Our Entering Class for 2008

This year, Harvard accepted only about 9 percent of those who applied, and Columbia University took an even lower percentage. What are these incoming students like? Are they all genius athletes arranged in an ethnically diverse spectrum?

At U of All People, where we understand the publicity value of such standards -- and like a good challenge -- we’ve set our goal even higher: Next year, we intend to accept only 5 percent of those who apply to our fabled university. However, in order to attract that many applicants, we’ll need to lower our admissions criteria somewhat. Here’s what we’re looking for:

  • a minimum SAT score of 400, calculated with a special bonus system that rewards extra effort
  • a GPA of at least 1.5, with special consideration given to vocational skills
  • a varsity letter—or some experience—in sports, with the term sports broadly defined to include Texas Hold ’Em, video games, and yodeling
  • at least one extracurricular activity: may encompass shopping and watching most television serials
  • community service, with special credit for parole activities
  • proficiency in at least one language, such as English
  • a vaguely ethnic look, if not true ethnicity (may be waived upon lawsuit)
  • a geographical location for place of residence, including foreign countries with whom the U.S. is not currently at war
  • a median family income of some median or other
  • a high school diploma or a reasonable facsimile thereof
  • an application at least two-thirds completed, or to the best of the applicant’s ability

Of course, if we don’t manage to attract such qualified applicants, we have our fallback position: our famous 100% acceptance rate -- “Educational democracy in action!” -- at U of All People, where enrollment is a way of life and our top priority.

Student success is important, but access to students is even more so. 

David Galef
Author's email:

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Turning 30: A Self-Interview

Q: You’ve written thirty “Purely Academic” columns. Can you reflect on the experience?

A: Toward the end of Thomas Pynchon’s V, a girl asks one of the heroes, Benny Profane, about what he’s learned. Benny, we read, “didn’t have to think long. ‘No,’ he said, ‘Offhand I’d say I haven’t learned a goddamn thing.’”

Q: Surely you jest. And I don’t like literary types.

A: Well, all right. One thing I’ve learned is that anything having to do with students is guaranteed to draw lots of comment. It scarcely matters what you write. Everybody gets very agitated over giving excuses, leaving class to go to the bathroom and drawing up syllabi.

Q: Is this wrong?

A: No, but it’s one thing to try to compose a reasoned argument about such subjects, while it’s another thing to express an opinion. Once I read somewhere -- all right, no more literature, although now you’ll have to pardon my French -- that the great Dodger manager, Walter Alston, once stated: “Everybody has two things, an opinion and an asshole.” About some subjects, an opinion is just too easy.

Q: So what are readers supposed to do, just agree with you?

A: Of course not. Another thing I’ve learned is that not everybody will agree with you, even if you think you’re being eminently reasonable, and not everybody will disagree with you, even if you take yourself to be contrary. The wonder of the site’s format is that a column draws all sorts of comments. You shouldn’t be surprised at anything. At first, I was; like any academic, I wasn’t used to having actual readers. Now I anticipate them.

Q: What do you mean, academics are not used to readers? I don’t know about you, but over the years I’ve gotten some appreciative comments about something I’ve written.

A: Sure, but how many read a standard professional journal? How many reviews can we expect for our scholarly books? Most articles and books are written for the personnel file. My guess is, we’d write very little if we didn’t have to be tenured or promoted.

Q: You sound like you’re about to commit a column. Some of them -- a recent one on bosses comes to mind most recently -- were awfully cynical.

A: Guilty as suspected and judged. So much so, I could mention another example of what Borat (remember him?) would term a “learning”: how amazing it is if you write two-and-a-half to three single-spaced pages once a month for some two years you come to feel that this is a nice comfy fit for just about any subject.

Q: Are we now talking about the wrong end of Walter Alston?

A: Touché. Put it another way. A friend tells me of a new DVD that includes a short 30s film with Boris Karloff as a mad scientist being exploited by a newspaper magnate. Best line from Karloff’s crippled manservant, who declares: “I don’t mind dying but to be accused of journalism!.” What I meant is that at times not only have I accused myself of journalism, but I’ve felt no shame.

Q: Why should you? What’s the matter with journalism? Academics can be such snobs.

A: C’mon. Begin anywhere, say with the fact that journalism is written for the moment, whereas literature is written for the ages. At first, I suppose I took myself often to be writing, well, literature -- artful examples of a venerable genre, the personal essay. Then I ceased to think about it this way, even if the composed dimension of each column still means a lot to me. Readers rebuked me. Responses still stampeded over, or away with, the most incidental asides. I write about things happening on campus right now -- sex and violence or parking lots and classroom jokes. That’s how I’ve been read from the beginning. Now it’s simply how I expect to be read -- and let the response balloons inflate as they may.

Q: It sounds to me as if you’re in effect writing a blog. What’s the difference between the column and a blog?

A: Less than it might seem, especially when you consider how some bloggers regularly seek a formal shape to even the most occasional comment. Other than the fact that “Purely Academic” appears as part of on online magazine, I suppose its main difference from a blog is that a blog is content with its personal, occasional character, whereas a column aims to be more broadly discursive, less consistently personal. But this is a tricky difference. It deserves a column.

Q: Other ideas for future columns?

A: You have to wait. Like me. Just when I think there’s nothing more for me to write about, I’ll hear or read something, and then lurch keyboard-ward. The only thing I’m conscious of is considering odd, wayward, or marginal subjects -- wearing ties, having a dog in the classroom, dreaming about being elsewhere, finding a place to read. Nobody writes about these things.

Q: Maybe with good reason.

A: So readers have at various times pointed out. That’s what it’s like to have a dialogue -- as well as to write for a magazine. You’re always being judged. A column or two ago one reader urged the magazine to drop me entirely. Another addressed me as a “professor thug.” It’s not my magazine. But if the column were my blog, I’d be the judge.

Q: What in your opinion is the leading issue in higher education today?

A: Read the rest of Inside Higher Ed. In a sense, I go in search of the least leading issues.

Q: Maybe I have to read the column more. Any regrets about it?

A: Two.

Q: Do I have to ask again?

A: One regret has to do with comedy. Most academic novels are comic. Academic life is, I think, best comprehended in comic terms. Who was the Oxford don who opined: “Students recur?” Precisely. Everything in academe recurs -- the character types, the components of the setting, the nature of the conflicts. You won’t write well about it if you aren’t quick to sense the comedy. But it’s still hard to write about the comedy as a comedy. Instead, it’s easier to appear as harsh, abrasive, or insistent, while striving to be light, bouncy, and carefree.

Q: Maybe you should give up the column and write a novel.

A: Alas, no talent. There’s a lovely passage I just read the other day in Proust -- woops! I promised no more literature.

