Archive for the ‘Pontificating about The Profession’ Category

You might think that I am a person who would pass over an article about $4,000 suits in the New York Times, but you would be wrong.  Because the thing is, this article has a hell of a lot to say about higher education, I think, at least from my perspective.

Two things stood out to me.  First, this passage.

When I learned about Frew, I assumed he was some rich designer in an atelier on Madison Avenue. That’s what Frew hopes to be one day, but for now the 33-year-old Jamaican immigrant works out of his ground-floor apartment near Flatbush Avenue, in Brooklyn, and makes around $50,000 a year. His former living room consists of one large table piled with bolts of cloth and a form with a half-made suit. As Frew sewed a jacket, he explained how he customizes every aspect of its design — the width of the lapel, the number and size of the pockets — for each client. What makes a bespoke suit unique, he said, is that it’s the result of skills that only a trained hand can perform. Modern technology cannot create anything comparable.

As I watched Frew work, it became glaringly obvious why he is not rich. Like a 17th-century craftsman, he has no economy of scale. It takes Frew about 75 hours to make a suit — he averages about two per month — and he has no employees. A large part of his revenue is used to pay off his material expenses, and because his labor is so demanding, he relies on an outside salesman, who requires commissions. (Frew can’t even afford to make a suit for himself. When we met, he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt.) While he hopes to one day hire full-time assistant tailors and rent a Manhattan showroom, he knows it will be a huge challenge to get there.

A couple of things about the above.  First: Maybe it’s ok to make $50K a year if you’re doing something you believe in.  That ain’t exactly poor, folks.  Now, I’m willing to admit that in NYC it’s probably dangerously close to not being middle-class – I mean, I get the whole cost of living thing – but still: one will not die if one makes $50K a year, even in NYC, whatever the NYT might indicate.  I will also note that it would be utterly ridiculous to wear a suit while one would be sewing suits.  (See: Project Runway.  Who the fuck is decked out in a suit while doing the hard labor of sewing?  Nobody, because it would be completely uncomfortable.  So that is a dumb comment on the part of the author, talking about the guy wearing shorts and a t-shirt. But then, he’s a poor black immigrant who cannot wear a $4,000 suit, and we all should note that, regardless of his comfort in doing his job.)

But the phrase “no economy of scale” sure did stand out to me and ring a giant bell in my head.  And then I glanced back up at the preceding paragraph (the joys of reading on paper rather than electronically: you can return to a thing you otherwise would have glossed over), and I noted the following: “he explained how he customizes every aspect of its design” and then, “Modern technology cannot create anything comparable.”

Does this sound familiar to any of y’all?  ‘Cause it sure does to me.  Wearing non-fancy clothes to do heavy lifting? Check.  Customizing every aspect of the design for the individual?  Um, check.  That is, in fact, the entire pedagogical premise behind “active learning” in the classroom.  The inability of modern technology to create the particular product that Frew is selling?  Um, YES.  Look, I’ve taught online, and I have many students who’ve taken courses online, although not all of them have done so with me.  They and I will tell you that it is not the same fucking thing as doing it face to face. So the question then becomes, does a $4 suit do the same thing that a $4,000 suit does?

Not, can it “work”?  Sure it can.  Just like a suit bought used from the Salvation Army can work for, say, an MLA interview.  It looks like a suit.  It doesn’t fit as well, and it’s not designed to do the best ever for you, but it’s fine, right?  There may be stains, and sure, it might smell funny.  But the price is right.  Close to free, even.  Beggars can’t be choosers.  But is it the Platonic essence of suitness?  No, surely not.

Now, you might say, do you really need the Platonic essence of suitness? Perhaps not.  But isn’t the very problem that some people have the privilege of getting a real fucking suit, and going on their interviews in it, while others are left with the “close to free” option?

Now, maybe that’s fine, when we’re talking about suits.  Maybe it’s fair to talk about the finest suits as a luxury item, that not all people can or should have access to.  Are we willing to say that same thing about education?  Some people surely are.  I’m not one of those people.

Now, you might be saying, “But you are presenting a false dichotomy, Dr. Crazy!  It’s not a bespoke suit vs. a Salvation Army one!  You can get a suit that is decent and that is mass-produced!  Think Macy’s!  Think Ann Taylor!”  To that, I say this:

Greenfield’s factory makes custom suits, which are known in the business as made-to-measure. Customers can go to a third-party boutique, like J. Press, to pick a fabric and be measured. The cloth and measurements are then sent to Brooklyn, where patterns are created, fabric cut and then sent through the production line of cutters and tailors. Just as Adam Smith described in “The Wealth of Nations,” there are huge efficiency gains when one complex process is broken down into constituent parts and each worker specializes in one thing. At Greenfield, one worker sews pockets all day long, and another focuses entirely on joining front and back jacket pieces. The labor involved in each suit’s construction is about 10 hours. The suits Greenfield makes typically retail at around $2,000.

Even with all those efficiency advantages, Greenfield isn’t without its difficulties. Demand has fallen just as the cost of raw materials has gone up. Manufacturers in China, where a suit can be made in about 30 minutes at a cost well below $100, are driving up the price of wool, which increases the prices of fancier fabrics too. A few decades ago, there were thousands of clothing factories in New York. Now Greenfield’s is one of only a handful left. He and his sons, Tod and Jay, who run the business with him, say there are several ways they could have made more money, but their two best bets are selling their building to a residential housing developer or moving their manufacturing operation to Asia.

Sentimentality aside, Greenfield told me that he has not even considered moving. Suiting is an apprenticeship business, and new employees learn their craft by watching the many people who have worked there for years. If they started over, they could never replicate that institutional knowledge. At the end of the day, he said, their only competitive advantage is that knowledge.

And then:

When I spoke to Frew, Rowland and the Greenfields, they talked about how there is now a large difference between what is monetizable and what is actually valuable. One of the defining attributes of capitalism is that the market determines what succeeds even if it means that the Kardashian Kollection might bring in more money than all the bespoke suits in the world.

So you see?  Here are the problems: 1) value is not equal to price; 2) our business, the business of learning, just like the business of making a quality suits, relies on an apprenticeship system, because you can’t really learn how to do it without doing it while other people watch over you; 3) having a product available, i.e., the Kardashian Kollection,  basically sets it up that people without certain kinds of resources will buy crap rather than saving up for something that isn’t crap.

