Salaita case illustrates 'two cultures' of academe, many experts say

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Most of the opposition to the U. of Illinois decision to block the hiring of Steven Salaita has come from the humanities, and most of the university's defenders are campus scientists. Why?

Ph.D.s as teachers and other ideas emerge from panel on doctoral reform at Stanford

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Stanford pledges to pay for a master's in education for humanities Ph.D.s who want to become high school teachers.

Scholars in the humanities and the sciences should value one another (essay)

Although I am an aspiring scholar of 17th-century devotional poetry, I’ve had a surprisingly large number of drinking buddies who are physicists. Over beers I’ve learned about the Higgs boson, the intricacies of the Large Hadron Collider and the standard model of particle physics. In turn, I hope that maybe they’ve learned a little about Milton’s “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.”

Such friendships are part and parcel of doing the entirety of my graduate education at institutions that are heavily known for their contributions to STEM fields. I’ve never been able to ignore the sciences, and I wouldn’t think it a luxury even if I could. In talking with scientists, at least on a bar stool, I have tried to be largely free from C. P. Snow’s famous assertion in his 1959 The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution that scientists and humanists are members of “two polar groups” and that between those two lies a “a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

There is a cottage industry explaining why those studying the sciences need knowledge of the humanities, and I am sympathetic and largely agree with those views. But as a humanist writing to colleagues, I think that we should admit that Snow may still have a point. Too often we approach the sciences with a mixture of fear, envy and misunderstanding.

First, however, some things that I am not arguing: I do not think that science or scientists are beyond humanistic critique. Science, like any system created by humans, is going to be influenced by the wider culture, and as culture is our subject, we’re perfectly equipped to comment on those aspects of STEM that abut history, philosophy, literature, area studies and so on. The subspecialty of science studies has made important contributions to a considered understanding of how science operates within society, and one need not be a relativist to admit that ideology influences scientific discourses.

Second, if mutual suspicion has grown between the two cultures, the fault does not lie solely with us. Many advocates for a particularly positivist view of science (here I am thinking primarily of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins) are not just dismissive of whole shelves of humanistic scholarship, but they’re also downright anti-intellectual about entire disciplines as well. They deserve to be called out.

Finally, I am not claiming that humanistic work can be reduced into the scientific. Interdisciplinary respect need not entail the loss of disciplinary sovereignty, and I am not supporting a type of epistemological imperialism.

Despite those caveats, Snow’s assertion that the humanities have a bit of a science problem remains pertinent a half century later. As humanists, it behooves us to interrogate our own assumptions about the sciences and the occasionally unthinking ways we may project displaced anger onto scientists that are counterproductive to both them and us. Without an honest consideration of how we sometimes speak about science, we risk alienating potential allies in fighting for shared interests -- such as academic freedom, job security and funding in the era of the increasingly corporate university. Furthermore, some of our personal griping about the sciences subconsciously displays an anxiety that is, ironically, profoundly anti-humanist.

In that aforementioned seminal essay, Snow writes, “A good many times, I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.” While perhaps it’s unwise to universalize that phenomenon, it’s undeniable that Snow identifies an all too common sentiment. There exists a suspicious cringe toward the sciences that is condescending to our colleagues and ultimately not helpful to those of us in the humanities. It includes unstated assumptions that issues of institutional support are always easy for our colleagues in their labs across the campus, as well as the internet flame wars I’ve seen on academic threads griping about science popularization.

Stereotypes Worth Questioning

If anything, the rhetorical problem of the “two cultures” has as of late been exacerbated by the cheap outrage enabled by online culture and the easy discourse of social media, where an attitude of casual disdain toward science and scientists can proliferate. At its worst, I’ve seen the legitimate humanistic analysis of problematic pronouncements made by some scientists veer into an insinuation that said scientists are so unsophisticated that they’re somehow not even legitimately equipped to comment on their own specialties. Or I’ve seen the weird gleefulness of humanists who brag about knowing nothing about science, as if we wouldn’t justifiably denounce the equivalent from our STEM colleagues across the hall as being rank anti-intellectualism.

