19 June 2015

Not Enough and Too Many Degrees of Separation

from The Shade Room (Facebook page)
Wednesday night bible study: that's the part that gets me.  Parts of this story have become all too familiar: black people being killed for all kinds of stupid reasons saturated with racism, white men shooting strangers.  Not comfortable, not okay, not normal--just, it's a thing that happens, that shouldn't, that does.

But Wednesday night bible study?  There was always a lot of church during the summer weeks I spent with my grandparents in rural Indiana.  White church.  And even if I was often spared the midweek observance, Wednesday night bible study was a fixture on the extended family landscape and daily narratives, an anchor for family stories, a point at which friendships were solidified, plans made, gossip shared.  Wednesday night bible study meant that my mother's Episcopalian (she converted in grad school) and then Presbyterian weeks had a gap in them that she filled with choir practice or committee involvement.

Much of what is good in me and in my (now Jewish) religious life comes out of those Indiana summers where being a good person was bound up in church involvement, in a community that affirmed that goodness.   As an adult I see the more complex reality of these religious roots: the casual racism and anti-semitism that passes as a social gaffe, of the insularity that makes it hard to see the full humanity of people whose virtues have a secular frame, the fear that seeks out comfortable absolutes.  Even where I can say with confidence, "...but my family isn't like that!" I am only a degree or two of separation away from white bible-thumping racism.

Wednesday night bible study--and the whole community of observance that it stood for--was where these contradictions could be reconciled, where people like my grandmother (who always welcomed strangers and encouraged her children to learn as much as they could) found sustenance.  It may have something to do with why I continue to have such faith in the power of liberal arts education, that early conviction: bring people together with the old words written by those wiser than themselves, encourage them to be their best selves while they strive to understand the truth, and the Kingdom may, may just, start to creep into our field of vision.

It almost happened that Wednesday night, and then it didn't.  It was never going to.  No one goes looking to shoot up a white Wednesday night bible study.  And it's no longer possible to write off this particular monster as--just that--a freak of nature.  There have been too many stories congruent to this one.  Whatever he is, white America made him and this particular kind of violence he chose to inflict. That point where my spiritual muscle memory connects with this story is exactly the point where white America bared the ugly racist core of its ugly racist soul.  And whatever activism I may undertake, however many casual racist jokes I may smack down, I just need to shut up and sit down with the pain of knowing that.

14 June 2015

The Silence of the Brands

First, a few words about the current state of play:

The AAUP voted yesterday to censure the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  It feels anticlimactic, much like final BOT approval of a tenure and promotion decision: everyone knew it was coming, but now it's officially official.  And as with that final stamp of approval on the tenure decision, everybody is at a bit of a loss.  The big surges of emotion at various stages earlier in the process have left little in the reservoir for this moment.  Any sense of vindication is cancelled out by a profound sense of "now what?"

Tenure brings with it less ambient anxiety but more service and higher expectations.  Censure brings with it...well, what really?  Life goes on as it as for the past year, except that our local crisis over academic freedom has been overshadowed by threatened catastrophic budget cuts and the demise of tenure in Wisconsin.

Chancellor Wise responded to the news with a mass email to the faculty, which many of us could have written for her, so familiar have we become with her language for talking around the problem instead of addressing it.  So long as Salaita remains un-reinstated, his unhiring marks invisible lines that faculty can only be permitted to see when they've crossed them.  Under what circumstances is the BOT justified in rejecting a faculty appointment?  Which unnamed and influential stakeholders in the University of Illinois can trump the principles of shared governance? As faculty have pointed out in a variety of venues, revising the procedures to make such intervention easier does not answer these questions, much less affirm the principles of shared governance.  But so far, revised procedures are all Chancellor Wise has to offer.

That's all a familiar story at this point.  Now what?

Some faculty are hopeful that AAUP censure will harm the U of I's "brand" in ways that the upper administration will have to confront.  They take it for granted that the liberal arts departments that feel the shame of AAUP censure most acutely are central to the U of I's brand.  I've been looking hard for evidence this past year that the upper administration sees the liberal arts as anything but a vestigial adornment to its brand, and I haven't been finding it.   Hence my recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, "How to Advocate for the Liberal Arts."   Nobody is doing it for us.

The sad truth is, it's hard to see how we can start doing it for ourselves, either.   There are no, none, zero institutional rewards for the kind of advocacy I describe in that article. Tenure, promotion, professional accolades, and recognition accrue to those who write for a narrow band of specialists. Anything that drains energy away from research narrowly construed in those terms (and the teaching that supports it) hinders professional advancement in very real ways. Besides, the Ph.D. trains teachers and scholars to function within a world where their importance is taken for granted--not to bring that world into being.

Thus it is that while that piece was extensively retweeted and reposted by academics all over the country, the tenure stream faculty at my institution--apart from a few with administrative responsibilities--have generally let it pass unremarked.  This silence makes complete sense to me. We're all trying in our ways to survive the latest and most devastating incarnation of the crisis in the humanities, for which Illinois and Wisconsin are ground zero.  Where "branding" is the benchmark of value, everything we know how to do is already beside the point, yet it feels like the only secure space to occupy.

07 June 2015

Addendum on the Dream of Teaching-Intensive Tenure

Over at Bardiac, there's a fine round-up of the blogospheric response to Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth's proposal for a teaching-intensive tenure-track. (http://bardiac.blogspot.com/2015/06/metablogging-conversation-about.html?m=1) Yes, it quotes the Good Enough Professor, which makes this post meta-meta-blogging.

If anecdotal data like mine suggests a general trend towards creating some middle ground between tenure and rank exploitation, that seems like a good thing.  Non-exploitative working conditions are better than exploitative ones.  There's a bigger problem, though.  Without provisions for academic freedom, shared governance, and  grievance procedures these improvements will hasten the decline of higher education.  Instructors who, however well-paid and professionally validated, are beholden to the administrators who hire them and not the faculty peers qualified to evaluate their teaching and research, will not sustain the mission of higher education as many of us understand it.

05 June 2015

These Deck Chairs Aren't Going to Rearrange Themselves

As commenters have been pointing out the teaching-intensive tenure track is already a thing: at any number of non-R1 institutions, tenure is already based on teaching.  But as Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth emphasize, it is also the norm at many institutions for the heavy-lifting of a department's teaching workload to be performed by contingent employees who lack livable salaries, job security, benefits, a voice in their departments, procedures for evaluation and promotion, and institutional recognition.  And then of course there are a lot of institutions making unwieldy and incoherent compromises between those two extremes.  Issues of department service and governance are particularly vexed: the self evident truth that "shared governance" ought to give those fulfilling an institution's mission a voice is at odds with the hierarchical boundaries that define academic life.

As public support for the liberal arts diminishes, tenure comes under attack, online teaching is valorized as a cost-saving measure, and institutions increasingly replace tenured lines with contingent faculty, the issue of extending tenure seems, well, academic.  In fact, the question is not, "are better conditions for teaching faculty a good thing?" but "how can we ensure that the people tasked with providing instruction in higher education are qualified to do it, afforded the protections they need to do it well (including academic freedom, grievance procedures, and long-term contracts), and compensated appropriately?"  A re-tooled tenure process would be a lovely answer to that question, but it's hard to see how the political will (much less leverage) to bring it about is likely to emerge.

Instead, what we'll have to work with is varying degrees of contingency.  My department recently took some steps in the direction Berube and Ruth have sketched out.  A committee of tenure- and non-tenure-stream faculty (including faculty members with relevant administrative appointments) put together, in response to prompting from our Provost, procedures for hiring, evaluating, and promoting full-time contingent faculty members.  Our department has, for many years now, had a fairly entrenched and stable cohort of such faculty, mostly assigned to teach required composition classes.  A departing college-level administrator had previously put in place a livable salary scale to gild her legacy, so the details to be worked out mostly involved the conditions under which contingent faculty could be granted long-term contracts and the creation of a system of annual review where there had been none before.  It has been a gratifyingly collegial process, and we are well on the way to replacing a series of unstable and ad hoc arrangements with a fair and respectful system.

Note, however, that these developments emerged against a backdrop of contingent faculty unionizing.  CFA Local #6546 formed in May of 2014 at the culmination of a card drive, The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board certified the union in July 2014 (all full-time non-tenure-stream faculty, excluding those in Law, Medicine, and Veterinary Medicine).  In August, the University of Illinois administration announced that it was challenging union certification in court. The details of the ensuing court battles--over both union certification and collective bargaining--can be found here. The Illinois Supreme Court has unassailably confirmed union certification; collective bargaining, however, lurches along inconclusively.

Does the leverage that earns contingent faculty in English suitable professional working conditions lie in the unionizing effort?  The growing share of writing instruction provided by contingent faculty as graduate programs scale back?  A few actively sympathetic tenured faculty members in key administrative positions within the department?  It's beyond my skill to tease out the causes and effects here.  I will only note that although the provost holds out the possibility of a specifically tenured teaching position, it seems increasingly likely that this chimera will only be available to superstars who are otherwise of value to the university.

The bottom line is that tenure is no longer a bottom line.  The students are there and they need to be taught.  The conditions under which we teach them will depend on the kinds of administrators we work with at various institutional levels and the pressure we can bring to bear on our institutions, not on the kind of elegant schemes we can create to sustain old hierarchies.

31 May 2015

On Chyme, K - 12, and the Liberal Arts

"It takes a great deal of conformity to be a happy K-12 teacher these days." says Fie Upon This Quiet Life, in a thoughtful riff on "The number one problem with K-12 education -- the loss of academic freedom."  

The K-12 problem is also a postsecondary education problem: college instructors find themselves not just teaching students the subject material but also acculturating them to an entirely different conception of "education" than the one they bring with them to college.  Students want to be led to predetermined right answers and to be rewarded for demonstrating their ability to repeat them.  It's on us, then to get them comfortable with the idea that getting it right can involve first getting it very, very wrong and that the "right" answer may mean "the answer that most effectively explains the phenomenon, where the definition of 'most effective' may be subject to interpretation."  
Anna Fischer-Dückelmann,
via Wikimedia Commons

A few years back I contemplated a decisive break with academia.  My new career path, however, required me to return to school, so I found myself in a 100-level nutrition class at my institution.  The facts about nutrition that I learned were largely a more fine-grained and detailed version of things I already knew.  The eye-opener was the class itself: Powerpoint slides supplied in advance with key words omitted, so students would have to listen to the lecture to fill in the blanks.  Study guides ahead of each quiz or exam.  Opportunities for student questions that mostly consisted of students asking to have certain missing words repeated or variations of "will this be on the test?"  I sat there and realized that while I had been in graduate school and teaching classes myself, college education had changed beyond all recognition.  The old term, "spoon feeding," no longer seemed adequate, but I did learn a new metaphor for what I was experiencing. This was chyme-feeding (chyme is the mass of partially digested matter that passes from the stomach to the small intestine).  

But who was I to judge?  I was surrounded by earnest and hardworking students.  Well, there was that guy a few rows down from me who spent every lecture surfing the Louis Vuitton website, but mostly they were taking a summer class to speed up their path to careers in health services, they wanted to learn the material quickly and efficiently, and the graduate instructor teaching the class knew how to deliver it in a way that would get them to the best possible grades on the quizzes and multiple choice exams that made up the bulk of the course.  

"I don't believe any of this stuff we're learning," I heard one buff student say to the lass he was flirting with over the break on day.  "Scientists change their minds all the time.  They don't know."  He went on to describe at some length his own nutrition and fitness regimen.  He clearly cared about the subject matter, but saw no possible connection between the things that might be conveyed in this class and his own health concerns.  Though an isolated assignments asked us to keep our own food diaries and chart our nutrition while reflecting on our choices, and another asked us to analyze the nutritional claims of a consumer product, but there was nothing in the design of the course that would encourage this student to see such exercises as anything but hoops to jump through on the way to a credential.

