Anatomy of a speech code
FIRE reports that 74 percent of American colleges and universities have speech codes on the books. Apologists for those codes argue that they aren't enforced--or that they are necessary from a liability standpoint. Don't listen to them. This short film documents what such codes produce.
I suspect I am not alone in being beyond tired of the academic culture wars. They really don't solve anything, and they polarize the folks who ought to be working together toward beneficial higher ed reform. If you are sick of the culture wars, too, you may find this recent debate between ACTA president Anne Neal and Penn State English professor Michael Berube refreshing and encouraging.
The occasion: the National Communications Association annual conference, held last month in San Diego. The topic: Bias in the classroom. The back story: Much controversy, and a program that originally featured David Horowitz v. Berube. There was so much controversy, in fact, that the ensuing reasonable, cordial, and constructive exchange between two people who were expected to stage some classic culture war pyrotechnics comes across as a radical and welcome break from the norm. Here's to a new and better norm centered on civility, real intellectual exchange, pragmatic problem solving, and common ground. If we can have more discussions like this one, we might begin to get something done.
The whole thing lasts an hour. So you may have to listen in dribs and drabs. But it's worth it.
UPDATE 12/30: For contrast, see this account of David Horowitz's appearance at this year's annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, currently taking place in San Francisco. At least as Inside Higher Ed recounts it, this was a far less collegial and constructive encounter, with threats of disruption, name-calling happening on both sides, leaflets protesting Horowitz's invitation (and comparing him to Goebbels), security detail, a restive audience that sank more than once into nastiness, and other exciting culture-war-type sideshow attractions. Meanwhile, the article notes, nothing new was said, and the event proceeded according to established, stylized, boring norms ("Horowitz didn't break new ground in his critiques of academe--nor did Horowitz's critics in their analysis of him.") The MLA deserves props for trying. But they just wound up staging another round in a standardized stand-off, and not a dialogue. Maybe next year the MLA can invite Anne Neal and host a real discussion.
December 23, 2008
What do you know?
I'm writing a review of Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation right now, which means I'm reading around on line to see what others--including Bauerlein himself--have to say about it. That led me to Nick Gillespie's commentary, which led in turn to clips of his sit-down with Bauerlein for Reason.tv. The first is a nice, compressed summary of Bauerlein's book, and is worth looking at if you are at all concerned about the poor literacy, numeracy, and general knowledge of contemporary American youth--especially if you suspect that immersion in social networking and various screen-based diversions play a role in reduced attention span and heightened insulation from the motivational embarrassments of felt ignorance. The second shows Bauerlein playing the home version of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? (he is).
December 22, 2008
Hopefully you'll have some downtime over the next couple of weeks. And if you are like me, you will be looking forward to spending some of it reading and reading and reading some more.
Here's a list, in no particular order, of the best things I read this year.
--Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter. Kent is a direct descendent of Martha Carrier, who was among those hanged during the Salem Witch trials. The novel represents Kent's meticulous reconstruction of her ancestor's story, and it gets under your skin and stays there. It's more than an eerily contemporary reminder of one of the uglier episodes in American history--it's also a patient and loving effort of genealogy and reclamation.
--Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. This classic was until recently one of those literary lacunae we all carry around with us. I read the novel this year for a Liberty Fund conference, and was absolutely blown away. It's astonishing as a prescient work of political fiction (this is a novel that seems to predict the future of American progressive politics, not to mention to warn us about the dangers of charismatic leaders of any political stripe). And it's even more astonishing as a meditation on memory, loss, regret, and, again, historiography as refracted through genealogy (these things are all obsessions of mine). Plus, it's gorgeously, beautifully, poetically written.
--Tom Perotta's Bad Haircut. You know Perotta, if not from his books, from the films of the books: Election, with the unforgettable Reese Witherspoon, and Little Children, with the less memorable Kate Winslet. Bad Haircut is an early collection of short stories, all told from the point of view of one boy at different points in his adolescence. They are funny, painful, sweet, and at once innocent and wise. All are set during the 1970s and early 1980s, and the historical detailing is just as rich and cheesy and fun and sad and evocative as can be.
--Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs. You have to read Empire Falls first. Then you will be ready for this one.
