Some weeks back, a publishing house in Spain announced that it would be issuing a deluxe facsimile edition of the enigmatic and sui generis volume best known as the Voynich manuscript, in a print run limited to 898 copies, selling at 7,000-8,000 euros each. That’s the equivalent of $7,400 to $8,400 -- a price tag guaranteed to separate the true bibliomaniac from the common run of book collectors.
But then Beinecke 408 (as the volume is also known, from its catalog reference in Yale University’s rare books collection) tends to throw a spell over those who contemplate it for very long. Running to about 200 parchment pages -- or closer to 240, if you count a number of long, folded-up sheets as multiple pages -- it is abundantly illustrated with drawings of plants that have somehow eluded the attention of botanists, surrounded by copious text in an unknown alphabet. It looks like what you’d get from throwing Roman, Greek and Arabic script into a blender along with a few alchemical symbols. At a certain point the artwork takes a noticeable turn: the plants are accompanied by miniature drawings of naked women sitting on the leaves, emerging from broken stems or bathing in pools. Those slightly Rubenesque figures also show up in what appear to be a number of astronomical or astrological charts. A final section of the book consists of page after page of closely written text, with starlike symbols in the margin that seem to indicate section or paragraph divisions.
It sounds like something H. P. Lovecraft and Jorge Luis Borges might have concocted to pull a prank on Umberto Eco. But mere description of the Voynich manuscript little prepares you for the experience of turning its pages, even in the considerably less expensive hardback just published by Yale University Press. The editor, Raymond Clemens, is curator of early books and manuscripts at the university’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The color reproductions of each page are made at the size of the original; the ink or paint used by the illustrator at times bleeding through slightly behind the text and artwork on the other side of the parchment. The thing that strikes the eye most about the writing is how concentrated it looks: printed in a crisp, precise hand by someone who, especially in the final pages, seems determined to make good use of the space without sacrificing readability.
Which is, of course, the maddening thing about the book -- almost literally so, at times. The effort to figure out what it says has tested, and defeated, the mental powers of numerous researchers over the past century, beginning not long after the bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich acquired it in 1912. (The Yale edition includes a detailed biographical article on Voynich, who seems to have escaped from the pages of a novel by Dostoyevsky before settling in London and moving, eventually, to New York. The label “bookseller” is too narrow by far. One telling detail: his father-in-law was George Boole.)
The first scholar to throw himself into solving the riddle was William Romaine Newbold, professor of moral and intellectual philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, whose The Cipher of Roger Bacon was posthumously assembled from his notes and manuscripts and published in 1928. Its title reflects the earliest known attribution of the work: a letter from 1665 or ’66 reports that the book had been owned by Rudolph II -- the Holy Roman Emperor, patron of Johannes Kepler and alchemy enthusiast -- who believed the author to be the 13th-century English scientist and monk Roger Bacon. (Not to be confused with Francis Bacon, also an English scientist, born 300 years after the monk’s prime.)
Knowing that Roger Bacon was a pioneer in the study of optics and had experimented with lenses, Newbold boldly combined fact and speculation to argue that the Voynich manuscript reported Bacon’s discoveries using the microscope (spermatozoa, for example) and the telescope (the Andromeda galaxy). Furthermore, the hieroglyphs in the mysterious text actually consisted of much smaller letters -- combined in a code of great sophistication -- which were only visible with a microscope.
Quod est demonstrandum, sort of. Admirers of Roger Bacon found the interpretations plausible, anyway. But in 1931, the medievalist journal Speculum published a long and devastating assessment of Newbold’s methodology, which concluded that the code system he’d deduced was so vague and arbitrary that the messages he unearthed were “not discoveries of secrets hidden by Roger Bacon but the products of his own intense enthusiasm and his learned and ingenious subconsciousness.”
That judgment surely inspired caution among subsequent Voynich analysts. I found one paper, published in Science in 1945, claiming to have determined that the manuscript was written by a 16th-century astrologer and herbalist known to have had a particular interest in women’s illnesses. The researcher ends his report by insisting that it was not the product of “a learned and ingenious subconscious.” Be that as it may, the author also felt that “present war conditions” made it “undesirable to publish, at this time, the details of the key.”
That note of hesitation foreshadows one of the many interesting points made in the generally excellent short essays accompanying the Voynich manuscript in the Yale edition: “The extent to which the problems it poses have been a matter of professional as well as amateur interest is reflected in the fact that the best book-length introduction to this ‘elegant enigma’ was written by a government cryptologist … and published in-house by the U.S. National Security Agency.” The monograph (now in the public domain and available to download) indicates that the NSA had already played host to quite a bit of hard-core Voynich inquiry by the late 1970s, and who knows how much computational power has been directed at cracking it since then.
The Yale University Press edition ventures no theory of who created the Voynich manuscript or what it says. A chapter reporting on examination and tests of the material indicates that the parchment can be dated to roughly 1420, give or take a couple of decades, while multispectral imaging reveals the erased invisible signature of a pharmacist who died in 1622, using the noble title he received in 1608. That may not remove all possibility of a hoax, but it would seem to backdate it by a few centuries. The enigma, like the book itself, has proven nothing if not durable; this handsome and (relatively) affordable edition will serve to spread its fascination around.
I do not live in a bubble, and one of the ways I work things out is to write. So I have put this piece together as a means of expiating my own grief over the results of the recent presidential election.
At first, I wanted to keep my mourning private, especially as my current role as a college president requires me to tread carefully and not give an institutional patina to my personal thoughts. I have also not wanted to invite the various trolls who consider my views like catnip. But I have come to the view that silence will probably cause greater harm to our country's immigrant students, particularly those "DREAMers" -- the hundreds of thousands of students in the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, who were brought to this country as children and have been allowed to attend college. The 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe allowed them to stay in school, while DACA gave them employment authorization, lawful presence and Social Security numbers. It is by no means legalization, but it has been a transformative program while Congress has fiddled over immigration reform.
