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July 30, 2006 [feather]
No conservatives need apply

SUNY Fredonia's denial of promotion to conservative philosophy professor Stephen Kershnar has grabbed the higher education scandal headlines this week--but Kershnar's is not the only such case unfolding right now. There are intriguingly parallel developments at the University of Kansas:


A judge has denied Kansas University's request for dismissal of a lawsuit by a professor who says he didn't get tenure because his colleagues disliked his Republican politics.

KU attorneys argued that Jeffrey Olafsen's suit, filed early this year in District Court, should be thrown out because it wasn't filed on time.

They argued that when Olafsen received a letter in March 2005 denying him tenure, it was a "final agency action" and that he had only 30 days in which to file a lawsuit.

But Olafsen argued KU's final action didn't come until late 2005, when he lost his appeal to a campuswide tenure committee. He filed the suit shortly afterward.

In a ruling this week, Judge Jack Murphy agreed with Olafsen. He wrote that just because KU called the March 2005 letter a final action "does not necessarily make it so."

Olafsen, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, claims while his tenure was being considered, the department head suggested Olafsen was to blame for research funding cuts because of his support for President Bush. No trial date has been set.


In addition to being a Republican, Olafsen is religious--something else he claims counted against him in his tenure bid.

There isn't much information available about Olafsen's case, but that's to be expected, given the confidential nature of both tenure review and lawsuits. But this one will be worth watching.

Erin O'Connor, 4:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)




July 25, 2006 [feather]
The Cole controversy

Remember the uproar earlier this summer about Yale's decision not to hire University of Michigan professor and prominent blogger Juan Cole? The Chronicle of Higher Education has put together a forum in which various bloggers reflect on the relationships among blogs, reputations, forms of intellectualism, and academic freedom. I'm in it, as are Siva Vaidhyanathan, Glenn Reynolds, Dan Drezner, Ann Althouse, Brad DeLong, and Michael Berube; Cole also responds.

Erin O'Connor, 3:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)




July 22, 2006 [feather]
To board or not to board

Margaret Soltan asks some interesting questions about boarding schools. "Is it trust [that leads parents to send their children to boarding school] or a kind of benign indifference?" she asks. "The parents can get on with their busy lives without the bother of a kid at home." Soltan quotes a New York Times piece by Curtis Sittenfeld (whose Prep is a creepily poignant evocation of some of the nastier sides of boarding school culture):


For me, the question isn't why parents wouldn't send a child to boarding school as much as why they would. Unless there are either severe problems at home or flat-out terrible local schools, I don't see the point. Even in the case of terrible schools, I'm not convinced that parents can't significantly augment their children's education. Among the advantages of boarding school are opportunities for independence, academic stimulation, small classes, peer companionship and the aforementioned campus beauty - but every single one of these opportunities is available at dozens of liberal arts colleges, so why not just wait a few years until the student will better appreciate such gifts and save $140,000?

I'd be interested in hearing from families who have sent children to boarding schools--or who have decided not to do so. My own sense of what is involved in that decision changed after living and working at one. Yes, there are parents who turf out their kids--some are uninvolved in their kids' lives, some are readily and conveniently swayed by the notion that boarding school is an inherently valuable experience that they should give their children. But I don't think that's why most parents choose to send their kids away. Getting to know both boarding school students and their parents--something that was important and also inevitable at the tiny school where I was teaching--revealed just how complicated and sometimes heartbreaking the decision to send a child to boarding school can be.

Some parents made the choice because they had exhausted all local public and private options; their kids were falling through the cracks despite their best efforts to prevent that, and they finally determined that the best thing they could do for their children was to get them out of their present environment and into another one with different people, different patterns, different norms, where they could start fresh. Sometimes this worked, and sometimes it didn't--when "falling through the cracks" meant that the child was disappearing into the anonymity and impersonality of huge public schools, becoming alienated and depressed by that, getting into trouble as a result of that, then the school could work miracles. Likewise for kids whose home circumstances were so crazy that they needed to live elsewhere in order to have a shot at growing up sane. Kids who had already been through a number of schools, who had strong recidivist patterns with truancy, drugs, and so on, however, tended to have the same problems at this school as they had elsewhere; this was especially true of kids who had done time in rehab facilities.

