit from a more intimate association with this important author, but Joyce’s writing is notoriously difficult for students to wade through. I’d like to grant my class a privileged access through actually viewing Joyce scholars presenting on the author and his texts—and I have a perfect opportunity to do just that at the Joyce Symposium in Miami this December. I do have some AV experience, and with the purchase of a handheld digital camera (about $500) and a conference package (roughly $700) I would come back with a two-hour DVD of Joycean scholarship that should be both dynamic and eminently instructive. I think you’ll agree that this defines the term “cutting edge” in teaching, but let me know what you think.

Thinking outside the box,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/10/06 Wed AM 08:27:17 EDT
To: <>
Subject: summer fellowships

To Bob Winters, Office of Summer Support:

I’m writing to you well in advance of the Summer Support deadline because I’d like to fly by you a rather novel proposal: to save time by conducting my summer research this winter in Miami (where it always feels like summer). In my case, I have a conference on James Joyce to attend this December, and if I wait till next June, I’ll miss the boat, so to speak. If you’re able to bend the rules slightly and permit this grant (around $700 will do), I promise not to apply for any Summer Support the next year—or the next three years, if you like.


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/10/11 Mon AM 09:18:13 EDT
To: <>
Subject: emergency relief

To Philip Thrope, Emergency Aid:

Normally I’m not the kind of individual who throws himself on the mercy of the university’s charity fund, but a sudden fire has absolutely gutted my house, and I NEED YOUR HELP NOW. I’m staying with a colleague of mine from the Modern Language department, but that’s only a short-term solution. Though I’ve put a down payment on a new place, the outlay has exhausted my funds, and in any event the place won’t be ready for occupancy until next year. And I have no place at all to stay during the December break. My tentative plans involve flying to Miami to stay with relatives, but this will cost me. Can you spare money from your relief fund for a tenure-track faculty member?


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/10/25 Mon AM 09:01:01 EDT
To: <>; <>
Subject: book and bake sale

To All Faculty and Students:

To raise money for a conference trip to Miami, I’ll be holding a book and bake sale this weekend outside my office in 211 Hallford Hall. There’ll be a tempting array of cakes, pies and cookies (including killer brownies and a lemon pudding cake based on a recipe from Jane Austen). I’ll also be selling select volumes from my personal library, most untouched since graduate school days. I hope you’ll be able to attend.

From “Chef” George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

David Galef
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 books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Beyond Merit Pay and Student Evaluations

What tools should colleges use to reward excellent teachers? Some rely on teaching evaluations that students spend only a few minutes filling out. Others trust deans and department chairs to put aside friendships and enmities and objectively identify the best teachers. Still more colleges don’t reward teaching excellence and hope that the lack of incentives doesn’t diminish teaching quality.

I propose instead that institutions should empower graduating seniors to reward teaching excellence. Colleges should do this by giving each graduating senior $1,000 to distribute among their faculty. Colleges should have graduates use a computer program to distribute their allocations anonymously.

My proposal would have multiple benefits. It would reduce the tension between tenure and merit pay. Tenure is supposed to insulate professors from retaliation for expressing unpopular views in their scholarship. Many colleges, however, believe that tenured professors don’t have sufficient incentives to work hard, so colleges implement a merit pay system to reward excellence. Alas, merit pay can be a tool that deans and department heads use to punish politically unpopular professors. My proposal, however, provides for a type of merit pay without giving deans and department heads any additional power over instructors. And because the proposal imposes almost no additional administrative costs on anyone, many deans and department heads might prefer it to a traditional merit pay system.

Students, I suspect, would take their distribution decisions far more seriously than they do end-of-semester class evaluations. This is because students are never sure how much influence class evaluations have on teachers’ careers, whereas the link between their distributions and their favorite teachers’ welfare would be clear. Basing merit pay on these distributions, therefore, will be “fairer” than doing so based on class evaluations. Furthermore, these distributions would provide very useful information to colleges in making tenure decisions or determining whether to keep employing a non-tenure track instructor.

The proposal would also reward successful advising. A good adviser can make a student’s academic career. But since advising quality is difficult to measure, colleges rarely factor it into merit pay decisions. But I suspect that many students consider their adviser to be their favorite professor, so great advisers would be well rewarded if graduates distributed $1,000 among faculty.

Hopefully, these $1,000 distributions would get students into the habit of donating to their alma maters. The distributions would show graduates the link between donating and helping parts of the college that they really liked. Colleges could even ask their graduates to “pay back” the $1,000 that they were allowed to give their favorite teachers. To test whether the distributions really did increase alumni giving, a college could randomly choose, say, 10 percent of a graduating class for participation in my plan and then see if those selected graduates did contribute more to the college.

My reward system would help a college attract star teachers. Professors who know they often earn their students adoration will eagerly join a college that lets students enrich their favorite teachers.

Unfortunately, today many star teachers are actually made worse off because of their popularity. Students often spend much time talking to star teachers, make great use of their office hours and frequently ask them to write letters of recommendation. Consequently, star teachers have less time than average faculty members do to conduct research. My proposal, though, would help correct the time penalty that popularity so often imposes on the best teachers.

College trustees and regents who have business backgrounds should like my idea because it rewards customer-oriented professors. And anything that could persuade trustees to increase instructors’ compensation should be very popular among faculty.

But my proposal would be the most popular among students. It would signal to students that the college is ready to trust them with some responsibility for their alma mater’s finances. It would also prove to students that the way they have been treated at college is extremely important to their school.

