How the humanities can illuminate air travel incivilities (essay)

When I worked at an airport between 2001 and 2003, the airline that hired me gave out laudatory certificates to employees whenever passengers would report above-average customer service, or any other effort that had been noticed and appreciated. On the one hand, those medal-emblazoned posters were cheesy and brimmed with the type of hollow praise proffered to alienated workers. But on the other, they were well intentioned and meaningful: they reminded us that we were working together, with and for other human beings, on both sides of the counter (as well as above, at the corporate level).

I look at a couple of those certificates now, saved from many years ago, and I wonder if the airline still recognizes such little instances of harmony in the maelstrom of contemporary commercial flight. These days it can seem as though humanity has left the airport entirely, what with random fistfights breaking out, hapless passengers dragged off airplanes, racial epithets lobbed heatedly across seat backs, families humiliated for the most minor domestic incursions and so on. Our worst tendencies and habits come into full bloom during air travel. And people seem at once both surprised by and weirdly expectant of it. We roll our eyes at the latest viral video of violence in the aisles, and we turn the channel or swipe over to a new feed.

I’ve been trying for many years, and over the course of writing three books, to untangle the distinct knots of negativity that airports have become known for. Somehow, it is perfectly acceptable to hate airports, even as they are also supposed to represent the apex of modern progress and cosmopolitan coexistence. How did we get to this contradictory place? And what, if anything, can those of us in academe do to shed light on and possibly even improve matters?

While flying recently I flipped through the pages of Delta’s in-flight magazine, Sky, and I noticed an article called “Higher Education in the Fast Lane” (May 2017). The piece surveyed a range of colleges and universities with expedited degree programs: “helping students get into the work force more quickly and efficiently.” One ad for Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Building Construction showed a worker in a hard hat and caution vest, architectural plans rolled up under his arm and giant cranes in background. The picture is one of professionalism and focused labor, and serves as a synecdoche for orderly society at large. But if the building in the background happened to be an airport, then we would know that all this supposed orderliness would soon come to an end. Build a neat and tidy airport, and you invite pandemonium and civil breakdown.

When I tell people that I teach a college class about airports, they often assume I mean from a managerial or organizational standpoint: what makes them work and how they can be improved. Sometimes I get perplexed looks when I explain that my course is about representations of airports and how we communicate and think about airports. It’s as though it never occurred to these people that airports and airplanes could have any other meaning or existence other than the status they seem indelibly to have: abject, ugly and plainly understood.

This isn’t just a shortcoming on behalf of airports. It’s also about the role of thinking and imagination in our everyday lives, and about basic standards of human interaction, respect and decency. This latter stuff makes what I’m talking about sound snobbish and stuffy, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean it in the way that college instructors try, with great patience and care, to foster classroom environments of empathy, listening and dialogue. Seminars -- especially in the humanities -- have the ability to teach students to bracket initial judgments, appreciate differences and discuss complex, nuanced topics. They do precisely what we could use a lot more of these days, especially in airports and airliners.

But as evinced by the Sky magazine article, we’re increasingly skimping on college -- and particularly the humanities. Foreign-language programs get squeezed to the minimum or cut outright because they are seen as too time intensive for today’s overworked student. History, literature, philosophy, religious studies -- these disciplines are viewed as superfluous or get whittled down to some hotly debated, if barely accepted, “core curriculum.” It is now commonplace to refer to college as too expensive and out of touch with “the real world.” But are we really so proud of this real world we’ve devised as it comes through one of our proudest achievements -- air travel? Automobile prices go up and up, as do housing prices, not to mention medicine and health care -- and people complain about the cost of higher education?

In fact, not only air travel but also contemporary life at large need more, not fewer, people taking humanities courses -- adult learning that is dedicated to reflection, understanding across differences and respectful discourse. Of course, disagreement and disparities play out in college classrooms, too, thus inviting tensions between “safe spaces” and free speech, between self-certainty and the awareness of one’s own epistemological horizons. Yet the thoughtful exercise of these soft skills is exactly what is lacking in the day-to-day grind of flight. And corporate policy and lawmaking are not going to usher such things into bustling transit nodes. Only people can do that, of their own volition and out of a collective commitment to shared humanistic values.

Such values must also be open and flexible, and they must operate irrespective of narrower value systems encoded in family, nationality, religion and so forth. Not that those other values must be jettisoned, but the heterogeneous nature of airspace requires a relentless openness along with excessive patience on all sides. Those qualities, too, can be practiced and honed in the college classroom.

And so a simple plan: if we want to work toward more civil and humane modes of air travel, we should also be willing to invest -- time, money and thought -- in the humanities. I’ve been talking here about higher education specifically, mainly because the lack of faith in humanities at the college level strikes me as a relevant analogue to the dearth of civility in airports. College and air travel are two concentrated places where what happens cannot help but reflect and reinforce broader patterns and trends. We may wish for quicker paths to college degrees, as well as fast and cheap travel by air, but are we willing to accept the consequences -- the attendant pressurized spaces and times? If not, we may want to think about the relationships between these realms, and how they are inescapably entwined.

Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English and environmental studies at Loyola University New Orleans and the author of three books about air travel. His latest, Airportness: The Nature of Flight, will be published by Bloomsbury in September.

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Review of Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner, "The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online"

With the highest office in the land occupied by a troll (and through no fluke: trolling constitutes the form, substance and sole consistent principle of the man’s entire political career), it certainly feels as if things are now on the other side of a tipping point.

The casual, habitual acting-out of grandiosity or malice has always been among the possibilities afforded to anyone with a modem -- but as an indulgence, not a norm. The Web 2.0 as an emancipatory supplement to the public sphere probably deserves its own floor in some Museum of Countercultural Visions. The idea of anonymity or pseudonymity giving voice to the powerless once sounded full of democratic potential, although it proves difficult to credit after scanning YouTube comments for half an hour.

The promise of liberation gave way at some point to disinhibition, mostly. Disinhibition combined with great power is dangerous mixture, volatile at best, and, as with dynamite, unlikely to grow more stable over time.

A number of scholarly books on memes, tweeting, comments-field commentary and other modes of contemporary digital communication have come out. And given the circumstances, I’ve tried to read them -- only to be reminded from time to time of Jackie Gleason’s complaint about reviews of TV shows in the newspapers: he said they were like describing an automobile accident to the eyewitnesses. The prospect of the description running to full monographic length is enough to make the brain and eyeballs itch. With most of the recent volumes on digital discourse, I found it hard to resume reading. An exception worth mentioning is Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner’s The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online (Polity Press).

Phillips, an assistant professor of literary studies and writing at Mercer University, approaches the routines and artifacts of online communities as a folklorist. Milner is an assistant professor of communication at the College of Charleston. The authors, who identify themselves as millennials, acknowledge having been shaped by the culture they analyze. Converging on the study of memes, trolling, creepypasta and other practices from their different disciplinary backgrounds, they find sharp distinctions between on- and off-line life to be, at this late date, analytically dubious at best. We cross the line too often to pay all that much attention to it. And the forms of humor, storytelling and the like now constantly generated and circulated online are best understood as examples of the “vernacular creativity” typical of folklore.