Some parents chose boarding school because their children were "at risk" at home. A number of kids at the school where I taught were from immigrant and/or impoverished homes, homes in bad neighborhoods with bad schools and a very bad local scene. Often these were homes where only a mother presided--and often this mother had limited resources and a limited education. Kids from these homes were being sent to boarding school because their parents believed it was their only chance for their kids to get out. Keep them home, and they'll drop out, or get pregnant, or get involved in a gang, or get addicted to drugs. Send them away to school (on, it goes without saying, a full scholarship), and they will be out of the inner city and into a setting where they can learn a different way of being--where they will be taken seriously as people, where their minds and talents will be valued, and from where they will almost certainly go on to college. By and large, these parents guessed right. Their kids did stay out of trouble, and they did graduate with better prospects than they would have had if they had stayed home.

For parents in both situations, sending their children to boarding school was a difficult, often bittersweet choice--especially when the school proved to be a place where their child could thrive. I think it must be extraordinarily tough for a parent to accept that the best thing he or she can do for a child is to arrange for him or her to live far away from home. Watching families grapple with this paradox, and helping mediate between parents and kids, was a real education in itself. Parents had to accept the possibility that their children could develop better--more happily, more fully, more independently--in their absence; they also had to accept that there would be adults at the school to whom their children were closer, in a day to day sense, than to them. Teachers, meanwhile, had to respect the delicacy of their ties to both students and parents.

The decision to send a child to boarding school is, for many parents, the opposite of a blithely indifferent decision to rid themselves of an annoying teenager. It's a gut-wrenchingly difficult choice, one that is at once a huge gamble and a profound act of love. So many parents I spoke with were ambivalent about their decision; so many were shocked to find themselves going the boarding school route. They were acutely aware of the risk they were taking, and movingly hopeful about the good that would come to their children at the school. They borrowed money and mortgaged their homes and in some cases sold their homes to finance that hope. They did so thinking that there was no point in saving for college if their kid wasn't going to get there. For a striking number of parents, boarding school was an emergency rescue mission. That's one reason I feel as strongly as I do about the academic failures of the school where I taught.

I can't speak for schools like Exeter and Andover. I suspect that things are quite different at well-heeled places like that. But there are far, far more boarding schools than there are Ivy-feeder boarding schools, and my hunch is that at these schools, elitism and parental indifference play a much smaller role in enrollment than elsewhere.


Erin O'Connor, 5:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)




July 20, 2006 [feather]
False dichotomies

The New York Times responds to the Education Department's new study showing that students in private schools don't do demonstrably better at reading and math than students in public schools:


The national education reform effort has long suffered from magical thinking about what it takes to improve children's chances of learning. Instead of homing in on teacher training and high standards, things that distinguish effective schools from poor ones, many reformers have embraced the view that the public schools are irreparably broken and that students of all kinds need to be given vouchers to attend private or religious schools at public expense.

This belief, though widespread, has not held up to careful scrutiny. A growing body of work has shown that the quality of education offered to students varies widely within all school categories. The public, private, charter and religious realms all contain schools that range from good to not so good to downright horrendous.

This point was underscored last week when the United States Education Department released a controversial and long-awaited report comparing public and private schools in terms of student achievement as measured on the federal math and reading tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. As with previous studies, this one debunked the widely held belief that public schools were inferior to their private and religious counterparts. The private schools appeared to have an achievement advantage when the raw scores of students were considered alone. But those perceived advantages melted away when the researchers took into account variables like race, gender and parents' education and income.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, quickly asserted that the study showed public schools were "doing an outstanding job.'' That seems absurd, when we consider the dismal math and reading scores that American children racked up on last year's national tests.

What the emerging data show most of all is that public, private, charter and religious schools all suffer from the wide fluctuations in quality and effectiveness. Instead of arguing about the alleged superiority of one category over another, the country should stay focused on the overarching problem: on average, American schoolchildren are performing at mediocre levels in reading, math and science - wherever they attend school.


It's good to see the magical thinking that dominates discussions of K-12 education reform named for what it is. People tend to assume, like the well-trained consumers they are, that an expensive education must be better than a free one--but what they don't realize is that private schools are only as good as the standards they set for themselves. Those standards, it hardly needs saying, are independent of schools' public self-presentation, and even, to some degree, separate from reputation. They vary widely from school to school, and even within schools.

Private schools have much more leeway than public ones when it comes to who they can hire to teach. This can be a very good thing. Private schools are free to hire people they believe either are or will be good teachers, regardless of whether they have teaching credentials; this allows them to hire, for example, professionals looking to make a career change, or college professors looking to focus on a different sort of teaching. This can also be a very bad thing. There is nothing to stop private schools from hiring people for reasons that have nothing to do with teaching--coaching, for example--and then using them as teachers anyway, despite their manifest weakness in the classroom.

