It was a typical 1970s weekday evening. The sky was growing dark and I, an elementary school student, was sitting at the kitchen table of a modest North Jersey cape cod putting the finishing touches on the day’s homework. The back door opened -- a telltale sign that my father was home from work. As he did every day, Dad stopped in the laundry room to take off his muddied work boots. As usual, he was tired. He could have been covered with any number of substances, from dirt to paint to dried spackle. His hands were rough and gnarled. I kissed him hello, he went to the bathroom to “wash up,” and my family sat down to eat dinner.
I always knew how hard my father worked each day in his job as a general contractor. When I got older I spent summers working with him. I learned the virtues of this kind of working class life, but I also experienced the drudgery that came with laying concrete footings or loading a dumpster with refuse. I worked enough with my father to know that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. Though he never told me so, I am sure that Dad probably didn't want that for me, either.
I eventually became only the second person in my extended family to receive a college degree. I went on to earn a Ph.D. (a “post-hole digger” to my relatives) in history and settled into an academic life. As I enter my post-tenure years, I am grateful for what I learned from my upbringing and for the academic vocation I now pursue. My gratitude inevitably stems from my life story. The lives that my parents and brothers (one is a general contract and the other is a plumber) lead are daily reminders of my roots.
It is not easy being a college professor from a working-class family. Over the years I have had to explain the geographic mobility that comes with an academic life. I have had to invent creative ways to make my research understandable to aunts and uncles. My parents read my scholarly articles, but rarely finish them. My father is amazed that some semesters I go into the office only three days a week. As I write this I am coming off of my first sabbatical from teaching. My family never quite fathomed what I possibly did with so much time off. (My father made sense of it all by offering to help me remodel my home office, for which I am thankful!) “You have the life,” my brother tells me. How can I disagree with him?
Gratitude is a virtue that is hard to find in the modern academy, even at Thanksgiving time. In my field of American history, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to set the record straight, usually in op-ed pieces, about what really happened in autumn 1621. (I know because I have done it myself!). Granted, as public intellectuals we do have a responsibility to debunk the popular myths that often pass for history, but I wonder why we can’t also use the holiday, as contrived and invented and nostalgic and misunderstood as it is, to stop and be grateful for the academic lives we get to lead.
Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to do this. We get a Thursday off from work to take a few moments to reflect on our lives. And since so many academics despise the shopping orgy known as “Black Friday,” the day following Thanksgiving presents a wonderful opportunity to not only reject consumer self-gratification, but practice a virtue that requires us to forget ourselves.
I am not sure why we are such an unthankful bunch. When we stop and think about it we enjoy a very good life. I can reference the usual perks of the job -- summer vacation, the freedom to make one’s own schedule, a relatively small amount of teaching (even those with the dreaded 4-4 load are in the classroom less than the normal high school teacher). Though we complain about students, we often fail to remember that our teaching, when we do it well, makes a contribution to society that usually extends far beyond the dozens of people who have read our recent monograph. And speaking of scholarship, academics get paid to spend a good portion of their time devoted to the world of ideas. No gnarled hands here.
Inside Higher Ed recently reported that seventy-eight percent of all American professors express “overall job satisfaction.” Yet we remain cranky. As Immanuel Kant put it, “ingratitude is the essence of vileness.” I cannot tell you how many times I have wandered into a colleague’s office to whine about all the work my college expects of me.
Most college and university professors live in a constant state of discontentment, looking for the fast track to a better job and making excuses as to why they have not landed one yet. Academia can be a cutthroat and shallow place to spend one’s life. We are too often judged by what is written on our conference name badges. We say things about people behind their backs that we would never say to their faces. We become masters of self-promotion. To exhibit gratefulness in this kind of a world is countercultural.
The practice of gratitude may not change our professional guilds, but it will certainly relieve us of our narcissism long enough to realize that all of us are dependent people. Our scholarship rests upon the work of those scholars that we hope to expand upon or dismantle. Our careers are made by the generosity of article and book referees, grant reviewers, search committees, and tenure committees. We can all name teachers and mentors who took the time to encourage us, offer advice, and write us letters. Gratitude may even do wonders for our mental health. Studies have shown that grateful people are usually less stressed, anxious, and depressed.
This Thanksgiving take some time to express gratitude. In a recent study the Harvard University sociologist Neil Gross concluded that more college and university professors believe in God than most academics ever realized. If this is true, then for some of us gratitude might come in the form of a prayer. For others it may be a handwritten note of appreciation to a senior scholar whom we normally contact only when we need a letter of recommendation. Or, as the semester closes, it might be a kind word to a student whose academic performance and earnest pursuit of the subject at hand has enriched our classroom or our intellectual life. Or perhaps a word of thanks to the secretary or assistant who makes our academic life a whole lot easier.
