Tasked with assessing our first massive open online course (MOOC) here at U of All People, we have spent the past month temporizing, asking off-topic questions, and whatever else it is that assessment committees do. See Appendix A for suspiciously precise quantitative measurements. Below is a summary of our findings and recommendations, subject, of course, to the whim of the chancellor.
In its proposal, the original MOOC committee decided to retrofit Professor Arthur Treadwell’s Astronomy 101 lecture course, largely because of its huge enrollment (over 250 students) and reputation as an easy A. The “new” course, entitled The Universe Is Ours, consists of fifteen lectures, now copyrighted in the university’s name.
The syllabus and course requirements appear satisfactory, save that the syllabus is the same over-Xeroxed sheet from twenty years ago, and a MOOC has no course requirements. The 15 lectures form the backbone of the course; also, the cranium, pelvis, and tibia. It’s a MOOC: what you see is all you get. In general, the lectures are well-presented, though a few glitches remain that should be corrected in the final version.
Lecture 1: Starts too soon, with Professor Treadwell making a lewd joke to a front-row student identified as “Tiffany.” Tell Tiffany to wear more restrained clothing, or else Photoshop a bra on her.
Lecture 2: Camera angle is off; focuses solely on Prof. Treadwell’s shiny bald spot.
Lecture 3: Audio feed occasionally inaudible; fix lapel mic so that it doesn’t slide down Prof. Treadwell’s chest and make that sucking sound.
Lecture 4: Different professors have different pedagogical techniques, but in this talk, Prof. Treadwell exhibits so little body movement that the lecture hall lights, activated by motion sensors, fade after five minutes.
Lecture 7: Missing. The syllabus reads “Spring Break,” which is a poor excuse.
Lecture 10: Prof. Treadwell seems oddly morose and disappears in the middle of his talk, re-emerging from the wings a few minutes later, bleeding from his left ear.
Lectures 11-13: Repeatedly, Prof. Treadwell exclaims, “Now listen up, ’cause this’ll be on the final!”— when in fact the MOOC has no exams.
Lecture 15: For the final talk in the series, we suggest at least a smattering of applause, rather than the profound silence at the end of this lecture, followed by Prof. Treadwell’s coughing fit.
Is Prof. Treadwell really the best person for this trial course? If too late to change, perhaps provide a body double or a guest lecture by someone in the theater department.
What about trying other departments? Not the English department, which is impossible to deal with, but maybe art or psychology.
If MOOCs at other universities are so “open,” what’s to prevent us from adapting (or adopting) some of those lectures?
Through content licensing, the MOOC may eventually generate real income. U of All People can sell the course back to the university (U of A P), in the process charging students per tuition credit. To become a three-credit course, the MOOC may be augmented to include:
* a Kindle textbook download.
* discussion forums, with slave or adjunct labor to monitor chat rooms.
* quizzes and assignments, peer-scored. Tout it as part of the learning process, and put the bastards to work. If successful, can be applied to all other coursework.
* that final exam that Prof. Treadwell keeps referring to, overseen by enough adjuncts to avoid paying anyone full-time rates. May be replaced by student peer reviewers (see above).
* MOOC student data forms that we can peddle to marketing firms.
Without course requirements or grades, who cares? But if we push the MOOC as a graded, three-credit course (see above, under Monetization), we need some safeguards in place, or at least something more than a lame honor code. The IT group at U of All People has recently developed its own proprietary software, Gotcha, to deal with student plagiarism and copycat Scantron issues. To date, it has caught 100 percent of the student body.
We could use a good slogan, though the PR department’s “If they can do it, so can we!” sounds too defensive. “At U of All People, the Future Is MOOC!” sounds too much like “moot,” but if no other options, maybe O.K.
We might also develop an alternative acronym to MOOC, something friendlier and more intimate-sounding, though "Mega Enrollment Seminar Series" may not be the way to go.
