The iPad for Academics

Teachers and students have always been an important market for Apple — a fact made clear by the tremendous amount of spit and polish that went into the new education website the company recently unveiled. But honestly: What do Apple’s slickly produced promo videos of adorable multicultural elementary schoolers have to do with us? And just how relevant is their newly-released iPad for what we do? Do academics really need to shell out five hundred bucks for what is essentially a big iPod touch?

After having used an iPad shortly since its release I can safely say that the device — or another one like it — deserves to become an important part of the academic’s arsenal of gadgets. Choosing to plop down the money for an iPad is like Ingrid Bergman’s regret over leaving Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart. You will do it: not today, not tomorrow, but soon — and for the rest of your life.

At base the iPad is an anything box that replaces a seemingly endless plethora of other things you already own: It's a TV, a radio, an MP3 player, a compass, a flashlight, a level, a deck of cards, a calculator, a photo album, an alarm clock, a Bible, the Talmud (yes, the Talmud has been ported to the iPad)... the list goes on and on. The crucial question for academics is: What in our current arsenal will the iPad replace? After using the device, the answer surprised me: the iPad makes a lousy computer replacement, but it does a great job of replacing paper.

Let me begin by getting one thing straight: When it comes to weaning professors off of traditional computers, the iPad fails. It is simply not a good device for people who do serious productive work, whether that be reading, writing, or working with multimedia. The iPad’s on-screen keyboard simply cannot hold a candle to an actual keyboard, even for academics who are veteran texters well-versed in the use of autocomplete functions. You could get a keyboard for the iPad… but then you’d be using a netbook.

Apple deserves credit for making the thing as usable as it is, but it is still not quite there. You can browse on it, but you can’t quickly and effectively search databases. You can read e-mail messages, but it takes a tad too long to write them. The screen is much more generously sized than a cell phone… but such a comparison simply damns the iPad with faint praise. Over time the iPad may get more usable as the software improves, but its size will not. And so until the human visual field shrinks and our fingers no longer require tactile feedback, we academics will be sticking to our keyboards and screens.

Where the iPad does shine is as a paper replacement. The iPad is the long, long awaited portable PDF reader that we have hoped for. Finally, we have a device that preserves formatting and displays images, charts, and diagrams. After decades of squinting at minuscule columns of photocopied type we can now zoom in on the articles we are reading and perfectly adjust the text to the width of the screen. You can even highlight and annotate documents and then send the annotations back as notes to your computer.

True, some people do not prefer a backlit screen, but it’s great for reading at night, and despite some early evidence to the contrary, LED screens don’t cause eyestrain any more than eInk. The device is slightly heavier than the Kindle and Nook, but it is still ultra, ultra portable and ultra usable. It makes you read more and saves paper — which is clearly a good thing. Because of the iPad I’m finally untethering myself from paper files. In fact these days I’d rather buy an eBook and export the annotations to my notebook program than add another underlined book to my library — an amazing turnaround for someone who once ranted on this very website about his passion for paper.

The reason the iPad is such a great paper replacement is Apple’s app store. Devices like the Kindle sell you content from a single source and allow you to read it in a single way. The iPad, on the other hand, allows third-party developers to create (and sell) different "apps," or programs, that live on your iPad. This means developers can build better and better apps for reading PDFs, and we can use them without having to buy a new device.

Now, it is currently early days for the iPad and the software is still developing: I have to get my PDFs onto my iPad with one program, and open and read them with another. But clearly things will improve. The makers of the überbibliography program Sente are already working on an iPad app, and soon they and others will make the device even more useful. The only thing you’ll need that can’t be downloaded to the iPad to help you read documents is a stylus — that you’ll have to buy yourself, and trust me, it is actually quite useful, even on a "magically" touchable device like an iPad.

That said, the revolutionary thing about the iPad is not software for reading content, but for finding (and buying) it. The iPad represents the genuine retailization of academic content. Let me explain:

Currently folks like Elsevier act as content wholesalers, selling greats bucketfuls of the stuff to libraries, who then make it available to students and professors. As journals have slowly transitioned away from paper, they have pursued business models of the "purchase this enormous bundle of journals you don’t want or else our Death Star will destroy another planet of your Rebel Alliance" variety. Individual articles are prohibitively expensive, and academics must fight through a tangled, messy mass of proxy sign-ins and authentication web pages while their IT guys make embarrassing, eye-averting administrative decisions to not think too much about the copyright of what is being posted on class Web sites.

