Tuesday, August 31, 2010

This Is The End, My Only Friend The End: US Combat Forces Out of Iraq

Answer the following question. The closest parallel to the outcome achieved by seven years of war in Iraq is:

a. Vietnam;
b. Korea;
c. Weimar Germany;
d. Only time will tell.

Monday, August 30, 2010

She Said Its Two Feet High And Risin': Five Years After Hurricane Katrina, What Would Jesus Do?

Five years ago today I had just moved back into our current house after nine months of renovations that were way overdue. We had given our temporary apartment back to the landlord, and for part of August I had shuttled back and forth between our New York home and various forms of temporary housing in Shoreline. Our nephew had gone on vacation and I camped in his home down the street; I spent five days at a motel in Worcester, MA at a national sports event; and I spent one surreal night in a chain hotel outside Shoreline, which turned out to be almost entire rented out to the city as an overflow for homeless families waiting for Section 8 housing. As it turned out, these migrations were a preview of things to come: a year or so later, when it was discovered that thousands of displaced Gulf Coast residents were being made ill by the formaldehyde in their trailers, my accommodations seemed pretty luxurious.

But this was not immediately apparent, nor was it apparent that the reason my renovation was so far behind was that my contractor was being swallowed by red ink, a silent recession that preceded the economic crash we suffered two years later. His business, I suspect, was resembling a Ponzi scheme: he had spent my money on someone else's house, and was frantically drumming up new business to finish mine.

On the night of August 30 2005, as Hurricane Katrina barreled down grimly on the City of New Orleans, I was almost completely oblivious of everything I know now -- or of the disaster that was about to occur in the Gulf. A combination of starting school, having run out of alternative housing, and knowing that the only way to get the contractor to finish was to move back into the house so I could yell at him every day, saw me swabbing plaster dust out of the front room early that evening while I still had daylight to work in. I blew up an air mattress, and settled in for a short, grimy camping trip in a half-finished house with no utilities. The contractor had promised a bathroom would be working by that day: it wasn't. He promised electricity: there wasn't any. So as the levees broke, I was in the backyard living as many of the lucky people in the Gulf would soon be living: brushing my teeth with bottled water, peeing in the grass and feeling very sorry for myself. I called my partner on the cell phone to complain of my dire state, without fully comprehending that one of America's great cultural treasures was being torn apart, its people fleeing, drowning, dying in the streets and being preyed upon.

As I reflect on that disaster, following so quickly on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, followed by an economic meltdown that occurred as SEC watchdogs were downloading porn to their computers, and followed in turn by an unprecedented oil spill that has once again devastated the economy and ecology of the Gulf, one thing that seems clear to me is that it is utterly impossible -- if you ever did -- to view the United States as a blessed place whose problems are caused by the infiltration of outsiders. That is, it is impossible if you are a person who actually believes that the natural world that gives human beings eyes to see, evidence to think about and minds with which to sort that evidence. Glenn Beck's weird production over the weekend points to one way people cope with their inability to think about our national problems without blaming someone (someone else, over there): they believe that what is wrong is that, as a country, we have deviated from the One True Way (the Bible, the Constitution, or both.) Government is too big, the Tea Party folk yell; and the role of religion in our lives too small. And yet these people, too, have signed on -- whether by voting or refusing to vote -- to politicians who have presided over a period of unprecedented corruption, greed and venality.

If they were seventeenth century Puritans, they would come to Massachusetts and massacre the Indians; if they were nineteenth century Mormons, they would head to Utah and -- well, massacre the Indians -- all the while believing that they were doing God's work and that a society could succeed without being impeded by government. The Puritans believed this even as they were lining up, every three or four years, to be carted away in British naval vessels so that they would not be massacred, in turn, by the relatives of Indians they had massacred.

Looking back over the last five years, we need less God and more politics: by that I mean not less faith, and all the forms of ethical community that faith can provide, but we need to end the lie that you can substitute faith for politics. What Barack Obama calls the "man made disaster" of Katrina (and others regarded as the act of an angry God) was a profoundly political disaster, something that has not yet been fully acknowledged. It was the end point of a moment in time in which warnings about the levees had not been heeded because there was no political will to appropriate the money to build them; in which professional government had been derided, starved and privatized to the point that FEMA was more or less a shell agency, less able to cope with a natural disaster than the mish-mash of NGO's that rush into places like Pakistan. The United States didn't even have the National Guard available, because they were mired down in two wars that were supposed to be over.

Meanwhile, we have millions of people who believe that "more [Christian] religion" -- as opposed to a return to an ethic of mutual care that is coordinated and inspired by a government that discriminates against no community of faith -- is going to be the ticket to get us out of this mess. What is a mystery to me is that many of the people who believe this have been terribly harmed, not by God's wrath, and not by an intrusive government, but by an America suffused by individualism: we are drowning in corporate greed entirely unfettered by morality, the rule of law or the responsibility of the modern state to deliver the basic services that humanize all of us. Instead of committing to creating a government that will house its people, we sit with our eyes glued to reality TV, where people "solve their own problems" with the help of TV producers, renovation gurus, and weight-loss stars.

We have gone from being a strong state where Rosie the Riveter promised that "We Can Do It!" to a heavily bureaucratic weak state, where we are constantly assured that "We Can Do It - All Alone Except For Jesus!" As our political leaders in both parties have nattered on happily about God, Americans have become poorer and more insecure. People who weren't swept out of their homes by water, fire or wind have lost them to predatory lenders and an economy gutted by corporations who care nothing for their workers -- or their customers, for that matter. Henry Ford may have been a nasty anti-Semite, but he also understood that if workers were healthy, well-fed and secure they did a better job; and that if those same workers weren't paid enough to buy his cars, he wasn't going to sell so many.

Meanwhile, those who have the most bizarre ideas about faith get the most airtime, and they have turned their audiences into idiots. Interviewed by the New York Times at the Glenn Beck event, Floridian Becky Benson came to the rally because Jesus "would not have agreed with the economic stimulus package, bank bailouts and welfare. 'You cannot sit and expect someone to hand out to you,' she said. 'You don’t spend your way out of debt.”'" Well people don't, but countries do, Becky. And Jesus actually didn't believe that we all lived and died alone, nor did he think you just sat there and watched while people who needed your help went right down the tubes. Jesus didn't mean take responsibility for yourself and $crew everyone else; Jesus intended us to take responsibility for each other.

One of the ways you do that is through creating honest and efficient government, something that the Tea Party folk believe is simply a detail, when in fact it is the whole project. Kentuckian Ron Sears assured the Times reporter that “The federal government is only to offer us protection from our enemies and help us when we need it." Yes, and really the least of our problems are enemies who are armed, Ron: an efficient and honest federal government should be there to protect us from ignorance, greed, lies, and vanity -- in addition to weather, disease, and the toxins Mr. Beck's corporate buddies pour into our earth, skies and waterways. And you won't mind if the federal highways buckle and crumble, will you Ron? Or the planes crash into each other in mid-flight? Or if you have to live in a tent for five years eating possum because God swept your city away and there isn't anyone who will force your insurance company to rebuild your house?