In this, Phillips and Milner take their cue from Alan Dundes, one of major American folklore scholars of recent decades, who expanded the definition of “the folk” to cover “any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor.” Whatever a group may share to begin with, it almost inevitably accumulates a stock of common experiences, lingo, habits, symbols and so forth. The Amish have their folklore, and the guys in Cell Block D have theirs, no less exacting in its traditions but less appealing to tourists.

Easy to see, then, why many items of online folklore -- memes and jokes especially -- seem to be the culture of specific in-groups and incomprehensible or off-putting to outsiders. But that’s only part of the story. The power to cut, paste, blend, spoof or otherwise transform all that’s available in a digital format (imagery, audio, texts, etc.) renders just about everything into potential grist for expressive experimentation. At the same time, the audience for any given digital artifact is impossible to predict with any confidence.

Even communication between two people who know each other well can be ambiguous, of course, and the finer shades of nuance don’t stand a chance. Hence Poe’s Law, which the authors define as “postulates that sincere extremism online (manifesting as bigotry, conspiracy theorizing or simply being wrong about something) is often indistinguishable from satirical extremism.”

Like earlier manifestations of folk culture, then, the forms that Phillips and Milner discuss are prone to “blurring the lines between structure and play, formal and folk, commercial and populist.” But the newer kinds constantly run the risk of generating more than confusion or distaste among those not in the group. What has emerged is a culture of extreme ambiguity or, in the authors’ preferred expression, ambivalence -- “that which is difficult to classify or is otherwise strange, creepy or some combination of funny and offensive ….” They note:

“Apparently straightforward demarcations between author and audience, between this text and that text, between universal meaning and audience-specific meaning, don’t need much jostling before they start to crumble.”

Which can, of course, be a good thing: the conditions for creative experimentation, for the sort of activity the authors celebrate in passages that sound much like cultural-studies celebrations of agency from not so long ago:

“Women, queer people, trans people, people of color, people with disabilities and members of economically disenfranchised populations -- whose voices have historically been undervalued or muted -- can [using digital culture] push back against regressive hegemonic forces, and engage in assertive, confrontational and empowering expression.”

But they have also seen “how community formation, cultural exchange and generally having a fun and funny time -- presumably good things, pro-social things -- can simultaneously serve to police community boundaries, encourage cultural myopia and generally make outsiders miserable.”

I expect to have occasion to return to this topic in the future, as developments may warrant. But for now, I will end with a link to something I wrote about the research of one of the authors a couple of years ago and forgot until about halfway through The Ambivalent Internet, one of the more interesting books I’ve read so far this year.

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Analysis of Indiana’s 15 to Finish finds positive effects

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In Indiana, encouraging students to pursue a full credit load is having a positive impact on students when the financial incentive is significant, according to a new analysis.

The drawbacks to New York State's free college plan (essay)

Every day for the past few weeks, my colleagues and I have received emails from students at the large community college where we work, asking how they can receive their free tuition. The phone is ringing off the hook with similar questions. One email reads, “I was told by a colleague, and well, the world, that starting in the fall tuition is free for New York residents. How can I take advantage?” Another person on the phone asks, “When does my free tuition start? I can’t afford next semester, but now it’s going to be free. I even saw it on the news.”

In fact, it’s been all over the media: New York is the first state in the nation to offer free two-year and four-year public college to its residents. Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Excelsior Scholarship bill making all public colleges and universities tuition-free for families with under $125,000 (by 2019) in annual household income. The bill goes into effect this fall and, according to (exaggerated) estimates by the governor’s office, will impact nearly 940,000 families. It has been “hailed as a breakthrough and a model for other states that will change the lives of students at public colleges.”

The plan to make all public colleges and universities in New York free sounds great, at least in theory. After all, much like health care, free higher education should be a basic human right, not simply a luxury for those that can afford it. And, for the most part, the Excelsior Scholarship is a first step toward making higher education more accessible for middle-class New Yorkers.

But rather than helping New York’s most needy and deserving families, a major imperative behind the bill is political. Cuomo gained a great deal of political capital by New York becoming the first state to declare college free. And as someone who has worked in both the State University of New York and City University of New York systems for nearly a decade, I can tell you from experience that the Excelsior Scholarship program is not going to significantly increase college accessibility in New York City. In fact, it may actually hinder the accessibility of higher education and the availability of resources for the state’s most vulnerable and underserved student population: the low-income, first-generation students of color who make up the bulk of CUNY’s student population.

Here are some key ways this piece of legislation could actually have a negative impact on students, faculty and staff members.

The Excelsior Scholarship is not free college. The Excelsior Scholarship program is set up as a last-dollar plan, which means it will bridge the gaps for eligible students between their financial aid package and the institution’s tuition, covering no more than the full cost of tuition for eligible students. At the community college level, students are only eligible for a total of $5,500 under the program.

Meanwhile, most CUNY students already do not pay tuition. In fact, 66 percent attend tuition-free, covered by Pell Grants and Tuition Assistance Program grants, while nearly half come from families with household incomes of less than $30,000, making them eligible to receive “full” financial aid.

Given the fact that most students already do not pay tuition, it is not the cost of tuition that makes attending college difficult for low-income urban students but rather the unofficial costs of college: transportation, books, cost of living and lost wages from the inability to work. Those expenses lead to a one-year retention rate of 61.9 percent (fall 2015). Without alleviating or assisting with any of these peripheral costs, this Excelsior Scholarship will do little or nothing to make college more accessible for low-income students.

At CUNY and SUNY community colleges that largely serve a low-income population that receives a great deal of support through existing financial aid, the program will only help a small fraction of the student population. In fact, at a college like mine, administrators expect it to benefit only about 300 to 500 students.

Finally, the application window for Excelsior is June 1 to July 15, giving students a very small time frame to apply for the aid -- a window that many of the distracted, incredibly busy, time-strapped and underprepared urban students will surely miss.

The credit accumulation requirement will be devastating to the neediest students. The Excelsior Scholarship requires that all students accumulate 30 credits in each academic year in order to maintain the scholarship. On paper that sounds simple enough. Obtaining 30 credits a year, times four years, means on-time graduation.

But nationally, only about 60 percent of college students graduate with B.A. degrees in six years, finishing at a rate far slower than the 30-credits-a-year requirement would require. At CUNY, the five-year graduation rate is much lower, hovering around 30 to 33 percent in past years.

Indeed, for low-income and academically underserved students, this rate of credit accumulation is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve -- primarily for two reasons. The first is that most CUNY students, because of their absolute financial need to work -- to cover the costs I’ve described like books, housing and transportation -- are simply unable to take 15 credits in a given semester. That makes it incredibly difficult to reach the 30-credit requirement without taking a bulk of summer and winter classes. And, as those working at CUNY know far too well, students cannot put college over financial stability because of the need to help support their households and the high cost of living in New York.