Amazon and others have led the way in producing apps that allow you to read content across different devices: once you purchase an ebook or from Amazon you can read it on a Kindle, an iPad, a Mac, or a PC. This in turn raises the question: What would happen if journals went straight to consumers and sold articles like they were mp3s? What if you could log on to your ScienceDirect or JSTOR app and get a complete browsable list of your favorite journal articles, available for purchase for, say, 25 cents each?

Academics are ready for this development. We’ve spent years suffering from Amazon’s fiendish "get drunk and use our one-click purchase feature" to buy books online, and we often download tons of PDFs to make us feel productive. Apps with alerting and micropayment systems could provide for massive distribution that would push new issues of journal to your digital reading device. As such they offer a world where everyone can read exactly the articles they want. Individuals, not institutions, could purchase content — exactly the content they’re like, regardless of whether their library subscribes to it or not. In such a system publishers might object that piracy would be a concern, but honestly: If you’re selling content to universities that license it to tens of thousands of students living in highly-networked dorm rooms, is an app store really going to make the problem worse?

There are plenty of outlandish scenarios to imagine: professors who create specialized current content lists or anthologies of classic or cutting-edge articles, essentially filtering wholesale content and retailing it to increase their academic prestige (or even a chance to dip their beaks). Classrooms where student readers are easy to assemble and cheap — something textbook companies have tried unsuccessfully to do for some time. Librarians free to give up their increasingly restrictive role as purchasing agents and get back to old (and new!) roles of developing collections and enriching their institutions.

A key feature of the retailization of scholarly content is that it be reasonably free of digital rights management -- and here academic publishing should learn from the music industry’s failed attempts to sell copy-protected music. The more open and reusable academic content is, the more reasons people will have to buy it. The great thing about PDFs is that, like MP3s, they are not copy-protected. While some, like the Google book settlement, have sought to meter content down to the word in the name of "choice," such a move will ultimately prove equally stifling. Neither locking down our ability to move texts around nor micrometering them to death are good outcomes for the future of scholarly communication.

As an anything box, the iPad has the potential to replace a whole variety of devices that we use in our research, from voice recorders to GPS units to tuning forks. To be honest, however, I am not sure just how many niches there are here for Apple to fill. The iPad is an expensive device to take to the field, and a lot of times it just cheaper and easier to buy a tuning fork. And in addition, the app store lacks the super-deep selection of specialized programs that are currently available for normal computers.

I'm sure there are certain cases where an iPad might make a great mobile device: photographers who want to view, edit, and upload their photos on the fly, for instance. Overall, however, by splitting the difference between dedicated devices and genuine computers, the iPad doesn’t show a lot of promise as a mobile platform for research and teaching. Of course if everyone is always carrying around an iPad already then they might start replacing voice recorders. It's hard to tell. My bet is that tuning forks and compasses are not going away.

Finally, I’ve been talking about how the iPad helps academics do academe better — but does it offer the ability to do academics differently? Is this device truly "magical" in a way that will radically innovate academe?

While I can imagine some innovative pedagogic uses of the device, what academics do is still narrowly defined — and tied to institutional, political, and economic imperatives. Some imagined the Internet would cause us to rethink what it meant for a text to be coherent — and it has, to a certain extent. But really it has just reinforced our chunky, discrete notions of texts by making it easier to share PDFs and .docs. The academy might be too obdurate to be easily transformable.

At heart, an anything box like the iPad might not be such a dramatic agent for change anyway. The iPad is a chameleon, able to assume the form of other things but lacking (so far) its own unique identity. You can introduce Twitter into the classroom, but Twitter is the innovative factor here, not the iPad. It may be that someone will write the killer app for the iPad that will mutate our activities in unimaginable ways. But for now those ways remain…. unimaginable.

Indeed, it may be that the iPad is just the harbinger of some future tablet device that is yet to come. That future device might not be from Apple, but it will owe a lot to the iPad. Ultimately, academics need a world full of devices they can pour information in and out of. The more open and interoperable our new ecology of applications, devices, and content providers are, the more our learning will enrich human life — whether the people selling us our readers, software, and content are Apple, Amazon, or someone else entirely.

