Monday, November 2, 2009

Who posts "comments" to blogs? And why?

It isn't just happenstance that some of the most dismissive and hostile "comments" to blog posts come from anonymous readers. Anonymity gives courage to the cowardly. And that was the case long before the Internet.

Of course, it doesn't even make sense to respond to dismissive comments. Nothing good can come of it.

I'm not sure that both of the comments listed below are dismissive, but I did want to take a second to reframe a couple of responses to my recent "mentoring" post.

The first, posted by "goxewu," is simple and straightforward:

Wait a minute. There's an "associate dean" for just "undergraduate studies" in just one school (and the middleweight one of "communications," at that) at Penn? Prof. Jackson is hereby enjoined from ever, ever complaining in the slightest about the problem of administrative top-heaviness in higher education.

This "goxewu" ignores the point of my piece and asks why a "middleweight" school like "communications" would even need an "associate dean" for its undergraduates? Is it really that atypical for "just one school" to have a dean devoted to undergraduate education? If anything, I would have imagined that "goxewu" would have asked why communication/s was a school at all, instead of just a department. The lack of such an additional query seems telling.

And why this drive-by attack on "communications" as middleweight in the first place? What does that even mean? Goxewu represents a lot of people (academics and non-academics) who relish the idea of banishing entire fields with the snobbish wave of a hand. In faddish discussions about interdisciplinarity, we should spend some time interrogating our assumptions about disciplinary pecking orders, assumptions that get translated into all kinds of easily assumed hierarchies within the academy.

The second comment, left by "vfichera," responds to the actual substance of my posting. S/he quotes some of what I wrote:

"I have been touched by some equally memorable students here, and I have been trying to ask myself how I can be most helpful to them, especially in the context of an academic lifestyle that can already feel so overburdened and hectic."

And then responds with the following:

A little bit of "Prairie Home Companion" would be useful here or a touch of Jaime Escalante ("Stand and Deliver") -- all of the students are potentially memorable. Mentoring is not about just helping the "memorable" to achieve greater heights of success but of unfolding the talents of all of the students, of touching those who feel out-of-touch, of being a true advisor instead of having "professional advisors" for students to "relieve the faculty of that burden."

The corporatization of the university has indeed been achieved by proliferating administrations which have, with the consent of the tenured faculty, eroded the traditional roles of faculty into bits and pieces which are "adjuncted-out" to the point where undergraduates are even paying tuition to teach and advise themselves, as "undergraduate TAs" and "peer-mentors" -- often for academic credit.

Mentoring starts with faculty's acceptance and faithfulness to the full panoply of teaching and governance responsibilities, not just research. As the tenured faculty participate in the unraveling of their own duties and responsibilities onto more "manageable" personnel, they are "enabling" nothing less than the transformative unraveling of the idea of the university itself.

I feel like vfichera is picking a fight with someone else, a fight that he or she has probably been waging for quite a while.

vfichera's discussion about the "corporatization of the university" should be taken seriously, and s/he lists a number of reasons (not excerpted above) why "the tenured professoriate" should do better by its students, which was the point of my post.

I don't want to fall into that old Clintonian trap of parsing what is is, but should we talk about what it means to call a student memorable?

I remember students for any number of reasons, including those "who feel out-of-touch." vfichera is right that mentoring isn't a zero-sum thing. We should take on all students, especially if they are willing to meet us close to half way. But is it wrong to remember some students more than others? Is anything else even possible?

But part of vfichera's real point is about the shifting of duties from tenured/tenure-tracked faculty to the growing number of hired guns working on an adjunct basis--and with much less job security. The adjunctification of higher education is an important issue. I'm just not completely convinced of vfichera's way of linking it to my post on mentoring.

Of course, comments to blogs (like blog entries themselves) often boast a tangentialist logic, stream-of-consciousness as organizing principle. Fair enough. And vfichera's point is still well taken: the move to relieve faculty of more and more of their advising duties is something that faculty members should be spending much more time discussing.