So as we memorialize Katrina, let's also keep in mind that it was a real disaster, but it was also a metaphor for what we have become as a nation. Most of all, Katrina was a political disaster, one that was presided over by the Bush administration but one that can hardly be laid entirely at its doorstep, since both political parties started down this road in the 1970s. Katrina was a historical moment that ripped the cover off of the false promises of thirty years of neoliberal policies that have put money first and people second; that have tricked people into believing that that everything you need to know can be learned growing up in a nuclear family, quoting selectively from the Constitution or reading the Bible; and worst of all, thirty years of false messiahs who enrich themselves while leading their followers into penury.

What would Jesus do? Throw Glenn Beck and every money changer like him out of the temple, that's what, and get back to what government is supposed to do: help people take care of themselves, make politics a vehicle for loving one's neighbor (not blaming him, or seeing if she needs to be deported) and protecting Americans from those who prey on the simple, the weak and the vulnerable. Until we do, the waters will keep on rising.

And now, let's hear from a true man of God.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Department of Responses and Cool Ideas: More From The World Of Academic Publishing

Here's some follow-up to Wednesday's post on reforming scholarly publishing practices:

*As a cosmic reminder that some journals do not live to torture us, yesterday I received notice that an article had been un-ambivalently and swiftly rejected by a top journal. Right on! They turned it around in less than a month. Follow-up question: When an article is rejected, what do you do, dear? Answer: Thank the editors sincerely for their professionalism in letting you know so fast, and so politely, and send it off immediately to a specialty journal.

Another question: do the editors of this journal read Tenured Radical? Were they making a point? I posed this question at home and it was strongly inferred that my ego was wandering way off the reservation. Again.

*A friend who is a senior scholar and an experienced journal editor wrote in response to the post to say that s/he was in complete disagreement about eliminating "revise and resubmit" as a category. To elaborate: "some of our best...pieces [are] the result of great reviewer direction and energetic author redrafting. To do away with that would effectively close out grad students from journal article publishing, and they do some of the best work." That sounds right to me, so let me refine my critique: readers should not use the category of "revise and resubmit" when they really mean "reject." How's that for a fair compromise?

*One of the quickest turnarounds I have ever experienced was editing a round table on feminist blogging for the Journal of Women's History. From the time the proposal was accepted to it's forthcoming appearance in winter 2011 (subscribe now and reserve your copy!), it will have taken 18 months, only six of which will have been devoted to the publishing process (as opposed to writing, editing and review.) Does the increase in "special issues," clusters and round tables suggest that many hands make light work? Is it possible for journals to squeeze the time frame on publication without sacrificing quality by committing to relevant topics that demand timely publication? What might this teach us about the possibilities for shortening the publication timetable for articles that come in over the transom?

*There is an argument to be made for publishing a variety of pieces that have no central theme or connection, particularly in prominent journals, published by professional associations, that by necessity speak to very diverse audiences. The biggest complaint I received, across fields, was that by the time work actually appears in journals it is often longer cutting edge, or the book project that it is part of has appeared. So how about if journals just held their referees to a faster timetable, and also used the Internet to publish shorter pieces, or articles that actually need to come out quickly or have their relevance eroded? Forums, like the ones you have seen here on this blog, could also pick up on exciting books that people need to know about now -- not two years from now; and book reviewing could be entirely web based. Over half of the pages in two top journals in my field are filled with book reviews -- books that came out years ago.

*When in doubt, start a cool new journal. Joan Wallach Scott tops the masthead of History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History; you will see a few other members of the Differences crowd on the editorial board. For those of you not on the H-Net Announcements listserve:

History of the Present is a journal devoted to history as a critical endeavor. Its aim is twofold: to create a space in which scholars can reflect on the role history plays in establishing categories of contemporary debate by making them appear inevitable, natural or culturally necessary; and to publish work that calls into question certainties about the relationship between past and present that are taken for granted by the majority of practicing historians. Its editors want to encourage the critical examination of both history’s influence on politics and the politics of the discipline of history itself.

'Tis a journal after the Radical's own heart. Good luck and God Bless, that's what I say. It's biannual, and issues will be carried by JSTOR as they are published, so no more paper coming will be into your home -- unless you have a journal fetish and you want it to do so.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Journal-isms: What Would It Take To Reform Scholarly Publishing?

Well bust my britches, if the paper of record didn't put we scholars on the front page this morning! Reporting on the decision of the Shakespeare Quarterly decision to experiment with posting articles on line for open review, the New York Times reports that:

a core group of experts — what [Katherine] Rowe called “our crowd sourcing” — were invited to post their signed comments on the Web site MediaCommons, a scholarly digital network. Others could add their thoughts as well, after registering with their own names. In the end 41 people made more than 350 comments, many of which elicited responses from the authors. The revised essays were then reviewed by the quarterly’s editors, who made the final decision to include them in the printed journal, due out Sept. 17.

This process of online review, the Times argues,

goes to the very nature of the scholarly enterprise. Traditional peer review has shaped the way new research has been screened for quality and then how it is communicated; it has defined the border between the public and an exclusive group of specialized experts.

Well, not quite, but let's pick this ball up and run with it, shall we? While I think this is an interesting and productive shift, and that opening up the review process is a bold thing to do because it puts a dent in the Bell of Silence that scholars erroneously believe honesty requires, the practice --as envisioned by the editors and utilized by those truly brave people who participated -- adhered to tradition in important ways. First, the journal obtained promises from a "core group" of scholars that they would participate; and second, if you read down to the bottom of the article, one of the participants still felt it was necessary to secure a promise from a dean that the article would still count for tenure. (Let's give a round of applause to this young person, shall we, for participating in something new and untested? I hope you do get tenure: we need more people like you in this profession.)

My point is that traditional gatekeepers are still in place -- even though the process has become more open and, importantly, more public. Jennifer Howard's in-depth piece about Shakespeare Quarterly last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education makes this, and other, good points.

The Times also notes that peer review, although the Rosetta Stone of the tenure and promotion process, is deeply flawed. I concur. There are numerous examples one could cite of plagiarism, or poor practice, that seem to slip right through the peer review process. Add to this the fact that many, if not most, journals are famous for vetting processes that are as slow as Cream of Wheat going down the kitchen drain. Graduate assistants and faculty editors who lose track of manuscripts; readers who are given six months to complete the review and have to be pushed to complete it anyway; and the capacious use of "revise and resubmit" rather than bluntly saying the article is poor and needs to be completely rewritten -- all of these things and more are acknowledged problems with the academic publishing process that make many people reluctant to send work to journals.

Another outcome of cumbersome journal review mechanisms that many, if not most, scholars in the humanities and social sciences think are flawed, is that readers often receive manuscripts that are in horrible shape. Graduate students and young scholars are often counseled to send work out for review to -- well, to put it bluntly, get free advice from top people in the field, and to get their work "in the pipeline" in hopes that a journal will commit to it at an early stage. This is particularly true of dissertations and dissertation chapters. Dissertations are not, or are very rarely, books; and dissertation chapters are not articles. And yet, they are often sent out to readers as if they were, and the privacy of the process -- while it doesn't seem to stop readers from hemming and hawing and recommending that it be "revised and resubmitted" -- discourages the authors from being embarrassed about sending out work that isn't ready for review yet.

