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.
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.
War. Pestilence. Famine. All in the paper again today. And tomorrow. And the day after that. Are we, the people, serious about peace or justice? What I want to know: Who excused the humanities from this mess? I keep trying to draw my professors, the ones I had in college and any others I know, into the fray. We have the tools for the job.
The play, the painting, the music are not the end state. It’s Shakespeare, Cezanne, Mozart standing along the road and reaching out to us on our marathon with a cup of Gatorade. Isn’t The Tempest a lesson for the ages in resiliency after we screw up? That life goes on, albeit with a cost? Matisse asks that we look anew once we walk out of the gallery. Hard to imagine that J.S. Bach wanted us to head home from church and debate key signatures.
Before me, calling the question, are a headline about stem cells and an e-mail from Iraq. Same one you read about two teams of scientists embarking on stem-cell research. Not for the ride but to try for cures to dreadful diseases. The e-mail is from my friend Rich Morales, an Army lieutenant colonel fighting in his second Gulf war. A former White House Fellow, Rich wrote, “I lost a good friend on Memorial Day. That day always meant something to me symbolically, now it’s even more personal. Additionally, my good friend who I worked with in the White House lost a brother here a few weeks ago." Note: Rich writes, too, "I love my country" and doesn't take sides in the politics.
How can we tackle stem cells and leave Rich and his troops sitting in danger? We need to figure out how to stop fighting wars. The U.S. spends billions on research for medicine, science and engineering. Perhaps the rest of us are not looking hard enough for peace. I don’t mean that the humanities have all the answers. The people at the table with the big questions might just need some help.
Why do the hard scientists, as humanists grumble, have all the huge grant money? The party line: “Blame the politicians for the lousy funding.” My hypothesis: “It’s the questions. The humanities asks lousy questions.” Look at the carnage of the 20th Century. Is the human condition, our field, doing any better these days? Not yet. Enough to suggest that the world’s problems would welcome a few new ideas. Why don’t the humanities take responsibility for peace and for justice? Someone has to.
This humanities situation grabbed me by the throat one afternoon a few years ago, 13,780 feet up on Mauna Kea (Live Webcam. Take a look.) for a board meeting of the 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. I asked an astronomer what he was working on. “The equation state of the universe.” Best I can translate: “Where is the universe going and when will it get there?” The magnificent audacity of scientists delights me. They’ll model the whole thing – the universe or a genome. Only the start of the question. Look at where these scientists begin. Christian Veillet, director of the telescope project, also leads a Bach choir and was first to tell me of the Motets.
Here’s the rub. I’ve spent my career so far in business and government. Without the humanities, without The Odyssey or King Lear or Richard II or The Tempest, I would understand even less than I do. My MBA opens doors. Debit left, credit right never hurts. As for the tools for solving problems, my humanities win every time. Again and again, I fail at convincing my professors and their colleagues that they have to take on The Big Questions. I can’t explain sitting on the sidelines to any troops serving in Iraq. Astrophysicists want to model the universe? Be my guest. We’ll model peace. And then justice. What does peace look like?
Humans are good at dissecting Really Big Problems. If a car starts in Washington, D.C., we can map the supply chain and macroeconomic links to a death in Darfur. Time to chart the periodic table of emotional elements here. Why we start our car, anyway. We’re missing something.
A few days after Mauna Kea, I met with some English professors who lamented their department’s aging computers. Their English students had to rely on the generosity of the oceanographers and their computer lab. Fair? Well, we realized, the oceanographers were writing grants to end global warming. The line item for computers was a detail.
The hard scientists are earning their keep. My heroes of the century past are Jonas Salk and Norman Borlaug. Borlaug’s work still feeds millions by putting more grains of wheat on shorter stalks. The rest of us aren’t creating human conditions that can accept these advances at enough scale.
