Fixing Higher Ed

The press and the blogosphere have devoted significant coverage recently to a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce that predicted that the United States is on "collision course with the future." The report estimated that within a mere eight years, the nation will suffer a shortfall of at least 3 million workers with college degrees and 4.7 million workers with postsecondary certificates. The authors of the report concluded that to meet the challenges of a global economy in which 59 to 63 percent of domestic jobs require education beyond the high-school level, America’s colleges and universities "need to increase the number of degrees they confer by 10 percent annually, a tall order."

Although numerous commentators have responded to the report by echoing its call for increased access to higher education, it seems to me that few have focused on a key term in the report’s call to "develop reforms that result in both cost-efficient and high quality postsecondary education." Producing millions more baccalaureate-educated workers will do nothing to address the competitiveness of the U.S. workforce if those degrees are not high quality ones. Sadly, it is pretty clear that far too many college degrees aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed.

In 2006, the Spellings Commission reported disturbing data that more than 60 percent of college graduates were not proficient in prose, document, and quantitative literacy. In other words, significantly more than half of college degree holders in the United States lack the “critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplaces.”

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, cited these findings in his recent Huffington Post essay, "The Failure of American Higher Education." He shared stories about recent college graduates, many from prestigious universities, who had applied for jobs at his think tank who were unable to complete basic tasks such as summarizing a person’s credentials into a short biographical sketch or calculating an average using a spreadsheet. Atkinson argues that one of the primary reasons for the inability of so many college graduates to think, write, speak, argue, research, or compute proficiently is that colleges “are focused on teaching kids content, not on teaching them skills.” His explanation for this is that members of the professoriate are not interested in teaching these important skills, but rather are interested in exploring the content of the subject matter in which they specialize. Atkinson then advocates several "solutions" to his perception of the problem, which include a requirement that all college graduates take a national test to measure skills competencies and “radical experimentation” in college design that focuses “on teaching 21st century skills, not 20th century subjects.” These ideas are typical of the well-intentioned but misinformed suggestions that abound these days about higher education.

The commentators are correct that there is a mismatch between what faculty members are doing and could be doing to teach students. But the problem isn't a lack of faculty interest in students, but a broader set of staggering challenges facing professors – challenges that deserve more attention.

First, college and university faculty members often lack the ability to teach basic reading, writing, and math skills. Why? Because most professors are not trained to do so. With few exceptions, doctoral programs focus on teaching disciplinary content and methods of inquiry, not pedagogy. Even in universities that provide their doctoral students with a "preparing future faculty" program to help Ph.D. candidates develop some teaching skills, such programs focus on teaching and learning at the college level, not on basic reading comprehension, the fundamentals of composition, or elementary quantitative skills. The K-12 educational system is supposed to teach these abilities. By the time students get to college, faculty members rightfully expect that they will already know how to calculate an average or summarize the main points of a newspaper article, a book chapter, or a journal article. Accordingly, faculty members see their role as then honing students’ critical thinking abilities within the context of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information, often within a disciplinary framework.

These assumptions were fair ones once upon a time. Sadly, though, far too many students who have earned a high school diploma are unable to meet such expectations. Absent a handful of specialists in English departments, most college faculty members are simply ill-equipped to know how to teach students how to begin writing coherently. Professors expect to provide students with feedback on writing more efficiently and persuasively, not teach about tenses, subject-verb agreement, or basic punctuation. Yet, these are types of problems with which faculty routinely try to cope, at least for a while. And that leads to my second point.

Given the woefully inadequate preparedness of high school graduates to engage in college-level work, many professors quickly become burned out attempting to teach skills that they never expected they would need to teach at the postsecondary level. I have heard dozens of colleagues from across the country at different types of institutions of higher education say, "I didn’t earn a Ph.D. to teach what should have been taught in elementary and high school." Many such instructors give up; rather than teaching the skills that should have been learned before students arrive in college, they focus on content because it’s easier to do so. There is only so much that can be done over the course of a college quarter or semester. Worse yet, they fear holding students to high standards for a myriad of reasons, which is the third problem I wish to discuss.

College faculty members, especially those who are untenured, often fear setting course expectations too high, challenging students’ comfort levels too much, or being rigorous in their assessments of student performance. If students perceive a professor as being too hard, they will avoid that person's classes, which can lead to under-subscribed classes being canceled. Full-time faculty whose courses are canceled may be reassigned to less desirable duties; part-time faculty members whose classes are canceled often find themselves without any courses to teach. In addition, students often "punish" faculty members they perceive as being too demanding by evaluating them poorly at the end of a course. Because low student evaluations can lead to both tenure-track and adjunct faculty being fired, untenured professors may keep workloads at levels that students perceive to be reasonable and assess their performance more generously than may be actually deserved. Much has been written on this phenomenon as one of the leading factors contributing to the nationwide problem of grade inflation, the fourth issue I will address.

In one of the most comprehensive studies of college grading practices, Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy documented that the average grade point average at U.S. colleges and universities rose from 2.35 in the 1930s, to 2.52 in the 1950s when a bifurcating trend in public and private institutions emerged. After sharp increases in the 1970s and 1980s, GPAs currently average an astonishing 3.00 and 3.30 at public and private schools, respectively. This trend could be explained by better students achieving at ever-higher levels. But, as discussed above, that is simply not the case when more than 60 percent of college graduates are not proficient in basic reading, writing, and math. Rojstaczer and Healy contend that grade inflation surged in the 1980s with “the emergence of a consumer-based culture in higher education.” And the growth of the for-profit sector of higher education has only compounded this problem in higher education since corporate-based education is built upon the faulty premise of delivering a product (an "education" or a "degree") to paying consumers (what we used to call "students").

Professors who resist the pressures of grade inflation find themselves in the position of having to defend their rigorous teaching in a variety of forums, ranging from resolving complaints lodged against them with their department chairs to participating in pseudo-adversarial grade appeals proceedings and formal grievance hearings. Contemporary college students hold intense senses of consumer-based entitlement in which they see the default grade as an “A.” Recently, I defended a professor who had awarded a “D” to a student who, by my assessment, should have failed the course. During the heated discussion, the complaining student obnoxiously referred to the professor as “incompetent” and “unrealistic.” At one point, she said, “I pay your salaries!” I replied to her, “Then we want a raise for having to deal with snotty, entitled brats like you.”

Notably, the professor involved in this grade dispute was a tenured member of the faculty. For the reasons summarized above, untenured faculty (who comprise more than 70 percent of college instructors nationwide) may have caved in to the student’s demands and changed the student’s grade to avoid a confrontation in which the department chair became involved. But even when faculty members stand their ground, administrators often cave in to student demands because they are concerned with retention rates, time-to-degree completion statistics, complaints from helicopter parents (some of which escalate into lawsuits), and angry students who may turn into alumni who want nothing to do with their alma maters instead of happy alumni who become donors.

The recent case of Professor Dominique Homberger illustrates how college and university administrators contribute to grade inflation. The dean of her college recently removed Homberger from teaching an introductory biology course at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge in the middle of semester after students complained about her harsh grading on the first exam in the course, even though grades on subsequent quizzes and exams were higher (students appear to have gotten the message that they really needed to up their levels of performance).

