22 August 2015

Do the Math; or, It's Not about the Money

A tale of two majors: English and psychology.  The number of English majors has been precipitously declining; the number of psychology majors has been rising.  It's true on my campus and it seems to be true a lot of places.

But why?

The knee-jerk explanation for the decline of English majors is their putative unemployability, as the memes at the left would suggest.  That canard is a subject for another post.  But it would then follow that the growing numbers of psychology majors reflect an abundance of lucrative jobs for new graduates.
Except that's not what the numbers say.

According to the spring 2015 Salary Survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, there's no starting-salary advantage to majoring in psychology.  None.  In fact, English majors do ever so slightly better.  The mean starting salary for English majors, based on the reported actual earnings of class of 2014 graduates, was $33.236.  The mean starting salary for psychology majors: $33,192.  Granted, among the 45,000 students surveyed, only 763 of them were psychology majors, and only 317 were English majors.  Still, more than twice as many students saw fit to earn low-ball starting salaries with an psychology degree than an English degree, though it's hard to see why from the numbers alone.

The fact that the numbers are equally damning for both majors compels me to point out that liberal arts students of all varieties are less well-served by "first-destination" surveys than are students coming out of preprofessional college programs.  Students emerging with valuable transferable skills often need time post-graduation to figure out where and how they want to transfer those skills.  Their departments don't, as a matter of course, have the resources for corporate engagement and active placement programs.

Still, for students weighing a choice between a preprofessional major and a liberal arts major, the choice of psychology over English is not self-evidently prudent.  So why are so many students making it?

I have some thoughts, but they await a future post.

16 August 2015


For those keeping score at home, as of today, Steven Salaita's lawsuit against the University of Illinois is going forward, but the University is NOT being simultaneously sued by Phyllis Wise, because she is stepping into a $300K/year faculty position and foregoing her oddly named $400K retention bonus.  And we all wait to see what happens next.

At a behemoth public R1, everyone is backchanneling.  It's the only way to get anything done in an environment where legitimate procedures are often palimpsests of every crisis that has gone before.  Some backchannels become recognized as a desire paths and get paved and maintained accordingly.  Others eventually disappear having served a brief but unremarkable purpose.  And of course there are those that, when exposed to light, reveal malfeasance and bad faith and get shut down by the ensuing outrage and kerfuffle.  It would be better if some backchannels were front channels: the frank acknowledgment of bachkchanneling is often a clear sign that neither channel is working as it should and the whole enterprise is moribund.

It's also likely that everyone has conducted some work-related business by means other than their university email or telephone.   Google (and other third party) apps are often more user-friendly and accessible than their institutional equivalents--but they often require use of a gmail account.  Social media is increasingly the way to circulate information and publicize events, but some social media platforms (Instagram) are most easily used by cellphone.  Work of all kinds is increasingly done by cell phone or tablet, maintaining firewalls between different accounts on one's personal doodads gets complicated, and no one that I know of gets a university-issued mobile device.

Let me also note that picking up a phone to do underhanded business is less simple than it once was. My university's new phone system is unusable for faculty who don't have their own individual office computers (which is most contingent faculty) or who are unwilling to download the phone-system software onto their personal devices.  Even for those who have access to office phone technology, calling outside our area code is impossible, which means that such straightforward business as returning calls from students (who generally don't have cellphone numbers with the local area code) or collaborating with a colleague at another institution has to take place from one's cell phone.

Many people, then, cope with the inevitable appearance of impropriety by the simple expedient of (a) not drawing attention to it and (b) refraining from doing things that would embarrass them if exposed.

Here's a good way to tell whether the thing you are about to do, the email you are about to send, the conversation you are having in real time is a bad idea or not:

1.  Are you doing the thing because it advances the teaching, research, and service mission of your job or because it will be to your personal benefit (glory, prestige, access to power)?
2.  If it will be to your personal benefit (broadly construed), does that benefit come at the expense of the teaching, research, and service mission of your job?

