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December 29, 2006 [feather]

Margaret Soltan tirelessly chronicles the lengths to which universities will go--and the amounts they are willing to pay--to field winning sports teams. But athletic competitions aren't the only kind that schools will go to great, unethical lengths to win. Today's Washington Post has a fascinating piece on the little-known world of intercollegiate chess, where the dominant teams are not the ones you might expect, and where attempts to game the system bear a strong resemblance to those surrounding intercollegiate sports:

It was still early in this week's competition at the downtown Washington hotel, and already the pecking order was taking shape.

The squads from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County thumped Yale and Northwestern in the first round and Harvard in the second. The University of Texas at Dallas trounced Emory. Miami Dade College clobbered New York University.

This is the arcane and cutthroat world of collegiate chess, which shakes up the news magazines' annual ranking of colleges. Over the past decade, a growing number of public colleges have developed major chess programs with paid coaches and scholarships worth more than $100,000 for star recruits, many from abroad, to burnish their academic reputations.

The result is an unlikely inversion of privilege and prestige. The Harvard and Yale teams scrape by on tiny budgets, with some players arriving in Washington in the discount Chinatown bus and staying in hostels or on friends' couches. Players from UMBC and other well-funded teams stay in the comfortable tournament hotel, wear sleek team jackets and blazers and, with only a hint of a smirk, take pleasure in laying low the Ivies.


Cheerios and brownies are stacked beside them for sustenance in matches that run as long as four hours. Some listen to iPods. The top schools' coaches look on and exchange whispered asides in Eastern European accents. The cockier players get up to stroll about when it's not their turn, as if they don't need to focus on their own game. The only sound is the whir of the air conditioner and the clicks of players punching their time clocks after each move.

The room is thick with tension and intrigue, born partly of the controversy that has surrounded some of the more excessive recruiting practices. As recently as three years ago, several teams, particularly UMBC and UT Dallas, were paying full scholarships, plus cash stipends, to grandmasters as old as 40. Players had nominal course loads and took as long as eight years to graduate.

The overlords of collegiate chess introduced reforms, including a rule against grandmasters over age 25, a six-year limit on competing and a requirement that players maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.0 and at least a half-time course schedule. But UMBC and UT Dallas have stayed dominant by recruiting players from countries including Russia, Poland and India. UMBC's top two players are over 25, grandfathered in under the old rules.

Some players still think the game is rigged. "It's just buying players and championships, and that's not appropriate," said Johnny Sadoff, a Harvard student from Silver Spring.

One crucial difference between college chess and college sports is that the chess players tend to realize they aren't likely to make a living playing their game. Many consequently turn down attractive scholarships in order to attend better schools. The odds of a college athlete making it in the pros are also devastatingly low--but that doesn't stop a great many players in big name sports from betting that they will be the exception to the rule. Their educations--and their future prospects--hang in the balance.

Erin O'Connor, 12:38 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

December 13, 2006 [feather]
Just a rap on the knuckles

Washington State University has reprimanded ethnic studies professor John Streamas for screaming at the College Republicans when they staged a peaceful campus protest on immigration. Streamas was so offended by the chain link fence erected by the CRs to symbolize the need for tighter U.S. border control that he called at least one of them a "white shit bag." He later attempted to excuse his actions by blaming the protest's incendiary imagery: "It made me angry," he told the Daily Evergreen. "The fence is no different than a Confederate flag or a swastika." WSU found Streamas to be "immature, intellectually unsophisticated and thoughtless," but did not honor the CRs' demand that he be fired. "One utterance of a faculty member in the heat of discussion is not the kind of thing for which you terminate someone," said WSU president V. Lane Rawlins.

