Humanities

Essay on prestige as a factor in picking a graduate school and evaluating job offers

What matters when you pick a graduate program may not matter when evaluating job offers, writes Heather Dubrow.

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Essay on a key value that shouldn't change amid calls for higher education reforms

Education is a public good.

Those five simple words should stand at the center of all conversations about higher education; participants in such conversations should recite them on a regular basis. Instead, I hear the drumbeat language of “disruption” — new models of higher education will do to “legacy” colleges and universities what the steamboat did to the sailing vessel, or more recently, what Amazon did to Borders. The disruption gurus see a new business model on the horizon, approaching fast and preparing to vanquish all postsecondary institutions that do not embrace a particular kind of innovation. Those institutions will decline because they cannot compete.

The disruptive steamroller now bearing down on higher education is a product strategy known as “unbundling.” Just as iTunes has driven the album out of the market by enabling consumers to purchase their music one song at a time, students are increasingly able to purchase their degrees, one or two courses at a time, from different providers. “Like steam,” proclaims one Harvard Business School professor together with the executive director of an “Institute for Disruptive Innovation,” “online education is a disruptive innovation — one that introduces more convenient and affordable products or services that over time transform sectors.”

The argument goes something like this. Skyrocketing tuitions have put college out of the reach of millions of Americans (not to mention millions more around the world with access to a computer but not a campus). In a market economy, when a product becomes too expensive for consumers, innovators who can satisfy demand more efficiently will drive existing businesses to the margins — in this case, to the kind of luxury market that prefers a CD to an MP3. Here, the avatars of disruption don’t completely agree: some, like the keynote speaker at the recent Ithaka Sustainable Scholarship Conference, readily admit that “traditional” institutions generally provide a superior education, given the virtues of face-to-face interaction and the multidimensionality of student life; others insist that consumers of such educational Cadillacs are mere chumps, spending thousands of dollars on prestige, along with a “student life” consisting mostly of parties that would be more cheaply and safely held at home.

Given these excessive costs — generally attributed to inefficiency, salaries paid to professors more interested in research than in teaching, and a broken business model that federal financial aid subsidies keep insulated from market forces — consumers will increasingly choose cheaper degrees that do a better job of preparing them for the workplace. These new degrees use technology more efficiently, reward competence over time in a classroom, and liberate students to take courses where they are available, rather than suffer from the corporeal implications of how many bodies can fit into a single classroom, or how often a given course appears on the schedule. Statistics 101 is full at your university? No big deal; just take the MOOC and get credit in the same way your university gave credit for that Advanced Placement course you took in high school.

Liberated from such luxuries as student counseling (academic and otherwise), full-time faculty, sports, dormitories (fancy and otherwise), meadows and plazas, orchestras, offices of community relations that actually provide services rather than public relations, subsidized clinics, and various other luxuries unnecessary to a student’s first job (as opposed to a career), the new-model colleges can indeed do it cheaper. And this is not a bad thing: millions of people across the planet hunger for knowledge and ought to have the access that online education can provide.

It is a grim reality of many large (mostly public) universities that students unable to get a spot in required courses cannot graduate in four, even five years.

The history major who can’t take the entry-level requirement until junior year has a problem that “unbundling” can solve, whether through a MOOC or some other online venue. I would love to see the American Historical Association participate in any innovation able to address this problem. I also appreciate how a degree earned through a set of courses taken at various places, online and otherwise, makes good sense to people unable or unwilling to pay for a “traditional” college education. Those of us who consider humanities and social science essential to career preparation should dedicate ourselves to ensuring that such degrees include high-quality history education, provided by professionals who are properly compensated for their time and expertise. We should be similarly committed to widening access to higher education of all kinds, and to the kinds of lifelong learning that can be facilitated by distance educational resources.

