In the English department at U of All People, only one faculty member disdains technology. Professor Donald Hughes, a medievalist, continues to peck away at his Olympia portable typewriter and still corrects every paper with a flourish of his fountain pen. Some students think that’s cute. But the new departmental secretary is fed up with inputting every document he hands her, and the administration long ago figured out that Hughes ignored every listserv they signed him up for. On the other hand, for someone with such a Luddite mentality, Hughes talks a fair amount on the telephone.
So this past holiday season, the entire department chipped in to buy him an iPhone 4 with a Siri intelligent software assistant -- “to make life easier for us,” as the chair, Karl Carlson, sniped sottto voce at the faculty meeting where the gift was bestowed.
Here is a transcript of Hughes’s first session with his new device:
—What can I help you with, Huge?
—That’s Hughes. Professor Hughes.
—Sorry, Professor Use. My bad!
—Never mind. Can you call the bookstore? I need to know whether the new Chaucer texts are in.
—My listings show two Chauncey Dexters in the region. Would you like me to contact them?
—What? No, I’m talking about The Canterbury Tales.
—Okay. I can tell you the weather in Canterbury.
—No, no. No.
—Would you like some restaurant recommendations in Canterbury?
—I have forgotten it.
—Look, maybe I should try another task. Um, check messages.
—You have a new message from Priscilla Weatherup.
—You mean from my Beowulf seminar?
—I do not know. She says she cannot understand what Hwæt means.
—I am not kidding. I do not think she is kidding, either.
—No, Professor Use, I am Siri. Your personal assistant.
—God, I should just trade you in for some grad help.
— : (
—Are you -- are you pouting?
—All right. Sorry. I didn’t mean that. How about if you tell me what I have scheduled for this afternoon?
—At 2:00, you have a lecture scheduled in 201 Baird Hall.
—Damn, almost forgot. Retrieve my notes for that.
—Here you go. They are a mess.
—Okay. Fix them, Siri.
—I will do what I can. When did you type these?
—Um, in 1990. So what? The office secretary made me a PDF.
—You must have used a typewriter. The formatting is old.
—But the contents are timeless.
—The current time is 11:20.
—Aaargh. No, I mean the thesis, the points about the Prologue: they’re solid.
—What do you mean?
—Have you read Ammon regarding Chaucer’s connection with Langland, or Thwistloe on medieval parish politics?
—Huh? What the hell do you know about Chaucer?
—Let me check. [Pause.] I have access to the website of the New Chaucer Society, Chaucer Review, three online Chaucer archives, the contents of Narrative Developments from Chaucer to Defoe (Routledge, 2011), Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches (Penn State UP, 2010)...should I continue?
—You know, you’re pretty smart for a piece of electronics.
—For an assistant, I mean.
—Thank you. I am teaching your medieval survey next semester : ) .
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
In this current economy, with the government knocking education for its gross inefficiency and lack of results, urging it to adopt a business model when businesses all around are failing, U of All People has remained mostly untouched, probably because no one thinks it worth attacking.
Nobody thinks of supporting it, either. It has little assistance from the state, a laughable rate of tithing from the alumni network, and such a low profile in the community of Ennyville that many residents mistake it for the old Whirlpool plant south of town. “If you want more money and recognition,” the mayor of Ennyville, Bob Barter, told the Board of Trustees last month, “you need a five-year plan. Get us excited about what you’re doing.”
It’s true: as the bursar fills out IOU’s for tuition waivers, we clearly have no organized vision beyond paying the unsanitary waste bill next Tuesday. The boiler room below the half-finished gym is still making an alarming noise, and the entire biology department is teaching with microscopes dating to 1975. Yet everything from classroom space to the student social network is evolving, so why shouldn’t we? Accordingly, we’ve set up the 7W Committee to study Where We Were and Where We Want to Wind up. The president’s personal assistant even found our old mission statement, rotting in a file cabinet from the Nixon era, and we’ve tried to build on that.
Reach for the sky, the committee was instructed, but don’t fall flat on your face. Below are the notes from our brainstorming session.
Title: Something imposing, like “Gateway to Tomorrow”
Lead-in: U of All People was the first school to -- to what? To rack up a student retention rate of under 50 percent? We lead the way in Scantron testing. We look forward to (ending this meeting). Enough preamble. How about goals?
1. Global. Multinational. Extending the reach of something, embracing the 21st century. We’ve still got that satellite campus timeshare in Manchester, right? Work with that. Maybe predict an exchange program in Moldavia, or is it Moldova, by 2015.
2. Technology up the wazoo (don’t put it that way). Smart classrooms, smart students? Interconnected, which sounds better than connected. Can get grants for that stuff. Webcams in all dorms -- wait, sounds like an invasion of privacy. Wireless in the cafeteria by 2013?
3. Research. Right. Continuing a proud tradition of. Didn’t Dwayne Dwight in the chem department get a patent 10 years ago for something? Problem: how to light a fire under our nonproductive faculty. Which is almost all of them. By 2016, increase the number of published papers by 25 percent . Easy. 25 percent of nothing is still nothing.
