Humor/whimsy

Class Observation Report

Instructor: Melanie Moody
Course: English 102, section 17 (Introduction to Literature), 12/1/08, T 2:30 - 3:45.
Observer: Prof. James Aaronson, English Department, U of All People

The first thing one notices about Melanie Moody’s class is that she has no students. Melanie refuses to be rattled by this lack, glancing over the text and pretending to take attendance. After that, she files her nails and avoids making eye contact with me. By 2:45, two students show up. Melanie starts the lesson, which is to go over the assigned reading for that day, Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Parenthetical: I have never encountered an introductory literature class that doesn’t use this text. What Melanie has to say about the story is useful enough, though it sounds suspiciously as if she’s just reading from the Norton preface, and in fact a later check confirms this.

After a few minutes’ worth, she stops to ask one of the students what he thinks. It turns out that he hasn’t done the reading. Neither has the other student. Both of them -- I don’t know why I include this detail -- are wearing backwards plaid baseball caps.

“All right,” Melanie enunciates slowly, as if talking to a student in our special English 001 class, “then let’s read it together, right now.”

Neither student has remembered to bring the textbook to class.

At this, Melanie leaves her perch on the desk and comes over to where the students are slouching in their desk-chairs. She thrusts her copy of the book at them and commands them to read.

What follows is one of the worst renditions of prose I’ve ever heard, and I’ve sat through plenty in my time. I’ve never heard elephant pronounced with seven syllables, and how can one stumble over a word like bamboo? But Melanie has them take turns, surreptitiously giving the lengthier passages to the marginally better reader.

Though the story is only a few pages, Melanie gives up after ten minutes, at the point in the conversation where the girl says to the American, “Would you please please please please please please stop talking?” How well I remember that line.

Melanie takes back her book and returns to her desk. She starts asking questions about the relationship between the man and the woman in the story.

She gets no response.

One of the students leaves the room, ostensibly to go to the bathroom. He doesn’t return.

Melanie starts to ask herself leading questions about the story, parading about the tangle of desk-chairs and making up responses in what she probably imagines is a Hemingwayesque voice. A good teacher is an active presence in the classroom. Melanie’s imitation of swigging a glass of beer is a sight to behold.

The remaining student sits up and looks at her. She quickly asks him a question about the story, about what the matter with the woman is, and he shrugs.

She shrugs back, smiles sympathetically, and dismisses the class.

***

Summary evaluation: Despite a few missteps, Melanie Moody maintains a professional demeanor in the classroom and is to be encouraged. Given the level of our students and the rates we pay adjuncts, we’re not likely to get a replacement.

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.

What We Want to Hear at Commencement

As a graduating senior, I’ve thought about what I would like to hear while sitting under the Southern California sun waiting to receive my diploma, and have debated some pros and cons with my friends. Though we each have our own ideas, most agree there is a certain structure to an excellent commencement speech, which conforms to the following guidelines.

Do…

1. Know where you are and how to pronounce the college’s name.

A firm knowledge of the institution shows respect for everyone you are addressing. At my brother’s graduation from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., the graduation speaker consistently mispronounced the college’s name (it’s Will-am-ett, not Will-a-met-ee) even after grumbles and giggles from the audience and several corrections from students.

2. Engage your audience in a story.

Every grown-up child still loves a good story. Keep it relevant to the message you are trying to convey and make sure it doesn’t put us to sleep.

3. Make that story memorable.

Speeches are remembered for three reasons: the speaker who gave it, how they gave it, and what they said. While all three are important, you can make up for not having the first two by making what you say interesting and engaging.

4. Know your audience.

Keep in mind the people in front of you: graduating seniors, their families and friends, trustees, faculty, and staff. That is a pretty diverse group to cater to, but it is important to consider their probable responses if you decide to tackle sensitive subjects.

5. Make it applicable to every graduate.

Not everyone may get as excited as you do about government health policies or backpacking through Uganda. Scripps College’s commencement speaker for 2008 was a screenwriter and poet (Legally Blonde’s Kirstin Smith); instead of droning on about how fulfilling writing is, she focused on the graduating seniors, portraying their current place in life as it would appear in a movie, on the edge of the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2. She nailed it!

6. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh!

We are freaked out enough about finding a job given the current economy and dreading that six-word question and likely three-word response (“What are you doing after graduation?”… “I don’t know”). We don’t need to be reminded of any impending world war, swine flu, or bank failure. Keep it light, keep it funny, keep it honest.

Don’t…

1. Plug your book, movie, re-election, or art exhibition.

While we are happy that you are so successful, we already know what you’ve done in life -- that’s why we invited you. This is the time to celebrate our success, not yours.

2. Force feed us propaganda on hot, touchy, or potentially politically incorrect topics.

While it is good to bring up questions that need to be addressed and challenge the status quo, please do so in a way that opens the topic for discussion and doesn’t enforce a specific agenda.

3. Use overused themes or clichés.

Avoid familiar quotes, phrases, sayings, advice, movies, songs or pop-culture themes at all cost. We already know that today is the first day or the rest of our lives and we are the future, so please don’t bring up that horrid Green Day song, refrain from quoting Gandhi or Churchill, and give your own advice in your own words.

