Life

What Texans Learned

This month the University of Texas System released 821 pages of “productivity” data for all faculty members and graduate assistants employed at the nine academic campuses that make up the UT System. As an adjunct lecturer for UT- Arlington, I am listed, along with my dear friends and colleagues in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, on pages 91 through 93. We are sorted alphabetically, our names stacked one atop the other much like our mailboxes in the departmental office, and beside each is information about teaching loads, external research funding, cumulative grade-point averages, and compensation received in the form of salaries and benefits.

In public conversations, those taking place in print and online media, it is the report itself, rather than its content, that is at the center of the controversy. Publication of detailed information about the professional activities of those employed in postsecondary education has reignited long-running debates about the often conflicting ideals of individual privacy and institutional transparency, the relative values of teaching and research, and the meaning of and purpose of academic freedom.

As these are presented in op-ed pieces and blogs, there is the sense that while academics’ opinions on the issues are complex and numerous, that the positions from which they may be formulated are simple and number only two: tenured or tenure-track professor. Further, much of the discussion has centered on the reactions at the flagship campus at Austin and how this type of public reporting will affect that institution’s ability to recruit and retain “superstar” professors. At both the national and local levels, the focus has been on the Austin campus and little attention has been given to those employed by the other eight campuses. Those of us who are outside of Austin and the tenure system find ourselves outside of the conversation, our concerns not represented. The result is that the discussions taking place publicly are incomplete.

On university campuses in North Texas there are two very different takes on what publication of salary data means. Those who are tenured or tenure-track are worried about the reactions of the general public. And with good reason. Those outside academe often have little appreciation for the economic, social and cultural contributions postsecondary educators make to the state and lack understanding of the research and publication processes. Though most professors earn only modest salaries, and only a few's could be described as handsome, many still fear that the public’s perception will be that they are receiving more than they are worth. In a time of state budget shortfalls and widespread economic uncertainty, those whose work is often invisible and so misunderstood, make for easy targets.

Adjuncts and other contingent instructors are uneasy for another set of reasons. Not even the most creative political commentator could accuse us of greed. Our wages are not only shamefully low relative to those of our colleagues, but also in comparison to the workforce as a whole. And so for us, the publication of salary data has a very different meaning. It turns what is ordinarily a private embarrassment into a public one. It is insult added to injury. Still, this is not our biggest concern. Our real worry is how this information may further erode students' perceptions of our worth.

Attitudes about the relative value of those within and those outside of the tenure system are an often-unacknowledged aspect of the university culture. These attitudes are communicated in subtle but powerful ways and students pick up on them. Students see that the names of some instructors are listed in directories and department websites and others are not. They take note of the fact that those who are not listed are the same ones who are also crammed like cordwood in shared offices that often lack basic equipment. Through these and other small indicators, students come to understand that adjuncts are not valued, that we are expendable, that we are — as we are designated in the report— "other."

When students internalize these messages — and it is inevitable that they will — they lose respect not only for the individual adjuncts, but also for what we do. The classes we teach, the information we deliver and the assignments we give are deemed less important and less valuable.

I know that I am not supposed to complain. Regularly, I am reminded that I am fortunate to have a job in academia. And twice a year, when classes are assigned and I find myself again having somehow managed to make the cut, I am thankful: I will have another semester of getting to do what I love in the place I have grown attached to. But then come the calculations: after withholdings, and the expenses I incur — gas, parking, dry cleaning, toner cartridges — how much is left? Each semester it is a bit less, even as I am asked to do a bit more — submit more progress reports, assign more written work, be more available to students, teach larger sections.

Like most Americans, I am finding ways to do more with less. What I cannot afford to do without is the respect and confidence of my students. I worry about the conclusions they may draw if they learn what I am paid: $2,500 per course. Put differently: that’s $12,500 for five courses a year, when a 3-2 courseload would be considered full-time at many institutions. It’s there, in black and white for anyone with the time and inclination to sift through the data and work the math. What the figure doesn’t show is the number of hours I spend preparing for those classes — reading, planning lectures, updating statistics, reviewing notes, tweaking and grading assignments. It doesn’t show the commitment I have to my discipline, those with whom I share it, and the university in whose name I do it.

