In a charming piece written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, ex-academic Harrison S. Key explores one of academe's more closeted secrets--that all too many people are in it not because they truly love doing academic work, but because, having been in school all their lives, they fear moving beyond it. In a first-person account of his own attempt to confront his reasons for staying in a professional setting that made him miserable, Key delivers an impromptu consciousness-raising session:
Why did it take me so long to admit that academe was never going to make me happy? Because I had been institutionalized, like Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption. He spent a life in prison and knew its rules, and his release into the outside world was just too much. He hated it enough to hang himself in a boarding house. I bet he wasn't happy in prison, either, but at least it was home.
Was that my problem, too? I had spent a life in education. I was carried to term in the classroom, while mom taught English to seventh graders. At birth, I was deposited in the diapers-only section of a preschool. Thirty years later, I remain in school, sans the diaper.
The similarities between prison and academe are several. Both places have tiny rebellions and mutinies, mostly insignificant, sometimes violent. Most people are involved in sports. Everybody else reads. Lots of free concerts. There's also very bad pay. Squalid living conditions. Remedial classes. Drug use. Unusual carnal activity. Tattoos.
The most common parallel, though, is one's inability to leave either after years of regimen.
But you can leave. Here's how.
Write down all of the reasons you're in academe--all the reasons you chose this life, the things you like about it, what you can't live without, what makes you an awesome teacher, all those things that make you think you're happy.
Now write down all the reasons why you might be unhappy--the complaints about your students, the misgivings about your college, the grievances with your discipline, and job, and life. You have to have some or you wouldn't have read this far.
Then take both of those lists and mail them to your mom, because she's the only one who cares.
The thing is, if you get far enough to start writing things down like that, you aren't happy. Nobody can tell you why you're unhappy, most of all you, but that is the first step. Admit it.
Admit that you don't like your students sometimes. Admit that you get tired of teaching the F.O.I.L. method or Oedipus Rex to dopes on dope. Admit that you love summers off but get suicidal by August. Admit that you think some of your colleagues are really nuts but you smile and agree because, why not? Admit that political correctness makes you gassy. Admit that you're a little upset that your students will make twice your salary upon graduating, even if they can't read. Admit that your department looks less like Dead Poets Society and more like Lord of the Flies. Admit that you think leaving will mean selling out to The Man, or The Bourgeoisie, or Wal-Mart, or whatever demon you think you hate.
Admit that you're scared to death but ready for something new.
Well worth a read.
June 28, 2005
Airtight or overbroad?
Earlier this year, Ohio University paid a $350,000 settlement to student Rebecca Humes in exchange for dropping her sexual harassment suit against former professor and director of Visual Communications, Larry Nighswander. Nighswander had allegedly harassed Humes during a topless photo shoot, making lewd noises and comments, and fondling her breasts. As part of the settlement, which included free admission and tuition to the Scripps School of Journalism for Humes and a new rule that Visual Communications professors cannot do nude photo shoots of students, the University agreed to rework its sexual harassment policy to prevent the kinds of problems that arose in the Nighswander case. When Humes filed a complaint, the University did not pursue it, saying that there was not enough evidence to do so. But it turned out that Nighswander had a pattern of such behavior, and that the pattern had been informally reported by students in the past; however, because no formal complaints had been lodged, Nighswander's behavior pattern was never properly noted or addressed.
Now the new policy is getting positive reviews from the Ohio University trustees, and it sounds as though it may verge on a code that neither respects the due process rights of the prospectively accused nor the free speech rights of anyone on campus. Although the full policy has not to my knowledge been published, the Athens County paper's description of it is worrisome. According to the paper, the new policy requires that
"any member of the university community" who hears such a complaint, even in an informal setting, has a duty to report it to the Office of Institutional Equity or the Office of Legal Affairs.
"There's no longer a distinction between an informal complaint and a formal complaint," Dioguardi confirmed. "All complaints are taken, and it doesn't matter if they're verbal or in writing, if they're e-mailed or by the telephone."
She noted that in the Humes case, the complaints that seemed to support her claims against Nighswander were informal, and not passed on to university authorities.