Indeed, I have dedicated my entire life to many ideals, but the ones that matter the most were repudiated on election night. Since then, I have arranged over a dozen conference calls with DREAMers, immigration lawyers, college presidents and reporters. Many know I helped write the Texas statutes that give many of the DREAMers resident Texas tuition and financial aid. Inasmuch as I have taught higher education law and also immigration law for 35 years, these are my fields. I have won many more contests in this terrain than I have lost, but this one hurts, and I feel as if we all let down my students, a dereliction of duty that I feel deeply. I fear for the DACA students, many of them in my own institution, who placed their lives and hopes in higher education and the polity. I urged them to trust we would do the right thing if they took responsibility for their own lives by studying and coming forward. They have done so, but now we have not held up our part of the bargain.
In the wake of the election, a number of colleges and universities are declaring themselves "sanctuary campuses," saying they will limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities. However, the various proposals for carving out sanctuary campuses have occasioned even more vexation for me, and this viral-fed option is what finally moved me to write this article.
These well-intentioned efforts to establish a sanctuary use the term in its root ecclesiastic meanings, such as providing safe harbor. But from whom?
"Sanctuary" is also a contronym -- an example of a single word that has opposite meanings. ("Sanction" is another.) To many folks, the term depicts a defiance of law and serves as a trope for unauthorized immigration and liberal pieties. That it has become tinged with racist and anti-Mexican sentiment renders the term even more poisonous. One person's safe harbor is another person's harboring, in the dueling metaphors, if not the actual immigration law.
My view on these proposals is that they provide a chimerical outlet for people who are frustrated and have no other pathways to ameliorate the situation. But the term "sanctuary" is a term that is too fraught with restrictionist meanings or misunderstandings about the difference between "defying the law" or choosing not to implement discretionary practices, for policy, efficacy or other reasons. Worse, it has no legal meaning and the admonitions are vague and impossible to implement, which will only frustrate people more.
I have urged all those people who have called me to be very cautious in suggesting that a legal cocoon is possible or even needed for students -- who, after all, are not lawbreakers. Of course, institutions should provide support and services, as they would for all their students, especially vulnerable ones. But exacting pledges that cannot be kept will do no one any good.
And there are longstanding rules of engagement, or, in this context, nonengagement in higher education, such as the current Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy on such enforcement. As it notes, schools and colleges are exceedingly low priorities, and forms of this policy have been in place for many years. Virtually no campus has ever been raided for students in unauthorized status or undocumented campus workers, and they are unlikely to be.
But just as I cannot tell you how to react to any rollbacks of the Affordable Care Act, I cannot tell people what could happen and what the alternatives are. I know it will not be good, if for no other reason than it has already exposed vulnerable populations -- who are not "criminal," and who actually may be lawfully present (such as DACA holders) or in legal status (such as F-1 students from Muslim countries).
And I cannot promise these students that positive results will come of all this. I have urged them to be careful in expressing themselves in ways that might give rise to thermodynamic reactions, as have begun to surface. Getting arrested and convicted of any transgressions would give real rise to possibilities of deportation. And they should be careful about using social media in a way that might expose their parents to possible harm. I will not urge them to march into the valley of death or to put themselves at risk, although I will agree that the peaceful marchas galvanized public attention in 2006. American citizens who urge this option for DREAMers should examine their consciences and not encourage these students to put themselves in harm's way. At the very least, we should do no harm.
Feel-good actions and solidarity are fine and have an important place in the civil-rights narrative. But I do not hold out hope that the sanctuary proposals will make any genuine change or provide actual sanctuary -- whatever that empty vessel means to anyone on either side of the issue. And so I prefer more meaningful actions, such as working with student groups and their supporters: advocacy groups, bar associations, social service agencies, philanthropies and the usual support infrastructures for colleges and communities. The University of Houston Law Center, where I have spent most of my professional life, has stepped up, and my colleagues and law students are providing technical assistance and advice, as have many of my immigration law professor colleagues.
I ride with my students in the university's elevators every day, and it always is a life-affirming experience, as so many are first-generation students, immigrants and students of color. When they recognize me, they relate their experiences and their triumphs and concerns. In the last two weeks, they have actually cheered me up -- not for the first time. I have dedicated my entire life to them, and they have reciprocated. One of them sensed my own dread and said to me, "Llegamos tan cerca (We came very close)."
What can we do? We still have more than 20 states in this country that provide resident tuition for the undocumented. But the students' trajectory would clearly be altered if DACA were abolished or allowed to expire. It would be a foolish and tragic policy to demonize and deport these DREAMers, even as their parents have been criminalized in the narrative. We need these students, and they surely need us now. Can't we all agree that comprehensive immigration reform is overdue 30 years since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986? If we want to do something constructive, such advocacy has never been more necessary.
That will be a tremendous fight, under the circumstances. But these students in whom we have invested should be at the front of that line, when Congress recognizes its responsibilities. That is where we should all focus our efforts.
Many community groups work to assist immigrants; two of them are directed by formers students of mine, and two others employ former students. All are 501(c)3 organizations, and donations to them are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law.
Scott Eric Kaufman -- an American critic and journalist who developed a readership while blogging as a graduate student in English -- died in Houston on Monday following multiple organ failure and acute complications.
He was about a month short of his 40th birthday. A great many Inside Higher Ed readers will know his work -- whether from his blog Acephalous or more recently when he wrote for Salon and The A.V. Club, among other venues -- and I hope that they will join me in trying to help his family with medical expenses. Donations can be made at this website.
Everyone called him SEK, sooner or later. It always seemed like a hard nickname to get a reading on: both formal and informal, somehow. We met during and after the Modern Language Association convention in Chicago in 2007, which would have been around the time he turned 30, and that is how I remember SEK still -- looking vaguely David Foster Wallace-ish, my memory insists.
