Sunday, May 7, 2017

How little we know about each other

Not only is this the season for graduation, it is also one for retirement parties.

The fact that higher education is explicitly hierarchical in the United States is hardly surprising, nor does it seem strange that the different sections of the education system have very little to do with each other, but what catches me off guard repeatedly is how little educational institutions know about each other.

All schools tend to be insular; they pretend that the only way in which to organize knowledge is according to the rules they are currently using, which is why educational institutions tend to replicate themselves. Their ingrained patterns of decision-making stretch on for decades, if not centuries. Such institutional habits can mean that universities are protected from sudden shifts and changes in the political world.  How many Happy Valleys are there across the country?  It takes much more than short term funding cuts to alter the habits of universities. On the other hand, this ingrained behavior also has its unnerving side. One of the secondary revelations that university scandals bring forth is the simple fact that this terrible thing that has us all outraged (hazing, sexual assault, cheating, murderous drinking) has been going on, overlooked and unaltered, for decades.

Nostalgia for the years we spent at school, along with the fund raising that fosters such sentimentalism, depends on the principle that university life now looks much the same as it did forty years ago. Not only does the campus look almost the same as it did when we were students, the students, deans and professors behave much the same. The undergraduates carry on with their social dramas now as we did then—this is the implicit message universities like to send their graduates as a reminder of their youth.  Higher administrators carefully preserve this sentimental stability while students and professors reenact it unwittingly.  Implicit in this nostalgia is the distinction between the world out there that constantly changes and the process of learning in here which carries on unabated.

But this insularity is not just a ruse to foster donations, it operates on so many levels within each university and between them, so that different institutions have no idea about each other.

It is always a marvel how little Ivy League and land grant universities understand each other.  If you have studied and taught at both types, you can see how they replicate their insularity on a larger scale, so that professors from each set often have the strangest ideas about each other. The one set looks down on the other, but what really surprises me always is that the snobbery cuts both ways.  Professors at land grant universities often insist that the Ivies don’t really teach you anything other than a small sliver of trendy theory. Ivy league professors shun land grant universities for having a medieval mindset. I remember my astonishment the first time I head a Midwest professor said he would never send his best students to an Ivy League university because they don’t learn anything there. Not to mention the East coast professors who believe that sending their kids to a state university was the kiss of death.

Underneath all these prejudices, which includes the number one prejudice that we have no prejudices, there are large-scale trends that affect us all.  Change does come to the university and the problems that you think are unique to your own institution often turn out to be shared. 

Professors and students always imagine that the things that disturb their sleep are the unique burden of their own special institution, when in fact they happen on Broadway as well as on the leafy campus.  The cruelties at one institution are accepted at another. Ivy League academics cling and claw to the hierarchy that tolerates them. Land grant scholars mutter that they deserve better than this corporate treatment.


Both sets of institutions depend on the army of under paid and unappreciated lecturers, yet each has a different explanation for why the system has to be the way it is.  Even in their misery, academics cling to the notion that their situation is unique and could be improved if they only went somewhere else like here only better—the peer institution that actually appreciates you.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Expulsion, Attraction, Expulsion

Some administrators have the hardness to clear out deadwood by imposing new standards of evaluation. For institutions trailing behind the national curve, this task can be vital, but then problems arise once the clearing out has been completed—how does the university fill the new positions made available.  Those same administrators who chased out the old guard will now find it difficult to attract and retain quality replacements. If they start imposing the same standards they used to remove the unproductive colleagues in evaluating the newly acquired productive scholars, they will soon find that they have done nothing more than create a cycle of expulsion, recruitment, evaluation, and expulsion.  Nurturing a creative environment is quite different from weeding a rotten one out. 

Administrators may be satisfied that they have established a cycle of expulsion, recruitment, evaluation, and expulsion wherein a handful of applicants survive and the majority are removed.  But the real question—how has the institution improved qualitatively—remains unanswerable by this self-replicating process.  In today’s academic market, administrators can almost always assume that they will have a better pool of applicants with the next search.  However, as soon as restrictions and rubrics are imposed on the hiring process, the very best candidates are chased away, because the innovative thinkers do not fit the standards used to chase out the dead wood. 


The most successful administrators facilitate rather than evaluate. They allow their clever colleagues to go about their business without constantly asking how smart they are and how much business they  have completed lately.  An associate dean may hire the digital genius from Cork and attract the Belgian designer, but as soon as the university starts evaluating them according to generic rules, where one rubric judges all, these immigrants will drift away to friendlier, more inspiring fields.  To the administrator, it will seem that the Irish genius and Flemish designer just did not measure up, and so the university will never even recognize what they have lost. Instead they will go out, hire new recruits, and start the same process over, without ever seeing what they are missing in qualitative improvement.

Humanities' Scales

At dinner the other night, a colleague across the table asked, “Did they cut the writing program because it’s a subject that you have to teach in small classes? No more than fifteen kids at a time.”

From the administrative perspective, an institution wants to teach as many students as possible in a single class. Small colleges emphasize that they have a high professor to student ration. Big universities prefer to change the subject by celebrating large-scale activities that encourage the students to participate as a mass.  The pedagogical function of football games is to teach the crowd how to enjoy an event with 90,000 other people participating.  All the auditorium filling rallies and charities that a big university sponsors reinforce the idea that individual students can have meaningful moral experiences as a crowd. 

The question remains how to balance complexity with scale.  Can you have a subtle, nuanced intellectual encounter with a performer or speaker who is addressing a vast audience?  Sure there is the thrill of being swept up in a vast movement—and no we are not just talking about Fascism—fashion, football, Facebook all reverberate with the excitement of participating in an activity that everyone else is doing, too.

Can students learn to think critically and independently if their schools address them as a crowd? Sure there will always be a certain backlash and alienation produced by stadium events, but the point of a large gathering is not to create a new punk scene.  Can the 95% in the auditorium also leave the building having learned a subtle new insight about themselves and their favorite subject?

How do you show the Mona Lisa to ten thousand people a day in a manner that allows them to respond to the painting’s details and not the fact that they are being herded around an ensemble of pigments covered in plexiglass?

In order to teach large numbers, it might help to scale down the size of the syllabus. We cannot assign a 150-pages of reading per week to 50 students and expect the majority of them to be inspired.  Only fear will make them digest that much information --and then fairly quickly, the fear wears off.

To teach complex questions to a large class, we might have to slow down and concentrate on a single object.  Walk our way through one maybe two Wordsworth poems.  Even a single book of the Prelude is too much.  So many American humanities classes attempt to match the scale of the classroom size with the breadth of historical coverage.  A big audience requires a sweeping lecture—if we want students to come away with a vague sense of the historical sublime, sure.  But in order to make a theoretical insight that will last, we might return to the old German approach of discussing a few, meaningful pages. That philosophy seminar in Göttingen in which the professor never advanced  beyond the first 90 pages of Hegel's Logik taught me more about Idealism than most everything else.

If we are going to teach computational topography of 100,000 novels, then we also might shift the scale to concentrate on a few intense pages.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Wealthy Arts

The Liberal Arts are increasingly reverting to their original meaning—they are becoming the arts practiced by just a handful of truly free men, and now women, too. The definition of “liberal” in the phrase “Liberal Arts” has of course nothing to do with political leanings towards the left or the right, as we have known them since the French Revolution.  Rather “Liberal” in the ancient sense, refers to those people who are free from labor, those who do not need to work to survive. These land and slave owners were the original practitioners of the Liberal Arts, anyone who had an inherited position that liberated them from having to worry about their material existence. 

As the middle classes in the twenty-first century feel increasingly worried about their financial position, they no longer feel confident that their children will have a better life  than they enjoyed, and as a result of this anxiety enrollments in the Liberal Arts have declined. 

Behind the drop in English majors stands a loss of faith in progress.  Parents no longer feel that their children can afford to educate themselves to the full mental capacities.  Instead they worry about their long-term economic prospects to such an extent that they advise their children to specialize in a set of skills.  And the surest sign that this loss of faith in progress is real—children follow their parents’ advice.  They don’t rebel with a confidence that their parents’ pessimism is misguided.

The idea that university education prepared you for a lifetime of intellectual growth and curiosity seems too much of a long-term bet for the middle classes.  Only the wealthy can afford to gamble on the uncertain prospect that a Liberal Arts education will teach their children to think more critically and swiftly, so that they can adjust to new organizational structures in the future. 

Defenders of the humanities often point out that high level managers and political leaders have all enjoyed the benefits of a Liberal Arts education. They like to point out that philosophy majors are more likely to land in positions of institutional power than their business majoring peers.  While this may be true, it seems like a long-shot to many working class families, and so they opt for the more promising near-term major in supply-chain management—a worthy field of endeavor to be sure.


Behind this decision lies the presumption that their children no longer have a serious chance at entering into the upper class.  These families are more concerned with guessing which skills will matter after the next economic transformation than in positioning their children to have the intellectual skills to guide that transformation. These parents, and their obedient children, no longer imagine that they can participate in the upper-echelon decisions about society.  They just want to have an occupation that will be needed—thus they are not free in the ancient sense.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Fallen Latinists

Beware:

Of all the resentful academics in the humanities, beware of lapsed Latin scholars, for they walk around with the most bitterness, as they have seen their boyhood identification with empire lead them down the path to apparent irrelevance—yes they are almost always men.  In an effort to remain upbeat, they become administrators or digital humanities experts. From these new university perches, they don’t just bemoan the decline of the Liberal Arts—they spread that argument as if it were gospel. Anyone who does not believe their message, becomes the object of their patronizing scorn, to be smothered with slides and graphs charting the downward spiral of enrollments. Like apostate priests, their greatest satisfaction is convincing you to despair.