As the German theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, “gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”
John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College, in Grantham, Pa. He is the author of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).
As a disaffected administrator at U of All People once put it, though the school endowment is not insignificant, it’s not particularly significant, either.
During the current economic meltdown, our stock portfolio has more than doubled its worthlessness. To add annoyance to injury, our neighboring institution, Hoo U, last year celebrated its half-centennial and came away from the event with $40 million in individual and corporate donations, and then, in historic tradition, toilet-papered our quad with rolls of Monopoly money.
But it remains a fact that Hoo U now has the wealth to pay for new buildings, the newest in sports team training, and even a small raise in faculty salaries. Why can’t we do better? This state of affairs is particularly embarrassing when you consider that our university lacks the proper sanitary facilities in Fine Arts Hall, or, as the building superintendent put it, “We haven’t got a pot to pee in.”
Though this is an unfair overstatement (the restroom in question has simply been out of order since 2002), the resulting public relations flap did ruffle the administration. The response was the hastily assembled Campus Fundraising Committee (no catchier acronyms were currently available) to address the matter. Chaired by Professor Freddie Mack from the economics department, the CFC is responsible for coming up with innovative ways to generate funds. Here are their ideas, ranked, as requested by the provost, from semi-plausible to desperate:
Tapping the alumni/ae mailing list: Previous attempts to bleed our graduates have resulted in an unimpressive 2 percent rate of response, but this time, instead of snail mail, we intend to make innovative use of the Web for an irresistible appeal. At this very moment, our Computer Science department is figuring out how to enclose a virtual U of All People key chain with every e-mail.
A black-tie dinner to attract well-heeled potential donors: not like last year’s attempt. This time we intend to hire a real chef rather than relying on Food Services; we’ll be featuring a few genuine celebrities as bait and not those tacky cardboard cut-outs; and we’ll even hire an after-dinner speaker, not the Dean of Liberal Arts’ brother-in-law practicing his stand-up comic routine.
Odd-year anniversary: Why wait 61 more years for our centennial? Our PR consultant has advised us that the demographics are with us, and a “Doing Fine at Thirty-Nine” anniversary is just the ticket. Our “Pushing Forty” campaign, sponsored by Rogaine and Retin-A, is a cause that our ‘90s grads can all get behind.
The Mother of All Bake Sales: A humble method to raise cash for a school trip or a special charity, this checkered tablecloth event has been rethought on a grand scale. Sure, it’ll feature those over-seeded granola bars and brownies from a mix, and of course Rice Krispies treats, but we’ll also have stale pound cake and unidentifiable-flavor cookies. Our Family Studies and Consumer Sciences program is prepared to crank out the stuff from its test ovens all winter. To surmount the usual difficulties in selling these goodies, we’re requiring a purchase from everyone entering the campus gates during the next fiscal year. And yes, we’ll cheerfully accept student debit cards.
The Human Race: It’s not a Race for the Cure or even a race for the finish line, but rather an inclusive effort that involves everyone. If you’re human, you’re a part of our race, and that means please pony up $15, every one of you. Our lawyers are prepared to argue our case. After all, our school isn’t named U of All People for nothing!
Disclaimer: David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
In the early years at U of All People, we simply recruited people to teach -- sometimes from the old bus depot -- and put them in the classroom the next week. The results were mixed but rarely dull. We gave tenure to anyone who coughed in the right direction. Beginning in the late ‘70s, when the number of qualified applicants for all available academic jobs began to achieve a 100 to 1 ratio, we even managed to hire some real professors. You might call those the Golden Years, especially since many of those teachers are now Golden Agers.
But lately, we’ve been urged by the administration to emphasize the process of teaching, maybe because of the realization that we’ll never be a qualified research institution. Of course, you can’t have high quality teaching without research on the subject, and though our School of Ed lost its accreditation years ago, this is just the encouragement it needed. With a seed grant, a half-line faculty hire, and the donation of an unused office in the old gym, we now have an Institute for Pedagogy. It’s already begun forming committees, offering informational seminars, and sending out 100 MB of e-mail weekly: just the sort of activities that make our administration happy. Below is a sampler from the Institute’s calendar for February:
February 1, noon: Brown-Bag Lunch Symposium on Profound Learning, Old Gym, Room12. Annoyed that your students learn facts for the midterm but then forget them by the week after? Find out how you can instill knowledge in your students’ brains that they’ll retain forever! Professor Ben Dover from Southwest Sideways U, a specialist in teaching the process of teaching process, will explain a few techniques that have worked for him and a like-minded colleague.