--William Trevor's Silence in the Garden. William Trevor is the great tragedian of twentieth-century Irish life. He likes to explore how the large movements of modern Irish history insinuate themselves into the private workings of families--and poison them. This one just knocked me over.
--Jincy Willett's The Writing Class. If you have ever taken a writing class--or taught one--this is the murder mystery for you.
--Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Gripping Victorian true crime.
Please do share your own recommendations in the comments.
English department email exchanges about Seung-Hui Cho, shortly before he committed the 2005 Virginia Tech shootings.
December 16, 2008
So you want to defend tenure ...
I'm always getting into disagreements on this blog when I post about tenure. I don't think it works. It encourages cowardice, laziness, and intellectual conformity where it ought to do the opposite; it does not protect academic freedom, particularly in an era where the bulk of college teaching is done by the untenured; and it paralyzes the academic job market in ways that are debilitating for institutions and individuals. I also think tenure is over, that by replacing retired tenured professors with armies of cheap, contingent faculty members who can be hired and fired at will, colleges and universities have, in the aggregate, effectively dismantled the tenure system without ever having to declare (and thus debate) their intentions.
In this respect, defenders of tenure often strike me as strangely anachronistic--in trying to preserve a tradition that is now the exception to a new rule, and is therefore no longer a tradition, they are years out of date. They are also powerfully beside the point. It seems to me sometimes that what is really happening in these attempts is displaced self-justification. The tenured have survivor's guilt--not to mention a great deal of unacknowledged responsibility--for what has happened on their watch. In belatedly defending the tenure system, they attempt to justify themselves, and their exceptional professional privilege, through a seemingly principled argument about what is fair for all. Along the way, they overlook the fact that we can't go back in time, and that, to borrow a phrase, tenure has left the building.
Those are just my compressed thoughts on a Tuesday morning after a long weekend of travel and conference-going.
But they dovetail with something Mark Bauerlein writes in this morning's Minding the Campus:
Faculty members and professional organizations protest strenuously the loss of tenure, and they cite two reasons. First, they say that any university dropping tenure won't attract superior talents, and second, they maintain that the loss of tenure entails the loss of academic freedom. Once again, however, instructional needs dispel the criterion of best and brightest, for there is little evidence that full-time faculty are better teachers than part-timers are. And as for academic freedom, sad to say, tenure has devolved from a system that encourages independence into a system that ensures conformity. Tenure is supposed to protect against-the-grain thinking so long as it observes academic norms, but after five years of graduate training, a year or two as post-doc or adjunct, then six years as an assistant professor, individuals fortunate enough to win tenure have other ambitions than challenging reigning ideas and practices. They've spent too many years adapting to professional etiquette and internalizing protocols to change at age 40. Those things got them hired, published, and promoted, and the acculturation is set.
This is to say that faculty members and professional organizations need other arguments against "adjunctization." It is also to recognize that administrators cannot withstand financial pressures to cut tenure bit by bit, especially in the current moment. Teachers do need and deserve some form of job security. We can't reasonably ask them to complete five to eight years as doctoral students and post-docs and not provide some stability once they've finished. We also can't make them directly subject to forces as volatile as student enrollments, endowment fluctuation, and annual budgeting.
But however appealing the tenure system might appear to them, it is too rigid and costly to last. To fend off adjunctization, then, individuals and professional organizations need to craft and defend a different model. They need to develop employment schemes less absolute but still protective and meritocratic. One possibility might be to grant teachers some form of tenure, but on the basis of teaching duties, not research expertise. That is, they would be hired to handle undergraduate student demands more than to fulfill a disciplinary field. So, as the burdens shift in the undergraduate student body---for instance, fewer students in Romance languages, more in freshman composition---professors would shift as well, in this case, with Romance language professors reducing their language courses and assuming freshman comp duties (after some re-training). That would require, of course, that professors lighten their research identities and raise their teaching profiles---a welcome adjustment in all humanities and "softer" social science fields. Agreeable or not, however, some adjustment is necessary. Administrators and trustees already have a system in place, and they're not going to change it unless a viable alternative comes along.
