Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Foreign Correspondent: The Movie's Over

The elitist assumptions behind many journalists’ self-evaluations just don’t seem to fade. After the beatings the press has taken in the public arena these past years, you’d think more in the news media would finally understand. But many within still don’t.

Though some do. After all, news media organizations are recognizing that they have to move to new models of news gathering and presentation. They are working to reorient themselves, with centering on the Internet, not on their print manifestations. Many of their employees, however, don’t get it.

Not that you can blame them. Journalists who work in traditional news media are seeing their jobs threatened (the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example just laid off 68 from its newsroom), in part because of lack of profit and the failure of their profession, but also because of the new Internet orientation.

Writing in The Washington Post this month, journalist Pamela Constable provides another lament for the ‘glory days’ of journalism or, in this particular, the foreign correspondent, arguing that:
If newspapers stop covering the world, I fear we will end up with a microscopic elite reading Foreign Affairs and a numbed nation watching terrorist bombings flash briefly among a barrage of commentary, crawls and celebrity gossip.
She’s right: the traditional news media may become simply that “barrage of commentary, crawls and celebrity gossip” (it has already you say? Oh, right! I forgot), but the alternative isn’t simply an informed elite reading Foreign Affairs, as anyone using the Internet for news already knows.

It doesn't matter to me if, as Constable says:
Aside from a one-person ABC bureau in Nairobi, there are no network bureaus left at all in Africa, India or South America -- regions that are home to more than 2 billion people.
Sure, it was a nice life for Constable and the other foreign correspondents but I, for one, don’t miss them. And I don’t believe our public debate is limited because they are gone.

When I lived in Africa in the 1980s (I spent four years there), I would occasionally glimpse the foreign correspondents as they flitted from the five-star hotel in the capital to an ambassador’s residence or one of the few fancy restaurants “safe” for foreigners to eat in. They sat in the back of their chauffeured, air conditioned cars with their bottled water, viewing the world from a money-made cocoon. They loved occasionally going into danger, but it was a sport, something to do so that stories could be swapped back in the DC suburbs. They never (or rarely) experienced the lives of those they reported on.

Foreign correspondents have always reminded me of the people my brother and I found at the top of the embankment our family car had plunged down, rolling over before coming to rest against some trees. He and I, pre-teens, had bounced around in the back but weren’t badly hurt—just bruised. My father had a superficial cut over his eyes. It was bleeding a lot, as such cuts do, and blood had gotten over his glasses, so he was having trouble seeing. My mother, with my youngest brother on her lap (clutched to her as we toppled), couldn’t seem to get her seatbelt undone. As he tried to clean things so he could see to help our mother, our father told the two of us in the back to get out, go up to the road, and wait. The engine was smoking, and he worried about an explosion.

No one in the crowd that had gathered seemed willing to climb down the steep embankment to help, but they certainly were free with their comments. One, peering down, said that the baby was dead. Another contradicted, stating it was the woman, for sure. A third said the man was certainly a goner. It was surreal. My brother and I knew they were OK, but these people were talking about our family!

Oh, perhaps I am too harsh: a real correspondent wouldn’t have just stood there looking and commenting, but would have climbed down to the car, risking injury to get a comment from the people still “stuck” in the car. Real heroism, that!

The bio of Constable with the Post article says she has reported from 35 countries. Now, that’s insane. I haven’t been in many more than 35 countries, yet I travel frequently and have lived abroad for a total of five of my fifty-five years. The idea that she, or any other correspondent, can report intelligently from that many places is preposterous. In my four years in Africa, I lived in two places, one less than 200 kilometers from the other. Yet I had only the most tenuous grasp of life in even that small region by the time I left.

Constable gives a token nod to the “service” she and other foreign correspondents once provided (not a “service,” in my eyes, that ever really meant much), but her piece is much more about her and her friends, about the life they are losing by not being funded for flitting around anymore. Still, she tries to justify her activities by saying that she and the others:
believed in following the truth to its source, and the paper she worked for gave her the space and resources to do so. Now I fear we are witnessing the demise of the kind of journalism that permitted such quests at all.
However, the truth she was following must have been pretty evident, if she could find it in 35 different countries. Hell, I can’t even find the truth in the United States, and it’s my home country!

Even were there no replacement at hand for the foreign correspondents, I would not miss them. They did not, in my experience, often get at truth, but were frequently satisfied finding rumor and outright error. I remember listening to the BBC from Wenceslas Square in Prague the day Czechoslovakia split into two. The foreign correspondent on the air told me that a riot was in progress… right in front of me, where a couple of people were passing around clipboards with petitions on them, nothing more.

Constable says she “was keenly aware of how privileged I was.” But what was she really doing for us in return for that privilege? Very little, I’d say. Few Americans ever paid much attention to what the foreign correspondents were writing or saying… which, of course, is one reason why their bureaus have been among the first to feel the cost-saving axe.

Fortunately, today, there is a real replacement for the foreign correspondent, one that Constable ignores in her article: residents of any area of the world, who now have access to cell phones and the Internet. And, believe it or not, they can find the “truth” better than the foreign correspondents ever did.

Let’s go back to my examples: if cellphones had been available in 1960 (or OnStar, for that matter), my father could have gotten in touch with police and ambulance on his own, giving accurate information on what was happening inside of the car. In Prague, with a camera phone, I could have contacted the BBC with instant pictures of what was happening there in Wenceslas Square.

Today we, the people of the world, can provide the information that each other wants. And all that we need to get information are intelligent aggregators, people (not necessarily “on the ground”) and systems making it possible for us to find the information we want. We certainly don’t need the foreign correspondents, the putative “experts” who find the “truth.” We can get access to the real experts and real truth without them.

Which brings me to the February 27 edition of Tom Ashbrook’s radio show On Point. His guests included Kristina Borgesson, author of Feet to the Fire: The Media After 9/11 and John MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. They were talking about the reporting on the claims that Iran is supplying explosive devices to Iraqis. One of those whose reporting they criticized was Michael Gordon, the military correspondent for the New York Times and also a guest on the show.

When he came on after Borgesson and MacArthur had spoken for a bit, Gordon complained that the attacks on him had been ad hominem. Oddly (no, I should have written “not surprisingly”) Gordon then proceeded to defend himself on what was, primarily, an ad hominem basis. He’s been to Iraq, he said, and those who criticize him have not. He knows.

Well, that may be true… and everything Gordon says might be right. But that does not change the fact that he has a tin ear for contemporary attitudes towards foreign correspondents. He did not recognize how arrogant and elitist he sounded.

He also does not understand that many of us no longer feel we need our information filtered through him or Constable or any other foreign correspondent.

When asked by MacArthur just why the Iranians would supply explosive devices to Iraqis, when the Iraqi government is made up of their co-religionists, all Gordon would do is repeat what his “sources” in the US government had told him. In other words, he could make no more sense of the situation than any of us, yet would not admit it. So, what use is he, these days?

He, and Constable, and all the others had a nice ride while it lasted—and some of them did, I must admit, do a great deal of service to the American public. But their day is over. The role of foreign correspondent is returning to the people, where it started (the first ones were simply travelers willing to write letters back to home newspapers) and where it belongs.

Monday, February 26, 2007

What Has Smiley Brought Forth?

Scholar of Appalachian culture Rodger Cunningham (author of Apples on the Flood: Minority Discourse and Appalachia), forwarded to me a link to a post on the blog “Hillbilly Savants,” another response to Jane Smiley’s diatribe against Appalachian culture—this one by Eric Drummond Smith. Seeing it makes me hope that Smiley has inadvertently done a favor to those of us of what she calls “borderer” culture.

A number of people—with me a Johnny-come-lately—are writing in defense of Appalachian culture, and more vigorously, thanks to Smiley. Rodger Cunningham himself has a new article appearing in the Spring 2007 issue of Appalachian Heritage as well as on the ePluribus Media Journal. And a Kentucky lawyer named Larry Webster has come up with a name, “Mountain Hater,” that he applies directly to those who endorse mountaintop removal for coal mining but that can be extended to Smiley and those like her.