The future of quality higher education is not  MOOCs, just as the future of quality suits is not the Salvation Motherfucking Army.  The future of quality higher education is not “increased online offerings,” just as the future of quality suits is not buying a fucking suit online from a department store.  Sure, those are “options.”  Whatever.  Do you think that’s all the options that your kids deserve?  Do you think that’s all the options that you deserve?  Really?

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The title is a phrase that my mother used throughout my childhood whenever I would play the “but so and so does this” and “But I deserve” and “It’s not fair” cards.  “Measuring with a yard stick” was short hand for, “You need to stop worrying so much about what other people are doing and worry about your own damned self.” Let’s give you an example of a conversation as it might have happened:

Crazy: I’m so mad because I worked so much harder at practice than Jenny but then the coach told her she did really well at practice and said nothing to me!  SHE’S MEAN AND SHE SHOULD HAVE TOLD ME THAT I DID WELL! IT’S NOT FAIR!

Crazy’s Mom: You need to stop measuring with a yard stick.  Did you do your best?

Crazy: But–


Crazy: Well, yeah….

Crazy’s Mom: Well, that’s the only thing that matters.  You need to stop measuring with a yard stick.

-End Scene –

Now you may wonder why I’m telling you this story (especially if you know my mom, as she totally measures with a yard stick.  You don’t even know how many times I’ve had to listen to her tell me about her stupid coworker Melinda.) Anyway.

In spite of the fact that my mother is a big fat hypocrite, I internalized this whole measuring with a yard stick thing.  Not that I don’t have those feelings sometimes, but I know that they are wrong and that they should be suppressed immediately.  Because what matters is that I’m doing my best.  It doesn’t matter what other people are doing.  Even if it pisses me off.  I need to do my best.  Period.

So I had a conversation with a colleague tonight in which she was measuring with a yardstick. And while I didn’t use that phrase, the responses that I gave were all about “you need to care about your own self and not about how you measure up to other people.”  The problem, of course, is that this colleague of mine hadn’t been socialized since birth to feel like worrying about measuring up to other people is wrong a sin even.  So my advice didn’t get the reaction that I’d wanted for it to have.  Though I think the person did listen in the end, at least to some extent.

But here is the problem with people who weren’t schooled in the “Measuring with a Yard Stick is WRONG” fashion.  They make themselves miserable.  Especially in the academy.  Especially in the academy if you’re at a public university where you can look up people’s salaries.  Here’s the thing: because I knew that it would encourage me to “measure with a yard stick,” I never looked at my colleagues’ salaries pre-tenure.  Now I do it in a sort of macabre, “I look because I cannot look away” sort of a way, but I don’t actually care.  I now understand what salary compression means, and I understand how my university spends its money.  I understand that if I’m unhappy with my salary my only recourse is to get another job.  But the whole “It’s not fair!” business?  It’s a waste of energy.  (Note: this is why I work as hard as I work.  Because I want the option of saying “fuck you” rather than “it’s not fair.”  “Fuck you” would get me a lot farther.  And if it’s not worth it to say “fuck you,” then I’ve got to suck it up.  I get that.)

But the point is, if you’re measuring with a yard stick, most of the time you don’t have all the information.  Sure, you feel wrongly done by, but most of the time you don’t realize that the other person might actually be doing better than you are doing.  Because you don’t have all the information that the person doing the evaluating has.  Now, that might not be true, but lots of times it is.  The point is, you don’t have control over it whether you’re being screwed or not.  All you have control over is your own performance, your own decisions.  So why waste your energy on shit that you can’t control?  Why drive yourself crazy over shit you can’t control?

I get really enraged when people say, as an alibi for the crappy salaries that professors earn, that “none of us got into this for the money.”  I care a lot about being fairly compensated for the work that I do.  I am in it for the money, at least to some extent.  But I in no way believe that the money that I make relates to what other people do.  I think it relates to what I do.  Maybe this is why, when I looked at the salary data that the “measuring with a yard stick” colleague sent me, I felt positively pleased about where I was situated.  The work that I do has translated into my compensation.  I knew that before I compared myself to others, but whatever.  It’s still nice to have that confirmed.

The point is this, though: I do think that part of the reason I feel good about my situation is because I haven’t been spending my time and energy measuring with a yard stick.  Instead, I’ve spent that time accomplishing things for myself.  Things that enrich me, and things that satisfy me.  And yes, I’m in a totally privileged position, as a faculty member with tenure.  But I honor that privilege with the work that I do, and I’m not spending time on spite that takes away from what I can accomplish with that privilege.  (No, I’m not a saint, I feel spiteful.  But it’s not my predominant emotion or my most time-consuming one.)

So my best piece of advice I can give to people on the tenure-track who are not yet tenured?  Don’t look at the salaries of your colleagues.  Instead, use that energy to work your ass off.  And if you’re pissed when you finally do see those salaries?  Then you’ll be in a position to leave.


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Ok, I’m motherfucking exhausted because I have just finished my 5th of 15 motherfucking Tuesdays.  (Huzzah!  I am a third of the way through!)

And I was going to do a big long ranty post about this, but seriously?  This doesn’t need to be as long as I could have made it (though I’m sure CPP will still say it’s too long), though it will be ranty.  Because it’s just common motherfucking sense.  (Note: I’m only talking about public higher ed here.  Private institutions will have to figure out their own shit – I am too spent after teaching at a public institution to figure out their situation, too.)

Let’s make an analogy that brings this closer to home.  Imagine that your mom has a birthday coming up.  And the thing your mom wants most in the world is a vacation that will cost $1,000.00.  You are one of five kids.  The five kids constitute the “public” in this scenario.  Now, it would be a “public good” for the kids to get the mom this vacation, because otherwise she’ll make everybody feel guilty as hell and she’ll be in a bad mood and take it out on everybody.  Now one answer to this question is that Jane, the eldest sister, makes the most money.  She can afford it, all the other siblings say, so she should take one for the team.  But Jane doesn’t feel that way – Jane feels like she wants to send her kids to camp and to get botox or something, and so she refuses.  How dare she be expected to take one for the team.  The middle sibling, Joey, pleads that he is raising twins and can’t possibly find the extra grand.  The youngest, Jenny, would need to take a second job in order to find an extra grand.  You get the picture.  In other words, nobody wants to pay $1,000.o0.  It’s “not fair.”  But everybody wants mom to have that vacation, because it would make their lives easier in the day-to-day.