Q: What’s the other regret?

A: Celebration. Or rather, the lack thereof. What I mean is, there just doesn’t seem to be much that I like about academic life, on the basis of the published record. I like a place to read, granted, and so one of the few things I’ve praised in the column are libraries and librarians. But even when th subject is, say, conferences, it’s the other conference next door, not the academic one, whose pleasures I celebrate.

Q: So you mean that you do like academic life but somehow just haven’t found out exactly what?

A: No, what I mean is that even when I thought I found something I like, it comes out either that I don’t or that I can’t seem to write about it as if I do. Also, see comedy, above.

Q: Do you think this is typical of academics in general? We like ideas, research, teaching, summers off. Some even like committees. But finally we don’t like the whole life: the new president and the old dean through the lack of parking space and funding for research to disruptive students and the colleague down the hall who has a better office. Instead, what we really love is to bitch and moan.

A: If this were a trial rather than an interview, the question would to objected to on the basis of being “argumentative.”

Q: I’m just trying to make you feel better. How many times do you meet a fellow academic beaming with joy: The campus is wonderful, the division has plenty of money, colleagues are supportive, students polite and provocative, and the lawns always freshly mowed? Your own feelings -- let’s be kind and call them “equivocations” -- about academic life may be more typical than you think.

A: In a sense, this is the wager of every “Purely Academic” column.

Q: Like to add anything more?

A: Only a favorite line from Kafka: “How can one be glad about the world except if one takes one’s refuge in it?” Academic life, to me, remains the best refuge.

Q: You promised no more literature.

A: I lied.

Terry Caesar
Author's email:

Summer Summary

At U of All People, summer is a time for faculty members to recharge their batteries, maybe take on a second job to make ends meet, or just clean out that office filing cabinet growing mold on its north face. We asked a variety of professors at the university what their summer plans were; their responses follow:

Professor Valerie Lockhart, English Department:
"Reading Moby-Dick. I’ve taught it for over 10 years, and it’s about time I got all the way through it. Last year, a student started getting suspicious, and I can’t just keep relying on Masterplots. Then a friend of mine in San Diego has invited me to go whale-watching.”

Dr. Len Dresden, Philosophy Department:
“Finishing an article that was due back in 2003, a refutation of Kant’s answer to Locke’s refutation of Descartes. At least I think it was Descartes. It’s been some time since I looked at the piece. I think I even returned all my library books on the subject.”

Jackson Hobbs, Historian:
“Re-enacting the Battle of the Bulge with historical accuracy in my basement. It’ll be fun. I’m going to invite a bunch of colleagues from around the state. We’ll have authentic uniforms and weaponry, and the school cafeteria serves up something that tastes an awful lot like K-rations.”

Professor Jean-Luc Dupris, French Department:
“Paris, 17th Arrondissement, a little apartment on loan from a friend who owes me. I also have some leftover money from a grant last year to study the pluperfect tense, so I can live it up a bit over there. It’s the only thing that makes this third-tier job worthwhile.”

Kenneth Brown, math instructor:
“I’ve told people that I was working on three linked proofs in topology, but it wouldn’t get me anything, not at a place like this. The people tenured here haven’t published anything in years. I might just sit in a pasture and count cows.”

Associate Professor Stan Frude, Psychology Department:
“Writing seventeen, count ’em, 17, grant proposals to make sure I get some kind of funding next year. As it is, I’ve been re-using the disposable apparatus we used to sacrifice the lab rats, and it’s getting kind of gross.”

Karl Beame, Instructor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering:
“I’ve wangled a consulting job for Constructo-Tech in Seattle. They fly me out there, feed me, and give me twice my annual salary. I figure if I do this for three summers running, I might just be able to repay my student loans.”

Dr. Mark Chen, Physicist:
“I’ll be at CERN near Geneva, fiddling with tiny particles by day and drinking in the rathskeller at night. We’ll be studying the path of pions through a Hadron calorimeter. The rest of the stuff not even I have clearance to know about.”

Assistant Professor Olivia Kay, Political Science Department:
"I have to revise my Poli Sci 101 lecture notes after the students last year called the course a snooze and staged a sleep-in next to my office.
I'll also be working on a new course that I hope will be more provocative, called 'The President: Evil or Just Plain Dumb?'"

Cynthia Clarke, artist-in-residence, Art Department:
“Making public art downtown without a permit. I work with these large Dry-Erase boards that I marker graffiti on and leave at intersections. It’s cool, counterculture, and totally subversive. Besides, I couldn’t get a gallery to represent me this year.”

Professor Dirk Omsk, Theater Department:
“This’ll be the fifth year running that we’ve put on Romeo and Juliet, but we always get a good crowd, and it’s better than staging The Mikado with all those phony accents. Besides, we can reuse all the props and costumes from last year.”

Professor Henry Baum, Department of Music, Emeritus:
“Teach trumpet at summer school. I’ve been bored ever since I retired, and I can use the money.”

David Galef
Author's email:

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Going South

From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/09/10 Mon AM 09:41:21 EDT
To: <>
Subject: travel request

To Professor Michael Wall, Chair, English Department:

This has to do with the travel budget for the coming academic year. As we discussed last spring, I need something on the order of $700 for the annual Joyce conference, held this year in Miami, December 3-5. I saved the department money last year by using Blackboard exclusively rather than hand out Xeroxes, and in any event, this shouldn’t break the bank, right? Let me know soon, please, because I have to book the flight.


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/09/17 Mon AM 09:40:11 EDT
To: <>
Subject: research request

To Myra Puckwith, Head of Research Office:

According to our department chair, Michael Wall, the entire travel budget for the English department has been frozen for fiscal 2007-08—or was it retroacted to the level of support in 1968 because of some administrative fiat? Something like that. Accordingly, he suggested that I contact you about a research grant for this December. I’m a James Joyce scholar, and I need to study the Joycean archives in Miami for a book tentatively titled Southern Joyce. I can provide full details of my proposal, including the new RPP (Research Planning and Perspectives form) from your office, along with a statement of purpose, for your perusal. Just let me know.


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/09/22 Mon AM 011:45:03 EDT
To: <>
Subject: equipment grant

To Don Donaldson, University Procurement:

Myra Puckwith at the Office of Research read my proposal for research in Miami this December and sent me to you. Normally, a small equipment grant isn’t something that fits me, but given the circumstances, I’d like to purchase a used 1997 Honda Civic that should be able to get me to Florida and back, and which could be used for other academic trips, as well. I’ve already priced such a vehicle at Al’s Autos, and the price is surprisingly reasonable: only $700. I talked with Mark Meyers from the Physics department, and he says that last year he received $5,000 toward the cost of a new tachyon accelerator. As far as I know, the English department has been quite modest in its requests for equipment. Here’s hoping that you’ll honor my request.


