Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Renovating Academia, Part IV

One of the pressures on academia these days has come from those parts of the outside population that believe universities could be run in a more business-like fashion. That is, many people assume that universities should be financially self-sufficient and could operate through much more efficient models—if only they would look to the corporate world for their models.

Many colleges and universities have taken this to heart.

Take note: one of the dangers, if you are a university, of claiming you are “running things like a business” is that experienced businesspeople may see that you really don’t know what you are doing (in the business sense) and move you aside. Soon, you won’t be a university any longer, but will have become a business (not simply “like” a business).

What does that mean?

At its most basic level, a successful business operates by providing its customers with something desired for a price that covers costs and leaves a bit for profit—and at a price that the customer is willing to pay. The more efficiently the business provides that something, the greater the profit will be.

Given outside pressure and an unquestioned belief that a business model is superior, too many university administrators have been struggling to graft this model onto their institutions (or have let people from the business world step in). The widget, in their view, is the education. The customer is the student. The means of providing the widget, the product, is the faculty. The result?

Well, it’s not better education.

Why not?

Education does not fit well into a business model. For one thing, the widget, education, cannot be defined into efficiency. Attempts to do so are forcing education into a retrograde position, for they focus on standardization, one of the main bases of efficiency. Unfortunately, efficiency itself isn’t even necessarily a good thing in an educational environment. It leads to a concentration on measurement and reproducibility, both of which limit education and make it even more backward-looking.

The over-emphasis on standardized testing (seen as efficient) certainly has been heightened by a business model of education. But standardized testing is the ultimate “inside the box” system for evaluation, grading only on what has been deemed both correct and important. It demotes creativity to nothingness and makes the ability to utilize the scientific method extracurricular. Learning governed by standardized tests concentrates on what has been, not on what could be. It is, ultimately, stultifying, for it is the opposite of expansive, which is what education should be.

Applying the business model to education usually presupposes that the customer is the student. This isn’t really true: the ultimate purchaser of education is the organization that hires the student based on the diploma, not the student himself/herself. By focusing on the student as customer, the universities neglect the needs of the real end-users, and often end up supplying a second-rate product (having been seduced into satisfying the wrong “customer”). “Customer,” really, cannot be grafted onto education, for there are too many “customer” constituents (not only students and employers, but parents, government and even the military).

Another problem with applying a business model to education is that it assumes that faculty members are simply part of a means of production and can be easily swapped out. A couple of years ago, I taught for a bit for an accredited online for-profit “university.” There, the faculty members were not allowed to create classes, but merely acted as “facilitators” and were expected to be able to step in to a class anywhere along the line, if needed. As a result, the quality of the instruction was quite low, and the qualifications of the instructors weren’t much higher. I took the part-time job because the pay was high—but left soon after because the work was boring. Most other of the highly-qualified teachers did the same. Attracted by the money, they constantly end up leaving because they aren’t really teaching. And they did not become teachers for the money—but to really teach.

I talked with the administrators of the “university” about this as I was leaving, trying to convince them that the level of instruction could never really be high if they continued to have non-teaching specialists set curricula and assignments. Businesspeople, they could not understand what I was talking about, feeling they were providing an efficient education through standardization. They could not understand that the teachers have to be intellectually stimulated if they are going to intellectually stimulate their students.

There certainly are reasons for trying to make universities more efficient and less dependent on non-tuition funding. But a simple business model will not make universities efficient and profitable—unless a good deal of what we think of as “real” education is given up.

More in the next installment.

[The previous part can be found here.]

Monday, July 25, 2005

Bloggers Need Not Apply?

Hmpf. Someone without the courage to reveal his/her name (writing as “Ivan Tribble”) has written a piece called ”Bloggers Need Not Apply” for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The point of the article is summed up by the last paragraph:
We've seen the hapless job seekers who destroy the good thing they've got going on paper by being so irritating in person that we can't wait to put them back on a plane. Our blogger applicants came off reasonably well at the initial interview, but once we hung up the phone and called up their blogs, we got to know "the real them" -- better than we wanted, enough to conclude we didn't want to know more.
Fair enough: you don’t want to know what you are getting but would rather the “unpleasant” surprises come later. Fine. But what does your attitude say about you and your hiring committee?

Before getting to that, however, let me go over the essay just a bit:

There’s an assumption behind Tribble’s article that what you see is what you get… and that what you don’t know won’t hurt you. Find out too much about someone? Then you wouldn’t want to hire them. So, Tribble asks academic bloggers (especially job-seekers)
Why? What is the purpose of broadcasting one's unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world? It's not hard to imagine legitimate, constructive applications for such a forum. But it's also not hard to find examples of the worst kinds of uses.

A blog easily becomes a therapeutic outlet, a place to vent petty gripes and frustrations stemming from congested traffic, rude sales clerks, or unpleasant national news. It becomes an open diary or confessional booth, where inward thoughts are publicly aired.
There’s an obvious assumption here that such venting is bad… though the writer would have to admit that he/she does it often enough in the office and on the telephone. It’s the fact of being public about it, then, that is bad.