James D. Miller
Author's email:

James D. Miller is an associate professor of economics at Smith College. He keeps a blog here.

Diamonds in the Rough

I can tell you stories. Teach on a regional campus of a public university where incoming students’ ACT scores range all the way down to 11 and all the way up to 32 (out of 36), and you would be left with plenty of tales, too.

Consider, for example, the students who receive their first disappointing college grade. Perhaps they turn surly, aggressive, and fire off angry e-mails. Or perhaps they sour class discussions. Or perhaps they give up, cease to attend altogether, and fail the course.

But I’d rather tell you about Lisa.

Lisa didn’t do so great on the first assignment in my early American history survey this fall. For an assigned three-to-five page critical essay on a book about Pocahontas, she turned in barely more than one page, with minimal substance. I awarded it a D+. On the day I handed the papers back, she came up to me after class. She was diminutive, her demeanor meek. She looked terribly young.

"I just want you to know," she told me, "this is not my best work."

Lisa’s next paper warranted a C+. Her final paper merited a B-. Because I allow students who write beyond the two mandatory papers to keep only their two highest grades, Lisa had permanently erased her D+. I realize that there are students for whom a B- would be a catastrophe, but I respect Lisa as much as any of them. Her improved score was a triumph of tenacity and determination.

I witnessed another kind of courage this autumn in another student, Suzanne.

At the beginning of every term, I hand out blank cards to students. I ask students to share something unique about themselves, so I can attach a personality to the name. Usually students tell me about their favorite video games or sports. Not Suzanne.

"After 28 years and 10 months of service," wrote Suzanne, “Wellness, Inc., closed down the factory. This only put 500 people out of a job.” After 28 years spent as a health-products factory worker, in other words, a job she expected to hold until retirement, Suzanne was back in college, sitting in a roomful of 19-year-old students.

The state initially wanted Suzanne to go to technical school with the transitional funds it provides to displaced workers, but she battled to make it possible for herself to be at the university. Higher education did test her limits. After class one day, talking in the parking lot as we frequently did after class, she waved her arm at the campus and said, "This is hard.” Often she came to class late, her bags rustling. She teasingly labeled me "Mr. On-Time."

But Suzanne had a pride that made history real to her, and an admirable fearlessness. In the middle of a lecture on American slavery, when I was talking about differences in work conditions for field hands and domestics, she raised her hand: "Can I just say something? The house slaves didn’t look like me. They were lighter-skinned."

Put on the spot, I had to say that I didn’t think that was necessarily true, that darker-skinned African Americans were often assigned to tasks like raising children, cleaning, and cooking. I told her that my impression was that later, during Jim Crow, sharp internal differentiation emerged among blacks based on shades of pigmentation.

Fortunately, Suzanne wouldn’t take my no for an answer. The next session, she remained after class. "Can we agree to disagree?" she asked. She told me that she had discussed the issue with a 90-year-old man in the community who swore that the former house slaves he had known were lighter-skinned. I promised I would look into it more.

I rooted around in some textbooks and found images of house slaves confirming my view. But when I e-mailed Ira Berlin, the distinguished historian of slavery, he reported that slave-owners who had relations with their slaves often did favor mulatto offspring with easier or privileged work, whether in the home or as artisans. To be sure, there were also owners who, out of racism, sometimes picked the darkest slaves to be subordinate to them in the home, but as a group lighter-skinned blacks were most likely to be freed by their masters and to occupy the most desirable slave positions.

I returned to class, humbled. I reported that I was wrong, that Suzanne was right, and that I was right (for all three things were true to one degree or another). I showed the photographs I had found and explained that some house slaves were definitely dark-skinned, but then I conveyed what Ira Berlin had told me, overwhelmingly in confirmation of Suzanne’s view.

Had Suzanne not been in my class, had she not had a tough confidence in herself honed by decades on the shopfloor and in the community, I would not have had that opportunity to model the way historians seek to resolve controversies and uncertainties. Students would not have had the chance to see how important it is to revise one’s understanding in light of new evidence. And the power of black folk memory was brought home to us all.

Lastly, let me tell you about Sonya. Her beginning-of-term response card informed me that she was 25, worked at Starbucks, was born on the Fourth of July, and had been homeless in three states, including California. Not your typical student.

Intrigued by her thoughtfulness and sparkle in class discussions, I found a private moment a few weeks later to ask her how in the world she had ever come to be homeless in three states.

"I'm a heroin addict," she responded. She became addicted at age 14, but having kicked the habit, she has arrived on campus in hopes of finishing a degree and starting a narcotics rehab clinic in an area that does not have one. Several times, when stopping by the library this fall, I saw Sonya studying intently, always at the same table. Her final exam was positively brilliant, the best one I read this term.

Grading finals can be discouraging. Students confuse Andrew Jackson with Andrew Johnson, or Nathaniel Bacon with Nat Turner. Less excusably, they think the Erie Canal ran from New York to Florida, or from New York to Mississippi. They write essays on the American Revolution as a conflict between North and South. Those are the tests that try men’s souls. They make you realize that reading, concentration, listening, comprehension, and retention of information are tenuous, possibly even endangered, skills.

But in other students, it is possible to discern heroism. They persevere and question. They take defeat as a chance for redemption. They struggle and strive, informed by a profound sense of personal responsibility. They view the university as more than a credential mill or a ticket to the middle class. They are primed for education as a process of self-transformation, as a source not only of knowledge but wisdom.

