Life

Essay in which Rebecca Schuman responds to a recent column criticizing her take on higher ed

This morning, after a poor night’s sleep punctuated by weird pregnancy nightmares and hourly wakings due to the discomforts of being newly behemoth, I lumbered over to my “office” (aka the other side of my apartment), and, loins girded, prepared to see what the internet beheld. As a freelancer with many different gigs, it’s not uncommon to have to “put out fires” first thing in the a.m., as they say, but this morning, all three rings in the circus of my life conflagrated at once. A potential dissertation-coaching client was unhappy with my original free consult, and I wanted to give my boss a rundown of what went wrong. Then, an urgent email from Germany — some editing work I was supposed to turn in yesterday wasn’t in! Ach, nein! Quick, turn on the German brain, apologize and send in the work, schnell.

Meanwhile, in my most public job, as an education columnist for Slate, I’m dealing with the fallout of my latest piece, which calls into question why the University of California System — which tells its students, faculty and staff it is one giant budget crater — feels the need to give its three “poorest” chancellors $60,000 raises. And, while I prepare to cook up my next column (maybe American academics teaching abroad? I have a friend in Kazakhstan; maybe she’ll let me interview her!), I’m making my editor’s extensive changes on my forthcoming one — with, of course, a turnaround of a few hours at most, as per the conventions of short-form Internet journalism.

All this happened today before I had a chance to eat or pee.

In the midst of what was already a wackadoodle morning, about 70 of my best “friends” linked me to a new op-ed here at Inside Higher Ed, by Cornell writing lecturer Charles Green. The 3,000-word magnum opus betrays a fairly impressive (obsessive?) attention to both my personal blog and certain contributions to my Slate work, and calls into question the research bona fides of my non-academic journalism. Green excoriates the cursory sample sizes and openly informal methodology of two of my recent columns — op-eds both, meaning that it is clear to most readers that what I am writing is indeed, in the words of the great rhetorician Jeffrey Lebowski, just, like, my opinion, man.

He even goes so far as to perform what appears to be a rhetorical exegesis of “Revise and Resubmit,” a roast of the humanities peer-review process done in my usual style, which is a mixture of dark humor, open hyperbole, and cutting truth — and which quotes, yes, a small sample of hilarious tweets about peer-review experiences from my readers, which I culled for their sharpness from a much larger “data set” of about 100.

But yes, the piece exaggerated. Every op-ed I write does. Every sentence I say at home does! My voice has, for better or worse, basically been what it is since my first turn as a columnist at the age of 17 (I appeared bi-weekly in Eugene, Oregon’s paper of record from 1993 to 1994 — kind of a big deal, I know). But it was sharpened in graduate school in a particular vein, as I fell in love with the crotchety Austrians who would come to define my research: Robert Musil, whose over-the-top satire of a bunch of rich drifters also belies harsh truths about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy; the playwright Johann Nepomunk Nestroy, whose untranslatable humor involves saying something that is a massive exaggeration and an unfortunate truth at the same time; Karl Kraus, the patron saint of pithy bile and my personal hero.

Is Green correct that my 1,500-word op-eds (the appropriate length for such a medium, ahem) are not researched with the same rigor as my academic book, which took seven years to write, and for which I am receiving the standard advance of zero dollars? He is. If the 80 or so columns I’ve written for Slate in the past year were submitted to academic journals, they would all be rejected out of hand for their style, tone, and, yes, lack of scientifically perfect data sets.

But, speaking of “limited sample size,” (which itself masks Green’s real critique, which is that my experience in academe is different from his, and thus incorrect), I’d like to point out that Green has done to me precisely what he claims I do to the unfairly-maligned idyll that is the life of the mind (which, unlike me, he has never left, which would explain his unfamiliarity with the conventions of my medium).

In addition to his huff about “Revise and Resubmit,” he also takes issue with “Syllabus Tyrannus,” in which I trace the corporatization of the American university via the encroachment of administrative boilerplate onto once-brief college syllabuses. His main problem seems to be that the editor who wrote my subhead was also a fan of numerical exaggeration. Guilty, I suppose.

