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August 30, 2002 [feather]
Returning to regularly scheduled blogging

Returning to regularly scheduled blogging today, I offer the latest installment in my series on freshman orientations. Today, I focus on the concept of "minority orientation."

So great is the desire to "orient" all students that schools are increasingly offering special, custom orientations to special kinds of students. In addition to the standard freshman orientation, there are orientations for transfer students, international students, graduate students, law students, medical students, nursing students, parents, and, most importantly, minority students. Minority entering students are often encouraged to attend a separate "pre-orientation" in addition to the standard freshman orientation. Typically, students attending minority orientation arrive on campus before other students do, and they spend the intervening days attending talks, workshops, socials, and informational sessions designed to address their presumably special needs.

Judging by the itineraries of these orientations, minority students' special needs center as much on developing a politicized consciousness as on acquiring practical skills. There are as many sessions on "identity" as there on on networking and choosing classes; cultivating a sense of oneself as a minority appears to be at least as important, in these orientations, as touring the library or meeting faculty. Indeed, many orientations make ideological participation the price of gaining access to practical information: in order to profit from the orientation experience, you have to buy into a certain set of views about what it means to be a member of an ethnic group, about what the relationship between ethnicity and identity is, about how oppression works, about what racism is and where it comes from.

It makes sense if you think about it: the whole concept of minority orientation derives from the notion that one's ethnic or racial background is itself a form of orientation; indeed, the idea behind minority orientation is that one's ethnic or racial background is the determining orientation in one's life. Minority orientation is thus a form of racialized handholding that has as its central ambition the induction of incoming freshman into a campus community based not on common interests, beliefs, or even heritage, but on physical traits such as skin color and the shape of one's eyes. By definition, minority orientation presumes that phenotype is the basis for cultural continuity. That's how such programs justify themselves, and that's how they can speak of such broad and imprecise categories as "African-Americans," "Asians," and, of course, "whites" as if they were coherent, distinct, unified entities. When you think about it, it makes no sense to speak of "white culture," or even "the black community." But such peculiarly eugenic fantasies about how one's external traits must determine one's experience lie at the core of the entire minority orientation endeavor.

The two-pronged thesis of minority orientation is 1) that you are your race; and 2) that the amount of power you have, and the amount of hardship you suffer, has just about everything to do with what side of the color line you were born on. A common message in such orientations--and at the diversity workshops held at regular orientations--is that all whites are racist (they can't not be, having been born into the privilege of whiteness, of not having to be aware of themselves as belonging to a race) and that those who are not white cannot be racist (because they do not possess the social power to institutionalize, via discrimination or organized persecution, negative feelings about whites, or indeed, about other ethnic groups). This is, for example, the point of celebrated diversity trainer Jane Elliott, whose workshops, lectures, and film "Blue-Eyed" are enormously popular with college diversity programmers across the country.

Too often, minority orientation ties the genuine support it offers to disingenuous manipulation; for too many freshmen anxious to get settled into college, help goes hand in hand with pressure to identify with a set of controversial, deeply political, and sometimes extreme views about who they are (or ought to be), how they feel (or ought to feel), what their experience is (or what they should understand their experience to be).

In my next installment, I'll develop this claim by focussing on specific orientation programs at specific colleges and universities. More soon.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




August 28, 2002 [feather]
Minority Freshman Orientation blogfest coming

Minority Freshman Orientation blogfest coming soon. But first, some thoughts on test scores, teachers, and the future of education.

It's well known by now that American teachers aren't what they could be. According to Thomas Sowell's 1993 Inside American Education,

...hard data on education student qualifications have consistently shown their mental test scores to be at or near the bottom among all categories of students. This was as true of the studies done in the 1920s and 1930 as of the studies in the 1980s. Whether measured by Scholastic Aptitude Tests, ACT tests, vocabulary tests, reading comprehension tests, or Graduate Record Examinations, students majoring in education have consistently scored below the national average.

In 1980-81, students majoring in education scored lower on both verbal and quantitative SATs than students majoring in art, music, theater, the behavioral sciences, physical sciences, or biological sciences, business or commerce, engineering, mathematics, the humanities or health occupations. Undergraduate business and commercial majors have long been regarded as being low quality, but they still edged out education majors on both parts of the SAT. Engineering students tend to be lopsidedly better mathematically than verbally, but nevertheless their verbal scores exceed those of education majors, just as art and theater majors had higher mathematics scores than education majors.

At the graduate level, it is much the same story, with students in numerous other fields outscoring education students on the Graduate Record Examination--from 91 points composite to 259 points, depending upon the field. The pool of graduate students in education supplies not only the teachers, counselors, and administrators, but also professors of education and other 'leaders' and spokesmen for the education establishment. [Therefore], educators are drawing disproportionately from the dregs of the college-educated population. ... In short, some of the least qualified students, taught by the least qualified professors in the lowest quality courses supply most American public school teachers.

The numbers are depressing indeed when you look at them. In 1988, for example, students planning to study education averaged 855 on the SAT (out of a possible 1600). This was forty-nine points below the mean of 904 for all students intending to go on to college. In 1989, the average score for future education students fell to 846--57 points below the national average of 903. These numbers are comparable to how blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans do on the SAT today (see below).

As Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Secretary of Education, has noted, the field of education is a bad joke staged at the expense of children. As of 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Education, about a third of all teachers in middle and high school were teaching "out of field," meaning that they neither majored nor minored in the subject they teach when they were in college. In that year, 55 percent of history teachers had not majored or minored in history; 39.5 percent of science teachers had neither majored nor minored in science; 34 percent of math teachers and 25 percent of English teachers were likewise teaching "out of field." In schools where 40 percent or more of the students were from low-income homes, things were even worse: almost half the teachers at such schools were teaching "out of field." The Education Trust just released a study on the phenonemon of out of field teaching. Peruse it at your blood pressure's peril.

This rank malpractice is made possible by the flimsy non-requirements most states have in place for teachers. In many states, teachers don't have to show that they know a subject in order to be certified to teach it. Since most teachers were education majors--meaning they coasted through notoriously easy fluff courses on "pedagogy" and child psychology while in college rather than actually dedicating themselves to deep study of a real field such as history or math--they can't be expected to demonstrate actual knowledge of actual content as part of their certification. It just wouldn't be fair. The result: in some states, it's easier to earn a teaching certification than it is to graduate from high school.

