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.

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