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.

26 August 2014

On the Changing Mission of the Public University

Academic freedom was never free, though our conviction that it should be has always helped us look past the thousands of necessary, daily ways that it's not.  Scholars have to eat, the buildings don't build themselves, books come from somewhere.  Whoever pays the bills gets a say: tax-payers, parents writing checks for tuition, alumni donors, grant-funding agencies, publishers, founders, legislative bodies, politicians.  And why shouldn't they?  So often, their concerns are mild and legitimate, the accommodation not so painful, the appeal to a greater cause easily made.

And then higher education stopped being regarded as a public good, worthy of state funding, and things changed.  So much so, that I've had this cynical thought this past week:
It would have been better if the UIUC Chancellor could have said to the American Indian Studies program, "Hiring Steven Salaita is going to cost this institution $XK in lost donations and tuition, even taking into account the inevitable law suit.  We can't afford it.  I'm sorry, AIS, but you will just have to suck it up."  It would have been the end of AIS, obviously, which is bad.  But what we've got is worse.  In order to preserve the illusion that academia isn't for sale, our Chancellor, with the backing of the Board of Trustees, has sold out the very principles of academic freedom and faculty governance.  
It would be nice to know how much we got for it. 
The faculty in STEM and professional fields still don't seem to care that much.  No discipline-wide boycotts, and apart from a few emeritus faculty, no letters.  Not much signing of things either.  The ability to pull external grants and create entrepreneurship opportunities insulates fields that can do those things.  The likelihood that the BoT will "unhire" a well-funded chemist, say, because his climate change activism offends generous alumni who've grown rich from the burning of fossil fuels, is remote. It also means, of course, that STEM faculty have other things to worry about, different problems of dwindling resources, a whole different set of compromises to be made with entities outside the university.  There is, though, this consequence of the public defunding of higher education: it creates a divisive hierarchy of monetary value within the university, in which the humanities cease to matter.


24 August 2014

Yes, this blog has comments! Or it's supposed to, anyway....

Well this is mortifying.  People have been commenting on this blog all along and I haven't known it. Early on, I was getting an email whenever I had a comment awaiting moderation.  I hadn't gotten any such emails for a while, so I assumed that no one was commenting.  Turns out I was wrong, and I just "published" a whole backlog of comments.  I'm not sure: maybe there was a glitch in Blogger or maybe I inadvertently removed my email address while changing some other settings.  Either way, a lot of great comments, questions, objections, and (most annoying) compliments ended up in internet limbo. To those who wondered why their comments never appeared, much less got a response: I am so sorry!

I have now changed the settings, and vow to be more responsive going forward.