What, with our metaphors, would transform a humanist into a Salk or a Borlaug? Why do we shirk such an impact? For the scientists, it seems, the analysis is a building block toward the shape of the universe or a cure or clean water. I despair. At a humanities conference, I put this to a newly tenured Ivy League art historian. “Well, your question presumes that utility of knowledge is a value,” he said. Almost enough to make me regret Salk’s efforts.
I’m sitting here, too, with books that don’t help my cause. The Discoveries, Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science, Including the Original Papers. By Alan Lightman (Pantheon Books, 2005). The other, The New Humanists: Science at the Edge by John Brockman (A Barnes and Noble Book, 2003). Science at the edge? No luck so far on digests of humanities’ accomplishments.
I do consider, on these searches, that if I can I see a problem, I must be wrong. Someone has to be working on this. I Googled "model for peace." A hit at the UNESCO Web site. Promising, but not exactly the "model" I expected: A fashion model who is an advocate for peace. At least Patricia Velasquez is thinking out of the box.
The NEH could have a center that, metaphorically, does what NIAC does: “seeks proposals for revolutionary aeronautics and space concepts that could dramatically impact how NASA develops and conducts its missions. It provides a highly visible, recognizable, and high-level entry point for outside thinkers and researchers. NIAC encourages proposers to think decades into the future in pursuit of concepts that will ‘leapfrog’ the evolution of current aerospace systems. While NIAC seeks advance concept proposals that stretch the imagination, these concepts should be based on sound scientific principles and attainable within a 10 to 40-year time frame.”
Humanists could write the equivalent of Science in Action, How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society, by Bruno Latour (Harvard University Press, 1987). I can’t be alone in thinking that we are insulting to J.S. Bach or Shakespeare or Orwell that that we’re just supposed to sit there as an end. Another alarm is the fine reporting in Radical Evolution, The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – and What it Means to Be Human, by Joel Garreau (Doubleday, 2005). (Disclosure, Joel is a friend.) Mankind is at work enhancing our bodies and our technical minds. No similar efforts enhancing kindness or generosity or ability to walk away from a fight.
Over the years, the humanities establishment has not missed a chance to surrender necessity and national security to all other fields. Congress just added a supplement to the Pell Grant to encourage study in, where? Science and math and engineering and only languages deemed essential to national security. Why did we yield the SMART grant, acronym and funding, to other disciplines? With the U.S. government “waterboarding” humans they call “detainees,” poor command of English is eroding national security.
I checked in Oslo, though those folks only pay for results, Nobel at least offer s a bit of inspiration, how to think like a Nobel Laureate. Try the one about running a prison camp. The challenge for the humanities is to prevent situations that require prison camps. Yes, I know about the Kluge Prize in human sciences. Another that stops at thought: “The main criterion for a recipient of the Kluge Prize is deep intellectual accomplishment in the human sciences.”
I tried our own National Endowment for the Humanities. Anything motivating, inspiring? Hortatory or even instructive? Not that I found on the Web page. Entertaining but not much use if we are going for the big questions is Tom Wolfe and his NEH Jefferson Lecture. I adore Wolfe, but no help here. More whirled peas than world peace. No section on the questions we must answer to improve the human condition.
I know funding for these models for peace and justice will not roll off presses at Bureau of Printing and Engraving without some sweat and blisters. And some battles.
In the U.S., the federal government spends $15 billion a year, as far as I could total, for research at universities. Our $50 million for peace is not going to fall into anyone’s lap just for imaginative thinking. One thing to be intrigued. Quite another to develop the $100 million grant for justice. I can’t assume those with the grants are looking to share.
We humanists deal often in adages when we are stuck. Here’s one: “If you want something done right.….” I cranked “Carnegie Endowment for International Peace” into Google, hit the Contact Us button and let fly. (Adage: Faint heart wins little.) On Memorial Day, by coincidence.
-----Original Message----- From: Wick Sloane [mailto:email@example.com] Sent: Monday, May 29, 2006 6:27 PM To: Info Subject: Visiting Scholar/Grant Application Congratulations on the fine work of the Endowment. Would you direct me to the information I need to consider making a proposal for funding to design a model for world, or international, peace?