It's gotten so bad that since 1998, the U.S. Department of Education has been required to issue annual reports on the state of teacher preparation across the nation. These are collected at www.title2.org. You can browse them there, as well as read "Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge," a detailed report on the state of American education issued by the Department of Education in June 2002.

Things may improve; then again they may not. The No Child Left Behind Act is a beautiful and worthy--if unrealistic--mission. But with attitudes like these, one has to wonder whether teachers themselves are committed to that mission.

This year's average SAT scores have just been published. Nationwide, the average math score was 516 (out of 800). The average verbal score was 504 (also out of 800). Scrupulously correct, the report breaks those averages down by race and gender. As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The average math scores, by group, were: white, 533 (up 2 from last year); African-American, 427 (up 1); American Indian, 483 (up 4); Asian-American 569 (up 3); Hispanic and Latino, 464 (down 1); Mexican-American, 457 (down 1); and Puerto Rican, 451 (unchanged).

The average verbal scores were: white, 527 (down 2); African-American, 430 (down 3); American Indian, 479 (down 2); Asian-American 501 (unchanged); Hispanic and Latino, 458 (down 2); Mexican-American, 446 (down 5); and Puerto Rican, 455 (down 2).

Men continued to score higher than women, though that gap is slowly closing. Math scores for female test-takers rose 2 points to 500, and their verbal scores remained unchanged at 502. Men's math scores rose 1 point, to 534, and their verbal scores fell 2 points, to 507.

The report did not supply the average scores for aspiring teachers and future education majors. But we know from historical precedent that they are most likely quite a bit below the already unimpressive national averages, and that, as in the past, they are probably comparable to the average numbers posted by minority students. Perhaps America's future teachers should be classified as an oppressed group. It would certainly be easier to describe them as the victims of biased testing and institutionalized discrimination than to realize Dubya's dream of a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by the 2005-06 school year. But then, that wouldn't change the fact that the low-scoring students of today are going to be teaching our kids tomorrow.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




August 26, 2002 [feather]
More coming soon in my

More coming soon in my current series on freshman orientation. But today, a brief interlude to bring you some choice quotes from Columbia University professor Gayatri Spivak, who recently delivered the keynote address at a conference held last June at the University of Leeds' Centre for Cultural Analysis and History (or CATH). I'll get to Spivak down below, but first it's important to look at the words of her sponsor.

Entitled "CongressCATH 2002: Translating Class, Altering Hospitality," the conference was the first of five planned annual conferences dedicated to addressing "major issues in contemporary social, economic, and political life viewed through the prism of cultural analysis." Deeply Marxist in tone, the series is organized around the premise that

The cultural turn has been a decisive one in the arts and humanities since the 1960s when attention to culture as way of life, way of struggle, praxis, subjectivity, ideology, representation, spectacle, identity, sexuality opened up both new interdisciplinary possibilities and reframed the questions that existing disciplines felt obliged or able to address. The turn to culture and its analysis through both historical and theoretical frames was not an idealist move, but a response to the concrete, in Marx's terms, a response to the changing socio-economic configurations of late capitalism, post Stalinist and post Maoist communism. The concrete determines what we must think about as well as how we can think it. History demands the effort of theorisation, that is observation, analysis, understanding. Cultural Analysis is a response across its many participating disciplines and interdisciplines to the constant challenge of historical change, trauma, possibility and commitment.

In other, less turgid words, CongressCATH seeks to keep Marxism alive in the wake of communism's fall, and it seeks to do so by theorizing contemporary world issues in Marxist terms (by "a response to the concrete"). This year, CongressCATH focussed on "class" (future CongressCATH topics are available here):

Our first theme for CongressCATH 2002 addresses the fractures of sociality and the injuries sustained by social subjects created by the potent and still critical social relation we inadequately and often uncomprehendingly name class. Conjoining this local and global relation of distribution and inequality with the social, ethical and philosophically complex notion of Hospitality addresses the wounds of solitude and human desolation inflicted on the stranger, and on the hybrid figures of movement and change, of encounter and difference that are, at the same time, the possibilities of a future world not phobically resistant to the inevitable relations to the others, no longer forced to bear the disfiguring mark of Otherness.

Reading past the jargon (and there is plenty more, thick as can be, on the conference's Welcome page), one can see where this is going. This is a conference centered on the radical, irreducible, inaccessible Otherness of those who do not move in majority circles (majority configured here, almost by default, as white, western, male, bourgeois). This is, in other words a scholarly gathering centered on sustaining and upholding one of the most singularly pernicious ideas within postmodernist and postcolonialist brands of Marxist thought--namely that the Other (or the subaltern, as Spivak likes to call him) cannot speak; that because the Other cannot communicate with, or function within, the culture, the politics, and the ideology that render him other, violence (either abjectly directed at the self or aggressively directed at others) may be the only means of political protest and even self-expression available to him.

We've seen all too clearly in recent months where this romanticized vision of violence-as-ennobling-resistance leads people--into irresponsible, often patently unethical positions on issues of pressing, planet-wide importance, among them global capitalism and terrorism. If September 11 has taught us nothing else, it has taught us about the terrifyingly sociopathic lengths to which academic theory-speak will go in the name of radical political critique. Or, at least, that's one thing it should have taught us.

But if this conference is any indication, the academic left's commitment to theorizing world problems in ways that fail to serve real people while at the same time serving careers and egos all too well is as strong, as arrogant, as misguided, and as self-righteous as ever. One last byte from the incomparably revealing welcome page, which is worth quoting at length as a stellar example of the kind of pompous political preening that has become an accepted and unremarkable norm in contemporary academe:

What changes to the political imaginary must be made for the much corrupted modernist dream of human rights to become living and secure realities for the world's peoples? What would it take to invert the crime of racism, xenophobia, genocidal and murderous fear of and rage towards the culturally and linguistically differen? Can the deeply troubled potentiality of the concept and practice of hospitality construct a 'celebration of difference' based, however not on trendy banalities of multi-culturalism but on a fully ethical acknowledgement of the histories and their violences that has brought 'us' now face to face? Tahar ben Jelloun, who unfortunately cannot be with us at the conference has written of the immigrant as historically expected and of the need to imagine how theis historically created 'we' can lern [sic]to 'live together'.