It compounds the dismay at realizing he has died so young -- and drives home the sense that this has been an especially cruel year. I’ve just noticed that he identified himself as (((SEK))) on his Twitter account, the parentheses being an anti-Semitic signal that the person whose name is so punctuated is Jewish. He’d found a way to neuter a whole class of trolls using one of their own devices. Anybody who can do that is someone you want on your side in a fight, and not just in spirit.
The past is full of dumb controversies -- their urgency made ridiculous with the benefit of hindsight. The stakes are difficult to credit since the outcome now seems inevitable. I doubt anyone coming of age in the present decade can imagine how intense the discussion once was over whether or not graduate students or junior faculty could afford the risk of having a blog -- indeed, whether even someone with tenure might not endanger any claim to professional respect by blogging.
No, seriously, it was an issue. The year was 2005. A would-be moral entrepreneur calling himself Ivan Tribble wrote an article full of dire harrumphing about blogs as an unscholarly and self-indulgent pastime that might (and probably should) render the hobbyist unemployable. The piece ran in one of the major journals of news and opinion covering higher education, read largely by administrators and senior faculty members who -- having, in many cases, only just learned how to download a PDF -- barely knew what a blog was, much less whether it might have any value.
Tribble’s admonishing of younger academics about the risks of blogging was, in reality, a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand: the real point was to rally the gatekeepers, to warn them that nothing good could come of this new way of constituting and engaging a public. The debate that ensued turned out to be a defining moment for the first generation of academic bloggers. (You can judge how Tribble’s side of the controversy fared by the fact that it was the first generation of academic bloggers.)
SEK was among the first to respond to Tribble’s argument, but he also contributed what I’d say was the last word on the subject. He was, at the time, a graduate student in English at the University of California, Irvine, working toward the Ph.D. he received in 2008. He’d begun blogging in early 2005 -- a mixture of reflections on his work, anecdotes from his teaching experience (most memorably about finding two undergraduates having sex in his carrel) and venting on whatever seemed to merit it.
In 2006, he organized a panel on blogging for that year’s MLA and took a survey of his readership, which proved to be, as he told a packed room at the convention, “highly educated, consisting of a group best described as ‘the unusually literate.’” Out of the nearly 800 responses, he said, “two hundred and eleven were graduate students in English; another 172 of them were professors; 164 were historians, most of whom were professors; after that the disciplines begin to break down. Forty-two philosophers, 27 sociologists, 24 neuroscientists, 18 students of religious studies, 11 political scientists, seven physicists, three classicists and one self-described ‘freelance librarian’ named Rich.”
He went on to explain, “My list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, merely suggestive of the intellectual community an unspectacular graduate student can create when he spends an hour or two writing for someone other than himself, his committee and the lucky 11 people who’ll skim his work, if, by some miracle, it lands in a flagship journal. My ideas are out there, circulating, in way not often seen outside of conferences and seminar rooms, but the diversity of the crowd forces me to find some way to communicate with my readers in terms they’ll all be able to understand. This doesn’t mean, as some would have it, that I’m simplifying my ideas for a general audience.”
That any of this might even be possible came as a revelation to some people. Earlier this month, a young professor at a conference mentioned to me that reading Acephalous and The Valve (a now-defunct group blog SEK participated in) had, in effect, bridged the gap between what he’d hoped to find in graduate school and the realities he had to accept once there.
At the time of the conversation, Kaufman was already in intensive care, and I regret never thinking to pass those remarks along. But anyone who benefited from his life and work can express their appreciation to his family, so here’s that page for donations again.
So you’ve published a paper on monetary theory, snagged that fellowship for research in Rome or received an award for best teacher of the year. Or maybe you’ve just served on seven committees this past semester, from tenure review to curriculum reform, and colleagues ought to appreciate that.
But they don’t, at least not to your face. And the pathetic “Faculty News” page of your department website just doesn’t cut it. (Take a look at the listing for Professor Dale’s publication in Southwest Annandale Historical Society Notes: doubly out of date, since both the professor and the journal are extinct.)
You want to be known as the foremost expert on forensic linguistics or the one who got a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study Rilke -- back in 2011, but still. What to do? Think of Berkeley’s famous proposition, applied to academics: “If a paper is published in a journal and no one knows about it, does it make a sound?” Is it OK to toot your own horn? In this era of Facebook, are you kidding?
Consider the humblebrag, a seemingly modest utterance that’s actually a boast. The British have excelled in this charming self-deprecation for centuries: “Oh, I don’t suppose many people were in the running this year,” for instance, to explain why you won the London marathon. Only this is higher education in 2016, with access to Twitter.
Think brassier, think of that academic review coming up in 2017, and think within a 140-character limit:
Gosh, if I don’t send in that manuscript to Oxford by this fall, they’re gonna kill me!
I don’t see how I’m going to get any work done during my fellowship in Belize.
Darned if I know why the Fulbright committee chose my proposal over so many deserving others.
You know, if it weren’t for all the grateful letters that I’ve gotten from students over the years, I’d’ve given up teaching a long time ago.
Never mind all my publications. The Smoot Teaching Award I got this year makes me realize what really matters in life.
I keep thinking there must be some mistake: Why would the Guggenheim committee even consider my work on medieval stairways?
You know, I never set out to write a best seller. Everyone knows what people in academe think of that.
Promotion to full professor isn’t much, I guess, but I try to see it as an affirmation of all I’ve done here.
I don’t anticipate the deanship will give me much power, but I do intend to take the responsibility seriously.
It’s not fashionable to talk about service, I know, which is why I don’t discuss all the behind-the-scenes work I do for the college.
All that work for such a simple title: provost.
I’m sure plenty of people could have delivered the keynote address at this conference, but I’m the one who got suckered into it.
They said I’m the youngest program director they’ve ever had -- must be their code word for inexperienced.
The students in my econ class all say that I’m their favorite teacher, but you know what that means.
As an adjunct, I could just phone in my performance, but I always have to put in 200 percent. Sigh. That’s just me.