Following the passage above is this:
Worst of all, for professional academics, it's a publishing medium with no vetting process, no review board, and no editor. The author is the sole judge of what constitutes publishable material, and the medium allows for instantaneous distribution. After wrapping up a juicy rant at 3 a.m., it only takes a few clicks to put it into global circulation.

We've all done it -- expressed that way-out-there opinion in a lecture we're giving, in cocktail party conversation, or in an e-mail message to a friend. There is a slight risk that the opinion might find its way to the wrong person's attention and embarrass us. Words said and e-mail messages sent cannot be retracted, but usually have a limited range. When placed on prominent display in a blog, however, all bets are off.
Tribble wants us constrained or, at least, to appear constrained. Experimentation and honesty are out… for they might “embarrass us.” Ouch!

All of this perplexed me, but then I got to the heart of the matter, the passage that showed me that this article isn’t really about bloggers at all, but (unknown to even Tribble while writing) is about the timidity of too many academic departments:
The content of the blog may be less worrisome than the fact of the blog itself. Several committee members expressed concern that a blogger who joined our staff might air departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined) on the cyber clothesline for the world to see. Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.
So, anyone with the confidence and courage to risk looking like a fool, to risk showing those parts of themselves that are not carefully tailored, might also let slip that others in academia aren’t perfect either!

My! We certainly can’t let people like that have jobs, can we?

To me, the attitude expressed in Tribble’s essay is fundamentally dishonest; it is an example of the (dare I say it?) corruption of present-day academia. “We’re only interested in surfaces… and we don’t want anyone digging below the surfaces we present.” Masks: they are what is important, not the realitiy behind. Job seekers who are honest and open, showing exactly what they are (and, often exactly what they can do beyond what another of the mask-wearers could ever even consider) are not welcome.

These academics (and, fortunately, I don’t think Tribble is really an example of the standard attitude—though he/she may be an example of a certain powerful part of the academic establishment) probably pride themselves in their intellectual and academic rigor… but it is a rigor limited by self-imposed blinders, a rigor that keeps these scholars from that most important part of real thought: self-examination.

Towards the end of the article, Tribble writes
We all have quirks. In a traditional interview process, we try our best to stifle them, or keep them below the threshold of annoyance and distraction. The search committee is composed of humans, who know that the applicants are humans, too, who have those things to hide. It's in your interest, as an applicant, for them to stay hidden, not laid out in exquisite detail for all the world to read. If you stick your foot in your mouth during an interview, no one will interrupt to prevent you from doing further damage. So why risk doing it many times over by blabbing away in a blog?
Tribble, I want my quirks known, want the buyer to understand completely what that buyer is getting. I would no more hide myself in a job search than I would put sawdust in the engine of a used car I am selling. You are telling me to be dishonest, all so I can get a job—so that you will only discover later what I really am (and only then experience buyer’s remorse).

No thanks. I will stick to my blogging, proud to be a real example of WYSIWYG.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Renovating Academia, Part III

Not surprisingly, most academics want to focus on the work they are doing, some of which (and it is impossible to tell, now, what will prove so) will be extremely important to our future lives. “Just let us alone; we’re doing work that has helped you in the past—and it will again, in the future.”

That’s true. Unfortunately, it misses an important point, and one that might endanger the ability to do any research.

And that is, quite simply, that the academic ivory tower contains the seeds of its own destruction; you cannot completely separate our universities from the wider public and its discussions and concerns without endangering both the means and opportunity for the research the universities desire to conduct.

Academics want the wider public to have faith in them—but academics show little faith in the public. Academia believes it has something to offer the public—and it does—but it doesn’t often seem to appreciate what the public offers it in return. And the public, often, is unsure that it wants what academia has to offer. This uncertainty provides an opening for those antagonistic to academia, leading to statements like this, from an article called “Can We Recapture the Ivory Tower” by Gene Edward Veith in World Magazine that starts with a grain of truth but that can be used to undermine the scarce confidence left on the part of the public towards academia:
Universities, to most Americans, are ivory towers. Academics are thought of as pursuing their lofty ideas, in sublime indifference to ordinary life. Students put in their time at college before venturing out into the "real world."

Academia and reality are thought of as two different realms, with both academics and ordinary folk liking it that way. Scholars can pursue their most eccentric ideas, wrapped in the mantle of academic freedom, protected from the vulgar masses, and safely ensconced in their ivory towers. At the same time, Americans seem quite willing to pour vast sums into taxes and tuition to keep the intellectuals locked up where they can do little harm.

But make no mistake about it: Academia, however isolated in its own self-contained universe, has a huge effect on the "real world."
Veith sees the isolation of academia as leading to all sorts of mischief:
The ivory-tower myth-that the academic world constitutes a sheltered, privileged, and self-contained culture of its own-contains much truth. Its peculiar dynamics help explain some of the wackier ideas that nevertheless gain cultural currency.