The twinned themes of this Congress are timely for both are truly a matter of life and death. They are politically urgent and ethically vital as many of our major speakers will insist [sic] offering us the brilliance of their intellectual insights and the commitments of their own involvement in issues that their academic analysis serves only to render more vivid and demanding. What can Cultural Analysis (at the intersection of art, art history, cultural studies, Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies, Postcolonial and Diaspora Studies, material culture), framed by both Theory--the highest of intellectual engagements and History--the most daring of confrontations with what has brought us to this place and this pass--offer to the radically differing experiences of globalisation within and beyond our own chosen worlds of intellectual practice, artistic practice, literature?

Thus did the intellectuals at Leeds set out to solve the world's problems in one fell pseudo-scholarly swoop, to deliver talk after talk in which they praise one another for their radically left right-thinking, and deplore everyone else for their complicity with the hegemonic structures of white, western, corporate, militarist culture that keep so many parts of the world in rank subservience today.

And who better to inaugurate such an illustrious gathering? Why, none other than the Postcolonial Critic herself, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Indian immigrant and full professor at Columbia, translator of Derrida and academic star, Marxist-feminist theorist of subalternity and critic of postcolonial reason, masterbuilder of impossibly, unnecessarily impenetrable prose. Spivak gave them what they came for, delivering a keynote address on "suicidal resistance" in which she theorized suicide bombing as the expressive, poetic, protest style of the indescribably oppressed. Some quotes:

Suicide bombing--and the planes of 9/11 were living bombs--is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself, the extreme end of autoeroticism, killing onself as other, in the process killing others. It is when one sees oneself as an object capable of destruction in a world of objects, so that the destruction of others is indistinguishable from the destruction of self.

Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed on the body when no other means will get through. It is both execution and mourning, for both self and other. For you die with me for the same cause, no matter which side you are on. Because no matter who you are, there are no designated killees in suicide bombing. No matter what side you are on, because I cannot talk to you, you won't respond to me, with the implication that there is no dishonor in such shared and innocent death.

It is the history of this failure of cultural instruction [her term for the indoctrination of suicide bombers] that we must question, not the instruction itself. For that history, leading now to apartheid and unspeakable violence in the occupied Palestinian homeland, can be so narrativized as to persuade the young to die."

[Suicide bombing] is a response of sorts to the state terrorism practiced outside of its own ambit by the United States, and in the Palestinian case additionally to an absolute failure of hospitality.

I was trained to think like this in graduate school. The first, most important lessons one learns there are that no subject is off limits to the cultural critic, everything is a form of text (including the body, upon which meaning is "inscribed"), everything thus has a poetics and can thus be "read," everything has an erotics and can thus be psychoanalyzed (even, Spivak suggests, suicide bombing, "the extreme end of autoeroticism"), and everything has a politics, and must thus be subjected to a heady, unrelenting strain of deconstructive, counterhegemonic, often marxist, criticism. What Spivak offers here is not an aberration within academic circles, but theory as usual, a textbook example of how to make a name for yourself by muddling crucial distinctions (between self and other, terrorism and noble self-sacrifice, terrorism and national defense, and so on) in the name of "sophisticated" critique (which in turn is muddled with activism).

Spivak's reasoning may well be sickening to those who are not already steeped in the culture of academe. But it is far from that within academe itself. The sort of reading Spivak offers here, in which victims of terrorism must be renamed as "killees" in order to obscure the reality she is busily distorting, and in which the terroristic act of suicide bombing is excused as an episode in a "narrativization" of history that is itself excused as a response to terrible state-sponsored oppression, is such standard procedure in the academy today that it can be offered casually, in a keynote address, as a celebratory means of setting the communal tone for a scholarly conference.

Leftist academic luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and Stanley Fish have been the subject of much heated debate in the wake of 9/11. But there are others whose writing--and teaching--have similar significance in the academy, and whose ideas have a powerful, if indirect, impact on American attitudes, policies, and curricula (think: the warped NEA lesson plans for 9/11). Spivak, who helped initiate the idea that suicide may be "read" as an oppositional practice of oppressed people with her 1985 essay "Can the Subaltern Speak? Speculations on Widow Sacrifice," is one of them. If you follow this sort of thing, she ought to be on your radar.

Thanks to Judith Weiss (blogging currently at Kesher Talk,) for the tip.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




August 24, 2002 [feather]
In my last blog, I

In my last blog, I wrote about the role of liability in the increasingly elaborate structure of college orientation. Today, I will turn to retention. Colleges are rightly afraid of lawsuits; they are also rightly afraid of attrition, which annually claims a significant chunk of any given entering freshman class.

In a 1995 article entitled "New Programs for Freshmen Smooth Transition to College Life" (subscribers only), The Chronicle of Higher Education described how high freshman drop-out rates at large state schools were becoming the impetus for elaborate orientation and mentoring programs. The article describes how Ohio State tried to personalize the first-year experience by assigning students to live in small "clusters" of twenty students. With 42,000 undergraduates, this was Ohio State's attempt to create feelings of connection and community among incoming freshmen. The story also tells how, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, faculty and administrators phone new students after the third week of classes to see how they are doing. According to the director of UC-Boulder's First Year Experience office, "The students might be experiencing a dip or the luster might be wearing off ... This says to the student, 'We care about your experience here.'" Boulder also launched an online chat group for freshman at this time, also with the idea of fostering connection in a large impersonal environment. Such schools were not outliers. By the mid-90's, 2/3 of all colleges were offering semester-long courses on adjusting to college. Subject material typically included such issues as career planning, study skills, date rape, alcohol awareness, and computer literacy.

In 1994, 33% of all college freshman dropped out--the highest dropout rate since the early 1980s. Studies showed that these students were not, by and large, flunking out. Academically, they could have stayed in school. But they didn't. The theory was--and remains--that what drove these students out of college was alienation, a sense of not belonging. Hence the increasingly elaborate orientational programming offered by state and private schools alike, which often extends long past welcome week and sometimes even lasts the entire first year. North Carolina State spent $200,000 to hire freshman counselors in 1995, and projected that their annual freshman experience budget could well reach $1 million within a few more years. That's a lot of money--but NC State invested it, figuring that when their retention numbers improved, the state legislature would increase their funding to cover the costs of its expanded programming. (I have not yet checked to see whether that prediction has come true.)