And the third and final piece he mentions is “Bring on the Sledgehammer,” in which I simply executed what we jokingly call a #Slatepitch — I took a contrarian stance to a current issue (President Obama’s college-rankings plan), and tried to argue it to the best of my ability. In the wake of that article, I was the first to admit the imperfection of my arguments, and it resulted in numerous productive conversations with readers.

Anyway, what Green conveniently neglects to mention, even with 3,000 words, is the vast majority of my work for Slate, most of which is far more akin to traditional reporting, and much of which has nothing to do with higher education at all (I’m thinking here, of course, of my vaunted German grocery store canon).

Among recent pieces are the following — none of which remotely fit Green’s characterizations:

  1. The Birth of the #FergusonSyllabus,” which describes the ways in which educators in my hometown of St. Louis and beyond are teaching about systemic racism and police violence;
  2. A mild-mannered interview with William Deresiewicz about his latest book;
  3. A joking analysis of why German chancellor Angela Merkel is an outfit-repeater;
  4. A description of the beautiful activist prank played by four Canadian faculty who applied together for single a highly-paid administrator’s job;
  5. Free To Be a Jerk,” a defense of the academic freedom of someone I find personally abhorrent;
  6. Save Our Stacks,” an expose of the great new trend in book-free libraries;
  7. An exploration of an awesome website that uses math to help you make difficult decisions;
  8. Don’t Extinguish the Fulbright,” which was part of a national media push that actually helped save the Fulbright program from a disastrous set of cuts;
  9. Nasty and Brutish,” which helped break the CU-Boulder philosophy sexual harassment scandal nationally (and brought about my first-ever hate mail from a Neo-Nazi – suck it, “Abraxas88,” whoever you are!);
  10. …and, of course, my exegesis of the greatest German commercial of all time.

I am used to people disagreeing with me, often vehemently and directly to my face. I am used to getting kicked around (also, now, from the inside — thanks, kiddo!). I understand that many academics long to write for a larger public audience, and resent the fact that I get to do so, because my experience is not indicative of theirs.

Look, I am as aghast at the modest success of my fourth-act career as anyone else. But here is why I get to do what I do: Readers can sense hedging, equivocation and cowardice from 10 miles away, and they don’t like it. At the same time, those who wish to succeed in academe must compromise what they say in public (the recent Salaita affair is but the most extreme example of the kind of systemic restraint that academia demands). As a result, a lot of “public” writing by academics is self-censored, over-equivocated, bogged down in data analysis, and thus unreadably boring to a non-academic audience. But since I am no longer beholden to some imaginary search or tenure committee, I get to hold nothing back — and that is why I get to be at Slate. If you want anyone to read your op-eds on a mainstream platform, you must take a firm, blunt stance — one that might have to oversimplify a few things for brevity, and one that will bring its share of both support and vitriol.

I guess Charles Green finally hit upon a stance — and oversimplification, though not brevity — that can bring in readers, too. Too bad it came in the form of an ad-hominem attack on a person who never did anything to hurt him, and whose body of work is more complex — and, simultaneously, more banal — than he gives it credit for.

Rebecca Schuman is the education columnist for Slate.

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Essay on civility debates in higher education

The topic of “civility,” including its place among the professional responsibilities of faculty members, has come to the fore recently, as it does from time to time when there is some especially hot-button, polarizing issue in academe. This time, the context is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Much can be said – and has been said – about this particular context, including the observation there is a large body of writing by academics and public intellectuals that is highly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians that is based on research, evidence, and analysis. While this may not be an invariable guarantee of accuracy, such writings have a claim both to serious attention and to the protections of academic freedom for their authors. Such efforts and contributions are not well-served when faculty colleagues indulge in loose invective in what are now relatively public channels of communication – channels that are, in these times, open to students.

The same might be said of the more serious and substantive efforts of those who also engage in intemperate blogging and tweeting themselves. To take a not-quite-the-same-but-perhaps-close-enough-for-comparison case from the profession of journalism: would Paul Krugman’s work be more effective or less effective if he were sending out personally abusive tweets about Angela Merkel on the side? And, if he were, would The New York Times be just as proud and happy to have him on the roster? And would the newspaper’s editors and board be in as strong a position to defend him against outside pressure from those who do not share his economic, political, and moral views – that is, would they be in as strong a position to defend freedom of the press, an important responsibility of editors and boards of newspapers?

