The student worker in our department office had messed up the committee report so that Page One was tucked between Pages Three and Five, and the last page was missing. A colleague of mine called this problem to her attention. “My bad!” she said cheerfully as she walked away.
A pause hung in the air. “Whatever happened to ‘I’m sorry’?” muttered the committee head, and we proceeded without the faulty report.
The phrase my bad, exported to the U.S. about a decade ago from Australia, has become a curse. Initially, it seemed a lighthearted way of claiming responsibility: not mea culpa, with its Catholic overtones of sinning and eventual forgiveness, but a slangy alternative. Turning bad into a noun was cute, if at first a bit grating, and it could apply to so many situations.
Chose the wrong textbook at the bookstore? My bad! Got caught plagiarizing your essay from Wikipedia? My bad! Forgot to attend class for the last two months? My bad!
It soon became clear that my bad wasn’t so much an acceptance of responsibility as shrugging it off. A rough translation of my bad these days might be “Okay, maybe I screwed up, but it’s no big deal, so stop pestering me.” And that’s simply not acceptable in many situations. It does matter that the assignment was late or that the homework wasn’t done at all. I’m still waiting for a follow-up like my good, to mean “I’ll make good on that.”
A companion phrase that emerged a few years ago plays on a simple tautology: It is what it is. In fact, it’s not as dumb as it sounds. It’s sometimes uttered with a fatalistic shrug, as in a summing-up of the campus cafeteria that serves inedible hamburgers, or in the wake of an administrative glitch that’s not going to get any better. Given American education’s ostensible reformist zeal, it even had a certain old world charm, an acknowledgment that certain situations were unchangeable, and that was life.
But the third or fourth time I heard it applied, I recognized it for what it was. “This copy machine is broken again!” screamed an assistant professor already late to class.
The secretary shrugged. “It is what it is.”
A more appropriate response would have been “I’ll call the repairman.” And since I also use that machine, I walked over and asked her to do just that.
"But it’s too late for her to get those copies made.”
“True. But it’ll help others. So call, okay?”
She twitched. “Whatever.”
Of course, whatever is the forebear for a lot of these blow-offs. Starting as a seemingly agreeable rejoinder (“Would you like to meet in my office or the seminar room?” “Whatever.”), it soon shifted to a fob-off (“I thought I told you the meeting was at three.” “Whatever”). The not-so-hidden meaning is “This is a stupid point to insist on, and don’t bother me.” Once on the lips of all sullen students, whatever seems to have lost popularity as middle-aged faculty members adopted it.
What’s new in this line? Keep your ears open for pretty much, as in “That pretty much sums it up.” Cut down to two words, its scope has broadened to include a wealth of sins: “Did you really blow off that research paper?” “Pretty much.” “Is that all you have to report?” “Pretty much.” It masks an avowal behind a laconic semi-affirmative.
My favorite, though, is Good luck with that! -- said with just enough edge for the hearer to suspect sarcasm but not be entirely sure, as in “I don’t really like English courses, but this semester I’m taking Shakespeare, Milton, and Modern Poetry.” “Good luck with that!” Or “I’ll have to finish my conference paper on the plane to New Orleans.” “Good luck with that!”
In fact, I heard it just the other day as a capper to someone who said he was trying to solve the longstanding parking problem at our university. In that particular instance, even I might have said, “It is what it is.”
David Galef is pretty much a professor of literature and creative writing or whatever at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.
If you plotted our town on one of those vintage maps that show important products, we’d be an ear of corn, a fat green soybean, and a little black mortarboard. Even within the perimeter of the campus, we have farms for teaching and research. On one of these, a dairy farm of 200 cows, we are living out our destiny as a land-grant institution.
Land-grant institutions, you will remember, came into being under the Morrill Act signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Tracts of land were granted to loyal states; the state could sell the acreage to raise funds to establish a university. Land-grant universities were required to teach mechanical arts (engineering), agriculture, and, in a nod to the desperate reality of the Civil War, military tactics.
In the early days of our university, the student brigade rolled out its cannon and practiced artillery on the central quadrangle. When called to the Somme, they went. And now, once again, in our sleepy town, you can hear the booming sound of cannon fire.
The first night the booms woke me I figured that I had been reading too much nineteenth-century French history and had a very bad case of Napoleon on the brain. Once he settles in, he’s a bear to get rid of. But my husband grumpily assured me that I hadn’t imagined it. Someone was firing a large gun on our campus.
The neighbors had theories:
(1) Frat boys setting off fireworks. The originator of this theory grew up here, which is why he assumes that any nighttime phenomenon that can’t be otherwise explained must be caused by fraternities.
But frat boys, although they do operate inside a highly structured and hierarchical institution, don’t set off their fireworks at regular intervals.
(2) “Firing to get rid of the Canada geese,” my husband theorized. “There are too many of them around the ponds.” But weren’t the Canada geese sleeping at night?
At a dinner party that night our host admitted he was exhausted. Early in the morning he had finally called 911 and complained.
We all leaned forward. So what is it?
His eyes twinkled. “You know all those cows? And think of all the methane they produce… .” The university, the 911 operator had explained, responsibly trying to keep all that hot methane out of the biosphere, had installed a machine that processed the methane with a loud bang. Unfortunately the timer had malfunctioned and that was why it had gone off all night rather than during the day.
