Two months ago I started keeping a notebook about the presidential election -- in part to jot down my musings and fulminations in a real-time chronicle of the most terrifying length of track on this year’s roller-coaster ride, and in part to wean myself from the habit of snarling profanities at the cable television news. (It was scaring the cats.)
A nickname for the project suggested itself -- The Trump Dump. For it really has been just the one candidate -- his moods and his impulses, far more than his policies, insofar as they could ever be determined -- who set the terms and the pace of the entire contest. Making sense of 2016 meant making sense of Donald Trump, or, rather, of how he ever emerged as a serious political force. “He is impervious to every bullet he shoots into his own feet,” reads one of my notes from before the first debate. “It’s hard to keep thinking about this, but impossible to stop.”
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is all ineluctability and no enigma. She became the de facto presumptive Democratic candidate for 2016 no later than 2009. Even the scandals linked to her name seem perennial. As a tough-minded and successful professional woman in her 60s, Clinton embodies a misogynist’s worst nightmare, but that just means that the psychodrama of recent months has all been on the part of the candidate with the Tic Tacs.
The Clinton campaign’s greatest advantage was never her aura of inevitability, of course, but rather the widespread suspicion that a Trump presidency would prove to be, like a game of Russian roulette, altogether too exciting for everyone involved. HRC would have guaranteed us the comforts of familiar crises: annual displays of government-shutdown brinksmanship for one, along with a shrinking Supreme Court as the justices die off, with confirmation hearings postponed until after the latest presidential impeachment attempt.
In reading a selection of the master’s theses and doctoral dissertations on Hillary Clinton that academics completed between 1994 and May of this year, I’ve had much the same feeling: most of the scholarly attention to her has come from two or three disciplines and focused on a small range of topics.
I made two collections of abstracts from an online repository of theses and dissertations -- 30 in all, although one item appeared in both sets, bringing the total down to 29. The degrees sought were about evenly divided between the M.A. and the Ph.D., along with one Ed.D. and two M.S. degrees. A plurality of the work -- 10 out of all the theses or dissertations -- was identified as conducted in communications departments, with three more in rhetoric. Departments of political science, sociology, education and leadership studies hosted one study each, while two were listed as done in liberal studies programs. Of the five theses or dissertations for which no disciplinary affiliation was given, at least two or three showed an affinity to the study of rhetoric and communications -- historically, closely associated fields.
In short, more than half of the work on Clinton was performed by students working in rhetoric/communications. In a rough analysis of the topics, I found that 14 were clearly marked as focusing on gender (an implicit emphasis in a number of others). Ten each were identified as studies of rhetoric and media; three specified a focus on communication in general and three on online communication specifically. Seven concentrated on Clinton as first lady and nine on her 2008 campaign. All that said, I should make clear that a single thesis or doctoral dissertation might fall under up to three of these topical headings.
Over all, the emphasis of the studies was overwhelmingly on Clinton either as a user of some form of communication media or as an object of media representation. To give two master’s theses as examples, respectively: Christina Young Guest’s M.A. thesis, “Political Feminine Style and the Feminist Implications of the Respective Convention Speeches: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin” (University of Central Missouri, 2010), and Heidi Johnson’s “Clinton as Matron, Palin as MILF in 2008 Political Cartoons: Transformation in the Caricature of Female Authority?” (Hawaii Pacific University, 2009). As these titles suggest, questions regarding communications and gender issues were interrelated: every dissertation or thesis specifically focused on gender also addressed some aspect of rhetoric, media or communication.
Much less common were studies focusing on Clinton and policy. By my count, only five did. To risk an overgeneralization, researchers have tended to be more interested in how Clinton challenged or was constrained by traditional female roles or implicit assumptions about the proper relationship between public and private identity than in her activity as a senator or secretary of state.
The most recent of the studies -- accepted for the master of arts in liberal studies at Wake Forest University in May of this year -- concerned a matter that proved especially persistent throughout this year’s campaign: Whitney Jessica Threatt’s “A Transparent Hillary Clinton Through the Lens of Apologia Discourse,” wherein Clinton’s email server and its vexed status is addressed with respect to the Obama presidency’s policy on transparency and open government.
Drawing on a specialist literature about apologia (discursive mitigation when accused of injury and/or failure to live up to a certain standard), Threatt considers how various routine responses (denial, corrective action, shifting of blame, etc.) can serve to improve or worsen the accused’s situation vis-à-vis an audience. Complicating apologia for a very public figure such as Clinton is the double problem of media repetition (asking the same question over and over “suggests that the charges brought are true”) and widespread “alienation from politicians as well as the political process.”
Between Whitewater, the Lewinsky affair and so forth, Clinton has spent much of the past quarter century negotiating the terms of “image repair.” (Let’s nod at the existence of an additional set of specialist typologies here and just continue.) Meanwhile, opposing political operatives have built entire careers around raising the earlier circumstances for discussion again at every opportunity. In the case of the private email server, the researcher finds Clinton using certain forms of apologia employed in earlier controversies but with one mode in particular. Examining speeches and interviews with Clinton, Threatt notes that she “consistently attempts to demonstrate that she, herself, has been transparent about not only the investigation but throughout her time as secretary of state.” She assures listeners “that she is doing everything in her power to display transparency by providing the public with the actual emails …. The fact that she is doing more than what has been asked of her insinuates that she is being a leader.”
The upshot here is that Clinton has had an arsenal of rhetorical strategies at her disposal and considerable practice in using them -- with repetition and consistency as primary guiding principles, in part because the same questions and accusations return time and time again. On Tuesday, those strategies failed her.
Colleges and universities are grappling -- urgently, constantly and necessarily -- with the problem of campus sexual assault. While higher education administrators are focusing, rightly, on what happens on campuses, in our classrooms and dorms and disciplinary meetings, this year’s presidential campaign has made clear (if it was not already) that the problem of sexual harassment, sexual assault and their enabling antecedents are widespread throughout American society.
That reality must inflect the way we approach Title IX concerns at our institutions. Given that sexual violence, harassment and misogyny are such pervasive problems, addressing them at a college level must take a similarly broad-based approach -- including the ways we educate students about everything, not just gender.
In the wake of the leak of the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump describing his behavior toward women -- which Trump tried to dismiss as “locker room talk” -- women of all ages, stages and walks of life have been testifying to their experience of sexual harassment and assault. In response to the leaked tape, hundreds of thousands flooded Twitter with their stories of sexual assault. The effect has been breathtaking, both for the sheer number of people speaking out -- the disgusting and terrifying accounts, the horrifyingly quotidian nature of so much of the harassment -- and for the fact that they took place at all stages of people’s lives, when they were children, teenagers, middle-aged, senior citizens and college students.
To recognize that fact is certainly not to absolve institutions of higher education of the responsibility of making sure that the way we approach the problem is as just and effective as possible. That should be our utmost concern. But we would be naïve to think that we can extricate what happens on our campuses from the larger cultures and webs of experience that determine how our students think about, and react to, instances of harassment, misogyny and gendered violence.
As hard as we try, four years of sexual assault prevention programs during college will not, on their own, change that landscape. On the contrary, the kinds of education that we need to order to undo centuries of acculturation must start as early as preschool, when children are starting to pick up information about gender expectations and roles, and continue in robust and age-appropriate sex ed programs as early as elementary school.
It also means that we in higher education have to consider our role in ways that exceed traditional sexual assault prevention programs. We must think beyond a model that puts the onus entirely on student life programs, even excellent ones, toward a more holistic one that foregrounds the structural inequalities that shape our world. Our driving question must be: How do we give our students the tools they need to identify, analyze, engage and eventually dismantle those structures that may foster gender inequality (and the intersecting issues of race, sexuality, class, immigrant experience) -- both on their campuses, where they will spend four very important years of their lives, and in the world, where they will spend many more?
We simply can’t rely solely on student life counselors and Title IX officers to do this work -- although they have crucial roles to play. Rather, this work must happen both in and beyond the classroom, across disciplines -- in math and science as much as in gender studies -- and through myriad experiences so that we can be fully mindful of the ways in which gender informs all of our work and all of our thinking. If we are to fully grapple with the ways in which gender and racial inequalities are structural, we must examine every single structure -- not only within our colleges but also outside them. We must think about how knowledge is formed, how institutions are created and reproduced, and how resources are allocated -- so that when our students confront moments of injustice while they’re on campuses and after they leave them, they will have tools to grapple with such injustice and perhaps even undo it.
A key step is to design an educational model that shifts power from the institution to the students, so that they learn that knowledge is not only something the institution bestows on them, but something they, too, have the capacity to create. Students who imagine education as a matter of checking off requirements or passing tests -- as opposed to identifying urgent questions and amassing the information and resources they need to answer those questions -- are not being trained to change institutions but to fit into them.
For colleges to make a lasting and significant contribution to the problem of sexual assault and gender inequality, we must educate students that institutions are made by people and can be transformed by people. That means changing the way we educate from the bottom up.
Mariko Silver is the president of Bennington College. Previously, she was a senior adviser to the president of Arizona State University and held leadership roles at Columbia University, in the Obama administration and in the administration of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano.
Submitted by Mike Rose on November 7, 2016 - 3:00am
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).
Inside our higher education institutions, we are often asked to reflect on who we are, whom we want to become and how we wish to get there. I am chair of a combined department of English and modern languages at my university, which has recently engaged in a new round of strategic planning. Our current effort is in response to the appointment of a new dean of arts and humanities, who began serving in the position this summer.
As part of the planning process, I gathered data on numbers of majors and minors, the number and rank of instructional faculty, the range of courses we offer, and some ideas about where we’d like to be in three to five years. I also reflected on a proposed new mission and a list of values. It’s that list of values that also got me thinking about other values, particularly the market value of English and language study in the current political and economic climate.
It’s no surprise that our majors are often pressured to explain what they will do with their degrees or how they will lead to a particular job. Those of us who benefit from the privilege of teaching and advanced study in these areas also sometimes fail to provide a clear and coherent argument for the value of this study and its application in students’ lives and their future livelihood.
In response to those concerns, we should be able to articulate clearly the areas of study we offer and how the practices we offer translate not only to excellent understanding and performance in the classroom but also to preparation for the world beyond it. So I’d like to share a brief perspective on the value of English and language study in hopes it might be helpful to others who are also looking for ways to demonstrate why study in these areas matters.
The Three Areas of Study
In my view, we offer basic and advanced study in three interrelated fields: language, literature and culture.
Language. At the most basic level, we provide study in how ideas are communicated through language. English focuses on ideas communicated in written language and teaches students to read and write those ideas in introductory and advanced composition courses, including professional and creative writing. Other language courses in English concentrate on rhetoric (the persuasive aspects of language) and on linguistics (the structure, logic and development of language). Modern language courses focus on ideas communicated in languages other than the student’s first written and oral language and teaches students how to read, write, speak and listen to those ideas. The department also offers courses in advanced conversation and composition, as well as in linguistics -- such as those in the acquisition of first and second languages.
Literature. Beyond introductory and advanced courses in reading, writing, speaking and listening, we also promote the study of literature in a variety of genres, including fiction, poetry and drama, as well as related areas like folklore, film and comics. We offer these courses at the introductory level based on topic area, region of the world and time period. They may also focus on a particular author, historical period, region, topic, gender or race/ethnicity.
Culture. We also provide study in how ideas are communicated through culture. Language and literature are not created or consumed in a vacuum. As we study language and literature, we account for the many cultural influences that shape how language and literature have been developed and might be received by others. Those cultural contexts include religion, history, philosophy, politics, economics, globalization, science, gender, race/ethnicity and sexual orientation. As a consequence, English and language study can be understood as interdisciplinary fields, interested in a wide range of academic areas that contribute to and reveal themselves in language and literature.
The Four Habits of Learning
In addition, we promote study in the areas that I’ve outlined by developing student consciousness, conscience, conduct and confidence.
Consciousness. To be conscious means that we are awake to and mindful of ourselves and our surroundings. Through the study of language, literature and culture, we develop the habits of careful and continuing attention to the foundational roles that language, literature and culture play in determining our identities and our relationships with others and the world. In other words, the development of a “language consciousness” helps us attend to the choices that we and others make about the words we use, the names we assign, the definitions we rely on and the benefits that come from using language correctly, clearly and ethically. For instance:
The development of literary consciousness helps us attend to the poetic, narrative and dramatic choices in our own lives
Poetic consciousness helps us attend mindfully to the beauty, courage and wisdom available in everyday life.
Narrative consciousness helps us awaken to the story of our lives and the degree to which we see ourselves as the authors of our destiny or victims of the stories others wish to tell.
Dramatic consciousness helps us focus on the conflicts in our lives and the degree to which we decide to see ourselves playing a role in a comedy or a tragedy.
And the development of cultural consciousness helps us see the variety of cultural forces that contribute to freedom and oppression in our lives.
In other words, we promote study in language, literature and culture to create an ongoing and heightened awareness of our relationships with ourselves, each other and the world.
Conscience. Given this improved and active consciousness, we then have the opportunity to activate and deploy our conscience to imagine the moral consequences of decisions we make. In the study of language, we evaluate the choices we make in communicating with others, in the names we call others, in the terms we use to define reality and in determining the needs of our audiences. In the study of literature, we evaluate the ethical dilemmas characters face in the stories, poems and plays we read.
To what degree do these characters deserve our admiration, our friendship, our empathy or our condemnation? And in the study of culture, we evaluate those human factors that have created more opportunity, understanding and hope -- as well as those that may have created less. There is no conscience without consciousness, and in English and language study, we are continually attentive to the moral consequences of choices available in language, literature and culture.
Conduct. An improved conscience resulting from heightened awareness leads to informed conduct. The degree to which this conduct leads to moral action is dependent upon habit formation. In the study of language, we are concerned about the appropriate and beneficial uses of language -- not just to serve the ends of the student writer or speaker but also for the student’s audience and community.
In the study of literature, we are concerned with the appropriate and beneficial actions of protagonists and their authors, on the quality of student responses and the degree to which the evidence and logic of those responses demonstrate friendship and responsibility to the words and story and characters on the page. In the study of culture, we are concerned with the cultural forces that mold human behavior and the human behavior that, in turn, shapes and reshapes cultural forces.
Confidence. Informed and successful conduct leads to the reduction of anxiety in the performance of assigned or self-initiated tasks. Our aim is to provide students opportunities to:
be more conscious of themselves and the world; to understand the choices available to them in language, literature and culture;
make informed and beneficial decisions in these areas;
follow upon those decisions with appropriate action in reading, writing, speaking and listening; and
be rewarded with a growing self-confidence about their abilities to be successful in similar and related situations.
Additionally, one of the more significant benefits of attaining confidence is the desire to gain even more awareness about the role of language, literature and culture in their lives. In other words, increased confidence initiates even further progress in consciousness, conscience and conduct, leading in turn to further confidence.
But does the acquisition of the habits and skills that I’ve just outlined make our students marketable? Young readers and writers are attracted to words, poems, stories, drama, other people and other cultures when they promote consistent habits of heightened awareness, moral understanding, right conduct and fearlessness. There is no guarantee, of course, that all university graduates of language, literature and culture will consistently demonstrate these four behaviors, just as there is no guarantee that business, computer science, criminal justice or nursing majors will demonstrate the skills and knowledge learned in their disciplines. But no other academic domains provide basic and advanced study in the distinctly central human inventions of language, literature and culture with the larger aim of improving consciousness, conscience, conduct and confidence.
Obviously, moral awareness, decision making, action and courage cannot be purchased, but they can be put to good use in the context of the market. Many graduates of English and language study find positions or continue study in such fields as the law, publishing, teaching at home or abroad, copyrighting, web design, translation, and human resources. Meanwhile, study after study of business leaders reveals that they wish the graduates they hire would be more responsible, read and write better, cooperate in teams, and make better decisions.
At the end of the day and into the future of work, what is necessary to develop is not only a valuable and marketable skill but also lifelong and creative learners who are awake to their lives and their work, trusted to make the right decisions about each, ethical in the tasks they perform, and confident in their responsibilities to themselves and others.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University. His most recent collection of poetry, Local Bird, is from Lamar University Press.
Of all the outlandish and absurd claims Donald Trump has made in the months since he announced his candidacy for president, the most recent -- that the news media and global elite are conspiring to rig the election against him -- is one that we take most umbrage with. Who are we? Two English professors at a community college who have spent the last year studying and teaching the difference between conspiracy theories and institutional critique.
As avid readers of Thomas Pynchon and viewers of The Wire, we’ve developed a pedagogy that asks students to analyze how institutions might or might not be illegitimate or criminal. And to us, Donald Trump’s claim seems weak. Where’s his corkboard? Where are his out-of-focus black-and-white photos? Where is his string connecting the evidence?
Yet, he’s right to focus our gaze on institutions. There are legitimate critiques to be made about the many forces, institutional and otherwise, operating against all of us. Having institutional knowledge and the ability to understand what competitive forces exist is required of any educated person. Polls have shown that Donald Trump’s largest support block are those with just a high school education. Those are, in fact, our students who have just enrolled in our English 101 composition classes.
It is dangerous to confuse comparatively uneducated with not smart. One doesn’t need a college degree to suspect and know that often, as Hillary Clinton has said, “the deck is stacked.” And many educated as well as uneducated people are likely to propose sweeping generalizations like Donald Trump -- such as “it’s all rigged” -- as evidence for their opinions.
But when we teach the difference between conspiracy theory and institutional critique to our students -- when they practice institutional analysis with corkboard, photos and string, and when they write essays that must have credible sources -- they are more likely to understand that social justice and consequential critiques are possible only if we study the details.
In our classes, most students grasp how a former House majority leader is profiting by doing things like trying to help drug companies avoid paying federal taxes. They also get how he may only be a piece of a larger problem, both in the way tax avoidance is lobbied for in this country and how an entire industry of consultants’ sole purpose is to help companies become more efficient at avoiding paying taxes.
They grasp the injustice when they uncover that there have been little to no consequences for financial institutions after the 2008 economic meltdown. They understand how police departments often reveal information about wrongdoing only in the wake of protests or public outcry. They understand that the complexity is vast, but in order to be authors of consequence, they need to have coherent evidence of the contrary. Stating that the system is “rigged” is a lie that becomes the truth by the power of acquiescence.
In their own investigations, our students have outworked Trump in articulating and supporting claims of institutional criminality. They have identified and investigated organizations and conspiracies that range from the local, like a Queens, N.Y., Wing Stop or Popeyesfranchise, to the global, like corrupt government contracting in India and Italy. It’s unpredictable which institutions students will choose to investigate: the New York Police Department, for-profit universities, the Iranian leadership. But, if there is some suspicion of injustice, our community college students are on the case.
They have, on their own initiative, cold-called whistle-blowers at animal rescue agencies, walked into police stations and asked for the names and ranks of the precinct’s officers, and interviewed anonymous informants. In short, they have done the work of heroic investigators, the kind you would hope an engaged citizen in a democracy would undertake.
With those projects, students are engaging in the kind of work we witness in binges of popular television crime shows like Breaking Bad or True Detective, where investigators tack photos, maps, names, evidence to corkboards, office walls -- whatever they can find -- to allow viewers to vicariously sense that, yes, the rapidly connecting world that feels beyond our comprehension is being pieced together one bit at a time.
We ask, why leave these problems to television fantasy? Why not ask students to make sense of senselessness as an exercise of critical citizenship? Why not expect the same of our public figures?
In other words, if Donald Trump were a first-year community college student, all signs indicate he’d be a lazy one. We’d send him back to do more research. He has made a claim, but his critique would be classified as an empty conspiracy. If he presented this claim that it’s all “rigged,” we’d say, Mr. Trump, show us your corkboard, your photos, your documents, your works-cited page. Show us some work. You will not pass unless you do.
Jed Shahar and Benjamin Lawrance Miller are assistant professors at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.