Alex Golub
Author's email:

Alex Golub is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Libel via YouTube

Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing reveals the ways in which malicious and unfounded accusations can destroy lives, friendships, families, and institutions, including academic and military ones. During her wedding ceremony, a bride’s fiancé falsely accused her of prior promiscuity. The fiancé and his lord believed they had seen the evidence of the bride’s infidelity with their own eyes, but the evidence had been cooked by the lord’s bastard brother, who staged a misleading scene to deceive them. Besides destroying the wedding and humiliating the innocent bride, the slander led to dissension within the state and the army. It took a fool who proudly called himself an “ass“ to bring the unfounded accusation to the attention of the authorities, the fiancé, and the lord. They exemplified virtue by acknowledging and repenting their overreaction to the false accusation, thus leading to a happy ending believable only in romantic comedy. All’s well that ends well in comedy, so in this case the false accusation was indeed much ado about nothing.

But that is not always the case. Scott Jaschik’s Inside Higher Ed article, “YouTube and Context,” makes clear I was falsely accused of advocating rape in a lecture I gave on Joseph Conrad and Nicollo Machiavelli at the annual ethics conference at the U.S. Naval War College this past May. The accusation occurred via the Internet on YouTube. A sound and video bite of a little over three minutes from my lecture was posted under the headline, “Naval War College Professor Advocates Rape.” Within a few days, over two thousand viewers saw the clip, which soon attracted the attention of the Pentagon and Congress.

The only problem is that I never advocated rape, which would be crazy in any forum, especially an academic one, and most especially a military one. When an accusation sounds too crazy to believe, look again. Gender-related sensitivities in the American military going at least as far back as the infamous Navy pilots’ Tailhook groping scandal make leaders extremely careful to avoid giving offense to anyone. And indeed, I was not speaking in my own name. Instead, as revealed in the full transcript of my remarks, I was revealing why Machiavelli deserves his infamy as a “teacher of evil” because he did indeed advocate the rape not of women, but of the peoples and countries his ideal leader would subjugate. Hence the title of one of the most insightful books on Machiavelli today, Machiavelli’s Rapacious Republicanism, by an old acquaintance of mine from graduate school, the brilliant Austrian scholar, Markus Fischer.

Interpretation is not advocacy. I was interpreting Machiavelli, not advocating Machiavellianism. The person who posted the clip either did not know the difference, in which case he or she was not prepared intellectually for the thoughtful discussions of any academic institution, or did not care, in which case the individual defamed not merely me, but also my institution by deliberately taking my words out of context. As one of my senior colleagues has remarked, the YouTube post was "an act of cyberterrorism not merely against Karl Walling, but the War College itself."

Such libels are bound to be increasingly common in the YouTube age and a threat to any professor in the classroom. Any one of us could be next. How can we speak freely if we must fear that any student might post distortions of our remarks on the Internet? Can we allow video vigilantes to incite mobs in the university? Can administrators be intimidated by the vigilantes and still retain the trust and respect of faculty? Don't forget that a significant portion of world opinion believes that the lamentable events of 11 September 2001 were the result of a conspiracy in the Bush administration, or Israel, or any of a number of the usual scapegoats on libelous Internet websites, not the work of Al Qaeda. This despite the fact that Al Qaeda has claimed credit for the attack! How can we prevent the cyberterrorists from winning?

Because this is the first time my institution has had to deal with this rising threat to any academic institution, it made several rookie mistakes in handling it, but it should be those mistakes, not the individuals who made them or the institution itself, that are the issue now. My institution may be the most intellectually happening place in the American military, but we are all rookies with Internet libel. We have a common enemy in those who would attack the academy with the Internet equivalent of scribblings on bathroom walls. What can academic institutions do to prevent such mistakes in the future?

Both common sense and common courtesy would dictate informing a professor about a potentially scandalous Internet clip from his or her lecture, seminar, or other professional work, and asking for an explanation before demanding an apology or taking disciplinary action. Especially in light of the Shirley Sherrod incident, in which a conservative blogger defamed a member of the Obama administration by deliberately posting a clip from her remarks that made her seem to say the opposite of what she intended and actually said, prudence would dictate a careful investigation of the facts, including a transcript when it is available, before making hasty judgments.

