My employer, the University of Houston, has been in the news: after much hemming and hawing, UH confessed it has forked over $135,000 (as well as $20,000 to the agency representing him) to the actor Matthew McConaughey to speak at next week’s graduation.
The money seems to have been well spent: our brand-new stadium, which stood half empty during the football season, is filling up for this event. Still, I cannot help but wonder if the money could have been spent otherwise. Given that our university advertises itself as the House That Innovation Built, why not use the honorarium as seed money for a time machine? After all, McConaughey managed to bounce through time in Interstellar.
I know, I know: What does a liberal arts professor know about the mechanics of time travel? Not much, I admit. But being a liberal arts professor has taught me a bit more about the mechanics of the Western tradition, the great conversation, the classical canon -- or whatever label you want to slap on the great books I have taught for more than twenty-five years. Reading is just another kind of time travel, of course. And having read and taught these works, I’ve come to see them as little more than a glorious series of commencement speeches. Some of these speeches are longer, some shorter, some in rhyme, some in prose, some pretending to be history, others posing as fiction, but all offering advice on how to live our lives.
What if we could bundle a few of these figures into our machine and bring them to our stadium to speak? While our engineers are working out the kinks -- don’t forget the airbags! -- here are a few previews.
Niccolò Machiavelli: “It’s good to be here. Honest. Honestly honest. I know: Why trust the author of The Prince? Easy: if you had the Medici family as an employer, you’d be honestly glad to be sweltering in this stadium, too. Let me share with you the knowledge I’ve acquired through long experience of politics, extended reading in antiquity and a recent jab at gardening. Primo, it is a general rule about men and women that they are ungrateful, fickle liars and deceivers -- except, that is, for the men and women, garbed in your magnificent robes, sitting here today in this great arena!
“Secundo, never forget that fortune might be like a river, but the job market in the humanities is like the plumbing at my place in Lombardy: nonexistent. If you wish to succeed, keep in mind it is good to be feared, but it’s even better to have a balanced investment portfolio.
“E terzo, keep in mind that how we live is so very different from how we ought to live. And so, he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation. This is why the English majors out there should get up now and enroll immediately in your school’s hotel and restaurant management program.”
Franz Kafka: “I shouldn’t even be here. As I explained to your emissaries, my one wish was to die in obscurity. Take my friend Max Brod. Please. No, seriously, this is why I asked my friend Max to burn all of my writings. He didn’t, it turns out. Max, if you’re out there, we need to talk. Let me level with you: when I learned about this invitation, I was moved. Until, that is, I was floored by this sudden fear that I’d show up today as a beetle. With two e’s. And not the ladybug sort of beetle, but the sort that just sends shivers down your spine. A roach, in fact. Dad, Mom, Sis: if you’re out there, look, I’m not a roach!
“But I did wake up with two strange men in my hotel bedroom. All of this didn’t give me much time to prepare my remarks -- the men seemed nice enough, but they ate my breakfast -- but I do have some advice. As you march into the world, armed with your endearingly ridiculous optimism and utterly unfounded confidence, bring a book along with you -- but the right kind of book.
“We ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. I’ve always said that if the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? Oh, I see the president is waving to me: my time seems to be up. I wonder where those nice men from breakfast went. I’m sure they’ll find me.”
Friedrich Nietzsche: “Stop me if you’ve heard this one. ‘There was a madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours…’ Wait, I see several hands raised. What is that? You have heard this one? Talk about eternal recurrence, right? You know the punch line, then: the madman, searching for God and failing to find him, announces, ‘We have killed him,’ throws the lantern to the ground and blurts out, ‘I have come too early, the news has not yet reached your ears.’ Were he to see the wires running from your ears to those black wafers you carry everywhere, our madman, I think, would shatter yet another lantern. The news is still here, but still cannot be heard.
“You know, I used to say there are no facts, only interpretations. Don’t tell me -- you’re wondering, ‘What about student debt?’ Well, yes. But remember that if you stare at your bank account for too long, your bank account begins to stare back at you. For this reason, you must live dangerously! Love fate! Reject who you are: we must constantly overcome ourselves to live fully. Overcome, even -- especially! -- all you have learned at this august institution. I always said that in heaven all the interesting people are missing. How much truer for the academy.”
Jane Austen: “What dreadful hot weather we are having! It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance. I scarcely recognize myself in the colors of your splendid university. But you do not recognize me at all, of course. How could you? You see, it was only a short while ago that I learned from your university’s Jane Austen specialist that posterity has not a single portrait or drawing of me.
“A certain Mrs. Woolf, I also learned today, has made much of women needing a room of their own, just as she made much of the creaky door pivot and desk blotter that allowed me to hide my writing from the world. But here I must make much of my own view: I do not regret these constraints.
“Lean in I did -- a charming phrase -- but not so far as to lose my balance. Family and friends often accompanied me as I wrote; they were my best and most critical readers. Yes, my freedom was frustratingly limited, but these limits also reminded me of duties I always treasured as a sister, daughter and aunt, as a friend as well as a writer.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. But let me add that a single man or single woman in search only of a good fortune has misunderstood the ends of a good life. As I once wrote, know your own happiness. And want for nothing but patience -- or give it a more fascinating name. Call it hope.”
Rob Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston's Honors College and author, most recently, of Boswell's Enlightenment (Harvard 2015).
Ah, spring, season of starlings nesting under our eaves, season of mud, season of literary readings.
I generally try to avoid any event whose title ends in “fest,” but a few years ago I made an exception when a friend invited me to participate with him in a poetry reading at what the sponsoring local historical society was calling Eaglefest. Because the college where I was teaching at the time emphasized community service, this seemed -- after I confirmed I wouldn’t have to perform on the edge of a rocky precipice -- like a pleasant and practical way to spend a weekend afternoon. And the fact that Eaglefest would take place on the last day of April made it seem like a perfect ending for Poetry Month.