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/09/28 Sun PM 011:42:30 EDT
To: <>
Subject: request for teaching funds

To Fred Carson, Pedagogy Coach:

Pursuant to the bulletin you sent around last May, asking for innovative teaching proposals: I gather that you didn’t get many responses. In any event, here’s one I’ve been thinking about, though for a long time I wasn’t quite sure about how to put it into execution. Why not a film presentation of a great author’s critics at work? Since my specialty is the work of James Joyce, the 20th-century Irish writer, I’d like to go with that subject. Students really could benefit from a more intimate association with this important author, but Joyce’s writing is notoriously difficult for students to wade through. I’d like to grant my class a privileged access through actually viewing Joyce scholars presenting on the author and his texts—and I have a perfect opportunity to do just that at the Joyce Symposium in Miami this December. I do have some AV experience, and with the purchase of a handheld digital camera (about $500) and a conference package (roughly $700) I would come back with a two-hour DVD of Joycean scholarship that should be both dynamic and eminently instructive. I think you’ll agree that this defines the term “cutting edge” in teaching, but let me know what you think.

Thinking outside the box,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/10/06 Wed AM 08:27:17 EDT
To: <>
Subject: summer fellowships

To Bob Winters, Office of Summer Support:

I’m writing to you well in advance of the Summer Support deadline because I’d like to fly by you a rather novel proposal: to save time by conducting my summer research this winter in Miami (where it always feels like summer). In my case, I have a conference on James Joyce to attend this December, and if I wait till next June, I’ll miss the boat, so to speak. If you’re able to bend the rules slightly and permit this grant (around $700 will do), I promise not to apply for any Summer Support the next year—or the next three years, if you like.


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/10/11 Mon AM 09:18:13 EDT
To: <>
Subject: emergency relief

To Philip Thrope, Emergency Aid:

Normally I’m not the kind of individual who throws himself on the mercy of the university’s charity fund, but a sudden fire has absolutely gutted my house, and I NEED YOUR HELP NOW. I’m staying with a colleague of mine from the Modern Language department, but that’s only a short-term solution. Though I’ve put a down payment on a new place, the outlay has exhausted my funds, and in any event the place won’t be ready for occupancy until next year. And I have no place at all to stay during the December break. My tentative plans involve flying to Miami to stay with relatives, but this will cost me. Can you spare money from your relief fund for a tenure-track faculty member?


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/10/25 Mon AM 09:01:01 EDT
To: <>; <>
Subject: book and bake sale

To All Faculty and Students:

To raise money for a conference trip to Miami, I’ll be holding a book and bake sale this weekend outside my office in 211 Hallford Hall. There’ll be a tempting array of cakes, pies and cookies (including killer brownies and a lemon pudding cake based on a recipe from Jane Austen). I’ll also be selling select volumes from my personal library, most untouched since graduate school days. I hope you’ll be able to attend.

From “Chef” George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

David Galef
Author's email:

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

The Professor's Ten Commandments, Thanks to Notorious B.I.G.

We're staring down the barrel of another academic year. Time for a refresher course in professional deportment -- by which I mean "The Ten Crack Commandments," by The Notorious B.I.G. All you professors starting out at new institutions (like me) will be getting orientation sessions to show you the academic ropes -- procedures on academic misconduct, FERPA guidelines, sexual harassment policies, etc., but you can save some time and just listen to hiphop. "The Ten Crack Commandments" only looks like it's about drug dealing. All hustles obey the same logic, so heed Biggie's words.

Rule nombre uno: Never let no one know how much dough you hold/Cause you know the cheddar breed jealousy. Especially worth remembering at academic meetings. People want to know what you've been up to, but not if you're doing better than they are. If you're a hotshot junior professor with one monograph coming out from Harvard and another under contract at Cambridge, along with 9 major articles and 14 essay-reviews and a teacher-of-the-year award, be cool about it. And don't go around bragging about how you've got the 10 best people locked down for your edited anthology of new scholarship on Aquitanian verse, because the 11th guy, the guy you didn't ask, will be waiting out by the dumpsters with a chair leg. Don't let it get drastic.

Number two: Never let 'em know your next move/Don't you know bad boys move in silence or violence. Or, as MF Doom says, never let your so-called mans know your plans. This applies especially to bloggers. Seriously, bloggers, always assume that everyone you know, and everyone you might want to know, will read your blog. It's easy to get suckered into the illusion that you're confiding your innermost thoughts with an anonymous Them you'll never actually meet. Nope, and when you confide stuff about yourself that you wouldn't announce from the lectern of a plenary session of the American Musicological Society, you could end up like Youngblood Priest from Superfly, who accidentally kills his best friend when he drops the name of his connection in a nightclub.

As Curtis Mayfield comments in the title song: "But a weakness was shown, 'cause his hustle was wrong/His mind was his own, but the man lived alone."

Or, to put it in less poetically, if you want your mind to be you own, or if you want to be master of your own destiny, you need to live alone, metaphorically speaking; don't confide, or a weakness will be shown, and your hustle will be wrong. A hard school, I know, but then....

Number three: Never trust nobody/Your Moms'll set that ass up, properly gassed up/Hoodie to mask up, shit, for that fast buck/she be layin' in the bushes to light that ass up. Well, not your Mom, necessarily -- Actually, I would amend this one to Black Thought's line, trust your fam, or trust nobody at all. But then, you never know, do you? You never see it coming. Those of you who have been working in academe for a while, you know what I'm talking about. Those of you who are freshly minted Ph.D.’s polishing the nameplate on your new office door (you took a picture of it with your cell phone, didn't you? admit it) are going to find out.

Number four: Know you heard this before, never get high on your own supply. Admittedly, a harder one to square with academic life. But think of it this way: when you are up in front of your students, you are not necessarily "being yourself." You have a persona, or several personae, that you adopt as a way to frame the meaning of the material you're teaching, and to impart a sense of your own relationship to that material. And this is also true of the larger academic community: Chant scholars don't come across like hip-hop scholars. But don't believe your own bullshit. Keep clear, if only in your own head, the distinction between who you are for professional purposes and who you are at home. Don't let academic faction get in the way of friendship, fun, or human values generally. Be a hustler, but don't hustle yourself. William S. Burroughs puts it another way. "Hustlers of the world, there is one mark you cannot beat: the mark inside."

For me, Biggie's commandments five and seven are really two sides of the same coin: Never sell no crack where you rest at and keep your family and business completely separated. I like to keep professional and personal stuff separate. Sure, we all work at home sometimes, but when you're off the clock, you're off the clock. Don't go ruining your daughter's fourth birthday party by sneaking out to answer department e-mails. Don't screw up a good dinner party by getting in a shouting match with the orthodox Schenkerian over the ontology of background structure. And you can be friendly with your students, sure, but don't forget the sexual harassment lecture they gave you on orientation day.