That’s what I told Mike -- I mean, the chancellor. No idea why he listens to me. Hey, I’m just custodial staff.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book, Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook, has just come out from Columbia University Press.
When our Board of Trustees first heard about our president being sent some threatening communications, we weren’t too worried. The president is well liked, affable and easily recognized in the community. With 60,000 students enrolled, three campuses and a $300 million operating budget, she’s an astute, popular figure whose energy and goodwill are legendary. She has led efforts that have raised $23 million in scholarships for needy students during her tenure.
Her nonstop schedule, however, frequently takes her out late at night, often alone, sometimes a couple hours’ drive from our campus. It is no exaggeration to say that she will travel anywhere to promote our college: she delivered a GED graduation speech at a correctional facility and mentors college students who are also teen parents in the community. She has a reputation for searching out students who are isolated or discouraged, giving them her personal phone number and texting them several times a week to check in on class attendance. Having grown up herself on the south side of Chicago, she has earned what she calls a well-rooted sense of invincibility.
Our president is also African-American and openly gay, and she talks very publicly about closing the achievement gap for students of color. She writes often about making our institution more LGBTQ friendly and nurtures what she calls “radical inclusion.” She led the charge to allow Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students -- undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children but are now college age -- to attend our institution at in-state tuition rates.
Any one of those elements could attract hostility from the unbalanced or the narrow-minded, but in a tight economy, and in the wake of a vitriolic presidential election, more folks have seemed to be looking for someone to blame. Some of the rhetoric of the campaigns encouraged those tendencies, making people the targets rather than ideas.
On top of those complexities, our president has made some gutsy -- and unpopular -- business decisions in her quest to expand opportunity to more students. When she determined that several auxiliary programs were running deficits for many years in a row, she took action -- including outsourcing the bookstores on our campuses. Some people lost their jobs, despite the college’s painstaking efforts to move them to new positions. She also closed three child care centers that were losing over a $400,000 a year -- a very unpopular decision. It was unequivocally the right decision for the college, though, given that fewer than 20 of our 60,000 students were using the facilities. We redirected the resources to address student needs, including ones in the Achieving the Promise Academy and our Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success program, both focused on increasing retention, persistence and graduation rates for at-risk students.
At about that time, we hired a new director of safety and security, a retired police officer with three decades of law-enforcement experience. In the wake of the tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, we wanted to heighten security for our students and employees, so we sought her out for her expertise. She immediately made changes: stepping up patrols in some high-trafficked areas, implementing active-shooter trainings, putting our security staff in uniforms, taking our local law enforcement teams on walk-throughs of the campuses and installing communications screens in classrooms.
What we didn’t expect, however, was that she would present our president’s safety in a new light: “How would you feel if something happened to your president?” The threats, the controversial business decisions, the late-night travel -- our safety and security director’s decades of experience told her that those were red flags. She demanded to know why we hadn’t acted sooner.
Suddenly we were asking ourselves important questions. Perhaps we needed to change our perspective. With her characteristic nonchalance, the president had brushed off some very explicit threats. She had dismissed our board’s concerns that she might be too unguarded in her interactions with responses like “If my conversations with a student can keep them enrolled or focused or inspired, it’s worth it. If my meeting with a community member can soothe their angst about the child care centers, it’s worth it.”
But the new director was someone who knew about the realities of violence. She had seen stalking and mental illness escalate into violence countless times in her career. Some of the messages to our president had been ugly, racist and homophobic. A man unknown to the college tried to deliver a suspicious package to her office that he claimed had to be given directly to her. A person commenting on social media said she should be “taken out” in reaction to a commencement speech she delivered. It’s not a matter of when someone targets the president, our new director said -- she already is a target.
On the director’s urgent recommendation, we quickly contracted a security firm to provide an officer to accompany the president for a six-month pilot. We did so with the knowledge that we would probably receive pushback, that our judgment would be questioned and that those who were looking to criticize us would do so with impunity. Taxpayer dollarsare going to protection for a college president? That’s the headline we will likely face, and we’ve already heard low-level grumblings about it. But to a person, our entire board was willing to take the heat about the decision to protect our president, because she had been willing -- even eager -- to risk much more for our students.
Maybe that’s the story, and the fundamental question, at the end of the day: How far should a president be expected to go for students? Our internal answer has been: a president with the passion and dedication that ours has shown over six years of leadership deserves our wholehearted support. And under these circumstances, that means security.
Marsha Suggs Smith is the chair of the Board of Trustees of Montgomery College.
Yet in Georgia, where I teach, all of our campuses thankfully remain gun-free. While Texas legislators passed and its governor happily signed a law allowing concealed weapons on campus, my governor, Nathan Deal, vetoed a bill that would have done the same here in the Peach State. Faculty members in the rest of the country who will face similar bills as their legislatures meet again can learn important lessons from both states.
I was one of many faculty members who publicly fought the Georgia bill. We did that through op-eds, rallies and letters to elected officials. A few celebrities even joined our cause. As a professor of rhetoric and one of those who took an active role in stopping campus carry, I feel I am in a distinct position to offer lessons to others. They include:
The Higher Education Exception. I have already mentioned one reason Georgia does not have campus carry: the veto of Nathan Deal, a second-term Republican. His veto message offers faculty members some counterclaims to the ones gun supporters usually make.
Deal centered his veto on the oft-cited 2008 Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote. This ruling is a favorite of the National Rifle Association and other similar groups who back campus carry bills. Deal noted that Scalia, in fact, supported bans on weapons in “sensitive places” like schools. Deal argued that the history of higher education in America and in our state supports this label.
A common refrain from campus carry advocates is the “contradiction” in laws about guns in states like Georgia: on one side of the street, at the strip mall, a person can carry a gun, but across the street, at the university, one can’t. But that isn’t, in fact, a contradiction. It is on purpose. Many of our other laws distinguish colleges and universities from other public institutions, even other educational ones. For example, FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, means that parents lose rights over their child’s educational records when they turn 18, the age when many enter higher education.