"That's exactly what happened in the Humes case," she said, when the faculty members or administrators who heard the complaints kept them quiet at the request of the complainants.
"They can't do that any more," she said. "That's what's clear in the (revised) policy that wasn't so much in the last policy -- there is a duty to report."
In other words, everyone on the Ohio University campus is enlisted in a process of spying and surveillance; the policy appears to be predicated on a refusal to define "sexual harassment complaint" that in effect defines any discussion touching on sexual discomfort within the university setting as a potential complaint. The policy also appears to be predicated on a potentially destructive disregard for privacy and trust--in turning every member of the university "community", including students and outside contractors, into informants, the university has eliminated the possibility of confidential discussion; in so doing, it appears also to be aiming to elevate what putative "complainants" might consider to be merely annoying or confusing situations into full-blown accusations of sexual harassment. Ohio University is in effect, instituting a policy that honors sexual harassment complaints that are not filed by the actual complainant. It is compounding that problem--and treading on due process--by vowing to investigate even anonymous complaints.
But that isn't all there is to worry about with the new policy, which appears to be so concerned with honoring the sensitivities of potential victims--or of those who may not see themselves as victims, but may be seen by informants as victims--that free speech and academic freedom have been thrown out the window. The new policy defines "lewd" or "sexually suggestive sounds" as harassment; it also facilitates the surveillance of teachers who use sexually suggestive material in their classes. Both are highly tendentious moves--the first is what anyone inclined to accusation wants it to be; the second opens a curricular Pandora's box in which it could conceivably become an issue to assign or discuss such works as James Joyce's Ulysses, Aristophanes' Lysistrata, or Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues.
June 24, 2005
I've long regarded MFA creative writing programs to be both improbable and potentially destructive vehicles for aspiring writers. At Moby Lives, MFA dropout Elizabeth Clementson draws on her own experience in both publishing and in an MFA program to reflect on the unhealthy symbiosis between the two:
In addition to being disheartened by my fellow writers' "show me the money" attitude, over time it became increasingly clear to me that the core of the MFA experience, the workshop, was distorting the creative process.
In the workshop, the students critique each other's writing and as the comments are bandied about, a "consensus" develops about what does and doesn't "work" in a story. The writer then meshes the "popular" opinions of the group into his or her work, slowly removing the unpopular parts, until the work is readable and accessible to all. More often than not, this process destroys the writer's initial vision, leaving behind a work that is void of passion and anything that is different, new, or creative.
Many of world's greatest novels would have never made it through the workshop process. Picture James Joyce being told that Ulysses is "too ambitious." Or Harper Lee being told that that Boo Radley character needs further development. Or Gertrude Stein being told, "Gertrude, The Making of Americans, is inaccessible. You need to cut the fat out and rework these sentences."
However, workshop fiction is encouraged by the big publishing world and the academic institutions that support it.
Since the University of Iowa started the first MFA program in 1936, more than 250 programs certified by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs have sprung up. With tuition costing as much as $70,000 for a two-year program, the schools have every reason to foster the attitude that students can pay off their big-time debt with their forthcoming book deal. In turn, the big publishing world relies on MFA programs to produce "accredited" writers. Desperate for literary plot lines that will sell, editors are on an eternal quest to find the next big young thing. This is big business and like any corporate job, editors are pushed for time and pressured to find books that sell. Just like authors, they too are judged on their book's sales figures.
As a result of this relationship, students in MFA programs are hen-pecked and criticized until they deliver the "sellable" plot line that publishers want. And, instead of rejecting the forces that corrupt them, many young writers turn on each other, reinforcing the rules learned in workshop, rejecting anything--or anyone--that challenges the status quo and threatens their carefully crafted world. Thus, anything created outside of the workshop environment is treated with contempt, and outsider voices are ignored.
Despite what they try and tell you in MFA programs, there isn't an established career path for writers. It isn't something you can learn in a classroom.
So here's my advice--if [you] have any aspirations for a place in literary history, don't attend an MFA program. It won't inspire you to great literature and you won't be able to pay back that enormous tuition bill unless you write the carefully crafted plot line that everyone wants, but nobody wants to read.