As a short defense of “borderer” culture, I would like to provide this exhibit:

Of the few groups still involved in substantial relief work on the Gulf coast, many are Christian volunteer groups from just the culture Smiley seems to detest. Here’s a blog about work being done by a group of Baptists from North Carolina. The story is not complete, for the group was hit by a virus that put several in the hospital just days after this entry. But these people are doing what many others of us, including the “Quaker” culture Smiley lauds, merely talk about.

There are many like them.

Friday, February 16, 2007

David Horowitz Melts Down

On his FrontPage Magazine today, David Horowitz begins an article entitled “Intellectual Muggings” with this:
George Orwell began one of the most famous essays in the English language with this observation: “In Moulmein, in Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people. It was the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” As a result of my efforts to remove political agendas from academic classrooms, I have come to appreciate this Orwell comment.
Don’t kid yourself, Horowitz: you aren’t important enough for any of us who oppose you to hate you. Unlike the young Orwell, you aren’t even a police officer—simply a wannabe trying to shoe-horn yourself into a position of control over American higher education. The population of college professors has not yet been oppressed by you or by the establishment you represent—as the Burmese had been by the British colonial administration that Orwell represented. You haven’t the control over our lives that necessitates hate.

However, you do pose a threat. Which is why we don’t simply laugh at you. The money behind you is extensive enough for you to orchestrate a campaign attempting legislative control over the universities and to draw a picture of something that looks like a problem. Yet, when even our rather conservative state legislators finally get around to taking a look at your program, they begin to realize that it’s not the Orwell of “Shooting an Elephant” serving an oppressive regime in Burma that you resemble but the creators of Newspeak in his 1984.

Nothing you say or write can be trusted or taken at face value—certainly not this newest tantrum. Your language play is too crude… you are like a con artist who has tried his tricks on the same people once too often. You cite Kurt Smith, for example, quoting him as saying that your “fascist ideology… casts ordinary, politically centrist Americans like me as leftists and enemies of the state.” And then you insinuate that Smith said you used the term “enemies of the state” about him. He did not. And you know that but, as usual, twist his words. You go on (and on, and on—but we don’t need to get into that):
The label “fascist” Smith sought to pin on me was particularly bizarre given the fact that I came to Bloomsburg [University, where you debated Smith] as the founder of a campaign for academic freedom that was based entirely on liberal principles devised by the American Association of University Professors….
No, Mr. Horowitz. Your campaign has nothing to do with the AAUP principles on academic freedom, for you would have legislators take control over academic freedom where what the AAUP outlines is a compact between the faculty and the university administration. You know this, yet continue the misrepresentation. As the fascists were among the first to successfully turn language on its head to bring things under their control, it is no stretch to associate you, who tries to do the same thing, with them.

The fascist shoe, Mr. Horowitz, fits you.

In a completely Orwellian twist, you claimed victory in Pennsylvania, where your attempt to bring the public university faculties under legislative control failed abysmally. Tell you what: why don’t you do the same thing now? No longer are you even trying to deal with issues, but simply write petulantly in defense of yourself. You’ve lost; your entire campaign is a failure (though there’s still moping up to do—as in Arizona). So, why don’t you just claim you won and go away?

We won’t mind: our minds are not clouded by your words.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Memories of Appalachia

In reaction to the recent renewal of disparaging remarks about Appalachian culture (some nearly calling the “Scots-Irish” the basis for all that’s wrong with this country) by way too many people (including the novelist Jane Smiley), I want to begin to share here my boyhood memories of life in the mountains of North Carolina. Though my family is Appalachian, the mountains were not really my home, except spiritually and, I have found, culturally. I had a fortunate position for an observer: half “of,” half “stranger”; these vignettes aren’t written by a native, but they don’t carry the misconceptions of the foreigner, either. From time to time, I will add others.


Mary’s Chevy was a ’56 Bel Air. That was significant to me, for even by 1965 the ’57 Chevy was known as the class of the fifties automobiles—but, at 13, I didn’t want to run quite within the pack. A year older was somehow superior. Even better, in my opinion, for it took a real connoisseur to tell the difference between a ’55 and a ’56—and I could do it.

In those days, a car a decade old was a relic, but it was all Mary could afford. She worked the serving line in the lunchroom in the elementary school up toward Micaville. She had bought the car used, and probably hadn’t paid very much. I bought my own first car almost a decade later for fifty bucks, and I don’t think she could have paid much more. Mine, too, was to be a Chevy Bel Air, a ’64. Mary’s car wasn’t quite the junker mine proved to be, but about the only person who would be impressed by it was a boy just on the young side of puberty, a boy learning the language of engines, though he had yet to change a spark plug, let alone rebuild a carburetor.

My prime memory of that car, however, has nothing to do with its mechanics. It has to do with a frozen pool of blood….

I don’t remember why we were chopping wood. Mary’s little house, where I was living, was heated by a kerosene stove and had no fireplace. I don’t remember a wood stove at all—and I would, having relied on one through the winter two years previously. We had no need for fence posts, for Mary had nothing to fence in—aside from her vegetable garden—and this was the dead of winter. But, nevertheless, my roommate David and I were chopping wood. Mary was around somewhere, probably in the kitchen, but she wasn’t paying much attention to us. We’d been given our task; it was up to us to complete it.

The tree I attacked wasn’t that big. Oh, it was tall enough, but fairly slender, perhaps with a seven-inch diameter at the base, just big enough to need an axe rather than a saw. It came down easily, but I had left my bow saw down by the house so, instead of fetching it, I began trimming the branches from the trunk with my axe. Not smart. I would swing into the wood and the whole thing would bounce down and up again, my energy reverberating through the branches rather than cutting them. Annoyed, I broke another rule of wood chopping: as I swung again, I stepped forward. The blade of the axe, this time, went through the branch and right into my foot, slicing through my boot like butter.

Mary’s house was across a swinging bridge over the South Toe River from the one local paved road. She kept the Chevy on a little pull-off next to the bridge, right across from a dilapidated one-room building that housed a store (which really was heated by a wood stove). I was bleeding like crazy, but Mary somehow got me across and into the car. About all I remember is looking back at the trail of blood in the snow, and its feel in the remains of my boot—and of watching it pool on the floor of the car as Mary sped me to the nearest doctor, five miles away.

When we came out of his office some hours later, me with my foot bandaged and wrapped and a new pair of crutches, I could do little more than crawl into the car after my crutches, which I shoved awkwardly onto the back seat. Looking down as I sat, I saw that my blood had frozen on the floor.

“Mary, what should we do about that?” I was weak from the pain of the cut that had half severed my little toe and opened up several inches of my foot quite deeply, but was trying not to show it.

She shrugged as she turned the key. “When we get home, lift it out and throw it in the river. Take out the mat, too, and clean it off on the snow.”

Mary, not then, not ever, neither showed emotion about the accident nor chastised me for my stupidity. She had done what was needed from the moment I had limped into her sight, following David, who was running to her for help. She had wiped her hands on her apron, shrugged into a coat, and helped me toward the car. I doubt she said a single word to me from the first moment she saw the blood in the distance as I limped toward her until she answered my question as we started home.

She did what was needed in an emergency and then, like a good mountain person, she forgot about it.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Faculty Rights and Responsibilities: Academic Freedom in a Changing Cultural Climate

What follows is the first of three lectures I delivered last week as part of the 2007 Anderson Conference at Portland Community College in Oregon

Though even solid principles must sometimes change to reflect changing times, to consider them simply situational is as perilous as viewing them as foundational and unalterable. Concepts do change, whether we want them to or not, and “academic freedom” certainly has been changing over the last few years, both in its public perception and as it is exercised and overseen within our educational institutions.


Perhaps the most important change in the concept of academic freedom over the past generation has been its diminution within quotidian and intramural academic activities while growing in importance in its extramural functions and perception. We rarely think of a scholar as needing academic-freedom protection from colleagues. We increasingly see the threat coming from outside the institution altogether.