4. Forget to have fun. This is a magnificent day. Enjoy it with us!

Author/s: 
Whitney Eriksen
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Whitney Eriksen graduated Sunday from Scripps College, in Claremont, Calif., where she majored in psychology with a minor in biology. She will begin Act 2 working in a neuropsychology lab at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The New 'A

Here’s a ray of hope to restore prestige and morale to our beleaguered flagship state universities: let’s have “A&M” stand for “Athletics & Medicine.”

It’s a sorely needed change from the archaic 19th century acronym, “Agricultural & Mechanical.” This branding will provide state universities with both a jump start and truth in advertising about their priorities. After more than a quarter century of grumbling by presidents that they are losing resources and falling behind their elite private research university counterparts, public higher education has an opportunity to put new wine into the old A&M bottle. After all, “Athletics & Medicine” are the front doors and neon signs that now showcase an enterprising, dynamic state university.

Who will miss the old “A&M”? At most only a few curmudgeons. The change is timely because at many land grant universities the traditional “A” already has tended to disappear. Consider the case of the University of California, Berkeley, for example, where the historic, famous College of Agriculture has changed its name to the “College of Natural Resources.” What about the “M”? Originally it meant “mechanics” -- a 19th century usage that approximates our notion of “engineering.” But “Mechanics” has little name recognition today and can be confusing because it is likely to bring to mind the vocational training programs in auto repair or air conditioning service provided by community colleges. In other words, the old “A&M” shell is vacant and ready to accommodate the new contenders, “Athletics & Medicine.”

Let’s consider the strengths and similarities of this dynamic duo. First, both represent high profile units of the university. Second, both are not only highly visible, they also are seen as indispensable. Third, both are expensive -- they bring in a lot of resources and also spend a lot. Fourth, both activities are integral to the local economy through services, construction, and employment. The new “A&M” also retains fidelity to the historic land grant service mission. Hospitals and clinics certainly represent health service to the public. And big time athletics can even make a case for itself.

Two years ago a commissioner of a major athletics conference said in earnest that at the state universities in his conference, football ought to be regarded as a form of public service. True, this is not exactly the same as providing extension assistance on crop rotation -- but who’s to say that a state university team in the BCS championship or in the NCAA basketball Final Four has not reached out to the entire state’s population?

Academic Medical Centers (AMC) have represented a story of growth in the past decade. A College of Medicine and its affiliates can no longer be described as merely one of many academic units because it has achieved a size, prestige and power that have transformed its presence. It’s not unusual for a medical center and related health sciences nowadays to constitute more than half of a flagship university’s faculty positions.

Furthermore, for a university with an annual operating budget of about $2 billion, the Academic Medical Center often accounts for 40 percent or more of the total university expenditures.

Athletics and Medicine provide an interesting symmetry in hiring, as both share the ability to compete for talent in a high priced market. Hiring a new coach can, for example, be balanced by hiring a researcher with an M.D. and Ph.D. whose work deals with finding a cure for a serious disease. And, both new hires command a retinue of assistants, staff, and incentive bonuses to supplement base salaries. They are together the super stars of academia.

A flagship state university anchored on one end of the campus with the big “A” and anchored on the other end by the big “M” is formidable. Both units command new, expensive facilities -- which often become obsolete relatively quickly. And the expanding, large facilities mean that the two units occupy a substantial percentage of campus real estate.

There are, of course, a few liabilities in showcasing Athletics and Medicine as the new “A&M.” Although both bring in a lot of money, whether in television revenues, ticket sales, major donations, Medicaid payments, federal grants, or fees from clinics, these fertile sources can be precarious.

Six years ago, for example, an article in the Los Angeles Times reported that UCLA’s medical center “struggled for months with wobbly finances and internal dissension,” characterized by a consulting firm’s report as “problems ranging from inconsistent billing and plummeting revenues to a disorganized administration in which job duties overlapped.” Perhaps the best example of the financial fragility of the expensive university medical centers came about a decade ago at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. -- where a shortfall in the medical center income led the university president to try to impose an internal tax on the law school and business school as a convenient source of medical center fiscal fitness.

Today, a university medical center typically faces three sources of financial risk: first, a downturn in number of patients, and empty hospital beds run up expenses quickly. Second, any reduction in the federal Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement rate will require university medical centers to reduce drastically their income projections. Third, although many academic medical centers enjoy financial autonomy due to their own large endowments, these have quickly become undependable. It’s not unprecedented, for example, that a university medical center endowment of $250 million in 2007 (most of which was earmarked to pay for an aggressive capital expansion and building program) by 2009 has shrunk about 40% down to $150 million -- a one year loss of $100 million due to unproductive investment choices. If and when these shortfalls do occur, most likely the state government and/or the university will bail out the medical center -- it’s too big, too visible, and holds too much of an investment to be abandoned by its host university.