I’m not innocent in this. From time to time I’ve unfairly stereotyped our colleagues in the sciences as unconcerned or not knowledgeable about history, philosophy and literature. I’ve shared links to online articles and blogs that extol the virtues of humanistic training and research at the expense of the sciences. Oftentimes our disdain can be born out of unpleasant personal interactions with colleagues in STEM fields who are unwilling to acknowledge the difficulties or worth of our own work in the humanities and social sciences. I think the critical attitudes we harbor toward the sciences are almost always related to our legitimate grievances over how neoliberal policies threaten the humanities in higher education.

Being defensive is emotionally understandable, because it can feel that, as humanists, we’re under attack from all sides. After all, when Florida Governor Rick Scott asks, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” and then responds to his own question with, “I don’t think so,” it’s expected. But then when President Obama jokes about the utility of studying art history, it only reinforces our sense of being beleaguered. Such political attacks often use the humanities as a straw man to contrast them with what is presented as the supremely pragmatic choice of supporting the STEM fields. It’s natural that we’d get a bit touchy. So I get it, I really do. But that doesn’t mean that a defensive posture is always the most helpful.

At the risk of engaging in the fallacy of anecdotal evidence, I’ve heard things that highlight what I see as the dangers of painting STEM with the same broad brush with which we’re tarred. I myself shared a popular meme on Facebook a few months ago that claimed the bizarre pronouncements of former presidential candidate Ben Carson are what happen when STEM students don’t take humanities courses. I’m sure you can blame Carson’s strange comments on many things, but his medical training seems unlikely to be one of them. I’ve never seen his undergraduate transcripts -- perhaps he took scores of English and history classes -- but I imagine that those who created the meme really have no idea, either. It was an admittedly funny image, and in advocating for the humanities I imagine it was made with good intentions.

But I think it does little to convince potential academic allies in the STEM fields of much more than our own intellectual smugness. An even more insidious variety of meme that I’ve encountered are those that argue that the benefit of a humanistic education is that it makes scientists somehow more moral in their research.

The implication that scientists are incapable of parsing the ethics of their own work because they haven’t taken a philosophy course is the height of condescension. From advocating for rational climate policy to explaining what’s dangerous about pseudoscientific anti-vaccination rhetoric, scientists are more than capable advocates for ethical policies that intersect with their own research. The old chestnut that argues that studying the humanities somehow makes a person more moral is tenuous at best. The course catalog justification for the humanities as supplying special skills in “critical thought” is also shortsighted one, for it presupposes that critical thinking is our sole provenance (which it obviously isn’t) and that critical thinking is somehow all that we offer (which it also isn’t).

Not Victims or Martyrs

Of course I think it would be fantastic if more scientists did take philosophy courses. It would be fantastic if every college student did that -- not because those courses only help the student in their primary training but because such courses are an unalloyed good in themselves. That’s the ultimate irony in this sort of defense of the humanities: they use the same economic language of utility that other people use to justify increased funding for STEM.

Yet if we position ourselves too much as victims or martyrs, we ignore the oftentimes similar (or even more dire) political position that scientists find themselves in. We commit a fallacy when we confuse political lip service for STEM as being actual support. One only need look at the precarious situation climatologists find themselves in, under attack by ideologically motivated partisans every bit as organized as those who fulminated against the academic humanities during the culture wars. And while I harbor my own resentments that the wider public may view my interest in 17th-century Puritan theology as helplessly esoteric, 30 minutes of speaking to a mathematician who works on topology and number theory disavowed me of any sense of the grass being greener on the other side when it comes to the public embrace of what one might study.

In defending ourselves, in explaining why anthropology or art history is important, we should not engage in the corollary of denouncing the sciences as unimportant. Too often I see the deployment of the same language used against us, or the ironic gambit of self-justification that involves tethering the humanities to the sciences so that the former is enlisted as some kind of handmaid to the later.

I had a conversation at a conference with a fellow humanist who thought that what I think is the self-evidently fascinating field of astrophysics is simply a financial drain on society, as if it’s somehow clear that the study of poetry is obviously important to everyone. In the academy, both fields of study need to be justified, both need to be explained and both need to be defended. That can be done at the institutional level (why not sponsor events between academic societies like the Modern Language Association and American Academy for the Advancement of Science?), as well as in our own professional lives. The recent catastrophic election to the presidency of the United States of Donald Trump, a man with equal disdain for both the humanistic tradition and scientific evidence, is reason enough for building a spirit of solidarity between academic disciplines.