Perhaps that is enough these days for many writers. But, in the end, literature created by committee usually does not find the audience that it is calculated to find, and is quickly forgotten.
There's a cookie-cutter quality to a great deal of new fiction these days. Prose produced within an MFA program often has a certain generic preciousness to it that marks its origins in the calculating, conformist setting of the workshop. Not all new fiction is like this of course--but it's instructive to note how often you can intuit a novel's--or a novelist's--"credentials" within the first page or two.
June 22, 2005
Victory for the student press in North Carolina
The Seventh Circuit may have ruled that public colleges and universities can restrict the content of school-subsidized student publications, but a community college in North Carolina has--with the prodding of FIRE--reaffirmed the importance of a free and uncensored student press. When the Craven Community College paper, The Communicator, launched a sex column, the college considered requiring the paper to submit its content to editorial review by administrators. After exchanging letters with FIRE, however, Craven administrators dropped the notion of vetting the paper's content, and even agreed to rewrite other campus policies that restrict student expression.
FIRE was involved in the Governors State case that has resulted in the disturbing Seventh Circuit ruling. You can read FIRE's amicus brief here, and you can read an article on the unsettling state of the collegiate student press by former FIRE executive director Erich Wasserman here.
June 21, 2005
No more morning after
I'd love to learn readers' thoughts on a new Wisconsin law that bans the morning after pill from all state university campuses. The law is the first of its sort in the country; here's the AP description of how the ban works and what the rationale for it is:
The legislation would prohibit University of Wisconsin System health centers from advertising, prescribing or dispensing emergency contraception: drugs that can block a pregnancy in the days after sex. The state university system has 161,000 students on 26 campuses.
Republican Rep. Daniel LeMahieu introduced the bill after a health clinic serving UW-Madison students published ads in campus newspapers inviting students to call for prescriptions for the drug to use on spring break.
"Are we going to change the lifestyle of every UW student? No," LeMahieu said. "But we can tell the university that you are not going to condone it, you are not going to participate in it, and you are not going to use our tax dollars to do it."
Democrats said the bill would deny rape victims a chance to stop pregnancies and predicted it would lead to more unwanted pregnancies and surgical abortions.
Democratic Rep. Marlin Schneider called the measure "a direct frontal assault on the right to privacy, on the right of free speech, on the right of a free press."
"Apparently some in this body want to take us back to the time when the dispensing of contraception was a criminal act," Schneider said.
The morning-after pill, a heavy dosage of hormonal birth control, can work to prevent a pregnancy up to five days after unprotected sex by preventing ovulation or fertilization. Wisconsin students can get the drug at discount rates from campus pharmacies.
The drug, which requires a prescription, was approved as a contraceptive in 1998 by the Food and Drug Administration.
LeMahieu said the bill would not affect traditional birth-control pills. Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager said the bill was worded too vaguely to know for sure.
This ban strikes me as utterly outrageous (though so does the ad campaign that led to it, with its suggestion that of course spring break means lots of unprotected sex, because it involves lots of partying, and that therefore the best way to approach the vacation would not be for everyone to stay sober and make smart, proactive decisions about sex, but rather for women to stock up on pills that will allow them to undo any erotic errors of judgement they might make during those wild spring nights). I'm especially interested in the legal aspects of the ban. Schneider seems to be pushing a point when he says banning subsidized morning after pills from campus is "a direct frontal assault on the right to privacy, on the right of free speech, on the right of a free press." At the same time, he's right that the ban represents an attempt to impose a punitive political agenda on a student body--and a campus culture--that is, in the minds of state legislators at least, too promiscuous and too free with forms of birth control whose "after the fact" character aligns them a little too closely with abortion.
In any case, Wisconsin state legislators seem to have missed a crucial point: regular birth control pills, taken in higher doses, can do the same work as a morning after pill.
Comments are open.
June 20, 2005
Defamation at De Paul
Last month De Paul University made the unwise move of suspending a professor for expressing views--outside of class, in the context of heated dialogue--that offended some pro-Palestinian students. When those students complained, Klocek was relieved of his duties, without ever having a chance to face his accusers. De Paul's viewpoint discrimination against Klocek, as well as its failure to accord him the due process that the school guarantees professors, were glaringly obvious; the media picked up Klocek's story, and FIRE announced that it was defending him.