Economics is a factor here, as are pragmatics. Private schools require their teachers to perform multiple roles within the school; they almost never hire someone just to be a math teacher, for example--the math teacher must also be able to coach a couple of sports, or to advise the school paper, or to manage the debate team. Conversely, private schools almost never hire coaches to be coaches--coaches are also teachers. But at schools where sports are serious business--and sports are serious business, required of all students, at a great many private schools--people are sometimes hired primarily for their coaching skills, and are then slotted into teaching secondarily. It's understood that this is a done thing, and the theory is that the curricular weak link this creates is made up for by the athletic strength it brings (the obsessive focus on sports that drives so many independent schools is a subject for another day). Private schools--particularly boarding schools--will also try to make sure that they have a good number of young and inexperienced teachers fresh out of college. The idea there is that what the teacher lacks in experience and expertise is made up for by his or her youth, which is seen as an important bridge between students and older faculty. It goes without saying that such teachers are also very easy to come by and very cheap.

While there are accrediting organizations for private schools, accreditation is not always a measure of quality. The boarding school where I taught during the 2004-05 school year was accredited--but this was hardly a guarantee of quality, or even of responsibility on the part of the school. This school cost more than $32,000 a year, which is the going rate for boarding schools in New England and elsewhere around the country. That's a price tag that creates some entirely reasonable expectations; one imagines, if one is mortaging one's future to send one's child to such an institution, that for $32,000, one's child will have access to one hell of an education, one that far surpasses, in quality and variety, what's available at the free public school just down the road. But in schools as in other commodities, price tags are really only price tags, and all they tell you is what the market rate is for the commodity at hand. That's one of the many things I learned during my year teaching at a very expensive, but very academically weak school.

I won't name the school, since it's not my goal to cause problems for the school itself, and since it is my goal here to use my experience at the school to point to larger issues with the private school system. But I will give some particulars, just to explain what I mean when I say the school was academically inadequate. I say that the school was academically inadequate because it employed teachers to teach subjects that they were not able to teach. There were some excellent teachers there--but they were outweighed by the bad ones. There was a biology teacher who also taught introductory Spanish--but who did not speak Spanish, could not read or write Spanish with any real skill, and had no idea how to teach a foreign language; her worksheets and quizzes were riddled with errors because her own grasp of the language was so weak. There was an English teacher who also taught algebra one and two--but who could not actually explain the principles behind the math, and who, by the end of the year, also could not solve the homework problems assigned in the textbook. Because the school failed to employ a competent algebra teacher, large numbers of students lacked the skills to go on to pre-calculus. There was a U.S. history teacher who taught current events and leftist ideology rather than history proper. Because there was no set English curriculum and no real training in writing (one teacher actually devoted substantial time to having students write and illustrate comic books), the school graduated functional illiterates with depressing regularity. The SAT scores for students at this school were ludicrously low. They did not reflect students' intelligence, but they did reflect the poverty of their educational experience.

For $32,000 a year, parents were paying for a school that probably did more to harm their children's chances of going on to a good college than not. Worse, the parents did not seem to have the faintest idea that this was the case. The students at the school were, by and large, quite happy there (though many of them would tell you, with a frankness peculiar to teenagers, that they knew it wasn't a real school they were attending). There was much that was wonderful about the school apart from its abysmal academics--and parents, seeing their children happier than they had been at their previous school, and admiring the excellent arts program, the work program, the good cooking, and the school's pastoral setting, assumed that all was well. Teenagers don't tend to talk much to their parents about the daily details of their lives if they can avoid it; they especially don't tend to talk much about what they are learning in class; and the parents of boarding school students are exceptionally cut off from those kinds of details. The happiness of the kid and the price tag stand in as proxies for quality of education. It was scary to see how willing this school was to flush students' opportunities; scary, too, to see how trusting parents were, and how misplaced their trust was.

