29 January 2014

How to Teach Your Students Not to Kill People

It's not really like this.
Whenever people start talking about "competency-based outcomes" in higher ed, I think about Randy.  A couple of years ago, he and I shared a lab table in an anatomy and physiology class.  Both of us were the oldest participants in the class, 40-somethings working through life changes, but there our experiences diverged.  Where I was a college literature instructor filling in gaps in my science background and contemplating a shift from one professional career to another, Randy was going through the college for the first time, having come to a dead end in his job as a locksmith. During a lull Randy got to griping (as college students will) about the general education courses required for his degree, which he saw largely as a waste of time.  “I’m interested in the classes that will keep me from killing people,” he said. 

I didn’t do a particularly good job of persuading Randy that his required humanities courses would, also, fulfill that function, but I’m convinced that they can.  A life can depend on a health care provider’s ability to think flexibly: to understand what’s not being said as well as what is, to cope with unanticipated contingencies, to quickly take on board new forms of information, to reconcile incompatible expectations, to understand nuances, to communicate complicated facts; to recognize and work around the ways that gender, race, ethnicity, class complicate interactions between patients and providers.  These are skills that the humanities disciplines can teach.   

But how often does that actually happen? 

26 January 2014

Sure, My Grades are Inflated. Got a Problem with That?

The first assignment of the semester always generates cries of dismay.  I use the full range of numbers available to me in my grading rubric and most students earn scores that, if they were correlated to a conventional letter grading scale, would end up being a high D or low C.  "Pay no attention to what the letter grade would be!" I exhort them.  "The grading rubric is a guide to help you build on your strengths and recognize your weaknesses--it's a tool, not a label of your worth as a student and human being.  Let the numbers guide you as you rewrite the paper, and you'll do much better on the next version."

And then I reassure them, "the way the grading usually works in my classes is, you do everything you need to do and show up to class regularly, you'll get some kind of B.  Put some muscle into and get interested and you'll get some kind of A.  People usually only get C's or lower if they miss a lot of classes, hand in papers later, and pass up opportunities to revise their work."  I mean it because it's true: that's how my grades usually work out.  Students rewrite a lot of papers, they do a lot of talking and interacting in class, they become better thinkers and writers, and  I end up giving out a lot of A's when the final grades come out.

If I could come up with a good reason why the world would be a better place if I gave out more C's and D's, I would do so.  But I can't.

25 January 2014

Adjunct Spackle

"A 'long-term fiscal crisis' has crushed Ph.D.s into adjunct spackle, to be applied liberally to cracks in university foundations."  --Tressie McCottom

Anyone concerned about adjunct issues and looking for reasons to spend time online yesterday (instead of, say, grading papers) found them:

Days like yesterday, it feels like higher ed could change.

What replaces "adjunct spackle" though?

Huge classes taught exclusively by tenure-stream faculty?

Mechanized teaching (not the same thing as online teaching, which is labor-intensive if done well)?

Eroded gen. ed requirements?

Adjunct activism needs to take place alongside activism about college teaching, and about what it looks like when it's done right.

23 January 2014

Because this is what the humanities look like....

This is not my life, but throw a rock into undergraduate higher ed and it will hit a classroom where this is the reality lived by the person running the class--this responsiveness to students squeezed into the interstices of life, this lack of resources, this desperation, this self-doubt:
... I continue to do the best possible job I can in the classroom, and increasingly, out of it: as any teacher will tell you, nowadays you can almost never leave your job in the classroom, or your office (if you’re lucky enough to have one), or the library or cafeteria, which are, as an adjunct instructor, the two places I usually meet my students—my “office hours.” As an instructor at three separate colleges, I maintain three separate emails, which I have to check at least twice a day, even on the weekends. I won’t go into the amount of hours I spend grading essays, but I will say that I spend at least 10-15 minutes on each essay I grade—sometimes longer, depending on how much help the student needs—and I have 142 students, who each write between 4-6 essays each semester. You can do the math. They are graded after my son falls asleep; they are graded before he wakes up; they are graded while I eat lunch; they are graded, in bits and pieces, while my students do a freewrite; they are graded in the single adjunct lounge with its single, barely working,

"You can rent the books from the library for free!"