February 3, 5:00 p.m.: “Teaching as a Profession, Teaching as an Avocation, Teaching as a Calling,” a lecture in Old Gym, Room12. Professor C. D. Light from the Department of Religion will describe how he has always felt chosen to educate, from an incident that occurred in his youth. Participants are invited to share their own stories.
February 8, 7:30 a.m.: Coffee and doughnuts for the faculty in Old Gym, Room 12, as we discuss the challenges of how to reach late adolescents during those tough morning classes. RSVP at <firstname.lastname@example.org> so we know how many crullers to pick up.
February 11, 8:00 p.m.: “What We Teach About When We Teach Teaching,” Old Gym auditorium. A panel of professors from our former School of Ed will be discussing the goals and objectives of prioritizing the aims of education in order to teach more effectively. Discussed will be directives, approaches, aims, guidelines, and other circumlocutions.
February 13, 3:00 p.m.: “Teaching as a Profession, Teaching as an Avocation, Teaching as a Calling,” a repeat of Professor C. D. Light’s talk for those who missed it. Old Gym, Room 12.
February 15, 2:00 a.m.: special meeting offered by the vice provost on the issue of teachers’ salaries. Location TBA.
February 23, 7:00 p.m. 'til-?: “Teachers in the Movies” night, Old Gym auditorium. Marathon showing of "Dead Poets’ Society," "Stand and Deliver," "Mr. Holland’s Opus," and other heartwarming films calculated to make you forget all your professional grievances.
February 28: Costume Night: Dress up as your favorite educator and surprise your class. Academic regalia from last year’s graduation available for rental at the Student Union.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
Professor I. M. Sari, a senior sociologist at U of All People, has recently published a study of administrators in higher education, a somewhat baffling enterprise for a researcher who claimed in his two-year grant from the Farquhar Foundation that he’d be addressing the effects of group dynamics in urban crowds. The Dean of Humanities is currently looking into whether Professor Sari can be penalized for blatantly disregarding the terms of his four-paragraph grant proposal back in 2006.
Meanwhile, what Sari has produced, in his recent article in Sociology: Not So Hard Science, is a detailed taxonomy of types, from chancellor to assistant chair. Below are some of his categories.
The Pushover: Usually occupying a lower rank, Pushovers will grant almost anything anytime, from extra travel funds to sabbatical requests, whether or not they have the authority to do so. Pushovers have an intense desire to be liked, and are popular until the faculty figures out what little power they have, after which they are routinely ignored in favor of more efficacious administrators.
The Naysayer: Occupying any level, the Naysayer is the opposite of the Pushover, categorically denying all requests on the assumption that faculty beg only for frivolous items and are not to be trusted. Naysayers tend to relish their negative roles, for which most faculty see them as having almost unlimited power, another benefit of refusing that third request for an office chair to go with the desk.
The Underling: Also known as toadies, Underlings are always deferring to the person who got them into office, usually a provost or, in the case of an Underling Provost, a Chancellor or President. As deans or chairs, Underlings may even be people of high integrity -- except when it comes to voting on that referendum against the president’s pet building project, at which point they become oddly silent.
The Quid Pro Quo Type: Usually at the level of a chair or dean, the Quid Pro Quo Type embodies the Latin phrase “what for what.” In return for a new office allocation, for example, the Quid Pro Quo Type may stipulate that the faculty member teach a section of Bio 101, or trade a new computer for extra committee work. Also known as wheeler-dealers, Quid Pro Quo Types pride themselves on their so-called fairness.
The Academic Turned Administrator: These types publicly feel for the faculty, continually reminding everyone that they, too, were once academics. They claim to anyone who’ll listen that they long for a return to teaching and research, until someone calls their bluff, remembering what lousy teachers they were and how little they published.
The Mother of All Administrators: Usually a woman but not always, the Mother of All Administrators is not necessarily the mightiest dean but rather a maternal presence who nurtures the faculty, sometimes in embarrassing ways. How else to explain the matching pen and pencil sets for all faculty in the political science department?
The Business Model: Perpetually talking about the bottom line, Business Model types hew strictly to economics, whether the topic is class size or parking. “Cost efficient” is their mantra -- until it’s time to talk about their $200,000 salary.
The Paper Pusher: a charmingly antique term, dating from the days before e-mail and texting, when faculty mailboxes would be clogged with flyers about arcane lectures and insurance benefit reminders. Nowadays, the Paper Pusher has morphed into a large-scale electronic disseminator, issuing everything from listserv memos to giant PDF’s that require five minutes to download.