Thank you very much.
J.R.W. Sloane One Avon Place Cambridge, Massachusetts 02140
Reply came the next morning before even the coffee could have warmed up at Carnegie.
-------- Original Message -------- Subject: RE: Visiting Scholar/Grant Application Date: Tue, 30 May 2006 09:01:37 -0400 From: Info To: Wick Sloane I'm sorry but the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is not a grant-making organization.
Thank you for your interest.
Where might I turn? I wrote back. No reply.
Note to Jessica Tuchman Matthews, Carnegie President: Whacking the person on a.m. e-mail duty would be a poor response. Instead, let’s have a power breakfast up the street at Kramerbooks. Isn’t the 20th century evidence enough that we need a better handle on the components and causes of peace? Invite Patricia Velasquez.
If you don’t mind a metaphor, shall we let John Milton, asking for help in beginning Paradise Lost, set the bar for a project well beyond our everyday reach?
I thence Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song, That with no middle flight intends to soar Above th' Aonian mount, while it pursues Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
Or in modeling peace?
Wick Sloane is chief operating officer at Generon Consulting in Massachusetts and former chief financial officer of the University of Hawaii system.
It’s time for a new metaphor for higher education. If, like me, you are tired of hearing the academy referred to as an ivory tower, cringe at the description of the disciplines within higher education as silos, and resist the idea of higher education as just another consumer-oriented business, let me suggest the following. How about higher education as a community greenhouse?
Why a community greenhouse? A greenhouse is a protected environment where individuals can grow unique, delicate and beneficial vegetation that may not flourish in a more general environment. A community greenhouse enables all members of the community to partake in the advantages that emerge from the plant life that is cultivated within that protected environment. The quality of the lives of the community members are enriched because of the creations that materialize from the endeavors of academics who dedicate their lives to specialized studies within the community greenhouse.
The era of the academy as an ivory tower is over and yet, there are components of this metaphor that remain salient. This metaphor brings to mind images of scholars protected from the environment around them, free to engage in their intellectual pursuits, afforded a broad view of the world from atop their lofty perch. The public has historically placed confidence in the work of academics because of the notion that the ivory tower produced an objective view; there was a purposeful separation between members of the academy and the world around them. This separation appeared necessary to address issues of the public good in an unbiased manner.
Now public sentiment criticizes the academy precisely because of the distance this metaphor depicts between us and the rest of society. I believe we should reject this metaphor because it denies the genuine connections academics make with other individuals within our society and the contributions they make to the welfare of these individuals.
True, at times our work does require protection from the elements of our environment. It sometimes requires distance from the economic, political and social forces that often change abruptly, and not always for the better, and can readily damage the potential benefit held in the saplings of our scholarship. Even the hardier vegetation that has borne fruit over time can be endangered without proper care and the right mix of nutrients for continued growth.
A community greenhouse environment provides this protection and, even more importantly, acts as an impetus for greater growth and development of our intellectual pursuits. The walls, rather than being solid stone, are transparent, allowing sunlight to permeate to nourish our plants. The ceiling is not dark and dank, but is covered with sprinklers and vents, allowing moisture and air to nurture our greenery.
The view from a community greenhouse may not be as lofty as the one from an ivory tower, but it is more realistic. The transparency of the walls permits academics to look out on their world and understand their place within it, rather than from above it. Perhaps more importantly, the clear walls allow others to see in. The doors on the greenhouse are not bolted; there are no moats or drawbridges around the structure. The greenhouse is for the community and community members are encouraged to come in to hear lectures, see performances, and engage with faculty in examining the world we co-inhabit. Students are welcomed year after year to immerse themselves in the beauty and richness of the community greenhouse. Families of students and alumni must be openly received and invited to partake in the fruits of labor of the members of the academy.
Many of the problems with the metaphor of the academy as an ivory tower are also present in the metaphor of the academy as a set of disciplinary silos. This symbolism also conjures up notions of protection and separation. The walls of the silos are impenetrable, the wealth of scholarly vegetation locked inside, unavailable to the surrounding community. Further, the image of silos signifies a distance and lack of sharing among members of the academy themselves. The symbol depicts academics as narrowly focused and consumed by turf battles and intellectual greed.