The nature of orientation's ongoing elaboration tells us a great deal about what schools believe new students need in order to become part of the campus community. It also tells us about what schools imagine "the campus community" is--or ought to be. As anyone who has set foot on a campus in recent years can tell you, the most important thing a campus can be these days is "diverse." Nothing is more important than diversity. Not academics, not even athletics. "Diversity," in turn, is a buzzword for a particular kind of demographic variety: campus diversity has nothing to do with ideas, and does not extend to differing philosophical, religious, or political views. Instead, it refers to the percentage of students and faculty who are not white, not male, and not heterosexual. That's what counts, and that's where the money is.

There has been much discussion in the news of late about the acrobatic lengths to which some college admissions boards will go in order to enroll properly "diverse" freshman classes. California state schools are arguably the most gymnastic in the nation, having used "diversity" with great success as a rationale for circumventing both the SAT (bad, biased test!) and Proposition 209, which outlawed racial preferences in admissions at all California State Schools. But there has been less discussion about what the ideal of diversity means once students are actually enrolled. In practice, it means scrambling to retain minority students, who are far, far more likely to drop out than their white counterparts.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics' 2002 "Condition of Education" report, 63% of high school graduates go straight on to college (as compared to 49% in 1972). 66% of white students go straight from high school to college, while only 55% of black students and about 50% of Hispanic students do. The numbers have improved for black students over time--only 38% of black high school grads were going right on to college in 1983. But the numbers have stayed largely the same for Hispanic students, hovering around 50% since 1972. Those numbers are correlated with income--the higher the family income, the more likely students are to go to college. The numbers are also correlated with the quality of secondary school education--college-qualified low and middle income students who applied are as likely as wealthy students to enroll in college within 2 years of graduation (83 and 82% respectively). Those who took rigorous courseloads in high school have much better chances of making it through college to graduation.

What this means for college demographics: In 1999-2000, 68% of all college students were white, 13% were black, 12% were Hispanic, 6% were Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1% were Native American/Alaska native. Of all college students, 43% were 24 or older. And 56% of all undergrads were women. Projections indicate that that number is likely to be around 66% by the end of the decade.

What this means for the education level and earning capacity of the present generation of young adults: As of 2001, 29% of all 25-29 year-olds had a B.A., up from 17% in 1971. About 35% of all white students between 25 and 29 had B.A.'s, just under 20% of all blacks did, and about 10% of Hispanics did.

Things are better for non-white students than they used to be, but they could be a lot better (they could be better for white students, too, to be frank, especially the men--but that's another blog). Hence the elaborate efforts colleges are making to attract, admit, retain, and graduate students of color. Affirmative action has helped a great deal with the admissions part of the equation. But retaining and graduating students of color continues to elude even schools that are trying their hardest to do so. Whereas 84% of white students enrolling at Berkeley between 1987 and 1990 graduated within six years, only 58% of black students and 67% of Hispanics did. As of the late 90s, the national black dropout rate was 60%; at elite schools, it was 25%--better, but still not great.

The solution: ever more programming for minority students; ever more funding for ethnic studies departments; elaborate racial harassment policies; expanded minority hiring; increasingly creative admissions policies; and even scientific study. The Ford Foundation, for example, has sunk $620,000 into a study of new admissions policies in Texas, where the 1996 Hopwood ruling outlawed affirmative action. The Mellon Foundation has put $300,000 toward a study of the place of Hispanics in higher education.

The minority orientation occupies a special place within the complex problematic of student retention. At once a tool of socialization and a means of producing an asocial--or even anti-social--separatism, minority orientation is a paradigmatic moment in the phenomenon that so many colleges have come to call "the freshman experience." It sets the tone for the college years, defining and delimiting the kind of community that schools imagine is necessary for minority retention even as it creates and sustains attitudes and patterns that pose serious problems for minority retention.

More on minority orientation soon.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




August 22, 2002 [feather]
Since it's back to school

Since it's back to school season, I thought I would continue thinking a bit about freshman orientation. I concluded my last blog with the suggestion that the warm and welcoming feel of orientation works in large part to ease students into accepting certain ideological positions and certain intrusive practices as normal, natural, and even comfortable. I'll develop that claim over the next several blogs by looking closely at three standard features of college orientation programming: the minority orientation, the sexual assault awareness workshop, and the summer reading program. But first I want to give a little bit of background on the orientation industry itself, which has grown enormously--even exponentially--over the last ten years.

As one reader aptly pointed out, liability is a big factor in the exponentially enlarging freshman orientation. Consider alcohol. A recent Harvard study found that 44% of college students nationwide qualify as binge drinkers; with binge drinking comes drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, personal injury, rape, and, all too often, death. In September 2000, a freshman fraternity pledge at ASU was made to go on a three-day drinking binge as part of rush. While drunk, he crashed his motorcycle and was killed. His parents sued the fraternity. In 1998, a boy visiting a friend at Cornell fell into a ravine on the Ithaca campus and died. He was drunk. His parents sued the school for $3 million. In August 1997, one LSU freshman died and three were hospitalized after they spent an evening binge-drinking at the behest of the fraternity they hoped to join. A lawsuit followed.

Not all such cases involve fraternities, but many do. And what happens at the frats sets the terms for school policy. Some schools bar exceptionally alcoholic frats from campus; other frats declare themselves to be alcohol-free zones so that they can stay on campus; some schools declare the entire campus to be an alcohol-free zone (Michigan had just gone dry when I studied there in the early 90s). Anxious to eliminate binge drinking, underage drinking, and the liability issues that come with each, colleges have been jacking up their alcohol awareness programs for several years now. Educational sessions on drinking frequently figure large in freshmen orientation, and with good reason: as the examples above show, entering freshmen are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of alcohol. The Harvard study shows, however, that even as students are more aware about alcohol, the rate of binge drinking has not dropped significantly since the early 1990s. Moreover, it shows that women, particularly those enrolled at women's colleges, are doing a lot more binge drinking than they used to.