It’s worth considering biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “non-overlapping magisteria,” which was originally meant to delineate the different domains of religion and science, as a useful template for thinking about the relationship between science and the humanities. Factionalism, jingoism and arrogance are no more attractive when they’re gussied up in humanistic language. Incuriosity is an intellectual sin, wherever its origins. This need not be a zero-sum game, as we’re all playing for the same team.

Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University. He is also a widely published writer on the subjects of religion, literature and culture. His work has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, Aeon, The Paris Review Daily, Salon, Atlas Obscura, The Revealer, Nautilus and many others. He can be followed at his website or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

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Exploring higher education's endless status games (essay)

A while back, I was reading letters of support for an award, and one of the letters contained a demeaning characterization of the home academic department of the candidate. While praising the candidate to the skies, the letter writer portrayed the department -- one of great prestige outside the candidate’s university -- as being of marginal status in the eyes of people in other academic disciplines within the institution. The letter writer wanted to assure anonymous evaluators like me that the candidate was of much higher intellectual quality than the candidate’s discipline would suggest.

Boy, am I sick of this academic snobbery.

What I read is not without its irony, however -- worthy of the most trenchant portrayals of academic life. (Think David Lodge’s Small World or Richard Russo’s Straight Man.) The discipline of the snooty letter writer is one that I heard routinely ridiculed when I was studying and then teaching in an English department.

And so it goes in the academic status games.

Applied disciplines (such as journalism, nursing, management) have less status than “pure” ones: philosophy, biology, mathematics. And within disciplines, there is typically a status hierarchy, with theoretical pursuits having more dazzle than applied work. Art history and musicology trump the making of art or music. The theoretical mathematician has the status edge on the applied statistician. The literary theorist sits on a higher rung -- much higher -- than those in academe who teach writing.

Of course, such status dynamics are not absolute -- they are ignored, even subverted, by some faculty members, and an institution’s history and current reality come into play, as well. And in our era of the “entrepreneurial university” and economic accountability, traditional academic status markers might increasingly lessen in importance; what will count will be enrollment numbers and the employability prospects of a given major.

Still, as someone who has spent decades at a research university running a tutorial center and a freshman composition program, and then residing in a school of education -- all quite low in that disciplinary hierarchy -- I can tell you that judgments of intellectual virtue based on disciplinary affiliation are alive and well. They factor into all sorts of behaviors and decisions, from departmental funding to faculty promotion to the letters written for honors and awards -- like the one I read.

We have not even considered the more pronounced status differentials among various units at the college or university: for example, student services versus academic departments. And then there are the loaded status distinctions that people make among the different kinds of institutions of higher education in the United States: the community college versus the state college or university versus the research university -- with research universities scrambling to climb to the top of their own heap.

All professions generate status distinctions, so why should the field of higher education be any different? Fair enough; I take the point. But the thing that gets to me in all this is that distinctions are made through narrow and self-interested attributions of intelligence that hardly reflect the variety of ways people use their minds to acquire and apply knowledge, to reason, plan and solve problems. Furthermore, intelligence doesn’t reside inert in a discipline or a kind of work or in one segment of a system rather than another; intelligence emerges in activity and in context.

The attributions of intelligence I’m concerned with have much more to do with the preservation of power and prestige and turf rather than helping us all -- faculty members, administrators and students -- improve on what we do. Faculty members don’t get better at teaching by luxuriating in their bona fides or looking down on the department across the quad.

This last point about getting better at educating is at the center of a recent book by one of my colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, Alexander Astin, an expert on higher education in the United States. In Are You Smart Enough? Astin argues that colleges -- especially “elite” colleges -- are more concerned with acquiring status markers of intelligence (high GPAs and test scores among entering students, faculty publication numbers, and so on) rather than creating the conditions for students to become more intelligent during their time in college. Instead of the competing to attract students already identified as smart, Astin wonders, what if colleges put increased effort into helping more students become smarter through greater attention to teaching, mentoring and enrichment activities? It’s a provocative and important question.

