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May 28, 2004 [feather]
The importance of being too earnest

The Onion has taken up the subject of teaching literature to disengaged high school students:

BANGOR, MEůBishop Kelly High School English teacher Christine Niles believes in her students' ability to grow intellectually and achieve success, the na‘ve 24-year-old told reporters Monday.

"Teenagers need to be engaged as equals, not talked down to," Niles said, scrubbing the words "Miss Niles is a kunt" from the surface of her desk. "A heavy-handed approach takes the joy out of learning. Some teachers give out detention, but I praise my students for the times they don't skip class, rather than dwell on the days they do."

A recent graduate of the George Washington University education program, Niles came to Bangor last August with the childlike belief that she could somehow inspire a passion for literature in her uninterested students, who see her as a pushover.

"The standard curriculumůMelville, Hemingway, Steinbeckůfocuses so heavily on the works of dead white men," Niles said. "Who can relate to that? The tides of multiculturalism have reached every corner of America. Get real! These kids know Tupac, not Tennyson. I need to speak their language to get them interested in learning."
It was her interest in engaging the students in something from their world that led Niles to invite them to interpret contemporary music lyrics as poetry Monday. The class spent the period listening to songs like "Freak Me Slow" by Kelis and "Just Don't Give A Fuck" by Eminem.

"Yes, some of the songs they played had adult themes, but Shakespeare is filled with sex and violence, too," Niles said. "I do wish they had put more thought into the follow-up exercise, though. Only two students handed in their essays."

Niles' students rarely complete their assignments. They also throw things, talk back, and take cell-phone calls during class. Three fights have broken out in her classroom since the beginning of the year, and students have threatened Niles with physical harm multiple times and twice stolen money from her purse.

"Overall, the poetry exercise was a success," Niles said. "We had a particularly rousing discussion about which words in the songs might have a negative impact. The students really seemed to enjoy making that list on the board. I think it did a lot to help them understand that dialogue needs to be conducted in a way that doesn't degrade."

There's more. Considering recent news reports on the simultaneously practical and pandering manner in which the high school English curriculum has been softened, the Onion piece is a timely riff on the fine pedagogical line between realism and idealism, as well as on how cynical some forms of teacherly idealism really are.

Hat tip: Jonathan Winkler

Erin O'Connor, 10:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Ethnicity and the ethics of advising

I wouldn't begin to know how to talk about how ethnicity affects graduate advising, particularly when it comes to the sciences. But Moe, an Indian-American engineer, has a fascinating anecdote that leads to some equally fascinating questions:

The Squeeze's brother, Oblaw, is in graduate school at a state university on the Eastern seaboard. His thesis advisor is an Indian professor, and he recently told me a story that has become all too familiar.

Seems he wanted to do an internship this summer, and his advisor allowed him to look for one. He interviewed at several places, and after many closed doors, finally found an internship with a company that actually worked with his professor on occasion.

He went back to his professor and told him the good news. The professor suddenly changed his mind. All of a sudden, the internship was not okay. He had a project deadline in August, and needed this guy around. Well, Oblaw was a little taken aback. He had been going through some tough times financially, and was really looking forward to the extra five or six thousand bucks that he would make over the summer. Now, even if he worked full-time over the summer at school, he would make only half of that. He tried pressing his advisor on the matter, but his advisor was adamant - and the fact that he had given permission to look for an internship earlier was completely ignored.

So now, Oblaw was in a tough situation. He had the offer letter (which was for six months and had an eye-popping number on it). If he defied his professor and went anyway, there would be repercussions - he might lose funding next semester, or his advisor might, in his displeasure, throw roadblocks on the way to the PhD. If he did not go, he wouldn't get the extra money and carry forward debts that he was counting on getting rid of. After weighing the pros and cons, he reluctantly decided to stay in school over the summer, and try to get his advisor to pay him a full-time wage. He figured that he would rather count on funding for the duration of his graduate course than risk that for a couple of thousand dollars.

I've heard a lot about Indian professors in the U.S. treating their Indian graduate students quite badly. I never personally experienced it - I never got a PhD and I worked only with American professors - but enough people have told me horror stories about their Indian professors. Overwork, underpay, work outside of graduate research, and threats to funding are all fair game and are routinely thrown at Indian students. Apparently, it is a common joke in India that students coming here for graduate school should always look for an American advisor - he has to watch football on Sunday, so you get a day off.

I know that graduate life is hard, but the treatment of Indian graduate students by Indian professors seems to be a little beyond the pale. Manipulating funding and rudely changing the options available to a student without notice go beyond the hard work and poor pay that graduate students can expect. I've noticed that Indian professors tend to have mostly Indian graduate students as well - I wonder if this is because the professors find it easier to squeeze every penny's worth out of them.

I don't know if this is true for other ethnicities as well - do Chinese students have the same problem with Chinese professors? I think that with Indians, the professors expect the same sort of deference to their status that students show professors in India, and they take advantage of it. Also I don't know if this is just an engineering thing, or whether it's true of other departments in which there are Indian professors (although I can't imagine that there are many).

Does Oblaw have any options? Or does he simply have to take the fact that his advisor arbitrarily changed his mind on him as a fact of life at the bottom of the academic food-chain? I'd be interested to know the experience of others in this situation.

Moe's questions about whether Oblaw's experience is representative, and, if so, what exactly Oblaw's experience represents, captures one of the defining difficulties of thinking critically about the structural problems inherent in contemporary academe. Most of us do work from experience and anecdote, and most of us generalize from those particular patterns. To take one example: those who deny that conservative student groups often experience institutionally condoned viewpoint discrimination tend to be those who do not share the views in question and who have never had a problem of that sort themselves; conversely, those who argue that too many campuses are chilling the free exchange of ideas tend to be those who have personally felt the chill. So what are we to make of Oblaw's situation? How typical or atypical is it? How much of what happened to Oblaw can be chalked up to the disciplinary culture of engineering? And what is a fair and reasonable way to factor in ethnicity here? After all, the abuse of graduate students is hardly an exotic import--it's made in America, too.

Erin O'Connor, 9:45 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

May 27, 2004 [feather]
The making of modern readers

There's an interesting discussion about high school reading lists happening at the Victoria discussion list. The thread began with one reader writing in to ask why it is that George Eliot's Silas Marner, once a staple of the high school English curriculum, has disappeared from it almost completely; that led to some more general reflections on pedagogical trends at the secondary level, and a very intriguing post from a long-time high school teacher who offered some generalizations about what used to be taught, what's taught now, and why the shifts have taken place.

To paraphrase: Silas Marner, she says, used to be assigned because it was short, well-written, and centered on family-oriented themes appropriate for adolescents. As such, it was one of the few British novels to break the stranglehold anthologies--and the poetry that is so well suited to them--had on the curriculum. Things changed a bit during the 1970's and '80's: The emphasis shifted from poetry to fiction, and Victorian fiction tended to get displaced by more contemporary fiction that spoke more directly to teenagers (Salinger, Harper Lee, Golding). The curricular move away from classics toward the popular was in turn tempered by the rise of Advanced Placement courses and exams. Noting that many younger high school English teachers have not read much in the way of Victorian fiction themselves, and are thus not highly motivated to incorporate it into the curriculum, she concludes by listing off some of the authors and works that are commonly assigned in high schools today: the Brontes, Jane Austen, Conrad (Heart of Darkness, which is popular because it is short and because it is a good springboard into discussions of race and imperialism), Wharton (the ubiquitous Ethan Frome), Hawthorne (the even more ubiquitous Scarlet Letter), Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Along the way, she drops several more interesting comments--that students don't seem to like Heart of Darkness (could it be that what they don't like is actually the politically pedantic way it is taught?), that Dickens has dropped off most high school reading lists, and that longer epic poems have all but disappeared from the curriculum.

The anecdotal information outlined above dovetails neatly with this USA Today report on how high school English teachers are increasingly substituting popular fiction--much of it of highly dubious quality--for more serious literary study: "Faced with declining reading scores on national tests and the steady buzz of movies, TV and video games, teachers trying to entice students are increasingly turning to contemporary literary fiction and non-fiction, often picked fresh from best-seller lists." Wally Lamb is right up there with Hawthorne these days, and the working assumption is not only that high school students won't read anything that they can't "identify" with, but that they should not have to (Great Expectations is singled out as a novel that has never really worked in a high school setting because teens just can't connect with it). The premise seems to be that if a teacher can get kids hooked on reading by assigning something light and fun and contemporary (Tuesdays with Morrie, The DaVinci Code), then they will be much more open to reading more difficult, more substantial older works. There's some excellent commentary on this philosophy at The Reading Experience.

My own feelings about it all are mixed. I certainly see the argument for luring people into serious literary study by way of lighter, more accessible initial assignments. But I also see the severe limitations of that approach. You can only cover so much material in a given term; the time spent with the fluffy stuff is time that cannot be devoted to the more serious stuff. Time spent with fluffy stuff also reinforces the expectation that reading literature ought to be a lot like gobbling junk food--easy, quick, immediately pleasurable, not requiring much beyond a passive willingness to swallow what's there. The habits of thought and styles of attention encouraged--or discouraged--by devoting serious class time to books you can read with one eye on the tube are not those that prepare you meaningfully for Hawthorne, or Homer, or Shakespeare. My guess is that the promise of the bait-and-switch pedagogy is much greater than its actual payoff.

At the same time, what teachers are pretty transparently trying to do with these fluffy reading assignments is make up for years of lost time--in prior English classes, where the groundwork for grown-up reading wasn't laid, and at home, where reading was always already displaced by TV. Many of their students just don't have either the reading skills or the imaginative range necessary for Dickens, let alone for Shakespeare. But many others do. All are being shortchanged by the condescension of a curriculum that treats them like narcissists who can never be expected to transcend their own self-absorption. What is reading for, if not for that?

I was an avid, addicted, unstoppable reader as a child, and I still struggled when I encountered Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, The Scarlet Letter in tenth grade, Heart of Darkness in eleventh. But what I needed was not to set these works aside in favor of reading a bunch of bestsellers. What I needed was steady, serious guided study in which my teacher and I both assumed that of course I was mature enough to grapple with these works, and that what stood between me and an easier relationship with them was nothing more than my own patient application. I was lucky: I got it. For what it's worth, I was assigned Great Expectations as a high school freshman. I absolutely loved it.

I'd love to hear from readers--teachers, students, parents, people of the world--about what kinds of reading they were assigned in high school and how it was taught, about what they think ought to be assigned and how they think it should be taught, and about what they make of the present trend toward using popular literature--and sometimes even pulp fiction--in the classroom.

Erin O'Connor, 8:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (36)

May 26, 2004 [feather]
Incredible chronicles

From the Chronicle of Higher Education's always intriguing Careers Section comes one of the stranger columns I've ever seen there. It's the story of a woman who trailed her husband to his new tenure-track job, got hired as an adjunct in his department, was so resentful of the situation that she nearly began an affair with one of their senior colleagues, and then found herself mysteriously and damningly accused of sexual harassment by that same colleague. You'll want to read the whole thing, but here are some teasers:

Fearing that our private relationship had become public knowledge within the department, he responded by accusing me of sexual harassment.


I was called into the administrator's office who, in accordance with the university's informal grievance procedure, read me the campus sexual-harassment code and asked me to cease-and-desist all contact of a sexual nature with the professor. It was quite a terrifying experience for an adjunct who had hoped to be offered a tenure-track position there someday.