In the days before my scheduled reading, I assembled a set of poems about nature (my own, along with works by W. S. Merwin, Mary Oliver and others) and polished an essay I had written about the great blue heron who strode around my backyard, foraging for goldfish in the tiny pond.
Deciding how to dress for the occasion was far more difficult than choosing what to read. What to wear to an event called Eaglefest? I finally settled on what my daughters call my art skirt, because it looks like one of Mondrian’s Composition paintings; a T-shirt in my default color (black); and my poet earrings (long, dangling, silver). So I was ready and feeling pretty cheerful as I walked in to register.
The first ominous note came when the woman behind the desk told me that at the last minute there had been another event scheduled for the same time: a repeat performance of “Meet the Birds” would be held in the large auditorium where the first session was currently running. The receptionist then summoned one of the organizers, who, if she could not allay my anxiety about the scheduling, did put to rest any lingering questions I might have had about the dress code.
She had removed her feathery headgear in order to socialize and was holding it tucked in the crook of one arm; a sinister-looking beak dangled precariously. The body of the costume was a baggy brown sack made of some sort of synthetic fur, and the organizer could have easily passed muster as a bear, raccoon or chipmunk. Perhaps she does so on other weekends, at other fests. Her footwear, however -- large and bright yellow -- confirmed her avian identity for this day. Think clown shoes -- with webbed toes. She offered to show me the room where my co-presenter and I would be reading, and we hobbled over to a set of stairs, which, despite my protests that I would be fine on my own, she insisted upon laboriously climbing, and she led the way to a small room tucked away in a corner of the second floor.
Back downstairs, after listening to her make several jokes about poets in the attic and how it would be easier for her to fly, and after fighting my own fight-or-flight instinct, I perched on a chair but declined her offer of refreshments. I had been hoping for a handful of trail mix and a nice glass of white wine, but the fare consisted of soda and hot dogs, which somehow just seemed wrong.
By now my co-presenter had shown up, and he introduced me to another organizer (dressed in a gray suit -- business, not squirrel), who said, “Come with me,” and whisked us through a winding back passageway so that we emerged very close to the stage where a lecturer/handler, equipped with a gauntlet and a chain leash -- both of which seemed insufficient -- was showing off a bald eagle. Rather touchingly, the eagle had one enormous wing draped around the speaker’s back, and all went fairly well until the speaker tried to put the eagle back in his cage.
He began the process by reassuring us that the eagle went into his cage much more easily than the snowy owl did his. This brought a wave of uneasy laughter -- was this an example of nature stand-up comedy? Having missed the snowy owl’s performance, I was in no position to judge, but I did notice that the man in the gray flannel suit was backing away from the stage. Next, the handler dropped to his knees while the eagle spread his wings and attempted to fly off and generally battered the cage into submission. Eventually the eagle accepted his fate, and all that remained for the spellbound audience to see were some feathers floating gently on the currents of air-conditioning. It did occur to me, while listening to the eagle shriek, that this would be a hard act to follow.
But it was time now for the reading. When he first invited me to participate, my co-presenter had told me that the society expected an audience of 400. I thought that this number seemed rather high for a poetry reading, and, in fact, there were 20 chairs set up in our little garret. And 20 chairs were more than enough, since the group that gathered consisted of my husband, whom I had routed out of the gift shop where he was admiring a tie with a silkscreened pattern of falcons, which I refused to let him buy; an artist friend of ours; my co-presenter’s wife and infant son (does an infant count as an attendee? For my purposes of counting heads, yes, an infant counts); and the woman in the bird suit.
It was clear that, here at least, Poetry Month would be ending not with a bang but with a whimper or perhaps a faint peep. “What do you think?” my co-presenter asked me. I thought that I could not compete with a bald eagle and that it was time to leave. He stayed long enough to read one poem at the start of the next “Meet the Birds” session, and I migrated across town -- to Macy’s.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College.
We at U of All People pride ourselves on pedagogy, since we have no publications to speak of (except Professor Milo Wag’s pamphlet last year on the crossbreeding of malamutes, which doesn’t really count, especially since he’s in Modern Languages).
As the president of our Faculty Senate declared last year, “Whatever we do here, since it’s not research, it’s got to be teaching, right?” Never mind that 67 percent of the sophomores polled said they could do a better job than their professors -- students, especially sophomores, are inclined to boast.
As for last semester, when a professor who shall remain nameless sublet the teaching of Physics 101 to a Leisure Science instructor who needed some cash -- apparently, the class ran quite well.
But why should we apologize? Better for us to come out in a public embrace of pedagogy, the soft science that comprises everything from making up creative syllabuses to grading all those damned assignments late Sunday evening.
To combat the charges of “You call that teaching?” we’ve begun a Teacher of the Year award in every department. Tell us who are the unsung heroes and heroines of the classrooms, and we will sing their praises! -- though we will not award any raises based on teaching, since that would be favoritism.
All nominations are anonymous; in fact, one professor nominated herself anonymously 12 times. Starting next year, we’ll have a Teacher of the Year Selection Committee, populated by former Teachers of the Year, but right now, all decisions are also made anonymously, possibly by the assistant provost’s office assistant.
Below is a selection from our inaugural Teachers of the Year. Drum roll, please...
Earl N. Meyer, associate professor of chemistry, likes to ignite students’ passion for chemistry with a Bunsen burner and counsels all students to wear nonflammable clothing to class. His lab display at the end of the semester, relying on a combination of lithium and water, has been termed “explosive” by all observers. He prides himself on always being there for his students, even at 3 a.m., though the student in question declined to press charges. “Without chemistry,” he declares, “life itself would be impossible. Without the chemistry department at U of All People, I’d be out of a job.”
