30 August 2014

In the Kettle with the Boiled Frogs

By Arthurgcox (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 
via Wikimedia Commons
I've been using the wrong cliched metaphor. Dead canary? No. That way of framing the issue was based on a fundamental misconception of how things work.  It goes something like this: When higher education stopped being regarded as a public good, things changed.  More and more students selected their majors based on the likelihood of being able to pay off enormous amounts of college debt, and departmental influence started to be based on how much money they could draw to the institution, either through grants or through entrepreneurial initiatives. As a result the humanities and interpretive social sciences became less important to the institutions that supported them, they became less powerful (relative to other departments), and they now seem to becoming voice-less and disposable. Exhibit A: the Salaita affair, in which the Chancellor and BoT can't even be bothered to acknowledge a growing list of disciplinary petitions and boycotts, much less heed them. Moreover, the lack of solidarity manifested STEM and professional suggests that they have no sense that the precedent set here may, at some point, impinge on their academic freedom. The canary is dead and no one cares because the coal mine has turned itself into a place where STEM faculty can breathe the noxious air and canaries can't.

Even though I have espoused this view elsewhere on this blog, I'm starting to realize that I've got it wrong.

Let it be said that not all non-humanities/social sciences fields have been silent. Alan Sokal has written an open letter in which he points out the relevance of the Salaita decision for scientists:

Putting aside the bizarre notion that an idea can feel "demeaned" or "abused", the Chancellor's position implies that the University of Illinois will not tolerate biologists or physicists who are "disrespectful" (in her sole judgment) of creationists or even of creationism.

(Yes, that Alan Sokal.) His letter is posted on LSU philosopher Jobn Protevi's blog, along with a boycott pledge for natural scientists to sign.

The silence of the STEM here at UIUC that I described in my earlier post continues, although the conversations I've had with local faculty outside the humanities suggests that I did, in a key way, get it wrong. Let me, very unscientifically, advance a hypothesis that, while formulated on the basis of an egregiously small sample size, may nonetheless warrant more research.

Money isn't institutional influence or freedom here--at least not to the degree we (in the humanities) think it is. For those in STEM, it means being a subcontractor or a tenant farmer. Everyone has to perform a certain amount of teaching labor and cough up a certain amount of grant money, in exchange for a building to work in and an institutional affiliation. The general contractor/landlord can be capricious, tyrannical, and opaque. Shared governance inheres in the fact that most of the time the politicians, thugs, powerful interests, and protestors are scared off, permitting the subcontractor/tenant farmer to get on with the work at hand.

In this economy, the humanities are the folks camping in the woods. Sure, nobody really knows what they're doing out there, but whatever it is, it doesn't cost much money and isn't really hurting anyone, so nobody pays much attention. Exhibit A: The Salaita Affair, in which one of those happy-go-lucky sprites has unfortunately run afoul of the forces that ordinarily ignore them. The General Contractor/Landlord decided, as sometimes happen, to withhold her protection, and so the sprites, unused to these encounters and unfamiliar with the Landlord’s autocratic hand, are outraged. They need to just get over it--everyone else does!

The difference between the dead canary scenario that I outlined above and this one is the nature of the expectations it involves. Do faculty decisions get overturned? Are research findings vetted for their potential to offend powerful stakeholders? Is a certain amount of administrative overreach and malfeasance part of the price of doing business? Well, of course! The important thing (and this is the point everyone agrees on): the research goes on, and so does the money to support it. It is the height of arrogance, in this latter scenario, for those in the humanities to think that they exist outside these inevitable compromises just because they are too insignificant to face them on a regular basis.

I’m getting a better understanding of why the humanities people and the STEM people are talking past each other, not only on this issue but on the issue of union organizing as well (which suffers on this campus from a lack of buy-in from the STEM and professional faculty).

I’m also thinking about a third metaphor: boiled frogs. When and how did the water get so hot for so many frogs? Should we be worried that they didn't notice? We humanities frogs have been suddenly dropped into the boiling kettle, and it matters to us that it hurts.

27 August 2014

Where Is the Line?

