The late, great sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote eloquently of what he called “the sociological imagination,” which involved the ability to connect our own biographies to the wider currents of history, to understand the various social and cultural components of who we become. That was a major corrective to the highly individualistic worldview of Americans -- our strong tendency to view ourselves in a historical vacuum, as if our goals, beliefs and attitudes are not powerfully shaped by the social groups of which we are a part.
His invitation to a broader, more sophisticated view of ourselves was extended midway through the last century, at a time when Americans had a compelling need to come to terms with recent chaos and violence on a world scale, along with major ongoing evils in our own society -- racism prominently among them.
While we can consider some of the more extreme ills of racism a thing of our national past, others are very much still with us. Some forms of racial inequality have, in fact, been growing worse in recent years -- for example, the level of racial segregation in many of our public school systems, which is linked to the growing inequality of income and wealth in our society. Such inequality plays out at our colleges and universities in a number of ways, including admissions statistics, the daily experiences of students on our campuses and graduation rates.
As we think about which aspects of racism higher education institutions can most effectively address and how the sociological imagination fits into such a project, we might begin by noting that the word “racism” is often used rhetorically, particularly by college students, as a cover term for a range of things that differ significantly in their level of seriousness. Consider the following, for example:
Some white college students dress in racially insensitive costumes for Halloween.
The white presidential candidate of a major political party asserts that a Mexican-American judge cannot fulfill the professional and ethical standards of his vocation.
White police officers kill black men in incidents that are unlikely to have occurred if all parties were white.
Lumping these situations together under the general category of racism is hardly helpful in terms of what it will take to address each of them.
Institutions of higher education have sought to address racial inequality in a number of ways, including efforts to diversify their faculties, student bodies and staff. Their strongest suit would seem to be their potential for fostering robust communication across the racial and ethnic boundaries that divide members of what should be a community. For those who have not suffered from racism themselves, that will probably involve the risk of revealing some unattractive opinions or replacing denials of racism with the intention of making the racist unconscious conscious. For those who have suffered, it will involve forbearance and perhaps a taste for irony. It presupposes intellectual curiosity and emotional openness on the part of all.
A major obstacle to that has been a growing tendency toward what we might call “identity fetishism,” or seeing a specific dimension of social identity -- race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity -- as a terminus rather than a point of departure. American colleges and universities thus risk becoming places where the sociological imagination has gone to die.
The “safe space” movement, together with an it-takes-one-to-know-one mind-set, can operate to create barriers where there should be bridges. To be sure, it is good to spend comfortable, supportive times with those who are close fellow travelers through life. And achieving a deep understanding of those whose experience has been different in significant ways is a task to be approached with humility. But moving out from the familiar is a core goal of higher education.
Barriers between racial/ethnic groups in campus social life have had a curricular side as well. Separate departments or programs in African-American, Asian-American or Latin American studies, while offering belated, much-needed perspectives on groups that have long been hidden from historical research and teaching, have had the downside of not forcing a fuller, multiperspective approach to American studies itself. The use of the label “ethnic studies” as a cover term for these more group-specific programs, moreover, has been an unfortunate choice: are some people “ethnic” and others not? Was not the upshot to leave European-Americans an unmarked category of just plain folks? Some have sought to correct that with proposals of white studies programs -- hardly the best solution.
Ethnic studies programs are understandably of special interest to the respective members of the groups themselves; they have thus had something of a self-segregating effect in terms not only of students but also, to some extent, of faculty members -- an effect amplified by a tendency to merge the goals of faculty diversity with those of curricular diversity. The result can be a typecasting of faculty members of particular ethnic-racial groups. While an African-American historian can make distinguished contributions to scholarship and teaching in the field of African-American history, another can certainly make distinguished contributions to the field of medieval European history.
And, speaking of faculty, a general question is where have they been in the increasing diversity-related troubles we see playing out on our campuses? Some have been constructively engaged. For example, in the aforementioned Halloween costume example, faculty colleagues came to the public defense of a lecturer who found herself in the eye of a student activist storm by suggesting that we should not overreact to such behavior -- an episode that attracted an extraordinary amount of news media attention. Others have been part of the problem rather than part of the solution -- for example, by making ill-considered, even trollish statements in online media. Fortunately, that will sometimes be an occasion for pushback from their colleagues.