Political correctness began as a behavior code on left-wing college campuses; it spread when hard-headed, conservative businesses began requiring their employees to take "sensitivity training seminars" (taught by academics, of course). Feminism became orthodoxy on college campuses. Then, so-called "queer theory"-a research approach in the humanities that looks at history, literature, art, and philosophy in terms of the expression and repression of homosexual desires-grew into a respected academic discipline. No wonder college graduates today tend to look kindly upon feminism and "gay rights."…

When the university schools of education catch a virus, it is the nation's school children who get sick….

Taxpayers who know their favorite university primarily by way of its football team would do well to peruse the college catalog and browse the academic journals. Here they will find a smorgasbord of unrepentant Marxism, hysterical anti-American propaganda, defenses of every kind of sexual perversion from child sex to sadomasochism, and anti-Christian bigotry.
The threat here, though directed at the humanities, spills over onto the sciences: stem-cell research, climate change—if the people who are funding a great deal of the work in our universities (the taxpayers) see what is being done there as contrary to their own views of the way the world should be, they will cut that funding or change the universities from research institutions into sites for the verification of prior conclusions—and we will drift into a new dark age.

Does that sound alarmist?

It is. And what bothers me is that we in the universities, secure and self-righteous, seem to believe that our virtue guarantees our victory.

It does not.

Once, there were discussions within the universities over the very structure of universities. That has died, smothered by a complacency that has grown over the past thirty or forty years. The idea of an “experimental” college has become something of an oxymoron.

Once, there were academics concerned over the divide (long standing) between academia and the general public. They actively tried to overcome it, becoming public intellectuals… something we see less and less today, while we need it more and more.

Once, public intellectuals could spend their time bringing new ideas and possibilities before the public. People like Bertrand Russell felt a responsibility to make concepts such as relativity accessible to the general public. B.F. Skinner had the courage and stamina to bring to the public ideas that it didn’t want to hear—and to withstand the vilification (most of it unfair) that attended the reception of his ideas.

Today, about the best a public intellectual can do is try to fight a losing battle against the forces of fear and deception. Carl Sagan, in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, and Robert Park, in Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, spend their time trying to stem the tide towards belief in contemporary versions of witchcraft (and I am not speaking of Wicca, here) instead of presenting the new and fascinating ideas that our scholars are creating.

Though some scholars, such as Esther MacCallum-Stewart (see ”Inside the Ivory Tower”) are finding new ways of moving academic studies beyond the ivory tower (by using blogs, in her case), too many of us continue to think all of our needs can be fulfilled by the inside, that we don’t need to general public. And that we have no more responsibility to the general public than a willingness to allow others to partake in the results of our labors.

Today, popularizers and scholars working outside the narrow bounds of academia are few and far between. It seems hardly worth the effort to try to explain complex subjects to non-specialists. Not only will critics from within arise (many academics resist popularizations, seeing them as a “dumbing down”) but the attacks from without can be vicious. Millions upon millions of people, for example, believe that Skinner raised his daughters in boxes and ruined their lives—a malicious rumor started by his detractors. The truth is that the boxes were not operant chambers (“Skinner boxes”—tools for teaching students about stimulus/response continuums through the “teaching” of rats and pigeons) but “air cribs” (baby beds with controlled temperature and humidity and things that have since become commonplace like a sound system allowing parents to monitor the sound of the infant’s breathing from anywhere in the house). The truth is that one of Skinner’s daughters grew up to be a psychologist herself and the other is a successful artist. Not surprisingly, in the face of such vilification, not many want to follow and become public intellectuals themselves.

We need to find that courage, however—just as we need to learn to be willing to examine ourselves.

There are two tasks that we, in academia, need to take on: first, we need to examine our institutions (especially in relation to the greater world of contemporary America) and reform them (something few in academia want to do—I get more nasty comments when I write about reforming academia than I do on any other topic—and I get them almost exclusively from academics. They don’t want to face the need to self-examination). Second, we need—each one of us—to recognize that we have an obligation to take our work outside of the ivory tower, to find ways of presenting it to the general public and to listen to that public.

If we even start on these tasks, the threat represented by people like Veith and (of course) David Horowitz will be diminished.

And our contribution to our culture will increase.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Renovating Academia, Part II

In my last post on this issue, I described a problem that rises at least as much from outside perception as from actual abuse: tenure. Here, I want to talk about something that arises from perception internal to academia and fostered by it: authority.

In neither case am I providing solutions to the problems I am trying to outline. My purpose is to spark discussion, not to provide answers.

Those of us who are college professors today have succeeded in an extremely authoritarian, top-dominated system (it has been decades, now, since there was any real attempt to create an alternative). To some degree or another, we are the ones who were willing to bootlick long enough to be allowed to establish our own credentials of authority. And, naturally, having come up that way, we often assume (usually without examining the issue) that this is the best way.

Our authoritarianism is rarely leavened by any sort of training as teachers that might allow us (even) to use it more effectively as part of a larger design. College professors are expected to be subject experts; few are also trained teachers. Our concepts of appropriate classroom behavior and management, therefore, come (for the most part) from our own experience, not from examination of the comparative effectiveness of various carefully delineated and described techniques.