My position is not secure. I have not yet signed my contract for next semester and I will admit to being a bit nervous as I write this. Still, I believe that the issues raised by the publication of the data are important and that if we are to address them, we must all be allowed and willing to participate in the conversation.

Author/s: 
Harvest Moon
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Harvest Moon is an adjunct in sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Section: 

Whom to Invite

The recent controversy over the work of Greg Mortenson, author of the best-seller Three Cups of Tea, highlights the risks universities take in inviting famous people to campus and raises the question: Is it worth it?

Until recently, Mortenson was among the most popular guest speakers on campuses nationwide. He rose to fame by campaigning on behalf of children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has built schools that he says not only give them an education they would otherwise not receive but also help reduce the influence of terrorists. Then CBS's "60 Minutes" and other media outlets charged, among other allegations, that he had exaggerated the number of schools he had built and violated IRS laws as he accrued millions of dollars in speaking fees and book sales telling his story.

My university was among those that had already scheduled Mortenson to speak when the controversy broke, and the task force that had invited him, which I chair, was among those that rescinded the invitation. Such decisions put a fine point on the issues colleges face time and again about who qualifies as an appropriate guest. The question is made even more potent in the midst of commencement season, as visiting speakers of every kind address thousands of graduates at a time. As ephemeral as speaking events are, these choices are flashpoints for debates about university values.

Here at Bucknell, as at many campuses, we host speakers several times a year in a range of public events, including commencement, an annual literary arts series and a national speaker series, for which Mortenson had been scheduled to speak.

In 20 years of being involved in such choices at various institutions, I have found that three kinds of speakers are easy for colleges to select: scholars, serious authors and performing artists – such as Elaine Pagels, John Edgar Wideman, Edward Albee and Twyla Tharp. To oversimplify nuanced perspectives, whether we are traditionalists who believe universities should provide a model of intellectual thought or generalists who believe universities should engage the popular culture, we typically agree that universities should be forums for diverse ideas. The issue becomes which visitors are worth paying extra to bring their different ideas to campus. These three types of speakers are the most readily accepted because they use the vocabulary of the liberal arts mission, of the intellect, or of the arts, all of which are inarguably part of a well-educated life.

Now the choices get messier, as the experience with Mortenson shows, because campus speakers often are perceived as a shorthand for what we want our university to be.

First we have so-called public intellectuals, known for their authorship of widely read serious nonfiction, such as historian David McCullough, finance writer Niall Ferguson and physicist Brian Greene. It is no surprise they are popular on campuses, since besides drawing crowds they use many of the methods of scholarship, if not the language. They thus are tolerable to academic traditionalists, since a popular intellect is better than no intellect all, while generalists are thrilled. Someone like Elie Wiesel -- author, public intellectual, and Noble Laureate humanitarian -- hits the sweet spot where (almost) everyone agrees.

Second are celebrities: talk-show hosts, television journalists, actors, comedians -- the TV and movie stars. Here the lines of distinction grow sharper. Outside schools of drama or journalism, traditionalists often see celebrities’ language as superficial, while generalists have a harder time explaining their suitability to a university’s mission. In either case, the language of celebrities isn’t typically perceived as a language of academe, let alone the language, in part because they bear the stigma of popular entertainment as shallow, fairly or not.

Celebrities, however, can be hard for campuses to resist, because students will turn out to see them, and some will ask what is the point of having speakers on a campus if students don’t attend. So students frequently put celebrities first on speaker lists, forcing a choice: Can traditionalists trust that the particular celebrity will be thoughtful enough for them to accept, or is the speaker so purely a celebrity that generalists won’t fight for them? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are among the most desired celebrity speakers because their wit is seen as erudite. Either way, those who extend campus invites to celebrities often crouch as they do, especially if it’s for commencement, with its singular importance to university culture.