Yet, there are some positive components of the silo metaphor that can be encompassed in the community greenhouse. The specialized focus put forth by the silo metaphor has its advantages. Individuals who specialize in the study of precise and detailed topics undoubtedly create knowledge and value for all of society. The neurosurgeon who specializes in a particular procedure for individuals with traumatic brain injuries. The photojournalist who devotes her whole life to the pursuit of capturing human emotions to communicate the stories of individuals with people around the world. The engineer who develops safer, more stable construction methods for our air travel. Are we not better off because of the specialization each of these individuals has undertaken and sustained?
Similarly, the specialized focus that many, but certainly not all, academics maintain in their scholarly pursuits is vital to yield many future gains. It may not be immediately evident what the outcomes will be, but without individuals willing to devote their attention, for years on end, to the lifecycles of specific amphibians, to the long-term trends in economic markets, or to the behavior of rodents under strictly specified conditions, many great discoveries that could benefit the community would never be made. The intense focus with which these academics labor may appear narrow to some but it affords them the opportunity to commit themselves to seeing their work to fruition. In the community greenhouse, they are free to pursue this specialized study and to better resist distractions from their work, temptations to distort their scientific aims, or the pull of the market forces to value short-term gains over long-term investments.
The community greenhouse environment safeguards academics and their work, enabling them to specialize and share the ideas they harvest with other academics who, in turn, build upon those ideas in the creation of new knowledge.
This is not to say that academics shouldn’t try to expand their understanding of the world around them. We have all known academics who seem a bit out of touch with “the real world,” who don’t understand the pressures their students are under, or who don’t appreciate the work world those students will enter. While a narrow focus can be beneficial for discovery, a broader view is often needed for the dissemination of knowledge learned through those discoveries and, equally important, for receiving knowledge about the world around us from others.
Many academics, working across disciplines in teams, are addressing “real world” problems and discovering crossbreed shoots of knowledge to share with each other, their students, and the rest of the community. The community greenhouse environment encourages cross-disciplinary work and the training of students in interdisciplinary fields. Several problem-based work areas are set up in the community greenhouse with academics working in close proximity not only with each other, but with students and community members. The value of the rich exchange of new hybrids given to community members in return for input and feedback on what works best in the outside community cannot be overestimated. Many academics leave the borders of the greenhouse to explore and bring back vital information to further their research and teaching. Many venture into the larger community to plant new growth there, in the hope that it will flourish outside of the community greenhouse environment.
The notion of bringing the academy into the “real world” has led a number of individuals to promote the metaphor of the academy as a business. This symbolism creates an image of academics as producers of knowledge, with the community and students their primary consumers. A greater accountability to the public at large is called for through cost studies outlining the success of research endeavors, outcomes testing for students graduating from higher education institutions, and pressure to limit or eliminate tenure for academics.
Many members of the academy balk at the idea of education as a business, particularly at the notion of profit as the bottom-line. They resist the idea that knowledge is a commodity acquired simply through tuition payment. Rather, they see learning as a mutual process that requires effort on both the part of the teacher and the student. They are concerned that a business model would curtail some of the characteristics of higher education that have resulted in many impressive outcomes -- long-term studies, investment in more focused and sometimes more atypical research, and freedom from economic, political, and social pressures to maintain the autonomy they currently enjoy in their teaching and scholarly pursuits. Surely, such limitations would injure not only academics, but students and other members of the surrounding community.
Still, there are some aspects of the business metaphor that make sense in the community greenhouse metaphor. A business, if it is well-intentioned, conducts a needs assessment and markets its products or services based on the needs established by the community it serves. Likewise, a community greenhouse welcomes input from the surrounding community in deciding and developing its initiatives. What types of plants are needed in the community? What types of botanical problems are the community members facing and what types of assistance could they use to address these problems? It would be imprudent for academics not to consider this input as they undertake their teaching and research.
A business also holds itself accountable to shareholders or the public. The community greenhouse should follow this lead. A community greenhouse has a limited amount of space, materials, and other resources to devote to teaching and scholarship. It is critical that these resources are used wisely. This does not mean that profit is always the bottom-line, but is does mean that increased accountability for how resources are used and what outcomes have resulted from this use must be a priority for academics.
It is my experience that most of my academic colleagues are highly productive both in and outside of the classroom. The dilemma I have observed is that sometimes we are too busy to effectively communicate the results of that work to key stakeholders – students, their family members, policy-makers, taxpayers, and the community at large. A lesson or two from the business community on how to highlight achievements and market success could greatly promote the work undertaken in the community greenhouse. We have to let people know what’s inside the greenhouse for them.
The higher education community greenhouse isn’t ideal. The doors and vents may sometimes stay closed for too long, creating a somewhat artificial environment. The windows may fog up or become more opaque at times. It may be hard for the community to see some of the plants growing in isolated corners of the structure. And, of course, there are a few weeds growing in the greenhouse. Perhaps we need to spend more time cleaning the vents and wiping the windows. Yes, it takes time away from what we may consider the fundamental purpose of our work, but if we don’t devote time to this, our plants may fail to thrive. We need to invite more people in to let them see what we are growing and exchange ideas with them for future plantings. We must continue to venture out more into the community to see what will grow best under less controlled conditions.
While not perfect, I believe the metaphor of the academy as a community greenhouse captures the richness and openness of the academy. As I traverse my own campus, I am intrigued and delighted by the many wonders that are growing in this environment. I see dedicated academics, researchers and teachers, toiling over the small plot of earth or set of potted plants where they have settled to conduct their own life-long learning and have committed themselves to the pursuit of knowledge. It is my hope that the metaphor of a community greenhouse will help us to continue to grow in sharing and celebrating the fruits of our labor with those in our community, just outside the greenhouse walls.
Carolinda Douglass is an associate professor of public health at Northern Illinois University.
“It is unacceptable to display any book in a public space of your home if you have not read it.” So runs the “prime directive” for bookshelf etiquette, as issued by a blogger for Time magazine named Matt Selman. At The American Prospect a couple of weeks ago, Ezra Klein responded in terms that are no less categorical – though hardly more sensible, it seems to me.
“Bookshelves are not for displaying books you've read,” says Klein; “those books go in your office, or near your bed, or on your Facebook profile. Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be. I am the type of person who would read long biographies of Lyndon Johnson, despite not being the type of person who has read any long biographies of Lyndon Johnson. I am the type of person who is very interested in a history of the Reformation, but am not, as it happens, the type of person with the time to read 900 pages on the subject. More importantly, I am the type of person who amasses many books, on all sorts of subjects. I'm pretty sure that's what a bookshelf is there to prove. The reading of those books is entirely incidental. The question becomes how we'll project all of this when Kindles takes off and all our books are digital.”
There is bravery in such candor. The word “poseur” is still around, after all, even if the people who study consumer behavior, and try to channel it, have coined the kinder and gentler term “aspirational taste” for this sort of thing. David Brooks could probably get a best-selling analysis of the American middle class out of the contrast between Selman’s moralistic injunction and Klein’s jaunty expression of dandyism. Just throw in some references to the difference between Blue and Red states, and the thing writes itself.
But after a grueling weekend of trying to impose some order on my study, I’m struck, not by the contrast between Selman and Klein, but by the degree to which they share common assumptions. Those assumptions are foreign to my own experience; and so it proves impossible to extract from either of them any maxim applying to local circumstances.
Klein and Selman seem to share a belief that book ownership can, and indeed should, serve as a medium for displaying something important about yourself. They signify either what you already know or whom you would like to be -- and (this is the major point) they do so for someone else. By this logic, bookshelves are a medium of social interaction. As a format for the “performance of self,” they transform one’s books into a way of attaining, or at least claiming, status. Hence the need to come up with rules, however informal, for what is permissible.