That's true. But it's also worth noting that, as Margaret Soltan observes, there are other issues with Streamas. His syllabi are, as she says, "meandering messes." They are also quite clearly the documents of someone who is less intent on teaching students than on indoctrinating them. On one, he reflects on what is involved in creating a stable "revolutionary politics," offering the following comments on racism:

At last year's ASA session on the current state of Ethnic Studies, Jose Aranda charged that ES departments have failed to anticipate, much less counter, the Right's strategy of constructing role models in "heroes" of color such as Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzales, Elaine Chao, etc. These "heroes" have bootstrapped their way to power and prestige, giving an almost literal appearance of a much larger showcase of options available to "former" victims of racism. The Right has therefore turned the tables on anti-racist discourse and practice. They have expanded the scale of the discourse of Race but have also contracted the scale of the discourse of Racism. To the Right, Race looks expansive and inclusive, while Racism looks shrunken to the size of a few impotent whiners chanting slogans from the 1960s. The irony is that, unlike Einstein, whose sense of scale still depends on the largest possible backdrop (ie, the speed of light) as an absolute frame of reference, the Right imposes particles of absolutes, each dedicated to particular aspects of existence (eg, gay marriage). It is as if the Right has constructed a descending spiral staircase of mirrors, each new mirror smaller than the mirror above it, and each reflecting therefore only a small--and diminishing--portion of the mirror above. At the bottom is the smallest possible mirror, reflecting the narrowest possible worldview.

On another, he exhorts students to fight the power embodied in white university administrators: "a friend once said that Ethnic Studies is 'the most dangerous department in the university.' Let us prove him right. The corporatizers who own and manage our campuses clear a space for us only grudgingly, only when they contain us in their construction of 'diversity.' Let us break the barriers and scare the bosses, in the name of social justice."

Say what you will about academic freedom. I don't think there's much doubt that this guy crossed the line a long time ago. Even his own department chair thinks so -- last year, she recommended that his contract be terminated:

Streamas said the department is trying to fire him for confronting students with controversial issues. Some students will always feel uneasy about certain issues touched on in CES courses, he said.

"Her main complaint is that I'm a bad teacher and that I'm a bad role model," he said.

Niemann's decision is based on student evaluations that stated students felt uncomfortable with ideas expressed during his classes, Streamas said. The course is supposed to challenge students to understand racial and cultural conflicts.

WSU may not have fired Streamas for his comment--and that's as it should be. But the university should still be looking hard at Streamas' overall performance, noting how the "white shit bag" comment ties in with the unhinged gratuitous commentary on his syllabi, and noting too that students in his classes have complained about his confrontational manner to the point where his chair felt compelled to act (in academe, as we know, it takes a lot for a chair to feel so compelled). The name-calling incident was not an isolated one, and it does point to a larger pattern of seriously unprofessional conduct toward students.

Streamas has made a name for himself on campus as a strong critic of the WSU administration. In 2004, for example, at an open campus meeting on diversity, Streamas issued a challenge and a threat: "My challenge to the star chamber of elitist administrators is this: give up your presumption to dictate race policy, and turn it over to us knowledgeable and committed students and faculty of color who truly practice the diversity that you only preach. ... If you persist in your current practice, we will just have to win the race war you started against us." Also in 2004, Streamas participated in a panel discussion during which he "shouted at the audience as he made observations about violence connected with racism and then said the U.S. Constitution was a racist, sexist document that ought to be burned." He also complained that "Institutional racism makes me angry ... I've been told by a dean that I do not have a right to my anger."

One wonders whether Streamas will get the message this time around, or whether he will chalk up the reprimand he has received as another instance of institutional racism, of deans telling him he does not have a right to his anger.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

December 12, 2006 [feather]
Why major in English anyway?

That is the question. When English departments can't articulate a coherent mission (have a look at the web pages of the top English programs in the country, and you'll see that those that attempt to state a mission--and many don't--concentrate on skills [you'll write a lot! you'll practice close reading!] and variety [you'll cover lots of ground! you'll be exposed to a great deal!] ), and when they are increasingly loathe to hold majors to any but the most vague requirements (these tend to be of the "two courses in English literature written before 1800" variety), one does wonder what the rationale for majoring in English really is. Departments that approach the major in the nonspecific manner sketched out here aren't trying either to recruit majors or to frame the major as a cogent course of study with a solid, shared curriculum that will train students in literary history, genre formation, or major works by major authors. They are doing a very different kind of work indeed, and undergrads instinctively know this.