Given a modest investment of time, energy, and money, U of All People should be able to put forth a MOOC to rival its sister and brother and even cousin institutions. But first, fix that camera angle so we don’t have to stare at Treadwell’s bald patch.
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).
Welcome to the U of All People campus tour, which should be super-awesome. Anyway, thanks for showing up, as my American history prof last year used to say.
My name is Loftis Wei, but you can just call me Loft. I’m a junior majoring in sociology, at least this semester, and I was told this job would look good on my résumé. Ready for the spiel? Cool.
We’re starting here at Bovine Hall, which is now the admissions building. Historically -- not that U of All People has much history, I mean, not compared to a real school -- but back in the 1930s, the building was a slaughterhouse, and you can still see bloodstains on some of the floorboards. They turned the killing floor into the school’s first seminar room. That’s why the school was once nicknamed Moo U.
Anyway, if you’re looking for leafy green quads and Gothic architecture, you’ve come to the wrong place, but if you’re into concrete and slit windows, take a look at Dayzin Dorm on the right, which sort of looks like a maximum security prison if you see it from the wrong angle -- not that anyone ever wants to leave. We’ve got wifi in the bathrooms and vending machines on every floor. One even sells toilet paper.
Over here is Kent Reade Library, which -- let me check my notes -- at one time, in the 1980s, had over 200,000 books. But books take up a lot of space, y’know, so they, um, deaccessioned a lot of them and installed new research facilities. Over 50 internet terminals in these alcoves. Printers if you can get one that’s working. The espresso bar is pretty awesome. The books are over there, I think.
The building that looks like a smashed spaceship is the Bai O. Kam Science Wing. What? No, we’re not a research university, not really, but we’ve still got some of that going on. You hear about it, y’know?
Check my notes... some weird plastic was accidentally discovered here in 1956 by Professor Paul E. Murr, but they managed to detox the whole lab and the surrounding area. That gray gunk -- don’t touch it -- is what’s left, and it’s now a nature preserve or something. Anyway, it’s not so much research here, like I said. We’re into teaching. A lot of the professors here have been here, like, forever, so you know they really love this place. I overheard someone in the history department say that it’s really, really hard to go somewhere else.
This football-shaped building is the B. A. Jacques Athletics Facility, which you can see is the biggest structure on campus. When you get tired of studying, and that can happen pretty easily, there’s always sports. U of All People’s women’s -- lacrosse, maybe? -- team is nationally ranked. It’s really cool to watch them run around the field with those sticks in their hands.
You can also get on an intramural team or join a student organization. Anime World, Under-Achievers Association, Burrito-Eating Club, Future Baristas -- actually, that club was disbanded after a nasty caffeine poisoning incident last semester. Anyway, get involved, y’know? Be quirky.
Was that a question about academics? Whether you’re a math geek or a psych type, we’ve got a major for you. Like it says in our brochure. U of All People offers over 17 majors, including a few that no one’s ever figured out. If you need help, we have a bunch of academic advisers, and some are actually available during the hours posted outside their offices. I think a lot of them are maybe just shy.
No, we’re not on the quarter system, but on something called the 24/7 system, which means something’s always happening on campus, even if it’s just someone throwing up in the bathroom at 4:00 a.m. Did I mention that the bathrooms have wifi? Anyway, if you get sick of the place, which happened to my roommate in his sophomore year, we’ve also got study abroad programs in at least two places, I think in Mexico. You don’t even have to know Spanish. And with all the online courses, you don’t even have to be on campus all semester. One girl I met on Facebook has taken only virtual classes. I’m not sure she really exists.
What about financial aid? Good point! I know we offer some, but we don’t encourage it. That’s why we have the Junior Entrepreneur Organization on campus, which sometimes gets confused with the Marijuana Growers Co-op, but it’s just a tiny overlap. What else... let me see. We do have internship programs at the Dollar and a Quarter Store and Burger Boy. We also have Career Services, where they can, like, help you with your résumé. You can do a lot with a college degree! That’s also in our brochure.