Is this change warranted? Should we accept it as inevitable or should we be fighting it? Should we even see it as a threat? It may reflect changes in our institutions, but it still remains to be asked: Is it useful?


In general, I think not. Today, I will even argue that, in fact, we need to go the other way, re-establishing “academic freedom” as it once was, at least in terms of our direct scholarly and teaching responsibilities, taking the definition back to what it was when first defined, almost a century ago.


With that in mind, I would like to read a passage from the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 “Declaration of Principles” concerning academic freedom:

The […] conception of a university as an ordinary business venture, and of academic teaching as a purely private employment, manifests also a radical failure to apprehend the nature of the social function discharged by the professional scholar. While we should be reluctant to believe that any large number of educated persons suffer from such a misapprehension, it seems desirable at this time to restate clearly the chief reasons, lying in the nature of the university teaching profession, why it is to the public interest that the professional office should be one both of dignity and of independence.[1]

Echoing those words of Edwin Seligman and Arthur Lovejoy, the principle authors of the Declaration, it seems desirable at this new time, almost a century later, to restate the chief reasons why our profession should continue to be one of both dignity and independence in relation to the greater society—and to re-examine just what our rights and responsibilities are—or should be—in our institutions under the concept of “academic freedom.”


It is also worth remembering that, the words of many contemporary college administrators notwithstanding, an institution of higher education is still no ordinary business venture. The “dignity and independence” that we have won through institutionalization of the doctrine of “academic freedom” is not simple self-flattery, but a necessary part of our educational enterprise, and is something with no real parallel in the world of business.


Unfortunately, academic freedom, though it may be under high-profile attack from outside our institutions of higher learning, is also under attack by us within or, at least, by our negligence and misunderstanding. Paying so much attention to outside threats, we’ve forgotten to look within, to corrosion we create ourselves. In fact, our lack of care for our rights and the misuses of our responsibilities are leading to confusion over what academic freedom is and erosion of it as the right was envisioned when it was first explicitly expressed by the AAUP.


Perhaps the most critical area where we are allowing our academic freedoms is disappear is in our jobs themselves, in the ways we have established for evaluation for hiring, promotion, and tenure. In the ways, sometimes, that we are fired.


Of course, not everyone has forgotten this. Speaking with InsideHigherEd.com last December, the AAUP’s Director of Research John Curtis addressed this concern:

Given the AAUP’s historic role as a champion of academic freedom, the issue of faculty job status is crucial, Curtis said. “Our first and foremost concern is the academic freedom concern,” he said. “When people are worried about where their next job is going to come from, and when that becomes a constant situation, they really don’t have academic freedom.”[2]
I would take this a step further. When people are worried about the criteria that will be used in evaluation for promotion and tenure, and when this, too, becomes a constant situation, they really don’t have academic freedom, either.


But the issue gets confused. Again, what Curtis is talking about and what I am expanding upon are intramural issues. Again, what most people talk about when concerned with jobs and academic freedom in relation to jobs, however, are extramural issues—what someone says regarding a political situation, say, and the consequences those words might have on their continued employment. This can have unfortunate consequences.


Let me give an example: A professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder named Ward Churchill was recently fired, the result of findings by a faculty committee established for admittedly political reasons. Churchill had raised a furor by calling the employees of the brokerage firm Cantor, Fitzgerald who died on 9/11 “little Eichmann’s.” In the uproar, questions were raised about certain claims of Churchill’s, and about the honesty of his scholarship. The faculty panel established to answer them found that Churchill had been operating in a less than honorable fashion, that he is not all that he said he was and that his scholarship has been puffed by Churchill himself writing under other names.


The defenders of Churchill have rarely contended that the charges against him are not true, only that he should retain his job because his academic freedom has been violated by the very act of constituting the panel to investigate him.


There are two distinct issues here, one intramural and one extramural, though both do relate to academic freedom. Churchill’s dismissal resulted from his professional scholarly activities and his misrepresentations within that arena. This is internal to the university. His defenders are claiming academic-freedom protection, however, for an external statement that has nothing to do with the actions that led to his firing. Though it sparked the investigation into his work, it did not directly cause his dismissal.


Put another way, if Churchill had not contravened his own responsibilities to academic freedom, he would not have been fired, his external statements notwithstanding. Yes, we as a profession, should vigorously defend his right to make any statement he wants without endangering his academic standing, but that cannot and should not drop a blackout curtain around him. As an academic, as someone who, by virtue of his position, should be both a supporter of academic freedom and someone living up to its responsibilities, Churchill should be willing and able to let light fall on all of his academic activities, no matter the source of the light. He should also be ethical enough in all of his academic activities to withstand scrutiny. He must not, in other words, hide his intramural failings under extramural protections.


Warranting a special right requires demanding special responsibility, takes living up to that dignity and independence Seligman and Lovejoy wrote of. We don’t deserve academic freedom because of anything inherent within us but because, through judicious use of our academic freedom, we add something—many things—to our society. This needs to be constantly reiterated to our fellow citizens through our actions as professional academics and not simply through results.


Ultimately, my refusal to support Churchill in his quest to retain his job comes down to this: I’ve no use for anyone who claims protection of academic freedom but does not live up to its responsibilities.


And that’s really what I’m talking about this morning, our rights and our responsibilities in connection with academic freedom and how we exercise them today—and how we’ve been letting our rights slide. I will be leaving aside questions relating to academic freedom that are more accurately seen as First Amendment concerns or as part of extramural academic-freedom rights. What I want to focus on is not rights under law, but rights of practice within the institution—and even on how our current practices may be undermining those rights.


Ward Churchill’s rights under academic freedom are not contravened by his firing. The same, however, cannot be said of all cases of dismissal—or of the means we now use for determining promotion and tenure—a much more common area of academic-freedom problems.
Robert Post, former general counsel to the AAUP, has written that:

Rights of academic freedom are […] designed to facilitate the professional self-regulation of the professoriate, so that academic freedom safeguards interests that are constituted by the perspective and horizon of the corporate body of the faculty. The function of academic freedom is not to liberate individual professors from all forms of institutional regulation, but to ensure that faculty within the university are free to engage in the professionally competent forms of inquiry and teaching that are necessary for the realization of the social purposes of the university.[3]
As Post says, one of the most important demands of academic freedom is that we, as faculties, be self-governing in terms of our research and our teaching. This was the reasoning behind establishing a faculty committee to examine Churchill. No one but fellow faculty, the argument goes, can be expected to be able to judge us without the bias of their own position external to the faculty or with the necessary expertise.

But what has this led to? Have we proved that we can judge ourselves any more impartially? Do we carefully judge the scholarship that is placed before us for evaluation? Do we keep ourselves open, as a profession, to new ideas in both research and teaching? Do we step back from our individual parochial viewpoints and dispassionately examine the whole? The answer, in Churchill’s particular case, may or may not be yes. But, in other cases, it is often “no.”


As long as I am asking questions, let me add another: Do we make it clear to the greater society, through an openness and invitation that corresponds to our dignity and independence, just what we are doing in the way of scholarship, just what we are offering through our teaching? This is the extramural side. If we are to maintain our rights of academic freedom, the answer has to be “yes.” Yet, given the attitudes towards academic that are now prevalent in our culture, the answer, unfortunately, is “no” here, too. When they think about us at all, too high a percentage of Americans imagine a pampered leftwing elite, teaching little while earning large salaries.

They even have come to equate work hours with classroom hours plus, maybe, office hours, seeing even the most over-taxed among us as working maybe eighteen hours a week.


This misunderstanding, in turn, can be used not only to further attack us, but actually to reach into our activities from outside. At the Pennsylvania campus where I used to teach, a legislator once showed up on a Friday afternoon to see how many professors were in their offices—thereby, “working.” He found few. This, in his eyes, vindicated his view of us as underworked.