I agree about shifting the measure of professional excellence and the corresponding reward of job security onto teaching, especially for the humanities. And as I have noted here many times, academe needs to find a third way, a model for job security that represents a compromise between the two unworkable poles of tenure and comprehensive adjunctification. Fixed term contracts, anyone?
December 10, 2008
Cato's Dan Ikenson comments on the Big 3 bailout.
The Jewish Policy Center's magazine, In Focus, is running a special issue on Middle East Studies. Maurice Black and I have an article in it about how the field is a focal point for highly problematic attempts to rewrite academic freedom. The gist: academic freedom does not mean "freedom from criticism" -- and when academics try to assert that it does, they discredit themselves, dishonor the concept of academic freedom (which is a compact of accountability and professional code of ethics), and make it tough to focus on the very real threats to academic freedom that do exist, both within and beyond the academy.
December 9, 2008
Anne Neal on Bill Ayers
When Bill Ayers became election talking point fodder earlier this fall, a number of academics cried out that his academic freedom was being violated. And the University of Nebraska, responding to pressure from state legislators, disinvited Ayers from a talk he was supposed to deliver there in November. Here at this humble blog, I wrote about why Ayers' academic freedom was not under threat as well as why Nebraska was wrong to disinvite Ayers.
ACTA president Anne Neal takes up these issues as well in the New Republic, and offers some sage advice to Nebraska's Academic Senate, its chancellor, and its board of trustees:
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Academic Senate is calling for an independent investigation into the UNL administration's recent decision to disinvite Bill Ayers. In doing so, the senate aims to develop a set of guidelines to determine how and when to cancel speaking invitations in the future. While some may wonder why anyone would still care about the former co-founder of the Weather Underground, this continuing controversy underscores how profoundly confused those within the academy--and those outside of it--are about the concept of academic freedom. Once a university has made the decision to host a speaker, it is incumbent upon the administration to uphold the invitation and not cede to outside pressure. The real question, which the senate is ignoring, is whether a speaker should be invited in the first place.
UNL had invited Bill Ayers, now a University of Illinois at Chicago professor, to speak at its education college's centennial celebration. A day after the invitation was publicized and the school was bombarded with emails and phone calls, UNL chancellor Harvey Perlman revoked the invitation, citing "security concerns." Let there be no question: Professor Ayers' past behavior and involvement deserve our most profound condemnation. Even so, to disinvite him on the grounds of "security concerns" was tantamount to a heckler's veto--and, yes, clearly an attack on academic freedom.
On issue of outside speakers and academic freedom, the American Association of University Professors has properly opined that "the freedom to hear is an essential condition of a university community and an inseparable part of academic freedom." To disinvite thus fundamentally undermines the concept of academic freedom by allowing those who dislike someone's view to keep those views from being heard. This is what happened when Dinesh D'Souza tried to speak at Columbia some years ago, and when Henry Kissinger tried to speak at the University of Texas at Austin. Disinviting, in these or any circumstances, is unacceptable--across the board. Once a guest has been invited through appropriate university procedures, it is incumbent on the institution to take whatever steps are necessary to allow the speaker to air his views.
Furthermore, institutions should, at the same time, consider whether bringing alternative viewpoints might enrich everyone's education. The point is not to give the speaker any particular rights, but rather to honor the academic freedom of the students and faculty to hear thought-provoking arguments, to debate them, and indeed to protest them--peacefully. To disinvite the guest, wherever he or she lies on the political spectrum, is to take away the right of members of the university community to decide for themselves and to undermine the robust exchange of ideas that should be at the heart of higher education.
But with all of that said, academic freedom does not mean that all speakers must be given a forum to speak. This was a point well understood by Yale's Woodward Committee, and it bears some examination here. The Yale Corporation convened the committee in 1974 in the midst of challenges surrounding controversial speakers in the '60s and '70s. While vigorously affirming the importance of free expression, the committee, headed by faculty member C. Vann Woodward, also made clear that academic freedom did not supplant the use of good judgment in the selecting of speakers. Indeed, the committee called on those in the institution to exercise mature judgment in the selection of speakers, saying: "If freedom of expression is to serve its purpose, and thus the purpose of the university, it should seek to enhance understanding. Shock, hurt, and anger are not consequences to be weighed lightly."
