People who met Aldous Huxley would sometimes notice that, on any given day, the turns of his conversation would follow a brilliant, unpredictable, yet by no means random course. The novelist might start out by mentioning something about Plato. Then the discussion would drift to other matters -- to Poe, the papacy, and the history of Persia, followed by musings on photosynthesis. And then, perhaps, back to Plato.
So Huxley's friends would think: "Well, it's pretty obvious which volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica he was reading this morning."
Now, it's a fair guess that whoever recounted that story (to the author of whichever biography I read it in) meant to tell it at Huxley's expense. It's not just that it makes him look like an intellectual magpie, collecting shiny facts and stray threads of history. Nor even that his erudition turns out to be pre-sorted and alphabetical.
Rather, I suspect the image of an adult habitually meandering through the pages of an encyclopedia carries a degree of stigma. There is a hint of regression about it -- if not all the way back to childhood, at least to preadolescent nerdishness.
If anything, the taboo would be even sterner for a fully licensed and bonded academic professional.
Encyclopedia entries are among the lowest form of secondary literature. Very rare exceptions can be made for cases such as Sigmund Freud's entry on "Psychoanalysis" in the 13th edition of the Britannica, or Kenneth Burke's account of his own theory of dramatism in The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. You get a certain amount of credit for writing for reference books -- and more for editing them. And heaven knows that the academic presses love to turn them out. See, for example, The Encyclopedia of Religion in the South (Mercer University Press), The Encyclopedia of New Jersey (Rutgers University Press) and The International Encyclopedia of Dance (Oxford University Press), not to mention The Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (Routledge).
It might be okay to "look something up" in an encyclopedia or some other reference volume. But read them? For pleasure? The implication that you spend much time doing so would be close to an insult - a kind of academic lese majesty.
At one level, the disdain is justified. Many such works are sloppily written, superficial, and/or hopelessly unreliable. The editors of some of them display all the conscientiousness regarding plagiarism one would expect of a failing sophomore. (They grasp the concept, but do not think about it so much as to become an inconvenience.)
But my hunch is that social pressure plays a larger role in it. Real scholars read monographs! The nature of an encyclopedia is that it is, at least in principle, a work of popularization. Probably less so for The Encyclopedia of Algebraic Topology, assuming there is one. But still, there is an aura of anti-specialization and plebian accessibility that seems implicit in the very idea. And there is something almost Jacobin about organizing things in alphabetical order.
Well then, it's time. Let me confess it: I love reading encyclopedias and the like, at least in certain moods. My collection is not huge, but it gets a fair bit of use.
Aside from still-useful if not cutting- edge works such as the four-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Macmillan, 1967) and Eric Partridge's indispensible Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English Origins (Macmillan, 1958), I keep at hand any number of volumes from Routledge and Blackwell offering potted summaries of 20th century thinkers. (Probably by this time next year, we'll have the 21st century versions.)
Not long ago, for a ridiculously small price, I got the four paperbound volumes of the original edition of the Scribners Dictionary of the History of Ideas, first published in 1973 -- the table of contents of which is at times so bizarre as to seem like a practical joke. There is no entry on aesthetics, but one called "Music as Demonic Art" and another called "Music as a Divine Art." An entry called "Freedom of Speech in Antiquity" probably ought to be followed with something that brings things up to more recent times -- but no such luck.
The whole thing is now available online, with its goofy mixture of the monographic ("Newton's Opticks and Eighteenth Century Imagination") and the clueless (no entries on Aristotle or Kant, empiricism or rationalism). But somehow the weirdness is more enjoyable between covers.
And then, of course, there is the mother of them all: the Encyclopedia or Rational Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts that Denis Diderot and friends published in the 1750s and '60s. Aside from a couple of volumes of selections, I've grabbed every book by or about Diderot in English that I've ever come across.
Diderot himself, appropriately enough, wrote the entry for "Encyclopedia" for the Encyclopedia.
The aim of such a work, he explained, is "to collect all the knowledge scattered over the face of the earth, to present its general structure to the men with whom we live, and to transmit this to those who will come after us, so that the work of past centuries may be useful to the following centuries, that our children, by becoming more educated, may at the same time become more virtuous and happier, and that we may not die without having deserved well of the human race."
Yeah! Now that's something to shoot for. It even makes reading encyclopedias seem less like a secret vice than a profound obligation.
And if, perchance, any of you share the habit -- and have favorite reference books that you keep at hand for diversion, edification, or moral uplift -- please pass the titles along below....
Who would have thought that the number three could wield such power?