"Where do you draw the line on academic freedom?" is a question that I've been asked several times recently, with regard to the un-hiring of Stephen Salaita (the details of which are linked to here). It's asked with a tone of puzzled sympathy, by people who have an investment in academia in general and UIUC in particular, but who are baffled about how we on the humanities corner of campus do things.  They are willing to concede that there were egregious breaches of procedure, that both Salaita and the department that hired him were treated shabbily, that faculty governance and departmental autonomy have been dealt a blow.  But those tweets!  Do humanities faculty really want to line up behind them?  Is it really okay for an activist scholar to do that?  If his puerile 140-character rantings count as protected academic speech, then where would one draw the line?

It is then gently suggested to me that it would be easier for STEM faculty to support their aggrieved humanities colleagues, if those colleagues would just make it clear where the line is.  What forms of hate speech constitute fire-able, untenurable offenses?  Perhaps, I'm told, if humanities faculty stuck to the issues of procedure and governance and backed slowly away from the "academic freedom" banner, they would get more solidarity from the STEM departments, who don't quite see why an academic's right to make injudicious remarks on twitter ought to get the same protections as, say, research supporting climate change.

If we were still in a moment when that conversation could take place, about the threshold where the protections of academic freedom end, humanities faculty would be less angry.  That conversation could have started with an honest and detailed explanation of why Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees saw fit to overturn the faculty's considered judgement.  In the face of the evidence presented in his hiring and tenure documents, that Salaita's outspoken activism did not undermine his teaching, research, and service, where did they see the line being crossed?  In what ways was the whole of Salaita's public activism and twitter feed (not just soundbites selected by those unsympathetic to his views) so incompatible with his professorial position as to justify his unhiring?  Where is the line beyond which higher administrators are justified in overturning faculty decisions?

Such candor would, at least, have given the faculty invested in this case a fixed point to argue with. Some humanities faculty would have seen justice in the administration's position.  Faculty who disagreed would know what principle they were disagreeing with and be in a position to take issue with its fine points.  Faculty who just wanted to get on with their work in confidence that their departments could make future hiring decisions would be able to do so, knowing what kinds of extramural behavior would trip the wire of BoT overreach. And STEM faculty, concerned citizens, and baffled onlookers would have answers to their questions.

Instead of making that vital conversation possible, though, the Chancellor and Board of Trustees sketched out a vague and incoherent explanation of their decision, that only made it clear that academic freedom will, in future, mean whatever the Chancellor and Board of Trustees decide it means.  "Academic freedom" has become something of a rallying cry, not because faculty find it tremendously important to allow Salaita to go on goading Zionists via Twitter, but because the terms on which the Chancellor and BoT made his tweeting a fireable offense could apply just as easily to milder forms of activism, politically relevant research and writing, contentious public debate, and any teaching on sensitive subjects like race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality.  In other words: many of the things that are part of the job for humanities faculty.

26 August 2014

On the Changing Mission of the Public University

Academic freedom was never free, though our conviction that it should be has always helped us look past the thousands of necessary, daily ways that it's not.  Scholars have to eat, the buildings don't build themselves, books come from somewhere.  Whoever pays the bills gets a say: tax-payers, parents writing checks for tuition, alumni donors, grant-funding agencies, publishers, founders, legislative bodies, politicians.  And why shouldn't they?  So often, their concerns are mild and legitimate, the accommodation not so painful, the appeal to a greater cause easily made.