It continued: "It is appropriate for the University official to explain to [a] group [wanting to invite a controversial speaker] its moral obligations to other members of the community. It is important, however, for the official to make it clear that these are moral obligations for the inviters to weigh along with other considerations in deciding whether to go forward." The report goes on to say that if the group does go forward, the university should take no action to prohibit or even inconvenience the invitation.
This is the larger issue here, and it is one that the Nebraska Board of Regents and the chancellor--not just the Academic Senate--should be examining. Does the university have in place a system that responsibly governs the invitation of speakers and ensures that there is a robust exchange of ideas? If not, it should. And whatever exists, the administration and the board should stand up to outside pressures that diminish students' right to read, listen, speak, and think for themselves.
NAS in January
Do you live within striking distance of Washington? If so, consider attending the National Association of Scholars' annual meeting from January 9-11.
The program features speakers from across the spectrum, and promises lively debate. Among those who will speak are FIRE president Greg Lukianoff, ACE's Terry Hartle, and Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik. Panels will cover such topics as the military on campus, the politicization of dorm life, and the tension between government regulation and information technology. Victor Davis Hanson will deliver the keynote address, and NAS president Peter Wood will debate AAUP president Cary Nelson on the subject of academic freedom.
December 8, 2008
There's no place like home
The Chronicle of Higher Education is cutting through a lot of the confusion surrounding skyrocketing college costs with a case study of the University of Kansas. CHE points out that in the past twenty years, Kansas has tripled its operating budget, while maintaining a steady enrollment of 26,000 students. During that time, state support has doubled--but while state funding in 1988 covered 40 percent of the operating budget, it now covers only 22 percent. Grants and contracts cover some of the difference, but not all of it. Meanwhile, tuition for in-state students has quintupled. Kansas is still very affordable, at around $7,000/year -- and is much less expensive than rival flagships. Still, the tuition rate has increased at three times the rate of inflation over the past two decades.
Where is all the money going? To various things aimed broadly at enhancing student experience and so improving retention: new facilities (two science buildings, a fitness center replete with climbing wall, renovated dorms, a multicultural resource center, a performing arts center, a writing center, revamped high-tech classrooms, increased library services, IT), more professors, and more bureaucracy to administer all the new student services, to publicize them, and to study them. Energy and health care premiums also add to the total.
The article is an intriguing profile of a university reinventing itself with an eye both to competing with its peer institutions and to genuinely improving educational quality and scholarly excellence. And as such it gives us a rich profile of how contemporary university spending mixes apples and oranges while defining them as essentially the same thing. The improvements to Kansas' research facilities seem impressive and vital. The climbing wall and associated Club Med amenities, not so much. The one is about intellectual quality; the other is about luxurious experience. These are not the same things--and while universities today tend to lump them all in together, it may be the case that they exist in uneasy tension with one another. We see that tension most clearly in students who understand themselves as consumers who have paid for an experience--and, by extension, for a diploma. Entitlement does not mesh nicely with intellectual effort, and when the attitude is widespread, it actively undermines the academic endeavor that is ostensibly the purpose of a campus. An anti-intellectual, binge-drinking, hook-up culture quickly fills the breach.
All that aside, there is one thing that the article does not cover. With all its attention to how much money Kansas has pumped into the thesis that the spending will improve educational outcomes, no attention is paid to whether educational outcomes are any different than they were before Kansas began its spending spree.
Do more Kansas students graduate now than twenty years ago? Has time to degree changed? Kansas is committed to admitting everyone with a 980 SAT score--so it has a major responsibility to those who arrive on campus underprepared for college. Can the university show that students are learning more? Are they proficient readers, writers, and calculators when they graduate? Do they know the basics of American history and do they grasp how our system of government works? Do they have foundational understanding of such things as the scientific method and markets? How are they with foreign languages, or awareness of world events?
I suspect that the inquiring minds of cash-strapped Kansas parents would like to know.
December 5, 2008
Donald Downs says that higher ed may be the next bubble to burst in our serial national popping spree. With tuition way too high, educational outcomes often questionable, and the earning power of a diploma only tenuously pegged to its cost, something has to give. And--as with the other bubbles that have been bursting--that's not necessarily a bad thing.