The second reason is that, because of being underserved in failing New York high schools, many CUNY students enter college requiring multiple remedial or precollege-level courses. Such courses are required to get students up to basic college proficiency but do not allow them to earn any credits. The vast majority of students, especially at the community college level, require at least one remedial course -- and some require three or more courses -- making it impossible for them to accumulate the 30 credits in their first year needed to qualify for the program.

Further, under the program, colleges will be asked to waive students’ remaining tuition (after Pell Grants, TAP grants and other aid is taken off the top) for those who qualify. Once a student meets the requirements, the state will reimburse the college. That puts financially strapped colleges and universities in a position of economic risk and can further reduce the quality of higher education in the state of New York.

But that provision of the bill has the most devastating impact on academically struggling students. Students who receive the Excelsior Scholarship will have their tuition waived but will be forced to reimburse the institution for it if they do not meet the program’s requirements. That means that students who fail a course -- and because they come into college so woefully underprepared that can be as many as 70 percent of all students -- and therefore do not reach the total of 30 credits will be required to pay a portion of their tuition back.

That will cause an even greater financial burden on the most at-risk students, as they will not have planned for such expenses. (After all, isn’t college free now?) And while students who have faced personal hardship will be able to reapply for Excelsior, it is yet to be determined exactly how that will happen and what stipulations will be put in place for a student to regain the scholarship.

Colleges will have more incentive to recruit international students. International and out-of-state students pay more tuition than in-state residents. With in-state students eligible for Excelsior, the bill will only further encourage public colleges and universities, seeking greater revenues, to put international and out-of-state students at the center of their recruiting goals. That has the potential of further steering the student population away from the low-income, first-generation college students that CUNY has traditionally served.

Tuition increases will make college less accessible for those who don’t qualify for Excelsior. The bill includes a provision that allows CUNY and SUNY to increase tuition each year for those students who will be paying tuition. For example, if a working-class student does not receive full financial aid to cover tuition and is ineligible for the Excelsior Scholarship because of an inability to meet the credit-accumulation requirements, they actually could face a public university system that is even more expensive than it was before the program. By adding a tuition spike into the bill, legislators and the governor actually made college significantly less accessible for the students who do not qualify for the program, defeating its very purpose.

Calling college “free” could take a psychological toll. While many students already attend CUNY for little or no tuition, they are aware that their education is paid for through a complex combination of financial aid and personal costs. Labeling tuition as free could have a profound impact on students’ desire to take college seriously and reduce the burden on them to perform academically once admitted. This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive toward making public education accessible to all students and that removing tuition expenses isn’t a crucial and necessary step. But calling college “free” without critically examining how our underfunded K-12 system prepares students to face the rigors of undergraduate life could have unintended consequences.

Elevated admissions requirements will hurt low-income, first-generation students. The headlines have gained much attention that students both within New York and those outside it (once residency is established) will be vying for a spot in one of our so-called free colleges. And given the finite number of seats at the SUNY and CUNY colleges, I fear the competition will result in elevated admissions requirements for public colleges.

The elevated admissions requirements will push more low-income, urban, first-generation students toward community colleges because they will not be admitted to four-year colleges. Community colleges, while doing great work in many respects, do not afford students the same opportunities, type of education and level of services that four-year colleges can offer.

Also, while enrollment at CUNY and SUNY spikes, many students will opt out of attending private colleges. Of course, the exception will be the upper class or super rich, who will still choose private colleges for the prestige -- creating a two-tiered system where the rich go to private colleges and the working-class masses attend underfunded public institutions. That will only further our national wealth-inequality gap.

The bill is not aimed at low-income, first-generation working families. This law does very little to help families who earn under $30,000 a year who are receiving existing financial support to pay for college, yet are still struggling to pay for all affiliated costs. As CUNY activist and New Yorker Christopher Espinoza astutely wrote, “I feel insulted that CUNY and SUNY will now exclusively cater to middle-class families with sufficient incomes, in my opinion, to pay a $6,000 yearly tuition. I agree that there are lots of families with above-$80,000 combined incomes that have trouble paying for college for their children. But this is terrible policy in the sense that it is a gross overreach on our governor’s part to push for a middle class that is not struggling in a time when the divide between the working class and the middle class is wide as ever.”

Enough said.

The bill places greater burdens on faculty and staff members. The legislation contained no plans to increase the pay or number of CUNY and SUNY instructors and administrators -- who are already overworked and underpaid. Faculty members are already teaching more and more courses, with little time left for research and publishing. Increasing the number of students without providing significantly more funding to CUNY and SUNY will result in faculty members teaching even more courses and having more of those courses taught by dedicated but underpaid adjuncts and graduate students.

Meanwhile, support offices like those for financial aid, registration, advising and counseling consistently have long lines that stretch down university hallways while the underpaid and overworked staff members inside struggle to keep up with student needs. That has taken an emotional and physical toll on such support staff, especially those who work with low-income urban students all day without much reprieve. With an influx of new students, the demands will only multiply. Simply offering a “free tuition” scholarship that does not address any of these teaching and staffing concerns will be detrimental to low-income students who require the most attention from CUNY and SUNY’s highly professional, committed staff.

Final Thoughts

The goal of this piece is not to discredit the Excelsior Scholarship but rather to spark conversation about how we can design better legislation. The bill could have done many things to help higher education in New York more effectively. For instance, it could have directed more money to New York’s Tuition Assistance Program, which is designed to help the state’s poorest students -- those likely to be first generation or students of color. It could have appropriated more for college-readiness programs, which would reduce the need for remedial courses. It could have contained provisions to decrease the cost of room and board while increasing mental-health and career counseling on campuses -- services that students desperately need but have limited access to. It could have also included provisions to increase the number and raise the pay of faculty members, as well as to give more financial aid to low-income, part-time and other needy students.

The Excelsior Scholarship seems to have been designed with traditional students in mind -- those who attend full-time, come from high schools that fully prepared them for the academic rigors of higher education, have financial support for housing and other needed services, and can graduate on time. It seems to have been designed for the ideal student. But, as anyone who works in higher education in New York knows, an institution like CUNY serves few “ideal” students. Rather, the students at CUNY and SUNY are struggling to keep up with their course work while working multiple jobs to cover the cost of housing, transportation and books. They need a college assistance program that will make substantial changes to the lived realities of their lives.

Such a program is within reach. Speaking specifically of the CUNY system, the projected city of New York budget surplus was $963 million in 2016 (with an overall budget of $78 billion). A truly free program for CUNY -- one without the stipulation of the Excelsior Scholarship, like credit-accumulation minimums -- would cost an estimated $812 million. Beyond that, New York City could also easily reduce the cost of transportation by giving students free or discounted Metrocards and the cost of textbooks by offering access to ereaders or online texts. As a city and a state, we have the resources and ability to offer a truly free higher education to our citizens.

