Humor/whimsy

Decisions and Revisions

For years, the terms early decision and early action have meant binding and non-binding college acceptances before the usual notification date. With Harvard striking down its early admissions system, and other universities scurrying to follow, these old labels have become suspect -- even though, as recent articles have shown, universities may still practice some forms of early acceptance.

What schools really need now, though, is an end-run around the old terms. Here are some proposals now on the table at admissions offices across the country:

   oily admissions: for those acceptances with a certain slimy feel, necessary to the school’s financial welfare but best not to discuss. May derive from Texas-based alums who kick in oil company money to expedite the acceptance of their kids to business school.

   eerie admissions: a term meant to cover those unaccountable acceptances, such as the athletic scholarship extended to the chess whiz, or the offer made to a high school student with no extracurricular activities.

    only admissions: the new, no-frills form of acceptance, without any fat welcome packet or additional literature sent through the mail; the academic equivalent of an airline e-ticket.

    early submissions: a label for those eager beaver applicants who just can’t wait 'til fall of their senior year in high school and start bombarding colleges with material as early as July.

    yearly remissions: not technically an admissions matter, but these represent the annual tithing from wealthy graduates who will one day expect their offspring to apply to and be accepted by their alma maters.

    early revisions: this curious term signifies that percentage of accepted students who , well before the deadline, decide that they want to matriculate elsewhere.

    late action: a polite term for what used to be called the waiting list, or those applicants who have no reasonable hope of getting in unless someone else opts out.

    early faction: any admitted students likely to become a cohesive group, such as the College Republicans.

    proactive admissions: the new term for offers extended ahead of time to athletes who’ll be snapped up by other schools if another day goes by.

    early derision: a cover for those admitted students who in retrospect were ludicrous choices, such as those with bad debts or probation officers.

     easy submissives and early emissions: don’t go there.

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
galef@olemiss.edu

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Our Entering Class for 2008

This year, Harvard accepted only about 9 percent of those who applied, and Columbia University took an even lower percentage. What are these incoming students like? Are they all genius athletes arranged in an ethnically diverse spectrum?

At U of All People, where we understand the publicity value of such standards -- and like a good challenge -- we’ve set our goal even higher: Next year, we intend to accept only 5 percent of those who apply to our fabled university. However, in order to attract that many applicants, we’ll need to lower our admissions criteria somewhat. Here’s what we’re looking for:

  • a minimum SAT score of 400, calculated with a special bonus system that rewards extra effort
  • a GPA of at least 1.5, with special consideration given to vocational skills
  • a varsity letter—or some experience—in sports, with the term sports broadly defined to include Texas Hold ’Em, video games, and yodeling
  • at least one extracurricular activity: may encompass shopping and watching most television serials
  • community service, with special credit for parole activities
  • proficiency in at least one language, such as English
  • a vaguely ethnic look, if not true ethnicity (may be waived upon lawsuit)
  • a geographical location for place of residence, including foreign countries with whom the U.S. is not currently at war
  • a median family income of some median or other
  • a high school diploma or a reasonable facsimile thereof
  • an application at least two-thirds completed, or to the best of the applicant’s ability

Of course, if we don’t manage to attract such qualified applicants, we have our fallback position: our famous 100% acceptance rate -- “Educational democracy in action!” -- at U of All People, where enrollment is a way of life and our top priority.

Student success is important, but access to students is even more so. 

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
galef@olemiss.edu

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Turning 30: A Self-Interview

Q: You’ve written thirty “Purely Academic” columns. Can you reflect on the experience?

A: Toward the end of Thomas Pynchon’s V, a girl asks one of the heroes, Benny Profane, about what he’s learned. Benny, we read, “didn’t have to think long. ‘No,’ he said, ‘Offhand I’d say I haven’t learned a goddamn thing.’”

Q: Surely you jest. And I don’t like literary types.

A: Well, all right. One thing I’ve learned is that anything having to do with students is guaranteed to draw lots of comment. It scarcely matters what you write. Everybody gets very agitated over giving excuses, leaving class to go to the bathroom and drawing up syllabi.

Q: Is this wrong?

A: No, but it’s one thing to try to compose a reasoned argument about such subjects, while it’s another thing to express an opinion. Once I read somewhere -- all right, no more literature, although now you’ll have to pardon my French -- that the great Dodger manager, Walter Alston, once stated: “Everybody has two things, an opinion and an asshole.” About some subjects, an opinion is just too easy.

Q: So what are readers supposed to do, just agree with you?

A: Of course not. Another thing I’ve learned is that not everybody will agree with you, even if you think you’re being eminently reasonable, and not everybody will disagree with you, even if you take yourself to be contrary. The wonder of the site’s format is that a column draws all sorts of comments. You shouldn’t be surprised at anything. At first, I was; like any academic, I wasn’t used to having actual readers. Now I anticipate them.

Q: What do you mean, academics are not used to readers? I don’t know about you, but over the years I’ve gotten some appreciative comments about something I’ve written.

A: Sure, but how many read a standard professional journal? How many reviews can we expect for our scholarly books? Most articles and books are written for the personnel file. My guess is, we’d write very little if we didn’t have to be tenured or promoted.

Q: You sound like you’re about to commit a column. Some of them -- a recent one on bosses comes to mind most recently -- were awfully cynical.