For the most part, however, faculty members have simply been missing in action when it comes to dealing with campus upheavals around race and racism. Students seem to be stepping into a leadership vacuum that pits them directly against administrators.
As we know, faculty members have more than enough problems of their own these days, what with increasing adjunctification and presidents who come to their jobs without understanding the business they are in -- to name just a couple of the most obvious misfortunes. But intellectual leadership is an essential faculty responsibility.
For openers, faculty members can bring the intellectual capital of their respective fields to bear on current debates. Those of us who are anthropologists, for example, have chosen a vocation based on moving beyond the stance that it takes one to know one. Though requiring a self-critical perspective on how well one can know an “other,” it centers on a quest to understand as much about others as we possibly can. Moreover, what we might call the anthropological imagination also presumes that an outsider’s perspective offers its own advantages; at the same time, a detour through another world is a path toward better understanding dimensions of our own, which would otherwise remain below our self-conscious reflection.
Beyond our own particular disciplines, departments and programs, faculty members are also part of a wider academic community with a shared dedication to core educational values. Those of us who believe that diversity is not just about social justice, as important as that is, but is also tied to the intrinsic goals of a liberal -- and liberating -- education have our work cut out for us. Outlines of that work can be found, for example, in the contributions of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, especially through its LEAP initiative (Liberal Arts and America’s Promise). Essential learning outcomes associated with that initiative include cross-cultural sophistication and civic responsibility.
In brief, we need to help make our colleges and universities ideal places for cultivating the sociological imagination. That means exploring with our students not only where we have come from but also where we might be going.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and president and professor of anthropology emerita of Barnard College.
Teddy Wayne's Loner: A Novel (Simon & Schuster) is the second book I've read in as many weeks narrated by a manipulative and highly verbal straight white man possessing a degree of upward social mobility as well as the impulse to see how much emotional damage he can inflict on others. Journalistic custom requires three instances to spot a trend, but reader, I do not have it in me to endure any more such company. (Anyway, both narratives resonate with Aaron James's political and philosophical musings, discussed here earlier in the month.)
The other volume was Diary of an Oxygen Thief, an anonymous and purportedly autobiographical work that "went from self-published obscurity to best-sellerdom," as reported in Publishers Weekly this summer. Loner is set at Harvard University, more or less in the present day, while Diary roams between Ireland and the United States as the narrator works as an advertising art director around the turn of the millennium. Despite considerable differences, the books follow broadly comparable narrative arcs. Romantic entanglements between characters (not just the hooking-up part but the emotional upheaval sometimes accompanying it) generally turn out to be misunderstandings at best. Often enough the disasters are intentional.
Neither author seems to be aware of, or responding to, the other's work, but they seem to be mapping similar terrain. And the fairly positive reception for Loner and Diary of an Oxygen Thief suggests that readers find something recognizable about the emotional landscape they depict. To discuss the similarities without giving away significant plot turns means being carefully vague at times. Ultimately it is the narrator's attitude or verbal demeanor that sticks with the reader more than the events recounted.
David Federman, the narrator of Loner, arrives at Harvard as a freshman with an acute sense of his middling as well as seemingly perfect confidence in his prospects as a member of an elite. Entitlement and embarrassment do not make for a stable combination, however, and it becomes increasingly volatile once he becomes aware of Veronica Morgan Wells, the figure he addresses in the second person from that point on: "[It] was obvious, from your clothes, your body language, the impervious confidence you projected, as if any affront would bounce off you like a battleship deflecting a BB pellet: you came from money …. It wasn’t just your financial capital that set you apart; it was your worldliness, your taste, your social capital. What my respectable, professional parents had deprived me of by their conventional ambitions and absence of imagination."
Not a unprecedented situation, of course, as the narrator himself realizes. But any similarity between Veronica Morgan Wells and Daisy Fay Buchanan is slight compared to the fact that Jay Gatsby, whatever else you might call him, wasn't a stalker. David Federman's unreliability as a narrator is shown chiefly in the fact that thinks Veronica accepts his carefully planned coincidental meetings at face value and that his effort to ingratiate himself is working. The campaign has its comic aspects. All of it unfolds against a background of campus sex codes, feminist cultural-studies seminars and expressions of concern about social inequality.