The same dynamics hold for flagship state universities with NCAA Division I intercollegiate athletics programs. A losing season in a revenue sport such as football or men’s basketball quickly can bring a decline in ticket revenues and fewer invitations to be selected for nationally televised games. However, even if this were to happen, it’s hard to imagine a state university abandoning football or basketball. The programs have become so important that their expenses must be covered, even if that were to mean transferring resources from other parts of the university.

What about the consequences for other academic units located on campus between the anchors of Athletics and Medicine? One possible concern is the endurance of the “A&S” acronym for “Arts & Sciences.” Since this unit probably has increased difficulty in claiming primacy in the contemporary state university, a possible reform is to amend their branding to reflect a new, diminished status. “A&S” could be re-branded as “a & s” – lower case to connote shrinking budgets, deteriorating centrality, and reduced visibility.

Numerous recent articles have carried the message that public higher education must reconfigure and re-think its priorities and principles. The “New A&M” model featuring Athletics and Medicine provides a timely, dynamic blueprint for updating the historic land grant commitment.

Author/s: 
John R. Thelin
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

John Thelin is professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky. He’s the author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Zen and the Art of Academic Motorcycling

When colleagues learn that I ride my motorcycle to work they often respond with some sort of mid-life crisis quip. Maybe so, but I’ve been riding motorcycles since 1972, when my brother went to college and my parents forced him to leave his 185 Suzuki with me. I was 14 at the time, the legal driving age in Kansas back then for going to and from school and work. Certainly I did stupid things on that bike, but running off the road in Wellington mostly meant encountering wheat fields (my brother did wreck his Honda once, but that’s because he goosed it on a gravel patch while making a turn).

Motorcycling is very dangerous, and in no way do I wish to minimize the danger here. My wife posts newspaper accounts of motorcycling tragedies on our refrigerator, and refuses to go near my bike, so I’m reminded regularly of the perils that await each time I suit up for a ride. I wear the best protective gear, go out of my way to add high-visibility touches to my bike and outfit, and never consume alcohol during the course of a ride.

Yet in spite of the dangers I believe motorcycling has its upside, which includes a surprising health benefit.

This has been a trying year in academia. The roller coaster ride of a national economic meltdown, mounting state budget problems, mind-boggling budget cuts (nearly 20 percent at my school), the last-minute stimulus package, and now the growing understanding that this package merely delays the inevitable add to the worries of faculty, staff and administrators.

And yet, in spite of the grim international and national economic news I believe that many people, and particularly our professors, do not fully recognize and appreciate the presence and impact of events beyond campus. Faculty are unhappy, and I do not blame them for being so.

Yet when I talk with them their complaints and villains are often personal and local. Frequently in such conversations professors fail to acknowledge the larger context that clearly is generating some or many of the problems they are experiencing. When they blame colleague X’s behavior for a department’s difficulty, or their dean, or me, I rarely hear them observe as well that all of us are working in the most trying and stressful of times.

In such conversations I remind them that these are the worst times I have ever seen in higher education, and that any evaluation of the abilities of colleagues and administrators should at least acknowledge this larger context. In other words, if the sky is falling I want us to recognize that it is doing so not just because of the actions of people in our university (but of course we can always make a bad situation worse -- and it is our job as administrators to explain larger contexts and restrictions as best we can).

So if things are so bad why am I writing about motorcycles?

Given the troubles of this year I do so simply to remind people to take care of themselves -- to do what they can to reduce their stress levels when we are in times like these. And here I return to motorcycling, for this is my personal recipe for relief from the pressures of the job.

Riding a motorcycle forces me to concentrate on the moment. I have to pay attention to the truck beside me on the interstate, or the car waiting at the intersection of a rural highway. But at the same time I get to feel the wind in my face, and glimpse the stunning scenery around me, and wave at fellow motorcyclists, and simply marvel about how wonderful it is to be in control of this machine that offers such a privileged view of the world.

It is meditative because I’m filtering out the usual mental soundtrack that plays an exhausting loop of worries from work (meeting enrollment numbers, responding to angry parents, the latest bad budget news, office politics) and concentrating on the enjoyable task at hand. If I’m on a really long ride I end the day physically tired and mentally rejuvenated.

My point is an obvious one: we must reduce our stress levels to be effective at work, to last on the job, and most importantly to be happy. Yet, not everything works to reduce stress, at least not for me. I’m not sure why I do this, but I run marathons, and during training and races the stressful mental soundtrack does not disappear, and at the end of long runs I feel terrible to boot. So getting away from it all has to either last long enough or be special enough to provide respite from the incessant and agonizing replay of events past, and the urge to rehearse constantly for meetings in the future.

Even just thinking about motorcycling calms me, and it helps me concentrate. I remember that I have to focus. I remember that certain things (staying upright and avoiding that merging car) are more important than others (like speeding up to catch another look at that cool bike that just passed me).

Is this rocket science? Nope. Is it motorcycle maintenance? No. But academic motorcycling is meditative, calming, and oh so necessary for the times in which we live.