This leaves the final two categories, which are separated by just one factor: publication. The easiest of the two to debate, because the lines are so clearly drawn, is the accomplished professional, known for doing something in the “real world” beyond authorship, the arts or entertainment. Traditionalists often don’t see the point, while generalists see them as exemplars of action. Politicians fall in this category, and force the question into the simmering realm of ideology. Business executives fit the bill nicely, though, especially if a market-driven philosophy doesn’t clash with campus views too much.

The final and most complicated category of all, then, is the published professional, which happens to be Mortenson’s category. We’ve had our share here: former South African president F.W. de Klerk, peace activist Jody Williams, and, at this year’s commencement, blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer. To stand apart from the merely accomplished professional, the published professional authors at least one book, earning special credit in the written language that is academe’s prime currency. While traditionalists debate the merits of the book, generalists have greater firepower for their view.

But in entering this special terrain, published professionals also doubly expose themselves to credibility gaps, as Mortenson’s story shows. He became such a sought-after campus speaker because his book made him so famous that students would show up in droves to hear him, almost as if he were a celebrity. How enticing: real accomplishment, authorship and a guaranteed audience to boot.

With the media reports, all that is suspect. But the central problem they raise for campuses isn’t that his nonprofit may have done less good than he claims or that he may have skirted tax obligations. By even his critics’ accounts, after all, he has helped many children, and neither his books nor his speaking contracts claim to fund his nonprofit.

The core dilemma is that he became an especially sought-after campus speaker because of his book’s success. His attractiveness as a published professional visitor came to hinge not on the fact that he’s a great speaker, humanitarian or trailblazing school builder, but on the fact that he presented himself in writing as doing it all for children. If the media reports are true, though, he novelized the children’s story for his own gain. On a core principle, traditionalists and generalists agree: In the language of a university, intellectual honesty is paramount. Not even celebrities get a pass.

In this commencement season, Mortenson’s problems also aren’t his alone; they’re a problem for all public intellectuals, celebrities and professionals. It would not be surprising if everyone, traditionalists and generalists alike, wonders with new intensity during this year’s commencement speeches why universities need such guests. The values debate has a new lightning rod.

Author/s: 
Pete Mackey
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Pete Mackey is vice president for communications at Bucknell University.

Showing Up

That special day in May has arrived. The students in their graduation robes assemble by the administration building or the stadium or the largest parking lot on campus. They mill around, excited that they’re about to leave the place where they spent the last four or more years, and anxious over the same state of affairs. A few administrators walk by in their regalia, the band or sound system starts up, and soon everyone will march.

So where are the faculty?

“Sorry,” a veteran professor from the English department told me the day before, “but I never show up for these things.” When I ask why not, he just shrugs. He’s taught there for over 25 years. A few other professors respond similarly. The point is, they’re not alone. I’ve taught at three different schools, and faculty attendance at commencement has always been dismal. This year, I was the only faculty member in my department to show up at graduation, and I find that -- let’s be kind and say “puzzling.” Why would you spend years helping your students and then refuse to attend the culmination of all that hard work?

Yet to ask that of most faculty seems to annoy them. They’re independent-minded and don’t like being told what to do, or even be questioned.

“Look, it’s no secret that I’m not exactly a fan of the administration here,” a colleague of mine tells me. “This is my way of flipping them off.” He’s not an evil guy, and this is his rationale for staying away from graduation, year after year.

“But you’re mainly hurting the students,” I reply. “When they’re ready to graduate and none of the faculty show up, what do you think that says to them?”

He shrugs, and the conversation ends there.

Another non-attending teacher puts her hands on her hips when I ask her. “The students don’t show up, so why should I?”

This observation is partly true, so I choose my words carefully. “How about for the students who do show up?”

Another shrug. That seems to be a popular response.

“Hey, I work for my students during the school year,” a colleague from a previous school once told me. I didn’t answer this point, mainly because I’d heard about his terrible teaching evaluations and recognized a self-serving argument when I heard one. “I’m too busy grading finals,” a history professor from the same school told me.

“It’s just too big,” says another faculty member. “I might show up to see the students I taught, but I don’t really feel a part of this...” he searches for the right word “...undertaking.”