A good rhetorical move by faculty members in both Texas and Georgia was to point to the strong definitions of higher education that had proceeded from faculty senates. Some of the language of those statements showed up in Governor Deal’s veto. He wrote that “from the early days of our nation and state, colleges have been treated as sanctuaries of learning.” If anything, this clear and precise vision of education should serve faculty well as they address campus carry.
Past Is Prologue. Another reason for a victory in Georgia was particular to our state context, but it could still be applicable to similar states. In his veto message, Deal pointed out that, in 2014, Georgia passed a law allowing concealed weapons (with a permit) in many public places -- including bars and churches that authorize them, government buildings that don’t have security screenings, and K-12 schools. It was dubbed the “guns everywhere” law. Everywhere except colleges and universities. The very same Legislature that passed what the National Rifle Association called “the most comprehensive pro-gun bill in state history” in 2014 did not seem to think campus carry important then. Yet not two years later, it seemed to think otherwise.
Deal -- who signed the 2014 bill -- didn’t let that hypocrisy pass. Activists in other states should take note: use the Legislature’s actions as precedent. Why do they want campus carry now? Why didn’t they pursue it previously?
Faculty and Students United. Another reason Georgia has no guns on campus is the large amount of organized faculty activism. This also happened in Texas, and faculty members there should be applauded for their efforts, especially those who recently sued over the allowance of guns on the campus. Every state is different, and perhaps Texas’ rich history of gun ownership was too big an obstacle. There are many reasons why sound arguments don’t persuade.
In any case, to win against the pro-gun activists, faculty members must join ranks with students. At a rally at our capitol where I spoke at against campus carry, students also spoke. Students created Facebook groups and held their own rallies. It was not merely the “liberal professors” who were against guns but the very group that the legislators wanted to keep safe. Students told those lawmakers thanks but no thanks. They counteracted the students whom the gun groups say are prompting their push for campus carry. And if it turns into a numbers game, the biggest group has some rhetorical power.
The most important lesson to be learned may be how to handle fear. Both sides have used it: fear of crime or fear of students. I understand both. But if we learned anything from the other side in this debate, fear-based arguments, while somewhat effective and energizing at times, usually put off the people whom we most need for support.
If we are intent on convincing legislators, especially those who support gun ownership, a better argument from faculty is the distinctiveness of higher education. This was Scalia’s argument. And if we intend on convincing those students (or faculty) who support gun ownership, how can we reach them through fear of them? Our commonality is a better line of argument.
We must also not let the arguments we make sabotage our credibility to make them. One example that seemed to undermine faculty members was the publicizing of a University of Houston faculty presentation about campus carry that seemed to generalize students as volatile. The university quickly distanced itself from the presentation, saying it was a draft and wouldn’t make into the final policy. But if we are painted as fearing students, the other side calls out for more protection. In other words, it leads quickly into “this is why faculty need a gun.” Fear divides us quickly.
Faculty members also at times have linked guns to academic freedom. This argument hasn’t worked because the public doesn’t fear loss of academic freedom, mainly because it only seems to be an individual benefit to professors. In other words, faculty members haven’t done a good job arguing to the public both nationally and locally how academic freedom and its sister, tenure, are part of the public good, not an individual benefit.
Campus Carry Lite. A compromise that Georgia debated at the same time allowed Tasers and stun guns on campuses. Mainly because gun-rights supporters saw it as a compromise, Governor Deal signed it into law. If your legislators are interested in compromise, that might be a good route. It has its own drawbacks, however, as many critics have noted -- one of which is that many states don’t require permits or training for such devices. Some states have made stun guns illegal. Finally, stun guns are fatal at times, making them as dangerous as firearms.
Celebrity Support. Georgia residents, such as the Indigo Girls, former R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe and actor and University of Georgia alumnus Tituss Burgess, came out against campus carry. This type of media attention seemed more respectable to the general public than the “cocks not Glocks” protest in Texas.
Finally, it is important for faculty to organize well before the first bill is filed. I recommend working with a group like Everytown for Gun Safety, founded in 2014 to advocate for gun control and against gun violence, which has been through the fight in Texas and Georgia. It encourages faculty to join its Educators for Gun Sense. Full disclosure: I have donated to and worked with this group.
Good organization can aid on the back end, too. While Texas had a year to think through its enactment, if our bill in Georgia had passed, we would have had just a few weeks. If a bill is to pass in your state, try to get some delay in its implementation. But if not, a well-organized faculty doesn’t have to wait for its administration to come up with a plan.
Campus carry bills are not going away. With a new governor in two years, Georgia will face this again. Perhaps even sooner. Faculty members across the nation must strategize now about the upcoming legislative session.
Matthew Boedy is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville.
Current events have highlighted systemic racism in America yet again, and social media feeds continue to be inundated with posts about racism and police brutality. Often, these online conversations enter the classroom, lecture hall or other communal spaces within the university. This can often leave administrators, faculty members and students to fend for themselves during conversations that are, by their very nature, heated and laden with emotional content.
To address this, many people have turned to the language of privilege to structure conversations and unpack racism for those who may be predisposed to deny its very existence. Regardless of how popular the term “privilege” has become, I have never found it particularly useful in discussions, because it is too generic and abstract.
In fact, I believe that “privilege” is a sterile word that does not grapple with the core of the problem. If you are white, you do not have “white” privilege. If you are male, you do not have “male” privilege. If you are straight, you do not have “straight” privilege. What you have is advantage. The language of advantage, I propose, is a much cleaner and more precise way to frame discussions about racism (or sexism, or most systems of oppression).
Any and all advantages one can have are based -- in part, or in whole -- on a system of oppression designed to elevate certain innocuous expressions of humanity over others (skin color, sexual preference and so on). Thus, the language of advantage begins by first enumerating one’s advantages and understanding their origins.
For example, I am advantaged as a male. That advantage affords me a higher salary on average when compared to women, regardless of talent, which in turn affords the further advantage of enabling me to build wealth. If I were white, my advantages would grow. In the academy, I am also, perplexingly, better equipped to take advantage of paternity leave. Being male also enables me to express my opinions as though they were fact -- my opinions in certain spaces are generally not questioned, or if they are, it is not assumed that I am wrong.
Those are simple examples, but they illustrate the point. Advantages can be summed up in a way that can generate a net advantage or disadvantage in certain spaces. This exercise is similar to a “privilege walk.” But it is different in that any advantages will not just net me a meaningless step forward in comparison to my peers. Thinking in this way forces me to understand what my advantages can, in fact, buy.
The distinction between “privilege” and “advantage” is important because “privilege” is not a particularly useful phrase to incite change in the minds or actions of others. No one wants to give up privileges. The entire idea of a privilege is based on possessing a special status that is somehow deserved. Privileges feel good.
Think about all of your privileges. Do you want to give them up? Does giving them up make you feel like you have somehow done someone a favor? (“Here you go … make sure you use this well.”) Or does giving up a “privilege” seem incoherent? It might, because generally privileges are given and taken by someone else. They are earned, and are seldom bad things to have.
Now try shifting your language to that of advantages. Ask yourself, “What advantages do I have over that person over there?” That question is much easier to answer and yields more nuanced responses. If I answer for myself, I can readily see that not all advantages are inherently problematic on their face. As a tall person I am advantaged in some spaces (e.g., reaching up to grab something from the high shelf in a supermarket), and disadvantaged in others (e.g., sitting in a cramped seat on an airplane). Yet if one looks under the surface, one can see that in both circumstances my (dis)advantage is predicated on design choices that are outside of my control. They are systemic. (It is also silly to say that I am tall privileged.)
What about a wealthy high school student who scored well on their SAT? They could unpack their success by understanding their advantage, for example: “Yes, my SAT scores are higher than someone else’s, but that may be because I have advantages in schooling that are predicated on the wealth of my community and/or parents. My schools are better, and I had access to tutoring. Moreover, some of that wealth is a result of oppressing people of color by historically denying them the ability to buy property in nicer areas, thus limiting their capacity to build and transmit wealth to their children. Those advantages are unearned, yet I still benefit from them. So, no, I won’t get bent out of shape if someone else with lower SAT scores is admitted into this fancy college and I’m not.”
The above example is more complex than my innocuous example about my height, but both have the same structure. They both require situating an advantage in a larger sociocultural context. While this is possible by using privilege, doing so can get clunky very quickly, and can shut down conversations before they become meaningful.
Unpacking systematically unfair systems through the language of advantage affords nuance. The poor white farmer lacks economic advantage but still possesses white advantage, and he can thus interact with law enforcement without fear. The wealthy black businessperson lacks racial advantage but can mitigate some of the negative effects of that through the strategic use of wealth. The difference? The white farmer will always be white. The black businessperson may not have always been wealthy, may lose his or her wealth, and his or her wealth can be ignored by a more powerful government.
The language of advantage also implies intersectionality, and this allows for a better understanding of one’s net advantage. For example, I am a Mexican-American man. I do not have “male privilege.” I am a man, and that affords certain unjust advantages when it comes to the salary I can earn and where I can work. However, for a person of color that salary may come with expectations for more service that, for all their merit, can be distracting and lead to less productivity.
All this leads to a certain uncomfortable truth: we are not -- and have never been -- equal when it comes to the advantages we possess. All lives do not matter equally in practice (although they should). It is time we adopt language around racism, sexism, etc., that helps move the conversation forward. Only then can we begin to measure and understand the mechanisms of inequality that lead to needless suffering.
When we shift the language to that of advantages and disadvantages, it foregrounds how unjust and arbitrary some of those advantages are -- while also allowing us to quantify relative (dis)advantage better. The language of privilege, on the other hand, obfuscates the systems of oppression it is meant to highlight. It is time we move on from using it.
Stephen J. Aguilar is a provost postdoctoral scholar for faculty diversity in informatics and digital knowledge at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. You can follow him on Twitter @stephenaguilar.
Submitted by Sarah Bray on November 15, 2016 - 3:00am
Is English 101 really just English 101? What about that first lab? Is a B or C in either of those lower-division courses a bellwether of a student’s likelihood to graduate? Until recently, we didn’t think so, but more and more, the data are telling us yes. In fact, insights from our advanced analytics have helped us identify a new segment of at-risk students hiding in plain sight.
It wasn’t until recently that the University of Arizona discovered this problem. As we combed through volumes of academic data and metrics with our partner, Civitas Learning, it became evident that students who seemed poised to graduate were actually leaving at higher rates than we could have foreseen. Why were good students -- students with solid grades in their lower-division foundational courses -- leaving after their first, second or even third year? And what could we do to help them stay and graduate from UA?
There’s a reason it’s hard to identify which students fall into this group; they simply don’t exhibit the traditional warning signs as defined by the retention experts. These students persist into the higher years but never graduate despite the fact that they’re strong students. They persist past their first two years and over 40 percent have GPAs above 3.0 -- so how does one diagnose them as at risk when all metrics indicate that they’re succeeding? Now we’re taking a deeper look at the data from the entire curriculum to find clues about what these students really need and even redefine our notion of what “at risk” really means.
Lower-division foundational courses are a natural starting point for us. These are the courses where basic mastery -- of a skill like writing or the scientific process -- begins, and mastery of these basics increases in necessity over the years. Writing, for instance, becomes more, not less, important over students’ academic careers. A 2015 National Survey of Student Engagement at UA indicated that the number of pages of writing assigned in the academic year to freshmen is 55, compared to 76 pages for seniors. As a freshman or sophomore, falling behind even by a few fractions can hurt you later on.
To wit, when a freshman gets a C in English 101, it doesn’t seem like a big deal -- why would it? She’s not at risk; she still has a 3.0, after all. But this student has unintentionally stepped into an institutional blind spot, because she’s a strong student by all measures. Our data analysis now shows that this student may persist until she hits a wall, usually during her major and upper-division courses, which is oftentimes difficult to overcome.