The case has now taken an unusual turn: Klocek filed a defamation lawsuit against De Paul last Tuesday, alleging that the university damaged his reputation by characterizing him as racist and bigoted. FIRE's David French notes that De Paul also suggested that Klocek suffered from unspecified health problems that interfered with his work.
As an adjunct, Klocek never really had the same rights and protections as tenure-track faculty; his position made him exceptionally vulnerable to the sort of arbitrary and unlawful attack De Paul visited on him when he committed the cardinal sin of offending students by rejecting their political viewpoint. As De Paul dean Susanne Dumbleton put it in a letter to the student paper, "The students' perspective was dishonored and their freedom demeaned. Individuals were deeply insulted. ... Our college acted immediately by removing the instructor from the classroom." De Paul president Dennis Holtschneider later echoed that sentiment when he characterized Klocek's actions--which amounted to exchanging heated words with several students at a student activities fair--as "threatening and unprofessional behavior." Usually, when institutions punish professors for their speech, those professors defend themselves by appealing to the principles of academic freedom and, if the school is public, to the First Amendment. But adjuncts don't do well with such defenses and are usually just screwed when their speech becomes an issue. A defamation suit--one that also cites breach of contract, as Klocek's does--is an interesting end run around the problem. If it works, there may be a whole lot more such suits where this one came from.
Via Sherman Dorn.
June 17, 2005
We're number one
A Washington state high school has forty-four valedictorians in this year's graduating class. Garfield High is not alone--there are a number of schools across the nation that have more than one person ranked first in the senior class, including a Fresno, CA, high school that is graduating 58 valedictorians this year. Last year Garfield graduated 30 valedictorians, and the year before that it graduated 27.
Garfield sounds like an interesting limit case for the obvious questions the numbers raise about whether the school is indulging in rampant grade inflation. The beneficiariees of a school system that tracks talented students into accelerated classes from the first grade on, Garfield's valedictorians will be taking their 4.0 GPAs to Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth, and UC Berkeley this fall. Nine of them will be heading to Stanford. Whether their expectation of continued top grades will translate in this sort of behavior once they find themselves surrounded by peers with similar high school records remains to be seen. For now, the only real problem is a logistical one--how do you structure a graduation ceremony where 44 students will be expected to speak? Garfield has solved the problem by making valedictory speeches optional, and by limiting each to the recitation of a quote. Thirty-five of its number ones will deliver quotes at graduation.
Should the school have made an effort to choose its valedictorian by other means--perhaps by taking extra-curricular involvement or leadership into consideration? That's risky in this legal climate.
June 15, 2005
Bowling for the prosecution
A Michigan teenager has become the first person to be convicted under a 2002 state statute that criminalizes the making of terrorist threats. Andrew Osantowski, now 18, had been "chatting" on the internet with a sixteen-year-old Idaho girl about his plans to commit a massacre at his high school. When she turned him in, it turned out that he had the maps of the school, the list of people he planned to kill, and the (stolen) weapons to back his threats up. Police found an AK 47, pipe bomb components, knives, shotguns, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in his home; there is some dispute over whether Osantowski's cache should have been admitted as evidence. Osantowski will be sentenced next month; he faces a minimum of 75 months in jail, but could do as many as 42 years. Osantowski's high school class graduated over the weekend.
June 13, 2005
Education in hope
Washington Post columnist Sebastion Mallaby offers a heartwarming story for a Monday morning:
A few weeks ago I met Mark Kushner, a charismatic product of Harvard and Oxford who dumped lawyering in favor of crusading. Kushner opened a high school in a tough section of San Francisco and took in kids who never counted on making it to college. By demanding high standards, Kushner succeeded in producing them: More than 95 percent of Leadership High School's graduates attend college, and most go to four-year programs.
