Revolution number 9
Heather MacDonald on the Title IXing of the hard sciences:
Women, feminists proclaim again and again, are strong, indomitable, and equal in every way to men. Except, that is, when they run up against an obstacle, thrown malevolently in their path, that is too formidable even for them, such as ... a sitcom.
New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier recently called for renewed attention to the lack of proportional representation of women in science. (In the past, Angier has made something of a specialty of discovering proper gender role models in nature, along the lines of dominatrix polyps and sexually submissive male arachnids.) The imbalance in the sciences, Angier reported, is especially bad in physics, where just 6 percent of full professors are women. After canvassing some current theories explaining the imbalance, Angier offered her own scapegoats: "Bubble-headed television shows like 'The Big Bang Theory,' with its four nerdy male physics prodigies and the fetching blond girl next door."
Imagine the devastation that such a show might wreak. A 15-year-old math whiz is happily immersed in the Lorentz transformations, the basis for the theory of special relativity. She looks up at the tube and sees a fictional group of male physics students bashfully speaking to a feisty blonde. Her confidence and enthusiasm shattered, she drops out of her AP physics course and starts hanging out at the mall with the cheerleading squad.
Gender-insensitive TV shows are just the start of the barriers blocking girls' entry to the empyrean of pure science. There's also the father of modern physics himself. What self-respecting girl wants to look like Albert Einstein? "As long as we're making geek [culture] chic" under our new, science-friendly president, Angier suggests, "let's lose the Einstein 'do and moustache." We're in whiplash territory here. For years, we have been told that the patriarchy brainwashes women into excessive concern with appearance. Now, however, it turns out that girls with an innate knack for science could be turned away from their calling just because the Uber Role Model is frumpy. If Einstein had looked like Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie, apparently, girls would be clamoring to participate in the Math Olympiad and earning their proportionate share of physics Ph.D.s.
Which is it? Are women "strong"? Or can they be crushed by fears of a permanent bad hair day and inspired by something as superficial as Hollywood fashion? Given the amount of time and money that most women spend on applying makeup, blow-drying their hair, shopping for clothes, and gullibly attending to preposterous wrinkle-cream ads in women's magazines, Angier's claim that girls could be thwarted by a TV comedy is not wholly unreasonable. It just happens to contradict the usual feminist claim that women are just as tough as men.
The evidence to date suggests that the highest-level math skills--those required for research physics--aren't evenly distributed among men and women. Men greatly outnumber women at the very highest and lowest ends of the mathematics aptitude curve. As Christina Hoff Sommers has documented, men also show greater interest in abstract, non-empathetic careers than women. Of course, the conflicting demands of raising a family and pursuing pure science undoubtedly influence women's career paths as well. If scientific pursuit can be made more family-friendly without in any way damaging its essential strengths, such changes should be contemplated. But the fertility clock and women's greater involvement with their babies are not chauvinist plots; they are biological realities.
Unfortunately, Angier's conviction that sexism lurks behind women's rarity in the most abstract sciences isn't confined to the New York Times or even to academia. A congressional bill, the Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Act of 2008, would apply Title IX gender quotas to academic science. Barack Obama endorsed the bill during the presidential campaign; women's groups are clamoring for action.
Obama has indeed presented himself as a science president. Rejecting feminist propaganda, however belatedly, regarding sexism in science would be a strong start in justifying that title. In the meantime, stay tuned for the latest twist in feminists' contradictory--dare one say, irrational?--apologetics.
Women don't need this kind of "help," and neither does science.
Where women are interested, they pretty much take over. They are a strong majority of college students, and are also dominating law schools, med schools, and vet schools. STEM disciplines don't attract women in the same numbers as they attract men, and we shouldn't read this as proof of cultural pathology. Those women who do want to enter a STEM discipline should have the same chances that men do--but the emphasis is on chance. Title IX injects a meddlesome and morally wrong emphasis on engineering outcomes, when the emphasis ought to be on ensuring equal opportunity.
Science, meanwhile, is not a game. We can't afford for it to become the playground of ideologues. It is the height of cultural complacency--not to mention decadence--to tinker with it as Congress is poised to do.
January 28, 2009
Welcome to the desert of the real
I know you ask yourself constantly: "What does plagiarism look like in the age of simulacrum?" Now we know:
In 2007, after several high-profile plagiarism scandals, Southern Illinois University released a 17-page report on how to deal with the issue. The report includes a lengthy definition of plagiarism, explaining exactly what does and does not merit the dreaded "p" word.
One problem: That definition appears to have been plagiarized.
The 139-word definition used in the report is nearly identical to the definition adopted by Indiana University in 2005. Here, for example, are passages from each definition, explaining what constitutes plagiarism:
Southern Illinois: "... directly quoting another's actual words, whether oral or written; using another's ideas, opinions, or theories; paraphrasing the words, ideas, opinions, or theories of others, whether oral or written; borrowing facts, statistics, or illustrative material; and offering materials assembled or collected by others in the form of projects or collections without acknowledgment."