He didn’t care that we spend long nights planning our classes, and longer ones grading exams and papers. That we meet with students many times beyond our office hours. That we attend campus events, showing support for students and for fellow faculty. That we serve on committees with all of the work outside of the meeting entailed. Oh, and don’t let me forget the research and writing we may be doing, or the work needed to merely keep up in our fields. He didn’t care that, in point of fact, even the laziest of us probably works more than forty hours a week—averaged out over the whole year. It simply fit his agenda to show how lazy we are by making it look like we all run off early for the weekend, just like students do, in another stereotype. The truth of the matter didn’t interest him.


No, not any more than it interests many of the critics of academia these days. Few of them spend much time really researching what we in academia do. Why not? Well, ultimately, their interest isn’t in what we do but in controlling what we do. David Horowitz, who has drawn more attention than any other right-wing scourge of the universities, even admitted to me that he isn’t interested in visiting classrooms—he can get the information he needs from other sources—or so he believes. In other words, he’s not interested at all in the education we provide; he’s interested simply in making sure it covers only what he wants covered. He doesn’t need to examine the details to achieve that.


It is here that the danger of mounting an extramural defense of Churchill’s intramural failings is most clear. By defending Churchill from the consequences of his inability to live up to his responsibilities vis-à-vis academic freedom because he has been attacked on other grounds, we make it appear as though we cannot police ourselves—a crucial aspect of the implementation of academic freedom. What it comes down to, then, is this: Those who defend Churchill on academic-freedom grounds are actually undermining the very foundation of academic freedom by weakening the public perception of our ability to regulate ourselves.


Yet, though the outside attacks on our institutions of higher education are clear and obvious, there’s an insidious inside attack that, while not gathering much attention, is destroying our academic freedoms and making it easier for the outside attacks to succeed. This is our lack of care and consideration in our internal reviews of both scholarship and teaching. Oddly enough, the Churchill case is significant for its singularity; this other problem is common.


Rarely are we willing to bring each other to task for our failures to live up to the inherent responsibilities of academic freedom relating to how we regulate ourselves. And, more rarely still, are we willingly fighting the encroachments on academic freedom threatening it today from within our institutions as substantially as do the outside attacks coming from the likes of Horowitz.


Though the focus of our internal policing needs to be on both scholarship and teaching oversight, I’m not going to spend as much time as I might on the problems concerning scholarship—though they do affect even you, here at a teaching institution, more than one might suppose. I want to concentrate on teaching and on how we are losing our academic freedom in the classroom through our own actions and inactions. But I’ll start by speaking about the state of oversight of scholarship, how it is actually limiting academic freedom, and how it, too, is dividing scholars into two classes, those at research institutions and the few outside who publish regularly and in accepted venues and those unable to get a foot in that door.


In a process that began almost as soon as the research university was first established well over a century ago, scholarship has been retreating behind university walls. First, it got harder and then harder still for someone without an advanced degree to be taken seriously by those within academic communities. Later, it became more and more necessary to be legitimized by employment at one of the research schools. Soon, it was having published an article, then a book, that gave one gravitas. After a decline in the sixties and seventies when we saw our professional responsibilities moving to a greater focus on students and on teaching, “publish or perish” has returned with a vengeance, making acceptance of one’s research all the more important to advancement even at a lot of teaching institutions. With competition growing tougher and tougher, in some fields it has gotten to the point where one needs to show as much research just to get a tenure-track job as it once did to reach tenure itself. The demand for publication, unfortunately, hasn’t broadened scholarship, as one might have expected, but has further narrowed it by creating new divisions in venues of presentation.


With the explosion in higher education since World War II has come a corresponding explosion in the number of avenues for publishing and presenting research. Prior to World War II, a journal article was a significant achievement—for there weren’t many journals in any field—and a book was a milestone. Today, there are countless journals and book publishers—not to mention conferences—for presentation of scholarly activity. So, many people reason, simple publication or presentation isn’t enough. The article has to be in a “major” publication, the book from one of the “better” presses, the presentation at one of the “big” conferences.


Even teaching institutions are beginning to demand not just scholarship, but its approval by the heavy-weights in the field who control the tonier venues. It’s easier, after all, to accept that a book coming from Cambridge University Press is a sign of worthiness for promotion than is one a scholar published herself through an online printing house such as lulu.com. You don’t need to even read the book to judge it—the reputation of the publisher can stand in for the work one should be doing oneself.


Sure, odds are that the book done through lulu isn’t as good as the one from Cambridge—but how can we be certain of that? Cambridge, after all, has produced clunkers—and not everything printed through lulu is bad.


Ultimately, all we have done, through this insistence on the “majors,” is further shrink the universe of scholarship and make sure that people with really radical ideas are relegated to the periphery. All we have done is open ourselves up to the idea that ours is a club of sycophancy, one of the charges that people like Horowitz have expanded on as part of their attacks on the “liberal” universities.


But what, exactly, has this got to do with academic freedom?


Just this: instead of conscientiously regulating ourselves, we are shutting people out—whether through laziness, elitism, or close-mindedness, it happens. It is even getting worse: Just as independent scholars started to find it hard to get their work accepted in the early years of the twentieth century, people who don’t come from the elite institutions are having more and more difficulty finding access to the top venues in their fields—yet their institutions are demanding, more and more often, that they do just that. This leads desperate people to imitative scholarship, to the hope that something similar to what was published in one prestigious place will be accepted by another. It leads to the following of fashion rather than to striking out on one’s own. People begin to imagine that they can only get published by working within the mainstream of the discipline, for that is all the results they are seeing. A constriction of academic freedom, though not formal, is now in place.


We argue that we are simply instituting and enforcing professional norms, but we tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that norms involve judgment. Based on interpretation, they are necessarily contestable—but we shut contest out of our consideration by letting the venues of presentation decide for us. Each time we say, “But this isn’t from an important press,” we are ceding our responsibilities in the realm of academic freedom to others—to the editors of the journals and books, to the moderators of conference panels. Each time we say it, therefore, we are decreasing our own individual academic freedom by diminishing our own responsibility to it.

This also leads to a situation where, once you have been published by a “major” journal or press, it is easier to place a second piece or book—though the work may be substantially worse than the first. It leads to a situation where, once you have received a major grant, you find it easier to get a second. But people who make it over the initial hurdle can’t coast: that they now have greater possibilities only puts further pressure on them to keep producing so that they won’t be forgotten, slipping back into hoi polloi. I know a professor stuck at the Assistant Professor rank though his dissertation was published by one of the top academic presses in the world. He waited too long to get going on a second book and did not present the conference papers that might have kept him current in the minds of his colleagues. Now, he is back competing with new scholars, fresh out of grad school, but, because of his early success, he is unwilling to go with the not-so-prestigious presses who might be interested in his work today.


With the greater and greater demands for scholarly activity as a means of promotion, we have gotten to the point, in some fields, where the work being produced begins to seem irrelevant to anything but a tenure folder. Scholarship begins to take on an arcane, almost bizarre aspect, making outsiders wonder why we need any sort of academic-freedom protection at all, if this is the sort of dreck we turn out.


Some of us, these days, are trying out other forms of scholarship presentation and academic discussion, using the possibilities we are finding on the Internet as one new avenue for conversation. Yet we are warned that even this may be bad for us. After all, it has no prestige.

Someone writing anonymously on InsideHigherEd.com, using the name “Ivan Tribble,” even went so far as to counsel young scholars that blogging could be detrimental to their careers. Perhaps well meaning, his advice does no good for the concept of academic freedom. In fact, it diminishes it by closing another door.


By continuing to promote a narrow and unexamined hierarchical system of scholarship, we are hurting our scholarly pursuits and our public image. By demanding greater success in this constricted arena, we are also hurting those among us who aren’t interested in pursuing the more scholarly aspects of an academic career. These, of course, are the real teachers, the people who devote themselves to classroom teaching often at the expense of their scholarly activities.