Back now to that letter. Over the years, I’ve spent time in many sectors of higher education, from a medical school to a community college tutoring center, and one of the things that has most struck me is the distribution of intelligence across the domains of the enterprise. To be sure, I’ve observed the routine pursuit of trivial research, uninspired teaching, unimaginative management and tireless self-promotion. A whole host of sins spread across areas of study and levels of the system. But I’ve also witnessed insight and inspiration, deeply humane problem solving, and moments of brilliance in both a writing and a mathematics classroom, a counseling session, a meeting of tutorial center coordinators, a laboratory, and a library. No little domain has a lock on being smart.

Mike Rose is a research professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education and The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker (The New Press, 2012).

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Lincoln University's decision to suspend its history major ignores W.E.B. Du Bois's important vision (essay)

Lincoln University -- a historically black university located in Jefferson City, Mo. -- suspended its major in history on its 150th anniversary. Explaining why that step was necessary, the president of the university emphasized, “We must make decisions like these as we look toward the future and the needs of the changing workforce.” Embedded within that statement is a declaration about higher education and its purpose: higher education should make good, high-paid workers. We should step back and ask whether this is really what we want from higher education.

Since I took my first academic position in 2010, I have continually heard in the news media, from visiting speakers and many other people that transforming students into employees is the purpose of higher education. Whenever I hear this, I cannot help but recall one particular graduate seminar when we discussed the writings of Marxist Louis Althusser. The discussion turned to higher education, and some people in the class claimed higher education was little more than part of a plot to provide good and obedient workers to the bourgeoisie. At the time, I thought that was overly reductive. I mean, we were talking about the supposed conspiracy of the bourgeoisie in class at an institution of higher education; surely this was not part of the plan.

Once I got my first academic job, however, I learned that this really was the perennial question in higher education. What should our general education curriculum look like? On which majors should we focus our resources? The answer was always put in the form of another question -- what do employers want from our graduates?

Perhaps because of the rising costs of higher education, politicians have increasingly said that the point of higher education is for students to make lots of money in their chosen careers. Is that what we want from higher education? Maybe a better question would be is that the only thing we want from higher education?

In her recent article in The American Historian, Nancy F. Cott indicates it is hard for humanities degrees -- like history -- to compete with degrees related to engineering if the only significant variable is potential earnings. One study found that throughout their careers, engineers consistently earned more than graduates in the humanities. But then, not everyone wants to be an engineer. As Cott phrased it, neither would we really want “to see an educated world populated by engineers only.” The fact is people educated in the humanities go on to important, although often not quite as lucrative, careers in education, government, law and a host of other interesting and relevant occupations.

Since students enter into significant debt to earn their diplomas, it seems reasonable for students to expect some return on their often significant investments. I hope as we review what we value in education, however, we do not simply ask which majors lead to the most lucrative careers.

Du Bois and Shaping Lives in the Present

What is higher education for? Should it exist solely for the purpose of manufacturing workers who make the greatest amount of money? It’s not a new question. It’s one that the renowned African-American historian W. E. B. Du Bois wrestled with in his speech commemorating Lincoln University’s 75th anniversary in 1941. He worried that the temptation would “come and recur to make an institution like this, a means of earning a living or of adding to income rather than an institution of learning.” Du Bois believed the kind of students Lincoln produced would end up changing the world for the better -- that it would be Lincoln students who would “show the majority the way of life.” Not from privileged and “powerful groups which from time to time rule the world have come salvation and culture,” he said, “but from the still small voice of the oppressed and the determined who knew more than to die and plan more than mere survival.” In short, Du Bois hoped that Lincoln would become “a center where the cultural outlook of this country is to be changed and uplifted and helped in the reconstruction of the world.”

Why did Du Bois believe that students at a university like Lincoln would be so influential? Du Bois recognized the power of history to shape lives in the present, and he rightly believed that this nation needed more diverse students if the status quo was ever going to change. In Du Bois’s day, history was being used to justify violence against African-Americans. In 1915, the original version of The Birth of a Nation premiered in the United States. In that movie, President Woodrow Wilson’s book History of the American People was regularly quoted. Audiences around the country saw Wilson declare through this movie that Reconstruction had been a misguided failure during which “the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences.”