While the Excelsior Scholarship bill has been marketed as a magic pill, it is in fact a supremely flawed piece of legislation that reflects little concern for the harsh economic realities that the most at-risk students are facing. These students, along with our universities’ faculty and staff members, deserve better.

John M. Burdick is an academic program coordinator at CUNY: Borough of Manhattan Community College and a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announces the Excelsior Scholarship.
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Report envisions future of the college presidency

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Citing a shrinking talent pool and a retirement boom, a panel of campus leaders convened by the Aspen Institute lays out what the changing job requires and who might fill it.

The Duke Divinity email fracas and the perils of seeing academic work as a vocation (essay)

There is no official tally of how many resignations have ensued from reply-all email battles in the academy, but the count recently went up by one. The Catholic theologian Paul J. Griffiths of Duke Divinity School will reportedly leave his named chair in a year. This news came after a contentious email exchange between Griffiths and his colleagues over an invitation to a workshop on racial equity.

According to the published emails, Anathea Portier-Young, an associate professor of Old Testament, had emailed the school’s faculty members and students, “strongly urg[ing]” them to attend a voluntary two-day training on anti-racism. Later that day, Griffiths replied, claiming that the training would be “intellectually flaccid,” “definitively anti-intellectual,” a “waste” and a “distraction” from the school’s mission. Following this exchange, Griffiths has said that there were disciplinary moves made against him, including his being banned from faculty meetings.

In one of his messages to the faculty, Griffiths says that his case is about intellectual freedom. The conservative commentator Rod Dreher wants to make it about the illiberalism of the academy and its legion of intolerant “social justice warriors.” (Incidentally, Griffiths is on the record as skeptical toward liberal claims of tolerance.)

The case is also about the way academics think about their work. Judging from his emails, Griffiths seems to think of academic work as an exceptionally high calling, a vocation. He is hardly alone in thinking so. As a former theology professor at a Catholic college, I appreciate Griffiths’s sense that he is doing something of metaphysical importance.

But even a theologian has to remember that a professorship is also -- and perhaps mainly -- a job. That means that collegiality matters. It means that efforts to make the school more equitable for its students and faculty members matters. Indeed, by defining what they do in terms of vocation, scholars may do the profession and the people in it much greater harm than the “anti-intellectual” programs that Griffiths condemns.

The concept of vocation has religious roots in the calling of prophets, patriarchs and disciples. Yet even in the Bible, there is a conflict between vocation and ordinary work. In the gospels, Jesus calls his initial followers away from their work as fishermen and then gives them an unusual mission to preach and heal without accepting money. They are supposed to be itinerant, kicking away the dust of inhospitable towns as they leave them. Jesus expects that ultimately, his followers will be imprisoned and put to death for the sake of their call.

Griffiths writes that the work of the Divinity School’s faculty, “to think, read, write and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession … is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it.” In a sense, the passion with which Griffiths views his work is admirable. It is no doubt a major reason why he was able to become a leading scholar of Catholicism after already being a leading scholar of Buddhism, his CV stretching to 28 tightly spaced pages.

Vocational language surely has a place in divinity schools. But to ask any worker to be so stretched, to thrum, to burn and to be eager for more -- it can be inhuman. Ideals like this are what lead faculty members to burn out, because not even Duke has the resources to support workers being treated as an infinitely malleable substance. This kind of zeal for work also gives cover for neglect of the humdrum work of managing an institution and getting along with coworkers. Compared to Griffiths’s vision of academic work, any meeting, any report, any regulation meant to make a university an easier place for people to work and learn debases the highest good.

The academic with a sense of calling is tenacious, possessing “the ability to don blinkers for once and to convince himself that the destiny of his soul depends upon whether he is right to make precisely this conjecture and no other,” in the words of Max Weber’s lecture “Science as a Vocation.” Only a zealot who cannot tolerate perceived error sees an easily deleted email invitation as an attack on an ideal, an attack that must be countered. I should know; I’ve succumbed to zeal myself and been too quick to reply all with a sharp refutation of a minor point. Weber called the academic vocation a “strange intoxication.” It keeps the scholar fixated on a problem, even when it’s the wrong problem.

Ideals always come with costs. Stifling the ideal of the academic vocation might mean that some geniuses went unaccommodated while the decency of office life was tended and bureaucrats were appeased. Weber, for his part, thought the vocation was a necessary intoxication. According to him, academics can only bear the indignities of graduate programs, the job market, peer review and promotion and tenure -- indignities academics themselves invented -- if each one “finds and obeys the daemon that holds the threads of his life.”

But the costs are even greater if the ideal of the vocation crowds out academics’ ability to see that they are workers. Belief in vocation keeps grad students and postdocs performing what Miya Tokumitsu calls “hope labor.” They do skilled labor for little pay now in the hope that they will one day get the big reward of a tenure-track job. It goes without saying that their hope is often in vain.

The costs of vocationalism also include the strains that itinerancy places on dual-academic-career relationships, as well as untold amounts of harassment endured and swept under departmental rugs, and labor rights and benefits not argued for or unacknowledged. After all, if you have a calling, why let mundane concerns get in its way?

No doubt, someone could turn my argument around and say that the Divinity School faculty who welcomed the anti-racism workshop are too zealous in their sense of vocation. I don’t know enough to say; only Griffiths has made his case public. But the faculty members whom Griffiths criticizes at least acknowledge that, as a place of learning and work, the school has a racial climate that is worth understanding and improving.

Griffiths closed his initial email by exhorting his colleagues to “Keep your eyes on the prize,” a cynical echo of a civil-rights theme. Depending on the prize, focusing intently on it can take your eyes off your surroundings. It can make you stumble into the people around you, knock them down, flail about to steady yourself and then wonder why they insist on living in the muck.

Jonathan Malesic is a writer living in Dallas and an adjunct faculty member at McCormick Theological Seminary. He is working on a book about the spiritual costs of the American work ethic. (Twitter: @jonmalesic)

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Thursday, May 18, 2017
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Colleges aren't coddling students by teaching them how to handle disagreeable situations (essay)

Very few issues in higher education have captured the attention of commentators across the political spectrum over the past few years like the supposed “coddling” of college students. It’s rare that Ruth Marcus and Breitbart agree. But on the need to stop “coddling” students who seemingly cannot handle unexpected outcomes (e.g., the 2016 presidential election) or alternative viewpoints (e.g., pick your favorite “controversial” speaker), they made similar pleas. Calls for students to “grow up” -- or, as Republican Representative Bobby Kaufmann’s bill in the Iowa Legislature said, “Suck it up, buttercup” -- are widespread. From the left to the right, calls for college students to grow up are pointed, and getting louder and sharper.

Let’s be clear. Much of the commentary has been aimed at free speech issues -- many of which had roots in the 2016 presidential election -- and at microaggressions, trigger warnings and other aspects of language flowing from social structures and concerns that cause people pain. For our purposes here, the specific content or precipitating event is not the point. We are concerned with the diagnosis that the fault, the reason “coddling” is needed, is a character defect in students and, to a slightly lesser extent, in higher education institutions.

