13 October 2014

The Northwest Passage to the Intellectual World, Right Here, Right Now

[UPDATED with some of Chancellor Wise's remarks, as posted on her blog.]

We are now on a death march.  We have found the Northwest Passage to the Intellectual World, and there is no turning back.

In The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Tristram's father hits upon new shortcut for teaching the young.
"I am convinced, Yorick," continued my father, half reading and half discoursing, "that there is a North west passage to the intellectual world ; and that the soul of man has shorter ways of going to work, in furnishing itself with knowledge and instruction, than we generally take with it....The whole entirely depends," added my father, in a low voice, "upon the auxiliary verbs....Now the use of the Auxiliaries is, at once to set the soul a going by herself upon the materials as they are brought her; and by the versability of this great engine, round which they are twisted, to open new tracks of enquiry, and make every idea engender millions."
It takes Laurence Sterne (and Shandy himself) a while to get to the point, but eventually the reader gets an example of the system:
"Didst thou ever see a white bear?" cried my father, turning his head round to Trim, who stood at the back of his chair: -- "No, an' please your honour," replied the corporal.-- "But thou could'st discourse about one, Trim," said my father, "in case of need?" --"How is it possible, brother," quoth my uncle Toby, "if the corporal never saw one?"-- '"Tis the fact I want"; replied my father, -- "and the possibility of it, is as follows. 
A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?

Would I had seen a white bear? (for how can I imagine it?)

If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted? -- described? Have I never dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear?
What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?
-- Is the white bear worth seeing? --

-- Is there no sin in it? --

Is it better than a BLACK ONE?
Anyone who reads a lot of undergraduate writing has seen this principle in action.  Somewhere along the way to college admissions, the ghost of Walter Shandy teaches students to write at length around the question they've been posed, without ever grappling with the substance.  These articulate but content-free non-answers are decried on pedagogical discussion boards in every social medium.   Are there weary high school teachers and ACT essay graders who have ceased to notice that students aren't actually saying anything?  Or do students consciously employ the strategy as a place-holder, to save some face on an assignment that they don't have the time to do properly but don't want to wholly abandon?

But here's where the despair comes in: the administration of the U of I has also discovered this Northwest Passage to the Intellectual World.  Wise's initial remarks at the meeting, which she posted afterwards on her blog, mapped out the Northwest Passage down towards which she hastens her vociferous faculty critics:
I’ve learned that while the principle of academic freedom is universally viewed as the bedrock of American higher education, what it means, whether there are any boundaries and who gets to set those are much less clear. Campus debates/symposia/lectures by experts about this would be really stimulating and useful....We have the opportunity to be leaders in the ongoing national debate....Many have voiced the importance of finding ways to re-establish a more unified campus community, to deal with the polarization and divisions between people with opposing views, and that they are willing to help. This will take more than a single committee and more than just speeches and messages. Members of my leadership team and I welcome robust, sometimes contentious debate, examination and consideration by different groups that is going on now and should continue if we are all to learn lessons from this challenge.
In the Q &A that followed, Chancellor Wise (and occasionally President Easter) embraced "contentious debate, examination and consideration" with auxiliary verbs, not answers.  Academic freedom?  Would I had seen academic freedom (for how can I imagine it?)  If I should experience academic freedom, what should I say?  If I should never see academic freedom, what then?  If I never have, can, must, or shall see academic freedom in practice, have I ever sseen its effects?  Did I ever see it represented? Described?  Have I never dreamed of academic freedom?

For more than an hour, faculty from many disciplines around the university took to the microphones in the aisles of the Illini Ballroom and asked for specifics about how President Easter and Chancellor Wise square the Salaita decision with their platitudes about academic freedom, diversity, and robust debate.  And for more than an hour, Wise and Easter had little more than auxiliary verbs, about a conversation that is always deferred, never the conversation we're having now.
  • How will the university assert its excellence in the event of AAUP centure?  
  • What measures will the administration take to assure junior faculty that they won't be denied tenure on the basis of their political speech?  
  • How extensively should departments vet the social media presence and  politics of potential hires so as to avoid having a hire revoked at the last minute?  
  • If neither "civility" nor politics, nor donor pressure caused the Chancellor to unhire Salaita, what mistake that he and AIS commit that warranted the decision and that other departments should avoid?  Of the 130 new faculty came to campus this fall, how and by whom was their social media presence scrutinized to ensure that they had not committed offenses similar to Salaita's?  
  • What steps will the administration be taking to ensure that Palestinian students and faculty feel like they, too, are free to express themselves?
This is the conversation about academic freedom.  It's the conversation humanities faculty are having right now, and the conversation that's taking place about us on other campuses, in our professional organizations, in the AAUP and unions, among our colleagues elsewhere.   But here at the U of I itself, wherever the upper administration passes, there is no conversation.  There is only a white bear.

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