Assenting to everything I was asked, I immediately fled from his office and told my husband everything -- from the flirtation to the harassment charge. He was angry about what I had done to our relationship. He was upset that I had destroyed any likelihood of my being hired by his department.

But beyond all of that, he was afraid of losing his tenure-track job. How would his colleagues react if the professor decided to take his charge through the university's formal grievance procedure, in which many of them necessarily would become involved as witnesses or informed of the findings of the case? Beyond the issue of guilt or innocence, the entire proceeding would have a sordid tone to it, which might make many of his colleagues wish that my husband and I would just go away.

Thankfully, the professor did not choose to go through the formal review. The downside was that I was never given the opportunity to refute the charges made against me and clear my name. Nor was the professor ever held accountable for his actions.

Our greatest fear became that this man might use his power to destroy my husband's chances for tenure. We kept quiet about the turn of events and tried to patch things up with the professor as much as possible. My husband did his best to ingratiate himself with this man and pretend he knew nothing of what had happened.


The sexual-harassment officer explained to me that he didn't think the case in any way met the definition of sexual harassment and suggested that once I was teaching at the university again I might want to charge the professor with faculty misconduct. That solution might satisfy my sense of justice, but it certainly would cause bad morale in the department, which could hurt my husband's chances for tenure, so I declined.

This story may seem unique; as Humphrey Bogart says in Casablanca, "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." But I believe that my experience speaks mountains about the way adjuncts are treated at universities. Sexual-harassment policies are designed to protect the weak from the powerful. No one expects the powerful to use them as a tool against the weak.


My husband still works in the department and is trying his best to reach tenure. His department chairman is stepping down and we have no guarantees that the senior professor in question will not try to retaliate against my husband in the future. He grinds his teeth every night worrying about this situation and conceals his fears beneath a mask of friendliness toward his senior colleague, who has experienced no repercussions from his actions.

There are credible, effective ways to document academic malfeasance. This is not one of them. There are too many holes in the story, too many parts of the narrative that don't make sense. The facts can't be checked. There is no way to find out what the other side of the story is.

Writing under the cover of anonymity, and using that cover to produce a confessional account of her own abuse at the hands of the system, may seem to the author of this piece to be the only way to get her story out. But as techniques of reportage they just don't work. The facelessness, placelessness, and imprecision of the author's complaint do less to inspire confidence in her than to suggest that she labors under considerable confusion, and even, it must be said, cowardice. The punchline of the piece--that it is a parable about how abusable adjunct professors are--seems far too narrowly contrived. The case seems more amenable to illustrating how abusable overbroad sexual harassment policies are. As history has shown, such policies can be used by self-proclaimed victims to destroy just about anyone, from student to adjunct to dean; on many, many campuses, to be accused of sexual harassment is to be ruined, no matter what your rank.

What is interesting in this case is how a senior male professor was able to use the accusation against a junior female lecturer. That's a configuration you don't see very often at all, and it's quite possible he was able to use the accusation as he did because he knew he was leveling it at someone who was not likely to fight back--but the same would have been true if the accused were a junior faculty member, or a student, or a member of staff. The situation described is not one that arises specifically out of adjuncts' insecure employment status; it's one that arises out of universities' eagerness to demonstrate how very progressive they are when it comes to maintaining a harassment-free environment. You don't have to be an adjunct to get caught in the crossfire of false and malicious accusations. Just ask John Dwyer.

Overall, the story just doesn't smell right. It highlights peripheral issues (adjunct labor politics) while glossing over the central ones (like, for example, how Gilda and her husband colluded with the accusations rather than fighting them out of a desire to protect their future prospects at the school). One of the creepiest things about the piece is how what begins as a narrative of institutional injustice resolves into a tale of two grown adults willingly sacrificing their self-respect in order to try to protect their professional futures.

This explains Gilda's repeated contention that the worst thing about the whole mess is that it might, by process of contagion, affect her husband's tenure prospects--a claim that both assumes his smooth professional sailing is more important than justice for her, and takes for granted that his tenure prospects, at least in this department, have everything to do with petty interpersonal politics and nothing to do with the quality of his actual work. These assumptions may well be accurate: But in a piece that is devoted to criticizing the abuse of adjuncts, it's awfully strange not to see them more closely examined.

But of course, they could not be more closely examined without getting more specific about what actually happened, and that is something our author is not prepared to do. It sounds as though something very wrong really did happen to "Gilda Mundson." But she has chosen to tell her story in such a way that it is not possible to determine exactly what did happen. Without checkable facts, without names named, places placed, and details detailed, the piece is next to useless. It neither exonerates Gilda--whoever she really is--nor does it do much to illuminate the issue with which it claims to be primarily concerned, the politics of adjunct academic labor. If there is a moral to this overly circumspect tale told by a writer unwilling to own her own words, it's something like, "Don't express your resentment of your husband's success by getting involved with someone who has professional power over both you and your husband." But then, we already knew that.

Erin O'Connor, 8:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (20)

May 25, 2004 [feather]
Critic as artist academic

Smart words from James Wood on the yawning gap between writers and critics:

Writers and literary academics have never been closer, and never further apart. Since the New Criticism of the 1950s, there have been two developments that should be contradictory but whose agreement in fact makes gloomy sense. On the one hand, for the first time in history, many poets and novelists are graduates of English studies, many of them put through the theory machine for good measure. Writers and academics teach together, attend conferences together, and sometimes almost speak the same language (Rushdie's essays and academic post-colonialist discourse; DeLillo's fiction and academic postmodern critique). But during the same period, literary criticism as a discourse available for, and even attractive to, the common reader has all but disappeared. Literature as criticism - DeLillo's knowing essayism, Rushdie's parables about hybridity, Franzen's postmodern riffs - has burgeoned, while criticism as literature, what R.P. Blackmur called 'the formal discourse of an amateur', has faded.

This ought not to be possible. If all those clever writers studied other writers at university, they should, in addition to producing fiction and poetry, be writing capacious essays for the mythical common reader. We should be awash in V.S. Pritchetts and Edmund Wilsons. There are many reasons why this is not so. The audience for such essays is probably smaller than it was, and certainly less cohesive. The growth of the canon, and changing attitudes about elite culture, make the top-down instruction provided with such grumpy relish by Wilson problematic. But the chief reason is that the academy won: it was not writers who changed literary criticism, but academic criticism that changed literary criticism. It made it, precisely, more academic. Theory, metalled with its own unforgiving dialects, certainly proved a difficult road for many untutored readers. But theory is not the culprit, rather the symptom of a steady academicising. That theory is not per se the problem we can deduce from the many writers who have studied it, absorbed its findings, and emerged undamaged (i.e. emerged writers and not academics).

This absence of a general, non-academic literary criticism is the speaking void which tells us that writers, though apparently closer than ever to academics, are actually miles from them. The void is the public space that might have been. Many contemporary writers are familiar with the procedures of post-structuralism and deconstruction. They can talk about decentred texts and self-reflexive narration; they acknowledge that a text has an unconscious, and that it can be read against the grain of its author's apparent intentions. They see that Eminem's lyrics might be a 'text' in the way that Middlemarch is a text. They are often keener than many scholars to open up the canon. But they diverge from most academic critics, theoretical or otherwise, in two massive areas: intention and value.

Most writers I know treat an author's intentions - or their understanding of them - with severe respect. Better than anyone else, they know that a work of art means more than its creator intended it to mean, that artworks live what Montale called 'the second life of art' with their readers. But their criticism, spoken or written, tends to hug authorial intention rather closely; and writers, in my experience, are often suspicious of the way academic criticism confounds or even nullifies authorial intention in pursuit of the symptomatic. In his new book, After Theory, Terry Eagleton describes two camps, the belletristic and the theoretical. Why is it, he asks, that the former is credited with seeing what is 'really in the text'? 'To see The Waste Land as brooding upon the spiritual vacancy of Man without God is to read what is there on the page, whereas to view it as a symptom of an exhausted bourgeois civilisation in an era of imperialist warfare is to impose your own crankish theory on the poem.' It's a caricature - theoretical Eagleton turns out to be fonder of crude binarisms than the crustiest old clubman - but a writer would be very wary of a criticism that only wanted to read The Waste Land symptomatically. Not to attend to a plausible reconstruction of the author's aesthetic intentions is not to attend to the made-ness, the constructedness, of the artwork; and writers, sensibly enough, have a great deal invested in such matters.

Value follows intention. There is no greater mark of the gap that separates writers and English departments than the question of value. The very thing that most matters to writers, the first question they ask of a work - is it any good? - is often largely irrelevant to university teachers. Writers are intensely interested in what might be called aesthetic success: they have to be, because in order to create something successful one must learn about other people's successful creations. To the academy, much of this value-chat looks like, and can indeed be, mere impressionism. Again, theory is not the only culprit. A good deal of postmodern thought is suspicious of the artwork's claim to coherence, and so is indifferent or hostile to the discussion of its formal success. But conventional, non-theoretical criticism often acts as if questions of value are irrelevant, or canonically settled. To spend one's time explaining how a text works is not necessarily ever to talk about how well it works, though it might seem that the latter is implicit in the former. Who bothers, while teaching The Portrait of a Lady for the nth time, to explain to a class that it is a beautiful book? But it would be a pardonable exaggeration to say that, for most writers, greedy to learn and emulate, this is the only important question.

The rest of the essay is a review of Randall Stevenson's recent volume of The Oxford English Literary History. Stevenson's focus is on English literature from 1960 to 2000; taking Stevenson's volume as symptomatic of some of the defining problems in contemporary literary criticism, Wood's focus is on how a literary history written in the absence of a consideration of either authorial intention or aesthetic value is not really literary history at all. Well worth reading.

Erin O'Connor, 7:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

She's going

A few days ago, I posted an email from a former student who has been debating whether or not to apply to graduate school. Readers were invited to offer their advice, and many kindly obliged (see comments). Having digested those comments and solicited additional advice elsewhere, she has decided to go ahead and apply to graduate programs in English. She has generously agreed to share her thoughts on the subject with Critical Mass readers. Below is her note to me:

Thank you for posting my email on your blog. I've spent a lot of time mulling over all this information -- other people's experiences, and other people's opinions. I've asked close friends who are currently in graduate school, or will be starting next fall, on their attitude towards all this. Of course, being in the midst or soon-to-be midst of it all makes them quite defensive of their position. I've read a lot that one should only go to graduate school if it is the ONLY thing that they want, and if their passion and dedication for their particular(ly) (narrow) field of interest and the pursuit of that is the only thing they can imagine doing.

I went into Penn as an undergraduate na‘ve about the implications of higher education. I spent a lot of time there agonizing about the money that went into it, the type of people I had surrounded myself with, and the attitudes that formed around such status and prestige based values. (I attribute this in part to the mentality that Wharton brings to Penn, and that perhaps not all higher education is so similar). I was constantly frustrated with the feeling that students had come to Penn for a certain type of breeding, and not an education, and that Penn tried to hide this notion under the guise of conducting classes and holding general requirements. And occasionally, I thought the classes I was attending were pointless (because they were poorly chosen or had to fulfill an extraneous requirement), or the papers I was writing produced no real quantifiable value. But in those classes that were well-chosen, never did I not learn, never was my mind not engaged, and never was my writing not challenged. In the end, I resisted what I perceived to be the negative aspects of the institution. I decided not to pursue anything with my Psychology degree (which I discovered I had no passion for), and I decided that I didn't need to be anxious about starting a profession with a regular salary. Instead, in the past few years, I have done the things I wanted -- I lived in California again, took on a job with minimal responsibility, spent time with friends and family, pursued my ceramics hobby, moved to a foreign country, and traveled a lot in the meantime. I did this exactly because much of my time at Penn made me aware that I didn't want to be encumbered by misguided notions of ambition and success.