I suspect that many in this room fit that profile. Sure, many of you have published books, articles, and have presented scholarly papers. But your real focus is on teaching—otherwise you wouldn’t be here. If you really were more interested in scholarship, you would let your teaching slide—not to any horrible extent, but to the point where you knew you weren’t doing as good a job as you could—in order to get that paper revised, that book finished. But I doubt there are many of you willing to do that—it’s a deal with the devil, though one with little chance of even short-term reward. And most real teachers teach for love, not advancement, anyway.


But it’s a deal no one should have to make. Here, and at most community college, departments understand that teaching really must be the main focus. But even community colleges are beginning to feel the pressure towards scholarship as a greater force in promotion. For many people, scholarship equals prestige—and those who run institutions of higher education of all types are quite susceptible to the siren call of prestige.


Mind you, I have nothing against scholarship. I just don’t think it should ever be at the expense of teaching. At the same time, I believe that scholarship should be open to everyone, based on the quality of their work, not on where they got their degrees—or even on what degrees they have—on where they work, or on where they have published before. Sure, we have a peer-review process that is supposed to insure that such things aren’t taken into consideration when decision is made on submitted work, but that process is something of a farce. The anonymity that is supposed to serve as a protection to the researcher often turns into protection for the reviewers, allowing them to let out their own frustrations on the work of unsuspecting applicants.


Personally, I would never be willing to be a reader in such a process. Just as when I blog, I want anything I write about someone else’s scholarship to be over my name—so they can respond and a real dialogue, possibly, can ensue. If I am unwilling to stand by my opinions, in my view of the world, my opinions are meaningless. Furthermore, if I need to hide behind anonymity, then I must not really believe that academic freedom ever protects me, so I needn’t bother to protect it.


For academic freedom to mean anything, we as a profession need to be responsible to it, insuring that it fosters a broadening of scholarship, not a narrowing, as has been the slow trend over the last century. We are demanding a special right. With it comes special responsibilities, and I don’t think we have been meeting them—not, at least, in the area of scholarship.
Or in our teaching, for that matter.


The psychologist B. F. Skinner once told me that the critic and rhetorician I. A. Richards would invite him to address his classes at Harvard at least once a year. On Skinner’s arrival, Richards would invariably introduce him to the class by saying, “And now, may I present… the devil!” Skinner laughed as he recounted this. After all, he loved playing the devil’s advocate. He loved riling people up, getting them mad enough at him to spit—for that, he believed, led to thinking.

Both Skinner and Richards had the confidence to approach their classrooms via disagreement and variety. With intelligence and humor, Skinner would manage to challenge any group he came into contact with. And Richards had confidence that he could invite even somebody as dastardly (in reputation) as Skinner into his classroom without risk.


Skinner and Richards had that self-assurance because academic freedom really was, at that time (the 1950s), an important aspect to the classroom. It had come under attack, yes, but the main focus was on extramural activity. Academic freedom was not yet, at that time, being attacked from within. Neither Skinner nor Richards ever felt constrained by their colleagues judgment on their classroom style.


Unlike you, who teach in community colleges, few who teach in four-year institutions really have much background in teaching methodology. Few of them, in other words, were ever trained as teachers. And it shows, making them cautious and averse to experiment. They don’t really know what they are doing, so latch onto the conventional wisdom around them, which they then, almost unconsciously, begin to foist on others. Their lack of confidence leads to a retreat from anything out of the ordinary in their classrooms.


Of course, problems in the classroom have been a part of academia since it started. Bad teaching can reach legendary proportions, as you all know, having been students for a long time before you ever became teachers, and it has always been difficult to do anything about it. If one is operating within the strictures of academic freedom as they have been described since 1915, however, the only people with the right to judge our teaching are our peers—expanded more recently to include our students. And there is no guarantee that either is competent to judge.

The problem is that, in many institutions, few professors really know what they are talking about when they talk about teaching. This makes the situation different from evaluation of scholarship where the competence of the judges in their own fields is assumed to have been established—and generally has been in fact. Such is not the case with teaching. Yet, somehow, we are all assumed competent to judge each other’s teaching—in many cases without ever having really established that we have the knowledge necessary for making that judgment.

Let me give an example: Four years ago, when I had just returned to teaching and was working as an adjunct, I was observed by one of the new hires in the department, someone with impeccable scholarly credentials, but also a foreigner new to American educational institutions and fresh out of graduate school. The class that day was a discussion, broken up by a small-group segment, on a topic the students were already prepared for. It went well, and I assumed that the evaluation would be positive. It was, but not of the top rank. I asked why, and was told that I should have been using the blackboard.


It didn’t matter that the blackboard was an inappropriate tool for reaching the goals of class that day: my observer had been given a list of things to look for, and using the blackboard was on it. I hadn’t, so my rating could not be the top.


Of course, most people observing the classes of their colleagues do have much more experience than she did at that time, but that does not mean that they know much about teaching pedagogy or the real variety of effective teaching styles. It does not mean that they can evaluate the success or failure of approaches they may never have experienced let alone used themselves—or that might not even be appropriate to their particular personalities.


When I first taught in the 1970s, I was told to make my teaching student-centered. No lecturing—concentrate on activities the students could engage in or take the lead on. I was to organize and facilitate. That worked well for me at the time—after all, I was less than a decade older than many of my students. My authority was limited and I needed to lead from behind, so to speak. Also, students of that time were intrigued by the idea of working in small groups and on their own. This had not been part of their earlier experience; they were interested and willing to give it a try.


Times change and people change. Now, when I enter a classroom, there’s no way I can convince my students that I am their peer. I am older than most of their parents and, in the environments where I teach these days, I am also from a different cultural and ethnic background. Students expect authority and confidence from me; they would hear a false note, a patronizing note, if I used a “community of learners” approach. Also, those who went to high school in the United States have had it up to here with small groups—and the immigrants are often extremely uncomfortable in something so far removed from the hierarchical educational experiences of their past.


So, I teach much differently than I once did. I’ve learned to be something of a showman, an actor in front of the class, moving around, constantly watching the students, picking up cues and changing my plan as I go. Now, my by-word is “flexibility,” not “facilitation.”


My way of teaching constantly evolves, based on what I see happening in the classroom. But it remains based on the extemporaneous lecture. Through this sort of lecturing, I can open up students to worlds they’ve yet to imagine, let alone encounter. Through lecturing, I can also move them to discussion and writing more effectively than I ever have before. Yet mine certainly isn’t the only avenue for effective teaching—simply the one that seems to me to be most effective given my personality, the types of material I cover, the goals of my courses, and the specific groups of students. In some situations, I do drop lecturing completely—but I judge the need as I go. Yet I am still judged through an increasingly static list of criteria for what makes a good class: Clearly stated goals. A recap at the end. A variety of activities. Use of diverse material aids (including that blackboard). Student participation. How was role taken? Did the class start and end on time?


Unfortunately, these are not often used, as they should be, as the basis for discussion and for suggesting improvement, but for judgment. On most campuses, the peer observation report does nothing more than sit in a file, waiting to be brought out at renewal or promotion time. Very rarely does it carry with it a mechanism for increasing teaching proficiency, though all of these are things that can be improved. They are not part of the art of teaching, but of the method.


There are rationales for promoting a certain kind of rigor in the classroom, but some methodologies are out of favor for unexamined reasons. Lecturing, for example, is seen as a bad thing today, if done too frequently. Though the professors who influenced me most as an undergraduate were also the school’s best lecturers, the assumption now is that they couldn’t have been the best teachers. My father used Mastery techniques in his Psychology classrooms that wouldn’t fit today’s models any better than lecturing. Both, however, can work—when utilized by the right person in the right circumstances.


The point is that we are limiting the variety of teaching methodologies in many of our institutions of higher education by the very act of trying to improve them through peer evaluation. And we are doing this through a method that seems to be in keeping with the precepts of academic freedom. Ironic, isn’t it? Most of us recognize the weakness of this system, but aren’t willing to rock the boat—how our colleagues imagine us in the classroom has too much of an impact on our careers. It has gotten to the point where those of us who teach well tend to keep quiet and use the methods that work best for us—except on the days when we are observed. Then we go out of our way to follow what have become the new rules. We have been constrained—and that is not good for academic freedom.