In fact, many institutions have both commencement exercises and individual school convocation ceremonies and departmental parties to see off their graduates. But attendance isn’t great at those events, either, and anyway, that’s still not a compelling reason for staying away from graduation.

At one institution where I taught, any faculty who didn’t own their own gowns were obliged to pay for their own regalia, and that was the reigning reason for poor faculty attendance -- until the administration waived the fee, and faculty still stayed away.

At some schools, attendance at graduation is written into the faculty contracts. I gather this measure is necessary because otherwise, faculty representation would be pitiful. Why this should be so, I still can’t fathom. I didn’t enter this profession for big bucks or prestige -- if I had, I would’ve been misinformed -- but because I liked teaching and research. For all its pious platitudes, graduation still celebrates those aspects of academe.

It was many years ago, but I still recall the day I got my doctoral degree: an overcast afternoon that never quite rained. My department was, to put it charitably, ill-represented. My dissertation adviser arrived late and grumpy. I heard him telling another professor that the only reason he showed up was to hood someone -- “and I’m sorry I came because it looks like rain.” At my undergraduate commencement, a few of the faculty from my department came, but none stayed around afterward, though my father asked me to point out some of my teachers.

So I show up at graduation, part of a small cadre. “Hey, professor!” shout a couple of students who see me in my gown. I get a lot of handshakes and a few hugs. With a few, I discuss plans for after graduation, though a handful just want to chat. After the ceremony, some parents want to take pictures of the graduates alongside their professors, which is hard to do without faculty attending.

One student asks me point-blank, “Where are the other professors?” All I can do is shrug -- sympathetically. When it’s over, I pack up and leave the school, still a little emotional, though I’m usually not that type. I’m proud for the students. I’m also upset at my colleagues.

Professors instruct in all sorts of ways. This method is called setting a bad example.

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

David Galef is an English professor and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.

Two Moments

As the eraser arced through the classroom, I realized with a petrifying shock what a horrible mistake I had made. The student was sleeping in class. She was too far away for nudge or comment. Grabbing an eraser from the blackboard chalk tray, I had lobbed it upward, expecting it to fall gently in front of her or in her lap. She would wake up, everyone would chuckle, class would continue. Such was my fatuity. And now I could see that the eraser, in its arched trajectory would land right in her face. It did exactly that, knocking her glasses off, startling not only her but the entire class.

That happened 36 years ago. Shame has mostly purged my memory of what I said or did immediately after the eraser landed. The class, the term, the year went on. Neither my victim nor I ever brought the incident up. At graduation she introduced me to her mother as one of her teachers. Had she forgotten? Was she just being kind? It seemed better not to ask.

Years went by with no communication between us. I continued teaching (without further eraser misuse) until retirement. At the same time I contracted a mild form of Parkinson’s disease. Its main symptom is a tremor of the right arm, which I can usually hide, plus some loss of strength and dexterity. It did not keep me from agreeing to lead an alumni tour, a cruise on the waterways of Holland and Belgium, in May, 2009.

To my surprise, my erstwhile target signed up for this cruise, along with her mother. To my further surprise, the tone of her pre-trip correspondence was wistful and apologetic: "he may not remember me…. I was not one of his star pupils.” Calling her by her undergraduate nickname reassured her, I hope, that I did in fact remember her. Of course I did not bring up the most indelible episode of our relationship but I began to see the cruise as a possible site for redemption. That did not exactly come about but something much more fulfilling did.

Late in the cruise it became her and her mother’s turn to dine at the tour leader’s table. She was seated next to me. Our conversation:

"Do you have Parkinson’s?" (She had sussed me out.)

"I do."

A little later:

"Are you having trouble with that meat?"

"Yes."

"May I help?"

"Please."

And then the woman, at whom I had lobbed an eraser 35 years before, cut my meat.

Author/s: 
Lauren Soth
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Lauren Soth is professor of art history emeritus at Carleton College.

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Colleges' incentives for older professors often woo those the institutions really want to keep. U. of Colorado found a way to single out individuals.

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The new cohort of scholars is not just younger and more diverse -- new research suggests a values gap colleges need to address.

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Feminist professor bares her breasts on her blog, and some students at Southern Cal object.

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