The Philosopher King: originally a term from Plato’s Republic, the Philosopher King is an intelligent person who does not wish to serve but does so anyway out of a misguided sense of duty. Disliking responsibility, Philosophers rule with a light hand, unless they find that they start to like the job, at which point they become tyrants.
The Resourceful Type: This species, able to propose a workable agenda, cohere a divided department, or run a smooth meeting, operates both upfront and behind the scenes for the betterment of almost everyone, yet manages to preserve integrity and respect. Unfortunately, the last sighting of the Resourceful Type was spotted at U of All People in 1955 and is now thought to be extinct.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
Instructor: Melanie Moody Course: English 102, section 17 (Introduction to Literature), 12/1/08, T 2:30 - 3:45. Observer: Prof. James Aaronson, English Department, U of All People
The first thing one notices about Melanie Moody’s class is that she has no students. Melanie refuses to be rattled by this lack, glancing over the text and pretending to take attendance. After that, she files her nails and avoids making eye contact with me. By 2:45, two students show up. Melanie starts the lesson, which is to go over the assigned reading for that day, Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Parenthetical: I have never encountered an introductory literature class that doesn’t use this text. What Melanie has to say about the story is useful enough, though it sounds suspiciously as if she’s just reading from the Norton preface, and in fact a later check confirms this.
After a few minutes’ worth, she stops to ask one of the students what he thinks. It turns out that he hasn’t done the reading. Neither has the other student. Both of them -- I don’t know why I include this detail -- are wearing backwards plaid baseball caps.
“All right,” Melanie enunciates slowly, as if talking to a student in our special English 001 class, “then let’s read it together, right now.”
Neither student has remembered to bring the textbook to class.
At this, Melanie leaves her perch on the desk and comes over to where the students are slouching in their desk-chairs. She thrusts her copy of the book at them and commands them to read.
What follows is one of the worst renditions of prose I’ve ever heard, and I’ve sat through plenty in my time. I’ve never heard elephant pronounced with seven syllables, and how can one stumble over a word like bamboo? But Melanie has them take turns, surreptitiously giving the lengthier passages to the marginally better reader.
Though the story is only a few pages, Melanie gives up after ten minutes, at the point in the conversation where the girl says to the American, “Would you please please please please please please stop talking?” How well I remember that line.
Melanie takes back her book and returns to her desk. She starts asking questions about the relationship between the man and the woman in the story.
She gets no response.
One of the students leaves the room, ostensibly to go to the bathroom. He doesn’t return.
Melanie starts to ask herself leading questions about the story, parading about the tangle of desk-chairs and making up responses in what she probably imagines is a Hemingwayesque voice. A good teacher is an active presence in the classroom. Melanie’s imitation of swigging a glass of beer is a sight to behold.
The remaining student sits up and looks at her. She quickly asks him a question about the story, about what the matter with the woman is, and he shrugs.
She shrugs back, smiles sympathetically, and dismisses the class.
Summary evaluation: Despite a few missteps, Melanie Moody maintains a professional demeanor in the classroom and is to be encouraged. Given the level of our students and the rates we pay adjuncts, we’re not likely to get a replacement.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
As a graduating senior, I’ve thought about what I would like to hear while sitting under the Southern California sun waiting to receive my diploma, and have debated some pros and cons with my friends. Though we each have our own ideas, most agree there is a certain structure to an excellent commencement speech, which conforms to the following guidelines.
1. Know where you are and how to pronounce the college’s name.
A firm knowledge of the institution shows respect for everyone you are addressing. At my brother’s graduation from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., the graduation speaker consistently mispronounced the college’s name (it’s Will-am-ett, not Will-a-met-ee) even after grumbles and giggles from the audience and several corrections from students.
2. Engage your audience in a story.
Every grown-up child still loves a good story. Keep it relevant to the message you are trying to convey and make sure it doesn’t put us to sleep.
3. Make that story memorable.
Speeches are remembered for three reasons: the speaker who gave it, how they gave it, and what they said. While all three are important, you can make up for not having the first two by making what you say interesting and engaging.
4. Know your audience.
Keep in mind the people in front of you: graduating seniors, their families and friends, trustees, faculty, and staff. That is a pretty diverse group to cater to, but it is important to consider their probable responses if you decide to tackle sensitive subjects.
