15 October 2014

Visioning Integrity

Here's the problem with teaching the humanities at a public R1: the annual ethics training.

Vince wonders why it is so important he train on ethics every year. 
How does ethics training help Vince? 
Please select all that apply
A. It reminds him of his duties under the law.
B. It gives him the knowledge he needs to make ethical decisions.
C. It reduces the likelihood that he will accidentally violate the law or university policy.

"All of the above" is an implicit option: you can check all the answers.  "None of the above" is probably not.  I'm not sure--I haven't started the ethics training myself yet.  I lifted the question from a colleague's Facebook post.  (Complaining about the ethics training is a campus tradition every October; it's a sign of how preoccupied everyone is with other matters this fall that ethics training snark has been hard to come by.)  If this online training is structured as it has been in past years (we have to do it every year), then the software won't let you move on unless you enter something.  So you have to pick an answer, even though none of them are right.  (A) is only right if Vince doesn't already know the law or if Vince's ethical intuitions are so far outside the norms of human interactions that he won't know the ways they differ from the law.  (B) presupposes that Vince is a moron, in which case it's not clear why the State of Illinois chose to hire him in the first place (although, given the state's history, it's not difficult to imagine a plausible yet unethical scenario in which it happens).  Anyone who has spent time among social sciences faculty has to be looking for a footnote to (C).  "Reduces the likelihood"?  By what factor?  How have the makers of the test determined this causality?   How did they measure it?

I have learned, from these tests, that there is an "ethics officer" in my unit and that I'm expected to rat colleagues out to that person.  Does having that information make me more likely to do it?  I'm honestly not sure.  Pretending not to see a colleague copy her campaign flyers on the department copier seems as likely before the training as after.  It's not a quandary I've faced: principles of fairness and professionalism generally seem to hold in my world, and frankly, the people I work with have limited opportunities for malfeasance: they don't consort with vendors, draw the attention of politicians, enjoy extramural realms of influence, or do much of anything that's worth a bribe.  If something untoward did happen (discovering that a colleague was selling grades, for example, or routinely violating student privacy), there is nothing I learn in the ethics training that would alter the steps I would take to address the situation.

If these are the only three answers, then, and if the words of the question are meant to track with some reality external to the logic of the ethics training itself, then the question is meaningless.  The ethics training does not benefit Vince.  But Vince is Us, and there is a reason why we do the ethics training:
D.  It doesn't. An incarcerated former IL governor decided that his sins could best be expunged by requiring every state employee to perform an annual rite of penance.  Vince will be penalized if he doesn't participate, so the training helps him avoid that consequence.
(D) is the truth of the matter.  (D) describes the alleged benefit to Vince honestly, as (A) - (C) do not. (D) isn't part of the training, and it doesn't even exist as a write-in option.

Teaching the Humanities is all about training students to be able to articulate answers like (D): to reason critically about the information they are given, to reject explanations that or narratives that don't square with the facts at hand, to seek the truth that exists beyond and independently of learning tools like Powerpoint slides and textbooks.  It gets harder and harder to do.  Students increasingly come to college conditioned by their K - 12 training to see education as a process of gaming questions like those that form our ethics training.  They have no expectation that the questions they are asked, much less the answers they supply, will lead anywhere but back to the classroom, the learning management system, or the test itself.  It's a struggle to get them to see that coming up with a D is even possible--much less desirable--and getting them to do it well is even more remote.

That's the job--though it becomes difficult to believe in that part of the university's mission, when the institution itself mandates a deliberate curtailing of precisely those critical abilities.

13 October 2014

The Northwest Passage to the Intellectual World, Right Here, Right Now

[UPDATED with some of Chancellor Wise's remarks, as posted on her blog.]

We are now on a death march.  We have found the Northwest Passage to the Intellectual World, and there is no turning back.

In The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Tristram's father hits upon new shortcut for teaching the young.
"I am convinced, Yorick," continued my father, half reading and half discoursing, "that there is a North west passage to the intellectual world ; and that the soul of man has shorter ways of going to work, in furnishing itself with knowledge and instruction, than we generally take with it....The whole entirely depends," added my father, in a low voice, "upon the auxiliary verbs....Now the use of the Auxiliaries is, at once to set the soul a going by herself upon the materials as they are brought her; and by the versability of this great engine, round which they are twisted, to open new tracks of enquiry, and make every idea engender millions."
It takes Laurence Sterne (and Shandy himself) a while to get to the point, but eventually the reader gets an example of the system:
"Didst thou ever see a white bear?" cried my father, turning his head round to Trim, who stood at the back of his chair: -- "No, an' please your honour," replied the corporal.-- "But thou could'st discourse about one, Trim," said my father, "in case of need?" --"How is it possible, brother," quoth my uncle Toby, "if the corporal never saw one?"-- '"Tis the fact I want"; replied my father, -- "and the possibility of it, is as follows. 
A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?

Would I had seen a white bear? (for how can I imagine it?)

If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted? -- described? Have I never dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear?
What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?
-- Is the white bear worth seeing? --

-- Is there no sin in it? --

Is it better than a BLACK ONE?
Anyone who reads a lot of undergraduate writing has seen this principle in action.  Somewhere along the way to college admissions, the ghost of Walter Shandy teaches students to write at length around the question they've been posed, without ever grappling with the substance.  These articulate but content-free non-answers are decried on pedagogical discussion boards in every social medium.   Are there weary high school teachers and ACT essay graders who have ceased to notice that students aren't actually saying anything?  Or do students consciously employ the strategy as a place-holder, to save some face on an assignment that they don't have the time to do properly but don't want to wholly abandon?

But here's where the despair comes in: the administration of the U of I has also discovered this Northwest Passage to the Intellectual World.  Wise's initial remarks at the meeting, which she posted afterwards on her blog, mapped out the Northwest Passage down towards which she hastens her vociferous faculty critics:
I’ve learned that while the principle of academic freedom is universally viewed as the bedrock of American higher education, what it means, whether there are any boundaries and who gets to set those are much less clear. Campus debates/symposia/lectures by experts about this would be really stimulating and useful....We have the opportunity to be leaders in the ongoing national debate....Many have voiced the importance of finding ways to re-establish a more unified campus community, to deal with the polarization and divisions between people with opposing views, and that they are willing to help. This will take more than a single committee and more than just speeches and messages. Members of my leadership team and I welcome robust, sometimes contentious debate, examination and consideration by different groups that is going on now and should continue if we are all to learn lessons from this challenge.
In the Q &A that followed, Chancellor Wise (and occasionally President Easter) embraced "contentious debate, examination and consideration" with auxiliary verbs, not answers.  Academic freedom?  Would I had seen academic freedom (for how can I imagine it?)  If I should experience academic freedom, what should I say?  If I should never see academic freedom, what then?  If I never have, can, must, or shall see academic freedom in practice, have I ever sseen its effects?  Did I ever see it represented? Described?  Have I never dreamed of academic freedom?