We need peer evaluation, of course we do. But it also needs to come with a little bit of training. Just because we’ve taught doesn’t mean we are good at it—teaching is a skill as much as an art. Like me, many of you have taught in high schools, where there’s a much greater emphasis on teaching methodology than even at most community colleges, which themselves focus on it more than most four-year institutions.


A misuse of the concept of academic freedom keeps us from teaching ourselves to teach on many campuses. We give lip service to the idea that each of us must be able to decide what goes on in her or his classroom, so we don’t insist that we actually learn something about what we are doing. As we haven’t studied teaching, we really don’t know how to evaluate it, let alone do it, so fall back on formulae that only further diminish our instruction.


Now, in some departments great care is taken in the way both peer and student evaluation is used. In such places, there is no numerical threshold for rehiring or promotion. Instead, the chairs and their appointment committees involve themselves in what one of my colleagues—who serves on our own appointments committee—calls “compassionate guidance.” Members of the committee work directly with faculty to help improve their teaching skills. In my department, and those like it, the evaluations are never used as a threat. I have seen other places, however, where they hang over teachers’ heads like the sword of Damocles.


It is in the arena of “compassionate guidance” that community colleges can begin to take the lead in higher education, for it is here where expertise unmatched in other institutions of higher learning is housed. While the kind of professional development mandated for most public school teachers would never fly in much of academia, something is needed that will actually improve teaching rather than simply narrowing the scope of what goes on in our classrooms, ultimately making too many of them too similar. You are the ones best situated to find and develop that “something,” thereby restoring one measure of academic freedom to the rest of us. As expert teachers, you can develop methods of peer evaluation and professional development within the concept of academic freedom that the rest of us could use, though we could never build them ourselves. You could yoke evaluation and development together in ways that actually build teaching skills and not merely tenure files.


Academic freedom means academic responsibility. In terms of teaching, just as in scholarship, we are not taking adequate responsibility for what we are doing. Case in point: our new reliance on student evaluation for promotion and renewal.


Yes, just as with peer evaluation, student input needs to be part of our evaluation of teaching, but it is becoming a determining factor—and it should not be, any more than evaluation by administration should be. The whole purpose of academic freedom is to keep the faculty self-regulating—adding students into that mix defeats that purpose just as surely as adding in administrators does. In both instances, the input is necessary. But the care that is taken with the administrative role is lacking when it comes to students.


Teaching evaluations by students can be used by faculty to help improve their colleagues’ performances, but they are being used for much more than that, sometimes even in a punitive fashion. This is particularly unfortunate, since most of what passes for student evaluation of their teachers is meaningless. As T.L. Simmons wrote a decade ago:

Student evaluations of teacher effectiveness (SETEs) are, at best, nothing more than evaluations of the students' perceptions of the teachers' effectiveness - at best. It should be intuitively apparent to most that opinions expressed are subject to a great many variables that may have little or nothing to do with evaluating the teachers' ability to teach.[4]
This is not to say that all student evaluations are meaningless, simply that few have been developed that really provide meaningful data. At best, they should be used as a warning sign, a signal that there might be trouble. Unfortunately, they are often used for more than that—and people actually lose their jobs because of them, or are denied promotion.

Though few have been willing to admit this, using student evaluations in this way is a direct contravention of academic freedom.


Students tend to evaluate teachers higher on the scale the higher they think their grade will be. Teachers know this—whether they like it or not—and it becomes a contributing factor to grade inflation. Students also evaluate their teachers based on whether or not they like them personally—making the evaluations as much a popularity contest as anything else.


Student evaluations, if they are used in renewal and promotion, severely limit teachers in their classrooms, and not always in a positive way. Certainly, they end up limiting the academic freedom of the teacher in terms of what they can and cannot do in a classroom situation. Yet faculties have allowed this encroachment, too timid, perhaps, to react with vigor to an overstepping by a legitimate move towards protection of student rights and to a new but misguided administrative model that sees students as clients or customers, moving them away from their unique status as learners and to a new one simply as buyers.


Teacher evaluation and student evaluation intimidate professors, keeping them from experimenting or stepping beyond the common wisdom. They lead us to act as though there is but one way of teaching and as though there are formulae that must be followed in every class.
Though we do need to evaluate each other, it needs to be with openness. That’s part of academic freedom. Instead of trying to bring people into our way of doing things, we need to see that there are different avenues that work for different personalities—and at different times.
Without our paying attention, new demands—for increased scholarship and for a respect for the desires of students—have put new pressures on academic freedom. Unless we begin to fight back, to respond to these pressures in new and creative ways, we will see a further diminution of our rights. And that will not hurt just us, but our whole society, for the intramural doesn’t stay inside forever, any more than the extramural stays out.


Thank you.


[1] Seligman, Edwin and Arthur Lovejoy, “AAUP 1915 Declaration of Principles,” http://www.akronaaup.org/documents/AAUP1915.pdf.
[2] Jaschik, Scott, “The Job Security Rankings,” InsideHigherEd.com. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2006/12/11/aaup.
[3] Post, Robert, “The Structure of Academic Freedom,” in Beshara Doumani, ed., Academic Freedom after September 11 (New York: Zone Books, 2006), 64.
[4] T. L. Simmons, T. L., “Student evaluation of teachers: Professional practice or punitive policy?” http://jalt.org/test/sim_1.htm Shiken: JALT Testing & Evaluation SIG Newsletter Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct. 1996 (p. 12 - 16).

Monday, February 12, 2007

More on For-Profit Colleges; More on Horowitz

It’s amazing how people are willing to accept truisms—and to argue with questions rather than with facts.

A case in point is Bill Belew at the blog “The Biz of Knowledge.” He stumbled across my post (it also appeared on dKos, TPMCafe, and ePluribus Media) yesterday on the problems the University of Phoenix is now facing. He calls it “happy, giddy?, ecstatic.”

Interesting. Read my blog, and see if he’s right.

He’s actually calling two of us “happy,” et al, me and Asparzia at Mad Melancholic Feminista. In response to her post, Belew asks, “What’s wrong with making a profit?” Not only does the question show a rather unsophisticated understanding of economics, but it is the wrong question. Profit itself is not the problem—it’s the use of a profit model inappropriately that bothers those of us concerned by the U of P type of education business. Profit (in the context of contemporary American free-market beliefs) demands short-term dollar efficiency, something that leads to a streamlining of procedures that, in an educational context, leads to a dumbing down of the “product.” Belew continues his misunderstanding, assuming a simplistic dichotomy between profit and operating “in the red.” He doesn’t seem to understand that these aren’t the only options, and that “non-profit” doesn’t necessarily mean losing money (look at Harvard, for Pete’s sake). All Belew is doing with this question is appealing to the misconceptions of people who blindly accept the idea that profit is the end of everything (which it may be, though not in the sense assumed).

Belew’s next question is “What should education be?” About U of P, he then says “they except [sic] most any student, indeed.” As long as that student can pay the freight. But many of our colleges do the same, particularly our public community colleges. He also conveniently ignores the fact that the expansion of American higher education is due to the expansion of public institutions, not from for-profit education. As he never even attempts to address his question himself, we have to assume that, like his “profit” question, this is simply a red herring.

Getting to my post, Belew asks again if there is a problem with making a profit. He follows: “Schools like the University of Phoenix likely pay enough in taxes to fund a number of non-profit schools. Would anyone like to do the math?” Yes, I would like him to do the math. Not that it’s relevant, but he makes a claim here that would be extremely difficult to substantiate.

The problem with profit-driven schools is that profit becomes the goal, not product. In many businesses, we need the profit motive to insure a good product. In education, where the product is much harder to measure, this doesn’t work so well. That’s what’s wrong with profit in this context. The difficulty of measuring the quality of the product makes mis-use of “education” too easy for those whose interest is simply profit and not education. Often, people don’t know that they have gotten a substandard education until years after the fact.