Author/s: 
Todd A. Diacon
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Todd Diacon is vice provost for academic operations at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Professor Krammer Cleans Out His Office

Recently emeritus from the English department at U of All People, Professor Jack Krammer has set aside the month of July to clean out his office at 115 Richard J. Hall Hall. Hired in 1969, Professor Krammer specialized in Shakespeare, business English, poetry writing, occasional Victorian classes, and whatever else the strapped chairs threw at him during what one UAP administrator termed “the lean years.”

By the end of his career, he had taught half the courses in the catalog and published nothing in any of them, despite a wealth of notes for a book to be entitled Jack of All Classes, Master of None. In recognition of Krammer’s long service, Provost Grudge granted him a dedicated carrel in the Pabst Blue Ribbon Library. The space limits of 3" x 4" prevent the accumulation of bulky books or papers; hence, the necessity for “weeding the pile,” as Grudge, a former botany professor, noted.

The first aspect one notices about Professor Krammer’s office is that the door will not close properly, its jamb wedged on a sheaf of papers shoved into the office beyond deadline. On the front of the door are the requisite cartoons: a cow teaching other cows, six monkeys writing Shakespeare, and a professor with a rubber duck tucked under his arm addressing an audience of similarly accoutered professors. Inside the office, the atmosphere is Dickensian, partly because Krammer taught David Copperfield for a record twenty-one years, starting in 1975, and seven and a half editions weigh down the windowsill like a flock of hunched birds or, alternatively, a testament to Victorian profusion and its hectic prose style.

The lone bookshelf that came with the office has been augmented over the years with a jury-rigged structure of planks capable of supporting the weight of a generation of PMLA issues. Nearby sits a row of The Norton Anthology of Everything, eighth edition, like an armored battalion, canons rampant. The battered fiberboard desk -- “My God, you’re not going to hang on to that, are you?” asked his second wife, Irene, not to be confused with his first wife, Irene -- has a surface like an old-fashioned blotter and a flat middle drawer that slides halfway out whenever no one’s watching.

Inside are 47 paper clips, including two novelty clasps in the shape of a butterfly and a dollar sign. On the far right top is a pile of exams from Krammer’s Modern British Novel course in 2004, in case any students still want to see how they did on the multiple choice. In the left drawer are change-of-grade forms, advising sheets (the obsolete ones), travel requisition forms, blue books, and other ephemera of the pre-Web age. A graying desktop computer with an undiagnosed virus hogs the front area. The sprung desk chair is no longer adjustable for height, but the departmental furniture budget has been converted to travel mini-grants.

Flanking the desk is a three-story file cabinet that features, among other items, 250 Xeroxes of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; a long correspondence between Krammer and a man named Crammer from Nebraska, cut off after the simultaneous realization that no family ties existed; proceedings from two decades of the Colley Cibber Society; and a folded white button-down shirt pressed between two sets of lecture notes, “in case of emergencies,” after that one disastrous evening in 1992 at the dean’s social.

Half a dozen photos cling to the wall, including two from the graduation of 1975, the last time that Krammer showed up for the event. A drawing of a sock, from the student art fair of 1988, hangs from the back of the door. Seven tchotchkes stand on his desk, from a leering gnome, given as a joke for God knows what; to a paperweight in the shape of something that once offended the first Irene.

Stacked in the corner are 37 overdue library books, or rather, books that would be overdue if the faculty were held responsible and fined. The books were mainly due in 1995. One volume in particular, The Painted Saint, was requested back three times by a junior colleague named Hayton in 1996, a plea blissfully ignored, justified by Hayton’s moving to Hoo U three years later.

Everywhere else are papers, papers, papers. On second thought, Professor Krammer has decided to put off the clean-up job till the fall.

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.

John Hughes's Lessons

"Bueller. Bueller. Bueller."

As an untenured professor I live in constant dread that my voice will (like Ben Stein's in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") morph into an endless monotone that will meet an equally endless silence, and that things will get so desperate that only a choreographed rendition of “Twist and Shout” during a German American Day parade in Chicago will shake me and my students out of our stupor.

As the generational distance between me and my students grows (they’ve probably only seen these Gen-X defining scenes) on DVD or YouTube, if at all), it seems as if Bueller moments are unavoidable.

But for all of the examples of generational disconnect in the movies of the late director John Hughes -- particularly those produced when my junior colleagues and I came of age in the mid-1980s -- Hughes (who died this month) also offers cues for avoiding the Bueller Triangle where meaningful interaction among adults and youth simply vanishes. In this light, Hughes’s films are revelatory for educators.

For example, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” affirms the pedagogical strategies of effective teachers. Students want to take ownership of their learning. Like Ferris, they don’t want to be passive receptors of information but active creators of meaningful knowledge.

They don’t just want to study the historical, economic, political, psycho-sexual, and post-colonial contours of the red Ferrari. They want to drive it. We’ve got to enable them to go where their passions and curiosities lead them, and learn to teach them the significance of our “ologies” and “isms” from the passenger’s seat.

Living up to expectations landed the popular girl, the weirdo, the geek, the jock and the rebel in “The Breakfast Club.” Ironically, Saturday morning detention provided safe space for conversation without which these otherwise disparate characters would not have discovered the right blend of commonality and individuality needed to resist life-threatening pressures.