5. Make it applicable to every graduate.
Not everyone may get as excited as you do about government health policies or backpacking through Uganda. Scripps College’s commencement speaker for 2008 was a screenwriter and poet (Legally Blonde’s Kirstin Smith); instead of droning on about how fulfilling writing is, she focused on the graduating seniors, portraying their current place in life as it would appear in a movie, on the edge of the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2. She nailed it!
6. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh!
We are freaked out enough about finding a job given the current economy and dreading that six-word question and likely three-word response (“What are you doing after graduation?”… “I don’t know”). We don’t need to be reminded of any impending world war, swine flu, or bank failure. Keep it light, keep it funny, keep it honest.
1. Plug your book, movie, re-election, or art exhibition.
While we are happy that you are so successful, we already know what you’ve done in life -- that’s why we invited you. This is the time to celebrate our success, not yours.
2. Force feed us propaganda on hot, touchy, or potentially politically incorrect topics.
While it is good to bring up questions that need to be addressed and challenge the status quo, please do so in a way that opens the topic for discussion and doesn’t enforce a specific agenda.
3. Use overused themes or clichés.
Avoid familiar quotes, phrases, sayings, advice, movies, songs or pop-culture themes at all cost. We already know that today is the first day or the rest of our lives and we are the future, so please don’t bring up that horrid Green Day song, refrain from quoting Gandhi or Churchill, and give your own advice in your own words.
4. Forget to have fun. This is a magnificent day. Enjoy it with us!
Whitney Eriksen graduated Sunday from Scripps College, in Claremont, Calif., where she majored in psychology with a minor in biology. She will begin Act 2 working in a neuropsychology lab at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Here’s a ray of hope to restore prestige and morale to our beleaguered flagship state universities: let’s have “A&M” stand for “Athletics & Medicine.”
It’s a sorely needed change from the archaic 19th century acronym, “Agricultural & Mechanical.” This branding will provide state universities with both a jump start and truth in advertising about their priorities. After more than a quarter century of grumbling by presidents that they are losing resources and falling behind their elite private research university counterparts, public higher education has an opportunity to put new wine into the old A&M bottle. After all, “Athletics & Medicine” are the front doors and neon signs that now showcase an enterprising, dynamic state university.
Who will miss the old “A&M”? At most only a few curmudgeons. The change is timely because at many land grant universities the traditional “A” already has tended to disappear. Consider the case of the University of California, Berkeley, for example, where the historic, famous College of Agriculture has changed its name to the “College of Natural Resources.” What about the “M”? Originally it meant “mechanics” -- a 19th century usage that approximates our notion of “engineering.” But “Mechanics” has little name recognition today and can be confusing because it is likely to bring to mind the vocational training programs in auto repair or air conditioning service provided by community colleges. In other words, the old “A&M” shell is vacant and ready to accommodate the new contenders, “Athletics & Medicine.”
Let’s consider the strengths and similarities of this dynamic duo. First, both represent high profile units of the university. Second, both are not only highly visible, they also are seen as indispensable. Third, both are expensive -- they bring in a lot of resources and also spend a lot. Fourth, both activities are integral to the local economy through services, construction, and employment. The new “A&M” also retains fidelity to the historic land grant service mission. Hospitals and clinics certainly represent health service to the public. And big time athletics can even make a case for itself.
Two years ago a commissioner of a major athletics conference said in earnest that at the state universities in his conference, football ought to be regarded as a form of public service. True, this is not exactly the same as providing extension assistance on crop rotation -- but who’s to say that a state university team in the BCS championship or in the NCAA basketball Final Four has not reached out to the entire state’s population?
Academic Medical Centers (AMC) have represented a story of growth in the past decade. A College of Medicine and its affiliates can no longer be described as merely one of many academic units because it has achieved a size, prestige and power that have transformed its presence. It’s not unusual for a medical center and related health sciences nowadays to constitute more than half of a flagship university’s faculty positions.
Furthermore, for a university with an annual operating budget of about $2 billion, the Academic Medical Center often accounts for 40 percent or more of the total university expenditures.
Athletics and Medicine provide an interesting symmetry in hiring, as both share the ability to compete for talent in a high priced market. Hiring a new coach can, for example, be balanced by hiring a researcher with an M.D. and Ph.D. whose work deals with finding a cure for a serious disease. And, both new hires command a retinue of assistants, staff, and incentive bonuses to supplement base salaries. They are together the super stars of academia.
A flagship state university anchored on one end of the campus with the big “A” and anchored on the other end by the big “M” is formidable. Both units command new, expensive facilities -- which often become obsolete relatively quickly. And the expanding, large facilities mean that the two units occupy a substantial percentage of campus real estate.