Anyway, here we are, back at Bovine Hall. There’s the old holding pen, which means that’s the end of the tour.
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).
Higher ed, as the casual observer might divine, is awash in titles. We have directors and managers, assistants and associates, fulls and interims. We’re well-versed in vice. Titles mean everything, which is another way of saying they mean nothing.
I’m reminded of that “Cheers” episode in which Rebecca, the bar manager, gives Carla and Woody, barmaid and barkeep, respectively, contrived, bombastic titles because the establishment can’t afford to award raises. They’re thrilled beyond comprehension, sporting their titles like badges of honor and quickly forgetting the corresponding lack of pay.
Back here in collegeland, titles work much the same way. I once went from assistant to associate director of nail clipping, or some such activity, with no raise or change in duties. Nor did I suddenly outrank colleagues and demand they do my laundry. I did, however, have to get new business cards and amend my email signature. For that, I gather, I was supposed to feel professionally elevated and compelled to clip more nails.
Some titles are more self-evident than others. Presidents, we intuit, preside, just as chancellors chancel. An associate vice president is an aide to someone who aids the president. That individual is, technically, an administrative assistant, known in previous generations as a secretary. We don’t use that term anymore because it’s demeaning. Plans are under way in Washington, in fact, to create an “administrative assistant of state” cabinet position.
Provost also is a peculiar title. On most campuses, it denotes the chief academic officer. The equivalent abroad is pro-vice-chancellor, not to be confused with the anti-vice-chancellor, normally the faculty senate president. Some institutions add “academic vice president” to “provost” just to belabor the issue.
Using that logic, we could have a “president and august chief toastmaster” to head up the joint. Did you know that the University of Pennsylvania didn’t have a president until 1930? The campus was led by a provost, owing, ostensibly, to the university’s Scottish heritage. Actually, the phenomenon was the result of 72 failed searches over the span of 190 years.
Endowed positions provide yet another level of titledom. You can be the Ethan Allen Professor of the Ottoman Empire, certainly a distinguished chair, or perhaps the Anna Graham Professor of English Syntax or the Ben E. Drill Professor of Immunology. Some endowed designations have fallen out of favor, such as chairs tied to Enron, Big Tobacco, Arthur Andersen (not the accounting firm but the unfortunate chap who happens to share its name) and Pee Wee Herman. Nonetheless, endowed chairs provide incumbents incalculable prestige in the academy, enviable salaries, and slush funds for research, conference presentations and similarly frivolous junkets.
The longer the faculty title, the more clout it conveys. Having the Dr. Edmund and Ms. Fanny Fitzgerald Exalted Professorship in Midwestern Maritime Studies is clearly superior to the mundane associate professor moniker. Yet among administrators, the opposite holds true: president beats vice president, which in turn beats assistant vice president, which thoroughly trounces assistant to the assistant vice president. More modifiers equate to lower status on the admin org chart.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Thanks to enterprising fund raisers, some non-teaching roles now carry fancy titles of their own. Donors can attach their names to deans, band leaders, coaches and, coming soon to a university near you, their favorite student-athletes. Imagine the country club bragging rights when you announce you’ve established the Duncan Dervish Endowed Power Forward Position, the proceeds of which, naturally, do not attend to the player himself. Naturally.
To manage these ever-elongating titles, the academy has come up with a series of initialisms. We have the CEO (borrowed from private industry, along with the salaries), the CFO, the COO (bloodless, usually), the CIO (which, somewhere along the way, lost its AFL), the CAO (which can be either the chief academic or advancement officer) and the CDO (relating to development or diversity, and never the twain shall meet). Lots of chiefs inhabit our universities, which is chiefly the reason why tuition continues to outpace inflation.