A recent settlement at MIT marks a telling development in the pattern of administrations appearing to care more about avoiding liability than about taking responsibility. In the fall of 1997, freshman Scott Krueger moved into the fraternity he was pledging. Five weeks later, he died of alcohol poisoning. The parents sued the school. That in itself is a depressingly common story, as the examples above show. What sets this case apart, though, is MIT's response to the lawsuit. Instead of contesting the charges, MIT largely conceded them. Paying the parents a $6 million settlement and issuing an elaborate written apology, MIT set a precedent for accountability on campus-- a precedent that, in accepting liability, will almost certainly involve the nationwide creation of an increasingly elaborate set of school policies surrounding alcohol education and under-age drinking--even though it doesn't look like all that programming is working.

The result is spiralling costs, ever-expanding orientational programming for everyone (including faculty and administrators), and moneymaking opportunities for prevention experts. Colleges' and universities' concerns with liability predictably extend to issues surrounding sexual consent (much more on this in upcoming blogs). Likewise, the closely connected issues of sexually transmitted disease, AIDS, and birth control figure large at orientations. Operating according to the theory that an hour of prevention is worth millions in legal fees and court costs, schools are doing massive "risk management," hiring specialized consultants to help them minimize their potential liability. The National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, or NCHERM, is one such consulting organization. For the right price, NCHERM will review your school policies (a price list for policy review services is here), teach your administrators how to deliver discipline, advise you on proper safety and prevention techniques, and help you make sure you are in compliance with the law. Specializing in sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and alcohol abuse, NCHERM puts out articles, books, and videos; runs workshops for college administrators and college students; and even hires itself out as an expert witness in court cases. Currently, NCHERM is featuring a new program entitled "10 Things Every Student Should Know About Drinking." Designed in response to the abject failure of "don't drink" programs, this is a workshop aimed at teaching students how to drink responsibly, rather than at telling them not to drink at all. NCHERM is very big on freshman orientation, and offers a number of programs specially shaped for freshmen and even for parents.

Risk management explains the presence of educational sessions on drugs, alcohol, and sex on orientation schedules. And, arguably, it helps explain the hyper-scheduled quality of so many orientations, which seem very eager to offer new students places other than frat parties to socialize, and which work hard to supply plenty of opportunities for good clean peer-chaperoned fun in the evenings. But risk management is not the only reason why freshman orientation has become so bloated. Socialization is just as important. In upcoming blogs, I'll look at some of the more troubling aspects of that socialization, paying special attention to the beliefs, fears, and fantasies that are contained within three particularly fraught aspects of orientation: the separatist culture of minority orientation, the feminist culture of the date rape workshop, and the sensitive culture of the classroom discussion.

More coming soon. I've got lots of fun facts and interesting links all ready to be lovingly crafted into hair-raising blogs: but that doesn't mean I'm not spoiling for more. So if you've got good, bloggable anecdotes or inside information about orientation at a campus near you, please feel free to pass your hardwon wisdom on.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




August 20, 2002 [feather]
When I started college in

When I started college in 1986, there was no freshman orientation to speak of. We arrived a week before classes, unpacked our stuff, bought our books, and spent the rest of the week hanging out with the people on our floor. During the day, we explored the campus and the city of Berkeley. At night, we ordered pizza and stayed up till all hours telling stories. We had an R.A., an unwashed unshaven upperclassman named Sean. Sean was a managerial minimalist. His disciplinary style consisted of reminding us that we were grown-ups and that he was not our parents, that what we did behind closed doors was our business but that if we were dumb enough to break laws in front of him he would have to bust us. Sean's method of generating that all-important dormitory phenomenon, "floor unity," was similarly economical. Every night at 5 Sean would round up all the people on the floor and lead the way to the dining commons, where we would eat together and then play a version of quarters with a dish of the grossest-looking dessert available on that day (at our less-than stellar cafeteria, there were always plenty of gelid, slippery unidentifiables to choose from). We liked being treated like adults, and we liked spending time with one another. That was all the orientation we needed.

Today freshman orientation (or, as it is now called on many correct campuses, new student orientation) is big business and a big deal. Orientations frequently last several days; many last up to a week or more. Amherst's First-Year Orientation is a veritable marathon--at nine full days, with an additional six days of follow-up programming, it is not for the free spirit or the faint of heart. The rationale behind such orientations is simple enough: they are for easing students into college. Designed to help new students make the transition to college life, orientation helps them make social contacts, makes sure they become familiar with the campus and its resources, and guides them through basic back-to-school chores such as registration, book-buying, and setting up email accounts. There is always a convocation of some kind at orientation, and there is usually some advising--at some schools, students are personally guided through course selection and registration. There are placement exams for math and writing. There are scavenger hunts and ice cream socials and movies and mixers. There are walking tours and floor meetings and sessions on safety, diversity, alcohol awareness, safe sex, and sexual assault. There are free bagels, free condoms, and, when parents and administrators aren't looking, free beer.

On the surface, it all sounds warm and inviting. It makes the school look caring and concerned, sending the message to parents that their children are in capable, responsible hands and sending the message to students that the school understands their concerns and will go to great length to meet their needs. Orientation is the university in loco parentis at its finest--and at its most problematic.

Ironically, what's problematic about so many college orientations is precisely their extensive, extended nature. Anxious not to seem to be neglecting new students, many of whom may be living on their own for the first time, many colleges and universities err the other way, establishing orientation schedules so regimented (often from breakfast to bedtime), so remedial (nothing is left to chance), and so prescriptive (orientation tells you where to go, when to go there, what to do, what to talk about, what to eat, and at its worst what to think) that they do more to encourage an attitude of entitlement and a posture of dependency than to help students adjust to a life where they most likely have more independence and more responsibility than they have ever had before.