The latest post on your blog from Ms. Scheherezade was encouraging. I could identify with a lot of the things she wrote. Going back to graduate school was something I was highly skeptical of when I graduated from Penn. But despite the freedom and opportunity I have been granted in the past few years, I, like her, want to be engaged with ideas on a daily basis. And I find it much more difficult to be satisfied when I'm not being faced with this task. I've tried really hard to discern whether this nagging desire arises from residual notions of ambition that are always hard to get away from, or from a more experienced evaluation of what I want to do with my life. I've come to think that my inability to make this desire go away, in spite of having pursued many other things that make me happy, indicates that graduate school is really something I want for myself.

I've made this decision without the conviction that the advice I've read thinks I should have. But I'd like to take your and other's advice that knowing exactly what you want is not really knowing what you want at all.

All that being said, I'd like to ask if you are still willing to advise me through the application process. Completely understandable if the answer if no, of course. But thank you for all the guidance so far, and providing invaluable resources for me to refer to.

Of course the answer to that last request is yes.

Thanks to everyone who offered their thoughts on this always knotty question. They were much appreciated, and they have been put to good use.

Erin O'Connor, 6:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

May 24, 2004 [feather]
Bill Tozier speaks

Bill Tozier responds to this morning's post excerpts from the Chronicle of Higher Education's article on his use of eBay as a technique of intellectual networking:

Here's the saddest thing of all: I was never "thumbing my nose" at the Academe, I was ignoring (and disintermediating) it entirely. And the fellow missed that point completely, it seems.

And yes, you can't make this stuff up, or buy it.

I've already commented (Cf. blog) on how the interview with the Chronicle fellow felt as if it went all awry -- and I was clearly right. His preconceptions, which he disavowed after reading my comments on my blog, turned out to be just as strong as I had suspected.

He just couldn't seem to get the point that I'm not talking about papers, publication, tenure, or anything else having to do with the traditional University-based research process. I'm talking about something else: a community for amateurs. Not wannabes or "ex-academics" or failed grad students and faculty without "gumption" or dilettantes, but rather skilled amateurs who want to do something else.

Intellectuals. Us.

He thought when I said, "This is not aimed at traditional academics," that I meant that they were an excluded reviled minority -- though what I said was that they would just not be the target demographic, and that they would probably not find the community of any interest (until it was too late).

He thought that when I said I was founding "an online community for scientific collaboration," that I meant either a "mentoring" system to pair academics with laymen, or a "wannabe" system for laymen to submit manuscripts to traditional journals -- as if they care. What I told him was that the value of a community for the discussion of projects and results far outweighs the cache of journal refs.

He clearly didn't even understand that when I said there was "a perceived pain" I was using standard marketing jargon to describe a marketable product, not some sort of anguished plea for recognition. Even though I explained the usage.

He really wanted it to be about iconoclasm. But it isn't.

And as for the "meat grinder" business, what I said was: I'm going back to graduate school for my Ph.D. because I hope to be an administrator and start outreach programs to the non-academic community. The meat grinder quip was made by a friend of mine, a much-harried young nanotech researcher at Duke.


At any rate, this little amusement will surely give me the kick in the pants and "gumption" I need to get rolling on my essay. The boy could use some correction.

I wonder if he ended up a mere science reporter, and not a professor, because he didn't listen well....

An entirely different interview, with a nice lady from Science News, is forthcoming in a few weeks. As is my own essay on the experience, and where the project is going.

Gotta love the blogosphere. Keep us posted, Bill--and good luck.

UPDATE: More at Crooked Timber.

Erin O'Connor, 5:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Pay per peer review

Along the lines of "you can't make this stuff up":

Late last month an independent scientist auctioned off his services as a co-author on eBay, with the promise of helping the highest bidder write a scientific paper for publication.


The auction began as a bit of fun, admits William A. Tozier, a consultant in Ann Arbor, Mich., who specializes in machine learning and artificial-intelligence research. "I undertook it as a combination of a joke and conceptual art and a bit of an experiment in social networks," he says.


Although born in jest, the auction quickly took on a serious purpose, says Mr. Tozier. About 50 prospective bidders contacted him by phone or e-mail, many expressing a frustrated desire to conduct research. "It was clear there was this huge suite of complaints that all arose from people wanting to participate and not having an outlet to participate," he says. Some were graduate students or young faculty members who didn't have the time or the gumption to work outside their own specialties. Others were intellectually motivated people employed outside academe who wanted to solve certain research problems.

People saw real value in the service, says Mr. Tozier: "There's this whole constellation of things they could get from it. They could get credentials. They would get the ability to have their questions actually answered."

Tozier had dropped out of graduate school, dissatisfied with the "academic meat grinder." But he's returning in the fall, enrolling in an operations research program at Michigan. "There is a case," he told the Chronicle of Higher Education, "for trying to fix the meat grinder from the inside."

Erin O'Connor, 8:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 22, 2004 [feather]
Free speech at University of Louisville

The trouble began last fall, after black activist Sister Souljah was paid $11,000 to speak at the University of Louisville. Souljah--who is perhaps best known for commenting, after the L.A. riots, "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?"--quite predictably ruffled some feathers with her talk (which was, by prior arrangement, not recorded). While some said the point of the talk was to empower blacks, others felt it was to deride whites. Shortly after, the local KKK chapter decided it wanted equal time--and equal pay--on the U of L campus. It also demanded that the school dismantle its diversity program, which it considered to be racist. Excerpts are quoted in the school paper, which exhibited exemplary fidelity in reproducing the self-discrediting illiteracy of the Kentucky KKK spokesman.

Of course, the KKK can demand whatever it wants. Demands themselves aren't compelling arguments, and the U of L had no obligation to listen to them. Likewise, as long as no campus group wanted to sponsor a KKK speaker, the campus community could rest relatively assured that no one from the KKK would be delivering speeches in a campus forum. But the posting of flyers is another matter entirely, and this is where things have gotten terrifically complicated at the U of L in recent months.

Last winter, the Klan started posting flyers all over the U of L campus (I have not seen these flyers myself--if anyone has a copy and can send along a scanned image, I'll post it). Flyers were found stuck on an outdoor campus map, on trashcans, on bike racks, on the ground, and even tucked under the windshield wipers of cars. Complaints came in. People were offended and frightened and disturbed. Emotions aside, there was a legitimate issue with the manner in which the KKK had disseminated its message: the university doesn't allow anyone to post flyers in these places. It maintained concrete kiosks for flyer-posting purposes. And so university administrators notified the KKK of its error. But the way it did so may result in a lawsuit.

First, the U of L removed the concrete kiosks that had formerly been the approved place for posting flyers. Now the KKK can't advertise there--and neither can anyone else. In attempting to suppress the offensive message of the KKK flyers, the U of L has deprived everyone else, on campus and off, from publicizing messages on outdoor kiosks. There are still indoor boards that students and faculty can use. But off campus groups and businesses no longer have a place to post.

Second, the KKK members who posted the flyers were banned for life from the U of L. In a May 12 letter, Monica Jones, assistant director of student life, wrote, "Due to posting insensitive and offensive material on campus, this letter is to inform you that effective immediately, you are considered `persona non grata' from the entire University of Louisville campus until further notice from this office." Notice that Jones does not ban the KKK for violating posting policies, but for offending members of the campus community with their speech. She can't do that--and she knows it (when confronted by a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, she hedges). Consider, too, that the ban not only bars them from setting foot on campus in their present capacity as KKK promoters, but also from registering to study at U of L (they can, however, attend athletic events, where, presumably, their money talks louder than their views). That's a pretty extreme punishment for having failed to obey the U of L's posting policies. One wonders whether less offensive groups who stick flyers on cars and such get similar treatment.

Now things are heating up even more: U of L professor Ede Warner, unsatisfied with the administration's ban of the men who posted the flyers, wants to banish the KKK itself from the campus. Currently, if KKK members who have not personally been banished for their poor understanding of campus posting rules wish, they can stand inside one of the school's free speech zones and distribute their flyers there. That's not acceptable to Warner, who argues that the KKK should be barred from campus because it is a terrorist organization (this argument, experts note, is not likely to fly in court). The KKK, for its part, has appealed to both the FBI and the ACLU for help preserving the expressive rights of its members. Right now, as unlikely as it may seem, it looks like the KKK may have the moral high ground.

The U of L has always been a bit shaky on free speech. It's one of those wrong-headed "free speech zone" schools, meaning that instead of obeying the law and declaring the entire campus to be a free speech zone (given reasonable content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions), this public institution cordones off free expression on campus. There's some good solid law explaining why a public university can't do that, but they do it anyway.

Rabidly racist speech is clearly the extreme test case for a university's commitment to free speech. The University of Louisville is now being tested. In its official statements, it passes the present test with flying colors: see this FAQ on the U of L website. But in practice, things seem to be playing out a bit differently.

More as more becomes available.

Hat tip: Ralph Luker

Erin O'Connor, 9:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)

May 21, 2004 [feather]
I have a dream

Responding to Wednesday's post about how too many consecutive years of school can affect both maturation and career choice, J.V.C.--who wishes someone had levelled with him about academe ten years ago--asks a pointed and interesting question:

...we should probably be disturbed or perhaps saddened by most students in their late teens or early twenties who aspire to become professors. What exactly does a 19-year-old aspiring professor long for: Authority? Cultic Status? Elevation above the mediocrity of one's demographic peers? Shelter from the non-academic world?

There are probably as many answers as there are 19-year-old aspiring professors. Whatever the case, the pseudo-scholarly daydreams of graduate students remind me of melodramatic teenagers who aspire to be writers. They're enamoured by promises of glamour, but they haven't the foggiest idea what it is they want to write about.

These are not the sorts of questions college and grad students who aspire to academic careers will appreciate being asked. But they are right on the money. Most people conceive of the idea of becoming a professor from sitting in classes being professed at. They don't know what academic life is about, they don't know what the professor does with the hours when they are not professing at students, they aren't familiar with scholarly writing, they don't have a clue about either academic politics or the gruntwork of self-governance. What they see is someone they think is erudite, spinning eloquent sentences about complex material, seeming so intellectually capable, so informed and so brilliant.