But education is not music. I don’t care whether everyone in my city is willing to sacrifice sound quality, and the artistry involved in constructing the content of a CD, for the convenience and cost of an MP3. Nor do I care if “legacy” airlines are pushed aside by the disruptive innovations of creative entrepreneurs. The big corporations, analogous to 19th-century shipping magnates, can fall victim to “disruption” and we will have traded very little for new efficiencies. The same cannot be said for education, which is not merely a consumer purchase but a public good. Part of the reason for a seemingly failing financial model in public postsecondary education is found not on the cost side, but rather in a decline in public funding. At non-flagship public universities and community colleges, the cost per student (as opposed to what students actually pay) is generally not increasing. Students cannot get into courses in part because public colleges and universities do not have adequate public funds. It is incumbent on us to make a better argument for such funding, but we should not assume that the market can do the job better. More efficiently, maybe. But not better.

Moreover, we will all lose if we allow markets to determine the institutional framework of higher education. The self-described disruptors claim to be doing what scholars do: competing in a marketplace of ideas, with the same imperative to think outside the box, explore new models, and reward creativity. But, in my field, history, we know that the best new scholarship builds upon the old, rather than casting it to the scrap heap. We learn from our predecessors; they spare us the inefficiency of having to reinvent the wheel. We are not out to destroy them in the way of the business world to which the disruptors look for models of change.

Let us make room, then, for the innovations that broaden access, while participating in the conversations that will shape and deploy those innovations. Markets ought not be considered the arbiters of quality education. To allocate public resources based on how much an education costs, and whether it can provide minimal competencies, is a strategy to impoverish public culture. Education is not just a tool for individual advancement; it is also a public instrument to promote democratic citizenship. The system works better for all of us if more people can recognize a logical fallacy, read a data table, understand the text and context of the Constitution, and decipher debates surrounding the causes of the Great Depression. An unbundled degree offers a better education compared to no degree at all (something to be taken seriously), but it is a narrow and often isolated experience compared to the liberal education that is available in the hundreds of institutions across the nation that offer curriculums, rather than courses.

We need to determine what, precisely, is being disrupted by new business models, ensuring that as we transform higher education with digital tools, we also conserve essential elements of the best system of higher education in the world, measured by the number of people from around the globe who either flock to our institutions or try to replicate them back home (often with strong public backing), having grasped the fact that education, after all, is a public good.

Many of the elements we treasure in a “traditional” education are somewhat intangible, or difficult to explain without sounding either elitist or archaic, but they are benefits nonetheless, and public funds should subsidize the financial aid necessary to keep them accessible to those determined to reap their benefits but unable to afford their cost. I encourage our colleagues to figure out how to participate in and adapt new forms of instruction. But I also challenge the entrepreneurs who profit from those new forms to join American traditions of philanthropic citizenship and support the infrastructure of “bricks and mortar” education for those who desire it — not only those who can afford it.

 

James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association.

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Essay criticizing the concept of academic boycotts

Friends and colleagues familiar with my longstanding support of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and my extensive criticisms of the Israeli government's expansionist policies and violations of Palestinian human rights may be puzzled that I have weighed in publicly in opposition to the proposed academic boycott of Israel endorsed by the council of the American Studies Association (ASA) and now the subject of a membership vote in that organization. But the fact is that such a boycott is at best misguided. Not only is it the wrong way to register opposition to the policies and practices it seeks to discredit, it is itself a serious violation of the very academic freedom its supporters purport to defend.

The American Association of University Professors has opposed academic boycotts as a matter of principle since 2005, when we published a major statement "On Academic Boycotts." Last week AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum and I signed an "Open Letter to Members of the American Studies Association" reaffirming this opposition and urging ASA members to reject the proposed boycott.

The ASA Council, however, disagrees. In an extraordinarily one-sided FAQ on the ASA website, advocates of the boycott assert that, like the AAUP, the ASA "unequivocally asserts the importance of academic freedom and the necessity for intellectuals to remain free from state interests and interference as a general good for society," making no mention, of course, that the very organization they cite, the AAUP, has publicly and forcefully opposed as a violation of academic freedom the very boycott they advocate. Then, in language that can only be described as Orwellian, the FAQ contends that "the academic boycott doesn’t violate academic freedom but helps to extend it. Under the current conditions of occupation, the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students is severely hampered, if not effectively denied."