Now let’s imagine for a moment that these five siblings aren’t total fucktards.  They would realize that if they all contributed to the cost of the vacation, the cost to each personally would go way down.  Every one of these siblings (who works a decent job), can find $200 to contribute to the pot.  Or actually, let’s say that one of the five is really struggling.  Maybe that one, let’s call him Johnny, can only contribute $100.  The other 4 can still find an extra $25 a piece without it breaking the bank.  For the public good, each can contribute something in order to make their world better.  And also to improve the life of their mom, because they want for her to have a good life, because again, they aren’t fucktards.

In the case of public higher education, the answer to the “crisis” in the “rising cost of higher education” might be to spread that cost around to the motherfucking citizenry that benefits from having an educated populace. 
If we really believe that we “need” our citizens to get an education in order to have a “thriving economy in the 21st century,” then this is a no-brainer.  And the easiest way to achieve this is by acknowledging that we may need to offset the increasing costs of higher education – costs that as far as I can tell correlate to rising costs for health care, essential student services like psychological services, disability services, and support for underrepresented and underprepared student populations (as opposed to nonessential services like fitness centers and whatnot, which are usually covered by fees), rising energy costs, increased costs that come out of increased technological demands (for, let’s be real: technology does not – as far as I can tell, ever – entail a cost savings, in spite of the propaganda to the contrary), and mandates from the state and federal government that currently have no funding attached to them – is to use the mechanism we already have for spreading costs around, i.e., TAXES.  You want a lower tuition bill?  Get everybody in your community to agree that you should have a lower tuition bill, and to put their money where their mouth is and to pay some taxes to support that opinion.

Look, I’m an English professor.  I don’t really do “math,” per se.  But I’m going to suggest that we’d be in a much better position in regards to funding for higher education if every taxpayer acknowledged that if we all just paid 1% or 2% more (or maybe less than that – I don’t do math remember) in their income in taxes – and if that 1 or 2% were dedicated to education and couldn’t be used to fix budget shortfalls or to be directed to other projects – then tuition would not go up in the ways it’s done over the past few years, and it might even go down.  I’m saying this as a person who is done with her education and who doesn’t have kids of her own.  But I believe in education as a public good.  I vote yes on school levees and bond issues for P-12.  I live in a town that has high taxes for its schools, even though I don’t have kids in those schools.  Basically, I understand that the education of my immediate community has positive value for me – even if I don’t directly benefit from the schools themselves.  And I also understand that if we spread the cost around, it has positive effects that reverberate.

The UC “modest proposal” that involves getting educated now and paying later is only more privatization.  And that is only going to mean higher costs for individuals, ultimately.  If what we really care about is keeping costs down, then everybody needs to pitch the fuck in.  It’s not calculus.  Even I can do this math, and the last math I took was something like “Algebra for the Liberal Arts.”

And finally: worrying about how to pay tuition isn’t exactly something new.  Lots of people have worried about that long before now.  It’s just they tended to be people who were in their first generation in their family to go to college, people who had kids young, people whose parents couldn’t help them with tuition, people who had to do time in the military in order to get the GI Bill.  We didn’t worry so much about tuition when it was “just them,” did we?

The problem isn’t, actually, that education has less value now than it did then, or that public institutions of higher education are cheating students out of what they rightly deserve.  The problem is that the public has stopped thinking that education is a public good and instead it’s started believing that education is a personal responsibility.  That’s just fine if we want to limit access to higher education, and it’s just fine if we’re willing to get rid of some of these new essentials, like student services or like technology, in order to meet a fiscal bottom line.

But you don’t get something for nothing, as business types are fond of reminding us.  So pony the fuck up, people.  Either that, or shut the fuck up.


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So far this semester, I have: 1) taught 4 major texts (in addition to some articles and things) I’ve never taught before, 2) survived three hideous Tuesdays, 3) done a lot of research-related reading and thinking, though not nearly enough actual writing, 4) presided over a potentially horrifying committee meeting that turned out just to be uncomfortable (this was a victory), 5) participated in assessment stuff in my department, 6) written a book review for a public outreach publication from the university.

This week marks me getting to the 25% mark in the semester, which also means that I’ll be getting my first batch of papers in 3 of four classes.  I am feeling, on the eve of receiving 2 of 4 said papers (the third batch comes Thursday), extremely good about my teaching this semester.  It turns out that when one a) teaches stuff one loves and is worth teaching, and b) devotes oneself anew to teaching, in part based on that enthusiasm for the material, that c) one doesn’t feel totally overburdened by teaching.  Now, of course, when I get this first batch of papers I may feel demoralized, but I don’t think that I will.  Basically, I feel like I’ve got my teaching mojo back, mojo which I’d lost precisely because teaching had fallen out of the top slot on my list of priorities.

With teaching back where it belongs, up on the top of the list, things are – surprise surprise – going much better in the classroom.  Now, let’s note, what’s gotten in the way of my teaching has not been my research.  It has been, without a question, tons of crap which falls under that amorphous heading of “service.”  Administrative bullshit, political maneuvering, mindless busy-work – all things that take me mentally and physically away from serving my students and from producing work that contributes to my discipline.

All of those “service” things are essential to the way that universities run according to a business model of higher education in the 21st century.  This isn’t a matter of faculty shirking their duties to students because of things they’d “rather” do.  I’d much “rather” be focused on my students.  But instead I was convinced that I needed to focus on “accountability measures” and “administrative necessities” and endless, endless amounts of record-keeping, record-keeping that is far beyond the scope of keeping track of students’ performance or educating them, or creating new knowledge through research, research which also contributes to the teaching mission of my institution.

The reality is that I made a decision this semester, one I only have the power to make by virtue of the fact that I earned tenure: I have decided to put my teaching work and intellectual work ahead of the needs of my institution.  And it’s making me a better teacher, and I hope it will make me a better scholar.  But it also means that I’m phoning it in on the things that my institution needs from me in order to run.  I feel comfortable with that trade-off for myself and for my current students and students in the immediate future: I don’t feel comfortable with that trade-off when I think about the future of my institution or the future of higher education.  Also: it’s a luxury for me to make that decision in isolation, because I feel like other people exist who can (and probably should) pick up my slack.

In the State of the Union President Obama put colleges and universities “on notice,” and my state has had us “on notice” for at least the past three years.  None of these notices appear to have much to do with what actually happens in classrooms (or online environments where students learn).  They have to do with money, and they have to do with statistics.  They don’t have much to do with learning, or with knowledge.  In failing to put money and statistics at the top of my list, and putting learning and knowledge there instead, I’m basically ignoring reality.  And that doesn’t mean I don’t see the reality or that I won’t have to reckon with it.  I’m, as much as is possible, looking out for number one – me, my students – but at the end of the day, somebody – faculty, staff, and administrators without the luxury of tenure – will have to take the “notice” seriously, for fear that they will lose their jobs if they don’t, and what they decide or how they respond will then be passed on to the tenured ranks, who at that point won’t have any power to protest.  The consequences ultimately will trickle down to me.  So all I’m doing in choosing to realign my priorities is a kind of futile passive resistance. And I’m relinquishing power as a faculty member, relinquishing shared governance in favor of what I perceive as an immediate good.