Consider this only somewhat tongue-in-cheek op-ed by a Bryn Mawr student:

In the life of a college student, declaring a major is like becoming engaged. It is pledging your love and devotion to one subject for the REST OF YOUR LIFE. Or at least until you graduate and get a job with a dot com corporation. I declared my major today. I joined the ranks of lovers of literature, pupils of poetry, and countless other Mawrters who decide that pre-med is too hard and major in English because "they like to read." So I'm an English major. And I feel good.

The rationale offered here--reading is fun and pre-med is hard--is echoed by some of the major recruitment efforts undertaken by Penn's English department, which runs ads on the campus resnet channel urging students who find their finance classes too hard to switch to English. I am not enamored of this approach, which basically suggests that students should opt out of majors that are challenging, and that English is a gut major that will suit plenty of disgruntled students who try to major in unrelated things but either can't or won't do the work. At the same time, the major is large and well-enrolled and thriving, and thus, on purely pragmatic terms, the ad campaign may be said to be doing its work--to keep English classes full and thus to justify maintaining or even increasing the size of the faculty.

I'm curious to know about other campuses where the basic equation offered by both the Bryn Mawr op-ed and the Penn ad hold--and I'm curious to know, too, what readers make of the cynicism that is operative in both. More particularly, I'm interested to know how readers would refract the discussion in this thread through the issues raised in this one.

Erin O'Connor, 10:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

December 7, 2006 [feather]
If a tree falls ...

Emeritus English professor Sanford Pinsker poses the question: "Does it matter if English majors read Ulysses?" The ensuing column raises a number of related questions: Does it matter if there are no faculty members who can teach Ulysses? What does it mean when a major literary work--or a major author--begins to disappear from college reading lists and graduation requirements? Are there some authors, and some texts, that we can all agree should not be allowed to drop away? Or should the English major of today be more focussed on skills and issues--"critical thinking," race, class, gender, power, sexuality, and so on--than on literary forms and literary content?

Several of those questions are more mine than Pinsker's; his piece resonates with concerns that are pretty chronically in the forefront of my mind. He doesn't have answers. But here's what he says:

If the question, "Does it matter if English majors read Ulysses?", had been posed to me a decade or two ago I would have responded with a rousing, unqualified "Yes!" "Yes!," readers of Ulysses will know, is the final word of James Joyce's epical 1922 novel, and represents Molly's acceptance of Leopold Bloom's proposal of marriage as well as an affirming word, for Joyce, that characterized the human spirit at its best.

It will probably surprise nobody who kept even a half-eye on academic politics over the last few years to learn that I was largely in the minority about the importance of reading Ulysses -- and I'm not talking about all-college curriculum committees but about my colleagues in the English department. Since I've retired, things, alas, have grown worse on the Ulysses front: none of my former colleagues teach Ulysses because none of them have read it, nor do any of them plan to pick up Joyce's bulky tome any time soon.

As they were quick to tell me years ago, our English majors can live productive, happy lives without wracking their brains over Joyce's multi-leveled puns and his nasty habit of drawing from languages of Europe: French, German, Italian, and others.

I don't apologize for my days as a high culture warrior or for asking, as gently as I could, if the newest course being proposed meets the warranty of an eight-speed blender test -- namely, will the books we're assigning our English majors still be read eight years from now? In retrospect, I can see how some of my colleagues got mighty tired of crying (usually without success) that it's high time our majors were exposed to a wider range of long-silenced multicultural voices.

In roughly the same way that political correctness was a juggernaut that swept through most English departments (including mine), multiculturalism was the trump card that no elitist work could bet -- not Ulysses, not Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, not Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March.


I am told that current students at my old college cannot take a course in Ulysses because no current professor wants to teach it for the simple (?) reason that no current professor has read it. No matter, our majors can take a course in "The Male Body Image" and read "novels" by and about weight lifters, or a new course in body variations that includes discussions of body piercing and tattooing.

What can I say to my former colleagues? People teach their passions, and if that means body piercing instead of Ulysses, so be it. But just don't tell people you turn out serious English majors because alumnae who know better will laugh you out of town.