Because of our background, we college professors become credential addicts whether we like it or not. Though I do not like it, when I meet someone who is ABD (“All But Dissertation”) and who is not actively pursuing the dissertation, I look down on them. Just slightly—and I fight the reaction—but it is there. An ABD is just as knowledgeable (generally) in her/his field as is someone who has completed a dissertation (most often a narrowly-focused and specialized work). Both have completed all of the coursework required for the PhD and both have passed whatever qualifying exams the particular department or university requires. Except for the very specialized knowledge represented by the dissertation, what’s the difference between the two?

The answer is best presented by the Wizard in the 1939 movie of The Wizard of Oz
Back where I come from we have universities, seats of great learning where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts—and with no more brains than you have. But, they have one thing you haven't got: A diploma!
I get the humor; the sarcasm is right on point. Yet I, even knowing that the distinction is small, still look at those “just” ABD as lacking something. I can’t help it: I was raised in—and have succeeded (to some degree) in—a culture where the credentials mean almost everything.

A great deal of real work and learning also goes along with earning a PhD—and this, too, may be part of the problem. Few people earn a doctorate without real sweat and concentration. By the time you are done, you really know your narrow specialty, generally at a level equaled by only a small few anywhere else in the world. You also know, in excruciating detail, just how much work it takes to get to that level.

Having been involved in detailed research and writing, conversing with those few who are your peers in the particular subject area, it’s understandably easy to react with frustration (or even anger) when someone who has not put in the same amount of time and work comments on your field—generally making a claim that you long ago examined and jettisoned.

Others may see this as disdain for their ideas. Students, for example, may feel insulted by an almost accidental slight coming simply from the fact that, to the professor, the particular idea has long been debunked.

This, like the almost unconscious disdain for an ABD, infects us all in academia, whether we think about it or not. And sometimes it spills over into debates outside of academia—to academia’s detriment.

When it spills out, this is more easily examined. So, let me give two examples.

The first is the question of who wrote the plays and poems of Shakespeare. For centuries, there have been people claiming that Will Shakespeare from Stratford-on-Avon could not have done so. Samuel Clemens was enticed by this possibility. Today, even such non-academic intellectual luminaries such as Lewis Lapham (editor of Harper’s) have entertained doubts about the authority of Shakespeare.

What has been the response of academic Shakespearians? For the most part, nothing. Only recently have they gotten into the debate at all. Scott McCrea’s The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question, for example, appeared just this year from Praeger (my own publisher). In April, 1999, a number of scholars, headlined by Harold Bloom, participated in a Harper’s “Folio” (a grouping of short essays) entitled, “The Ghost of Shakespeare” (“Who, in fact, was the bard: the usual suspect from Stratford: or Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford?”). Beyond these, response from the academic community to the “controversy” has been desultory. It hasn’t seemed a controversy at all to Shakespeare scholars (to them, there never was a question of authority in the first place), so they rarely bother to respond.

The result? A rather useless debate has been kept alive for well more than a century.

Of course, in the larger frame, it doesn’t really matter who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. My second example, however, does matter.

It’s the “new” proposition of “intelligent design.”

As has been true with the question of the authority of Shakespeare, many academics have refused to debate the issue of creationism simply because they have not wanted to give a platform to what they see as an untenable position. Just by debating, the thought has gone, both “theories” are presented as equals—and the academics feel quite strongly that they are not equal. One has both a research and an intellectual pedigree; the other does not. One has authority—academic respectability; the other does not. So they cannot be presented as two sides to one issue, as debate format insists.

Also, the scholars who refuse to debate argue (there’s a good segment on this from NPR last week) that debates themselves add nothing to science (or any other academic knowledge). Nothing can be resolved on a debating platform—it exists completely outside of the requirements of the scientific method or of scholarship in general. Winning a debate does not add to the authority of a position—so why debate? Coming from where the establishment of authority is of paramount importance, this is completely understandable, even though rather unhelpful.

Because evolution is a complex issue, scientists also hesitate to debate its opponents simply because they feel the topic is too involved for explanation in such a forum. In an hour, for one thing, it’s much easier to attack than to defend. As few scientists have bothered to spend the time really looking into “intelligent design” or “creationism,” they can’t attack these ideas nearly as well as their champions can attack evolution, which these latter generally have looked into. Furthermore, if they do break their topic down in such a way that the lay audience can understand, the scholar can be accused of being a “popularizer”—often a kiss of death in academic communities.

Such attitudes on the part of the scientists stems in part from what I described above, from the stupendous amounts of time most PhDs have put into study of their topics. As a result, they see even the most educated lay audience as woefully lacking in even the basic building blocks of the debate. And they don’t feel they have the time (outside of the authoritarian classroom) to provide that knowledge when no scholarly framework exists (making the task all that much more difficult).

Because they did their learning in an authoritarian system, few scholars have really learned how to explain the complex issues they consider to people outside of that system and who have no investment in the system. A student desiring a degree will listen and accept (for the most part) what the professor is saying, ingesting it almost without question. Questioning does come in later but, for all of our emphasis on “critical thinking,” it is generally accepted only within certain well-defined frameworks.