What do we do about the sad state of affairs in higher education? There are changes we could make at the college level that could go a long way in improving the quality of higher education. First, no one should be able to earn a Ph.D. and secure a faculty position in an institution of higher education who has not taken graduate-level courses that prepare them to teach effectively at the college level. Graduate education must provide the next generation of college instructors the pedagogical toolkit to be more effective teachers, as well as more effective assessors of student learning. This is especially important with regard to teaching prose, information, and quantitative literacy.

Second, professors who rely exclusively on textbooks must change their ways. Of course, there are many fine textbooks out there, but no college course should rely on a textbook exclusively. Primary source materials from scholarly books and peer-reviewed journals, as well as material from popular culture media (newspapers, magazines, blogs, films, television shows, etc.), when applicable, should be assigned to complement textbook readings. But even more importantly, professors must jettison the “supplements” provided by textbook publishers. Today, many textbooks come with canned lecture notes, study guides, exams, PowerPoint presentations, and other supplementary materials designed to make professors’ lives easier. With few exceptions, most of these materials are targeted at the lowest common denominator.

For example, canned PowerPoint presentations and study guides boil down the information in a textbook chapter to a series of bullet points. But “test bank” questions are the worst offenders. These question focus exclusively on content and are targeted at low levels of cognitive achievement in Bloom’s taxonomy of learning domains: mere recall of data or information. These assessments do not provide any basis for professors to test students’ ability to analyze, synthesize, or evaluate information in a manner that demonstrates critical thinking, writing, or problem-solving abilities.

Third, we must get serious about confronting grade inflation. College professors are not just teachers; they also should be serving as gatekeepers as generations of professors did in the past by awarding grades commensurate with student performance. For this to occur, the consumer-based culture that pervades higher education must be changed. Professors, parents, and administrators must stop coddling students. If a student is not performing satisfactorily, then college instructors must be able to award “D”s or “F”s without worrying about whether doing so will cost them their jobs. Moreover, faculty rewards policies (e.g., reappointment, tenure, promotion, merit raises, etc.) must be changed to reward professors who teach and grade with rigor.

Such assessments must focus not just on the content of professors’ courses, but also on how they develop critical thinking, writing, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. Conversely, professors who give away high grades that are not actually earned by students should not be retained. This is not to say, however, that only those professors who award As to 10 percent or fewer of their students are necessarily effective teachers. Rather, we need to develop better ways of assessing a college instructor’s performance than student evaluations and grade distributions. Reappointment, tenure, and promotion decisions should be based on holistic assessments which include qualitative evaluations by several peers who have observed the instructor teach and on teaching portfolios containing exams, writing assignments, grading rubrics, cooperative learning exercises, and the like. Rigor and transparency should be rewarded.

Finally, to effectively combat both grade inflation and a consumer-based culture in the college student–professor dynamic, politicians, accrediting bodies, and senior administrators must stop worrying about graduation rates and time-to-degree-completion. These artificial metrics miss the mark. The obsessive focus on what percentage of students graduate in four or six years only reinforces grade inflation and a consumer-based culture in higher education. If it takes a student eight years to graduate because professors actually hold that student to high levels of achievement before certifying that student as worthy of a degree, so be it! That, at least, would help to restore the value of a college degree rather than perpetuating the disturbing trend of the past few decades in which the value of the baccalaureate degree has deservedly diminished.

Henry F. Fradella
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Henry F. Fradella is professor and chair of criminal justice at California State University at Long Beach .

Read the Directions

I’d like to nominate the term "faculty-driven" as a candidate for disinvestment and elimination.

After serving as a director of composition and as the coordinator of a general education program at universities in the Midwest, I am beginning my second year as department head here at a university in West Texas. At our first all-faculty meeting of the year, it was announced that we are on the verge of two major academic initiatives that will require a substantial commitment of institutional time and energy. The first is a program review process, and the second is a quality enhancement project required by our accreditor.

Both of these efforts are necessary and, I suspect, will result in needed improvements. I have faith in the best practices upon which we will model our efforts. I also believe in the goodwill and good intentions of our academic leadership.

I just wish our administrative team would stop saying these efforts will be "faculty-driven." It’s a term that has little, if any, persuasive power. It may in fact, for many faculty, have the opposite effect. Rather than sweetening the pot, it may just as likely leave a bitter taste.

It's possible academic leaders inside higher ed believe that "faculty-driven" is synonymous with “shared governance” (another term I’d nominate for the trash bin) or "grassroots consensus-building." However, these terms only mask how power actually circulates in academe.

Let me be clear: I’m not opposed to how power functions in colleges and universities. I think the decision-making hierarchy in my university is appropriate and benefits faculty, staff, and students. And it’s quite evident who has authority and who doesn’t. Our operational policies tell the story of power and process quite well, and our organizational chart clearly illustrates the verticality of institutional authority.

I'm only saying that academic leaders should be more careful about how they talk about what we do. Faculty don’t drive processes that come down from accrediting agencies or the administration. They execute them. That’s why a better term is "faculty-executed."

Faculty members are directed to execute program review. Faculty are directed to execute a quality enhancement process. Faculty are directed to develop and assess student learning outcomes. Faculty are directed to appear at convocation and commencement. It may be that faculty don’t like to follow and execute these directives, but that’s really beside the point .

Let me share with you to the last two stanzas of a poem I like very much by William Stafford called “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.”

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider --
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give -- yes or no, or maybe --
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

We may fool each other even when it’s not our intention. So we should take as much care as we can. We should use language that clearly depicts institutional power and its supporting policies and processes. And "faculty-driven" is a smudge.

If faculty drive anything, it’s student learning — the central ritual of any academic enterprise. Certainly, there's many an institutional directive that drive faculty away from that focus. But what drives faculty to distraction even more is language that misses the opportunity to do good work.

My preference is that academic leadership should talk straight about the parade of our mutual life. Leaders should tell faculty what they want faculty to do and, just as importantly, they should tell them why. And tell them often. Not fly-by mission statements and core values on overhead slides. But in public and in person, boots on the ground. Follow me. This way. Here we go.

I would also urge faculty to remind themselves of our larger enterprise more frequently. We can all make the easy case of how overworked we are. But we’re not running backhoes or bouncing along on the back of garbage trucks. We’re lucky enough to work in fields of our own choosing.

From my perspective, program review and enhancement projects offer us the opportunity to make the case for values and valuing, a chance not only to remind ourselves of why we do what we do, but also to remind others — especially those above us in the vertical leap — of our unique and vital contributions to the knowledge pie.

(And we should be beating that drum in our classrooms, too!)

Many faculty think they are undervalued or have no voice in the scheme of things. Why then would we resist a directive to tell our story? Otherwise, the line that threads through all we do may become loose, unravel, or, worse yet, break.

I believe very good and persuasive reasons often exist for why faculty should execute what we are directed to do. But there’s a difference between giving directives and giving directions. The first is a means; the second, an end. But they can be easily confused. And frequently are. When directives become ends in themselves, we lose our way in the dark.

Please take out the directions and read them again.

Laurence Musgrove
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Laurence Musgrove is a professor and chair of English at Angelo State University, in San Angelo, Texas, where he teaches composition, literature, creative writing, graphic narrative, and visual thinking. His work has previously appeared in Inside Higher Ed, Southern Indiana Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Concho River Review and Journal for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. He blogs at

The Life of the Mind

I am always working. If not at the office, then at home. And if not in front of a computer, then sitting on the couch with my nose buried in a book or a journal. And if not there, then riding around my yard on the lawnmower, reading the newspaper, or playing golf with friends.