“University flatulence,” he chuckled. “We should have known.”
I liked all these theories. I pictured the frat boys setting off fireworks at timed intervals (they would probably have an app on their cellphones to keep track), the geese going elsewhere (good riddance!), and the methane from the dairy cows exploding with a bang. But like many appealing theories of ordinary life, all three were wrong.
The university once again has a cannon. And on that modest dairy farm, our land grant mission, our very destiny -- agriculture, military tactics, and engineering -- has finally come together to defend our land-granted soil. And just in time, too. The enemy is massed all around, lined up on the wires, waiting to attack. Wasn’t it Marx who said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce?
For the last two years flocks of crows have swooped down and pecked through the enormous rolls of corn stored in heavy plastic, causing rot and spoilage. Storing the feed corn for the coming year in giant plastic rolls is efficient and economical. Each plastic roll holds the equivalent of a sixty-foot silo and needs no maintenance. The farm tried netting over the plastic but the crows pecked through it. They tried poisoning, but neighbors complained about the crows keeling over in their yards, and the cruelty. So this year they have purchased a propane-powered nuisance cannon. At intervals it sets off a sonic boom of over one hundred decibels. Normally it goes off at random, regular intervals all day long. It went off all that sleepless night because someone forgot to turn it off.
Napoleon said that it was with artillery that you wage war and win battles. How he would have loved the university’s 21st-century weapon, the propane cannon. So portable! Blue and yellow plastic, a lightweight tripod, and 17,000 detonations from one small tank of fuel. Its only projectile is that now-familiar sonic boom. At least for now, the crows are in retreat.
Carol Spindel is an instructor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Greetings to all students, faculty, and friends of the university:
I am writing to share with you our "2011 and Beyond Strategic Plan for SurThriveal," recently generated during our annual leadership retreat held Nov. 10, from 2:15 to 3:45 p.m. in the lobby of the Route 123 Microtel. We emerged from our exhilarating, though abbreviated — thanks to a previously scheduled carpet shampooing — session resolved more than ever to provide a top-notch educational experience for our students.
With their voting in of legislators associated with the Tea Party movement, the citizens of our state have spoken loud and clear: They’re sick and tired of the government paying for things. Unfortunately, one of those things is public higher education, and all indications from the capitol are that we should expect an additional 37-percent reduction in allocated funds, following last year’s 28-percent reduction and the year before that’s 22-percent reduction.
The current funding now puts us on par with 1892 levels (not indexed to inflation), when our most popular degree was blacksmithing.
As most of you are well aware, we've been doing our best to offset these reductions in state support with enhancements in revenue. Unfortunately, many of these initiatives have not panned out as originally hoped. While the divestiture of our dining services entirely to Cinnabon™ has proven to be both profitable and delicious, the installation of pay-for-use restroom facilities has been less successful. Thanks to some irresponsible individual choices to use some unfortunate "alternate" outlets for waste disposal, (including my office credenza), any additional income has been more than offset in overtime pay for our custodial services and hazmat remediation.
The regrettable end of our “Ride a Live Tiger” initiative, featuring our beloved mascot, Marcellus the Mighty, has been more than well documented (and overly sensationalized) in the media. Let me reiterate that there is no truth to the rumors that Marcellus was sold to a black-market African gaming reserve, where he was to be hunted by vacationing billionaires looking for the ultimate thrill. He was humanely euthanized by some high-G.P.A. juniors in our animal science program.
Yes, we are auctioning his pelt on eBay. We’ve got an office supplies bill overdue at Staples.
With the — let's face it — long overdue passing of Professor Emeritus G. Bertram Barker of the department of materials science, we are at the end of recovering savings through faculty attrition and retirement. Thanks to those caramel pecan Cinnabons™, our remaining instructional crew may look corpulent, but in numbers, we are truly skeleton.
Which brings me to my unfortunate, but necessary, announcement. During our strategic retreat, it became clear that under current funding, in order to provide an education that appropriately arms our graduates in the battle for employment in the 21st century, cuts in the curriculum must be made. After careful analysis and spirited debate, I’m prepared to announce the elimination of the College of Arts and Humanities, effective at the end of the current semester.
I am aware that this news may be greeted with some surprise, but a clear-eyed evaluation of the programs we offer shows that graduates in foreign languages, English, history, performing and visual arts, and philosophy are simply irrelevant in the current marketplace. As was stated at the retreat, "You can’t eat opera, and you don’t need a college degree to stand outside of Home Depot and wait to get picked up for an off-the-books day laborer job."
America is now a nation of people who DO things like post on Facebook, or run for Senate, rather than KNOW things, like Plato’s allegory of the cave, or the First Amendment of the Constitution. This year, the Jersey Shore’s Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino will reportedly earn $5 million. In contrast, last year, only one of our English-degreed graduates was able to secure employment related to her major — teaching English to call center workers in Bhopal.
Under these circumstances it’s a relatively obvious decision to cut the humanities, even as we triple the available sections of Pilates.
However, let this not be the death knell of a well-rounded education. While we will no longer be offering courses in the humanities disciplines, we remain committed to providing a humanities-like experience for our students, starting with the following campuswide initiatives:
Some individual courses that retain popularity among the student body — such as "Performing Arts 202: Glee Your High School Musical Ass Off" — will be relocated to different colleges.