Considered together, the collected commentary framing the coddling issue appears grounded on a set of core assumptions: 1) that students simply need to show more fortitude, 2) that colleges are refusing to live up to their claim that they are the marketplaces for open discussion and debate of issues and ideas across the full spectrum of thought, 3) that we are reaping the fruits of the “everyone wins a trophy” philosophy, and 4) that we are experiencing the result of a failure to eradicate bigotry of all sorts from society.

Perhaps those assumptions are correct.

We argue they are not.

We propose that, when looked at from a different perspective, students’ behavior becomes more easily understood and, essentially, expected. A bit of history will set the stage.

A Matter of Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

There was a time not long ago when a common experience on a campus was the statement “Look to your right. Look to your left. Two of you won’t be here at graduation.” At the time, those and similar statements and actions -- faculty members never providing lecture notes to students who missed class, math classes having grade distributions of majority D’s and F’s, students being told that if they needed additional tutoring they did not belong there -- reflected a certain understanding of rigor and were touted with pride.

No more. We have come to understand that the students who used to be among the two not there at graduation didn’t discontinue because they didn’t belong there. We figured out that the problem had to do with knowledge, learning, skills, experiences and support. Institutions responded to that discovery by creating and providing a wide array of supports: on-demand tutoring, intrusive advising systems, high-impact teaching practices, sophisticated data analytics that inform faculty members where students are having difficulty. The result? More students learning more and achieving credentials at a higher rate. By most people’s estimation, we are more successful now, with many more students, that we ever were with a misguided understanding of rigor. Institutions no longer assume that students come fully prepared.

We argue that the lessons learned through this change in attitude and understanding regarding academic success would greatly benefit us in rethinking the coddling accusation. Consider this: just as students come to college with the knowledge, skills and abilities they have honed in and outside class in their educational experiences up to that point, along with the social skills learned along the way, so too do they come with the ability to handle disagreeable situations and ideas different from their own. Simply put, we do not expect students to show up at college possessing all the requisite skills to be successful in life; otherwise, we would have no expected learning outcomes and college would be unnecessary. On the contrary, we expect that students will grow in knowledge, skills and abilities across the arc of their college experience, exiting with demonstrably higher competence levels than those they possessed upon arrival. That is true for not only academic skills but also for handling disagreeable and challenging situations.

The trouble is, that’s not the way most people see it. Why? Why don’t we view the issues swirling around the coddling debate as a matter of knowledge, skills and abilities? Why do so many commentators insist that it’s a character defect in students, or yet another example of liberal institutions run amok, overly concerned with fragile egos?

It troubles us that such observers also fail to see the inherent contradictions in their own arguments. Consider: Why are we more understanding that a veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder might occasionally need a “safe place” than we are that a person who has survived a serious physical assault might need one? For that matter, why do people of every background create “strategic retreats,” closed off-the-record briefings, secret societies, clubs with exclusionary and/or affinity-based membership rules, and so on if not to provide a “safe space” to go and share mutually supportive thoughts and feelings? Why are they taken for granted as acceptable and expected while safe spaces for LGBT students are somehow coddling?

Similarly, why would we expect students who have come of age in neighborhoods and schools surrounded by people who largely look and think as they do to be highly skilled at handling personal insults hurled by those with different, yet similarly narrowly shaped, experiences and beliefs? Why should we expect that people who have experienced different outcomes of a society still struggling with racial and class issues will magically know how to get along? Why would we expect students to arrive a college skilled at civil discourse when their only understanding of political debate consists of well-compensated people on opposing sides shouting to drown one another out?

Viewed through such contexts, coddling is not the issue. Rather, the issue becomes how we can best provide the experiences that result in the acquisition of the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to handle challenging and complex situations effectively. It becomes recognizing that the outcomes on which we stake our institutional reputations, especially critical thinking and communication skills, must also include effectively dealing with people, ideas and behaviors that live way outside our comfort zones. It becomes understanding that no one is born knowing how to deal with people and ideas that shake you to your core. Everyone, irrespective of background or privilege, must learn how to do that.

To the core outcomes of critical thinking and communication, we would add contemplative listening, a skill we have argued elsewhere is both essential and overlooked as a prerequisite for the other two. For example, although it can be claimed that the pundits are adept at critical thinking, and are expert at communication, they lack contemplative listening while they are on the air. In previous papers, we presented a case for adding contemplative listening to the list of core outcomes in general education, grounding that discussion in theories of adult cognitive and personal development.

The listening-thinking-communicating triad forms an essential foundation for helping students develop the skills necessary for success in a society based on free and open debate. Bloom’s taxonomy could be a good initial framework. And just as we provide wraparound support structures for writing, math and so forth, we will need to ensure that similar supports are in place regarding all sorts of challenging and complex situations. In that approach, safe spaces, for instance, are no more problematic -- nor is the label any more pejorative -- than math lab.

From this perspective, colleges do not coddle anyone. Whether they provide sufficient opportunities and support for learning and practicing the requisite skills to handle intellectual and emotional challenges may be a very different matter. Only when we adopt a mode of creating supported learning opportunities, through scaffolding, a technique used to gradually move a learner progressively and incrementally from one level of understanding to another by providing temporary support, or other approach, will we adopt the more appropriate stance that handling challenging and complex situations is something we learn how to do. Robert George and Cornel West adopted this perspective in their well-known course on how to listen to contrary points of view. Our main point is this: telling students to “grow up” is no more helpful than telling them that if math is hard for you, you simply don’t belong.

Perhaps if we all were better at listening, we’d know this from our students already. Perhaps if we started demonstrating more effective ways of handling challenging and complex situations, we would have more opportunities for people to imitate more effective behaviors. Perhaps if we just understood that bursting our own bubbles is difficult and often traumatic, we would be better positioned to guide our students through the same process. Perhaps then we would move on, more productively and effectively, to confront the underlying issues that drive the content of the debates.

John C. Cavanaugh is president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. Christine K. Cavanaugh is president of Pathseekers II Inc.

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Determining which retention and graduation strategies are truly effective (essay)

Since January, some people have wondered what implications the selection of Betsy DeVos as the U.S. secretary of education may have for higher education. This discussion leads to an important practical question: In what ways can the government successfully increase college graduation rates? This issue is especially salient, as many college students are preparing to receive their degrees in the next few weeks.

In our recent extensive review of over 1,800 research studies on college students, we found that some of the most common approaches for promoting student success simply aren’t effective. For example, most states have moved to performance-based funding for supporting their public colleges. Instead of giving money based on how many students are enrolled, some funding is based on a measure of institutional performance, such the number of students who graduate or the number of courses completed.

Performance-based funding assumes that tying revenue to graduation or other measures will motivate colleges to work harder to improve desired outcomes. Unfortunately, lots of research shows that this approach doesn’t work at all.