A: Guilty as suspected and judged. So much so, I could mention another example of what Borat (remember him?) would term a “learning”: how amazing it is if you write two-and-a-half to three single-spaced pages once a month for some two years you come to feel that this is a nice comfy fit for just about any subject.

Q: Are we now talking about the wrong end of Walter Alston?

A: Touché. Put it another way. A friend tells me of a new DVD that includes a short 30s film with Boris Karloff as a mad scientist being exploited by a newspaper magnate. Best line from Karloff’s crippled manservant, who declares: “I don’t mind dying but to be accused of journalism!.” What I meant is that at times not only have I accused myself of journalism, but I’ve felt no shame.

Q: Why should you? What’s the matter with journalism? Academics can be such snobs.

A: C’mon. Begin anywhere, say with the fact that journalism is written for the moment, whereas literature is written for the ages. At first, I suppose I took myself often to be writing, well, literature -- artful examples of a venerable genre, the personal essay. Then I ceased to think about it this way, even if the composed dimension of each column still means a lot to me. Readers rebuked me. Responses still stampeded over, or away with, the most incidental asides. I write about things happening on campus right now -- sex and violence or parking lots and classroom jokes. That’s how I’ve been read from the beginning. Now it’s simply how I expect to be read -- and let the response balloons inflate as they may.

Q: It sounds to me as if you’re in effect writing a blog. What’s the difference between the column and a blog?

A: Less than it might seem, especially when you consider how some bloggers regularly seek a formal shape to even the most occasional comment. Other than the fact that “Purely Academic” appears as part of on online magazine, I suppose its main difference from a blog is that a blog is content with its personal, occasional character, whereas a column aims to be more broadly discursive, less consistently personal. But this is a tricky difference. It deserves a column.

Q: Other ideas for future columns?

A: You have to wait. Like me. Just when I think there’s nothing more for me to write about, I’ll hear or read something, and then lurch keyboard-ward. The only thing I’m conscious of is considering odd, wayward, or marginal subjects -- wearing ties, having a dog in the classroom, dreaming about being elsewhere, finding a place to read. Nobody writes about these things.

Q: Maybe with good reason.

A: So readers have at various times pointed out. That’s what it’s like to have a dialogue -- as well as to write for a magazine. You’re always being judged. A column or two ago one reader urged the magazine to drop me entirely. Another addressed me as a “professor thug.” It’s not my magazine. But if the column were my blog, I’d be the judge.

Q: What in your opinion is the leading issue in higher education today?

A: Read the rest of Inside Higher Ed. In a sense, I go in search of the least leading issues.

Q: Maybe I have to read the column more. Any regrets about it?

A: Two.

Q: Do I have to ask again?

A: One regret has to do with comedy. Most academic novels are comic. Academic life is, I think, best comprehended in comic terms. Who was the Oxford don who opined: “Students recur?” Precisely. Everything in academe recurs -- the character types, the components of the setting, the nature of the conflicts. You won’t write well about it if you aren’t quick to sense the comedy. But it’s still hard to write about the comedy as a comedy. Instead, it’s easier to appear as harsh, abrasive, or insistent, while striving to be light, bouncy, and carefree.

Q: Maybe you should give up the column and write a novel.

A: Alas, no talent. There’s a lovely passage I just read the other day in Proust -- woops! I promised no more literature.

Q: What’s the other regret?

A: Celebration. Or rather, the lack thereof. What I mean is, there just doesn’t seem to be much that I like about academic life, on the basis of the published record. I like a place to read, granted, and so one of the few things I’ve praised in the column are libraries and librarians. But even when th subject is, say, conferences, it’s the other conference next door, not the academic one, whose pleasures I celebrate.

Q: So you mean that you do like academic life but somehow just haven’t found out exactly what?

A: No, what I mean is that even when I thought I found something I like, it comes out either that I don’t or that I can’t seem to write about it as if I do. Also, see comedy, above.

Q: Do you think this is typical of academics in general? We like ideas, research, teaching, summers off. Some even like committees. But finally we don’t like the whole life: the new president and the old dean through the lack of parking space and funding for research to disruptive students and the colleague down the hall who has a better office. Instead, what we really love is to bitch and moan.

A: If this were a trial rather than an interview, the question would to objected to on the basis of being “argumentative.”

Q: I’m just trying to make you feel better. How many times do you meet a fellow academic beaming with joy: The campus is wonderful, the division has plenty of money, colleagues are supportive, students polite and provocative, and the lawns always freshly mowed? Your own feelings -- let’s be kind and call them “equivocations” -- about academic life may be more typical than you think.

A: In a sense, this is the wager of every “Purely Academic” column.

Q: Like to add anything more?

A: Only a favorite line from Kafka: “How can one be glad about the world except if one takes one’s refuge in it?” Academic life, to me, remains the best refuge.

Q: You promised no more literature.

A: I lied.

Author/s: 
Terry Caesar
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Going South

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/09/10 Mon AM 09:41:21 EDT
To: <mwall@uallpeople.edu>
Subject: travel request

To Professor Michael Wall, Chair, English Department:

This has to do with the travel budget for the coming academic year. As we discussed last spring, I need something on the order of $700 for the annual Joyce conference, held this year in Miami, December 3-5. I saved the department money last year by using Blackboard exclusively rather than hand out Xeroxes, and in any event, this shouldn’t break the bank, right? Let me know soon, please, because I have to book the flight.