We have asked local physicians, dentists, and spa-services providers to donate their old waiting-area issues of publications such as Mother Jones, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The Economist, to the library.
National Public Radio will now play over the phone when on hold with any university department.
To fulfill both literature and foreign language requirements, we will broadcast the German production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (Warten Auf Godot), starring Horst Bollman as Estragon, over the campus closed-circuit television station.
We recognize that these changes are likely to erode our standing in the U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings, but I’d like to point out that we were recently voted the "best smelling" campus in the nation. When it comes to butter and cinnamon-scented goodness, we're No. 1!
John Warner is the author of Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant. He teaches at Clemson University and is a contributing writer to The Morning News, where this essay first appeared.
Submitted by Rob Weir on December 23, 2010 - 3:00am
I've just had one of those semesters in which one of my classes had just enough rotten eggs to jeopardize the barrel. You probably know the eggs in question, the ones suffering from SBS (Spoiled Brat Syndrome). Love that term. It was given to me by one of my students who got tired of hearing from peer whiners. SBS students are those who occasionally come to class, voice a few complaints about how (they’ve heard) you conduct it, insist that you personally take responsibility for improving their grades, register moral outrage when told that you intend to hold them to the same standards as lesser-deserving students, and then disappear for several more weeks.
I get through this kind of class because I’ve learned not to waste my time on SBS sufferers. (Seriously, there’s little you can do to please them, so don’t bother trying.) The end-of-semester problem is that our campuses practice the same one-person/one-vote democratic practices that muddy our civic lives. Everyone gets to fill out a class evaluation, whether they're Einstein or the campus idiot, a perfect attendee or a ghost, a hard worker or an SB. Alas, it only takes a few SBs to pull down your class evaluation scores. I’ve written before about what you should and should not take away from student evaluations. My relaxed views on these notwithstanding, this semester’s brush with SBS students aroused my sense of justice. It's just not fair that students get to evaluate us, but we don’t get to say our piece about them. In theory, of course, our grades are their evaluations, but as many on this site have noted, professors who break the institutional curve do so at their own peril. Let’s just say that C has become the new F and B is now the new C. I say it’s time to give profs parallel rights and allow them to evaluate their students. Distribute machine-scored bubble sheets and make the results on each student available campus wide. Heck, let’s even set up a Rate My Students website.
Based on my university's instructor evaluation form, here is a working draft of what one might look like. (Disclaimer: This test comes to you as a seasonal dose of seasonal humor and should not be construed as an exercise in cynicism. I truly love almost all of my students, even a few of the SBSers.)
1. The student was well-prepared for class. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. Sometimes. d. Rarely. e. Have I ever seen this person?
2. The student actually reads directions before asking what they are. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. Sometimes. d. Only if the directions appear in red, bold, and 48-point font. e. A new immaculate conception is more likely.
3. The student demonstrated that s/he actually opened assigned books. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. No, but student cruised some cool websites. d. Student didn’t buy the books, but did complain about their cost and the fact that I didn’t use them enough in class e. Read! What kind of tyrant would impose such an indignity?
4. The student used class time well. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. Does catching up on sleep count? d. Perhaps, but it was at some out-of-class pursuit. e. Remind me again who this person is.
5. The student demonstrated a keen interest to learn. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. Maybe once, but I could be wrong. d. ROTFL. e. Who?
6. The student looked at the syllabus at any point other than day one. a. Student always consulted it. b. Frequently. c. Not sure s/he is familiar with the term. d. Left it on the desk upon leaving the first class. e. Thinks it’s my job to call each night and remind him/her of assignments.
7. Student made valuable contributions to the class. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. S/he once gave a cold to several classmates. d. Class exchanges were acrimonious though there’s no way s/he could spell that word. e. Class contribution analogous to Cruella Deville's to animal rights.
8. Percentage of time student spent working vs. complaining about working. a. Never complained. b. Seldom complained. c. About 50/50. d. You’d have thought I was asking for both kidneys. e. Never stopped complaining, though one must admire student's consistency and persistence.
9. Percentage of classes student actually attended. a. 100 percent or nearly so. b. 75-90 percent. c. At least 50 percent. d. Peer nickname was “Caspar.” e. Do I really have a student by this name? Are you sure?
10. Student begins working on major assignments at least 12 hours in advance. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. It could have happened once, but I kind of doubt it. d. Did you say “in advance?” Hah, hah! That’s a good one. e. Are you under the misapprehension that this student actually handed in work?
11. Student has actually looked at things marked on returned papers other than the grade. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. Yes, s/he once remarked on the lovely shade of red splashed across the page. d. Stop! You’re killing me with these jokes. e. See 10e.
12. Student accepts responsibility for mistakes. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. S/he once apologized for spilling soda on my office carpet. d. Insists s/he is always misinterpreted. e. Student’s lawyer will not allow me to answer this question.
13. How much did this student learn in your course? a. Quite a lot. b. An average amount. c. A new idea may have sneaked in when student’s guard was down. d. Wouldn’t the student actually have to be in class for this to happen? e. A brain surgeon with a power drill couldn’t get into this student’s head.