Indiana: "1. Directly quoting another person's actual words, whether oral or written; 2. Using another person's ideas, opinions, or theories; 3. Paraphrasing the words, ideas, opinions, or theories of others, whether oral or written; 4. Borrowing facts, statistics, or illustrative material; or 5. Offering materials assembled or collected by others in the form of projects or collections without acknowledgment."
In other passages, just a few words of some sentences have been changed. For instance, Indiana University's policy says: "What is considered 'common knowledge' may differ from course to course." Southern Illinois's report changes the end of the sentence to "subject to subject."
So how, when writing a report on plagiarism, did Southern Illinois manage to lift much of the content without citation?
The chairman of the committee that put the report together, Arthur M. "Lain" Adkins, said he didn't know. Mr. Adkins, who is the director of the university's press, acknowledged that the language is "very similar" but wasn't convinced that his committee had done anything wrong. "It could be a coincidence," Mr. Adkins said. "Any definition by nature is going to be close to another definition."
While the report was signed by all 10 members of the committee, that particular section of the report was, according to Mr. Adkins, "most likely" written by R. Gerald Nelms, an associate professor of English at Southern Illinois at Carbondale. Mr. Nelms has been quoted as a plagiarism expert by publications like The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Nelms said he wasn't sure if he was responsible for that definition and didn't know why the language would be almost exactly the same. "If there are any similarities," he said, "my suspicion is they are coincidental."
Both men said they did not believe that anyone on the committee had intentionally copied the definition. Mr. Adkins said he didn't remember any mention of Indiana's policy during the committee's discussions.
Indiana adopted the current version of its plagiarism policy in 2005, well before Southern Illinois issued its report. Pamela W. Freeman, an associate dean of students and director of the office of student ethics and antiharassment programs at Indiana University at Bloomington, has been involved in writing the university's polices on topics like plagiarism for 15 years.
"I don't think it would be the norm to verbatim use it without citing it," said Ms. Freeman.
Her response after hearing the two policies read aloud was simply, "Wow."
In fact, Indiana's policy has been cited elsewhere. Case Western Reserve University's School of Dental Medicine uses (and credits) Indiana's definition as part of its policy on academic integrity. The Web site Scriptovia.com, which allows students to share class notes, also includes Indiana's definition and conspicuously cites the university.
In recent years, Southern Illinois has had more than its share of plagiarism cases. In 2006, the chancellor of the Carbondale campus was asked to step down after it was discovered that portions of a strategic plan he wrote for Southern Illinois had been taken from a strategic plan he helped write for another university (The Chronicle, November 9, 2006).
The following year it was revealed that the president of the system, Glenn Poshard, had copied large sections of his 1984 dissertation without citation (The Chronicle, September 10, 2007). A university committee deemed the copying "errors and mistakes" rather than plagiarism (The Chronicle, October 12, 2007).
The report has not been officially adopted by the university's Board of Trustees, which meets next month. Mr. Adkins said his committee plans to review its report in light of the similarities to Indiana's policy. "If we've made a mistake, we will cite it," he said. "And we will own up to our mistake."
Now if I were a clever postmodernist, I would have just posted Margaret Soltan's analogous post here in lieu of my own. But I'm not that clever.
Margaret's was posted at 8:33 a.m., from her perch on the east coast. It is now 8:16 a.m. from my perch in the west. I didn't read her post before I wrote mine. I just went over and got the link when I was done--because I knew she would have been there first, even though I'm posting earlier in the morning.
January 27, 2009
Higher ed is pushing for stimulus money. But what is it doing to ensure that students graduate with a basic understanding of economics--or, more basically, with the ability to manage their own money? Not much.
Maurice Black and I have an essay about this at Minding the Campus.
January 26, 2009
From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, generally does not see eye to eye with critics who say college campuses are hotbeds of political correctness and liberal indoctrination. This month, when he debated Peter Wood, executive director of the National Association of Scholars at the NAS annual conference in Washington, over the meaning of academic freedom, both came out swinging.
Mr. Nelson repeatedly characterized the scholars' association as threatening professors' freedom to teach, while Mr. Wood accused the faculty group of showing far too little concern for the plight of students who get bad grades or face discipline based on their political views.
In the subsequent question-and-answer session, however, Mr. Nelson seemed downright sympathetic with others when it came to the subject of campus speech codes. Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, asked him whether the AAUP could move beyond disagreements with organizations like hers and work with them. Mr. Nelson replied that his group would be willing to work with hers to fight speech codes.