Case in point. I had an English professor my freshman year at Berkeley whose sheer unmitigated eloquence made my head spin. He would pace the stage, lecturing without notes, in perfect, ornate sentences filled with gloriously well-chosen words that added up to insights that rocked my eighteen-year-old world. He did this while lecturing about Puritan sermons. I couldn't believe it. I had never seen such a thing. It sure beat the crap out of all the boring high school English classes I had slogged through. I felt blessed to be in its presence. That was what I wanted to do, too. I developed a kind of ad hoc shorthand so I could take his lectures down verbatim. Then I would race back to the dorm, while his words were still in my short term memory, and recreate his lectures on the computer. I had never thought of being an English professor until that moment--I was still rather in that mode of being a melodramatic teenager who wants to write novels but has no idea what to write about--but everything seemed to click. Shortly after, I declared a major in English, adopted this professor as my advisor, and sped forward with nary a doubt, never looking back.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when my second year of grad school rolled around and it was time for me to start teaching. Teaching? I had known this would be a part of the job, and the funding, but I hadn't known, if that makes any sense. The disconnect between the fantasy of being like the eloquent early Americanist--whose eloquence I only ever witnessed because he taught classes--and the fact that I was signing up for a life that would involve me also teaching classes was so profound that I really was surprised and disturbed by the advent of my teaching years. Clearly I've adjusted a bit since then. One does. But those early moments of life-altering decision-making were not the wisest or most rational moments I've ever had, and I know from experience that my thought process was awfully typical.

What did this professor say to me when I told him I wanted to be a professor, and expressed my concern about the academic job market? "Don't worry about it. There will always be a job if you're good enough." I think a lot of people hear advice like that. They feel secretly stroked by it--it suggests that they will be one of those who are "good enough." And they just don't find out how much more complicated things are until they've already committed themselves to the academic life.

To J.V.C.'s list of possible reasons why someone in her late teens or early twenties would aspire to be a professor (which, as he notes, is an awfully stuffy, pedantic thing to which to aspire), I would add "a basic confusion about the ways and means of intellectual inspiration." For me, and for many like me, that first experience of being truly turned on by ideas, and of being truly inspired by the spectacle of someone else--the professor--living those ideas, inhabiting them, creating and shaping them, happens in college. The person who does that to you is very likely to have a profound effect on your idea of who and what you would like to become. You mistake the inspiration you are feeling--as a very young adult, having adult discussions and grappling with grown-up ideas for the first time--for the inspiration felt by the professor himself; you think that if you become a professor, that inspiration will be yours forever. You don't realize that you only get to be introduced to the world of ideas once, and that the life of the teacher is in many ways a life of repetition and performance, one in which one often finds oneself modelling an inspiration for students that one no longer actually feels. Good teachers can recreate that experience of inspiration in themselves, and they can communicate it to others, and the best ones do that pretty readily and make it look easy. But it is work of a very particular kind to do so--repetitive, tiring, sometimes grinding work. This is entirely lost on starry-eyed undergrads, and even on many grad students, for whom teaching is still itself a fresh and new experience. This particular truth only reveals itself gradually, over time.

Erin O'Connor, 7:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (31)

May 19, 2004 [feather]
Growing up

Words to the wise, from Scheherezade, a lawyer who loves her profession, but only because after college she spent a few years away from school growing up:

Don't go to law school right out of college because you're smart and you've been encouraged to by various history professors or relatives or because you like debating or arguing and you vaguely think you might want to get into politics someday. Don't go to law school because you're not sure what else to do, or because your parents really want you to. Or, at least, don't go to a really expensive law school for those reasons, unless you have the means to do so without incurring big big debt. Don't go to law school, in other words, to avoid making a decision about your life as an adult and what you want it to be like. Because if you incur big debt and make your peer group an extremely competitive and perhaps atypically unhappy group of people you will limit your ability to make that decision, clearly and well and for the right reasons.

Law school is fun. I worked harder and learned to think better than I did when I was at Yale. Partly that's because of the nature of law school, but a lot of that was because I wasn't mature enough to be particularly focused on my classes while I was an undergraduate. And when I got done with my undergraduate degree I wanted nothing to do with smart, highly critical and highly articulate people for a while. I went off to the woods and fell in love with a schooner captain and worked in a library and learned about computers and started a nonprofit and hung out with organic gardeners and carpenters and boat riggers. And I learned a lot about how to manage on a very little amount of money, and how to cook interesting dishes and how to get my laundry done before it became a crisis and how to make sure there was enough money in my checking account when rent was due and how to be a professional colleague with people who were much older than me and different in style and background and aspirations. I learned what made me happy and what made me frustrated and what I needed in my daily life to feel like I'd had a good day that day. And I began to learn that part of what I need in my daily life to be happy is contact with smart, articulate people, and some connection to a world where ideas are being pursued. I don't need highfalutin' intellectual stimulation the way some people need it, and I need a LOT of other things too (friends, fresh air, and fun) or I get restless and depressed. But I like to play with words and ideas, to engage with smart people, each day. And when I went back to law school knowing this, and knowing how to keep balance in my life, I had a fantastic time.

I really think if you go to law school before you've done that -- figured out, not just how to live as an adult, but what the elements are for you of a happy life, it's a lot harder to do it afterwards, when you're encumbered with an enormous debt, a status-crazy profession, and a whole lot of friends and family and peers who have a particular view about you and your ambitions. Suddenly you have to reject something, rather than assemble something. And I think that's usually harder to do.

It's hard to grasp--when you are in the middle of it all--the way college (and grad school, for those who go straight through) protracts one's adolescence: you may be able to see the immaturity of others, but it's awfully hard to see your own. It's also hard to grasp--when you are still in your twenties--how much of those years are spent doing the painful growing up stuff that you supposedly got done during your teens. And it's hard to grasp ahead of time how hard it will be to extricate yourself from bad personal choices when you are years into them, and when your life, and your family's life, and your finances, and your future prospects, are all depending on them. Scheherezade's ruminations are widely applicable--what she has to say about going to law school can as easily be said about graduate education in general.

There's more along these lines from Michigan law student Carey, who reflects on how our obsession with school rankings encourages bad, uninformed, immature career choices, which in turn contribute to the moral waywardness that seems to define so many professions (particularly the lucrative and prestigious ones):

It isn't that the students are bad. They're not (most of them). They are simply unsure of why they want to be lawyers. I don't mean that they don't know what legal specialty they'd like to pursue, or that they don't know if they'd prefer to work in government or in the private sector. What matters is that they don't know how or why a legal career will allow them to contribute anything of value to their fellow citizens. And this uncertainty is what draws so many law students into the insane world of Biglaw: big prestige, big money, big spending. Why? They don't know. They don't know why they do what they do. So they do what others tell them to do. It starts with automatically picking the higher-ranked law school. It continues with automatically working for the most prestigious firm which will hire them. And it ends with doing work which may be meaningless, unfulfilling, and occasionally simply evil.

It isn't that practicing law at a prestigious firm is boring or evil. Usually, I suspect, it's the opposite. Especially if the lawyer knows why she is there, if she's thought about how her work contributes to the community and is valuable beyond just the paycheck it earns her. If she hasn't, though, she's an automaton, and that can sometimes be evil, not just at Biglaw but at small-law, government law, and non-law (doctoring, accounting, street-sweeping, and bus-driving).

The rankings insanity is insane because it reveals the occasional thoughtlessness which can ripen by force of habit into blindness. This blindness can lead to scandals like Enron and Tyco. It can lead to governmental evil, like Naziism, fascism, and Stalinism. But usually, the blindness merely leads to the daily, low-level grunginess and lack of joy that plagues modern working life.

Maybe a bit overstated. But maybe not.

Something about being in school--even when you are good at being in school, which is a kind of subservient, sometimes unctuous skill and is not the same thing as being intelligent or educated or independent-minded--artificially stunts you. There are things you just don't have to learn about the world and yourself; the fact that your daily rhythms in college or law school or grad school are simply sophisticated, variegated versions of those you had when you were six speaks loudly to this fact.

I went straight through. I couldn't conceive of taking even a year off between college and grad school. I couldn't imagine what I would do with that time, didn't want to disrupt my momentum, didn't have time to lose. There was only one thing I wanted to do, only one thing I could imagine being. I mistook this for clarity of vision. I now understand that it was total lack of imagination--that special blinkered consciousness you develop when you spend your life in school, look up to your teachers, treasure their praise, and eventually, in the claustrophobic cycle of ambition that insularity creates, decide you want nothing more or less than to be like your professors when you grow up.

But to do well at something is not to know what you are doing. To want to be like that professor you admire is not to know who you are. And to stay "on track" by staying in school is not always to grow up--for many, it is to defer growing up indefinitely, sometimes until it's too late to grow up at all.

Carey describes how a lack of genuine purpose combined with a drive for prestige produces a dangerously conformist, ethically unstable mindset in many beginning lawyers. But it's not just the law. It's business, possibly medicine, and most definitely academe. I wonder sometimes what this country would look like if we could magically eliminate the fast track--get rid of the idea that you have to commit to a profession at twenty-one and be a homeowner with kids and multiple cars by age thirty, and introduce the idea that the twenties are a time of continued learning and growing that should be spent exploring one's options, supporting oneself, and not being a student. Would we just artificially extend adolescence even further by deferring for a decade the always awkward moment of professionalization, or would we become a bit wiser, a bit more able to think for ourselves, a bit more likely to choose the right work for the right reasons?

Erin O'Connor, 8:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (25)

May 18, 2004 [feather]
More on the He custody case

A number of interesting questions have arisen in the comments to yesterday's post about the He custody case. In that post, I noted that the He family's troubles began when Shiaoqiang He was accused of sexual assault while doing graduate work at the University of Memphis. Readers have expressed skepticism about the family's commitment to their child, and about whether a link can fairly be made between the accusations that launched the Hes' troubles and the loss of their child several years later. Some of those questions should be answered--and perhaps others will be raised--by this 2002 USA Today report, which explains in some detail how He came to be charged with sexual assault by a fellow student and how, soon after those charges were made, they signed their daughter over into foster care:

in 1998, when Casey was pregnant with Anna Mae, her husband was charged with assaulting a fellow student. He and the student, a Chinese woman named Xiaojun Qi (pronounced Key), went to a computer lab alone; a week later Qi went to school officials, displayed bruises and said Mister He caused them during a sexual assault.

Mister He vehemently denies the allegation. He says he left the lab feeling uncomfortable after the woman asked him for a $500 loan. But the university dismissed him, his income from the university vanished and his student visa hung on his collegiate appeal.

On Thanksgiving in 1998, the Hes left their one-bedroom apartment and went to the grocery store. They were attacked by several men, and Casey was knocked down. That night she began suffering vaginal bleeding. Her condition worsened until doctors finally, in January, delivered Anna Mae by C-section, one month premature.

With a $12,000 hospital bill, a criminal assault charge and a continuing legal fight to try to get reinstated at the university, the Hes sought help in caring for their baby. Friends at their church suggested a local adoption agency.

Mid-South Christian Services agreed to place the baby in a foster home for three months.


The Bakers live in a five-bedroom, 4,800-square-foot home in the Davies Plantation area east of town. Their $414,000 house sits on more than an acre of rolling Tennessee hills. There are colorful play sets in the well-groomed backyard. Inside there is a media room with surround sound and a 53-inch TV, a Jacuzzi and a central vacuum system.

The Bakers began caring for Anna Mae on Feb. 23, 1999, and the Hes say they visited their daughter at least once a week. When the three months ended, they still were not able to care for Anna Mae. Mid-South Christian Services could no longer handle their case because the agency's supervision is limited to 90 days in temporary custody cases. So the two couples negotiated the next step on their own.