14. Estimated hours per week this student devoted to your course. a. More than 10. b. 5 to 10. c. A good 15 minutes. Maybe. d. 2-3 nanoseconds. e. Do zombies study?
15. What is your overall assessment of this student? a. S/he is a stellar student, a credit to her/his family, and has a promising future. b. Student has room for improvement, but has the potential to do well. c. Student’s ability to moan and complain certainly ranks in the top 25 percent. d. My God! If this student is ever again in one of my classes please, please just shoot me. e. I had a better chance of marrying into the British royal family than seeing this student at any point during the semester.
16. What testing would you recommend to this student’s adviser that would help that adviser plan the student’s future? a. LSAT. b. GRE. c. Test for possible learning disabilities. d. Myers-Briggs personality test. e. An EEG.
Despite recent economic indicators, as U of All People President Buck Passer is fond of calling the current recession, building is still proceeding apace on campus. In God’s name, why? Because the funds were earmarked a long time ago; i.e., even though we’re down to our last piece of chalk in the classrooms, we’re going to have a state-of-the-art echo resonance chamber up soon, next to Old Classroom Quarters #3 (the one that makes odd groaning sounds in autumn because of shifts in the adjunct-faculty-operated heating system). As President Passer explained in his three-minute opening address this semester, “Architecture is sexy. Faculty salaries aren’t.” So, for the next five years, or until the moolah runs out, the U of All People campus will be alive with the cheerful roar of electric saws, cement mixers, and nail guns. Here are just a few of the current building projects:
The Tip Tapp School of Dance: named after alumnus George Tapp, whose latest trophy wife, Tip, wanted something more substantial than another house in the Hamptons. This 40,000â€‘square-foot facility will contain five soundproof rehearsal rooms, a 3,000-seat auditorium with a massive proscenium stage, and even a classroom. Cost: $22 million, $40,000 of which will go to recruit students for the new dance major and hire instructors to teach them.
Institute for Production: originally called the Institute for Melamine Production, or IMP, recently nicknamed “the white elephant.” The blueprint for this low-slung structure of laboratories with high-security access was sidelined after the Chinese melamine scandals and only recently received the go-ahead from President Passer. Now the plan is to renovate the old Chem Building and install truck access in the rear. “I’ve been told the money’s coming from a Hong Kong consortium, and that’s all I know” says head of Engineering Inyure Poquette. “Anyway, it’s safe to say we’ll be working to produce something or other.”
Bland Cafeteria: puzzling, since we already have three cafeterias, a café, a refectory, and two dining halls. But this is what the class of 1985 pooled its donations for: a 24/7 facility so that students pulling all-nighters need never go without munchies. Shaped like a giant pretzel and designed by the ecologically correct Swedish architectural firm ELOF, known for its innovative use of building materials, Bland will have its very walls made of hardened dough. “It is edible, theoretically,” says ELOF CEO Elof Elofsen, “and that is the point, yes?”
Raquette Dormitory for Legacies: designed specifically with future donations in mind, this 20-bed facility will house only those students whose parents pledge $1 million above tuition costs. Features include en-suite swimming pools, a mink-lined jewelry vault, butler services, a secret exit, and BMW transportation to and from classes.
Fromley Facility for Under-Represented Sports. Sack racing, Tiddlywinks, and pole chasing are just three of the sports that will be practiced here. No one knows who Fromley is, but President Passer (UAP ’91) has let it be known that he “practically invented” underwater soccer when he was a sophomore. Fromley will also house UAP’s champion thumb-wrestling team, the only one in the United States.
Dollar Parking Lot: named after Harold Dollar, the transportation mogul whose son lost the use of his second vehicle in a parking-related injury. This multi-level facility, capable of holding three hundred vehicles with convenient access to all campus facilities, was pulled at the last minute in favor of something sexier: the Dollar Raceway, five miles from campus.
David Galef is a professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.
Academe is in crisis. Young academics have been left out in the cold: according to American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statistics, only about 25 percent of new Ph.D.s find full-time, permanent jobs. We are wasting the talent of a generation.
There have been scattered proposals to redress the situation, such as cutting graduate programs, but none seems to have stanched the carnage. And it is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future; given current state and federal budget pressures, it will only get worse. Moreover, professors, especially tenured professors, probably won’t be first to gain increased public support when the economy rebounds.
Therefore, the best recourse is to solve the problem ourselves, taking matters into our own hands, as it were. To that end, I have recently founded an organization, Academic Opportunities Unlimited (AOU). Our motto is “We can’t guarantee you’ll get the job, but we can guarantee an opening.”
AOU is elegant in its simplicity, rebalancing an artificially skewed market. One of the effects of the job crisis is an aging professoriate. Since the 1970s, the scales have tipped heavily AARP-ward: while only 17 percent of faculty were 50 or over in 1969, a bloated 52% had crossed that divide by 1998. It is no doubt worse now, and strangling the air supply of potential new professors.
AOU would work to remedy this bias against youth. It would, through a rigorous screening process, pinpoint faculty who are clogging positions and select them for hits, or “extra-academic retirement” (EAR). While this might raise qualms from the more liberal-minded among us, we would argue that it is more humane, both to potential faculty who otherwise have been shunted aside and to those languishing in the holding pattern of a withered career, than our current system. The retirement would be efficient and quick, and strictly limited to those who, as the saying goes, have their best years long behind them.