Obviously, it's a slippery standard and one that's likely to encourage laughable and contorted exercises in self-justification.


Think how different the present moment would be if the FOIA'ed emails contained some--ANY--discussion of how the program in American Indian Studies could be supported in its teaching, research and service despite the apparent necessity of "unhiring" Steven Salaita.  At no point do we read any discussion of the effects that this decision is having on American Indian Studies at the U of I, much less of how those effects might be mitigated.

These particular backchannels destroyed one campus unit's ability to fulfill the university's mission in teaching, research, and service, apparently without taking any note of the fact, so isolated was the conversation from these legitimate concerns about a university program.

One other thing.  Let it be noted that my assertion, throughout this one, of "teaching, research, and service" as the university's mission is anachronistic.  Our mission statement adds a fourth term: "The University of Illinois is among the preeminent public universities of the nation and strives constantly to sustain and enhance its quality in teaching, research, public service and economic development." In more than ten years here, I have seen no meaningful, institution-driven discussion, by any channel, of how to make this fourth addition to the traditional mission of higher education consistent with the aims of the liberal arts.  Yet there it is, framing everything we do.

11 August 2015


It needs to be said more loudly than it has: the program in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign did nothing wrong.  You may question their decision to hire Steven Salaita, you may be puzzled by the program's plan to morph into a program in global indigenous studies, you may wish that the traditional academic disciplines gave enough attention to indigenous people to eliminate the need for a separate program.  Sure. Fine. Whatever.  Every innovative academic program has its naysayers. The fact remains: the procedure by which Salaita was selected and vetted was above board, by the book, subject to every procedural check-and-balance the academy has to offer.
Don't believe me?  It's safe to assume that if there were procedural oversights or irregularities, they would have been splashed all over the front page of the Champaign Urbana News-Gazette by now. But go ahead and FOIA them.  They've been FOIA'ed repeatedly on the matter this year, so the relevant documents are all queued up and ready to go.  

10 August 2015

What's Next?

Everyone around here spent the weekend reading the FOIA'ed emails on the Salaita case, the College of Medicine, and James Kilgore (not familiar with what's going on? backstory here).  Last night, my department head, Michael Rothberg, posted the following question on Facebook: "What’s next?"  
bargaining team in situ, NTFC Local 6546

Though he was crowd-sourcing the question, he also had some ideas to frame the discussion, which I quote in their entirety below, with Prof. Rothberg's permission (which is in no way meant to imply his endorsement of anything I have to say about them).  
I think it is important for those of us at UIUC to clarify what our goals are after Wise’s resignation and the release of the emails. I post these reflections as part of an open-ended, non-dogmatic effort to clarify my own thinking and to invite others to join me. 
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m leaving aside Salaita’s own claims—reinstatement and financial compensation. These are crucial, but I believe they are going to be settled in a legal forum where we have no influence. In any case, in addition to continuing to support those claims, we need to transform our local context: the UIUC campus and the Illinois university system. 
I’m curious to know what other people think our priorities should be. Here’s a first attempt to draft some priorities (I am not proposing that these are definitive or complete, and they are not meant to be in rank order): 

08 August 2015

Want to Be My Provost or Chancellor? Quote a Poem I Don't Already Know by Heart.

When I first started blogging about Salaita, one of several questions that baffled me was why STEM faculty seemed so indifferent to the issues raised by his unhiring.  It seemed continuous with a humanities/STEM divide that had emerged in the course of faculty unionizing, but it was also different in important ways: different stakes, different consequences, different collective action.  I expended a lot of bandwidth trying out different formulations: dead canaries, boiled frogs, competing polarities.

A year has passed since the unhiring news broke.  My job duties have changed, and I now spend more time with administrative professionals from various campus units, less with fellow humanities faculty.  The issue now looks much more straightforward to me, but also much bleaker.  The corporate university has won.  The humanities and interpretive social sciences linger on as quaint vestiges of the ways things used to be done, but nobody who isn't us really knows why they're still here or what they're for, apart from supplying certain service courses.