In short, the assumption behind this flurry of orientational activity seems to be that students can no longer do on their own what they once did with comparative ease--move in, meet people, choose classes, and join whatever clubs or groups they are moved to join. Prolonging adolescence rather than welcoming young adulthood, deferring the moment of individual accountability in order to dramatize an inflated ethic of care, freshman orientation powerfully conveys the idea that students would be lost without it, that they cannot make their own decisions and that they must not be allowed to make mistakes. The importance of freshman orientation is indeed the most important message of freshman orientation: it is in this sense as much an elaborate ad campaign as it is anything else. What it sells is not orientation (are we ever not disoriented?), however, but the illusion of orientation--the image of oneself as part of a community, the impression of college as a kind of home, the belief that with one's tuition one has bought not just the right to pursue an education, but the right to a certain kind and quality of life. Orientation packages a promised experience; it offers a sort of anticipatory nostalgia, a cleverly choreographed taste of what will be that will, like all tastes, quickly pass into a happy memory of what was.

Like all pleasant tastes, this one ultimately creates a taste for itself. It would not be far wrong to see orientation as a product designed to create a craving--for a certain kind of structure, a certain level of support and guidance, a certain type of community. Nor would it be far wrong to see college as a period of time during which many students continually seek out the sorts of structure, support, and sociability that they encountered during the warm and fuzzy days of Welcome Week--or, as many schools tellingly call it, "WOW" (short for Week of Welcome). Colleges capitalize on this, using the seductive warmth of orientation--one in which students are predisposed to welcome that which welcomes them--to orient students politically as well as practically. The elaborate staged greeting of welcome week, one that is literally meant to WOW students, works ultimately to introduce students to the ideological orientation that comes with their new territory. By the end of welcome week, students will know, either consciously or unconsciously, what they need to do, say, be, and believe in order to remain welcome for the next four years.

More soon.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




August 18, 2002 [feather]
I'm back, I'm rested, and

I'm back, I'm rested, and I'm resuming regular blogging.

Catching up on my cant watching, I ran across a hilarious note in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about a former law student at England's University of Wolverhampton who sued the school for not providing a quality education (alas, the story is only available to Chron subscribers, but I'll summarize fully here).

Michael Austen, a former pilot in his mid-fifties, "said he had been duped by a promotional CD-ROM that featured a student professing to have turned down Oxford and Cambridge to go to Wolverhampton." While Oxford and Cambridge are among the top schools in Britain, the teaching quality at Wolverhampton, it seems, ranks 125 out of Britain's 151 universities. Its law program ranks 72 out of Britain's 88 law schools. Unable, apparently, either to research schools himself or to distinguish self-promotion from objective reporting, the young and impressionable Mr. Austen mistook Wolverhampton's advertising hype for factual representation and wound up enrolled at a school where "he found not exalted Oxbridgean intellectual discourse, but rather overcrowded classes, incompetent or even absent lecturers, and error-riddled assignments." Wolverhampton settled out of court, paying Austen the equivalent of $47,000 in order to avoid steep legal costs. Just as Austen acknowledged no responsibility for his error, the university acknowledged no wrong-doing. Austen will continue his legal education at a higher-ranked school this year; Wolverhampton will continue offering low quality legal education to all those dumb enough to take its overblown recruitment materials at face value.

What I love about this: not Wolverhampton's pathetically inflated self-presentation, not the graying flyboy's unconvincing posture of innocent victimhood, but the tactical possibilities presented to students by the gap between what universities say they provide and what they actually do provide. In the U.S., false advertising is a major problem in higher education. It's also an untapped potential. College catalogues and brochures always promise students an enriching educational experience, and they almost always equate that experience with such things as small class size and close contact with eminent professors. But the reality is frequently far different, especially at large universities. Class sizes can run in the hundreds, especially in the gateway math and science courses that dominate the schedules of so many freshman and sophomores. And a huge percentage of courses are taught not by "eminent professors" but by graduate students and grossly overworked, underpaid adjunct lecturers.

Yale is a case in point. By one estimate, 70% of the courses at Yale are taught by grad students and part-timers. The Yale administration disputes this, claiming that only 33% are taught by students and non-tenure track faculty. Apparently, parents who are shelling out the price of a house to send their kids to Yale are supposed to be relieved by the news that only a third of the classes there are taught by cheap, temporary labor. But parents would have to be crazy to be satisfied with such numbers--or with such advertising. Yale advertises a student-faculty ratio of 7:1, and claims to offer over 2000 courses in over 70 majors. It proclaims a firm commitment to undergraduate education, noting that "all tenured faculty teach undergraduate courses," that 75% of courses enroll fewer than 20 students, and that 29% of courses enroll fewer than 10 students. While these claims may technically be true, they work together to create a false impression of a school where undergraduates regularly rub shoulders with illustrious faculty in small, intimate seminar settings. The student-faculty ratio may be low, but that doesn't tell us anything about how many courses are taught by graduate students and part-timers. All tenured faculty may teach undergraduate courses, but that tells us nothing about how often they do so, or how many undergraduate courses they offer. There may be a lot of small classes--but that tells us nothing about who teaches them. Yale may offer a total of 2000 courses--but you can bet it doesn't offer anywhere near that in any given semester. You can also bet that a number of courses on the books have not been taught in years. With a $10.7 billion endowment, Yale is one of the richest schools in the world and should be able to create just the sort of environment it promises. But it hasn't. The price of Yale, apparently, is the price of maintaining a costly illusion.

The point is not to single out Yale. What happens there happens everywhere. And that is the point: across the country, universities are engaging in misleading--and often patently false--advertising. They are recruiting students on the basis of that advertising, and they are pocketing steep tuition fees in exchange for an experience they do not reliably provide. Each school that does so is a lawsuit waiting to happen. The suits could be filed by individuals. Or--better--by groups. A series of high profile class action lawsuits against universities that are shortchanging and overcharging students could well be an important means of beginning a desperately needed, long deferred reformation of higher education in America.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




August 5, 2002 [feather]
Today I conclude my series

Today I conclude my series on the politicized academic bureaucracy with a consideration of how that bureaucracy attempts to administer not just education, but belief.

Higher educations's administration of conscience begins at freshman orientation. Along with toothpaste samples and free condoms, first year students are frequently issued an official set of beliefs at orientation, which routinely includes sessions on how to think about race, sex, power, and oppression. These sessions supply students with a political orientation to match their academic one, instructing unsuspecting freshmen in the ways and means of multicultural sensitivity. Invasive, offensive, cultish, and doctrinaire; run by professional "diversity trainers" or even student "peer educators;" these sessions cloak their abrasive and illegitimate agenda in the wholesome language of "awareness," "tolerance," and "community." They do not raise awareness; they do not promote tolerance; and they do more to destroy community than to build it. They have rightly been identified as a type of thought reform. Their message is that there is one right way to think and feel about race and gender relations. They reward students who accept their message; they belittle those who don't.

