Monday, March 31, 2008

The Tenure Wars

Both Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle have posts on tenure, with the latter citing Tenured Radical, Lumpenprofessoriat, Oso Raro, and Professor Zero. There are lots of good and thoughtful ideas in these (go read them; I'll wait), but I wanted to mention two in particular, the comments of Professor Z and The Constructivist/CitizenSE:

Professor Zero:
I think the abolition of tenure would be an CEO-administrator’s dream. The entire workforce would be contingent, and certain research and development stars could be retained through very high salaries and the elimination, for them, of all but the most specialized teaching and all service except on projects which directly benefit them.

The Constructivist (comment #20):
As for the supposed glut of dead wood in academia, I challenge J and AHA to visit my department and identify the tenured people who should be fired. (Sorry that we don’t have any lab space to be wasting at taxpayer expense.) Identifying deadwood from afar is about as productive by judging the state of the English profession by titles at the MLA convention, the prevalence of classic literature in curricula by titles in the course catalog, and the legitimacy of a judgment by “in my personal experience.” Which is to say that it happens all the time, even in comment boxes.

I don't deny that there are abuses in the tenure process, especially in dysfunctional departments or universities, but is this a good reason to abolish the whole system?

To echo The Constructivist, where is all this supposed deadwood? At the risk of proving his point about evidence-by-anecdote, those senior faculty I've known, at my institution and others, have been highly productive. If they aren't, they're the ones who are in the faculty senate protecting faculty interests from rapacious cost-cutting by central administration, or mentoring younger faculty, or doing advising. Some take the time for undergraduate students that tenure-track people can't spare. Who's going to do this if tenure is abolished? Those who want to find themselves out of a job, that's who, since in a free market, the only thing that will be valued is what can be measured. Human interaction and working for the good of the whole can't be measured. Scholarship stats can. Which one will a faculty member in a new tenureless system spend time on, do you think?

And Professor Z is right about the corporate model. We'll be like Target and Wal-Mart, which fire managers when they hit 45 and get in younger workers who'll work for cheap. Frankly, I'm a little shocked by the ageist bias I see the comments at IHE and CHE: would it be all right to say "let's get rid of the women, because they're always having babies and messing up our scholarly productivity stats anyway?" Of course not, and yet somehow it's entirely acceptable to say this about senior (in age, not rank) faculty.

Institutional quality could suffer, too. We already see the "consumer service" model being promoted by administrations; who's going to hold the line on plagiarism or teaching difficult topics if a disgruntled customer student blasts you on a teaching evaluation? With tenure, that's not as much of a concern. Without tenure, we'd have to cater to the interests of a shallow few rather than the genuine intellectual curiosity of those students who are there to learn.

I hadn't paid as much attention to this topic as I should have done, because earning tenure didn't change what I did or how I approached the job; I didn't feel depressed or let down, and I didn't feel trapped, all comments expressed on blogs and the CHE forums. But without it, I might feel compelled to teach a course in the literature of Facebook or something instead of equally interesting things that demand a little more effort.

[Edited to add: Actually, I'd have to teach "The Literature of Facebook: The Movie," if I really wanted to reach every student. The majority aren't like this (shallow), but under a tenureless system, the class could conceivably be run by those who are, and that's what I fear.]

Friday, March 28, 2008

Random bullets of TGIF and grammar goodness

  • My students are great, both undergrads and grads. I don't want to say any more lest any of them venture into this tiny corner of the internets and recognize themselves but they're interesting, they have good ideas, they're prepared, and they seem interested in what we're doing. I come away from classes energized and full of ideas of my own, and isn't that a great feeling?
  • That said, I was so tired last night by the time I got home, and so glad to be home, that I wanted to hug the floor. I settled instead for crawling into bed at an ungodly early hour.
  • I know I promised to stop complaining about the weather, but I want it to stop snowing. I want the roads to be dry, not icy.
  • For some grammar geek goodness, check out the interview with Merill Perlman, Director of Copy Desks at the New York Times. A sample: "As for your second question, Internet and Web are not proper nouns in the way that New York Times is, but common usage started out with them capitalized. I suspect that, before too long, they will become generic, like television or telephone. Our dictionary (and our stylebook) leaves them uppercase for now. (At the beginning, e-mail was almost universally rendered as E-mail, and is fast becoming email.)" I have a now-antiquated Wired Guide to Style from the 1990s that still has these capitalized, and it now seems almost quaint to see the way we were told to write "Web site" (always with a capital, always two words), "Internet," and so on.
  • Wednesday, March 26, 2008

    "Kill your darlings"

    Wasn't it Mark Twain who said that the first rule of a writer is to "kill your darlings"?