After any meeting with my non-LAS counterparts, I find myself feeling as if I'm living in an inverted, nightmarish, gruesomely distorted version of Plato's cave: my tenure-stream colleagues, inside the cave, continue to watch their shadows on the wall, blissfully unaware that the cave is about to be razed to create a techno-shopping-R&D-corporate park, where a Liberal Arts Museum Boutique will allow some of them to continue to play with their shadows.

No Downside

The dream of an engineering-based medical school on the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois has been around for a while now.  For a long time, my reflections on the issue looked something like this: Sure, some of our aspirational-peer-institutions don't have medical schools (looking at you, Princeton); yeah, it is a little odd to have a state flagship that only houses the offshoot of a prestigious medical program housed elsewhere.  Be nice not to have to travel to St. Louis or Chicago if I or my loved ones came down with some grave or complicated illness. Whatever. Smart folks who know more about the relevant factors than me are figuring it out.

Then I found myself at a campuswide faculty meeting last fall.  Can't remember which one--there were several.  I was there for the debate about the Salaita un-hiring, union issues, and racism on campus, but I stayed for the rest, so I was there when our provost, Ilesanmi Adesida took the stage.  I had anticipated that only my "it's rude to leave a meeting halfway through" instincts would keep me there, but his astonishingly tone-deaf greeting immediately pinned me to my seat.  To a roomful of people seared by the impassioned commentary from the floor that we'd just heard and the impassive response of the administrators they were speaking to, Ade's enormous smile and "It's a GREAT day for Illinois!" were just--unfathomable.  Had he been listening to anything?  Apparently not.  With no acknowledgement of the hostility, anger, and incomprehension radiating from the faculty whom he is supposed to lead, with no recognition that entire departments and programs were reeling from an administrative body-blow, he told us about the plans for the engineering-based medical school.  We were invited to meditate on that term "engineering-based medical school"--and presumably let its glory fill our souls.  

30 July 2015

The Waiting Game? Already Lost

Waiting room icon.svg
"Waiting room icon" by PanierAvide - Own work.
Licensed under 
CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

"We, politically progressive members of universities and college should no longer wait. We should step up our game and move to other more effective modes of action."  I didn't click on the link until about the fifth time I saw it posted on Facebook: "'Waiting in the Neoliberal University: The Salaita Case and the Wages of an Academic Boycott."  This essay from my colleagues Ellen Moodie and Martin Manalansan IV appeared first in Savage Minds, now it's on Academe Blog.   Tl;dr (as the kids say): we need to keep doing what we've been doing, just more of it.

Were we still "waiting" for anything?  The Urbana campus of the University of Illinois is officially censured by the AAUP and Prof. Salaita is off to Beirut for a year.  The outcome of the lawsuit still lies before us, and a few more anger-bombs may detonate as additional FOIA'ed documents come forward, but it's been over for a while.  Moodie and Manalasan gave us some bones to pick over: Is academic freedom inseparable from the BDS movement?  Was the boycott prompted by forces inside or outside the university?  These have been rich talking points on Facebook this past week.

I'm more interested in what can be salvaged from a fight we've already lost.

19 July 2015

Who Decides What the Money is For?

This line from Mad Men has been haunting me, ever since a friend brought it to my attention:

An alternate title for what follows: Why Sara Goldrick-Rabb's Professional Obligation is to Future UW Students, not UW, which Should Be the Same Thing but Isn't.

In academia, the salary or per-course compensation, that is, the money, is for the teaching.  That goes for everyone who gets paid to be faculty.  And also for the things that go with the teaching (research, if you are salaried in a tenure-stream faculty appointment): the preparation, the ongoing engagement with the field, the creation of new knowledge.  And also the things that go into sustaining the department that sustains the teaching (more of these, generally, if you're noncontingent faculty): the service, the committee work, the administrative appointments folded into a faculty workload.