The Bakers refuse to discuss the matter on advice from their lawyer, Larry Parrish. They say that publicity will only make the child's situation more difficult and painful. But according to the Hes, the Bakers said they would continue to care for Anna Mae but that they needed legal custody to enroll her on their health insurance. Mister He says his wife signed over custody on June 3, only after assurances that they could take Anna Mae back at any time.

There is a lot to digest here (do read the whole piece). USA Today did a follow-up piece several months later that is also worth perusing.

If this report is accurate, the charges against He were of the "he said / she said" variety, but he was expelled from the university nonetheless. I'll dig about for more on that front, and readers should feel free to do so as well and post their findings.

Meantime, I'll note that numerous other news reports stress that unfamiliarity with the American legal system and language barriers (in Casey's case) played a large role in the Hes' decision to give legal custody to the Bakers; the consensus seems to be that they had no idea what it meant to do that, and no idea how hard it would be to get their daughter back once they had.

UPDATE: Voluntarily in China has been covering the case in detail, and the comments sections have been busy.

Erin O'Connor, 9:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

May 17, 2004 [feather]
The gift that keeps on giving

Last February, I wrote about Shaoqiang He, a Chinese citizen and former graduate student at the University of Memphis who was expelled in 1998 after a woman student accused him of fondling her. When He lost his graduate stipend, he and his wife could not care for their baby daughter--so they placed her (temporarily, they thought) in foster care while they worked jobs in Chinese restaurants and awaited He's trial.

He was acquitted at the trial--the accusations made against him were found to be baseless. But that did not mark the end of his nightmare. Having been denied due process by UM, he remained expelled from his graduate program. Worse, his daughter's foster family decided to begin formal adoption proceedings. Fighting the foster family for custody in turn became the only thing between him and deportation.

Now the custody battle is over, and the foster family has won. The Hes have been declared unfit to raise their daughter, and no longer have any parental rights. They are to return to China soon and will most likely never see their daughter again.

The case itself sounds like a complicated one--the Hes do not appear to have proved themselves to be the most stable or honest of people, at least according to the article linked here. But it is worth remembering that whatever the courts may have determined about their "fitness" (whatever, in other words, the foster family's lawyer managed to do in the way of tactical smearing), the issue of parental fitness would not have been raised without the false accusation that sent the He family into a financial and emotional tailspin six years ago. The hell the Hes are living now was created by the combined, corrupt efforts of the woman who accused He of something he did not do and the university administrators who denied him due process when they took her accusations as evidence of his guilt.

More and more colleges and universities are setting up sexual misconduct policies designed to facilitate this very process. In the name of encouraging self-identified victims to come forward, and of making them feel safe and supported when doing so, schools are writing policies that give accusers way more credit than they are due while denying the accused the most basic components of due process (the right to face their accuser, the right to a fair hearing, the right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty). So invested do students, faculty, and administrators become in such policies that attempts to bring them into line with basic principles of fairness--not to mention individual rights--can meet with strenuous resistance. Case in point: Harvard, where a revised policy requiring that accusers actually be able to corroborate their claims caused a massive outcry and even drew a lawsuit. Another case in point: Duke, where the sexual misconduct policy was recently rewritten with the express purpose of increasing the number of sexual misconduct cases that are filed each year at the school.

The He's case is an extreme instance of a much larger pattern of malfeasance, one that is being wilfully enabled by administrators eager to prove how progressive their school is when it comes to fighting violence against women. The Wachowski brothers really should make a movie about it all.

Thanks to Steven Den Beste for the tip.

Erin O'Connor, 7:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (16)

May 16, 2004 [feather]
And on the eighth day...

From reader Kobi Haron, a highly Sunday-appropriate missive:

Twelve top reasons why God can't get tenure

1. ›He's authored only one paper
2. That paper was in Hebrew
3. His work appeared in an obscure, unimportant publication
4. ›He never references other authors
5. Workers in the field can't replicate His results.
6. He failed to apply to the ethics committee before starting His experiments on humans.
7. He tried to cover an experiment's unsatisfatory results by drowning the subjects.
8. When subjects behavior proved his theory wrong he had them removed from the sample.
9. He hardly ever shows up for any lectures. He merely assigns His Book again and again.
10. His office is at the top of a mountain, and He doesn't keep office hours anyway.
11. When He learned that His first two students sought wisdom, He had them expelled.
12. His exams consist of only ten assigments which most students fail.

Have a good one, everybody.

Erin O'Connor, 9:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

May 14, 2004 [feather]
Plug for a new blog

I have a glancing relationship with the politics and poetics of philanthropy, as gained through my brief stint earlier this year working part-time at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit whose livelihood is absolutely dependent on financial gifts. That relationship is about to deepen: part of my job at the boarding school where I will be teaching in the fall is to help expand its development program. The how and why of giving and getting the dollars of private individuals and philanthropic institutions is a fascinating subject, and also, in the wake of growing curiosity about just what it might mean to have a Heinz riding shotgun to Kerry's presidency, an increasingly important one. And yet, before last week, there were no philanthropy blogs! It was a terrible hole in the blogospheric ozone. Thankfully, that hole has now been filled. Welcome, Philanthropoid! May you blog long and prosper.

Erin O'Connor, 5:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Open advising session

Recently, a former student contacted me about the possibility of applying to Ph.D. programs in English. She's a bright, talented, and charming Penn graduate who has been teaching English to foreign-language speakers while she sorts through what she wants to do with her life. When I received her email, I did what I always do in these situations: I said that I would be happy to discuss grad school with her, but that the first thing she should do is inform herself of the exact state of things in the academic humanities. I referred her to Timothy Burke's essay on whether to go to grad school, to the Chronicle of Higher Education's recent profile of the Invisible Adjunct, as well as to the many postings about grad school on IA's site, and she duly went and read them. She then wrote back to me with a series of questions that I answered as best I could, but that I thought might be best addressed by appealing to the collective experience and hardwon wisdom of Critical Mass readers.

With her permission, I post her email here:

I really appreciate the advice and candor in your last email. I do realize the increasing competitiveness in the academic world and the difficulties of securing good positions post-degree, and I must admit that those articles painted a very dismal picture of life after graduate school. It's incredibly discouraging.

Perhaps I am holding a misconception, but is the goal of earning a Ph.D. solely to teach in higher education? Do Ph.D. candidates only want to teach? Is there very little to no freedom in academic life? I am, of course, very attracted to the possibility of and career in teaching, but I am also hoping to explore different options while in school. I understand that graduate school is a huge investment and commitment, financially, mentally, and emotionally, but I was also hoping for it to be a place where I could further enrich my studies and gain invaluable academic exposure. I like to write, creatively and critically, and ultimately I hope that whatever I do is somehow connected to writing. But at this point in my life I think that my writing could benefit greatly from further education. My attitude towards graduate school is not a means to one particular end, but a means to a possibility of ends. From my two years out of school, I have heard tons of advice about trying out various and even random possible career interests, but I have yet to find something that would hold my interest longer than a year.

If getting a Ph.D. is only practical for those who are strictly bent on teaching in higher education, then perhaps it isn't what I should be looking into. Perhaps a masters would be the more suitable option, but I've been advised against masters programs because of the costs associated with them. What is your opinion on masters programs (in English Literature and Creative Writing)? Also, in your opinion, what type of person is well-suited for a Ph.D. program in Literature?

Comments are open.

Erin O'Connor, 9:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (33)

May 13, 2004 [feather]
Invisible adjuncts and Globe-alization

The Boston Globe has picked up the story of Invisible Adjunct's departure from academe, which becomes the occasion for a more general reflection on the corruption of the academic labor system:

Few people realize how important part-time labor is to the modern university. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), nearly 50 percent of all faculty positions are now part-time, non-tenure-track -- a proportion that has doubled since 1976. (Another 16 percent are full-time positions off the tenure track.)

"Adjuncts are like sherpas," says Patricia Lesko, editor-in-chief of Adjunct Advocate magazine, a bimonthly based in Ann Arbor that mixes investigative pieces about the plight of adjuncts with can-do advice intended to buck them up. "The people on the tenure track climb the mountain of tenure, while adjuncts carry the luggage of introductory courses with them."

The Bay State is no stranger to the problem. At Emerson College, roughly half the courses are taught by part-time faculty. Last month, after a three-year struggle, adjuncts there finally won raises of 15 to 20 percent and some health benefits for long-term teachers. At UMass-Boston, where adjuncts teach three-fourths of all continuing education classes, they also get health insurance -- though this is rare.

At UMass-Amherst, meanwhile, adjuncts will very likely be an issue in upcoming negotiations between the administration and the faculty union (which includes adjuncts who work at least half-time). Since 1994, the number of full-time tenured faculty at UMass-Amherst has declined 17 percent, to 894, according to Dan Clawson, a sociologist and vice president of the union. Over the same period, the number of "contingent" faculty -- all teachers with no shot at tenure -- rose 61 percent, to 210.

It's great to see the adjunct problem getting prime journalistic space.

Even so, I've got mixed feelings about the way IA has become, in the wake of her departure, a sort of faceless poster girl for the degradation of academic work. On the one hand, the human interest that surrounds her story has made it possible to publicize a problem that needs all the publicity it can get. On the other hand, the hand-wringing has a bitterly ironic quality to it: What IA wanted was a job teaching college history; instead, she has become facelessly famous as the woman who was wrongly denied that opportunity. Meanwhile, I have to wonder whether any of the gainfully employed academic historians who have publicly mourned the fate of IA have tried to find a place for her--a real, lasting place for her--in their profession. It's obvious from IA's site what a fine teacher and scholar she is--the Invisible Adjunct's blog may quite reasonably be read as one of the longest and most eloquent job interviews in history. She's readily reachable by email; if reporters can talk to her, so can prospective employers. So what's the problem? Inquiring and frustrated minds what to know.

UPDATE: More at Cliopatria, where Ralph Luker agrees with me, but also notes how our position has been deemed "unrealistic" by various commenter-historians. My own feeling, watching the responses to my post accumulate, is that the ones from working academics that dismiss my question as unrealistic are fascinating artifacts in the academy's ongoing apparently suicidal mission not to repair itself. Of course my post is unrealistic. What I was asking--and I really thought this should have been obvious--was not why, practically, the academic hiring system makes it difficult to place someone like IA in a decent job, but whether, perhaps impractically, any gainfully employed academic historians had tried to set their minds to solving either the immediate problem posed by IA's departure from their field or the larger structural problems that departure exemplifies. To respond to such a question with a litany of reasons why the system is the way it is and why no one person can ever hope to alter it and why this is proper and correct even if it results in sometimes unhappy outcomes is to show what strikes me as a deplorable lack of institutional imagination, one that is as conservatively convenient as it is "realistic." Things aren't going to change unless and until tenured faculty not only decide that they can and must, but also accept personal and collective responsibility for making that change happen. Handwringing in the absence of such a commitment is inadequate, and insulting to those for whom the hands are being wrung. As Planned Obsolescence put it, "one can imagine IAŪs very 'colleagues,' reading [the Chronicle piece] in their offices, shaking their heads and muttering about the terrible loss to the field, never noticing the woman down the hall, packing her few things to leave. ... This is the way we like our tragedies: visible enough to be clucked over, invisible enough to avoid any personal implication therein."

Erin O'Connor, 9:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (24)

Bibliophobic spot check

In the comments to my post asking readers to list the last three books they have read, IB Bill suggests an interesting correlative: What are the last three books you didn't read, and why?