In turn, AOU would enliven campuses with new faculty. It is widely acknowledged that faculty in most disciplines have their best ideas in the first flush of their careers, so a good part of their later careers are spent rewarming an old stew; AOU would encourage fresh ideas and innovative research, and bring some excitement back to campus. Undoubtedly, the changes would be visible: rather than looking like fugitives from a nursing home or a Rolling Stones concert, the faculty would be snappier, with better-fitting jeans.
A secondary benefit is that it would have a catalytic effect on those with tenure, who would step more lively when on campus or not hang on to their jobs until they had squeezed the last bit of ink from their yellowed notes. It would bring some concrete accountability to tenure and in turn help to recuperate its public image. Tenure would no longer be seen as a protection for lazy elitists, but a badge of genuine distinction and continuing merit.
Though AOU might prompt arguments like those against euthanasia, I think that it’s more apt to see it like “Do Not Resuscitate” orders in hospitals -- no easy choice, but the reasonable one in many situations. One can envision administrators building such a codicil into academic contracts. While aided retirement might be sudden, consider how many times people say that, if they had a choice, they would rather depart quickly than decline over years in hospitals and nursing homes. Is not academe, given its current demographic, a kind of nursing home for the intellectual class? AOU would be more humane than most other ways of expiring, and it turns the tide from a drain on scarce resources to a more just and productive use of them.
We should stress that AOU is not predicated simply on age, which would be ageist, but on productivity. We are as yet undecided on the exact process -- whether it should operate through nominations (a “three nominations and you’re out” rule -- 3YO) or through a statistical assessment of productivity -- although we will be conducting trial runs soon.
Foreseeing concerns that it might violate academic freedom, we should emphasize that AOU would not tamper with hiring; hiring should of course remain in the domain of the academic unit, as our motto indicates. AOU would clear the current logjam and create more openings, and then it would be up to particular candidates to demonstrate their excellence.
While AOU is an independent enterprise, we expect that university administrators will welcome the turnover of faculty. Cost-conscious provosts will embrace the reduction of salary lines from high-cost, low-yielding professors to starting salary levels. Deans will welcome the infusion of new energy instead of old entropy into departments. At the other end of the spectrum, students will be enthused by more-engaged faculty, with more contemporary popular culture references and the ability to text.
Among colleagues I’ve let in on the ground floor of AOU, there is some debate over whether we should employ independent contractors to conduct retirements or whether we should keep the job in-house. The consensus leans to the latter, which would provide an excellent opportunity for Ph.D. students or unemployed Ph.D.s to serve as “Opportunity Interns” (OIs).
Such an internship would have its own educational value. For one thing, it could give those in the positions a chance to apply the diverse academic skills that they have learned in practical ways -- those from physics could consult on ballistics, those in chemistry could advise about toxicity, and those in English could get coffee. It would be a truly interdisciplinary endeavor, and it would dispel the image of academics as nerds bound to the ivory tower, again building more public respect.
One way to think about it is that AOU would be a rational correction of the academic job market. The market has become distended in an artificial bubble; AOU would help to return the apportionment of faculty to a more natural range. Most scholarship shows that organizations work best if employees represent a breadth of youth and experience rather than clotting in one group, which, like sitting on one side of a rowboat, will swamp the organization. AOU would recover a more normal and productive range and revitalize the professorial ranks.
We welcome both nominations for EAR and applicants for Opportunity Internships.
Jeffrey J. Williams
Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. He is finishing two books: one tentatively called Against Obscurity: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University, and the other an edited collection of critical credos from minnesota review, which he edited for 18 years.
In these financially perilous times, campus administrators are looking for places to slash costs, whether that means a universitywide hiring freeze or axing the French department. Even if the measure saves only a few dollars, the act itself is significant. When stubborn trustees or even the uneducated public inquire what the college is prepared to sacrifice to stay afloat, the provost or her henchmen must have some answers.
This air of pragmatic desperation has certainly infected the atmosphere at U of All People, where Provost Jeanne Dark has begun all meetings with the invocation “Every crisis is an opportunity.” UAP President Lenny Grouper, the third school head in as many years, has indicated his nervous assent.
Just as desperate, departments and programs are coming to terms with negative raises and zero office supplies, even as they make their annual cases to deans and higher-ups for more money. These pleas are a curious balancing act of a forlorn tone to show need, and can-do optimism to avoid Provost Dark’s pulling the plug on the program. Below is a sampling of recent e-mails.
From: "Dirk Hartwell" <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: 2011/02/14 Mon AM 09:53:21 EDT To: <email@example.com> Subject: 2011-12 budget
To Professor Moriarty, Dean of Humanities:
As you probably know, the psychology department converted its last remaining lab into a combined mail room and office space last year, selling off our pigeons and cages on eBay for a grand total of $352. Because of the increase in class size, from 25 to a cap of 120, we’ve had to bend our curriculum to fit. The good news is that we’ve inaugurated two new courses for the larger sections, Psych. Ed. and Mass Thinking, and though we have no one to teach them because of the untimely departure of Professor Spitch to U Hoo (where the cap on comparable classes is 27½ ), we’re soldiering on. I won’t even mention what we’ve done with our lab rats.