I have little doubt that conditions under which Palestinian scholars and students must function leave much to be desired, including with respect to academic freedom, but I wonder how boycotting Israeli universities does anything to improve that situation and thereby "extend" academic freedom. Does the ASA seek to make a general statement about Israeli policies in the West Bank, or is the organization making a statement about academic freedom in Israeli institutions? If the former, one immediately wonders why they do not advocate an academic boycott of Chinese higher education institutions in response to the occupation of Tibet, where conditions for native Tibetan scholars and students are certainly worse than in, say, the Palestinian Bir Zeit University on the West Bank. If the latter, I wonder how they have determined that Israeli institutions of higher learning are so much more culpable than those elsewhere.

As our "Open Letter" noted, the AAUP doesn't have "the organizational capacity to monitor academic freedom at institutions in other countries, nor are we in a position to pick and choose which countries we, as an organization, might judge." Yet the ASA, which has no special academic interest in the Middle East, feels comfortable boycotting Israeli universities while ignoring seemingly more obvious violations of both academic freedom and broader human rights in Iran, China, North Korea, Singapore, Zimbabwe, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and Russia, to mention but a few examples.

According to one Israeli human rights organization, Israeli forces killed 6,722 Palestinians between September of 2000 and October of 2013. In Iraq, however, American troops took the lives of more than half a million civilians. That, by the way, is the same America whose "culture and history" members of the American Studies Association are said to approach "from many directions" (quotations from "What the ASA Does"). In 2006 the ASA adopted a resolution condemning the U.S. invasion of Iraq, noting among other things that the invasion "threaten[ed] academic freedom" (whether in Iraq, the U.S., or both is unclear). Were I an ASA member I would surely have supported that resolution. Yet the ASA did not even consider an academic boycott of American universities in response to the American occupation of Iraq as they do now in response to the less murderous Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Well, some might say, they can't really advocate a boycott of themselves, can they? But in fact that is precisely what supporters of this proposed boycott are doing. Omar Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian advocate of the boycott, is himself a former student and part-time instructor at Tel Aviv University. He is one of many Palestinian and Arab Israeli students and faculty at Israeli colleges and universities. As Emily Budick, an American-born Israeli professor of American studies at Hebrew University, wrote in the AAUP's Journal of Academic Freedom:

Over the years I have taken great pride in the achievements of my Arab and Palestinian students. Last year one of my former graduate students became the first woman mayor of Bethlehem. I was similarly thrilled when several Palestinian students greeted me the first day of classes this year to bring regards from another former student of mine who was their teacher at the Arab university where they'd done their undergraduate degrees and who had encouraged them to do their graduate work at Hebrew University. Last year a full 50 percent of my Introduction to American Literature class was populated by Arab and Palestinian students.... If you want to stop Palestinian progress, then boycott the Israeli academics who contribute (along with Palestinian and Arab teachers) to their education and well-being. If you want to further the rights and liberties of Palestinians, then help us continue to provide Palestinian students with the best education we can.

In fact, if there is anywhere in Israeli society where support for a fair and just peace and for Palestinian human rights can flourish it is the country's universities. Boycott supporters are ironically only strengthening the hand of those right-wing forces in Israeli society who seek to muzzle the kind of questioning and dissent, and who reject the spirit of tolerance, that are often found among Israeli and Palestinian scholars in Israel's institutions of higher learning. The ASA foolishly seeks to punish potential allies largely to the benefit of common opponents.