There are, of course, a few liabilities in showcasing Athletics and Medicine as the new “A&M.” Although both bring in a lot of money, whether in television revenues, ticket sales, major donations, Medicaid payments, federal grants, or fees from clinics, these fertile sources can be precarious.
Six years ago, for example, an article in the Los Angeles Times reported that UCLA’s medical center “struggled for months with wobbly finances and internal dissension,” characterized by a consulting firm’s report as “problems ranging from inconsistent billing and plummeting revenues to a disorganized administration in which job duties overlapped.” Perhaps the best example of the financial fragility of the expensive university medical centers came about a decade ago at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. -- where a shortfall in the medical center income led the university president to try to impose an internal tax on the law school and business school as a convenient source of medical center fiscal fitness.
Today, a university medical center typically faces three sources of financial risk: first, a downturn in number of patients, and empty hospital beds run up expenses quickly. Second, any reduction in the federal Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement rate will require university medical centers to reduce drastically their income projections. Third, although many academic medical centers enjoy financial autonomy due to their own large endowments, these have quickly become undependable. It’s not unprecedented, for example, that a university medical center endowment of $250 million in 2007 (most of which was earmarked to pay for an aggressive capital expansion and building program) by 2009 has shrunk about 40% down to $150 million -- a one year loss of $100 million due to unproductive investment choices. If and when these shortfalls do occur, most likely the state government and/or the university will bail out the medical center -- it’s too big, too visible, and holds too much of an investment to be abandoned by its host university.
The same dynamics hold for flagship state universities with NCAA Division I intercollegiate athletics programs. A losing season in a revenue sport such as football or men’s basketball quickly can bring a decline in ticket revenues and fewer invitations to be selected for nationally televised games. However, even if this were to happen, it’s hard to imagine a state university abandoning football or basketball. The programs have become so important that their expenses must be covered, even if that were to mean transferring resources from other parts of the university.
What about the consequences for other academic units located on campus between the anchors of Athletics and Medicine? One possible concern is the endurance of the “A&S” acronym for “Arts & Sciences.” Since this unit probably has increased difficulty in claiming primacy in the contemporary state university, a possible reform is to amend their branding to reflect a new, diminished status. “A&S” could be re-branded as “a & s” – lower case to connote shrinking budgets, deteriorating centrality, and reduced visibility.
Numerous recent articles have carried the message that public higher education must reconfigure and re-think its priorities and principles. The “New A&M” model featuring Athletics and Medicine provides a timely, dynamic blueprint for updating the historic land grant commitment.
When colleagues learn that I ride my motorcycle to work they often respond with some sort of mid-life crisis quip. Maybe so, but I’ve been riding motorcycles since 1972, when my brother went to college and my parents forced him to leave his 185 Suzuki with me. I was 14 at the time, the legal driving age in Kansas back then for going to and from school and work. Certainly I did stupid things on that bike, but running off the road in Wellington mostly meant encountering wheat fields (my brother did wreck his Honda once, but that’s because he goosed it on a gravel patch while making a turn).
Motorcycling is very dangerous, and in no way do I wish to minimize the danger here. My wife posts newspaper accounts of motorcycling tragedies on our refrigerator, and refuses to go near my bike, so I’m reminded regularly of the perils that await each time I suit up for a ride. I wear the best protective gear, go out of my way to add high-visibility touches to my bike and outfit, and never consume alcohol during the course of a ride.
Yet in spite of the dangers I believe motorcycling has its upside, which includes a surprising health benefit.
This has been a trying year in academia. The roller coaster ride of a national economic meltdown, mounting state budget problems, mind-boggling budget cuts (nearly 20 percent at my school), the last-minute stimulus package, and now the growing understanding that this package merely delays the inevitable add to the worries of faculty, staff and administrators.
And yet, in spite of the grim international and national economic news I believe that many people, and particularly our professors, do not fully recognize and appreciate the presence and impact of events beyond campus. Faculty are unhappy, and I do not blame them for being so.
Yet when I talk with them their complaints and villains are often personal and local. Frequently in such conversations professors fail to acknowledge the larger context that clearly is generating some or many of the problems they are experiencing. When they blame colleague X’s behavior for a department’s difficulty, or their dean, or me, I rarely hear them observe as well that all of us are working in the most trying and stressful of times.
In such conversations I remind them that these are the worst times I have ever seen in higher education, and that any evaluation of the abilities of colleagues and administrators should at least acknowledge this larger context. In other words, if the sky is falling I want us to recognize that it is doing so not just because of the actions of people in our university (but of course we can always make a bad situation worse -- and it is our job as administrators to explain larger contexts and restrictions as best we can).