Thoreau requires an asterisk. Some of us lead lives of quiet inspiration.

Christopher Phelps
Author's email:

Christopher Phelps teaches American history at the Ohio State University at Mansfield. He changed the names of each of the three students here to protect their privacy, but all are actual students who were enrolled in his fall 2007 classes.

Study Abroad -- with Us!

At U of All People, we know a good thing when we smell it, and for a while we’ve envied other schools with lucrative foreign study programs in Paris and London so that students can learn French and English -- whereas all we have is a short-term exchange with the School of Applied Mechanics in Dumsk.

We’d like to change all that now, after hiring a new dean of liberal arts whose idea of travel stretches beyond Chicago, but apparently study abroad programs have grown so common, not to mention lucrative, that they poach students from each other. Got $7,500 to plunk down for a three-week biology course in the Galapagos (does not include cruise stateroom and snorkeling fees)? If so, we want your business and are willing to fight for it. Here’s what we’re prepared to offer:

Tired of being shut in seminar rooms for half the day while outside lies all of Seville, honking its horns? Try our open-air classes, which can take place anywhere from the top of a double-decker bus to a row of spread blankets on the beach. Catch a wave, check out that cute señorita, and discover the meaning of serendipitous learning!

Three months just to learn Italian verbs? Dud-io, get real! At U of All People, we understand that speaking a foreign language isn’t just about vocabulary but about absorbing the syntax of the culture. We offer restaurant Italian, club-hopping Italian, intimate Italian, and more! Let’s face it: do you want to know how to conjugate andare, or have a really good handle on the difference between spumante and gelato?

“All the comforts of home” may be a cliché, but it’s one we subscribe to. And that means we guarantee you dorm-style rooms wherever you go, special pizza and burger cafés, laptops and cell phones always available, and multiple ATM’s in every location. Got a craving for that favorite form of caffeine buzz back in the States? Our 24-hour courier service can obtain it for you at surprisingly unreasonable rates.

Scared of the tough Parisian prof who speaks an incomprehensible urban patois in between drags on his Gauloise? Worried about the grades you might get away from your coddling home institution? We’ve solved that problem by using hand-picked faculty from U of All People, professors just dying to go to overseas and therefore willing to jettison all professional standards. Check out teachers like “Doc” Munsey, the lit prof whose motto is “ A all the Way, from Paris to Calais!”

And speaking of courses, we’re creative in that area, too! We offer classes that are stimulating without being too consuming, enabling you to devote quality (and quantity) time to what really counts: checking out the action in the local bars. Here are some sample offerings for our upcoming spring semester in Prague: Shakespeare in Slavic Films, An Introduction to the Museums in Prague, and Emergency Czech.

If you (or your parents funding this boondoggle) still need more convincing, here are some more incentives:

  • Bad ear for languages? Nyet problema: in English, no problem! Many of our courses demand no contact with the natives, who hate America anyway, and for an additional fee, you can be accompanied by an interpreter wherever you travel.
  • Strapped for time? We offer terms as short as ten days—no, a week—no, three days—for those who have to get back to the States for that all-important frat party or charity fun race. You can learn a lot in a short space, especially if you don’t sleep.
  • Skirting academic failure and just want some time away? Our not-so-stringent requirements will make you smile, starting at a 2.0 GPA and only 10 credits already under your belt.
  • As for money, all tuition and fees may be paid on an equity basis to be arranged between you and your mortgage lender. We’re currently working on an indentured servant contract as an alternate route to payment.

So don’t delay -- check out what’s happening at U of All People Abroad today! Our new motto is “Going global!” and it’ll be true as soon as soon as we can work out those pesky visa arrangements.

David Galef
Author's email:

David Galef is a professor of English in transition from the University of Mississippi to Montclair State University. His latest book is A Man of Ideas and Other Stories.

From Plymouth Rock to Plato's Retreat

Last week, Intellectual Affairs gave the recent cable TV miniseries “Sex: The Revolution” a nod of recognition, however qualified, for its possible educational value. The idea that sex has a history is not, as such, self-evident. The series covers the changes in attitudes and norms between roughly 1950 and 1990 through interviews and archival footage. Most of this flies past at a breakneck speed, alas. The past becomes a hostage of the audience’s presumably diminished attention span.

Then again, why be ungrateful? Watching the series, I kept thinking of a friend who teaches history at Sisyphus University, a not-very-distinguished institution in the American heartland. For every student in his classroom who seems promising, there are dozens who barely qualify as sentient. (It sounds like Professor X, whose article “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” appears in the latest issue of The Atlantic, teaches in the English department there.) Anything, absolutely anything, that might help stimulate curiosity about the past would be a godsend for the history faculty at Sisyphus U.

With that consideration in mind, you tend to watch “Sex: The Revolution” with a certain indulgence -- as entertainment with benefits, so to speak. Unfortunately, the makers stopped short. They neglected to interview scholars who might have provided more insight than a viewer might glean from soundbites by demi-celebrities. And so we end up with a version of history not too different from the one presented by Philip Larkin in the poem “Annus Mirabilis” --

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(Which was rather late for me) -

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles' first LP.

-- except without the irony. A belief that people in the old days must have been repressed is taken for granted. Was this a good thing or not? Phyllis Schlafly and reasonable people may disagree; but the idea itself is common coin of public discourse.