My answer:

1) Coral Lansbury's Felicity. Lansbury is a scholar of Victorian literature and culture who wrote this little academic novel on the side. Since I suffer from a mild addiction problem when it comes to academic fiction, I ordered this used from Amazon, and settled in for the sort of deftly caustic tale of campus politics to which David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Richard Russo and others have allowed me to become accustomed. Couldn't get past page fifty. As a self-indulgent exercise for a critic who is not really a fictionwriter, it's fine. As fiction, it is most definitely not fine. Reading it was the literary equivalent of eating cardboard.

2) Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. For a while there this spring, I thought I might be moving to Texas. So I picked up the nearest unread Texas novel in the house (having happily, blissfully, joyously devoured Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole too recently to bear re-reading), and settled in for some book-enabled re-imagining of my life. Then I found out I would not be moving to Texas after all and, in the manner of narcissistically projecting readers everywhere, I lost interest. McCarthy does deserve a better class of attention, and I am planning to return to the novel this summer.

3) Diane Ravitch's Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform. This one is my fault entirely. Ravitch is an excellent ed-historian, and Left Back is an excellent book. I read several hundred pages of it last summer in the remote hills of Donegal. But my continuity with the book was shot when I had to move back to the States and commence the school year. I kept meaning, when I had a moment, to take it up again. Now it sits accusingly on the shelf, gathering dust and reminding me that there's no picking up where I left off with this one. I've been away from the book for so long that I'll need to start over entirely when I do return to it.

By the way, Steve Almond's Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America is a marvelous--and highly salivary--read.

Erin O'Connor, 8:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

May 12, 2004 [feather]
Reflections from one who has been there

In response to recent threads on going to grad school, going to law school, and teaching at the secondary school level, Mo Snyder of Deep Shag writes:

Though IŪve tried my hardest to divorce myself from the academic world altogether, I find your blog hard to resist because it deals with so many of the issues that plagued my academic life (and still do, to some extent). ›I am now an adjunct at a community college, which I generally enjoy because I love to teach, not because I can live off of it. ›[The author of Tiny Voices] and I met doing our masters (hers in creative writing, mine in lit) at the University of New Mexico, a university and program in collapse. ›I entered with a plan to eventually get a PhD. ›I exited with the sick feeling that I never should have entered. ›Academe was not for me. ›In response to your wonderful comments about your responsibilities as an instructor, I will say that my undergraduate degree left me ill-prepared.

As an undergrad at Michigan State, I was lucky enough to trip across a few professors/instructors who really appreciated my...unconventional approach to literature and life. ›My primary mentor, a man who chaffed at academia himself, really believed in me and encouraged me to go on to grad school. ›He was perhaps being optimistic for his own reasons, hoping that I could infuse some program with a new energy. ›I was his best student, and he wanted someone else to experience what he had with me. ›Because of this, he was perhaps too supportive, and though he offered the warning labels, I knew him to be a generally morose guy and took them with a grain of salt. ›My other big champion ů actually a PhD. candidate ů was enjoying his time in grad school and was still hopeful for a bright future. ›Later, after three or so years of teaching at a small liberal arts school in Iowa, he ran like hell. ›I took 3 years off, bartending and living in new places and enjoying my college friends ů the greatest people in the world; then I settled in at UNM.

What, regardless of my young age and inexperience, I could have never been made to comprehend was the difference in politics between undergrad and grad school. ›For those of your readers who assume smart 22 year olds to be prepared, this is just not possible. ›There is no way to apprehend that, to get your wonderful but flighty advisor to read the latest draft of your thesis, you must pick her up and drive her to school because her car has been towed due to parking tickets. ›There is certainly no way of understanding that, as an undergrad, a smart, interesting student is a blessing; in grad school, sheŪs a threat. ›That was the curse of some of my smarter colleagues, not of me. ›I was ignored, invisible, unworthy. ›After an amazing experience with a number of excellent champions (in two departments) as an undergrad, I was completely uninteresting in grad school. ›I ended up finding my true home in the film department, where I met perhaps my greatest mentor. ›He was a freak, too. ›He was wonderful. The politics in grad school are fierce because they are the politics of the department as a whole. There is no longer just learning and writing and studying. ›There is catfighting and jealousy and crap that I could have never imagined. ›The best thing I did was teach. ›I loved teaching (T.A. is so the wrong name for what we did, since we assisted no one, no one helped us, and no one ever saw us teach). ›But most of the T.A.s were awful. ›A handful were great. ›The rest did the job because of the tuition waiver and hated it. ›They did not respect their students. ›They did not bother to learn how to be good teachers. ›This was the worst part, watching them infuse their students with their own apathy. ›

So I finished, and my (now) husband and I moved to L.A. because he got into the MFA Film program at UCLA, which has been another nightmare of pedigrees vs. talent. ›I think, now that heŪs finishing, heŪs even more jaded than I was. ›

I bet that grad school is great for those people who know how to play the game, who went to private schools as kids and were trained to circumnavigate. So many went on to nice schools and have pedigrees that open doors, and thatŪs great for them. ›But for those of us who have always been in the middle (because even great grades from a mediocre public high school wonŪt go too far) are chewed up and spit out by academia. ›It is a system that eats itself, that is afraid of true diversity ů a diversity of spirit. ›IŪm sure some of your readers would attack me personally for this ů that IŪm jealous and not that bright and just...angry. ›Maybe partially, but I also have stayed very true to myself and my interests. ›I know that an advanced degree in English was the wrong choice for me, mostly because I realized in grad school that the things people obsessed over had no bearing in the real world. ›I had spent a lifetime working with teens, leading adventure trips, exploring myself and pushing my limits. These people just spun their wheels. ›I hated their self-importance and their belief that the work they did was important. ›To them, yes. ›And it was good that they did it, but puhlease, give me a break. The most important thing they had to give to the world their teaching, and they backburnered it for the applause of invisible people. ›

Wow. ›IŪm getting long-winded and I apologize. ›Really, my point is to say that I believe you will fare wonderfully in a school where you can reach your students daily. ›High school aged teens are amazing when you can get them in a setting that goes beyond the classroom. ›It seems you will have this opportunity. ›You will be in a position to affect people without, hopefully, having to pray to the invisible gods of academia.

I thought what Mo has to say would resonate with a lot of readers. Thanks for permission to post your letter, Mo.

Erin O'Connor, 3:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

May 11, 2004 [feather]
Bibliophilic spot check

Three quick questions:

1) What book or books are you currently reading?

2) What are the last three books you have read?

3) What is your favorite and why?

My answers:

1) Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, by Steve Almond. This was the result of what can only be called an Amazon Moment. So far so good, though. The jacket isn't kidding when it describes the book as "part candy porn, part candy polemic." Here's an excerpt.

2) Flush, Virginia Woolf (this is her "biography" of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel, written in large part as a sort of displaced memorial to Woolf's own recently deceased spaniel, Pinka); The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh; A Handful of Dust, also by Evelyn Waugh

3) Confession: I had never read any Waugh before A Handful of Dust. I was so astonished by it that the moment I finished reading it I dashed over to the shelf to get the only other Waugh novel in the house, a tiny crumbling Dell paperback I've been carrying around unread with me for years, inherited at some point in my childhood from my mother's remaindered college books. It was just as astonishing, only in different ways. Who can adjudicate between a bitterly satiric novella about Hollywood shallowness that is set in a pet cemetery and takes embalming as its dominant metaphor, and a bitterly satiric novel about English shallowness that culminates in the protagonist (no such thing as a hero in Waugh) getting stranded, Heart of Darkness-fashion, in the midst of the Brazilian bush, where a crazed illiterate Kurtz-like white man takes him in and forces him to spend the rest of his days reading Dickens out loud to him? There can be no adjudication in such an instance. There can only be awe--or, to wax neologistical, wawe.

Erin O'Connor, 9:38 PM | Permalink | Comments (37)

May 10, 2004 [feather]
Crunch this

Here's a question for economically-minded readers: If all college and university teaching were done by tenured or tenure-track faculty, how would tuition for undergraduates be affected? This question assumes that the (bloated) bureaucratic structure of today's higher ed institutions would remain constant, and that tenured faculty members' teaching loads and salaries would, too. It also accepts the current estimate that between 40 and 60% of college and university teaching is done by graduate students and adjunct lecturers.

I pose this question partly out of sheer curiosity, and partly out of a desire to estimate the economic impact of the oft-heard argument that the solution to the academic labor crisis is to eliminate adjunct labor and to secure enough tenure-track faculty lines to cover all the teaching there is to be done (I'm setting aside for the moment the problem of how graduate student teaching, as a necessary part of graduate education, would factor in here, but others are more than welcome to comment on it).

Thanks to Maurice Black for asking the question originally, and for giving me permission to pose it on Critical Mass.

Erin O'Connor, 4:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (25)

May 9, 2004 [feather]
More on the law school question

The author of Thursday's cautionary rant about law school writes to respond to the discussion his thoughts provoked:

Having looked over some of the criticisms of my post, I would note that my comments were intended primarily for arts undergrads who are considering law school and the teachers (and bloggers) who are recommending that they do so. For them at least, I don't think my comments went too much over the top (I stand by every fact and figure, at least for my jurisdiction; yours may be different), and my main points are, in any event, unassailable:

1. Never, EVER, casually recommend that someone go to law school. You are being totally irresponsible if you do.

2. Do some real research about the profession, high and low end, before you go to law school, and have something real to fall back on. It CAN happen to you. (Please also note: I did go to one of Canada's better law schools.)

Second, many of the commenters from the upper echelons of the legal profession seem like really, really nice people. Unfortunately, they don't really seem to have a clue as to what it is really like to work in the lower half. Kind of like the tenured prof from Harvard or NYU preaching to the adjunct at State college.

Finally. QUESTION: Does a desire for $30,000.00 a year, a 45 hour work week, and a chance to get off your ulcer medication make you a self pitying "Princess"? I don't know. I certainly don't blame anyone else for my fall from grace: I made a major life decision without adequate research and reflection, and I am pretty much getting what I deserve. Still, fatuous moralizing of the "Its not the job, its you" type is just that, and certainly won't help anyone make a good decision about whether law school is right for them. Think of those poor kids; they deserve to be told about the realities first. Whatever else you may say about me and my moral character, at least my post does that.

Recommended Readings for would be lawyers (and anyone else interested):

Deborah Arron, What Can You Do With a Law Degree? 5th ed. (Seattle: Decision Books, 2004).

Debora Arron, Running From the Law. (Seattle: Decision Books).

Forthcoming from the same series: Deborah Schneider & Gary Belsky, Should You Really Become a Lawyer? (Seattle: Decision Books, 2004).

Balzac. Knows a lot more about the profession than Dickens ever did. I'd start with Old Goriot (Burton Raffel, trans.) and A Harlot High and Low.

Fun to read, but would you want to live it?

One issue that seems to be emerging from recent posts here and elsewhere about the "whether to go the grad school" question and the often-related "whether to go to law school" question is that of whether and how a twenty-one-year-old fresh out of college (or, to be more exact, in his or her senior year of college) can make a wise, informed career choice. Very few people at that age truly do know what they are doing when it comes to career decisions, and that is not an insult but a simple statement of the obvious. You can't know what you are doing career-wise at that age. All you can do is make a best guess based on your knowledge of yourself and your prospective hunches about who and what you can or will become. People in the sciences, business, and engineering are, I think, better positioned to do this, as their undergraduate training is generally more focussed, rigorous, and practical than that of undergraduates majoring in the humanities and social sciences. But for all young adults, there is a strong element of the crapshoot.