We all recall what happened to the French department last year during its fiscal crisis, so this isn’t exactly a plea for funds, just your solid support and perhaps a promise not to cut our last office staff member, Hilda Trupp, who’s thinking of getting married. If you want the larger picture, think of it this way: where would America be without psychology?
Date: 2011/02/14 Mon AM 10:18:21 EDT To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: music and money
To Dr. Mamon, Dean of the Arts:
Why, oh, why is music always the first in line during funding cuts? Our one concert grand is permanently out of tune, and our piano instructor is giving lessons on the side during class breaks just to make some extra money. The chorus needs funds to travel to Salt Lake City for its annual competition with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. At the very least, you could provide us with new instruments. The children -- I mean the students -- will be so happy!
On the plus side, we’re putting on five concerts this year. Be sure and show up on March 6th, when we’ll be playing your favorite, “For the Love of Money.”
From: "George Manly" <email@example.com>
Date: 2011/02/14 Mon AM 11:22:18 EDT To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: fiscal fitness
I know -- we all know -- that you’re looking to cut costs, but please don’t look in the direction of the business school, especially not as we’re just climbing out of the recession. You don’t want to cripple our recovery, do you? Shrinking enrollments shouldn’t be reflected in our take-home pay. As you’re aware, most of our faculty have deliberately chosen to teach in the academy (except Ben Krupt), when they could be pulling down six figures in private industry, if this were still 2007 and they had those jobs.
All I’m saying is that we need to pump some more money into the economy, starting with the full professors’ salaries. As for the others, the trickle-down effect will work if we just give it time.
From: "Johnny Feare" <email@example.com> Date: 2011/02/14 Mon AM 12:13:14 EDT To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: the usual
It’s that time of year again, and it’s the same song as last time. I’ll keep it real simple. We need $100,000 more for football recruitment. Maybe $25,000 more for incidentals. This is a small request. Did I say $25,000 extra? I meant $50,000. We had a real good season last year. We’re doing pretty damn well now, too, but we could be doing better. And you know what the alums will say if we let things slide. You want to keep your job, don’t you?
David Galef is a professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker (February 14/21), Rebecca Mead, in an essay called “Middlemarch and Me,” describes her efforts to track down the origin of a saying attributed to George Eliot: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” Mead first encountered the quotation on a refrigerator magnet, “set in sans-serif type on an aquamarine starburst background.” But, Mead writes, “the sentence didn’t sound to me like anything George Eliot would say.” Uh oh, I thought to myself. This is going to end badly. Not only will the quote certainly prove a fake but also Mead is going to be bewildered by the discovery. No professional action will be taken.
Every academic by now knows the routine. You come across a pithy quote by a famous author that doesn’t sound quite right. No source text is given. A general web search yields ten pages of links to self-help sites or quote-a-day webpages. A Google Books or Google Scholar search will offer links to published self-help books or articles going back to the 1980s. None of the sites will offer a full citation or even gesture toward a source text. You sadly conclude that the quote is bogus. Such is academic life in the age of the search engine.
My own moment of dismay came when the president of the small Southern liberal arts college where I was first teaching -- my first job after receiving my Ph.D -- used a suspicious quote in an email sent to all faculty. “ ‘The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes' -- Proust.” A quick Google search offered the usual inspirational webpages, all featuring the quote as a snippet of wisdom, not literature. However, I had the 1929 C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past on a shelf near my computer and I turned to Volume 5, Chapter 2, “The Verdurins Quarrel with M. De Charlus.” There was the passage in the context of the narrator’s long reverie on the profundity of a musical work by a composer named Vinteuil: “The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is; and this we can contrive with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star.” The college president’s quote was but a small fragment torn inappropriately from a broad and complex tapestry. What should I do?
I know that I’m overly scrupulous. I’m the sort of professor who insists that “Shakespeare” did not say “To thine own self be true,” but that Polonius did in Act 1, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (~1603). I regularly fail students who do not cite sources fully and properly in their papers. I send them to the library catalog (the road not taken) or to Wikipedia to find the proper source. If it isn’t there, I tell them to put it there. If everyone can be an editor, Wikipedia is more a blessing than a curse.
Take the case of a Gilbert K. Chesterton quote that I first encountered as the epigraph on a clever student’s final paper: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” I suspected that Chesterton didn’t say exactly that, despite the 40,000+ Google hits that say that he did. Naturally, none of the websites provide a source text. The quote sometimes appears as “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly” but the results are the same. Like “it is never too late to be what you might have been,” the “worth doing badly” saying has a kind of catchy truthiness. It circulates as wisdom, untethered to context.
After a ten-minute search I found that G.K. Chesterton actually wrote this: “These things [by which he means ‘writing one’s own love letters or blowing one’s own nose’] we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly” (Orthodoxy, 1908). Chesterton’s point here is not that things worth doing are worth doing badly but that some things one must do oneself, however badly they are done. “Blow your own damn nose” would be a pretty good paraphrase and might even work as a refrigerator magnet.
