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?
Gregg Chenoweth is vice president for academic affairs at Olivet Nazarene University, and practicing journalist for a variety of magazines and newspapers.
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 ...
Clarence Sowers is the pseudonym of an academic administrator at a university in the south central United States.
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."
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
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:
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.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
Since U of All People is as multicultural as its name suggests, this time of year we celebrate Kwanzaa, Christmas, Hanukkah, Chanukah, New Year’s, early Ramadan, something the provost calls “The Festival of Budget Overruns,” and whatever else we can squeeze into a crowded December calendar. One commonality that ties all these events together is the receiving of gifts, though the administration admits that last year’s mass-distribution of “Recession-Proof Meal Coupons” was in poor taste. On the other hand, the Winkelman football trophy left out of its display case in the Tyro Athletic Facility was not intended as a gift and should be returned immediately.
Will we ever get what we deserve? One can always hope. Hoping is one of our favorite sports here at UAP, just below synchronized complaining. As the holiday season approaches, here’s our wish list:
An executive decision-maker, the kind in the shape of a foot-high X, half-filled with a fuzzy blue fluid that dribbles into either YES or NO after you shake it up -- for the Dean of Students who can’t make up her mind when it comes to apportioning money to certain student organizations who asked her last April and have the e-mails to prove it.
A forced retirement package for French professor Myra Viveash, who’s been at UAP for over forty years and who was mistaken by a recent campus tour guide for Our Founder. Note: the package is the wish of the Modern Language department and not that of Professor Viveash, who has affixed a motto to her office door, “Après moi, le déluge.”
A new piece of chalk for the seminar room in Norton Hall.
Extra memory space, either through a RAM implant that the computer lab says is almost feasible, or just the added brainpower of an office assistant, for the secretary in the assistant assistant provost’s office who continually forgets to send out half the memos, and by the way, we still need those notes from the Furlough Committee meeting of September 4th.
A new, expanded parking lot to replace the new parking lot that was made available last Tuesday.
Some real money and benefits for the staff, instead of those stupid perks like “Discount Day at the Bookstore” and “Staff Appreciation Day” that add up to nothing.
An endowed chair for Professor Hiram Niggles in the political science department, who’s been lobbying for it since 1981, the publication date of his one book, The Politics of the Reagan Administration.
An upright, wooden chair for Adjunct Professor Ted Bupkis, so that he can take a seat alongside Instructors Cindy Cram, N. Hale, and Dorothy Huddle, in the converted janitorial closet they’ve been given to hold student conferences.
A new copying machine for the Multi-Purpose Faculty Technology Center, to replace the one that went on the fritz last March. The scribe’s kiosk set up outside the facility was funny only for the first week.
Some new lecture notes for Professor Mortimer Vellum, who’s been using the same yellowing sheaf for History 205: American History Since 1865, since 1985. And a new literature anthology for Professor Ray Iterate, who’s by now memorized all the words to Macbeth, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “The Lottery.”
A replacement ping pong table in the Student Center to replace the old one, after “Mitts” McGonigle furrowed a deep groove in it with a pool stick, thinking he was knocking the cue ball and missing spectacularly.
An extra-dimensional, null-time, wormhole passageway from Aaronson Hall at the south end of campus to Zapatos Hall at the north end, so that students can get to class on time.
Two chili peppers on RateMyProfessors.com for old Professor Ben Broadbeam in the mathematics department. That should make his day, no, his year -- or the next 10 years to come, as well as showing his ex-wife that he’s still got what it takes.
A holiday bonus. Just kidding. Ho ho ho.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
Yes, the Saints won the Super Bowl. They played really well; they limited their mistakes and capitalized on the mistakes of their opponent. But what was also evident was their enthusiasm and their willingness to take risks -- which gets me to my point.
The seeds of a Colts Super Bowl defeat were planted in Game 15 of the regular season.
Let me explain.