Pinsker, of course, is only scratching the surface of the issue. If Ulysses is not reliably taught--and a glance at English course offerings at major colleges and universities across the country will show that it is not--neither are Milton's Paradise Lost or Spenser's Faerie Queene, both works that I was required to read as an English major at Berkeley during the 1980s (I read Ulysses there, too, but it was not required). Likewise, with rare exceptions, Shakespeare has ceased to be a requirement for English majors; studying his work is now almost always optional. Pinsker raises the distressing possibility that the problem here might not simply be that departments are pandering to students who would rather be entertained than work, and who don't have the background or skills to read more difficult literature; the problem might also be that a growing number of younger faculty members lack the ability to teach the more difficult texts, having been poorly trained themselves.

I'm curious to know what readers think. What constitutes a "serious" English major today? What constitutes professional competence when it comes to teaching college English? And where--if anywhere--do we go from here?

Erin O'Connor, 9:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (34)

No pies in the face

There are campuses in this country where conservative speakers have a better chance of getting shouted down or even of having a pie or worse thrown at them than of getting their point across. There are even more campuses where invited speakers tend to come disproportionately from one side of the political arena, and where debate tends as a consequence to suffer. To Penn's credit, it sidestepped both onesidedness and incivility Tuesday night, when the university sponsored a debate about affirmative action. The players were Ward Connerly, architect of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, and pro-affirmative action activist Tim Wise. And this is how it went down:

In a heated debate last night, experts disagreed about whether affirmative active is the solution to the problem of racial inequality, or the problem itself.

The Hall of Flags in Houston Hall was packed with people eager to listen to two authors who have both written extensively on the effects of affirmative action.

In his opening statement, Ward Connerly, the founder and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute and a former regent of the University of California, argued against affirmative action as a practice that has outlived its usefulness in its current form.

Connerly said it is necessary to move beyond issues of race.

He explained that affirmative action is harmful when decisions treat people differently based on race or color.

In contrast, Tim Wise, an "anti-racist" activist and educator, said affirmative action is necessary today because, in fact, it has always existed - but for whites.

He said white people have inherently experienced preferential treatment and, until this is resolved, affirmative action must be instituted to compensate minorities and to level the playing field.

Connerly added that parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act are evidence that we can "trust the majority" to end inequality.

However, Wise said the very need for the Civil Rights Acts shows that the majority cannot be trusted to solve this on their own.

College junior St. John Barned-Smith likewise said that, while he thought both speakers were great, he agreed more with Wise.

"We live in an imperfect world, with imperfect systems like affirmative action," he said.

Temple University student Jack Posobiec said he sided more with Connerly, noting that the speakers remained more civil than he expected for such a hot topic.

Posobiec added that Connerly sounded "preachy - almost like a Southern Baptist."

Like Smith, he believed both speakers were very good.

College junior Sean-Tamba Matthew said he was pleased that "both sides of the debate" were presented fairly.

"This allows each person to make up their own minds, with knowledge of both sides of the issue," he said.

Each person making up his own mind, with knowledge of both sides of the issue -- how simple, how straightforward, and how very hard to come by on campuses these days.

Erin O'Connor, 8:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

December 3, 2006 [feather]
Mr. Holland's civics lesson

Richard Dreyfuss has the right idea:

Richard Dreyfuss wants to show Americans how to be better citizens.

"The teaching of civics presently in the United States is dismal and startling," the Oscar-winning actor said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday.

Dreyfuss is launching a campaign to develop a civics curriculum for the nation's schools.

When he was a child, Dreyfuss said, civics classes taught not only the checks and balances in government but also the reasons behind the creation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

"We want to define the necessity of civics," he said. "What is it, and is it necessary? If it's necessary, is it urgent? And if it's urgent, what do we do? And then to proceed to literally design classes.

"It is time that we revive the notion that we can learn how to run the country and learn, not, you know, for Republicans and not for Democrats, but learn how to run the Constitution," he said.

It just may be the case that what civics education needs is the Hollywood stamp of approval. It did wonders for milk, after all. This will be an interesting project to watch.

Erin O'Connor, 8:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)