Professor Penny Anti, the Eames Chair of Business, believes in learning by doing and “putting my money where my mouth is,” so every semester she gives her students real money to invest, at 15 percent interest. “One of us always comes out ahead,” she jokes. “It’s all a learning experience.” Professor Anti is also president of the Entrepreneurs Club, which last year grossed an undisclosed amount. Her motto: Business Is Good.
Odiette Amo, assistant professor of classics, is single-handedly responsible for the renaissance in classical studies, which includes two new students in the last five years -- single-handedly because she is the only professor left in the department. Her most popular activity is the Classics Olympics, in which students decline Latin nouns while riding chariot races around the football field. Her new campaign to increase recruitment, by serving as faculty adviser to Greek organizations on campus, has already bred success and confusion. Enchanted with Ovid at an early age, she recites her credo daily: “Venio, video, disco.”
Instructor Jess Anon in the English department maintains his sense of humor despite a teaching load of seven composition courses a semester. Paradoxically and annoyingly, he is the only publishing instructor in the department, author of a chapbook of verse that he assigns in every class. Founder of the Center for Support of Jess Anon in 2011, he supports the cause with an end-of-semester party and cash bar, held in his Quonset hut attached to a ventilation duct in College Hall. He also sells old Halloween candy during class.
Professor Al Cawlic in the sociology department studies the culture of 12-step programs. “To study the problem, be the problem,” he tells his student, the last one standing after another of Cawlic’s marathon binges. He’s often seen riding to work on his bicycle, and not just because he lost his license after three DUIs. Interviewed by the U of All People student newspaper at Garrity’s Bar and Grill, he told the reporter, “I like to emphasize the social in sociology, y’know? Y’know? When you think of it, everything’s fieldwork, really. I’ll drink to that.”
Associate professor Bill Demme in the mechanical engineering department is a self-confessed inspiration to his students, yet he remains practical. “Practical applications, I tell my graduate students. Keep it practical, especially since it’s my name that’s going on as coauthor, and I get 50 percent from any patents. Oh, and an active learning environment. That’s key.” To this end, he sponsors an annual canoe canoe race, in which contestants must construct a canoe out of two old canoes. As a former student commented, “It demonstrates the adage 'sink or swim,' which is how Professor Demme’s classes works in practice.”
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
I’ve worked in higher education for 23 years, 4 months and 6 days. If you add college and grad school to the mix, I’ve been associated with universities for (let’s see... carry the five... plus two… equals) a long time.
So I’ve had plenty of opportunities to ponder our peculiar industry and consider why things are the way they are.
People always ask me that very question. Really -- they just come up to me at parties, shrug their shoulders and say, “Why?” I try not to think it’s some kind of existential query or it’s because I’m wearing a plaid jacket with a striped shirt and a polka dot tie. I might develop a complex or something.
No, I think we simply have more questions than answers. To wit:
Why does our year end in June (or July, for some) when the rest of the world thinks in terms of, you know, January to December?
Why, when we’re considering change of any sort, is the most frequently uttered phrase, “Because we’ve always done it that way”?
Why, when communicating externally, do we use jargon and buzzwords only we understand?
Why do we aim to obfuscate and befuddle in the Orwellian tradition?
Why do some believe academic freedom extends beyond the normal boundaries of free speech and, for that matter, decorum?
Why do we assume academic freedom doesn’t exist absent tenure?
Why do we think the public understands tuition discounting and won’t have sticker shock?
Why do birds suddenly appear…?
Why don’t TV crews follow athletes from the field to the library after Saturday night’s big game to show that academic ability and athletic prowess can live in true harmony?
Why does every campus community in America complain about parking as if it’s their own private hell?
Why don’t we conclude that if it takes 10 months to fill an important administrative vacancy and the place doesn’t fold in the meantime, then perhaps we could do without it?
Why are there no classes on Fridays?
Why are there classes at 8 a.m.?
Why does the Big 12 have 10 members?
Why does the Big Ten have 14?
Why does the Atlantic Coast Conference think the coast extends to South Bend, Ind.?
Why does the Big East consider Chicago east?
Why are résumés 2 pages and vitae 30?
Why do no decisions get made and no work gets done during the six weeks known as “the holidays”?
Why are we no longer permitted to utter the word “Christmas”?
Why do we hire experienced experts whose first order of business is to hire consultants?
Why do fools fall in love?
Why can’t I find SEC hockey on ESPNU?
Why do adjuncts adjunct under such conditions?
Why does the media pay so much attention to universities that collectively enroll less than 1 percent of our nation’s students?
Why don’t they pay more attention to systemic issues such as those adjuncts?
Why do students never read the syllabus until something goes wrong?
Why do employees never read the employee manual until something goes wrong?
Why do all mission statements sound the same and yet say nothing?
Why aren’t there more bowling scholarships?
Why do we still value seat time over competencies?
Why do we conflate administrative experience with ability?
Why do we need 22 assistant directors of admissions?
Why is an appendix more valuable to a book than to a human body?
Why can’t we be friends?
Why do textbooks cost more than my first car?
Why do textbooks depreciate faster than cars?
Why do people post what they had for lunch on Facebook?
Why do we respond?
Why isn’t college baseball more popular?
Why do we continue blaming rising costs on external regulations?
Why do we need climbing walls?
Why do we celebrate snow days like we’re in middle school?
Why don’t we have more snow days?
Why are the paved pathways across the quad never the shortest route?
Why don’t we do it in the road?
Why do people confuse deciding with doing?
Why do we fuss with the various Latin declensions of “alumni” when it’s easier to say “graduates”?
Why do we all say we recognize charismatic leadership when we see it but can’t seem to define charisma?
Why ask why?
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the latest installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.
"[M]any adults want to gain a degree and gain re-employment with as little time in the classroom as possible.... College Credit FastTrack will enable these students to complete a life-changing degree program more quickly and at a reduced cost."
--Nicholas Neupauer, president, Butler County Community College
Board Chair, Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, in Feb. 2 news release
Good morning! And welcome to Paradise University’s monthly Skype session!
As president of this institution, I am pleased to announce that the accreditation process is moving along smoothly -- and it is with great pride that I can assure you that Paradise U is well on its way to being recognized as the home of the fastest, easiest, most innovative track yet in higher education!
Speaking of home, I am talking to you this morning from our new physical campus, a gift from local company Less Is More, which repurposes old garden sheds as tiny homes. I’ve been following the Twitter campaign #paradiseugonetohell, and I realize that some alums are distressed by this move from our old campus, but let me tell you about the big things that are happening here in our 400 square feet -- and that does not even include the loft, where our operators are crouched, waiting for your texts.
So, fond greetings to all current, past and prospective students. I hope that you’ll agree with me that Paradise is in fact the perfect source for purchasing your life-changing degree.
The new directory is now available. You will note that we no longer have academic advisers at Paradise U; several polls suggested that the use of the word “academic” was confusing and off-putting. Instead, we have a staff of brokers who work with students and who report directly to the vice presidents of innovation, international outreach, consortium dealing, and our newest program, Credit for Just About Anything.
Former full-time faculty members -- and I know the vice presidents join me in this sentiment of wishing them all the best; really, they were a wonderful if cantankerous group -- would certainly find it ironic if not surprising to learn that as of the new year all committees have been officially disbanded.
Like maintaining (some former students would say “enduring”!) classrooms and requiring community service, sustaining the illusion of democratic governance by committee was too costly and just slowed things down. In our new administrative system, the V.P.s and their staffs of assistants, subdirectors, site overseers, lawyers and compliance officers hire brokers; create, approve and assign syllabuses to our fine staff of contingent instructors (a lively body of workers that’s always changing); and form alliances with V.P.s of other institutions that share our mission -- a mission that is constantly evolving.
See our new mission statement, “First in Fast,” which replaces last month’s “Fast, Faster, Fastest.” In the spirit of our newest mission, I am happy to announce that our international program is growing by leaps and bounds. You may recall that Paradise was the leader in arguing that the TOEFL requirement should be obsolete!
Our brokers are available 24/7 to help you find the perfect courses for your needs. As for any classes you took elsewhere before discovering Paradise, rest assured that we will automatically count them all. We have long prided ourselves on having the most generous transfer system in the world! Your personal broker will determine which of your life experiences will count as well. Again, please don’t worry! You wouldn’t believe all the stories we’ve accepted for credit! See our app Enter Paradise for a checklist of personal experiences.
We offer over 300 graduate programs, along with 200 undergrad programs, including our 1-year B.A., and countless certificate programs -- all cobbled together from offerings from various schools in our grand consortium. And with our new Paradise Plus EvenFasterTrack, you can now earn two (or even three!) degrees at once. Your broker will be happy to give you the details. Be sure to check out testimonials from recent graduates (@paradise #ParadiseFound).
If you’re still not sure that Paradise is for you, you can sample one of our new pilot programs. During the month of February, get three credits for watching one TED Talk! (Do the math, if you can: TED Talks are 18 minutes long, so that’s 1 credit for every 6 minutes of watching YouTube.)
Before I let you return to your busy lives, I have a message for everyone still enrolled in our liberal arts division: the deadline for all completed midterm exams is March 1, 2015, 4:00 p.m. GMT. Remember to use @paradise #mydeepesthought.
Thank you for your interest and support. Paradise is here for you: we can help you make your life-changing move quickly, painlessly and effortlessly. We’d also like to point out that the word “education” appears only once in this talk, just after “higher” in the opening lines, and we hope that you will be inspired to join us.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College.
I hate my hair. Really. It refuses to behave. I try brushing it into submission, but it refuses, springing out from its confinement in hair band and bobby pins. I hate my roommate more. Why is she sick? Now I have to go interview Dr. Christian Black for the school paper and I am too nervous and scared of him to even begin to make sense.
Everyone knows about Dr. Black. He is the youngest Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard, graduating at 24 with distinction. Now at 29 he’s at the top of his game, an endowed professor teaching social theory here at Anonymous U. And he’s rich, too. They say he has his own private helicopter pad on the top of his penthouse apartment.
Who am I to interview him? Sure my name, Anastasia Irons, makes me sound like a princess, but I’m just the daughter of a lumberjack and a secretary. It’s crazy that I even got into AnonU and even crazier that I majored in Social Theory.
I mean, Social Theory is for intellectuals. People who have time to sit around and think deeply about the sort of post-Marxian reimaging of capital done by the likes of Pierre Bourdieu. I’m just a poor girl from the backwoods who works at the local hardware store and is too skinny to be anything but a guy’s best friend.
Speaking of best friends, mine is José, who is poor, too. And not white. That’s not important, but I’m not going to marry him, even though he’d like to marry me and our fathers are best friends. But as Bourdieu says, class classifies and it classifies the classifier and my racial and social capital just hasn’t given me a “taste” (in the Bourdieuean sense) for a poor Latino. I’m going to marry a prince, someone rich and white who will sweep me off my feet.
Just kidding. Of course a modern-day girl like me doesn’t believe in fairy tales. I’ve read my Eva Illouz. I know that “love hurts” and the trope of modern romance is irony.
Oh shoot, I’m late. I have to be at Mr. Black’s office in five minutes.
I arrive, panting, a flush on my face. Mr. Black’s secretary, a perfectly dressed blond with well-behaved hair, ushers me into his waiting room and asks if I would like some water or a paper towel to wipe the perspiration off my face. I want to disappear. Why did I sprint across campus?
“Ms. Irons? Come in,” says a voice as smooth and velvety as a panther. I look up to see the most beautiful man I have ever encountered. His eyes blacker than black. His hair a golden brown swept back from his brow. And his lips, oh, those kissable lips, full and red and pulled into something between a sneer and a smile.
I walk across the room, trying not to tremble in his gaze. I move past him and electricity circulates between our bodies.
And then I trip, flat onto my face.
Mr. Black reaches out his arms, trying to break my fall, and our bodies are pressed together. It is more than I can take. I let out a gasp.
Mr. Black’s apartment is everything cold and sleek and modern. It is bereft of clutter. White walls, abstract paintings, utilitarian light fixtures more suitable to a theater than a home.
I sit on the white leather couch, nervously chewing my lip and looking up at him.
“Ms. Irons,” he says, “if we are going to go any further with this relationship there is something I need you to sign.”
He hands me a contract.
I look at it.
The submissive will only touch the sacred objects when instructed to do so.
The submissive will refer to the dominant as Dr., Sir, Professor, or Herr Doktor at all times.
The submissive will stay thin, pale and trembling at all times, awaiting the dominant’s touch in order to truly understand her desires.
There was more.
“This is sexist!” I throw the contact on the ground, petulantly, like a small child.
“Careful, Ms. Irons. If you act like a child, you might get treated like one,” he says, a sharp edge to his otherwise sexy voice.
“What does that mean?” I ask, a tingle running along my spine.
“If you sign, I’ll explain everything,” he purrs.
I sign. What choice did I have?
I’m kneeling on the floor before him. I have never felt more afraid and more excited.
“So,” he asks, “what do you think of my secret?”
His secret, his secret room, his read room of pain(ful) abstract thought.
“Can I touch it?” I ask, stretching out my fingers toward what lies between his hands.
Ouch, that hurt.
“No, you cannot touch my 1939 German edition of Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process,” he snarls.
Suddenly my arms are pinned over my head. He snaps the handcuffs shut and takes the key and puts it into the pocket of his faded jeans. Oh, the beauty of his body, the loose jeans, his eight-pack abs, his alabaster skin.
“You have no idea how valuable this is. Without this book, Foucault would never have written Discipline and Punish!” he says as he rubs a 1975 original edition of Surveiller et punir over my quivering body.
“Please, Herr Doktor. Professor. Sir?” I moan, unable to contain my desire to get my hands on all the beautiful books around me, the Zizek, the Butler, the Derrida. Oh, the Derrida.
The next morning as I walk across campus, what should be the walk of shame transforms into something that makes me glow from the inside out. Oh, the read room of pain(ful) abstract thought. My beautiful lover’s dirty little secret. And now my dirty little secret, too. I can’t wait to go back.
Laurie Essig is associate professor of sociology and gender, sexuality and feminist studies at Middlebury College.
Student retention has been in the news a lot lately, but for a long time, no one at U of All People took it too seriously, since we’ve always had the same 20 percent rate of graduation within 20 years. To supplement our data, we also rely on anecdotal evidence, such as Professor Daissa Frogg’s looking around his biology lab in 2005 and exclaiming, “Where is everybody?” As it turned out, Professor Frogg had simply got the time wrong, and most of the students were at lunch.
But recently our rates have plummeted to below 10 percent, teasing at the edges of our institutional consciousness like a zen koan: What is the sound of a school with no students? Or, as the bursar, Shaumida Munnie, put it, “What’s a school that brings in zero tuition dollars?”
A hastily set-up committee, SSF (Stop Student Flight), came up with these findings: Students leave in droves during the summer, despite the current 24/7/12 system, under which no time slot or class space goes unfilled. But students also leave for reasons of bad grades (below a B+), drug and alcohol abuse (or insufficient quantities), and lack of financial support (in fact, we count on student dollars to support us). Also: apathy, irritation with overlong lectures, and the conviction that they could be spending their time more profitably flipping burgers at McDonald’s.
Accordingly, the SSF has met at least twice and come up with some measures that should make U of All People the only campus in the U.S., beyond maximum-security prison, able to boast a 100 percent retention rate, if you define terms like “100,” “percent,” “retention,” and “rate” rather loosely. Here are some of the proposals:
Prescription parties, offering Abilify to Zoloft. The first dose is free, after which the drugs are distributed on an ascending scale of payment, though the cost may be waived if the student maintains a G.P.A. higher than 3.0.
Resident advisers recruited from the ranks of bar mitzvah motivators, enriching dorm life with games, loud music, and cheap party favors. Motivators will also encourage lollapalooza study sessions and romantic all-nighters.
Financial incentives. Since we can’t put everyone on scholarship, we propose to reward students who complete a minimum of 500 credit hours. Since the minimum number of hours required for graduation is 126, it’s mainly the thought that counts.
A grade-adjustment system, for any grades that students aren’t happy with. Students must fill out a form in which they explain why an A from U of All People means the world to them.
Ten-foot-high fences surrounding the campus, topped with concertina wire, and a full check of all delivery trucks going in and out.
In addition to these five programs, set to go into effect this fall, here is a set of additional ideas that, in the words of SSF chair Jess Kidden, “haven’t quite gelled yet”:
Peer pressure, including a campaign to “Sign the ‘Don’t drop out!’ pledge.” Posters, prizes.
Mandatory, undeletable phone app that buzzes maddeningly whenever the phone is away from campus for more than a week.