Titles even trickle down to students, beginning with freshmen, who are, for the sake of gender clarity, no longer known as freshmen. “Freshperson” never caught on, likely because of the suggestion of social impropriety, and “freshpeople” sounds like the latest boy band. So we went with “first-year student,” newbies who are subjected to freshman orientation and freshman seminars.
Each institution has its own titular culture, which can be confusing to those outside its gates. When a visitor comes to campus — say, a job candidate interviewing for a title of his own — we introduce ourselves by stating our titles and expect that person to know exactly what we do. “I’m assistant director of procurement operations,” you announce confidently, only to discover a flummoxed gaze in return. “I buy stuff,” you add. He’ll catch on.
We’ve grown entitled to our titles, forever chasing shiny new ones that bring luster to our resumes and fill us with a sense of pride and purpose. We look askance at those whose title pursuits seem downwardly mobile, even though they might have had good reasons — such as more money or better working conditions or a shorter commute — for their descent.
After we retire, we cling to our titles, often adding “emeritus,” Latin for “no longer on the payroll,” as a suffix. In an age when “personal branding” has become all the rage, we covet things that easily identify and position us. Titles confer worth, or perhaps validate it. They have become a form of currency. They define our existence.
And yet, they don’t. Titles come and go; intrinsic value persists. Case in point: I tried giving my dog Brady a new title, executive canine, to see if he would stop stealing dirty underwear from the laundry pile. We emblazoned his new title on his bowl and fastened a sign on his crate.
I even wrote a press release for the family newsletter touting his appointment. He did strut about with a more dignified air, but, alas, his malfeasance continued. Stripped of his title and standing, Brady has found legitimacy on his own terms.
He’s a consultant.
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the second installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.
Welcome to College Express -- the college where you can complete your four-year degree in three or even two years! Our motto is Commodum, vivos, facile*, and we think you’ll agree! Here are just a few of our innovative features:
We are constantly streamlining academic departments and majors, to bring you just the essentials.
All of our classes are accelerated. Classes that were already accelerated have been further accelerated.
We have the best transfer policy in our corner of the state: We’ve dropped all core-curricular requirements for transfer students! That’s right: now you can have a diploma from a liberal arts school even if you haven’t taken any classes in art, history, or languages. And for those of you who started your college careers with us, we want to be fair, so we’re working -- constantly -- to pare down your requirements, too!
We offer hundreds of online courses, thanks to the consortium we’ve joined! While College Express has not yet directly participated in the creation of any of the 700 courses, it is proud to act as a broker -- proud to act as your education broker.**
We also give course credit for MOOC certificates of completion. We understand that there is some controversy as to whether it is actually a certificate or merely a letter of completion, but at College Express, such things don’t matter! Certificates, letters, badges -- just forward them to us, and we’ll find a way to make them count.
We have a beautifully landscaped campus. It is true that we now occupy only one building, having sold off all dorms, the library, the art gallery, the humanities building, and the science building, but the view remains stunning. The former cafeteria is now “Your One-Stop Campus.” Should you wish to visit us in person, just follow the driveway lined with plastic pennants.
Too busy to stop by in person? We offer personalized online, phone, and fax service. Just contact our new friendly Call Center, located in the heart of “One Stop,” for all of your registration and advising needs. The center is open 24 hours a day. Be assured that all of our operators are former faculty members.
And you can also be assured that we will continue to offer a sampling of traditional courses. A storage area in the basement has been converted into two classrooms. One great new feature of College Express is that classes will now run through the night. (That is correct -- no more daytime classes -- we hope that you are as excited as we are.)
Finally, the graduation ceremony itself will be a thing of the past. However, we understand that some of you may still wish to come to campus to receive your degrees. Just stop by the drive-through window, conveniently located on the west side of One Stop (for those familiar with the old campus, the ticket office of what was once the performing-arts theater).
We trust that you will be as delighted as we are to embrace these changes. Now, let’s all make it a great (half) year at College Express.