Like most academics, I live the life of the mind, and wherever I go, my mind is there too: sifting through half-baked ideas; ruminating on the latest developments in my field; wondering if my 7-iron will take that tree out of play.

Unfortunately, my wife, Loren, doesn’t buy into this life of the mind thing, at least not completely. Sure, she understands that my job at the local college helps pay the bills, and she also understands that part of the job requires me to come up with ideas and write articles and books. But she has always been suspicious of my definition of work, and whether what I routinely call work should be considered working at all.

Loren has a profoundly materialist view of work. Some might say reductive. For her, work involves actually doing, well, work: something that can be seen and heard. She rejects the proposition that my mind is my office. (Or is it the other way around? My office is my mind? Which one sounds more impressive?) And she thinks the person who came up with that phrase is an idiot.

In graduate school, while writing my dissertation, I tried to convince her that writing should count as work. She agreed that typing on the keyboard, the act of putting words into sentences and paragraphs, counts as work. But she questioned whether the other nonsense I claimed was writing, like surfing the Internet, watching travel shows on TV, sitting in coffee shops, and drinking beer in the afternoon, was actually work. (In my defense, I never once claimed that my principal occupation at the time -- complaining about writing -- was work, even though my buddies, who were writing dissertations as well, assured me that it most definitely was.)

When I got my first job, I did most of my writing at the office. Loren believed that I was working because, well, I was working. I regularly brought home text for her to read and I managed to write a book and nearly two dozen guest columns for newspapers.

But recently, I’ve fallen back into my old habits. Just the other day, about a week before the fall semester began, Loren and I were working at home, she on a do-it-yourself project and me on a writing project. It was slow going that morning, and by about 11:00 a.m. I was ready for a break. I got up from the computer and sat down in the front room to read the newspaper. Loren was coming in and out of the house, taking measurements in the bathroom and cutting drywall in the garage. She passed by a couple of times without comment, but on the fourth trip I heard a low, Marge Simpson-esque grunt.

The sound caught my attention because Loren, like her mother before her, can communicate five or six different meanings with a grunt, depending on the modulation, ranging from mild annoyance to utter dismay. I thought the sound I heard that morning was on the mild end of the spectrum, so I kept on reading the paper.

Twenty minutes later, I went to see Loren’s progress in the bathroom.

“You’re annoying me,” she said before I could say a word, or even poke my head in and take a look around. “When I’m working, you can’t sit and read the paper where I can see you.” (In addition to her materialist view of work, Loren has a strict collaborative view of work as well. If she’s working, I must work. Or at least appear to work.)

I thought about debating her characterization of my morning activity, but quickly realized I could never convince her that reading the paper should count as work. “Okay,” I said, sheepishly returning to my computer.

Reading the paper that morning didn’t officially count as work, at least not in my house, but it did help me get some work done. That short break, and the distraction provided by other peoples’ ideas, helped me think about my project in a new, productive way.

And that’s the odd, surprising, and wonderful thing about the academic life, about the life of the mind. It often involves staring out the window or doing something else for a while -- putting our projects on hold for a couple hours so we can return to them later in the day, after our subconscious minds have had a chance to do a little work on them.

My marriage to a person who questions the life of the mind is actually quite good for me. It keeps me productive -- gotta keep those fingers tapping on the keyboard lest Loren think I’m looking at the Internet -- and it keeps me honest. I no longer confuse my golfing, reading, or Web surfing with actual work.

Tom Moriarty
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Tom Moriarty teaches writing and rhetoric at Salisbury University.

Return to the Observatory

I recently visited the campus of the college where I received my B.A. degree (in 1976). Doane College, a remarkable and endearing liberal arts institution, is located about 25 miles southwest of Lincoln, Nebraska, in the fair city of Crete.

Things were pretty quiet around my old school this summer — my 9-year-old son and I stopped by, unannounced, on a warm Saturday morning — July 31, to be exact. I took several digital photos, of course, and inhaled the fragrant air of my youth — perhaps somewhat sadly, but with nostalgic enthusiasm.

The trees, stone bridges, and gentle inclines of the campus brought back so many memories and emotions.

The buildings looked terrific — and seemed the same size as they did back when I was 22. Swans still paddled around the campus ponds, but I’m sure those birds were the great-great-great grand offspring of the white-clad feathered trumpeters who dwelt in Crete back in the mid-70s.

Quinten stopped playing his Nintendo DS long enough to listen to a few stories from the now-distant past — the snowstorms, the professors, the way things used to be. A typical 9-year-old of the 21st century, he saw the campus as a collection of old buildings, nice lawns, flowers, and pathways — and of course he had none of my emotional connection to this place that demanded so much of me all those years ago. Even so, he enjoyed our visit and laughed with vigor when I told him I slipped and fell into Doane Lake a time or two.

He now shares a significant experience with me at Doane that transcends time and space — and is probably unique for a Doane graduate.

I took a picture of him standing next to Boswell Observatory — a lovely small brick facility built in 1883 and still containing a working telescope.

Way back in 1959 or so, when I was about 5, my grandparents (Mr. and Mrs. S.E. Ross of Aurora, Nebraska) took me along on a trip down to Doane. We were visiting my Aunt Deanna, who was then attending the college. I have a very powerful memory of standing near Boswell Observatory, and touching the rough bricks and gazing at the vines. I am convinced that visit had a great deal to do with my decision to attend Doane many years later. That misty morning, I stood in awe and near-reverence at the old Observatory, and somehow gravitated towards its power, its emotive force, and its presence ... its symbolism ... of something I did not then understand.

The edifice of the observatory, the burnished dome, and the mysteries I associated with the college as a child — what powerful emotional or cognitive impact did that brief confrontation with a 19th-century scientific building impress upon me then?

My educational journey at Doane still positively influences my life, my values, and my future.

I remember telling some of my dorm friends on graduation day that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a living. Silly me, I had gone to college because I wanted to learn — I wanted to read the great novels and poems, study with intellectual professors, and walk the flower-edged pathways while discussing Boethius, Woolf, Keats, and Kant with my classmates.

I continue to love and respect the liberal arts education I received. I owe my professors so much. My own life and career track — teaching writing at a community college — have been nurtured by my liberal arts experience. My professors’ confidence, their calm insightfulness, their wholesome grasp of complex intellectual truths, provided me with an insatiable appetite for learning. Throughout my teaching experiences, I have consciously attempted to convey this enthusiasm and encourage my students to embrace learning as a desirable and achievable constant in their lives. Generations of students come and go, but the liberal arts provide for sustainable truths and a continuum of values that transcend time and space….

Do I think Quinten made a magical connection with my old school? My emotions swirled as he stood by Boswell Observatory — my pilgrimage had been successful. I had brought him to the life litmus-topographic coordinates that had somehow eventually formed my Character, my Being, and my Self.

Certainly I hope he attends Doane someday. I would love to take a picture of him once again, standing by Boswell, wearing a cap and gown, circa 2023.

Small liberal arts colleges — and their lovely campuses and worthwhile missions — have prepared so many of us for satisfying and successful lives.