Let’s fast forward two years, then, when that same freshman is a junior enrolled in demanding upper-level classes. Her problem, a lack of writing command, has compounded into a series of C’s or D’s on research papers. A seemingly strong student is now at risk to persist, and her academic life becomes much less clear. We all thought she was on track to graduate, but now what? From that point, she may change her major, transfer to another institution or even exit college altogether. In the past, we would never have considered wraparound support services for students who earned a C in an intro writing course or a B in an intro lab course, but today we understand that we have to be ready and have to think about a deeper level of academic support across the entire life cycle of an undergrad.
Nationally, institutions like ours have developed many approaches to addressing the classic challenges of student success, developing an infrastructure of broad institutional interventions like centralized tutoring, highly specialized support staff, supplemental classes and more. Likewise, professors and advisers have become more attuned to responding to the one-on-one needs of students who may find themselves in trouble. There’s no doubt that this high/low approach has made an impact and our students have measurably benefited from it. But to assist students caught in the middle, those that by all measurement are already “succeeding,” we have to develop a more comprehensive institutional approach that works at the intersections of curricular innovation and wider student support.
Today, we at UA are adding a new layer to the institutional and one-to-one approaches already in place. In our courses, we are pushing to ensure that mastery matters more than a final grade by developing metrics and models that are vital to student learning. This, we believe, will lead to increases in graduation rates. We are working hand in hand with college faculty members, administrators and curriculum committees, arming those partners with the data necessary to develop revisions and supplementary support for the courses identified as critical to graduation rather than term-over-term persistence. We are modeling new classroom practices through the expansion of student-centered active classrooms and adaptive learning to better meet the diverse needs of our students.
When mastery is what matters most, the customary objections to at-risk student intervention matter less. Grade inflation by the instructor and performance for grade by the student become irrelevant. A foundational course surrounded by the support that a student often finds in lower-division courses is not an additional burden to the student, but an essential experience. Although the approach is added pressure on the faculty and staff, it has to be leavened with the resources that help both the instructor and the students succeed.
This is a true universitywide partnership to help a population of students who have found themselves unintentionally stuck in the middle. We must be data informed, not data driven, in supporting our students, because when our data are mapped with a human touch, we can help students unlock their potential in ways even they couldn’t have imagined.
Angela Baldasare is assistant provost for institutional research. Melissa Vito is senior vice president for student affairs and enrollment management and senior vice provost for academic initiatives and student success. Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. is provost of digital learning and student engagement and associate vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at the University of Arizona.
Like many university people, I kept underestimating the phenomenon of Donald Trump. Months ago, I called attention to “The Trumpian Calamity,” hoping that more college presidents and other education leaders would condemn his campaign of hate-filled demagoguery. Now, like so many around the country, I find myself wondering whether I should have done more.
Would demonstrating an even greater sense of urgency have made a difference? Would we be in a better position today if we in higher education had worked harder to mobilize a coalition to get out the vote? At the same time, it’s clear that universities should not be turned into anyone’s political tool -- least of all a president’s. Universities are first and foremost places for thinking and for learning in ways that contribute to independence of mind, and political action on the parts of those who study and work at our institutions should grow naturally from these activities -- not from the designs of administrators.
After the election, some students here at Wesleyan University asked us to cancel classes for protests and for grieving. We did not cancel classes. Had students earlier this fall asked us to help them find alternative ways of getting work done so that they could travel to swing states to organize voters, I would have worked with faculty members to make that possible. Today I wonder if I should have taken the initiative and proposed that idea to students of various political stripes. Or would that have been the kind of politics by administrative design that should be avoided? I remain unsure.
Early on Nov. 9 when it became clear that Donald Trump would become our president-elect, my thoughts shifted back and forth between the good of the country and the health of my university. An international student whom my wife and I know well texted her to ask if Wesleyan would “be all right.” Yes, I think we will.
To be sure, this election has heightened feelings of alienation and vulnerability because it has been filled with racism and xenophobia. The pain of targeted groups is real because the threats are real, and we must acknowledge those threats and work to mitigate their effects. We must fight to protect Latinos and Muslim Americans from violence driven by socially sanctioned scapegoating and bullying. We must ensure that our friends in LGBTQ communities are not marginalized by newly empowered narrow-mindedness taking control of our legal system. But campuses across the country will be all right if we will continue to strive to build inclusive communities that reject white supremacy, bigotry and fear; we will be all right if we express our care for one another in a context of fairness.
That context of fairness must include ensuring that there is a place for conservative points of view at colleges and universities. We must be much more open to ideas that challenge what many take for granted as a progressive higher education consensus. This presumed consensus of the educated often amounts to little more than shared condescension. One thing progressives should have learned recently is that we don’t have some special purchase on understanding the direction of history.
That does not mean that we should find reservoirs of patience for bigotry, but it does mean that we should listen carefully to how what some consider progress has disenfranchised many others. It does mean that we listen carefully to alternative conceptions of freedom and community that conservative and religious traditions have to offer.
This semester I am teaching an interdisciplinary humanities course on Virtue and Vice. It just so happens that during election week we were focusing on how many artists and intellectuals in Europe retreated from the public realm after the crushing failures of the revolutions of 1848. Around that time, Karl Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.” Many great poets, novelists and painters grew bitterly ironic about politics and the possibilities of progress. “What a sad opinion one forms of men,” wrote Gustave Flaubert, “what bitterness grips one’s heart when one sees such delirious asininity on display.” Recognizing that there are no guarantees about who was going to end up on the “right side of history,” far too many writers became cynical about change, detaching themselves from any possibility for meaningful work in the public sphere. They often rejected the writings of women authors like George Sand as being too romantic and idealistic. The poet Charles Baudelaire expressed the hollow superiority of the disengaged when he wrote that 1848 “was charming only in the excess of its ridiculousness.”
In the wake of crushing disappointment in this electoral season, we must resist the temptation to abandon the public sphere to those who would return to a past in which people of color, women and queer folk were even more systematically excluded from access to basic rights. As engaged participants in the polity, we have to remain vigilant to protect the people and values we care about. And as educators, we must help students better understand how they can be effective in the public sphere beyond the seductive stage offered by campus politics. There is work to be done in neighborhoods, towns, cities, state capitals and in Washington. Perhaps we can take heart in the fact that both major political parties will have seriously to rethink their approaches to the crucial issues facing the country -- they need the engagement of our students and alumni to do so.
Although in the current cultural context “healing” often means hunkering down with those whose opinions one shares, this is not the time to close one's eyes or to stop listening. We need more conversation across political and cultural differences -- and we need new modes of engagement that take us beyond our echo chambers of ideas and curated news feeds. As faculty, staff and students expand their circles of engagement beyond those groups with whom we share the most obvious affiliations, we must continue to work to defend those who are disenfranchised and oppressed.
Cynicism and irony are too easy a response to disappointment. Regardless of political affiliation, we can work together -- beyond the university -- to solve specific problems and create real opportunities for more individuals and groups. And here on our campuses, we will continue to create communities that offer all our students, staff and faculty the potential to thrive, to be challenged, to be at home.
Like many people around the world, I remain stunned by Donald Trump’s election. I am not a political scientist and therefore cannot fully explain how this happened. Undeniably, sexism played a part in our failure to elect to the presidency an extraordinarily experienced woman with credentials as impressive as Hillary Clinton’s. During CNN’s televised election night coverage, commentator Van Jones argued that Trump’s election is a form of “whitelash” -- the response from frustrated white Americans to a two-term black president and our nation’s changing racial demographics. Both are among the wide array of plausible explanations.
I think another fundamental issue has been at play. Again, I am not a political science professor, but I am a scholar who listens to people whose voices are often ignored in higher education. And while few participants in my research probably voted for Trump, they share with his voters at least one common experience: being ignored.
In her CNN interview the morning after the election, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said their victory was partly attributable to the failed attempt by Clinton campaign leaders to listen to a large segment of the American electorate. “They were trying to tell people, ‘This is what is important to you -- temperament or this comment that was made many years ago or that comment yesterday,’” Conway maintained. To my own surprise, I agree with her assessment.
I published a piece in The Washington Post last month in which I deemed Trump’s so-called locker room talk sexist and disgustingly unacceptable. I was definitely telling people they should care about sexism and sexual assault. Perhaps some Trump supporters were troubled by his statements on the Access Hollywood video but not enough to vote against him. They cared more about other things. Did Secretary Clinton and the rest of us listen closely enough to sufficiently understand the matters about which Trump supporters were most concerned?
President-elect Trump repeatedly bragged about the enormous size of crowds at his rallies. Too little effort was invested in understanding why so many people -- most of them white, working-class and lower-income Americans -- were so enthusiastic about his candidacy. Many people were there because they held sexist, racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic views that aligned with his. But others had needs and concerns to which Trump appeared to be listening. Many of us, in contrast, were focusing more on Trump’s controversial words than we were on the experiences and concerns of people who ultimately voted him president.
Bad things happen when people’s concerns are largely ignored and when listening occurs only in polarized, racially homogeneous spaces. That happened in our most recent presidential election. It also happens on college and university campuses.
Around this time last year, the University of Missouri System president and the chancellor of its flagship campus resigned because they did what students of color considered an inexcusably poor job of listening and responding to matters that most concerned them. I imagine those two executives were about as stunned by the outcome of their inaction as many of us were by Trump’s election. But because the president and chancellor weren’t listening, students of color lost faith in the ability of those leaders to effectively address their encounters with racism and marginalization. Similarly, victims of sexual assault keep telling us that people on their campuses are not listening.
In our campus climate studies, researchers at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education listen to students, faculty members and staff members at predominantly white institutions across the country. While we always include white people in our climate research, most participants are people of color. As I note in “Paying to Ignore Racism,” people of color often tell us that leaders on their campuses ignore their voices and experiential realities. In most instances, it isn’t until some type of crisis erupts (for example, national news coverage of students protesting a racist incident that occurred on the campus) that the president and other administrators seemingly get serious about understanding marginalized people’s experiences.
While I would not categorically lump together Trump voters with people of color who are demanding racial justice and inclusion in higher education, both groups want to be heard and their realities to be understood. When they are not, bad things happen. Eventually, fed-up people shock those who fail to listen and fix, or at least demonstrably aim to improve, their situations.
Posters at political campaign rallies read, “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump.” His supporters were not silent. Thousands, perhaps millions of them showed up at his events. But the Clinton campaign did not pay close enough attention to what they were saying are the most important issues for them and their families. Confession: I engaged only two Trump supporters in conversations -- one of those instances was in a televised CNN interview, the other was on an airplane. I did not seek them out. Like me, I bet Secretary Clinton and her team wishes they had done more to find these fellow Americans, learn more about their lives and demonstrate serious care for their hardships. They were hiding in plain sight at his rallies; we could have found them. We should have listened.
It is not too late for us to listen to what women, people of color, immigrants, undocumented students, LGBT persons and people with disabilities tell us about their experiences, needs and concerns. It also is not too late for faculty members and administrators to create spaces for people from different racial groups and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as those with different political perspectives, to listen to and learn from each other. Inevitably, bad things will continue to happen at colleges and universities -- and subsequently in our larger society -- if we fail to listen and then act with higher degrees of intentionality.
One final quote about the Trump victory from Conway’s postelection CNN interview: “I think the big lesson of yesterday is stop listening so much to each other and start listening to the people.” That was her advice to the news media and politicians. When it comes to matters of equity, inclusion and safety on campuses, I think that is the big lesson for higher education leaders, as well.
Shaun R. Harper is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. He is author of the forthcoming book Race Matters in College (Johns Hopkins University Press) and president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.