Part of the problem with the school was economic. Bad financial planning had left it with virtually no endowment and only a rudimentary alumni network; overzealous philanthropy led the school to award far more scholarship money to disadvantaged students than it could realistically afford. The school cut costs wherever it could--and one place where it cut costs was in the hiring of competent teachers. Young, inexperienced teachers fresh out of college were not only cheap, but too inexperienced to be able to see clearly what was fraudulent about the school; young, inexperienced teachers who also happened to be alums of the school came even cheaper, plus they brought with them a ready-made institutional loyalty left over from their student days. The school did not have to earn their professional respect, as it could rely instead on their nostalgia. I took a 60% pay cut to work at this school (trusting, as parents trusted, that the academics at such a costly place were in order, and liking the unusually warm feeling of the place so much that I turned down far better offers to take this one). But in the spring, the school decided it could not afford to continue to pay me my very meager salary, and downsized me out of the job.

The school's troubles were not only economic, they were also ideological. The school was an avowedly progressive school that had over time developed something akin to an institutional phobia about strong academics. Despite the glaring and pressing problems I've described, there was no real acknowledgement that academics were an issue at the school; there was instead--it took me awhile to work this out--a deep undercurrent of fear about the damage that a strong curriculum could do to the school's community. The school was a warm and nurturing, if insular and sometimes repressive, place, and kids there formed remarkably strong bonds with one another and with teachers. What was never spoken, but what was operative at every point, was a conviction that taking the academic side of education seriously would weaken those bonds--by making kids compete with one another, by suggesting that smarter kids were superior, and that weaker students were lesser people. This fear--which I think was an irrational one--resulted in a reluctance to encourage smarter kids and a shameful neglect of struggling students. The egalitarian goal was to see everyone as the same, and in order to achieve that goal, the school went out of its way to ensure that students did not differentiate themselves from one another academically. The school's weak academic program did not do much to prepare students for college, but it went a long way toward effecting the intellectual leveling that was so central to the school's mission.

I could go on. But the point I want to make is simply this--this was an extremely costly, exclusive boarding school that superficially seemed to be everything a parent could want for a child and more. But in reality, the school was an academic sham that used the money collected from tuition-paying parents not to educate, but to conduct an egalitarian social experiment that was seriously at odds with the best interests of individual students. The specifics of this school's situation are unusual--but the basic fact of its disservice to unsuspecting parents who believe that high tuition is a guarantee of quality can and should be generalized. Just as there are a lot of good public schools out there, there are also a lot of bad, or simply mediocre, private schools.

There is no simple answer for parents who want to ensure that they send their kids to good schools. But not taking any school at face value is a good first step, and looking closely into who is teaching one's kids and what one's kids are being taught--indeed, whether one's kids are being taught--is essential. Parents who pay for the fancy school without doing their homework are taking a huge chance with their children's futures.

Erin O'Connor, 3:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)




July 19, 2006 [feather]
Teacher quality, accountability, and the anecdote

Anecdotal evidence of irresponsible or doctrinaire teaching is frequently criticized for being just that--anecdotal. The argument there is, as one Unapologetically Tenured commenter at InsideHigherEd is fond of remarking, that "the plural of anecdote still isn't data." Maybe not. But stories based on students' experiences are often the only information we have about what happens inside classrooms. And anecdotes do add up to reveal patterns, and patterns become, over time, their own form of data.

Bob Dionne is a businessman and former radio talk show host in Providence, Rhode Island. He recently had occasion to compare two professors--both teaching history, and using similar textbooks--at the local community college. This is what he has to say:


I tell this tale not out of malice, petulance or retribution but, rather, out of an abiding ethical obligation to Rhode Island taxpayers, a respect for scholarship, and a commitment to students who have a passionate love of learning.

Like millions of snowflakes in flight from the sky, it is quite obvious that no two professors are exactly alike. From my experience with two professors at the Community College of Rhode Island's Lincoln campus, both teaching U.S. history and using textbooks by the same authors, I was unnerved and intellectually jolted by the wide disparity in the quality of teaching and curriculum content between the two educators.

They exemplify the best and worst of education in the American classroom today. At semester's end, I came away with two dramatically different experiences: One was enriching and rewarding, the other unfulfilling, frustrating, and tedious to exasperation.

To witness such an insult to learning and say nothing is to be a silent accomplice. This is my tale of two professors. Let me begin with the better.

He's Dennis Najarian, a professor of social sciences. Clockwork predictable, Professor Najarian enters his classroom 25 minutes early, at 6:35 p.m. sharp. After a quick nod of welcome to the early birds, he erases the blackboard, his face showing annoyance with the preceding instructor for not having done so. His pre-class ritual includes a variety of activities, such as outlining the night's lecture on the board and engaging students in conversation about the previous lecture or assigned readings.