In an article on Forbes.com a few months ago, a leading financial analyst observed, "We are at a trend line that cannot be sustained. Tuition must go down, or there will be limited demand for high-priced private schools." The recent economic debacle enhances the credibility of this prediction. As we speak, high-priced Antioch College is closing its expensive (and excessively politically correct) doors after 157 years of existence. According to many sources, Antioch is the beginning of a national trend.
Last September, Timothy Burke, a professor of history at Swarthmore, wrote an influential essay at Inside Higher Ed in which he asserted that "the party's over" for higher ed's tuition and building binge. Burke focused on five main reasons for a contraction in higher education: 1) declines in tuition growth; 2) underperformance by endowments; 3) pullbacks by donors (indeed, on November 26 the Wall Street Journal published a lead story on how the economic crisis has caused a downturn in charity giving nation-wide); 4) lower funding from public and private sources; and 5) the fact that revenues from IPOs, investment property rights, and technology benefit only a few institutions. A respondent to Burke's piece added three other factors: 1) fewer students are attending college as the nation's demographics change; 2) "growing public awareness of the declining economic returns of a college degree" is causing a backlash; and 3) such on-line schools as the University of Phoenix provide education at a fraction of what residential institutions charge. (Will the Internet affect higher ed the same way it has affected newspapers?)
A prescient friend of mine recently related a thought he had while teaching a few years ago at a "third tier private school" that had high tuition. At "job fairs" at the school, most of the positions being offered involved jobs as low-level managers at Target, McDonalds, and similar businesses. My friend surmised that students had to wonder why they or their families had depleted their bank accounts to pay for an educations that led to positions that simply did not require the pedagogical preparation the school offered. To be sure, a liberal education is a precious thing in its own right. But its preciousness has a way of declining when its costs put middle class citizens in a vise--especially when those citizens are already living in the vise of the new economy.
How all this plays out is unclear. Obviously higher education will (and should) survive. But there is no reason to think that higher ed will be immune to the shakeouts and reorganizations that have affected so many other institutions in this age of globalization, which has wrought a heightened level of what economist Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction." Burke and others speculate that we might witness such changes as new thinking about how to allocate precious resources in the pedagogical mission; heightened prioritizing and avoidance of overlap in programs and courses, leading to layoffs despite tenure protections; less indulgence in providing expensive student "creature comforts;" efforts by institutions to charge more for the knowledge they produce; reconsideration of how non-tenured, adjunct faculty are used; and the need "to develop new mental habits, to stop assuming or believing that growth is the default." Some schools will no doubt disappear, and others will consolidate. Some will decline, while others will thrive by gathering up some of the pieces.
Downs speculates that one result of such a restructuring is that fewer people may attend college, opting instead for skilled trades. He also thinks, counterintuitively but intriguingly, that another result may be a revival of liberal arts education, particularly among older students who have the maturity to appreciate it.
Predictions aside, higher ed will have opportunities for innovation. It can come out better in the long run if it responds to those opportunities as opportunities. That will require great institutional flexibility and imaginative strength on the part of administrators (who should be far fewer, and far less exhorbitantly paid) and professors (who should be doing lots more teaching, and who should not be uniformly obligated by the research model). The great teachers, after all, are very often not the great researchers. And there are entire disciplines that are foundering under the weight of a research model that just doesn't work. Anthony Kronman is eloquent on this point in Education's End--so much of the trouble we have with the humanities today originated in the misguided adoption of a research ideal that was far better suited to the sciences. Humanists ought to be teachers first--even at Harvard! If they happen to have great ideas along the way, they should write them up in their free time and in the summers. It's the exceptional humanist who really does have an original thought worthy of publication, let alone a regular flow of original thoughts worthy of a constant stream of articles, talks, and books. Most just don't. But they have to pretend they do to hold on to their careers: and thus does the profession itself come to resemble an intellectually unstable house of cards. It would be so much better for everyone if the role were more modest, more oriented around teaching, more grounded in the awareness that often the best thing a college humanities professor can do is function as a responsible steward for great works, great ideas, and the skills involved in understanding them. That's humble and often thankless stuff. The ego involved is minuscule compared to that involved in churning out "My Work," as it is so often tellingly called. But often, it is also so much more valuable in the end.