Best,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

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

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/09/17 Mon AM 09:40:11 EDT
To: <mpuck@uallpeople.edu>
Subject: research request

To Myra Puckwith, Head of Research Office:

According to our department chair, Michael Wall, the entire travel budget for the English department has been frozen for fiscal 2007-08—or was it retroacted to the level of support in 1968 because of some administrative fiat? Something like that. Accordingly, he suggested that I contact you about a research grant for this December. I’m a James Joyce scholar, and I need to study the Joycean archives in Miami for a book tentatively titled Southern Joyce. I can provide full details of my proposal, including the new RPP (Research Planning and Perspectives form) from your office, along with a statement of purpose, for your perusal. Just let me know.

Sincerely,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

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

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/09/22 Mon AM 011:45:03 EDT
To: <ddon@uallpeople.edu>
Subject: equipment grant

To Don Donaldson, University Procurement:

Myra Puckwith at the Office of Research read my proposal for research in Miami this December and sent me to you. Normally, a small equipment grant isn’t something that fits me, but given the circumstances, I’d like to purchase a used 1997 Honda Civic that should be able to get me to Florida and back, and which could be used for other academic trips, as well. I’ve already priced such a vehicle at Al’s Autos, and the price is surprisingly reasonable: only $700. I talked with Mark Meyers from the Physics department, and he says that last year he received $5,000 toward the cost of a new tachyon accelerator. As far as I know, the English department has been quite modest in its requests for equipment. Here’s hoping that you’ll honor my request.

Expeditiously,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

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

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/09/28 Sun PM 011:42:30 EDT
To: <fcar@uallpeople.edu>
Subject: request for teaching funds

To Fred Carson, Pedagogy Coach:

Pursuant to the bulletin you sent around last May, asking for innovative teaching proposals: I gather that you didn’t get many responses. In any event, here’s one I’ve been thinking about, though for a long time I wasn’t quite sure about how to put it into execution. Why not a film presentation of a great author’s critics at work? Since my specialty is the work of James Joyce, the 20th-century Irish writer, I’d like to go with that subject. Students really could benefit from a more intimate association with this important author, but Joyce’s writing is notoriously difficult for students to wade through. I’d like to grant my class a privileged access through actually viewing Joyce scholars presenting on the author and his texts—and I have a perfect opportunity to do just that at the Joyce Symposium in Miami this December. I do have some AV experience, and with the purchase of a handheld digital camera (about $500) and a conference package (roughly $700) I would come back with a two-hour DVD of Joycean scholarship that should be both dynamic and eminently instructive. I think you’ll agree that this defines the term “cutting edge” in teaching, but let me know what you think.

Thinking outside the box,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

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

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/10/06 Wed AM 08:27:17 EDT
To: <bwin@uallpeople.edu>
Subject: summer fellowships

To Bob Winters, Office of Summer Support:

I’m writing to you well in advance of the Summer Support deadline because I’d like to fly by you a rather novel proposal: to save time by conducting my summer research this winter in Miami (where it always feels like summer). In my case, I have a conference on James Joyce to attend this December, and if I wait till next June, I’ll miss the boat, so to speak. If you’re able to bend the rules slightly and permit this grant (around $700 will do), I promise not to apply for any Summer Support the next year—or the next three years, if you like.

Ingeniously,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

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

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/10/11 Mon AM 09:18:13 EDT
To: <pthrop@uallpeople.edu>
Subject: emergency relief

To Philip Thrope, Emergency Aid:

Normally I’m not the kind of individual who throws himself on the mercy of the university’s charity fund, but a sudden fire has absolutely gutted my house, and I NEED YOUR HELP NOW. I’m staying with a colleague of mine from the Modern Language department, but that’s only a short-term solution. Though I’ve put a down payment on a new place, the outlay has exhausted my funds, and in any event the place won’t be ready for occupancy until next year. And I have no place at all to stay during the December break. My tentative plans involve flying to Miami to stay with relatives, but this will cost me. Can you spare money from your relief fund for a tenure-track faculty member?

Abjectly,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

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

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/10/25 Mon AM 09:01:01 EDT
To: <engldept@listserv.uallpeople.edu>; <stdts@blackboard.uallpeople.edu>
Subject: book and bake sale

To All Faculty and Students:

To raise money for a conference trip to Miami, I’ll be holding a book and bake sale this weekend outside my office in 211 Hallford Hall. There’ll be a tempting array of cakes, pies and cookies (including killer brownies and a lemon pudding cake based on a recipe from Jane Austen). I’ll also be selling select volumes from my personal library, most untouched since graduate school days. I hope you’ll be able to attend.

From “Chef” George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

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

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Humanities Faculty For Hire!

I’m a little tired of hearing administrators claim that the low salaries of humanities faculty are a natural result of there being no competition for our services in the private sector. If that’s their sole argument for denying us fair wages, then I say we should make it work in our favor. According to their rationale, if we could simply prove that we are indeed desirable commodities beyond academia (as our colleagues in the business or law schools do), then we could also demand heftier salaries.