The old Observatory is a powerful image of the timeless human quest for new awareness, new understanding, and for learning perhaps in its purest form. As a society, I think, it is important that we value learning for the sake of the joy and enlightenment knowledge brings — a power that should daily temper our careers, our politics, our transitory possessions, and needs — especially needs for those items that never really improve the quality of our lives.....

A liberal arts education can make us more humane — and give us the skills needed to see far into the future, as well as to learn from the past.

Knowledge, and character, can handle most situations. I would contend that an education can be an end in itself, not a process, or career move, or something to get "out of the way."

Perhaps some of you will believe me anachronistic. Caught in the rancor of daily life, perhaps reading this article on a smartphone while riding the Metro or recently airborne to a meeting, you may find my views odd or old-fashioned or tired whispers from a time and place, historical only....

Meanwhile, the Observatory, with its working telescope, lives on. And the swans swim peacefully on Doane Lake.

Jeffrey Ross
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Jeffrey Ross is an instructor at Central Arizona College.

The Nutty Professor

What has become of the eccentrics in the ranks of our professors? From time to time, when I run into a colleague from another institution, I ask if he or she knows of any such individuals. Almost always, the answer is either "no," or a lengthy pause of consideration before offering up a bland example of an octogenarian who drives a motor scooter.

It is often said that academia is not the "real world." I’m not so sure how true this is today, what with the distinction between gutter and campus highly blurred, and practical emphases on job placement and technological "know how" supplanting the liberal arts. But looking back at my undergraduate years in the 1970s, I do think I studied in a sort of bubble highlighted by, for lack of a better descriptor, wacky professors who may not have been able to function outside the ivory tower.

I recently unearthed one of my college notebooks. On the inside back cover I had caricatured each of my instructors from that particular year. One glance and I immediately recalled the inspirations for my artwork.

There was, for example, Professor Feigenblatt, who walked with a stiff limp and chain-smoked during his German lectures. After each smoke he would drop the still-glowing butt onto the carpet and slowly grind it in with the tip of his orthopedic shoe. As a preamble to every lecture, he would clop over to the desk of each of the Fräuleins present and would ask permission to remove his sports jacket. Then he would light up and begin his rambling lectures while blowing smoke in our faces. On one occasion when he was absent, he sent his elderly German secretary — replete with bifocals on a pearl chain and her hair in a bun — to proctor a test we were taking. I approached her desk with a question from that test. To my surprise, and delight, she gave me the answer, loud enough for everyone to hear. A line quickly formed at her desk, and she dutifully helped all of us out. "Ach," she said, giggling, "if Professor Feigenblatt ever finds out he’ll be so annoyed." We all promised we wouldn’t tell. The professor returned the following week with the tests in hand, his face aglow. "Wonderful grades!" he exulted. "Everybody got an A!"

Professor Gleason was a bumbling biologist whom, due to his generous and ovoid physical proportions, we students had nicknamed "The Egg." He seemed to be totally baffled by his own course material, and managed quite capably to convey this bewilderment to the class, so that none of us knew what the hell was going on. I once went to his office with great trepidation to ask him to explain a challenging concept. When I arrived there he had his back to me as he stood before an elaborate apparatus of glassware, ringstands, tubes, and clamps. I recall thinking, Well, how about that? Still waters run deep. He does know what he’s doing after all. When he turned to me, however, he was stirring a cup of coffee, brewed on the intricate set-up. One day he took us down to the banks of the Hackensack River for a field trip. We helped him get the large motorboat into the water, and then the ten of us students looked on from the bank as he worked away at the engine, yanking the pull repeatedly to get it to start. He hadn’t noticed that the boat had begun to drift away, and we had no intention of alerting him. We all watched in silence (and with rising anticipation of a canceled class) as The Egg worked at the engine, his crablike arms too short to extract the pull all the way. Within ten minutes he had drifted out of sight. So we went home.

My organic chemistry professor, Dr. Weinstein, was rather fearsome and had little patience with students. His reputation didn’t rest upon his teaching prowess, because he had only one mantra — “Read the book!” Word was that he had fathered a famous chemical reaction during World War II and continued to get mileage out of that one, shining achievement. He was also as near-sighted as Mr. Magoo. On the first day of class he distributed our glassware and warned us, in his harsh, croaking voice: "I will inventory the glassware at the end of the course. If any is missing, you’ll pay!"

Well, there was inevitable breakage during the semester, and a lot of it. On the last day, Weinstein told us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the lab benches while he walked from student to student with his clipboard. For our part, we were passing the glassware to one another behind our backs in such a way that everyone wound up with a "complete" set. "Well," rasped Weinstein when he was done inventorying. "That’s a first." If he later discovered the deficits, it didn’t matter, because his eyesight was so bad that he would never be able to identify any of us.

Professor Holzer taught an elective in sociology. In addition to her atrocious hats, one of which resembled the bread fungus Rhizopus, her most salient gloss was her inability to find not only our classroom, but the campus as well. It was Professor Holzer’s first semester at the university, and we took full advantage of her complete mystification about the location of the campus. After missing the first class and arriving 30 minutes late for the second, she turned to us and asked for the best way to get from her home to the school. We told her to proceed in a completely contrary direction, up the Taconic State Parkway. She did so, and missed the next class. But when she surfaced again she seemed not the least bit more witting about what had happened and asked us for directions again! This time we sent her to Queens. Eventually she discovered the correct route to the school. I would like to say that she forgave us for the shenanigans; but why would she? She never suspected we were taking advantage of her.

Mrs. Reynard (she was an instructor and not a titled professor) taught English lit. Her specialty was Romantic English poetry. The thing was, she couldn’t remember who had written what. One day she commenced a rolling commentary on Robert Browning, beginning with his biography and then dissecting his metrical technique with the focus and deliberation of a brain surgeon. She ended her discourse with the comment, “Once you’ve read Browning, you’ll never forget him.” Then she recited a poem, “The Birth of Love,” after which she placed her hand on her heart and sighed. A student spoke up. “But Mrs. Reynard,” he said, “that’s Wordsworth.” “Oh,” she said, and blinked uncomprehendingly as she began to page through the text in search of Browning.

Professor O’Rourke, of psychology, was the epitome of the absent-minded professor. He was the type who pushed his glasses up on his head and then spent the next fifteen minutes looking for them. He could often be seen wandering around the parking lot searching for his car before realizing that he’d taken the bus. He once went into the men’s room with his briefcase and came out with the toilet seat under his arm. I kid you not. But within his discipline he was absolutely crackerjack.

In the jaded eyes of us students, it was clear that our professors would have a hard time functioning in the wider world. Gleason, we knew, would never be a boat pilot, O’Rourke would fail miserably as a parking valet, and Holzer’s inability to connect points A and B would automatically disqualify her from driving a cab.

But I miss these people. Or better said, I lament not having colleagues like them in my teaching environment. Where have the outlandish characters gone? My sense is that the nature of the university beast has changed and has had a leveling effect on the spectrum of personalities. As higher education has striven to define itself as a business ("Students are our customers!" chirps a perky poster), there is less tolerance for professors who might — heaven forbid — embarrass the institution and drive the paying public away. The result has been a more rigid screening of applicants for conformity, or, in the lingo of current hiring practices, "institutional fit." This is a catch-all phrase that colleges and universities use to trump all other qualifications and acquire the person they had their eye on all along. In other words, a brilliant eccentric who can simultaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other while captivating his students has less institutional fit than a bland monotone who sticks to the text and is grateful to the administration for giving him a job.