In fact, higher education institutions have been working for decades to help students succeed. And they’re already motivated financially, since students who stay in college pay tuition and fees, buy books and other supplies, and sometimes pay room and board. Institutions are far better off retaining current students than recruiting new ones.

Performance-based funding can also have some negative side effects, since colleges are rewarded for recruiting and admitting only the students who are most likely to succeed. This approach hurts institutions that serve many students who are the first in their family to attend college or who have not been well prepared to succeed academically.

Another seemingly useful policy involves making articulation agreements among colleges within a state. Such agreements help students transfer credits successfully from one public college to another so that their previous credits count at their new institution. Since more than half of bachelor’s degree recipients attend more than one college, this policy aims to help students receive a degree more quickly and decrease their chances of dropping out along the way.

Having state articulation agreements probably does reduce the challenges of transferring credits. However, this approach also appears to have no noticeable effect on graduation or transferring from a two-year college to a four-year college.

So which approaches work? The main answer is perhaps not surprising: providing more money to support public colleges and universities increases degree attainment. This finding is notable, because states across America have substantially reduced their support for higher education. Some public research universities receive 10 percent or less of their revenue from the state.

The type of funding is also quite important. Spending on need-based aid is especially helpful, as it helps students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it attend college. Spending money on student services and instruction also appears to be an effective investment, since it directly improves student success.

In reaction to these reduced resources, many colleges are hiring more part-time or adjunct instructors, who are substantially underpaid. The strategy has negative results for students, since having more part-time or non-tenure-track faculty leads to reduced graduation rates. Even at the same institution, students who take more classes from part-time faculty are less likely to transfer or receive a degree. The problem probably occurs because part-time faculty often work at multiple colleges, so they are stretched too thin to do their jobs as well as their full-time counterparts.

Of course, many programs and institutions would like to receive more money from the government; why should public colleges and universities take priority?

Promoting college attainment results in clear benefits for society by increasing graduates’ earnings, which leads to greater revenue from payroll taxes, sales taxes and property taxes, as well as reduced spending on financial assistance. Such public financial gains outweigh public spending on college education.

Having a well-educated population also leads to many desired noneconomic outcomes. For example, college graduates have better health and well-being and greater civic engagement in their communities.

In light of the substantial benefits from promoting educational attainment, states need to muster the political will to support their public colleges and universities. These benefits occur slowly over time, and it’s hard to pinpoint the effects in the same way that one can point to a new football stadium. But investing in higher education is crucial in the long term, so states need to start acting in their own self-interest.

Nicholas A. Bowman (University of Iowa), Tricia A. Seifert (Montana State University), Gregory C. Wolniak (New York University), Matthew J. Mayhew (Ohio State University) and Alyssa N. Rockenbach (North Carolina State University) are authors of How College Affects Students (Volume 3): 21st Century Evidence That Higher Education Works (Jossey-Bass, 2016).

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Donald Trump is right to want to repeal the Johnson Amendment (essay)

Donald Trump is right.

As the author of a book that denounces Donald Trump as a corrupt, sexist, racist, lying, stupid conspiracy nut, it is not easy for me to say that. But sometimes Trump can inadvertently stumble into the right position when he’s busy appeasing a political constituency. And that’s the case with Trump’s approach to political speech by nonprofit groups.

In 1954, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, worried in the era of McCarthyism that nonprofit organizations might be used to attack his re-election campaign, added a legislative amendment strictly banning 501(c)(3) organizations from supporting or opposing political candidates. For many years, conservative Christian activists have called for repealing the Johnson Amendment, and Trump became their crusader, announcing during the 2016 campaign, “I am going to work like hell to get rid of that prohibition and we are going to have the strongest Christian lobby …” On Feb. 2, President Trump participated in the National Prayer Breakfast, where he reiterated his campaign promise: “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”

Trump is no defender of free speech. To the contrary, he is one of the greatest enemies of civil liberties ever elected president in modern times. I devote a chapter in my book to Trump’s support for repression, including his proposed ban on Muslims (now accompanied by “extreme vetting” of political views), his statements advocating for the torture of enemy prisoners and even the murder of their families, and his calls to dramatically loosen libel law in order to attack freedom of the press. Trump wants to repeal the Johnson Amendment for the very same reason that LBJ passed it: to serve his political interests. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

The Johnson Amendment has a severe impact on political speech. Earlier this year, when I was helping to organize one of the Writers Resist events held nationwide the week before Trump’s inauguration, I encountered that kind of fear from the national organizers of the movement: “We urge local organizers and speakers to avoid using the names of politicians or adopting ‘anti-’ language as the focus for their Writers Resist event. It’s important to ensure that nonprofit organizations, which are prohibited from political campaigning, will feel confident participating in and sponsoring these events.” When the Johnson Amendment can scare the politics out of an event that focused on speaking out against Trump’s policies, it shows how powerful this law is -- and how destructive.

That is especially true on college campuses, where administrators are willing to violate the free speech of their students and faculty out of a misunderstanding of the Johnson Amendment. Invoking 501(c)(3)s has become the leading slogan for justifying censorship on campuses, despite numerous IRS and court rulings to the contrary. The Johnson Amendment is perhaps the most common justification for censoring political speech on college campuses.

After some colleges banned Michael Moore and other speakers with political opinions during the 2004 election, the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure in 2005 issued a statement on “Academic Freedom and Outside Speakers” that warned that because of “the danger that a group’s invitation might violate Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, college and university administrators have displayed an increasing tendency to cancel or to withdraw funding for otherwise legitimate invitations to noncampus speakers.”

Yet the repression has continued. In 2008, the University of Illinois told faculty and staff members that they could not wear political buttons on campus or even put a partisan bumper sticker on their car if it was parked in a campus lot. The College of St. Catherine that year disinvited a series of political speakers.

Every election year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education issues a statement explaining to colleges why 501(c)(3) regulations cannot justify censorship, and every election they deal with colleges trying to suppress political speech in the name of appeasing the IRS. In 2016, American University refused official recognition of Students for Rand (but reversed its error), while Georgetown Law prohibited students supporting Bernie Sanders from tabling on the campus.

DePaul University in 2016 warned students that because it is a 501(c)(3) organization, the college must ban all “partisan political fliers, posters, signs or images on the university bulletin board, buildings, electronic message boards, forums or sidewalks.”

Even public universities are affected by the paranoia over political speech, since virtually all public colleges have nonprofit foundations. Recently, a University of South Alabama student was ordered to remove a Trump/Pence sign in his dorm window, which the administration claimed was forbidden due to 501(c)(3) regulations.

In 2017, Stanford University administrators initially banned law professor Michele Landis Dauber from using a photo of Donald Trump on a flier promoting a conference on sexual assault that was held on May 1-2, even after Dauber said she offered to remove Stanford’s name and pay for the fliers herself. An associate dean emailed Dauber, saying, “We have been clear since January that these Access Hollywood images could give the appearance of partisanship, and since the event is [a law school] event, they shouldn’t be used in the marketing of the event. This is per university policy.”