Well let’s finally set the record straight: We humanities folk actually do possess a number of highly marketable skills that have heretofore gone unnoticed and underappreciated by administrators, private-sector employers, and even ourselves. If we can successfully highlight these abilities more explicitly in our day to day working lives, our paychecks will soon inflate to reflect the true worth of our labors. Consider the following:

Lunchtime Banterer. Nobody I know in other colleges, in government labor, or within the corporate world, can match the wit, range, and profundity of the conversations that my colleagues and I put on display at the local taco shop each Tuesday between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Our elaborate exchanges are dense with both literary and pop allusions; devastating put-downs; cleverly layered inside jokes; self-deprecating, self-reflexive asides; impromptu philosophical rants; withering caricatures of foolish colleagues; and even ironic deconstructions of the very food before us. Only 10-plus years of intensive liberal arts training could forge the formidable verbal skills on display during these mealtime conferences.

I wonder how many corporate managers or governmental bureaucrats would pay generously to have just one of us present to enliven awkward luncheons, spice up deadly boardroom meetings, or elevate the rhetoric at boring staff retreats? All of them, I’m guessing; they just haven’t known (until now) where to find us. Two hundred dollars an hour (or perhaps $10 per clever comment) seems a fair price for our conversational skills.

(Disclaimer to potential employers beyond academia: There is a vaguely cynical, leftist slant to much of our banter that may not match the spirit of many business settings, most fraternal clubs, and any gathering where people are easily offended by detailed diatribes against the myriad evils of the Bush administration and/or corporate America in general. As long as that’s clear, I think we can move ahead with whatever plans you have in mind.)

Organizer of Arcane Information. Because I had almost complete control of my schedule during graduate school (and was eager to find ways to procrastinate working on my dissertation), I was able to spend copious amounts of time tracking down, organizing, and cataloguing an immense music CD collection. The size of the lot was matched by its eclecticism: zydeco, blues, medieval chant, grunge, Americana, be-bop jazz, Norwegian folk, etc. In order to keep track of these discs, I was forced to create elaborate systems for arranging them according to date, artist, genre, relative social significance, jewel-case condition, good to bad song ratios, and on and on. While my wife may have occasionally questioned (with some acute shortsightedness!) the value of time spent creating the intricate charts, databases, and filing systems necessary for this job, I could sense at the time that I was developing useful skills of a highly marketable nature. In fact, I feel vindicated now when I see the reactions of new friends when I first show them the sum results of my improvisational, clerical genius. Indeed, they can only goggle in amazed silence at the color-coded reams of data that I have amassed.

Let me assure potential employers that these skills have not abandoned me in subsequent, busier years; I have since applied them to corralling the contents of my massive iTunes library, to the maintainance of an elaborately rotating podcast collection, and to the sorting and indexing of old copies of The New Yorker that I have every intention of reading once the current semester comes to an end. Imagine the way that my creative, free-wheeling—but almost obsessively detailed—organizational style could shake up the filing system of the average moribund office! I may have to figure out a clever way to catalogue the flood of offers from the private sector that will soon be coming my way.

Hyper-Confident, Knee-Jerk Critic of All Things High and Low. For a number of years my family and close circle of friends have benefited from my cutting-edge, almost encyclopedic knowledge of all that’s hip in popular film, television, music, and literature. Thanks to me, they have been able to refine gradually their cultural tastes as I have peppered them continually with suggestions of what to watch, listen to, and read. I’ve also been able to give them detailed analyses of why their former (and often incorrigibly persistent) viewing and reading habits were lame, embarrassing, or otherwise uncool. My students have also benefited from these authoritative recommendations, dutifully reading (with only the occasional murmur) the great books and films that I assign to them semester after semester. (Let me clarify that I mean “great” in a hip, cultural studies sense—not the stuffy “Great Books” tradition.)

While I don’t want to deal with the hassle of actually having to become a newspaper critic (writing all those columns would be a pain), I do think that media companies would benefit from hiring me as a sort of highly-paid, free-lance consultant or “super-critic.” This is how it might work: they could simply run movie ideas, book synopses, TV show concepts, etc, past me, and my lightning quick approvals or dismissals could save them millions in wasted development costs. If the authority of my opinion alone is not enough, I could back it up (for an additional fee, of course) with some vague references to Campbellian, Freudian, or even Lacanian, theory.

Information Obfuscator. From what I can gather from watching television, there is a great demand in the private sector for people who can mess with information so that the truth is obfuscated; apparently there are all kinds of highly paid spin doctors, book-cookers, double-speakers, and manipulative adsmen out there. I’m a little hesistant, for ethical reasons, of course, to offer my services in these fields, but if that’s what it takes to convince administrators that we humanities folk are indeed valuable commodities, then I am willing to make those compromises for the greater good of our profession.

In practice, my academic writing is devoted to discovering and communicating complex, and sometimes painful and unpopular, truths about American cultural history. But in theory (and if the price were right), some of my academic writing skills could be harnessed to a magnificent manipulation of whatever facts a company or organization may be eager to warp or hide.

One possible strategy would be for me to simply apply postmodern theoretical jargon to whatever information I am to spin. But I am afraid that this would do my corporate employers little good since that rhetoric is associated with longstanding culture wars and thus may raise the ideological hackles of most mainstream, conservative readers.