Belew doesn’t like that the traditional educational structures insure faculty power: “Faculty powers have also protected themselves at the expense of their students, kept curricula in tact [sic] when nobody was interested, and driven countless school budgets into the red.” Not that he provides any proof of these sweeping statements! Faculty power and student power are, sometimes, at odds, but it is a tension that is needed for the good of the institution, just as is the tension between these two and administrative power. In a for-profit situation, using a customer model, the faculty becomes simply “service provider,” weakening the entire structure and, ultimately, short-changing the students (who, by their very nature, are not “educated” consumers).

Like so many who criticize our “real” universities, Belew conveniently overlooks the fact that they are the best in the world. The for-profit ones can’t compete with them on any level, except by presenting a weakened parody of real education, offering it to unsuspecting consumers as the same as the “real” thing though at a cut-rate price. Buyer beware: you get what you pay for.

Oh, maybe I’m too harsh. Maybe there should be a much more careful debate about the value of for-profit institutions like U of P. Belew, unfortunately, doesn’t even try to further such a thing. At least, not in his responses to me and to Asparzia.

Maybe someone else will. I would love to listen to someone making a real defense of the likes of U of P. It’s a debate that, given the current climate, we really should have.


A sure sign that David Horowitz and his minions have lost their “war” against the universities is that all they can do, now, is jump up and down, yelling “Not, not, not.” Jacob Laksin is doing just that. It is certainly comforting.

In a “critique” of the American Federation of Teachers study of faculty-bias “research,” Laksin is reduced to the odd claim that the research considered wasn’t meant as research, but to “paint a representative picture.” However, as the AFT study shows, the data used to paint that picture is flawed by its own bias. The methods used are akin to that of an artist who claims that red is blue, proving so by pointing to her own painting in which she has portrayed a red sky. Odd indeed.

Later, Laksin continues the claim that examination of syllabi can stand in for examination of a course as a whole:
First, syllabi are comprehensive. They reveal on what basis professors grade their students (involvement in political activism is frequently a factor); what books they assign (often from only one-side of the political spectrum); and what their motivations are (many professors frankly announce their commitment to nurture political activists). Second, they are unimpeachably objective, insofar as they are compiled by and represent the views of the professors themselves.
No. Syllabi are not comprehensive, no more than outlines are. And they do not reveal the basis for grading, only the assignments and their weight (and I would love to see Laksin prove that “political activism is frequently a factor” and that “many professors frankly announce their commitment to nurture political activists”—giving percentages and total numbers. He can’t? Oh, right—he just picks and chooses, not exactly a scientific method). His second point is just strange. Syllabi are objective? Sure, professors put together their syllabi, but the syllabi are merely a means of pointing out the general direction of the courses. They are in no way an “objective” view of the courses themselves.

To make his argument, Laksin does admit that the studies he and Front Page Magazine have been involved in are based “largely on course syllabi, [and that] they cast light on a prevalent pattern of unprofessional conduct by professors and expose entire academic departments where the top priority is indoctrination rather than education.” In other words, he is admitting that what he and FPM are passing off as research is on the same level as student papers that use, say, SparkNotes rather than primary material. Even if, to use Laksin’s own justification for shoddy research, the authors of the subject books had written the SparkNotes on them (as professors write their syllabi), the two things remain essentially different: conclusions from the one cannot safely be applied to the other.

Laksin argues that he and FPM use syllabi because they would not be granted access to classrooms. He even claims that a charge of McCarthyism would be leveled if they tried. But I have a standing invitation to Laksin’s boss, David Horowitz, to visit my classroom at any time—an invitation I would certainly extend to Laksin or anyone else (as long as they were willing to observe and not disrupt). There are certainly thousands of other professors who would open their doors, too—it is in our best interest for the public to see what we do. Laksin, Horowitz, and FPM notwithstanding, we do an excellent job and love to share.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Trouble in the Education "Business"

The University of Phoenix is having trouble (subscription) says The New York Times in an article titled “Troubles Grow for a University Built on Profits.”

As if that should be a surprise.

Many of us in education have been watching the growth of for-profit institutes of higher education with concern for quite some time. Our college and university system, after all, was built on a non-profit foundation for reasons—and those reasons were being swept aside in a rush for results—i.e., profits. As a result:
students spend 20 to 24 hours with an instructor during each course, compared with about 40 hours at a traditional university. The university also requires students to teach one another by working on projects for four or five hours per week in what it calls “learning teams.”
Do it faster and with less supervision—yes! And profits shall descend on one!

That’s not the only reason for-profit scares many educators. The fact of different constituencies, all with power in the institution, has long kept more traditional educational institutions from straying too far from concentration on their primary mission. Faculty power, for example, has kept administrations from centralizing structures. At the University of Phoenix, the role of the faculty is diminished, taking them completely out of the decision-making process:
Courses are written at university headquarters, easing class preparation time for instructors.
Though these are the words of Times writer Sam Dillon, they reflect the U of P attitude: reduce the workforce and increase the profit. The attitude completely bypasses recognition of the importance of teaching (in its full extent of preparation, class time, and evaluation) to education, recognition that the essence of teaching, the personal interaction of student and teacher, cannot be reduced to a role of “facilitation” of a program created at a distance. This was demonstrated a generation ago by the psychologists who developed the first teaching machines—almost all of whom eventually abandoned their projects to return to direct interaction with students.

On some level, even the people at U of P know this, as the following passage indicates:
Although Phoenix is regionally accredited, it lacks approval from the most prestigious accrediting agency for business schools, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

John J. Fernandes, the association’s president, said the university had never applied. “They’re smart enough to understand their chances of approval would be low,” Mr. Fernandes said. “They have a lot of come-and-go faculty. We like institutions where the faculty is stable and can ensure that students are being educated by somebody who knows what they’re doing.”
And not, the implication is, by a team of course constructors at a distant location.

Having taught, myself, for one of U of P’s competitors (though only for a couple of their short terms), I understand completely why one of the problems for all of the for-profit colleges is retention of qualified faculty. This little incident recounted in the article did not surprise me at all:
Robert Wancha, 42, a former National Guard commander who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in information technology at the university’s Detroit campus, said that in a computer course last fall his instructor, Christopher G. Stanglewicz, had boasted that he had a doctorate but did little teaching, instead assigning students to work in learning teams while he toyed with his computer.

Mr. Stanglewicz, reached at his home, acknowledged that he had covered only a fraction of the syllabus , partly, he said, because the university required him to cram too much information into too few sessions.

“Students get overwhelmed,” he said. Mr. Stanglewicz asserted in the interview that he had earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Kentucky. But the authorities there said his name was not in their records. (Dr. [William] Pepicello [U of P’s President] said that Mr. Stanglewicz had never told the university that he had a doctorate, and that he was qualified to teach.)
If U of P is anything like the school where I was teaching, “qualification” is based solely on administrative evaluation of credentials along with a short course (mine was online) familiarizing the “facilitators” with institutional procedures.

What we have, ultimately, in all of these institutions is a Wizard-of-Oz educational structure, where the receipt of a degree conveys knowledge and ability. “Give me the money and I’ll give you the degree—and who’s to be the wiser” seems to be the attitude. The assumption is that a real education isn’t good for much anyway, that the only difference between the person with a diploma and the one without is that sheet of paper.

Like all of those who have benefited from a real education, I beg to differ.

Portland!!

If you wish to be treated with kindness, support, and compassion, you could do worse than pass some time on the campuses of Portland Community College in Oregon. I spent the last few days there, giving three talks to the faculty on academic freedom (talks I will make available soon), and I flew back east with an impression of competence and genuine concern for education on the part of faculty and staff.

In The New York Times today (subscription) is a story about the University of Phoenix, stating that students there "complained of instructional shortcuts, unqualified professors and recruiting abuses." You won't find the same at PCC, though it is a large school of three campuses and nearly 90,000 students. Why not? In part because the faculty is composed of dedicated, involved professionals supported by administrators who understand that education on a business model does not serve the best interests of the students.

