16 February 2017

Salads Don't Deserve This

The word "salad" in the phrase "word salad" has always conveyed to me freshness and innocence.

Word salads are usually the handiwork of students struggling with time or flailing through difficult material. There is a certain mercy to the stark reality of a word salad. It can't be graded at all, much less assigned a value. The word salad tries to stave of failure but in doing creates failure so spectacular it requires acknowledgment and redress.

The word salad gets offered up in the desperate hope that the consumer of it will give it meaning--not even aspiring to truth.

The creator of a true word salad doesn't have enough command of words to lie.

Let's not call today's press conference a "word salad." It was a meretricious and long-simmering stew that could only be created by someone whose power is anchored in the ability to sublimate the structural integrity of ingredients to a few strong flavors, repellent to many but savored by aficionados. It was a stew to be slurped and savored by those hungry for its peculiar pleasures. But none were on hand, so it got flung.

12 November 2016

Beyond Pantsuit Solidarity

This, my first explicitly political post, is directed very locally: to economically comfortable liberal white women, like me, living in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. If what I say applies to other liberal white women living in blue bubble communities, counties, states: good.

We can do better in 2018 and 2020. We need to keep a hanger handy for the pantsuits, though.

Yes, misogyny is real, and yes, pantsuit solidarity is needed. Girls shouldn't have to be informed on national television that they can do anything (if you click on the link, watch to the end)--we all should know it so deeply that it doesn't have to be said. Also, powerful women should not be more vulnerable than powerful men because they have the same careerist, domineering, opportunistic, manipulative, underhanded, disciplined, and unlikeable tendencies. Also, women should be helping each other, along and across every line of race, class, wealth, gender identity, ethnicity, disability, and citizenship status there is.

So what I'm talking about here is just one of those lines: the rural-urban divide. Yes, that's a Cracked article. Read it anyway. Definitely read it if you've already read, "I'm a Coastal Elite from the Midwest: The Real Bubble is Rural America."

Is the rural-urban divide the whole story of what went wrong with this election? Of course not. We have months of figuring that out ahead of us. But it's a big enough piece to be worth addressing as we go forward, particularly those of us who live in "blue islands in an ocean of red" ("Champaign-Urbana Big Outlier in Area Results").

It's not a piece that pantsuit solidarity is equipped to confront. What about women who can't afford the dry cleaning and don't have anywhere to wear a pantsuit anyway?  Who don't want to wear pantsuits? Who don't aspire for their daughters to wear pantsuits? Who have been screwed over by women wearing pantsuits? Who have good reason to believe that anyone in a pantsuit will look down on them? Who find it hard to believe that anything good ever comes of talking to someone in a pantsuit?

It was no more inevitable that the vast low-population tracts of rural America would turn out to be zones of economic depression, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and Oxycontin abuse than it was that chunks of inner cities would turn out to be zones of economic depression, violence, teen pregnancy, and crack addiction. Trying to understand the environment that breeds racism, sexism, and xenophobia with the hope that it can be made less hospitable to those diseases is not a capitulation to them. Laying aside judgment to learn about the risk factors that promote those diseases is not capitulating to them.

Yes, it's complicated, and yes--racism is a cause as well as a symptom of the complex history that has made rural America a source of prosperity for large multinational companies but not for the people who inhabit it.

New York Times
Of the many, many tasks ahead of us, it's on educated, comfortable, left-leaning white women to start this process. To reach out to the women on the geographical and ideological margins of their blue communities. To seek out opportunities for community that aren't centered on institutions of higher learning, left-leaning white congregations, or social activist groups dominated by people like them. To risk discomfort and awkwardness across class lines as well as racial and ethnic lines. To recognize that not everyone regards educational status and book-learning as markers of personal worth and to start genuinely valuing themselves and other people on other terms. To have real conversations that aren't premised on the assumption that we already have the answers. To find the stalwarts who voted blue in red communities and find out what kinds of action they think are needed. I'm sure there's more. That's just a start.

24 September 2016

About that Abyss that's Gazing Back at Us

According to the editorial board of our student newspaper, "too much homework has real post-graduation consequences," and they respectfully suggest that professors assign less "homework."

The editorial neatly sketches the abyss into which public higher education is teetering:

1. A college education exists to help you get a good job after graduation.
2. Anything you do while going to college that will help you get a good job after graduation is worth spending time on.
3. Anything you do in college that doesn't help you get a good job is a potential waste of time.
4. Most college courses do not train you for a job. 
5. The things that you do outside the classroom in order to learn the content of your courses (e.g., "homework") are a waste of time.
6. Therefore, the work of learning the content of your courses should be subordinated to the things that will get you a job, like extracurricular activities, internships, and part-time paid employment (which also helps to alleviate your student debt burdens).

