“Whenever you have a 'southern' or a 'northern' or an 'eastern' or a 'western' before an institution's name, you know it will be wildly underfunded." –Richard Russo
On March nineteenth the Chancellor of the University of Maine System, as well as the President, and select members of the Board of Trustees gathered in front of a crowd of students, faculty and staff in the Hannaford Lecture Hall, a spacious and new lecture hall (more often rented out than used for classes) to unveil the University of Southern Maine's new vision as a “Metropolitan University.” Two days later, on the twenty-first, twelve members of the faculty from such programs as economics, theater, and sociology met with the provost of the University to be "retrenched." Both of these events followed the proposal to eliminate four programs (American and New England Studies, Geosciences, Recreation and Leisure Studies, and Arts and Humanities at the Lewiston Auburn Campus) the week before. It was a strange and tumultuous week, and one that I fear offers a frightening glimpse of a future of higher public education in the US.
In comment #9 at this post, Susan makes a kind of canonical case I've heard from lots of assessment people.
First, I should say that I agree with 95% of the intended answers to Susan's rhetorical questions. We should be much clearer about what we want our students to get out of their degrees, and we should put in the hard work of assessing the extent that we are successful.
But "assessment" in contemporary American bureaucracies almost always accomplishes exactly the opposite of the laudable goals that Susan and I share. And there are deep systematic reasons for this. Below, I will first explain three fallacies and then explain why everyone involved in assessment faces enormous pressure to go along with these fallacies. Along the way I hope to make it clear how this results in "assessment" making things demonstrably worse.**
Why do things like "professional development," "continuing education," "team-building," and (yes, this too) "assessment" always have to tend towards infantalizing the poor people subjected to them?
It's one thing to bureaucratically humiliate people by making them waste huge gobs of time. But this business of making them engage in ritualistic idiotic performances (which always involve to some extent enthusiastically presupposing that everyone is not in fact wasting time) is a much higher echelon of evil. How can the adult human beings in this video (courtesy Washington Post) have any self-respect?*
Mark my words. First they came for the high school teachers. . .**
[*To be fair, everyone involved in making the video and smuggling it to the Washington Post gained back their self-respect fourfold.
**If I was doing my normal thing and putting a rock video in the upper right hand corner, it would probably have been Jane's Addiction's "Idiots Rule." But I realized that it didn't scan because even if team-builder/professional development/assessment types are self-deluded enough to believe in the rightness of what they make the rest of us do, it takes quite a bit of intelligence to get people so complicit in their own immiseration.]
Why? Well, because this post is about the Kansas Regents' decision to pass a new social media policy, which states that:
the chief executive officer of a state university has the authority to suspend, dismiss or terminate any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media.
Improper use means making a communication that:
— Directly incites violence or other immediate breach of the peace;
— Is made pursuant to the employee’s official duties and is contrary to the best interests of the university;
— Discloses confidential student information, protected health care information, personnel records, personal financial information, or confidential research data; or
— Impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.
Reading this, I'd feel compelled to say that it 1) seemed like an effort to stifle criticism of the University, 2) veered periliously close to making it impossible for colleagues to disagree publicly, especially over matters of instiutional practice, policy, or pedagogy, and 3) similarly put anyone considering discussing his or her experience with, say, discrimination or harassment on notice that doing so could be harmful to his or her carreer. Even better, this transparent attempt to initmidate and constrain faculty speech in public fora was imposed by fiat without prior consultation with the faculty, though--in a clear effort to satisfy some of Protevi's likely objections--faculty were told that "the board would welcome input over the next several months."
Presumably, this input shouldn't be on social media, however, especially if it were critical or the process by which this policy were imposed, or its content.
Update: Scott Jaschik now has a story up at Inside Higher Ed that adds a few new details, including comments from the chair of the AAUP's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
Update 2: KU Law and Economics Professor Bill Black has written an analysis of the policy here, and been interviewed by the Kansas City Pitch here [h/t William Pannapacker]. Black pretty much confirms (and even extends) the worst case scenario interpretations of this policy that have been floating around.