*“Convenient, quick, easy.” Source: Satisfied student in parking lot outside College Express.
** Check your Sunday paper for our flier with special tuition-remission coupons.
Carolyn Foster Segal is an adjunct at Muhlenberg College and a book-group facilitator for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.
Pretty much anything passes for higher education these days. Enterprising institutions routinely offer intellectually challenging programs such as cosmetology, astrology, thimble repair, linen folding and bikini waxing. But hey, if it’s at a university, it must be rigorous, right? And these academic pursuits, let’s not forget, do lead to jobs, a concern that college students ranked first, second and fourth in a recent survey of desired outcomes.
Coming out of high school, I too was in search of a job, a career that would make my family proud and let me show off my true talents. So naturally I applied to clown college. I conducted extensive research, talking with guidance counselors, reading the viewbooks and underground accounts of campus life, consulting the U.S. News rankings and other magazines touting the “best values” in clown education, visiting campuses and chatting with current students (not the mimes, of course).
The standardized exam, called the Comic Reasoning and Performance test, was especially tough. Ostensibly designed to test only your clown aptitude, it did pose questions that presumed an existing knowledge of clown history and culture. I sensed an inherent bias toward those who had grown up in a clown family or had somehow been exposed to clowns, in a good way. I did well enough, scoring in the 80th percentile, though at that point I knew the most elite bastions of clown education might lie beyond reach. I wished I could have opted for the CRAP prep course or hired a personal admissions consultant, who purported to know all the clown-admissions insiders and whose advice came at a reasonable $150 per hour, but family funds were tight.
By comparison, the application form was a breeze. It asked a bunch of hypothetical questions, such as, “If given the chance to travel with a top circus troupe or to corner the Long Island Bat Mitzvah market, which would you choose?” It also required you to write an essay that asked which clown, living or dead, you’d most like to share a cotton candy with. I’d read in online discussion forums that it’s best to stay away from hackneyed choices such as Bozo and Clarabell. I instead chose Krusty.
As I’d feared, I failed to get into my reach school, Ringmaster U., but my admission to Jester College came with a partial scholarship and my choice of housing among the finest on-campus tents. I figured my mediocre CRAP scores nixed my Ringmaster bid, but I later discovered the school has a strong tradition of admitting children of alumni — Ringers, as they call them. I never really stood a chance.
My first year was predictable, largely because of the general education curriculum. We all took the same courses, such as Rodeo Responsibilities, Props and Pratfalls, and Legendary Clowns of the Western World. Electives allowed us to explore our personal interests in topics like unicycling and stilt aerobics. Some required courses were oversubscribed, shutting out students and leaving them to doubt that they’d be able to graduate on time.
Even with my partial scholarship, I still could barely make ends meet. I landed a work-study job custom-fitting floppy shoes, a commitment that absorbed 20 hours a week. My performance began to suffer as a result. I couldn’t get my lapel flower to squirt straight and my “mime trapped in the box” routine evinced a more rectangular than square orientation. Even worse, while plowing a pie into a classmate’s face, I dislodged his foam nose and knocked his derby askew, thus exposing a rubber chicken’s beak. Shame and scorn fell upon me.
Perhaps my major downfall, however, was my inability to find myself. Clown elders spoke of creating a personal brand, a professional identity that would set me apart from legions of other performers. Should I be Sinisterio the Dark Clown? Take a more playful approach and bill myself as Quacky the Six-Foot Duck? How about Moody the Contemplative Clown? Brainy the Intellectual? Nothing seemed to fit.
Nor did I assimilate with any of the clown cliques — the jock clowns with their acrobatics, the pothead clowns, the earnest ones who formed study groups. I was a loner, a sad clown who didn’t need tears painted down his cheeks. The Office of Clown Counseling and Retention offered some consoling advice: when you flop, get back up and keep dancing. They tried.
Eventually, alas, I failed. My CPA, or Clown Performance Average, dropped below 2.0 thanks to D grades in poorly chosen electives — Hobos of the Great Depression and Combating Coulrophobia. I became yet another clown dropout, a lost soul destined to forever wonder how many smiles I might have engendered. I can’t blame the system, really; generations of successful alumni testify to the college’s ability to pump out performers. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I just wasn’t clown material.
I harbor neither regret nor bitterness. I have moved on, though I do keep tabs on former classmates via Facebook and the alumni magazine, which I receive along with calls and letters seeking donations. On some level, I suppose, I am an alumnus. And a part of that experience will stay with me. I may not be a graduate, but I’ll forever be a clown.
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This marks the debut of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.
The More or Less Unanimous Declaration of the Board of Visitors
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for a Board to dissolve the administrative bands which have connected a President with a University, and to assume for themselves the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and the Bond Market entitle them, it is best to do it secretly, quickly, and in the middle of the night.
However, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation, especially when one is unexpectedly faced with large, angry crowds on the Lawn at two o’clock in the morning and a quite stupendous media shitstorm thereafter.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Universities are endowed by their Donors with certain unalienable Goals, that among these are Strategy, Dynamism, and the pursuit of some sort of Online Degree delivered via the Interwebs, — That to secure these goals, Presidents are appointed, deriving their just powers from the half-baked ideas of idle Billionaires, — That whenever any University President becomes destructive of these Goals, it is the Right of the BoV to institute a new President, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect Strategy, Dynamism, and Strategic Dynamism. Prudence dictates that Presidents only recently established should not be changed for light and transient causes; yet experience hath shewn, that Universities are more disposed to suffer than to right themselves by downsizing obscure departments such as Classics, or German, or — it now appears — Computer Science. Fuck.
Anyway, it is nevertheless our right, it is our duty, to throw off such Presidents, and to provide new Administrators for my future security. Yours! I mean, Your future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of this University; and such is now the necessity which constrains us to alter its former Systems of Government. The history of the present President is one of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the maintenance of some sort of financially viable, intellectually robust, nationally respected institution of higher learning. Such goals are so 20th-century. I read that in Forbes recently. Did I not shew it to you all via e-mail? Perhaps I forgot to attach it. Sorry, where was I? Oh yes. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world:
She has refused to listen to me when I sent her this U.S. News & World Report article I read about how Technology is Transforming Education.
She has refused to hire Consultants at extortionate rates, preferring instead to consult experts on her own Faculty — as if a University were the place to find experts of any kind, the very idea. Far better to hire a team consisting mostly of 22-year-olds from McKinsey, they know how to do those 3-D charts in Excel and have you seen their Powerpoints the transitions are cool I like the flame one the best.
She has called together legislative bodies at places normal, standard, and proximate to the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of keeping the Faculty and university community informed of her plans.
She has hired some Officers to implement her goals.
She has combined with others, like the Provost, to subject us to a set of standards foreign to the understanding of Beach Condo Developers; giving her Assent to their Acts of pretended Administration:
For Quartering large bodies of actual students among us, instead of on a website somewhere.
For maintaining Standards without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of future consulting deals:
She has excited domestic insurrections amongst us — have you seen this crowd outside, Helen? It’s really quite large now.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: i.e., by circulating emails amongst a subset of our group, exchanging links to some stuff in Wired Magazine about Stanford, and ginning each other up for her removal. A President whose character is thus marked by every act which may define an intelligent, decisive, forward-looking, and accountable leader, is clearly unfit to be the ruler of a Nationally-ranked University.
We, therefore, the appointed members of the Board of Visitors, in closed session, Assembled in haste and appealing to the Theory of Strategic Dynamism for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of some very wealthy people indeed, solemnly publish and declare, That President Sullivan is removed and that Dean Carl Zeithaml shall henceforth have full Power to Dynamically Strategize, set up Online Learning Working Groups, implement Acquisition and Diversification strategies, contract Knowledge-Based Sources of Competitive Advantage, develop Resource-Based Conceptual and Methodological Frameworks for Global Effectuity, and to do all other Acts and Things which Business School Professors may of right do, gosh it’s a wonder capitalism was able to get off the ground in the first place without their assistance. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence and please God the Governor, we mutually pledge your Reputation, your Fortunes and your sacred Honor.
Kieran Healy is associate professor of sociology at Duke University. This piece first was first published on the blog Crooked Timber.
At U of All People, as one of our sociologists, Professor Q. A. Wagstaff, once put it, “Faculty and staff eventually leave either vertically or horizontally.” As it happens, Wagstaff left with his own faculties intact, though the same cannot be said for the sociology faculty, which spent the next five years trying to regain the hiring slot. In any event, since many of our professors got their jobs in the late '60s, when all you had to do for a tenure-track position was cough in the right direction, more than a few are beginning to feel that it’s time to move on.
Sometimes poor health or a desire to travel motivates the decision. More commonly, as Professor Kahn Federitz in the history department noted, “The thought of facing one more set of student essays on the Civil War makes me want to puke.” For whatever reason, in the last few months, not a week has gone by without a retirement party. Professor Wagstaff, operating from a think tank of his own devising in his basement, has even drawn up a formula for these events, soon to be published in American Sociological Review of American Sociology. Below are the necessary steps, only slightly embroidered.
1. Settle on a time inconvenient for everyone, including the retiree. 1:30 on a Wednesday, when everyone’s either teaching or at a meeting, is a popular slot. Procure a room, though the Men’s Studies Caucus has taken over the function area in the Frump Humanities Building, and Students for Nondemocratic Change are occupying the cafeteria again. End up in the faculty lounge, with its shaky sconces and once-wine-dark carpeting, where the lumpy beige couch could also use a retirement party.
2. Shake down the department for a gift, the gold watch of yore having long ago given way to an online gift certificate that expires within a year. Choose the most untrustworthy faculty member to make the collection, the professor who misses his office hours with no note on the door — but who perhaps was hired by the retiree and now, two decades later, wants to return the favor. Add some scuffle about who’s kicked in and how much. At the last minute, if worried that the gift is insignificant, add a small Lucite plaque.
3. Plan a reception by working with Scrump-Chess, the campus food service that both overcharges and underserves, yet, miraculous in these hard economic times, remains the university’s caterer. Plan several menus but end up with the same cookies and weak iced tea that have been served since 1980. Possibly provide a punch bowl with a ladle that slowly submerges in the sticky, over-sweet brew.
4. Tap a few aged colleagues to make speeches, usually ancient anecdotes that have lost all relevance to everyone but the few principals involved, one of whom is dead. “I remember when the department needed some extra students for Soc. 120, and the only way Tom and I could get some was by going to the dormitories at six a.m. and beating a gong we stole from the music department.” Such stories are more poignant than funny: they conjure up an era when people in academia seem to have enjoyed more freedom and had more fun than is possible nowadays.
5. Discuss what the retiree plans on doing after leaving the institution. In the old days, a standard response was, “Finish my book.” The unspoken but heartfelt response is “Not grade any more papers.” Usually included in the plans is a lengthy vacation -- Morocco? Kenya? -- at an unseasonable time of year -- “Max and I are packing in October.” The return home occasions a period of boredom and casting about, followed by a request to teach an occasional class at adjunct rates. After all, where else can the retiree find a captive audience for recycled anecdotes about sociology?
But meanwhile, a polite round of applause, please. And then, the rest of you, get back to whatever it is you still do.
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).
U of All People in 2017 has finally become a small, selective institution, maybe because so many of the faculty have left. Been terminated. Whatever. Y’know, they ought to call it U of No People. After the most recent round of pay cuts and layoffs this fall, here’s how it is:
The opening gong sounds at 10:30 these days, rung by Prof. Fritz O’Levy-Smith, ever since the state cut the bell out of the school budget. It’s nice to wake up later, even though the dorms have been sold to Amscray Realty, and we have to sleep in the old abandoned train depot. After O’Levy-Smith rings it for a while, we all assemble in Morraine lecture hall -- the only one left -- while O’Levy-Smith marks us down in a ratty attendance book. That takes about thirty minutes, which is okay, since all the periods have been shortened to half an hour. During that time, Eric and Junker get high in back, and Jasmine cuts herself. Then it’s time for chemistry lab.
Only our chemistry teacher, Adjunct Instructor Showentell, got laid off last month, and O’Levy-Smith doesn’t really know much about test tubes. Or what to do with a Bunsen burner, though the school sold them to pay for chemicals, which got stolen from the supply room because we also sold all the locks. So instead we sit around and talk about baseball. O’Levy-Smith is a Cubs fan.
Eventually, O’Levy-Smith gets up to ring the gong for third period, then hurries back to his American lit survey. That was what he was originally hired for, before the layoffs started. Last semester, we read some Dickinson and Whitman, but now we’re doing the oral tradition because we’ve run out of handouts. Luckily, O’Levy-Smith has a good memory; still, it’s mostly poetry, which I’m not crazy about — or poets, either. “I mean, who earns less money than a poet?” I mention in class, and Scott shouts, “A professor!” Mr. O’Levy-Smith sort of smiles and cuts class five minutes short so he can go to the bathroom before the next period.
The next class is P.E. aerobics, which a while ago was sort of like high school, when Coach Kern gave jock-strap checks and made us run laps. But O’Levy-Smith is a fun gym teacher and doesn’t even make us change. Plus, he’s into all kinds of sports that we never did with Coach Kern, like hacky sack and mixed wrestling, which he demonstrates on Jasmine now that she’s stopped bleeding. Her friend Margie wants her to go to the Wellness Center, but it’s been boarded up since last April. Anyway, O’Levy-Smith is a fine instructor when he wants to be, and in Phys. Ed. his motto is “Learn by doing.” After getting Jasmine in a reverse-something-or-other, he flips the situation and doesn’t even seem to mind when she pins him repeatedly.
Next is lunch. No food in the cafeteria, naturally, but everyone’s either bought stuff from Tony’s snack truck or stolen a bag of chips or something from the 7-Eleven across the street. Halfway through the period, we look over at O’Levy-Smith and see that he’s crying because he has nothing to eat. Sarah R. takes pity and tosses him some of her tuna fish sandwich. Junker offers to share some of his addies. After that, O’Levy-Smith perks up a bit.
With the cutbacks and all, we have only one class after lunch, and that class is college math. Nobody likes math. O’Levy-Smith would be the first to admit that he doesn’t, either. It’s supposed to be a combined algebra-trigonometry-statistics class, plus remedial. Mostly what we discuss is fractions, and how you can’t divide something by zero. “Like the school budget!” cracks Timothy. For that, Timothy gets a visit to O’Levy-Smith’s cubicle, where I hear O’Levy-Smith won’t let him leave until he forks over a penalty fee.
O’Levy-Smith is faculty adviser to the foreign film club, the Latino/a Association, and the Spanish club, but all the after-school activities have been canceled. O’Levy-Smith does some after-school tutoring — “on a freelance basis,” he says -- with a few takers. When Christopher asks if he can pay in food, O’Levy-Smith says sure.
When I get back to the train depot at 1:00, the cops are there to evict us. A guy from the U of All People Administrative Oversight Committee meets with the squatters to tell us our student loans have run out. Well, I’ve heard that before, which is why I hold down three jobs, but my old roommate, Chet, looks worried. He tells me there’s a rumor of further cutbacks at school, and that just makes me laugh and laugh and laugh till I almost puke.
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).