Professors who provide safe spaces in and outside of the classroom for discerning conversation successfully bridge the gap between our expectations of students, and students’ expectations of us. Free of ridicule and judgment students are liberated to ask themselves the eternal question on the road to adulthood: “Who do I want to become?” For further reading, see “She’s Having a Baby.”

“That’s why they call them crushes,” Samantha Baker’s dad explains in a rare Hughes moment of adult clarity and compassion in “Sixteen Candles.” “If they were easy they’d call them something else.” More than just re-telling a tale of teenage crushes, Hughes illuminates the struggle for authenticity when it comes to romance, dating and sex. What was glaringly absent in 1984 is also missing today, especially in the collegiate “hook up” culture. We need more open-minded adults willing to listen to students before pragmatically proposing a list of dos and don’ts.

And adults like Andy Walsh’s broken-hearted father, Jack, or her eclectic boss, Iona, in “Pretty in Pink,” who teach young people by demonstrating what learning looks like -- neither relating to them as peers nor hovering to try to protect them from life’s inevitable failures -- provide the materials students need to make their own prom gowns, a now classic metaphor for navigating the drama of adolescence.

How many times did Hughes depict the power of privilege and the misuse of teenage social capital? Millennials have to navigate social differences, many of which may be more divisive than they were 20 years ago in “Some Kind of Wonderful” because they are more subtle. While it is true that we “can’t tell a book by it’s cover,” to quote the protagonist Keith Nelson, relational power plays continue, to use Watts’s retort, to reveal “how much it’s gonna cost you.”

Taking responsibility for privilege so that we might use it wisely involves understanding and owning our particular contexts rather than simply rejecting them. In fact, Hughes’s films provide ample fodder for unpacking Peggy McIntosh’s “invisible knapsack of privilege,” given his preference for white suburbia and demeaning portrayals of ethnic minorities.

So if we don’t want to forget about Hughes we should not only reminisce about the way his characters spoke directly to our various adolescent selves. We might also remember how not to behave as adults when it comes to engaging our successors.

After all, we’re no longer writing the papers for Mr. Bender in detention. We’re grading them.

Author/s: 
Maureen O'Connell
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

***

Maureen H. O’Connell is an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University and a participant in the 2009-10 pre-tenure teaching workshop at Wabash College's Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion.

A Peek Behind the Veil

OK, so, into a bar walk an Anglican priest, a Muslim imam, a Jewish rabbi and an atheist. Sounds like a ramp to punch line, right? No. That was my panel last month at the 20th anniversary of the Oxford Round Table, at the University of Oxford, England.

Apparently, a peek behind the veil of ORT is needed. Recent posts in the academic blogosphere about this invitation-only academic symposium feature adulation for the intelligencia it attracts and castigation of Oxford for trading on its name for summer business, like some sort of pedagogical Judas.

Fact is, they’re both right. Mind, matter and merger summarize why the event both enchanted and irritated me.

Mind Over Matter

Firstly, pundits need not dismiss its scholarly girth. Formidable participants do darken the doors. My symposium, “Religion and Science After Darwin -- Effects on Christians and Muslims” -- featured sessions with distinguished thinkers in physics, biology, religion and law from all the intellicrat schools you might imagine: Oxford, Harvard, Boston U., UNC-Chapel Hill, Rutgers, etc. It’s not every day you spend time with David Browning (icon for Christian-Islamic comity), Robert Neville (23 books and counting), Amedee Turner (European Parliament while the Euro was established), or the ardent atheist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion).

Further stamps of legitimacy on the program include ORT Trustee Charles Mould, former secretary of Oxford’s 400-year-old, 11 million volume Bodleian Library, and a 16-member advisory committee of university presidents and rectors from eight countries. Also, the manuscripts in its blind reviewed journal, Forum on Public Policy, bear characteristics of quality.

However, since the program began in 1989 with ministers of education from 20 countries, an internalized invitation system eroded to include mid-level researchers or engaged academics like me from teaching institutions -- from ministers of education to an educator with ministerial credentials (and a few relevant publications). Try to tame the jokes for Darwinian devolution.

The intellectual temperature was warm, not hot. This is where I’m supposed to say, “but all were meaningful contributors.” Truth is, some members of our panel were alien to the work, sending more than one head scratching. The good news is that neither title, institution type, or academic discipline were the indicators. Candid confrontation carried the day, based on the quality of ideas. I’m the better for hearing it all. (I’m supposed to say that, too).

As for how aliens gather, one candid comment by an event organizer confessed that the University of Oxford bills the ORT organization heavily for use, and like most universities in modern economy Oxford depends on summer conference “hotel” business to get by.

The ORT itself is, of course, a business (albeit nonprofit), which explains why they folded two smaller symposia into one fumbling theme. That irked me. It was like bringing a fruitcake to a wine and cheese party. I was dressed for interfaith democracy since 9/11. Others came with erudite philosophies of science.