According to FIRE, “One of the most common reasons colleges give for censoring political speech is that their status as a tax-exempt nonprofit requires them to remain politically neutral.” FIRE has noted, “Despite the existing IRS guidance, many colleges and universities take an overly cautious, overly restrictive approach to Section 501(c)(3) compliance, severely limiting or banning student partisan speech on campus or interpreting the use of any university resource by a student or student group as implicating the university in the activity.”

The act of banning a particular political activity, in fact, is far more likely to be a violation of 501(c)(3) regulations, because it involves administrative action to benefit or harm a particular political candidate.

None of the arguments on behalf of the Johnson Amendment are persuasive. LaShawn Y. Warren, vice president of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, has argued in defense of the Johnson Amendment, claiming that its repeal would “have a corrosive effect on the sanctity and purity of faith leaders’ messages.” I have never believed in nor cared about the alleged purity of churches kept “free” from politics. I certainly don’t think that government tax officials should be the ones enforcing “sanctity” on our preachers. Warren also wrote, “The elimination of the Johnson Amendment would create a substantial loophole in campaign finance law that could be exploited by those seeking to influence faith leaders and faith communities.”

The leading bills to repeal the Johnson Amendment are well written and narrowly tailored. HR 781 and S 264, the Free Speech Fairness Act of 2017, would protect all nonprofit groups (religious and otherwise) from punishment for “the content of any statement that: (1) is made in the ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose, and (2) results in the organization incurring not more than de minimis incremental expenses.” This is a wise and essential change to the Johnson Amendment, one that would prevent nonprofit groups from being used as a front for campaign cash while allowing individuals at nonprofits to participate in political dialogue.

There are serious abuses of the nonprofit code for political purposes, when politicians control nonprofit groups and use them purely as tools to advance their political ambitions. Donald Trump used his now-defunct foundation to benefit himself for many years, buying not just paintings of himself but, according to some reports, even apparently paying for his son’s Boy Scout registration out of the foundation’s funds.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump regularly handed out checks from his foundation to charities at his rallies. Trump also gave $150,000 to the American Conservative Union Foundation to help secure prime speaking opportunities at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which aided his presidential ambitions.

But the Johnson Amendment does nothing to stop these illicit abuses, while silencing free speech at institutions with 501(c)(3) status (which now include virtually every public as well as private college in the country).

Will repeal of the Johnson Amendment cause conservative Christian groups to gain more influence over our political system? I don’t know, and I don’t care. If changing the Johnson Amendment can enhance everyone’s freedom to speak out, then it will be a good thing regardless of which ideological position gains the most votes.

However, there are two solid reasons why progressives should embrace changes to the Johnson Amendment. The Trump administration now controls the executive branch, and the potential power to use the IRS against its enemies. And a Pew Research Center survey found that 28 percent of black Protestants heard their clergy speak in favor of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, while only 4 percent of white evangelicals heard their clergy speak in favor of a presidential candidate (split between Clinton and Trump).

The best argument for repealing the Johnson Amendment is Trump himself: because he is a petty, vindictive, unprincipled president, it would surprise no one if Trump ordered the IRS to punish his political enemies by striking out against nonprofit organizations who dared to criticize his actions. Progressives need to join in the repeal of the Johnson Amendment for their own self-protection against the Trump Administration.

In his best-selling book Big Agenda, influential Trump supporter David Horowitz argues that conservatives “must begin every confrontation by punching progressives in the mouth.” Horowitz, who once proposed the Academic Bill of Rights to silence political speech by professors, calls upon Republicans to punch at left-wing nonprofit groups: “Why haven’t Republicans done something about this monstrous advantage provided to the left by the current tax code to shape what government does and does not do?”

Recently, the National Association of Scholars issued a call for censorship of civic engagement programs at colleges, and recommended that citizens “sue their host universities for each and every political act they commit. Lawsuits, and the threat of lawsuits, may actually prod academic administrators to shut down New Civics programs.”

On May 4, Trump signed an executive order declaring, “the secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective …”

This terrible executive order gives religious people special privileges under the law to engage in political expression forbidden to all others with different motives. Granting exemption from the law only for having a “religious perspective” discriminates against anyone with moral or political views that do not stem from a religious ideology.

But Trump’s discriminatory executive order makes it even more important for progressives to embrace a legislative modification of the Johnson Amendment that applies to all nonprofit groups, and helps end the wave of censorship in the name of tax law that pervades college campuses.

When it comes to repealing the Johnson Amendment, Trump and his allies are self-interested, partisan hypocrites, but this should not blind us to that surprising fact: Donald Trump is right.

John K. Wilson is the author of eight books, including President Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire (OR Books).

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The importance of improving the training, supervision and job expectations of resident advisers (essay)

Once upon a time, I was a resident adviser, an RA. I was not very good at it and only did it for a summer, but it did give me some perspective when I later worked as a hall director supervising a staff of RAs. I did this at two places: a small women’s college (dream job) and a large university (not so much). That perspective stayed with me through various jobs, including my stretch as the vice president for student affairs at a small college where residential life was part of my portfolio.

So it was with great interest that I read reports of the recent strike by RAs at Scripps College. It wasn’t the first job action of its kind, but it will probably get a lot of attention. Last week’s news brought a related story: the decision by the National Labor Relations Board to allow RAs at George Washington University to unionize, a first for private institutions. Even though the organization representing the RAs has since requested that the union election vote be called off, as I’ve read these stories, I’ve reached an alarming conclusion: we are in trouble. In our residence halls and beyond, we rely on these peaceful armies to fulfill a raft of duties, and have done so for so long that we take them for granted.

During a recent discussion in the graduate class I teach on student affairs, I was comparing the distinct underlying cultures of student affairs and faculty work as a way of framing some of the challenges in that relationship. I have given this mini lecture for about 25 years, referring to commonly accepted differences between the two groups. When I mentioned one particular difference, my students stopped me.

What I said was, “While it is the role of faculty members to be institutional critics, student affairs professionals tend to be institutional cheerleaders.” Brows furrowed. Heads slowly shook.

“No, we’re not,” said one student. The others quickly agreed. I felt my internal belief system shudder and then realign. I didn’t even have to ask. Of course these are not the graduate students I have taught for years. They have come of age at a time when higher education is criticized from all sides, and even as future student affairs professionals themselves, they have joined in that criticism. I thought about the times that I, as a supervisor, encountered resistance to my various requests and expectations. I had chalked it up to the millennial culture, taking cover among the older professionals I worked with whose loyalty to the institution was reassuring -- although perhaps baked in by the reality of the job market as much as a genuine affection for the place.

But that might not be our future in student affairs, as evidenced by RAs who are beginning to organize and who may force us to change. We can, as in all situations, resist that change or anticipate and help to shape it.