With the help of a former AOL executive, Scott Pearson, he has launched an organization to repeat the success of San Francisco in 25 other locations. In 2003 he opened a school across the Bay in Richmond, the most crime-ridden city in California, and another one in East San Jose, where 87 percent of the pupils are poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized school lunch. A lot of the incoming ninth-graders have reading skills somewhere between the second- and sixth-grade levels. Kushner is opening two more schools this year. All his new ventures will be in poor neighborhoods.
Taking ghetto kids and turning them into college kids sounds like a romantic fairy tale; it's mostly plain hard work. Visiting a class at Kushner's Richmond start-up recently, I suppose I was looking for the column writer's vignette: the one that conveys cheery inspiration in a sentence or two. Instead I found a bunch of ordinary teenagers struggling, rather ploddingly, with a history project. Releasing their potential is not like smashing an iron lock and opening the jail gates. It's a work of immense patience, the more heroic for that.
Kushner is opening charter schools, and Mallaby notes that while the education these schools offers may be exceptional, the facilities appear to be almost punitively poor:
Public-school authorities across the country tend to reflect the education establishment, which in turn resents the newcomers. And so they make life difficult for charter schools by denying them good premises.
To set up his Richmond school, Kushner was given an empty lot in the toughest area of this tough city, right across from an academy for teenagers who've been thrown out of regular high school. Kushner put up portacabins and a defensive wire perimeter, but there wasn't enough room to fit all the pupils. The city authorities then offered some space inside the remedial school, where maintaining discipline will be challenging. As Kushner has said sometimes, giving school boards power over charter schools' facilities is like entrusting decisions on Wal-Mart to Costco.
Some enlightened cities take a less hostile view. They want to manage a good portfolio of education options, and they're happy to let innovative start-ups provide some of them; they are not slavishly loyal to the teachers union. But in much of the country, charters face an uphill battle, even though the balance of the evidence suggests that they do better for pupils. Because high schools require large premises and are complex, opening a charter high school is particularly tough.
Mallaby's message is two-pronged, a defense of charter schools that is also a dressing-down of those who fail to recognize that reforming what he calls "the last, lumbering public monopoly"--education--will do more than tax reform to increase economic opportunity in this country: "Inequality in the United States is sharpening, and income increasingly reflects parental status. And while this may be linked to bad Republican tax policy, it has a lot more to do with bad education policy, defended for the most part by interest groups connected to the Democrats." Say what you will about tax policy. Mallaby's point that too many people who claim to be interested in equity are hostile to the educational means of promoting it is a strong one.
June 9, 2005
Today Denver's Rocky Mountain News examines the charge that Ward Churchill falsely claimed to be of Indian descent. Relying on both DNA evidence and genealogical research, the paper finds that Churchill's claim of Native American ancestry is baseless.
As an amateur genealogist, I'll just note that the article's detailed account of Churchill's actual family history is fascinating--Churchill may not have Indian blood, but he's got an interesting background all the same, and the paper's account of how it assembled Churchill's genealogy from old census records, deeds, wills, veteran's records, and other public documents, makes for great reading.
June 8, 2005
Today, the Rocky Mountain News examines the charge that Ward Churchill falsely represented two pieces of federal Indian legislation. Churchill is accused of mischaracterizing the 1887 Dawes Act, which divided a number of reservations into private homesteads, and the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which aimed at preventing people who cannot claim Indian ancestry from selling their work as "authentic" Indian wares; in each case, he argues that the government established a "blood quantum" system to determine who is and is not Indian, and that this system was implemented with the ultimate aim of legislating tribes out of existence. The News found that neither law makes any mention of anything resembling a blood quantum.
June 7, 2005
The Rocky Mountain News continues its investigation of the University of Colorado's charges against Ward Churchill today, with an article examining the charge that Churchill has twice published the work of others as his own. The article concludes that yes, Churchill has plagiarized, but that no, he has not done so twice. Rather, he's done it multiple times.
Meanwhile, Churchill has responded to some of the paper's claims. His exchange with Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple is posted on Temple's website. Thanks to Linda Seebach for the link.