Number six: That goddamn credit, dead it/You think a crackhead payin' you back, shit, forget it. For "crackhead," think "student with a late paper." For "credit," think "extension."

Number eight: Never keep no weight on you/Them cats that squeeze your guns can hold jobs too. Let your TA do the grading. Actually, no, I kind of disagree. Don't turn your TA’s into a firewall between the students and yourself. When something goes wrong in a class, it is always your problem. If you're a leader, everything is your fault. You have to be cool with that. Still, when things get heavy -- like, when you have a serious case of plagiarism -- know when to call in the specialists. Don't try to fix everything in-house. The Office of the Dean of Students carries more weight than you do, and they know how to use it.

Number nine shoulda been number one to me: If you ain't gettin' bags stay the fuck from police. Don't snitch. Academic bloggers especially, don't talk about the inner workings of your department, and don't talk shit about your colleagues. This is why a lot of academic bloggers are anonymous, of course, but sooner or later you'll make a mistake and drop an incriminating detail, and your cover will be blown. See number 2, above.

Number ten: A strong word called consignment/Strictly for live men, not for freshmen/If you ain't got the clientele say hell no/Cause they gon' want they money rain sleet hail snow. Protect your time; don't bite off more than you can chew; learn to say No. The academic equivalent of the guys who want their money rain sleet hail snow is your tenure committee, and what they'll demand, with the same inflexible rigor as a Columbian drug cartel, is a good publication record.

There's probably a few other commandments that could profitably be drawn from hiphop lyrics. I invite you to suggest them.

Phil Ford
Author's email:

Phil Ford is starting a new job as assistant professor of musicology at Indiana University at Bloomington. This essay is adapted from one of his postings at the blog Dial “M” for Musicology.

Humanities Faculty For Hire!

I’m a little tired of hearing administrators claim that the low salaries of humanities faculty are a natural result of there being no competition for our services in the private sector. If that’s their sole argument for denying us fair wages, then I say we should make it work in our favor. According to their rationale, if we could simply prove that we are indeed desirable commodities beyond academia (as our colleagues in the business or law schools do), then we could also demand heftier salaries.

Well let’s finally set the record straight: We humanities folk actually do possess a number of highly marketable skills that have heretofore gone unnoticed and underappreciated by administrators, private-sector employers, and even ourselves. If we can successfully highlight these abilities more explicitly in our day to day working lives, our paychecks will soon inflate to reflect the true worth of our labors. Consider the following:

Lunchtime Banterer. Nobody I know in other colleges, in government labor, or within the corporate world, can match the wit, range, and profundity of the conversations that my colleagues and I put on display at the local taco shop each Tuesday between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Our elaborate exchanges are dense with both literary and pop allusions; devastating put-downs; cleverly layered inside jokes; self-deprecating, self-reflexive asides; impromptu philosophical rants; withering caricatures of foolish colleagues; and even ironic deconstructions of the very food before us. Only 10-plus years of intensive liberal arts training could forge the formidable verbal skills on display during these mealtime conferences.

I wonder how many corporate managers or governmental bureaucrats would pay generously to have just one of us present to enliven awkward luncheons, spice up deadly boardroom meetings, or elevate the rhetoric at boring staff retreats? All of them, I’m guessing; they just haven’t known (until now) where to find us. Two hundred dollars an hour (or perhaps $10 per clever comment) seems a fair price for our conversational skills.

(Disclaimer to potential employers beyond academia: There is a vaguely cynical, leftist slant to much of our banter that may not match the spirit of many business settings, most fraternal clubs, and any gathering where people are easily offended by detailed diatribes against the myriad evils of the Bush administration and/or corporate America in general. As long as that’s clear, I think we can move ahead with whatever plans you have in mind.)

Organizer of Arcane Information. Because I had almost complete control of my schedule during graduate school (and was eager to find ways to procrastinate working on my dissertation), I was able to spend copious amounts of time tracking down, organizing, and cataloguing an immense music CD collection. The size of the lot was matched by its eclecticism: zydeco, blues, medieval chant, grunge, Americana, be-bop jazz, Norwegian folk, etc. In order to keep track of these discs, I was forced to create elaborate systems for arranging them according to date, artist, genre, relative social significance, jewel-case condition, good to bad song ratios, and on and on. While my wife may have occasionally questioned (with some acute shortsightedness!) the value of time spent creating the intricate charts, databases, and filing systems necessary for this job, I could sense at the time that I was developing useful skills of a highly marketable nature. In fact, I feel vindicated now when I see the reactions of new friends when I first show them the sum results of my improvisational, clerical genius. Indeed, they can only goggle in amazed silence at the color-coded reams of data that I have amassed.

Let me assure potential employers that these skills have not abandoned me in subsequent, busier years; I have since applied them to corralling the contents of my massive iTunes library, to the maintainance of an elaborately rotating podcast collection, and to the sorting and indexing of old copies of The New Yorker that I have every intention of reading once the current semester comes to an end. Imagine the way that my creative, free-wheeling—but almost obsessively detailed—organizational style could shake up the filing system of the average moribund office! I may have to figure out a clever way to catalogue the flood of offers from the private sector that will soon be coming my way.

Hyper-Confident, Knee-Jerk Critic of All Things High and Low. For a number of years my family and close circle of friends have benefited from my cutting-edge, almost encyclopedic knowledge of all that’s hip in popular film, television, music, and literature. Thanks to me, they have been able to refine gradually their cultural tastes as I have peppered them continually with suggestions of what to watch, listen to, and read. I’ve also been able to give them detailed analyses of why their former (and often incorrigibly persistent) viewing and reading habits were lame, embarrassing, or otherwise uncool. My students have also benefited from these authoritative recommendations, dutifully reading (with only the occasional murmur) the great books and films that I assign to them semester after semester. (Let me clarify that I mean “great” in a hip, cultural studies sense—not the stuffy “Great Books” tradition.)

While I don’t want to deal with the hassle of actually having to become a newspaper critic (writing all those columns would be a pain), I do think that media companies would benefit from hiring me as a sort of highly-paid, free-lance consultant or “super-critic.” This is how it might work: they could simply run movie ideas, book synopses, TV show concepts, etc, past me, and my lightning quick approvals or dismissals could save them millions in wasted development costs. If the authority of my opinion alone is not enough, I could back it up (for an additional fee, of course) with some vague references to Campbellian, Freudian, or even Lacanian, theory.