Many people mistake academic freedom as something that exists, where it does (and not, I might add, at the University of Phoenix), simply as a privilege for the faculty. Well, no. Though, it is not a "right" of the students (their rights are covered under freedom-of-expression precepts and specific guarantees within university governance umbrellas), it serves the students, as the case of the University of Phoenix makes clear.

Academic freedom forces something of a horizontal structure on universities, colleges, and community colleges that operate under its guidelines. A vertical, or top-down, model cannot work where academic freedom is genuinely protected, for faculty self-governance is one of its basic points. It keeps a business model, such as that of the University of Phoenix, from undercutting the needs of education in favor of the needs of profits, for the stockholder cannot trump the faculty (or, for that matter, the students) when real academic freedom is enforced.

Each of the three PCC campuses is different, reflecting not only the differing geographies of the campuses, but the differing student bodies. Protected from the streamlining that a business model can demand (and, so far, from Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling's desire to dumb-down education into a cookie-cutter model), the faculty on each campus can concentrate on the needs of the particular community rather than simply on replicating something drawn up someplace else.

The enriched education provided at an institution like PCC will never be reproduced within a business structure where faculty are simply employees and students just customers. A few years ago, I taught part-time for another of the for-profit colleges--if "taught" can even be used for what I was doing. The company didn't even call us teachers, but "facilitators." We operated within lock-step syllabi that took neither the strengths of the particular facilitator nor the needs of the individual students into consideration. There was no room for the spontaneity or flexibility that makes education effective. The students were being short-changed: they thought they were buying a real college education when all they were getting was cheap "credits" and suspect "degrees." Certainly, they weren't coming away with the learning that students at a place like PCC can attain.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Advice to Americans on Iraq

Black fool, why winter here?
These frozen skies,Worn by your wings and deafen'd by your cries,
Should warn you hence, where milder suns invite,
And day alternates with his mother night.


These words were written by my great-great-great-great-great uncle, Joel Barlow just before he died trying to deliver an American treaty to Napoleon during the retreat from Moscow in 1812. The poem, “Advice to a Raven in Russia,” was found and printed years later, its anti-Napoleon sentiment moot.

Today, however, as the Bush administration eyes Iran as its only way out of Iraq, the sentiments he expressed take on new importance, though the arrogance and deviltry belongs to George Bush, no Bonaparte, he.
You fear perhaps your food may fail you there--
Your human carnage, that delicious fare,
That lured you hither, following still your friend,
The great Napoleon to the world's bleak end.
The raven of the poem, it seems to me, becomes the neo-con and Halliburton of today, feasting on the disasters befalling others.
You fear, because the sourthern climes pour'd forth
Their clustering nations to infest the north,Bavarians, Austirans, those who drink the Po
And those who skirt the Tuscan seas below,
With all Germania, Neustria, Belgia, Gaul,
Doom'd here to wade thro slaughter to their fall,
You fear he left behind no wars, to feed
His feather'd cannibals and nurse the breed.
Napoleon’s army that poured into Russia had numbered over 600,000, many times larger than the American forces that took over Iraq. But both drained the home country. In Napoleon’s case, he left the door open (well, not open—there were 100,000 soldiers guarding it) for Wellington’s successes in Spain to lead him into France and Toulouse. The foolhardiness of Napoleon’s campaign, though it had taken him all the way to Moscow, defeated him. Let’s just hope the foolhardiness of Bush has not set us on a similar path of defeat followed by further war to reclaim elusive “victory.”
Fear not, my screamer, call your greedy train,
Sweep over Europe, hurry back to Spain,
You'll find his legions there; the valiant crew
Please best their master when they toil for you.
Just as there was war all over Europe—and America—in 1812, we’re seeing war all over the world today. The United States, which some believed would be able to put a virtual end to war through its position as the sole remaining superpower, has only perpetuated war. Not only have we started one ourselves, and may be on the verge of starting another, but we enable dozens of others through our arms sales.
Abundant there they spread the country o'er
And taint the breeze with every nation's gore,
Iberian, Lusian, British widely strown;
But still more wide and copious flows their own.
Do we even understand just how evil our warmongers are? Seeking profit and power, they spread destruction far wider than anything of the Europe of 1812. Though…
Go where you will; Calabria, Malta, Greece,
Egypt and Syria still his fame increase,
Domingo's fatten'd isle and India's plains
Glow deep with purple drawn from Gallic veins.
The destruction Napoleon caused has been lost to us through the fog of passing time. He remains mere legend, not the evil that we now associate with Hitler—though he, himself, is fading into a past where good and evil become simply detail. We can only pray that Bush never manages to make more than Iraq “glow deep with purple” blood.
No raven's wing can stretch the flight so far
As the torn bandrols of Napoleon's war.
Choose then your climate, fix your best abode,
He'll make you deserts and he'll bring you blood.
So far, the wars of Bush have been localized. Afganistan, Iraq, and (maybe soon) Iran in between. It has gone far enough, now. If Iran is pulled in, the world will follow.
How could you fear a dearth? Have not mankind,
Tho slain by millions, millions left behind?
Has not CONSCRIPTION still the power to wield
Her annual faulchion o'er the human field?
A faithful harvester! Or if a man
Escape that gleaner, shall he scape the BAN?
The triple BAN, that like the hound of hell
Gripes with joles, to hold his victim well.
Conscription—it gave Napoleon the power to build armies larger than any Europe, at least, had ever seen. It changed warfare, making the soldier less valuable than the cannon, for the soldier was now more easily replaced. It is here where Bush’s hand is stayed, for he dare not force the mass of Americans into his fights.
Fear nothing then, hatch fast your ravenous brood,
Teach them to cry to Buonaparte for food;
They'll be like you, of all his suppliant train,
The only class that never cries in vain.
For see what natural benefits you lend!
(The surest way to fix the mutual friend)
While on this slaughter'd troops your tribes are fed,
You cleanse his camp and carry of his dead.
Only the war profiteer makes good out of the slaughter a Napoleon or a Bush unleashes. Look at the corruption in Iraq, and the companies gorging themselves on the disaster.
Imperial scavenger! But now you know,
Your work is vain amid these hills of snow.
His tentless troops are marbled through with frost
And change to crystal when the breath is lost.
Mere trunks of ice, tho limb'd with human frames,
And lately warm'd with life's endearing flames.
They cannot taint the air, the world impest,
Nor can you tear one fiber from their breast.
No! from their visual sockets as they lie,
With beak and claws you cannot pluck an eye.
The frozen orb, preserving still its form,
Defies your talons as it braves the storm,
But stands and stares to God, as if to know
In what curst hands he leaves his world below.
Our soldiers, not frozen, but wasted, dying and maimed—for what? Who is this “guardian” of our people who causes such pain?
Fly then, or starve; tho all the dreadful road
From Minsk to Moskow, with their bodies strow'd
May count some Myriads, yet they can't suffice
To feed you more beneath these dreary skies.
Go back and winter in the wilds of Spain;
Feast there awhile, and in the next campaign
Rejoin your master; for you'll find him then,
With his new million of the race of men,
Clothed in his thunders, all his flags unfurl'd,
Raging and storming o'er the prostrate world!
Iraq is not enough for you, you neo-con warmongers, you Halliburton war profiteers? Just wait: another war is sure to come, for the forces in our government—the Democrats—are too timid to force Bush from his path to war. It will take more than their sorry and meek objections to stop him, if Iran is really his goal.
War after war his hungry soul requires,
State after State shall sink beneath his fires,
Yet other Spains in victim smoke shall rise
And other Moskows suffocate the skies,
Each land lie reeking with its peoples slain
And not a stream num bloodless to the main.
Till men resume their souls, and dare to shed
Earth's total vengeance on the monster's head,
Hurl from his blood-built throne this king of woes,
Dash him to dust, and let the world repose.

The time for hand-wringing is over. We must do everything we can to stop this tyrant of our own.