So, given that, how can college seniors tip the decision-making odds in their favor? And what are the obligations of college advisors, professors, and recommenders to ensure that Student A is actually making an informed choice when he says he wants to get either a Ph.D. in English or a law degree? When students approach me about going to grad school, I am straight with them about the state of the academic humanities, and I refer them to various sources--the Invisible Adjunct's numerous posts on the grad school question (see sidebar), Thomas Hart Benton's Chronicle of Higher Educationpieces on same, Timothy Burke's essay on why you should probably not go to cotillion for eggheads grad school. I won't write a letter of recommendation until I am satisfied that the individual knows something about what he or she is getting into, and I regard that as an ethical obligation on my part.

I confess I have always been much more casual about students who approach me about getting a recommendation for law school. I assume they know what they are getting into (many have parents who are lawyers, many work in law offices during summers), I assume that a law degree is a highly marketable degree that gives the holder a number of professional choices, and I don't look much deeper than that. I do wonder now whether that hasn't been a mistake on part, and I wonder, too, whether that mistake isn't one that is made quite often by college teachers. I also wonder just how much a college teacher can finally do to ensure that expensive, time-consuming career mistakes don't get made by the students in their charge. As Tim Burke wrote on Frogs and Ravens earlier this week, "are people persuadable about experiences they haven't had yet?"

I do increasingly feel that the current expectation in our culture--that properly motivated, disciplined, mature young adults will not miss a beat between college and profession, and that therefore it's not only reasonable but smart to go straight from college on to graduate or professional school--needs to be rethought. Lack of experience combined with the desire to "stay on track" simply sets people up for hugely costly wrong decisions like the one described above. I can't count the number of people I know who flew through college, flew straight on to grad or professional school, got stellar marks all the way, and then crashed very hard around the age of thirty.

The phenomenon of the individual who gets five, six, seven years into a Ph.D. program only to find that there are no jobs, or that the work is unappealing, is part of a much larger societal phenomenon affecting the hyper-professionalized youth that America is presently in the business of mass producing. Waking up at thirty to find that one's twenties have been wasted chasing professional pipedreams, or, conversely, ignoring one's dreams in order to climb a particular ladder associated with Success, is something that happens across the board--to lawyers, academics, businesspeople, doctors, and so on. If we concentrate solely on the microdynamics of what sort of graduate school humanities undergrads decide to attend, we miss the bigger picture. At the same time, we can't comprehend or change the bigger picture without concentrating hard on the details of individual decisions...

Further commentary is welcome.

Erin O'Connor, 12:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (20)

May 7, 2004 [feather]
Boalt jumps the speechless shark

Via Eugene Volokh, a firsthand account of a recent class session at UC Berkeley's Boalt law school:

The class was, in large part, supposed to be a role-playing sort of class whereby we, acting as attorneys, would have to learn to deal with clients and opposing parties (played by the instructors) while trying to formulate and execute a strategy for dealing with the client's problem. One of the things we had to learn to deal with were crabby, irritable, and imperfect clients. Thus, during one role-playing scenario ... our instructor, acting as the no-nonsense CFO of a small mid-western construction company, commented on the high quality of the company's product by saying that they didn't employ inferior illegal Mexican immigrant labor.

Also via Volokh (same bloggered permalink; scroll down), here's the memo the Boalt administration sent out to all students when it learned about the role-playing scenario:


This semester we had an incident in which a guest lecturer made racist remarks during a class. The incident caused a great deal of hurt and anger in the students who are acquainted with it. I have met with a number of students to discuss the incident and what to do concerning it. While the responsible party was not a member of the faculty or even an appointed lecturer, she stood in the position of an instructor when she made the remarks. The Lecturer in charge of the class did not take steps to address the matter and things grew worse. In an attempt to prevent a recurrence of such an event [an administration official] is working with students to draft language that will go into the handbook that we will provide to Lecturers when we hire them to teach a course. The language will make our policy on this issue clear. We will not tolerate an instructor's use of racist, sexist or homophobic expressions in the classroom. Boalt has to be a place where all people feel themselves to be a part of the community. We will do our best to make everyone aware of this fact in the fall. I am sorry for the distress caused by what happened this semester.

As to this year's incident, I will work with the Associate Dean to deal with the personnel issues involved and we will resolve them once exam period is completed. . . .

Translation: because an instructor role-played a realistic situation involving a client given to making inflammatory remarks, Boalt will now be drafting a speech code to prevent similarly heinous acts of discrimination in the future. Even the shark's head is spinning on this one: Since when is it discriminatory to acknowledge that people discriminate? And how exactly is it wrong for a teacher to try to give students practical training in dealing with the kinds of offensive or off-color remarks their clients may well make?

Here's some of what the ever-temperate Volokh has to say about Boalt's announcement that lecturers' speech will henceforth be regulated by a vague, overbroad, and infinitely abusable code:

1. As I mentioned earlier, I'm quite troubled by the administration's statement that:

[T]he handbook that we will provide to Lecturers when we hire them to teach a course . . . will make our policy on this issue clear. We will not tolerate an instructor's use of racist, sexist or homophobic expressions in the classroom.

If the vague phrase "racist, sexist or homophobic expressions" is defined as anything beyond slurs or utterly irrelevant asides, I mentioned, such a prohibition could seriously interfere with free and open class discussion. And if the speech here -- the speech that is prompting the policy -- is an example of the kind of "racist . . . expressions" that they're trying to suppress, then my fears seem in danger of being realized.

How can one, for instance, have a thorough policy discussion in an immigration law class if people are barred from saying that "illegal Mexican immigrant labor" is "inferior"?


2. But beyond this, it sounds like the teacher was role-playing -- expressing the views of a hypothetical difficult client, and not her own. That's not racist conduct, any more than a professor's hypothetical "Imagine that John Doe calls someone a kike -- is that constitutionally unprotected fighting words?" is anti-Semitic.


3. Finally, as I understand it from other sources at the law school, the details of the incident are apparently not being made clear to students (or at least weren't as of yesterday); all that many students know for sure about the incident is what the administration e-mail reported. So if my correspondent is right, the administration's actions portray a law school instructor as being racist even though that isn't so. That's hardly fair to the instructor, whose identity has likely leaked out, but it's also not good for minority students. If the administration's goal is to make "Boalt . . . be a place where all people feel themselves to be a part of the community," then exaggerated accounts that allege racism where there is none undermine the administration's own goals. So for the sake of transparency, for the sake of clarifying the impetus behind a proposed speech code, and for the sake of preventing minority students from feeling needlessly embattled, it seems to me that the administration should be disclosing the details of the incident, not withholding them.

What he said. I would add that it is awfully creepy to make one instructor's employment dependent on what another might happen to say in his or her classroom. It's not just that Boalt instructors aren't supposed to say anything that might offend, but that they risk losing their jobs if someone they have invited into the classroom says something that might offend. So much for a pedagogy that involves exploring multiple viewpoints.

It's often noted that the concept of academic freedom is largely a joke in an academy where ever more instructors are not tenured. The Boalt situation underscores this. Even if Boalt decides that for legal and ethical reasons it would be a bad idea to impose a vague, overbroad, and infinitely abusable speech code on lecturers, it can still make lecturers' employment implicitly contingent on conformity to its apparently draconian views on classroom expression. Ultimately, there is no need for a speech code at all, except insofar as one would ensure that incoming lecturers understood what was expected of them in the way of self-censorship. All Boalt has to do when one of its contingent faculty violates the school's evident preference for repression over free inquiry is not renew that lecturer's contract. In other words, I think an unwritten speech code probably already exists at Boalt (the tone of the memo testifies to this), and that this unwritten code will continue to exert influence over adjunct personnel decisions regardless of whether a formal policy on speech gets enacted.

Erin O'Connor, 8:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (18)

May 6, 2004 [feather]
I studied law and the law won

It's a truism that one of the wisest things you can do with a degree in English is go to law school. English majors who want their degrees to pay off--or at least to open doors to an eventual payoff--often choose law school over publishing, grad school, teaching, and, it must be acknowledged, working in a coffee bar (that so many humanities majors do wind up behind the counter at Starbucks or similar should tell us something about how humanities departments, in their highminded commitment to Liberal Arts [mustn't teach marketable skills, mustn't do any practical training, mustn't even ensure that majors can actually write competently], participate in a truly insidious form of economic degradation. But that's fodder for another post, another time).

Law school is held up in the humanities as the great rationalizer--that which will offer the artsy kid who majors in English because he likes to read passage into a lucrative, steady, mobile, potentially socially responsible career. At Penn, at least, a large number of English majors go on to law school, which their parents respect, and which as such justifies majoring in English (which many parents, thinking about how much tuition they pay, and how little earning power Jane will have with her B. A. in women's writing, do not respect). On the surface of it, this works out for everyone: English majors do have good luck getting into law school, and all that practice close reading novels and poems serves them well when it comes time to studying the textual and logical intricacies of the law.

The attraction of the law school route is only intensified when one considers how unlikely the other obvious professional route--graduate school--is to lead to actual, secure, paying work. For many, and again I am speaking from the limited experience of working at Penn, the choice often comes down to this: law school or grad school? Law school usually wins (there are local theories about this, having to do with the Wharton School emanating a vague penumbra of practicality and professionalism that seeps into even the most non-Whartonesque places on campus, but they are theories only).

Having noticed that even on Critical Mass there exists a sort of unexamined romanticization of law school as a much more rational alternative to grad school, a reader who was once a humanities undergrad and who is now a working lawyer writes in with a cautionary tale:

As a young lawyer in Canada, I am really disturbed at how casually some in the "academic blog community" advise arts graduates to go to law school rather than grad school. (I only use scare quotes because I can't think of a better term) "If you are smart, go to law school," the refrain goes. I unfortunately took that advice and I can't tell you how much I regret it. "The grass is always greener."

First of all, the exploitation of labour. Here is how the racket goes. You get out of law school. If you're lucky, you'll end up at a big firm where you'll make decent money right off the bat. But even if you're quite smart, most of you won't. Fortunately, almost all of you find a job. But it'll pay only about $20,000.00 US. You'll make this for about 5 years, all the while working at least 60 70 hours a week. And here's the kicker, only about 50% of you will survive. You put in 5 years of slave labour and at the end about half of you are too tired/exhausted/burnt-out/bored/sick unproductive to go on. The profession counts on about 50% of you to do grunt work and then move on. Sound familiar.

Sometimes, it's your choice to leave, sometimes you get fired, even if you do reasonably good work. One of my best friends, incredibly bright, almost on the dean's list at law school (a very big deal), got canned at his big city very pretigious downtown firm after one year, moved to a small town firm and, after a year there, just recently got canned again. Even after being a consistent moneymaker for both places, he is being let go.

The work itself is absolutely brutal. You need a thick, thick skin. Even if lawyers are sometimes unfairly maligned, by the very nature of the work you often find yourself in what is just about the moral sewer of the universe. A law office is a perpetual crisis, and there is always someone on the other end trying to prove you are wrong. And yet, while in these and many other ways, the work is incredibly difficult, and while it certainly requires what I call cunning, there is rarely much to directly challenge the intellect. You find yourself, incredibly, both absolutely bored and absolutely terrified.