So I see what the Shakespeare Quarterly is doing as an important step in reforming the process. Even if other humanities and social science journals do not care for the experiment as it was conducted, they need to find some way to move towards the following reforms:

The period of time from submission to acceptance or rejection, should be dramatically shortened. Eight weeks is really sufficient; and actually, for many of us, looking at our calendar might mean spotting a free day for doing the review that is even sooner. Reviewers should be held to this date, and the date should be conveyed to the author.

Eliminate revise and resubmit. There should be two categories: accept and reject. One can give cogent reasons for rejecting a piece that do not prevent it from being revised and submitted elsewhere. One could recommend accepting an article pending revision of even serious flaws because it makes a real contribution that is as yet unrealized.

Journals should not accept articles they are not ready to put into production in the next year. Having a piece fully accepted and then delaying publication for a year to eighteen months is idiotic, and a drag on the system. It means that the value of article for the bean counters (those who are "counting" publications for merit raises, tenure, promotion) is often greater than the value of he article to scholars, or at least those scholars in the field who ought to be reading it. If it is worth reading, it is worth reading now.

All journals should begin enhancing their web presence immediately. Paper journals, at least in the humanities and social sciences, will eventually be dead -- you know it, I know it, and it is just a matter of time. Cuts in library budgets are damaging journals, but the problem is larger than that. Newspapers who spend around 80% of their gross revenue actually getting the newspaper-as-object to the reader, and I suspect this is true for journals as well. And what happens to those objects? I belong to three professional associations (two history, one interdisciplinary) who, between them, send me twelve journals a year. I just weighed the pile of journals pictured at the top of this post, and now know that 13.8 pounds of extremely good quality paper comes into my house on an annual basis in the form of journals, paper that is even more expensive because it has to be printed, transformed into a book-thing and mailed. Within the next twelve months, these high-quality and very aesthetic objects, sadly, will end up in the recycling bin, because who wants to accumulate over a foot a year of journals when they are searchable and readable on line? And when much of the material in them is not in one's field?

As an example, I would pay the same American Historical Association dues to not get a paper copy of the American Historical Review. This is not because the AHR isn't good, although there are entire issues that pass filled with beautifully researched and written articles that are so tangential to my work that I can't prioritize them in an already over-taxed reading life. But even if I did read them cover to cover, it is ecologically unsound and an utter waste of the organization's money. I have adapted to doing a significant portion of my professional reading on line and really, I wish they would use my dues some other way, like lobbying state legislatures to restore cuts in higher education and hire faculty full-time. The AHR might even consider paying the people who they engage to do peer review so they would do it in a timely manner.

Finally, moving to an all-web presence over time would permit articles and book reviews to be published in a more timely manner. They could go up when they -- or a cluster of like articles -- was ready. A regularly updated book review section could review books (gasp!) when they come out as opposed to, say two to four years later. Journals could respond to political and cultural developments in a more timely manner -- and perhaps even become relevant to a broader, educated audience.


Since you are too busy getting ready for the new students to check out my constantly updated toolbar, before you stop reading today, check out this brilliant post on cultivating "beginner's mind" at Roxie's World. It's especially aimed at veteran teachers who might be taking too much for granted at the beginning of the semester -- and missing the joy.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Annals of Anxiety: Constructing Velcro Parents As A "Problem" For Higher Education

This morning I have been thinking about what kinds of criticisms are attached to warnings about cultural decline, and why. For example, our friend Historiann asks today why older people are always so critical of the young. Yeah, why is that? Particularly given the fact that generation after generation, young people seem to grow up into functional workers, consumers, artists, writers and financiers, no matter how much Facebook they do; how many video games they play; and how much/little they read.

Historiann's emphasis on why cultural critique dominates, at the expense of a more relational view of cultural change and material outcomes, is an interesting corollary to William Julius Wilson's 2009 reassessment of a sociological school of thought, of which he is a prominent architect, that highlights cultural explanations for Black poverty at the expense of structural analysis. In More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor In The Inner City, Wilson argues that structural forms of discrimination that are partly racial have acted in combination with other, non-racial, forces (such as the failure to invest in urban infrastructure and education, and workforce changes associated with globalization) to increase the burdens on Black people living in areas of core poverty. These things, he argues, cannot be separated from what is viewed by critics as cultural dysfunction in the same communities, such as the apparent unwillingness to work at low-paid jobs with no benefits. In other words, choices people make about their lives (many of which are heavily circumscribed by structural obstacles) and the world-view of the poor (which actually might be reframed as knowledge) are inextricable.

As if by a miracle, the New York Times printed a back-to-school article today which prompts a meditation on blaming and on anxiety about cultural decline. It's about those apparently pathetic dweebs -- late-boomer parents -- who cling to their children relentlessly when dropping them off at liberal arts and Ivy League colleges. Mocked relentlessly as "Velcro" or "helicopter" parents, they are the stuff of campus legend, to which hours of summer strategy sessions are devoted. They decorate their children's dorm rooms. They attend orientation. They book themselves into hotels for days, supposedly to help their children settle in, but in reality to help themselves separate. Extra deans are hired for the first week of school to hand out cheerful tee shirts and coffee mugs that say: "Get a life!"

OK, I'm kidding about the deans and the farewell tschochkes. But for a over a decade, residential colleges have operated under the assumption that late boomer parents are unnaturally traumatized about the loss of their babies, that they are likely to cling in annoying and unhealthy ways, and that their departure must be strategized like the draw-down from Iraq. Hence, the increasing importance of "'hit the road' departure ceremonies." My favorite is the one in which students and parents are placed on opposite sides of the room, and college speakers greet the students while literally turning their backs on the parents.

Here's your hat, what's your hurry? Don't forget to leave a check. Meanwhile, as you can imagine, we faculty are observing the scene of tearful departures and having a conversation that sounds like this:

"My parents just helped me carry my $hit upstairs, and then they left, and me and my roommates fired up the old bong-a-roony."
"My parents just unloaded my $hit on the $idewalk and drove away."
"My parents just put me on the red-eye with a duffle bag and a six-pack of beer."
"My parents just threw me out of the plane when it was circling over Harvard Square."


"That's cold, man."
"Yeah, really cold."
"That's the way it was, man. Gotta learn to survive. Gotta grow up. Look at these pussies."

OK, that's also not true. But it is true that few of us in higher ed who decry the programming done around move-in day would admit what forces of repression had to be mustered to get through the experience of leaving for school. Which of us can recall accurately how the time between the arrival at college and our family's departure as a new and different unit that would go on forever (sob!) without us passed with time-warp speed? Or what it felt like to be left in a place, no matter how much we had desired it, where -- except for the kids who had gone to boarding school -- we hardly knew how to feed ourselves, much less find classroom buildings with strange names?

In fact, stories that critique parents for loving their children too much make me ask cultural and structural questions. One is: are today's parents yesterday's neglected children who are simply trying to do a better job than their own parents did? Is it perhaps better that parents and children are closer and more expressive with each other? In other words, to what extent does the devotion to children among late boomers demand reflection on changes in parenting styles during the 1960s and 1970s, a period in which bourgeois adults were putting their toes, and then their whole feet, in the waters of self-absorption at some cost to their children? A period in which vicious critiques of "momism," as arch-conservative Philip Wylie put it in 1942, gave way to parental detachment and teenage autonomy? Remember the live and let live middle class ethic of Bill and Pat Loud, of An American Family (PBS, 1973) whose children used their southern California ranch house as a crash pad while their parents floated in and out of the house on a diet of alcohol, cigarettes and extra-marital affairs?

To what extent are parents who we criticize for over-parenting simply reflecting, whether realistically or not, on how neglected they felt as they were booted out of the nest?

So that's the cultural argument that requires some investigation, but it is one that is almost exclusively focused on the middle and upper classes, as is the critique of helicopter/Velcro parenting. A more embracing, and structural, direction for research would look at a broader class analysis of college attendance. It would take more seriously the fact that leaving one's teenager at a residential college is an atypical experience nowadays, always has been, and because of the high cost of higher education, becoming more so. The vast majority of high school graduates who matriculate this fall will be attending community colleges and branches of the State U., living at home, and working between 20 and 40 hours a week to pay their expenses. I suspect this has always been a bigger part of the story than the middle class bildungsroman tells. A few years ago, I read a memoir by a working-class gay man from the Left Coast. One of the things he wrote about was applying and being admitted to one of California's then-stellar and inexpensive research universities without speaking to anyone in his family about it at all. The night he packed his ramshackle car, terrified that they would do something to prevent it, he told his parents he was leaving for college. To this man's great relief, and sorrow, no one in his family appeared to care about his departure at all. ("Wow," said a friend with a Ph.D. and a good teaching job, who also attended California schools, when I told her this story; "That's what happened to me too.")

Hence, we might ask, are generalizations about "parents," and how they behave when separating from their children, valid at all if they do not take into account the large number of generationally similar people who have a very different experience? We might ask: has "going away" to college ever been the typical, or even the most desirable, experience? We also might ask, given that tuition and fees alone at a residential college averages, according to the College Board, $7,020 (public in-state) $18,578 (public out-of-state) and a whopping $26,273 (private), whether there isn't an awful lot at stake for parents. I'm not just talking about the money: I'm thinking about the saving, the sacrifices, and the second mortgages parents are asked to take out to finance an education; the corollary investment in making the right choice, one that is not going to result in a year that has to be repeated because of getting off on the wrong foot; and the years of intangible investment in the teenager's readiness to attend college in the first place.

We have too little knowledge about what the high cost of college is really "costing" those who undertake it. Furthermore, why do we assume that the four-year residential college experience is the norm, when it no longer is -- and perhaps never has been? According to Department of Education statistics released in 2008 (see the summary report with reported data here) out of the 16.4 million students enrolled at four year post-secondary institutions that year, 12.6 million were enrolled in public institutions, 2 million of whom were enrolled part-time. Of the remainder, 3.4 million were enrolled in non-profit private schools and 1.6 million were enrolled in private for-profit institutions (an increase of 1.2 million students, reflecting the privatization agenda that was enabled, albeit poorly and at great cost to the taxpayers, under the Bush administration.) The student demographic that is growing fastest is students matriculating at community or junior colleges: in 2007, seven million students attended two-year institutions, and over half of those students were enrolled part-time, so we can safely assume that they too were working.

This is only to emphasize that, while the number of students attending four-year private schools is a healthy 3.4 million, it is at least equalled by those students who are working, attending classes at a local school part-time or on-line, and probably living at home. When you then add the number of students who are working and going to school full time; going to public or private schools and living at home; and attending non-residential for-profits, in fact the parental departure scenes depicted in the Times are suffered by relatively few students.

Hypothesis? The vast majority of students working towards a B.A., while they may be living at home, may be separating from their parents just fine, thank you. Research, please.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Slouching Into Fall: Best Books of Summer 2010

One of the tragedies of a summer ending is ending a summer's reading. Soon we bring a close, if we have not already, to those hours of getting lost in a book, of time unimpeded by intrusive thoughts of papers ungraded, classes to prepare and teach, errands to run and meetings to attend. Only in the summer (or on a cross-country flight) am I able to re-experience the pure joy of beginning and ending a book in one day, that happy sense of having been entirely emptied out of my own thoughts and occupied by someone else's, and the sweetness of reluctant departure from a world I do not live in. Reading is, in short, one of the few available ways of making a journey to the past that I know that is also effortless, happy and free (I am eliminating psychotherapy and my own scholarship from the list of time-travel methods, and while reading is not always free, it can be with the help of a good public or university library.)

The only thing I have eliminated from the total immersion reading experience as an adult is reading nonstop and simultaneously eating an entire jumbo bag of candy. It's probably obvious why I don't eat and read at the same time anymore, and if it isn't, get on your own bathroom scale and guess. So, although Radical Readers will recognize two of these books from earlier posts, here are....

The Best Five Books of Summer 2010

Best War Book: Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn (Atlantic Monthly Press,2010.) A Marine veteran, Marlantes has been working on this first novel about his Vietnam experience for thirty years. Warning: it's really long. But it's also really good, and contains some of the most moving moments I have ever read in war fiction. You know these guys are really in the $hit in the first chapter, when one of their comrades nearly dies from a leech crawling up his urethra and the chopper pilots won't risk sniper fire to come in and get him. It has kind of a hail Mary ending, but it is a good read about what happens to ordinary soldiers in a war that has ceased making sense or having any objectives that are not political. Warning: do not read this book if you are, or have a friend or relative, deployed or about to deploy, to Afghanistan.

Best Biography: Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford University Press, 2009. Reviewed on this blog in June.) Need I remind you that the libertarian physician and candidate for Senate in Kentucky, Randal Paul, calls himself "Rand"? Have you ever wondered why? Part of the genius of this book is that stuff like that, and the possibility that the Tea Party movement has some intellectual coherence after all, starts to fall into place in your head. There has been a rash of important monographs on the rise of the Right over the past ten years, but almost none of them reach back before World War II to lodge the complexities of contemporary conservatism in an older intellectual history. This history includes, and cannot be fully understood without, the emigration from the Soviet Union of aspiring writer Alisa Rosenbaum and her self-invention as anti-totalitarian philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand. Burns' well-written book did something a good biography should: demonstrates why someone matters. I've never been able to make it past the first 100 pages or so of any of Rand's novels, and I have always thought of her as a thinker most people grow out of. But that isn't true, and if you really want to understand Libertarianism, where it fits in the spectrum of conservative thought in the United States, and why it has such broad attraction to middle-class Americans, read this book.

Best Gay Book: Terry Castle, The Professor (HarperCollins, 2010.) The subject of a three part conversation between myself and Historiann here, here, and here -- with a special contribution from Comrade PhysioProf, this series of essays on culture and contemporary intellectual life kept me captivated throughout. Read our posts to see if it is your cup of tea, but its combination of humor, pathos, weed, lesbians and downtown academic dirty gossip has a little something for everyone. It also got me fatally involved (to the tune of ten downloaded albums to date) with jazz great Art Pepper, and reminded me of what I was doing and thinking about decades ago when I wasn't so involved with being so frakkin' responsible all the time.

Best Novel (Thriller): Scott Turow, Innocent (Grand Central Publishing, 2010.) OK, I made it through The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but I really didn't get why it and Stieg Larsson's other two novels are so hot. My view of a thriller is that you should have all the information you need to correctly guess who the perp is, even -- or perhaps especially -- if the clues are woven into character rather than material evidence. There was less of a buzz on Turow (Michiko liked it) because of the summer most readers spent touring obscure towns in Sweden, but I thought Innocent was far better plotted, and the characters all expertly drawn. It's a sequel to Turow's 1987 debut, Presumed Innocent, in which Rusty Sabich, now a judge, finds himself with another inconvenient death to explain and another extramarital affair to hide. Furthermore, while Turow never commits himself to answering the question of who committed the murder in Presumed Innocent, this sequel offers a chilling possibility about what Sabich might have known all along.

Best Novel (non-Thriller): Brady Udall, The Lonely Polygamist (W.W. Norton, 2010.) I spent long periods of my childhood in the Mountain West, so even prior to HBO's Big Love I have always been fascinated by all things Mormon: the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (otherwise known by us kind Gentile kids as the Norman Pumpernickel Singers), Fawn Brodie, Dr. Pepper, white longies under everything, whole towns full of blonde blue-eyed white kids with the same highly recessive genetic traits, getting sealed by a Priesthood holder -- the whole nine yards. Udall, who talks about his polygamous family connections here, has written a fantastic book that features contractor Golden Richards, a man with four wives, two houses, over twenty children and a lot of money problems. It's also a nuanced view of what the commitment to family really means in polygamy, and an insider's look at the non-sensational, quiet lives of most people who live the Principle: unremarkable folks who don't marry pre-teens, and who balance everyday domestic difficulties and community governance with an extraordinary mandate from the Divine. As Golden gets himself into deeper and deeper hot water with his wives, his story runs parallel -- and intersects tragically too late -- with the story of a sad, angry little boy who fights not to be forgotten in the crowd of Golden's many dependents.

Readers, what are your picks? Feel free to add new categories.


And now, for your viewing pleasure, a reminder that if you assign meaningless papers to your students this fall you will have to grade them too:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Annals of American Ignorance: Or; The President Prays Every Day, And So Should We All

It's all over the news lately that, according to a new poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly one in five Americans is dumber than a rock -- er, I mean, thinks that Barack is a Muslim (not that there's anything wrong with that!) The increase in those who believe that Obama sneaks off to the mosque behind our backs -- seven percent since last spring- is accompanied by a "sharp decline" of 14% in the number of Americans who think Obama is a Christian.

In May 2009, LiveScience reported that one out of five Americans admit that they pee in the swimming pool. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one out of six Americans has genital herpes, one out of five Americans infected with HIV do not know they have it, the American Dental Association reports (gag!!) that one out of five Americans surveyed do not brush their teeth twice a day, and the National Institute of Mental Health reports that more than one in four Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder.

So who cares what Americans think about the President's spiritual life? Tend to your own damn gardens, America, that's what I say, and don't forget to wear a rubber when you are playing any version of hide the salami. For a list of the other things characterizing one out of five Americans, go to this article in The Washington Post.

Interestingly, the number of African-American people who think the President is a Muslim has only risen from 6% to 7% in the same period in which whites in both parties, and those registered in neither party, have been successfully brainwashed by paid political operatives and radio talk show hosts. Given that the margin of error for each category was around 4% (and I suspect somewhat higher for African Americans, since their proportion of the survey group was probably the same as their percentage of the population), we can say with some confidence that it seems to be only white people who are obsessed with this question and there may be no black people who believe that Obama is a Muslim.

Odd that the media is not reporting this, isn't it? I guess this is what it means to be post-racial.

Stranger still, given how much talk there has been about the President's religion, in the part of the poll that links job approval to the Christian/Muslim question two out of five Americans, when asked about his religion, said they didn't know what religion the President was. This is truly amazing, since the right answer and the wrong answer are available on every media outlet nearly every day. And finally, when asked a series of questions about the proper role of religion in politics, and specifically on presidential decision-making, two out of five Americans were unaware that religious conservatives or liberals had created formal lobbying organizations to try to influence politicians and policy-making.

While the White House has reassured us that the President is not only Christian, he prays every day, there is very little concern being expressed about how unbelievably ignorant and ill-informed Americans are, and why Americans think being religious -- much less having the "right" religion -- has anything to do with policy-making. Not since the 1960 Presidential campaign, when John F. Kennedy had to repeatedly reassure Americans that he would not appoint the Pope to a cabinet post, has religion and the paranoia that Protestants in America harbor towards religions associated with non-white and immigrant people, been such an accepted part of the political landscape.

And not since the nineteenth century has rumor been such an acceptable substitute for being well-informed for so many people. But that may be because only one in five Americans reads above a twelfth grade level.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Department of Radical Pedagogy: Or, A Few Easy Steps Towards Being A Good Academic Adviser

Thirty-four years ago this month, I packed an old steamer trunk, a duffel bag of jeans and tee shirts, a newish (manual) typewriter, and I headed off to Oligarch University to make my fortune. Having made a declaration of interest in the direction of the English Department, I was assigned a genteel, elderly male advisor who had wispy white hair, excellent manners and the nickname of a baby farm animal. I met with him exactly once, I think, and although he gave me very little advice he also did no harm. Being me, I also didn't really want any advice. I had been steered, by a high school mentor, to a member of the large staff that taught multiple sections of the introductory literature course to which those of us with an AP were admitted, and I cared about little else. My new professor wore sunglasses throughout our entire meeting and treated me with gravity and formality, all of which, more than anything, made me feel like I had truly arrived.

And yet my actual advisor, soon to be left in the dust, made a contribution to my first week at Oligarch that I will never forget, and it was in the grand old tradition of Men's Education. He had a little dinner party at his house about a week into the term for all his advisees (at least two of us are now teaching at liberal arts colleges, and one at an Ivy League university), at which -- in the middle of all the excitement of being at college and feeling very grown up - I suffered a sudden, acute and positively babyish pang of gratitude about spending a few hours in a real home.

Needless to say, I made some spectacular errors in that first two years and had some great successes, all of which had to do with the opportunities and pitfalls of a large university. Would things have been different with a more attentive advisor? I doubt it. It wasn't until, entirely by accident, I fell in with a group of graduate students and became invested in being regarded as -- not a good student, but scholarly -- that things straightened out for me. And I didn't really acquire the habits of organization and planning that I would have needed to become a good student until I went to graduate school myself.

Hence my investment in being a good academic adviser to the undergraduates with whom I am charged.

But what should advising be nowadays? Many schools hire "professional advisers" to guide students through their core requirements and a curriculum that is often heavily staffed with adjunct labor. A big state university where I interviewed last year has advising drop-in centers, where someone who may have never met you helps adjust your schedule. In contrast, we liberal arts colleges tend to distribute students through some system that at least gestures to their interests, and many of us also have systems of peer advising, in which upper level students attend to --- well, what do they do? I don't know. We don't seem to have them anymore at Zenith, although I had a marvelous peer advisor assigned to me once who -- to the mixed embarrassment and delight of many of the new students -- handed out safe-sex kits in our first meeting.

The truth is, however, that as the cost of education has escalated, so too have expectations from parents about what advisers will do. In one memorable telephone call, a parent told me that he expected his son to show up in my office every afternoon for an enforced study hall because the young man could not be trusted to get his work done on his own. NOT! But lest we get sidetracked on helicoptering, there are two utterly reasonable explanations for this. One is that students who have gone to good schools often received the kind of individual attention (it's called good teaching, friends) that has never been the norm at college, and won't be most places. The other is that, as the price of tuition rises, it's normal to think that you are getting something special for your money, not just throwing your wonderful kid in with all the other swimmers and hoping s/he doesn't sink to the bottom.

Of course, since faculty never agreed to these outlandish tuitions in the first place, they tend not to get the nature of the trade-off. But in getting ready to greet my own new advisees this fall, let me give you a list of five easy things you can do to get off on the right foot.

Clean your office. OK, you may not have time to clean out years of dreck in the next week or two, but can you neaten up the piles a little? Throw away the old papers you never returned? Shelve as many books as possible? Dust? While many students will feel that they have entered a special academic heaven when they enter your cluttered lair, many will get the message -- particularly if they have to move a pile of crap in order to even sit down -- that they aren't welcome. Spending five dollars on some fresh flowers wouldn't kill you either.

If the college makes student files available, pick them up and read them. Seems basic, but some faculty just don't, and not always out of laziness. One person I have a lot of respect for believes that a young person should be allowed to leave the past behind and start entirely fresh. But I disagree. Students are coming from a place where they are well-known and to a place where they are anonymous. This can be a good thing: leave a geek and arrive a star; leave a girl and arrive a boy; leave with a name you have always hated and choose a new one. But it is also really scary. Being able to greet a student by recognizing something about who s/he is can be a great comfort, and it can make that student feel welcome to return.

Try to bring yourself to have them in your home in the first couple weeks of classes. If you live far from campus, as I do, team up with another member of the faculty who lives near campus and do it together. One of the things that is newly strange about their lives is the food, and having a home cooked meal can be anchoring. Another thing I do is have lunch with each of them, individually, about a month into the semester. That's when things start getting rough academically, and a moment where a small intervention (for example, encouraging a student to visit a prof in office hours) can go a long way.

Don't be opinionated, and don't retaliate when students ignore your unsolicited opinions. Being opinionated is not the same thing as giving advice: the latter requires listening to what students think or want, and linking it to what the institution offers. For example, a student who comes to Zenith and says s/he is interested in a business major (no, we don't have one; yes, it has happened) can be guided to the economics department; to introductory courses in sociology and psychology; to the internship coordinator; to economic history; to the Victorianist in the English department who has planned a first-year seminar around Das Kapital. This is advice.

But you should not give an opinion without permission: simply asking a student "Are you asking my opinion?" will clarify whether your opinion is being solicited or not. The worst offenders, in my view, are the advisers who tell students that they will refuse to sign off on any schedule that does not meet their personal approval (as opposed, say, to curricular requirements that are mandated by the university.) I have also heard from students whose advisers go out of their way to voice their disapproval of participation in varsity sport, This is particularly thoughtless, and borderline nasty really, since athletic excellence can be a big part of an individual student's identity and self-esteem, something that creates a platform of confidence for academic achievement too.

Seeking this kind of authority in a student's life is ethically wrong, in my view. Worse, it will cause many students to avoid you and only check in when necessary.

Encourage students to do their own research about professors and academic programs and bring it to you for discussion. Perhaps your most important job as an advisor is to support students in becoming informed and authoritative about their own educations. This is what helps them learn to make good choices when you are not around to discuss them, and to eventually be independent of you. One way to launch this process is to write them before they come to school, if you can, and encourage them to explore the curriculum. Should a student come to see you with no ideas, it may not be because s/he is lazy, but because s/he has never had the opportunity to make free choices. Make sure you reserve time during advising period for such people, so that you can send them away for a few hours to do this work -- a peer advisor or RA would be good back-up. Reassure them that their preferences matter, and ask them to come back with, say, ten courses that they think would be fun.

One form of research is to send students to the college bookstore to browse the books for individual courses. It's one thing for a course to look good in the catalogue, but can the student envision spending the semester reading those books? Again, does the course look fun?

I always try to discourage students writing off a course or a professor on the basis of rumors or on-line chatter. Even when such information is not highly selective (which it is), unless you actually know the faculty member is impaired or abusive, encourage the student to try the class or section out if they would otherwise be interested in it. Many teachers that are not "popular" have a significant and devoted following, and a great many of them are wonderful teachers who teach in fields that are under the radar of many students. Many teachers with a large and devoted following of like-minded thinkers often miss having the students who will challenge, or be challenged, by them.

What's the take-away point here? Invite them in; make them welcome; find ways to indicate that you like and respect them and encourage them to come back. You can't ensure any student's success, but the best adviser is the one that the student actually wants to see.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Never Mix, Never Worry: A Brief (And Incomplete) History Of The Academic Couple

Push your way past the Katie Roiphe essay on page 2 of the New York Times "Sunday Styles" section today (yes, this conservative anti-feminist really does seem to own the column named "Cultural Studies," which is an irony, is it not, given what cultural studies represents on the academic left? Does Roiphe know this? One suspects not.) Make your way to "Modern Love," where Boston College Shakespeare scholar Caroline Bicks, who also blogs at Academic Shakespeare, writes about academic commuting. In "Is The Husband Going To Be A Problem?" she addresses going on the job market as a couple, commonly known in academia as "the two body problem." She also mentions what I think is probably a widespread experience: Bicks' husband was never asked about what would happen to her on his interviews; but whether he would be a "hiring issue" was an anxious subtext of her interviews, a question that was conveyed to her in a way that was highly informal, irregular and effective. No, no, she reassured them, via her advisor; he's not an issue. We are ready to do whatever it takes.

In case you wondered, this is how women are disciplined not even to ask for the things men just get (like being treated with respect); and how we are trained not even to think about what we might need or want to do a job and have a life at the same time, since we should feel so damned lucky to be there in the first place.

If you are about to go on the job market, or are already a young commuting couple, read this: it is a story that has its hitches, but it ends happily: they live together, in the same city, with a daughter who didn't sleep through the night until she was almost five.

Academic commuting is an historically recent phenomenon, but not so recent that universities have not had time to address the problem -- and drop the ball instead. Once women decided to stop baking cookies for their husband's seminars and type manuscripts for love and pin money, it occurred to them get their own advanced degrees (it was around the mid 1960s, when women's liberation really took off, Katie Roiphe) and have their own careers. Prior to the mid-1970s, in other words, there was no two-body problem: the wife, awarded to the husband some time after his BA but prior to his hooding as a Ph.D., came along in the moving van along with the furniture and books.

Legend has it that at Zenith, when women began to be appointed as tenure-track faculty, it was such a seismic shock to the system that no one knew what to do with them socially. The first few of these pioneer women were, legend also has it, put in the odd position of having to navigate well-meant invitations to a faculty wives' lunch club. Indeed, when Zenith alumni of my age and older recall the happy days of intimate seminars held in professors' homes, they may have only a very vague memory of the unobtrusive (little) woman who kept the children out of the way, cleaned and dusted the house, baked the cookies, and washed the sherry glasses at the end of the day.

