08 February 2016

Skillz in Action! Thinking Critically about Ads Posing as Copy in IHE.

Okay, class, go read this: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/02/08/debate-over-liberal-arts-vs-vocationalism-lazy-one-essay

And then go check out this: http://burning-glass.com/

See, with the right technology purchase, you can turn your impractical liberal arts majors into an entry-level corporate workforce. Painlessly. Effortlessly. It won't hurt a bit. You won't even notice.
This approach requires no major curricular overhaul, no fundamental change to how colleges teach the arts, humanities and social sciences. It should not be a distraction from the fundamental role of these fields: to explore the connections across knowledge and evaluate ideas critically.
How's that again? Just a few paragraphs up, Smigelman was pointing out that academic advisors in the liberal arts, being mostly faculty themselves, were out of touch with the needs of a rapidly changing workplace, clueless about the narrow technical skills that can boost a student's employability. How do you retool THAT academic-advising workforce without distraction from the "fundamental role" of those departments? Has Smigelman ever seen actual actual academic departments collaborate on a certificate program? Has he seen how tapped out faculty advisors already are by the multiple institutional gaps they already have to fill? No biggie:
This is where technology can help. Career applications can tell students what kinds of jobs will be accessible to them and what skills they will need to get there, enabling them to pick courses on the periphery of their liberal arts degree that will give them the practical tools to achieve good career outcomes.
Hmmm. Guess who makes these "career applications"? Yup.

Smigelman isn't wrong about his basic solution: liberal arts students need more help than they generally get identifying their strengths, recognizing the kinds of extracurricular involvement that will help they acquire particular competencies, and learning how to get information about possible careers. But we who help them do that need to keep clearly in mind that our duty is to our students, many of whom will change careers several times in the course of their lives, and many of whom just haven't lived enough yet to know what kind of job will give them long-term satisfaction.

Our duty is NOT to corporate employers who would prefer to offload the training of an entry-level workforce on to institutions of higher learning.

The debate over "practical" majors vs. the liberal arts is not lazy: it strikes at the heart of what higher education is for. Is the purpose of our college and universities to educate human beings and citizens, or is it to train students for their first post-college job? Ideally we do both, but many of us in the liberal arts find ourselves desperately trying to carve out room for the former, while multiple institutional pressures tend toward the latter.

Student who know they want to go into human resources (Smigelman’s example) or advertising or sports management can probably work electives and minors into a suitable program--and more power to them. Similarly, though Smigel doesn’t say this, liberal arts majors can find ways to develop skills through their other activities--every serious student organization needs someone who can run Excel (another of Smigelman’s examples), a part-time job in an institutional communications office can provide on-the-fly training in Adobe, internships make it possible for students to sample potential careers, getting involved in a volunteer organization offers ample opportunities to develop organizational and management skills. And yes, faculty in the traditional liberal arts disciplines can do much more than they do now to encourage these kinds of engagement and to encourage students to situate what they learn in the classroom in relation to their overall life goals.

But how many happy human resources managers knew at eighteen that such a career was what they wanted? And how many students have diligently shaped themselves for a first post-college job, only to discover a couple of years in that it’s not what they expected and that their talents seek a different outlet? Most people do many different things in the course of their lives, and few people end up doing a job directly related to their undergraduate study. Much as we want our students to be employed upon graduation, when we spend four years directing them to jobs that “represent compelling targets” and making sure that they acquire “technical skill bundles” along the way, we’re diverting energy away from the fundamental work of our disciplines and making the interests of employers our own.

It's not lazy to see this as a problem worth arguing about within our institutions and departments. It IS lazy to pretend that a software program will allow us to serve our students without inadvertently selling their souls.

06 February 2016

Humanities the Sh*t Out of This

Humanities departments don’t just have an image problem, they are stymied by a paradox.   
Any argument for the employability of majors in history, English, philosophy, art history, classics, or the like cosies up to the premise that the goal of higher education ought to be career training, above all else. Greater knowledge and understanding is, for the humanist, worth pursuing for its own sake. Our disciplines lead to no patents or and few insights with monetizable implications for meeting current needs. Nor should they: while some solid work in the humanities reaches a broad audience, the arc of direct market value tends towards bland truths, false commonplaces, and lucrative lies. Moreover, teaching students to excel at entry-level professional tasks defeats the goal of a liberal arts education: informed and open-ended grappling with the complex truths of human life.

Nonetheless, humanities departments need students to major in their disciplines if they are to survive, and students insist--reasonably--that the credential they earn should pay back the debt they incur to get it. Those not committed to the liberal arts (much less the specifically humanistic ones) will be quick to tell you that a humanities BA is an expensive journey to a career in fast food service.   Those committed to the liberal arts may point out that humanistic study equips students with crucial critical thinking and communication skills, but there is no pithy alternative to the fast-food myth.  The absence of a linear career path from these majors makes specific examples seem anecdotal to the point of irrelevance.  

The humanities disciplines didn’t used to have to make the argument.  For a while in the early and mid-twentieth century, knowledge of history, literature, and culture was the marker of a mostly elite, mostly white, class status.  A degree in history or English or the classics was a membership card for the applicant pool to corporate training programs and entry-level jobs in a variety of white collar fields.  As the number of students entering college has increased, the array of majors has grown as well, and other pipelines from the academy to the workplace have proliferated.  At the same time, the academic humanities have expanded in the last few decades to cover broader swathes of human experience, and in doing so they have jettisoned their role in shoring up existing power structures.  These disciplines have turned their attention to minorities, women, previously underrepresented pockets of experience, and bottom-up narratives: a more accurate and truthful exploration of the world, but one that has diminished the complicity that made the academic humanities valuable partners in stabilizing corporate institutions.    

Humanities departments can assert their continuing relevance--but they also have good reasons not to. Preprofessional course offerings? They draw butts to seats, but not everyone wants to teach grantwriting or build coding opportunities into undergraduate research projects.  Extracurricular professional experience like internships and volunteering?  Students get a lot out of such opportunities, but they may legitimately wonder why, if such activities beyond the classroom get them a job, they need to pay for a degree. Lingering remnants of cultural elitism?  Well, yes: dwindling state support means that humanities programs flourish best in expensive institutions serving the already well-off students who can afford to attend them.

We can do better.  Another option:

Humanities faculty can recognize that it's skills, not majors, that employers look for. Without changing anything in the curriculum, they can teach students to recognize the capacities they are building in their humanities disciplines.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, the top five skills that employers seek are not STEM-specific.  Nor are they obviously pre-professional: they are skills that one needs to accomplish anything, from community organizing to building a boat to managing a household.  According to a 2015 survey of employers conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), they are

  • ablity to work in a team structure
  • ability to make decisions and solve problems
  • abiity to plan, organize, and prioritize work
  • ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
  • ability to obtain and process information

These top five skills  are not humanities-specific either, but there is not one that isn’t improved by rigorous study in humanistic disciplines. Consider, for example, “ability to work in a team structure”--a phrase that (along with its associated buzzword “teamwork” appears in many entry level job ads.  It is meaningless out of context.  “Teamwork” in an operating room differs from “teamwork” on a political campaign, which differs still from “teamwork” in one of the sports where the metaphor originates.  

Of course the humanities don’t teach deracinated “teamwork” in any formal sense.  Small-group activities are a common pedagogical strategy, but an occasional twenty-minute exercise in isolating images in The Wasteland  with two or three classmates, or even a semester-long project in researching and presenting a historical counterfactual, will hardly prepare students to  tackle consulting problems for a Big-Three firm.  Yet we do teach students to fully inhabit viewpoints that differ from their own; to understand their internal logic and coherence and then to step outside them again.  We teach students that this is what it means to listen carefully. Our students get comfortable with disagreement and learn to ride it to a better understanding than they could have produced on their own. They learn to examine a phenomenon from several different competing perspectives and to gather information while living with uncertainty about which one to embrace. They get practice in synthesizing a range of views in order to arrive at their own informed course of action.  These are all capacities that are relevant to “teamwork.”

Each of these five skills can similarly be divided into component parts that students excel at in different ways; each presents ways to recast “critical thinking” in terms that are intelligible to employers, yet also help students understand their individual strengths and interests.

When students learn to recognize what they do in these terms, they gain agency. Not all students will want to work for companies that are large enough to belong to NACE, much less have a recruiting staff to fill out questionnaires about their practices.  Still, knowing they have skills that are valued by such employers makes it easier for students to recognize the choices they have. Being able to talk with some specificity about the particular ways they excel within these broad categories positions them for the work they want to do. Moreover, naming and distinguishing these skills provides a framework for students to consider their priorities beyond paying down student debt and becoming financially independent.  What sorts of interactions particularly energize them?  What kinds of problems do they want to solve?  What personal trade-offs are they prepared to take on in pursuit of success?  What values do they want their working life to reflect?

We in the humanities need to wrestle better with this paradox: the impossibility of asserting our relevance without validating the increasingly narrow and instrumental expectations for higher ed. We may not be able to communicate to the corporations that increasingly drive higher ed the importance of the alternative we offer to the limited values of the marketplace.  We can, however, show our students how their learning will help them both succeed within a world that needs their skills and resist the devaluation of their humanity.

30 January 2016

Sending Up My Periscope

You know how Garrison Keillor always started his Prairie Home Companion with, "It's been a ____________ week here in Lake Woebegone"?  Seems like I could start this post with, "It's been a weird few months here at the University of Illinois," but that's how I DID start a number of posts in the thick of L'Affaire Salaita, and it's now over, so it doesn't feel quite right.

Things are still weird though.

For those wondering where we left off: Salaita got a settlement from the U of I that was less than many people had expected but more than the commentators in the local paper could stomach. Chancellor Wise has been replaced by Interim Chancellor Wilson (of the LAS Department of Communications), Provost Adesida has been replaced by Interim Provost Feser (of the College of Fine and Applied Arts), the new President has deftly skirted any engagement with the controversy, and all of us here in the humanities are breathing a little easier.  

Well, except that AIS is a shattered remnant of its former self.  

And except that no one knows who the permanent replacements in the chain of command will be.

And, yeah, THIS: except that nobody in public education in Illinois is breathing easy in the absence of a state budget and the presence of a governor who seems determined to run every institution of learning into the ground.  Breathing easy?  We're eyeing the pressure gauges on this sinking submarine and the oxygen tanks.

So I've been sublimating my ranting activity into my job, and blogging in new ways for a different audience.  

22 August 2015

Do the Math; or, It's Not about the Money

A tale of two majors: English and psychology.  The number of English majors has been precipitously declining; the number of psychology majors has been rising.  It's true on my campus and it seems to be true a lot of places.

But why?

The knee-jerk explanation for the decline of English majors is their putative unemployability, as the memes at the left would suggest.  That canard is a subject for another post.  But it would then follow that the growing numbers of psychology majors reflect an abundance of lucrative jobs for new graduates.
Except that's not what the numbers say.

According to the spring 2015 Salary Survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, there's no starting-salary advantage to majoring in psychology.  None.  In fact, English majors do ever so slightly better.  The mean starting salary for English majors, based on the reported actual earnings of class of 2014 graduates, was $33.236.  The mean starting salary for psychology majors: $33,192.  Granted, among the 45,000 students surveyed, only 763 of them were psychology majors, and only 317 were English majors.  Still, more than twice as many students saw fit to earn low-ball starting salaries with an psychology degree than an English degree, though it's hard to see why from the numbers alone.

The fact that the numbers are equally damning for both majors compels me to point out that liberal arts students of all varieties are less well-served by "first-destination" surveys than are students coming out of preprofessional college programs.  Students emerging with valuable transferable skills often need time post-graduation to figure out where and how they want to transfer those skills.  Their departments don't, as a matter of course, have the resources for corporate engagement and active placement programs.

Still, for students weighing a choice between a preprofessional major and a liberal arts major, the choice of psychology over English is not self-evidently prudent.  So why are so many students making it?

I have some thoughts, but they await a future post.

16 August 2015


For those keeping score at home, as of today, Steven Salaita's lawsuit against the University of Illinois is going forward, but the University is NOT being simultaneously sued by Phyllis Wise, because she is stepping into a $300K/year faculty position and foregoing her oddly named $400K retention bonus.  And we all wait to see what happens next.

At a behemoth public R1, everyone is backchanneling.  It's the only way to get anything done in an environment where legitimate procedures are often palimpsests of every crisis that has gone before.  Some backchannels become recognized as a desire paths and get paved and maintained accordingly.  Others eventually disappear having served a brief but unremarkable purpose.  And of course there are those that, when exposed to light, reveal malfeasance and bad faith and get shut down by the ensuing outrage and kerfuffle.  It would be better if some backchannels were front channels: the frank acknowledgment of bachkchanneling is often a clear sign that neither channel is working as it should and the whole enterprise is moribund.

It's also likely that everyone has conducted some work-related business by means other than their university email or telephone.   Google (and other third party) apps are often more user-friendly and accessible than their institutional equivalents--but they often require use of a gmail account.  Social media is increasingly the way to circulate information and publicize events, but some social media platforms (Instagram) are most easily used by cellphone.  Work of all kinds is increasingly done by cell phone or tablet, maintaining firewalls between different accounts on one's personal doodads gets complicated, and no one that I know of gets a university-issued mobile device.

Let me also note that picking up a phone to do underhanded business is less simple than it once was.  My university's new phone system is unusable for faculty who don't have their own individual office computers (which is most contingent faculty) or who are unwilling to download the phone-system software onto their personal devices.  Even for those who have access to office phone technology, calling outside our area code is impossible, which means that such straightforward business as returning calls from students (who generally don't have cellphone numbers with the local area code) or collaborating with a colleague at another institution has to take place from one's cell phone.

Many people, then, cope with the inevitable appearance of impropriety by the simple expedient of (a) not drawing attention to it and (b) refraining from doing things that would embarrass them if exposed.

Here's a good way to tell whether the thing you are about to do, the email you are about to send, the conversation you are having in real time is a bad idea or not:

1.  Are you doing the thing because it advances the teaching, research, and service mission of your job or because it will be to your personal benefit (glory, prestige, access to power)?
2.  If it will be to your personal benefit (broadly construed), does that benefit come at the expense of the teaching, research, and service mission of your job?

Obviously, it's a slippery standard and one that's likely to encourage laughable and contorted exercises in self-justification.


Think how different the present moment would be if the FOIA'ed emails contained some--ANY--discussion of how the program in American Indian Studies could be supported in its teaching, research and service despite the apparent necessity of "unhiring" Steven Salaita.  At no point do we read any discussion of the effects that this decision is having on American Indian Studies at the U of I, much less of how those effects might be mitigated.

These particular backchannels destroyed one campus unit's ability to fulfill the university's mission in teaching, research, and service, apparently without taking any note of the fact, so isolated was the conversation from these legitimate concerns about a university program.

One other thing.  Let it be noted that my assertion, throughout this one, of "teaching, research, and service" as the university's mission is anachronistic.  Our mission statement adds a fourth term: "The University of Illinois is among the preeminent public universities of the nation and strives constantly to sustain and enhance its quality in teaching, research, public service and economic development." In more than ten years here, I have seen no meaningful, institution-driven discussion, by any channel, of how to make this fourth addition to the traditional mission of higher education consistent with the aims of the liberal arts.  Yet there it is, framing everything we do.

11 August 2015


It needs to be said more loudly than it has: the program in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign did nothing wrong.  You may question their decision to hire Steven Salaita, you may be puzzled by the program's plan to morph into a program in global indigenous studies, you may wish that the traditional academic disciplines gave enough attention to indigenous people to eliminate the need for a separate program.  Sure. Fine. Whatever.  Every innovative academic program has its naysayers. The fact remains: the procedure by which Salaita was selected and vetted was above board, by the book, subject to every procedural check-and-balance the academy has to offer.
Don't believe me?  It's safe to assume that if there were procedural oversights or irregularities, they would have been splashed all over the front page of the Champaign Urbana News-Gazette by now. But go ahead and FOIA them.  They've been FOIA'ed repeatedly on the matter this year, so the relevant documents are all queued up and ready to go.  

10 August 2015

What's Next?

Everyone around here spent the weekend reading the FOIA'ed emails on the Salaita case, the College of Medicine, and James Kilgore (not familiar with what's going on? backstory here).  Last night, my department head, Michael Rothberg, posted the following question on Facebook: "What’s next?"  
bargaining team in situ, NTFC Local 6546

Though he was crowd-sourcing the question, he also had some ideas to frame the discussion, which I quote in their entirety below, with Prof. Rothberg's permission (which is in no way meant to imply his endorsement of anything I have to say about them).  
I think it is important for those of us at UIUC to clarify what our goals are after Wise’s resignation and the release of the emails. I post these reflections as part of an open-ended, non-dogmatic effort to clarify my own thinking and to invite others to join me. 
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m leaving aside Salaita’s own claims—reinstatement and financial compensation. These are crucial, but I believe they are going to be settled in a legal forum where we have no influence. In any case, in addition to continuing to support those claims, we need to transform our local context: the UIUC campus and the Illinois university system. 
I’m curious to know what other people think our priorities should be. Here’s a first attempt to draft some priorities (I am not proposing that these are definitive or complete, and they are not meant to be in rank order):