The academic equivalent of that uncompensated space where Peggy finds herself is growing.  As higher ed ceases to be a public good, paid for by tuition rather than state appropriations, the expectation grows that public university faculty will not just teach, serve, and do research for the benefit of the citizens of their state.  Excellence has become too expensive to speak for itself.  Faculty now must be willing to contribute to the PR effort to package those activities as part of a "brand" that can be sold for top dollar to out-of-state and international students.

Unfortunately, state legislators, the upper echelons of academic administration, and the faculty in front of classrooms have very different ideas about what that "brand" consists of, what they are willing to work to achieve that isn't necessarily covered by their compensation.  It's not exactly the "thank you" that Peggy is looking for, but it's in the same realm of ineffability.  For people who aren't paid-to-teach, it's a certain kind of prestige, name-recognition, newsworthiness.  For those who are, it's those moments when, as a result of their work, something exists in the world that wasn't there before: a student's ability to think a complex thought through to uncomfortable conclusions, an online classroom discussion forum where students spontaneously wield arguments borne of evidence they've gained in the course readings, students who didn't think they could do X and who learn that they can. Or beyond the classroom: a new idea, a paper that gets people in the field talking, a book, a discovery.   It's not necessary that these two concepts of surplus value be in conflict in higher ed.  But they are.

In the nonacademic world, most people in the course of a career will find themselves on both sides of the Mad Men conversation: perceived as demanding recognition before they deserve it, withholding recognition that is warranted.  In academia, the conversation of what gets paid for and why is increasingly in the hands of Don Drapers who, unlike this fictional character, are profoundly detached from the creative process, and Peggys who have few options for selling their considerable talents to less complacent buyers.

18 July 2015

Writing, or that which Dare Not Speak Its Name

The emissary from the world of business consulting was fielding questions from students in my course on career planning in the humanities.  "Business consulting needs writers, right?" asked one student.  The business consulting expert visibly blanched.  "Well, not writers, exactly, but we do need..." and he went on to describe any number of key tasks--drafting surveys, communicating results to clients, producing "deliverables"--that most people would call writing.

It's no longer okay to call it that.  Spend some time looking at job ads, position descriptions, career counseling sites and it's clear that no one writes anymore: they create content.  Or they strategize content.  Or sometimes they generate those "deliverables."  Rarely do they "write."  It's a useful thing to know if you're an old-school humanities major staring down the job market.  Type "writing" or "editing" into a job search engine and you quickly reach a dead end.  Type in "content"--or prepare to BS your skill set a bit and type in "user experience"--and many more opportunities emerge.

Anyone trained to closely assess language and tease out implications--which I suspect is most of the readers of this blog--can probably spend the next 15 minutes contemplating the differences between "content" and "writing" and arrive at a conclusion about the corporatization of everything.  "Content" aims to get monetized.  "Writing" may or may not.  

"Effective content" may or may not involve "good writing," depending on the strategy in play. Obfuscation, and a warm marinade of corporate terminology, has value in realms of existence that are well above my pay grade, but then, so can wallet-opening clarity and originality.   But one dare not call it "writing" and conjure up the inevitable waste of time that goes into conveying an important idea with precision.  

14 July 2015

"Literature is Ha-a-a-ard!" Wails Empathy Barbie

Gary Saul Morson of Northwestern University asks  "Why College Students Are Avoiding the Study of Literature" in Commentary Magazine.  His answer: because we (mostly college instructors, but also high school English teachers) teach it badly.

(Some might point out that students avoid the study of literature because like to get their Gen Ed. credit in ways that require as little writing as possible--and many literature classes involve a lot of writing. They'd also note the widespread perception that college-level study of literature dooms one to a life of penury and irrelevance.  But Morson doesn't go there.)