For more than an hour, faculty from many disciplines around the university took to the microphones in the aisles of the Illini Ballroom and asked for specifics about how President Easter and Chancellor Wise square the Salaita decision with their platitudes about academic freedom, diversity, and robust debate.  And for more than an hour, Wise and Easter had little more than auxiliary verbs, about a conversation that is always deferred, never the conversation we're having now.
  • How will the university assert its excellence in the event of AAUP centure?  
  • What measures will the administration take to assure junior faculty that they won't be denied tenure on the basis of their political speech?  
  • How extensively should departments vet the social media presence and  politics of potential hires so as to avoid having a hire revoked at the last minute?  
  • If neither "civility" nor politics, nor donor pressure caused the Chancellor to unhire Salaita, what mistake that he and AIS commit that warranted the decision and that other departments should avoid?  Of the 130 new faculty came to campus this fall, how and by whom was their social media presence scrutinized to ensure that they had not committed offenses similar to Salaita's?  
  • What steps will the administration be taking to ensure that Palestinian students and faculty feel like they, too, are free to express themselves?
This is the conversation about academic freedom.  It's the conversation humanities faculty are having right now, and the conversation that's taking place about us on other campuses, in our professional organizations, in the AAUP and unions, among our colleagues elsewhere.   But here at the U of I itself, wherever the upper administration passes, there is no conversation.  There is only a white bear.

12 October 2014

"Good Enough" Mothers, Cooks, Professors, and Institutions

"Spoonful of cereal" by Scott Bauer, USDA ARS 
Long before I became the Good Enough Professor, I wanted to be the Good Enough Cook.  The urge to write about cooking followed quickly upon my discovery that cooking was a thing I could do. Meals need to be prepared, however--not so much the clever essays about them.  While the Good Enough Cook never became a brand (cooking shows!  frozen entrees!  books!), over the years of marriage and family, I got better at turning ingredients into meals.  I'd still call myself a "good enough cook" though, and I take more pleasure than ever in the designation.

As the world bifurcates into self-proclaimed foodies, on the one hand, and people who cheerfully proclaim their culinary cluelessness, there is more need than ever for the sort of people who can simply get a meal on the table.   Somewhere between the grim parade of meat + starch + vegetable + dessert to which many of our mothers martyred themselves and our palates and the slapdash convenience available today lies a nutritious path of least resistance that the good enough cook seeks out.   She (the good enough cook is often, but by no means always, she) also recognizes her limitations, responds to the stresses of the moment, and embraces compromise.  She rejects the sales pitch of guilt and self-doubt and finds the patterns that work for the people she is responsible for feeding.  

These patterns may involve unethically sourced rotisserie chickens, family bonding over cold cereal and milk in the mornings, and occasional dearths of green vegetables.  Some well-organized weeks, creative, nourishing meals emerge at regular intervals from the slow-cooker. Sometimes mental health requires popping a vat of popcorn, pouring a glass of wine, and calling it a day.  The whole point of being "good enough" is not to form one's own identity around the ability to cook "well," but to cook well enough to meet the needs of one's family members' bodies and souls, to enable them to function independently.

In her own riff on the various ways of being "good enough" applies to college instructors (a blog post that brought some internet traffic my way this past week),  Lily Cho at Hook and Eye goes back to D. W. Winnicott's original formulation of "good enough"-ness:
it’s really useful to remember that Winnicott’s theory of being good enough was first and foremost a way of thinking about parenting .... He talks a lot about illusion and disillusion – how the mother should give the infant the illusion of her constant presence and attendance to the child’s needs, only to slowly disillusion the child of that unfettered availability. Hello, transitional objects! What might this have to do with being a professor? Well, a lot, I think.
Cho acknowledges the well-worn use of the "good enough" trope to negotiate work-life balance, but delves instead into a different academic application of the concept:
Putting the institution in the place of the child in Winnicott’s theory would make it so that the professor’s job would be to provide the institution with the illusion of constant availability, of an unwavering commitment to respond to all of its demands and needs, only to slowly engineer that disillusionment.
       We move from being academics doing something purely because of our love for the job to a more detached relationship where labour relations are more visible. We come to the university as providers of an illusion of our love for this work, but this illusion can only be sustained temporarily. Ultimately, we have to disillusion the institution. We can only love our work within limits and with boundaries.
This relationship between "good enough" professor and institution-as-infant is, as Cho acknowledges, a function of not only of being "lucky enough to be full-time faculty members," but also having a traditional tenure stream position defined by "the 40-40-20 split between research, teaching, and administrative work."  The labor force in higher education is increasingly made up of employees who are paid to perform only one of those dimensions of a faculty position.  For adjuncts, contingent, or NTT faculty, "good enough" to be hired to teach for a semester (or a year or a decade) inevitably implies "not really good enough" to be taken seriously as a contributor to the institution's mission of teaching, research, and service.  

The institiutional logic that puts so much teaching in the hands of faculty institutions deem "[not really] good enough" undermines the merits of understanding one's work as "good enough" in Winnicott's terms.  As Cho concludes, "good enough was not about doing less, but about detaching in ways that actually sustain relationships, and that allow that relationship to thrive."  But of course Winnicott's "good enough" mother is the one with agency to structure the relationship.  The "good enough professor" lacks that power.  

Many "good enough professors" can only understand themselves as "good enough" in Winnicott's positive sense by sustaining "healthy" and "good enough" relationships with students.  Is the "good enough" instructor sufficiently detached from the students to be able to  correct them?  Is the "good enough" instructor sufficiently warm and attached to instill the security that leads to learning?  Is the "good enough" instructor imparting skills and ways of thinking that the students will be able to apply even after the course has ended?  The answers to these questions generally lie well outside the frameworks of institutional validation.  Finding answers is low on many institutions' list of priorities, and end-of-semester evaluations are imprecise instruments for measuring how much students learn.  

It's much easier to be a "good enough cook," despite all the guilt-inducing advertising, pseudoscience, and advice that preys on parental anxieties.  All kinds of cultural pressures validate the parent or spouse who makes food available to the the rest of the household, whether she does it by swinging past a drive-through window more nights than not or by spending hours in a kitchen.  By contrast, "good enough professors" live a paradox: as far as students are concerned, they're the warm face of the institution's concern, the heart of the mission that has drawn students there.  For the institution, though, they exist at the periphery, with none of the academic freedom, research imperatives, or participatory stakes that would otherwise cause them to matter.   Many "good enough professors" value their teaching as "good enough" and strive to improve it, despite their marginalized status and a profound lack of institutional validation.  When the real work of teaching happens in spite of the innovations and reward systems of corporatized higher ed., "good enough" ceases to be nourishing.

25 September 2014

Two Cultures? Not the Two That You Think

There are many more than two cultures on this vast campus.

At least once a year, I have a student in one of my classes majoring in something I didn't know one could major in (Aviation--Human Factor?  Fish and Wildlife Management?  Okay then...), and I suspect there are people on campus who didn't even know we had a Department of Asian-American Studies until it announced its no-confidence vote in our Chancellor.  "North/South of Green Street" is local slang for "STEM/Humanities," but in fact there are shiny new institutes for cutting edge science research at the south end of campus, and pillars of "The Liberal Arts and Sciences" like math and chemistry line the main quad alongside English, anthropology, and history.  There are fields south of campus where scientists plant experimental crops on Monsanto's nickel and develop their findings in lab space that the university supplies in exchange for occasional teaching and a cut of the grant. There are faculty whose work involves neither classroom or lab but extension outreach, fieldwork five or five thousand miles away, or clinical teaching and assessment.  The much-resented silence of the STEM fields with regard to the Salaita affair is shared by other powerful entities on campus that don't line up neatly on the STEM/humanities divide: the law school, the business school, various social sciences, and many campus units that exist beyond LAS and have very different kinds of institutional histories.

The effort to define reactions to this matter as a difference between the quantitative, raw data-driven, apolitical science fields, and the richly contextualizing, intersectional, discourse-driven humanities fields reflects (I suspect) a nostalgia for a mythical golden age when the work of a university fell neatly into categories branching gracefully from the trivium and quadrivium, as distinct from any practical arts or trades.

The real divide separating the two sides seemingly polarized by the Salaita affair snakes its way across campus, crossing and recrossing Green St., slithering around campus and through block parties and department meetings, causing awkward silences at social gatherings and suppressed rage in the bleachers of kids' soccer games.  It is far more pernicious than any methodological differences or disciplinary hierarchies could be.  Neither my dead canary nor my boiled frog analogy quite captures the matter.

It's not two cultures facing down across campus, but two different magnetic poles exerting their attraction.  One pole asserts that the university's main function is to provide a safe and protected space for the pursuit of the truth, in whatever direction it may lead one, and without regard to political or economic considerations.  I've blogged about it here.  This pole is sunk deep in a past where the university's primary tasks were theological, and Latin was its lingua franca.  Try as its modern acolytes might to drive off the wisps of pernicious elitism that lurk around it, its legacy lingers, as the inheritance of those who by a trick of birth and privilege don't have to worry about keeping the lights on--much less cleaning the lamps or trimming the wicks.  The other pole is the product of more modern, practical, democratizing impulses: the land grant university which has, as its mission making life better for the citizens of a state.  Its concern are always and necessarily pragmatic--the pursuit of truth is fine, but best that it be a truth that makes the world materially better, that helps people make more money, grow better crops, build better cities. Try as it will, though, this pole can't repel the opportunists ever sniffing around it, looking for ways to make the university best serve their own private interests and improve their corner of the world regardless of any detriment to the common good.

One can imagine a public university where these two poles help to keep each other in check.  Those pursuing the truth for its own sake must ever be mindful of certain bottom lines: is it everyone's truth, responsive to broad notions of humanity and its concerns?  is it shared and taught in ways that improve understanding beyond a narrow group of specialists?  is its cultural benefit worth the candle wax and vellum pages and bandwidth that are necessary for its production?  are its practitioners taking sufficient intellectual risks and staking out sufficient new territory to justify the protection they receive? Likewise, those looking for truths that can be practically applied and used to make the world better have to be mindful of larger stakes: does its work serve a responsible vision of the public good?  Are long-term benefits being sacrificed to short-term gains?  Is political expedience crowding out the pursuit of knowledge?  Are the questions being asked, the knowledge sought, sufficiently broad and public-minded to warrant the resources they receive?

Three things make this vision laughably utopian.  One is the dwindling public resources being devoted to education.  As higher education ceases to be viewed as a public good, it becomes the property of whoever pays the bills.  The second is a consequence of the first.  As public support for higher education decreases, the importance of units within the university that can pull their own financial weight or sell their services at cost increases.  The third is that, in the absence of solid public support, governing entities like Boards of Regents and Trustees become political playthings, staffed in some cases, by people who have little understanding of the multiple public commitments of the university. And so the corrective power of the pursuit of truth for its own sake diminishes to the point where it exerts little pull beyond its own hardy acolytes.

The landscape is not entirely bleak.  Although some faculty in the law school, the business school, the engineering school, and some STEM researchers who generate patents and spinoff tech companies see their existence justified by the rules of the marketplace alone, a number of other departments and individual faculty navigate gracefully between the exigencies of grantsmanship and the truth.  Others choose less-lucrative-projects-that-matter over more-lucrative-ones-that-don't. Some researchers tread delicately around political minefields in order to advance the unpopular research that will make life better for real people.  Some find sources of grant money that share a disinterested commitment to open inquiry without immediate practical application.

At the other extreme, however, where the rules of the marketplace have little sway, where good results can't be monetized, where there is little demand for faculty work outside the academy, and there are few grants of any description that can lend a dollar value to any given project, the humanities faculty find themselves more and more isolated.  Philosophers, historians, art historians, literary and language scholars, researchers in area studies and religion, musicologists, interdisciplinary scholars of many descriptions, all continue to adhere to frames of value that have no market equivalent.  They advocate for richer understanding of the past, the pursuit of new information for its own sake, aesthetic understanding, moral knowledge, more complex contextualization, the ever-better framing of questions and reasoning about those questions, not because there is anything material and quantifiable to be gained from it, not because students of these fields go on to lucrative careers in these fields, but because it matters.  It must be confessed, though--these faculty also remain at this pole of disinterested intellection because they don't have a lot of choice in the matter.  There's nobody to sell out to. 

This absence of opportunity wasn't always a problem.  Now it is seen by many in positions of power in the university as a moral failing, the fatal sign of departments that can't exist by marketplace rules and therefore, perhaps, ought not to exist at all.

Departments and faculty that can swing both ways--that can engage in disinterested inquiry for its own sake and but also draw external funding to support (literally) and affirm (by extension) what they do--find the Salaita de-hiring far less threatening than departments and individual faculty who are entirely dependent on the sheer value of disinterested inquiry alone.  Many departments and faculty are quiet about the matter not, I suspect, because they necessarily thought that Wise did the right thing, but because they know they can navigate between the two poles, bowing to political expediency where necessary and asserting unpopular truths where possible, and still do their work. This is why the argument (offered by many Salaita supporters) that climate change or evolution could be the next victims of administrative overreach falls flat.  These faculty feel little common cause with faculty who can't accommodate political realities, for whom any concession to non-academic lobbying necessarily vitiates the central values of their work with no compensating intellectual rewards.  In addition, given the pressure to locate funding sources and pay the bills, these silent faculty have little intellectual energy to devote to imagining the alternative reality inhabited by faculty on campus whose fields demand little in the way of resources but also give little of market worth back.

For faculty in those fields that exist wholly outside marketplace values and political expedience, academic freedom means not just the freedom to express unpopular ideas but the freedom to inhabit a world of ideas that can't be touched by wealth, political influence, or the raw exercise of power.  I wonder if it always felt as strange and alienating as it does now to be the person arguing that such a world of values ought to exist.

(Image: "Septem-artes-liberales Herrad-von-Landsberg Hortus-deliciarum 1180" by Herrad von Landsberg - Hortus Deliciarum. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Septem-artes-liberales_Herrad-von-Landsberg_Hortus-deliciarum_1180.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Septem-artes-liberales_Herrad-von-Landsberg_Hortus-deliciarum_1180.jpg)

23 September 2014

On Finding a Way Forward

The UIUC Faculty Senate meeting yesterday, its first since school convened for the fall, was electric in a way that faculty deliberations rarely are.  There was vehemence, there was incivility, there were protestors chanting in the corridor and holding up signs.  There were impassioned speeches on both sides of the Salaita issue.

There was one striking moment of moral and procedural clarity, however, when Angela Wiley took the microphone in the public comment portion of the proceedings to deliver the "confidence" vote of her home department, Human and Community Development.   Professor Wiley (as witnessed by me and described by a colleague on FB) explained that her department valued Chancellor Wise's many and varied contributions to the campus, but then she
looked the Chancellor in the eye and said simply, "You made a bad decision. That decision really stunk." And then, very calmly, she told the Chancellor that she could still fix it. There was something personal about it, really stripped down and powerful and shaming, but there was also a way forward: fix your mistake.
Professor Wiley herself was having a rather different experience of the event. She wrote on FB, from the Senate meeting, "Oh my goodness. I find myself dismayed at the way my colleagues are treating one another at the Senate meeting. How does this make any sense whatsoever?" and later, in response to comments and queries from her FB friends, Prof. Wiley glossed her initial response as follows (which I have copied and pasted from her FB feed with her permission):
     I've spent most of my life trying to "speak truth to authority." This has included everything from protests of government decisions (e.g., the Persian Gulf War and others since) to sit-ins at the administrative offices of my undergraduate campus. With that background to establish that I am not opposed to organized action, here is my take on this.
     I believe the central issue is the Chancellor's contravention of the principles of self-governance in rescinding an offer to Dr. Salaita. Clearly this is unacceptable, and it must be remedied. I take it as my duty to make this clear and to pursue it through a variety of means. However, the circus that has emerged is shameful. I saw faculty members at my university hiss at undergraduate students who were brave enough to stand up and recite their (sometimes rather wandering) opinions. There were organized rounds of coughing, designed I can only presume to drown out, discourage, or intimidate the free expression of colleagues who might disagree. Ridicule and sarcasm have shut down any open discussion, not only with the administration but with colleagues across the hall or across campus who may feel the need for more data to fully form an opinion. And when they form that opinion, we may disagree. But I will *not* disrespect them by suggesting that they are less intelligent, less caring about children or important social issues, or less passionate than I am. They may be, but I will not assume that based on our disagreement about this.
     I suppose I’ve been hoping for a dialogue that focuses on the matter at hand. What wrongs were hoisted upon us, how should these be righted, and how can we prevent similar wrongs from being perpetrated again? I am not convinced that Chancellor Wise should be toppled, in spite of the fact that she made an egregious misstep. On balance, I have watch her work exceedingly hard to take this campus forward, not perfect but a vast improvement on some we have had. I had hoped see if this very public misstep with all its fallout could become a cornerstone for improving true shared governance along with an organized faculty.
     Yes, in the past couple of years, I have been working to organize the faculty on this campus. Truth is, I am discouraged. What I have watched emerged over the past month or two feels like an opportunistic feeding frenzy that is quite separate from the matter at hand. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that this has become more than a desire to see a righting of the wrongs associated with Dr. Salaita’s case. It feels more like asserting power purely for the sake of doing so. And I simply don’t respect that.
Full disclosure: I know her as "Angela" and we're friends--she's one of the first friends I made when we moved here. Robert Warrior of AIS has reported on several occasions that when Chancellor Wise first alerted him to potential problems with the Salaita hire, she pointed out that it's a small community, and we run into our colleagues at Target and Sam's Club. It's true. We also pick our kids up from the same school playgrounds, take part in the same community organizations, help each other through life crises and illnesses, navigate our childrens' mutual friendships and enmities, learn more about unfamiliar corners of the university from one another, and operate from very different models of what a professor's work is. I've discovered the hard way that a Facebook thread is a difficult place for people coming at these issues from different angles to navigate their disagreement, so with Prof. Wiley's permission, I offered to respond through my blog instead.

Here's where I agree: Like many on campus, I, too, have been "hoping for a dialogue that focuses on the matter at hand" and I, too, have observed something that feels (as Prof. Wiley describes it) as "an opportunistic feeding frenzy." Hissing, coughing, back turning makes me uncomfortable, too.

(Yes, there is something in the air at these events that feels less like righteous indignation and more like a tipping point having finally been reached. Yes, there are people who find in this controversy a space for their related concerns (stalled union negotiations, the Chief, LBGTQ rights, underenrollment of African-American students) to be heard. Unwieldy coalitions are being formed between people who think *the* issue here is shared governance, those who think it's Palestine, and those who think it's academic freedom, and a lot of pent-up pressure is getting released at the seams.)

Here's where I disagree: that it's "asserting power purely for the sake of doing so."

Prof. Wiley addressed Chancellor Wise in the hope that her dismay over the decision would be heard and that the Chancellor could be moved by a sincere plea to fix it. At this point, most of the departments affected by this decision have lost any hope that any such good-faith dialogue on the issues at hand is possible.

Here are some things that Chancellor Wise could have done at many points in the previous weeks to convey to her divided university that productive dialogue is possible:
  • Respond publicly to the criticisms leveled at this decision by the state and national AAUPs. Are they wrong to take issue with the decision? Are there relevant factors that they haven't taken into account? In what ways does this decision not violate the principles of academic freedom attached to every job letter?
  • Respond publicly to the national scholarly organizations like the MLA and the AHA that have strongly criticized this decision. What have they failed to understand? In what way is their censure misplaced?
  • Recognize that prominent scholars whose work is valued on her campus now have stated reasons for refusing to come here and respond to those reasons.
  • Acknowledge the many scholars who have subjected Salaita's twitter feed to scrupulous close reading, triangulated it with his teaching record and scholarship. Examine, with an open mind, the considerable evidence amassed that Salaita's twitter activity on his private account demonstrates neither his antisemitism no his unfitness to do the job for which he was hired. Explain in some detail, and in the face of this evidence, the nature of the line that Salaita crossed and the point at which he crossed it so that faculty have some clearer measure than "civility" to know when their passion, rage, ill-considered utterances, profanity, and political expressions become actionable.
  • Approach the departments affected by this decision (in advance of the no-confidence votes) and give them grounds for understanding why this particular situation warranted an egregious and unprecedented breach of ordinary academic procedure.
Wise has done none of these things. Her only gestures towards conversation so far have been her August 22 letter and blog post, "The Principles on which We Stand" (a document that came only after weeks of radio silence from the administration), a series of public appearances in which she has ignored substantive criticism by repeating the same talking points, and impromptu second "listening tour" of various departments and campus units rendered solely symbolic by her repeated assurance that she will not undo anything that she has done.

(It would be helpful, at this point, to have a Provost who could bridge some of the divides that have emerged on campus, someone who could articulate for each side the concerns of the other and clear up some of the disciplinary misunderstandings that have made this issue so polarizing. Unfortunately, the chief academic officer on this campus has been culpably, unconscionably, and consistently silent through out these bitter weeks.  The fact that he was appointed by Wise does not help matters.)

Under these circumstances, the scope for civil conversation narrows.  It's hard to converse civilly when you are talking someone who pretends to listen but refuses to hear.  It's hard to converse civilly with someone who responds as if nothing has been said.  It's hard to converse civilly when the futility of doing so has already been amply demonstrated.  At a certain point, civil conversation starts to feel not just like a charade, but like active complicity.

It doesn't have to be like that.  The vision of active, meaningful dialogue that emerged in Prof. Wiley's statement yesterday touched many of the people in the room because we very much want it to be possible.  The Chancellor has let slip many opportunities to make it so, but I, too, hope she heard.

11 September 2014

Not Too Refined to Say This, Anyway.

The truth is, it's hard to take a stand on the Salaita de-/un-/re-hiring without wanting to throw up.

Parsing whether "I wish all the settlers would go missing" constitutes a death-threat or not makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Listening to the rhetoric about "wealthy Jewish donors" influencing this decision scares the hell out of me.

Wondering where the line falls between scholarly inquiry into the conditions of settler colonialism and indigeneity around the world and a deeply politicized agenda rife with foregone conclusions makes me want to change the subject.

I try to avoid talking about Israel at all.  My views put me out of step with many of my friends at the temple (yes, I converted).  Learning more from within the faith has only made them more complicated, not less.

Watching a highly ranked woman of color, who has done a great deal to advance the role of women and underrepresented minorities on campus, become the focus of faculty and student anger has been excruciating.

Watching the concerns of Palestinian and middle-eastern students get erased from the the conversation has been deeply dismaying.

It's hard to cheer when I learn that another department has voted "no confidence."  I understand it has to happen--I voted "yes" in a no-confidence vote myself--but it doesn't feel like positive step.  It feels like breaking something that has to break, but with no certainty that the thing that takes its place will be better.

Yet there I was today: holding a sign, posting photos and commentary on social media, chanting, clapping, swelling the pro-Salaita crowd.  The thought that my--or anyone's--discomfort should axiomatically put an end to these--or any--important conversation sickens me, too.

The public university can be a place where the difficult conversations about race, justice, equality, ethnicity, religion, and politics take place and matter, or it can be a place where those difficult conversations are identified, performed in the point/counterpoint theater of neatly opposed views, and then shelved while the talk that matters (money, influence, power) goes on elsewhere without regard to those who don't have money, influence, and power.

Photo by Anne Dietz-Lavoie
Behind the talk of "civility" is a determination to have only the latter kinds of conversations. "Incivility" is necessary for some voices to be heard, for the stakes of any particular debate to be apparent, for conversations to result in meaningful change. A colleague supportive of Salaita, who has served in administrative positions for several years now, posted this morning on Facebook, "People in upper admin with whom I've worked closely for years are now unwilling even to make eye contact with me. Inclusive Illinois." That right there is the problem with making "civility" the boundary of conversation.  "Civility" only works if both parties are already operating from a position of equality and already in mutual agreement on the need for the conversation.  It doesn't work if a powerful participant refuses to acknowledge that that the less powerful participant has an issue that needs to be discussed.  It also doesn't work when only the powerful participant gets to define where the outer bounds of civility lie.  Civility commits us to a university where existing injustices remain entrenched and silenced voices stay that way.

How do you know if you're taking part in a conversation about race, justice, equality, etc. that matters, versus one that doesn't?  If you feel like you want to throw up but you also have to go on talking, chances are you're in it.

10 September 2014

"Teaching with Technology"? Oh, Wait: You Meant "Delivering Content." Never Mind.

I've been sucked in again--a one hour brown-bag hosted by the university's "Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning."
Best Practices for "Back Pocket Video Production
Video pros and experienced faculty share their tips and tricks for producing video content for course enhancement and student assignments with only their phones and other "back-pocket" devices.

Sounds pretty innovative, and why not?  Most students carry around with them the capacity to shoot video; so do I.  They live in a world replete with screens and moving images; so do I.  They document their lives relentlessly with their hand-held devices, and I was born too early to understand how this unlimited capacity for self-expression across a variety of media platforms shapes how they understand the world.  I ask them to delve deeper into the printed word by writing about what they read--how might I harness their use of another media form?

I have some ideas, myself, but there are a lot of things I don't know about how to make them work:

  • Like many non-tenure-track faculty with no research budget, I have to rely on a shared office computer or technology I've purchased for my personal use.  Where and how should I store video files that I create (or ask students to create) for a class?
  • What are some rookie mistakes to avoid when using a handheld device to shoot video that's going to be viewed by strangers, rather than an audience of sympathetic family or facebook friends?
  • What are the best platforms for making student-made videos available to their classmates?
  • What FERPA and copyright issues should I be worrying about when using a site like YouTube for educational purposes?
  • What kinds of video-centered assignments work well in a class where video production and visual media are NOT the main focus of learning?
  • How have instructors successfully prompted students to exploit the communication possibilities of hand-held video?  What do students do better with video than with more conventional kinds of assignments?
So I went to the brown bag lunch.  Here's what I learned.
  • Shooting video with a smart phones can capture ephemeral moments and otherwise undocumented voices.
  • You can deliver course content effectively via three to six-minute videos that explain and reinforce key concepts.  
  • Students like short home-made videos a lot, learn from them, and stop asking their instructors to repeat basic information in office hours.
  • Production values matter: here are some cool toys we have to help make your videos more professional (turns out that "back-pocket" in the course description referred specifically to little backpacks full of gadgets that instructors can check out of the library).
  • Editing your videos makes them better: here's how iMovie works on your handheld device.

There's nothing particularly wrong with any of that, only I don't teach big lecture classes, and I try to minimize the amount of time I spent talking at my students.  The bulk of learning takes place in my class when students discuss and interact with texts with my guidance.  Learning about a different way of talking at them doesn't help me guide that process more effectively.  Yet every time I trot hopefully off to an event that promises to help me innovate, I find myself talked to as if delivering information is the only thing I might want to do in the classroom.  "Innovation in Teaching and Learning"?  It looks suspiciously like draping Freire's banking model with enough cords,  dongles, and screens that we can make it unrecognizable and scalable.

05 September 2014

Yet Another Open Letter! But this One Is to My Facebook Friend, Who is Tired of Being Told She Shouldn't Be Offended

You and I may never agree on the Salaita affair, but for what it’s worth: Of course you’re offended, and so are a lot of people.  Salaita expressed himself in ways that were vulgar, boorish, and deliberately provocative—and yes, people get provoked, quite reasonably.  What he’s being accused of is something very different from provocative ugliness, though: it’s hate speech. 

If he were, in fact, the rank anti-semite that he’s being presented as, on the basis of a handful of cherry-picked tweets that have been read out of context, I wouldn’t want him here either.   But a different picture emerges to those who are reading the tweets in the context of the conversations in which they emerged, looking at the whole of his twitter feed, and considering the evidence that was amassed about him as a scholar and teacher as his application made its way through the many circles of academic hiring.   Maybe they’re wrong.  Maybe there is additional evidence they should have considered or read more carefully.  There are many points in the hiring process where those conversations could take place—even at the point where Chancellor Wise was being pressured to withdraw the appointment.  Is it okay that he said those things on Twitter?  No.  But the conversation about whether saying ugly things on social media by itself justifies un-hiring him never happened.  We're to believe he's an anti-semite who will infect the classroom with his hatred because people who apparently haven't read anything but those few isolated tweets say so.

Why do I care?  Why am I willing to go to bat for this guy whose words, culled from his twitter feed, and amplified across a variety of hostile social media platforms, are hurtful to people I care about? 

Here are two reasons:

1.  The rank hypocrisy of the justification for this decision.  So many things happen that can make students feel unsafe.  How safe do students critical of Israel feel about voicing their sentiments in the wake of this decision?  How safe do Native students feel when they are surrounded by classmates wearing a racist caricature?  How safe do African-American students feel when benchmarks for African-American enrollment that were set in 1968 still haven’t been met?  How safe do foreign national students feel when an administration pours resources into finessing their transition to campus but provides no support to teaching faculty in meeting their learning needs, and when there is no recognition of the ways that the burgeoning numbers of such students will inevitably change campus culture?   The safety of particular groups of students seems to matter not at all—until suddenly it’s of overwhelming importance (but only for some groups).

2.  The implications for me, and the way I teach, and my precarious position.  In a column this week about the campus kerfuffle, the editor of our local paper, Jim Dey, asked,   
Who on campus is in such a vulnerable position? If there is someone, what are they saying or doing that would draw administrative disapproval? Assuming those unique conditions are met, what authority would anyone up the food chain have to punish them, given the protections that go with their jobs?
Well: me. If it can happen to Salaita, it can happen to me.  As a contingent, non-tenure-track faculty member, I can be fired by anyone up the food chain.  I use provocative speech when I teach. I drop f-bombs in class.  I voice racist attitudes in order to emphasize their presence in a text. I use vulgar sexual language to make visible the innuendo lurking beneath archaic euphemisms.The term “fag-hag” comes up every time I teach the novel Daisy Miller.  I press students to lay bare the sexist, racist, or homophobic assumptions they bring to a text.  When students get angry, I let that anger do some work in showing the real-world concerns at play in long-dead texts.  My methods usually succeed: students get what I’m doing, they understand my ironic use of opinions I don’t share, they’re open to the possibility that the world looks very different to people with different life experiences.  They engage with the readings in ways that they wouldn’t if I were more decorous.  But maybe I’ve just been lucky.  What happens when I offend a well-connnected student?  What if I fail a student for plagiarism, and that student is the child of a major donor?   What if a tuition-paying parent demands that I be removed from the classroom because of reports of my sexist, racist, profanity-laden behavior?  I would like to trust the judgment of my department head and college dean, who understand the rapid-fire give-and-take of the college classroom and the challenge of bringing obscure and difficult readings to life.  Only it seems they may no longer have the authority to back me up.

Wise didn’t bother to examine the context for the data Salaita’s opponents handed her, nor did she consult with anyone who might present an alternative view of the matter.  Why would anyone do more for me?   As an untenured and probably untenurable lecturer I have a far weaker claim to the protections of academic freedom and far less legal standing.  Firing me wouldn’t cost anybody anything.  At this point, I no longer care that much whether Salaita is reinstated.  Perhaps, at the end of the day, when the full totality of his public words have been read and argued over--he'll prove not to be such a loss.  But the terms on which he was un-hired matter very much to me, and I'm publicly supporting his reinstatement in order to put as much pressure as possible on those terms.  It’s now clear that whatever strengths I bring to the classroom are, under the right circumstances, for sale.

30 August 2014

In the Kettle with the Boiled Frogs

By Arthurgcox (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 
via Wikimedia Commons
I've been using the wrong cliched metaphor. Dead canary? No. That way of framing the issue was based on a fundamental misconception of how things work.  It goes something like this: When higher education stopped being regarded as a public good, things changed.  More and more students selected their majors based on the likelihood of being able to pay off enormous amounts of college debt, and departmental influence started to be based on how much money they could draw to the institution, either through grants or through entrepreneurial initiatives. As a result the humanities and interpretive social sciences became less important to the institutions that supported them, they became less powerful (relative to other departments), and they now seem to becoming voice-less and disposable. Exhibit A: the Salaita affair, in which the Chancellor and BoT can't even be bothered to acknowledge a growing list of disciplinary petitions and boycotts, much less heed them. Moreover, the lack of solidarity manifested STEM and professional suggests that they have no sense that the precedent set here may, at some point, impinge on their academic freedom. The canary is dead and no one cares because the coal mine has turned itself into a place where STEM faculty can breathe the noxious air and canaries can't.

Even though I have espoused this view elsewhere on this blog, I'm starting to realize that I've got it wrong.

Let it be said that not all non-humanities/social sciences fields have been silent. Alan Sokal has written an open letter in which he points out the relevance of the Salaita decision for scientists:

Putting aside the bizarre notion that an idea can feel "demeaned" or "abused", the Chancellor's position implies that the University of Illinois will not tolerate biologists or physicists who are "disrespectful" (in her sole judgment) of creationists or even of creationism.

(Yes, that Alan Sokal.) His letter is posted on LSU philosopher Jobn Protevi's blog, along with a boycott pledge for natural scientists to sign.

The silence of the STEM here at UIUC that I described in my earlier post continues, although the conversations I've had with local faculty outside the humanities suggests that I did, in a key way, get it wrong. Let me, very unscientifically, advance a hypothesis that, while formulated on the basis of an egregiously small sample size, may nonetheless warrant more research.

Money isn't institutional influence or freedom here--at least not to the degree we (in the humanities) think it is. For those in STEM, it means being a subcontractor or a tenant farmer. Everyone has to perform a certain amount of teaching labor and cough up a certain amount of grant money, in exchange for a building to work in and an institutional affiliation. The general contractor/landlord can be capricious, tyrannical, and opaque. Shared governance inheres in the fact that most of the time the politicians, thugs, powerful interests, and protestors are scared off, permitting the subcontractor/tenant farmer to get on with the work at hand.

In this economy, the humanities are the folks camping in the woods. Sure, nobody really knows what they're doing out there, but whatever it is, it doesn't cost much money and isn't really hurting anyone, so nobody pays much attention. Exhibit A: The Salaita Affair, in which one of those happy-go-lucky sprites has unfortunately run afoul of the forces that ordinarily ignore them. The General Contractor/Landlord decided, as sometimes happen, to withhold her protection, and so the sprites, unused to these encounters and unfamiliar with the Landlord’s autocratic hand, are outraged. They need to just get over it--everyone else does!

The difference between the dead canary scenario that I outlined above and this one is the nature of the expectations it involves. Do faculty decisions get overturned? Are research findings vetted for their potential to offend powerful stakeholders? Is a certain amount of administrative overreach and malfeasance part of the price of doing business? Well, of course! The important thing (and this is the point everyone agrees on): the research goes on, and so does the money to support it. It is the height of arrogance, in this latter scenario, for those in the humanities to think that they exist outside these inevitable compromises just because they are too insignificant to face them on a regular basis.

I’m getting a better understanding of why the humanities people and the STEM people are talking past each other, not only on this issue but on the issue of union organizing as well (which suffers on this campus from a lack of buy-in from the STEM and professional faculty).

I’m also thinking about a third metaphor: boiled frogs. When and how did the water get so hot for so many frogs? Should we be worried that they didn't notice? We humanities frogs have been suddenly dropped into the boiling kettle, and it matters to us that it hurts.

27 August 2014

Where Is the Line?

"Where do you draw the line on academic freedom?" is a question that I've been asked several times recently, with regard to the un-hiring of Stephen Salaita (the details of which are linked to here). It's asked with a tone of puzzled sympathy, by people who have an investment in academia in general and UIUC in particular, but who are baffled about how we on the humanities corner of campus do things.  They are willing to concede that there were egregious breaches of procedure, that both Salaita and the department that hired him were treated shabbily, that faculty governance and departmental autonomy have been dealt a blow.  But those tweets!  Do humanities faculty really want to line up behind them?  Is it really okay for an activist scholar to do that?  If his puerile 140-character rantings count as protected academic speech, then where would one draw the line?

It is then gently suggested to me that it would be easier for STEM faculty to support their aggrieved humanities colleagues, if those colleagues would just make it clear where the line is.  What forms of hate speech constitute fire-able, untenurable offenses?  Perhaps, I'm told, if humanities faculty stuck to the issues of procedure and governance and backed slowly away from the "academic freedom" banner, they would get more solidarity from the STEM departments, who don't quite see why an academic's right to make injudicious remarks on twitter ought to get the same protections as, say, research supporting climate change.

If we were still in a moment when that conversation could take place, about the threshold where the protections of academic freedom end, humanities faculty would be less angry.  That conversation could have started with an honest and detailed explanation of why Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees saw fit to overturn the faculty's considered judgement.  In the face of the evidence presented in his hiring and tenure documents, that Salaita's outspoken activism did not undermine his teaching, research, and service, where did they see the line being crossed?  In what ways was the whole of Salaita's public activism and twitter feed (not just soundbites selected by those unsympathetic to his views) so incompatible with his professorial position as to justify his unhiring?  Where is the line beyond which higher administrators are justified in overturning faculty decisions?

Such candor would, at least, have given the faculty invested in this case a fixed point to argue with. Some humanities faculty would have seen justice in the administration's position.  Faculty who disagreed would know what principle they were disagreeing with and be in a position to take issue with its fine points.  Faculty who just wanted to get on with their work in confidence that their departments could make future hiring decisions would be able to do so, knowing what kinds of extramural behavior would trip the wire of BoT overreach. And STEM faculty, concerned citizens, and baffled onlookers would have answers to their questions.

Instead of making that vital conversation possible, though, the Chancellor and Board of Trustees sketched out a vague and incoherent explanation of their decision, that only made it clear that academic freedom will, in future, mean whatever the Chancellor and Board of Trustees decide it means.  "Academic freedom" has become something of a rallying cry, not because faculty find it tremendously important to allow Salaita to go on goading Zionists via Twitter, but because the terms on which the Chancellor and BoT made his tweeting a fireable offense could apply just as easily to milder forms of activism, politically relevant research and writing, contentious public debate, and any teaching on sensitive subjects like race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality.  In other words: many of the things that are part of the job for humanities faculty.

26 August 2014

On the Changing Mission of the Public University

Academic freedom was never free, though our conviction that it should be has always helped us look past the thousands of necessary, daily ways that it's not.  Scholars have to eat, the buildings don't build themselves, books come from somewhere.  Whoever pays the bills gets a say: tax-payers, parents writing checks for tuition, alumni donors, grant-funding agencies, publishers, founders, legislative bodies, politicians.  And why shouldn't they?  So often, their concerns are mild and legitimate, the accommodation not so painful, the appeal to a greater cause easily made.

And then higher education stopped being regarded as a public good, worthy of state funding, and things changed.  So much so, that I've had this cynical thought this past week:
It would have been better if the UIUC Chancellor could have said to the American Indian Studies program, "Hiring Steven Salaita is going to cost this institution $XK in lost donations and tuition, even taking into account the inevitable law suit.  We can't afford it.  I'm sorry, AIS, but you will just have to suck it up."  It would have been the end of AIS, obviously, which is bad.  But what we've got is worse.  In order to preserve the illusion that academia isn't for sale, our Chancellor, with the backing of the Board of Trustees, has sold out the very principles of academic freedom and faculty governance.  
It would be nice to know how much we got for it. 
The faculty in STEM and professional fields still don't seem to care that much.  No discipline-wide boycotts, and apart from a few emeritus faculty, no letters.  Not much signing of things either.  The ability to pull external grants and create entrepreneurship opportunities insulates fields that can do those things.  The likelihood that the BoT will "unhire" a well-funded chemist, say, because his climate change activism offends generous alumni who've grown rich from the burning of fossil fuels, is remote. It also means, of course, that STEM faculty have other things to worry about, different problems of dwindling resources, a whole different set of compromises to be made with entities outside the university.  There is, though, this consequence of the public defunding of higher education: it creates a divisive hierarchy of monetary value within the university, in which the humanities cease to matter.

24 August 2014

Yes, this blog has comments! Or it's supposed to, anyway....

Well this is mortifying.  People have been commenting on this blog all along and I haven't known it. Early on, I was getting an email whenever I had a comment awaiting moderation.  I hadn't gotten any such emails for a while, so I assumed that no one was commenting.  Turns out I was wrong, and I just "published" a whole backlog of comments.  I'm not sure: maybe there was a glitch in Blogger or maybe I inadvertently removed my email address while changing some other settings.  Either way, a lot of great comments, questions, objections, and (most annoying) compliments ended up in internet limbo. To those who wondered why their comments never appeared, much less got a response: I am so sorry!

I have now changed the settings, and vow to be more responsive going forward.

23 August 2014

On Civility

Things that college should teach students:

  • That the world can become unrecognizable when viewed from inside someone else's experience.
  • That the things that make other people different from them  are not be the most important things about those people.
  • That opinions and attitudes they haven't yet encountered exist in the world.
  • That ideas they take for granted are not universally shared or understood.
  • That they know more than they think they do, but that not everything they know is accurate.
  • That the ideas they take for granted can prevent them from understanding ideas they haven't encountered yet.
  • That ideas they take for granted may look less appealing when they are articulated.
  • That they can change their minds.
  • That one's mind changes gradually, incompletely, and painfully.
  • That anger can have content, that you can learn from someone else's anger.
  • That legitimate, righteous anger exists.
  • That ideas get argued by people with different experiences of the world, which are relevant
  • That ideas get argued by people with different relationships to authority, power, and legitimacy, which are also relevant.
  • That ideas make a difference in the world and can be worth getting angry about.
  • That hurt feelings are a data point to take into account, but may or may not be relevant upon closer examination.
  • That they can get over hurt feelings.
  • That learning more about a contentious issue can lead to more questions and uncertainty rather than less.
  • That uncertainty and confusion are starting points for learning.
  • That if they haven't, at some point, found themselves struggling to put words to an idea that they feel strongly about but can't explain adequately, then they've missed an opportunity to learn.
  • That if they graduate without having felt, at some point in a class, unsettled, uncomfortable, misunderstood, confused, then they've missed an opportunity to learn.

22 August 2014

When the Words Crumble

The Chancellor just wrote to all of us here, explaining her decision not to have the Board of Trustees approve the hiring of Steven Salaita,  Her letter, which is also posted on her institutional blog, concludes,
I am committed to working closely with you to identify how the campus administration can support our collective duty to inspire and facilitate thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues.
I really shouldn't be sitting here writing this right now.  I have a syllabus to finish fine-tuning in preparation for classes on Monday.  Its subtext is not particularly unusual and can be summed as follows:

words matter

No doubt in the weeks ahead, as I discuss on this blog some of the innovations I'm planning and describe my successes and failures, I will say more about how my carefully thought out sequences of readings and deft writing prompts serve that goal.  But for now, I'm just writing against a profound sense of futility.   Everything I do rests on the assumption that it is important for students to read closely, think hard about what they read, and communicate as clearly as they can in response to it.  And our Chancellor says this:
I am committed to working closely with you to identify how the campus administration can support our collective duty to inspire and facilitate thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues.
Does anyone ever really read the last sentence of an administrative email?  It's ordinarily an anodyne string of words, that seeks to do rather than say: bringing closure to the business at hand with a tone of warmth and collegiality.  L'Affaire Salaita has taught us, however, that this kind of formulaic boilerplate has content.  Sometimes.  For example: "This recommendation for appointment is subject to the approval by the Board of Trustees..."  Since the Board of Trustees historically has only met to approve appointments after the appointed faculty has been on the course roster for months, relocated to the institution in question, and taught for several weeks, the phrase "Is subject to" has generally meant "will receive."  If it didn't mean that, the course schedule, payroll, office space allocations for the semester due to begin Monday would be thrown into disarray.  But things are proceeding normally.  We're to assume those words bore the full weight of their literal meaning this one time, for this one hire.  

So what does our Chancellor mean when she calls herself "committed to working closely with you to identify exactly how the campus administration can support our collective duty"?  After all, what is a Chancellor supposed to do, if not support the faculty in doing the work of the university?  Of course, "supporting our collective duty" generally means stepping back and letting individual departments and colleges get on with the work of deciding whom to hire and tenure--not "working closely."  Same with "facilitat[ing] thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues."  That project is dear to many faculty who host conferences, engage with other scholars in a variety of formats, bring speakers to campus.  In this case, Wise's efforts to "work closely" seem to have backfired, as the list of faculty now boycotting the campus grows daily.  One conference "on challenging issues" scheduled for the fall has already been cancelled, as have two prestigious lectures.  

One obvious way to signal a commitment to "working closely" would be to address these consequences of her decisions.  In the absence of such acknowledgment, one is left to wonder what this "working closely" means.  If she's serious about refusing to tolerate "disrespectful words or actions that demean," I for one would be happy to help her organize a week long series of talks, teach-ins, and screenings about the use of native American caricatures, to conclude with a ritual bonfire on the Quad where newly enlightened students could burn their Chief t-shirts.  I'm guessing that's not what she has in mind though.   

So I'll get back to work on my syllabus and try not to think about the contrast between what I want my students to learn and how my institution communicates its mission.  

17 August 2014

In the Coal Mine with the Dead Canary (On L'Affaire Salaita)

(Some background, which is already known to anyone already following this story: The story of how UIUC hired Steven Salaita and then rescinded his job offer can be found here.  Some relevant documents can be found here.   Is this legal?  20 prominent scholars of law explain how this decision constitutes a violation of First Amendment principles here, and the AAUP declares it a violation of academic freedom here.  Another lawyer discusses the contractual issues here.  Outrage on the part of philosophershistorians, communications scholars, gender and women's studies scholars, sociologists, political scientists, rhetoric/composition scholars, and contingent faculty has taken the form of petitions and statements of refusal.  Corey Robin has been keeping tabs on these discipline-specific campaigns on his blog.  A general academic petition is here.  Since this story broke, both Salaita and the UIUC administration have fallen silent.  It is generally assumed that all parties are lawyered up and negotiating a resolution to the contractual dispute behind closed doors.  In this vacuum, Cary Nelson has emerged as the de facto point manjustifying the administration's decisions in Inside Higher Ed, the online publication that originally broke the story. Vincente Diaz, a member of the department that hired Salaita, explains why we should not listen to Nelson here.)

Here on campus, there is dismay.  At least, there is dismay among the departments that cluster around the main quad of the campus: historians, literary scholars, faculty in area studies and foreign languages, those who study gender, those departments with rich affiliations with the American Indian Studies Program.  These people are worrying about the effects of a boycott on upcoming conferences, efforts to bring prominent visiting scholars to campus, the required outside letters for tenure-and-promotion, the university's profile as a place for meaningful research in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. They worry about how this decision will be understood and internalized by Palestinian colleagues and students, how it will affect the climate for expressing frank opinions about conflict in the middle east. There is a lot to worry about.

The dismay is highly localized, however.  If the pressing issues of academic freedom here are of relevance beyond the humanities and the interpretive social sciences, few faculty from the STEM departments on campus have made their concerns known.

One can understand why the scientists might well prefer to treat L'Affaire Salaita as a rhetorical tempest, contained by the teapot of its own disciplinary triviality.  Steven Salaita is an unfortunate poster child for academic freedom.  For those unsympathetic to Salaita's political positions, his Twitter feed speaks for itself, particularly the inflammatory tweets that have been widely reprinted.  "Reading Salaita in Illinois (Part 1)" is Pham Nguyen's exhaustive effort to neutralize his most toxic tweets through a  contextualized close reading that, however persuasive, confirms the limitations of Twitter as a site for nuanced and meaningful public debate.

The faculty who are angered about the Salaita decision may be right, but they also may not matter enough to be heard.  After all, conflict in Gaza will rage on, regardless of how a handful of professors analyze it, and real influence is to be found elsewhere on campus, among departments that can pull grant funding to the university and generate enterpreneurial investment.   For fields that generally fall short on both those benchmarks of excellence, "academic freedom" may be another word for, well, nothing left to lose.