But David's increasingly fetishistic obsession with her, and his willingness to use another female character sexually as a means to gaining access to Veronica, grows very uncomfortable to witness from the inside. He goes from callow virgin to budding young psychopath very rapidly and without missing a step. He even manages to incorporate some of the campus sex code into his strategy.
The unnamed narrator of Diary of an Oxygen Thief is much less preoccupied with social status, or at least less overtly so, and his introspection never leaves the reader with understanding of what drives his malevolence toward women. His sadism is purely emotional but well practiced. In ending things, he follows a scorched-earth policy:
“‘This is what I look like when I’m pretending to listen to your boring conversation.’ I froze my sweetest expression, my innocent blues eyes widening in pseudo-interest, the same expression I’d used on teachers. … ‘This is what I look like when I’m pretending to be in love with you …. I’m going to dismantle us tonight. And there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ll have to sit there and listen while I wrench the U from the S. You’ll question your own judgment. Maybe you’ll never really trust yourself again. I hope so. Because if I don’t want you, and believe me I don’t, then I don’t want you being happy with someone else when there’s any doubt that I might get another girl.’”
What makes it considerably nastier is that the narrator treats this not as a way to get out of a relationship but as the whole point of it -- a moment when the self-loathing that he otherwise numbs with alcohol can be off-loaded on the woman he's maneuvered into position to endure it.
At a crucial moment in each book, the axis pivots to reveal just how limited and self-deluded the narrator is about his sense of control over others and over himself. The manipulation rebounds on him, but not as revenge only. The reader is left in a position to see that his seemingly pathological mind games can also be understood as having a certain logic: "Though Hollywood would have us believe that all we seek in romantic relationships is love," one character says, "it is just one of several exchangeable commodities, along with sex, money, status, validation, services and so on." An exchange, furthermore, in which one side can only win at the other's expense. Failure to understand that is a guarantee of losing.
I'm not going to argue with anyone else's sense of these things: people who reach such bleak conclusions probably have grounds for doing so. Still, it would be good to think that readers aren't responding to these two page-turners simply as confirmation of their own experience, but in the spirit of facing a worst-case scenario in order to find the nerve to try again.
Davis has experienced periodic LMS outages for years, ever since it began to outsource maintenance of the system. But it is hardly the only university to suffer from this type of outage, and it is certainly worth considering what higher education institutions can do to avoid such situations. One of the first steps should be rethinking the role and position of IT professionals on campuses.
The people who choose, order, install, build and maintain IT systems on campuses usually have job titles like IT (maybe network) specialist or instructional (web) designer, and are in some branch of the campus org chart under the chief information officer. Such IT service staff almost never have the title “professor,” which means they are unlikely to have tenure.
We think that's unfortunate, because people who make decisions about ed-tech infrastructure need to hear from experts who have the freedom to speak on behalf of what's best for education, not just what's best for a university's bottom line. After all, if ed tech really is the future of education, these colleagues of ours will play a vital role in determining what that future will look like. That means they need the protections of academic freedom, which means they need to be able to earn tenure.
Of course, not all IT staff do the kind of work that justifies the possibility of tenure. The IT professionals who do hardware and network installation, repair work, and other support tasks shouldn't be faculty members. But other IT workers who choose and set up complex systems, work with students and faculty members on pedagogy and research, have advanced and highly specialized training, and who are expected to research and develop new systems for their universities should be faculty and should therefore be eligible to earn tenure.
The situation is similar in university libraries. A library, be it one with miles of stacks housing blocks of wood pulp or simply an air-conditioned server room full of electronic resources, is an essential component of any true university. Librarians affect education, even if they don't run their own classes. The American Library Association's Core Values of Librarianship closely resemble the values codified as academic freedom for more traditional faculty. Some library personnel who do tasks like reshelving books do not qualify for tenure, but certain IT staff could have an expectation of scholarly output, would be given positions in faculty governing bodies, would receive support for attendance at conferences, and so on.