One might ask, “What is their problem?” Being an RA (goes the standard spiel) offers a leadership development opportunity, a financial boon, a chance to be more engaged in the campus community, mentoring from a caring and capable professional, and membership in an elite club alongside peers who become close friends.

OK, that standard spiel? Totally old paradigm, which I admit I occasionally retreat to when I’m scared or tired or just not thinking critically. So let me try again.

Being an RA is a stressful, high-pressure, time-consuming job -- one often undertaken by students desperate to reduce the cost of their education and debt (who, on some campuses, are disproportionately students of color), for which they often receive inadequate training and supervision, and for which they are targets of enmity, not envy, by their peers.

And they have had it with us, I’m afraid. If the Scripps strike is any indication, students who serve in this role are mad as hell and may not be willing to take it anymore. Can we manage residence halls without student staff? What would that even look like?

Inconsistency Across Institutions

When we recruit, train and employ RAs, we are, in many ways, relying on an outdated set of beliefs about the lives of students and their willingness to be exploited. I say this knowing that I have fully participated in that exploitation. We count on our ability to convince RAs that they are doing missionary work. We pump them up; we shower them with verbal praise and “RA of the Month” awards. The cult that captured so many of us used strategies to recruit like-minded individuals who were willing to work for minimal compensation, who were happy to be on the team.

Students are still prone to joining teams, but not the ones we need in order to provide the optimal residential experience. Now, students join Facebook groups and speak-outs, protests and social justice sit-ins. They make demands. They do not trust us. Yes, we have always had students who make demands and do not trust the administration, but we have also always had the thin blue line of RAs to help mitigate their peers’ problematic behavior, to be our proxies in the halls and elsewhere on campus, and to make us feel better by liking us and reassuring us that we are good people who care about students.

But things are different now. The RAs at Scripps are the ones demanding change and loudly publicizing their distrust of student affairs staff. The RAs! At first I felt their betrayal slice through my professional heart. And then I considered some of the realities of today’s RA experience and realized that this might be the first of a series of shock waves that will topple the careful structures of residential education. If we are to build structures capable of withstanding those tremors, we must understand the experiences of many RAs now working -- and it is work -- at our colleges.

I have been part of and observed some very good and some very mediocre residence life departments, and that inconsistency across institutions is an issue we need to address. Every campus does this work differently, claiming its idiosyncrasies are endemic to its culture. But consider the variety of RA structure and support:

  • Compensation: No two campuses do this exactly the same way. Some provide a free room and board plan, others only a stipend. Still others offer a single room at the price of a double or a partial reduction in a room fee (though it is sometimes wiped out by a financial aid adjustment). And I’d wager that certain campuses provide no meaningful compensation at all.
  • Training, part 1: RAs often return two or three weeks early in the summer to begin their training. Some institutions employ several “levels” of RAs, with senior staff returning a week ahead of the rest of the RAs so they can help plan training. A student earning $10 an hour at a full-time summer job might be required to sacrifice $1,000 in earnings in order to arrive on the campus in time to begin training.
  • Training, part 2: Some institutions require RAs to take a credit-bearing class as part of the job, while others expect regular participation in in-service trainings throughout the semester. If an RA cannot do one or both of these, the job may be lost, along with housing.
  • Role confusion: On some campuses, RAs are social directors, key holders and information conduits. On others, they are the first line of response to a number of complex student-related crises. RAs routinely deal with high-risk situations each weekend. Yes, they have professional staff backing them up, but those staff members are often called only after an RA has been dispatched to, or has come upon, a scary and high-stakes situation.
  • Supervision: The best residential life departments employ skilled professional master’s-level staff members to hire, train and supervise RAs. They have a reasonable staff-to-RA ratio, they meet regularly, they hold RAs accountable for their responsibilities and they themselves are supervised well by talented midlevel or senior professionals. And then there is the other 80 percent. Those departments see rapid turnover among entry-level professionals, sometimes midyear. They pile expectations on resident directors, leading to 60-hour workweeks or more in exchange for housing and a pitifully low salary. Such young professionals are just slightly better trained for the crises they routinely encounter. Like the RAs they supervise, they are overwhelmed, burned out and, if one considers their demographics (mid-20s), as prone to anxiety and depression as their students.

So we ask RAs to do this difficult work, and we count on their loyalty to the institution, their love for the community, their general goodness as young people who are supposedly happy to have this level of responsibility thrust upon them. It has worked for decades. Aside from the occasional flameout of incompetence or burnout of overcommitment, those RAs tough it out and even thank us at the end of the year -- often at the annual banquets we host for them -- for putting them through a 36-week boot camp.

But if we have learned one thing from the weekly reports of various student protests across the country, it’s this: students are not nearly as grateful for opportunities as we might hope. They are not mutely appreciative of a chance to attend a prestigious college or university that underpays its dining-service workers. Or to represent their institution on the playing field, filling its stadium seats, living on poverty-level wages while they do it. They are certainly not grateful to hear highly paid speakers reinforce racist or sexist or homophobic perspectives. And they are not willing to work for what essentially amounts to a couple of dollars an hour, especially not when that work might include having to report a sexual assault, watch while a resident is handcuffed after a drug bust, talk a resident out of self-harming or key into a room to find a student hanging from a belt looped over a steam pipe, as one of my RAs once did.

Adjusting Expectations

I see this all going one of two ways: either their protests will grow and impede the already-difficult work of community building on our residential campuses, or students will simply stop applying to do the work (which is happening on campuses already, according to anecdotal reports from friends in the business of trying to recruit them). We must create a third way. We need to move away from the old paradigm of relying on their inherent loyalty and eagerness to be appreciated by us. We must standardize compensation, training, supervision and job expectations. If we start with a fair compensation package that rewards a manageable job, supported by competent professionals, we might then attract back to the role the strongest candidates and not rely on those who seek the job for the wrong reasons.

We should limit RA training to one week. It can be done. Typically, every campus office that interacts with students will, at some point over the summer, make a request of the RA training committee to have a session added that addresses their services or areas of concern. How about saying no? Can we move some of the content-based training online and ask RAs to complete it over the course of the summer, a small chunk at a time, and compensate them for that effort?

Finally, we must stop asking these young, inexperienced people who are struggling with their own mental and emotional health challenges to respond to students in crisis. How we do that is, of course, quite expensive, because it requires adding to our professional staff numbers. One possible response is for us to work upstream, in the admissions process, to better assess the wisdom of recruiting and accepting some students -- but that’s a topic for another day. At the heart of this challenge is our need to actually protect our students and not require them to carry more weight than is possible.

A coming storm? It may already be here. An anticipated drought? On some campuses, the RA well is running dry. We can hunker down, fondly recall the old days when mediating roommate disputes, unlocking doors and pouring out beer cans were the typical stuff of nights on call, and watch as the world’s last RAs struggle through a very difficult climate. Or we can try adjusting our own expectations of the work and our students and be prepared for any weather. The next steps are up to us.

Lee Burdette Williams is an educator and writer in Burlington, Vt.

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