Most organizations can’t get away with last minute theme mergers, but the collective transfixion over a week at the world’s first English speaking university seems to place otherwise central concerns, like the event purpose (!), out of mind for most participants.

Matter Over Mind: Pub and Pulpit

Oh, but the place is intoxicating, and place matters. If space inspires thought or ambition, the ORT venue should produce the most luminous luminaries on the planet. I’ll spare you predictable fawning over this medieval city, where every castle and cathedral issues such artisan care the place is fabled “the city of dreaming spires.” The point: ORT wouldn’t work in Albuquerque.

It’s not intention that the American Southwest lacks, but history, deep academic history, and the continuity one feels holding forth at an ancient lectern presided over by 800 years of political, scientific and religious savants.

Both pubs and pulpits nurtured greatness here for centuries. Their understated, six-inch plaques tagged across the city commemorate landmarks in a prevalence of meaning only Oxford could afford.

To the pub: on one side of town is a tiny booth in The Eagle and Child tavern where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met every Tuesday for 25 years -- “the conversations that have taken place here," its plaque reads, "have profoundly influenced the development of 20th century literature,” from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Lord of the Rings.

And to the pulpit: across town is an unassuming though well-crafted podium in a Gothic cathedral from which John Wesley preached his conversion story and launched the Methodist Movement that, in part, propelled my own institution into being. There brother Charles penned hymns now sung in every Christian church on the planet. In a word, cool.

The significance of location fits ORT, as described by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space: Certain places reduce us to silence. They contain more than their objectivity. Sometimes you feel “inside an essential impression seeking expression.” And recall of such spaces, as I perform for you now, become not history -- “I was there” -- but a kind of poetry that memorializes moments. Bachelard says, “The great function of poetry is to shelter dreams.”

For too many academics, the dreams of significance are extinguished in a chemical bath of routine responsibilities (e.g. recommendation letters, grading, meetings). But such dreams require opportunities to perform. The University of Oxford’s space holds sufficient cachet to revive academic dreams, requiting love for elevated and sublime learning.

Mind and Matter Merger: Leaving in Tension

Alas, learning without tension is entertainment. Mind and matter merged for me during one session in the centuries-old Victorian Oxford Union Debate Chamber -- affectionately called “the last bastion of free speech in the world.” Recently, the Holocaust-denier David Irving and “sex-positive” community builder Joani Blank spun yarns. The likes of Yasser Arafat, Desmond Tutu, and a Kennedy or two are tossed in here and there. In that space all the tensions of the Oxford Round Table, real and symbolic, came together for me.

Standing at the podium was Dawkins. I’ve never been insulted with such kindness. He artfully delivered wink-and-smile sarcasm against bald jabs of theist stupidity, and appeared to relish the provocation. Had I not read some of his work, I would’ve thought it mere gamesmanship, superficial wordplay for positions not fully held.

Yet there’s a likability in him somehow, a most unexpected thing for me to feel as an evangelical Christian. I wished I had more time with him, but not in the way that morphed middle-aged scientists into giddy children after the Q & A, lining up hurriedly with the front flaps of their Dawkins books in one hand and autograph pen in another. Here was an orgy of secularism, loud and proud, baby.

Seated next to him in poetic paradox was the head-in-hand, the veteran Vicar Brian Mountford of millennia-aged University Church of St. Mary’s, original site for Oxford coursework, and the physical and spiritual hub of a city and campus with 40 chaplains. Twice per term, in fact, the “university sermon” is delivered here, dignitaries in tow.

Not only does this priest share the platform with Dawkins, shepherding souls in a landscape of logical positivism, but imagine this: He’s also Dawkins’s neighbor. What a delicious irony! That’s better than McDonalds and Burger King on the same corner.

Mountford reconciles this tension, in part, through self-described liberal theology. Our talk, his Spring sermons, and his book, Perfect Freedom: Why Liberal Christianity Might Be The Faith You’re Looking For, express: a “low view of the church” (it institutionalizes discipleship, stripping salvation of its freedoms); an “embrace of the secular” (the Church should not assume society is ethically less sophisticated than itself); soft judgment (“God would not condemn his creatures to eternal torment”); and the “championing of doubting Thomases on the fringe.” He sees this as being “more evangelical than the evangelicals” -- courting scoffers almost Socratically while provoking believers (“sermons send us to sleep because they are totally uncontroversial”).

But for me, a theological conservative, here strikes another strand of tension, beyond the ridiculing atheist “neighbor” we’re charged to love. Here is faith diverging between two likable people -- a theological gap Mountford once described as “chalk and cheese,” things that just don’t go well together.

Such was ORT for me: enchantment and irritation, the merger of chalk and cheese.

En route to the airport were two books under wing, Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Anthony Flew’s There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.

Agitations get me thinking. I’m the better for it, remember?

Author/s: 
Gregg Chenoweth
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Gregg Chenoweth is vice president for academic affairs at Olivet Nazarene University, and practicing journalist for a variety of magazines and newspapers.