But suppose a television network made a different sort of program -- one incorporating parts of what one might learn from reading the scholarship on the history of sex. What sense of the past might then emerge?

We might as well start with the Puritans. Everybody knows how up-tight they were -- hostile to sex, scared of it, prone to thinking of it as one of the Devil’s wiles. The very word “Puritan” now suggests an inability to regard pleasure as a good thing.

A case in point being Michael Wigglesworth -- early Harvard graduate, Puritan cleric, and author of the first American best-seller, The Day of Doom (1642), an exciting poem about the apocalypse. Reverend Wigglesworth found the laughter of children to be unbearable. He said it made him think of the agonies of the damned in hell.You can just imagine how he would respond to the sound of moaning. Somehow it is not altogether surprising to learn that the Rev’s journal contains encrypted entries mentioning the “filthy lust” he felt while tutoring male students.

In short, a typical Puritan -- right? Well, not according to Edmund Morgan, the prominent early-Americanist, whose many contributions to scholarship over the years included cracking the Wigglesworth code. (He is now professor emeritus of history at Yale.)

Far from being typical, Wigglesworth, it seems, was pretty high-strung even by the standards of the day. In a classic paper called “The Puritans and Sex,” published in 1942, Morgan assessed the evidence about how ordinary believers regarded the libido in early New England. He found that, clichés notwithstanding, the Puritans tended to be rather matter-of-fact about it.

Sermons and casual references in letters and diaries reveal that the Puritans took sexual pleasure for granted and even celebrated it -- so long, at least, as it was enjoyed within holy wedlock. Of course, the early colonies attracted many people of both sexes who were either too young to marry or in such tight economic circumstances that it was not practical. This naturally meant a fair bit of random carrying on, even in those un-Craigslist-ed days. All such activity was displeasing unto the Lord, not to mention His earthly enforcers; but the court records show none of the squeamishness about that one might expect, given the Puritans’ reputation. Transgressions were punished, but the hungers of the flesh were taken for granted.

And Puritan enthusiasm for pleasures of the marriage bed was not quite so phallocentric as you might suppose. As a more recent study notes, New Englanders believed that both partners had to reach orgasm in order for conception to occur. Many Puritan women must have had their doubts on that score. Still, the currency of that particular bit of misinformation would tend to undermine the assumption that everybody was a walking bundle of dammed-up desire -- finding satisfaction only vicariously, through witch trials and the like.

Our imagined revisionist documentary would be full of such surprises. Recent scholarship suggests that American mores were pretty wild long before Alfred Kinsey quantified things in his famous reports.

Richard Godbeer’s Sexual Revolution in Early America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002) shows that abstinence education was not exactly the norm in the colonial period. Illegitimate births were commonplace; so was the arrival of children six or seven months after the wedding day. For that matter, cohabitation without benefit of clergy was the norm in some places. And while there were statutes on the books against sodomy -- understood as nonprocreative sexual activity in general -- it’s clear that many early Americans preferred to mind their own business.

Enforcing prohibitions on “unnatural acts” between members of the same sex was a remarkably low priority. “For the entire colonial period,” noted historians in a brief filed a few years ago when Lawrence v. Texas went to the U.S. Supreme Court, “we have reports of only two cases involving two women engaged in acts with one another.... The trial of Nicholas Sension, a married man living in Westhersfield, Connecticut, in 1677, revealed that he had been widely known for soliciting sexual contacts with the town’s men and youth for almost forty years but remained widely liked. Likewise, a Baptist minister in New London, Connecticut, was temporarily suspended from the pulpit in 1757 because of his repeatedly soliciting sex with men, but the congregation voted to restore him to the ministry after he publicly repented.”

History really comes alive, given details like that -- and we’ve barely reached the Continental Congress. The point is not that the country was engaged in one big orgy from Plymouth Rock onwards. But common attitudes and public policies were a lot more ambivalent and contradictory in the past than we’re usually prone to imagine.

There was certainly repression. In four or five cases from the colonial era, sodomy was punished by death. But in a society where things tend to be fluid -- where relocation is an option, and where money talks -- there will always be a significant share of the populace that lives and acts by its own lights, and places where the old rules don't much matter. And so every attempt to enforce inhibition is apt to seem like little, too late (especially to those making the effort).

You catch some of that frantic sense of moral breakdown in the literature of anti-Mormonism cited by Sarah Barringer Gordon in her study The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2002. Novels about polygamous life in Utah were full of dark fascination with the lascivious excess being practiced in the name of freedom of religion – combined with fear that the very social and political order of the United States was being undermined. It was all very worrying, but also titillating. (Funny how often those qualities go together.)

The makers of “Sex: The Revolution” enjoyed the advantage of telling stories from recent history, which meant an abundance of film and video footage to document the past. Telling a revisionist story of American sexual history would suffer by visual comparison, tending either toward History Channel-style historical reenactments or Ken Burns-ish readings of documents over sepia-toned imagery.

But now, thanks to the efforts of phonographic archivists, we can at least listen to one part of the sexual discourse of long ago. A set of wax recordings from the 1890s -- released last year on a CD called “Actionable Offenses” -- preserves the kind of lewd entertainment enjoyed by some of the less respectable Americans of the Victorian era. And by “lewd,” I do not mean “somewhat racy.” The storytelling in dialect tends to be far coarser than anything that can be paraphrased in a family publication such as Inside Higher Ed. A performance called “Learning a City Gal How to Milk” is by no means the most obscene.