Indeed, the whole idea of boycotting academic institutions in order to defend academic freedom is utterly wrongheaded. Violations of academic freedom can be found anywhere. In the AAUP we encounter such violations, petty and large, on a daily basis in the U.S. In the very worst of these cases, when all efforts to correct the situation fail, we place administrations on our censure list. But that list is not a boycott list. We do not and will not ask our colleagues to boycott institutions that violate academic freedom or that support policies we abhor. Instead we call on people to organize and struggle to effect change in such institutions, both from inside and out. If we resist the temptation to boycott offending institutions in our own country, where we have full opportunity to determine all the relevant facts, how then can we agree to support such boycotts of foreign institutions?

The AAUP does not have a foreign policy; our members may and do disagree about numerous international conflicts and controversies, including the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But if the members of the ASA can somehow achieve broad agreement on such a controversial question as this one, we would not gainsay their right to pass resolutions on it as they did during the Iraq War. But a boycott is quite another matter.

Finally, I cannot fail to mention that the leaders of the ASA are not conducting this election in a spirit of frank and free discussion. AAUP's "Open Letter" was preceded by a private communication prior to the ASA council's approval of the boycott resolution. The ASA declined to circulate that communication among members and then rebuffed a request to post the "Open Letter" on its website along with other background material on the boycott proposal. The ASA has also declined to inform members of a letter in opposition to the resolution signed by eight former ASA presidents and other prominent ASA members.

By contrast, this fall the AAUP published an issue of our online Journal of Academic Freedom, much of which was devoted to articles calling on us to abandon our opposition to academic boycotts and advocating such a boycott of Israel. Some supporters of Israel criticized us for this, but we stood by our commitment to the journal as an open forum for debate and discussion. The articles attracted a good number of reader responses representing different points of view, all now published as part of the issue along with replies from the original authors. ASA members would do well to compare this to the ASA leadership's approach to dissent. Those seeking to make up their own minds about the boycott proposal should consider the various arguments pro and con published in our journal instead of relying on the one-sided and disingenuous presentations sadly offered on ASA's website.

Henry Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay; first vice president of the American Association of University Professors; and chair of AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

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Round-up on lobbying over American studies vote on Israel boycott

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Round-up of statements, charges and counter-charges as American Studies Association prepares to finish vote on whether to back boycott of Israeli universities.

Review of 'Inventing the Egghead: The Battle Over Brainpower in American Culture'

This year is the 50th anniversary of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, whose greatest achievement, someone once said, was keeping it to just the one volume.

As discussed here a short while ago, the revisionist interpretation of American populism appearing in Hofstadter’s book The Age of Reform (1955) has taken a lot of positivistic hits by subsequent historians. He over-generalized on the basis of a (very) narrowly selected pool of primary sources -- and in the final analysis, he wasn’t really writing about the 1890s at all, but rather his own times, equating the mood and worldview of McCarthyism with the agrarian radicals of the People’s Party. Hofstadter was more conscious of the pressure of contemporary affairs in Anti-Intellectualism, which he wrote was “conceived in response to the political and intellectual conditions of the 1950s.”

It was “by no means a formal history,” Hofstadter wrote, “but largely a personal book, whose factual details are organized and dominated by my views.” I take that to be a concession, of sorts, to historians who were finding The Age of Reform problematic. His strength was the essay more than the monograph. A passage such as the following is remarkable for – among other things -- how its urbane diction just barely subdues the remembered experience of dread:

“Of course, intellectuals were not the only targets of McCarthy’s constant detonations -- he was after bigger game -- but intellectuals were in the line of fire, and it seemed to give special rejoicing to his followers when they were hit. His sorties against intellectuals and universities were emulated throughout the country by a host of less exalted inquisitors.”

It is also remarkable for needing only the slightest change of wording to sound uncomfortably applicable to more recent events. The problem lies not with this or that demagogue but with something deeper. Hofstadter spent 400 pages sounding it out. But the American science and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov condensed it into one sentence of a column for Newsweek in 1980: “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ ”

Neither as broad in historical scope as Anti-Intellectualism in American Life nor as trenchant as Asimov’s zinger, Aaron Lecklider’s Inventing the Egghead: The Battle Over Brainpower in American Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press) is explicitly framed as a response to another decade – the ‘00s. While challenging Hofstadter’s ideas, Lecklider, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, follows his lead in responding to a past that, while recent, somehow already seems distinctly periodized.

It was the worst of time, full stop. Figures in the Bush administration were openly contemptuous of “experts,” with all their “knowledge” about “reality.” The Bush-bashers called the president stupid, and his supporters called the Bush-bashers stupid, and there was a TV game show called “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” which hinted that the whole country was stupid, and that’s O.K. (It did well in the ratings.) The culture war was fought with the bluntest of weapons -- not between the intelligentsia and the ignorati, but between anti-intellectuals and anti-anti-intellectuals. The latter expression, while clumsy at best, acknowledges something important: anti-anti-intellectual ≠ intellectual. Laughing at a satirical interview with a creationist on “The Daily Show” entails no substantial engagement with the life of the mind.

Much of the edifying conflict was fought out in popular culture and the mass media – terrain that, Lecklider argues, historians and social critics of Hofstadter’s era either neglected, at best, or regarded as stupefying and regressive. Hence their interpretations of American cultural history tended to be narratives of decline.

In reply, Inventing the Egghead presents a series of case studies from the first six decades of the 20th century in which conflicts over the power and the possession of intellectual capital were fought out in a wide range of popular venues: cartoons, movies, jokes, Tin Pan Alley songs, newsmagazines, posters, popular science journals, handbooks on efficient housekeeping, etc.

The chapters proceed chronologically, from the rechristening of a Coney Island park in 1909 as an institute of science (to skirt blue laws) to Einstein as cult figure, to aspects of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Deal “brain trust,” and on up to the stress-inducing utopia of Oak Ridge and the coining of “egghead” as pejorative. The effect is one of cultural history as collage. Running through all these topics and cultural forms is an uneasy and constantly shifting set of attitudes towards what Lecklider calls “brainpower.”

In the author’s usage “brainpower” means the power to acquire or to stake a claim to knowledge and expertise, whether respected and professionally credentialed or not. Conflicts over who possesses brainpower (and who doesn’t) are continuous. So are disputes over its value and limitations. And that flux comes, in part, from the frequently changing needs of an economy that requires technological advances as well as a steady supply of human brains, serviceable as a factor of production.

In short, there were grounds for ambivalence about brainpower -- for reasons more various and complex than some notion of an unchanging American cultural disposition toward anti-intellectualism. “Competing representations of intelligence” in popular culture, Lecklider writes, “could alternately smash the pretensions of an intellectual elite, position ordinary men and women as smarter than experts, appeal to intellectual culture to validate working-class positions, and dismantle intellectual hierarchies. These representations were often uncomfortable and contradictory, sometimes even self-defeating, particularly when the value of intelligence was diminished in order to level the intellectual playing field.”

But other strains of popular culture – a number of distinctively WPA-era posters promoting libraries, for example -- served to recognize and foster peoples’ self-respect regarding their own mental capacities.  

Earlier I suggested that “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” implied the viewer probably wasn’t. On reflection, that may have been too dour a view. Perhaps the title gives the viewer something to which to aspire. Be that as it may, in the representations of brainpower that Lecklider inspects, the expressions of ambivalence tend more often to have more hostility or disparagement in the mix than respect for self or others. While written, and blurbed, as an alternative to Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the book ends up seeming like the extensive elaboration and updating of a point Hofstadter made there in passing: "As the demand for the rights of the common man took form in 19th-century America, it included a program for free elementary education, but it also carried with it a dark and sullen suspicion of high culture, as a creation of the enemy."

Some people will bristle at the expression "high culture." They always do. (I'm not overly fond of it.) But that response misses the point, which, again, was put quite plainly by Isaac Asimov a while back. "I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual," he wrote. "I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning." That is as cheerful a face as can be put on our situation.

 

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Data show modest gain in number of new Ph.D.s with jobs upon graduation

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New data show minimal gains in share of new doctorate holders who have job commitments upon graduation.

Essay introducing new column about adjuncts

Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts

Joseph Fruscione introduces a new column on careers and lives off the tenure track.

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Academic freedom challenged by changing online landscape, AAUP report shows

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The AAUP updates its standards on academic freedom and electronic communications for the first time in a decade, showing just how much the ed-tech world has changed.

Essay asks whether alt-ac careers are really a solution to academic jobs shortage

"Alt-ac" positions may be great for some, but Miriam Posner wonders if they are being oversold as a solution to the shortage of academic positions.

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Essay on the value of teaching outside your area of expertise

This summer, the faculty of Shimer College held a discussion of Jacques Rancière's book The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. In it, he discusses the educational theory and practice of Joseph Jacotot, who claimed that one could teach a subject one didn't even know in the first place. For Jacotot, teaching isn't a matter of expertise, but of determination. It isn't about transmitting knowledge to the student, but about holding students accountable to the material that they are working on.

Though the method Rancière described was more radical than anything we would actually try, the general approach resonates with what we try to do at Shimer, a small liberal arts college in the Great Books tradition. Our classes are all discussion-based, centered on important texts, artworks, and scientific experiments, and the professor serves not to instruct the students but to keep them on task and nudge them in the right direction. A handful of our faculty members have actually taught the whole curriculum, covering the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and all are required to teach in at least two areas.

All of this remained mostly theoretical for me until this semester, however, when I began teaching Humanities 1: Art and Music. I am knowledgeable about fine arts and am a passable classical pianist, but my Ph.D. is in theology and philosophy and the course is the first I've ever taught where the primary object of study was something other than texts. The challenge of the course is to find a way of talking about art that is neither purely impressionistic and personal nor overly technical and scholarly.

The problem is most pronounced with music, where students often express a need for something called “music theory” that will permit them to talk about the experience of music in an intelligent and informed way. For the visual arts, there’s a more immediate intelligibility, given that the majority of the works we discuss in the course are representational (or at least suggestive of representation) — yet even there, students can feel that they don’t know what to say beyond assessing whether the painting represents what it’s supposed to in a way that is somehow “realistic.”

Our approach is to give students a handful of “hooks” that allow them to point out certain aspects of a given artwork. We begin with the format of the class, which is centered on Ovid's Metamorphoses, a work that has inspired artists for generations. As a result of this framing, the majority of works that we study are somehow representative or narrative in form, giving the students a basic orientation. The ready availability of different works on the same subject also gives us the
opportunity to highlight the differences between different media and the types of choices that artists make within the same medium.

On the level of form, we try to give students a ready familiarity with a few basic concepts. In music, the most important goals include being able to hear consonance vs. dissonance (which is fairly intuitive once it’s pointed out), knowing how to talk about melody and harmony, and being broadly familiar with the distinction of major vs. minor. With painting, we focus on the use of perspective, the interaction of colors, and the composition of the piece as a whole. These tools give them enough to begin thinking about how the expressive content of the artwork can reinforce, compliment, or complicate the emotional content of the narrative being portrayed.

By halfway through the semester, I had developed a certain level of confidence on art and music. Yet the syllabus threw me a curve ball when I was required to introduce a new art form by taking the students on an architectural tour in downtown Chicago. Here I felt my ignorance much more acutely, and instead of trying to create my own tour, I asked a senior faculty member to demonstrate the tour he had given the previous year, which I simply repeated.

We had only a short time for the tour, and so I could only point out a handful of extremely basic points. I showed them a few buildings that were built before the skyscraper technique was developed (basically, the outer walls had to be load-bearing before the skyscraper technique allowed for an internal distribution of the weight) as well as some early skyscrapers. I talked about the ways that the architect can get us to “read” a building — how the eye is drawn upward, how a building can be “capped” with a different design on the top floors, how the base of the building can provide indications of where the entrances are and how the facade can reinforce that. We saw some buildings that were highly ornamented and some that were very stark. We also looked at lobbies in a similar variety of styles. Finally, I tried to point out to them the way buildings interact with each other.

None of this was very advanced, and indeed, I was most often simply pointing out to the students what my colleague had pointed out to me on our tour. Yet the students reported that they had benefited from simply being told to step back and actually look at the buildings and from being given certain rough-and-ready indications of what to look for. Some reported they had never really thought about architecture at all, that it had always faded into the background. Even a more knowledgeable student said that being asked to look at buildings in the context of the cityscape rather than in isolation was a step beyond what he’d done before.

None of this resulted from any special skill I brought to the table — even the mechanical execution of the tour was pretty inept, and I’m known to mumble. (My students strongly discouraged me from pursuing a career as a tour guide.) It was simply a matter of being told to look and being given a few specific things to look at. It made them want to look more closely in the future, as indeed preparing for the tour made me want to look more closely as well.

While it was most pronounced with architecture, I've been learning along with the students throughout the semester. During trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, I've found that my way of looking at paintings has changed. A recent visit to the symphony with my students revealed that I'm getting better at following and thinking about classical music — after the concert, I found that I really wanted to talk about it and even investigate it further, in a way that wouldn’t have been true before. I see similar progress in my students, as they become more and more comfortable with talking about the formal elements of the artworks and relate them in more sophisticated way to their representational or narrative content. In fact, one of my students who transferred from a local art school claims that she has had more and better discussion of art in our class than she did in art school.

At this point, my reader may be skeptical. Perhaps I am giving students an adequate introduction to the fine arts, making up for my ignorance with my enthusiasm — but wouldn't they be better off with a more knowledgeable professor? In some ways, I'm sure they would. Yet I would turn the tables and point out the disadvantages of having an accomplished expert teach an introductory course. Too often, such classes consist in the delivery of scholarly knowledge that only serves to exacerbate the distance that the students feel from the material itself. Instead of learning how to look at an artwork or listen to a piece of music, students learn how to categorize them: this is early Renaissance, this is Impressionist....

The two skills don't have to be mutually exclusive, but on a practical level, they most often are — and I would rather that my students begin by gaining the confidence to analyze and respond to a work and only then delve into the historical and scholarly background according to their interest. We live in a time where there's no shortage of access to facts, but college may be their one chance to develop a real understanding of how art and music work. From that perspective, my inability to supply “the right answer” or to indulge my students' curiosity about historical trivia that distracts our attention from the work before us counts as a positive advantage.

This isn't to say, of course, that I must never teach in my own area of expertise. Indeed, my experience as an “ignorant schoolmaster” has already changed the way I think about teaching things within my comfort zone as well. It has pushed me to think more about holding students accountable for the ways they reach their own answers than about how best to give them — or Socratically help them stumble upon — the “right answer.” Even in classes where I bring much more to the table, the focus is and must be the material we're working on together, not all the information I'm bringing from the outside. More than that, though, all that information must be put to the test of the material itself, so that I always have to be open to the possibility that the interpretation I brought to the table is wrong, or at least not the whole story.

The approach I'm describing here goes against many of the deeply engrained habits that academics develop in graduate school and carry over into their teaching. While Rancière and others would cast moral aspersions on the expertise-centered approach to education, I view it more as a failure of imagination. Robert Hutchins, the University of Chicago president whose approach forms the basis for Shimer's curriculum, once said that liberal arts colleges tend to imitate graduate programs because at least graduate programs have a clear idea of what they're doing — namely, producing experts. An undergraduate education, however, neither can nor should achieve that goal. The liberal arts approach in particular provides a unique opportunity to form broad-minded critical and creative thinkers who have the right combination of intellectual boldness and intellectual humility to enter a wide variety of professions and explore many bodies of knowledge. A crucial part of that formation is learning to have the courage to admit one's own ignorance, and I believe students would be better served if faculty members were more commonly called upon to display that same courage.

 

Adam Kotsko is assistant professor of humanities at Shimer College. He is the author, most recently, of Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. He blogs at An und für sich.

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