Why should universities extend tenure to a new class of workers at a time when they're taking it away from so many other employees? Quite simply, it will save them money in the long run. If Davis had given its IT specialists tenure, they might have been much more likely to speak out against outsourcing their LMS maintenance. And if there hadn’t been so many outages, perhaps that institution wouldn't have required as many people to respond to each one.
Similarly, at a recent conference, a university IT professional (whom we leave anonymous to protect his job), told us that it would be impossible to use free, open-source software on his campus because the administration liked the control of having a contract with a commercial software vendor. Free software is said to require more and more qualified IT staff, but it still might be cheaper than a paid approach, because it doesn't require expensive licensing fees. This would also leave those IT staff free to customize the open-source software and to innovate with other members of the university community.
Industry generally pays much better than academe, so it can be highly competitive for a higher education institution to hire skilled IT professionals. But the job stability that comes with tenure could be an employee benefit for universities to offer those employees with skills in high demand. This is, in fact, a problem that universities have already solved: they attract people to faculty positions in law, business and the many other fields where there is lucrative employment outside academe by offering other incentives, such as job stability and the possibility to take risks, innovate and expand human knowledge.
Now, however, without the ability to speak freely, campus IT staff can as often be an obstacle as an aid in finding the best solutions that use IT. They usually enforce the use of the particular tools that the administration has purchased or licensed, with minimal regard to whether those tools actually solve the real problems of education or research.
It is unclear to us whether a change in perspective is at all possible with such IT professionals located where they now are on most campus organization charts. That's the main reason why we think the decision makers in IT merit tenure and the academic freedom that comes with it. Giving them protection and stability would co-opt them to work on behalf of scholarship and research, making of them allies of the rest of the faculty and not enforcers of a particular IT regime.
Without extending tenure to IT professionals, campuses will continue to spend money on expensive commercial IT systems and the inferior ed-tech tools that generally come with them. Moreover, the people who tend those systems will not be the kind of innovative individuals that institutions generally try to hire for positions on their regular faculty. Since IT professionals will play an ever-growing role in educational decision making in our increasingly wired campuses, giving them the same protections as regular faculty members is both economical and logical. To do otherwise is to risk forfeiting all the educational benefits that technology can bring.
Over the last few years, there has been no shortage of news coverage and commentary remarking on the seemingly real or perhaps only greatly exaggerated death of the liberal arts in American higher education.
We are not alone in thinking that the debate about the relevance of the liberal arts is tired and simplistic. To our minds, the liberal arts are as relevant as ever -- as a means of enriching lives, developing engaged citizens and nurturing foundational professional skills.
But if the public, rightly or wrongly, is becoming increasingly skeptical of the value of the liberal arts -- and enrollment trends at certain institutions would suggest that they may be, at least in some measure -- then schools of liberal arts will have to accept some share of the blame themselves.
Undoubtedly, public pronouncements arguing that we need “more welders and less philosophers,” as former presidential candidate Marco Rubio claimed late last year, irk many in the liberal arts -- and not solely because of Rubio’s poor use of grammar. This notion that liberal arts graduates are terminally unemployable is achieving a kind of -- to borrow Stephen Colbert’s famous neologism -- truthiness. And that kind of misinformation can be particularly frustrating to faculty members and students who have devoted their energy and enthusiasm to these fields of study, and enjoyed successful careers as a result of it.
The fact is, as researchers in the field of employability will tell you, a great many organizations have a real interest in hiring college graduates possessing communication and reasoning skills blended with technical expertise and strong character. In an Inside Higher Ed commentary from early 2016, Burning Glass CEO Matthew Sigelman argued that his firm’s research on labor demand has shown that many of the fastest-growing jobs are hybrid in character, requiring “people who can bridge domains and synthesize ideas.” Few would argue that the liberal arts don’t have a contribution to make in producing these sorts of graduates.
Still, frustrating though they may be, news headlines and political commentary aren’t the real obstacles to sustaining the future of the liberal arts. That challenge has less to do with media perceptions or careless politicizing than with the traditional organizational structures and curricular approaches of schools of liberal arts themselves. Here’s what we mean.
Departmental structures can be inflexible and inhibit creative responses to changing market expectations. At a number of liberal arts institutions we work with, faculty express great interest in interdisciplinary work and other forms of innovation. In some respects they find organizational structures -- the proliferation of schools, departments, divisions, units -- just as frustrating and inhibiting as administrators do. But when faculty become uneasy with the tenor of the public debate about the contribution of the liberal arts and feel threatened, they often rely on these structures as a bulwark against change. Others may resist on principle any movement that might be perceived as moving in the direction of vocationalism or focusing on work readiness associated with linking the liberal arts to professional programs.
In both cases, the result can be the same: faculty hunker down. They look at the growth of faculty lines in engineering or business and argue that their departments would grow, too -- if only similar investments were made in their faculty. Of course, increasing capacity doesn’t automatically increase enrollments. Yet for those individuals, the fight for resources is viewed as a zero-sum game, and some faculty members and department chairs would seek to preserve the structures that they know rather than risk reorganizing in ways that merge departments or explicitly require collaboration with the professional disciplines -- even if such changes might deliver more value to students. But of course, such mergers and collaborations are possible where adjacent disciplines complement one another -- such as writing and English programs or communications and performing arts. Restructurings of these sorts can not only avoid unnecessary redundancies in staff positions and other organizational overhead, but also foster the development of a more contemporary curriculum and enrich the student experience.
Departmental structures can constrain the evolution and effectiveness of general-education curricula. As the volume of majors in the liberal arts disciplines continues to fluctuate, general education programs may be seen as an increasingly powerful mechanism to promote traditional liberal arts values. But they can also offer students new forms of interdisciplinary intellectual exposure via minors or other ways of bundling sequences of courses.
For departments with declining majors, general-education course enrollments are frequently seen by faculty as crucial evidence of their value. As a result, there is often resistance by faculty members and department chairs to restructuring general-education programs in ways that might deviate from the more immediately measurable performance models based on numbers of department majors -- even if such restructurings may lead to more relevant and flexible curricula for students. For example, while the contemporary student may derive significant value from experiential learning components and interdisciplinary capstone courses, their inclusion in general-education programs is often met with resistance by faculty as they fall outside the traditional disciplinary or departmental structure.
Departmental structures can necessitate organizational workarounds, such as the creation of interdisciplinary liberal arts centers or institutes, to find a home for innovation. While interdisciplinary centers or institutes can serve as vital catalysts for innovation and collaboration across the disciplines, merely establishing them will not necessarily overcome the force of decades of departmentally focused priorities. As a result, these interdisciplinary centers can sometimes evolve into isolated interdisciplinary silos. Indeed, the lack or perceived lack of incentives for faculty involvement, a misalignment with departmental promotional criteria and the absence of clear expectations with respect to the roles that particular departments or disciplines are meant to play in these centers can all contribute to their eventual marginalization and failure -- which can make it even more challenging to recruit and retain high-potential faculty. Paying lip service to interdisciplinarity isn’t sufficient. In fact, it just exacerbates tensions between units and can make numerous departments less productive. What’s required is a commitment to interdisciplinarity and the centers that promote it as hubs of cross-discipline engagement, for faculty and students alike.
Our view is that the liberal arts matter. Why? Because they prepare students to reason and solve problems, because they develop critical communication skills, and because they teach students how to engage in a process of discovery -- whether it be intellectual discovery, self-discovery or professional discovery. If schools of liberal arts put these same skills to work in examining their own efforts and organizational structures, the liberal arts might well flourish.
Such schools would be more apt to bring together data analytics and the study of literature, or revolutionize the way they think about the role and contribution of general-education programs, or promote liberal arts minors for engineers and biologists in lieu of fighting for more majors within the liberal arts. They might, in other words, rethink the longstanding organizational structures that have housed -- and for many years nurtured -- the liberal arts, but which have now begun to constrain and limit their impact.
Peter Stokes is a managing director and Chris Slatter is a manager in the higher education practice at Huron Consulting Group.
Around this time 20 years ago, I met an elderly gentleman who’d had what sounded like an exceptionally interesting and unusual dissertation-writing experience. A couple of recent coincidences bring the encounter to mind and so inspired this little causerie.
His name was Harmon Bro, and he was in his late 70s when we met. He’d spent the better part of 50 years as an ordained minister and Jungian psychotherapist. If anyone ever looked the part of a Jungian archetype, it was Harmon, who personified the Wise Old Man. In 1955, the University of Chicago Divinity School awarded him a Ph.D. after accepting a doctoral thesis called “The Charisma of the Seer: A Study in the Phenomenology of Religious Leadership.”
It was based in part on work Harmon did in his early 20s as an assistant to Edgar Cayce, “the sleeping prophet.” Despite minimal education, Cayce, it is said, could give long, extemporaneous discourses in response to questions posed to him while he was in a trance state. Among these “readings” were medically sophisticated diagnoses of people miles or continents away, as well as detailed accounts of ancient history and predictions of the future.
Cayce died in 1945, but he left a vast mass of transcripts of his “readings.” By the 1960s, publishers were mining them to produce a seemingly endless series of paperback books extolling Cayce’s powers. Insofar as the New Age can be said to have founding figures, he was one of them.
Harmon was clearly a believer in Cayce’s miraculous powers. I was not (and am not) but have always enjoyed the legends by and about him. As a schoolboy, for example, he would put a textbook under his pillow and absorb its contents while asleep. He graduated (so to speak) to the Akashic Records -- an ethereal library documenting life on Atlantis and in ancient Egypt, and much else besides. He could also see into the future, but the track record is not impressive: China did not convert to Christianity in 1968, nor did Armageddon arrive in 1999. Cayce also predicted that an earthquake in the 1960s would cause California to sink into the Pacific Ocean. It remains attached to the continental United States as of this writing.
Harmon didn’t take skepticism as a threat or an insult, and anyway I preferred listening to arguing. He stressed how very improbable Cayce had been as a subject for serious scholarly attention in the 1950s -- at the University of Chicago, no less. It took three or four tries to get his topic approved; by the time the dissertation was finished and accepted, it felt like every faculty member concerned with the history and psychology of religion had weighed in on it. He happily lent me a copy (when anyone expresses interest in a decades-old dissertation, its author will usually have one of two responses: pleasure or horror), and from reading it, I could see that the scrutiny had been all for the best. It obliged him to practice a kind of methodological agnosticism about Cayce’s powers, and he demonstrated a solid grounding in the social-scientific literature on religion -- in particular, Max Weber’s work on prophetic charisma.
But by 1996, Harmon Bro was not at all happy with the institutions routinizing that charisma. The man he’d known and studied had an ethical message -- “love thy neighbor as thyself,” more or less. The New Age ethos amounted to “love thyself and improve thy karma.” You didn’t have to share his worldview to see his point.
The timing was fortunate: we grew acquainted during what proved to be the final year of Harmon Bro’s life. His obituary in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 made no reference to Cayce, but looking it up just now leaves me with a definite feeling of synchronicity: Harmon died on Sept. 13, which is also the date I’m finishing this piece. A message from Harmon, via the cosmic unconscious?
Probably not, although it was another and even more far-flung coincidence that reminded me of him in the first place. On Friday, the journal Nature Communication published a paper called “Terahertz time-gated spectral imaging for content extraction through layered structures,” which the science-news website EurekAlert kindly translates into laymanese as “Researchers prototype system for reading closed books.” Not by putting them under a pillow and sleeping on them, alas, but it’s impressive even so.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Georgia Tech Institute of Technology collaborated in developing a system that uses bursts of terahertz radiation (“the band of electromagnetic radiation between microwaves and infrared light,” says EurekAlert) to create images of the surfaces of individual pieces of paper in a stack. Ink in a printed letter absorbs the radiation differently from the blank page around it; the contrast between the signals reflecting back are fed into an algorithm that identifies the letter on the page. The prototype can “read” the surfaces of up to nine pages in a pile; with more work, reading at greater depths seems possible. The story quotes one of the researchers as saying, “The Metropolitan Museum in New York showed a lot of interest in this, because they want to, for example, look into some antique books that they don’t even want to touch.” The signal-sorting algorithm may yet enable spambots to defeat captchas. (Which arguably represents grounds for halting research right away, though that is unlikely.)
The train of association between breaking technological news from last week and the memory of one of the more generous and unusual people to cross my path is admittedly twisty and random. On the other hand, reading by terahertz radiation seems like another example of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”