That summer I became viscerally aware that the kind of liberal arts education I had known myself as a student and that I tried to recreate in my own classes could change lives.  Could.  But I also realized why communicating complex humanistic subject matter to students was so damn hard--they had no tools for recognizing complexity and struggle in learning as a good thing.

The liberal arts need to be in solidarity with K-12 educators and to see their struggles against test-driven curricula as part of our own struggle to maintain norms of academic freedom and shared governance within increasingly corporatized higher education.


30 May 2015

AAUP Censure: Now What?

As I was writing this post, I got word that the AAUP has voted to censure the University of Illinois.

Will it matter?

Among the reasons that the Good Enough Professor went silent for a while in there was a change in my job duties.  I'm now doing less literature teaching, more helping-English-majors-get-professional-experience-and-find-jobs-after-graduating.  There has been a lot to learn, less mental space for blogging.

In this capacity, I've now found myself at various campus-wide events where, if I'm not the ONLY representative of the liberal arts, I'm one of, perhaps, two. Such events lay bare a truth about the university that I realize I've been blogging about for a while now: that nobody apart from liberal arts faculty themselves see the liberal arts as a critical part of the university's mission.

What I have NOT seen is a university eager to starve the liberal arts into irrelevance.  A lot of good people are trying to do right by their students and their colleges: where "do right" means establish corporate partnerships, supply ample opportunities for students to get professionally relevant experiential learning, supply employers with a deep talent pool, and help their students transition into successful careers.

Are these university staff thereby trying to edge out the parts of the University where the primary goal is, say...learning?  No.  They just don't know anyone here might be trying to do anything else.  Many of them don't even realize we're here as anything other than providers of gen ed courses.  "Wow, 400 English majors?" a colleague in career services at another academic unit said to me.  "I thought it was more like 40."

I would feel a bit like the last ibex wandering the Pyrenees, except that I know that I'm not.  That's a lot of majors.  My colleagues are out there--lots of them.  But our habitat is changing, and here the metaphor falls apart.  We don't need to change to survive, but we do need to make ourselves relevant in an environment that is largely indifferent to our existence.  Academics have more scope to do that than ibices.  L'Affaire Salaita has revealed that institutional features we thought would protect us--the university's mission, the academic senate, shared governance, formal procedures--are broken.   While we work to fix them, we need to also be mindful that our efforts may not, ultimately, matter that much.  The university is not what we thought it was, and we in the liberal arts need to find ways to be salient outside those protections.

When I signed up to attend yet another campus-wide event, the second annual University of Illinois Social Media Conference, I felt the pull of these two different conceptions of the univeristy. As someone who continues to follow the fall-out of Salaita's unhiring and who was acculturated to the critical approaches of the humanities, something calling itself a conference, here, on the topic of social media, that doesn't directly address Salaita's twitter feed comes across as risibly out-of-touch.  As someone who manages a social media account to make the work of my department visible to students, potential majors, alumni, other campus units, potential mentors for our students, and employers, this conference exactly as conceived covers topics and issues that can help me do my job better, and derailing it with the Salaita affair would be a pointless exercise.  It's taken me a scant six months to internalize a view of the university where work goes on while AAUP censure is something someone else has to worry about.  Granted, that internalized view is at war with every reason why I ever got into this higher ed business in the first place.  Also internalized.  Some ibices probably lost their footing and died while they tried to migrate to the flatlands while still yearning to stay in the mountains.

I want to be part of a university where vigorous and potentially uncivil debate flourishes--on social media, in student assignments, in classrooms, in conferences of all kinds--not because we're all upholding rules that protect it (although we should be doing that) but because

  • our students
  • their families
  • the communities they come from
  • the taxpayers of illinois
  • our alumni
  • our donors
  • the stakeholders in the change we can help bring about

all recognize that such debate matters and that a vigorous education in the liberal arts is necessary to sustain it.  Fighting the AAUP/Salaita battle is necessary, but it's not going to bring that university into being.