Free lunch every Monday, the cost built into every student’s activity fees.
Perfect-attendance certificates, suitable for framing or posting on Instagram (with special certificate filter).
Nightly head-count in the dorms.
Distribution of “We ♡ Our Students” T-shirts to faculty.
Note: The SSF did include a student representative on the committee, but by the second time the committee met, she had already withdrawn from school.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
Depending on the geographic locus, the beginning of the semester is upon us and we have begun to do real work, finishing the musical chairs game of finding seats for students in the classes they need or a match with an instructor that they can live with for 50 minutes three times a week.
In my English composition classes we are now at work on the narrative and in order to not just talk about English 1101 being a workshop or activity class, my students and I took 25 minutes out for what is commonly called "in-class" writing.
When I say "we" I mean that my students and I write at the same time. This is by no means a radical or new pedagogical tactic, though for some reason most colleagues I have had over the years do not write with their students.
I write with my students because I want to feel what 25 minutes really feels like when one has been told to keep the pen or pencil going. Of course my 25 minutes might be very different from my students' 25 minutes, and that 25 minutes might differ as it relates to the writing experience from student to student.
I could not help but get philosophical, and maybe even a little nostalgic, about in-class writing this fall, the beginning of my 22nd year of full-time teaching at the college level.
My mind began to survey as I heard tables in the class creak -- most likely wood laminate surfaces, and these tables were good, tall tables where three students could sit, a far cry from the desks of my own school days and also most of my teaching career, which were uncomfortable and represented a strange continuance from secondary education. Come to think of it, and I did of course do so during this in-class writing session, most students would have a difficult time fitting into the "retro" desks; perhaps that is one reason they are no longer widely used.
Fortunately some things remain the same, such as students contorting their necks a certain way as they write, some with faces just above the erasure marks they make on notebook paper, while others have their own light imprint and yet others boldly press onto papers so that a felt tip pen would be short-lived prey in their hands. Thank God for cheap ink pens that are strangely resilient in the hands of some.
As I wrote this year I could feel my right hand hurt; I have begun to feel that very quickly these past three years or so, to be honest. It would be lovely to say that this is from all my years of hard manual labor of the mind and hand-writing. The truth lies in my orthopedic surgeon's diagnosis, "You're just like a car with a lot of miles on it."
I think most of my students will be spared, are already spared the experience of involving the whole hand, arm, shoulder, in the manual labor of writing. They are thumb writers, more advanced than I am when it comes to producing electronic texts. I use one finger to type out texts, more advanced than many of my middle-aged peers if I may say so proudly and slightly in illusion and defense of being youthful still. My students are athletic writers made for our times, I have for the first time not only come to accept but also to observe with some admiration.
In my introduction to writing I somehow spontaneously said, "You can probably write an essay with two thumbs on your smartphone," and this remark was very well-received by my students, friendly smiles and eyes lighting up in a positive way. I must have hit a nerve. And as my students were making the desks creak before me, some even wearing earphones because I had encouraged them to wear them to be in their own world as long as they kept them turned down enough so that no one else could hear them, I thought, I should experiment this semester and have students write their one timed, in-class essay on their smartphone.
I began to take this enormous pride, almost parental, at the thought of my students brilliantly, or at least with accomplishment, writing an essay with probably better results than they could produce on paper simply by typing on their tiny electronic device, performing a feat I and many others of middle age would consider almost something for the circus.
My free-writing brain then ventured into the territory of students' in-class writing over the last few years. I had one of those eureka moments, or if not that, the time was right for a revelation. Suddenly the answer was before me. I knew now why I had increasingly been receiving neatly printed essays and also anything that I had asked for to be written in class, in letters that were not cursive writing. I had over the years marveled at the students' scriptorium work, as if they were continuing some tradition, like monks illuminating manuscripts.
But the truth is more related to the gradual abandonment of cursive writing and the teaching of cursive writing in public schools.
I observe this not with negativity or in some kind of subdued snarl. Why would students really need cursive writing? Why do so many of us complain that students do not know this "art," and why might we say, "Look at this stack: only one person wrote in cursive"?
No, students have evolved and they have no need to write in cursive, not even during in-class writing. Judging by the amount of words they can produce they have adapted to print faster.
And look at us -- we might employ that ancient, "lost" "art," but really, often that is used to record a thought that might as well have been committed to our idea bank on a smartphone. And when was the last time you wrote an entire essay or article by hand and then transcribed it on the computer? Let's be honest here. Evolution has taken place.
Is there room for cursive writing as we now begin the academic year in the not-so-hallowed halls of academe across America?
Sure, but along with this kind of circus-act writing there is room, even more so, for the two-thumb essay.
Ulf Kirchdorfer is a professor of English at Darton State College.
To: Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Subject: Trigger Warnings
In order to anticipate potential liability issues rising from the teaching of humanities and social science courses, we have reviewed the syllabuses across your college’s departments, with particular attention given to the impacting of racial and ethnic themes on our clientele’s (aka students’) emotional well-being. We have provisionally concluded that the English department can continue to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Merchant of Venice, while taking into careful consideration the sensibilities of African-American, Jewish and related niche audiences.
But in the course of our investigation, we found other reasons to anticipate future legal and public relations challenges for the university. With the support of the offices of student services and marketing and communications, which coordinated several focus groups, we found several books that could become the subject of class action suits. Please find below five examples from our full list that, if present campus trends continue, will raise red flags.
Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey
Students were disturbed by Homer’s “relentless” depiction of mayhem and gore: “Like the X-Men franchise, but Wolverine is definitely a more likable mutant than Achilles,” concluded one respondent. Several students objected to the treatment of women -- mostly relegated to domestic activities or war booty -- and demanded to know if there were other epic poems by blind Archaic Greek bards that offered examples of female empowerment.
Also, a small but vocal number of students wearing PETA t-shirts protested the “inhumane” treatment of the dog Argo, left to die on a dung heap. Given the youthful impressionability of our customer base, we find potential problems with the Lotus-eater episode, as well as the character Helen’s liberal use of pharmacological agents.
Anonymous' "The Book of Job"
“Are you sure this is part of the Bible?” asked many respondents, who also exhibited intense unease with God’s actions, as they did with Job’s questions. The mounting suspense in waiting for God to reply adversely impacted many students (as did the irritation factor supplied by Job’s friends).
While the groups’ expectations were raised when a voice came from the whirlwind, they were deflated by the voice’s answers -- which, according to one respondent, weren’t answers at all. (“Like my parents, only worse.”) At the end of the session, a palpable sense of dread, along with isolated cases of fear and trembling, were in evidence -- all matters of concern for our office.
Though we were informed this work combines the two “Homeric” poems in one, the focus groups concluded it was somehow longer. Respondents were disturbed by the negative depiction of the character Dido -- “If she, like, died ‘before her time,’ how fair is that?” -- while the character Juno also elicited negative comments: “Clearly the product of a harsh patriarchal society determined to depict independent women as hysterical and dangerous.”
More generally, respondents were disoriented by Virgil’s habit, in the words of one participant, “to undermine the Roman values he pretends to uphold.” We find sufficient grounds for concern that students might argue they cannot be expected to give clear answers on their final exam if Virgil could not give any in his final poem. Our staff also suggests that more litigious individuals will claim that if Virgil could leave his poem unfinished, they could do the same with their exam.
Machiavelli's The Prince
Several students spoke of their emotional distress after reading the author’s claim that if a ruler obeys “something resembling good it will lead to his ruin, while something resembling vice will lead to power.” Other students, however, announced their decision to run for president of their fraternity and sorority chapters.
Significant liability potential resides in the author’s use of Cesare Borgia as a role model: his praise of Borgia’s public “dicing and slicing” (in one participant’s phrase) of a subordinate does not reflect the “brand” values of our university.
Our office for students with special needs signaled its concern over the presence of two characters with disabilities -- they lost “their shanks in the Ardennes” -- who are confined to garbage pails. The office also worries that two other characters -- one who cannot sit down, the other who cannot stand up -- appear indifferent to this situation.
We cannot decide which is more problematic for the university: those respondents left despondent by the play’s existential desolation, epistemological doubts and ethical despair, and those respondents who kept giggling. In general, it remains to be seen whether, when it comes to the trigger warning controversy, we can’t go on or must go on.
Rob Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston's Honors College and author, most recently, of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Completing a journey spanning more than half a century, Peyton (Perry) Potetick today received his master’s degree in education from Harvard University, making him the first person to earn a degree from each of the eight Ivy League schools.
When asked how he felt now that his quest is complete, Potetick replied, “tired.”
Potetick’s tour of the Ivy League began before the league was even formed. A returning war veteran, Potetick took advantage of the GI Bill and completed his undergraduate education in 1950 at Princeton in his home state of New Jersey. Four years later, Princeton formally joined with seven other old, prestigious, wealthy institutions in the Northeast to form an athletic league that would compete more for Nobels and Pulitzers than for Heismans (even though Heisman himself attended two of the Ivies) and whose name would become synonymous with cardigans, elbow patches, tweed and aristocratic exclusivity, at least until the late 1970s.
Following graduation, Potetick landed a job with Mallblight, Inc., a real estate development firm in Trenton. Eyeing a position in upper management, Potetick pursued an MBA degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
“It seemed like a good move at the time,” recalled Potetick. “I really thought I wanted to spend my career in the strip-mall business ravaging suburbs.”
Mallblight made his decision a bit easier by footing the bill for his education. “All they wanted in return was a commitment of 10 years when I was done,” he said.
Potetick paid half his debt before realizing that his interests lay elsewhere. He wasn’t exactly certain where, but surely somewhere else, he thought.
That overwhelming desire to do something — anything — else led him to the inexorable conclusion to attend law school, which he did at Yale. Potetick plodded his way through Yale, to the extent one can plod through Yale, and graduated in 1962. He never did practice law, however.
“It dawned on me that I was more enticed by the prospect of studying law than practicing it,” Potetick admitted. “Actually, I just wanted to be back in school. That feeling never really left.”
Armed now with three Ivy degrees, certainly not by design at this point, Potetick began teaching business law part-time at Columbia while supplementing his income by tutoring Albanian undergraduates and writing for an underground newspaper called The Happy Hippy.
“Those days at the Hippy, man…they were pretty far out,” said Armand Arme, a fellow Hippy writer. “Perry was just about the most bitchin’ cat going.”
Bitten by the newspaper bug and buoyed by his favorable reviews, Potetick enrolled in Columbia’s journalism school, taking courses here and there while he figured out how to put all his education and work experience together. He earned his fourth degree in 1968, reaching the halfway point in his Ivy journey, and set his sights on the fourth estate.
But love soon intervened. He met his future wife, Anna Fora, a Columbia doctoral student in Icelandic philology, falling for her straight, stringy hair and bottle-bottom glasses. “She was a true beauty,” remembered Potetick, “by the 1960s definition of the term.”
Fora found a faculty position at NYU, and Potetick managed to wangle a job in the assistant to the associate provost’s office collating tenure review forms. Before long, he and Fora married, and their twin sons, Larry and Gary, arrived. Potetick tended to their needs while plotting his future.
“I tried to get Perry a teaching job at NYU,” Fora said, “but everyone considered him overqualified. I tried to encourage his writing career, which spit and sputtered as much as Larry and Gary. And I tried to talk him into pursuing another degree at NYU, given, you know, his love for education and all, but he said it wasn’t an Ivy.”
“It wasn’t an Ivy,” echoed Potetick, who began to realize his life’s purpose. “I started to think, ‘Hey, I have half of the Ivy League covered, so why not keep going?’ ”
The couple toiled awhile in New York before Fora saw an opening in Icelandic philology at Dartmouth, one of two such positions she’d seen in seven years. “It was a sign,” realized Fora. “It was a sign that Perry’s quest was more than just an odd obsession.”
So off they went to New Hampshire, where Fora thrived and Larry and Gary became left- and right-wingers for the local youth hockey club and showed an early interest in politics. Meanwhile, Potetick, by a sheer stroke of luck and a good bit of pluck, got a job at Tuck archiving the financial records of Dartmouth alumnus Theodor Geisel. Money remained fairly scarce in the Potetick household, and Perry’s student loans came home to roost.
“I decided it was time to return to school once again to keep the loans at bay,” Potetick said. “Plus, Dartmouth let me pursue a degree for free, so it was a win-win.”
Potetick’s Ivy tally rose to five in 1988 when he completed his Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degree with a focus on international pan-globalization.
“The world was my oyster,” said Potetick, who continued to diligently pursue a career worthy of his intellectual investments now that he’d earned degrees from 62.5 percent of the Ivy League.
His plan to finally buckle down and establish a consultancy focused on international business journalism libel law was dashed when Fora was denied tenure at Dartmouth, forcing the couple to uproot Larry and Gary and seek greener pastures. As fate would have it, Fora’s former flame, Rick Javik, who recently had become head of Nordic studies at Ithaca College, invited her to join the new department.
The disruption put Potetick’s employment plans on hold but rekindled his passion for Ivy completeness. Nearby Cornell represented conquest number six and offered him an opportunity to pursue yet another utilitarian degree, an M.F.A. While Fora immersed her students in Vikings, Ibsen and cured cuttlefish, Potetick workshopped his short stories and creative nonfiction. He felt a fervor not realized since his days at The Happy Hippy, and he was, once again, happy.
“We were happy,” recounts Fora. “We were happy, but, alas, it wouldn’t last.”
Just as Potetick was finishing his M.F.A. and Fora was in the throes of a course on Norwegian hammer throwers, the flame between Fora and Javik was rekindled and romance began anew. Cuckolded, Potetick departed Ithaca a week after graduation, leaving Larry and Gary and his idyllic Ithaca existence for a small studio on a hill in Providence.
“Those were some black days, and I was feeling blue,” Potetick said, “but I soon discovered a home at Brown.”
In 1995 he enrolled in Brown’s graduate program in American studies in an effort to complement his international pan-globalization degree and obtain pure academic hegemony. Potetick sustained a relatively meager income by teaching writing to Latvian orphans and polyeurothaning hardwood floors at the local square-dance hall.
“We were a bit reluctant to admit Perry at first,” said Steve Rogers, former head of Brown’s American studies department. “He was of course qualified academically, but he just seemed to be such an intellectual… vagabond. After some downright ugly debates among the faculty, we totally bought into his quest to touch every Ivy base, so it became a no-brainer.”
Potetick finished his master’s thesis on “The Sociocultural Ramifications of Culture in Society: Circular Reasoning for Reason’s Sake” and graduated from Brown in 1998, receiving the department’s highest honors for his thesis. His mentors begged him to stay on and teach random undergraduate courses -- and poly the faculty lounge floor -- but Potetick declined.
“I really loved Brown,” said Potetick, “but it was time to leave the academy for a real job. I felt I was finally qualified. For what, I didn’t know.”
Over the next decade, Potetick worked his way north along Route 95, stopping for stints as a batman for the Pawtucket Red Sox, a carnival pitchman in Attleboro, a concession stand operator in Foxboro, a conjugal visit coordinator in Walpole, and an assistant embalmer in Dedham. All along, one goal remained.
“I needed to conquer the White Whale,” he revealed. “I knew all roads led to Cambridge.”
Cambridge is home to MIT, which happens not to be an Ivy, and it’s also home to Harvard, the eighth and final Ivy necessary to complete Potetick’s impossible dream.
The question for Potetick became which degree to pursue. He’d covered business, law, international relations, literature and American studies and a few others informally. After an excruciating day of thought, he concluded there was only one discipline that could culminate his education: education.
In the fall of 2012, Potetick began his studies at Harvard. He diligently dove into the one-year master’s program, finishing comfortably in 18 months. At commencement, Harvard’s president singled out Potetick for his unwavering commitment to learning and for completing his remarkable journey through the Ivy League.
“The thrust of what Perry set out to accomplish was educational enlightenment and a life explored,” said Harvard’s head honcho. “But he turned it into so much more than that, did he not? For Perry, the thirst for learning became an unreasonable and — let’s be honest — frivolous pursuit of academic credentials as trophies to be mantled. Can there be a better testament to the human appetite for self-aggrandizement? For this, Perry surely must be celebrated.”
There to celebrate with Potetick were Fora, Larry and Gary. Javik was on a whaling expedition near Spitsbergen and sent his best wishes.
“Finally,” Fora said with a smile. “Finally you can die in peace.”
When asked what he planned to do now that he’d achieved his goal, Potetick looked pensive. After a pause, he suddenly brightened.
“With my degree in education and my certification,” he said, “I’m finally qualified to teach first grade. Yeah, that’s what I want to do. I want to shape young minds, to inspire a new generation of strivers, of dreamers, of credential collectors. I’m living proof that with hard work and a bit of good fortune, anyone can convince an admissions committee. After all, isn’t that what life’s all about?”
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the latest installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.