More effective would be a writing style that is employed by a great number of both traditional and postmodern scholars: an excruciatingly pedantic mode that features roundabout, redundant, and repetitive overexplanations again and again; a multitude of unnecessary parenthetical asides (that while impressive in their complexity, are ultimately just showy, and superfluous adding little additional information that is useful to the reader); a slavish citing of myriad other and often better written -- texts to add heft to an argument (Prescott and James give an excellent elaboration on this concept in The Academic Writer, chapter 19); and an officious, patronizing manner of diction that happens, somehow, to be simultaneously overwrought and dull.

This brand of writing would be ideal for all types of corporate or governmental documents in which you don’t want to technically lie, but that you hope will be so mind-numbingly dense and ponderous that no one will actually be able to read it all the way through (a press release about disappointing quarterly earnings, for example).

Marxist Turncoat. As long as I’m willing to put a price on my what I will write for the private sector, I might as well put my ideological and theoretical convictions up for sale as well. My particular graduate school training immersed me in a variety of Marxist theories that were designed to question and undermine the power of capitalist, corporate, and consumer cultures in peoples’ lives. For a healthy price, I would be willing to defect from this camp and bring with me valuable information that would help corporations do an even better job at manipulating consumers and opiating workers. For example, I could offer corporate seminars on the following topics:

“Coopting and Flattening Vibrant Ethnic Subcultures for Fun and Profit”

“Using Subversive Anti-Spectacles to make your Mainstream Spectacle even more mind-numbingly Spectacular”

“Brie and Baguettes for the Nouveau Riche Buffoons: Exploiting American Consumers’ Class Anxieties”

“iPods for the podpeople: Seven New Opiates for Highly Effective Media Capitalists”

There are lots more where those came from.

Some Conclusions (to be read only by my peers in the humanities): The nice thing about the strategy that I have outlined here is that none of us will ever have to actually do any of these jobs (other than a few sacrificial lambs, of course, whose showy departures from the academy will add some necessary bite to our threats). Our goal, as I’m sure you will agree, is not to actually leave the university for corporate or governmental jobs (let’s be honest, most of us would be hopeless in holding down a traditional 9 to 5 grind), but simply to give administrators the impression that we could leave and that if we did leave, we’d be earning a heck of a lot more than we are now.

So get out there and trumpet our unique and valuable skills. And let’s be stalwart in our efforts, for there will be some awkward moments ahead for example, having to say no to lucrative corporate jobs after executives spend a great deal of resources courting us, or being forced to play hard ball in financial negotiations with stubbornly resistant administrators. But the end results will be incredible: greater respect on campus and in our communities; healthier egos; fewer debilitating panic attacks, or chronic depression about immense student loan debt; and paychecks (potentially) in the upper five digits! Best of luck, comrades, er, I mean valued corporate citizens, in the months ahead.

Author/s: 
Kerry Soper
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Kerry D. Soper is an associate professor of humanities at Brigham Young University.

Conference Confidential

As academics eagerly scan the latest listings for conferences to attend, this season’s offerings promise a bumper crop of something for everyone: a chance to share one’s findings on missing commas in Madame Bovary at the Annual Meeting of the Flaubert Society of America, for example, present a paper on the vibrational frequencies of wind chimes at the High Energy Physics Colloquium in Berne, or just get the hell away from campus for a while.

For those of us at U. of All People, located in the depressed region of a state shaped like a bent potato, conferences present an opportunity to travel, to stay in a hotel room by oneself and enjoy a meal out that’s not at Taco Bell or Burger King. Of course, conferences are also occasions to exchange scholarly ideas and see far-flung colleagues we may have not slept with or even encountered for years. In short, we’re the same as academics everywhere. And here are some of our choices for the coming months:

January 4-5, 2008: Seventh Annual Conference on Cold Fusion in Salt Lake City, Utah. This year’s conference is titled “Harnessing the Power of Water in a Glass.” Sample topics include “Can Cold Fusion Solve Global Warming?” and “How to Procure a Grant without Straining Credibility.” Abstracts required; research highly suggested. Guest speaker: the Energy Czar.

*

January 19-20, 2008: Inaugural meeting of the Arnold Frisk Memorial Society, a group devoted to preserving the memory of this prolific but unjustly forgotten author ( The Question of Whom, Writhe and Shine, A Sonneteer’s Diary). The meeting will take place at the Smithlawn Sanatorium in Bearville, Minn., where Frisk ended his days, surrounded by 70 unfinished manuscripts.

*

February 1-?, 2008: Conference in Belize, subject yet to be determined, but what the hell, it’s Belize in the winter. Possible topics: something on pedagogy, maybe something in the humanities, or even better, the intersection of the humanities and the sciences because that brings in a lot more people.

*

February 14, 2008: History Is Bunk: the one-day convocation of the D.H.T.A., Disgruntled History Teachers of America. 120 Main Street; Centerville, Anystate, U.S.A. Half scholarly presentations, half gripe session, this gathering is for those brave souls in the front of the classroom tired of teaching deadheads what happened in 1812. New addition: spousal support group and Valentine’s Day Party in Room 420 of the Holiday Inn.

*

March 7-9, 2008: Esperanto (Sigh) Again. Overly optimistic linguists and language teachers of all persuasions gather in Tijuana to promote the hopeless cause of this doomed but eminently practical means of communication. Special guest speaker: an actor channeling the spirit of language reformer George Bernard Shaw.