Gaming Excellence

Each summer, the registrar at our university distributes the official Tuition and Fees table for the upcoming academic year. Generally, I glance over the document quickly, taking care not to commit any of its content to memory. (How else can I eschew any culpability for them?) This year, however, for some reason, my eyes lingered a little longer than usual over the document's multitudinous fees.

Most were fairly predictable and straightforward. One, however, was conspicuously nondescript: the Excellence Fee. A library fee, presumably, provides critical information resources and systems (e.g., card catalogs) for students. But an excellence fee? Don't get me wrong, no one supports excellence -- and quality, and high performance and a host of other equally nebulous words and phrases -- more than me. (Just look at any one of the grant proposals I’ve written in the past few years.) But an excellence fee?

My discovery soon lead me to wonder whether my institution was unique in levying such charges. So, like any researcher worth his or her salt, I Googled the fee structures of a number of area colleges and universities. Having thoroughly reviewed several, I can confidently report that excellence (and other, similarly ambiguous) fees are quite commonplace.

On some level, one has to appreciate postsecondary administrators’ creativity in developing -- and, especially, naming -- fees which will be warmly (or at least not coldly) received by policymakers, boards, funding agencies, students and their parents. (After all, who's going to argue against “excellence”?) To this end, I've concocted a few more fees which higher education leaders may wish to consider implementing as additional revenues become necessary. Note: the following fees have been made up. Any resemblances to actual fees, though likely embarrassing, are entirely coincidental.

21st Century Fee: applied toward preparing students for the current century's challenges and issues.

22nd Century Fee: applied toward preparing students for the next century's challenges and issues. (Given ongoing medical advancements and modern fiscal realities, I suspect most students today will still be working in 2100.)

Jargon Fee: applied toward ensuring students and their parents gain broad exposure to the unique and often confounding acronyms and terms utilized by postsecondary personnel.

Non-Technology Fee: applied toward providing students access to non-technology-related educational resources (e.g., desks, lighting, toilet paper, etc.).

Bureaucracy Fee: applied toward ensuring students are directed to at least three different institutional offices before any issues they may have are resolved

Superior Fee: applied to ensuring students believe their educational experiences are better than those of students at other institutions.

Of course, such charges are implemented because the costs of facilitating postsecondary educational experiences continue to increase, and institutions struggle to generate funds through sufficient existing revenue sources. While most fees are legitimate and appropriately utilized to provide legitimate services and resources, some smack of attempts to avoid cost transparency.

In such cases, postsecondary leaders should be clearer about why the fees are needed, how they are (or will be) used, and, over time, that they are, in fact, being applied as originally proposed. Otherwise, higher education administrators are merely gaming the notion of excellence in education, and modeling the wrong behaviors to the very individuals they serve: students

As for me, I’m going to recommend that my institution replace its existing Excellence Fee with a Fee Fee to cover the expenses associated with the development, implementation, management and explanation of its other student fees. For one, a Fee Fee is more justifiable -- even if in an ironic sort of way. Most importantly, however, it’s honest, and better reflects the level and type of transparency institutions should be practicing in the first place.

Now, about those card catalogs ...

Author/s: 
Clarence Sowers
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Clarence Sowers is the pseudonym of an academic administrator at a university in the south central United States.

Spring Into Fall

The start of classes in the fall is always a heady experience here at U of All People. The football team is back on the field, waddling off the three tons it gained in June and July as the assistant coaches literally whip them into shape (though the NCAA is investigating that charge).

In a festival called the Cleaning of the Glass, the chemistry department rounds up all its sticky test tubes, graduated cylinders, and Erlenmeyer flasks and puts them through the giant autoclave while singing titration chanties. The student cafeteria lovingly prepares its welcome-back feast with leftovers from its farewell banquet back in May.

In the interests of drumming up news for the dying art of journalism, the student editors of our own Weekly Complainer have instituted a Q&A feature called “Is Anyone Out There, Reading Us?” The inaugural column asks what preparations, blood rituals, or alternate routines people on campus engage in to start the year off right.

The secretary for the dean of students, Moira D. Seime, is busy updating files. “We used to have those beige cabinets with the green hanging files, but now it’s computerized, and they can all fit into one itty-bitty flash drive. Only the dean went and lost the thing -- he’s checked all his pockets -- and now we have to start back at square one. We’re contacting everyone who’s ever been on academic probation here for the last 10 years.”

Rory Schach, a junior psychology major, always starts the academic year by torching his old textbooks in a bonfire outside his dorm. “They’ve got almost no resale value, so, hey, why not? The more, the merrier. If you’ve got any from last semester you don’t know what to do with, just IM me.”

The leisure science department chair, “Fizz” Ed McClanahan, makes a point of viewing all incoming majors on the IT’s Students-at-a-Glance feature, spending up to several hours scrutinizing the statistics and photos.

“It’s really quite amazing what you can tell from the data,” he remarks, hastily stuffing a printout into his desk. “In fact, I feel I know some of the girls already.”

The guys at Delta Theta Beta are planning their annual rush, which will include a three-legged race with real amputees, two beer breakfasts for charity, and a hog roast with a live pledge suspended over the coals. “It always makes the meat taste better this way,” jokes DTB head Al Dente, from his room at the Lasker Detention Center.