And then higher education stopped being regarded as a public good, worthy of state funding, and things changed.  So much so, that I've had this cynical thought this past week:
It would have been better if the UIUC Chancellor could have said to the American Indian Studies program, "Hiring Steven Salaita is going to cost this institution $XK in lost donations and tuition, even taking into account the inevitable law suit.  We can't afford it.  I'm sorry, AIS, but you will just have to suck it up."  It would have been the end of AIS, obviously, which is bad.  But what we've got is worse.  In order to preserve the illusion that academia isn't for sale, our Chancellor, with the backing of the Board of Trustees, has sold out the very principles of academic freedom and faculty governance.  
It would be nice to know how much we got for it. 
The faculty in STEM and professional fields still don't seem to care that much.  No discipline-wide boycotts, and apart from a few emeritus faculty, no letters.  Not much signing of things either.  The ability to pull external grants and create entrepreneurship opportunities insulates fields that can do those things.  The likelihood that the BoT will "unhire" a well-funded chemist, say, because his climate change activism offends generous alumni who've grown rich from the burning of fossil fuels, is remote. It also means, of course, that STEM faculty have other things to worry about, different problems of dwindling resources, a whole different set of compromises to be made with entities outside the university.  There is, though, this consequence of the public defunding of higher education: it creates a divisive hierarchy of monetary value within the university, in which the humanities cease to matter.

24 August 2014

Yes, this blog has comments! Or it's supposed to, anyway....

Well this is mortifying.  People have been commenting on this blog all along and I haven't known it. Early on, I was getting an email whenever I had a comment awaiting moderation.  I hadn't gotten any such emails for a while, so I assumed that no one was commenting.  Turns out I was wrong, and I just "published" a whole backlog of comments.  I'm not sure: maybe there was a glitch in Blogger or maybe I inadvertently removed my email address while changing some other settings.  Either way, a lot of great comments, questions, objections, and (most annoying) compliments ended up in internet limbo. To those who wondered why their comments never appeared, much less got a response: I am so sorry!

I have now changed the settings, and vow to be more responsive going forward.

23 August 2014

On Civility

Things that college should teach students:

  • That the world can become unrecognizable when viewed from inside someone else's experience.
  • That the things that make other people different from them  are not be the most important things about those people.
  • That opinions and attitudes they haven't yet encountered exist in the world.
  • That ideas they take for granted are not universally shared or understood.
  • That they know more than they think they do, but that not everything they know is accurate.
  • That the ideas they take for granted can prevent them from understanding ideas they haven't encountered yet.
  • That ideas they take for granted may look less appealing when they are articulated.
  • That they can change their minds.
  • That one's mind changes gradually, incompletely, and painfully.
  • That anger can have content, that you can learn from someone else's anger.
  • That legitimate, righteous anger exists.
  • That ideas get argued by people with different experiences of the world, which are relevant
  • That ideas get argued by people with different relationships to authority, power, and legitimacy, which are also relevant.
  • That ideas make a difference in the world and can be worth getting angry about.
  • That hurt feelings are a data point to take into account, but may or may not be relevant upon closer examination.
  • That they can get over hurt feelings.
  • That learning more about a contentious issue can lead to more questions and uncertainty rather than less.
  • That uncertainty and confusion are starting points for learning.
  • That if they haven't, at some point, found themselves struggling to put words to an idea that they feel strongly about but can't explain adequately, then they've missed an opportunity to learn.
  • That if they graduate without having felt, at some point in a class, unsettled, uncomfortable, misunderstood, confused, then they've missed an opportunity to learn.

22 August 2014

When the Words Crumble

The Chancellor just wrote to all of us here, explaining her decision not to have the Board of Trustees approve the hiring of Steven Salaita,  Her letter, which is also posted on her institutional blog, concludes,
I am committed to working closely with you to identify how the campus administration can support our collective duty to inspire and facilitate thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues.
I really shouldn't be sitting here writing this right now.  I have a syllabus to finish fine-tuning in preparation for classes on Monday.  Its subtext is not particularly unusual and can be summed as follows:

words matter

No doubt in the weeks ahead, as I discuss on this blog some of the innovations I'm planning and describe my successes and failures, I will say more about how my carefully thought out sequences of readings and deft writing prompts serve that goal.  But for now, I'm just writing against a profound sense of futility.   Everything I do rests on the assumption that it is important for students to read closely, think hard about what they read, and communicate as clearly as they can in response to it.  And our Chancellor says this:
I am committed to working closely with you to identify how the campus administration can support our collective duty to inspire and facilitate thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues.
Does anyone ever really read the last sentence of an administrative email?  It's ordinarily an anodyne string of words, that seeks to do rather than say: bringing closure to the business at hand with a tone of warmth and collegiality.  L'Affaire Salaita has taught us, however, that this kind of formulaic boilerplate has content.  Sometimes.  For example: "This recommendation for appointment is subject to the approval by the Board of Trustees..."  Since the Board of Trustees historically has only met to approve appointments after the appointed faculty has been on the course roster for months, relocated to the institution in question, and taught for several weeks, the phrase "Is subject to" has generally meant "will receive."  If it didn't mean that, the course schedule, payroll, office space allocations for the semester due to begin Monday would be thrown into disarray.  But things are proceeding normally.  We're to assume those words bore the full weight of their literal meaning this one time, for this one hire.  

So what does our Chancellor mean when she calls herself "committed to working closely with you to identify exactly how the campus administration can support our collective duty"?  After all, what is a Chancellor supposed to do, if not support the faculty in doing the work of the university?  Of course, "supporting our collective duty" generally means stepping back and letting individual departments and colleges get on with the work of deciding whom to hire and tenure--not "working closely."  Same with "facilitat[ing] thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues."  That project is dear to many faculty who host conferences, engage with other scholars in a variety of formats, bring speakers to campus.  In this case, Wise's efforts to "work closely" seem to have backfired, as the list of faculty now boycotting the campus grows daily.  One conference "on challenging issues" scheduled for the fall has already been cancelled, as have two prestigious lectures.  

One obvious way to signal a commitment to "working closely" would be to address these consequences of her decisions.  In the absence of such acknowledgment, one is left to wonder what this "working closely" means.  If she's serious about refusing to tolerate "disrespectful words or actions that demean," I for one would be happy to help her organize a week long series of talks, teach-ins, and screenings about the use of native American caricatures, to conclude with a ritual bonfire on the Quad where newly enlightened students could burn their Chief t-shirts.  I'm guessing that's not what she has in mind though.   

So I'll get back to work on my syllabus and try not to think about the contrast between what I want my students to learn and how my institution communicates its mission.  

17 August 2014

In the Coal Mine with the Dead Canary (On L'Affaire Salaita)

(Some background, which is already known to anyone already following this story: The story of how UIUC hired Steven Salaita and then rescinded his job offer can be found here.  Some relevant documents can be found here.   Is this legal?  20 prominent scholars of law explain how this decision constitutes a violation of First Amendment principles here, and the AAUP declares it a violation of academic freedom here.  Another lawyer discusses the contractual issues here.  Outrage on the part of philosophershistorians, communications scholars, gender and women's studies scholars, sociologists, political scientists, rhetoric/composition scholars, and contingent faculty has taken the form of petitions and statements of refusal.  Corey Robin has been keeping tabs on these discipline-specific campaigns on his blog.  A general academic petition is here.  Since this story broke, both Salaita and the UIUC administration have fallen silent.  It is generally assumed that all parties are lawyered up and negotiating a resolution to the contractual dispute behind closed doors.  In this vacuum, Cary Nelson has emerged as the de facto point manjustifying the administration's decisions in Inside Higher Ed, the online publication that originally broke the story. Vincente Diaz, a member of the department that hired Salaita, explains why we should not listen to Nelson here.)

Here on campus, there is dismay.  At least, there is dismay among the departments that cluster around the main quad of the campus: historians, literary scholars, faculty in area studies and foreign languages, those who study gender, those departments with rich affiliations with the American Indian Studies Program.  These people are worrying about the effects of a boycott on upcoming conferences, efforts to bring prominent visiting scholars to campus, the required outside letters for tenure-and-promotion, the university's profile as a place for meaningful research in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. They worry about how this decision will be understood and internalized by Palestinian colleagues and students, how it will affect the climate for expressing frank opinions about conflict in the middle east. There is a lot to worry about.

The dismay is highly localized, however.  If the pressing issues of academic freedom here are of relevance beyond the humanities and the interpretive social sciences, few faculty from the STEM departments on campus have made their concerns known.

One can understand why the scientists might well prefer to treat L'Affaire Salaita as a rhetorical tempest, contained by the teapot of its own disciplinary triviality.  Steven Salaita is an unfortunate poster child for academic freedom.  For those unsympathetic to Salaita's political positions, his Twitter feed speaks for itself, particularly the inflammatory tweets that have been widely reprinted.  "Reading Salaita in Illinois (Part 1)" is Pham Nguyen's exhaustive effort to neutralize his most toxic tweets through a  contextualized close reading that, however persuasive, confirms the limitations of Twitter as a site for nuanced and meaningful public debate.

The faculty who are angered about the Salaita decision may be right, but they also may not matter enough to be heard.  After all, conflict in Gaza will rage on, regardless of how a handful of professors analyze it, and real influence is to be found elsewhere on campus, among departments that can pull grant funding to the university and generate enterpreneurial investment.   For fields that generally fall short on both those benchmarks of excellence, "academic freedom" may be another word for, well, nothing left to lose.

14 August 2014

The Pedagogy of Confusion

Never mind the feedback we get from students, confusion can be a good thing, according to recent pedagogical research described in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Counterintuitively, clarity limits what students learn:
"It seems that, if you just present the correct information, five things happen," he [Derek Muller] said. "One, students think they know it. Two, they don’t pay their utmost attention. Three, they don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking. Four, they don’t learn a thing. And five, perhaps most troublingly, they get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before."
Nothing surprising here, particularly not for anyone whose classroom practices have been influenced by Ken Bains's pivotal What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard UP, 2004).  Students take information on board more effectively when they grasp that there are flaws, gaps, misconceptions in their understanding.  Since students rarely know what they don't know, a good instructor will find ways to stimulate their awareness.  The problem is, students resist the notion that their coarse-grained understanding of the world is wrong.  They expect education to feel like an ongoing and consistent affirmation of what they already know, and they are poorly equipped to cope when it doesn't.

In my teaching of Enlightenment era literature, I create an atmosphere of productive confusion by setting students to work on the first day on a poem from the period that fails to display the powdered-wig-decorum that they expect.  Joseph Warton's "The Dying Indian" or the unknown Ephelia's "Maidenhead" work well for this exercise, but they don't come easily to students.  They find it frustrating.  I usually have to gloss a few key words, advise them to read sentence-by-sentence rather than line-by-line, and set them to work in groups with clearly defined goals before they can make sense of either poem.   More than that, I have to be on: monitoring the groups closely, listening for that moment when productive confusion shades into irritability, deciding when to decipher a line for them rather than letting them work it out for themselves, picking the moment when the small-group work has ceased to be productive and it's time to guide the class to shared clarity.  I don't always get it right, and even when I do, there will be individual students for whom my explanations come too late (after they've already tuned out) or too soon (before they've time to arrive at the limits of their comprehension).

According to The Chronicle of Higher Ed,
Technology could provide a solution. Mr. D’Mello and Mr. Graesser have been experimenting with 'affect-aware technology'—software that attempts to read facial cues and adapt to a student’s level of confusion. The technology is still in the early stages, but Mr. D’Mello says reading emotional signals in humans could be an important next step for software that responds to the needs of individual learners.
A better solution?  A different model of what learning looks like. Even for the majority of students who respond well to the exercise, I have to start a semester-long process of selling the idea that discomfort and uncertainty are necessary parts of learning: this is not a view of learning that comes easily to them.  Increasingly test-centered education has taught many students that knowledge consists of arriving at predetermined correct answers, and that good teachers deliver them to those correct answers.  They've experienced wrong answers (or difficulty in framing an answer or productive confusion about the questions being asked) as pedagogical design flaws, not as intrinsic features of the process of trying to understand the world.

Some part of the world is always going up in flames, but as I write this towards the end of the summer of 2014 there's an urgency about teaching students to grapple with confusion.  Chasms are opening all around us, from the methane holes in Siberia to the fractured suburbs of St. Louis.  For all our sakes, our students need skills in confronting confusion.  They need practice in pushing past their unacknowledged longing for order so that they can recognize its distorting effects.