So if things are so bad why am I writing about motorcycles?
Given the troubles of this year I do so simply to remind people to take care of themselves -- to do what they can to reduce their stress levels when we are in times like these. And here I return to motorcycling, for this is my personal recipe for relief from the pressures of the job.
Riding a motorcycle forces me to concentrate on the moment. I have to pay attention to the truck beside me on the interstate, or the car waiting at the intersection of a rural highway. But at the same time I get to feel the wind in my face, and glimpse the stunning scenery around me, and wave at fellow motorcyclists, and simply marvel about how wonderful it is to be in control of this machine that offers such a privileged view of the world.
It is meditative because I’m filtering out the usual mental soundtrack that plays an exhausting loop of worries from work (meeting enrollment numbers, responding to angry parents, the latest bad budget news, office politics) and concentrating on the enjoyable task at hand. If I’m on a really long ride I end the day physically tired and mentally rejuvenated.
My point is an obvious one: we must reduce our stress levels to be effective at work, to last on the job, and most importantly to be happy. Yet, not everything works to reduce stress, at least not for me. I’m not sure why I do this, but I run marathons, and during training and races the stressful mental soundtrack does not disappear, and at the end of long runs I feel terrible to boot. So getting away from it all has to either last long enough or be special enough to provide respite from the incessant and agonizing replay of events past, and the urge to rehearse constantly for meetings in the future.
Even just thinking about motorcycling calms me, and it helps me concentrate. I remember that I have to focus. I remember that certain things (staying upright and avoiding that merging car) are more important than others (like speeding up to catch another look at that cool bike that just passed me).
Is this rocket science? Nope. Is it motorcycle maintenance? No. But academic motorcycling is meditative, calming, and oh so necessary for the times in which we live.
Todd A. Diacon
Todd Diacon is vice provost for academic operations at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Recently emeritus from the English department at U of All People, Professor Jack Krammer has set aside the month of July to clean out his office at 115 Richard J. Hall Hall. Hired in 1969, Professor Krammer specialized in Shakespeare, business English, poetry writing, occasional Victorian classes, and whatever else the strapped chairs threw at him during what one UAP administrator termed “the lean years.”
By the end of his career, he had taught half the courses in the catalog and published nothing in any of them, despite a wealth of notes for a book to be entitled Jack of All Classes, Master of None. In recognition of Krammer’s long service, Provost Grudge granted him a dedicated carrel in the Pabst Blue Ribbon Library. The space limits of 3" x 4" prevent the accumulation of bulky books or papers; hence, the necessity for “weeding the pile,” as Grudge, a former botany professor, noted.
The first aspect one notices about Professor Krammer’s office is that the door will not close properly, its jamb wedged on a sheaf of papers shoved into the office beyond deadline. On the front of the door are the requisite cartoons: a cow teaching other cows, six monkeys writing Shakespeare, and a professor with a rubber duck tucked under his arm addressing an audience of similarly accoutered professors. Inside the office, the atmosphere is Dickensian, partly because Krammer taught David Copperfield for a record twenty-one years, starting in 1975, and seven and a half editions weigh down the windowsill like a flock of hunched birds or, alternatively, a testament to Victorian profusion and its hectic prose style.
The lone bookshelf that came with the office has been augmented over the years with a jury-rigged structure of planks capable of supporting the weight of a generation of PMLA issues. Nearby sits a row of The Norton Anthology of Everything, eighth edition, like an armored battalion, canons rampant. The battered fiberboard desk -- “My God, you’re not going to hang on to that, are you?” asked his second wife, Irene, not to be confused with his first wife, Irene -- has a surface like an old-fashioned blotter and a flat middle drawer that slides halfway out whenever no one’s watching.
Inside are 47 paper clips, including two novelty clasps in the shape of a butterfly and a dollar sign. On the far right top is a pile of exams from Krammer’s Modern British Novel course in 2004, in case any students still want to see how they did on the multiple choice. In the left drawer are change-of-grade forms, advising sheets (the obsolete ones), travel requisition forms, blue books, and other ephemera of the pre-Web age. A graying desktop computer with an undiagnosed virus hogs the front area. The sprung desk chair is no longer adjustable for height, but the departmental furniture budget has been converted to travel mini-grants.
Flanking the desk is a three-story file cabinet that features, among other items, 250 Xeroxes of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; a long correspondence between Krammer and a man named Crammer from Nebraska, cut off after the simultaneous realization that no family ties existed; proceedings from two decades of the Colley Cibber Society; and a folded white button-down shirt pressed between two sets of lecture notes, “in case of emergencies,” after that one disastrous evening in 1992 at the dean’s social.
Half a dozen photos cling to the wall, including two from the graduation of 1975, the last time that Krammer showed up for the event. A drawing of a sock, from the student art fair of 1988, hangs from the back of the door. Seven tchotchkes stand on his desk, from a leering gnome, given as a joke for God knows what; to a paperweight in the shape of something that once offended the first Irene.
Stacked in the corner are 37 overdue library books, or rather, books that would be overdue if the faculty were held responsible and fined. The books were mainly due in 1995. One volume in particular, The Painted Saint, was requested back three times by a junior colleague named Hayton in 1996, a plea blissfully ignored, justified by Hayton’s moving to Hoo U three years later.
Everywhere else are papers, papers, papers. On second thought, Professor Krammer has decided to put off the clean-up job till the fall.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
As an untenured professor I live in constant dread that my voice will (like Ben Stein's in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") morph into an endless monotone that will meet an equally endless silence, and that things will get so desperate that only a choreographed rendition of “Twist and Shout” during a German American Day parade in Chicago will shake me and my students out of our stupor.
As the generational distance between me and my students grows (they’ve probably only seen these Gen-X defining scenes) on DVD or YouTube, if at all), it seems as if Bueller moments are unavoidable.
But for all of the examples of generational disconnect in the movies of the late director John Hughes -- particularly those produced when my junior colleagues and I came of age in the mid-1980s -- Hughes (who died this month) also offers cues for avoiding the Bueller Triangle where meaningful interaction among adults and youth simply vanishes. In this light, Hughes’s films are revelatory for educators.
For example, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” affirms the pedagogical strategies of effective teachers. Students want to take ownership of their learning. Like Ferris, they don’t want to be passive receptors of information but active creators of meaningful knowledge.
They don’t just want to study the historical, economic, political, psycho-sexual, and post-colonial contours of the red Ferrari. They want to drive it. We’ve got to enable them to go where their passions and curiosities lead them, and learn to teach them the significance of our “ologies” and “isms” from the passenger’s seat.
Living up to expectations landed the popular girl, the weirdo, the geek, the jock and the rebel in “The Breakfast Club.” Ironically, Saturday morning detention provided safe space for conversation without which these otherwise disparate characters would not have discovered the right blend of commonality and individuality needed to resist life-threatening pressures.
Professors who provide safe spaces in and outside of the classroom for discerning conversation successfully bridge the gap between our expectations of students, and students’ expectations of us. Free of ridicule and judgment students are liberated to ask themselves the eternal question on the road to adulthood: “Who do I want to become?” For further reading, see “She’s Having a Baby.”
“That’s why they call them crushes,” Samantha Baker’s dad explains in a rare Hughes moment of adult clarity and compassion in “Sixteen Candles.” “If they were easy they’d call them something else.” More than just re-telling a tale of teenage crushes, Hughes illuminates the struggle for authenticity when it comes to romance, dating and sex. What was glaringly absent in 1984 is also missing today, especially in the collegiate “hook up” culture. We need more open-minded adults willing to listen to students before pragmatically proposing a list of dos and don’ts.
And adults like Andy Walsh’s broken-hearted father, Jack, or her eclectic boss, Iona, in “Pretty in Pink,” who teach young people by demonstrating what learning looks like -- neither relating to them as peers nor hovering to try to protect them from life’s inevitable failures -- provide the materials students need to make their own prom gowns, a now classic metaphor for navigating the drama of adolescence.
How many times did Hughes depict the power of privilege and the misuse of teenage social capital? Millennials have to navigate social differences, many of which may be more divisive than they were 20 years ago in “Some Kind of Wonderful” because they are more subtle. While it is true that we “can’t tell a book by it’s cover,” to quote the protagonist Keith Nelson, relational power plays continue, to use Watts’s retort, to reveal “how much it’s gonna cost you.”
Taking responsibility for privilege so that we might use it wisely involves understanding and owning our particular contexts rather than simply rejecting them. In fact, Hughes’s films provide ample fodder for unpacking Peggy McIntosh’s “invisible knapsack of privilege,” given his preference for white suburbia and demeaning portrayals of ethnic minorities.
So if we don’t want to forget about Hughes we should not only reminisce about the way his characters spoke directly to our various adolescent selves. We might also remember how not to behave as adults when it comes to engaging our successors.
After all, we’re no longer writing the papers for Mr. Bender in detention. We’re grading them.
Maureen H. O’Connell is an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University and a participant in the 2009-10 pre-tenure teaching workshop at Wabash College's Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion.