25 September 2014

Two Cultures? Not the Two That You Think


There are many more than two cultures on this vast campus.

At least once a year, I have a student in one of my classes majoring in something I didn't know one could major in (Aviation--Human Factor?  Fish and Wildlife Management?  Okay then...), and I suspect there are people on campus who didn't even know we had a Department of Asian-American Studies until it announced its no-confidence vote in our Chancellor.  "North/South of Green Street" is local slang for "STEM/Humanities," but in fact there are shiny new institutes for cutting edge science research at the south end of campus, and pillars of "The Liberal Arts and Sciences" like math and chemistry line the main quad alongside English, anthropology, and history.  There are fields south of campus where scientists plant experimental crops on Monsanto's nickel and develop their findings in lab space that the university supplies in exchange for occasional teaching and a cut of the grant. There are faculty whose work involves neither classroom or lab but extension outreach, fieldwork five or five thousand miles away, or clinical teaching and assessment.  The much-resented silence of the STEM fields with regard to the Salaita affair is shared by other powerful entities on campus that don't line up neatly on the STEM/humanities divide: the law school, the business school, various social sciences, and many campus units that exist beyond LAS and have very different kinds of institutional histories.

The effort to define reactions to this matter as a difference between the quantitative, raw data-driven, apolitical science fields, and the richly contextualizing, intersectional, discourse-driven humanities fields reflects (I suspect) a nostalgia for a mythical golden age when the work of a university fell neatly into categories branching gracefully from the trivium and quadrivium, as distinct from any practical arts or trades.

The real divide separating the two sides seemingly polarized by the Salaita affair snakes its way across campus, crossing and recrossing Green St., slithering around campus and through block parties and department meetings, causing awkward silences at social gatherings and suppressed rage in the bleachers of kids' soccer games.  It is far more pernicious than any methodological differences or disciplinary hierarchies could be.  Neither my dead canary nor my boiled frog analogy quite captures the matter.

It's not two cultures facing down across campus, but two different magnetic poles exerting their attraction.  One pole asserts that the university's main function is to provide a safe and protected space for the pursuit of the truth, in whatever direction it may lead one, and without regard to political or economic considerations.  I've blogged about it here.  This pole is sunk deep in a past where the university's primary tasks were theological, and Latin was its lingua franca.  Try as its modern acolytes might to drive off the wisps of pernicious elitism that lurk around it, its legacy lingers, as the inheritance of those who by a trick of birth and privilege don't have to worry about keeping the lights on--much less cleaning the lamps or trimming the wicks.  The other pole is the product of more modern, practical, democratizing impulses: the land grant university which has, as its mission making life better for the citizens of a state.  Its concern are always and necessarily pragmatic--the pursuit of truth is fine, but best that it be a truth that makes the world materially better, that helps people make more money, grow better crops, build better cities. Try as it will, though, this pole can't repel the opportunists ever sniffing around it, looking for ways to make the university best serve their own private interests and improve their corner of the world regardless of any detriment to the common good.

One can imagine a public university where these two poles help to keep each other in check.  Those pursuing the truth for its own sake must ever be mindful of certain bottom lines: is it everyone's truth, responsive to broad notions of humanity and its concerns?  is it shared and taught in ways that improve understanding beyond a narrow group of specialists?  is its cultural benefit worth the candle wax and vellum pages and bandwidth that are necessary for its production?  are its practitioners taking sufficient intellectual risks and staking out sufficient new territory to justify the protection they receive? Likewise, those looking for truths that can be practically applied and used to make the world better have to be mindful of larger stakes: does its work serve a responsible vision of the public good?  Are long-term benefits being sacrificed to short-term gains?  Is political expedience crowding out the pursuit of knowledge?  Are the questions being asked, the knowledge sought, sufficiently broad and public-minded to warrant the resources they receive?

Three things make this vision laughably utopian.  One is the dwindling public resources being devoted to education.  As higher education ceases to be viewed as a public good, it becomes the property of whoever pays the bills.  The second is a consequence of the first.  As public support for higher education decreases, the importance of units within the university that can pull their own financial weight or sell their services at cost increases.  The third is that, in the absence of solid public support, governing entities like Boards of Regents and Trustees become political playthings, staffed in some cases, by people who have little understanding of the multiple public commitments of the university. And so the corrective power of the pursuit of truth for its own sake diminishes to the point where it exerts little pull beyond its own hardy acolytes.

The landscape is not entirely bleak.  Although some faculty in the law school, the business school, the engineering school, and some STEM researchers who generate patents and spinoff tech companies see their existence justified by the rules of the marketplace alone, a number of other departments and individual faculty navigate gracefully between the exigencies of grantsmanship and the truth.  Others choose less-lucrative-projects-that-matter over more-lucrative-ones-that-don't. Some researchers tread delicately around political minefields in order to advance the unpopular research that will make life better for real people.  Some find sources of grant money that share a disinterested commitment to open inquiry without immediate practical application.

At the other extreme, however, where the rules of the marketplace have little sway, where good results can't be monetized, where there is little demand for faculty work outside the academy, and there are few grants of any description that can lend a dollar value to any given project, the humanities faculty find themselves more and more isolated.  Philosophers, historians, art historians, literary and language scholars, researchers in area studies and religion, musicologists, interdisciplinary scholars of many descriptions, all continue to adhere to frames of value that have no market equivalent.  They advocate for richer understanding of the past, the pursuit of new information for its own sake, aesthetic understanding, moral knowledge, more complex contextualization, the ever-better framing of questions and reasoning about those questions, not because there is anything material and quantifiable to be gained from it, not because students of these fields go on to lucrative careers in these fields, but because it matters.  It must be confessed, though--these faculty also remain at this pole of disinterested intellection because they don't have a lot of choice in the matter.  There's nobody to sell out to. 

This absence of opportunity wasn't always a problem.  Now it is seen by many in positions of power in the university as a moral failing, the fatal sign of departments that can't exist by marketplace rules and therefore, perhaps, ought not to exist at all.

Departments and faculty that can swing both ways--that can engage in disinterested inquiry for its own sake and but also draw external funding to support (literally) and affirm (by extension) what they do--find the Salaita de-hiring far less threatening than departments and individual faculty who are entirely dependent on the sheer value of disinterested inquiry alone.  Many departments and faculty are quiet about the matter not, I suspect, because they necessarily thought that Wise did the right thing, but because they know they can navigate between the two poles, bowing to political expediency where necessary and asserting unpopular truths where possible, and still do their work. This is why the argument (offered by many Salaita supporters) that climate change or evolution could be the next victims of administrative overreach falls flat.  These faculty feel little common cause with faculty who can't accommodate political realities, for whom any concession to non-academic lobbying necessarily vitiates the central values of their work with no compensating intellectual rewards.  In addition, given the pressure to locate funding sources and pay the bills, these silent faculty have little intellectual energy to devote to imagining the alternative reality inhabited by faculty on campus whose fields demand little in the way of resources but also give little of market worth back.

For faculty in those fields that exist wholly outside marketplace values and political expedience, academic freedom means not just the freedom to express unpopular ideas but the freedom to inhabit a world of ideas that can't be touched by wealth, political influence, or the raw exercise of power.  I wonder if it always felt as strange and alienating as it does now to be the person arguing that such a world of values ought to exist.

(Image: "Septem-artes-liberales Herrad-von-Landsberg Hortus-deliciarum 1180" by Herrad von Landsberg - Hortus Deliciarum. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Septem-artes-liberales_Herrad-von-Landsberg_Hortus-deliciarum_1180.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Septem-artes-liberales_Herrad-von-Landsberg_Hortus-deliciarum_1180.jpg)

23 September 2014

On Finding a Way Forward

The UIUC Faculty Senate meeting yesterday, its first since school convened for the fall, was electric in a way that faculty deliberations rarely are.  There was vehemence, there was incivility, there were protestors chanting in the corridor and holding up signs.  There were impassioned speeches on both sides of the Salaita issue.

There was one striking moment of moral and procedural clarity, however, when Angela Wiley took the microphone in the public comment portion of the proceedings to deliver the "confidence" vote of her home department, Human and Community Development.   Professor Wiley (as witnessed by me and described by a colleague on FB) explained that her department valued Chancellor Wise's many and varied contributions to the campus, but then she
looked the Chancellor in the eye and said simply, "You made a bad decision. That decision really stunk." And then, very calmly, she told the Chancellor that she could still fix it. There was something personal about it, really stripped down and powerful and shaming, but there was also a way forward: fix your mistake.
Professor Wiley herself was having a rather different experience of the event. She wrote on FB, from the Senate meeting, "Oh my goodness. I find myself dismayed at the way my colleagues are treating one another at the Senate meeting. How does this make any sense whatsoever?" and later, in response to comments and queries from her FB friends, Prof. Wiley glossed her initial response as follows (which I have copied and pasted from her FB feed with her permission):
     I've spent most of my life trying to "speak truth to authority." This has included everything from protests of government decisions (e.g., the Persian Gulf War and others since) to sit-ins at the administrative offices of my undergraduate campus. With that background to establish that I am not opposed to organized action, here is my take on this.
     I believe the central issue is the Chancellor's contravention of the principles of self-governance in rescinding an offer to Dr. Salaita. Clearly this is unacceptable, and it must be remedied. I take it as my duty to make this clear and to pursue it through a variety of means. However, the circus that has emerged is shameful. I saw faculty members at my university hiss at undergraduate students who were brave enough to stand up and recite their (sometimes rather wandering) opinions. There were organized rounds of coughing, designed I can only presume to drown out, discourage, or intimidate the free expression of colleagues who might disagree. Ridicule and sarcasm have shut down any open discussion, not only with the administration but with colleagues across the hall or across campus who may feel the need for more data to fully form an opinion. And when they form that opinion, we may disagree. But I will *not* disrespect them by suggesting that they are less intelligent, less caring about children or important social issues, or less passionate than I am. They may be, but I will not assume that based on our disagreement about this.
     I suppose I’ve been hoping for a dialogue that focuses on the matter at hand. What wrongs were hoisted upon us, how should these be righted, and how can we prevent similar wrongs from being perpetrated again? I am not convinced that Chancellor Wise should be toppled, in spite of the fact that she made an egregious misstep. On balance, I have watch her work exceedingly hard to take this campus forward, not perfect but a vast improvement on some we have had. I had hoped see if this very public misstep with all its fallout could become a cornerstone for improving true shared governance along with an organized faculty.
     Yes, in the past couple of years, I have been working to organize the faculty on this campus. Truth is, I am discouraged. What I have watched emerged over the past month or two feels like an opportunistic feeding frenzy that is quite separate from the matter at hand. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that this has become more than a desire to see a righting of the wrongs associated with Dr. Salaita’s case. It feels more like asserting power purely for the sake of doing so. And I simply don’t respect that.
Full disclosure: I know her as "Angela" and we're friends--she's one of the first friends I made when we moved here. Robert Warrior of AIS has reported on several occasions that when Chancellor Wise first alerted him to potential problems with the Salaita hire, she pointed out that it's a small community, and we run into our colleagues at Target and Sam's Club. It's true. We also pick our kids up from the same school playgrounds, take part in the same community organizations, help each other through life crises and illnesses, navigate our childrens' mutual friendships and enmities, learn more about unfamiliar corners of the university from one another, and operate from very different models of what a professor's work is. I've discovered the hard way that a Facebook thread is a difficult place for people coming at these issues from different angles to navigate their disagreement, so with Prof. Wiley's permission, I offered to respond through my blog instead.

Here's where I agree: Like many on campus, I, too, have been "hoping for a dialogue that focuses on the matter at hand" and I, too, have observed something that feels (as Prof. Wiley describes it) as "an opportunistic feeding frenzy." Hissing, coughing, back turning makes me uncomfortable, too.

(Yes, there is something in the air at these events that feels less like righteous indignation and more like a tipping point having finally been reached. Yes, there are people who find in this controversy a space for their related concerns (stalled union negotiations, the Chief, LBGTQ rights, underenrollment of African-American students) to be heard. Unwieldy coalitions are being formed between people who think *the* issue here is shared governance, those who think it's Palestine, and those who think it's academic freedom, and a lot of pent-up pressure is getting released at the seams.)

Here's where I disagree: that it's "asserting power purely for the sake of doing so."

Prof. Wiley addressed Chancellor Wise in the hope that her dismay over the decision would be heard and that the Chancellor could be moved by a sincere plea to fix it. At this point, most of the departments affected by this decision have lost any hope that any such good-faith dialogue on the issues at hand is possible.

Here are some things that Chancellor Wise could have done at many points in the previous weeks to convey to her divided university that productive dialogue is possible:
  • Respond publicly to the criticisms leveled at this decision by the state and national AAUPs. Are they wrong to take issue with the decision? Are there relevant factors that they haven't taken into account? In what ways does this decision not violate the principles of academic freedom attached to every job letter?
  • Respond publicly to the national scholarly organizations like the MLA and the AHA that have strongly criticized this decision. What have they failed to understand? In what way is their censure misplaced?
  • Recognize that prominent scholars whose work is valued on her campus now have stated reasons for refusing to come here and respond to those reasons.
  • Acknowledge the many scholars who have subjected Salaita's twitter feed to scrupulous close reading, triangulated it with his teaching record and scholarship. Examine, with an open mind, the considerable evidence amassed that Salaita's twitter activity on his private account demonstrates neither his antisemitism no his unfitness to do the job for which he was hired. Explain in some detail, and in the face of this evidence, the nature of the line that Salaita crossed and the point at which he crossed it so that faculty have some clearer measure than "civility" to know when their passion, rage, ill-considered utterances, profanity, and political expressions become actionable.
  • Approach the departments affected by this decision (in advance of the no-confidence votes) and give them grounds for understanding why this particular situation warranted an egregious and unprecedented breach of ordinary academic procedure.
Wise has done none of these things. Her only gestures towards conversation so far have been her August 22 letter and blog post, "The Principles on which We Stand" (a document that came only after weeks of radio silence from the administration), a series of public appearances in which she has ignored substantive criticism by repeating the same talking points, and impromptu second "listening tour" of various departments and campus units rendered solely symbolic by her repeated assurance that she will not undo anything that she has done.


(It would be helpful, at this point, to have a Provost who could bridge some of the divides that have emerged on campus, someone who could articulate for each side the concerns of the other and clear up some of the disciplinary misunderstandings that have made this issue so polarizing. Unfortunately, the chief academic officer on this campus has been culpably, unconscionably, and consistently silent through out these bitter weeks.  The fact that he was appointed by Wise does not help matters.)

Under these circumstances, the scope for civil conversation narrows.  It's hard to converse civilly when you are talking someone who pretends to listen but refuses to hear.  It's hard to converse civilly with someone who responds as if nothing has been said.  It's hard to converse civilly when the futility of doing so has already been amply demonstrated.  At a certain point, civil conversation starts to feel not just like a charade, but like active complicity.

It doesn't have to be like that.  The vision of active, meaningful dialogue that emerged in Prof. Wiley's statement yesterday touched many of the people in the room because we very much want it to be possible.  The Chancellor has let slip many opportunities to make it so, but I, too, hope she heard.





11 September 2014

Not Too Refined to Say This, Anyway.

The truth is, it's hard to take a stand on the Salaita de-/un-/re-hiring without wanting to throw up.

Parsing whether "I wish all the settlers would go missing" constitutes a death-threat or not makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Listening to the rhetoric about "wealthy Jewish donors" influencing this decision scares the hell out of me.

Wondering where the line falls between scholarly inquiry into the conditions of settler colonialism and indigeneity around the world and a deeply politicized agenda rife with foregone conclusions makes me want to change the subject.

I try to avoid talking about Israel at all.  My views put me out of step with many of my friends at the temple (yes, I converted).  Learning more from within the faith has only made them more complicated, not less.

Watching a highly ranked woman of color, who has done a great deal to advance the role of women and underrepresented minorities on campus, become the focus of faculty and student anger has been excruciating.

Watching the concerns of Palestinian and middle-eastern students get erased from the the conversation has been deeply dismaying.

It's hard to cheer when I learn that another department has voted "no confidence."  I understand it has to happen--I voted "yes" in a no-confidence vote myself--but it doesn't feel like positive step.  It feels like breaking something that has to break, but with no certainty that the thing that takes its place will be better.

Yet there I was today: holding a sign, posting photos and commentary on social media, chanting, clapping, swelling the pro-Salaita crowd.  The thought that my--or anyone's--discomfort should axiomatically put an end to these--or any--important conversation sickens me, too.

The public university can be a place where the difficult conversations about race, justice, equality, ethnicity, religion, and politics take place and matter, or it can be a place where those difficult conversations are identified, performed in the point/counterpoint theater of neatly opposed views, and then shelved while the talk that matters (money, influence, power) goes on elsewhere without regard to those who don't have money, influence, and power.

Photo by Anne Dietz-Lavoie
Behind the talk of "civility" is a determination to have only the latter kinds of conversations. "Incivility" is necessary for some voices to be heard, for the stakes of any particular debate to be apparent, for conversations to result in meaningful change. A colleague supportive of Salaita, who has served in administrative positions for several years now, posted this morning on Facebook, "People in upper admin with whom I've worked closely for years are now unwilling even to make eye contact with me. Inclusive Illinois." That right there is the problem with making "civility" the boundary of conversation.  "Civility" only works if both parties are already operating from a position of equality and already in mutual agreement on the need for the conversation.  It doesn't work if a powerful participant refuses to acknowledge that that the less powerful participant has an issue that needs to be discussed.  It also doesn't work when only the powerful participant gets to define where the outer bounds of civility lie.  Civility commits us to a university where existing injustices remain entrenched and silenced voices stay that way.

How do you know if you're taking part in a conversation about race, justice, equality, etc. that matters, versus one that doesn't?  If you feel like you want to throw up but you also have to go on talking, chances are you're in it.

10 September 2014

"Teaching with Technology"? Oh, Wait: You Meant "Delivering Content." Never Mind.

I've been sucked in again--a one hour brown-bag hosted by the university's "Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning."
Best Practices for "Back Pocket Video Production
Video pros and experienced faculty share their tips and tricks for producing video content for course enhancement and student assignments with only their phones and other "back-pocket" devices.

Sounds pretty innovative, and why not?  Most students carry around with them the capacity to shoot video; so do I.  They live in a world replete with screens and moving images; so do I.  They document their lives relentlessly with their hand-held devices, and I was born too early to understand how this unlimited capacity for self-expression across a variety of media platforms shapes how they understand the world.  I ask them to delve deeper into the printed word by writing about what they read--how might I harness their use of another media form?

I have some ideas, myself, but there are a lot of things I don't know about how to make them work:

  • Like many non-tenure-track faculty with no research budget, I have to rely on a shared office computer or technology I've purchased for my personal use.  Where and how should I store video files that I create (or ask students to create) for a class?
  • What are some rookie mistakes to avoid when using a handheld device to shoot video that's going to be viewed by strangers, rather than an audience of sympathetic family or facebook friends?
  • What are the best platforms for making student-made videos available to their classmates?
  • What FERPA and copyright issues should I be worrying about when using a site like YouTube for educational purposes?
  • What kinds of video-centered assignments work well in a class where video production and visual media are NOT the main focus of learning?
  • How have instructors successfully prompted students to exploit the communication possibilities of hand-held video?  What do students do better with video than with more conventional kinds of assignments?
So I went to the brown bag lunch.  Here's what I learned.
  • Shooting video with a smart phones can capture ephemeral moments and otherwise undocumented voices.
  • You can deliver course content effectively via three to six-minute videos that explain and reinforce key concepts.  
  • Students like short home-made videos a lot, learn from them, and stop asking their instructors to repeat basic information in office hours.
  • Production values matter: here are some cool toys we have to help make your videos more professional (turns out that "back-pocket" in the course description referred specifically to little backpacks full of gadgets that instructors can check out of the library).
  • Editing your videos makes them better: here's how iMovie works on your handheld device.

There's nothing particularly wrong with any of that, only I don't teach big lecture classes, and I try to minimize the amount of time I spent talking at my students.  The bulk of learning takes place in my class when students discuss and interact with texts with my guidance.  Learning about a different way of talking at them doesn't help me guide that process more effectively.  Yet every time I trot hopefully off to an event that promises to help me innovate, I find myself talked to as if delivering information is the only thing I might want to do in the classroom.  "Innovation in Teaching and Learning"?  It looks suspiciously like draping Freire's banking model with enough cords,  dongles, and screens that we can make it unrecognizable and scalable.

05 September 2014

Yet Another Open Letter! But this One Is to My Facebook Friend, Who is Tired of Being Told She Shouldn't Be Offended

You and I may never agree on the Salaita affair, but for what it’s worth: Of course you’re offended, and so are a lot of people.  Salaita expressed himself in ways that were vulgar, boorish, and deliberately provocative—and yes, people get provoked, quite reasonably.  What he’s being accused of is something very different from provocative ugliness, though: it’s hate speech. 

If he were, in fact, the rank anti-semite that he’s being presented as, on the basis of a handful of cherry-picked tweets that have been read out of context, I wouldn’t want him here either.   But a different picture emerges to those who are reading the tweets in the context of the conversations in which they emerged, looking at the whole of his twitter feed, and considering the evidence that was amassed about him as a scholar and teacher as his application made its way through the many circles of academic hiring.   Maybe they’re wrong.  Maybe there is additional evidence they should have considered or read more carefully.  There are many points in the hiring process where those conversations could take place—even at the point where Chancellor Wise was being pressured to withdraw the appointment.  Is it okay that he said those things on Twitter?  No.  But the conversation about whether saying ugly things on social media by itself justifies un-hiring him never happened.  We're to believe he's an anti-semite who will infect the classroom with his hatred because people who apparently haven't read anything but those few isolated tweets say so.

Why do I care?  Why am I willing to go to bat for this guy whose words, culled from his twitter feed, and amplified across a variety of hostile social media platforms, are hurtful to people I care about? 

Here are two reasons:

1.  The rank hypocrisy of the justification for this decision.  So many things happen that can make students feel unsafe.  How safe do students critical of Israel feel about voicing their sentiments in the wake of this decision?  How safe do Native students feel when they are surrounded by classmates wearing a racist caricature?  How safe do African-American students feel when benchmarks for African-American enrollment that were set in 1968 still haven’t been met?  How safe do foreign national students feel when an administration pours resources into finessing their transition to campus but provides no support to teaching faculty in meeting their learning needs, and when there is no recognition of the ways that the burgeoning numbers of such students will inevitably change campus culture?   The safety of particular groups of students seems to matter not at all—until suddenly it’s of overwhelming importance (but only for some groups).

2.  The implications for me, and the way I teach, and my precarious position.  In a column this week about the campus kerfuffle, the editor of our local paper, Jim Dey, asked,   
Who on campus is in such a vulnerable position? If there is someone, what are they saying or doing that would draw administrative disapproval? Assuming those unique conditions are met, what authority would anyone up the food chain have to punish them, given the protections that go with their jobs?
Well: me. If it can happen to Salaita, it can happen to me.  As a contingent, non-tenure-track faculty member, I can be fired by anyone up the food chain.  I use provocative speech when I teach. I drop f-bombs in class.  I voice racist attitudes in order to emphasize their presence in a text. I use vulgar sexual language to make visible the innuendo lurking beneath archaic euphemisms.The term “fag-hag” comes up every time I teach the novel Daisy Miller.  I press students to lay bare the sexist, racist, or homophobic assumptions they bring to a text.  When students get angry, I let that anger do some work in showing the real-world concerns at play in long-dead texts.  My methods usually succeed: students get what I’m doing, they understand my ironic use of opinions I don’t share, they’re open to the possibility that the world looks very different to people with different life experiences.  They engage with the readings in ways that they wouldn’t if I were more decorous.  But maybe I’ve just been lucky.  What happens when I offend a well-connnected student?  What if I fail a student for plagiarism, and that student is the child of a major donor?   What if a tuition-paying parent demands that I be removed from the classroom because of reports of my sexist, racist, profanity-laden behavior?  I would like to trust the judgment of my department head and college dean, who understand the rapid-fire give-and-take of the college classroom and the challenge of bringing obscure and difficult readings to life.  Only it seems they may no longer have the authority to back me up.


Wise didn’t bother to examine the context for the data Salaita’s opponents handed her, nor did she consult with anyone who might present an alternative view of the matter.  Why would anyone do more for me?   As an untenured and probably untenurable lecturer I have a far weaker claim to the protections of academic freedom and far less legal standing.  Firing me wouldn’t cost anybody anything.  At this point, I no longer care that much whether Salaita is reinstated.  Perhaps, at the end of the day, when the full totality of his public words have been read and argued over--he'll prove not to be such a loss.  But the terms on which he was un-hired matter very much to me, and I'm publicly supporting his reinstatement in order to put as much pressure as possible on those terms.  It’s now clear that whatever strengths I bring to the classroom are, under the right circumstances, for sale.

30 August 2014

In the Kettle with the Boiled Frogs

By Arthurgcox (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons
I've been using the wrong cliched metaphor. Dead canary? No. That way of framing the issue was based on a fundamental misconception of how things work.  It goes something like this: When higher education stopped being regarded as a public good, things changed.  More and more students selected their majors based on the likelihood of being able to pay off enormous amounts of college debt, and departmental influence started to be based on how much money they could draw to the institution, either through grants or through entrepreneurial initiatives. As a result the humanities and interpretive social sciences became less important to the institutions that supported them, they became less powerful (relative to other departments), and they now seem to becoming voice-less and disposable. Exhibit A: the Salaita affair, in which the Chancellor and BoT can't even be bothered to acknowledge a growing list of disciplinary petitions and boycotts, much less heed them. Moreover, the lack of solidarity manifested STEM and professional suggests that they have no sense that the precedent set here may, at some point, impinge on their academic freedom. The canary is dead and no one cares because the coal mine has turned itself into a place where STEM faculty can breathe the noxious air and canaries can't.

Even though I have espoused this view elsewhere on this blog, I'm starting to realize that I've got it wrong.

Let it be said that not all non-humanities/social sciences fields have been silent. Alan Sokal has written an open letter in which he points out the relevance of the Salaita decision for scientists:

Putting aside the bizarre notion that an idea can feel "demeaned" or "abused", the Chancellor's position implies that the University of Illinois will not tolerate biologists or physicists who are "disrespectful" (in her sole judgment) of creationists or even of creationism.

(Yes, that Alan Sokal.) His letter is posted on LSU philosopher Jobn Protevi's blog, along with a boycott pledge for natural scientists to sign.

The silence of the STEM here at UIUC that I described in my earlier post continues, although the conversations I've had with local faculty outside the humanities suggests that I did, in a key way, get it wrong. Let me, very unscientifically, advance a hypothesis that, while formulated on the basis of an egregiously small sample size, may nonetheless warrant more research.

Money isn't institutional influence or freedom here--at least not to the degree we (in the humanities) think it is. For those in STEM, it means being a subcontractor or a tenant farmer. Everyone has to perform a certain amount of teaching labor and cough up a certain amount of grant money, in exchange for a building to work in and an institutional affiliation. The general contractor/landlord can be capricious, tyrannical, and opaque. Shared governance inheres in the fact that most of the time the politicians, thugs, powerful interests, and protestors are scared off, permitting the subcontractor/tenant farmer to get on with the work at hand.

In this economy, the humanities are the folks camping in the woods. Sure, nobody really knows what they're doing out there, but whatever it is, it doesn't cost much money and isn't really hurting anyone, so nobody pays much attention. Exhibit A: The Salaita Affair, in which one of those happy-go-lucky sprites has unfortunately run afoul of the forces that ordinarily ignore them. The General Contractor/Landlord decided, as sometimes happen, to withhold her protection, and so the sprites, unused to these encounters and unfamiliar with the Landlord’s autocratic hand, are outraged. They need to just get over it--everyone else does!