It is during these pre-class "rap" sessions that students learn that the professor is a PawSox loyalist and a die-hard Celtics fan, still reliving the Larry Bird years. It is only after some further prodding into his background that we learn that Professor Najarian holds a doctorate in history from Harvard.

Precisely at 7 p.m. he begins his lecture with the utterance "Let's get on with it."

With certainty and purpose, Professor Najarian artfully transforms a remarkable story of early America into a colorful and powerful narrative. He revivifies the important issues and personalities of American history, taking his students on a majestic and informative journey through time, from the first settlements in the wilderness to Reconstruction.

Professor Najarian paints the canvas of the mind with ideas and knowledge without becoming pedantic. With professional objectivity, he takes fuzzy events and makes them clear. He accomplishes this by inviting the exchange of ideas and encouraging students to arrive at their own conclusions. This lively exchange is the core of teaching excellence.

In his first lecture, he announced what I call his "Declaration of Expectation," in which he informed his students that they could get an A if they attended class, took good notes, read the assigned text, and studied hard. I don't know if I share Professor Najarian's optimistic expectations. I do know, however, that if his regimen is earnestly adopted, each student will achieve an informed grasp of the social, political and economic evolution of the United States.

Then we have somebody I will call "Professor Z":

After he formally introduces himself to the class, he instantly exhorts his students to "just call me Jack." (I have changed that name, too.) Jack proceeds to boast to the CCRI class that they are better students than those at Salve Regina University, his alternate teaching home.

Jack is addicted to an attentive ear and needs the classroom more than the classroom needs him. The class is his private stage, from which he presents what I call "Jack's Monologues," a selection of colorful stories that describe the best and worst of times in his life. His is a captive audience, fresh out of high school, for whom it is much easier to listen to his anecdotes than to learn about 19th Century social Darwinism. Even sensitive family disputes and credit-card extravagances are not excluded from the "Monologues."

In a good-deed story, Jack recalls a time when he received an A in a humanities class, despite non-attendance for the entire semester. Jack indicates that special circumstances--specifically, his caring for a handicapped teenager--influenced his professor's decision to give him the A.

In another monologue, Jack laments his non-union status as an adjunct professor at CCRI, and the refusal of union professors to dine with him. The class is duly sympathetic.

This informality is not without its consequences. In one instance, Jack's informality bit him nastily when he described his wife's birthday celebration at an upscale restaurant, only to have a student inquire whether Jack had consummated the festive evening at a motel.

There is a segment of the class allocated to the teaching of history. A summa cum laude graduate of the "dumbing-down" school of education, Jack is seldom prepared, and turns to the kindness of the class for study-outline direction. Without notes, his lectures are fashioned to prepare his students for a final take-home essay exam--to be composed between The Sopranos and American Idol?

The classroom is Jack's sanctuary for promoting his left-wing agenda. Reinforced by an un-American textbook, he delights in glorifying all that is bad with America. The good is a lonely stranger. Jack really doesn't teach history but, rather, his own opinions. Prone to outrageous hyperbole (and occasional sexual innuendo), he once actually said, "Everyone in class knows more history than President Bush."

I guess they do know much more history than the president, because they can miss almost as many classes as they attend, and leave early to play softball, go to a job, or perform good deeds. CCRI should award 3 credits for merely enrolling in Jack's course and not taking it.

History is better not taught than ill-taught.

Banned from his classroom for offering an unsolicited critique of his teaching, a week before semester's end, I guess I will never know the answer to the question that will forever haunt me. I'd like to know if the professor who gave Jack an A in his humanities course, despite Jack's non-attendance, also taught history.


Dionne's anecdotes offer a good description of what solid, respectable teaching looks like (good teaching need not be flashy, and flashy teaching is often crappy teaching). They also outline the interplay between kinds of pedagogical irresponsibilities. Politically biased teaching is often talked about in a vacuum, as though the only issue with the teacher who uses the class as a political soapbox is that the teacher uses the class as a political soapbox. In reality, politically biased teaching--which is not really teaching at all--is likely to occur along with a host of other pedagogically unsound practices. Professor Z exemplifies this--he makes inappropriate remarks about President Bush, but he's also chronically unprepared and he treats the classroom as a cross between a stage and a therapist's office. He's clearly someone who neither understands nor cares about teaching, and he's wasting space and time and, as Dionne points out, other people's money, while he gets paid to not care.

Thanks to Michael McKeown for the link.

UPDATE: A reader writes,


Don't call them "anecdotes." Call them "case studies." Then it's all scientific. ;)

Or to put it another way, data in social sciences is never universal. It's for a particular time, a particular place, under a particular set of laws. Case studies can be narrow but deep in terms of dynamics and detail. Broader data is more generalizable, but also more shallow. It's just silly to have a canonical preference for one over the other.


Thanks, Tim.

Erin O'Connor, 10:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)




Elsewhere

There's lots more on Kevin Barrett at ACTA Online, including the details of ACTA's formal response to UW's handling of his case.

Erin O'Connor, 2:54 AM | Permalink




July 12, 2006 [feather]
On adjunct labor, politically charged teaching, and lack of quality control

A couple of comments from my last post on Kevin Barrett, Deb Frisch, and lack of quality control in academic hiring deserve highlighting.

The first is from Brown University professor Michael McKeown, who writes,


Reading the course description for Barrett's Intro to Islam class, one would not know that the content was anything out of order. Indeed, it seems perfectly reasonable. Based on the description, this class would not have been spotted by the ACTA report methods as I understand them.

Much of the criticism of the ACTA report is that misreading of the course descriptions led to false positives--courses that are perfectly reasonable but are described in ways that seem biased.

The Barrett course serves as an example that is likely to be much more common--the false negative. It is unlikely that this course is the only biased course veering from the academic content that has a reasonable description, then ACTA has underestimated the depth of the problem.


When challenged by Ralph Luker, who argued that course descriptions are as likely to produce false positives as false negatives, McKeown observed that Luker was actually helping to make the case that course descriptions may do more to conceal inappropriate teaching than to reveal it:

I think your argument actually suggests that false negatives will outnumber false positives.

If adjuncts don't write their course descriptions and teach nominally standard courses, then courses taught by adjuncts will have more neutral, standard descriptions, no matter what the content of the course. Courses taught be full professors are the most likely to be written by the professor. These are most likely to express the professor's plan both because the professor writes the description and because a full professor (with tenure) is the least likely to suffer consequences of a course that is biased by design. Assistant and associate professors fall in between, having different degrees of oversight and risk involved.

An argument that false positives outnumber false negatives requires that those who write course descriptions deliberately make them seem more biased or involved in advocacy than they actually are. This seems unlikely, unless the culture is such that the consequences of not having such a seemingly biased course are worse than of having a biased course. In other words, the biased course description is either an indication of a biased course, or an indication of a culture in which the prevailing bias is expected and lack of it is punished.

Of course, with enough effort, these ideas are actually open to empirical testing. Instead of just checking course descriptions, it is possible to check descriptions, syllabi, reading lists and exams (with their grading) across departments.


Barrett is indeed an interesting test case, both for ACTA's argument about course descriptions and for those who rejected ACTA's argument out of hand. He's also, as Timothy Burke notes, an important indicator of just how casual the increasingly casualized academic job market is:

... these cases do suggest some uncomfortable things about how teaching at many large research universities, especially below the top tier of selectivity, is thought of as a kind of disposable, how little interest in or attention to delivering a consistent quality of instruction there can be. A lot of universities just sort of expect good teaching to happen osmotically: they have no real substantive or nuanced instruments for keeping track of what happens. They know in many cases that students don't really have any options but to endure low-quality teaching, so there is little pressure to invest the effort. The faculty logically are the people who should be paying attention to consistent quality of instruction, but they largely don't, for a host of complicated reasons.

In the context of the professional culture of academic life, Frisch and Barrett strike me as highly aberrational--I think 75% of my colleagues would not know how to find a website like Protein Wisdom, or how to comment on it, and all of them, whatever their politics, would find Frisch's comments and behavior appalling and disgusting and totally lacking in professionalism. But I think every large university has a kind of trailing edge of adjuncts and occasional labor who are kind of unpersons to the tenure-track faculty and administration. The core of the institution doesn't know when those adjuncts are superb, dedicated teachers and scholars (as they often are) or when they're raving lunatics who deliver worthless instruction (as they can be). So this at least I think is a lesson to work through from these cases.