Wilson and many other people in the academy were part of what eventually became known as the Dunning School of Reconstruction History. For William Dunning, the historian for whom the broader school was named, Reconstruction was a failure because great numbers of the recently emancipated slaves “gave themselves up to testing their freedom. They wandered aimless but happy through the country.”

According to Dunning, it was Southern whites who “devoted themselves with desperate energy to the procurement of what must sustain the life of both themselves and their former slaves.” Lesson learned: black political participation meant misery for all, but exclusive white control meant the best for both black and white Southerners. The Dunning School of Reconstruction History justified the exclusion of black people from politics, and it implicitly justified the violence used to maintain that exclusion.

W. E. B. Du Bois labored to contradict those impressions. In his now widely read The Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois argued that it was not the irresponsible silliness of black people that doomed Reconstruction but rather the impossible problems facing the recently freed slaves. Reflecting upon the failure of efforts to make Southern African-Americans truly free, Du Bois noted that the Freedmen’s Bureau could not even “begin the establishment of goodwill between ex-masters and freedmen,” and perhaps most important, it could not “carry out to any considerable extent its implied promises to furnish the freedmen with land.”

Adding to the impossible challenge was the fact that much of the legislation created during Reconstruction was intended to punish the white South rather than empower the recently emancipated. As viewed by Du Bois, black equality was a cudgel used to punish the rebellious South rather than a goal in and of itself. Without any real support for black equality in either the North or the South, how could we expect anything but failure from Reconstruction? Because of those failures, black people suffered under the weight of white supremacy.

White historians largely ignored Du Bois’s conclusions for years; it was not until higher education expanded to include a wide swath of the American population -- due in large part to the GI Bill -- that more historians came to accept what he had long argued. Today, the vast majority of historians of Reconstruction accept his premise that many capable black politicians participated in the Reconstruction. Many worked to expand roads and education to include a plurality of the Southern population. At the time, their opponents saw this as waste and corruption, but the vision of those black politicians more closely aligned with our own expectations. We -- like they -- expect our governments to maintain public roads and public education. History looks different from the bottom up.

Reversing Dominant Narratives

Du Bois did not mention the degree in history specifically in his speech in 1941, but his life’s work demonstrated the importance he placed upon the historical imagination. He correctly predicted that making the academy more diverse would change the world for the better. History has been used to justify white supremacy, and it has been used to undermine it as well. As the population of historians changed, so too has the accepted narrative of the academy. That’s why Du Bois did not ask what majors earned the most money upon graduation but had a loftier vision for Lincoln’s future. America needed impassioned graduates from schools like Lincoln. Someone had to help reverse the dominant narratives prevalent in 1941 about black inferiority.

On Lincoln University’s 75th anniversary, Du Bois provided a powerful argument in favor of empowering Lincoln’s students to go and change the world. I fear that the end of history at Lincoln University means students will have less ability to do so in the future. That saddens me, because our national history is particularly relevant today. In 2016, a reinterpretation of The Birth of a Nation is set to debut and likely make radically different claims than its 1915 namesake. Why did the creators of this new movie -- which will document the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner -- give it that name? In 2016, some people have suggested that the civil rights movement of the 1960s was relatively short and its goals were largely accomplished. How then do we explain the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement? Do these protesters fail to understand just how racially progressive our country has become? In 2016, some politicians have suggested that the United States is a nation founded by white ideas -- or “Western civilization” -- and people of color are guests. Are they right?

Our history as a nation has been used to answer those kinds of questions, and someone is going to be answering these questions in the future. In addition to asking what employers want our graduates to do, we should also ask whom we want to answer such important questions.

Graduates -- whether in the humanities, sciences or engineering -- will continue to get relevant and interesting jobs. Some will get paid more than others. In finding the right major, students will have to make strategic choices about what they want for their lives. Having spoken with many students, I know many are not so single-mindedly focused upon profit. Many have more philanthropic purposes in mind for their education. By so circumscribing the range of possibilities, however, we are creating a future in which Lincoln’s graduates will be able to get jobs but maybe not make history.

J. Mark Leslie is an associate professor of history at Lincoln University.

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review of Huiling Ding, 'Rhetoric of Global Epidemic: Transcultural Communication about SARS'

Three people in the United States have contracted the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, so far -- two while traveling abroad, the third through contact with one of them. Another 600 or so cases have been diagnosed elsewhere in the world since MERS first appeared in early fall of 2012, according to the World Health Organization.

Or rather, that many cases are now confirmed. It could well be that more people have had MERS (wherever in the world they may be) and endured it as if a terrible flu; it’s also possible to be exposed to it and develop antibodies without showing any of the symptoms. With a new disease, solid information tends to spread more slowly than the vectors carrying it. Some of the online news coverage calls the disease “highly contagious.” But that doesn’t really count as solid information: while MERS has proven fatal about a third of the time, it seems not to be readily transmissible in public settings.

No travel advisory has been issued, nor are special precautions being recommended to the general public, though health care workers are vulnerable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests washing your hands regularly and keeping them away from eyes, nose, and mouth as much as possible -- hygiene recommendations of the most generic sort.

But the fearsome label “highly contagious” became almost inevitable when MERS was branded with a name so close to that of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. For SARS was highly contagious; that’s what made it so terrifying. I use the past tense because no new cases have been reported in 10 years. The rapid spread of SARS was halted, and in its wake international efforts to monitor and exchange information about emerging diseases have improved.

MERS ≠ SARS. Even so, its very name calls up the specter of a quick-moving, lethal, and global pandemic. And those connotations insinuate themselves into discourse on the new disease -- as if to ready us for panic.

Well, don’t. That would be premature. (Try not to lick doorknobs or French-kiss anyone with a wracking cough, and you’ll probably be just fine.) The start of the 21st century may well be what CDC director Thomas Friedan has called the "perfect storm of vulnerability”: unknown new diseases can continent-hop by airplane and test their strength against antibiotics that have become ever less effective, thanks to overuse. But humans can think while viruses cannot, and it seems at least possible that could prove the decisive advantage.

Consider a new book from Southern Illinois University Press called Rhetoric of a Global Epidemic: Transcultural Communication about SARS by Huiling Ding, who is an assistant professor of professional and technical communication at North Carolina State University. It is a work of some factual and conceptual density, but I suspect it will play some role in how information about disease outbreaks will be organized and delivered in the future.

Ding has not set out to write the history of SARS, but she does reconstruct and scrutinize how bureaucracies and mass media, both east and west, communicated among themselves and with their publics as the disease emerged in China in November 2002 and began spreading to other countries in the new year. Her analytical tool kit includes elements of classical (even Aristotelean) rhetoric as well as a taxonomy of kinds of cultural flow based on Arjun Appadurai’s anthropology of globalization.

The author prefers to identify her approach as "critical contextualized methodology,” but for the purpose of making introductions we might do better to dwell on a single guiding distinction. Ding is wary of a number of established assumptions implied by the term "intercultural communication,” the very name of which implies two or more distinct cultures, standing at a certain distance from one another, exchanging messages. When things are so configured, “culture” will sooner or later turn out to mean, or to imply, “nation” -- whereupon “state” is sure to follow.

By contrast, "transcultural communication” drags no such metonymic chain behind it. It has a venerable history, with roots in Latin American cultural studies. “Transculturation,”writes Ding, “can be used to describe a wide range of global phenomena, including exile, immigration, multicultural contact, ethnic conflicts, interracial marriages, overseas sojourns, and transnational tourism.” A transcultural perspective focuses on layers and processes that constitute different societies without being specific to any one of them, and that can themselves be in flux.

So, to choose a SARS-related example, referring to "Chinese mass media” will, for most Americans, evoke a relatively simple-seeming concept -- one that involves messages in a single language, circulated through certain well-established forms of transmission (newspapers, radio, television) among a population of citizens living within the borders of a nation-state (presumably the PRC). I dare say “American mass media” has analogous implications for people in China, or wherever.

But whatever sense that outlook once might have made, it now distorts far more than it clarifies. The range and the audience of mass media are in constant flux; the messages they transmit do not respect national borders.

“My research,” Ding said in an email interview, "shows different values and practices of traditional newspapers housed in Beijing and Guangzhou (mainstream and commercial ones) despite the exertion of censorship during the early stage of SARS.” The People’s Daily, official mouthpiece of the Chinese leadership, remained silent on the health crisis until as late as March 2003. But by January 2003, regional newspapers in small cities began reporting on the panic-buying of antiviral drugs and surgical masks -- information that then became known elsewhere in the country, via the Internet, as well as to “overseas Chinese” around the world, well before the crisis was international news.

Ding also discusses the “ad hoc civic infrastructure” that sprang up during the outbreak, such as the website Sosick.org, which engineers in Hong Kong created to circulate information about local SARS cases and encourage voluntary quarantines. "Concerned citizens can learn from coping strategies from other cultures,” she said by email, "be it communities, regions, or countries, and adapt such strategies to cope with local problems. For instance, I am working on another project on quarantine policies and practices during SARS in Singapore, mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Canada…. Such bottom-up efforts often carry persuasive power, and in the case of Hong Kong, did help to introduce policy changes.”

Her reference to “persuasive power” is a reminder that Ding’s book belongs to the tradition of rhetorical scholarship. She devotes part of the book to an analysis of enthymemes in official Chinese commentaries on the crisis, for example. (An enthymeme is a deductive argument in which one of the assumptions goes unstated.) That a grassroots quarantine movement on two continents proved more successful and persuasive than state-sanctioned efforts to maintain social order is easy to believe.

What we need, Ding told me, are analyses of the "communication practices of global and/or flexible citizens, or multi-passport holders who regularly travel across continents in search of fame, wealth, or influence. Their familiarity with multiple cultures certainly introduce interesting transcultural communication strategies.” That bottom-up appeals for quarantine proved effective in a number of countries suggests she could be right: cultivating new skills in communication and persuasion might well be crucial for dealing with other public health crises, down the line.

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New book calls on higher education to defend disciplines, not weaken them

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New book, In Defense of Disciplines, questions the rush to interdisciplinary work, and argues that the trend has eroded intellectual life and faculty power.

Company unveils line of free online courses from elite college faculty

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Through a new company, professors at Dartmouth, Duke, Stanford, UVa and other high-profile institutions are making their courses available online free.

Provosts worry they provide too little training to department chairs

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Private college academic officers say department heads are hurt by increasing complexity of jobs and lack of training -- with possible implications for quality of education.

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

How universities are organized can confuse not only the sympathetic, casual observer of higher education but students and staff members as well.

One campus has a college of arts and sciences, another has separate colleges of sciences, humanities and social science. Microbiology can be in the college of natural resources and environment at one place, and in the school of sciences or the medical school somewhere else. Modern foreign languages appear organized in departments that encompass all of the modern foreign languages and their literatures, in departments devoted to Spanish and Portuguese, French and Italian, or other combinations.

Insiders know, however, that all of these organizational permutations reflect not only significant changes in the universe of knowledge but also internal structures of personality, politics, money and power as well as the external pressures of fad, fashion or funding. Academic reorganization is a frequent exercise on university campuses, and often generates tremendous controversy because each effort signifies a potential for gain or loss in academic positioning for money, power and prestige.

Although, to outsiders, the warfare that these reorganizations frequently provoke can often appear out of proportion to the stakes involved, insiders know that organizational structure can influence internal distributions of resources. Even more importantly for many faculty and students, the organizational structure serves as a prestige map.

Reorganizations that adjust the boundaries of campus subunits are among the most complicated of issues because often reorganization is a good and effective thing while in other cases that look almost the same, it is a scam. Reorganization as an internal political exercise occurs frequently, but so too do readjustments to reflect the expansion and redefinition of knowledge. Separating the substantive from the political requires some careful observation.  

For example, the development of a subdiscipline into a major field of study is a complex and fascinating process that produces new departments such as computer science or biomedical engineering. The emergence of new departments or academic guilds follows the development of specific intellectual domains with their own methodology, journals, research agenda, and definition of the particular intellectual skills required to advance knowledge in that area.