Senior and outgoing prom queen Emma Beaut is revising her résumé for the 16th time. “I do this, like, every week. Maybe if I upload it on a fuchsia background in Gazpacho font, it’ll catch an employer’s eye. This August, I included my measurements and a photo, but that sort of backfired on me.”

The president, secretary, and sole attendee of the Student Fart Society, Lance Flatu, is gearing up for this year’s onslaught of members by covertly distributing fliers in the public restrooms around campus. “This is a fun activity with, unfortunately, a lot of stigma attached to it. I’m trying -- oops, excuse me -- to change all that, one step at time.”

Police Chief O’Malley O’Malley is readying his cruiser by adding a purple pom-pom on his aerial and a do-wop siren. “If that don’t get a rise out of ’em,” he announces, slapping his late-Elvis-style sideburns, “nothing will.”

The Modern Language department chair, M. de Trop, is arriving from his apartement in Paris at noon on Monday for his two o’clock class in French culture. “Mais oui -- I mean, yes, I do feel an obligation to prepare pour les enfants, as I think of them, but half an hour is plenty of time. Aussi, the best preparation for this kind of course is soaking up the -- comment dit-on? -- ambience of the native culture. Malheureusement, the last time Customs confiscated my laptop.”

Freshman Richie Well is readying himself for his first taste of college curriculums, foretelling which courses he should take by eviscerating a live chicken and examining the entrails. “Soothsaying’s cool. I did this every year in high school. Should work here, too."

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.

Time Off for Good Behavior

The topic of mandatory unpaid days off, also known as Fun Furloughs, has occupied the minds of many faculty and staff members at U of All People. This year, the number of such days off has been set at half a semester for faculty and a full semester for staff. To enforce the terms of the contract -- take the time off or get fired -- the university has created a new administrative department called University Enforcement. The current enforcer was hired from the Acme Debt Collection Agency, and his first act of office was issuing this communiqué to the university listserv:

-----------------------------------------------------------

From: The University Enforcer
Date: Wednesday, October 7, 2009 10:54 PM
To: All Faculty and Staff
Subject: You-Know-What

-----------------------------------------------------------

As most of you already know, except the loafers who’ve been vacationing in the Cayman Islands, we have a full-fledged recession on our hands at U of All People. The state is running a deficit of $5 billion, and the governor is trying to trim costs wherever he can. Obviously, he looked first at the educational sector, where bloated salaries and irresponsible perks have caused most of the financial crisis. In short, it’s time for accountability.

What is a furlough, exactly? According to the dictionary, it can mean: to dismiss, usually for economic reasons; to grant a leave to; or a temporary leave of absence from military duty. We’re talking about the first meaning, or maybe the second, though I’m used to dealing with the third. Compared to a short stretch in prison for nonpayment of debts, or the breaking of a leg for similar reasons, it’s comparatively painless. Think of it as a welcome break from monotony. And consider yourself lucky you still have your jobs, though in fact we had no intention of making layoffs, simply counted on your bowing to the threat, and turned out to be right.

Now, in case you’re getting ideas of taking a trip to Spain on your unpaid vacation, please note the following:

  • You may not take off any days when you would ordinarily would be teaching, which does not mean you can take off days when you might be teaching extraordinarily.
  • You may not take consecutive days off, a stretch that might indicate you do have a function, after all.
  • You may not enjoy your time off. This order comes directly from the provost, who hasn’t enjoyed herself in years.
  • You may not take the extra time to demonstrate in front of the governor’s office against education cuts.
  • You may ask: What’s left for me to take off from? Good question. While on furlough, you may refrain from attending committees, except those we deem urgent; meeting with students, except where they appear needy; using the library -- and who does nowadays, anyway? -- and answering e-mail unless you receive one of those messages stamped with a “!” for high priority, like this one. Whether you eat lunch in the overpriced faculty dining hall on a furlough day is up to you, though we are, of course, not responsible for any damage to your person on that day, gastric or otherwise. After much bargaining back and forth, however, the administration has agreed to let members of the local AFT wear placards that read “Please don’t talk to me today. I’m on furlough.”
  • This is not an attempt to deprive you of salary, though the furloughs will, in fact, result in at least a 50 percent reduction per semester. If the furloughs appear not to have a significant impact on your teaching, you may expect an increase in the number of furlough days next year.

What should you tell your students? Nothing, preferably. It will only confuse them. But if the news does somehow leak out, here are some lines of defense we urge you to take:

1. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
2. “I’ve been missing a lot of sleep lately, and it’s finally catching up with me.”
3. “Teach isn’t going to die for a while, he’s just going to be ... away.”

How to feel about these furloughs:

1. It’s not me; it’s the system.
2. Everybody needs a furlough now and then.
3. You deserve a break today.

Unfortunately, the administration is unable to avail itself of the furlough system this year because of the indispensable nature of its operations, wherein even one missed hour would result in the gears of the university breaking off tooth by tooth. You who are cogs, we salute you.

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.

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