For this reason, a professor debating evolution outside of the academy can be knocked for a loop by questions that seem completely out of the blue. Scholarly authority counts for little outside of the university, and so debaters used to relying on that authority for at least a part of any discussion suddenly find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.

To a smaller degree, we do have similar problems each time we enter a classroom. We professors expect students to accept our authority, limiting debate to issues set up by ourselves. When students step beyond those, we can react poorly. Some of us simply avoid responding (“That doesn’t even deserve consideration”) or brush the question off with sarcasm. Others do try to respond, but few have the time to really consider issues that we find tangential (at best) to the central questions.

It is here that we give an opening to the likes of David Horowitz with his “Academic Bill of Rights” and “Student Bill of Rights.” We find it hard, given our authoritarian backgrounds, to treat seriously ideas that were rejected by our own teachers and that we, in turn, rejected. We want to lead our students down paths that go places, not simply into dead-ends for the exercise of it. For whatever reason, Horowitz wants to break down the current authoritarianism of our universities, giving what he sees as a wider panoply of “viable” theories and points of view.

Now, I feel that what Horowitz is doing is ultimately an attempt to take advantage of one of the weaknesses of our academic system (its dependence on authority) in order to change it into a politically-dominated system—and I want to fight him, every step of the way. At the same time, however, I would like to see those of us in academia begin to examine ourselves a bit more carefully.

Few academics would readily admit that they operate quite happily and successfully as part of a rigid, authoritarian system—and I expect to get a great deal of negative reaction from academics to my assertion that they do. Most of us, in our personal lives, fancy that we eschew authority. Maybe we could really gain by examining why we don’t, in our professional lives.


That's enough for now. I'll wait to see what sorts or responses I get to this (here, and on dKos and BoomanTribune, where I will also post) before continuing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Losing Freedom to Rights

On July 5, 2005, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed House Resolution 177 inspired by David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights.” The Pennsylvania resolution establishes
a select committee to examine the academic atmosphere and the degree of which faculty have the opportunity to instruct and students have the opportunity to learn in an environment conducive to the pursuit of knowledge and truth at State-related and State-owned colleges and universities and community colleges in this Commonwealth.

“Atmosphere”? When the government starts investigating “atmosphere,” I get worried.

Now, before I go further, I have to admit that I have a personal interest in this issue. Not only am I a resident of Pennsylvania, but I teach at one of those “State-owned colleges and universities.” If I am biased as a result of that, OK—as long as you are aware of the bias, so can make your own judgment without feeling I am trying to manipulate you.

The resolution contains “WHEREAS” after “WHEREAS,” most of them quite innocent in sound. The first one, for example, posits that
Academic freedom and intellectual diversity are values indispensable to the American colleges and universities
Few of us would argue—unless we looked closely.

What’s that phrase “intellectual diversity,” for example? Am I reading in too much when I imagine it’s the old “there are two (legitimate) sides to any issue” ploy? Will that make us teach creationism in Biology classrooms, in the interest of diversity? Will the Holocaust deniers be shoehorned into History classrooms and discussions of the Second World War?

Putting “academic freedom” and “intellectual diversity” together in one statement makes it seem as though the two are compatible values—but they are not. “Academic freedom” is a value I can understand. It allows scholars to pursue lines of research that, for a variety of reasons, might make certain people uncomfortable. It’s insurance that our gathering and gaining of knowledge will not be limited and it gives rise to ‘intellectual diversity,’ but from within its own dynamic. “Intellectual diversity,” on the other hand, makes absolutely no sense to me as a precedent to an academic context. It is a value external to the acts of research and learning. It’s an imposition from outside of intellectual discussion of a breadth of competing viewpoints, each given equal standing. Intellectually (ironically), this has no validity—diverse opinions do not have equal weight simply because of diversity, but each has to prove itself through such things as the scientific method and experimental replication and logical formulation. When this happens (and it does), new ideas can be accepted as part of the genuine intellectual debates—but they arise through their own merit, this way, instead of being imposed by some outside authority. A “theory,” in other words, cannot be thrust upon the academy simply because it exists; it needs an experimental pedigree that has withstood challenge. Also, it needs to be open to modification or rejection as new experimental data comes in. Mandating “intellectual diversity” does not help this happen.

The next “WHEREAS” says that
there is no humanly accessible truth that is not, in principle, open to challenge
Again, that sounds fine. But, here again, is an opening for that “there are two sides to every issue” shibboleth. There is a point in challenging the long-held assumption that slavery is bad, for example—but that does not mean that the opposite “view,” that slavery is good, makes any sense at all. Challenging the assumption that slavery is bad allows us to examine the condition of slavery more carefully, exploring its different manifestations and different times—but a challenge does not contain within it a championing of the other side. For a statement such as the one quoted to be valuable, this has to be clearly stated and understood.

The next “WHEREAS” brings back that “intellectual diversity” idea, coupling it with “independence of thought and speech.” Emphatically, mandated “intellectual diversity” does not ‘protect and foster’ “independence of thought and speech,” but impedes it. Again, intellectual diversity arising from research and experimentation can and needs to be protected and fostered, but this must be done regardless of the result. If the entire intellectual community comes to one conclusion eventually (“the earth is round,” say), it is not necessary to find a competing view simply for the sake of this so-called “intellectual diversity” value. If anything, a focus on “intellectual diversity” impedes real “independence of thought and speech” by its implied insistence that there is always a continuum of equally acceptable beliefs.

The last “WHEREAS” seems to promote a state-mandated protection of students and faculty from “ideological orthodoxy”:
faculty members have the responsibility to not take advantage of their authority position to introduce inappropriate or irrelevant subject matter outside their field of study
Whoa! The legislature wants to tell me what is and is not part of my field of study? If not they, then who? Should anyone be limiting academics in such a way? My teaching fields are, primarily, American Literature and Composition, but I publish in Cultural Studies. Tell me: who is going to define the limits of what can come up in my classroom, of what I can research and write about? Who, after all, is more competent than I and my department to make such decisions? Quite frankly, no one—certainly not a legislature composed of people who, for the most part, have never taught a class of any sort.

If, on the other hand, it is really my responsibility as a faculty member (as the quote says), then why bring that up? If the implication is that the responsibility can be taken away, then it was not my responsibility in the first place—I was only acting on legislative sufferance.

The Resolution calls for a committee to study the issue, including whether:
(1) faculty are hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure based on their professional competence and subject matter knowledge and with a view of helping students explore and understand various methodologies and perspectives;
(2) students have an academic environment, quality life on campus and reasonable access to course materials that create an environment conducive to learning, the development of critical thinking and the exploration and expression of independent though and that the students are evaluated based on their subject knowledge; and
(3) that students are graded based on academic merit, without regard for ideological views, and that academic freedom and the right to explore and express independent thought is available to and practiced freely by faculty and students

As I have written in other diaries, there are serious problems in the universities surrounding tenure and promotion—and even hiring. But the idea of legislatures getting involved in that (even the hint of oversight) scares me. I don’t want my “professional competence and subject matter knowledge” judged by someone completely removed from my field of expertise—and I see no way that a legislative committee can ascertain that I am appropriately judged. Perhaps some of “our” academic procedures need change—but that change can only come from within, or the effect will be stultifying. Of course, I do want students to “explore and understand various methodologies and perspectives,” but I cannot abide the idea of mandated variety (“intellectual diversity”) that may force me to present differing theories as intellectually equal. Sure, I want any student to be able to present any idea—but no theory can be allowed to stand equal to another if it falls to challenge. Just because someone believes something does not provide it academic legitimacy—but the subtext in (1) above is simply the opposite.

The scariest part of (2) above is the line “that students are evaluated based on their subject knowledge.” Strangely enough, much of the rest of what has been presented in this resolution undermines the very idea of “subject knowledge,” forcing the “subject” to be broadened for the sake of “diversity.” The implication, here, may be that standardized tests are desirable, even on the university level, that we professors should be teaching to a codified body of knowledge that all students taking the particular course, no matter where, should “master” (as if standardized tests can rate “mastery”!). This would not only limit future intellectual exploration by the implied assumption that the body of knowledge is sufficient, but would remove almost all the joy of real debate from our classrooms. It would restrict just what (2) claims to promote.

When I was an undergraduate, a fellow student deliberately failed a course by smoking in the classroom (the professor was one of the only ones, in those ancient days, who did not allow smoking). The professor said, the first day, that anyone smoking would automatically fail. My fellow decided to smoke and accept the “F.” (3), here, would take that professor’s ability to flunk the student away, and would seriously erode authority in the classroom. There is (and should be) ability to appeal grades, but it must be extremely limited. These days, parents get involved in contesting student grades and try to get deans and provosts to take on the cases. That’s bad enough. Can you imagine getting legislators involved, too? Our classrooms would degenerate into chaos.

On first reading, House Resolution 177 may not seem particularly dangerous or significant. It’s not a law, after all, and I doubt it would be possible to convince the state House, Senate, and Governor Rendell to all approve of the sentiments expressed in it. But it is a first step towards direct legislative involvement in the classroom, and it must be stopped.

Sure, there are plenty of things needing changing in our universities. But, if the changes are mandated by our politicians, our education will really become simply political indoctrination, with syllabi determined by the political powers of the moment.

No matter what the problems in our universities may be right now (and problems are here), they are nothing compared with what things would be like if the road HR 177 points to is followed. The “atmosphere” would quickly become unbearable.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

War News Radio

Yesterday, a young woman walked into my store in Brooklyn.  She browsed a bit and we chatted.  As is usual these days, the subject of the war in Iraq and the London bombing came up.

She told me that she is involved in a web-radio weekly half-hour broadcast called War News Radio, a program that, according to its website:

fills the gaps in the media's coverage of the war in Iraq by airing new voices and perspectives, both personal and historical, in a balanced and in-depth manner.
In turn, I told her something about dKos and BoomanTribune (she was aware of dKos, but didn't realize--I think--the extent of it).  Then, I promised to listen to the show and, if it were good, tell others about it.
When I listened, I discovered that her name is Amelia Templeton (she'd told me the Amelia part), one of the hosts of the show--and I am glad I listened.  The show is a Swarthmore College (in Pennsylvania) project and I assume that Templeton is either a student there or a recent graduate.

This week's show included a piece on the American Friends Service Committee's Eyes Wide Open project featuring quick reaction interviews with viewers of the rows of boots and shoes that symbolize the American military and Iraqi deaths in the war.  This was followed by a review of a number of new books about Iraq that slyly parodied the standard "beach book" reviews that are ubiquitous elsewhere, these days.

What made the show most interesting, however, were the following three segments.  All of them were meant to help show Americans that Iraqis have lives that go on, no matter the conflict--that Iraqis, to use the cliche, "are people, too."  The first of these informed about summer weather in Iraq and the sartorial problems it brings, both for American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.  The second told me about Iraqi vacationers--how many are finding their options out of the country limited (other countries are worried they will claim refugee status) but are still enjoying vacations in Jordan and Egypt.  I also learned that the Kurdish highlands have always been a favorite in-country destination, but that, now, even though it is relatively safe, there, rooms are hard to get because the government holds many of its meetings there.  The third story provided a short history of the religious divisions that plague Iraq and much of the Middle East.

I'm glad Amelia walked into my store.  It's important, especially now, for people to be talking face-to-face about Iraq.  We can't shy away just because it's an emotional issue.  We both recognized that and were able to engage in discussion--and our connection will, I am sure, give me the courage to bring up the war even more often in the future.

Also, I'm happy to learn about her program and will listen in the future.  One of the greatest problems we face is our tendency to vilify--and many Americans have vilified almost all Iraqis (even though they know that the insurgents are a small part of the population).  This show brings the Iraqis back into a proper, human perspective.

It's projects like War News Radio that give me hope that, for all the continued bombast and chest-thumping that surrounds us, Americans are beginning to learn that the path we have chosen is nothing more than a new trail of tears.

Monday, July 04, 2005

July 4, 1918

This is a letter my grandfather sent home just before landing in France in WWI (where he would lose his leg):

On Board July 4, 1918

Dear Mamma and Grandma,
When we first embarked I jotted down several impressions I wished to tell you of while they were yet fresh in my mind but now I find that I cannot find my book.
This is our thirteenth day on board and our twelfth day out. We expect to arrive tomorrow about 7 a.m. thou we may not get dis embarked before noon.
Like Paul I cannot tell where we embarked than it was not New York. We have three thousand seventy three soldiers on board. This is an Italian liner. The officers and crew with the exception of the waiters for the officers mess are Italians. I like the officers very much. They are very interesting to talk to especially the second officer who was torpedoed once and has several other interesting experiences.
When we first started the sea was about like Lake Michigan was when I was in Chicago. When in the state room you could hardly tell the boat was moving but never the less even slight as the motion was it soon began to make its self manifest. The fishes were well taken care of the first two or three days, but most of the men soon recovered althou some had relapses two or three days ago when we had a little storm. I was Officer of the Day at the time and had to be all over the ship especially at night to see that no lights were showing and that the men did not smoke below decks. The wind and rain were terrific while they lasted but the wind did not last long enough to cause many big waves.
I saw several large black fins or tails of fish and was told they were porpoises. One day too we saw many flying fish and they particularly impressed me. They do not simply jump out of the water as our fish do in the river but seem to travel parallel to and about six inches from the water for from ten to twelve feet at a stretch.
Its rather monotonous on board. I give the men physical exercise almost two hours a day and conduct non-commissioned officers school about the same length of time. The rest of the time I read, play cards and sleep.
Yesterday I finished King Lear. It had never particularly impressed me previously. I certainly appreciate it now however almost if not quite as much as Hamlet. Grandma I've read Edmund Dantis too thou I consider it far inferior to "The Black Tulip," and the series beginning with "The Three Musketeers."
Another lieutenant and myself have a rather commodious state room with "fresh" running water. Some of the officers were not so fortunate and are posted several in a room while several second lieutenants have second class quarters.
I have heard that most of the men write exceptionally sentimental letters while in France. I now know why. Practically everything else is forbidden. My letters are due to be very uninteresting. Be careful to get my address right it will be--

Co L 148th inf.
via New York

The AEF is of course American Expeditionary Force. This will be forwarded.
With lots of love,
[marked by hand: "OK. Estel L. Stewart Capt 148 Inf"]