Anthony Comstock -- whose life’s work it was to preserve virtue by suppressing vice -- made every effort to wipe out such filth. It’s a small miracle that these recordings survived. The fact that they did gives us a hint at just how much of a challenge Comstock and associates must have faced.

When a popular program such as “Sex: The Revolution” recalls the past, it is usually an account of the struggle to free desire from inhibition. Or you can tell the same tale in a conservative vein: the good old days of restraint, followed by a decline into contemporary decadence.

Both versions are sentimental; both condescend to the past.

In the documentary I’d like to see, the forces of repression would be neither villains nor heroes. They would be hapless, helpless, confused -- and sinking fast in quicksand, pretty much from the start. It would be an eye-opening film. Not to mention commercially viable. After all, there would be a lot of sex in it.

Scott McLemee
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Members Only

Last month, the Washington, D.C., newspaper Politico revealed the existence of a secret online discussion group for left-tilting reporters and academics called JournoList. The article provoked a furor of denunciation among right-wing bloggers, who took the existence of an Obamaphile wonk cabal as proof that something darkly conspiratorial must be afoot. How different things are, now, inside the Beltway. How far things have declined since the golden age of transparency under the Bush administration.

One angry conservative published a list of known participants in JournoList -- revealing, among other things, that I am one of them. This was exciting news. I had no idea I was a member. That shows you just how secretive the group really is.

So you can imagine my surprise when, a few days later, I discovered the existence of an even more well-concealed e-mail group. It connects up the nation's most powerful academics. For the sake of this article we can call it AcademoList. That is not its real name, which escapes my memory now as I type these words in the cabin where I am forced to hide. I gained access to the list's archive for just over one hour when, it seems, the systems administrator caught me snooping and locked me out -- then changed the password.

The back story of how I gained access to AcademoList is perhaps needlessly complex. Suffice it to say that there have been rumors for some time now about a black market in VHS tapes of certain cable-access programs from the 1980s, including Camile Paglia’s brief but intense period as Christian televangelist.

For years I have been trying to locate copies of "In the Kitchen with Slavoj" -- in its day, the most popular cooking program in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, even though each episode ended with the studio audience refusing to eat the dish the host had prepared. This kind of thing you don’t find on eBay.

Anyway, a friend of the publicist of a friend of mine passed along contact information for someone who might be able to help. Following a mix-up in e-mails, I was forwarded information on how to subscribe to AcademoList.

To tell the truth, I was confused by what I read, at least at first. Most of the topics being discussed involved matters that have never been revealed to the public -- though there has been at least one close call.

Members of AcademoList are powerful enough to “solve” certain “problems” through "methods" that do not leave a trace. That is why I have gone "off the grid," as the survivalists say, and am now reduced to a diet that consists primarily of beef jerky and Mountain Dew that is slightly past its sell-by date.

With hindsight, it seems clear that AcademoList's cover was nearly blown in 2006, when David Horowitz published The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Professors in America. In spite of the subtitle, the book actually listed only 100 dangerous professors. At the time, scarcely anyone noticed this. And if they had, it would not have been too surprising, since it was obvious that considerable ingenuity had been required to get it up to that length.

For example, the evidence against three scholars charged with supporting jihadi groups consisted mainly of reports that they were known around campus for eating falafel and hummus several times a week. (Admittedly, footage of this looked menacing once the Fox News people dubbed in synthesizer music.)

The mysterious “dangerous professor number 101” turns out to have been one of the founders of AcademoList -- a truly sinister figure, and indeed the single most important player in the effort to subject the United States to both Islamic fundamentalism and the gay agenda.

S/he (long story: the pronoun situation here is complicated) teaches at an Ivy League university and has discovered a previously overlooked passage in Sharia law giving permission for “the blessed union of Adam and Steve.” The discussion on AcademoList suggests that the member of Horowitz’s staff who unearthed this secret was easily bribed into silence. One can only hope the responsible voices on America’s talk radio programs will start look into it now.

Around the time all that happened, a major academic organization was holding its national convention -- during which its radical caucus accidentally passed a resolution condemning itself for complicity with U.S. imperialism.

You didn’t read about this in the print media, or even here at IHE. But AcademoList subscribers knew all about it as it was happening. Likewise, they have the inside dope on the current economic free-fall. Everyone knows the familiar account of how the trouble began -- with a crisis in subprime mortgages. It turns out that’s only half of the story.

The whole meltdown really started in mid-2005, when the academic publishing powerhouse Elsevier doubled the subscription price for Studies in Advanced Topological Regression Analysis -- a journal known for its tiny but strangely devoted following among video game designers. (Go figure.) I am told that one of its articles was an important influence on Grand Theft Auto III.

In order to absorb the six-digit increase in subscription cost, several cutting-edge research universities were obliged to triple the size of most lower-division courses, thereby eliminating hundreds of adjunct jobs. Most of those adjuncts had subprime mortgages. The rest, alas, is economic history.

Which is not to say that the financial infrastructure of higher education was all that sound to begin with. Familiar complaints about how tuition costs are rising even at schools with vast endowments take on a new significance, given what I learned from the AcademoList digital archives. This is perhaps the best-kept secret of the past few years. Shaken by the implications, I now pause to gnaw on some sustenance before continuing.

Okay, here goes.... In 2002, the board of regents of dozens of leading universities got swept up in “March Madness” and began competing to see who could spend the most on (this exact quotation is burned into my brain) “cocaine, hookers, and really bitchin’ tattoos.”

The latter were custom-made and quite expensive -- though, to judge by the JPEGS circulated on AcademoList, the regents did get quality for their money.

E-mail exchanges from the early months of ‘02 show that members were psyching themselves up by saying, repeatedly, “If we don’t do this, the terrorists win.” A lot of crazy stuff happened back then. When tuition costs seem a bit high, keep that in mind.

Revealing though this documentation of the recent past may be, most discussion on AcademoList seems to be forward-looking. One president of a small Midwestern liberal arts college recently reported that he had been able to create an endowed chair thanks to certain business arrangements reached with a former government official in Nigeria.

I also got a very quick look at a document to be issued late this spring by a consortium of academic professional organizations under the title “Peer Review in the Age of Twitter: Towards a New Metric in Scholarly Citation.” It makes the Ithaka Report seem like something dreamed up by Mortimer Adler.

Not that all subscribers are gung-ho for such changes. One college devoted to the “great books” principle will soon be requiring students not only to avoid Kindle and its ilk, but to transcribe classic works as professors read them aloud to the class. Have you really read Aristotle, after all, if you haven’t copied the Analytics by hand? One thinks not.

Unfortunately my efforts to get back on the list have failed -- so who knows what dark transactions have occurred in the meantime. At the time, I failed to take notes. I have had to reconstruct all this from memory, and report it now with some trepidation. Just in case anything dire should happen in the wake of my exposé, let me close with a final request: In any movie based on this column, I would prefer to be played by Nicholas Cage.

In an age when stories from The Onion can end up being taken as soundly reported, Inside Higher Ed must make clear that it accepts no responsibility for the claims made in the column above, which goes to press on April 1, 2009.

For an account of the holiday known as “April Fool’s Day,” readers should consult this entry at Wikipedia, the world’s most authoritative scholarly resource.

Scott McLemee
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Less Research, More Economies of Scale

As questions about higher education’s costs and prices have escalated, college leaders have continued to respond in largely the same old ways. In the case of public colleges, they cite as justification that their institutions have been insufficiently compensated by higher legislative appropriations. While that’s true in some cases, that response is hollow. The situation is unlikely to change in the years ahead, because legislators face too many other funding pressures and compelling needs to be able to change the picture in a meaningful way.

When public colleges are told that they, like other recipients of state monies, must increase efficiency and lower costs, they tend to look at personnel only as a last resort. When they do look, any emphasis on economizing is directed at administrative and logistical workers, rather than the faculty, even though faculty salaries and benefits make up 40 percent of the Higher Education Price Index.

Higher education institutions cannot meaningfully alter their cost structures, and therefore deal with the pressure to reduce prices, unless they focus on the core of the university enterprise, namely, the academic duties and procedures of the faculty and deans. Jane Wellman, whose work is sponsored by the Lumina Foundation for Education, may be right that instructional costs haven’t risen as fast as non-instructional college costs; but that doesn’t mean that significant efficiencies can’t be achieved on the instructional side. Even the Lumina Foundation’s data on public colleges and universities indicate that instructional spending accounts for over 40 percent of the cost of educating a student. It is time to reconsider the basic model of faculty responsibilities and remuneration.

Some argue that faculty responsibilities are too labor-intensive to show the same sort of productivity improvements as the non-academic side, but this just takes for granted the existing academic model. It’s like an engineering firm that looks for efficiencies only in the costs of equipment and the payroll of clerical and custodial staffs. What about the engineers? Aren’t there ways to change their functions, reorganize the project teams, and redefine management responsibilities? A better way for public higher education to go would be to rationalize the faculty model by reducing the instructor’s range of responsibilities and allowing him or her to benefit from the resulting concentration and specialization. This means, above all, clearly distinguishing the teaching mission from the research mission. I’ll explain how below.

States can begin the process by reinforcing the division of academic labor between teaching and research. Even when the distinction is already official policy, it tends to be ignored, as faculties seek the approval of their academic peers and define their roles by the norms of their disciplines rather than the policies of their taxpayer employers. The result is too much emphasis on faculty research. Instead, public colleges should assign undergraduate faculty to separate professional categories, based on whether they are primarily teachers or primarily curriculum researchers and developers. They should ensure that academic research by undergraduate teachers is designed primarily to support curriculum development and maintenance. Public colleges should rely less on faculty committees by having full-time administrators handle service functions that are not part of teaching or curriculum development. To achieve economies of scale, these functions should be centralized at the institutional or even the state-system level. This process of classroom rationalization consists of the following specific measures.

1) Eliminate the scholarly activity requirements of most instructors on the undergraduate faculty and assign responsibility for research and developing curricula to a small cadre of professors. There is insufficient evidence linking instructors’ teaching effectiveness to research output. Besides that, research is a labor-intensive function – and an uncertain one. Even on collaborative projects with multiple minds at work, results fit for publication cannot be guaranteed. Faculty research may support teaching when it enables the teacher to keep up with the field and incorporate the latest knowledge into the curriculum. There is no reason, though, for this teacher-supporting research to be done by the instructor him or herself, rather than by the small cadre of professors whose job is to research and develop curricula.

2) Hire faculty according to a clear division of labor. Employ master’s degree-qualified lecturers for most undergraduate teaching. Employ a much smaller number of Ph.D.-qualified professors for teaching advanced undergraduate courses. The professors with doctorates should also be responsible for curriculum design and course development, which means they’re also the ones doing research and keeping up with the field. One long-run effect of this will be a change in the composition of the faculty: fewer Ph.D.s and more master’s degrees. Both lecturers and professors can be full-time faculty and receive university benefits.

3) Teach standardized curricula wherever feasible. Many lower-division undergraduate courses are taught over and over again, across the state and the nation. Instructors’ time should not be wasted to “reinvent the wheel” in developing and teaching such courses. Standardization also allows outsourcing to textbook publishers and other providers of course content and teaching materials. With nationwide – even worldwide -- markets, these companies can achieve economies of scale, resulting in lower costs that can be passed on to the universities and the students. Textbook publishers already work with professors to design and develop complete courses and then produce the texts and supporting materials. Online support services are installed on many campuses, providing the faculty with both learning content and course management services in the areas of testing and grading.

4) Avoid giving faculty administrative responsibilities. For instance, use standardized academic compliance procedures and establish centralized offices of assessment and of accreditation for all two- and four-year undergraduate programs in the state. This will reduce the committee workload required of faculty and be especially efficient in the standardized curricula. Here again, the private sector can help. The major testing services are already in a position to produce assessment exams and subject matter tests for final certification for graduation.

The process of classroom rationalization is already underway in some areas. The success of accredited for-profit higher education programs suggests that many students are willing to pay for standardized online and on-site courses from professors without doctorates who do not engage in published research. In traditional non-profit institutions, the most obvious case of rationalization is the widespread employment of part-time, non-tenure-track faculty, especially in the teaching of lower-division courses. Making rationalization an explicit state policy would provide a rigorous and academically justifiable system for using this kind of teaching faculty. There would be both formal requirements for master’s degrees and clear exemptions from committee work and scholarly output.

There’s also rationalization in many states’ general education curricula, which account for a large proportion of undergraduate credit hours. The same freshman and sophomore courses are taught at two-year community colleges as at four-year colleges. Why not standardize faculty qualifications for freshman and sophomore teaching across all of these institutions and exempt that faculty from requirements in research, curriculum development, or other committee work? Even in universities that give priority to their research mission, there’s evidence of rationalization of the classroom. The Ph.D.-qualified professors often have little to do with first- and second-year undergraduate courses. In their third- and fourth-year courses, they may only deliver the lectures and leave the test grading and teaching of recitation sections to graduate students serving as teaching assistants. A more efficiently rationalized system would have these sections taught by full-time lecturers, dedicated to teaching, holding master’s degrees, and receiving regular salary and benefits.

One undesirable alternative to rationalizing the classroom is for public colleges and universities to seek larger market share rather than strive for faculty cost containment. Aggressive marketing and building a brand name through sports teams and college rankings are used to justify higher legislative appropriations and higher tuition and fees. Yet excessive subsidizing or artificially-induced demand leads to inefficient use of taxpayer funds.

How does it make sense for schools within the same state system to compete with each other for students? Isn’t it possible that institutional competition in the marketplace indicates excess capacity and there are too many colleges chasing too few students? Why should universities behave as if their primary mission were to survive in a crowded industry? For undergraduate programs, it makes more sense to move away from the traditional academic model, redefine faculty responsibilities to eliminate research requirements for all but a minority of professors, and seek economies of scale through consolidation of administrative functions and outsourcing of committee work.

Joseph T. Johnson
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Joseph T. Johnson is a professor of economics at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Serving in This Secular Church

Different types of buzzard have circled above my campus for many years, but they seem to be flying lower these days, searching for any dollars they can peck off the carcass of our institution. Some of these birds were beckoned by the notion that higher education is a corporation. They are eager to get a consulting fee, and oblivious to industry’s general failure to demonstrate excellence in anything. Others roost in state buildings. They like to poke holes in our budgets and throw a few dollars back to taxpayers. It keeps their own nest eggs safe from angry voters.

Buzzards have screeched for decades that we need to downsize and economize our operations. These birds always promise to restore “public confidence” about higher education, but none of them seems to care about restoring confidence within higher education. That requires a transfusion of spirit instead of surgery with shears. More than just new hows and whats for coping with hard times, we need to reaffirm the whys of our existence. I believe we need to re-sacrilize at least as much as we need to re-size our efforts and expectations.

Higher education is a secular church of science and service, and I have been a minor pastor in it for 30 years. The term, pastor, feels right to me, but I know that this claim is heresy to religious conservatives who believe that higher education is more Satanic than sacred. Some of my colleagues go along with them, because sacred references undermine their material instincts or their faith in values neutrality. Yet the notion of a secular church puts some high back into higher education. Sure, most of our colleges are secular these days. What about their soul?

We forget the soul of our work. Numbers run our lives. They tell us when we win, like when enrollment managers post messages that we went up four spots in this year’s U.S. News ratings. Now we’re the top liberal arts college in the northwest corner of Montana! Post that on the Web site, and applicants will flock to our gates.

Numbers tell us when we lose, too: just read yesterday’s market reports, or ask any professor why he didn’t get tenure. The numbers weren’t good enough.

Numbers are the boss of the secular institution and the bane of any holy one, because they turn unique phenomena into profane comparisons. Which tragedy was worse: NIU, Virginia Tech, Kent State, or Texas A&M? Let’s look at the numbers: “Well, how many students died at each place?” How many died? Every one of us died a little or a lot when our sacred space was violated by gunfire or flames. After that answer percolates, then bring on the PowerPoint presentations about crisis management techniques and systems. Those things are necessary, but they will not heal us.