What about me? I don’t think I’m eccentric, or cranky, or absent-minded. What professors with these characteristics have in common is their unwittingness: the prof is out of touch, to a greater or lesser degree, with his surroundings and especially with how his students regard him.

I still recall an event at the end of Professor Gleason’s biology class. Between semesters we had a seven-week break. At the beginning of the break a few of us went to his office and put a few fruit flies in his desk drawer along with enough food to sustain several generations. When we returned to school after our lengthy vacation we followed The Egg across campus as he waddled toward his building. We waited outside his office as he arranged his things, got his coffee apparatus going again, and then, as he opened his drawer, screamed out, “Oh, my God!” This was followed by a frantic racket as he swatted at the swarm with what sounded like a frying pan. But he apparently never suspected a thing. He certainly didn’t interrogate any of us. The cozy academic life for him simply went on.

Now, if I were to open my desk drawer one morning and recoil as thousands of fruit flies streamed out, I’d immediately know something was up, and I’d immediately suspect my students. Then I would plan my counterattack. Perhaps this comes from having grown up in rough and tumble New Jersey, where interpersonal warfare is part of the social fabric and nobody is allowed to get away with anything.

I was recently at a gathering of colleagues, some of whom had brought their college-age children along. I took the opportunity to ask if any of them knew any true eccentrics at their schools. Those of my generation (baby boom) and older had colorful stories to tell from their undergraduate days. But not one of the kids could describe a prof who was outrageous or singular in any but the most benign and modest of ways. Their teachers were, for the most part, unmemorable.

Oh, where have they gone? Where are these helpless, hopeless, unaware yet frequently gifted personalities who, like planets orbiting their stars, never stray far from the schools that give them comfort and purpose? Is there nowhere to be found a philosophy professor who has taught his mynah bird to recite the odes of Pindar? Or a physicist in search of a perpetual motion machine? Perhaps a linguist who is working on toe sign language? Our eccentrics and dreamers and mental drifters have been replaced with pragmaticians who have mapped their courses out with all the precision and predictability of masons building a wall. Nothing is left to the imagination, and even their attempts at humor abrade us specifically because we know they are trying to be funny for our sakes. How much more wonderful it is when a professor makes us laugh because his world is odd, his steps sometimes unsure, his glasses eternally lost upon his head, the toilet seat propped under his arm.

I have heard it said that nostalgia is a form of protest. And I suppose it is, because I feel a longing for something I once had and that I now miss. I realize that one cannot hire a new professor because he or she is eccentric, but what’s sad is that hiring committees no longer overlook eccentricity in their constant striving for institutional fit. Perhaps this is because eccentricity has become conflated with liability. The only hope, then, in the current social climate, is for eccentricity to rise to the level of a disability that would have to be accommodated. Then these colorful people would have a fighting chance and colleges and universities would be presented with opportunities to become more interesting places again.

Robert Klose
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Robert Klose is professor of biological sciences at University College of Bangor. This essay is an excerpt from his new book, The Three-Legged Woman and Other Excursions in Teaching(University Press of New England).

Our Bibles

On the subway, during early morning rush hour, I raise my head from my “bible,” where I have underlined in red an unfamiliar word that I need to look up in my pocket dictionary, and notice a man sitting across from me, bent over a fat leather-bound book on his lap, his left index finger on a page, his right hand writing on a loose sheet covering the opposite page. The leather cover looks old and soft and stretched and the pages appear swollen. There are dozens of slips of paper stuck into the book, their white and yellow edges protruding. His book, I’m guessing, is an actual Bible. But those slips? Are they notes to himself? Reference markers? Receipts? I enjoy discovering bus transfers and train tickets left behind in my old books. (Ah!, I say to myself, now I know when I last read Sons and Lovers! And, after a moment’s puzzlement, I remember why I had gone out to Mineola in January or why I was in San Francisco on that fall day.) That man across from me has made a book his very own — not the Bible but his bible.

Don’t worry, reader! I’m not about to advocate against the damned Kindle (I know there are clever features on electronic readers for taking notes). Instead, I want to figure out why I find it so touching to see on public transportation this man and others taking comfort and joy in their literal or literary bibles. To see a man with an opened volume reciting under his breath, to observe a woman lost in thought as she nods her head in agreement with something she has just read — I certainly feel a sympathetic intimacy. I identify with anyone involved in the private act of reading his or her bible in a close-quartered public space. To live in those books, to identify themselves by their books, I admire them (and myself, yes). That they’re bibles of one kind or another — the books of life! — not idle books, not schoolbooks, not comic books or thrillers, not to satisfy someone else or to distract us from thinking — but absolutely for thinking and moral reflection. I love seeing that on the subway. Those bibles are the books of our lives, and there those books are out in the open. When I’m reading those riders’ absorbed faces in their absorbing books, I’m learning more about them than I would from their Facebook pages.

I’m a little less open, however, about my bible.

I’m one of those people who say they’re going to learn Russian so that they can read Anna Karenina in the original. I have and I am. Just as I imagine common-folk striving to learn their letters so they could piece together the Bible on their own, I’m crawling through Anna Karenina at the rate of about an hour a page. I read it every day, and when I reach the end, sometime next year, my plan is to start all over again. One’s bibles don’t get old, do they? But this time through is especially grueling, because it’s my first time in Russian. I print it out in sections from an electronic library, and I carry around with me in a thick cardboard envelope a couple of chapters and a red pen, with a mini-dictionary in my pocket. I underline unfamiliar words and terms; I circle words I can’t find in my dictionary so I can look them up in big dictionaries at home; I pause and puzzle and occasionally glide, as if I’m reading in English. After each chapter (there are 239 chapters), I make myself write up my questions about vocabulary, grammar and phrasing as well as, most importantly (this is my bible), my very personal responses, the doing of which requires me to reflect upon and translate significant sentences and paragraphs.

So no one sees an Anna Karenina in my hands; they see a man with a red pen knitting his brows and poring over a standard-size sheet of paper. If they happen to see the Cyrillic letters, most bystanders look away. If they don’t see the Cyrillic, perhaps they assume I’m doing Sudoku or a crossword.

At the beginning of the 20th century and the end of his long life, Tolstoy compiled a couple of anthologies of the world’s wisdom for unsophisticated readers. In "Readings for Every Day" and "A Circle of Reading," Tolstoy clipped and rephrased Socrates and George Eliot, Henry George and Sophocles, Dostoevsky and himself. He went for the gist of the other geniuses’ meanings and didn’t fuss about literal exactitude! I admire his boldness. I, on the other hand, humbly keep to his very words; that, after all, was what I wanted when after reading Anna Karenina 15 or 20 times in English, I thought, "Why do I have to get this secondhand?" If I could go to a museum and see a Cezanne, why would I look at its reproduction in a book? I decided I would get Anna Karenina as up-close as personally possible. I reasoned (quite reasonably I thought), "I’m a teacher! I teach language. I can teach myself." I was influenced, in fact, by Tolstoy, who used to learn languages by getting a New Testament in that language and then deriving the grammar and vocabulary. I could do that!

No, I couldn’t.