July 4, 1918

Dear Mamma,
The other letter is to show to Aunt Mattie & Grace et cet. and this is for you.
I sent you a box by freight from Camp Sheridan. It was the big wooden box. I sent it to Earnest C. Have you received it yet. From Camp Lee I sent you a small package--the old bedding roll and some clothes I can use when I come back. In the big box were some things belonging to Harold which please have his folks come and get. The big box was shipped collect so you pay Earnest for it. I have about $50 in the O.V. Bank. you draw that what ever it is and use it as I can't use it now.
I have as I told you on a post card from Camp Lee allotted $100 a month to you, beginning with this month July. That is the government at Washington will take $100 a month out of my pay and send it to you direct. You should get your first $100 about the 1st of August. In case you do not let me know. It may be late the first month but it will be prompt once it gets started. If you don't find much to my credit in the bank and are short of money let me know and I will send you some right away. I may any way. The boots I bought at Frank Beall are in the box & shipped to Earnest. If he won't take them pay him and maybe Earnest can get rid of them for you.
I've got so much to say I can hardly think of it all. We are in the most dangerous part of the ocean now. We have about 200 miles to go. I probably will not see any fighting for some time.
You had better keep this letter as what I have to say is advice only but it may be my last as I shall try to avoid business but I should like to get it all out of my system at once.
In September my note will be due at the 1st Nat. Bank. Pay that.
Tell me how much you get from my acct. at the O.V. Bank.
Make it small if you wish, but always have that available. Next
Keep $200 (when you get things squared up of course. This is surplus money I'm speaking of) in the savings department of the O.V. Bank you get 4% interest and in case of emergency it is available.
Get a good refrigerator and have it large enough. Get ice regularly & milk.
Have the barn roof torn off and boards bought (good boards) and leave the boards now on torn off and have it re-sheeted leaving no cracks. Then buy some guaranteed 3-ply paper like we used at the farm and have it put in good condition. Have the front porch at the farm fixed up. Have it roofed and have the wood work so fixed that it will not deteriorate. Have the porch painted. This needs it bad. If not fixed it will go to pieces soon. A stitch in time saves nine.
As soon as possible if $60 a month is enough from me start an account in each of the Building & Loan associations of $5 a week each. That will make altogether $40 a month.
I've packed most of my writing paper where I can't get at it and that is the reason for this variation. You notice I am writing two letters one personal and the other you can send around. You can show it to Mr. Sibley if you wish.
I don't know whether I would sell the farm or not even if it don't bring in anything. Don't try to improve it but keep it from deteriorating. How is the sweet clover? I hope you have not let Williams plow it up. Make him be careful of the trees. By the way I think I owe $3 at his garage. I wish you would see. I am sure I do. Please pay it.
I would like to buy the Edwards place if we could get it reasonable. I would buy the place down next the road too if I could get it right. I wouldn't expect to make anything much but if I'd ever farm there again I'd have lots of land for pasture.
{As soon as I get a chance I'll write to and go and see
{Cousin Morley.
Please tell me how you are fixed financially! I want you to be all right. How much pension do you get.
I'd like to have enough after the war to have you have all you want then I would marry Judy.
I suppose because of the war granite or marble is pretty high now. I want to put a tomb stone on papa's grave some time. For the present before I can do it myself when you get able put up a food marker with his name and date on it like this diagram. It may cost $25 or so.

Marion S. Barlow

ground surface

It is on a part of the Lanning lot is it not! Is there any more room there? I may need some of it for my own personal use.
Hire a machine or something but go out to the farm occasionally. Tell me what crops are in what fields. I do hope you are both well. Loads of love,
[Marked by hand: "OK. Estel L. Stewart, Capt., 148 Inf]

My great-grandfather (a Civil War vet) had died the week the US got into WWI. It was his headstone grandfather was speaking of. This letter, and much more about the 37th Division in the Great War is found in my book, For My Foot Being Off.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

"Piecemeal Solutions" for Africa

That's the phrase William Easterly uses in an opinion piece in today's New York Times.

He's right, sweeping programs aren't going to work.  Not for development in Africa, at least.

When we were Peace Corps Volunteers in Togo in the late 1980s, a friend and I wrote a pamphlet about development projects and their problems that we wanted to see made available to other volunteers.  Peace Corps turned it down; we were saying that money wasn't the answer, and neither were foreign skills.  The way to help Africa develop, we said, was simply to assist home-grown projects and, if skills were needed, to find locals with them (and they do exist).  Peace Corps didn't want to hear that.

In fact, no one wanted to hear that, not then, at least.  Small Is Beautiful (E.F. Schumacher's influential book) was on the outs, for the moment.  And we were supposed to be bringing our 'great' western skills to Africa, not simply helping out with what the locals were already doing.

It wasn't until nearly three years ago that we finally got a shortened version of the piece published, and only on the web.  In the meantime, fortunately, there had been a shift in attitude amongst aid workers and planners back to recognition that the large projects had, for the most part, been a disaster for Africa, increasing debt and the distance between the rich and the poor.

Though debt for projects that did few people any good does need to be reduced and though the sentiments of Live 8 are laudable, no increase in aid from Europe and America, no grand program from abroad, is going to help Africa improve (at best, things like debt relief will only keep them from getting worse).  It's the Africans themselves who are going to have to do that.  They can--and will--but only if we let them (mainly by getting out of the way) and support them (and not merely the few rich at the top).

Piecemeal.  Small projects seeded through local interest and skills, fertilized (perhaps) by outsiders but not planted by them.  These, not grandiose schemes, are what will help.