There was no shortage of loud chatter on sports radio and in newspaper columns about the decision of the Indianapolis Colts’ management to pull many of their starting players against the New York Jets. My husband’s view was that the decision was grounded in economics: Ownership and coaches made the move that maximized the team’s potential to reach and win the Super Bowl (by limiting risk of injury to the best personnel) and reap the greatest fiscal rewards. It was all about money.
Horse owners do this all the time, pulling horses from races to protect their health (long-term prospects) -- and there is plentiful debate when that decision removes a Triple Crown threat. Economics speak.
I wonder, though.
If a professional baseball pitcher were on the brink of a perfect game -- even if the playoffs or the World Series were days away -- would his manager pull him to preserve his arm for a future game?
When the Colts pulled their starters in Week 15, the ESPN commentator and former Patriots player Teddy Bruschi lambasted the Colts for failing to exercise courage, on the theory that it is better to try for perfection and lose than not to have tried at all. Bruschi’s knows of what he speaks -- his team almost accomplished perfection, finishing the 2007 regular season and playoffs undefeated but losing in the Super Bowl to the NY Giants. The key word is “almost.”
What Bruschi and other commentators did not mention was that the second and third string Colts players were not trying to lose Game 15. What was true is that they appeared ill-prepared, and the first stringers and the Colts fans were doing nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to cheer on the substitutes. In fact, they were booing the third string substitute quarterback, Curtis Painter.
In the arts, understudies are prepared – they study for the real thing in case they are called into service. Curtis Painter, in contrast, did not look like a well-prepared understudy. He looked like a deer caught in headlights, and it’s not as if his entry in the game was unexpected.
Many a career -- with plentiful audience support -- has been launched through successful last minute entries, the most famous of which may be the incomparable Leonard Bernstein, who made his New York Philharmonic debut as a conductor by substituting for the well-known but ailing Bruno Walter.
Top that off with the fact that neither Peyton Manning nor his first string compatriots did anything to help the substitutes as they struggled. Instead, they were just resting on the sidelines, chatting with each other or gazing at the field. They didn’t act as cheerleaders and advisers to their teammates. They did nothing to make the substitute players better.
The fans weren’t exactly helpful, either. I appreciate their disappointment at forgoing a perfect season, but booing the substitutes doesn’t help. Give them your support and who knows: If they are motivated and well-prepared -- and inspired, even -- perhaps they just might surprise you with a win.
All of this came back to haunt the Colts on Super Bowl Sunday.
Playing it safe is pretty easy, but risk taking is hard. People need practice dealing with failure or it throws them for a loop. And helping others around you is not easy, either; you need to put your ego in check and move outside yourself.
Those working in higher ed know all about both.
Ask vulnerable students how they feel as they head out of their comfort zone and into a college. Feels risky. And real learning -- in and out of the classroom – is all about risk taking. Trying and failing and trying again is at the base of educational success.
And, in higher education, we strive to support all our students, not just those with a 4.0 GPA. With help, many initially less successful students start to thrive. They complete their college education and move into the workplace or on to graduate or professional schools. In this process, our 4.00 students often serve as their tutors and mentors, providing their peers with a greater chance to succeed. It’s a model that recognizes that we owe it to each other to help lift those who need more support.
So the Colts coaches, players and fans lost more than the game in Week 15. They lost a commitment to risk taking and they failed to support their fellow players. The results of both were evidenced in the Super Bowl. No unusual plays to challenge the status quo, and no real strategy to deal with the injury to first stringer Dwight Freeney, whom most thought would not play all 60 minutes. And where exactly was the cheering squad and support for Freeney’s replacement?
Pause for a moment and consider how different things would have been if the Saints had been playing an undefeated Colts team, for whom a perfect season was on the line. Would the Colts team have played any differently in that situation? Might their quest for perfection have pushed them just a wee bit harder, engaging them and their fans in an effort to make history?
I think the answer to both of those questions is yes.
It might even have been different in feel if the Colts had actually tried for a perfect season and then lost in Game 15 or 16.
Those of us in higher ed can use what happened to the Colts as a reminder that outcomes are affected both by helping students learn to take risks, however hard that is, and by supporting our weaker students and encouraging their success. These very acts open the door for meaningful payoffs down the road. Playing it safe in higher ed leads to failure, not success.