But I don’t believe that I have any power to do anything more active.  I no longer believe that fighting the good fight, in terms of service, amounts to anything, for myself, for my students, or for my institution.  So at best all I’m doing is postponing the inevitable, and, at worst, I am, in my own small way, accelerating the demise of public higher education.  (That may be hyperbolic, but it’s the best way I know how to put it.)

The good news is that I’m teaching really good classes.  The good news is that I’m excited to read the work that my students will submit.  The good news is that I’ve for the first time since earning tenure, while not on sabbatical, I’ve felt like I’m doing the work that I entered this profession to do.  The good news is that I don’t feel crazily stressed out or paranoid or filled with dread about going to work every day.

The bad news is that I feel guilty about all of the above, in spite of the fact that all of the above is really central to the work that professors are supposed to do.  And the bad news is that this is the reality of teaching at a public, four-year institution in which the focus is supposed to be on teaching, and particularly on “enrolling and graduating relatively large numbers of low-income students.”

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Historiann tapped me, along with many others, to respond to the question in the title of a piece by Tony Grafton over at the New York Review of Books.  Why are our universities “failing”?  Notorious, Ph.D. beat me to the punch on my initial reaction: “We, as a society, need to take some accountability, and realize that, whatever happens, we will get the system we pay for, and the results that we deserve.”  But since Notorious has laid out that particular answer so fully and articulately, let me take another tack.

One thing that I noticed as I read Grafton’s piece is that he didn’t really question the idea that our universities are failing, at least in a lot of cases.  And he produces a lot of “facts” to back that claim up, in spite of his nuanced critique of the other reports out there on how higher ed is failing. He claims that critiques of higher education fall into two camps.  On the one hand, the polemics:

Instead of offering detailed accounts of particular colleges and universities, which could give a sense of the rhythms and textures of academic lives, they pile up stories clipped from popular media and Web pages; describe individual experiences, often egregious ones, as if they marked a general rule; and recycle anecdotes already worn smooth by the handling they have undergone in previous polemical works.

On the other, he singles out more data-driven critiques:

They excavate a world of ugly facts and unsatisfactory practices that has the gritty look and feel of reality—a reality that has little to do with the glossy hype of world university ratings.

He’s interested criticizing the failure in the rhetoric of both camps, but Grafton, in my reading, does seem to accept the broader claim that there is a whole lot of failing going on.  His call to action is rooted in the idea that we need a more complex account of the failings of higher education.  Indeed, he concludes:

Where are the great journalists? They will find students who manage to do excellent work and many more cases of wasted possibilities, and they might gain some insight into why.

Now, the point of my post is not to be a Pollyanna, or an apologist for the state of higher education in the United States.  There are, indeed, many problems, and they do require a complicated analysis and complex solutions.  However, I wonder whether that analysis and those solutions might begin with calling to question this notion of “failure.”  Maybe we need to start with questioning whether “failure” is really a given with which to start.  Maybe that discursive move is, in itself, problematic.

My theory-boyfriend Michel Foucault is actually really helpful here.  In his analysis of the repressive hypothesis, Foucault calls to question the given that the nineteenth-century was characterized by widespread sexual repression, that sex was the great “secret” or “taboo,” the “truth” of which could only be spoken through the liberation of the twentieth century.  (This is a reductive summary, but what the hell?  This is a blog post and I can be reductive if I want to.  It’s also worth noting that I do understand that Foucault was a crappy historian, but we folks in English don’t mind that all so much, just like we don’t mind that Freud’s theories have been roundly discredited by modern psychology.  “Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?” we literary studies types ask.  If the theory is useful, we ignore the pesky details.)  Here is why this comes to mind in this instance.  Basically, there is a jolt of pleasure in transgressing by speaking the unspeakable.  If we think sex – or fucking, I suppose – is the ultimate unspeakable thing, then when we “speak” it, we think that we have “power” while those before us didn’t.  We are “liberated” rather than “repressed.”  For Foucault, of course, this is a total mystification of how power actually works.  There is no outside of power.

In the current discourse surrounding higher education, I think that “failure” is the new “fucking.”  If we practitioners of higher education, or pundits, or columnists, or whatever, speak the “truth” of how higher education is failing, then we get that jolt of pleasure in transgressing what we have construed as a norm.  “The children are not the future!” we say.  “There is no future!  Everything’s going to hell in a handbasket!”  And then we get to take self-satisfied pleasure in how we are subjects who know, while everybody else is “naive.” Even if we present a more complicated or nuanced argument, if we start with the premise of failure – just as if we start with the premise of repression when discussing sex and sexuality – we are buying into a mystification. *

Now, let me pause for a moment and describe my position in this conversation.  I teach at a regional, four-year, public university.  A “directional” university, with about 15K students, which is located in an “suburban” location (i.e., most students commute).  My teaching load each semester is four courses, so eight courses per year.  I typically teach four different preps per term, though there is often repetition of courses across terms.  Because of a recent edict by our administration, there is no release time for faculty who are not serving in administrative positions (chair, assistant chair, dgs) – basically, departments are penalized if they offer such a thing to reward research productivity or to assist it.  This edict was framed as “giving chairs more power.”  I currently have around 80 students, plus I’m directing two MA capstone projects and serving on another MA capstone committee.  I have some colleagues who are serving on as many as 7 capstone projects (whether as directors or readers) per term.  While our research expectations are modest, there are research expectations, if one cares about tenure and promotion.  (You know those surveys about how people are stalling at associate?  I bet those numbers are skewed by people who respond from institutions like mine.  Basically, if you want “full” in my department, you need to produce a book.  Let’s note how difficult that is to do with that sort of teaching load.)  There are fairly heavy service expectations, too.   Most of my students work full time, whether or not they are in school full time.  Many have significant family obligations.  They are not going to keggers on the weekends or tailgating before football games.  Most of them do limited or no “student life” sorts of things.  Hell, they don’t even have time to make an appointment to meet with a professor about a paper or to get advising.

So let’s talk about some of the “facts” that Tony Grafton cites in his piece.

  • “Nowadays the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. ”  Ok, now, there are two ways that one could read this sentence.  First, there is the issue of the broad range of majors that exist now that didn’t exist 20 years ago.  With more choice, obviously the distribution of students might spread out a bit.  I’m not sure that’s a disaster.  Second, there is the issue of the perceived “decline” in people majoring in liberal arts disciplines.  Here, I can only talk about English.  The figure that people adore citing about English is that once upon a time in 1970 7.6% of undergraduates majored in English.  And now (horrors!) only about 4% of students major in English.  It’s a terrible decline!  Except… it’s not.  It was about 4% in 1950.  1970 was an anomale. As much as I hate numbers, analyzing them critically really does matter here.  Are we failing if we’ve really basically held steady?
  • “Second, and more depressing: vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers.”  Ok, well, that is depressing, except…. I think we have to ask two questions: 1) Was this the case in the past?  For example: for women who attended college in the 1950s, did they necessarily come to university with interest in particular courses and with a sense of a future career path, or did they attend college in search of an M.R.S. degree?  Is that the same thing?  Another example: did men attend college during the era of the Vietnam War with a particular interest in their courses and of a future career path, or did they attend college because it was a way to avoid the draft?  In other words, was there really this prelapserian time where students all went to college for the “right” reasons?  2) To what extent does the knowledge economy of the 21st century, in which the prerequisite for a middle-class lifestyle is pretty much college, affect the level of commitment in the student population?  If college is the new high school, wouldn’t it make sense that you’d end up with a similar lack of seriousness amongst the student population?  Many of my students are doing time, just as a generation ago they might have been doing time in high school.  I don’t actually blame them for that.  It’s the reality of our current economy.  They see a post-secondary degree as a necessary, albeit an annoying, piece of paper that they must secure in order not to have a really difficult life.  The piece of paper is the point – not what they will learn, and not what they will do beyond getting that piece of paper.  I suppose I feel like my role is to try to inspire them somehow out of that way of thinking.  But if I can’t do it for all of them, well, I’m not sure that it’s my fault or theirs, as individuals.  I’m not sure whether any of us are actually failing if this is how they view their education. And in past generations these are students who likely wouldn’t have bothered going to college, and nobody would have seen that as a failure.  (To be fair, Grafton notes the “credential-based” nature of higher ed today.  I’m just wondering whether we should blame ourselves or our students for the fact that this is the case.)
  • “Teaching has been reassigned, more and more, from tenured and tenure-track faculty to graduate students and adjuncts.”  Um, kinda.  On the one hand, my institution hasn’t been hiring more and more tenured and tenured-track faculty to teach.  But that doesn’t mean our teaching loads have decreased since the university opened about 50 years ago, and our service loads have actively increased over those years.  And while my department has a (very new) MA program, we don’t rely on MA students to fill in the teaching gap.  The crazy adjunctification at my institution has to do with the state’s goals for increasing college enrollment, and the lack of funding to hire full-time lecturers or tenure-track faculty.  How do you increase enrollment without hiring people at a living wage?  You hire adjuncts.  This “failure” is not about individual administrators, or about faculty who want to retreat into research.  It’s about the way that public higher education is funded (or not), even as the mandates increase.  There are no “stars” at institutions like mine.  Our “stars” are nobodies in the broader scheme of things.
  • “Even in these supposedly tight times, finally, well-paid administrators and nonacademic professionals proliferate—as do the costly extracurricular activities that they provide, from bonding exercises for freshmen to intercollegiate sports. The message is clear: no one sees classroom learning as a primary pursuit.”  You know, I don’t even know if this is higher ed failing.  Honestly, I understand why we need all these administrators at my institution, even if I resent the fact that all the Deanlets have salaries that are around twice my salary.  Who else is going to deal with the pressures of accreditation, of state mandates, of the push toward updating technology, of the need to get more grants (since state funding and institutional funding barely exists), to retain students (necessary for tuition dollars), to increase enrollment (tuition dollars), to serve the community……  I feel like it’s a lovely dream to think about classroom learning as our primary pursuit.  But I don’t know how to keep my public institution open if we ignore these other demands.  And those other demands require people to administer them.  Honestly?  I think that when we talk about this stuff we’d need to be talking not about how our universities are failing but rather about how my state government and about how the voters (my neighbors in the Tea Party) are failing.  Please refer to Notorious, Ph.D.’s post 🙂
  • “But barely more than half of those who start BA programs will finish them in six years, and only 30 percent of those who start community college will win an associate degree in three years. After that point, most people don’t manage to graduate.”  Ok, motherfucking graduation rates.  I can’t tell you how angry this facet of the conversation makes me.  Do y’all know how graduation rates are calculated?  Well, let me tell you what they don’t include.  They don’t include transfer students.  (In other words, CCs don’t get to count students who transfer to four-year universities, and 4-years don’t get to count students who transfer from CCs or from other 4-year universities.)  They don’t include part-time students – whether those students start part-time, or whether they start full-time and then move to part-time and back again.  They don’t take into account when students “stop out” of their education for things like “not being ready for college” or having babies or major family crises or for military service or for jail.  (Yes, I have had a number of students who have had to take time off from school to go to jail or because of various legal difficulties.)  Graduation rates count students who are enrolled full time from the moment that they are first-semester freshmen until they graduate.  As you might imagine, my institution’s graduation rates are abysmal.  Because we have 15K students, and yet only around 40% graduate in 6 years.  Except with all the people who are left out of that, and because of the way the calculations are done, that number bears little relationship to what students actually do and whether we really are doing what we can for them.  60% of students are not motherfucking dropping out.  Failure isn’t that fucking simple.  They just don’t count.  They don’t matter.  Not for the purposes of funding, and not for the purposes of this conversation.  Counting all of those students would make the bean-counters’ jobs just so difficult.
  • “Americans, as Malcolm Harris recently pointed out, now owe almost a trillion dollars in student loans, more than they owe in credit card debt. Student debt, he explained, “is an exceptionally punishing kind to have. Not only is it inescapable through bankruptcy, but student loans have no expiration date and collectors can garnish wages, social security payments, and even unemployment benefits.””  In terms of borrowing for a university education, I can only say that a year of tuition and fees (in-state) at my institution runs around $8k.  As less than 1/5 of our students live on campus, most could go to college for 32K.   Let’s imagine that we’re talking about the students who live in the dorms, though.  For them, the most expensive campus housing (apartment-style set-up), would run around $8K for the year (housing plus meal plan), so let’s add an additional 32K to that total.  That still leaves us with 64K for an undergraduate degree.  The majority of our students get federal financial aid (some mix of grants/work study) and we have generous scholarships for students based on academic achievement.  And remember, the vast majority of my students do not do the “traditional college student residential thing.”  The student loan thing, in terms of my institution, is, in my estimation, a red herring.  (Let’s note that one year of tuition and fees alone at my Ph.D. granting institution is about 40K per year not counting room and board, and most students spend at least two years in residence, and even if they move off campus it’s in a super high-cost-of-living place.)  Yes, it’s true: college costs more today than it did when I started my undergrad degree in the Fall of 1992.  And yes, some students end up fucked up financially, for a variety of reasons (stupidity, using student loans to support their families, whatever).  And I’m not saying that my students don’t struggle to make ends meet – many do.  But is this higher education “failing” students?  I dunno.  It’s not like a good 75% of my students would have even had the option of college 50 years ago.  Hell, I wouldn’t have had the option of a college education 50 years ago.  And I can also tell you that I know of a good many of my students whom I’ve had over the past eight years who have graduated with little to no student loan debt (they work).

So with all of that being said, I wonder whether talking about “failure” obscures the very real differences between, say, Princeton University and Directional State University in a Place Where People from Elsewhere Joke That Cousins Marry One Another.  And I wonder whether rhetorics of failure – even the most well-intentioned – really get at what the experience of attending university and paying for university is for most students in the country.  (A hell of a lot more students are like the ones I teach than like the ones Tony Grafton teaches.)  Honestly, most of my students’ parents are completely clueless about what their children are doing in college.  They are not fretting about the “high price” of a college education (they don’t contribute to the cost of their kids going to college), or about how universities are “failing” their children.  Just like my mother didn’t fret about those things, because just the fact that I went to college – an institution not unlike the one at which I currently teach – was more than she had ever imagined I could do.  (To be fair: my mom did contribute to the cost of my education, but my father contributed not a dime, and I always had to work to make up the difference.)  And most of my students aren’t fretting about how universities are failing them – just as I wasn’t – because the fact that they have access to a college education isn’t something that they had ever really believed would happen for them.

And I don’t think these rhetorics of failure reflect my professional experience in higher education, because honestly, I most often feel like I am succeeding against the odds – both in teaching my students and in responding to the various unreasonable mandates from my administration and from my state (and sometimes the unreasonable mandates from my administration flow out of the unreasonable mandates from my state).

So, “Why are our universities failing?”  I don’t know.  I’m not sure that I would say that they are.  I might ask why our communities are failing, why our country is failing, why voters are failing, why legislators are failing.  Or, I might ask what criteria we’re using to authorize asking why our universities are failing.

Or, I might go further and say that we are asking the wrong questions.  I’d much rather ask what we might do to help students to succeed, to help faculty to teach, to help administrators (yes, I even want to help them) to facilitate the work of the university.  I’m not sure that “failure” is really the point here.  I think rhetorics of failure, discourses of failure, might be a way to reinforce the status quo, the networks of power that oppress the vast majority of people who aren’t attending Ivies, elite liberal arts colleges, and even flagship state universities.

Or I might ask, why is “failure” such a dirty word?  Because at the end of the day, how can anyone learn anything without failing sometimes?  Isn’t it the case that an avoidance of failure is an avoidance of intellectual engagement?  I know that’s what I teach my students.  Why exactly is there such a charge in speaking the “truth” of failure, and why exactly is the repression of failure some sort of ideal or public good?

Maybe we need to think less about how to justify our existence, how to avert the “crisis” in which we find ourselves, and how to sidestep failure.  Maybe we need to stop retreating into the easy pleasure of announcing our failures at every turn, or, perhaps more insidiously, in complicating our analyses of our failures.  That’s not transgressive: it’s pathetic and counterproductive.  Maybe less important than thinking about our mistakes and our missteps is thinking about what we already do well and what we might do better.  Maybe our “epic fail” is our focus on our failings.


*Let me be clear, I am not calling out Tony Grafton as doing this in any sort of conscious way, and overall I don’t object to his project in this essay.  I think that he’s responding to a certain set of criticisms directly, and he’s attempting to redirect the conversation from his position of power within the academy.  But since I’m Dr. Crazy and not Tony Grafton, I have a certain kind of freedom to play with this topic a bit more radically.  My audience is not his audience. 


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(Thanks to the linky goodness provided by Virago, without which this post would not have been possible 🙂 )

One of the things that often strikes me about conversations about class identity in the academy is how inflected those conversations are by ideals about masculinity.  It’s as if the decades of work that feminists have done on class don’t exist, and the minute that the conversation turns to class, we enter a world of scholarship boys vs. the privileged “old boy network,” plumbers vs. intellectuals, out-of-work manual laborers vs. bread-winners, revolutionaries vs. “company men.”  The complexities of class identity (the ways in which it is inflected by region, gender, race, sexuality) are elided, and instead we get this narrative straight out of Richard Hoggart’s postwar Britain.*

I have to say, I find this profoundly alienating and distressing. And that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody, as, I mean, it’s not like I’m saying anything new in noting the tendency for women to be excluded from the conversation once class is put on the table.  I find myself thinking of Monique Wittig’s critique of Marxism in “One Is Not Born a Woman”: “This means that for the Marxists women belong either to the bourgeois class or to the proletariat class, in other words, to the men of these classes.  In addition, Marxist theory does not allow women any more than other classes of oppressed people to constitute themselves as historical subjects, because Marxism does not take into account the fact that a class also consists of individuals one by one.  Class consciousness is not enough.  We must try to understand philosophically (politically) these concepts of ‘subject’ and ‘class consciousness’ and how they work in relation to our history.”**  So while I claim working-class origins (neither of my parents went to college; my father worked as a steel worker, spent much of my childhood laid off in the era of Reaganomics, and then moved on to work as a facilities manager in a mall; my mother worked in a series of clerical positions only getting training and licensed as an insurance agent after I’d graduated from college; my stepfather is an immigrant without a college education who has worked as a parking lot attendant and then after I was 18 worked in a couple of family businesses; I lived until I was 13 in a neighborhood with wild dogs and gangs), my experience of negotiating class is profoundly influenced by factors, like gender, that don’t seem to influence the conversation when we talk about “the working-class professoriate.”

So, for example, as a woman with working-class origins, I didn’t experience the class ressentiment that Karl Steel describes, in spite of the fact that I suspect, with our seemingly identical trajectories, I experienced similar challenges based on class origins.  Let me explain: I had a very steep learning curve when it came to academic culture based on my class origins, my Ph.D. program was populated primarily (though I can think of a couple of exceptions) by people who went to elite undergraduate institutions and/or had parents who were academics, and because of my undergraduate education at a mediocre regional four-year state university, I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of my intellectual work.  So why didn’t that translate into me insisting as an identity as an outsider or interloper?  As somehow “special” or “unique” because of my class origins?  And why doesn’t recognizing that I am no longer working-class fail to cause me anxiety that “a) this profession may just not be as plum a gig as I used to think it was, and the fancy-from-birth types are off doing something fabulous and/or cruel elsewhere; b) I don’t have the faintest clue as to what I’m talking about, because I’m not a sociologist.”

I think my gender as it influences my relationship to my class accounts, at least partly, for my lack of anxiety.***  I’m going to try to break this down as clearly as I can, but I feel like these are some difficult things to untangle.

First, to return to what Wittig says about women as belonging to the men of particular social classes.  I think that one conventional way that a woman is judged positively on the basis of her performance of the feminine gender role is through her ability to ascend in class through marriage.  There is something to the old-fashioned idea that women go to college to get an M.R.S. degree.  In other words, for a woman, I think that there is a sense that one can “trade up” in class and that this confirms, rather than challenges, her identity in terms of her gender.  With this being the case, one of the traits of successful femininity is “passing” – through appearance, through ways of speaking, through various expressions of taste (the music that one listens to, the television shows that one watches, etc.).  In very significant ways, traditional femininity is about eliding one’s origins to fit into new (patriarchal) contexts.  Now, it’s important to note here that ascending in class status outside of affiliation with a man is not the traditional feminine path – it’s a feminist one.  However, I do think that traditional femininity allows for a certain comfort with this sort of passing, and so rather than clinging to one’s class of origin and insisting on that identity, my experience in graduate school was about passing out of that identity.  (This was not without attendant internal conflict, but I did not experience it as a conflict between “authentic” working-class-ness and “pretended” working-class-ness.  It was more akin to worrying if one was “doing it right,” much in the way that one might worry if one is wearing skinny jeans the “right” way.)

Second, I don’t think that I ever saw graduate school, or pursuing an academic career, as pursing a “plum gig” that somehow served as an explanation for my defection from my working-class origins, or as an explanation for not pursuing full-time work after the B.A.  Following the last paragraph, I didn’t actually think that I needed such an explanation because there isn’t the same conflict between the “feminized” professoriate and traditional femininity as there is between the “feminized” professoriate and traditional masculinity.  Femininity doesn’t include same expectations of bread-winning, providing, and work upon which traditional masculinity insists, and further, with femininity doesn’t demand individual professional “success” as a result of education.  (Just look at the number of women with Ph.D.s who end up as trailing spouses, or the number of women with various sorts of advanced degrees who opt out of the paid workforce in order to attend to family obligations.)  I believe that this lack of pressure also resulted in a lack of idealism on my part, not because I’m somehow special or something, but just because I didn’t need to idealize what I was doing in order to motivate or explain my progress.  At the end of the day, the culture at large doesn’t value women’s labor in the same way that it values men’s (and my family certainly didn’t have the same expectations for me as it did for my male cousins), which at least in this regard, meant that I didn’t have the same stories to tell about my progress through graduate work and onto the tenure-track as I think men often have to tell, whether to myself or to other people.****

Finally, (and this ultimately will lead into my discussion of “the state of the humanities” and “graduate school in the humanities”), I think that in some respects one of the results of the turn to theory, and the turn to political scholarship, in the humanities has been that individuals who pursue academic careers in the humanities have felt (still feel?) a necessity to underwrite their intellectual endeavors with some sort of “authenticating” identity, or, perhaps more generously, to be sure to situate their subject-position in relation to their intellectual endeavors.  In some respects, I think that this is most difficult for white men, and particularly for white men who do not come from privileged class/intellectual backgrounds, in the humanities, who on the one hand are expected to acknowledge their systemic privilege and on the other often feel profoundly alienated from this “privilege” that is supposed to be theirs, particularly in graduate school.  As a scholar in the humanities, all of those “marginal” identities can appear to have an easy subject-position to which to point: woman, black, postcolonial, queer, etc.  And those who come from class/intellectual privilege can also seem to have a clear claim to labeling themselves as “intellectuals.”  And so, for white men in particular, I think a claim to working-class-ness can feel like a way to fit into the theoretical discourses on subjectivity that have dominated theory and criticism for decades.

A corollary of this tendency then becomes to turn a discussion of class in the academy into one of two narratives.  The first is a narrative of class mobility through education, of a world expanded through leading a “life of the mind.”*****  I myself have viewed my experience through this sort of narrative at various points, and I’m not going to say that there isn’t truth in that narrative.  I think that there can be.  I do, however, think that it is a story – albeit sometimes a true story – that we tell ourselves.  It is a narrative of meritocracy, of naive idealism.  It operates under the guise of “following one’s bliss and working hard will produce a positive outcome!”  The second is a narrative of disappointment and exploitation through education, of unkept promises and of the high price of seeking a life outside of one’s station.  And just like the first narrative, it is a story that we tell, whether to ourselves or others, that sometimes is true.  This narrative substitutes plutocracy for meritocracy, and it is profoundly cynical.  This second narrative operates under the guises of “telling it like it is” or “speaking truth to power.”  (I find the righteousness of this bizarre, as how exactly is it a good thing preemptively to disenfranchise large swaths of the populace from the pursuit of new knowledge?)

I believe that these two narratives are in many ways two sides of the same coin.

Both of these narratives reduce education to it’s value in a sexist, homophobic, racist economy of knowledge (“the market”), which privileges class over all other indexes of identity and creates a profound cognitive dissonance in particular as ideologies of masculinity come into conflict with ideologies of class identity.  Further, this economy of knowledge fails to account for the ways in which all individuals, including men, constantly negotiate various subject-positions throughout the different facets of their lives, and they assume a one-size-fits-all answer to questions like “Should I go to graduate school?” or “Is the humanities in crisis?”  (If you buy into the first narrative, the answer to the first question is “Yes!” and the answer to the second is “No!”  In contrast, if you buy into the second narrative, the answers are reversed.)

And I’m going to go further: reducing educational advancement or scholarship or intellectual work in this way with either of these two narratives is profoundly anti-intellectual and it directly undercuts the mission of the humanities as a whole, which as I see it is about seeing the world in its complexity and trying to figure it out – knowing that we’ll never be finished but that being finished isn’t, actually, the point – as opposed to reducing the world into an easy story to tell.

In some ways, I see this post as a supplement to this incredibly thoughtful and wide-ranging post in which JSench discusses his own path to graduate school in English and his own class background.  I think that he does a good job of finding a middle ground between the two narratives that I criticize in this post, and I think that he offers valuable perspective and advice, from the point of view of an advanced Ph.D. candidate who may or not be successful on “the market.”  I’m writing, obviously, from a position of greater privilege in that sexist, homophobic, racist economy of knowledge, as a tenured professor with a good salary and benefits.  On the other hand, though, I hope that I’ve offered a perspective that accounts for the ways in which women’s experiences in the academy might differ from men’s, even if they come from similar class origins.  Class is important, and I hope that I’ve made it clear that I believe that it is.  I just wonder where women fit****** into this conversation, as it is most frequently framed.  Because at the end of the day, the experiences of my male colleagues of working-class origins who did manual labor in the summers are not generalizable to mine or to those of most (all?) of the women in the academy who come from working-class origins that I know.*******

*It’s worth noting that even his narrative doesn’t do a good job of representing the full range of experience in postwar Britain, and I strongly recommend Carolyn Kay Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman as a necessary counterpoint to Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy.

**from French Feminism Reader, p. 134.

***I’ve actually known a fair number of academic guys with working-class origins who expressed themselves similarly to the way that Karl does about his class identity, so while his post is the immediate impetus to my thoughts here, I think it is generalizable to other white academic guys of around his age with working-class origins whom I’ve known.  Also, I want to be clear that gender obviously isn’t the only factor that influences these things, but for me it’s a primary one.

****This is a tangent, but I think that this somehow connects to the narratives about the “crisis” in educating boys/men, and how it is framed as that as opposed to the “success” in educating girls/women.  And the need to “welcome” boys/men into institutions of higher education, because clearly we’re doing something wrong if women are outperforming men and attending college in higher numbers than men!

*****The Rodriguez essay isn’t a perfect fit here, because he does talk about the downside of being profoundly alienated from your family if you pursue this path, but at the end of the day, but the Doom and Gloom narratives about going to grad school in the humanities are so dominant these days that another example didn’t readily come to mind.

******I can’t help myself.  As I wrote that, I was really tempted to write “where my girls at” because of this song 🙂

*******I haven’t dealt at all with the ways in which race or sexuality or other indexes of identity complicate class and/or gender.  This post is long enough!  My point isn’t to recenter the discussion on gender, and I want to be clear about that.  What I’m trying to do here is to interrogate the tendency to produce a reading of class in the academy that conceives of one kind of experience as universal or generalizable to all.  To be fair, I know it’s impossible to avoid the tendency to generalize altogether, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t critique it.

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In the movie Examined Life, Slavoj Zizek wanders about a garbage dump talking about ecology as involving a profoundly conservative set of beliefs, as the contemporary exemplar of ideology.  Zizek asserts that the impulse toward “saving the planet” or conservationism is not, in fact, a “liberal” impulse, and so his position is that the more radical gesture is in fact to turn away from “nature” as an ideological good.

Now, whether you agree with Zizek or not about the politics of ecology, I think his formulation here is a useful one for thinking about the “liberal” professoriate.  Because here’s the thing: professors, as a group, are not, actually, a bunch of radicals hell bent on destroying the fabric of culture and society.  I realize this is a shocking assertion to make.  We’re supposed to be brainwashing the youth with our lack of family values, with our political correctness, with our antipathy to all that is moral and right and true.  Especially those of us who teach in humanities disciplines.

But let’s think, for a moment, about what your average English professor (or history professor or philosophy professor) actually does in a given day.

  1. We introduce students to cultural artifacts (literary texts, historical documents, philosophical treatises, music, works of art) and attempt to convince them that these objects hold some sort of intrinsic value to humanity and thus should be studied and preserved.
  2. We insist that our students meet certain agreed upon academic standards of research and writing, which involve writing in standard English, following the protocols of proper citation and formatting, and using authoritative and peer-reviewed scholarly sources.
  3. We produce scholarship that is about conserving and preserving the status of cultural artifacts that give insight into the human condition.  (Even scholarship that is critical of “traditional” approaches or texts ultimately does this; even scholarship that introduces new approaches or texts participates in an economy of conservation and preservation of ideas/texts/thoughts that are “worthy.”  There is no outside of power and all that.)
  4. We work at institutions that are authorized by government and society, performing various bureaucratic tasks to insure the continuance of those institutions.  (While I know those who like to attack the professoriate think that we lead lives of glamor and intrigue, I am going to go out on a limb and say that there is absolutely nothing less glamorous and intriguing than the regular slog of committee work.  Even grading is more glamorous and intriguing than committee work.)
  5. We live solidly middle-class lives that are grounded in a mythology of meritocratic achievement, and however self-aware we may be about the lie of meritocracy, our livelihoods depend on meeting various benchmarks and jumping through various hoops (the process toward earning a Ph.D., the job market, the path toward tenure and promotion, etc.)

For the most part, none of us are changing the world.  For the most part, we are boring as hell.

And beyond all that, I really don’t think I have all that much influence on my students’ beliefs about anything.  For example, I have been waging a war on the passive voice in student writing for, lo, these many years.  In paper after paper that a student submits I will attack convoluted sentence structure and unnecessary wordiness.  In class I will insist that this is not the best way to write and I will model how to write differently.  I’m sorry to report that my lectures and my lengthy comments on papers go largely unheeded.  And students don’t even actually care about the passive voice.  They don’t have a deep commitment to it.  Do you really think that if I tried to convince my students to become atheist, communist, queer rebels that I would have that power?  Really?

You’d think conservatives would actually love a person like me.  I mean, instead of getting out there and organizing and protesting and sticking it to The Man, I spend my time reading books, harping on students about the quality of their prose, and spending endless hours in meetings and doing paperwork.  I mean, sure, I might read books and teach books that “offend,” but as Auden so wisely notes, “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper…”

But so if I believe these things (and I do), you may wonder what the point of teaching is or what the point of an academic life is.  And my answer is that I believe in carving out a space for contemplation and ideas that is distinct from a space of utility.  I believe that in the conversations I have with my students they learn to think deeply and critically about their beliefs, even if their beliefs remain the same.  I believe that the work that I do contributes to the growth of my community, and I believe that there is something to be gained for all people from aesthetic pleasure in everyday life.

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