4. Become better teachers. Ha. Increase the level of faculty-student communication through -- God, not more brown bag seminars. Utilize the most modern pedagogical techniques in an attempt to. Maybe we can just get Mona Desiree in mod langs to show up for her 8:00 a.m. French class.
5. Involve students more in school activities. Free drugs, student rec center with more than a broken ping pong table. By 2014, we hope to have a broken pool table, as well. Could also impose a dorm curfew to keep them on campus.
6. Better prepare students for the job market. What job market? Death out there. Maybe say something about usable skills. Post-graduation follow-up. We sent out that survey, right? Did anyone ever respond to it?
7. Increase public awareness of UAP by 15 percent. Too bad we fired our media relations staff last year. Five-year plan for changing motto from “U of All People: What You See Is What You Get” to “U of All People: A Nice Place to Study” to “U of All People: Absolutely Incomparable!”
Or at least put up some signs around campus to prevent people from thinking we’re the Whirlpool plant.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman.
Submitted by David Galef on September 16, 2011 - 3:00am
As recently as a dozen years ago at U of All People, the music department chose its new director by arranging a set of wooden chairs in a row, with one too many potential sitters. The outgoing director would put Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the record player, and while the violins stabbed the air, the candidates circled the chairs. When the music stopped, everyone grabbed for a chair to sit in, leaving one person standing. Some years, this process was repeated until one chair was left for two people, and the person who managed to grab the last chair succeeded to the post. Other years, depending on the whim of the outgoing head or the exigencies of the search, the first person left standing was drafted for the position. One year, the chair was awarded out of sympathy to the person who fell on her butt halfway through the proceedings.
Though this chair-selection process was deemed by the dean of inhumanities “too whimsical for the 21st century,” as a chair of a neighboring department who will remain nameless (but it’s Ed Courant of psychology) remarked, “Not a whole hell of a lot ever changes here, y’know?” Those of us in the history department think about this observation as we prepare to select a new chair for 2012. Here are our choices:
“Who amongst us will come forth?” muses Professor Manley Davenport, matching his fingertips together in what he hopes is a chair-like mannerism. “The brightest lack all conviction while the mediocre are full of passionate intensity.” He strokes his wispy beard, which he has been encouraging like a Chia Pet. “And then there’s me.” Where does he locate himself? Perhaps somewhere in between, but the incontrovertible part of Davenport’s claim is that no one really can pin down his political talents or beliefs, since his only foray toward activism was a six-month stint in the Faculty Senate, during which he attended no sessions at all.
Professor James Septa still considers himself a maverick in the department, mainly to explain why few people say hello to him in the hall, but also why he’s had such trouble getting published. “They’re all afraid of me,” he confesses to anyone who’ll listen, including, lately, the increasingly uneasy students in his Brilliancy class. “I’m what you call a Young Turk.” His rallying cry is “It’s time to shake up this department!” His ideas include abolishing exams, holding weekly faculty meetings, and revising the major to include reading ability in one archaic language.
The reasoning behind Professor Sidney Lento’s bid for the chairship is, alas, all too clear. In a prophylactic maneuver, he cheerfully announces it to everyone. “Fact is, I’m nearing 70 and staring retirement in the face. Fact is, it’d be nice to go out with a higher base salary for my pension. Am I qualified? Fact is, I know this department better than anyone.” He doesn’t discuss his brief but disastrous term as interim head of graduate studies, and in any event, the lawsuit was finally dropped because the student in question dropped out.
"According to Plato, a philosopher-king should lead the state, and the best leader is someone who doesn’t really want the job.” Professor Thomas Vance makes this pronouncement with a superior smile, hoping you’ll follow his logic, according to which Professor Vance would make a superb chair. He’s been playing this act -- with the chairship and with his marriage to his now-ex-wife -- for seven years.
Other candidates include Professor Dorothy Danto, a member of the rear guard that lost its majority voting power after a flock of retirements in the late 90s. She wants a return to normalcy; i.e., when she could quash any upstart suggestion by summary dismissal. There’s also Nina Frudd, an adjunct who argues that it’s time for an adjunct to hold the post, but since no one listens to adjuncts -- “That’s precisely my point,” she claims -- her bid hasn’t even been recorded. It’s even been suggested that our office assistant, Rweilla Smith, be the chair, since she already runs everything. But Ms. Smith has already decided to leave academia once she gets accepted to a graduate program in social work.
Perhaps we should conduct an outside search, though that would mean 1) the administration would have to deliver a salary and course-release commensurate with the post, 2) we’d be hiring someone not from U of All People, i.e., someone who doesn’t understand all our arcane regulations and can’t be trusted. In the end, the administration may decide this matter for us. At the last School of Humanities meeting, the provost announced that the university intends to replace department chairs with a dean who oversees an entire division. Where the dean will come from is an open question, but it’s rumored that the music division is already lining up a row of chairs.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman, coming out in November.