All of which makes perfect sense if and only if you are not a total nerd. Which, all things considered, is a pretty big “if.” A very different set of principles is in effect if you are someone for whom reading itself actually counts as one of the primary forms of social interaction. It’s not that you don’t have “aspirational taste,” of a kind. But the aspiration plays itself out in a very different manner -- with different consequences for how your living space is organized.
My experience (which can’t be unique) is that some books end up accumulating out of a misguided attempt to win the approval of authors already well-entrenched on my shelves. A few years back, for example, Slavoj Zizek started to insist that I had to be familiar with the work of Alain Badiou – a French poststructuralist philosopher whose work I had never heard of, let alone read. Well, OK, sure. Thanks to some busy translators, Badiou volumes started crowding in, next to all the Zizek titles.
But in short order, Badiou lets it be known that I am expected to understand something about mathematical set theory -- and furthermore should come to appreciate one particular approach to formalizing the basic axioms. Chances are, that second part is just not going to happen. I am willing to try to learn to recognize a formalized axiom when I see one, but can promise no more, and even that much is probably pushing it. So, anyway, off to the nearby secondhand bookshop in search of a couple of introductory works. They are terrifying. The shelf in question is starting to turn into a neighborhood I am afraid to visit.
But that is not the real problem. Around here, the “prime directive” is that there should not be any books on the floor. If a marriage is its own little civilization, this is among the basic clauses in our social contract. Insofar as “aspiration” comes into play, I find it operating at the level of daydreams about replacing one of the closets or windows with another set of shelves.
Clothing and the outside world are much overrated, in my opinion, which does not carry very much weight in this particular case. Bookshelves are storage; that is all. The idea of using them for “display” seems cute and improbable.
The online conversation generated by Selman’s and Klein’s remarks has at times reflected a kind of guilt that no really bookish person would feel. For there are, it seems, people who feel stress about owning volumes they haven’t read. Evidently some of them believe a kind of statute of limitations is in effect. If you don’t expect to read something in, say, the next year, then, it is wrong to own it. And in many cases, their superegos have taken on the qualities of a really stern accountant -- coming up with estimates of what percentage of the books on their shelves they have, or haven’t, gotten around to reading. Guilt and anxiety reinforce one another.
All of this reminds me of a friend who, while in high school, got about a hundred pages into Atlas Shrugged and realized that she loathed both Ayn Rand’s prose and ideas. But she kept slogging through the book, as often as she could work up the will to do so, and finally finished it sometime around her junior year of college. Persistence is a virtue, but it is not the only virtue, and sometimes it is really not good for you.
Beyond any particular virtue is the wisdom to know when and how to keep it in check. Just as persistence can get warped into a vice, so can the urge to be exhaustive, or the impulse to follow up the leads indicated in every footnote. The latter impulse is dangerous, for it leads to misanthropy: A scholar’s seemingly authoritative citations will sometimes turn out to have been pilfered directly from someone else’s seemingly authoritative citations -- without any actual reading of the texts involved, since given that the mistakes are preserved intact. It can be a sad day for one’s sense of human nature to discover this.
If you are going to have a moralizing voice in your head, maybe it’s best for it to sound like Francis Bacon, whose essays from the beginning of the 17th century are so much more sermon-like than the ones by Montaigne he was imitating. But "Of Studies" seems like a reasoned statement by a man of the world. “Some books are to be tasted,” writes Bacon, “others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
Likewise for bookshelves. Many items there are staples. Others are ingredients that, like salt, are only good in combination with something else. Some things you keep around are healthy, if not very tasty, while a few might count as junk food. (A couple of scholarly presses are indeed known for their Pop-Tarts.) And it’s hardly a decent pantry if you don’t have a few impulse purchases you later regret, or gourmandizing experiments that didn’t quite pan out. No formal rule can determine what belongs on the shelf and what doesn’t. It is, finally, a matter of taste.