Much against my own judgment, under heavy pressure, and before I saw the YouTube clip, I did issue a tepid apology, the gist of which was blame Machiavelli, not me. He after all was the one who used rape as a metaphor for leadership. Discerning members of the audience understood this, but this sensationalist farce acquired an unstoppable momentum of its own. That YouTube, since the publication of Scott Jaschik’s article, but also perhaps through requests from my institution, has withdrawn the libelous video from its site is no great consolation. The post generated at least a dozen other articles and two television stories. The effects of this false accusation will endure as long as they remain on the Internet and are unrefuted. Hence, when the facts are finally known, when they reveal the accuser has distorted a professor’s words to make him or her appear to say exactly the opposite of what the professor intended, and actually said, make the facts known widely and publicly. Just do the right thing, as the Obama administration did when it acknowledged Shirley Sherrod had been defamed.

Shirley Sherrod knows the name of her accuser, whom she reportedly intends to sue. My accuser used an anonymous e-mail address. My institution apparently has no conclusive evidence to identity him or her yet, and may never acquire it, so some thought needs to be given to how to deter libel when anonymous e-mail addresses may make posters unaccountable.

As often happens in moments of hysteria, it is sometimes tempting to blame the victim. I used the word “bitch” twice in my remarks: once in depicting the mindset of a rapist; the other time in portraying the victim’s likely attitude toward her rapist. So I was reprimanded for using offensive language, though it is not my words, but Machiavelli’s view of leadership that is truly offensive. Rape is a common metaphor for conquest and tyranny. As revealed in Chapter 25 of The Prince, in one of the most famous passages in Renaissance literature and philosophy, Machiavelli used the metaphor of the rape of poor Fortuna to reduce politics to war and war to crime. The word hubris, often translated as overweening pride, that is a common theme not merely of tragedy, but also of strategy, stems from a Greek word for rape, with hubristic characters depicted as having lost all sense of limits. Machiavelli challenged the philosophy and religion of his time by questioning whether there can be any ethical limits to strategic thought and action. Unless conferences on professional military ethics are to be mere Sunday school exercises, that question deserves serious attention from those engaged in unconventional wars, in which the customary limits of war come frequently into dispute. What better way to reveal what is most shocking in Machiavelli than to use language that approaches the limit of what is considered acceptable in our time?

It would take the comic genius of Tom Wolfe to explain how my critique of Machiavelli was twisted into the advocacy of the very crime for which I was indicting him. Not merely feminists (who can easily find at least a hundred articles on Machiavelli and feminism with a quick web search), but all decent minds should turn their anger on Machiavelli, not me, while recognizing that he was also a political and military genius, the sort both insurgents and counterinsurgents, terrorists and counterterrorists have much to learn from today. With the United States bogged down in two counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, understanding Machiavelli could prove very useful, if only for learning to think like our worst enemies. How can we learn from evil geniuses without becoming like our own worst enemies? That was one of the big questions of my lecture. That it was obscured by a reckless vigilante is a terrible, terrible pity.

It will take careful thought to save academics from this sort of outrage in the future. It will require a mix of technological, ethical, and institutional fixes. I do not believe it is possible any longer for individuals at my institution to post clips of lectures from its video archives without permission. So there is now a gatekeeper, though perhaps at the regrettable price that recordings of important lectures will be less freely available in the future. Whether gatekeepers are worth this price needs to be examined carefully. It may depend on circumstances.

Since anyone with a cell phone could commit the same offense, technological fixes of institutionally-controlled Internet systems will certainly not be enough. The most unsung heroes of colleges and universities are those who teach English composition. Just as they do (or should) teach rules of evidence for written citations, so too ought they teach students to apply those same rules to video citations, with students warned that plagiarism, deliberate distortions, misleading quotations, and the like are not merely unethical, but may also put them in serious legal jeopardy. My institution does not have a faculty senate, but it surely needed one in this instance to slow down the rush to judgment. Institutions that already have faculty senates might assign Internet libel cases to committees within them, which would serve both the dignity of those institutions and the rights of the accused by providing some form of due process.

And one other thing. Professors teaching Shakespeare might use Much Ado About Nothing to get students to think about why libel is a serious problem, which will help them understand why the thoughtfulness induced by careful reading of old books is relevant to our so-called information age, and perhaps our only salvation from the snap judgments that age frequently induces. Such thoughtfulness is the aim of my teaching, which, with a little drama now and then, has helped me turn on more than a few light bulbs. It would be a crime to let the cyberterrorists turn out the lights of the academy.

Karl Walling
Author's email:

Karl Walling is a professor of strategy at the United States Naval War College.