A few days ago, while trying to open the interwebs thingy to allow me to start entering my grades, I was prevented from doing so by a pop-up menu that referenced LSU's Policy Statement 67. The text included unsubstantiated and highly dubious claims such as that most workplace problems are the result of drugs and alcohol abuse by workers. And this was only a few weeks after all of the chairs at LSU had to provide verification that every single faculty member had read a hysterical message from our staff and administrative overlords that justified expanding the extension of pee-tested employees at LSU to now include faculty. The wretched communiqué justified pee-testing faculty because of new evidence showing that marijuana is harmful to 13 year olds.*
Anyhow, when I scrolled to the bottom of the popup, I had to click a button saying not only that I read the document but also that I "agreed" with it.
I honestly don't get this. Are my beliefs a condition of employment at LSU? There was no button that said I read it but didn't agree with it.
If the links don't work, just reset your browser history and they will open up. Here's a nice bit:
But the pilot classes, of about 100 people each, failed. Despite access to the Udacity mentors, the online students last spring — including many from a charter high school in Oakland — did worse than those who took the classes on campus. In the algebra class, fewer than a quarter of the students — and only 12 percent of the high school students — earned a passing grade.
The program was suspended in July, and it is unclear when, if or how the program will resume. Neither the provost nor the president of San Jose State returned calls, and spokesmen said the university had no comment.
But like "conservatism" for the Republican party, for academic administrators MOOCs apparently aren't something that can ever fail us, but rather only something we can fail.
Mr. Siemens said what was happening was part of a natural process. “We’re moving from the hype to the implementation,” he said. “It’s exciting to see universities saying, ‘Fine, you woke us up,’ and beginning to grapple with how the Internet can change the university, how it doesn’t have to be all about teaching 25 people in a room.
“Now that we have the technology to teach 100,000 students online,” he said, “the next challenge will be scaling creativity, and finding a way that even in a class of 100,000, adaptive learning can give each student a personal experience.”
Nice discussion of Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Wastehere. The first half of the book theorizes neo-liberalism from a Foucaultian perspective and the second half excoriates the economics profession, e.g.
According to Mirowski, there was a moment after the 2008 crash when the economics profession could have performed some rigorous self-criticism and made an honest assessment of what had gone wrong. But the proposed technocratic fixes — addressing the “efficient markets hypothesis” in finance, adding so-called bounded rationality to microeconomic models to make them “behavioral,” and adding various bells and whistles to macroeconomic models — were particularly ineffective in reforming or even clarifying what is going on in financial markets. And the various “explanations” of the crisis that were brought up for debate in mainstream publications and through a network of economic policy “experts” ended up not serving any notion of scientific inquiry but instead were means of deflecting, confusing, and delaying any progress toward uncovering truth or consensus.
So how did the economists get away? According to Mirowski, they are protected through a web of prestige that stretches across the academy to quasi-accountable offices of the government like the Federal Reserve, as well as the network of policy think tanks that provide so-called expertise. This miasma of prestige has become too important to the actual logic of financial capitalism at this moment — elite economics dominates all these important international institutions, and there’s been a subtle wagon-circling at that level. Thus, like the banks, economists themselves are too big to fail.
The whole article is a fascinating read, and shows what a scam neo-liberalism is. It's weird to think that we live in a carny-like reality, where something only succeeds to the extent that a certain number of marks systematically misunderstand how it succeeds.
Next week, I will be speaking at a career development workshop for female Oxford graduate and masters students. One of the things I want to focus on is the importance of building out a broad, strong, supportive professional network.
Academia is built on trust and personal relationships. Rarely are people invited as speakers at conferences, workshops etc purely on the basis of merit. Merit is an important consideration, but people want additional information (e.g., is she a good speaker, will she turn up?) that they can acquire through their network, either by directly knowing the potential invitee, or by knowing others who know her. People from one’s network can alert one to opportunities, including job opportunities. Without a professional network, one has no letter writers (except the advisor and readers of the dissertation), one is excluded from many aspects of academic life that thrive on trust and personal relationships, such as being a keynote speaker or contributing to an edited volume. Moreover, people from one’s network provide opportunities for mentoring, friendship and mutual support in the very competitive environment that is academia. If one has to move state or country and has to leave friends and family behind, the ability to be able to fall back on a network of professional comrades for support and friendship is very valuable. Therefore, I will advise the students to work on their networks early on, and to nurture them.