I find that the people who survive in the profession either just plain love money (and status) to the exclusion of just about all else, or have some sort of cause to advance, like libertarians who become criminal defense lawyers, or law-and-order types who want to put away the bad guy and make good prosecutors.

So where does your interest in the arts or humanities fit in. Like to do any serious reading, well forget about it. In Search of Lost Time is just not compatible with 60-70 hour weeks. Survive those first five years, and maybe you'll only be working 50 hours a week. But perhaps, just perhaps your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend will want to spend some actual time with you after barely seeing you for the last half decade. Not to mention children. No my friend your life of the intellect is OVER. This profession is one where you succeed only if you eliminate every other real interest from your life. You are a priest of the law; you must commit yourself absolutely to her. She is very jealous and admits of no rivals.

But if you're lucky you'll be one of the 50% that survives and makes the big bucks.

So, after committing 3, 4, 5 years to the profession, what does the arts grad who wants to leave have to show for it. Not much. You probably haven't saved any money or made much of a dent in your student loans. You may not have your health. You've probably picked up a drinking problem (a very common malady in the profession; next time you visit your lawyer take a good look at how red his nose is). Your job prospects probably aren't that stellar: being a lawyer does not teach you how to do much of anything except be a lawyer. Things are different if your first degree was in business or nursing or whatever, but then again, if thats your degree, your prospects always were better. So hopefully by now you have married someone with a heart of gold and a decent paycheck to help refinance your education, because otherwise you are FUCKED.

So beware, beware, beware you sweet, gentle babe, you innocent, newborn honours BA, freshly unwrapping yourself from an arts education. This profession eats smart people for lunch, and success here has much less to do with intelligence than personality type. Sure maybe you'll be one of that 50% that survives and makes the big bucks. But then again maybe you'll be one of the lucky 40% that lands on the tenure track.

One thing is for sure, a legal career is not for someone who has any serious interest in the arts or humanities. At best you'll be able to cuddle up to your money at night after your long day of mindnumbing, soulless work, and at worst you'll end up as tired, and as broke, as ever a jobless humanities PhD. And to my mind, if you're going to suffer, better to suffer for something you really believe in, like John Milton or Emily Dickinson, rather than suffer for the statutory code of Nevada or your boss's bank account.

To be fair I should mention the two ways in which the legal profession is a bit more fair than academia. First, however low paying, a law graduate from a decent school will be able to find a job. You may hate every minute of it, but, if you can stand the work, you WILL be gainfully employed. Second, success in law, unlike landing that elusive tenure track position, is a bit more open and transparent. For all the real unfairnesses of the market, there is a kind of purity to money. Your success is measured, at least outside the big downtown firms, not by how you meet some esoteric standard of excellence nor by how you conform to some byzantine social code, but in cold hard cash. If you bring in the billing, you'll make yourself a killing.

Lastly, of course none of my complaints about the
legal profesion means that you should go to grad
school. Just be aware that if you are interested in
the arts, you may not be much better off in law
school, or for all I know, in Business or Med school.

Having flirted with the law school idea myself, and having never attended law school, I'm in no position to comment. Readers who are are most welcome to post their thoughts.

Erin O'Connor, 8:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (24)

May 5, 2004 [feather]

My recent postings on my decision to leave academe to teach at a boarding school have triggered some interesting comments on both the ethics of staying in academe and the ethics of commenting on academe's problems. At Easily Distracted, Swarthmore history professor Timothy Burke reflects on why he thinks most people who leave academe do so, explains why he has no intention of leaving himself, and offers some suggestions for what might be done within academe to reform the exploitative employment system that currently dominates so many humanities departments. At Academic Game, Academy Girl holds a mirror up to Burke's post, and doesn't like what she sees. Worth a look, as are the comments to AG's post. Also brewing: an excellent discussion at Rana's of the role the concept of courage should or should not play in this discussion.

I won't take sides on what looks to be a potentially acrimonious, if also potentially constructive, dispute. Instead, I'll just note a couple of things. The first is that the current debate about what's wrong with the academic labor system is miserably refracted through the identity politics that so dominates the scholarship of the humanities and social sciences. Tim's comments are noxious to AG in part because he assumes he knows what motivates AG and others, because he deigns to pronounce on the plight of those who not only are not him, but who exist in no small part, collectively, to prop up jobs like his. Writing from within a comfortably tenured position at an elite liberal arts college, and doing so unapologetically, Burke leaves himself wide open to attack on the basis of his always already compromised position: in this logic, he does not know whereof he speaks, he offends by speaking for others whose experiences are not his, and he speaks, ultimately, only and ever to rationalize his own indefensible position of privilege.

Of course things are more complicated than that: The answer here is not for someone as intelligent and clear-sighted as Burke to take a vow of silence when it comes to thinking through the problems at hand; sharp, constructive thinking about these problems is desperately needed, and much of it ought to be coming from the "haves." They, after all, are in the safely tenured position to put theory into practice. At the same time, people like Burke are inevitably going to take some harsh hits when they try to rationalize their own good fortune before an audience of people who are just as smart, but not as lucky.

That's one point. Another point, and this is one Tim touches on, is that it is not possible to think responsibly and constructively about the adjunct-side of the academic labor problem without also questioning the great white elephant of the academy: tenure. The adjunct labor system and the tenure system go hand in hand. They sustain and support one another; the tenured feed off the labor of adjuncts, and they also create the culture of corrupt self-justification that ensures the perpetuation and expansion of the adjunct system. After all, they are the ones who hire and fire the adjuncts. They could get together and say, "Instead of hiring adjuncts this year to teach these 25 courses over here, we'll all pitch in and teach another course." But they don't. That would deprofessionalize them, you see. It's much, much preferable to deprofessionalize others.

I thought briefly, sort of as a thought experiment, about the possibility of giving up tenure and staying within academe as a lecturer on fixed-term contracts. There is a guy at Cornell--actually the chair of one of their science departments--who refused tenure for ethical reasons, and whose career has never missed a beat because of it. But, then, he's a scientist and his work is quantifiable. The work of the academic humanist is so impossible to quantify these days, teaching is so devalued, and politics reign so supreme, that it would be suicidal for a humanist to do what this scientist did. Take tenure away from the academic humanities, and you'd get total anarchy. But that's not because tenure is a good thing. It's because tenure is the power of security, and as such it acts as a stabilizing wedge between those who possess it, and those who never will. That means that it is not only easy for tenured academics to theorize the problem of academic labor (they risk nothing by doing so, and actually gain academic street cred by showing that they understand and deplore the system that has been good to them), but also strangely conservative (as long as it all stays at the level of theory, nothing changes).

The real issue is, how many people in positions like Burke's are willing to do more than make tentative recommendations? How many would actually stir themselves to bring about actual change? How many would be willing to give up their own tenure, or even simply to teach more, if these things were necessary to reform the system? Burke's willingness to say publicly that tenure is a problem is quite something. It's honest, and it shows a willingness to consider an institutional reorientation that would put his own job security at risk.

But these are just random reflections. My real point is that there is something crucial getting lost in the emerging debate about the academic labor system, and that is that it really isn't all about who has what. It's crucial not to reduce the discussion about whether to stay in academe or to leave to a debate about the shapes of jobs. The casualization of academic labor is terribly important. But focussing on it exclusively obscures something more important, which is teaching.

I've been teaching college since 1991. Along the line, I've stopped feeling that I can do the sort of teaching I want to do in a university setting. Too many people arrive at college--even a place like Penn--without solid reading and writing skills. And once they are there, it's almost guaranteed that they won't acquire them. Their educations are too unstructured, there is too little continuity with individual professors and too little coordination among professors, there are too few professors who will take the time to work closely with students to help them develop and improve their skills. I noticed that the best students were ones who brought their skills with them to college, while the weaker ones were those who had been done a disservice in K-12. I noticed, too, that most people turned a blind eye on this realization, and taught their classes as if their students were far more prepared than they were. I noticed that they inflated grades to cover this up, and that they groused among one another--utterly unselfconscious about the fact that as teachers they have a responsibility to, you know, teach--about how students these days just aren't very smart. I realized that there was not much I could do in such a setting to change things, and that if I wanted to make a difference in kids' lives, I needed to encounter them when they were younger. My leaving academe is certainly in part a gesture of disgust at the corruption I've documented endlessly on Critical Mass. But, far more elementally, it is an attempt to put myself in an educational setting where I can actually do some solid, lasting good.

I think it's great that discussion is brewing about what it means to stay and what it means to go. But I hope, too, that the parameters of that discussion can widen a bit. It's not just that people who cannot find tenure-track jobs in academe might want to think about secondary school teaching. It's that secondary school teaching is something any academic might reasonably and responsibly choose.

Erin O'Connor, 8:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (19)

May 4, 2004 [feather]
More on the private school route

I have returned from my absolute, final campus visits and back and butt are recovering apace from the hours (and hours) spent on train and meandering bus to get to the remote places I was visiting over the weekend. I injured my neck doing excessive yoga a few years ago and the unnatural sitting postures required of badly designed seats are not a good thing from the standpoint of old-injury maintenance. But despite being sore and swamped with accumulated work, I'm happy. The decision has been made.

I will be teaching at a small boarding school in the Berkshires next year. It's a remarkable place--the atmosphere is at once intimate, playful, and intellectually serious; instead of laundry lists of arbitrary rules, the school is oriented--very successfully--around the principles of mutual trust and respect; it's non-hierarchical, but it also has strong leadership; it's a place where kids who are struggling in the public schools can and do find their emotional and intellectual footing; it's a place where significant financial aid enables kids who are not from wealthy families to come there; it's a place where students and faculty all do physical work--from hauling and chopping wood to working in the kitchens to scrubbing floors to landscaping--to maintain the school and to make that essential, often-ignored connection between the life of the body and that of the mind. There are sports at the school, but it's not a mandatory activity as it is at many independent schools, and the attitude toward the playing of games is refreshingly non-cutthroat (I speak as a former athlete of the cutthroat persuasion). It's a genuine community of people who learn and live together, free of bureaucratic bloat and ideological cant, and rich in the much more essential things--respect, trust, close and supportive relationships, intellectual and creative freedom--that make genuine schooling possible.

What will I do there? I'll teach English, I'll live in the girls' dorm and function as a "dorm parent," I'll do some administrative work. I will most likely be a part the creative writing program and will certainly do a lot of one-on-one work with kids on their general writing skills. I'll probably start a yoga club (one that does not emphasize the head stands that messed up my aforementioned neck). I'll have the option of initiating anything else that I want to initiate. And I'll spend a lot of down time with kids. The summers will be my own to read and write and read and write and read and write some more.

I'm not mentioning the school's name here for obvious reasons, but I do hope to continue to write about this transition as it unfolds.

The comment sections to my last two posts have contained some wonderful reflections on independent school teaching, as well as practical advice for those who are contemplating the move. Do check them out if you have not already done so, and if you are hungry for still more, you might be interested in the related reflections of Michael Berube, Liliputian Lilith, Frogs and Ravens, John Bruce (scroll down), and Diana Hsieh.

Erin O'Connor, 8:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)