*

April 3-5, 2008: Sudoku R Us: Mathematics and Pedagogy for the 21st Century. Takes place on the campus of S.I.T. (Slobovian Institute of Technology) in upstate New York. Three days of workshops, lectures, and pure darn fun! Difficulty level: easy. Door prize for best mathematical costume at the Puzzlers’ Ball.

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May 1-3, 2008: Conference on Conferences. Takes place in a large upscale chain hotel in a major city. Papers may range from the art of scheduling events to the provocative topic “When Is a Session a Session and Not a Panel or a Forum?” Please indicate on entry form whether you’d like to be a moderator, a contributor, or that rarest of attendees, just an audience member.

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

David Galef is a professor of English and former administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

A Guide for Consumers of Theology

Our recent annual “America’s Best Churches” issue drew more than the usual deluge of reader and parishioner complaints. Hence it behooves me as editor of U.S. News & World Report to again offer a public explanation of our much-misunderstood church rankings methodology.

In thanking those who took the time to write, I would remind all in the community of believers that our rankings are intended as a public service to aid spiritual consumers in making one of life’s highest-impact personal choices. We claim no infallibility in our rankings. We strive to provide accurate, user-friendly data to allow seekers of quality worship to do their homework and grasp truth with full confidence that they are comparing apples to apples. Yes, we visibly spread the word about the handiness of our shopper’s tool, but we can’t be held responsible if certain churches choose, for example, to display, as a recruiting come-on, their U.S. News ranking on a banner atop their steeple.

We reject the assertion that church reputations are made or broken based on tables published once a year in our magazine. Nor do we find any signs that “America’s Best Churches” encourages a “one-size-fits-all” path to the mountaintop. Frankly, any American who would build an entire cosmological belief system on a two-or-three-point rise in a church’s year-to-year U.S. News ranking should probably stop, take a deep breath and meditate a bit on values, personal style, and the theistic limits of magazine journalism.

As proof of our good faith, we have always been willing to consider critiques of our research metrics and make warranted adjustments in our process for arriving at the rankings. That is why we have urged restraint upon those outspoken theologians who in recent months have been encouraging church ministers to boycott our informational surveys: A boycott will only make it more difficult for our researchers to compile a full portrait of America’s religious marketplace and present all good-faith competitors on a level laying field.

Neither our openness to methodological challenges nor our efforts to keep our influence in perspective, however, should be taken as a sign that houses of worship shouldn’t continue to seek ways to improve. Indeed, many of our reader complaints stem from feelings among congregants that our surveys failed to capture such measurable steps forward as energy-efficient stained-glass windows, form-fitting cushioned pews, and imported communion wine.

Some critics charge that our emphasis on counting average Sunday service attendance unfairly favors urban congregations over rural ones. But in recent years we have refined the formula for balancing the actual turnout with the local population’s potential. And we’ve enhanced accuracy by verifying the numbers reported by church secretaries with spot-checking through on-site visits by independent observers.

As “America’s Best Churches” has evolved over the past decade, we have adopted recommendations from our “loving critics” that we loosen some of the criteria that give higher rankings to the more doctrinaire denominations. We trust that this year’s methodology no longer penalizes parishes that favor folk masses or Christian rock over traditional organ music.

Our much-maligned “enforcement of dogma” measurement, which detractors complain is biased against Unitarians and favors Catholics and evangelicals, continues to prompt soul-searching among our nonsectarian team of clerical advisers. Suggestions for further improvements are welcome.

Matters of faith are -- don’t we know it -- highly subjective. The only dogma we maintain at U.S. News is a staffwide conviction that theology consumers who’re feeling their way to divinity should not be left to approach the deity without an up-to-date and well-packaged scorecard.

One admittedly self-interested point: It is true that “America’s Best Churches” has become one of our brand name’s top publishing successes. But as a private corporation, we don’t consider that a reason to do penance. We are hard at work on the first edition of “America’s Best Mosques and Temples.” We think you’ll find it enlightening.

Author/s: 
Charlie Clark
Author's email: 
doug.lederman@insidehighered.com

Charlie Clark is senior editor and director of press relations at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

The Zen of Fenton

At U of All People, Dr. Henry Fenton rose from humble instructor to professor of sociology, then to dean of liberal arts and finally to assistant provost, before retiring. Somewhere in the late '80s, he converted to Buddhism, noting that all higher education was an illusion. His style of administration exuded great calm and judgment and was admired by all except the faculty, the staff and the students. A cardboard plaque outside his former office, paid for by anonymous sources, reads “Zen and Now.”

Many on campus who knew the doctor cherish a signal event that touched them, such as the Writing of the Great Memo, which stretched from 1995 to 1999, or the Task Force of Enlightenment, which concluded that all the issues on its agenda would take ten thousand lifetimes to fix. Others recall the doctor’s dung-colored robe that was given to him by a visiting dean from Tibet, or the "Out" box on Fenton’s desk marked “satori” that was always, miraculously, empty. “Existence is suffering,” he would often intone, “but at least we’re better off than at a state university.” Even those who didn’t care for Dr. Fenton’s ways believe that he raised the art of administration to such heights, it appeared as if he were doing nothing at all.

Once, when inaugurating the construction of a new parking lot by symbolically wielding the first shovelful of dirt, he was asked by a lowly assistant professor, “Tell me, Dr. Fenton, how do you know where to start?”