Missed Opportunities

William Buckley famously said he’d “rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than by the dons of Harvard.” In my 14 years as president of a leading liberal arts college, I grew weary of overworked jokes that likened leading a faculty to herding cats or kangaroos. Looking back, I recognize in them a bit of bravado masking an awkward misalignment. Faculty are proudly autonomous, defiantly so, independent thinkers who give each other as much trouble as they give the administration when one or another of them raises a head above the herd in a gesture of leadership. Faculty are socialized as individuals, not as members of a group; taking a broader view runs against the grain for many of them, in the ways and for the reasons Hugh Heclo enumerates in his insightful book, On Thinking Institutionally. And yet the principle of “shared governance” requires a faculty capable of effective self-governance in partnership with professional administrators and a voluntary governing board.

The institution I was privileged to lead and others with which I’ve been affiliated have wonderful faculty – exceptionally engaged, responsible, and responsive in virtually every respect. Yet from the day I arrived on campus as a new president, I was schooled in a cultural norm that the better part of valor was to tiptoe around the faculty. It was as though "the faculty" as a whole was a hibernating bear no one dared disturb for fear of being mauled. I could see all the ways in which the faculty as a body – a "constituency" in academic parlance – was being watched, coddled, and handled with enormous investments of energy and studied restraint. Over time, as I became adept at reading the emotional force fields on campus, I realized that this strenuous effort was thinly masking an undercurrent of fear. And this, I have come to learn, is true to one degree or another through much of the academy.

The fear arises out of an intellectual culture that is awash in competition and critique, in picking ideas apart and taking no prisoners. Critical thinking and skepticism are the coins of the realm. But skepticism can devolve to cynicism, and criticism to contempt, an acrid brew of belligerence and disengagement that can poison morale and yield a system of self-governance far better suited to obstruction than construction. This is a pity because it matters, both educationally and strategically.

Educationally, students pay close attention to how the "grown ups" on campus behave. The academy remains arguably one of the last major sectors in American society still making a good-faith effort to both uphold and enact the view that in a healthy democracy we have obligations to one another. This includes the obligation to resolve differences by enabling the majority to form its collective judgment through meaningful discourse in which all relevant positions are fully aired. "A democracy needs citizens who can think for themselves rather than simply deferring to authority, who can reason together about their choices rather than just trading claims and counterclaims," Martha Nussbaum wrote in Cultivating Humanity.

Strategically, faculty governance bodies have pressing work to do in this era of shrinking resources and accelerating global competition. If they once routinely fostered authentic and serious public debate about real educational problems, discussion too often deteriorates, now, into something even less informative than a clash of competing claims, a spectacle more akin to disconnected “serial oratory.” At my own institution, and others I knew well, it was mystifying to see faculty members we revered for their pedagogic virtuosity – faculty who were creating in their private classrooms exquisitely hospitable venues for courageous exploration of controversial ideas – so stuck in old and unsatisfying habits when trying to resolve conflicts in the academic calendar, or come to terms with grade inflation, or revise the curriculum.

These discussions moved painfully slowly and unpredictably. Often a lone, loud voice or a mobilized minority faction would hijack the conversation in the eleventh hour. I couldn’t help but wonder, at these times, whether this would be happening if the faculty as a whole were more vividly experiencing itself weighing evidence and making wise choices on matters of curricular or educational consequence and then feeling bound to one another by their collective decisions.

Many faculty are increasingly conscious of imbalances within their own ranks, frustrations they discuss privately with deans or presidents hoping for a simple solution from on high. Rarely do they come together to explore their mutual accountabilities: to one another, to their departments, to their disciplines, and to students other than those they see directly in their own classes, offices, studios or labs. Some carry a disproportionate load for their institution as a whole, while others seem to ride more or less free. Disparities of this kind seem to be widening.

When one or another faculty member would bring an injustice or a dispute to the administration for adjudication, I often felt tempted to weigh in with what looked like decisiveness. I learned, though, that only the faculty had the power to resolve differences among themselves. The impulse that flows from perceived inequities is to tighten central controls. But that only exacerbates the problem. People who feel under surveillance resist authority, or withdraw, or both, feeding a vicious cycle: more controls, less commitment. Rather than acquiesce in the imposition of more central controls, faculty themselves would do well to shore up their own systems of citizenship, taking account of the increasing complexity of faculty work, while recognizing that the institution’s continued success will require ever greater interdependence.

