Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Academia in the Age of "Reactionary Foucauldianism"

I'm taking part in a faculty discussion today on "teaching controversial issues." In preparation for that meeting, I started to jot down some thoughts on the matter. (I'll be responsible for saying a few words.)

There is a hyper-politicization of higher education today, a hyper-politicization that I want to call "reactionary Foucauldianism." If Foucault's nothing-is-innocent post-structuralism gets marshaled to make arguments about knowledge production as a "power play," the same "metaphysics of power" informs reactionary critiques of academic culture. While Foucault is deployed to challenge "the state" and what he labels "governmentality," reactionary Foucauldianism is a critique of those critics (on similar knowledge/power grounds).

To discuss, say, America's history of imperialism is to practice "communist indoctrination." (Of course, some of this is about the logic and language of punditry. Hyperbolic sound-bites are the coin of our realm, but that seems like very little consolation for a targeted faculty member.)

Everything in academia has become controversial (or potentially controversial) as academics are consistently being asked to defend their ostensibly "liberal" leanings. I know of scholars who don't want to put their syllabi on-line for fear that "others" will troll the Internet, find the document, and use their required reading list to castigate them as ideologues. (And one gets very little traction by pointing out that, ironically enough, unabashed ideologues tend to be the folks most interested in such ideological witch-hunting.)

The increasing hegemony of a think tank counter-academy is also part of the discussion, especially when their powerful publishing arms produce best-selling books by circumventing the so-called "leftist" mainstream.

I teach quite a bit about race and religion, both of which are hot-button topics, growing more and more controversial by the semester. Any discussion of "religion" as something that is social, cultural and political (invariably how anthropologists frame their takes on the sacred) bleeds quite easily into the traps of partisan electoral politics vis-a-vis questions about the "war on terror," "Islamic Fundamentalism," and the "Christian Right" (just to name three of the most obvious ones).

For many people, any talk about race at all is an example of racism. Period. According to some, it is the only contemporary manifestation of racism worth noting. This idea that race-talk is an instantiation of racism (nothing more) can mean that a curricular offering on the topic is only ever a venue for preaching to the choir and supposedly damning the unbelievers. Defensiveness (about being dismissed as a "liberal") meets defensiveness (about being labeled a "racist"), which doesn't make for particularly constructive conversations.

Monday, February 15, 2010

In the Wake of Haiti: Jay Leno and Amy Bishop

It feels callous, even pathetic, to go on with business-as-usual while Haiti continues to reel from such a singular catastrophe. Not that it is really a viable alternative to stand still, catatonic and mouth ajar, wallowing in all the graphic (sometimes gratuitous) images offered up all day, everyday, by news outlets.

Those same media outlets have toned down their coverage of Haiti considerably these past two weeks, which seems welcomingly merciful, I have to selfishly admit, even as it also shocks me how quickly the 24-hour news cycle can chew up and spit out any story, including one as massive as the Haitian disaster. A nor'easter seems hardly to merit displacing it at the top of anybody's news hour.

Even after we've sent our checks (contra Rush Limbaugh's suggestions) and commiserated with friends about the tragedy (the injustice of the event itself, the high-profile mean-spiritedness of certain religious explanations for it, the frustrating tales about the difficulty of relief efforts and the plight of those "kidnapped" orphans), we still have to go on with the rest of our day, the rest of our lives, right? Anything else seems almost like courting psychosis, dancing with the devil of existential despair.

And I have certainly taken that advice. I spent the end of January and the beginning of February staying up late at night to watch Conan O'Brien and David Letterman hurl insults (in the guise of "jokes") at Jay Leno. I guzzled down the season premiere of 24, and I made it my business to YouTube Mo'Nique's acceptance speech from the Golden Globes (just because everybody seemed to be talking about it). I did all of this with the Haitian earthquake's aftermath punctuating the noisy pauses between these silly vices.

For me, it feels almost schizophrenic to be following the events in Haiti while, say, preparing for weekly sessions of my graduate course (on the noeme of film). I also have a few grad students and recent grads on the academic job market, so I am writing recommendations and helping them to deal with the inevitable anxieties that such professional hurdles produce. This week, I'll spend much more time on that stuff than I will watching the news coverage from Haiti.

All academic eyes are now focused on the shooting in Huntsville. A faculty member at the University of Alabama is denied tenure (another one of those anxiety-filled professional hurdles), and she makes some of her colleagues pay for it with their lives. The entire affair feels like academia's version of a natural disaster: what can happen when the tectonic plates beneath the ever-secretive tenure process shift just enough for others to really feel it. Of course, the person denied tenure already feels the devastation, but it is a decidedly individualized experience, mostly dealt with off-stage and out of public view.

At the same time, very little really feels "natural" about this Law and Order-type murder story, its headlines coming fast and furious. The Chronicle Of Higher Education has descended on the scene like academia's version of the New York Times, and we are continuing to get details about the shooter's quirkiness and interpersonal oddities.

An academic friend of mine claims to find it "strange" that such post-tenure shootings don't happen more often, especially given how "nutty" academics can be. And she readily includes herself in that unflattering characterization, which I respected, even as I demanded that she make an exception for my own self-avowed normalcy. But is she right? Given how fraught the climb up academia's ladder, is it shocking how infrequently such violent retaliation takes place? What, if anything, does this shooting really tell us about a "life of the mind" or about the way academics adjudicate it? How long before the Amy Bishop story gets bumped from the headlines, and is there something faculty members should actually learn from the entire thing before it does?

Friday, February 12, 2010

What to do with GREs?

Four Theories of the GRE's evaluative significance:

1. The Primacy of Quantitative Scores: This position holds that high quant scores are a good indication of how crisply someone thinks, regardless of whether or not the discipline they are applying to demands any robust use of mathematics at all. The rebuttal maintains that unless someone is going to be working with numbers, the quantitative score can be completely discounted if the other two scores are high enough.

2. All or Nothing: Some reviewers of grad applications maintain that unless the GRE scores are quite high in all three domains, the student should be considered a bit of a risk. I've even been privy to a theory that links high-math/low-verbal scores to anti-social behavior. The high-verbal/low-math applicant sometimes gets dismissed by others as someone who talks a good game but doesn't have anything substantive to say. All style and no substance.

3. The Declining Significance of GREs: Some reviewers don't even look at GRE scores. They dismiss them out of hand. If the statement is strong and the letters are convincing/supportive, they don't need any other information. This position usually gets justified with recourse to discussions about the relative underperformance of minority candidates on standardized tests (whether that's chalked up to cultural biases written into those tests or to "stereotype threats" priming said students for failure). Of course, this anti-GRE position doesn't mesh well with university-wide attempts to clearly demonstrate the exceptionalism of incoming classes.

4. Writing, Writing, Writing: I've heard at least a couple of qualitative social scientists and humanists wax eloquent about the singular significance of the writing component of the test. (I don't even think we had a writing section when I took the test.) A high writing score means that whatever the prospective students know/learn will get translated into the coins of the realm in academia: the written conference talk, the term/final paper, the publishable article, and the Dissertation. This, they argue, is where the rubber hits the road for graduate studentry. And bad writers with good ideas have a more difficult time thriving in the academy. Good writers can survive even if their ideas aren't always instantiations of incomparable genius.

When I'm on a selection committee, I tend to go through all of the other materials in the files before I look at GREs. Starting with GRE scores can sometimes bias one's reading of the rest of a prospective student's application. Once I go through the written materials, I then compare my assessment of the student with his or her GRE scores, usually just to see how hard a case I'll have to make to my colleagues (if those scores are particularly low). Of course, I almost never win those low-GRE cases.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Days

What's the best way to spend a snow day?

A nor'easter decided to add an exclamation point to the massive winter storm that pummeled Philadelphia (and the entire mid-Atlantic region) this past weekend, which means that schools famous for almost never closing due to weather concerns have cancelled their classes today. I'll have to pay for this later (trying to re-schedule campus meetings that were difficult to schedule the first time around), but there is one major upside. I can to slash through a chunk of my growing To-Do List.

First things first. I sent out 33 emails in an hour, emails churned out with a reckless disregard for grammar or even comprehension, which probably means that I'll have to spend more time sending follow-ups for clarification.

I've already had three very useful phone calls with colleagues (related to my administrative roles on campus), and I am now all set for a big committee meeting this Friday. Check. Check.

And then I slipped down a bit of a rabbit hole. Snow days are great for such wonderlandesque expeditions.

I have a few doctoral students on the job market right now, and they keep telling me about those infamous "wiki" sites where applicants can get unofficial updates on the status of current academic job searches. This is madness! I am so glad that such sites didn't exist ten years ago, during my first real stint on the academic job market. It reeks of neurotic possibility.

I actually went through some old text messages this morning (from and about undergrads applying to doctoral programs), and I can't believe that the same kinds of cyber-sites are available for them, spaces where other prospective graduate students anonymously post any information they know (or have heard) about the results of departmental decisions about incoming cohorts. So, I have been meandering through these virtual wastelands and fretting over how much discipline it takes for graduate students and would-be graduate students to avoid the gravitational pull of such sparkling baubles.

If I can spend a chunk of my morning shaking my head at the phenomenon, I wouldn't be surprised if snow days give students license to get swallowed whole in these bastions of high-end gossip-mongering. I can see the mesmerizing draw, even if I can't spend all of the time-out-of-time that is my snow day on these addictive sites.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why co-teaching is not a scam

I recently had someone tell me that co-teaching was one of the biggest academic scams going. "The biggest, in fact," he corrected. According to him, this was insult to injury in the context of a larger academic universe that was itself, by his estimation, one gigantic institutionalized racket of Mafioso (and "governmental") proportions. (A side note about his "governmental" critique: I should probably add that this person is a libertarian, and something of a conspiracy theorist.)

And he wasn't just talking in the abstract. He was offering me a bit of a browbeating for the amount of co-teaching that I have done over the course of my professorial career.

To hear him tell it, co-teaching is just a way for faculty members to get full credit for half the work. They conspire with their colleagues to split a semester or quarter in two so that they don't have to prepare for (or attend) all of the sessions. With this illicitly gained free time, they can then selfishly work on their own projects, which was at least a better option, he admitted, than what he suspected was the usual alternative: doing absolutely nothing productive at all, like the closeted slackers all academics seemingly want to be.

I have heard this critique of co-teaching many times, and I've seen examples of co-teaching that do seem to merit the cynicism, structuring the "collaboration" such that students experience it as little more than two distinct pedagogical ships passing one another in the dark curricular night. (Of course, these same students tend not to enjoy such courses, or to consider them valuable educational experiences.)

To complicate matters even more, there is also the question of how much co-teaching should really count toward faculty teaching loads: as a full course (like any other)? Half a course? (Even less than that, my interlocutor might argue, given his aforementioned assessment of things.)

If done well, I would argue that co-teaching with a colleague could even count as two courses. Or at least a course and a half. That's because to really do it right, to do it well, means many more hours of preparation beforehand: debating the foundational structure of the course, comparing notes/takes on the material, and doing justice to two distinct perspectives on the subject matter. It can require as long as a year (even longer) for colleagues to effectively collaborate (over coffees, lunches and late-night bull sessions) on the conceptualization and organization of a substantive (and reasonably coherent) co-taught syllabus.

I've actually only ever co-taught courses where both of us attended all of the sessions, read all of the materials and prepared lectures/comments/questions for one another and the students every single week, but I realize that that isn't always possible, especially if an institution asks that such co-teaching be conducted as an overloaded add-on to a person's regular teaching schedule (which is how some academics have described the policies of their schools to me).

In a course on "Film and Reality" that I co-taught with a Kantian philosopher at Duke, every class session was a learning experience for everyone involved. Some sessions he'd lead, and my role was to respond/rebut (from an anthropological perspective). When I led, he'd do the same (providing philosophical/analytical counterpoints/extensions to my positions). In a lecture on semiotics (and the ostensible differences between Ferdinand de Saussure's binaries and Charles Sanders Peirce's tripartitism), my co-instructor pushed back with a challenge to the distinctiveness of iconicity and indexicality vis-a-vis what I had described as the more arbitrary and un-motivated sign. It was a great discussion. Not because we got lost in our own debate (another minefield to avoid on team-taught terrain), but because we were able to use that discussion as a way to structure a series of student questions/comments about the contemporary utility of semiotic approaches to social analysis (and discrepancies between them).

Since coming to Penn, I've co-taught graduate courses and undergraduate courses, small seminars and large lecture offerings. In all of these instances, my collaborators and I met each week, before the actual class sessions, discussing our divergent take on the readings, sharing our thoughts on the specifics of the week's agenda, and making sure that we had a detailed set of expectations (of ourselves and our students) before we stepped into the classroom. When it works, this is an enriching experiences for everyone, which makes the extra preparation worth it.

In an academic world where interdisciplinarity is offered up as part of the intellectual air we breathe, co-teaching will probably become an increasingly valuable way of training students to think across conventional disciplinary (and even methodological) dividing lines.

In an academic world where interdisciplinarity is offered up as constitutive of the intellectual air we all breathe, co-teaching should become an increasingly valued way of training students to think across conventional disciplinary (and even methodological) dividing lines.

(crossposted at The Chronicle of Higher Education)