Most of us need teachers. Most of my students need teachers, and I hate to admit that I needed one too. So, thank you to Albina at the language school in St. Petersburg, to Katya in Santa Barbara and to Dina here in New York City. They taught me I didn’t know enough to teach myself. But now, after five years of labor and love, I do, and I stumble along. Of course Anna Karenina is way too hard for me, but I persist, partly at least because it is too hard. Those marvelous little stories that Tolstoy -- in the midst of writing Anna Karenina! -- composed for children's primers: those are my speed. They’re challenging and satisfying. But I want my bible. Not counting being a family man, a teacher, occasional reviewer and editor, my real life continues to be this book.

A friend asked what I’m reading, and I realized all the reading I do for teaching and reviewing, none of it really counts. What am I really reading? I’m reading Anna Karenina! For now, the other books are just to pass the time.

I try not to but find myself complaining about the farming terms that pop up so much in the chapters about Levin or the political issues that occupy Levin’s half-brother and Karenin, because I cannot figure out or divine those words. Or even if I look up plowing, I forget it — I never want to see that word again, but there it is over and over again. At the community college in Brooklyn, my developmental writing and reading students do this too; we learn a word, and for the day we know it. The next day it’s gone:

"Austerity? — Remember, guys? — Austere …? … No?"

My students were hoping or thinking that it was a one-day’s use word. Disposable vocabulary! No such luck either for me with the Russian "plowing" or "forking" (pitch-forking, but it looks like plain "forking"). Fork that!

On the other hand, when Tolstoy describes the psychological states of Anna or Stiva or Kitty, or involves us in the intense conversations between the main characters, I’m right there, in spite of my sloppy, potholed Russian. Tolstoy has been my mentor on understanding psychological states and romantic interactions ever since I read him when I was 18. What I understand of psychology is really Tolstoy’s understanding of psychology. So when I’m with his characters in the midst of those crises, I can turn and tilt the Russian words like pieces of broken glass until I see my way through a whole paragraph or two without a dictionary. But farming? Economics? Serious discussions that have nothing to do with romantic relationships? I don’t know that language very well, and all my grammatical weaknesses — the Russian perfective, prepositions, participles — cripple me. I do not so much crawl as drag myself with one arm across a dusty plain.

What must it have been like for those readers for whom the only book was the Bible? What about all those tedious lists of laws or names? Could one really go through that, striving to understand filler? There is no filler in Anna Karenina. Because I feel that, when I don’t know a word, I have to look it up, even if it must be a farming implement or a special type of jacket. Sometimes I know all the words in a phrase and I still don’t know what it means — I copy it down and I write my own lame gloss. Maybe the next time through I’ll know what it really means. Why don’t I simply look in a translation? Because … because I’ve spent all these years trying to learn Russian so that I didn’t have to read translations anymore! It’d be easy, but I’m not going back.

Meanwhile, every once in a while I look guiltily at my old friends on the bookshelves — Trollope, D. H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, William Carlos Williams, Jorge Luis Borges — and I feel apologetic. I know I’m neglecting you! I’m in a new exclusive relationship for now. I need to get comfortable — I don’t have time really for any book but this bible! — but I’ll get back to you. That’s what I think. But if I stop circling through Anna Karenina, that means I’m dead — or if I’m lucky I’ll be reading it on a train in a heavenly subway system sitting across from other readers and their bibles.

Bob Blaisdell
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Bob Blaisdell, professor of English at City University of New York's Kingsborough Community College, is writing The Anna Karenina Diaries. He edited Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy’s Writings on Education.

Scribble, Scribble

In late November, The Journal of Electronic Publishing released a special issue devoted to questions of academic publishing – a topic this column has followed from time to time. The most salient points of the symposium were digested here by one of my energetic colleagues before I had so much as resolved to write about it.

That’s a major effect of the emerging post-print culture, of course, apart from its significance for the economics of publishing and the various problems associated with archiving digital material. There is the matter of speed. A team of diplomatic historians will probably be bringing out a collection of papers about the WikiLeaks revelations (downloadable in PDF) by Friday afternoon.

As it happened, my foot-dragging about the JEP issue coincided with a few days of wandering the stacks of a big university library -- catching up with, among other things, The State of Scholarly Publishing: Challenges and Opportunities, edited by Albert N. Greco and published by Transaction last year. It contains papers by Lindsay Waters (humanities editor at Harvard University Press), Cathy N. Davidson (chair of the Digital Futures Task Force at Duke), and Sanford G. Thatcher (former president of the Association of American University Presses), among other worthies. And the chapter called “Conflicting Agendas for Scholars, Publishers, and Institutions,” by Cass T. Miller and Julianna C. Harris, can be recommended as a smart, succinct account of the basic tensions within what the authors call “the scholarly communication environment.”

But the contribution that really stands out, to my mind, is “Scribble, Scribble, Toil and Trouble: Forced Productivity in the Modern University” by William W. Savage, Jr., a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma.

“Occasionally, in secondhand bookshops,” he writes, “I will locate the remnants of some elderly professor’s library, and among the assorted volumes there will be the inevitable stack of professional journals, dating back to perhaps the early 1950s. Perusing these, I am always surprised by how slender they are, and how few book reviews they contain. In contrast, the modern journal is as thick as medium-sized city’s telephone directory, and it is largely devoted to book reviews and notices. I received two journals in the mail recently and beheld in their book review section mention of enough titles relevant to my interests to keep me busy until Social Security kicks in…. One may keep abreast only by keeping awake and ignoring bodily functions that do not involve eye, brain, and printed page.”

This can be framed eulogistically, of course, as evidence of the accelerating “production of knowledge.” But the essayist maintains that an obsession with publication for its own sake has taken hold. He recalls the comment of a departmental chairperson to an assistant professor: “If you’re going to be promoted for publishing rubbish, you’re going to have to publish a lot more of it than you’ve published so far.”

A footnote indicates that the word originally used was not “rubbish.”

And in a passage that may seem literally incredible to younger scholars today, he cites a piece of advice by one professor in the early 1970s – an epoch when “faculty who worried about publishing too much, thereby alienating colleagues and damaging their own careers” still wandered the earth. To be safe, this scholar suggested publishing “an article a year and a book every five years.” That would be enough to satisfy the administration, “but not so much as to threaten [your] colleagues unduly.”

Tell us another one, Grandpa. This slice of ancient history is worth contemplating now – if only because it is so clearly impossible to imagine anything like that situation being restored. E-publishing did not create the cult of hyperproductivity, of course. But it imposes no limitations on that tendency. The only potential barrier to constantly growing scholarly output is the scarcity of attention.

Before the curmudgeonizing gets out of hand, though, it’s worth challenging the usual insinuation that kicks in when the opining starts – that in the good old days, people didn’t have to publish as much, but at least the work they did had to be good, unlike these days.

One consequence of spending time with searchable databases is that you occasionally see just what people used to get away with. Here I’m thinking in particular of a paper appearing in one of the leading journals of American literary scholarship during the early 1970s – when, to go by Savage’s memoir, it would have been just enough for the year’s work.

Someone had noticed that Tom Buchanan’s fascination with a racist author named Goddard in The Great Gatsby was actually a thinly disguised reference to Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy and similar rubbish. The scholar noted this and called it a day. The implications for reading F. Scott Fitzgerald remained for somebody else to pursue. Pointing out that Goddard was actually Stoddard was quite enough. That was that.