In some schools, the economic downturn has brought faculty into new relationships with the administration and the trustees on budgetary decision-making, strengthening their roles in shared governance, at least for a time; in others, the reverse has occurred. As financial and competitive pressures continue to bear down on all institutions of higher learning, the incremental changes many have been making to ride out the recession – draining reserve accounts, deferring maintenance, making across-the-board budget reductions, reducing staff, relying more on contingent faculty – are likely to shift more work onto faculty shoulders and erode the quality of their work lives. If budgets have to be trimmed further, it’s hard to imagine finding additional economies without reconsidering the organization of the educational enterprise itself and the assumptions behind it: how students learn, how faculty teach, the nature of the curriculum, how everyone uses time.

I worry that the professoriate may be standing at the threshold of a shake-down as disruptive as was the restructuring of medical work that began in the 1970s when health care costs began to spiral out of control, the process that Paul Starr analyzed with such foresight in The Social Transformation of American Medicine. And I worry that colleges and universities with strong faculty – brilliant scholars, devoted teachers, radical individualists, and stubborn skeptics who treasure autonomy, resist authority, distrust power, and who love their institutions as they have known them – may find it especially difficult to bring faculty together, bring departments together and make timely, wise, informed and realistic choices about a future worth having.

Over the next decade, colleges and universities are likely to need greater flexibility, organizational resilience and openness to new ideas, and, at the same time, stronger internal systems of shared responsibility, accountability, collaboration and communication. They will need to become more fluid learning organizations, better positioned to capitalize on the forces of change, and better able to make and defend potentially divisive choices, while remaining true to the purposes that will ensure continued success.

Faculty will need to be clearer about those purposes and about the essential ingredients of the education they want their students to expect and receive – an integrative education that prepares new generations to take their places in a world of mounting complexity, interdependency, inequality ... urgency. They will need to do a better job of modeling the serious engagement of their own differences that integrative learning clearly implies and that enlightened organizational stewardship absolutely necessitates.

Diana Chapman Walsh
Author's email:

Diana Chapman Walsh served as president of Wellesley College from 1993 to 2007.

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
Author's email:

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
Author's email:

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
Author's email:

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
Author's email:

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
Author's email:

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).

Furlough Realities

How do furloughs work for educators? Let me be clear: I am both happy and thankful for being invited onto the tenure track my first go-around, given the precarious economic situation and academic job market in 2008-9. I’ve taken very little for granted in the past year or so. What could I possibly have to complain about? Working conditions are not hazardous — well, outside of faculty meetings at least. Many of us have relative autonomy — that is, when no one is looking. We ultimately get paid to pursue issues and topics that we enjoy. Wall Street folks feel justified in their gripes over new regulations and a 3 percent increase in their marginal tax rate, despite making money hand over fist. Maybe we can offer a humble university professor some license to complain … about furloughs.

This is the third year in a row my university is subject to furlough plans; there is no consensus on whether there will be a fourth. The current plans are progressive, which means that the amount of furloughed time is directly proportional to one's salary. In my case, as a new faculty member, I must relinquish roughly a week’s worth of time and pay. The furlough concept vexes me for two reasons. At first — less so now that I am in my second year — it was a bitter pill to swallow when I crept out of graduate school, making practically nothing for some of the work that I do now, and hearing at one of my first faculty meetings that I was already getting a pay cut. Just when I was about to draw a steady paycheck, there was discussion of taking money away. Having never worked for state government, the furlough concept was completely foreign to me. I grappled with the idea that as a professor, I was an employee of the state, and therefore subject to furloughs. When a sanitation worker goes on furlough, trash doesn’t get picked up. We all see that, and it’s a highly visible and olfactive inconvenience.

As a professor I was informed that the furloughs must impact academics as little as possible, which I completely understand. Yet, with the explicit prohibition on canceling class, skipping a faculty meeting, or slashing committee appointments, all of my so-called furloughs encompassed the multitude of tasks that I complete in private. This includes planning, grading, answering e-mail messages, reading, writing, research activities, professional meetings, and reviewing manuscripts or proposals. No dignified or obvious public response is permissible. Not one person feels the impact or the insult of furloughs other than the individual faculty members. It is also true that few faculty members will actually refrain from any of the above activities during a mandated furlough day because that’s just twice the amount of grading or e-mail messages that have to be dealt with the next day.