It’s such a simple, unimposing numerical value; almost cute in appearance. Yet as it turns out, this small digit is value-packed. "Three" is apparently a well-known assessment measure, a highly accurate indicator of academic prowess. Or so I’m told. This number is the key at my institution, at least in most departments, to determining which young faculty should be kept for the long haul or discarded back into the pile. If the latter occurs, it is a gross understatement to simply say that a pink slip has been handed out. There is finality in that decision, because so many who have been sent packing at one institution cannot endure the thought of being rejected again. Oftentimes, a career in academia has been put to an end.
How did three get selected to be so important, so insightful, so utterly determinative? Why was this number picked instead of, say, 4, or even 10? I do not have those answers. What I do know, or have been told, is that standards must be set, a proverbial bar must be attained. And that at any respectable place of employment, at least one to be recognized by U.S. News and World Reports, the standard cannot be lower than three.
I am referring, if you hadn’t guessed, to the number of publications needed, under most circumstances, to be awarded tenure at my institution. Why am I so cynical about this? No doubt some of you may say that three publications is a reasonable expectation over a six year time frame. Let me be clear: The actual value of three publications is not that troublesome to me.
What frustrates me is that the standard for research and scholarship at my institution and in my department has (I should say had) always been vague. In fact, during my ‘probationary faculty’ daze, I would meet annually with my department chair and dean to ask what the target was for research publications. I wanted a number. If nothing else I was looking for reassurance and piece of mind. I would usually hear "You are on the mark" or "Don’t worry, your research is good." But I was never offered a numerical value.
Asking other members of the department did not help. No one offered a firm target that I could set my sights on. After asking many times, I was finally told that the department did not have an exact number that the tenured members were looking for. Rather, I would need at least one publication for tenure, but two or three would be better. My interpretation of that statement was three is safe, but more is probably in the comfort zone.
So prior to my time to apply for tenure, I worked to far surpass the firmly vague target presented to me. Mission accomplished. I surpassed the target, and thankfully, the tenure process went very smoothly. However, I struggled with the reality that no one would commit to a narrowly focused standard for research during my probationary window. Mentally, I wanted to know the exact goal. But the exact height of the illustrious bar that I needed to clear was kept secret.
As I understand it, the vagueness allowed some wiggle room. For example, in an instance when someone was a dynamic teacher and provided exceptional service to our students, department and/or college, it was potentially permissible to be only so-so as a scholar and still make tenure. A hard and fast research standard would conceivably injure these individuals. And after all, I needed to remember that our primary focus as a college and department was on undergraduate education. Teaching is of prime importance at schools with such a mission, and service rivals research. Although vagueness is an approach that is difficult for a biologist like me to grapple with, I came to appreciate the intent.
This admittedly awkward research standard was the norm at my institution for quite a long period of time -- until recently. But research expectations have changed college-wide. Determining exactly when has been difficult, but the climate here is most certainly at a different place than it was a few years back. Vagueness was replaced with exactness. A numerical value was established as the minimum standard for being on track for tenure: three is that value, and the value shall be three. This is the target that the administration uses as the measure for evaluating a tenure application, at least for those in the sciences. Notice that I have not mentioned teaching or service. The reality is that those responsibilities have been moved to a somewhat different level of significance in the evaluation process.
I sought such a standard when I was an untenured faculty member, so shouldn’t I be ecstatic now, or at least satisfied? But I am not. The number that I have mentioned arrived rather suddenly on campus and in stealth-like fashion. And it has taken a toll.
About seven years ago, my department hired a promising young biologist who was enthusiastic about teaching and already established as a talented researcher. She was hired during our “vagueness” period. She was told the same thing that I was years earlier: for research publications, one is a must, more is better.
But while this young faculty member was traveling down this path, a detour suddenly appeared: The exactness period was ushered in. The short version of a rather nasty story is that my colleague was seemingly held to the new standards. It goes without saying that, if true, this was not a fair or appropriate practice for tenure protocol. No doubt you have predicted the outcome of her tenure decision: She was denied. Notice that I have not mentioned whether I thought she deserved tenure, because that is not the point. Her shortcoming was that she did not meet “the power of 3.”
My message is not a mere plaint on behalf of a fallen colleague. It is larger than a single individual. The current trend in higher education is to focus on scholarship, more correctly on scholarly output, most notably at schools that have traditionally served as predominantly undergraduate institutions. This in and of itself is not a poor strategy. I personally believe that teaching and research are intimately woven, and that an excellent teacher is most likely an outstanding scholar. So I embrace the idea of elevating research at my institution when the pursuit of knowledge and discovery will generate excitement and passion within the classroom.
But an appropriate balance between teaching and research must be established. The reality is that any faculty member at an undergraduate college or university must juggle heavy teaching responsibilities with mentoring, advising and college service, all while remaining a productive scholar. Unfortunately, as the demands for the latter increase, it can only come at the expense of the other responsibilities, including time dedicated to family. This means that teaching, mentoring and advising lose importance out of necessity.
Clearly, priorities are being confused. In the current market place, many institutions are competing for high quality students. The competition is made more intense by the soaring costs of attending college, particularly at private institutions. Regardless, schools that were outstanding because of the original mission (educating undergraduates) are trying to redefine themselves. The cost is becoming enormous in terms of the potentially diminished education provided to the students and in terms of the faculty that get discarded along the way.
This fall, I started the term without my friend and colleague. She has moved on. Thankfully for the students, she has stayed in academia. I understand that change is inevitable and that progress can only come through change. So maybe our new standards will in fact elevate my college to a higher level, allowing us to achieve academic accomplishments our students never reached before. Maybe.
Or just maybe the members of the college will like the taste of elevated scholarship and want to drink more rather than integrating it with our undergraduate mission. I am afraid the latter will take hold. The faculty governance on my campus already is debating whether the tenure standard should be raised even higher, and a member of the Board of Trustees has stated that the value of an undergraduate education goes up each time a publication appears with our institution’s name.
A friend of mine has argued that trends in higher education move like a pendulum, so this current craze will come back to equilibrium at some point. I’m not so confident. It appears that our pendulum lacks counterbalance, at least at the moment, and may just as easily rise so high that it crashes back down on top of us.
David B. Rivers
David B. Rivers is an associate professor of biology at Loyola College in Maryland.
I’m not much one for reunions at my alma mater. But I did have a 25th reunion last month at one of my journalistic alma maters, so to speak, College of the Atlantic, the small, environmentally oriented, alternative liberal arts college located off the coast of Maine. It was one of the colleges I covered during my first tour of duty as a freelance education writer during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Like most of the stories I did during my early, gallivanting days, the one I did about COA began with a hunch. The little information I had about this remote, decade-old, solar-powered cousin of Bennington, Goddard, et al., was that COA offered a bachelor of arts degree in something called human ecology, and that staff and students spent a lot of time observing and tracking whales. I was intrigued.
And so, armed with an assignment, off I flew to Bar Harbor, Maine, for what turned out to be one of my most memorable assignments covering academe. I was immediately taken with the college’s Noah-like president, Ed Kaelber, and his vice president, Sam Eliot, whose environmentalist passion was leavened by a self-deprecatory sense of humor.
What moved COA’s founders to establish their college-cum-environmentalist colony back in 69?, I asked Eliot one blustery evening, as we huddled over coffee in his office in the college’s Ark-like wooden administration building. "Basically, we came out here to save the world," Eliot said. “Now,” he said with a grin, “we’re concentrating on Maine.”
And saving Maine the earnest eco-missionaries of COA were, via such inspired stratagems as a dead minke whale that had washed up near the college and had been converted into a mobile mammalian biology diorama for the benefit of the local populace. Whale on Wheels, it was called. COA students were largely responsible for preserving Maine’s Great Heath, an ecologically unique bog. The college’s Harbor Seal Project had helped rescue many abandoned or stranded seals. And the Department of Interior thought highly enough of the biologist Steve Katona’s course, Whales of the North Atlantic, to award his class a contract for the Mount Desert Island Whale Watch. With 180 students and 15 faculty members, classes at the spare, island-based campus were small, education an intense, hands-on affair. I never saw a faculty as inspired and committed as COA’s.
For the most part, classes at COA were as intellectually rigorous as anywhere, if not more so. Some people might have difficulty defining exactly what human ecology meant -- "it's … a seagull" said one misty-eyed student -- and yet COA students were making real connections between man and nature. Here, in December 1980, as the new materialistic morning of Ronald Reagan was dawning, was a college really dedicated to changing and, yes, saving the world.
To a sixties survivor that was bracing to behold. "If the deterioration of the environment keeps going the way it is now," in the prescient words of Glen Berkowitz, one of the many dynamic, clear-eyed students I met during my fascinating sojourn in Bar Harbor, "people will have to use COA graduates." He was right. (In fact, Berkowitz, who graduated in 1982, went on to become a senior consultant with Boston’s massive Big Dig project, where he advised the builders on the human impact of the dig, and is now involved with a wind power project for the city’s harbor.) He's but one of the many COA graduates who have used their unique education to do social and environmental good. Others include Chellie Pingree, head of Common Cause and Bill McLellan, a University of North Carolina research scientist who National Public Radio recently described as the federal government’s “go-to guy on marine mammal research.”
I had planned on a visit of several days. Instead I wound up staying for several weeks. My subsequent dispatch about “Earth College,” as I good naturedly dubbed the place, reflected my affection for the spunky laboratory school. "To be sure, the college needs a gymnasium and a student center," I reported. "But the College of the Atlantic is alive and well. That in itself is something to celebrate."
Privately, I wasn’t so optimistic. The future for alternative or experimental colleges, I well knew, was increasingly grim, having recently reported the demise of one of COA’s experimental siblings, Eisenhower College, whose lofty minded World Studies program and holistic educational philosophy was not unlike COA’s.
Hence my delight and surprise, upon recently visiting the college on the Web, to encounter an institution that, at least on the evidence of its kaleidoscopic site, was thriving. But Web sites can be deceiving. It was time to check out College of the Atlantic again.
And so, last month, just as I had a quarter of a century before, I set off for the college’s rustic, coastal Maine campus, next to Acadia National Park. Once again I found myself auditing classes, hanging out with COA students and faculty in the main dining room, listening to the swooning sea gulls, just as I did long ago.
My green reunion. Best reunion I ever had.
To be sure, I learned from some of the veteran COA faculty I met up with again, COA did wind up having its own Sturm und Drang period in the early 80s, including a civil war pitting faculty and staff who wished to keep the college as a college against another faction that wanted COA to become more of a think tank. The former won. However, enrollment at the beleaguered campus dropped to a mere hundred. "We almost lost the college," one teacher said.
Nevertheless, under the leadership of Steve Katona, the college’s savvy whale-watcher-turned president, who has been at the college’s helm for since 1992, COA has survived. Now, with an enrollment of 270 students -- over 20 percent of them from abroad -- and 26 faculty, COA is, indeed, thriving. Shedding the "experimental" label that once put off parents of prospective students, the pioneering institution is competitive with some of the best mainstream liberal arts colleges in the country, while the human ecology concept and educational philosophy that COA pioneered has gained respect.
On the surface, COA is no longer as "crazy" as it once was. The college has an eye-catching logo now, and an expensive viewbook. The food is no longer strictly vegetarian. COA’s ponytail is gone.
And yet, I could see, in the small, intensely participatory classes and laboratories I audited, and the interactions I had with students and faculty, that the college’s essence and mission is unchanged. Here, still, on this remote island, off the coast of Maine, is a community unabashedly committed to saving the world.
One professor, Davis Taylor, is an economist and former Army captain who attended West Point. He said that while at first blush one could hardly think of two institutions more different than West Point and COA, he saw similarities between the two. "Both have a sense of mission," Taylor said, and “both emphasize systems thinking.”
As one student after another, including ones from as far away as Serbia and Seattle, told me, “I came here to make a difference.”
In the best sense, I could see, during the rainy but otherwise mind-and-spirit expanding week I spent in Bar Harbor. It was clear in a horizon-busting class in environmental history, or an impromptu world music session in the college greenhouse. College of the Atlantic is still alive and crazy after all these years. And, for one of its early champions, and as one who believes that the greatness of the American higher education system lies in its multiplicity, that was reassuring to see.
I could also see that original spirit in a hands-on, feet-in conference in riverine planning that I (literally) waded into, where COA faculty, staff and local planners contributed to show journalists how it’s possible to affect a community planning system on an environmental and inter-county level.
So there I was one stormy afternoon hanging out with Bill Carpenter, the novelist and poet who has taught at COA since its founding 36 years ago, sifting the college's saga over strong coffee in his cozy, book-lined office. We had returned from an exciting, syncopated session of “Turn of the Century,” an interdisciplinary class in cultural history that Carpenter teaches along with the artist JoAnne Carpenter and the biologist John Anderson, in which the three professors enthusiastically riff off each other, in between questions from the packed, palpably delighted class of 25 (which for COA is huge).
“So, what was your original vision?” I asked Carpenter, as we reminisced about the college’s wild and woolly early days.
“This was our vision,” he said, with finality.
Here’s to survivors.
Gordon F. Sander
Gordon F. Sander, an Ithaca-based journalist and historian has written about higher education for The Times Higher Education Supplement, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times and many other publications.Â He was recently artist-in-residence at Cornell University's Risley College for the Creative and Performing Arts. His most recent book is The Frank Family That Survived: a 20th Century Odyssey (Random House UK).