Information Obfuscator. From what I can gather from watching television, there is a great demand in the private sector for people who can mess with information so that the truth is obfuscated; apparently there are all kinds of highly paid spin doctors, book-cookers, double-speakers, and manipulative adsmen out there. I’m a little hesistant, for ethical reasons, of course, to offer my services in these fields, but if that’s what it takes to convince administrators that we humanities folk are indeed valuable commodities, then I am willing to make those compromises for the greater good of our profession.

In practice, my academic writing is devoted to discovering and communicating complex, and sometimes painful and unpopular, truths about American cultural history. But in theory (and if the price were right), some of my academic writing skills could be harnessed to a magnificent manipulation of whatever facts a company or organization may be eager to warp or hide.

One possible strategy would be for me to simply apply postmodern theoretical jargon to whatever information I am to spin. But I am afraid that this would do my corporate employers little good since that rhetoric is associated with longstanding culture wars and thus may raise the ideological hackles of most mainstream, conservative readers.

More effective would be a writing style that is employed by a great number of both traditional and postmodern scholars: an excruciatingly pedantic mode that features roundabout, redundant, and repetitive overexplanations again and again; a multitude of unnecessary parenthetical asides (that while impressive in their complexity, are ultimately just showy, and superfluous adding little additional information that is useful to the reader); a slavish citing of myriad other and often better written -- texts to add heft to an argument (Prescott and James give an excellent elaboration on this concept in The Academic Writer, chapter 19); and an officious, patronizing manner of diction that happens, somehow, to be simultaneously overwrought and dull.

This brand of writing would be ideal for all types of corporate or governmental documents in which you don’t want to technically lie, but that you hope will be so mind-numbingly dense and ponderous that no one will actually be able to read it all the way through (a press release about disappointing quarterly earnings, for example).

Marxist Turncoat. As long as I’m willing to put a price on my what I will write for the private sector, I might as well put my ideological and theoretical convictions up for sale as well. My particular graduate school training immersed me in a variety of Marxist theories that were designed to question and undermine the power of capitalist, corporate, and consumer cultures in peoples’ lives. For a healthy price, I would be willing to defect from this camp and bring with me valuable information that would help corporations do an even better job at manipulating consumers and opiating workers. For example, I could offer corporate seminars on the following topics:

“Coopting and Flattening Vibrant Ethnic Subcultures for Fun and Profit”

“Using Subversive Anti-Spectacles to make your Mainstream Spectacle even more mind-numbingly Spectacular”

“Brie and Baguettes for the Nouveau Riche Buffoons: Exploiting American Consumers’ Class Anxieties”

“iPods for the podpeople: Seven New Opiates for Highly Effective Media Capitalists”

There are lots more where those came from.

Some Conclusions (to be read only by my peers in the humanities): The nice thing about the strategy that I have outlined here is that none of us will ever have to actually do any of these jobs (other than a few sacrificial lambs, of course, whose showy departures from the academy will add some necessary bite to our threats). Our goal, as I’m sure you will agree, is not to actually leave the university for corporate or governmental jobs (let’s be honest, most of us would be hopeless in holding down a traditional 9 to 5 grind), but simply to give administrators the impression that we could leave and that if we did leave, we’d be earning a heck of a lot more than we are now.

So get out there and trumpet our unique and valuable skills. And let’s be stalwart in our efforts, for there will be some awkward moments ahead for example, having to say no to lucrative corporate jobs after executives spend a great deal of resources courting us, or being forced to play hard ball in financial negotiations with stubbornly resistant administrators. But the end results will be incredible: greater respect on campus and in our communities; healthier egos; fewer debilitating panic attacks, or chronic depression about immense student loan debt; and paychecks (potentially) in the upper five digits! Best of luck, comrades, er, I mean valued corporate citizens, in the months ahead.

Kerry Soper
Author's email:

Kerry D. Soper is an associate professor of humanities at Brigham Young University.

Conference Confidential

As academics eagerly scan the latest listings for conferences to attend, this season’s offerings promise a bumper crop of something for everyone: a chance to share one’s findings on missing commas in Madame Bovary at the Annual Meeting of the Flaubert Society of America, for example, present a paper on the vibrational frequencies of wind chimes at the High Energy Physics Colloquium in Berne, or just get the hell away from campus for a while.

For those of us at U. of All People, located in the depressed region of a state shaped like a bent potato, conferences present an opportunity to travel, to stay in a hotel room by oneself and enjoy a meal out that’s not at Taco Bell or Burger King. Of course, conferences are also occasions to exchange scholarly ideas and see far-flung colleagues we may have not slept with or even encountered for years. In short, we’re the same as academics everywhere. And here are some of our choices for the coming months:

January 4-5, 2008: Seventh Annual Conference on Cold Fusion in Salt Lake City, Utah. This year’s conference is titled “Harnessing the Power of Water in a Glass.” Sample topics include “Can Cold Fusion Solve Global Warming?” and “How to Procure a Grant without Straining Credibility.” Abstracts required; research highly suggested. Guest speaker: the Energy Czar.


January 19-20, 2008: Inaugural meeting of the Arnold Frisk Memorial Society, a group devoted to preserving the memory of this prolific but unjustly forgotten author ( The Question of Whom, Writhe and Shine, A Sonneteer’s Diary). The meeting will take place at the Smithlawn Sanatorium in Bearville, Minn., where Frisk ended his days, surrounded by 70 unfinished manuscripts.


February 1-?, 2008: Conference in Belize, subject yet to be determined, but what the hell, it’s Belize in the winter. Possible topics: something on pedagogy, maybe something in the humanities, or even better, the intersection of the humanities and the sciences because that brings in a lot more people.


February 14, 2008: History Is Bunk: the one-day convocation of the D.H.T.A., Disgruntled History Teachers of America. 120 Main Street; Centerville, Anystate, U.S.A. Half scholarly presentations, half gripe session, this gathering is for those brave souls in the front of the classroom tired of teaching deadheads what happened in 1812. New addition: spousal support group and Valentine’s Day Party in Room 420 of the Holiday Inn.


March 7-9, 2008: Esperanto (Sigh) Again. Overly optimistic linguists and language teachers of all persuasions gather in Tijuana to promote the hopeless cause of this doomed but eminently practical means of communication. Special guest speaker: an actor channeling the spirit of language reformer George Bernard Shaw.


April 3-5, 2008: Sudoku R Us: Mathematics and Pedagogy for the 21st Century. Takes place on the campus of S.I.T. (Slobovian Institute of Technology) in upstate New York. Three days of workshops, lectures, and pure darn fun! Difficulty level: easy. Door prize for best mathematical costume at the Puzzlers’ Ball.


May 1-3, 2008: Conference on Conferences. Takes place in a large upscale chain hotel in a major city. Papers may range from the art of scheduling events to the provocative topic “When Is a Session a Session and Not a Panel or a Forum?” Please indicate on entry form whether you’d like to be a moderator, a contributor, or that rarest of attendees, just an audience member.

David Galef
Author's email:

David Galef is a professor of English and former administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Time's Up -- Or Else!

Three things caught my eye this morning, each conveying a “time’s up!” warning. First, while savoring my first cup of morning coffee, I encountered a long article on the front page of the Chicago Tribune’s Metro section covering former Illinois Governor George Ryan’s long-delayed passage from freedom to prison. Convicted in a corruption scandal case involving the Republican’s seedy and illegal practice of selling drivers’ licenses to truckers in exchange for large under-the-table contributions while he was secretary of state, the unrepentant Ryan lost his last chance to remain on bail when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to extend his freedom pending his appeal. Vying for my attention was a Trib front page story about federal interest in possible wrongdoing by the allies of Democratic Mayor-for-Life, Richard M. Daley, who allegedly have been pressuring landowners in the mayor’s home base of Bridgeport to sell to developers who, as it turns out unsurprisingly, are friends of the mayor. These alleged, shadowy practices are, thanks to intrepid investigative reporters and the feds, finally out in the light.

Upon finishing my coffee and retreating to my computer, I had my personal “time’s up!” moment when I encountered the last item in my e-mail: “Final Notice.” The sender was the University of Illinois Ethics Officer and its subject was the “Mandatory Ethics Training for Eric Arnesen.” The moment I had been dreading, when I gave it any thought at all, had arrived at last.

In my own defense, let me state clearly that I was not yet in trouble, for the deadline for completing this year’s “annual ethics training” was still a week away. However, officials for a state that regularly turns a blind eye toward corruption in the office of Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich are intent upon making the rest of us know the rules. (The latest revelations concern the large commission collected by the governor’s wife, a real estate agent, for a condo sale transaction on behalf of an Illinois businessman and campaign contributor; the purchaser was a “tollway lobbyist and a longtime Blagojevich insider," according to press reports. As it turns out, the condo seller received a $2 million no-bid contract -- subsequently increased to $2.5 million -- the day before the closing; since then he has received two additional no-bid contracts.)

But I digress. If I were to go off on a tangent for every city and state corruption investigation, well, I’d never get to the part about my ethics tutorial.

The clock is ticking. I have until 11:59 p.m. on November 14 to complete my online training ... or else. The “or else” consists of reporting my name to the Office of Executive Inspector General for the Agencies of the Illinois Governor. And then what? Penalties could include “a hearing before the Ethics Commission and/or the assessment of fines up to $5,000.” For professors at a perennially underfunded public research university where parking fee increases often exceed salary raises, five grand is not something at which to scoff. And if that threat didn’t catch my attention, the rest of the sentence did: Employees failing to “complete their online ethics training during the designated window will be subject to disciplinary action by the university.” Ouch. Granted, it’s not Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, but the very idea of being drawn into the university’s bureaucracy is frightening to faculty members accustomed to being ignored and left alone.

So I can’t put it off any longer. I log on to take my mandatory “interactive” “Web-based training course.”

First things first: After accessing the program, I am invited to create a new password of between 4 and 10 alphanumeric characters. I mistakenly enter an 11 character password -- “wasteoftime” -- but happily the program recognizes neither my sarcasm nor my counting error. I’m in. Up and running.

I must now pace myself. Can’t go too fast, for my “training actions and time may be monitored”! If I complete the program too quickly, then some unseen force may yank my “Certificate of Completion” and require me to pursue an unspecified alternative route to satisfying my ethics obligation. (Seriously – a colleague of mine was penalized last year for taking and passing the on-line test too quickly! Never mind that he got the right answers and demonstrated his knowledge of our ethics obligations. He was too fast – and essentially got pulled over and ticketed by the ethics police for exceeding the speed limit.)

We begin with the “why an ethics tutorial” issue via a multiple choice question:

The State of Illinois makes me take this annual ethics training because:

  • a) Ethical conduct is required of me as a state employee.
  • b) It is required of me by the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act.
  • c) Carrying out our responsibilities as state employees in an ethical manner helps to maintain the public’s trust in our state government.
  • d) All of the above.

If you guessed “d,” congratulations and move on. Now that I know that I’m doing my part to maintain the public’s trust in state government, I feel better. But other reasons, we are informed, include helping state employees “avoid inadvertently violating the law,” reminding us “that the state does not approve of ethics violations.” Given the track record of city, county, and state officials ... keeping a straight face is harder than I had expected.

So: What’s unethical? The tutorial, once we get past large quantities of material on the legislative history and administrative functioning of ethics legislation and the operation and powers of the Office of Executive Inspector General for the Agencies of the Illinois Governor (OEIG), which works with the Executive Ethics Commission (EEC) and the Office of the Attorney General, finally gets down to this.

First, the long list of prohibitions. Can’t engage in “prohibited political activities” -- that is, can’t use “state work time, property, or resources” to campaign for political candidates or on behalf of political referenda (no fund raising, petitioning, or polling; no campaign leaflets on office doors, no selling tickets to the governor’s gala ball); can’t treat state job applications differently “on the basis of the applicants’ political affiliation” (tell that to the U.S. Justice Department and just about every state, county, and municipal hiring department in Illinois -- we’ve got a long history here in the Land of Lincoln!); can’t retaliate against subordinates who turn us in for ethics violations; can’t accept most gifts from lobbyists or business entities regulated by or doing business with the state; can’t place our interests or those of friends, relatives, or business associates “above those of the college or university of the state”; can’t work on that second job (could this be an indirect acknowledgement of low state salaries? Probably not....) on university work time; can’t hire our relatives based on our “relationship with them”; you get the idea. I don’t think I needed an interactive online tutorial to learn these straightforward rules. So a hint to state ethics folks: Go low tech. It might be more useful to print these banned activities on a bookmark we can carry around with us. It would be much cheaper than a Web-based program and probably more effective to boot.

Second, the shorter “must-do” list. If contacted by the ethics investigators, “participate” in the requested interview, be truthful in your testimony, and respect the confidentiality of the investigation (no First Amendment issues in the workplace, alas); and comply with mandatory work time reporting rules by accurately and periodically reporting our work time “to the nearest quarter hour.”

Seems pretty clear cut, no? In the examples offered to help us understand right from wrong, we find no grey areas. In one case study, we are told of a “multi-year scheme by a state employee who misappropriated more than $100,000 in public assistance funds” by falsifying documents “seeking reimbursement from the state for transportation services supposedly provided to the state by the employee’s spouse” (who, as it turns out, didn’t provide those services) and then “shredded much of the evidence supporting the scheme.” In another example, we learn about a state agency claims representative who “assisted others in processing hundreds of fraudulent claim applications” through “mail fraud.”

Now I happen to be one of the few Americans who does not watch "Law and Order," even on the treadmill at my local YMCA. But I don’t need an interactive ethics program to tell me that misappropriating money, falsifying and shredding documents, hiring a spouse who does not deliver contracted services, or processing fraudulent claims applications are either ethics violations or felonies. Would I be wrong or naïve to suspect that the perpetrators of these schemes would not have been dissuaded from undertaking their scams by knowing that theft, falsification, destruction of evidence, and the like are not ethical? If then Secretary of State Ryan and his cronies had taken our online interactive tutorial, would they have hesitated before accepting “bribes for between 1,000 and 2,000 trucker’s licenses,” in the Tribune’s words, resulting in at least nine highway deaths?

I can imagine an alternative “dialogue” example between Larry and Susan -- the two fictional employees who engage in didactic conversation in our on-line tutorial -- helping us to navigate what the ethics exam writers see as murky ethical waters:

Larry: This is great. I’m siphoning off tens of thousands of state dollars by submitting false patient claims and phony invoices. That should help cover the costs of my new Michigan cabin. Maybe I should hire a relative for a no-work job too.

Susan: Before you start those back woods renovations, Larry, you should know that misappropriating state money by lying, cheating, and stealing is not ethical.

Larry: It’s not? Well, what if I just shred the evidence? They’ll never catch me and I can fish to my heart’s content on long weekends made longer by submitting falsified time sheets.

Susan: I’m afraid that too is unethical.

Larry: I hadn’t thought of that. But what’s to stop me from going ahead and violating state ethics rules anyway?

Susan: More bad news, Larry. Under the ethics law, I have an affirmative obligation to turn you in.

Larry: But, but, but (sputtering)…. I will get back at you for doing this, Susan. You’ll rue the day you ever called me unethical.

Susan: Good news for me, bad news for you, Larry. I will “confidentially” report you and besides, there’s nothing you can do to punish me. You can’t retaliate from your supervisory position over me. If you do, you can be disciplined and I can go to court to seek unspecified monetary damages.

Larry: I guess you’re right. I just didn’t know the rules. Now that I do, I won’t submit those false claims, invoices, and time sheets, and I won’t retaliate against you either. Thanks for caring enough to share this valuable ethics information with me!

Susan: Think nothing of it, Larry. Just doing my ethical duty.

This imaginary dialogue raises new issue. As state employees, the tutorial informs us, we “have a duty to report violations of laws, rules, or regulations.” How? There is one toll-free hotline for “non-emergency” violations, another for “emergency” situations, including “illegal weapons” possession, “bodily injury,” or “criminal sexual assault.” Now, when I think about “illegal weapons” usage or “criminal sexual assault,” the phrase “potential ethics violation” is not the first one to cross my mind, even after the “911” and “help!” do.

Perhaps, however, I -- and my colleagues -- have genuine reasons to worry. In a multiple choice “Self Check” in the tutorial, we learn that “time reporting is mandatory under the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act.” Under the “Reminder of Key Laws, Rules, and Policies -- Personnel and Other Policies” section, we are further informed that as state employees, we are “expected to document the time that you work for the college or university accurately and on a timely basis.” Indeed, “time sheets must be submitted by each employee periodically and must document the time spent each day on official state (university or college) business to the nearest quarter hour.” Now I know for a fact that many -- perhaps all? -- of my faculty colleagues in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences do no such thing.

So there it is: A massive, universal ethics violation by my institution’s faculty. And here I am with a dilemma. Do I abide by the obligation to rat them out (rules against self-incrimination would allow me to exempt myself from my charges, right?) or do I violate the state’s ethics code by looking the other way? Imagine -- hundreds and hundreds of hearings and disciplinary actions, potentially resulting in widespread dismissals. Perhaps my colleagues would be replaced by a more ethical faculty, perhaps not. At least I do not need to live in fear of retaliation, since no one will know it was I who turned them in. And if they did, I can always seek disciplinary action and damages against those who strike back!

An alternative suggests itself. Perhaps the time reporting requirement to-the-nearest-quarter-hour doesn’t actually apply to faculty. It’s hard to imagine that the ethics czars don’t know what rules apply to which employees. But they state, categorically, that “time reporting” is required of all university employees and that time sheets must be submitted by “each employee” – no exceptions listed – to the “nearest quarter hour” – again, no exceptions listed. So I arrive at two possible conclusions: Either a) the tutorial is a poorly designed response to a poorly thought-out ethics requirement or b) it’s a secret plot to strip faculty of control over their time by falsely declaring that we are subject to specific rules that, in reality, do not apply to us.

Now, I am in no position to know whether “a” or “b” is the correct answer, since the question wasn’t on the “self-check” portion of the tutorial. Both, it seems to me, would be ethics violations. In the case of “a,” it is a misuse of state funds to produce a shoddy tutorial that wastes vast quantities of employees’ time and state dollars since, at a minimum, the public’s trust would be diminished if knowledge of this tutorial was revealed. In the case of “b” -- well, anything to strip faculty of control, under whatever pretense, is self evidently unethical. Whatever the case, I do know that I have an affirmative obligation under the law to report what I believe to be an ethics violation.

Having received my “Certificate of Completion” from the OEIG, I must know my stuff. I guess I’m obligated to pick up the phone to call my university’s ethics office to report potential violations ... by that very office.

At least I’m safe from retaliation. After all, the State of Illinois does not approve of ethics violations.

Eric Arnesen
Author's email:

Eric Arnesen, who successfully completed the on-line ethics tutorial again this year, is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

A Guide for Consumers of Theology

Our recent annual “America’s Best Churches” issue drew more than the usual deluge of reader and parishioner complaints. Hence it behooves me as editor of U.S. News & World Report to again offer a public explanation of our much-misunderstood church rankings methodology.

In thanking those who took the time to write, I would remind all in the community of believers that our rankings are intended as a public service to aid spiritual consumers in making one of life’s highest-impact personal choices. We claim no infallibility in our rankings. We strive to provide accurate, user-friendly data to allow seekers of quality worship to do their homework and grasp truth with full confidence that they are comparing apples to apples. Yes, we visibly spread the word about the handiness of our shopper’s tool, but we can’t be held responsible if certain churches choose, for example, to display, as a recruiting come-on, their U.S. News ranking on a banner atop their steeple.

We reject the assertion that church reputations are made or broken based on tables published once a year in our magazine. Nor do we find any signs that “America’s Best Churches” encourages a “one-size-fits-all” path to the mountaintop. Frankly, any American who would build an entire cosmological belief system on a two-or-three-point rise in a church’s year-to-year U.S. News ranking should probably stop, take a deep breath and meditate a bit on values, personal style, and the theistic limits of magazine journalism.