I would say that Burke's statement ought to be applied to top-tier universities as well. They are every bit as willing to hire local, easily available adjuncts on an as-needed basis as schools with lower rankings. The practice that clearly seemed to be at work in Barrett's appointment--of bringing in a known, local alum to replace a full-time faculty member going on leave, more or less without appointing a search committee or advertising the job--is very common at the top level, and, one might argue, pragmatically necessary (there is always a lot of shuffling of the teaching roster each year as faculty receive grants, accept visiting appointments, and so on, and this shuffling can go on well into the summer; a transient, local labor pool whose chief qualification is availability helps smooth the administrative difficulties caused by this shuffling).

The Barrett case strikes me as a case that is particularly about how departments use adjuncts; though he has been treated in the media as a university professor, I think it's important to remember that he was hired on very different terms, for very different reasons. What's interesting is that the university has been caught out in what is a widespread academic hiring practice (60% or more of all college courses are taught by non-tenure track instructors). UW has now issued a boilerplate endorsement of academic freedom, because it had to. But UW is also clearly embarrassed that has to defend someone like Barrett, which amounts to an embarrassment at having hired him. If UW wants to avoid that sort of embarrassment in the future, it will need to rethink its relationship to adjunct teachers.

UPDATE: More from Brian Ulrich and KC Johnson.

Erin O'Connor, 8:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)




July 10, 2006 [feather]
Bigger pictures

I've been watching the Deb Frisch and Kevin Barrett cases unfold with something I would not quite call interest--having followed such cases for years now, I can say with jaded certainty that these cases are too typical, too hackneyed, too--it's bizarre to say so, but it's true--usual, to be what you'd call interesting. But they have to be watched all the same, and they have to be assimilated into some sort of big picture.

Too often, cases like theirs are reported and analyzed in isolation, a practice that makes sense, given the topical nature of reporting and the transient nature of blogging, but that also works to keep these cases disconnected from one another. The result is an almost steady stream of cases that are treated as anomalies instead of as instances of a broader pattern with serious implications for how we understand what higher education really is these days. (This tendency, by the way, was on full display in responses to ACTA's recent report, How Many Ward Churchills?. Critics of the report relied heavily on the idea that the report's assemblage of example after example of politically charged course descriptions was not an assemblage of anything at all, but was rather a collection of isolated instances and anomalous cases--or, in other words, a collection that was not a collection. The doublethink of that argument still makes my head spin; I attribute it in part to the broader pattern of not allowing repeated instances of self-discrediting academic behavior to add up to anything. See commentary on the response to the report in ACTA Online's May archive).

Margaret Soltan makes a most welcome stab at moving Barrett and Frisch beyond the individualized status of intellectual train wrecks (which is how most of those who are following their stories seem to regard them--as almost obscene examples of academic leftism, best handled by staring and offering the odd disgusted comment). Soltan sees Barrett and Frisch as signs of an academy that is woefully given to making truly misguided and damaging hiring decisions--and that exacerbates this problem by failing to realize that it has this problem:


What matters isn't the particulars--this Kevin Barrett, that Deborah Frisch, that Aphrodite Clamar-Cohen. What matters is that, in an age of new technologies flushing out the very worst among America's professors, we focus upon the betrayal of our students by our universities.

Our students come to the classroom at places like the excellent public universities where Barrett and Frisch taught naively. Very naively. They don't know and don't care about our articles and professional associations and conference presentations. They care about our knowledge and our teaching ability. They assume--they have every right to assume--that the person they meet at the front of the room on the first day of class has the full faith and credit of the university behind her.

It's heartbreaking to read the comments that students who've been betrayed by their universities write at Rate My Professors. These students almost always begin by mentioning their excitement about taking the course, their interest in the subject. They then flatly state that exposure to this professor has killed forever their interest and excitement. A series of questions usually follows. Why is this person teaching? Why does this person get paid to teach? Why is a university classroom like this one? I thought it would be different, going to a university...

It's not about the professors themselves apologizing or quitting or whatever -- the sort of people we're talking about are incapable of understanding what they have done. It's about the universities that hired them making formal apologies to their students, and vowing to do everything they can to avoid appointing people like them again. Universities unable to distinguish between academic freedom and academic malfeasance need to do some thinking. The technology of exposure isn't going anywhere.


Soltan is right about how internet technology both makes it harder for the academy to hide its dirty linen and also puts pressure on the academy to think more openly and honestly about its problems. As Mark Bauerlein notes in a piece for InsideHigherEd.com, the intellectual bad faith of academic responses to outside criticism is on full display for a public that needs to see something other than obviously self-serving rhetoric from an academy in which its faith is shaky, to say the least.

Erin O'Connor, 4:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)