Today, of course, someone sussing out an allusion would then go on to document its historical provenance, contemplate its metaphysical implications, and spell out the 47 ways it complicates all hitherto existing understandings of the author’s work. (It would be the prof’s third article of the year – the short one, probably.)

The ever-expanding sphere of scholarly publication means that plenty of material appears that probably shouldn’t -- and that nobody notices, in any case. But that’s the least complaint-worthy thing about the present situation. 'Twas ever thus. The real problem is that now there’s just too much of the good stuff, as well.

To give William Savage the last word: “Youngsters rant, geezers argue, publishers work overtime, and the printed matter” – not to mention the digital! – “keeps on coming, right along with exam papers, term papers, theses, and dissertations, gladdening the hearts of optometrists everywhere.”

Scott McLemee
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Because No System Defines Me

For Anonymous, because I’ve never started a poem with “Because.”

Because no system interests me unless it is flawed in ways that challenge my flaws

Because Ph.D.-ing allows one to avoid the crush of work's redundancy with the joy of analysis

Because most systems humble us and help us see how to seek our own senses of power

Because the creative and scientific production of ideas is not linear and is never ending

Because the best way to be rewarded is to make your own expectations informed and doable

Because all the trauma of a system amounts to what makes me rise above it

Because my acknowledgment rests mostly in the truth of knowing who I am

Because education nurtures and creates second chances toward self-reinvention

Because professors have more say in advancing change than in most power structures

Because I have learned to play the game of proving my worth with parallel life rules

Because I understand my hardships are worthwhile for the abstract rewards of the job

Because in school I am only limited by my own lack of questioning

Because knowledge is never ending and life is short, I do not waste time on self-pity

Because I know how my learning light is spent I promise to keep it bright

Because I am where students are given to me

Because I came from a career of meaningless but excessive financial reward

Because I can write this poem as professional act

Because leaving teaching for me is leaving loving,

I am the academy.

Will Hochman
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Will Hochman is a twice-tenured full professor at Southern Connecticut State University who has taught first-year writing for more than 30 years. His most recent book of poems is Freer from Pecan Grove Press, and Facts on File has just published Hochman’s (with Bruce Mueller) Critical Companion to J.D. Salinger — A Literary Reference to His Life and Work.

Solving the Academic Job Crisis

Academe is in crisis. Young academics have been left out in the cold: according to American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statistics, only about 25 percent of new Ph.D.s find full-time, permanent jobs. We are wasting the talent of a generation.

There have been scattered proposals to redress the situation, such as cutting graduate programs, but none seems to have stanched the carnage. And it is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future; given current state and federal budget pressures, it will only get worse. Moreover, professors, especially tenured professors, probably won’t be first to gain increased public support when the economy rebounds.

Therefore, the best recourse is to solve the problem ourselves, taking matters into our own hands, as it were. To that end, I have recently founded an organization, Academic Opportunities Unlimited (AOU). Our motto is “We can’t guarantee you’ll get the job, but we can guarantee an opening.”

AOU is elegant in its simplicity, rebalancing an artificially skewed market. One of the effects of the job crisis is an aging professoriate. Since the 1970s, the scales have tipped heavily AARP-ward: while only 17 percent of faculty were 50 or over in 1969, a bloated 52% had crossed that divide by 1998. It is no doubt worse now, and strangling the air supply of potential new professors.

AOU would work to remedy this bias against youth. It would, through a rigorous screening process, pinpoint faculty who are clogging positions and select them for hits, or “extra-academic retirement” (EAR). While this might raise qualms from the more liberal-minded among us, we would argue that it is more humane, both to potential faculty who otherwise have been shunted aside and to those languishing in the holding pattern of a withered career, than our current system. The retirement would be efficient and quick, and strictly limited to those who, as the saying goes, have their best years long behind them.

In turn, AOU would enliven campuses with new faculty. It is widely acknowledged that faculty in most disciplines have their best ideas in the first flush of their careers, so a good part of their later careers are spent rewarming an old stew; AOU would encourage fresh ideas and innovative research, and bring some excitement back to campus. Undoubtedly, the changes would be visible: rather than looking like fugitives from a nursing home or a Rolling Stones concert, the faculty would be snappier, with better-fitting jeans.

A secondary benefit is that it would have a catalytic effect on those with tenure, who would step more lively when on campus or not hang on to their jobs until they had squeezed the last bit of ink from their yellowed notes. It would bring some concrete accountability to tenure and in turn help to recuperate its public image. Tenure would no longer be seen as a protection for lazy elitists, but a badge of genuine distinction and continuing merit.

Though AOU might prompt arguments like those against euthanasia, I think that it’s more apt to see it like “Do Not Resuscitate” orders in hospitals -- no easy choice, but the reasonable one in many situations. One can envision administrators building such a codicil into academic contracts. While aided retirement might be sudden, consider how many times people say that, if they had a choice, they would rather depart quickly than decline over years in hospitals and nursing homes. Is not academe, given its current demographic, a kind of nursing home for the intellectual class? AOU would be more humane than most other ways of expiring, and it turns the tide from a drain on scarce resources to a more just and productive use of them.

We should stress that AOU is not predicated simply on age, which would be ageist, but on productivity. We are as yet undecided on the exact process -- whether it should operate through nominations (a “three nominations and you’re out” rule -- 3YO) or through a statistical assessment of productivity -- although we will be conducting trial runs soon.

Foreseeing concerns that it might violate academic freedom, we should emphasize that AOU would not tamper with hiring; hiring should of course remain in the domain of the academic unit, as our motto indicates. AOU would clear the current logjam and create more openings, and then it would be up to particular candidates to demonstrate their excellence.

While AOU is an independent enterprise, we expect that university administrators will welcome the turnover of faculty. Cost-conscious provosts will embrace the reduction of salary lines from high-cost, low-yielding professors to starting salary levels. Deans will welcome the infusion of new energy instead of old entropy into departments. At the other end of the spectrum, students will be enthused by more-engaged faculty, with more contemporary popular culture references and the ability to text.

Among colleagues I’ve let in on the ground floor of AOU, there is some debate over whether we should employ independent contractors to conduct retirements or whether we should keep the job in-house. The consensus leans to the latter, which would provide an excellent opportunity for Ph.D. students or unemployed Ph.D.s to serve as “Opportunity Interns” (OIs).

Such an internship would have its own educational value. For one thing, it could give those in the positions a chance to apply the diverse academic skills that they have learned in practical ways -- those from physics could consult on ballistics, those in chemistry could advise about toxicity, and those in English could get coffee. It would be a truly interdisciplinary endeavor, and it would dispel the image of academics as nerds bound to the ivory tower, again building more public respect.

One way to think about it is that AOU would be a rational correction of the academic job market. The market has become distended in an artificial bubble; AOU would help to return the apportionment of faculty to a more natural range. Most scholarship shows that organizations work best if employees represent a breadth of youth and experience rather than clotting in one group, which, like sitting on one side of a rowboat, will swamp the organization. AOU would recover a more normal and productive range and revitalize the professorial ranks.

We welcome both nominations for EAR and applicants for Opportunity Internships.

Jeffrey J. Williams
Author's email:

Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. He is finishing two books: one tentatively called Against Obscurity: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University, and the other an edited collection of critical credos from minnesota review, which he edited for 18 years.