As proof of our good faith, we have always been willing to consider critiques of our research metrics and make warranted adjustments in our process for arriving at the rankings. That is why we have urged restraint upon those outspoken theologians who in recent months have been encouraging church ministers to boycott our informational surveys: A boycott will only make it more difficult for our researchers to compile a full portrait of America’s religious marketplace and present all good-faith competitors on a level laying field.

Neither our openness to methodological challenges nor our efforts to keep our influence in perspective, however, should be taken as a sign that houses of worship shouldn’t continue to seek ways to improve. Indeed, many of our reader complaints stem from feelings among congregants that our surveys failed to capture such measurable steps forward as energy-efficient stained-glass windows, form-fitting cushioned pews, and imported communion wine.

Some critics charge that our emphasis on counting average Sunday service attendance unfairly favors urban congregations over rural ones. But in recent years we have refined the formula for balancing the actual turnout with the local population’s potential. And we’ve enhanced accuracy by verifying the numbers reported by church secretaries with spot-checking through on-site visits by independent observers.

As “America’s Best Churches” has evolved over the past decade, we have adopted recommendations from our “loving critics” that we loosen some of the criteria that give higher rankings to the more doctrinaire denominations. We trust that this year’s methodology no longer penalizes parishes that favor folk masses or Christian rock over traditional organ music.

Our much-maligned “enforcement of dogma” measurement, which detractors complain is biased against Unitarians and favors Catholics and evangelicals, continues to prompt soul-searching among our nonsectarian team of clerical advisers. Suggestions for further improvements are welcome.

Matters of faith are -- don’t we know it -- highly subjective. The only dogma we maintain at U.S. News is a staffwide conviction that theology consumers who’re feeling their way to divinity should not be left to approach the deity without an up-to-date and well-packaged scorecard.

One admittedly self-interested point: It is true that “America’s Best Churches” has become one of our brand name’s top publishing successes. But as a private corporation, we don’t consider that a reason to do penance. We are hard at work on the first edition of “America’s Best Mosques and Temples.” We think you’ll find it enlightening.

Charlie Clark
Author's email:

Charlie Clark is senior editor and director of press relations at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Academic Advising by a Bot

Recently, while doing some Internet research on the curriculum of programs that might compete with ours, I found myself on a Web site that refers prospective students to a variety of online degree programs. I won’t use its real name here, and will instead call it COLLEGEFORNOTHING.COM, but you’ve probably seen the services of entities like this when you use search engines. Since this was not what I was looking for, I closed the browser window, only to be offered the chance to chat about my educational and professional goals with a “live agent:” “Wait! A live agent is here to assist you with any questions you might have about online universities.” I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for free advice. Here is the full transcript of that conversation with the purportedly live agent, the epicene-named Morgan:

Morgan: Hey wait! We hate to see you leave! It only takes a minute to fill out our simple form, and you'll receive information about degree programs designed to meet your needs as a working adult. CLICK HERE to return.

Morgan: Just type 'HI' or 'Hello' in the space below to let me know you are there.

Me: Hi Morgan. I'm hoping you can help me.

Morgan: Hi, thanks for chatting with me.... to return to COLLEGEFORNOTHING.COM, just CLICK HERE.

Morgan: E-learning is driven by student-centered learning-so you get to decide how you work best.

Me: Do you have those degrees where you just pay your money and get your Ph.D.?

Morgan: Maybe you want to study at the same time each day for a set time. Maybe you need the support of other students via online forums and e-mail.

Me: That's not exactly what I asked.

Me: What programs can I do online?

Morgan: We have the following major categories of degree available: Business, Criminal Justice, Culinary Arts, Teaching, Engineering, Graphic Design, Healthcare, Hospitality Management, Legal/Paralegal, Liberal Arts, Nursing, Religious Studies, Science and Math, Technology.

Me: Culinary Arts? How do you teach cooking online?

Morgan: Earn your degree while you work. Distance learning is tailor made for busy working adult [sic]. You can now study on your own time, at your own pace, and out of the convenience of your own home.

Me: What e-learning platforms do you use?

Morgan: If you want a career in the culinary world, a formal education is the ideal way to get started. CLICK HERE to see all Culinary Degrees.

Me: Is there a hands-on component to the culinary arts degree?

Me: Morgan?

Me: Hello?

Morgan: With technology and current events constantly changing, college textbooks become quickly outdated. Online education has the advantage -- it's constantly on the cutting edge. For students and teachers alike, the Internet is their resource.

Me: I have a lot of questions--please try to keep up.

Morgan: Can I provide you with a link back to COLLEGEFORNOTHING.COM?

Morgan: This whole process is quick and easy to get going, so why not start right now?

Morgan: Discover the best way to pay for your online education. Our search service will find the schools that fit your needs.

Me: No, I have specific programmatic questions that you're not addressing.

Me: Can I just give you some money and you'll give me a degree?

Morgan: I'll try my best to answer your question. If the question is regarding a specific degree program or school, please fill out a short form for that school.

Me: Also, what religions are covered in religious studies?

Morgan: Remember if you looking to advance your education and jump-start your career then let us give you FREE college information! CLICK HERE to return.

Me: Can I become a minister?

Morgan: A religious studies degree program, whatever its focus, has the purpose of intellectually challenging its students -- of guiding you in the study of the diverse tenets and traditions of faith around the globe. As the world grows, so does the need and opportunity for the study of religion. CLICK HERE to see all Religious Studies Degrees.

Me: This has been illuminating--I hope the faculty is as well informed.

Me: Thank you for all your help.

Morgan: The process is short, simple, and free, and an enrollment advisor from the school will be better able to answer your specific questions and find the perfect degree program for you. CLICK HERE to get started or ask away.

Morgan: You're very welcome :)

Me: I feel I have the tools to take the next step in my educational journey.

Morgan: Or maybe you find you can really express yourself using chat boards and instant messaging, whereas you were too shy to speak up in a classroom.

Me: You're a great counselor -- can I hire you away from your job?

Morgan: With technology and current events constantly changing, college textbooks become quickly outdated.

Morgan: No this is not a scam. We have helped out many people in the past, let us help you out!

Me: Clearly.

Morgan: Online education has the advantage -- it's constantly on the cutting edge. For students and teachers alike, the Internet is their resource.

Morgan: Simply CLICK HERE to get started!

I decided to share this transcript because it would be perfect for this time of year as we wade through piles of papers to grade. But I leave more troubled than amused. In our online world, how many prospective students are reassured, comforted or directed by Morgan’s college advising?

Jonathan Deutsch
Author's email:

Jonathan Deutsch is assistant professor of tourism and hospitality at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York.


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