But there are problematic aspects to networking. Ned Dobos has argued that career networking is ‘an immoral attempt to gain an illegitimate advantage over others’. He makes clear that he doesn’t target emotional networking - plain old socialising - but specifically career networking, networking in the context of advancing one’s career, especially, but not uniquely, one’s job prospects.
It does not seem clear to me, however, whether we can make a clean separation between career networking and emotional networking, especially in academia, where (for reasons I outlined above) the people in one’s professional network and one’s emotional (friend) network overlap to some extent. Dobos offers several arguments against the legitimacy of career networking. Insofar as the search process is meritocratic, career networking is morally objectionable because it attempts to distort the meritocratic allocation of positions, in a process analogous to bribery, or to ‘earwigging’ attempting to persuade judges outside of the formal process. In both cases, the career networker obtains an unfair advantage. Is it possible to engage in ethical career networking?
My six year old Thomas is reading Star Wars books designed for six year olds. He's actually very good at it, but he does consistently misread the word "universe" as "university." Since it occurs quite a lot in these books, he's constantly telling me things like the following:
My name is Qui-Gon Jinn.
I am a Jedi.
The Jedi are a very special group of beings.
For many thousands of years, we have worked to promote peace and justice in the university.
The response of the political class to the university's claim to a
special status in relation to the polity has been crude but effectual:
if the university, which, when the chips are down, is simply one among
many players competing for public funds, really believes in the lofty
ideals it proclaims, then it must show it is prepared to starve for its
beliefs. I know of no case in which a university has taken up the
The fact is that the record of universities, over the past 30 years, in
defending themselves against pressure from the state has not been a
proud one. Resistance was weak and ill organised; routed, the professors
beat a retreat to their dugouts, from where they have done little
besides launching the intermittent satirical barb against the managerial
newspeak they are perforce having to acquire....
As a follow up to the discussion prompted by this post, please see the fascinating article in Nature (here) which chronicles a rift between pure and applied mathemeticians about NSA's paying pure mathemeticians to help breach global internet security standards.
Another great article from Slate can be found here on how strange it is that the NSA has convinced mathemeticians not to share the results that have been useful for NSA's dangerous gutting of internet security. Not only does this prevent people from building a more secure internet, but also (according to the author) represents a betrayal of mathematics itself. The conclusion could not be more apposite:
You can hide a formula, but you can't prevent others from finding it. One might only need a pencil and a piece of paper to do that. And once the secret is out in the open, it’s not just Big Brother that will be watching us—other “brothers” will be spying on us, intercepting our messages, and hacking our bank accounts.
We live in a new era in which mathematics has become a powerful weapon. It can be used for good—we all benefit from technological advances based on math—but also for ill. When the nuclear bomb was built, theoretical physicists who had inadvertently contributed to creating something monstrous were forced to confront deep ethical questions. What is happening now with mathematics may have similarly grave implications. Members of my community must initiate a serious discussion about our role in this brave new world. We need to find mechanisms to protect the freedom of mathematical knowledge that we love and cherish. And we have to help the public understand both the awesome power of math and the serious consequences that await all of us if that power is misused.
Yesterday I had one of those thank God for tenure moments.
At a meeting of the"Assessment Officers" of over 100 LSU programs as well as most of the relevant deans, I blurted out, "Well, that's perfectly silly," after a dean announced that she would send back for substantial rewriting annual report that did not interpret the assessment "data sets" to entail problems that would be rectified in the "action plan."**[Please read notes ** and **** below to get some idea of just how much make-work this is.]
Then, when the hundred plus group of otherwise intelligent people looked at me, I didn't do a very good job articulating why this kind of thing was stupid during the cultural revolution in China and just as stupid today. I just said that if a unit is doing well there's no reason to find problems and that you can't expect units to get better to infinity.
This precipitated another long speech by the poor man in charge of LSU's compliance with SAAC's accreditation mandates involving assessment.*** This speech reiterated how there's always room for improvement and how this process should be helpful.**** I wanted to explain to him that he had John Calvin's doctrine on the depravity of man dreadfully wrong, but didn't say anything. Besides, everyone present needed guidance on the constantly changing computer interface that makes us enter data in all sorts of new ways and also at six months intervals recursively assess how well we are assessing.
[I am grateful to
Vasso Kindi for accepting our invitation to contribute her reflections after The Guardian
reported that austerity measures pushed the University of Athens to suspend
Universities suffer from nepotism, political patronage, inertia, and structures
that breed favoritism and unaccountability. They are in desperate need of
reform independently of the current financial crisis. Moreover, most Greek graduates
were, until recently, channeled to the public sector where they were hired
merely by only showing their Universities degrees. This meant that, for a great
number of students, learning mattered less than obtaining the degree itself.
University of Athens (UoA) is currently shut down because there is a strike of
the administrative staff. They are protesting against plans, required by the
memorandum signed by the Greek government and its creditors, to reduce 12,500
employees of the public sector by the end of 2013. The universities, which are
all state-owned, will lose 1349 members of their administrative personnel and
the UoA 498 out of 1375. Those who are on strike have prohibited access to all
university buildings. We cannot have classes, exams, register new students. We
cannot even go to our offices.
Herman Melville got it wrong. Bartleby the Scrivener did not in fact die in that prison cell. Instead, he was awarded tenure.
Of course today's Bartlebies cannot just say "I prefer not to" when asked to run the committee charged with collating all of his colleagues' TPS reports* (and entering into a fairly inscrutable database the raw data, the collated reports, and lies about how this data will improve the department to infinity, as well as attending brainwashing sessions about how the TPS reports and database is changing, and then doing all the work over again when the people at the TPS office find something wrong with the formatting, etc., etc. etc.)
Instead what today's Bartlebies do is just make sure that every time they are asked to do service, they do a horrible job. And they do a horrible job with so much unapologetic aplomb that the resulting cluster-**** becomes the fault of the person who actually asked them to contribute to departmental service. If you are really good at the jujitsu, you make it significantly more work for others whenever you are asked to help them with anything, and soon they stop asking.
Everyone reading this has at least one colleague or professor who has made an art form of this very kind of passive-aggressive jujitsu. And the learned helplessness is always a bit of a con. If your organizational skills are good enough to do all the things necessary to get tenure, they are good enough to do your bit of the soul crushing meaningless labor handed down by the administrative class.
Prior to the reign of "assessment," (I am *just* old enough to remember those halcyon days) I was significantly bitter towards the Bartlebies among us. I mean, someone has to do the administrative work and passive-aggressive helplessness is taking advantage of people who are willing to do it (plus, it shows that anarchism probably won't work, which is a sad commentary on humanity).
But in the era of TPS reports, I can't help but admire the Bartleby.
We sought ways around the gridlock of current debates over the role
of religion in public life by examining the way an early 18th century
philosopher and theologian had responded to similar circumstances by
refashioning the concept of God to accommodate modern ways of thought.
The Australian Research Council’s panel of experts, acting on the advice
of independent specialist assessors, deemed it worth pursuing. On the
basis of its title alone, however, Briggs deems it “ridiculous”.
During deconstructionisms's heyday Is there a text in this class? served an important function, and in graduate school I quite enjoyed him as David Lodge's Morris Zapp character, though the joke is vastly less funny now that I'm in the biz for real.
Anyhow, TNR's Russell Jacoby (HERE) has Fish's monotonous schtick dead to rights:
The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders missed this obsessive-compulsive disorder of literary professors: repeating sans cesse the pedestrian observation that everything is contextual and contingent. Fish has taken this historicist principle and run with it forever. He is still agog over it.
Jacoby also has a pretty nice discussion of just how unhelpful are Fish's attempted application of this observation to issues concerning the university. Though I disagree with Jacoby's dismissal of the academic study of pop culture, his conclusion does not rest on it.
Fish has been unable to uphold the liberal arts as anything more than a vehicle to provide jobs for liberal-arts professors, who do what they do. After all, the liberal tradition has served him and his friends quite nicely. “I believe fully in the core curriculum,” he wrote in one of his Times columns on the crisis of the humanities, “as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.” Bully for him. But if this is the best defense of the liberal arts by one of its most celebrated practitioners, who needs it?
Feh. . . Kurt Cobain didn't die so that fatuous millionaires could thumb their noses at the rest of us ad infinitum in the pages of the New York Times. Thank God for the Stone.
Rick Perlstein's latest at The Nation (HERE) makes for some pretty brutal reading. The first part is worth sharing if you have well meaning family members like mine, who for a decade or so hectored me to cold-call various department chairs so that I could get a job where my children (only potentially existing at the time) would have grandparents nearby.*
After recounting friend after friend debasing themselves in all sorts of ways in often futile attempts to get meaningful employment and/or tenure, Perlstein turns to the superstars he knows.
I think of one academic couple I know, of whom I am very fond, and whose contributions to teaching and scholarship and left-wing activism are exemplary. I don’t begrudge them their gorgeous home with the expansive deck overlooking mountains and ocean; I don’t begrudge one of them for letting slip—we all have moments of hubris—that they make $400,000 between them. I don’t begrudge another such couple the fancy catered dinner parties they’re able to throw in their fancy home, because, hell, I was the guest of honor at one of those dinner parties. In fact, I’ve been the guest of honor, as a visiting independent scholar, at fancy dinners at all sorts of fancy universities, and am invariably fond of my hosts, for the most part decent, dedicated people: 1960s veterans, mainly, who’ve done their best to keep their values intact.
But here’s their problem—a tragic flaw. They’re hardly aware that they’re aristocrats, and that they oversee an army of intellectual serfs.
Is the flaw really anything approximating a tragic one? Is the dereliction of those at the top (and those of us not at the top but with tenure protection) even really "structural" in the sense of Lance's post on complicity (HERE)? I don't know and would be interested in what people think. Maybe whatever personality traits make it the case that you are going to succeed in this kind of climate also tend to make you uniquely unsuited to do anything helpful once you are there. Perlstein himself describes how Kafkaesque the tenure process is and what this might do to one's soul. I'm sure that delivering the same paper dozens of times a year as an invited speaker does weird things too. Perhaps this is a structural facet along the lines of the manner in which anyone willing to do what politicians have to do to win elections in the United States now is a priori completely unsuited for public office. I don't know. . .
I've been to four on-campus Barnes and Nobles across the country in the last six months and at this point all of them have two distressing things in common: (1) no matter what the floor-space, far less than 1/4ths the amount of trade books as a regular store, and (2) televisions all over the place (both in and outside the cafe) droning insidious submental crap.
Who decided that it would be a good idea if one of the primary places students, faculty, and staff gather on college campuses should be horrible in the same manner as an American airport? I'm serious, who made this decision? And by what possible reasoning? It's not like they are doing this with their regular stores (yet).
I know for a fact that the faculty didn't get input on this. At LSU the Faculty Senate twice had drawn-out struggles with Barns and Noble to get them to turn the volumes of the televisions off. We finally won both of those because they were in the student union building at the time. But since they've moved to their (much, much bigger but with a fraction of the trade books) new campus building no longer being rented from the student union they've broken the agreement yet again, and instead of the loop tape of T.V. commercials they now have advertising on in the cafe and Fox News throughout the rest of the store. What used to be a cafe where people would talk about actual stuff they might be studying is now one where everybody sits solipsistically immersed behind protective earbuds. Welcome to college, lemmings! You are all individuals! Now stare gape-jawed at this blue jeans commercial that tells you so.
In the meantime, Turkey's Education Ministry and Higher Education Board (YÖK) have launched investigations against teachers and university lecturers across the country who allegedly encouraged their students to join in the Gezi Park demonstrations, media reports said on Tuesday.
*Such is the state of discourse in Turkey nowadays (obviously, my grasp of the Turkish situation is filtered through news stories in English) that this bizarre sentence hardly seems out of the ordinary: " 'Firing tear gas is a most natural right of the police. Have they fired a bullet? Have they used guns?' Erdoğan asked."