The second problem with the furlough (read: pay cut) scenario has a lot to do with my former life as a public school teacher. This is why I might be more offended by the requirement to not only take the pay cut, but also track the exact days on which I supposedly slough off to "earn" it. No one ever understood my job as a teacher except for those who actually taught. To many, our job consisted of roughly six or so hours of hanging out with a bunch of kids. We do that for several months, are given generous breaks in between, and we have the entire summer off to travel, mow the lawn, and basically waste our nation’s valuable tax dollars doing nothing.

I can appreciate how people have this view; it’s a difficult myth to dispel. If anyone took the time to really examine what goes on behind the scenes, or if teachers were actually given a voice to speak out, one would see a person lugging stacks of notebooks home on a daily basis. More stacks of books and binders would go home on weekends. They’d see teachers going in sick to work because it’s too much trouble to call in a sub. Parents undermine your judgment at almost every turn, you can’t use the restroom for hours at a time, lunch lasts for 20 minutes and largely consists of leftovers or snacks in the fabulously accommodated teachers’ lounge, and all the while you have to navigate a hopeless bureaucracy that chips away at your professional autonomy.

So much of what a successful K-12 or college educator must do to make the classroom operate effectively is done behind the scenes. In fact, the preparation done privately is absolutely essential to the public face of the profession, which is in the classroom. Whenever a new mandate or policy rolls out, a new curriculum, or certification requirement, it’s dumped on the backs of teachers. We are told that our extra duties must not in any way compromise time with the students. Teachers who have already run out of time weeks ago perpetually take the minutes and hours and blood out of their private preparation, which then inevitably creeps into educators’ personal lives. Educators take their jobs very personally and our performance, or lack thereof, is interpreted by society as a personal virtue. If we are perceived as not burning the midnight oil for the sake of our students, then there must be something wrong with us. It’s a character flaw and we therefore should find another line of work.

What’s the connection to higher education and the furlough concept? Sacrifices must come out of my private responsibilities as an educator. The powers that be know full well that for any professor who wants to keep his or her job, which is based on satisfactory teaching, research, and service, nothing meaningful will be cast aside. Many of us will just keep right on working as usual with not one thing taken off our plate. As an aside, I admire faculty members who are able to take a stand, put an outgoing message in their e-mail, stating that they are on furlough and will not answer messages today because they are indeed on furlough. I wish I could exercise a little self-control and actually take a day off here and there. As a new faculty member, I just don’t have that luxury. The demands to publish, research, and stay current with the latest and greatest teaching gadgets and techniques are too great.

Let us call it what it is: a pay cut, not a furlough. The latter concept cannot apply to educators unless we can furlough our public duties. Dealing the blow within our private responsibilities — in our offices, at home, or away at meetings — reads as if these duties are not as valuable. Because they do not generate revenue explicitly, private functions like reading, writing, and research are expendable. But in similar ways in my public school teaching, there would be no teaching — no effective teaching — without all that educators do behind the scenes. Without a furlough of our public duties, no one can understand the message and the impact of budget cuts. Educators take the hit in silence, and it is this lack of defense of our private duties that perpetuates the myth in the general public that educators have none. We clock in, teach our students, and then clock out.

It’s hard for me to criticize furlough plans because I know people are losing their jobs. Perhaps my pay cut, combined with all the others, will save a few jobs here and there. I’m happy to do that, if that is indeed what I’m doing. If I make it hard for students and parents who are paying more for my services than ever, they just won’t come back, or they will pursue their education elsewhere. Long term: that’s not good for business.

When I complain about pay cuts or furloughs, I end up feeling like a selfish jerk afterward. But universities are dropping the ball in their handling of furloughs and pay cuts. There’s a considerable amount of resentment and suspicion of administration due to the precarious economic situation. In order to alleviate tensions, the leadership could acknowledge faculty as they get stiffed. Would there be harm in canceling just one meeting? How about free parking passes for faculty or free meals on campus, assuming that eating on campus is a pleasurable experience? I won’t even get into deferred compensation plans, but that’s also a good option.

There are numerous potential gestures out there that could be easily seen as a tip of the cap to our troubles. If teaching and other official duties are deemed sacrosanct, even though a host of other requirements are intensified, something will eventually have to give. Until furloughs or pay cuts explicitly affect what occurs in the classroom, the shift of the burden to the private realm, as has happened with K-12 teachers, will force the issue further underground and out of the public eye. Educators of all stripes and levels will continue doing the same job, but for less and less.

Shaun Johnson
Author's email:

Shaun Johnson is assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University. His blog is At the Chalk Face.

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
Author's email:

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.


Subscribe to RSS - Life
Back to Top