The doctor scratched his head, looked into the middle distance, and smiled. “Any place where more parking is created will be welcome,” he replied. And with that, he heaved a clod of dirt into the assistant professor’s open briefcase. The assistant professor did not receive tenure, but the parking lot, now named the Henry Fenton Lot of Plenty, is revered by all who park there.

The following are some of Dr. Fenton’s more famous administrative maxims:

What is the sound of a committee with no one serving on it?

Start a study before there’s anything to look at.

Email circles endlessly in the ether.

Tenure cannot outlast death.

Before a meeting of the minds, one must have many prior meetings.

Every spring, the students return to Cancun.

Listen for the session inside the intersession: it is the sound of money.

While the faculty sleep, the pink butterfly wins the grant.

All budgets are an illusion.

To administer from home: this is contentment.

If we do not give ourselves raises, who will?

Walking along the path of rightness, here comes the provost.

Every graduation, the quad needs re-sodding.

The building of buildings acquires greater merit than the increase of faculty salaries.

Graduation is the beginning of all fund raising.

New curricula, new problems.

We are all disciples of the chancellor.

Academic scandals pass, and new ones take their place.

The wisdom of Miyazaki-sensei is useless unless he publishes his research.

Dean Ueda finally hung up on the irate alumna. The silence filled his office like a balm of nectar.

The Dean of Student Affairs is not what you think.

One foot in administration is two feet inside.

The art of saying no also involves saying yes and maybe.

The university is a universe unless it loses its accreditation.

Even a large donation cannot buy happiness. It can, however, purchase a new athletic facility.

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

David Galef is a professor of English and former administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Study Abroad -- with Us!

At U of All People, we know a good thing when we smell it, and for a while we’ve envied other schools with lucrative foreign study programs in Paris and London so that students can learn French and English -- whereas all we have is a short-term exchange with the School of Applied Mechanics in Dumsk.

We’d like to change all that now, after hiring a new dean of liberal arts whose idea of travel stretches beyond Chicago, but apparently study abroad programs have grown so common, not to mention lucrative, that they poach students from each other. Got $7,500 to plunk down for a three-week biology course in the Galapagos (does not include cruise stateroom and snorkeling fees)? If so, we want your business and are willing to fight for it. Here’s what we’re prepared to offer:

Tired of being shut in seminar rooms for half the day while outside lies all of Seville, honking its horns? Try our open-air classes, which can take place anywhere from the top of a double-decker bus to a row of spread blankets on the beach. Catch a wave, check out that cute señorita, and discover the meaning of serendipitous learning!

Three months just to learn Italian verbs? Dud-io, get real! At U of All People, we understand that speaking a foreign language isn’t just about vocabulary but about absorbing the syntax of the culture. We offer restaurant Italian, club-hopping Italian, intimate Italian, and more! Let’s face it: do you want to know how to conjugate andare, or have a really good handle on the difference between spumante and gelato?

“All the comforts of home” may be a cliché, but it’s one we subscribe to. And that means we guarantee you dorm-style rooms wherever you go, special pizza and burger cafés, laptops and cell phones always available, and multiple ATM’s in every location. Got a craving for that favorite form of caffeine buzz back in the States? Our 24-hour courier service can obtain it for you at surprisingly unreasonable rates.

Scared of the tough Parisian prof who speaks an incomprehensible urban patois in between drags on his Gauloise? Worried about the grades you might get away from your coddling home institution? We’ve solved that problem by using hand-picked faculty from U of All People, professors just dying to go to overseas and therefore willing to jettison all professional standards. Check out teachers like “Doc” Munsey, the lit prof whose motto is “ A all the Way, from Paris to Calais!”

And speaking of courses, we’re creative in that area, too! We offer classes that are stimulating without being too consuming, enabling you to devote quality (and quantity) time to what really counts: checking out the action in the local bars. Here are some sample offerings for our upcoming spring semester in Prague: Shakespeare in Slavic Films, An Introduction to the Museums in Prague, and Emergency Czech.

If you (or your parents funding this boondoggle) still need more convincing, here are some more incentives:

  • Bad ear for languages? Nyet problema: in English, no problem! Many of our courses demand no contact with the natives, who hate America anyway, and for an additional fee, you can be accompanied by an interpreter wherever you travel.
  • Strapped for time? We offer terms as short as ten days—no, a week—no, three days—for those who have to get back to the States for that all-important frat party or charity fun race. You can learn a lot in a short space, especially if you don’t sleep.
  • Skirting academic failure and just want some time away? Our not-so-stringent requirements will make you smile, starting at a 2.0 GPA and only 10 credits already under your belt.
  • As for money, all tuition and fees may be paid on an equity basis to be arranged between you and your mortgage lender. We’re currently working on an indentured servant contract as an alternate route to payment.

So don’t delay -- check out what’s happening at U of All People Abroad today! Our new motto is “Going global!” and it’ll be true as soon as soon as we can work out those pesky visa arrangements.

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

David Galef is a professor of English in transition from the University of Mississippi to Montclair State University. His latest book is A Man of Ideas and Other Stories.

Graduation, Kotzebue, 2008

Faculty, community members, students and families arrived by snow machine, plane, or dog sled, or walked across frozen seas from surrounding villages. This is graduation in the Arctic at Chukchi campus, the northernmost branch in the University of Alaska System. Today, at commencement, it is a sunny and crisp 33 degrees. Younger residents don T-shirts and shorts.