And yet, in a more obscure essay called “Folly and Female Education,” which appears as Chapter 41 in What’s Wrong With the World (1910), available on Google Books, I found, hours later, that Chesterton indeed wrote something similar to what my student quoted: “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Chesterton’s context is the folly (as he puts it) of educating women. Women, he argues, should be taught nothing in order to be capable of doing things only for love, not for profit or (the horror!) scientific or academic inquiry. Once again I found that the popular saying was a misconstrued fragment torn from (in this case) a rather disturbing and patronizing context. Apparently if a thing is worth quoting, it is worth quoting badly.
Flipping through the pages of Rebecca Mead’s article, I found myself irritated by her earnest tone as she searched for the quote in dusty old George Eliot compilations and among tenured academics. With a presumably straight face one scholar says, “It doesn’t sound like George Eliot to me -- too simplistically phrased and too pat, and too brief!” A Harvard professor tells Mead that she assumes the saying was “apocryphal,” a more sophisticated term than counterfeit. Mead intrepidly calls up a self-help author who used the quote in the title of her book who admits -- surprise! -- that she has never read George Eliot since Silas Marner in high school. Chesterton, I imagine, would approve of the circulation of a colorful but inaccurate or decontextualized Eliot quotation in women’s self-help books and refrigerator doors because of the uplifting “truth” it contains. I don’t.
Does Mead, a seasoned New Yorker writer, really not suspect the obvious, that in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, fake quotes flourish? That their circulation requires not bewilderment but professional vigilance? In her initial hunting, Mead had already discovered the ersatz Eliot in spiritual books and self-help websites. Only one scholar interviewed by Mead stated what clearly should be obvious: that the source of a saying was most likely a greeting card company. Mead concludes, dolefully, that she “had aspired to make a link in the chain of discovery, and had failed.” Why not use her authority to do the rest of us a favor and call the fake a fake, once and for all? We could then list it on the handy Wikipedia page “list of misquotations.” Instead Mead wrings her hands.
My first teaching job in the South was not a good fit for many reasons, including my irritation with the fake-quote-spouting President. She had risen to the position via the route of student affairs, not teaching; her time in office had been marked by a relative indifference to academics and scholarship. One April morning during my last semester there (a job offer from my current university safely in hand), she sent an e-mail to the entire faculty with the following quote: “ ‘It is not the strongest species that will survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.’ -- Charles Darwin.” In a prickly mood, I decided to hit “reply all” and call her on it. “Greetings,” I wrote, and then the following:
The real question is who really said this? It wasn’t Darwin. This quote is often (wrongly) attributed to him but Darwin was never so pithy. I’ve read most of what Darwin wrote (including his letters) but it isn’t there. In fact, there is a rather vibrant debate among Darwinists and social Darwinists about who first wrote that quote; some say it was Herbert Spencer who wanted to make Darwin sound “easy.” This debate gets swallowed up by the number of Managerial Quote websites that continue to peddle the quote without proper attribution. As a professor, I’m sure you agree that we need to teach our students to cite sources correctly. Attribution is the lifeblood of scholarship.
Pardon the pedantry, but this is precisely what my job description as a literature professor requires that I do in response to disembodied quotes without proper citations.
I would not advise young professors to try this at home. But, as I added in a follow-up e-mail, “T.S. Eliot wrote (in his essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent,' The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Tradition ): 'Some one (sic) said: "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did." Precisely, and they are that which we know.' ”
With so many texts online, it may be easier than ever for amateur misquotations to breed, but it is just as easy for professionals to set the record straight. In other words, Rebecca Mead, “It is never too late to be the Wikipedia editor that you might have been.”
Hollis Robbins is a professor of humanities at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
If one thing bothers the president of U of All People, it’s being caught behind the curve, whether it’s in technology, sports, or even pedagogy (though curiously not in teachers’ salaries). Given UAP’s humble start as a community ag school, this attitude is perfectly understandable, especially since the citizens from the neighboring towns of Glutch and Glim still refer to U of All People as Ditchwater High, from when the old high school was on this site.
It gives President Bachtrach great pleasure, therefore, to proclaim that, starting in fall 2011, the campus will embrace a host of enviro-friendly measures that will put surrounding schools to shame. “The only way that U Hoo will be able to compete with us,” Bachtrach recently announced, “is by turning green with envy” -- a line reprinted in the student newspaper, Vox Omni Populi, picked up by AP, and recently aired in a YouTube video devoted to Funny Things College Presidents Say. Of course, so far, all we have are a bunch of proposals, along with a measly nonrenewable grant from the Glutch Chamber of Commerce, but that hasn’t stopped us from brainstorming and wish-listing. Below are some directives from the Green Initiative Team, U of All People, or GIT, UAP:
No toilet paper in the public restrooms. Time to embrace the Third World not just with our hearts, but with our hands.
Recycle and reuse (almost) everything: white paper and plastic bottles -- yes. Answers from your roommate’s calculus test -- no. Recycling competitions and quotas: the Bachtrach Order of Merit to whoever can reuse 400 paperclips a week!
Heat recovery from hot air generated in lectures. If this doesn’t work, check with medical experts to make sure students can still concentrate and text with frozen fingers, then set thermostats to 32 degrees in winter.