The difference between the dead canary scenario that I outlined above and this one is the nature of the expectations it involves. Do faculty decisions get overturned? Are research findings vetted for their potential to offend powerful stakeholders? Is a certain amount of administrative overreach and malfeasance part of the price of doing business? Well, of course! The important thing (and this is the point everyone agrees on): the research goes on, and so does the money to support it. It is the height of arrogance, in this latter scenario, for those in the humanities to think that they exist outside these inevitable compromises just because they are too insignificant to face them on a regular basis.

I’m getting a better understanding of why the humanities people and the STEM people are talking past each other, not only on this issue but on the issue of union organizing as well (which suffers on this campus from a lack of buy-in from the STEM and professional faculty).

I’m also thinking about a third metaphor: boiled frogs. When and how did the water get so hot for so many frogs? Should we be worried that they didn't notice? We humanities frogs have been suddenly dropped into the boiling kettle, and it matters to us that it hurts.

27 August 2014

Where Is the Line?

"Where do you draw the line on academic freedom?" is a question that I've been asked several times recently, with regard to the un-hiring of Stephen Salaita (the details of which are linked to here). It's asked with a tone of puzzled sympathy, by people who have an investment in academia in general and UIUC in particular, but who are baffled about how we on the humanities corner of campus do things.  They are willing to concede that there were egregious breaches of procedure, that both Salaita and the department that hired him were treated shabbily, that faculty governance and departmental autonomy have been dealt a blow.  But those tweets!  Do humanities faculty really want to line up behind them?  Is it really okay for an activist scholar to do that?  If his puerile 140-character rantings count as protected academic speech, then where would one draw the line?

It is then gently suggested to me that it would be easier for STEM faculty to support their aggrieved humanities colleagues, if those colleagues would just make it clear where the line is.  What forms of hate speech constitute fire-able, untenurable offenses?  Perhaps, I'm told, if humanities faculty stuck to the issues of procedure and governance and backed slowly away from the "academic freedom" banner, they would get more solidarity from the STEM departments, who don't quite see why an academic's right to make injudicious remarks on twitter ought to get the same protections as, say, research supporting climate change.

If we were still in a moment when that conversation could take place, about the threshold where the protections of academic freedom end, humanities faculty would be less angry.  That conversation could have started with an honest and detailed explanation of why Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees saw fit to overturn the faculty's considered judgement.  In the face of the evidence presented in his hiring and tenure documents, that Salaita's outspoken activism did not undermine his teaching, research, and service, where did they see the line being crossed?  In what ways was the whole of Salaita's public activism and twitter feed (not just soundbites selected by those unsympathetic to his views) so incompatible with his professorial position as to justify his unhiring?  Where is the line beyond which higher administrators are justified in overturning faculty decisions?

Such candor would, at least, have given the faculty invested in this case a fixed point to argue with. Some humanities faculty would have seen justice in the administration's position.  Faculty who disagreed would know what principle they were disagreeing with and be in a position to take issue with its fine points.  Faculty who just wanted to get on with their work in confidence that their departments could make future hiring decisions would be able to do so, knowing what kinds of extramural behavior would trip the wire of BoT overreach. And STEM faculty, concerned citizens, and baffled onlookers would have answers to their questions.

Instead of making that vital conversation possible, though, the Chancellor and Board of Trustees sketched out a vague and incoherent explanation of their decision, that only made it clear that academic freedom will, in future, mean whatever the Chancellor and Board of Trustees decide it means.  "Academic freedom" has become something of a rallying cry, not because faculty find it tremendously important to allow Salaita to go on goading Zionists via Twitter, but because the terms on which the Chancellor and BoT made his tweeting a fireable offense could apply just as easily to milder forms of activism, politically relevant research and writing, contentious public debate, and any teaching on sensitive subjects like race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality.  In other words: many of the things that are part of the job for humanities faculty.