These lessons from higher ed would have helped the Colts.
Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College.
The U of All People psychology faculty comprises an idiosyncratic bunch of individuals, or, as the department chair recently put it, twenty-five different pains in the neck, though neck wasn’t the word used.
Professor Arnold distrusts all cognitive psychologists; Professor Baird won’t speak to Professor Cohn; Professor Handel perceives maternal rejection everywhere; Professor Garrett sits as far from Professor Rand as possible; Professor Llewen speaks only to certain individuals on certain days; Professor Abbott relies solely on reverse psychology; and all suspect each other’s motives.
Not surprisingly, the language in departmental meetings is difficult to read, even for veterans who’ve been teaching at U of All People for decades, and the proceedings really deserve a translation. In return for a modest travel voucher, the psycholinguist Martin Baffle has provided a rough equivalency chart for all future meetings:
Let’s come to order.
This meeting should’ve started 15 minutes ago.
Who’ll take notes?
I’m not doing it two months in a row.
We have five items on the agenda.
We’ll be lucky if we get past two.
You have the documents in front of you.
I see that none of you downloaded what I sent.
With all due respect ...
I’m about to be rude.
I have a question.
I have a comment.
I have issues with --
I can’t tell you how much this pisses me off.
Can you repeat that?
I need to buy some time.
What’s best for our students ...
What works for me ...
I’m a bit puzzled by ...
I hate ...
Do I hear a motion?
Will someone please save me?
Let’s send this back to the committee.
Let’s deep-six this baby.
Can we take this up next time?
I don’t have my minions here right now.
I have to leave early for another meeting.
I’m more important than you.
I’m sorry, but I have to pick up my son.
I have my priorities straight.
Do I see a hand?
As a point of procedure ...
No other way I can stop this.
If I may make a comment ...
Now that everyone else has had a say, I intend to drone on for as long as I like.
Shall we call the question?
Can we for Chrissake get on with this?
Paper ballots, please.
I see we don’t trust each other.
How about just a show of hands?
We’ll smoke ’em out.
Please, this is a private matter.
Back-channel all sniping e-mail.
As I recall, we do have a precedent for that ...
As the longest-standing faculty member in the room, I can make up anything before 1970.
We can decide this next matter in a hurry.
I hope no one’s read beyond page two.
That’s not what I said.
I wish I hadn’t said that.
Correct me if I’m wrong.
I know I’m right on this one.
Here are our recommendations.
Here are our demands.
To speak anecdotally ...
I haven’t a shred of evidence to back this up.
The administration may not agree with us on this one.
The provost wishes we were dead.
I don’t believe Professor Jones has had a chance to speak.
Stop marking papers, Jonesie.
We need to set up a committee.
We don’t want to talk about it now.
I’m just the moderator.
The buck starts here.
Let me remind you ...
I know you know I know you know.
I love talking about myself.
The dean has asked for our opinion.
He wants a rubber-stamp approval.
You have proxies?
But aren’t Professors Winthrop and Leighton dead?
The meeting is now adjourned.
Time for a drinkie.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
To: Dan Wyman, Director of Landscaping Services From: Lee Williams, Director of Four Rivers Residential College Date: Sept. 15
Hi Dan. Thanks for your recent e-mail about the benches in the courtyard of the Living Learning Center, which houses Four Rivers. I share your concern about the apparent damage being done to them. It does seem odd that the corners of the two benches next to each other are being carved or chewed up in some manner. I’ve not noticed this on other benches in the courtyard, and I’m not sure what could be causing this. I know that students in Four Rivers College who live here in the LLC tend to be a bit out of the mainstream of the rest of the university (though I don’t think they’d appreciate your phrase “grungy granola types”), but they are not really the “random vandalism” type. I’ll do a little investigation and see what I find. I’m afraid that we can’t provide staff to watch the benches all night, as you suggest, though I do realize they cost a lot of money.
To: Joe O’Malley, Living Learning Center Director From: Lee Date: Sept. 15
Hey Joe. I got a note from Dan Wyman about the benches in the courtyard. Have you noticed the way the corners of two of them have been chewed up or something? It’s weird. I’m wondering if a student has been shaving off pieces of the bench for some reason. Maybe one of the art projects in the Earth, Art and Me class? That would be odd, but no more odd than last semester’s giant mobile in the pine trees or the large hole Zach dug to demonstrate entropy, or whatever that was. What was that? Can you ask around the LLC and see if anyone knows anything? Thanks.
To: Dan Wyman, Joe O’Malley From: Lee Date: Sept. 19
I’ve identified the culprit. I came into the courtyard and found a large yellow Labrador retriever chewing away on the corner of one of the benches. His leash had been tied to a nearby sapling. Apparently his owner is taking a class here at the LLC and leaves him tied there. He seems to be a good dog. He stopped immediately when I yelled, “Hey!” and looked a bit chagrined, not unlike many of our students. He was wearing a collar with a tag that identified him as Bazzle, The Warrior King. It also listed his owner’s name. I will e-mail her and ask that she tie him up elsewhere.
To: Elise Anderson From: Lee Williams, Director of Four Rivers College Date: Sept. 19
Hello, Elise. I believe that you are the owner of Bazzle, the Warrior King. He’s a great dog, but it seems he’s taken a liking to the benches near the tree where you tie him up when you’re at the LLC, and he’s been chewing on the corners of them. Could you please tie him up elsewhere? Thanks.
To: Steven Porter, Chief of University Police From: Lee Williams, Director of Four Rivers College Date: Sept. 21
Hi Steve. I understand your concern about the dog your officer saw tied to a railing at the LLC. His owner is taking a class here. He’s well-behaved and quiet, unlike Werner the Weimaraner who barked incessantly last spring when he found himself in the same situation. Gosh, he was high-strung. Anyway, I know it’s campus policy that dogs not be left unattended, but ever since she moved him from the courtyard benches to the entry area where students typically hang out and smoke (yes, I know that’s against campus policy, too, but what can we do?), he’s rarely left alone. The students have taken a real shine to him. Can we just bend the rule a little? It’s only a couple of hours a week.
To: Dan Wyman, Director of Landscape Services From: Lee Date: Sept. 23
Hi again. Yeah, sorry about that. I’ll ask Bazzle’s owner to scoop his poop. Please express my apologies to the guy who mows the grass.
To: Elise Anderson, student From: Lee Williams Date: Sept. 23
Hi Elise. I appreciate your moving Bazzle’s waiting area away from the benches. Do you think you could either make sure he gets a good walk before you leave him, or perhaps make sure you clean up after him? I don’t want to antagonize the groundskeepers any more than we already have. And no, I don’t know who gave him the pepperoni pizza. I’ll ask around. Sorry about your car upholstery.
To: Joe O’Malley, LLC Director From: Lee Date: Sept. 27
Joe, could you please let the students know that they shouldn’t bring Bazzle, The Warrior King, inside the residence hall? I realize it was raining quite hard, but the housekeepers casually mentioned his presence to their supervisor who mentioned it to his supervisor who mentioned it to the director who just called me, and I think it’s important that we keep Bazzle under the radar because we’re violating about seven policies already just having him around. By the way, the monogrammed dog bed is very nice. I hope that wasn’t paid for with the money the students raised selling tofu empanadas. Thanks.
To: Justin Lane, LLC resident From: Lee Date: Sept. 28
Hi Justin. I understand you shared your pepperoni pizza with Bazzle, The Warrior King, which was really nice of you, but apparently not so nice for his delicate stomach. His owner said he barked, then barfed, in her car. He needs to stay outside and eat only what his owner provides. We need to be careful about drawing attention to his presence, or he may be banished from the LLC completely.
To: Steve Porter, Chief of University Police From: Lee Date: Sept. 30
Though it’s hard for me to imagine someone complaining about Bazzle, the Warrior King, who pretty much just sits and drools and watches the door while waiting for his owner to reappear, I do understand he’s not supposed to be there at all. I will ask his owner to stop bringing him with her. I will also ask Food Services to stop serving apple pie, and will make the LLC students turn in their Birkenstocks. Just kidding. But come on. He’s just a big old yellow Lab, trying to bring a little happiness to those around him.
To: Elise Anderson, student From: Lee Date: Sept. 30
Hi again. Well, it seems Bazzle, the Warrior King, has been ratted out, and we’ve been requested to abide by university policy to not have him left unattended while you’re in class. Sorry. He was a nice addition to the community, once students stopped feeding him pizza and he stopped using the lawn as a litterbox.
To: Justin, Sam, Jessica, Kate, LLC residents From: Lee Date: Oct. 2
While I really do appreciate your concern about Bazzle, the Warrior King’s situation, it’s just not okay to ignore university policy and let his owner leave him unattended. If you want to have her leave him with one of you, and you dog-sit during the class, that would be okay. Or if you want to address the policy itself, we can discuss appropriate ways to do that. Speaking of policies, could you take down the “Free Bazzle” banner that you’ve hung from the roof? It’s very nice, but you’re not supposed to be on the roof. Where’d you find a banner that big, anyway? I can read it from Route 12, and that’s about half a mile away.
To: Mary McQueen, Dean of Students From: Lee Date: Oct. 4
Hi Mary. No, I didn’t know about the permit for a demonstration that our students requested from your office. The “Free Bazzle” rally and t-shirt sale is not an official LLC event. And no, Bazzle is not the student who was suspended last semester. That was Basil, and he’s now living in an ashram in Asheville. On the brighter side, although this is the third demonstration up here this month, it’s the first one for which the students did seek a permit. Don’t you think that’s progress? Also, I’m sorry about you getting a call from the fire chief. I guess the student who was taking down the banner isn’t quite the Spider Man he thought he was. Please let the chief know I appreciate the rescue. Joe is meeting with Justin today to discuss possible sanctions.
To: Bob Thomas, International Student Adviser From: Lee Williams Date: Oct. 5 Yes, I think there has been a little confusion. Bazzle, the Warrior King, is not a foreign student-in-exile seeking asylum in the United States. He’s a Labrador retriever with digestive problems. The rally is on Wednesday at noon. I will share your offer to speak at the rally with the students planning it.
To: Jason Easter, Reporter, Mountaintop Times From: Lee Williams Date: Oct. 5
Yes, the students are planning another demonstration here at the LLC, and I guess I’m glad the students contacted you about media coverage. Perhaps we should just get you an office here. We’re thinking about getting one for the University attorney, whom the students now apparently have on speed-dial. No, I don’t think Bazzle will be speaking. You know he’s a dog, right? Just a dog with a taste for benches. The rally starts at noon, from what I’ve been told, and the Bazzle-Aid concert will begin at 4. I’ve heard they’ve booked fourteen bands and have about 20 vendors.
To: Samantha Reed, Fox News From: Lee Williams Date: Oct. 6
He’s a dog!! He’s just a dog!! Bazzle, The Warrior King, is not in prison. He is not in exile. He’s a Labrador retriever in a red bandanna with bad breath, actually, and questionable dietary habits. Of course you are more than welcome to bring a film crew here, but isn’t there something more newsworthy than a yellow Lab who is simply canina non grata on our campus?
To: Henry Szymanski, Associate Provost From: Lee Williams Date: Oct. 6
Hello, Dr. Szymanski. No, I didn’t know about the request our students sent to you to cancel classes during Bazzlepalooza. But if you think it’s a good idea, I’ll trust your judgment on this.
To: Elise Anderson, student From: Lee Date: Oct 6
Thanks for your note about your plans to take Bazzle to Knoxville. It seems like a good idea to let him live with your parents till you graduate in December. I’m sorry to hear that the stress of the attention has exacerbated his stomach troubles. I think I know how he feels.
To: Milton Brown, Sheriff From: Lee Williams Date: Oct. 7
Yes, from what I understand from the student planners, it’s very possible that the crowd will number in the thousands, now that the band Phish has announced that they will launch their reunion tour at the Free Bazzle rally. Sorry about this. But hey, you looked great on CNN last night. I like the haircut.
To: Dan Wyman, Director of Landscape Services From: Lee Date: Oct. 9
Now that things have quieted down after the rally/concert/riot, I’ve been able to take inventory around the LLC. We will definitely need to have the lawn re-seeded and about 30 replacement rhododendrons and azaleas planted. The “dog-friendly area” (boy, was that a bad idea) will probably require a backhoe to fill in the holes dug during the two-day event. And the benches are all gone. I think I saw two of them tied to the top of a VW microbus as it headed west on Route 12. I’m pretty sure they got the ones with the teeth marks.
Lee Burdette Williams
In a previous life, Lee Burdette Williams directed a residential college not unlike Four Rivers. She is now vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College (Mass.).
At U of All People, we’ve had a 5/5 teaching load for as long as we can remember, which means almost no time to spare for non-essentials like eating or breathing. And with class size capped at 75 students, many instructors crack under the strain of grading 700 lab reports or a quarter-ton of essays on the causes of the Civil War.
Within the ranks of the English department, however, is an astonishing anomaly: Professor N. F. Eckshul, last year’s winner of the More or Less Best Teacher of the Year award, seems to have a great deal of time to spare -- time he spends avoiding committee meetings and not publishing. The methods for his ultra-efficient pedagogy have remained obscure, since the last time he had a class observation was 20 years ago. But just this month, Professor Eckshul, announcing his retirement, has decided to share what he calls his Ten Teaching Commandments:
1. Break up the class into small groups that can “teach themselves.” Give each group a project: interpreting a text, writing a paragraph. This activity can use up anywhere from five minutes to the entire class period. Pretend to monitor the students’ progress by occasionally dropping by each group and making helpful suggestions, such as urging the students to listen to each other. Group presentations should take up any remaining class time.
2. Rather than giving students new assignments, which are hard to think up and evaluate, have the students work on a portfolio, consisting of material written and rewritten and re-rewritten, until the entire semester’s work consists of three perfect pieces suitable for framing. When students complain about the tedium of this sequence, sternly intone about the importance of the revision process.
3. Why correct the students’ work if you can get them to correct each other’s material? Set up a system of peer review, where one student, no matter how inept, reads and comments on another student’s work, and so on down the line. Have the students present their reviews in class. If this set-up leaves you with too much unused time, continue the process with a peer assessment of the peer reviews.
4. What student hasn’t thought on occasion, “Hey, I could be in front of the room, doing what the teacher’s doing”? Fine. Ask each student to lead one class “as an educational experience.” No need to prepare for that day. Just sit back and relax, but take care to furrow your brow occasionally and look as if you’re taking notes.
5. When giving exams, always give true-false, fill-ins, or multiple-choice tests, rather than complicate matters with messy interpretations that require time-consuming judgment calls when grading. Using Scantron forms can even eliminate your role in grading entirely while preserving an illusion of objectivity.
6. If you must assign final papers, don’t bother appending any comments, since students won’t bother picking them up from your locked office. If one or two tiresome students really want to look at how you marked their final work, warn loudly that angling for a better grade leads to an automatic markdown.
7. Grade inflation is here to stay -- embrace it! Giving A’s makes everyone feel good, as well as nullifying any complaints about unfair grading policies, discrimination, and even sexual harassment. Just as important: it’s far less work to mark an A paper than a C+ effort.
8. Make yourself as inaccessible as possible before and after class, as well as canceling office hours whenever possible. Just before any time slotted to meet with students, scribble something indecipherable on your door about attending a meeting or convention. And if students can be absent when sick, why can’t you? When really pressed, hint at “personal matters.”
9. Make sure that your first and last classes of the semester are null-content, or at least require no teaching. The initial class can be finessed by simply handing out the syllabus and course requirements and warning the students that there’ll be real work next week. The last class can be filled with anecdotes and reminiscences. During the semester, show a lot of videos.