Other things that hang in the balance of a "creative destruction": tenure (but not necessarily academic freedom), and the massive, bloated, meddlesome and distracting student life bureaucracy (think: University of Delaware). The one is already over, though many won't admit it, and it's time to start working toward a fixed-contract system that eliminates the ugly caste structure we have now, with adjuncts doing most of the work. The other needs major cutbacks. If students are old enough to go to college, they are old enough to live in an off-campus apartment, to feed themselves, to clean up after themselves, to pay their bills, and to live like responsible adults. If they can't do that, then they should either attend college while living at home or put college off until they have grown up.
Colleges and universities should not be in the housing business. They provide an inferior, overpriced product (having lived in Penn's outrageously priced, rat- and roach-infested, underheated freshman dorm as a faculty advisor for two years, I can speak to that). And they also create experiential bubbles that narrow students' lives in potentially devastating ways. The party culture that dominates so many campuses is connected, ironically, to the in loco parentis approach of many institutions. So is the attendant anti-intellectualism. And so are speech codes.
I'm just thinking on the spot. Reactions and additional thoughts welcome.
December 3, 2008
I have a dream
The flu makes for vivid dreams. While enjoying the flu over Thanksgiving, I dreamed vividly thus:
Walking down a steep, dusty path in the sun, I encounter Sarah Palin hiking her way up. She is wearing cut off shorts, a spray tan, and large dark sunglasses. She is flanked by her smaller children, and there is a spot on her thigh where the spray tan has missed a spot.
Not being as shy in my dreams as I am in person, I go right up to Sarah Palin. I extend my hand, and I say, "Sarah Palin! It's lovely to meet you," or something of that sort. I begin trying to tell her how--all politics aside--I really admire how she stood up to intense media butchery with grace and unflappable strength. Because, all politics aside, I do.
But in my dream, Sarah Palin shushes me. She looks around to see if anyone is listening. She shakes her head. "I'm not Sarah Palin," she says in a stage whisper. "I am Mary Rutherford."
Dream ends with me knowing that she is too Sarah Palin.
Most of my dreams are vague and imprecise, more full of mood than event. And I tend either to only have disturbing dreams or only to remember the disturbing ones. So this one was unusual for me, having a clear plot of sorts, and not being at all disturbing.
I mentioned it to my mother, who asked the all-important question. "Who is Mary Rutherford?" Of course I had no idea. But Sarah Palin very clearly stated that that's who she was. So we googled Mary Rutherford.
Mary Rutherford, it turns out, is the stuff of legend. As the story goes, Mary Rutherford was a Canadian spinster who was jilted at the altar on her wedding day after delivering her virtue to her fiancee the night before. She went on to commit suicide by hanging herself in her wedding gown. Posthumously accused of witchcraft, the legend goes, her head was buried separately from her body, and her spirit continues to haunt the Hanover, Ontario area where she lived. The legend, of course, does not match the facts: Mary Rutherford was in fact a married mother who lived a long non-magical life after emigrating to Hanover from Scotland. She was buried in a local Presbyterian graveyard in 1872--presumably with her head in the coffin along with the rest of her--and her stone survives to this day. The stone is part of the legend, too: It is said that anyone who touches it will eventually break the bone that came into contact with the stone.
So Mary Rutherford was, like Sarah Palin, a magnet for rumor and for scurrilous, quasi-erotic accusation. She was also the inheritor of a rather timeworn tale: The legend surrounding her is that of Dickens' Miss Havisham (also jilted, also rotting away in her wedding dress, also described as a "witch"). And Miss Havisham, like many of Dickens' characters, has a genealogy that combines the outlines of literary characters (among them Collins' Woman in White and Disraeli's Venetia) and biographical details from real lives (Dickens appears to have based her character on the story of an Australian woman named Miss Donnithorne; jilted on her wedding day, she lived out the rest of her days in seclusion, surrounded by the rotting remains of her untouched wedding breakfast).
We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.