The academic guilds eventually determine what new fields have reached sufficient maturity of methodology and intellectual focus to warrant separate status as departments, with the attendant definition of a specific set of requirements for the Ph.D. and often a particular pattern of courses for an undergraduate major. Often national funding agencies and research foundations help advance these changes by supporting research based in defined departments that can give the new research direction and continuity.

Although these intellectual advances often produce some controversy about the point at which a subfield deserves to recognition as a major discipline with its own department, much of the controversy turns on  legitimate intellectual issues of methodology and academic substance.  These represent significant efforts to readjust the academic world to match advances in knowledge and the organization of scholarship.

Other reorganizations represent mostly varieties of academic game playing. They reflect much less academic substance and instead turn on issues of politics, power, prestige and money.

The game often takes place in shadow form, with highly evolved intellectual arguments that underneath speak to the issues of prestige and money. If one department consolidates with another, the loss in academic status for the members of this consolidated unit can be devastating. Similarly, if a field gains separate bureaucratic status as an independent department, a substantial status gain results. It is much better to be a department of Spanish than a field within a department of Romance languages. It is much better to be a school of journalism than a department of the College of Arts and Sciences. The goal of these organizational transformations is for subgroups of like-minded faculty to have a seat at the institutional table for the distribution of resources, rather than to suffer the risk of having someone less sympathetic to their particular subdiscipline speak for them.

Other organizational anomalies reflect historical, accidental or opportunistic events. Some institutions, concerned that the traditional arts and sciences reflected a domain too large for effective administration, divided the disciplines into subgroups: humanities, social sciences, and sciences or some variation. In such cases, departments like history reside within either the humanities or the social sciences, depending on the intellectual fashion of historians at the time of reorganization.

Business schools can acquire business-like units, and a management school at one institution may include such programs as sports and hospitality management while in another these programs reside in colleges of human performance or continuing education or in separate freestanding schools of hospitality management.  Music departments live within colleges of humanities and fine arts or exist as separate schools of their own depending on their size, their focus on performance as opposed to theory or history, and the accidents of their original founding.  

Many campus leaders take on reorganization projects to try to align the bureaucratic structure of units with a clear sense of the institution’s academic mission.  These efforts can provide a major focus of engagement for the campus, occupy faculty task forces and councils in heady debate, and then, after an extended period, produce a new organizational matrix.

The value of such reorganization varies. Sometimes reorganization can reduce the fragmentation of the campus produced by prior political warfare, consolidate micro-administrative units, and achieve some economies of scale in staff and management. In other cases, the reorganization simply serves to distract the campus from the need to work harder, better and more competitively. Reorganization changes take much time and energy and often substitute for the real work of requiring performance from the units. Reorganization is also a highly visible form of executive leadership that places senior administrators in publicity rewarding, take-charge roles.  

The beauty of a reorganization initiative in this context is that it has no measurable outcome. No one has an obligation to demonstrate that the new organization is more effective than the old one, and even if it is more effective, the results will not appear for several years. Reorganization achieves the appearance of significant administrative leadership without an obligation to deliver any improvement in the quality or productivity of teaching or research. And refocuses everyone inward on the internal competition for position, place and money, diverting attention from the necessity of competing against the outside marketplaces of higher education. 

Other reorganizations, however, follow the money. In cases where a particular subunit of a campus becomes remarkably successful at attracting external funding, a frequent result is a reorganization that gives the highly successful unit separate bureaucratic identity. Sometimes this occurs through the invention of institutes and centers, which are holding places for academic entrepreneurial success. In other cases, subunits of traditional departments or programs become independent departments, such as polymer sciences or legal studies. A music department can acquire external resources, hire nationally preeminent faculty, and emerge as a freestanding music school.  A journalism department can expand its scale through grants, external programs, and fund raising and break free from a college of arts and sciences to become its own school.

For those conversant in the internal political dynamics of universities, the organizational chart of departments, schools, and colleges, and the list of centers and institutes, serve as a guide to the political history of the campus’s intellectual enterprise. By reviewing this chart, a newcomer acquires a sense of the relative political power and intellectual and financial muscle of the various campus units.  

University systems also have their own particular and peculiar organizational structures that they revise and reorder frequently, also in response to political and fiscal pressures of various kinds, but that is a topic for another day.

John V. Lombardi
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