The American Association of University Professors has been understandably wary of the use of “civility,” particularly in matters of appointments and tenure. Like its close associate “collegiality,” it is open to multiple interpretations and may be put to various ignoble purposes. It may simply be thrown around too loosely for its message to be clear. Invoking it in the context of current affairs in the Middle East may seem ironic to some, downright offensive to others.

When we invoke “civility” in the context of higher education the focus must be on maintaining the kind of light-to-heat ratio that serves our role as teachers and scholars. What it certainly does not mean is sweeping difficult, controversial, painful issues under the rug. Let us also bear in mind that when we or our colleagues may be found wanting in the exercise of our professional responsibilities, this can be addressed in ways well short of the to-be-or-not-to-be of hiring, firing, and tenure.

Some critics of the civility standard propose that it can only be useful if operationalized and thus able to pass muster in terms of specificity. This, however, requires us to face the fact that formal codes and procedures are no substitute for shared norms about appropriate, responsible, civilized behavior.

We have seen this in the misbegotten attempt to address prejudice, ignorance, and general nastiness through formal speech codes that have the additional disadvantage of falling afoul of our legal systems.

We have seen it in the attempt of the University of Virginia’s board to pass a formal policy preventing trustees from speaking out of school, i.e., publicly criticizing decisions made by their fellow board members – yet another occasion for the university to receive negative attention in the higher education press.

Most recently, we have seen it in the “trigger warning” initiative that demeans both faculty members and students, treats a serious condition like PTSD as something that can be addressed in a syllabus, and invites the need for complementary “spoiler alerts” to serve the interest of those students who do not want to be told about significant plot elements in literary works ahead of time.

Societies have various means of social control at their disposal. There is what the Quakers call “eldering,” whereby a respected, usually senior, member of the community offers guidance. Less kindly approaches include withholding important social rewards: positions of authority, honors, invitations. At the social extreme, there is ostracism.

This is not intended as a to-do list, but rather as examples of how a community expresses its attachment to what it sees as core values. Surely, we can manage to promote such values without sacrificing the forms of individualism and eccentricity necessary to academe.

And, also surely, it would seem desirable for such standards to be maintained first and foremost by faculty members themselves, rather than by administrative action from above (or, as some may see it, below).  “Corporate” has become a term of abuse in academe, but we might go back to its more general reference to a group of individuals acting as a body, a community.  It may well be that the corporate exercise of professional responsibility on the part of the faculty is key not only to preserving the tenure system but to making our colleges and universities the kinds of places where we truly want to work and live.

Judith Shapiro is professor of anthropology emerita at Bryn Mawr College and Barnard College.

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Professor removes ban on 'bless you' from syllabus

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Professor at Coastal Georgia revises syllabus amid uproar that the college says didn't really reflect what was going on.

Survey suggests colleges are passing ACA-related cost increases on to employees

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Unsure about how insurance costs will fare when Affordable Care Act is fully in place, institutions are passing on anticipated cost increases to employees, CUPA-HR survey suggests.

Essay on working 40 hours a week as an academic

It's possible to be a successful academic without working more than 40 hours a week, writes Trish Roberts-Miller.

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Essay on how to plan a sabbatical

Erin Marie Furtak considers the questions she faces.

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Advice for professors on starting over at a new college, Part 1 (essay)

Changing jobs can stress out a professor. Cathy Day has done it four times, and offers advice on adjusting to a new college.

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Essay on the most important advice for a tenure-track professor

When it comes to earning tenure, you need to forget all the fights about who is responsible for higher education's problems and focus on one simple piece of advice, writes Chuck Rybak.

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Essay on the way academics must get used to friends moving elsewhere

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In academic careers, those to whom you are closest frequently move.

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Essay on mistakes humanities faculty members make in seeking to be published

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Rob Weir considers the mistakes humanities professors make that keep them from having journal submissions accepted.

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