We need some right brain mythology to balance our left brain obsessions with numbers. Karen Armstrong wrote that myth leads us beyond our experience and tells us how to behave. It gives us the right spiritual posture for action whether it’s in this world or the next. Jonathon Haidt wrote that people need mythology in order to think, and higher education needs the mythology of a secular church to tie it together while numbers pull it apart.

I am old enough to throw out complaints about newfangled things, and get words like “outdated” and “over the hill” tossed back at me, but I do not see myself as a nostalgist. A nostalgist wants the present to be the past, rather than the past to be present. I’m not claiming to be a historian, either. Our secular church is a metaphor borne by history more than any construction of bricks and mortar. Marcus Borg believes that metaphor is the truth that never was and always is. The spirit of the sacred has always guided our practice, and it can heal some of our despair today.

I don’t want to shout out the following ideas, because they might be measured by a number of decibels instead of merit, but I am happy to whisper that our operations are infused with the virtues of faith, hope and love, just like the operations in any holy enterprise that’s worth its salt. Scientists trudge through countless failures with high hope but low expectations that their next experiments will work. Faith drives the teacher who wants to make a student’s life better but never knows if she has, and love is, I would like to believe, the reason why any person becomes a professor. Good professors love learning; they love their discipline, and they want to be in a community that is built on this love. We call it collegiality. It’s the invisible factor in tenure decisions: good teaching, good research, good service, and good fit.

But our secular church isn’t identical to a sacred one, any more than it is identical to profane enterprise. It includes both and is beholding to neither. This secular church has its own affirmations of faith, fulfills them through good works, and uses ritual to support decision making.

Here is a basic affirmation:

Higher education is about the discovery, conservation and transmittal of middle sized truths that we do not presume to be ultimate, approach with honest doubt, convey with enlightened tentativeness, and connect to larger conversations for the improvement of society broadly writ.

The spirit behind this affirmation is Orthopraxy, not Orthodoxy, but the bishops and novitiates of higher education rarely utter, much less act upon, such stuff. They protect the theology that’s in their professional gospels. They determine which novitiates earn ordination, and convention dictates their decisions. An assistant professor’s output of publications is important, but where they are placed is equally important. The manuscripts must be reviewed by other clerics and appear in journals that have been stamped “approved.” If assistant professors write enough of these articles, say nothing that lowers their student evaluations, and serve on a few committees, then they get tenure, their license to be heretical now that the church has boiled enough original ideas out of their scholarship.

This description is overdrawn in order to contrast indoctrination activities with the activities of many faculty who are more concerned with the activities at their institution than the theology of the Church of any discipline. These professors of the parish teach undergraduate courses, advise student groups, work on committees, uphold the last remnants of shared governance, and otherwise fulfill duties that were given to student affairs and academic affairs administrators years ago, when research faculty complained about doing them. Nobody gets merit pay or promotions for doing this work, just as nobody pays attention to the mortar in walls, only the bricks. The bricks can’t imagine their need for glue, but the priests of numbers need to understand their need for parish professors in our secular church. Any ethical enterprise attends to its structural soundness. It is consistent and coherent, or else it crumbles into moral pretense.

Each year, I spend some time teaching graduate students about “mission,” “vision,” “transformational leadership,” and other ways to build value-rich and effective enterprises. In economically stressed times, the steps of good planning are ignored as much as its higher purposes. The budget might receive a dusting of protocol but administrative and academic activities are sundered and patched together without orderly and broad based scrutiny. Haphazard decisions are made and rituals are discarded.

However, a congregation usually comes together during a crisis and its ritual practices, from teaching through reorganization, can be used to promote order, community, and transcendence. Order without community is tyranny. Community without transcendence yields mutual despair.

Some critics would charge that affirmations, activities and rituals are not enough to support any organization’s claim to sacredness, whether the claim is made by higher education or officially religious institutions. To illustrate, a critic for the Christian Chronicle lamented the secular temperament in many Christian churches. They were working hard “to resemble surrounding technological and bureaucratic organizations” by relying on committee meetings, questionnaires, self-studies, and related paraphernalia. The author concluded that these secular churches needed to recover “transcendence, which means a recovery of faith. For it is only within a recovery of the perspective of faith that we may recognize and redirect false needs and identify secondary needs idolatrously masquerading as ultimate ones.”

T.V. Smith wrote that higher education is busy with mid-sized moral truths instead of Ultimate Truth. That is lofty enough for me. It does not dismiss empiricism, even if many fundamentalist faiths do, and it lets me work within a context of morality and myths as well as materials and measurements. Those myths support the notion that our work is vocational, a calling, and not just fodder for buzzards to pick over.

Those birds will always be up there, and they look pretty serene in the sky. I have to accept that. It’s just as true that I don’t have enough capacity or courage to change how our work is measured on the ground. So what am I left with? Not just the “serenity to accept the things we cannot change.” The mythical perspective of higher education contains some wisdom about what should be kept and what should be changed. Marcus Borg might call the secular church a “science-plus” perspective instead of one that is restricted to science minus everything that cannot be measured. Great colleges, great churches, and great art are never created when Rembrandts just paint by the numbers.

Robert B. Young
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Bob Young is a professor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education and senior associate with the Center for Higher Education at Ohio University.


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