June 6, 2005
More on Ward
The Rocky Mountain News has published the next installment of its independent investigation of the charges against embattled University of Colorado scholar-activist, Ward Churchill. In today's segment, the paper reports that Churchill's cited sources do not support his claim that the U.S. government deliberately infected Native Americans with smallpox as part of a campaign of genocide. The article compares Churchill's sources with Churchill's representation of those sources, showing that in case after case, Churchill relies on secondary works by other scholars rather than primary sources that he himself examined; the article shows, too, that in case after case, Churchill distorts the words of the historians he cites, turning the story of a tragic smallpox outbreak into a tale of intentional biological warfare. The News spoke with some of the historians whose books provided Churchill with his alleged documentation; they are unequivocal about the misuse Churchill has made of their work. "My own view is Churchill probably just wanted to have something more to holler about," said UCLA professor, Russell Thornton, a member of the Cherokee nation and the author of American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492. "I think it's just out-and-out fabrication. It depends on how you want to look at it, but in one sense, it's just making up of data, and that kind of thing shouldn't be tolerated in scholarship or science."
June 4, 2005
Churchill tried in the media
The University of Colorado is investigating scholar-activist Ward Churchill--and, in the manner of all things academic, it is doing so slowly and secretly. In the meantime, The Rocky Mountain News has obligingly conducted its own parallel investigation of Churchill's academic integrity. The results, published today, are as disturbing as they are unsurprising:
Churchill has framed the CU investigation not as a look at the rigor and accuracy of his scholarship, but as a right-wing crusade and an attack on academic freedom and free speech.
While it is likely to be months before the university's faculty committee finishes its probe of Churchill's scholarship and ancestry, the News found serious problems in all four of the major areas the panel is examining:
- He accused the U.S. Army of deliberately spreading smallpox among the Mandan Indians of the Upper Missouri River Valley in 1837--but there's no basis for the assertion in the sources he cited. In fact, in some instances the books he cited--and their authors--directly contradict his assertions.
- He published an essay in 1992 that largely copies the work of a Canadian professor. But the piece is credited to his own research organization, the Institute for Natural Progress. Churchill published that essay--with some minor changes and subtle altering of words--even though the writer, Fay G. Cohen, had withdrawn permission for him to use it.
He also published portions of an essay in a 1993 book that closely resemble a piece that appeared the year before under the byline of Rebecca L. Robbins. However, the News could not determine what occurred. Churchill said he initially wrote the piece and allowed Robbins to publish it under her name. Robbins did not return numerous messages left by the News.
The News also could not determine who actually wrote an essay published under the name of Churchill's former wife, Marie Anne Jaimes, who also goes by Annette Jaimes. A paragraph from that essay also was published in a Churchill essay.
- He mischaracterized an important federal Indian law in repeated writings in the past two decades, saying that the General Allotment Act of 1887 established a "blood quantum" standard that allowed tribes to admit members only if they had at least "half" native blood. Churchill has accused the government of imposing what he called "a formal eugenics code" as part of a thinly veiled effort to define Indians out of existence. The News found that the law--while a legislative low point in Indian history that resulted in many tribes losing their lands--does not contain any requirements for Indian bloodlines.
In addition, the News found, Churchill similarly mischaracterized a more recent piece of legislation, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
- He has repeatedly claimed to have American Indian ancestry, but an extensive examination of genealogical records that traced branches of both sides of Churchill's family to pre-Revolutionary War times turned up no solid evidence of a single Indian ancestor. In addition, the News found that DNA tests taken last year by two brothers prove that the father of Joshua Tyner--Joshua Tyner is the ancestor Churchill most often has cited for his Indian lineage--was not Indian.
During its investigation, the News also unearthed other evidence of possible research misconduct by Churchill that has not been taken to the faculty committee.
In one instance, the News discovered an obscure 1972 pamphlet written by activists in Canada that Churchill later began claiming as his own work.
And in at least three other cases, the News revealed Friday, he published works by others without their permission. Churchill credited authors Robert T. Coulter, Rudolph C. Ryser and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, but didn't notify them that he was publishing their articles.
The News will address each of these points in detail in a four-part series to be published from Monday through Thursday of next week.
I want to extend a HUGE thank you to Robyn at Sekimori for doing such an amazing job redesigning this site. Thank you, Robyn, for your marvelous creativity, your technological savvy, and your infinite patience!!!!