In a later interview, Mr. Nelson said he saw speech codes as such an affront that offering to join others in fighting them was an easy call. "One of the reasons you collaborate is to win," he said. "I want to knock out speech codes."
The Chronicle of Higher Ed first reported Nelson's promise in a blog post. Now it reports that promise again, this time in an article. Two weeks separate the notices -- but the story remains the same. Today's article reads a bit like a nudge.
I still hold by what I wrote then: "Here's to coalitions replacing culture wars. That won't mean the end of disagreement--but it could go a long way toward replacing dysfunctional stalemates with constructive action that benefits all. Interestingly, Nelson's own home institution, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, receives a red light rating from FIRE for its policies on speech. Check out UIUC's problematic policies here."
January 23, 2009
"The problem is that Poe has been so completely taught that he is very rarely read with the eyes of a reader." Thus Nick Mamatas at The Smart Set, attempting, with some success, to parse that paradox that good English teachers privately know well, but rarely talk about: that in teaching literature (something that is surely vital and necessary and important), one runs the risk (always, no matter how inspirational and pedagogically amazing one is) of destroying (or just plain preventing) the most essential basis for reading literature in the first place, the reader's independent and personal and self-starting drive to read.
English teachers are mediators. They are not ends in themselves. That's how it should be, anyway. They are training wheels that young readers ought to be able to shed once they acquire the skills they need to read purposefully and profitably on their own. But, too often, this backfires. Kids get turned off, and reading just becomes a chore they have to do for school. Or--and this pattern is less discussed, but still troubling--they become dependent. They may really enjoy reading--but they think they need a class, and spoonfed lectures, and guided discussions, in order to get anything out of what they read. They are willing and eager--but have learned from their teachers exactly what they should not have learned. They have become passive where they should be active, and the teacher becomes a crutch for laziness, fear, uncertainty, and sometimes even a creeping snobbery about reading, about choosing what to read, deciding how to read, and figuring out what one thinks about what one has read. These folks grow up into the kind of adults who answer questions about their favorite books by listing works they think should be their favorites--but that they may never have even actually read.
Teaching high school, you're grappling with the first kind of problem. You are, particularly these days, just trying to get kids to be able to read capably, to enjoy it, to recognize that it has a value that is different from, and perhaps superior to, those to be found in watching TV, gaming, surfing, social networking, texting, and so on. Teaching college, you still grapple with that problem--but you also begin to encounter the second. This is not to say that there is no role for teaching English at the college level. Of course there is. But it is to say that Mamatas makes some interesting points about the built-in limitations of the classroom as a place where people can become engaged, autonomous, lifelong readers, and that those observations may have particular point when it comes to thinking about the goals of, say, the English major.
Anecdotally: I first encountered Poe in an eighth-grade English class. I recall sitting in metal shop (bane of existence!) with my book open on my lap, absolutely astonished by this weird story called "Hop Frog." In the ninth grade, Mrs. Morrison played a recording of "The Tell-Tale Heart," complete with terrible, shiver-inducing, thumping sound-effects. We were hooked. Team teaching a high school creative writing class twenty-five years later, my colleague and I put on a poor man's version of that show. We had the students close their eyes. We read the story to them. And we simulated tell-tale heartbeats as needed. They loved it.
January 20, 2009
The taxman cometh
Evan Coyne Maloney, intrepid and charismatic director and star of Indoctrinate U, has released a short film entitled Charles Rangel and the Harlem Tax Revolt of '09. Celebrate your recent quarterly hemorrhage by taking eight minutes to enjoy.
January 19, 2009
My spam filter appears to have gone rogue--and unbeknownst to me, it apparently ate two separate comments from Michael Berube over the weekend. Shame on my spam filter--which, in fairness, I have asked to eat things with multiple links, just to cut down on the porn that comes this blog's way. And thanks to himself for reproducing his comment on his blog. Here it is:
Well, I thank Ms. O'Connor for the kind (and civil!) words, and I quite agree that Ms. Neal did the right thing in that debate. But I do think a limited defense of snark is in order. I'm not of the David Denby school that says Snark is Everything That is Wrong with Today's Society Today--though I suppose that much was already clear. More important, I actually am trying to offer people a discursive mode of dealing with people like Jason Rantz. Because, you see, when someone like Rantz comes along and says, "All you need to learn about immigration law I can teach you in this one sentence: it is illegal to enter our country without permission, bypassing our laws," he's demonstrating that he's not a serious interlocutor on the subject, and doesn't merit a serious response. The good lord Moloch gave us snark for just such rhetorical occasions. Likewise, every once in a while David Horowitz says things like
radicals like Berube can't be bothered to actually read or respond rationally to anything that ruffles their progressive feathers, let alone be concerned about the fact that their entire political focus since 9/11 has been in getting our terrorist enemies off the hook.
And how should one respond to such a provocation? Well, another man might've been angry, and another man might've been hurt. And another man might try to ignore it (that never works) and still another might've done the Grover Furr-patented "Horowitz=Goebbels!!1!!" dance. Me, I've gradually decided that the way to deal with vile smears like this is to ridicule the wingnuts who utter them. (And I use the term "wingnuts" precisely as our Founding Fathers intended.) Because people like Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Rantz are chiefly trying to gin up some outrage, and too many academic leftists are all too eager to oblige them.
By contrast, when Ms. Neal shows up at a conference and decides to drop the "How Many Ward Churchills" nonsense in favor of a serious discussion of student engagement and academic standards, I'm happy to take part. Ms. Neal, smart as she is, knew perfectly well that the ACTA-pamphlet approach wasn't going to fly at the National Communication Association, and as a result, we actually did have a productive exchange--even where we disagreed (e.g., we agree that tuition costs have placed college out of reach for far too many families though we offer different reasons why). Reasonable conservative critiques of higher education (or anything else) are perfectly OK by me; Horowitzian smears and ignorant Rantzian rants aren't. Personally, I enjoy debating stuff with smart people who disagree with me--even on my blog! Mr. Drake, you're welcome to comment anytime. Feel free to stop by. And Ms. O'Connor, thanks again for the reply.
Love the etymology of "wingnut," a term toward which I now feel a sudden surge of historical affection. For balance (that watchword of the new post-partisan etiquette), here's some background on "moonbat."
P.S. to Michael: If you won't call me "Ms.," I won't call you "Mister."
January 17, 2009
Must See TV
I love Diablo Cody, and I love Toni Collette. I also love Chris in the Morning. This is what you get when you mix them together. It will take you half an hour to watch the premiere episode of Showtime's new series, United States of Tara but it's worth it. Absolutely spellbinding.
January 16, 2009
No more wingnuts
Michael Berube makes a good point on his blog about the new Family Security Matters' list of America's Most Dangerous College Classes: It's a bad list, a shallow list, an anti-intellectual list, and one that really doesn't serve anyone who cares about education very well at all. It's provocative, aimed at an easily inflamed, least-common-denominator sort of angry reactionary base, and in this sense, it's the sort of thing that does more to harm the work of those seriously interested in meaningful higher ed reform than to advance their cause. Look at the list and see for yourself.
So, Berube's right about all that--though I really would like to see him make his points without the snark, as that's not terribly constructive, either, if you really want genuine exchange among people who differ intellectually, ideologically, and politically. Berube could start small--maybe by swearing off the word "wingnut," which he uses frequently and with relish (it appears eight times, in one form or another, in his post). "Wingnut" is a term that tends, like lists of the sort FSM has issued, to play to a certain kind of angry, easily inflamed base, and so to shut down reasonable exchange.
Over the years, Berube has almost singlehandedly refined academic snark to an art form, there's no question about that. But the utility, not to mention wisdom, of academic snark is, to my mind, wide open for debate. Besides, Berube's such a smart guy--he really doesn't need to play that kind of game for laughs, and he really should be taking seriously the fact that he models for a great many academics the right and proper mode of etiquette to adopt when talking about academic politics. His readers copy him (count the uses of "wingnut" in the comments), and that's something that should be handled with care. As Clarice Starling said to Jack Crawford, "Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters."
Snark aside, the other reason to read Berube's post is that he has reproduced his opening remarks from his recent NCA debate with ACTA president Anne Neal. The remarks are interesting and well worth reading; they make some good points, especially about the desirability of having more conservatives in the academy, the mechanisms of promoting debate and of shutting it down, and the uselessness of the concept of diversity. But you won't get the full force of the NCA debate--or be able to appreciate the good that took place that day--if you don't also listen to Anne Neal's remarks, which came after his, and which took Berube by surprise (when she finished, he declared that he found her remarks refreshing, and that he was glad to hear them).
And then you should listen to the discussion that ensued. It was, as I have written before, reasonable, cordial, and constructive. No name-calling, no reducing of the other to straw-man, no culture warring, no cheap scoring of points. Along the way, Berube and Neal found some important common ground. They agreed that there are real problems with the anti-intellectual, disengaged, alcohol-saturated student culture that dominates far too many campuses. They agreed about the degradation and dumbing down of the curriculum. They agreed that affirmative action is not the way to increase the number of conservatives in the academy. And they agreed about the problem of speech codes. Berube doesn't agree with ACTA that English departments should require Shakespeare--because, he says, students study him voluntarily--but he did volunteer that a case could be made for requiring Milton. And he made some important remarks about what happens when faculty engage in herdlike behavior, up to and including rejecting job candidates for perceived--but not necessarily even actual--political faux pas.
Listen to the whole thing here.
January 15, 2009
Feed the hungry
By answering questions about chemistry, vocabulary, art, math, geography, and more at FreeRice.com. You can adjust the questions to your level -- and stretch your brain at the same time that you help fight world hunger.
On the dumbest generation
Take a few minutes to listen to John Leo interview Emory English professor Mark Bauerlein about his new book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Your Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. Bauerlein is eloquent on how technology narrows the intellectual horizons of the young, on the role parents should play in ensuring that their kids have regular exposure to adult, screen-free pursuits such as reading newspapers and books, and about academic groupthink. Also covered: the scholarly rationales that have been irresponsibly developed to define away the problem.
January 12, 2009
Good news in the making common cause department:
Washington--Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, generally does not see eye-to-eye with critics of college campuses as hotbeds of political correctness and liberal indoctrination. When he debated Peter Wood, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, over the meaning of academic freedom, on Friday at the group's annual conference, both predictably came out swinging.
Mr. Nelson repeatedly characterized the scholars' association as threatening professors' freedom to teach, while Mr. Wood accused the faculty group of showing far too little concern for the plight of students who get bad grades or face disciplinary proceedings based on their political views.
So primed was he for a fight that Mr. Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, even took jabs at a few opponents who were not even in the ring, including the tradition-minded American Council of Trustees and Alumni and David Horowitz, the conservative activist who has made a crusade of urging state governments and colleges to discourage indoctrination in the classroom.
In the subsequent question-and-answer session, however, Mr. Nelson seemed downright sympathetic with those present when it came to the subject of campus speech codes. Anne D. Neal, president of the trustees-and-alumni group, asked him whether the AAUP could move beyond its disagreements with organizations like hers and work together on areas of common ground. Mr. Nelson replied that his group would be willing to work with hers to fight speech codes, which it has long opposed.
In a later interview, Mr. Nelson said he saw speech codes as such an affront to academic freedom and freedom of speech that offering to join others in fighting them was an easy call.
"One of the reasons you collaborate is to win," he said. "I want to knock out speech codes."
Here's to coalitions replacing culture wars. That won't mean the end of disagreement--but it could go a long way toward replacing dysfunctional stalemates with constructive action that benefits all.
Interestingly, Nelson's own home institution, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, receives a red light rating from FIRE for its policies on speech. Check out UIUC's problematic policies here.
January 9, 2009
English, heal thyself
At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Liz McMillen observes that David Horowitz' recent appearance at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association confirms that the culture wars are alive and well--at least in English. She also suggests that academics have a lot to do with that--and that they really do need to do better, for the sake of their own credibility and for the sake of students.
Anyone who needed evidence that the culture wars are far from over could find it here at the annual gathering of the Modern Language Association last week. As the response to David Horowitz's appearance on an MLA panel showed all too plainly, the culture wars haven't ended; they've just reached an ugly stalemate.
Mr. Horowitz, of course, is no stranger to the MLA. His campaign for an "academic bill of rights" and his criticism of what he says is classroom indoctrination have earned him the enmity of many scholars — not just in literary studies, a frequent target of his barbs, but in other disciplines as well. But to hear him tell it, the extreme attacks on him have blocked any real discussion. In fact, Mr. Horowitz's appearance at the MLA meeting, he said, is the first time that he has defended his views in person before a scholarly group.
And that was either cause for dismay, as some here viewed it, or a step forward for the MLA. Mr. Horowitz appeared on a panel called "Academic Freedom?" along with Mark Bauerlein, Norma V. Cantú, and Cary Nelson. It was a tightly formatted event, complete with security guards stationed at the front of the room. The speakers were given 12 minutes to make their comments, and audience members 30 seconds afterward to raise questions — limits that were actually enforced, even if it meant audience members shouting out "Your time is up!" to Mr. Horowitz as soon as his 12 minutes had passed.
Mr. Horowitz may have a point about the absence of real discussion, since the two camps seemed to talk past each other. He and Mr. Bauerlein each criticized the professoriate for not acknowledging real problems in the classroom or the ways identity politics can infringe on academic freedom. "The danger to academic freedom comes from within, not from David Horowitz, Anne Neal, or Stephen Balch," said Mr. Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University. In their remarks, Mr. Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Ms. Cantú, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, did not respond to the supposed problems described by the other panelists; instead they offered defenses of academic freedom as essential for higher education, especially as rising numbers of adjunct faculty members lack customary protections.
But members of the audience weren't having any of it. They wanted to challenge the panel about one thing: why Mr. Horowitz was there in the first place.
"Are you now proud that you are the only organization to invite Horowitz to speak?" an angry Barbara Foley of Rutgers University at Newark asked. "Did you do your homework" about Mr. Horowitz's blog, FrontPagemag.com? she continued, to audience applause. Grover Furr of Montclair State University and a self-described "victim" of Mr. Horowitz's book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, said he objected to Mr. Horowitz's being invited "not because of his views but because he is a liar." Another audience member complained that out of thousands of MLA members, the organization had picked "two FrontPage columnists" for the panel.
"You have to have a modicum of respect for people," Mr. Horowitz responded. "I was in the civil-rights movement before Barbara Foley was even born."
At one point, a member of the audience could be seen giving Mr. Horowitz the finger. Brian Kennelly of California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, who presided over the event, wrote on The Chronicle's Web site that he observed an audience member repeatedly mouthing an obscenity to Mr. Horowitz — behavior he called "troublesome" and "repugnant."
Even before the session began, members of the MLA Radical Caucus handed out a statement protesting the organization's decision to invite Mr. Horowitz to speak. Mr. Horowitz "consistently misrepresents the views of academics whom he wishes to discredit," the caucus said. "He is not a scholar but a liar of the Goebbels school." Later that day, the Radical Caucus fought a resolution by Mr. Nelson to have the MLA express solidarity with scholars of both Israeli and Palestinian culture--rather than just the latter group--saying that it was "imperialist."
That kind of rhetoric may have been what Mr. Bauerlein had in mind when he said that certain professors on the left deny to Mr. Horowitz and other critics "any decent or honest motive. They don't grant them the impulse to care about young minds and the curriculum. They cast them as partisan hacks, and that's wrong."
It took the president of the MLA, Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to bring the meeting back to substance. "The charge is whether professors are bullying students," he said during the question period. "I agree with Bauerlein and Horowitz that we need to have more curiosity about what's going on."
Graff is right. Curiosity is the key. Defensiveness and posturing of the sort McMillen describes here serve no one well. They paralyze debate while ensuring that the problem fossilizes into something that not only gets harder and harder to address, but also becomes a piece of academic culture. No professional culture--or academic discipline--should organize itself in any way around group pathology. And academe's reaction to the criticisms of folks like Horowitz has resolved itself, at least in some quarters, pathologically. Hence the security guards at this panel (arrangements were also made, in event of disruption, to hold the panel discussion in a secure undisclosed location and to broadcast it to a remote audience). Hence the hostility of those who spent the panel flashing the bird and mouthing "f**k you" to Horowitz (McMillen does not specify the obscenity, but reports elsewhere do). Hence the MLA Radical Caucus' flyer comparing Horowitz to Goebbels. Hence, too, the contention of audience members and the MLA Radical Caucus that Horowitz should never have been invited--because of course the last thing you would want to do with one of your most prominent and effective critics is actually engage with him, debate him, and, if you believe in your cause and you really are better than your detractor says, prove him wrong.
January 7, 2009
Freshman reading projects
Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed has long been one of the more popular picks for the group reading projects colleges and universities like to assign as part of freshman orientation. And as often as it gets assigned, it gets attacked for being a socialist screed masquerading as classic investigative journalism: this book is a lightning rod for debates about campus bias, and administrators who pick it risk being accused of attempting to use freshman orientation to indoctrinate entering students into the ways and means of leftist ideology.
Of course it's all more complicated than that. The book is an easy, engaging read. It's also a good debate prompt and a provocative--if one-sided--indictment of low-wage labor in the U.S. People who want to see books like Ehrenreich's removed from syllabi and freshman reading lists are as bad as those who seek to stack syllabi and freshman with one viewpoint to the exclusion of others. The point of college--and to much of adult life in a democracy--is to learn to grapple with the diversity of viewpoints that signals a free and vibrant society.
That's just what Adam Shephard, the twenty-six-year-old author of Scratch Beginnings, has done. As a nineteen-year-old freshman at UNC Chapel Hill, Shephard was assigned Nickel and Dimed along with all other incoming freshmen. Four years later, diploma in hand, he decided to test Ehrenreich's claims--arrived at during two years of undercover reporting while working as a maid, a Wal-Mart employee, and a waitress--by embarking on a parallel investigation of his own. Scratch Beginnings is the result.
Minneapolis' Star-Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten has the details:
I wish I had a nickel for every college student I know who's been assigned to read "Nickel and Dimed," by journalist Barbara Ehrenreich. The book recounts Ehrenreich's two years working undercover at low-wage jobs such as waitress, hotel maid and Wal-Mart salesperson.
Her dire conclusion: America condemns its unskilled workers to a life of poverty and hopelessness.
This view is orthodoxy on college campuses, where many professors spoon-feed it to wide-eyed students. But now a young man named Adam Shepard has stepped forward to challenge Ehrenreich's tale of woe.
Shepard, 26, hails from North Carolina, where "Nickel and Dimed" was a required freshman text at the state's flagship public university at Chapel Hill. At age 19, he read the book after a woman for whom he did yard work handed him a copy. "I know what you're going through," she assured him. "You'll love this book."
Shepard was dubious. "I decided to find out for myself if the American Dream is dead," he said at a speech last week sponsored by the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. He launched his own undercover investigation, and chronicled it in a new book, "Scratch Beginnings."
Shepard began his experiment in 2006, after graduating from Merrimack College in Massachusetts. He chose a random city--Charleston, S.C.--and got off the train there with $25 and the goal of reentering mainstream society in a year with a car, an apartment and a $2,500 bank account. He would do it all without using a credit card or disclosing his college education.
Initially, Shepard bedded down in a homeless shelter and scrounged for day labor. Soon, he landed a back-breaking job as a furniture mover, making $9 an hour.
He set a tight budget, sought out free entertainment and shopped at Goodwill. Within six months, he had socked away enough money to buy a rattletrap car and move to a small apartment.
Along the way, Shepard met others who were trying to scramble up the ladder of success. One was Derrick, a high school dropout who became Shepard's hero. Derrick--a fellow mover--had a profound work ethic, a house, a wife and daughter, and a growing bank account. "In just three years, he had catapulted himself to the top of the list as the guy that everyone wanted to work with," wrote Shepard.
But Shepard also met many folks who were going nowhere. They included BG, Derrick's cousin, who routinely blew his money on beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.
"I expected to find a lot of old, bearded men with whiskey on their breath in the shelter," said Shepard in an interview. "I was amazed at the number of young, healthy guys who just couldn't keep their hands on a dollar."
Why did Derrick succeed while BG didn't?
"Guys like Derrick took their jobs seriously. They wanted to excel, and they took pride in what they accomplished. But you could tell that other guys just came to work to make a few bucks to party or get their landlords off their back."
Ehrenreich portrays low-wage workers as exploited and frequently depressed. But Shepard says he found that those who took responsibility for their own ups and downs tended to be happy, while those who viewed themselves as victims did not.
"Take the bus driver who drove my 6 a.m. bus every day. He could have been grouchy and bored. Instead, he lifted everyone's spirits with a smile as wide as his bus, and a friendly comment or witty remark. Everyone who got off his bus had his demeanor changed for the better."
Shepard ended his project after 10 months, when his mother had a recurrence of cancer. He had met all his goals, and had piled up a whopping $5,200 in the bank.
"It's clear from her book that she wanted to fail, and then write a book about it," Shepard said.
Shepard's objective now is to share what he's learned with his own generation. "Too many of those on the bottom see themselves as victims," he explained. "Too many of those on the top are hampered by a sense of entitlement."
"I'm frustrated with hearing 'I don't have,' rather than 'Let's see what I can do with what I do have,'" he adds.
Now here's an idea for a really great freshman reading project. Assign all incoming freshmen to read both Nickel and Dimed and Scratch Beginnings. Frame the discussion around the differences between them (or, in Gerald Graff's words, "teach the conflict"). And, if your school has a bit of money lying around for such things, bring Ehrenreich and Shephard in for a discussion panel that all freshmen will attend. You'd get multiple sides of the issue aired. You'd pair someone focussed on institutionalized oppression with someone focussed on self-reliance and hard work. You'd make people think--and you'd probably really spark some great debate. In other words, you'd accomplish what those freshman reading projects are supposed to accomplish. You'd introduce students to the give and take of free inquiry, raising tough questions, refusing easy answers, and, along the way, demonstrating a commitment to learning that transcends ideology and that models the best aspects of the diversity and tolerance that schools today claim as core aspects of their missions.
Who could argue with that?
(Full disclosure: I wrote about freshman reading projects--including UNC Chapel Hill's problems with assigning Nickel and Dimed back in 2003, in the Chronicle of Higher Education.)
January 6, 2009
Branford Marsalis riffs
... on students today. I'm sure if pressed he would acknowledge there are plenty of exceptions to his rule. He's probably taught people whose dedication and commitment and eagerness to learn are exceptional. Most teachers have. But at the same time, it's instructive to hear him distill his teaching experiences into a characterization of collective youth entitlement. No doubt his comments will offend some, and some will argue that he's overstating his case or irresponsibly generalizing. But at the same time, he's attempting to characterize the overall tenor of his teaching experiences--and, quite self-consciously, to pinpoint truths we as a culture are reluctant to face. You can't come to grips with anything unless you generalize--nor can you judge. And informed judgement, as unpleasant as it may be, is a vital process of learning, problem-solving, and constructive change.
January 5, 2009
I adore Francine Prose. Blue Angel is a remarkable account of mutual manipulation within an academic setting--a student and a teacher both use one another sexually and otherwise ... but it's the student who wins (by casting herself as a victim) and the professor who loses (by being dumb enough--or horny enough--to forget that students do tend to hold the trump cards after they've slept with their professors). It was not always thus -- but it sure is now. And that's what Prose examines in Blue Angel, which avoids cheap moralizing (student-teacher sex is bad!) while still exploring how, well, student-teacher sex is really pretty bad. If there is a moral to the story, it's about campus policies that oversimplify such things through binary caricatures of victim and victimizer. Prose does lovely suggestive things with this idea, connecting it, for example, to deep and abiding Puritanical impulses to judge and punish. For Prose, our sex-saturated culture is still a very Puritanical one, and she sees the contemporary campus as one place where that can be lavishly staged. Prose knows whereof she speaks--the inspiration for the novel came from her own experiences watching a campus witch hunt centered on a friend who was accused of sexual harassment. Read Blue Angel if you haven't, and read, too, Prose's essay about watching her friend go through the campus morality wringer.
But that doesn't mean you need to read her latest. I spent the weekend with Goldengrove, Prose's new novel about a thirteen-year-old girl whose world is turned upside down after her sister Margaret drowns. Built around the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "Spring and Fall (to a young child)," the novel sets out to think about mourning, youth, memory, and poetry -- and it does do all these things. But it does them in a bored and disaffected way. The novel is flat where it should be moving, bland where it ought to surprise, and, in the end, it reads rather like writing it was a slog. The idea is great, many of the plot elements have great potential ... but the spark just wasn't there.
If you don't know the Hopkins poem, by the way, you should. Here it is:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
January 2, 2009
I was going to do a post about this Inside Higher Ed piece about a panel at the 2008 MLA convention entitled "Conference Sex." But then I realized that I had nothing to say. The non-seriousness narcissism of the panel speaks for itself--as does the aggressiveness with which the panelists seek to dignify their masturbatory ruminations as thoughtful commentary on the State of the Profession. Plus, I wasn't there--I only read about the panel online--and I don't really want to get into one of those predictable, snotty, culture-war declensions about how if you weren't there to see the panel, you can't have any sort of opinion about it. So I'll just leave it at that, and note that articles like this remind me why I left academia; my revulsion at this sort of self-indulgent academic posturing is intense and personal--once upon a time, I was producing "scholarship" in rather a similar vein, believing I was doing something valuable and real, but really only functioning as a sort of one-trick pony (first as grad student pleasing professors, then as assistant professor seeking promotion) in a self-indulgent discipline that treasures its diverting, shallow sideshows and rewards them as legitimate academic work. It's embarrassing to think back on. But it's been instructive indeed to recognize the one-trick pony thing for what it was, and to move on from it.
So. Let us turn from from callow panels to good questions. In the same issue of IHE, below the fold, here is the Pope Center's Jane Shaw on higher ed's efforts to get hold of a piece of the forthcoming federal stimulus package:
I'm sure that the 51 presidents, chancellors, regents, and heads of university associations who signed an open letter to President-elect Obama believe that their request for a share of the expected federal stimulus package is in the country's best interests. Although I personally cringe at what I view as self-serving pleas, I am confident that they believe in what they are doing.
At the same time, it might be helpful to look at just how narrow a vision guides this request and why satisfying the plea is unlikely to achieve the noble goals that the letter alludes to.
Specifically, the signatories, convened by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, are asking the federal government to spend $40-45 billion in the form of capital investment--direct expenditures on "shovel-ready" construction projects, mostly at public universities. The federal funds would be distributed to the states on the basis of population and would be channeled through governors, bypassing state legislatures.
Their request is wrapped in rather elevated rhetoric that stresses several things: the need to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, the need to have a strong university system, and the fact that the nation is "losing ground" as measured by a number of educational indicators. The letter invokes historic events such as the Morrill Act, the National Academy of Sciences, and the GI Bill as precedents.
Let's look at this proposal more closely.
Why did these educators choose capital funding--that is, constructing "essential classroom and research buildings and equipping them with the latest technologies"? Wouldn't tuition discounts, tax credits, more scholarships, or even faculty salaries be more directly related to the problems that they decry? After all, they justify the request on the grounds that the United States is slipping against other countries in the percentage of the population with higher education degrees; that minorities have poor graduation rates; and that college tuitions have been rising nearly three times as fast as median family income.
Shaw suggests that the answer to her questions lies in opportunism (since the money is there, why not make a grab for it?) combined with a reluctance to attract funds that could come attached to complicated demands for accountability and outcomes assessment. It's easy to prove you've built a building. It's far harder to prove you've improved educational quality. So it makes practical sense to set the really pressing issues aside, and to pursue the secondary ones. Who cares what goes on inside the classroom, when there are new classrooms to be had? Besides, when there are new classrooms, and new buildings, and new centers--these can be presented as evidence of improved educational quality. It's simple sleight of hand--presenting investment in facilities as equal to investment in academics--and it works beautifully.