Chukchi is situated in a place unimagined by most in higher education. The college, in Kotzebue, a settlement of 3,000 people, clings stubbornly to a gravel outcrop on the edge of the Chukchi Sea, where flat snow-covered tundra meets icy waters. Kotzebue is accessible by boat or air during three summer months; and by air, snow machine and sled in the winter.

Residents, students, and faculty live peacefully without ordinary facilities such as a dry cleaner, saloons, discos, or a car dealership. There are more snow machines and dogs than cars in Kotzebue. The town includes an airstrip for bush pilots. People headed to the landfill must pause for incoming and outgoing planes the way most students in America pause at a stop sign, looking for approaching vehicles. An itinerant hairdresser visits once each month and folks desiring a haircut schedule appointments. Only in late June and July are seagoing barges able to deliver gasoline. The price per gallon, nearly $6, remains until gas is delivered again this summer. Gas prices are expected to jump several dollars this July.

Life’s daily rituals and conveniences are all more extreme in the Arctic.

Kotzebue was founded in the late 1800s by the German Lt. Otto Von Kotzebue, sailing under the Russian flag. For 600 years the Inupiat Native occupied the area, trading ivory, baleen, various skins, wool, beads, bone tools and baskets with interior Natives and ocean visitors. As Russian traders and New England whalers introduced alcohol, firearms and disease during the 18th and 19th centuries, culture and commerce took a different turn.

Well-meaning missionaries, who endeavored to convince the “heathen” they were devil worshippers, also arrived. One legacy of exploration in the Arctic is, sadly, reflected in low rates of educational achievement for young men, and high rates of suicide, substance abuse and domestic violence, all problems that have been acknowledged by the elders and Alaska native leaders.

Graduation and commencement are celebratory as they are throughout the United States. There is great pride in finishing degrees. Chukchi campus also serves villages in the surrounding areas, through distance education programs. Students earn associate degrees, bachelor's and master's degrees.

The University of Alaska system is one of the few institutions that reaches inhabitants in rural and remote regions of the Arctic. UA scholars also engage in high-quality research on climate change, sustainable energy sources, high-latitude agriculture and in many other fields. On this day there are 20 hours of sunlight. Soon the sun will stay above the horizon for nearly a month; a far cry from winter, where, for a month or so, the suns rays rarely break the horizon, darkness prevails and temperatures sometimes drop to 100 degrees below zero. Residents are primarily Inupiat, joined by people of Asian, Siberian Yupik and Caucasian descent. Many are presently hunting waterfowl, seals and whales. For commencement, we are welcomed with muktuk, a specially cut section of whale blubber and skin -- a prized delicacy here.

On the graduation platform, as caribou meander outside, each graduate tells a story, each becoming a commencement speaker. Some depict amazing journeys through time and distance. Words are also spoken by students born into a U.S. territory, prior to Alaska statehood in 1959. There are palpable signs of relief and joy about obtaining degrees, even as the changing physical environment forebodes a warning more immediate than the tight job market.

Polar bears are moving south and inland in search of food, one apparent result of the shrinking sea ice. Tell the whale and walrus hunter that global warming is untrue or overstated and risk a reaction of confused or mournful anger. In the Arctic, the debate on climate change loses its polemical steam. Seas are opening, temperatures are rising, glaciers are retreating, villages and languages are disappearing. Whether present conditions result from anthropogenic influences, or Earth’s natural cycles, is of little consequence.

The graduation story at Chukchi is similar to what has occurred in America over the last 250 years. Alaska is the newest end point of an engaging American story. After all, Philadelphia, Boston and New York, like Kotzebue, were wilderness towns, claimed for their economic potential by European monarchs and the Dutch West India Company, the first multinational corporation. Resources were taken out of Colonial America; public policy was dictated by powerful external corporate entities.

The history of the U.S., like Alaska, has been a triumph of local control and self rule over benevolent outsiders. People came to Alaska to be free, to escape prejudice and conformity, to transcend the icy stares of those who admonish us to fit in and lament our lack of qualifications to do so. Others were brought as slaves. Indigenous peoples suffered tragically as history repeats itself.

Alaska today remains a place where dreams are made through hard work and second chances. Kotzebue itself is a town that encourages people to start anew, to conquer adversity, and to strike out in ways not normally accepted.

Which brings me to my topic this commencement; the triumph of the human spirit in extreme places. Extremes nourish the creative spirit. Indeed, extremes on the frontier underpin the most essential traits in the American character: restless inquisitiveness, exuberant confidence, a masterful grasp of the practical, pragmatism, an acute sense of destiny.

Through adaptation and resilience, we overcome personal and physical challenges. We change the future by changing ourselves in the present. An extreme place is the common denominator. Inevitably extreme places sustain different life styles, new businesses and ideas. Alaska is a creative place. I am certain this trait is linked to a highly competitive environment where life’s essentials, shelter, food and community are hard won and cannot be taken for granted.

Commencement at Chukchi represents the possibility of a new beginning. Life can be lonely and harsh, but it is precisely the juxtaposition of challenge, opportunity and freedom that draws us here. In extreme situations can we learn to live in harmony or test our potential as human beings.

Author/s: 
Daniel Julius
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Daniel J. Julius is vice president for academic affairs for the University of Alaska System of Higher Education.

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