Professors in the Crosshairs

It was 7 a.m. on January 11, 2011. In an hour, I needed to be at a writing workshop. I sat down on the edge of the bed in my hotel room, and turned on the "Today Show." A photo of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s left hand appeared on the screen, embraced firmly by the right hand of her husband. Matt Lauer spoke of the brilliant, articulate woman, loved by all who knew her; all, that is, except one deranged young man who gunned her down in front of a Safeway grocery store. The scene then switched to the community college campus from which the shooter had recently been suspended.

The young man's math professor explained that he could see that something was clearly wrong with his student. A series of complaints to administrators resulted in the student's suspension. He would be allowed to return to school if he could demonstrate that he had undergone a psychological evaluation that offered proof that he did not pose a threat to others.

While my eyes remained focused on the television screen, my mind went back three semesters, to a student enrolled in two of my classes, a young man who sat in silence during discussions, black ski cap pulled tightly over his forehead. Whenever I called on him by name, he appeared startled, as though I had brought him back from some faraway place.

Frequently, during class, he would turn to the young woman seated next to him and engage in a conversation. After asking him repeatedly to focus his attention on what I was saying, I finally asked him to switch seats. I made the request three times before he got up and moved. As he slowly walked across the room, I saw on his face what I had seen only one other time in my teaching career: hate.

A few days after that experience, a good friend and I were having lunch in the Student Center. She expressed her concern about a student who made her feel uncomfortable. As she described his behavior, I asked, "Are his initials AC?" (Those are not the student’s real initials.) She nodded in amazement.

A week later, one of my students came to my office, visibly upset. She said, "Why would he write those terrible things about you -- you of all people?" I explained that I had no idea what she was talking about. She handed me a copy of the e-mail that the young man had sent to more than one hundred students on campus. One of the sentences in his letter said, "She needs to be gone." While the sentence was ambiguously phrased, I felt certain that I knew what he had intended to convey: "This professor needs to be gone from the face of the earth."

I went to my dean with a copy of the letter. He listened supportively to what I had to say and then expressed regret that he needed to be away from campus for the next few days. He said that he would turn the matter over to the director of student services. I said, "I fear for my life and the lives of others on campus. I do not believe that this student is mentally sound."

The following morning, the director of student services came to my office. He said that he had just met with my student and that the student had reassured him that I had nothing to fear. Although the director of student services felt reassured, I did not. I believed that this student posed a threat to me and to others.

When the dean returned to campus, he held a meeting with the student and me, warning the student that he had picked on the wrong professor. The dean said that I had the reputation of being "one of the best." My dean and director of student services acted in good faith. Both did what they felt they needed to do to treat both the student and me with the dignity that we deserved. As I left the dean’s office, my fear had not diminished.

I spent the next two months facing my student every day in class, wondering what he might do if he snapped. On days when he got up and walked out midway through class, I envisioned him returning with a gun. When the semester ended, the young man left campus. I haven't seen him since. But I continue to think about him. I continue to wonder where he is and how he is and if he is receiving mental help. For his sake, and for the sake of our community, I hope so.

I looked over at the clock on the nightstand and saw that it was 7:50 a.m. I turned off "Today," which was now showing blizzards on the Eastern Coast, and headed to my writing workshop.

Nine professors from across the state were in attendance. The workshop was led by a colleague from my university; a brilliant, outgoing young professor who, over the years, had become like a daughter to me. During the workshop, I could see that something was bothering her. At our first break, I asked her what was wrong. She said, "I just received a phone call from the director of student services. One of my former students was on campus today, shouting that she was there to kill me." After the student left campus, the director of student services called the police. In his phone call to my colleague, the director reassured her that the incident had passed, that he had talked to the young woman and she had told him that she didn’t own a weapon and wouldn’t be returning to campus.

I called our chief of police and asked whether the young woman who had threatened my colleague’s life had been found. He said that he was unaware of the situation. He referred me to his captain. The captain said that another officer was looking into the matter and that she would call me as soon as she was back at the station. Two hours later, the officer called. She said that she had contacted the young woman and that the student was apologetic. The student had reassured the officer that she had no intention of killing my colleague. Instead, the officer said that the student had come to the campus with a magical umbrella, one that had the power to cause my colleague to age 120 years.

The officer said, "The young woman assured me that she has an appointment with her psychiatrist tomorrow. She’s supposed to call me and let me know how the appointment went."

I asked the officer if it would be possible to get a 72-hour mental health detention and she explained that it wasn’t possible because she hadn’t had the chance to speak to the student while she was on campus. I said, "But another faculty member witnessed her behavior. He said that he felt threatened and certain that the young woman intended violence." The officer said, "I need to make that determination myself."

I continued, "What about a disorderly conduct charge?" The officer said, "I doubt that a judge would support that; not when the individual needs mental help."

By the time I finished speaking to the officer, everyone in the workshop was aware of what was going on. Several were sharing their own frightening stories: one, of a student who had written a threatening poem in blood on the wall outside of her office; another, of a student who had warned her that his psychiatrist said he had the type of personality that could cause him to snap and kill someone. He had come to her office to assure her that, if he did kill someone, it would be her.

All of these stories were told by articulate, intelligent women who had, at some point in their teaching careers, feared for their lives, only to be reassured that they had nothing to fear.

Professors and students do have something to fear. As a French professor, I am keenly aware of the fact that an entire French class was a target of the deranged young man at Virginia Tech. Those who know and love Representative Giffords are all too aware of the fact that a troubled young man destroyed the lives of many.

After having spoken with the officer who investigated my colleague’s case, I am certain what I will do if I ever encounter someone who threatens the lives of others. I will immediately dial 911. Then, I will do whatever my university’s threat assessment action plan tells me to do. Why will I dial 911 first? Because it is better to be safe than sorry. If the officer who investigated the "magical umbrella" case had arrived on campus before the student had left, she might have been able to determine that the student posed a threat to herself or others. The officer may have been able to take the student to a mental health facility where she would have received a thorough psychological evaluation.

My heart goes out to Representative Giffords and to all of the families of those who died or were wounded at the hands of a mentally deranged young man. Pima Community College took action by suspending a troubled student. That action, unfortunately, did not stop him from killing and wounding nineteen people.

Universities must be safe havens. Dialing 911 will be my first act as I attempt to keep students and colleagues out of harm’s way.

Editor's Note: Inside Higher Ed gave the University of Wisconsin-Barron County, where the author of the above essay teaches, the opportunity to offer its analysis on the events described, and that response is the following: "Our primary concern, as UW administrators, is the safety of our faculty, staff, and student body. We wholeheartedly support the recommendation of Professor Hoeft; if students, staff, or faculty believe that their lives or the lives of others are in danger, they should call 911. As the result of incidents such as that outlined by Professor Hoeft, the UW Colleges has implemented formal threat assessment groups on every campus. The role of these groups is to assess and coordinate responses to students whose behavior raises concern for serious health and safety risks to themselves or other members of the campus community. On the UW-Barron County campus, this group has extended its role to include faculty and staff education and to provide increased access for students to mental health counseling services. The campus has also held in-service workshops on various topics including victim advocacy and encourages an ongoing conversation regarding campus safety. The best way educational institutions can protect themselves is to be prepared. We would urge all educational institutions to review and update their emergency procedures."

Mary Hoeft
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Mary Hoeft is professor of communication arts and French at the University of Wisconsin-Barron County. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Barron County Restorative Justice Program.


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