No--we systematically ruin literature, in three distinct ways, according to Morson: (1) We load up with critical vocabulary so that students can treat the study of literature as a kind of forensic autopsy that destroys the subject in the course of analyzing it.  (2) We encourage students to judge the literature of the past by the moral standards of the present, which leaves little room for enjoying literary works on their own terms.  (3) We treat literary works not as art but as documentary evidence--we encourage students to read literature as a tool for understanding particular historical moments, not as an aesthetic experience.

Guilty on all charges.  Note that accomplishing both (2) and (3) could be considered a feat of intellectual incoherence and sleight-of-hand so prodigious as to warrant at least some degree of grudging respect.  Yes, of course.  Every semester, I fail my students in all these ways, sometimes in the teaching of a single text.

19 June 2015

Not Enough and Too Many Degrees of Separation

from The Shade Room (Facebook page)
Wednesday night bible study: that's the part that gets me.  Parts of this story have become all too familiar: black people being killed for all kinds of stupid reasons saturated with racism, white men shooting strangers.  Not comfortable, not okay, not normal--just, it's a thing that happens, that shouldn't, that does.

But Wednesday night bible study?  There was always a lot of church during the summer weeks I spent with my grandparents in rural Indiana. White church. And even if I was often spared the midweek observance, Wednesday night bible study was a fixture on the extended family landscape and daily narratives, an anchor for family stories, a point at which friendships were solidified, plans made, gossip shared. Wednesday night bible study meant that my mother's Episcopalian (she converted in grad school) and then Presbyterian weeks had a gap in them that she filled with choir practice or committee involvement.

14 June 2015

The Silence of the Brands

First, a few words about the current state of play:

The AAUP voted yesterday to censure the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  It feels anticlimactic, much like final BOT approval of a tenure and promotion decision: everyone knew it was coming, but now it's officially official.  And as with that final stamp of approval on the tenure decision, everybody is at a bit of a loss.  The big surges of emotion at various stages earlier in the process have left little in the reservoir for this moment.  Any sense of vindication is cancelled out by a profound sense of "now what?"

Tenure brings with it less ambient anxiety but more service and higher expectations.  Censure brings with it...well, what really?  Life goes on as it as for the past year, except that our local crisis over academic freedom has been overshadowed by threatened catastrophic budget cuts and the demise of tenure in Wisconsin.

07 June 2015

Addendum on the Dream of Teaching-Intensive Tenure

Over at Bardiac, there's a fine round-up of the blogospheric response to Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth's proposal for a teaching-intensive tenure-track. (http://bardiac.blogspot.com/2015/06/metablogging-conversation-about.html?m=1) Yes, it quotes the Good Enough Professor, which makes this post meta-meta-blogging.

If anecdotal data like mine suggests a general trend towards creating some middle ground between tenure and rank exploitation, that seems like a good thing.  Non-exploitative working conditions are better than exploitative ones.  There's a bigger problem, though.  Without provisions for academic freedom, shared governance, and  grievance procedures these improvements will hasten the decline of higher education.  Instructors who, however well-paid and professionally validated, are beholden to the administrators who hire them and not the faculty peers qualified to evaluate their teaching and research, will not sustain the mission of higher education as many of us understand it.

05 June 2015

These Deck Chairs Aren't Going to Rearrange Themselves

As commenters have been pointing out, the teaching-intensive tenure track is already a thing: at any number of non-R1 institutions, tenure is already based on teaching.  But as Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth emphasize, it is also the norm at many institutions for the heavy-lifting of a department's teaching workload to be performed by contingent employees who lack livable salaries, job security, benefits, a voice in their departments, procedures for evaluation and promotion, and institutional recognition.  And then of course there are a lot of institutions making unwieldy and incoherent compromises between those two extremes.  Issues of department service and governance are particularly vexed: the self evident truth that "shared governance" ought to give those fulfilling an institution's mission a voice is at odds with the hierarchical boundaries that define academic life.

31 May 2015

On Chyme, K - 12, and the Liberal Arts

"It takes a great deal of conformity to be a happy K-12 teacher these days." says Fie Upon This Quiet Life, in a thoughtful riff on "The number one problem with K-12 education -- the loss of academic freedom."  

The K-12 problem is also a postsecondary education problem: college instructors find themselves not just teaching students the subject material but also acculturating them to an entirely different conception of "education" than the one they bring with them to college.  Students want to be led to predetermined right answers and to be rewarded for demonstrating their ability to repeat them.  It's on us, then to get them comfortable with the idea that getting it right can involve first getting it very, very wrong and that the "right" answer may mean "the answer that most effectively explains the phenomenon, where the definition of 'most effective' may be subject to interpretation."  
Anna Fischer-Dückelmann,
via Wikimedia Commons

A few years back I contemplated a decisive break with academia.  My new career path, however, required me to return to school, so I found myself in a 100-level nutrition class at my institution.  The facts about nutrition that I learned were largely a more fine-grained and detailed version of things I already knew.  The eye-opener was the class itself: Powerpoint slides supplied in advance with key words omitted, so students would have to listen to the lecture to fill in the blanks.  Study guides ahead of each quiz or exam.  Opportunities for student questions that mostly consisted of students asking to have certain missing words repeated or variations of "will this be on the test?"  I sat there and realized that while I had been in graduate school and teaching classes myself, college education had changed beyond all recognition.  The old term, "spoon feeding," no longer seemed adequate, but I did learn a new metaphor for what I was experiencing. This was chyme-feeding (chyme is the mass of partially digested matter that passes from the stomach to the small intestine).  

But who was I to judge?  I was surrounded by earnest and hardworking students.  Well, there was that guy a few rows down from me who spent every lecture surfing the Louis Vuitton website, but mostly they were taking a summer class to speed up their path to careers in health services, they wanted to learn the material quickly and efficiently, and the graduate instructor teaching the class knew how to deliver it in a way that would get them to the best possible grades on the quizzes and multiple choice exams that made up the bulk of the course.  

"I don't believe any of this stuff we're learning," I heard one buff student say to the lass he was flirting with over the break on day.  "Scientists change their minds all the time.  They don't know."  He went on to describe at some length his own nutrition and fitness regimen.  He clearly cared about the subject matter, but saw no possible connection between the things that might be conveyed in this class and his own health concerns.  Though an isolated assignments asked us to keep our own food diaries and chart our nutrition while reflecting on our choices, and another asked us to analyze the nutritional claims of a consumer product, but there was nothing in the design of the course that would encourage this student to see such exercises as anything but hoops to jump through on the way to a credential.

That summer I became viscerally aware that the kind of liberal arts education I had known myself as a student and that I tried to recreate in my own classes could change lives.  Could.  But I also realized why communicating complex humanistic subject matter to students was so damn hard--they had no tools for recognizing complexity and struggle in learning as a good thing.

The liberal arts need to be in solidarity with K-12 educators and to see their struggles against test-driven curricula as part of our own struggle to maintain norms of academic freedom and shared governance within increasingly corporatized higher education.


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.

26 May 2015

Two Cultures, Shmultures

from http://theconversation.com/why-arts-and-
A peculiar silence has descended over campus. Partly it's because the students have mostly left for the summer, but it's also the silence of a lot of people waiting to see what happens next. Whether one cares or not, the chatter that was raging last fall on all sides of L'Affaire Salaita has ceased.  There's not a lot to say at this point. Some minor ripples percolate through the humanities faculty as FOIA'ed emails from last summer bubble up to the surface, but all there is really to do is await the outcomes of processes beyond our control: Salaita's lawsuit and the vote on AAUP censure.  Meanwhile, we figure out how to move forward within an institution where academic freedom is a matter of profound indifference.

"Nothing to be done!" my friend, the Countess of Useful Research, said to me the other day.  "What do you mean, nothing to be done!  Now is the time for all of you to exert pressure on the Chancellor! NOW before the AAUP votes!  While there's still time!  She needs pressure from the faculty that she can legitimately succumb to!"

I was nonplussed.  MORE letters?  Emails?  Votes of no confidence?  Public meetings?  They didn't make a difference in the fall.  Why would they work now?  Maybe an illegal wildcat walkout action? Kind of hard to pull off now that classes are over...

"Well what do you have in mind?" I asked.  "Are you going to galvanize support among your colleagues?  How?"

"Oh no," the Countess explained.  "I don't care.  But you guys care.  You should do something."

The Countess's research really is very useful.  It's not going to make anybody money, and it's not so obscure that its connection to Real Things that Matter is only accessible to experts.  Trust me, you're glad that the Countess is here, doing what she does. But once again, I found myself peering across that chasm, the one that L'Affaire Salaita laid bare. It goes beyond, way beyond, CP Snow's "two cultures": a place where dear friends with identical values, mutual moral and intellectual respect, similar life experiences, and congruent professional goals find themselves talking at institutional cross-purposes.

Let me note that there's NO way to try to explain each side to the other without coming across as self-serving.  Also: offer to tell someone how you think they differ from you and the hackles go up.  But I can't seem to stay away from the challenge of trying to figure out how people with more in common than not and bound together in a shared institution find each other so fundamentally puzzling.  

My latest in a series of theories about why the liberal arts and the remainder of the university (including the STEM fields) miscommunicate: practitioners of the liberal arts are unaccustomed to explaining themselves.

With no market forces to justify or sustain them, no corporate support, no significant funding agencies to supplicate, the liberal arts have historically depended exclusively on the widespread public recognition that they matter. And, frankly, they're pretty cheap: no need for labs, equipment, staff, space, material.

While there is widespread public recognition that other university entities matter (particularly the STEM fields), their work tends to cost more and there is the expectation that outside entities (public or private) will fund it, particularly in those cases where it has market value.

As a result, faculty outside the liberal arts are accustomed to a relentless grind of self-explanation, to a variety of audiences with a stake in their work.  Being called upon to justify themselves is just a routine part of doing business.  Liberal arts faculty, on the other hand,--apart from isolated bids for fellowships or occasional grants--are accustomed to explaining their work to each other and their students.

Everyone is feeling the constriction of publicly funded higher education.  As grant money dries up alongside state budgets, STEM faculty and liberal arts faculty alike are coping with dwindling resources. The difference is, non-liberal-arts faculty confront this reality with the tools they already have ready to hand: the capacity to explain why people should pay for what they have to offer.

The problem is not that liberal arts faculty have no such case to make--but the justification of a public good tends to inhere in the assumption that the public already recognizes it and values it.  The very fact of becoming a hard sell diminishes its intrinsic worth.  We offer a vigorous alternative to the stunted values of the marketplace, but we have yet to find a persuasive way to communicate that frame to the marketplace itself.  We who make living confronting the paradoxes of human life struggle to live within this one: the impossibility of asserting our relevance without validating the norms of relevance that we seek to transcend.

24 May 2015

The Day the Liberal Arts Died

Just to be clear, it was a long, long time ago.  The fatal wound took place in the Reagan era.  What we're observing now is not even the death throes.  It just took some of us longer than others to realize we were dealing with a corpse.  L'Affaire Salaita, if nothing else, laid that truth bare.

A certain forensic fascination remains in picking through FOIA-ed emails, the way we close-read tweets last summer.  Was Salaita subject to procedural irregularities?  Yup--procedures are, as a result, being altered to it easier for those outside the faculty chain of shared governance to intervene when necessary.  Did administrators lie?  YES!  They lied.  Will we be censured for their malfeasance?  The official decision still lies a few weeks away, but it looks like, yes, we will be censured.  Does anyone care?

Well, that's the thing.  Some people care very much.  They read my blog and my live-tweeting/facebooking of the relevant meetings.   They ask the probing questions at these events, they make their anger known, they speak to colleagues elsewhere who decry what is happening here.

They attended last month/s IPRH event to discuss the likelihood of AAUP censure and they were eloquent in their shock and dismay.

They asked trenchant questions at the first Town Hall with the new University of Illinois President, Timothy Killeen, and they elicited stirring boilerplate from him about the centrality of the arts and letters and the importance of academic freedom (even if the real questions remained unanswered).

What becomes increasingly clear, however, is that none of this matters.  There may have been a time when these stalwart voices from the liberal arts lay at the core of the university's purpose and mission, but that time is long past.  All year the administration has granted us, and we have supplied ourselves with, echo chambers in which to hear ourselves amplify our outdated convictions about our significance--senate meetings, academic freedom symposia, town halls, colloquiums, meetings.  Over and over we've seen representatives of the administration--Chancellor Wise, most notably, but also, at the IPRH symposium on AAUP censure, the outgoing academic senate chair, Roy Campbell--nurture our illusions by allowing us to vent our impotent rage at them.

Meanwhile the real work of the university, the grantsmanship, the corporate partnerships, the entrepreneurial endeavors, the channeling of state funds into lucrative endeavors, goes on.

What happens next?  I don't know.  But a meaningful answer that changes things can only come from us.

17 May 2015

The Bump in the Land-Grant Road

from the Daily Illini
Tomorrow the new president of the University of Illinois, Timothy Killeen, will take office.  I'll be syncing up my Facebook and Twitter accounts to live-tweet his first Town Hall on the Urbana-Champaign campus tomorrow afternoon. For once, I'll be trying not to be snarky--there's too much at stake.

The announcement of the meeting links to an online form for asking questions.  I've sent in three, and I'll be listening closely for answers tomorrow:

1.  What steps will UIUC take to lift AAUP censure, should it be imposed (as seems likely)?
2.  How will President Killeen and his leadership team restore confidence among the sixteen academic departments at UIUC that voted "no confidence" in Chancellor Wise and the U of Illinois leadership in the wake of the Salaita "un-hiring"?
3.  What should be the role of the liberal arts at the University of Illinois in the future?

Had L'Affaire Salaita not happened, chances are few people would come to this Town Hall in a spirit of genuine curiosity spiked with fear, least of all a minor academic functionary like me.  This transfer of leadership would happen, as so many do, in a cloud of meaningless bureaucratese.  The future of the liberal arts faculty would be--as it always has been--underfunded, beleaguered, tarnished, yet secure.  What is a university, after all, without its trivium?

Things have changed.  Boycotts?  Angry meetings? International scholarly outpourings of outrage?  Senate committee reports?  Votes of no confidence? It turns out to have been the theater of irrelevance.  It's not just that Salaita hasn't been hired--it's that the administration has not engaged substantively with the faculty concerns that administrative actions have provoked.  When Chancellor Wise called AAUP censure a "bump in the road," her rhetoric horrified liberal arts faculty.  But perhaps she was simply riding the wave that makes it so.

There is that administrative indifference, and there is declining state funding, and there is rhetoric about "the university of the future," which sounds like this:
Killeen is confident the UI has a strong future but said it has to ensure that it uses money wisely and provides a world-class education that students can afford.
"Clearly there has to be a real focused emphasis on what I call the three Es, — efficiency, effectiveness and excellence," he said. 
That may involve new structures, greater use of technology, sharing services where that makes sense, and "focusing on what you can be truly excellent at." 
Killeen plans to launch a new strategic plan for the university at the board's July meeting, building on plans already developed by the three campuses. 
"We want the University of Illinois to be the model for the land-grants for the 21st century," he said.
At an institution where "excellence" is often code for "able to attract grant funding and entrepreneurship," the humanities may have already been shut out of this conversation.  Does "a world-class education that students can afford" and "what you can be truly excellent at" include the liberal arts departments for which L'Affaire Salaita was a body blow?  That's the question I'll really be listening for the answer to.