Solar panels on all surfaces aimed at the sun, including the shining bald pates of certain faculty members. This will put U Hoo to shame, since they have only one dinky sun-powered traffic sign, powered by the aluminum foil wrappings left over from lunch.
Wind power stations at all available junctures, mainly in the breezeways between halls.
Automatic regulators that shut off heat and light in all rooms without movement for five minutes. Note: this may present a problem for professors who rarely stir during lectures and induce a similar immobility in the students.
Rip out the AC in the dorms and replace with ice cubes and folding fans.
Take all the stair machines, exercise bikes, treadmills, and rowing machines from the recreation center and put one in each classroom, designating a student in each to generate power for the lights.
Bike- or walk-to-school incentives, including the elimination of all parking lots. Get rid of all shuttle buses and replace them with pedicabs run by students who no longer have Exercycles to use at the recreation center.
Find a use for all the ditchwater that accumulates along the sides of Entrance Avenue after even minor rainstorms. We don’t still want to be known as Ditchwater High, do we?
David Galef is a professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.
When I first heard about it, I said to myself, “How do I kill this idea?”
My chancellor wanted to participate in a reality show. What a nightmare!
It was during my first months on campus. A new job, at a University of California campus on the rise. Great plans to help this campus break into the national consciousness. So very many heavy, strategic communications activities to organize.
And now a reality show. What a nightmare!
My internal dialogues simmered: “Boy, they really need me here. Who in his right mind would want to engage with this side of network programming? We have no editorial control! What if they catch something bad on film and there’s hell to pay?”
How could I, a communications professional with years of university experience, embrace such a thing? I had little choice. The conversations had been going on for more than a year. Welcome to campus, James. We’re doing “Undercover Boss.”
Getting a real dose of reality reminded me, with extreme clarity, that: (1) I don’t know everything; (2) authenticity counts; and (3) I don’t know everything.
Get Us in The New York Times
What does it take to get someone’s attention these days? How do we break through the clutter we created, along with thousands of other distinguished research universities and fine liberal arts schools and wonderful community colleges?
Given the lives we transform, the discoveries we create, the communities we help, we all deserve to be on the front page of The New York Times. It’s a fact I have been reminded of frequently, across 25 years’ worth of media relations and communications management at NYU, UCLA, Thunderbird, USC, UC Merced, and a few places in between.
We hear it from students, professors, board members, parents of students: “Why can’t you get The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal to write about us? If we just told our story better, we’d get more publicity!”
(Did you ever find yourself at a loss for words? Not because you can’t think of anything to say -- rather, because there is too much to say? You want to take the NYT, WSJ, LAT or WaPo, roll it up, shake it wildly, and say: “Well why don’t you just pick which of these stories should be bumped off the front page for a smarmy feature on our campus? The major political story? The major economic story? The compelling bus strike? The investigative piece on misuse of public funds?”)
But of course, we don’t do so. We don’t yell. Not externally, at least. We put on that serious “trust-me-I’m-a-communications-professional” look and stammer a few things about our recent pitches (and successes, if any) to The Gray Lady. Our comprehensive strategy for national and global communications domination. Our extensive experience talking with journalists and meeting their needs and those of their readers. That’s how I felt in this situation and what I’d have liked to have said out loud.
Lessons learned: (1) I don’t know everything; (2) authenticity counts; and, (3) I don’t know everything.
In the build-up to the filming, only a few of us on campus were allowed to know about the project. We drove others crazy asking for help for a special initiative we couldn’t discuss. We signed legal nondisclosure forms that included the prospect of personal liability of six figures if we broke the code. That’s six figures per incident! I didn't even tell my wife. (About the show. If she knew about the show that’d be O.K., probably, but I didn’t know how to tell her I just signed the rest of our financial lives away if we slipped up. So I didn’t tell her anything.)
Behind the scenes, the chancellor’s top associates, sworn to secrecy, then begin asking managers across campus to do things we’d usually never do. (“Can you please find us staff and faculty members with compelling stories who wouldn’t mind signing their own nondisclosure forms, and then will work and be filmed for a few hours with a strange man named ‘Pete?’ Um, and trust us, this is all above-board?!”)
Enter our protagonist, “Pete.” Chancellor Timothy P. White. Dude is so sure this reality show segment will be great for our campus that he agreed to shave his own head to make sure he’d look different while filming took place for “Undercover Boss.” One of the reasons I came to UCR -- along with several other newbies here -- is Tim White.
White had his own personal journey: immigrant to California from Argentina as a kid. Community college at Diablo Valley in the Bay Area, then a bachelor’s from Fresno State University and a master's from Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), then finally a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley.
Despite his serious chops as an academic, Chancellor White is an authentic person first, an academic leader second. He makes others comfortable, he’s funny, he’s direct. Those of you who watched the show on CBS last Sunday saw what I mean. Chancellor is the real deal -- on a reality show! I’m not quite sure how one charismatic, grounded person can hold such sway over the camera, over a crowd. But one thing that comes through is that he’s able to laugh at himself, take a ribbing, and stay on message.
And I’m also finding out that he’s a pretty good teacher.
What I learned: (1) I don’t know everything; (2) authenticity counts; and, (3) I don’t know everything.
James E. Grant Jr.
James E. Grant Jr. is assistant vice chancellor for strategic communications at the University of California at Riverside.