Orientation is just a small, initial aspect of the university's largescale administration of collective conscience. "Diversity" and "multicultural awareness" license everything from ideologically loaded freshman reading projects (UNC-Chapel Hill is presently being sued for requiring its incoming freshmen to read a book that presents a whitewashed and one-sided picture of Islam) to course requirements (studies indicate that somewhere between 60 and 70% of colleges and universities have a diversity requirement on the books) to area studies programs to hiring decisions to the allocation of funds.

The result is a sort of emotional welfare state, one where students become so dependent on an atmosphere of controlled belief that they cannot cope with difference. Within the rigid conceptual uniformity of the "diversity" project difference of opinion is often experienced as cognitive dissonance (those who think differently--devout Christians, orthodox Jews, Republicans, and so on--are incomprehensible and thus demonized) or even as a threat (those who think differently are dangerous, and must be stopped). The idea that dissent and debate are forms of aggression--that words can "wound"--is embedded within campus speech codes and harassment policies, which attempt to protect fragile sensibilities by policing words, looks, jokes, and even gestures.

Such codes are the logical corollary of university administrations' attempts to plan, implement, and control a collective conscience. Collectivizing conscience--particularly in an environment that is also in the business of eroding individual accountability--is a mechanism of disempowering individuals while at the same time empowering the groups that are formed by like individuals. Thus it is that if a member of an oppressed group is upset by something someone else says or does, that person is not responsible for dealing with that upset on his or her own. In the multicultural university, social control is achieved through an elaborately administered psychic dependency in which school rules extend their reach past illegal and injurious actions to words and looks that could be misconstrued. Speech codes, overbroad harassment policies, and hostile environment policies all encourage and even mandate dependency on the system: if someone offends you, instead of ignoring it, or responding in kind, you run to the administration and demand redress. Administrators respond with alacrity, reinforcing the astonishing message that within the model campus community, you do indeed have the right not to be offended. That is, as long as you are female or gay or a person of color; a different standard applies to white men, who are presumably so insulated by patriarchal privilege that they alone can never be seriously wronged by harassing words.

Infantilization is the price one pays for the social privilege of victimhood. Victimhood itself, however, is richly rewarded on today's campuses. Oppressed groups have learned to leverage "hate," using racial tension on or around campus to demand ever more funding for their group and ever more sensitivity training for everyone else. Penn State is a typical example: in the spring of 2001, threatening e-mail was sent from an AOL account to several gay students and one black student leader. Defined as "hate crimes," they became an extraordinarily powerful lever for demanding that Penn State sink money into its already extensive diversity bureaucracy. Penn State administrators responded promptly to demands that they address homophobia and racism on campus. By the end of spring term, a massive diversity initiative was in place. It included allocating $900,000 for a new Africana Resources Center, nearly doubling the number of faculty in the Af-Am Studies department, increased funding and scholarships for Af-Am scholars and black students, and mandatory diversity training for all incoming freshmen. Penn State has made good on these goals. It has also launched a "report hate crime" web page and a 24-hour hotline for reporting hate crimes. And it has even created a 3-credit course that teaches students to be diversity trainers, and that includes "outreach" in residence halls as part of its course requirements. Offered through the Af-Am Studies department, "Peer Education for Social Change" is designed to "offer students an extensive curriculum of social justice issues, diversity leadership and group facilitation skills as related to educational programming." It is now possible to get academic credit at Penn State for joining the campus crusade for diversity.

The pattern at Penn State, in which "hate" (I put it in quotes because hate is neither a crime nor something that can be clearly well-defined) becomes the linchpin in beleaguered groups' demands for more money, more minority faculty, and more diversity programming, has become a common one on campuses around the country. Indeed, so effective is "hate" as a means of making the multicultural campus bureaucracy grow that it is frequently faked. A cynic would say that the timely emails at Penn State delivered some really valuable hate.

We should not be surprised, then, that within the emotional welfare state of the multicultural university, the punishment for violating the norms of campus sensitivity is often psychiatric in nature. As in the Soviet Union and Maoist China, students who are found guilty of "hate," "harassment," and "insensitivity" are often sentenced to "sensitivity training"--a term that speaks volumes about the lengths to which campus administrators will go to use emotional conditioning to enforce proper political views. The only thing more chilling than a school's willingness to engage in such invasive behavior is the frequency with which students themselves demand that those who disagree with them be subjected to it. But then, the most successful totalitarian regimes are those whose subjects loyally defend it as the mechanism of ultimate good. Richard Bernstein has aptly called the modern regime of multicultural education a "dictatorship of virtue."

Like any police state, the borders of the dictatorship of virtue are rigorously patrolled. Schools mandate a multicultural curriculum (sometimes in patent violation of individual rights). They require their faculty to toe the political line, blackballing and even firing those who refuse. They even turn down gifts that are flagged for uses that do not accord with the institution's ideological stance. During the late 1980s, anti-Reagan Stanford faculty prevented the Reagan Library from being built on Stanford's campus. In 1995, Yale caved in to multiculturalist agitators and refused to accept a $20 million donation dedicated to the development of courses in Western civilization. Recently McGill turned down a million dollar gift intended to create an Ayn Rand Chair in objectivist philosophy. The official reason for the refusal was that the chair was too narrow in focus. But as McGill student David Mader reports, at least one professor protested the donation for political reasons, opining in a letter that has found its way into the media,

"I was shocked to learn ... that my department had even considered an offer to endow an Ayn Rand Chair... Imagine the department of political science considering an offer to endow the Adolf Hitler Chair in International Politics, or the department of psychology discussing whether to accept an offer to endow the (H.S.) Chamberlain Chair in Eugenics... Ayn Rand ... is the heroine of an extreme right-wing group in the U.S. whose motto is selfishness. The egoism she preaches is so radical that no one takes it seriously in the ethics literature."

It's useful at this point to recall that Harvard has accepted over $2 million from the Saudi bin Laden Group. It's also worth noting that a large chunk of that is dedicated to funding scholars working in Islamic Studies.

Today, more and more professors and administrators are simply mouthpieces for received ideology. As a result, what passes for "education" is increasingly no more than indoctrination. This is not a secret. Professors dedicated to the cause are proud of their work as political re-educators. As Andrew Ross, a prominent English professor, once tellingly put it, his pedagogical aim was to radicalize "the children of the ruling class." On too many campuses, too many teachers, counselors, administrators, and even student "peer educators" are engaged in the risky and unforgivable business of teaching people how not to learn.

Having taken on the role of moral guide and political advocate, higher ed stands increasingly to cripple the minds of young adults in the name of educating them. Instead of preparing young adults for civic life, many colleges and universities are deliberately denying them the knowledge, understanding, and practice that they need to function effectively as adult citizens in a free, highly competitive country.

This concludes my series on the politicized bureaucracy of contemporary academe. I've written at length on this topic, and in doing so I have no doubt tried the patience of my readers. I have done so because I have wanted to lay out some admittedly rough, but also important, points about why we should all care about the institutionalization of leftwing bias in higher education. I have wanted to show how the problem I am describing is much more serious, and goes far deeper, than politics, or even parity. I have wanted to demonstrate how the politicized academic bureaucracy has made the administration of conscience its official business. And I have hoped, too, to show how, in arrogantly attempting to control souls rather than shape minds, American higher education has betrayed us all.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




August 2, 2002 [feather]
This post continues my ongoing

This post continues my ongoing meditation on academe's ideological bureaucracy (for earlier installments, see my posts for July 25, July 27, July 29, and July 30). I closed my last post with the suggestion that this bureaucracy works effectively to paralyze personal accountability in the name of enhancing intellectual exchange. Today I begin a two-part conclusion to this series dedicated to the proposition that academe's longstanding institutional bias is finally less a political problem--though it is certainly that--than it is a moral one. The single worst thing about academe's successful administration of leftwing ideology is not that it is slanted toward a set series of views, but that it is bent on making students accept those views as their own.

A signal feature of bureaucracy is that it runs in the passive voice. In a bureaucracy, people do not do things; things are done. Bureaucracy is by definition a system that no one is responsible for running; it is full of people, but they are not independent agents. They are arms of the bureaucracy, and their work is to help the system perpetuate itself. It's bad enough when bureaucracy becomes the shape of business or government. Costs go up and rules increase and there is no one to complain to. It's worse with education. Recent years have seen a tremendous growth in the size of academic bureaucracy (due in no small part to the administrative weight of multicultural initiatives). Not surprisingly, academic bureaucratic growth has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in costs and rules (centered around policing the politically sensitive, socially aware campus--more on this in the final installment). Organized around producing and maintaining a utopian multicultural community, the politicized bureaucracy that shapes today's academic experience is a decidedly different animal from business and government bureaucracy. Like all topheavy systems, academic bureaucracy alienates and angers those who come under its impersonal power. But at the same time, it creates loyal ideological disciples, people who make careers out of managing the spread of diversity. Dedicated to the uplifting project of planning campus culture, the disciples of the leftwing academic administration manage not only to bureaucratize the intensely personal experience of learning, but also to bureaucratize conscience itself.

I touched on the problem of bureaucratized conscience when I discussed how opinion has become the property of the group on the politicized campus. Now I want to tie that point to a broader one about the erosion of personal accountability within the leftwing academic bureaucracy. The scenes of this erosion are numerous; they include affirmative action, speech codes, overbroad harassment policies, multicultural course requirements, and sensitivity workshops. Taken together, these things all work in concert to drive home two deadly lessons: the first is that you are not responsible for making your own way in the world, and the second is that you are not responsible for arriving at your own beliefs.

The idea that you aren't responsible for your own achievement is one of the signal accomplishments of affirmative action. Built on the belief that racism and sexism remain deeply ingrained in American culture and institutions, affirmative action is predicated on the notion that in our society, there is no such thing as making your own way. Privilege and oppression, rather than disciplined study and sustained hard work, it holds, are the decisive factors in our society's uneven distribution of wealth; as such, affirmative action cheapens the educational environment it aims to enrich by completely undermining the basis for academic standards. Penalizing students who cannot lay claim to victim status in order to engineer opportunity where by definition it has not been earned, affirmative action structures college as a time of reparation, payback, and dubiously gotten gains. California is so attached to the reparative admissions idea that it now counts personal hardship as academic criteria: victimhood is becoming more important than traditional qualifications at California state schools, where the abolition of affirmative action has only motivated admissions officers to find more creative ways to justify admitting "oppressed" students over those with higher grades and scores.

The effect of racial preferences on the college experience is profound. The resentments and misunderstandings it produces among students and between students and their professors are well-known. What is less known is how closely tied affirmative action is to a segregated campus culture. For many minority students college is a period of social and educational apartheid. Minority students are constantly encouraged to stick together; on many campuses this results in tightly-bound racial enclaves organized not around shared interests but around skin color. Such initiatives as separate orientations, separate dorms, separate yearbooks, separate student centers, separate graduations, and even separate majors are ostensibly designed to improve minority retention. But their cumulative insult is palpable: it powerfully announces that college administrators don't think minority students can function successfully in the world. It also says administrators think minority students can't make it through school on their own. It also says minority students are no more than their background--within the cold eugenic calculus of campus multiculturalism, one is never simply a person. One is always first and foremost a member of a raced, classed, and sexed group. Thus do policies ostensibly aimed at creating opportunity and eliminating racism work against themselves, heightening racial tensions on campus and corrupting the very notion of a fair shake.

There is no personal accountability in such an environment, nor is there the possibility of genuine success or pure failure. There is only the chronic tension that arises when a learning environment becomes the scene of a politically motivated experiment in shaping an alternative reality. The cheapening of education that results from morally dishonest attempts to engineer a model multicultural student body is most disturbingly exhibited in the twin premises that a) college students cannot be trusted to shape their own consciences; and b) that they must not be allowed to act according to their personal beliefs unless those beliefs are the same as those approved by their school. More on this soon.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink