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March 31, 2009 [feather]
Portrait of an ideologue

In 1841, Nathaniel Hawthorne spent several months living at the short-lived Brook Farm, a utopian commune in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He left after it became clear that day after day of laboring in the fields was not, in the end, going to enhance his ability to write (he had hoped for the opposite effect). A decade later, Hawthorne's memories of his failed experiment in utopian living became the basis for The Blithedale Romance, his third major novel and his third extended foray into the more obscure and troubling corners of the American psyche. While history, hypocrisy, guilt, and shame occupy him in The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance is concerned with optimism and idealism, the philosophy of hope, and (this is Hawthorne, after all), the terrible distortions of character that arise when people try to impose their utopian ideals on their communities (even, and perhaps especially, when those communities are expressly formed for the purpose).

I've been reading The Blithedale Romance, and am quite taken with Hawthorne's attempts to find a language to describe the kinds of psychological distortions that occur when the belief system is more important than the reality. He doesn't seem to have access, for example, to the modern concept of the ideologue (though the word was was around). Instead, he uses, as the nearest available approximation, the term "philanthropist," which nicely captures the way utopian thinking tends to rationalize all kinds of bad behavior as "for the greater good."

Here is Hawthorne's portrait of Hollingsworth, the "philanthropist" founder of Blithedale:

I loved Hollingsworth, as has already been enough expressed. But it impressed me, more and more, that there was a stern and dreadful peculiarity in this man, such as could not prove otherwise than pernicious to the happiness of those who should be drawn into too intimate a connection with him. He was not altogether human. There was something else in Hollingsworth, besides flesh and blood, and sympathies and affections, and celestial spirit.

This is always true of those men who have surrendered themselves to an over-ruling purpose. It does not so much impel them from without, nor even operate as a motive power within, but grows incorporate with all that they think and feel, and finally converts them to little else save that one principle. When such begins to be the predicament, it is not cowardice, but wisdom, to avoid these victims. They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience. They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly straight path. They have an idol, to which they consecrate themselves high-priest, and deem it holy work to offer sacrifices of whatever is most precious, and never once seem to suspect--so cunning has the Devil been with them--that this false deity, in whose iron features, immitigable to all the rest of mankind, they see only benignity and love, is but a spectrum of the very priest himself, projected upon the surrounding darkness. And the higher and purer the original object, and the more unselfishly it may have been taken up, the slighter is the probability that they can be led to recognize the process, by which godlike benevolence has been debased into all-devouring egotism.

Of course, I am perfectly aware that the above statement is exaggerated, in the attempt to make it adequate. Professed philanthropists have gone far; but no originally good man, I presume, ever went so far as this. Let the reader abate whatever he deems fit. The paragraph may remain, however, both for its truth and its exaggeration, as strongly expressive of the tendencies which were really operative in Hollingsworth, and as exemplifying the kind of error into which my mode of observation was calculated to lead me. The issue was, that, in solitude, I often shuddered at my friend. In my recollection of his dark and impressive countenance, the features grew more sternly prominent than the reality, duskier in their depth and shadow, and more lurid in their light; the frown, that had merely flitted across his brow, seemed to have contorted it with an adamantine wrinkle. On meeting him again, I was often filled with remorse, when his deep eyes beamed kindly upon me, as with the glow of a household fire that was burning in a cave.--"He is a man, after all!" thought I--"his Maker's own truest image, a philanthropic man!--not that steel engine of the Devil's contrivance, a philanthropist!"--But, in my wood-walks, and in my silent chamber, the dark face frowned at me again.

This is a whopper of a passage. It captures the narcissism that animates the ideologue (who cannot see that his cause is ultimately himself) as well as the charisma that makes certain ideologues hugely compelling. It evokes how two-faced we can be to ourselves--recognizing truths in private that we then toss to the winds when the time comes to make good on those recognitions. Removed from the language of psychiatry--which did not properly exist when Hawthorne was writing--it leans on the rhetoric of evil ... and then retreats with embarrassment and apology, indicting itself for overstating the trouble with the philanthropic character. I sensed Hawthorne merging with his narrator there, questioning the judgment of his own instinctively strong portrait. And I wondered what Hawthorne would have done with this passage, if he could have looked into the future and seen what, a mere century later, certain kinds of utopian thinking would have wrought upon the world.

Erin O'Connor, 8:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

March 30, 2009 [feather]
Show me your diversity

Last week, FIRE, ACTA, and the NAS all had strong words for Virginia Tech, which had reached the misguided conclusion that it would be a good idea to require candidates for tenure to report on how they had helped the cause of "diversity" (overbroad, undefined) during the course of their assistant professorships. As FIRE wrote in its letter to Virginia Tech's president:

FIRE is deeply concerned about the threat to freedom of conscience posed at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) by the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences' proposed policy of evaluating a faculty member's worthiness for promotion and tenure with "special attention" to the candidate's "involvement in diversity initiatives." This emphasis requires faculty to adopt fundamental viewpoints with which they might not agree in order to be eligible for promotion and tenure.

Virginia Tech's proposed "Promotion and Tenure Review Process" states that "university and college committees require special attention to be given to documenting involvement in diversity initiatives." The policy makes clear that the reviewing committee "expects all dossiers to demonstrate the candidate's active involvement in diversity." Similarly, the Virginia Tech Guidelines for Promotion and Tenure Dossiers state that candidates "should address accomplishments and significant contributions pertinent to the candidate's field," including "Diversity initiatives or contributions" amongst "Publications," "Courses taught," "Competitive grants," and other areas of professional contribution.

Finally, the Office of the Provost's "Reporting Diversity Accomplishments in the Faculty Activities Report" instructions provide extensive guidance on how these criteria are to be construed, and what kinds of activities might be considered appropriate to report. Under the heading of "Self-Education, Increasing Your Own Awareness," possible activities to report include:

Participation in diversity awareness workshops on campus or off, attending harassment prevention training from EO Office, participation in CEUT reading group on multicultural/diversity topics, attending diversity-related programs to learn more about groups other than your own (Diversity Summit, identity group celebrations, Campus Climate Checkup, MLK events, special speakers, annual AdvanceVT and Scholarship of Diversity conferences, events hosted by Cranwell Center or Disability Services, special programs in your discipline or association, etc.); participating in an Undoing Racism workshop; learning another language (including American sign language) so that you might speak to current or prospective students, parents, or community members.

Similarly, under the heading of "Incorporating diversity-related scholarship in courses, readings, programs, service learning activities, and your own research/scholarship," possible activities to report include:

Revising a course reading list to incorporate concepts, readings, and scholarship on issues of gender, race, and other perspectives relevant to the course material; rethinking or adapting workshops, lectures, or publications to incorporate multicultural or gender perspectives; creating classroom discussions about the Principles of Community; creating an extension program to address needs in the Hispanic community; developing a service learning experience to introduce students to issues of concern to residents of the Appalachian region; using/doing diversity research to help inform university programs and problem solving; inviting and hosting a diversity-related speaker for the department; facilitating educational programs in the residential halls; assisting students in planning cultural events related to courses; securing research grants or industry funds to support diversity initiatives or research; facilitating a staff training activity on diversity, bias reduction, or celebration of diversity.

Not only do such evaluative criteria unacceptably interfere with faculty members' moral and intellectual agency, but these statements also contain vague language that causes confusion and invites abuse. Although requiring candidates to demonstrate "involvement in diversity initiatives" may seem admirable and innocuous, in practice this requirement amounts to an ideological loyalty oath to an entirely abstract concept--"diversity"--that can represent vastly different things to different people. This flexibility might seem to be a virtue until professors realize that they are to be judged on the quality of their commitment to such an abstract concept.

FIRE goes on to explain the First Amendment issues at stake, and also to lay out how the AAUP's foundational documents on academic freedom clearly anticipate and deplore policies of the sort Virginia Tech is thinking of implementing.

Speaking of the AAUP -- it has been strangely silent on this no brainer. A more cynical blogger might speculate about why this is. But I'll just leave it and hope the AAUP steps up this week, and joins FIRE, ACTA, and NAS in opposing a patently wrongheaded policy that sets a rotten standard for every academic, no matter what his or her politics, at Virginia Tech and beyond.

All three groups offered analysis of how VT's proposed policy would amount to an ideological litmus test, spelling out how such a requirement would interfere with professors' abilities to shape their own scholarly, pedagogical, and service agendas in meaningful, individual, and (ironically) genuinely diverse ways. FIRE and ACTA have brought their concerns to the attention of Tech's president and board.

For more, see Mark Bauerlein's analysis of how mission creep has contributed to the Virginia Tech debacle, and coverage at the Chronicle of Higher Education and Tech's student newspaper.

Erin O'Connor, 8:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

March 25, 2009 [feather]
Shoot. Self. Foot.

Last week, I mentioned an Inside Higher Ed piece by Bates College history professor David Scobey. Scobey focused on the self-defeating tendency of faculties to evade making themselves accountable for student learning. "Many humanities faculty respond like King Canute, taking arms against the tide," Scobey wrote; "We sabotage efforts to systematically evaluate how well we are educating students via the time-honored faculty practices of filibustering critique, committee inertia, or sheer disengagement. ... Yet (especially in a time of scarcity and crisis) it is a fair challenge to the academy that we be accountable for the vast resources and autonomy to which we lay claim--that we offer a compelling argument about our value to the larger society. Precisely because others have their own reductionist agendas of how to measure success in higher education, we need to offer our own vision of means and ends. The most self-damaging response we can make is to build a defensive bulwark of guild privileges around ourselves."

Those were wise words. And they can be applied to much more than student learning assessment. They could also, for example, be applied to post-tenure review.

Consider the manner in which the University of Maryland faculty just nixed a proposed post-tenure review system--raising eyebrows and real questions about its commitment to professional integrity:

Who reviews the performance of tenured faculty members? Can such reviews have teeth without interfering with the principles of tenure?

Those issues are central to discussions of post-tenure review, a process that exists in some form at many colleges and can be controversial. The University of Maryland at College Park found that out this month when the faculty considered a proposal that would have required annual reviews of tenured faculty performance, and would have allowed sanctions, including pay cuts for some professors who receive three consecutive years of negative reviews. The faculty overwhelmingly rejected the plan, seeing it as unnecessary, unfair and a diminishment of tenure.

The leading public advocates for the plan were not administrators, but students. The leaders of both the undergraduate and graduate student governments both came out strongly for the plan, saying that students are more likely to have problems with tenured than non-tenured professors. But students were not the key voting constituency here, so it's back to the drawing board for Maryland.


B. Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the AAUP, said that the major problem with the Maryland proposal was that it shifted the burden of proof to tenured professors. In cases of "severe sanctions," he said -- and the AAUP considers a pay cut such a sanction -- a university administration should have the burden of demonstrating the need for some action. Setting up the system so that faculty members can challenge a decision, while giving them some rights, does not reflect the concept of job security that should be associated with tenure.

"Placing the burden on the professor undermines tenure," he said.

Privately, some faculty members said that the strong opposition to the proposal was in part due to its consideration during the economic downturn. Maryland professors are facing furloughs, salary freezes, and numerous cuts in campus programs, these professors noted, and that environment is not a good one in which to talk about a system that would add faculty duties (serving on the committees in each department) and potentially cut some professors' pay.

Student leaders have been critical of the faculty vote.

Jonathan Sachs, president of the undergraduate student government, said that in general, he appreciates the quality of teaching at Maryland. But he said that he has noticed that those without tenure "tend to be really good," while "a small percentage" of tenured professors "neglect their classrooms." Sachs said he saw the faculty vote against the review plan as "arrogance," and said that they should be "accountable" for their performance.

Anupama K. Kothari, a Ph.D. student in business and president of the Graduate Student Government, said she too was bothered by the vote. She said that when the graduate student organization hears complaints from students about problems with professors who ignore their work, take people off projects for now reason, or "abuse" them, "it is almost always about a tenured professor."

She said that graduate students feel that those without tenure are supportive, "but once they get tenure. ..."

Many graduate students were "shocked to see faculty shoot down" the proposal, Kothari said. She characterized the reviews proposed as "mild," and said that the professors' vote "made many of us suspicious of them." She added: "If you are doing a good job, why are you so scared of being reviewed?"

I can answer that last question. Setting aside the quality of an individual faculty member's work--there remains the issue of how subjective, and hence abusable, in-house peer review processes are. Every faculty member knows this. They see it when they are hired, they see it at their third year review, they see it when they come up for tenure, and they see it when they go up for full professor. Your colleagues can do whatever they want with you at any of those moments. And they can always make it look like they are just reviewing you objectively and professionally. I've seen that go on plenty of times at more than one institution. And I doubt I'm unusual.

The resistance to post-tenure review is not just a resistance, then, to accountability--but also a tacit confession on the part of the entire professoriate that existing mechanisms for faculty assessment and review are already ripe for abuse. In exchange for tenure, they put up with a few moments of vulnerability to it--but they don't want any more than they already have. This is one reason why, at many schools that do have post-tenure review, it is a meaningless rubber-stamp exercise.

Still, as I think about it, and I think about these things a lot, I conclude that if faculty want to continue to have the unique and marvelous prerogatives of tenure, self-governance, and the individual and unit-level autonomy they accord, they have to do post-tenure review, and they have to do it right. That will mean cleaning up their acts in more ways than one.

For more on post-tenure review--what it is, what it ought to be, and how it has managed not to work at school after school, see Anne Neal's 2008 essay in the AAUP magazine Academe.

Erin O'Connor, 8:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

March 24, 2009 [feather]
Speaking up

The Ward Churchill trial has finally begun--and what a circus it is. The opening arguments featured falsehoods from Churchill's lawyer (who I don't think is a performance artist, but whose remarks suggest a strong talent for satiric showmanship). Former Colorado president Elizabeth Hoffman delivered similar canards in her video testimony. And Churchill took the stand yesterday to defend his honor, wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a huge attitude. When asked how he should be addressed, the holder of a Master's degree and an honorary doctorate said, "I prefer professor, but doctor will do. ... I'm entitled to that." When called upon to explain some of the shady professional practices that got him fired, he defended himself by saying that there was nothing out of the ordinary about his methods of scholarship--that they were, in fact, common practice. (This line of defense recalls ACTA's 2006 report, How Many Ward Churchills? Academics across the country had absolute fits about that title, arguing that Churchill was a local aberration whose misdeeds tell us nothing about the ivory tower norm. In an odd twist, it would seem that Churchill, who has made lies about ACTA a centerpiece of his defense, disagrees with the premise that he is an anomaly, and seems prepared to document accordingly.)

Anyhow. I always think it's an interesting exercise, when in the midst of an escalating debacle like this one, to think back to how it all got started. Origins gain so much resonance in retrospect, and can tell us so much about how history makes itself out of the humblest and most unlikely beginnings. The Churchill scandal exploded during the winter of 2005, when word of his roosting chickens 9/11 essay made national news and provoked loud, inappropriate calls to have him fired. But why did it all blow up then, years after the "little Eichmanns" comment had floated into electronic oblivion? What was the tipping point? Do you remember?

Three cheers to you if you do. If you don't, I'll summarize very briefly, with an emphasis on how utterly local, anterior, and seemingly minor and mundane the precipitating events were. Churchill was not the quarry, and Colorado was not the scene. The quarry was institutionalized bias, as exemplified in one-sided speaker panels. The scene was Hamilton College, which was doing a bang-up job of bringing in far left figures such as former Weather Underground member Susan Rosenberg (sixteen years for weapons possession) and, yes, Ward Churchill, and which was not doing much of a job at all ensuring that other kinds of voices and perspectives got showcased on campus. Some students, faculty, and alumni got angry about that. They appealed to administrators, but got nowhere. So they went public. All they wanted was a broader range of campus expression. Churchill was Exhibit A in their campaign. And the end result, four years later, is a massive, protracted lawsuit between Churchill and the University of Colorado, in which Churchill alleges he was unjustly fired for his speech, and in which CU argues that no, he was fired for gross, longstanding academic misconduct that it finally got around to investigating in the wake of the scandal.

In a funny way, then, Churchill's entire saga has its roots in conflicts elsewhere about other things. It seems reasonable enough to conclude that if anger about unbalanced speaker series had not bubbled over at a tiny college in upstate New York years ago, Churchill would not have been fired, CU would not have been sued, and our national understanding of the fine lines between academic freedom and academic misconduct, between due process and disciplinary overreaching, would be very different today.

That's worth pondering, along the lines of butterflies flapping their wings far, far away.

I was thinking about all of these things as I read over this Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed from ACTA's program director, Charles Mitchell. He's got some ideas about what campuses should be doing to ensure a robust and varied calendar of speakers, while still honoring the right of student and faculty groups to issue invitations without interference from above. Check it out and see what you think.

Erin O'Connor, 9:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

March 23, 2009 [feather]
Ed reform in D.C.

You've heard about D.C.'s failing schools, and about Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has been brought in to administer some tough reformist love to the K-12 system. What you might not know--but which ought to give you pause--is that D.C. doesn't have a single community college. That's a major gap for an area whose students have exceptionally high needs for post-high school remediation and training, whether they plan on doing the four-year college thing or not. The good news, though, is that D.C. is finally doing something about it.

Here's CUNY board member and chair of ACTA's Institute for Effective Governance Kathleen Pesile in yesterday's Washington Post:

Ten years ago, I joined the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York -- or, as the newspapers at the time called it, Remediation U. Seventy percent of incoming freshmen failed at least one remedial test in the three R's. Enrollment had been steadily declining for years, and graduation rates were woefully low.

Fast-forward to today. Enrollment has reached the highest point since we began charging tuition in the 1970s. The average SAT scores of our freshmen are almost in the top third nationwide, and we have twice as many incoming students who graduated from high school with an 85 or better average as we did 10 years ago.

If the CUNY I joined resembled in many ways countless other failing urban public universities across the country -- including the University of the District of Columbia -- the questions are: How did we turn our school around, and can our approaches be applied at other schools?

We first had to have a bold and dynamic leader who shared the board's commitment to CUNY's mission: offering an accessible, high-quality education. This was our chancellor, Matthew Goldstein. We then had to stand by him as the much-needed reforms he implemented -- introducing admissions standards and overhauling remedial education -- gave rise to an onslaught of criticism.

In this regard, the University of the District of Columbia is moving in the right direction. President Allen L. Sessoms, with the backing of the board, has set out to fulfill the university's promise to offer "broad opportunities for a diverse student population" by preparing them to become "productive citizens with marketable skills." He aims to do so by splitting UDC into a four-year university with admission standards and a community college that would remain open to all.

His plan would allow the university to carry out both aspects of its mandate: The community college's open-enrollment policy will ensure accessibility, and the four-year university, relieved from the burden of remediation, can focus on a proper undergraduate curriculum.

As things stand, UDC attempts to combine both mandates and succeeds at neither. As a recent Brookings Institution report said, UDC "struggles with the dual missions of a community college and a state university, straining its resources and hampering effectiveness." The report also notes that Washington is the only major American city without a full-fledged community college and calls for the creation of one.

Now, Sessoms and the UDC board of trustees are trying to do just that. Their efforts have already drawn the ire of critics who believe admissions standards will lead to a precipitous drop in enrollment. In reality, the contrary is true. Under the current open-admission policy, enrollment has plummeted from a high of 15,000 in the 1970s to about 5,700 this past fall. Meanwhile at CUNY, enrollment has soared across the board since we reintroduced admissions standards in 1999. When endowments are tumbling and families face acute financial pressures, more of the "same old, same old" simply doesn't cut it: It doesn't inspire confidence in our universities and it doesn't attract those increasingly rare philanthropic dollars. Bold, well-informed leadership -- in the form of presidents who will challenge the status quo where needed, and boards who will stick with them -- does. That's the lesson of CUNY's renaissance -- and UDC seems to have learned it. In these challenging times for higher education, I hope that Allen Sessoms and the trustees will hold fast -- and that students and parents will support them.

Very simple, very straightforward, long overdue, and right.

Erin O'Connor, 8:02 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

March 20, 2009 [feather]
More on ResLife

ACTA has released a two-part video on the problems that arise when ResLife gets involved in "educating" students. The focus is the University of Delaware's notoriously egregious ResLife programming. But the issues can be generalized. It's important to remember that Delaware's ResLife program was not an anomaly--but was instead an award-winning exemplar of how ResLife programming ought to be done. The video is pitched to trustees--but it should be viewed by everyone who cares about higher ed.

Part one is linked above. Part two is easily available from that page.

Erin O'Connor, 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

March 19, 2009 [feather]
Humanizing assessment

In 1991, when I was a first year grad student at Michigan, I took a wonderful course on American culture co-taught by June Howard (who is still on the English department faculty at Michigan) and David Scobey (who is now a historian at Bates). Part of what was great about the course was the sheer volume of amazing reading we did--from Howells and Jewett and Dreiser, to Veblen and Taylor and Gilman, to secondary writing on everything from the Chicago World's Fair to the Pullman company's model town. And part of what was great about the course was its tone--Howard and Scobey were both aware that they were continually crossing out of their disciplinary comfort zones, the one into literary analysis, the other into historiography. They foregrounded this, made their own uncertainties about how to think about certain events, patterns, and kinds of writing a focal point of the course. This allowed methodology--and, vitally, intellectual modesty and curiosity--to become a major theme of the course. It was formative for me, and I have never forgotten it.

I came to the course as a lit student with only the barest idea how to use the library, and no clue about what historians do, or how much fun they have doing it. But that class opened up a lot for me. I'll always be stuck on history, stuck on the real joy of the moment when straightforward analysis gives way to genuine constructive confusion--and then, if you stick with it long enough, to creative if tentative synthesis. That was one hell of a course, with two wonderful teachers who were, together, greater than the sum of their parts.

I was reminded of all that this morning as I scanned my daily email from the people at Inside Higher Ed. Who should be writing about higher ed assessment but David Scobey? And what he has to say about it is characteristically wise:

Many self-styled reformers have called on (and called out) colleges and universities to systematically assess how well we educate our students. Margaret Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education decried our lack of clear, comparative measures of academic success. Some administrators have responded with initiatives like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, designed to quantify and rank the success with which institutions achieve liberal learning outcomes. "Assessment," in short, has become a word to conjure with.

In the face of this rising sentiment, many humanities faculty respond like King Canute, taking arms against the tide. We humanists are notoriously hostile to systems of assessment. We tend to believe that the most important effects of a humanities education resist measurement: nuanced communication skills, reflective dialogue between theory and interpretation, attention to context and complexity. Conversely the outcomes that can be most readily measured seem to us the least salient: informational content in a sub-discipline, performance of competent analyses according to check-listed rubrics.

Humanists tend also to look askance at the abbreviated time-frame of many assessment tools, whether these tools test student performance at a single moment or mark change in a "formative-summative" sequence. To the contrary (our experience tells us), the most powerful learning in the humanities takes place in ways that are meandering, iterative, self-reflexive, and unpredictable. "We murder to dissect," Wordsworth famously wrote. The machinery of evaluation, we worry, threatens to kill the soul in the machine.

And so we become assessment Luddites. We sabotage efforts to systematically evaluate how well we are educating students via the time-honored faculty practices of filibustering critique, committee inertia, or sheer disengagement. My own experience in teaching American Studies and leading civic-engagement programs makes me sympathetic to the skepticism. I have rarely seen evaluative tools that do justice to my experience or that of my students. And yet, I want to argue, it is time for humanists to move beyond Luddism and constructively engage the advocates for student assessment.

There are two overriding reasons: one strategic, the other educational.

First, the current calls for assessment are part of a larger crisis of legitimacy in U.S. higher education--a crisis that faculty ignore at our peril. The crisis has many causes: tuition increases that have long outstripped the growth in the cost of living, the erosion of educational access and attainment, culture wars over perceived political bias in the academy. In the context of these discontents, calls for "accountability" have sometimes masked efforts to police campus politics; and too often they have oriented higher education toward instrumental goals of job training and economic competitiveness.

Yet (especially in a time of scarcity and crisis) it is a fair challenge to the academy that we be accountable for the vast resources and autonomy to which we lay claim--that we offer a compelling argument about our value to the larger society. Precisely because others have their own reductionist agendas of how to measure success in higher education, we need to offer our own vision of means and ends. The most self-damaging response we can make is to build a defensive bulwark of guild privileges around ourselves.

More substantively, it is not simply in our interest but in the best traditions of the humanities to pose the questions that underlie the calls for assessment. What constitutes a good liberal education, one that is emancipatory and transformative for students? What is the distinctive role of the humanities in that education? How do we know whether our educational practices embody these values? It is hard to find assessment tools that advance rich answers to these questions; all the more reason for skeptical humanists to enter the conversation.

Scobey goes on to answer his own questions, using Barack Obama's well-known and instructive educational trajectory as a test case. Worth a read. And so, by the way, are Dreiser and Jewett and Howells, if you have some time.

Erin O'Connor, 8:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

March 17, 2009 [feather]
When journalists repeat lies

Jon Stewart made some very good points last week about journalists' responsibility to check what sources tell them against the factual record. His particular issue was with financial reporters' complicity with the dangerous games Wall Street traders have been playing with Americans' money, but the point can and should be generalized to irresponsible reporting everywhere.

Take, for example, media coverage of the Ward Churchill trial, which began last week. While sitting over my morning coffee one day last week, I ran across the Chronicle of Higher Education's article on the opening remarks. It contained the following sentence about what Churchill's lawyer said to the jury: "Mr. Lane said Mr. Churchill's essay 'set off an explosion' when it first drew media attention in 2005, with conservative media figures like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and politicians on both the state and national levels calling for Mr. Churchill's firing. ... 'The media was out of control. It was an absolute mob mentality,' Mr. Lane said. 'As you know, a mob mentality is no mentality whatsoever' ".

That made me blink. I read it again, just to make sure my inadequately caffeinated eyes weren't playing tricks on me, and they weren't. Churchill's lawyer had told a lie about ACTA, and the Chronicle of Higher Ed had reproduced it without comment -- despite the fact that, as a higher ed publication, one could reasonably expect them to have recognized the falsehood there, or at least to have recognized the need to fact check. After all, back in 2005, when elected officials and reporters and others really were calling for Churchill to be fired for his "little Eichmanns" comment, ACTA loudly and publicly defended Churchill's expressive rights. (FIRE defended Churchill, too, as did David Horowitz.) But the Chronicle seems to have lost track of that bit of the public record.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has since scrubbed away the problem sentence. The article as it now appears on the site bears no trace of the false accusation it reproduced last week--nor does it register that it has been revised.

But the Chronicle was not the only publication to reproduce Churchill's lawyer's factually challenged account of the facts. Yesterday, ACTA issued the following statement:

In recent days, it has been alleged that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni demanded Ward Churchill be fired because he compared the victims of September 11 to Nazis. These irresponsible accusations have been repeated by respected media outlets including The Denver Post and the Associated Press. These charges are categorically false.

On February 11, 2005, ACTA publicly urged, in a news release, that the University of Colorado not punish Churchill for his statement on the victims of the World Trade Center attacks and that CU grant him due process.

Churchill did receive academic due process. After numerous committees of his peers probed his scholarship, culminating in a finding of "multiple acts of plagiarism, fabrication and falsification," then-President Hank Brown reviewed the findings and recommended that the Board of Regents fire Churchill due to his clear dereliction of academic standards. ACTA supported this decision.

It is indisputable: ACTA insisted from the beginning that Churchill be granted due process, not that he be fired because of his views, objectionable as they may have been.

It is disappointing that journalists covering the Churchill trial have not made any efforts to contact ACTA regarding allegations made.

Now there's a novel idea. Maybe the folks covering the trial could, from this point forward, actually get in touch with people and organizations that stand accused but are not there to defend themselves. It would be kind of like, I don't know .... reporting. And Jon Stewart would be so proud.

Erin O'Connor, 7:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

March 16, 2009 [feather]
Shuffling the deck

At Collegiate Way, R.J. O'Hara conducts a thought experiment:

Smart leaders know how to turn a crisis into an opportunity, and the academic hiring crisis presents American higher education with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to sharply improve the quality of campus residential life across the country. This can be done at almost no extra cost, in just one or two years. Every college or university president in the United States who wants to leapfrog the competition can do this right now:

Fill every open residence life position in your institution with someone who has a Ph.D.

As of this writing there are 195 open residence life positions advertised at HigherEdJobs.com. Except for a very few that are highly specialized (campus locksmith, anyone?), nearly all these positions could be filled by people who hold Ph.D.'s in the arts and sciences, and nearly all of them pay as much if not more than adjunct faculty positions. Nearly all of them come with free housing as well. If we add in many of the over 300 open positions in student affairs, campus activities, and student life, we would introduce almost 500 new positions into the current academic job market.

Scan down the list of openings for Resident Directors, Hall Directors, Area Coordinators, Assistant Directors, Community Directors, and Directors of Residential Education, and imagine them all filled with experienced teachers and accomplished scholars who could model university life, elevate the tone of the residence halls, and enrich the educational experience of every student by teaching with-out the curriculum all year long. The scope of these positions is roughly equivalent to the scope of a residential college dean or master position. And yet in the organizational hierarchy found on most campuses, especially public campuses, people with academic Ph.D.'s are explicitly locked out of them. The most professional educators on campus--the faculty--are prevented from serving in one of the most important educational environments in the institution--the residence halls--and from contributing there to much-needed residence life reform.

What distinguishes top-ranking universities from lower-ranking universities? Top-ranking universities put experienced academics with Ph.D.'s in these residential positions. If you're a smart university president and want to improve the standing and the educational quality of your institution, do what the top-ranking institutions do.

Given competent training, the practical knowledge needed to manage a residence hall of two or three hundred students at the basic level found on most campuses can be learned in just a few days, and the rules and regulations one has to know can be reduced to a few pages. Any experienced academic with a humane outlook and a talent for getting along with students can do the job easily, and many will find it deeply rewarding. Some will find it to be the most rewarding educational role they will ever have. Are these positions a good fit for every faculty member? Of course not--no position is. But today these jobs are walled off even from those faculty members who would flourish in them, and the students are worse off for it.

Mixed feelings about this, as I don't like Res Life no matter who's running it. I think it's a huge, bloated, self-serving bureaucracy that runs up costs for students without necessarily delivering correlated quality of life. And I think that's something that's inherent in the concept -- there is only so much you can do with a system designed to warehouse (monitor, "train," secure, and "educate") students at that awkward age between childhood and adulthood, when they are old enough not to want adults breathing down the neck of their private life, but, in many cases, too immature to live on their own. Still, the reality is that these systems are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. So the question becomes: Who ought to be running the show?

I can't compare my experience with Res Life at Penn to that at other schools, but I do have experience with Res Life at Penn, and there they were doing exactly what O'Hara recommends. Not only do many non-tenure track Ph.D.s live and work in the residence halls (many of these are also adjunct lecturers), but so do many tenure-track faculty, and so do many grad students. Penn is really intensely committed to this, on the premise that this makes the college house system into a vital, enriching complement to students' formal academic study.

Does it work? Hard to say. The real value of such arrangements does not manifest itself in the formal "academic programming" offered by college houses (educational field trips, in-house reading groups, etc.), but in the relationships that arise, casually and easily and spontaneously, among students and the adults living and working in the house.

The formal programming stuff has to happen, for appearances' sake, but it's very hard to get students to come out for it -- and the difficulty rises the more cultured or intellectually demanding the offering is. Try to start a book club or discussion group in the dorm, and you find yourself presiding over unattended meetings, wondering who's going to eat all the food you bought for the failed gathering. Plan a field trip to go see the latest Harry Potter film, or a Phillies game, and they are elbowing one another out of the way to get tickets.

Conversely, you can't plan or program relationships--nor can you measure or quantify them. Nor can you necessarily say that the presence of a Ph.D. is in itself likely to heighten the quality of relationships between students and the adults who live among them. The key lies in qualities much larger than the degree. I can think of one 900-student high rise college house at Penn that, a few years ago, was run by a marvelously charismatic man who happened to have a Ph.D. in English, and who was once an English professor. This guy knew every student in the house, by face and name, within a day or two of move-in. He made everyone feel at home. He inspired and motivated a marvelous staff of graduate student RAs. He planned unusual and popular in-house gatherings that people actually attended--and he ran a really warm, vibrant house that had definite intellectual tone, but was not all about Being Intellectual at All Times. There were pool tournaments, and free samosas in the lounge on Wednesday nights, and things like that. These brought people together, and good talks, and good connections, and good things arose from that. But he was unusual in the extreme, and his popularity definitely ruffled some envious institutional feathers.

Most of what I witnessed--in the dorm where I lived and in others that I knew about--was very different from that. There were absentee faculty who liked the free housing but didn't do much to enrich the life of the house. There were also Ph.D.'s who found their inner bureaucrats working in the Res Life system--and got overinvolved in petty political crap-mongering of the sort you can well imagine without my enumerating specifics. And there was a nauseating amount of often unearned internal self-congratulation among Res Lifers for doing what they felt was such wonderful work.

I could never decide if the problem was the system, or the people in it. I tend to think, looking back, that it was a little bit of both.

So, all of this is to say that I have mixed reactions to O'Hara's proposition--but still find it an interesting one all the same. Would love readers' thoughts.

Erin O'Connor, 8:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

March 12, 2009 [feather]
Lou Dobbs on Indoctrinate U

Last night, Indoctrinate U director appeared on Lou Dobbs' CNN news show. Dobbs loves the film and says everyone ought to see it. He's right.

If you live in New York, you can see it as part of the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival at the Village East Cinema on March 24 (get tickets online). If not, no problem--you can download the film, or order a DVD, at Indoctrinate-U.com.

Erin O'Connor, 8:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

March 9, 2009 [feather]
Financial Literacy on FOX

ACTA president Anne Neal appeared on the Fox Business Network today to talk about financial literacy and college education. Maurice Black and I published an essay on that subject in January, and yesterday it appeared in redacted form in Newsday.

UPDATE 3/10: Anne Neal has an op-ed on financial literacy in today's Examiner. Among other things, she points out that on many campuses, taking a basics economics course is treated--within the broad, smorgasbord structure of general ed requirements--as equivalent to "Comparative Martial Arts Film and Literature" (Cornell University), "Digital Game Studies" (Dartmouth College), and "The History of Furniture" (University of Nebraska at Lincoln). That's what happens when you don't have a core curriculum. Guidance and focussed coverage of essential subjects disappear in favor of infinite choice--and utter relativism about the educational value of disparate courses.

Erin O'Connor, 12:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Identity earmarks

This morning's Chronicle of Higher Ed lists thirteen ways higher ed has contributed to the economic crisis it now faces. These include risky investment strategies and over-reliance on cheap credit, trustees asleep at the wheel, building and boosting too much and for the wrong reasons, spending sprees and associated poor relations with the state house, ignoring students' needs, failure to meet public demands for accountability, and "failure to play well with others," a category reserved for the tenured professors and faculty unions that are more concerned with preserving their perks than with pitching in during tough times.

None of this is new; if you read higher ed news, you read about this stuff every day. Still, distilled to their essence and gathered in a list, these summary criticisms have a certain clarifying effect; the Chronicle has painted a portrait of an academy that is not only systemically corrupt, but whose corruption originates in some of its most foundational and treasured values (tenure, for example). In its own words, the Chronicle's list explains "how greed, incompetence, and neglect led to bad decisions." That's quite an indictment from a publication entirely dedicated to higher ed, but there you have it.

I was thinking about this list as I read through Heather MacDonald's new Weekly Standard piece on how victimology and identity politics are factoring into Yale's decision-making about what to cut, what to keep, and what to create.

In December 2008, Yale University president Richard Levin announced a series of budget cuts to compensate for a 25 percent drop in the value of Yale's endowment. This February, the university launched the Office of LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer] Resources to provide support for Yale's homosexual community. According to its director, the new office is intended to make the "University feel like a friendly place as opposed to an alien, hostile place" to gays. The recession, it appears, is going to have little impact on the academic culture of victimology and the ever-growing bureaucracy that supports it.

The idea that Yale is an 'alien, hostile place' to gays is one of those absurd conceits that could only be maintained in the alternative universe of academia. Yale students and faculty are undoubtedly the most tolerant, least homophobic people on earth; Yale helped launch the field of gay studies three decades ago and has only increased its involvement since.


In light of this history, one might think it impossible to maintain that Yale needs a new LGBTQ office in order to "feel like a friendly place as opposed to an alien, hostile place" to gays. Especially since the director of that new office, Maria Trumpler, has already been serving as "special assistant to the deans for LGBTQ issues." But Trumpler herself charges that Yale has heretofore failed to confer on gays the power to form a community, reported the Yale Daily News.

If you're tempted to ask why students require administration backing in order to form a "community," you don't understand the codependent relationship between self-engrossed students and the adults whose career consists of catering to that self-involvement. Students in today's university regularly act out little psychodramas of oppression before an appreciative audience of deans and provosts. The essence of those psychodramas is to force the university to recognize a student's narrowly defined "identity" through ever more elaborate bureaucratic mechanisms. Rather than laugh the student players off the stage, the deans, provosts, and sundry other administrators willingly participate in their drama, intently negotiating with them and conferring additional benefits wherever possible.


Faced with such a pliant oppressor, students have to get quite creative in manufacturing new causes of grievance. At the opening ceremonies for the new Office of LGBTQ Resources, junior Rachel Schiff, a coordinator for the LGBT Co-op, complained: "The fact that we don't actually have a physical space says lots about Yale's stance towards LGBT life on the ground at a metaphorical level." Actually, whatever the metaphorical meaning of the lack of office space, the literal meaning is quite simple: Yale was in a hurry to roll out the new office, and it faces a shortage of empty buildings. Finding an independent home for LGBTQ Resources is one of director Trumpler's first priorities. Does Rachel Schiff's clearly delusional idea that "Yale's stance towards LGBT life on the ground" has been anything other than accommodating set off any warning signals among administrators that its students are losing contact with reality? Apparently not; such preposterous charges of administration indifference to this or that favored identity group are greeted at every American college with meek silence.


Many students come to college asking the question: Who am I? At its best, a liberal arts education responds to that question by pushing students outside of their limited selves and into the vast reaches of human imagination and experience. It assumes that students can enter lives radically different from their own-that a Chinese-American girl, say, can find meaning in Odysseus' quest to return home-and that they can start to participate in a centuries-long conversation that contains sorrows and fears that most 18-year-olds can barely imagine. No freshman can understand the battle between Lear and his daughters, but 40 years later, it might return to him with a deep pang of recognition. Thomas Hobbes's warning regarding the ever-present threat of anarchy will likely remain wholly abstract for secure American students until they have seen more of the world. When they have, however, his articulation of the fragility of social order may echo in their minds as terrifyingly true.

Today's solipsistic university, however, allows students to answer the "Who am I?" question exclusively, rather than inclusively. Identity politics defines the self by its difference from as many other people as possible, so as to increase the underdog status of one's chosen identity group. (Women have commandeered an underdog identity even though they are the majority on campuses; that no one objects is a measure of their clout.) And because the robust growth of the student services bureaucracy depends on the proliferation of identity groups, administrations busy themselves with identity-based constituencies that might not even exist.


While the drive to define oneself oppositionally is good for student services administrators, it is not so good for education. Can a student who is furiously itemizing the many ways she has been dissed as a female of color or a lesbian, say, lose herself in the opalescent language of A Midsummer Night's Dream or hear the aching melancholy in Wordsworth's "Intimations" ode? She will have been taught to scour books for slights to, or affirmations of, her own self, but neither the play nor the poem is directly about her carefully cultivated identity.

Yale's sprawling student services bureaucracy is drearily typical. It matters not whether a college is private or public, large or small; all are encrusted with layers of expendable adults catering to students' most narcissistic tendencies. The growth in this bureaucracy helps explain exploding annual tuition costs, which at elite private colleges now run over half the median family income.

In the years ahead, expect to see a new constituency pushing for the expansion of identity-based services and courses: graduates of the solipsistic university. Older alumni might have provided a brake on the trivialization of their alma maters; instead they blindly shoveled hundreds of millions of dollars into colleges about whose radical transformation they preserved a carefully cultivated ignorance. Now those older alumni are being replaced by younger generations who take for granted that universities should cultivate students' narrowly defined identities. Yale, for example, administers two alumni funds to support undergraduates pursuing LGBT studies; their respective donors come from the classes of '83 and '85. Other identity fiefdoms in colleges across the country have their own recent alumni patrons.

Yale's new Office of LGBTQ Resources is initially funded at $20,000 a year, obviously a minute fraction of the college's $100 million deficit for 2009-10. But the costs of the office exceed its immediate budget. By perpetuating the premise that Yale not only should officially recognize students' balkanized identities but has still not satisfactorily done so, LGBTQ Resources guarantees ongoing student demands and continues distorting the idea of a liberal arts education. Yale could take that $20,000 and purchase every low-income student a complete Shakespeare, the Federalist Papers, and all the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. It could fund a Ph.D. candidate to conduct an evening reading group on the Enlightenment philosophers. Surely such endeavors would contribute more to the expansion of students' minds than making another offering to their self-regard.

In his December 2008 letter on Yale's budget problems, President Richard Levin affirmed the university's mission of "educating the most talented and promising students for leadership and service." Teaching students to identify phantom insults to their egos doesn't train them for leadership and service but merely for future whining. The economic crisis is the perfect opportunity for every college to say to its students: "We recognize you as young people forged from a common humanity. We hope to cultivate in you humility regarding the limits of your knowledge, a passion to overcome those limits, and a deep gratitude for the landmarks of human thought that it will be your privilege to study for the next four years. We are dismantling the college's multicultural, identity-based services because you don't need them. Find yourselves by engaging with beauty, intellectual complexity, and each other."

That's a long excerpt--but it's as short as I could get it while still capturing MacDonald's main line of thought (she documents her claims elaborately and entertainingly in the full article).

Things to note--how budgeting decisions, bloated self-serving bureaucracy, and educational mission all coalesce in movements such as the one MacDonald traces; how the last is sacrificed to, or warped by, the first two; how the juvenile posturing of students feeling their political oats--something we tend to dismiss as just that, and as not deserving much attention--fuels a massive and growing academic bureaucracy that in turn encourages ever more posturing and grievance-mongering; and how the tragic outcome is one in which the finest liberal arts education on offer results in psychologies that are not enlarged by broad humane awareness, but narrowed into an echo chamber of bitter, unhappy self-regard. I suppose that's all right though, as long as the student life bureaucrats get to keep their jobs.

UPDATE 3/12: Over at NAS, Peter Wood lists a few mistakes that the Chronicle left out. They include "became addicted to student debt" and "luxuriated in one-sided politics."

Erin O'Connor, 8:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

March 8, 2009 [feather]
Today in Newsday

In January, Maurice Black and I published an essay on what higher ed ought to be doing to address young Americans' astonishing financial and economic illiteracy. The folks at Newsday liked it--and today they are running this (much redacted) version of it:

The upheavals in the financial markets have made us newly aware of how much depends on our financial security - and also how little most Americans understand about financial markets, or even personal finances.

It starts in our schools. Younger Americans are deplorably uninformed about economic and financial matters.

In 1999, researchers at the Securities and Exchange Commission concluded that 66 percent of high school seniors could not pass a basic economic literacy test. Things have not changed for the better since.

In 2008, the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy administered its financial literacy test to 6,856 high school seniors in 40 states. The overall score was 48 percent. Only 17 percent knew investing in stocks would probably generate the most return over an 18-year period.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has stated that financial literacy is "vital to the future of our economy" and called for improved financial education. American parents agree - 76 percent say schools should be required to teach money management.

But the Young Americans Center for Financial Education recently reported that fewer than 30 percent of students receive even one week's worth of financial training during high school. In 2004, only seven states made personal finance education a requirement for high school graduation. New York State requires that it be incorporated into other subjects.

Nearly a third of all high school seniors own credit cards, and more have their own ATM cards. But they are not particularly capable when it comes to tracking their spending or understanding the financial instruments they use. A 2007 Charles Schwab study revealed that while 45 percent of teens know how to use credit cards, only 26 percent understand how credit card companies assess interest rates and fees. Jump$tart discovered that more than half of high-school seniors do not realize that paying off a credit card balance more slowly will result in higher finance charges. Only one in three teens knows how to read a bank statement, balance a checkbook or pay a bill.

Colleges and universities also are doing little to address the situation.

Under the Higher Education Opportunity Act, revised and renewed last August, colleges that operate federal programs for disadvantaged students must facilitate opportunities for participants to receive financial counseling. Agencies guaranteeing loans must help colleges develop programs in financial literacy.

But higher ed administrators have found that students breeze through financial aid counseling and emerge as ignorant as ever. Students typically don't ask for help with finances - and don't avail themselves of help when it is offered.

Some colleges and universities offer programs such as free and confidential peer counseling sessions or classes that teach undergraduates the nuts and bolts of managing their personal finances. But efforts along these lines are not being made systematically. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has found that only one of 100 leading American universities requires an economics course.

No wonder that a 2008 Intercollegiate Studies Institute survey revealed stunning levels of economic ignorance among the American people as a whole. Only 16 percent could differentiate free markets from central government planning. Less than 30 percent understood the relationship between taxes and government spending, and less than 40 percent knew what sort of fiscal policy would produce economic stimulus.

These problems are deepened by pre-existing deficits in essential literacy and numeracy skills. Some colleges have no math requirements at all. Even at schools that require quantitative reasoning, it's often easy to avoid math. At the University of Pennsylvania, to take one example, students can satisfy their quantitative requirement with courses on anxiety disorders, perceptual learning or the family.

Students who can't do basic math are not likely to make informed choices about spending, debt, investments or retirement planning. Students who do not understand money become adults who are financially irresponsible.

America's consumer debt now averages almost $20,000 per household - and researchers estimate that 43 percent of American families spend more money than they earn. And we know how important a factor this was in the subprime mortgage crisis.

While colleges and universities struggle to stay afloat during tough economic times, they should also commit to bailing out their students' educations - to filling in glaring gaps in knowledge and skills, and so to improving our nation's chances of realizing a solvent, prosperous future.

As I said, that's much redacted. For the full Monty, see the original at Minding the Campus.

UPDATE 3/9/09: ACTA will be on the Fox Business Network today at 1:50 p.m. ET discussing financial literacy. Check it out.

Erin O'Connor, 12:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

March 5, 2009 [feather]
False dichotomies

It's official. A new study reveals that many more professors think it's more important to teach students how to be "agents of social change" than to teach them the classic works of Western civilization:

According to the survey, 57.8 percent of professors believe it is important to encourage undergraduates to become agents of social change, whereas only 34.7 percent said teaching them the classics is very important. Observers say the difference results from influences as diverse as conservative criticisms of curriculum and Barack Obama's call for social activism during his presidential campaign.

The survey found that, on the issue of classics and change, professors' opinions also vary by rank. Full professors are more likely than assistant professors to say teaching the classics is important, and assistant professors are more likely than full professors to say encouraging undergraduates to become socially involved is important.

A report on the survey, "The American College Teacher," was released Thursday by the University of California at Los Angeles's Higher Education Research Institute. The institute questioned 22,562 professors across many disciplines at 372 colleges and universities in the 2007-8 academic year about their goals for classroom instruction, and asked them how they spent their time and how satisfied they were with their jobs. The institute completes the survey every three years (The Chronicle, September 16, 2005).

Sylvia Hurtado, a professor of education at UCLA who directs the research institute, said the gap between those who value teaching Western civilization and those who value teaching students to be social activists reflects a shift in emphasis from the abstract to the practical. "The notion of a liberal education as a set of essential intellectual skills is in transition," she says. "It's also about social and personal responsibility, thinking about one's role in society, and creating change."

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says he believes faculty members should teach the classics. "I teach American literature all the time, that's what I do," says Mr. Nelson, who is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But he says that to many professors, teaching the classics has become part of a "conservative agenda" that they don't want to be part of. Conservative critics of academe, he says, "have poisoned the well for these subjects because they've gotten politicized and become symbols of a reaction against the progressive academy."

But Peter W. Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, attributes the gap between Western civilization and social change in part to the influence of Barack Obama's campaign. He suspects that many professors have long believed that teaching students to be agents of change is more important than teaching them to value the classics. Few, however, have openly acknowledged that, he says. "There used to be something a bit shameful for a faculty member to take such an anti-intellectual position," he says.

But the 2008 presidential campaign, he says, changed that, giving "a sense of legitimacy to the idea that political action could and should trump traditional forms of intellectual inquiry."

I think both Nelson and Wood are right, and I think the upshot is one of pure absurdity. The suggestion here is that academics are so cowed--or angered, or repulsed, or intimidated--by what we like to call "conservative critiques of academia" (even when many of the people leveling those critiques are not actually conservatives, even when there is a very strong element of "straw man" to this claim), that they are making professional and pedagogical decisions reactively and emotionally, in a knee-jerk manner, rather than thoughtfully, deliberately, and wisely.

So much for intellectuals behaving intellectually. So much for academic freedom. If the professoriate really is such an affectively volatile candle in the wind, then there should be no academic freedom--because there can be no possibility of rational self-governance. Freedom--academic and otherwise--is predicated on the ideals of reason and rational thought. The academy has a particular obligation to live up to that ideal. Oh well.

The other thing I notice about this study (and I confess I have not looked at the study itself, only the article, so perhaps the issue is with the reporting and not the study) is the false dichotomy between reading works that educate students about social change and reading the classics. The classics are works about social change, in one way or another. That's true of Greek tragedy, of Chaucer, of Shakespeare, of Milton, of Defoe, of enlightenment philosophers, of romantic poets, of Victorian novelists, of modernist writers. Some register upheaval in their form, some in their content, some do both. Some try to provoke change, some try to register and reflect on it, some try to resist it. But great literature is always hooked into the great tensions of its time--even as it is also hooked into a longer tradition.

There is no conflict between teaching students about social change and teaching the classics. Or there shouldn't be. Has the academy's intensely visceral hostility toward "conservatism" reached such a point that professors can no longer think straight?

UPDATE: More at Joanne Jacobs, one of whose commenters observes that "The simple fact is that many of these 'progressive' teachers have not read much classic literature." That may rankle. But all you have to do is look at K-12 curricula, college general requirements, and even humanities major requirements to see where that impression comes from.

Bonus points for looking at graduate programs in the humanities--which also regularly enable people who come in with huge, gaping holes in their knowledge to protect, preserve, and rationalize them. No one is going to say at that point, "Hey, young aspiring scholar! From your past coursework, and from your own accounting, it looks here like you've never read a play by Shakespeare--and that you would not know a Biblical allusion if it came up and smacked you. I know you think it doesn't matter because you aim to become a scholar of twentieth-century whatever--but it really does. Start reading!" By grad school, students should be ready to specialize. But too often, they are very far from being ready for that. They need remediation--but that's an unspeakable recognition when it comes to talking about curricular rigor at the graduate level. So everyone just plays along and acts like incoming students know more than they do. The results are not pretty, nor are they particularly intellectually honest.

I was very lucky, looking back. My public high school English classes were coherent and really rich: in ninth grade, we did tons of grammar, plus genre surveys, studded with the odd accessible classic (a prose Odyssey, a modernized Canterbury Tales, Romeo and Juliet, Great Expectations); in tenth grade, we did a spectacular survey of American lit, from Puritan sermons through Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Miller, and Williams; in eleventh, we surveyed English lit -- from before Beowulf through Conrad (I suspect we ran out of time there); in senior year, we read, cover to cover, the Norton anthologies of world literature, volumes one and two. I think I've mentioned that here before -- they took us from Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides through Old and New Testament, to Dante, to Shakespeare and Jonson, to Moliere and Pope, and onward, with special stops for Madame Bovary and even some Brecht. My English major at Berkeley required a year-long survey of English lit from Chaucer through now, a Shakespeare course, a course on the classics, plus study of American lit, genre, and--this one was very cool and important--single authors (I liked that one so much I did it twice, once for Woolf and once for Austen). This was in the 80s, and it was just the regular thing you encountered in public school. Things have changed a lot.

Erin O'Connor, 7:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

March 3, 2009 [feather]
Students for Concealed Carry on Campus

Just ran across these guys. Newsweek recently featured Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, and gives a good capsule of the group's mission and work:

The group, whose 12,000 members nationwide include college students, faculty and parents, champions legislation that would allow licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on campus, in the hope that an alert and well-trained citizen could stop a deranged shooter before he or she could do serious damage. According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, 13 states are currently considering some form of "concealed carry" legislation aimed at campuses. Utah is the group's model; after a state Supreme Court ruling found that the state university had violated a law allowing permit holders to carry concealed weapons, the school agreed that guns could legally be carried on its grounds. Some states, like Colorado, do not explicitly ban licensed students and faculty from carrying hidden weapons onto school grounds, though most universities in such states impose restrictions of their own.

There are signs that the "concealed carry" group was making headway even before the tragedy at Northern Illinois. Earlier this month the South Dakota House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to force state universities to allow students to carry weapons on campus, according to GOP state Rep. Tom Brunner. The bill, which Brunner sponsored, recently died in the state senate, but Brunner said he intends to bring it back as soon as he can. "It's not an issue that's going to go away," Brunner said. "We feel pretty passionate [that] students and teachers should have a right to defend themselves, and weapons on campus should be a part of the plan."


W. Scott Lewis is a board member and spokesman for Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. Lewis argues that states with the most relaxed concealed-carry laws also happen to be among the safest. He points to Colorado State University, which has allowed concealed weapons on campus for 10 semesters without incident; the same is true for nine state universities in Utah's system, where concealed weapons have been allowed in university classroom buildings since 2006, Lewis said.

NEWSWEEK's Suzanne Smalley spoke to Lewis about the bill, the tragedy at Northern Illinois University--and his fears that it could happen again. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why do you think it would help matters if students were allowed to carry guns on college campuses?

W. Scott Lewis: We're talking about licensed individuals age 21 and above, in most states, who have gone through extensive background checks, training, testing, etc. Basically, these are the same individuals who are licensed to carry in virtually all other unsecured locations in these states. By unsecured I mean anywhere where there are not metal detectors and X-ray machines. So you're saying that individuals who are licensed to carry in office buildings, movie theaters, grocery stores, restaurants, shopping malls, churches, banks, etc.--they're currently not allowed to carry on college campuses for some reason ... College campuses are unsecured locations. Anybody can walk onto a college campus carrying just about anything they please. So what happens is these state laws and these school policies that prohibit concealed carry on college campuses stack the odds in favor of dangerous criminals who have no concern for following the rules.

Lewis says that the "biggest hurdle" right now is ignorance:

There's a lot of statistics out there that show that concealed handgun license holders are five times less likely than nonlicensed holders to commit violent crimes. You can look at the 40 right-to-carry states with liberal concealed-carry laws, where they have not seen any escalation in gun violence, gun accidents, etc. as a result of allowing concealed carry. There are currently 11 U.S. universities that have for a combined total of 60 semesters allowed concealed carry on campus without an incident. You haven't seen an incident of gun violence, an incident of gun theft, no gun accidents … Although you can't say in any particular situation whether or not concealed carry might have prevented or mitigated a school shooting or a sexual assault or anything of that nature, you can say that allowing concealed carry would even the odds. And that's what this is really about: evening the odds and taking the advantage away from these dangerous criminals.

It's amazing to me how many anti-gun people think they know everything they need to know to justify their position--when in fact they know nothing at all. They have visceral reactions that emanate from their lack of knowledge--they are, in short, repulsed and afraid--and they rationalize their fearful reactions into what they believe to be reasoned, unimpeachable responses. It's shameful to see how many intellectuals engage in such behavior (and it is behavior, not thought)--and so ratify it in others.

Surely the baseline requirement for exploring and debating the issue of guns on campus ought to be informed opinion derived from facts--and not the sort of censorious anxiety manifested by, for example, Central Connecticut State University.

Erin O'Connor, 10:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

March 2, 2009 [feather]
Where amendments meet

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Jeffrey Maxwell, a Western Oregon University student who was disciplined for exercising his CCW rights on campus. I was quite taken with the manner in which the university was not only violating the student's constitutional rights, but was also doing so in the intrusive, ugly way we have come to expect when watching higher ed admins enforce speech codes: Maxwell was suspended, ordered to undergo psychological evaluation, and required to write an essay on "obeying the law and the impact of guns on campus," as if his real crime is his character, is what he believes. Nasty stuff, that -- and a sign that guns are becoming the new frontier in campus-based efforts to curtail students' rights.

Here's another sign, this one emanating from a communications class Central Connecticut State University:

For CCSU student John Wahlberg, a class presentation on campus violence turned into a confrontation with the campus police due to a complaint by the professor.

On October 3, 2008, Wahlberg and two other classmates prepared to give an oral presentation for a Communication 140 class that was required to discuss a "relevant issue in the media". Wahlberg and his group chose to discuss school violence due to recent events such as the Virginia Tech shootings that occurred in 2007.

Shortly after his professor, Paula Anderson, filed a complaint with the CCSU Police against her student. During the presentation Wahlberg made the point that if students were permitted to conceal carry guns on campus, the violence could have been stopped earlier in many of these cases. He also touched on the controversial idea of free gun zones on college campuses.

That night at work, Wahlberg received a message stating that the campus police "requested his presence". Upon entering the police station, the officers began to list off firearms that were registered under his name, and questioned him about where he kept them.

They told Wahlberg that they had received a complaint from his professor that his presentation was making students feel "scared and uncomfortable."

"I was a bit nervous when I walked into the police station," Wahlberg said, "but I felt a general sense of disbelief once the officer actually began to list the firearms registered in my name. I was never worried however, because as a law-abiding gun owner, I have a thorough understanding of state gun laws as well as unwavering safety practices."

Professor Anderson refused to comment directly on the situation and deferred further comment.

"It is also my responsibility as a teacher to protect the well being of our students, and the campus community at all times," she wrote in a statement submitted to The Recorder. "As such, when deemed necessary because of any perceived risks, I seek guidance and consultation from the Chair of my Department, the Dean and any relevant University officials."

Wahlberg believes that her complaint was filed without good reason.

"I don’t think that Professor Anderson was justified in calling the CCSU police over a clearly nonthreatening matter. Although the topic of discussion may have made a few individuals uncomfortable, there was no need to label me as a threat," Wahlberg said in response. "The actions of Professor Anderson made me so uncomfortable, that I didn't attend several classes. The only appropriate action taken by the Professor was to excuse my absences."

The university police were unavailable for comment.

"If you can't talk about the Second Amendment, what happened to the First Amendment?" asked Sara Adler, president of the Riflery and Marksmanship club on campus. "After all, a university campus is a place for the free and open exchange of ideas."

Anderson is a lecturer in the communications department; having become a poster prof for academic intolerance and pedagogical imcompetence, not to mention a very bad PR magnet for CCSU, one might speculate about the security of her position there.

But she can't bear all the blame. In her statement, she strongly indicates that she is acting under the guidance of the department chair, not to mention the dean and various other university officials. FIRE gives CCSU a red light rating for its policies regarding free expression--meaning that the University is a bit challenged when it comes to understanding that students have the right to talk about controversial issues, and that no one, not even a skittish professor, has the right not to be offended.

Via Saysuncle.com. Thanks to Jason Saphara for sending the link.

UPDATE: The AP reports that Western Oregon has rejected Maxwell's appeal. He remains suspended -- but will no longer have to undergo psychological evaluation. The details are telling:

Western Oregon University has rejected an appeal from a student suspended for having two weapons on campus.

But, the Albany Democrat-Herald reported, 30-year-old Jeff Maxwell of Lebanon will not have to complete a psychological evaluation to prove he is no danger to himself or others.

The university said the former Marine was suspended until June 12 for carrying a 'tactical knife' and having an unloaded semiautomatic rifle in his pickup truck.

But the school said the suspension was not a sanction for carrying a loaded two-shot .22-caliber derringer in his pocket.

Maxwell was stopped by campus officers on Jan. 28 while investigating reports of a man with a knife. Gun rights activists rallied on his behalf last week in Salem.

Erin O'Connor, 8:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)