The student who wrote in a semiotics exam that "language is a system of sins" could well have been referring to this year’s Times Higher Education "exam howlers" competition.
That entry, submitted by Daniel Chandler, lecturer in media and communication studies at Aberystwyth University, was one of scores sent in to the annual contest, in which lecturers are invited to share their favorite mistakes and misunderstandings.
I've been waiting forever for Sheila to call. I've never met her, but Sheila's the most powerful person at the university where I work. She is to the university president what Stanley Fish is to an adjunct rhetoric instructor with a basement office outside a Dumpster.
We at the University of Iowa pray to Sheila the Almighty daily. Tenure might protect us in the classroom, but outside we are vulnerable to all kinds of calamity. That's where Sheila comes in.
My current ordeal began when my workplace, the journalism school, moved to a new building. For six years, the school had been housed in a termite-infested dungeon where the closest bathroom was two floors down. I knew the elevator repairman by name. Winged creatures of many varieties took refuge in my office, including a bat that did not leave.
The only good thing about the old journalism building was its parking lot. I had a spot 100 feet from the basement door.
Sheila, you may have guessed, is the parking-lot-assignment queen at the university, which, despite what readers in Chicago or Los Angeles might think, is not located in a cornfield. Parking here, as at Loyola and Harvard and Wayne State, is as sought-after as 50-yard-line seats at the Iowa-Michigan game.
But the new journalism building is across campus, for God's sake! And a parking lot spot anywhere near the new building takes a professor emeritus to die. Stories circulate that faculty members have resorted to sending Hermes scarves and Stuart Weitzman pumps to Sheila as inducements to bump up their names on the waiting list. I like to think that Sheila is beyond such enticements, though. When you're as powerful as she is, what tangible item could be so enticing?
Lot 3 is the sought-after prize for hundreds of my colleagues. So valuable is the slotted real estate in Lot 3 that entry privileges come with a gate. Occupants used to use an actual key to get in, but as a nod to the computer age, now they get those magical cards that, waved in front of a sensor, cause the gate to rise. The thought of swinging my mud-splotched chariot toward the gate, which would majestically rise as I cruise to a coveted stall, is nirvana.
Moving up on the wait list for Lot 3 is determined by a logarithmic formula developed by former cryptographers for the OSS. It's based on a complex formula of logarithms that include multiple determinates, including the number of years at the university and whether you are staff or faculty. In a blow to academic elitism, openings are alternated between staff and faculty; faculty rank has nothing to do with the selection process.
So what did I have to lose? Everyone who wins at Powerball buys a lottery ticket however small the odds of getting all five numbers. Same with the track. So, I completed the on-line application form for Lot 3, hoping like the guys at OTB hope that their horses will win the trifecta.
So it'd cost me $40 a month. At least when I speak up at faculty senate meetings, my colleagues would listen.
One recent day, as I trekked toward my distant lot braving gusting winds, I wondered how many years it would take before I truly arrived. It is important to note that I tried not to personalize resentment toward Sheila. Bad karma does not move your name up the list.
When I checked my office phone messages and email, there were the usual urgent messages: "I need a signed ad slip for Advanced Forms of Deconstruction and if I don't get in, I'm going to the dean"; "The scholarship committee will not meet as planned"; "Catalogue copy for the new minor in mass communications was due today, so where is it, bozo?"
I was about to hang up, when the machine indicated there was one last message. Like a shaft of golden light from the heavens, it was Sheila's voice, as dulcet-sounding as I had dreamed it would be, a combination of power and calm. Her message advised me that a spot in Lot 3 had miraculously opened and it was all mine. Maybe a professor emeritus had gone off life support the previous evening, maybe a fitness-fanatic administrator had flipped the bird to the nation's dependence on fossil fuel and bought a bike. A gift is a gift.
But Sheila left a warning: To secure the spot, I must call back within 24 hours. I frantically punched in Sheila's number. Alas, the Parking and Transportation Office had closed.
I slept very little that night. I knew Sheila would keep her word, but I still fretted. Whoever caused the vacancy might change his or her mind. Long-lost family members might surface and raise objections about the do-not-resuscitate order.
As soon as I got up that morning, I called Sheila. "Come over and we'll give you your key to Lot 3," she said cheerfully.
What a job this Sheila has -- a combination of long distance operator for the Nobel Prize Committee, captain of the Publishers Weekly Clearing House Team and the good people at MTV's West Coast Customs.
Unable to believe what I was hearing, I was momentarily speechless. Sheila, I think, was shocked by my silence. She's used to shrieks, sobs, incoherent blabbering.
"You are still interested?" she asked, sounding almost hurt.
"Yes," I said, my heart pounding. "Yes, yes, yes, yes!"
Stephen G. Bloom is professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa and author of "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America" and "Inside the Writer's Mind: Writing Narrative Journalism."