Of course, as the students point out, the abyss also looks like this:
Often, students must take on extra jobs and excel in multiple internships to be competitive candidates in their desired fields.From a financial perspective, students often need to work one or more part-time jobs. About 30 percent of students at the University work one or more of these jobs because of the high price of college.With the hefty costs of tuition in mind, students need to maximize their time at the University so that their jobs after graduation can pay enough to help repay their debts.
In my current position, helping English and Creative Writing majors prepare for post-graduation employment, I'm often the one nudging students towards this abyss, urging them to pick up jobs or activities that will help them build their applicable skills and demonstrate them to employers. Our alumni generally seem to get good jobs that they like, but it can take them a few years of floundering first, and our students are more likely to get good jobs upon graduation if they do some of that floundering while they are here.

So my dismay is not directed at the students who are trying to live in this world. It's not even directed at the forces (public divestment in education, funding gaps that are increasingly filled by corporate encroachment, exploitative student debt practices) that have created that world. I've been dismayed by those for a long time, as any reader of this blog knows.

Rather, this editorial gets under my skin as evidence of how lousy public higher education in Illinois has been at pushing back against those forces, how little scope we've given the students--even at the state's flagship institution--to recognize that colleges and universities exist to do anything other than train an entry-level workforce. The DI editorial board has internalized an understanding of higher education that the university itself increasingly puts forward. That's the abyss.

09 September 2016

Leading the Losers in the Academic Arcade

Timothy Killeen, the president of the University of Illinois, was just awarded a $100K bonus for doing his job for the past year.

It feels churlish to begrudge him it.  He did reject a $225K bonus early on in his tenure here, citing the campus's ongoing budget problems and his brief--sustaining the glory of the institution when the state budget is in free-fall--is an impossible one.  For what it's worth, his salary (base + bonus) is dwarfed by the sums granted to academic luminaries like the U of I golf coach and Lovie Smith.

And, to be fair, he was set a series of challenges by the board, all of which he apparently met. Some items on the list, however, sound less like "goals" and more like a particularly detailed job description:
b. Work to ensure effective capital and maintenance programs, and appropriate facilities and infrastructure for all campuses 
c. Foster research opportunities to enhance teaching/learning strategies to improve academic programming 
a. Increase and enhance the visibility and positive reputation and ‘brand’ of the University at large 
b. Promote the University of Illinois at civic and other organizational meetings when possible; give more than 15 presentations to community and civic groups 
c. Engage key constituencies through targeted communications to increase advocacy efforts on behalf of the University 
d. Work with University of Illinois Foundation and University of Illinois Alumni Association to increase collaboration and cultivation opportunities with key donors, potential donors and alumni 
 There's also a lot of "seeking"--hard to know how the Board of Trustees decided how much "seeking" was enough to justify the money.

In today's paper, trustee Patrick Fitzgerald explains the video-game logic behind the payout. Don't call it a bonus!

Trustee Patrick Fitzgerald emphasized that Killeen’s award is “not a bonus. It’s something that’s earned.” 
“At least from my perspective, he’s earned every dollar of it. When you look at the leadership he’s shown, the leadership shown by the chancellors this year ... I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

I'm happy to have a president who can level up rather than bringing scandal to the university. That is, indeed, a step in the right direction. But isn't that level of leadership what the base salary is for? One might expect Fitzgerald, of all people, to understand that the rewards of excellent public service are not monetary.  His achievements as a federal prosecutor took down corrupt public servants ranging from former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich to Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff.  He did that work, presumably because it needed to be done and he was in a position to do it, not because someone dangled shiny financial incentives in front of him.

The University of Illinois, like many public institutions, runs on the willingness of people to do better in their jobs all the time, not because their efforts will result in a payout, but because the work needs to be done.

  • Advisors in my department and adjacent departments who have worked hard to reverse declines in enrollment. No one has threatened to fire them in they fail, nor do they get remunerated for the increase--but it's obviously the thing that needs to be done, so they come up with effective ways to do it. 
  • Faculty, both those with the job security of tenure and those without, who have radically changed their teaching in order to engage more students--not because their jobs depended on it, but because the students did. 
  • A colleague who wrote 1000 words before lunch every day over the summer in order to get her new book project well underway (she's already full professor, so doesn't need it for promotion; nor is she particularly unusual in her dedication--it's what research faculty do). 
  • Staff and faculty tacitly adding "social media management" to their job descriptions so as to foster a sense of collegiality in their units and make their colleagues' work available to a wider audience--not because they get more money for expanding their duties.   
  • Rhetoric instructors who diligently sustain the programs of writing and research that energizes their teaching, even though they get no institutional recognition for that work. 
  • Office staff and building and service workers who take on whole new unremunerated realms of job responsibility to keep the university moving forward in a hiring freeze.

(Sometimes faculty continue to strive for excellence, even though the incentives they are promised are not forthcoming. Campus-wide teaching awards are supposed to bring with them a salary bump. Several of my colleagues who have won these awards have seen the salary bonus withdrawn, not because they failed in their teaching, but because the administration decided that other one-time institution-wide salary increases invalidated those bonuses.)

The point is not that ALL superlative performance should be compensated financially--it's that the Board of Trustees is trying to lead through an incentive structure that has nothing to do with the way the work of the university gets done. Sure: everyone I know would like more money, but if money were what drove us towards excellence in our jobs, we'd be doing something else. If those of us doing the work of the university are dependent on chief executives who only do their jobs well in pursuit of financial incentives, then we're being led by people who don't understand the institution at all.

26 August 2016

Monsters and Mythical Creatures of Higher Education

More on that U of Chicago letter to the students...

Things that pose a threat to "freedom of inquiry and expression" in higher education:

1. declining levels of public support for higher education.
2. the widespread belief that higher education exists primarily to train an entry-level workforce.
3. student debt
4. ongoing failures to give all students access to an equal K-12 education
5. the increasing adjunctification of higher ed
6. increasing reliance on private and corporate partners to foot the bill for public higher education
7. the proliferation of third-party vendors and educational corporations in the delivery of higher education.

Things that don't pose a threat to freedom of inquiry and expression in higher ed:

1. professors' efforts to prevent bigoted students from derailing discussion.
2. the acknowledgment that traumatized students may find some material difficult.
3. events, spaces, organizations that give students who have, as a group, been historically excluded from certain institutions the opportunity--if they want it--to have community and a sense of belonging at those institutions.

Things that don't exist*:

1. institutionally enforced expectations that faculty not talk about certain things.
2. institutionally enforced expectations that students be allowed to opt out of anything that makes them uncomfortable.
3. institutionally enforced expectations that students be protected from disturbing ideas.
4. the large-scale excision of intellectually viable yet controversial subject matter from college curricula.

*At least not in my experience of teaching at a public R1 for the past 12 years and interacting with lots of faculty at other institutions.

Preserving Intellectual Safe Spaces for White People

It's been a couple of days now since that University of Chicago letter to admitted students erupted all over the media, and I'm still trying to figure out what an "intellectual 'safe space'" is. I've been in and around higher education since 1992, mostly at R1 institutions like the U of Chicago (where, full disclosure, I got my BA). Here are the "safe spaces" I've encountered:

1. A so-designated room in the Women's Resource Center on my campus. I was part of a panel discussion on trigger warnings (more anon) and it was pointed out to everyone at the start of the event. The discussion--which was not part of any formal class--was pretty dry and academic, which I gather is not always the case. Anyway, no one made use of it.

2. Cultural houses on my campus where students of color for whom the predominantly white and privileged campus is not itself a "safe space" can spend time with people who share their positionality.

3. (Not on my campus, that I know of): stickers given for faculty to put on their doors alerting LBGTQ students that said faculty member is "safe" to come out to (e.g., won't "out" them to others or try to talk them out of being LBGTQ).

I'm guessing "safe spaces" like these are not what Dean Ellison had in mind. Closing off these kinds of extracurricular resources would just be mean, and the University of Chicago's own Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (which provides them on that campus) seems to be in no particular danger. I'm guessing it was exactly to exclude such instances that Dean Ellison modified "'safe spaces'" with "intellectual."

So what did he have in mind?  I've certainly heard of faculty using the term "safe space" to demarcate rules of engagement.  As Dean Ellison himself points out, "Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others." Occasionally professors set down guidelines about how what "civility and mutual respect" mean in a classroom; many trust to their own modeling and guidance to convey that message implicitly. It would be really nice if we lived in a world where professors and students alike could be counted on to civilly and respectfully shut down racist comments and behavior as quickly as they would shut down a creationist demanding equal time in a genetics classroom, but any student of color on my campus can tell you that we are not yet living in that world. I have yet to encounter white students who have been censored by heavy-handed efforts to bring it about.

I have also heard the phrase "this is not a safe space" used to signal to students that class discussion is likely to touch on controversial matters in which students may have some personal investment. I'm sure that those applauding Dean Ellison's letter would be glad to hear of it, except that such statements could be taken to be "trigger warnings" and those are, I gather, a bad thing.

The phrase "trigger warnings" seems to be, uh, triggering, to people who aren't themselves in higher education. It provokes a reaction disproportionate to the words themselves, conjuring up nightmare visions of words, phrases, whole realms of inquiry being declared off-limits and pathetic students cowering in dismay. I don't know where this fantasy comes from. I've certainly never encountered it. The terms is, I admit, irritating, but I'm not sure how one teaches disturbing material productively without the concept embedded in it. In fact, I was using "trigger warnings" before they were A Thing. It's just good pedagogy.  When I've taught Eliza Haywood's 1725 novella, Fantomina, for example, there's a scene of sexual violence early in the story.  I've long been in the habit of letting students know it's coming and that we're going to be talking about it in class--not to get them off the hook for reading it, but because a survivor of rape who knows to expect it is more likely to engage with it intellectually than one who gets blindsided by it.  Depending on the nature of the class (I have had the luxury of small discussion-centered classes), I may mention before we start discussion that some students may have personal experience of sexual violence and so connect differently to the scene than those for whom the question, "Is it rape?" is more abstract.

Is that censorship? It may cause a student who has not considered these matters to think twice and look for some textual evidence before suggesting that Fantomina "was asking for it." There may have been rape survivors who choose that day to take one of their allotted absences. Either way, I'm okay with it--I don't see where either outcome vitiates the intellectual process. Acknowledging the intersection between this three-hundred-year-old text and present-day concerns leads to a deeper discussion than does allowing students to uncritically internalize the narrator's assumption that it's ultimately all in good fun--or asking them to pretend that rape is a thing that only happens in the safe spaces of the printed page.

So when I see people applauding Dean Ellison's bold stand for intellectual give-and-take, I'm baffled. Of course, rigorous debate is a good thing in college, as is coming up against ideas that are troubling and challenge one assumptions.  I've blogged about it, in one of my most popular and enduring posts.

It's that one paragraph, though, that undermines the whole enterprise:

Trigger warning and safe spaces are, in my experience, how students of color, LBGTQ students, rape trauma survivors get the support they need to participate fully in the painful conversations that are part of the University of Chicago experience. To take Dean Ellison's words at face value, to assume that he writes out of some rich understanding of the function of trigger warnings and safe spaces would be to sssume that the majority of University of Chicago students are such delicate flowers that the mere acknowledgment that other students come at these matters from different life experience and need different kinds of support constitutes a deadly threat to their ability to engage fully. And one must then echo the many supportive commentators and ask, how are these students going to cope in a world where people of color expect to being taken seriously as human beings? Where trauma survivors expect not to have their experience erased? Where the intellectual enterprise is supposed to take into account the whole of human experience, and not just that of privileged white people?  What a trigger warning Dean Ellison has given!  And what glorious reassurance, that the University of Chicago is a safe place where the world view of white students will be preserved intact and without threat.

But it would be a mistake to take Dean Ellison's words at face value. As I said, above, the "safe spaces" provided by the University of Chicago to its minority students still stand, and I have every expectation that conscientious faculty continue to to frame their subject matter in ways that will encourage participation from all students. All this letter does is make it clear to the mass media and any well-heeled alumni paying attention that the University of Chicago is dedicated to preserving its intellectual-macho brand. The letter also makes it clear to students of color and trauma survivors (both incoming and prospective) that the brand will be preserved at the expense of their access to it.

The whole letter:

01 June 2016

Putting the "Public" Back in "Public Employee"

"This great university system is not in danger of shutting its doors, but..." the wheels are off the bus, the train is off the rail, and the slow-moving wet garbage fire of the Illinois state budget is emitting ever more toxic smoke. We need new metaphors. Even more, we need a plan of action.

President Timothy Killeen domesticates the sh*t-show in today's MassMail. The doors will not shut.he reasssures us, while inviting us in to share his humble meal of advocacy: "significant cost-saving initiatives, structural reforms and prudent financial management." Our place is set, however, with a dire future:

All options are on the table as we go forward – layoffs, reductions of academic programs, closure of units and cuts in a health-care enterprise that provides critical care to underserved populations in Chicago. All would damage the very core of our mission to serve students and the public good, and erode a rich, 150-year legacy of academic excellence and economic impact that would be far more costly to rebuild than sustain.

The imperative to say something doesn't always mean that there is something to say. Let us grant that this particular MassMail is among the most straightforward administrative writing most of us have ever seen from the upper level of U of Illinois administration. Yet the core is hollow, and it doesn't need to be. "Tim" ends the MassMail as follows:

We will continue to do everything in our power to preserve the world-class quality that is synonymous with the University of Illinois, ramping up efforts that have been underway for well over a year to advocate at every turn for the interests of our students, our employees and the people and families of Illinois. I hope all of you will join us, and I will update you as the budget process unfolds.
That "we" again. Apparently the "we" that advocates for the university in Springfield differs from the "you" that receives MassMails. Yet as this MassMail boomerangs around academic Illinois Facebook, the solidarity is palpable. It is, after all, "our misson" under threat as faculty and staff share the link and the alarming "on the table" pull quote -- not just our livelihoods and benefits, not just our investment as Illinois citizens and taxpayers. We do our work because it matters.

"I hope all of you will join us"?!? We're in.

Now what?