Several times now I've heard students use the phrase "rent books from the library," by which they mean, of course, "borrow books...."  Yet they say "rent."  A mere adaptation of language, or a chilling symptom of What's Wrong with Everything?

22 January 2014

Before You Link to that IHE Article about the Success of Liberal Arts Grads...

"Liberal Arts Grads Win Long-Term" trumpets Inside Higher Ed. According to the front page of the website today, "Over the arc of a career, humanities and social science graduates earn as much or more than those in professional fields, new study shows, and are equally employed."

Except it doesn't and they don't (and aren't).

You don't even have click on short version of the study that the article is reporting (much less pay $20 to download a copy of the whole thing).  The information is right there in the article:

Liberal arts graduates don’t fare quite as well when they possess just an undergraduate degree, though. The workers with advanced degrees in any field of study – who make up about 40 percent of all liberal arts graduates, and earn about $20,000 a year more for it -- push the earnings averages up significantly. Among graduates with a baccalaureate degree only, those with humanities and social sciences degrees consistently earn less than anyone else, peaking at about $58,000 a year.
Got that?  Liberal arts graduates who go on to further study do better than non-liberal arts graduates. Liberal arts graduates who make their way through life solely on the basis of that BA/BS "consistently earn less than anyone else."  Isn't that pretty much what everyone thinks anyway?  And now there's a study to back it up.

There are good arguments to be made for the value of a liberal arts undergraduate degree. Misleading headlines like this one undermine them all.

Everyone Talks!

By Imranul Haque, shadow_lit AT yahoo.com (Own work)
 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
My teaching goal for this semester is to get everyone talking.  Everyone.  I'm not teaching any new preps, I'm not trying out any bold new teaching formats, I'm mostly teaching texts I've taught at least once before, and so I'm focussing my energy on hearing from every student, every class (within reason).

I've already failed, but that's kind of how it goes. More on that below.

Some things I've tried before that have worked (I just need to do them more, and more consistently):

20 January 2014

Things Aren't Working Out for Sad White Men (Why Higher Ed Needs a New Narrative)

This guy isn't the problem (link here):

Though you'd be forgiven for thinking so if you thought that this was what academia is supposed to be like (check out the "classroom" shot at :33):


There's no comment thread to the NY Times piece, but I'm pretty sure the following is what's being said wherever the piece is linked to a unsympathetic audience (I've now read a lot of comment threads on adjunct issues):
  • This guy should get a real job.
  • This guy should move away from NYC.
  • This guy shouldn't have had a kid.
  • Any smart person would have KNOWN that getting a Ph.D was a sucker's game and avoided it in the first place.
  • You want real problems?  Look at someone Doing Job X/Recently Downsized but Neceessary Job Y/Trying to sell Credential Z!
In the context of global recession, growing wealth inequality, and the erosion of public resources for pretty much anything, the plight of adjuncts is easy to dismiss, particularly when it's presented like this, as one guy and his poor life choices in pursuit of a life of the mind.  I gather, we're supposed to see Dr. Hoff as more sympathetic because he's not a single mom with tattoos.  Or uncredentialed and dead, from a combination of mental illness and poverty.  (There's more to say about recent unionizing efforts among contingent faculty. There's also more to say about the whiteness here, and the way academia's adjunct crisis has happened alongside efforts to diversify academia.)

He does, as they say, look the part, a Grady Tripp manqué.  The part, though, has changed beyond recognition.  The story that needs to be told?  How the least valued participants in the academy are the ones entrusted with giving entering college students the critical writing, reading, and thinking skills that will lead to their upward mobility.

19 January 2014

How We Pay for Public Higher Education

What's wrong with the high-aid/high tuition model?
The student debt financing of Cal through rising tuition fees corrodes its public character by making higher education a speculative private investment. Why should 40% of the class of 2013 graduate with loans averaging 18k (and this before the full force of the tuition hikes of 2009-11 are apparent)? Their education is in fact a public good that will enrich California economically, politically and culturally. 
Private donors and corporations have given generously and their names are increasingly prevalent across the campus in research programs, endowed Chairs, buildings, and even Departments. We are repeatedly assured that donors do not influence FTE allocation but they can and do influence the direction of research by providing funds and infrastructure in some areas and not others. 
Commercial operations have changed the character of the campus. The persistent and continuing financial drain of Athletics—whose handling itself reflects the influence of a donor-driven outlook—has encouraged a good deal more commercial use of campus spaces as Fox Sports TV recent use of Kroeber Square revealed. Yet even academic units are now actively encouraged to embrace what Breslauer describes as ‘unit level entrepreneurialism’ to generate ‘new revenue streams’ through commercial use of their assets (namely space, academic programs and online technologies). (3) It makes a difference where the money comes from when academics are encouraged to think about revenue generation and campus spaces are commercialized.
(From Meranze and Newfield, Remaking the University.)  

Where does the interest on student debt go?
I continue to encounter student debt horror stories, but there is perhaps no story more horrible than the recent Congressional Budget Office report on how the federal government raked in over $50 billion last year in profits from student loans. It turns out that after the feds took over the destructive private loan industry, the result was not to give students the best deal possible, but to cash in on the fact that the government can borrow money at virtually no interest and lend it to students at a much higher rate (of course the government profits go up much higher when students default or are penalized for late payments). In fact, the average student loan defaulter pays a penalty of over 100% of the principal, and the federal government is very good at collecting these debts.

18 January 2014

Divided Selves, Divided Profession

"It’s not that there are no jobs out there. There are contingent and part-time adjunct teaching jobs. When it comes to hiring contingent faculty and adjuncts, the profession is still partying like it’s 1969."

Rebecca Schuman stops hurling invective and calls on Adjunct Nate Silver to bring out the charts and numbers in her latest blog post (not Slate).  The post deals specifically with the German language and literature job market, and I'd be really interested to know whether the trends charted here track with other humanities disciplnes (particularly non-literature disciplines).  Bottom line: the students are there, but the tenure-track jobs are not.

Lee Skallerup Bessette's most recent column in Inside Higher Ed makes intelligible how contingent faculty fail to recognize themselves part of a as a collective working entity while still doing much of the labor of higher education
We are more like other low-wage workers, but we have trouble seeing this because our privilege and education tells us we are different, for better and for worse. So when few came to the panel on part-time faculty, I understand. I get the anger geared towards me for the tweet, and I get the anger that was placed back to those who were angry at me. People weren’t at the MLA to talk about these issues, they were at the MLA to meet with friends, get a job, learn about what’s going on in their field, share their work and research, get feedback, and get away from their own individual challenges that are taking place on the ground at their university. Contingent and part-time faculty issues? Not on the agenda, not on their radar, not by choice.
Twitter today presented me with a very different depiction of the relationship between college learning and Ph.D's:
"We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light." 1903
— Ted Underwood (@Ted_Underwood) January 18, 2014

Reading "The PhD Octopus," by W. James, w/ a sense of desolation like Charlton Heston seeing the Statue of Liberty. http://t.co/IoSv8SJYF1
— Ted Underwood (@Ted_Underwood) January 18, 2014
Follow Ted's link to the essay, which starts with James charting a mismatch between first-rate college literature teaching and the apparatus of Ph.D.-getting (which James calls "a tyrannical Machine with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption").

Much of the essay is devoted to describing the three sorts of men (of course, men) who pursue Ph.D.'s. The first two sorts are worthy.  The third sort is not but gets a Ph.D. anyway.  Want to hear your worst insecurities about your place in the profession spelled out in elegant early-C20 periods? They're there.

I wonder how much debt Ph.D candidates were wracking up in 1903?

I can't come to any pithy conclusions about this essay, but I can't quite leave it alone either.

Bookmarking the Common Core

I have to finish my syllabi this weekend, so I can't say anything in depth, but we in higher ed humanities need to be paying more attention to the Common Core than we do.  

It's going to affect how we teach and how we make the case for what we do.

This link will take you to Gary Rubinstein's speech to the MLA about the Common Core standards. Gary Rubinstein is most prominent on the interwebz for his trenchant critiques of Teach for America (of which he is an alum).  One soundbite stood out to me:

The Pearson Corporation has become the ultimate arbiter of the fate of students, teachers, and schools.
That's on p. 5 of the 17-page speech, and it appears, in many ways, to be the, you know, bottom line.

An Eloquent Explanation of What We Do

From a professor of music theory, an Open Letter to My Students.

If I could count on my students to read and assimilate this much abstract exposition, teaching would be a lot easier.  I'm not sure it works as advice for the specified audience, but as an articulation of we do in the humanities, it works for me!

In particular:
Assimilating concepts often requires engaging multiple perspectives on the same information — multiple theories about the same musical concept, multiple ways to perform the same kind of passage, etc. It also requires attempts at applying the material, such as composing, analyzing, or performing. These things are harder than taking notes and regurgitating them on a test, and often take longer than a single class meeting or homework assignment to figure out. For those of you who are used to courses that “test early and test often,” this may be uncomfortable and may feel, initially, ineffective. However, doing hard things and working to apply concepts leads to deeper, longer-lasting learning than lecture, baby-step homework, and a test you can cram for.
A lot of students do not come naturally to the idea that learning things can be hard or uncomfortable. At some point in every course, I often find it necessary to explicitly reassure them that finding it difficult is a necessary part of the process.
You are paying too much money and putting too much time into your education for it to be valuable for a few years of work only. Your education should help you develop skills that will last your entire career (which could be upwards of 50 years). We don’t have all the information that will be required of musicians working in 2060. However, what we do in these classes can help you develop the skills of inquiry and analysis you’ll need to figure out how to work in those new settings. We will also take multiple approaches to a single topic so that you can 1) see that there are always a diversity of ways to understand a single topic, and 2) have more tools at your disposal to choose from when facing something new that was not anticipated by your textbook’s authors or your professors.
Yes, yes, YES!  This point needs to be made frequently, loudly, and ardently when people are wondering what the point of the humanities is.
 Even when students’ goals are congruent, the “best” route for each student towards those goals is different. Thus, a class activity is always a compromise that seeks to enable as many students as possible to make as much progress as possible towards those goals.
It's true.  I devised my own course evaluation form last semester, so I could get a more fine-grained understanding of how students experienced various features of the course. The feedback was not as helpful as I'd hoped--for every student who particularly loathed one kind of activity, there was another who thought it was the most useful contribution to their learning.

The underlying message is that this instructor expects students to learn by doing.  That the expectation is spelled out in such nuanced detail conveys just how alien it is to students.  I don't write my students a letter, but I make sure to spend at least part of a course's first class meeting getting them to  read, analyze, and discuss a chunk of text.  Everybody gets called on at some point.  Students have to stand up and write things on the board.  Material written on the board gets assessed by the class.  The provisional and highly qualified nature of any conclusions is emphasized. When I specify a date or state anything in a declarative way, students reach for their notebooks with some relief.

Then some students go home and drop the class.

17 January 2014

Bookish Ways and How to Instill Them

The student in office hours pointed to the second tier of the solidly packed eight-tier bookcase that sits behind my desk.  "Mine's only that high" he said, "but I want to have one that high," and he pointed to the top.  I looked at him quizzically.  "My book shelf!" he said. "I bought one this summer before I came back to school, and instead of selling my books back to the book store I'm keeping them.  And I'm buying a few other things to read and putting them on it, too.  But it's not filled yet."

It was both heartwarming and heartbreaking.   How does a student this smart, curious, and engaged get to the second year of college without already having a book case?   This student is deliberately building a self in college and a book case is part of that self--but how had this possibility not been available to him already?  For me and most of the people I know professionally, books are an inevitability.  They cover every flat surface, fill otherwise unclaimed hours, pay the bills (albeit indirectly), and shape the life.

So yeah, newsflash: the life experiences that produce a literature instructor can differ from the life experiences that produce her students.

And another newsflash--plenty of students are smart, curious, and engaged without owning bookcases or bothering to discuss their bookcases/lack thereof with instructors.  

It's got me rethinking the way I teach the relationship of students to the books I make them buy.  If you read to the end of the post, you'll discover that I'm thinking about ways to not require book purchases, or to require them differently--which might seem like a strange way to affirm the students who see the ownership of books as the path to knowledge and self-improvement.  But requiring the temporary physical ownership of books doesn't by itself teach students the value of books.

Colbert Explains What's Wrong with College Sports

In place of a 500-word blog post on the subject I give you:

(and you only have to watch half of the clip--the rest is about the NFL).

The follow-up from Chapel Hill?  UNC Stops Literacy Research of Reading Specialist .

And this is why we can't have nice things.

16 January 2014

Signs of the Times

If it means I don't have to include a "Classroom Gun Policy" section in every syllabus, then I'm okay with it.

15 January 2014

"The Other Public Humanities"

An eloquent explanation of why the "other" public humanities, the one that takes place in the college classroom, matters, from Kristen Case:
The most substantial contribution of the humanities to public life does not come through empowering elite students and faculty members to reach out to their communities, but by extending the most fundamental element of a real humanities education—the power to doubt and then to reimagine—to as many people as possible. Material power, economic power, political power, all forms of human agency, are finally dependent on the power of imagination, which is why Shelley called poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." We cannot be a democracy if this power is allowed to become a luxury commodity.
 Just read the whole thing.

That Elephant Again

In, "How Should Graduate School Change? A Dean Discusses the Future of Doctoral Education Reform," the unnamed dean of a "well-endowed private institution of higher education" offers this peek under the rock of higher ed administration:
Both faculty and administrators are extremely sensitive to the hierarchies of prestige that drive the academy. In most fields, the majority of faculty members who populate research universities have graduated from a handful of top programs—and they spend the rest of their careers trying to replicate those programs, get back to them, or both. They are worried about doing anything that diverges from what those top programs do, and will argue strongly that divergences place them at a competitive disadvantage in both recruiting and placing graduate students.
The focus on vaguely defined "excellence" contributes to that behavior, because there is nothing to define "excellence" beyond the hierarchies that are already in place.
Yes!  But the interview also demonstrates the limitations of centering the conversation about higher ed on the plight of surplus Ph.D.'s.  Don't get me wrong--it's a problem that graduate programs are churning out more Ph.D.'s than can get jobs.  But it's also worth noting that there's no shortage of college students who would benefit from learning in discussion-sized classes taught by credentialed experts steeped in values other than corporate ones.  This dean's solution?  Revising doctoral programs to train students for non-academic careers. This alternative reaffirms the "hierarchies of prestige" that have created the problem. If the only alternative to "training the next generation of graduate students" is "using your Ph.D. in a nonacademic career," then undergraduate education--and the society that depends on that undergraduate education--misses out.

This anonymous dean's solutions are similar to the points made in "On Graduate Education and Program Size," where Katina Rogers, the managing editor of MLA Commons argues that
reform must go beyond simply reducing program size, which on its own may not significantly improve employment prospects or reduce the reliance on contingent labor. Rethinking curricula with an eye toward collaboration and public engagement, tracking and celebrating the varied career outcomes of graduates, advocating for fair working conditions for all faculty members, and exploring ways to better support graduate students both during and after their studies are key elements in moving toward systemic improvements.
Once again, where are the undergraduates?  The number of tenure-track lines is in steep decline, but the numbers of college students are holding steady and, in some sectors, growing.  Those students need credentialed instructors working in conditions that advance their learning.  So long as the question, "What's best for Ph.D's?" is driving the conversation, it's going to remain insider baseball.  To get the tax- and tuition-paying public on board with the need for our labor, we need to start asking the question, "What's best for undergraduate education?"

Adjunctivism, Adjunctification, and Allies

The room was empty at MLA14, then the twitterverse exploded, and now everyone has ideas about how about tenure-stream faculty should fight back against higher ed's growing dependence on adjuncts:
But for now, the adjuncts aren't going away.  In fact, their numbers are growing.  And yes, this phenomenon is a bad thing.

So how can tenure-stream faculty create solidarity with adjuncts while working for the broader necessary reforms?

14 January 2014

Of course the granola bars piss people off!

You can read about "Granolagate" here, but note that there's no "-gate" to it.  Things cost a lot at expensive hotels.  Everyone knows that.

Still, you don't need a conspiracy theory to get angry.  There's an inverse economy of size in play that hurts a lot of participants.  The magnitude of the MLA limits the options for holding it to expensive cities that have a critical mass of hotel rooms in close proximity.  The convention discount isn't enough to make those hotels affordable for participants who have limited incomes and earning potential to start with and who have to pay their own way.  As the profession shrinks and becomes adjunctified, those kinds of participants make up a larger percentage of the total.  Far from affirming the professionalism and significance of the participants, the overpriced setting diminishes them, making them feel like poor cousins who can't even afford the granola bars and don't really belong there.

Nails in the Coffin of the English Paper

Reports of the college essay's death have been greatly exaggerated.  If you're in doubt, just mention Rebecca Schuman's Slate essay, "The End of the College Essay," and sit back as faculty in a variety of disciplines and alums with wide-ranging college experiences weigh in on just how much writing matters.

But note: Schuman's widely excoriated essay deals specifically with the writing assigned in gen. ed. humanities courses.  I teach gen. ed. humanities courses.  Maybe that's why I didn't hate her essay as much as a lot of people did, and why I'm still thinking about it now that Schuman has moved on to other ways of annoying academics.  It's hard to find a good conversation, online or in person, about teaching practices in the analog gen. ed. humanities course--but that's a subject for another blog post.

No, college writing should live on, but there's a certain kind of ubiquitous paper assignment in the gen. ed. humanities that should be euthanized (particularly to the extent that "the humanities" get conflated with "literary study").  It constituted almost the whole of my own undergraduate learning (in an elite private institution of higher education), and it's the kind of paper assignment that I used to routinely assign in all of my classes, regardless of level or audience. The following description characterizes writing in a number of disciplines, but I'm going to call it The English Paper: anywhere from 3 to 15 pages, focused on one or more complex texts, involving an interpretive argument of some sort that draws evidence from a close reading of key passages.

Nothing wrong with that, right?

Here's the problem: The kids who can productively dig into this kind of essay generally already have a pretty good grasp of what it means to write well and how to make sense of a literary, philosophical, or historical document (and many of them are already majoring in subjects—polisci, history, english, etc.) that draw on those skills and demand sustained writing.  Those are only a fraction of the students in my gen ed classes, though. Many students (who will never take another course in the humanities) come to the class without the kinds of writing skills that have been honed on complex texts, and they are generally baffled by essay prompts that expect them to know already what that engagement looks like.

13 January 2014

My Job: Teaching Humanities to the Elephant in the Room

The higher ed news isn't all bad, particularly if you live where I do.  The Mellon Foundation has dumped a heap of money on humanities in the Midwest:
The grant...will make possible two initiatives: One supports the development of summer workshops for pre-doctoral students in the humanities who intend to pursue careers outside the academy; A second initiative will fund cross-institutional teams of faculty and graduate students pursuing research that focuses on a grand challenge: “The Global Midwest.” The latter is intended to stimulate collaborative research that rethinks and reveals the Midwest as a key site—both now and in the past—in shaping global economies and cultures.The first pre-doctoral workshop will take place during the summer of 2015.
So that's pretty neat, particularly in the context of conversations like this one, grimly titled "The Third Rail":
With many new Ph.D. recipients in the humanities struggling to find good jobs, some for years after they earned their doctorates, reform of graduate education was a hot topic here at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Sessions discussed the need to train graduate students for non-academic careers, ideas for shrinking time to degree (which averages 9.5 years in English), the possibility of creating different tracks for doctorates for those seeking teaching careers, the need for better mentoring, the push for better data on job placement, and more. 
But one session, "Who Benefits? Competing Agendas and Ethics in Graduate Education," touched on issues much discussed by graduate students (and adjuncts), but not regularly given much attention here: whether graduate programs in literature and languages should continue to admit the same number of students. While many of those urging talk about the issue want to see programs shrink, the speakers here rejected that approach, with one even calling for programs to expand.
So far, expansion is the reality on the ground"between 2010 and 2012, the number of Ph.D.s awarded in the humanities increased from 4,971 to 5,503."

A visiting martian might not see the problem: after all, though the last round of record keeping showed a decline in college admissions, enrollments have generally been rising steadily; retirements have eroded the ranks of tenured professors; humanities continue to be a requirement at accredited colleges and universities: The students are there, and they get instruction in the humanities, whether they plan to major in them or not.

12 January 2014

So the humanities are what exactly?

In case you missed it, people have been blogging about the fate of the humanities.  The latest iteration has gone something like this (you can skip the following sequence of embedded links if you've been following the academic blogosphere over the winter break):

 Preserving the humanities involves preserving a canon! Read new folks, too, but don't forget to pass along a legacy. So do what philosophy professors do, just with literature equivalent of Plato and Kant.

 No, no no! The humanities are "the interpretation of culture and of cultural artifacts" which goes on everywhere and w/r/t everything, not some white guy's list of greatest hits.

Meanwhile, English departments periodically revise their curricula and conservative commentators wring their hands.  These cries of dismay are the sound of a dying elitist white cultural hegemony.  Make no mistake: Shakespeare lives on.

And besides.  What crisis in the humanities? The numbers have been holding steady!

This familiar spiral has now wound itself down, as it always does, with the conclusion that there's nothing to worry about.

Problem is: the argument reduces "the humanities" to literary study, while the claim that the humanities are not in crisis involves expanding them well beyond that disciplinary framework.  The reassuringly steady enrollment in what Berube terms "that important category 'useless degree programs that won't get you a job and that you will have to explain to your parents,'" does not reflect a continuing commitment of college students to literary study.  Rather, as Berube points out,
The huge (and also underacknowledged) increase in enrollments in the visual and performing arts—from 30,394 in 1970 to 91,802 in 2010­—is covering for declines in English and foreign languages. And, of course, not everyone would consider the visual and performing arts to be part of the humanities.

10 January 2014

Okay, books matter...now what?

More research showing that reading changes peoples' brains, as reported in the Atlantic Monthly. Gotta love that!  Let nothing I say below undermine this simple truth: people doing hard science about the benefits of reading literature deserve showers of grant funding and rivers of citations.

The trained humanist brain has a well-honed pleasure-center override: if something makes you too happy, it's time to start critiquing it.  So of course, I want to know more:

09 January 2014

The Naming of Adjuncts

This Inside Higher Ed article about syllabi at CUNY specifying "don't call me professor" is making the rounds of my FB circles, even though it's nearly a year old (perhaps because a conversation about adjuncts is revving up at my institution in anticipation of ).

The article sets the practice of telling students to avoid the p-word within the context of adjunct activism at CUNY and beyond.  The article describes some adjuncts who raise the "what's my title" issue as a way of tipping students off to the stratified and often exploitative nature of academic labor.

Even among adjuncts who have a comfortable berth, professional titles are an uncomfortable issue.  Try it: ask adjunct faculty how they wish to be addressed by students, and chances are they'll still be talking five minutes later, not in an angry way, just in a "yeah, I don't know how to solve this problem" way. There are many options, but none of them fit comfortably.  "Professor" is usually inaccurate (though my institution has a few "visiting assistant professors" and "research associate professors" who can use the title in good faith.  The titles that many adjunct faculty do in fact have don't customarily function for purposes of addressing people, so no one even tries to use them that way, (e.g., "Lecturer X").  "Doctor" is fine if one has a Ph.D. and the institution is one where the title is commonly used, but in institutions where only MD's go by "Dr.," the person insisting risks sounding pretentious and out-of-step. "Mr." or "Ms." conveys to many students that the instructor is a graduate student with limited mastery of the subject or control over the terms of the course--even when that's palpably not the case.  First names may be comfortable, particularly in small discussion-centered classes, but some students feel awkward using them (particularly to older instructors) and reach for a title anyway.

As adjunct problems go, this one is minor (far better to be worrying about titles than health benefits, salary, job security, office space, or any of the many other things that can go badly wrong off the tenure track).  It's no more or less than a reminder, every semester as one confronts a new set of students, of the mismatch between the work of teaching and the institutional norms that validate that work.

Reasons to be grateful that nothing rhymes with "orange"...

One nightmare vision of the future of higher education.  Only it's real. (from a Facebook friend).