    At the Chronicle, Rachel Toor has an essay called "Goodbye to All That" (one of my favorite titles, by the way, and taken from Robert Graves's autobiography) that gives similar advice. Here's a little of it, with the sentence that particularly struck me in bold:
    In a passage that should elicit whoops of assent from his former colleagues at university presses, he [William Germano] gives advice on titles: "Avoid titles that quote literature (and especially avoid titles that use quotation marks to set off the borrowed words). Shun titles that insert punctuation in the middle of words (Re:Vision, De/Construction, and other once-new formulations that are tired now.) Avoid the academic double-whammy of an abstract title and a concrete subtitle separated by a colon."
    . . . .

    During a three-hour run with my friend Dean, he told me about his dissertation. A strong runner and Ironman triathlete, he slowed his pace so that I could keep up, and as we covered miles of trail ascending Stuart Peak, I asked him a barrage of questions.

    By the time we'd climbed the hardest part, it was clear to me how he could revise his dissertation for publication. It would take a lot of work — an overhaul of the entire structure and some serious rethinking — but the ideas and the research could be shaped into a terrific book. It would mean saying goodbye to all the pages he had worked so hard on, and hello to a new project.

    I've been thinking about that a lot as I work through the writing that I am doing right now and as I've been reading work by my students. It's easy to get carried away with your own thought processes, and the longer and more painful the process of writing a section is, the harder it is to think about tossing it out. Even if it's a section, an organizational scheme, or even an argument that fails to come together, it's still hard. Part of what struck me about what Toor was saying was the sense of excitement she felt--as an editor, someone disinterested but not uninterested--because she could see the phoenix in the ashes, so to speak, although the author can only see the ashes at that point. I'd like to think that that excitement is what I convey when I'm meeting students about their papers and explaining why they have to kill their darlings.

    Of course, what makes this process possible and tolerable is knowing that earlier that day I'd had to kill my own darlings, so to speak, by jettisoning sections of painfully written text. I guess that's what gives us empathy as well as credibility with the students. Part of learning to write is learning to be, as much as possible, your own Rachel Toor to separate the phoenix and the ashes, because unlike a real phoenix, a piece of writing isn't going to rise by itself.

    Sunday, March 23, 2008

    Easter snow

    As a northern person from way back, I always get a laugh (okay, a bitter laugh) out of the pictures of green grass, Easter egg hunts, chicks and bunnies, spring clothes, and all those images of general sunshiny goodness that the news likes to promote. As I think back, the only holiday with consistently worse weather than Easter in a northern climate is Halloween. (I have yet to experience a Halloween without gale-force winds, snow, rain, or all three, but it seems appropriate then.)

    It's not snowing today, although we got close to a blizzard a couple of days ago. The freezing rain is pouring down on the brown, dead grass, and the sky is the same unvarying gray that it has been since what passed for sunrise this morning.

    But sometimes you have to go with what you believe rather than with what the objective sensory experience of the weather tells you.

  • When I was little, I liked wearing new clothes and shoes for Easter even though no one would see them, since we were stuffed into a snowsuit and boots for the trip to church.
  • As a teenager, I had some very un-Easterlike arguments with my mother about whether I needed to wear full winter gear over my new spring dress to go visit the grandparents. "It's Easter! It's spring," I insisted, and won, though my legs beneath my stockings were mottled blue with the cold and my teeth chattered in the icy wind and snow.

    In contemplating what seems to be a dead season, you have to believe it's alive. You have to will yourself into being Shelley.

    Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
    Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
    And, by the incantation of this verse,

    Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
    Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
    Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

    The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
    If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
  • Wednesday, March 19, 2008

    Teaching: that was then; this is now

    A friend recently wrote that because of various schedule conflicts she was going to drop the last book on her syllabus. She added something like this: "I would have agonized over that choice when I first started teaching, but not now."

    Along those lines, I discovered that I had left an entire week off my otherwise detailed and carefully planned syllabus for this semester. When I first started teaching, explaining this to the class would have made me worry: would they think I didn't know what I was doing? Would they complain because now I assigned additional readings? This week, however, I went in with a new syllabus for the rest of the term, explained it briefly, and joked that although I obviously could read literature, I clearly couldn't read a calendar.

    I'm thinking of other things, too, that once took a lot of time (and sometimes distress) on my part that I don't think about now:
  • Fielding the "when will you give our papers back?" question.
    Then: I tried to calculate when I could get them done and went short on sleep to be sure that I got them done.
    Now: "When I get them done." Smile.
  • Confronting a plagiarist.
    Then: Talk to other teachers about an appropriate penalty (rewrite? report it?), get worried, and brace myself for the discussion.
    Now: Know what the penalties are. Tell the student I need to see him or her. Apply the penalties.
  • Having a student talk in class or acting up in some way.
    Then: Get angry, but don't show it. Get flustered.
    Now: Give the Steely-Eyed Glare (tm). Ask the student to speak to you after class.
  • Having a student ask you a question that you don't know the answer to, or challenge you about an answer you've given.
    Then: Backpedal desperately, maybe. Worry that you don't know as much as the students.
    Now: Say "I don't know. Can you tell me more about it?" or "That's amazing; I didn't know that. Can you explain that further?"

  • Linked to this is the knowledge that about some subjects, students will have a deep well of knowledge from some special interest they have. For example, instead of launching into an explanation of some historical or cultural event now--the Battle of the Marne, maybe, or Gettysburg, or the meaning of "elegy," or the history of the light bulb--I ask if anyone knows something about it. Often, they do, and once they've given their explanation, I can expand on it and bring it back to the class discussion.

    What about you? What do you do differently now that you've taught for a while?

    Tuesday, March 18, 2008

    Lessons from Lucy

    You know that I Love Lucy episode where Lucy tries to wrap the chocolates but they keep coming along the line faster and faster until she's overwhelmed?

    Yeah, it's like that right now, but I will write a real post soon.

    Sunday, March 16, 2008

    Woods walk

      For those who want something to look at besides unfinished writing.
    Posted by Picasa

    Wednesday, March 12, 2008

    Random questions with a few answers

    Questions that have drawn me away from writing in the past 24 hours.

  • Everybody knows that Charles Dickens became a crack reporter of parliamentary doings, but what system of shorthand did he use? Gregg? It hadn't been invented yet. Pitman? Maybe. (Answer: Gurney.) Did he and other writers who began as writers of shorthand (e.g., Arnold Bennett) keep using it for short notes and things once they began writing novels?
  • Is there a life cycle to academic book prices? I've been pricing two books I want to buy, one from 1992 and one from 1997, and they're both ridiculously expensive. Does this cycle sound right to you? Freshly published: full price or discounted at MLA; 5 years out, may be discounted and show up on Scholar's Bookshelf; 10-15 years out, priced like a Shakespeare First Folio; 20 years out, $2 on eBay and
  • Will I ever get to see the wronged wife of a cheating politician haul off and smack his face on live television, just once? Am I the only otherwise nonviolent person who hopes fervently to see this?
  • Thursday, March 06, 2008

    Mark Bauerlein: Break out the chocolate and put your feet up; you're working too hard

    Over at the Chronicle, Mark Bauerlein has ignited a firestorm of controversy (for the academic world, anyway) with his post "Stop Pushing Yourself." A sample:
    But if we look at tenured professors in the humanities and in many other disciplines, it seems to me that much of the work they do is entirely self-generated. The conference papers that have to be written, the scholarly articles they want to complete, the book projects that hang over them . . . these are not required. They are elective. . . . So why do they do it? Is it really worth sweating all those months getting that manuscript in order—which upon publication will sell only a few hundred copies—just to boost your annual raise a few hundred dollars?

    New Kid had a good take on this, pointing out (as did some of the original commenters) that this applies only to the most privileged portions of academe, and Michael Berube points out that service work isn't being counted at all in Bauerlein's model. Eric Rauchway makes the point about privilege but with more charts and graphs for added outrage, and jbj at the Salt-Box says that maybe and in a very loose sense some of the activities are optional, but they're only optional if you think that things like advising, faculty governance, and paying attention to your teaching are optional (which apparently Bauerlein does).

    I've said before that no one, and especially academics, likes being told "I'm so busy that I don't have time to do X, but would you do it?" It's a pistols-at-dawn remark to tell someone that you don't think he or she is as busy as you are, and, in effect, this is part of the sore spot that Bauerlein has hit with a sledgehammer. He's saying, in effect, "You're busy, but you don't have to be, and so your busyness doesn't count. In fact, a lot of what you do doesn't really matter." That's right up there with "I don't have time to read this manuscript/write this committee report/learn how to use Blackboard/meet with this student, but I'm sure you wouldn't mind taking it on" as an incitement to rage. His point goes deeper than that, however, as the bloggers mentioned above have discussed so well, so I just have a few questions:

  • Did Mark Bauerlein see his two books as optional? Would he have been promoted to full professor without them?
  • That "few hundred dollars" may not mean much to him, but to someone who takes coupons to Costco and is elated when she saves $15, it's a lot. I guess it depends on whether you already have a lot of money, but $300 is a lot to most of us, especially, as several have pointed out, if it's added to your salary base and extends over a lifetime.
  • And those readers? Are we to give up if we don't sell books like Dan Brown and Tom Clancy combined? Channeling Milton: "Still govern thou my song, / Urania, and fit audience find though few" (PLVII.30-1)
  • Isn't the incessant whining about and fear of academic deadwood that goes on in the Chronicle and elsewhere proof that "pushing yourself" is not only encouraged but required in academics? Does anyone expect this culture to change?
  • If he doesn't think that contributing to a store of knowledge is important, what about teaching? What about the extra time we take to just sit down and talk with students who want to talk? Is that time wasted, too?

    I wonder if Bauerlein isn't part of a more general trend that's always being written about: you know, the corporate executive who quits everything to raise goats in New Hampshire or open a cafe or whatever. He makes a pile of money and then writes a "My Turn" in Newsweek pontificating on the joys of rural living and the bad effects of corporate stress. Maybe that's the case with Bauerlein. He's done what he needed to do and now wants to cut back (maybe; this is speculation), and, because he doesn't see how others might not be in the same place in terms of salary or career, he's eager to see other s do that too. In other words, the most charitable interpretation of what he's saying is that he's made this discovery and wants to share it with the rest of us.

    Of course, such an attitude rests, as it always does to a greater or lesser degree, on privilege--not just the academic privilege of having a 2-2 load at a private university but having the salary that goes with it, the kind of salary that maybe allows you to kick back, open a box of chocolates, put your feet up, and relax.

    If you want to offer me that salary, give me a call. In the meantime, I'll be writing.
  • Wednesday, March 05, 2008

    You might be an English professor if . . .

    . . . you hear Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars" on the radio (and it seems to be on constantly), and you listen to "If I lie here / If I just lay here," and, instead of being moved by it, you think this:

    No, you're still in present tense, so "lay" should be "lie." "Lay" is the past tense of "lie" or an entirely different verb altogether. Get with the program!

    Sunday, March 02, 2008

    On writing: learning to sprint and other enticements

    I turned my internet connection off today, and, sure enough, I got more writing done. By "turned off" I mean unplugged, which means that to override my "no internet" ban and give in to temptation I would have to root around underneath my desk and plug it back in, a real disincentive. By the time 5:00 rolls around, I'm eager to get at my email, which I would have been checking all day except for the ban. You know what? There was nothing interesting or important there, nothing at all. It's a good lesson in just how indispensable email can be.

    (Incidentally, e-mail or email? NYTimes seems to favor the hyphen, but most people don't use it. I feel a little like a 1920s person writing "to-day" when I use it but, like Miss Manners, I want to be perfectly correct.)

    The other technique I tried is something I thought of as "sprints." With the idea that I can stand anything for 20 minutes, I set the timer for 20 minutes and write down my progress at the end. It may be a lot of words or only a few, but it looks like progress. An alternative system is to stop at the end of each hour and count the words.

    Now, counting words isn't the measure of whether a piece is good or lousy, or even whether you'll have to scrap what you've written because it's so bad or goes in the wrong direction. But what it does is allow me to say this to the voices in my head: "I'm sitting here in the chair. I'm not reading election news on or And I am writing words. The only way to get from here to done is to write words, and I am doing that."

    Deepak Chopra or some of the other fancy spiritual folks could probably make something high-sounding out of this (can you tell I have never read him?) but plain and practical is good enough for now.