Thursday, February 26, 2009

Respect for humanities, not humanities, in decline

The New York Times is wringing its hands over the decline in the humanities, and, as usual, Dean Dad nails the flaw in the argument, noting that the money quote, near the end of the piece, states that the number of humanities degrees has remained constant for the past ten years.

The real problem is that for much of the past decade, the culture isn't listening to what the humanities have to teach. Let's just take a few examples from English, American history, rhetoric, and philosophy, shall we?
  • Rhetoric. A culture that took rhetoric seriously wouldn't have fallen for the fallacious arguments (concluding with "He tried to kill my dad!") that had the U.S. searching for terrorists in Iraq instead of Afghanistan just because "Iraq had better targets." Some columnist said at the time that by that logic, you should look in the garage for the keys you lost in the driveway, because the garage has better lighting. But by stating contrary propositions on different days as though they were fact--and were reported as such with a straight face by, yes, The New York Times and other news media--enough people were duped to lead the country into an unstoppable series of events.
  • Writing. An economic culture that took writing and language seriously (not to mention math) would have said that the Emperor of Derivatives had no clothes. Difficult terminology doesn't necessarily mean that you're stupid for not understanding it. It may mean that the language, as Orwell predicted, is designed to hide chicanery--and so it was.
  • Literature. Speaking of Orwell, those who had read 1984 in one of those despised humanities courses would know what was being said, when, after 6 years of being told "stay the course," we were told that the president was "never about stay the course." It's the same as being told that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia in Orwell's novel, as Leonard Pitts pointed out at the time.
  • Philosophy--logic and critical thinking skills. An education in critical thinking skills would have told a prospective homebuyer that paying no money down + no interest + more money than she makes in a year = massive FAIL. The figures don't add up, didn't add up at the time, and will never add up. Did the executives at Countrywide and the other mortgage lenders really not grasp this?
  • History. The only glimmer of historical memory in all this is the refusal of the U.S. population to go along with the dog-and-pony show of 2004-early 2005: "Let's privatize Social Security! C'mon, it'll be fun! The brokers will make a fortune! And the stock market can never go down, so what's to worry about?" Somebody, somewhere, had a dim recollection of October 1929 and subsequent events, and enough of those people refused to go along with the hype so that the cumulative disasters mentioned above weren't compounded by this one.
So to all this talk about cutting back on the humanities because they aren't useful, I would say this: they aren't useful if you don't use them. If you do, and if we had, we'd be in a much better place in this country right now.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Happy Terminalia!

According to my rusty recollection of Roman history courses and the ever-trusty Wikipedia, February 23 is the day (Terminalia) that splits the month into two odd-numbered parts and is the end of the religious year. Did the Romans split it up because it was both unbearably long and ridiculously short? Was it called Terminalia because the Romans had reached the end of their patience with eternally gray skies by the 23rd?

After all the administrative tasks of recent weeks, I want to make a fresh start even if spring is still months away, so here are some Terminalia resolutions:
  • In the spirit of Terminalia, I replaced my aging computer and its faulty monitor, which everyone in my family refused to use because they said it gave them eyestrain. I can now have the new computer on AND talk on the phone at the same time, something that the noise factor of the old one made impossible; also, my eyes aren't red and watery by the end of the day, which together with my family's approval makes me think that this monitor is A-OK. Also, new and shiny (but not expensive, amazingly enough) is even better than chocolate for revving up excitement about writing, wouldn't you say?
  • I'm going to try to get back to writing in the mornings, especially if I wake up early (4 or 5 a.m.). Productivity rules, or so I hear, and it sure beats the bad dreams that happen if I fall back asleep. This morning's dream after waking up at 4: I had to write my Ph.D. prelims by hand, using one of those slow Bic ballpoint pens. On black paper, where no one could read what I'd written. Yes, that was surely worth staying asleep for.
So is Terminalia a do-over for those January resolutions that didn't quite get off the ground? I sure hope so.

Edited to add: I wrote this on the 23rd but put it into a draft post from Saturday, one of many that never got finished recently--sort of in the spirit of Terminalia, really.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rainbows, lollipops to sprout from trees shortly thereafter

Another long, long week, and . . . oh, wait, you mean it's not over yet? I will get back to posting soon.

In the meantime, here's "Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes":

“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

Okay, we've all seen that scenario. But at the University of Wisconsin, there are special seminars for first-year students that are designed to combat this attitude:

The seminars are integrated into introductory courses. Examples include the conventional, like a global-warming seminar, and the more obscure, like physics in religion.

The seminars “are meant to help students think differently about their classes and connect them to real life,” Professor Brower said.

He said that if students developed a genuine interest in their field, grades would take a back seat, and holistic and intrinsically motivated learning could take place.
I'd like to think that this is true and that the people at Wisconsin are tracking the program to see if students develop a keen interest in "holistic and intrinsically motivated learning" instead of grades. As long as the "external rewards" of med school, business school, and jobs are on the line, however, do you think that concern over grades will take a back seat to "intrinsically motivated learning"?

[Updated to add: I just saw that Female Science Professor has posted about this, too.]

Monday, February 09, 2009

Stanley Fish's straw man

In the New York Times, Stanley Fish has a column about Professor Denis Rancourt of the University of Ottawa, who was apparently fired for (1) announcing on the first day that all his students in a physics class would receive an A+ and (2) defending what he calls "academic squatting" (teaching about the oppression of the system rather than physics), which he cast as an exercise in academic freedom.

I don't know about the case and suspect there's more to it than Fish lets on, but it's this statement that caught my attention, a hypothetical instance that Fish poses to his course in the law of higher education: "Suppose you were a member of a law firm or a mid-level executive in a corporation and you skipped meetings or came late, blew off assignments or altered them according to your whims, abused your colleagues and were habitually rude to clients. What would happen to you?" Fish goes on to say that, a la Rancourt, you'd be celebrated for standing up for academic freedom instead of being fired, as you would in industry.

Is he right? Not where I teach.

1. "Skipped meetings or came in late." The crucial part here is which meetings? Skipping class meetings? A professor who's habitually absent or late for class is going to get crucified on student evaluations, which are, in many cases, the only evidence that the administration admits for the "teaching" part of the teaching/scholarship/service component of yearly evaluation.

Skipping department meetings is another matter. Some people don't show up for years at a time, unless something upsets them, while others try to go to every one. In what seems to be an academic parable of the vineyard, both are apparently treated equally at evaluation time, so Fish may have a point about that.

2. "Blew off assignments or altered them according to your whims." Absolutely not. Aren't we now in the era of the iron-clad syllabus, where we're held to the syllabus as we are to any other contract? Students may like exciting classes and variable activities, but when it comes to assignments, they hate change. Like most reasonable people, they want to know what they have to do and when they have to do it.

And how is Fish defining "whims"? One person's "whim" may be another person's brilliant idea of how to make the pedagogy work better. There's usually a way to make those kinds of changes, and they aren't "whims." "Whim" is just a pejorative way of saying "idea."

3. "Abused your colleagues and were habitually rude to clients." Okay, Fish may have us there. Everyone knows or has heard of the academic whose rudeness or ruthlessness is legendary but whose scholarship/grant productivity is such that he or she is untouchable by ordinary mortals and their disciplinary procedures. Still, these types are more rare (aren't they?) than they used to be, or is that just a Panglossian view of the academy?

So would this person be an academic hero in your department? Fish says he would.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Nobody knows anything

By "nobody," I don't mean the estimable Dr. Crazy, New Kid, and Sisyphus, all of whom have excellent posts (responding to Thomas Hart Benton at the Chronicle) about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of attending grad school in English, with New Kid emphasizing that the often-offered panacea of teaching at a community college isn't one and Crazy rightly protesting that Benton's formula would have only the super-privileged continuing to be the super-privileged. They know something, all right: that the job market is terrible and that getting a Ph.D. in a humanities discipline is risky.

But when those eager undergrads come to us holding out a dream that goes "I want to be a professor!" we ought to be able to do something more productive than smash it. What are the alternatives?

This is why I say "nobody knows anything." We gesture toward some alternatives, sure, but what do we know about them?

  • Law school? But there are a lot of unemployed or underemployed lawyers out there. As I understand it, the law profession has been undergoing the same adjunctification, if that's a word, as the academy, with big firms scooping up fully qualified attorneys and paying them a pittance without the prospect of being an associate or making partner (equivalent of t-t and tenured).
  • Tech writing? Yes, this is a good option in normal times. But in a job market where even the mighty Microsoft is laying off employees, is it a realistic one? What are the prospects out there?
  • Foundation work and grantwriting? Again, communication skills are important, but what are the prospects like in this economy?
  • High school teaching? I tell my students (truthfully) that high school teachers are better paid than professors, but they still would need to get certified, unless they're willing to teach in a private high school. If the "want to be a professor" dream is really about wanting to teach, this would be a good option. But several states put caps on the number of teachers that can be trained, so this could be a limited option.
  • Going into another field--science, maybe? It's not as farfetched as it sounds. If the student is generally strong academically, apparently medical schools are looking for people with varied backgrounds, as long as the person can also pass organic chemistry or whatever. And if it's research that attracts the student, why not get a Ph.D. in nursing? The desperate shortage of nurses is due in part to a lack of faculty, since practitioners can make more than Ph.D. nurses who teach, so there's a growth industry.
If you look at a list of what English majors do when they graduate, it's really eclectic. Some go into their family's business, or go into sales, or work as a tech writer, or teach, but the paths that take them there are individual paths. But I don't think it's enough when they come to us about wanting to go to grad school and we say, dramatically, "Do something else, anything else." That's probably the same advice they're getting from their history, art history, and languages teachers.

The question is this: what do we (the academy) tell them? I don't know enough. Do you?

Nobody knows anything.*

[*For the record, this is William Goldman's famous quotation about Hollywood in Adventures in the Screen Trade. I'm stealing it but didn't want to plagiarize or anything.]

Sunday, February 01, 2009

From the Chronicle: Who needs library chairs?

From the Chronicle about a new library opening at Fresno State:

“The collection level below the first floor is arguably the largest single-floor open compact shelving in the world,” Mr. McDonald said. It “can hold on a single floor upwards of 1.3 million items. So the books as such remain in the building, it is just that they are significantly compacted to make room elsewhere in the building for user centered services and seating.”

Although I still tend to think that books and not "user centered services," should, you know, be the focus of a library, I'm very glad that they've found places for the books and haven't thrown them away, even if it does mean Adventures in Compact Shelving.

And I'm willing to bet this: if Fresno State is like most campuses, it probably has a lots of chairs stashed away somewhere. Think about what chairs it probably has and what the library could do with them:

1. Those light-colored maple chairs from the 1950s could go in one area, along with the carved-in-graffiti tables from the era--a piece of history.

2. The steel chairs from the 1960s that were meant to withstand a Soviet atomic blast. You can bet they're still around.

3. Those plastic Eames chairs that came in back when the world was groovy. They were supposed to be so, so comfortable because they were shaped like your body and were so, so not.

4. The library chairs with padded seats and backs covered in woven fabrics that someone unwisely judged would be impermeable to spilled coffee and general crud. Those came in in the 1970s, and that's what most places have now. You can judge their vintage from the colors: 1970s = mustard yellow/avocado green; 1980s = patriotic red or blue, etc.

In short, there's probably only really a NEW chair shortage. If you grouped the old ones and made them seem a piece of library history, you could probably have a chair-filled library that would work for the present.

What's valued and what counts

It's annual review season, and as usual, we are asked for the same information sliced-and-diced in different ways for different purposes. One of the forms for upper administration asks us to count things and has specific requirements for what we can include.

1. What counts: number of books published.
  • What doesn't: time spent warming a chair in colleagues' presentations in order to show support.
  • Attendance at faculty meetings.
  • Showing up at various university functions for which the organizers get a vita line and glowing praise for putting on such a successful and informative event.
2. What counts: articles published.
  • What doesn't: time spent preparing courses, grading, and talking with students. Advising.
3. What counts: giving papers at national and international conferences.
  • What doesn't: working at the organizational level (committees) to make those conferences happen.
But at the department level, all those things are valued. As a recent meeting made clear, at a department level, we ask those questions: who's advising students? Who does a good job in the classroom? Who, at the most basic level, is here and doing the things that make the place run?

The old Woody Allen dictum is that eighty percent of success is just showing up. Upper admin only cares about the other 20%, but the department does care about the 80%.