10. Schedule review days before exams, after exams, at the end of a curriculum section, and any time you need a break from real teaching. If you still need a break after that, use PowerPoint.
Of course, David Galef would never, ever use the techniques described in this column, but what do you think? Please break into small groups and present your findings in the Comments Section.
At U of All People, we rarely get the kind of commencement speakers that draw headlines: no Hollywood film stars or Wall Street magnates, no First (or even Second) Ladies. When we invited our own college president, Rather Knott, we were turned down. Twice. Maybe this is why, for the past five years, the keynote speaker has been Provost Milt Toast, whose squeaky voice has become oddly reassuring, even as year after year he mispronounces graduation as “gradiation.”
But starting this year, we’d like to rectify the situation, especially since our students and alums are tired of hearing the same “go forth into the world and do no harm” speech from the last five occasions. (Also, Provost Toast has made it clear that he’ll be away this commencement, according to the seven memos he sent last week.) The problem is that we have, as always, no budget, so we have to rely on the kindness of strangers and presumed acquaintances in our little realm of academe. Here is our hastily composed short list of candidates:
Politician: Maybe we can’t invite someone like Nancy Pelosi or Al Gore, but we’ve got someone with senior statesman experience right in our backyard: Dan Minor, mayor of Burgh, the city 30 miles away from U of All People, and home of Sanding Belt Industries. Mayor Minor has been in his post for 20 years, largely uncontested, running on a tax-cut platform that’s reduced the Burgh school system to a one-room schoolhouse. Yet rumors of graft are largely unfounded, or at least unfindable, despite mayoral perks of a tennis court and private airstrip. A bonus: Minor is a 1980 UAP graduate, and though he’s never donated anything more than his annual class dues, he might kick in if we flatter him with an honorary degree in something or other.
Media personality: David Duchovny, Alicia Silverstone -- out of our league. Thank God for Summer Day, local TV weatherperson and occasional news anchor. With her trademark “stormy” hair and drizzle-proof smile, Summer has announced the weather on Channel 17 Cable through rain, shine, and those kidney-shaped hailstones we had last March. She’s the first person we tune in to every morning, and the one we look toward in times of doubt, such as when we’re planning a weekend at the beach. Inviting her would guarantee sunshine at commencement.
Business tycoon: Warren Buffett is never going to stand on our homemade proscenium stage and urge investment in the future. But we can rely on Woody Pohl, the owner of Sanding Belt Industries in Burgh. A mom ’n’ pop business that grew to over 50 employees during the '80s, tanked in the '90s, and was bailed out by Mayor Minor in a documents-sealed case, Sanding Belt remains a mainstay of the region. In 2007, when his son Tadd applied to UAP, Pohl donated three giant sanding conveyor belts to the UAP fitness center to be used as treadmills.
Writer: Toni Morrison and Derek Walcott aren’t in the cards. But probably for the price of a campus book-signing, we can get Art Manqué, the author of such semi-noted novels as Aha! and Bring Me a Fork. A fixture at the local Starbucks, Manqué can often can be seen walking his laptop along the slagged paths of the UAP campus while muttering what appears to be character dialogue. His second-to-last novel is set in UAP’s student cafeteria.
Doctor: Do people even know who today’s surgeon general is? Never mind Regina Benjamin or even C. Everett Koop. We’ve got Lotta Miles, M.D. Starting out as a cosmetologist two decades ago, Dr. Miles is now a plastic surgeon with a large regional practice (“Miles ahead of the rest!”), responsible for the look of an estimated 20 percent of our student bodies.
Scholar-educator: Harold Bloom is busy. Jacques Derrida is dead. But we’ve got the beloved teacher and trainer Thayer T. Rex, a mainstay of our Classics/Art/Phys. Ed. Department for over 35 years. The rumor about his retirement in 2008 never panned out, but having Professor Rex deliver a valedictory speech to the undergraduates might make him take a hint.
If none of these speakers accept, we have a video of Provost’s Toast’s speech from last year we might be able to use.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.