It wasn't a pretty life for everyone. Growing up in the nexus of three well-regarded liberal arts colleges and one Ivy League University, take it from me that a lot of these women resented the hell out of their second-class status. More than a few were closet drinkers and maintained a low-level buzz all day (you know, the ones that "went to the bathroom" just a few too many times a day, and kept a bottle of vodka in a locked glove compartment in the car.) In the Mad Men era (which is exactly when I grew up) men were capable of spacing out a great deal, particularly when it was in their own self interest, but let me just say that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is worth a little look-see for you couples out there who are considering ditching wify's career in order to live and raise your children in the same city.

There are a variety of reasons that colleges and universities have never come to some comprehensive solution to the two-person academic career, a problem that is now acknowledged to include queer people. None of them are good, and none address the stress induced by commuting academic careers that invariably falls hardest on women. A partner hire is most frequently thought of as an exceptional event akin to a prize: in order to get "him," you shoehorn another department or program into taking "her;" in order to keep "her" in the face of an outside offer, a department is cajoled into interviewing "her." The best possible scenario is the one least available to most of us: to be thought of as a "power couple" in the field, a kind of academic Ferdinand and Isabella scenario where 1 + 1 = more than 2.

Why can't we solve this problem? Well, two reasons.

Adding tenure-track faculty lines is far down, and in many cases not even on, the list of institutional priorities for most universities. There are very few exceptions to this rule, and the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Franklin & Marshall, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, which often agrees to create an extra half line for partner hires. Each member of the partnership is tenure-track and each occupies 3/4 of a line. Who is the big winner here? Franklin & Marshall, of course: they get two faculty for the price of 1.5 -- and who knows what it means to work 3/4 time at a liberal arts college? My guess is that both members of the couple are working full-time for 3/4 pay. Franklin & Marshall also gets to keep faculty who might otherwise want to escape Lancaster, PA, because what other schools have any partner hire policy at all?

Add to this the following fact: the bad job market is not a natural phenomenon. It is not going to magically correct itself when the economy improves. The bad job market has been entirely manufactured by colleges, universities and state legislatures who are unwilling to create the number of full-time positions that they need to teach the students they have. Until there is some kind of effective social movement of students and faculty to correct this, Boards of Trustees and administrations will continue to shrink faculties, particularly in the liberal arts. In this atmosphere of scarcity, the idea that faculty lines would be created for two-career couples is unthinkable.

The fiction that academic hiring is, and should be, a meritocracy in which those awarded jobs and tenure are understood to be the "best." Hiring, particularly in an expanded market, could be a mix of competitive searches and opportunity appointments -- which, in fact, is now the case at the most senior levels and at the lowest adjunct levels. But right now there is no constituency advocating for this, except the people who are running to the airport on Thursday at 3:30.

The worst offenders, in my view, are departments, who think the world is going to come to an end if they hires a 19th century economic historian rather than a 19th century political historian; or if the political historian spouse turns out to be an African Americanist ("Shriek!!! We've already got one of those!!!!") Departments are usually utterly unwelcoming to candidates -- no matter how promising -- who do not fit an exact niche that has been decided upon in endless department meetings, received the dean's stamp of approval, been searched for, and been vetted as part of a vast pool of candidates -- by them. Being a spouse of someone already on the faculty can hurt you as a candidate, because it launches grumbling about whether the department will be "forced" to take you. The hiring mentality often includes a form of magical thinking that goes like this: if, out of 100 candidates, we picked Assistant Professor X -- then we can be assured that s/he is the best!

You are getting my point here? "We picked hir = s/he is the best." If you don't go through "the hiring process," no one can be certain that you are the best.

But graduate students have drunk the Kool-Aid too, and are just as invested in the idea of meritocracy as faculty are, if not more so. Take a look at the job wikis, if you don't believe me, and the number of people who seem to honestly believe that they were objectively more deserving of a given job than the person who actually got it. How is it that people think they know they were the best candidate? Gave the best talk? Wrote the best dissertation? Wore the prettiest shoes? I dunno. I suppose this kind of hubris is a good way of maintaining your self-esteem in a brutal job market, but it is also insane. Thus, one of the constituencies that is most harmed by the "two-body problem" is also not likely to accept a solution in which people are awarded jobs without clawing their way to the top of the application pile and being brutally hazed by search committees first.

So good luck to all of you on the market this year. And by the way, if you are on a search committee, you might want to know that what happened to Caroline Bicks during her interview process is not just sexist, it's against federal law: asking about, or considering, a candidate's marital status part of the selection process is a major-league no-no, regardless of the candidate's gender and sexual orientation. Here's a complete list of things you can't be asked at an interview.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What's the Answer to Higher Education, Gertrude?" "Alice, What Is The Question?*

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About It. New York: Times Books, 2010). 271 pp., index; $26.00 hardcover.

For those of you have aspirations to publish for a popular market, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s contribution to the contemporary national debate about higher education does a lot of things right. The title poses a question and answers it – enticing you into a text that proposes to tell you the details that link the two. It has been cannily released in what is normally a slack summer book season (in other words, after the Summer Reading List issues of the Nation, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker; and right before these same publications announce what should be on your agenda for the fall.) Best of all, it is designed to freak out all the parents who are about to write their first $25,000 check (or some combination of cash and I.O.U.’s) to the college of their child’s choice, and the parents of rising seniors who are about to begin the College Admissions Derby. Imagine all these parents buying this book to find out that they are, or will be, paying for – nothing!

Full disclosure: although I am not quoted in the book, I had a very enjoyable phone interview with one of its authors. Furthermore, like Jesse Lemisch over at New Politics, I found that many of its themes speak to real issues in the academy: the casualization of teaching labor, the lack of curricular direction, ginormous corporate salaries paid to top executives, the failure of faculties to reform their own practices, and the high cost – in dollars and mortgaged futures – are but a few things that deserve more attention than they are getting.

My problem is this: Dreifus and Hacker treat the diverse field that is higher education with such a broad brush, and are so vague as to what the structural causes of the problems they identify are, that it is hard to know what we should take away from this book, why it asserts the things it does, or who the authors think the agents of change for higher education are supposed to be. They offer a vast range of critiques – many of which are the topic of regular debate in the education literature – but the agenda for reform is vague except for the familiar, free-market notion that parents can create change by taking their education dollars elsewhere.

Higher Education reserves some of its harshest criticism for a few of the most selective schools (which are referred to as the “Golden Dozen,” a term I can honestly say after a lifetime of working in universities I have never heard) and spends less time than it should on public schools like Evergreen (Washington State) and New College (Florida), which are truly innovative, teaching-oriented and inexpensive. The authors have a tendency to compare the apples over here with the oranges over there, spreading their analysis of schools over all the chapters. Because of this, even a professional educator like myself ends with very little sense of what a formula for a good college education really looks like, or how I, as a scholar, might contribute to a reform agenda (except by giving up research and writing, and returning my salary.) Worst, Higher Education gives non-professionals very little sense of how the different facets of university life work might, and sometimes do, work together to produce a good undergraduate education.

Hence, the biggest point Higher Education misses making is that the flaws in, and expense of, an undergraduate degree have evolved as a result of a privatization agenda that shifts a variety of costs formerly undertaken by government and private industry (through taxation) to students and their parents. Without this larger context the book's most salient points (that an undergraduate education is nearly unaffordable, and that the liberal arts are being de-emphasized for undergraduate training that can be immediately converted to a paying job) are far less meaningful. Privatization explains the shift towards what the authors identify as "The Triumph of Training” in chapter 6: students believe that their BA’s should certify them for the career that will pay back their bank loans; and corporations can hire workers for low-level corporate jobs without the expense of training them.

(Short irrelevant question: did Barbara Ehrenreich and Jonathan Kozol read this book before they blurbed it? Or were they in a particularly ecumenical mood when they did? Because Hacker and Dreifus's argument is more or less the exact opposite of what Ehrenreich and Kozol have argued on behalf of for years.)

Higher Education’s most consistent point throughout is that a college education costs too much (I agree); that students graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in loans (I agree – although the authors should have devoted a chapter to the consequences of this); that administrators are being hired and paid on a corporate scale (I agree); that college faculties rarely explain why they do what they do, or what an undergraduate education ought to look like (I agree); and that colleges and universities are providing vast numbers of services, entertainments and extra-curriculars that are driving the cost of higher education up without improving the quality of education (I agree.) There’s also quite a nice chapter at the end of the book that remarks on schools that they thought were exciting, and that advises parents to “think out of the box” when helping their children put together a list of potential colleges. My one caveat is that while they mention the establishment of “honors colleges” at Arizona State and Ole Miss that offer a liberal arts experience at a public school price, my question is: what is so innovative about creaming off 20% of an incoming class and giving them something “special” – while letting the remaining 80% flounder? It’s called tracking, and it’s not reform unless everybody gets access to the same small classes and high standards.

But the things that I liked about this book were too frequently negated by discussions that I found hasty and ill informed. I found Hacker and Dreifus’s grasp of the state of affirmative action thin, particularly since they mostly address admission to the “Golden Dozen.” Their views about the role race plays in higher education more generally are partial at best and incoherent at worst. The way in which this subject is glossed without any reference to social class or a family history of higher education also leaves the false impression that all Black students need “help” of one kind or another in the admissions process; and opposes this to stereotypical notions of an Asian “model minority."

Another problem – given that the real focus of the book is on a consumer-driven model of education -- is that many of their discussions assume a more or less one-to-one relationship between tuition dollars and university spending on a variety of things that, they rightly argue, have nothing, or little, to do with the classroom. Interestingly, this mirrors the current Republican position on the national deficit, as if the national deficit and social programs have a direct relationship to each other that is separable from tax policy and military spending.

Without a more nuanced discussion of why university budgets operate the way they do, what student needs are, how services support classrooms, what drives the perceived need for administrative staff (particularly in student services), false assumptions about lavish spending on unnecessary frills leap out. For example, when they cite the high cost of scientific research, Hacker and Dreifus don’t make it clear that although the money for research is often frontloaded by universities, scientists are expected to earn it back in the form of grants (many of which are corporate) – and that not infrequently, patents from their work and overhead extracted from grants go back into the university’s coffers as profit. As a second example, many faculty members would agree that management is top-heavy and overpaid: but who exactly is going to handle the 10,000 + applications received at every liberal arts school? Who will support the mandate to provide accommodation for the disabled? Who will raise the private and foundation dollars to replace lost federal and state dollars? And who will manage the infinitely more complex budgets that result? While it appears that numerous faculty were interviewed for this book, it is rare that we hear from an administrator, except when s/he is doing something fabulous, like refusing a salary over 400 K.

Although Dreifus and Hacker both teach, they don’t dig very deeply into a variety of other reasons that higher education, particularly public colleges and universities, have become so much more expensive, and so much less invested in the liberal arts. The most important of these would be the end of the Cold War, which slashed funding for a variety of fields that were critical to the arts and social sciences, from Anthropology to Russian. Twenty years of other federal cuts to universities followed, cuts that have also been made by state legislatures even in the most flush economic times. At the same time, the same legislatures, and their State Boards of Regents, have amped up and failed to supervise lavish D-I sports programs that have a use ‘em and lose ‘em attitude toward students. For example, the New Jersey State Legislature just cut Rutgers University’s budget by 15% -- having authorized in the past decade the creation of a multi-million dollar football program, with a new stadium. As another example when, in 2009, Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun publicly gave Governor Jody Rell the finger in response to her request that he accept a 10% cut in his multi-million dollar salary like every other state worker, what politician – the governor included -- demanded that he accept the cut?

Those who follow Margret Soltan's University Diaries will be glad to know there is a whole chapter on why big-time college sports are a waste of money, but this chapter also misses crucial details. For example, Dreifus and Hacker never mention that athletics at many public schools are partly funded by a mandatory “student activity fee,” which every student must pay even if s/he is working 40 hours a week to finance her education and would never dream of going to a football game. They also do not mention that there are viable ways to keep a sport competitive and fun without tremendous expense to others: the club sport model, on which the school contributes a token amount and the athletes raise the money themselves. Or that to some of us, commitment to athletic excellence is a sign of character and often correlates with academic achievement, particularly in women.

Perhaps my greatest disappointment with Higher Education is that the authors are over the top disparaging about the work of most faculty, much as the collapse of the auto industry is often blamed on the greediness of auto workers, rather than the failures of management. This is also a place where collapsing all schools great and small, public and private, truly undermines their argument because their targets are salaries and research. Worse, it is faculty who – in many ways – need to be rallied to produce change, and the book does its best to alienate them. Hacker and Dreifus offering little, or selective, explanations for the following assertions:

Faculty members are, by and large, elitist and selfish, consumed with their research, and uninterested in their students. While Dreifus and Hacker offer a few good examples of faculty who are devoted teachers, the book emphasizes that indifference to students is the state of play. While Zenith didn’t make it into the “Golden Dozen” (thank God), I have to tell you – we are not that different from Amherst and Williams, who did, and the vast majority of us who work at small colleges care deeply about our teaching and our students. Some of us stay in our jobs despite our discomfort with the high cost of private colleges because our teaching is nurtured, rewarded and encouraged there. We don’t all agree on what “good teaching” is, it’s true – but on the other hand, neither do the authors. At the beginning of the book, they chastise faculty for not making contact with their students; towards the end they seem to think distance learning from adjuncts is a pretty good solution to ameliorating high tuitions. So which is it that we strive for, guys -- the magical relationship with the prof or the magical and thrifty relationship with a grader and a video monitor?

Faculty members are overpaid. This, I would have to say, stung, particularly in a year where I received a raise far below COLA, after having received no raise the year before because of the recession. Where Dreifus and Hacker got the idea that “education is a public service job,” or that faculty are all prancing around in designer clothes paid for with hard-earned tuition dollars, I don’t know. When they count the hours we “work” they count classroom hours: not the time planning classes, meeting with students, keeping up with our fields, writing lectures, grading papers (no, most of us do not have assistants who do this) planning and running majors, chairing departments – the list goes on. While there are a vast number of adjuncts who are -- as Carey Nelson the original Tenured Radical, would say – working for food, I don’t think $100,000 a year is too much to pay someone after ten years of education, eight years of probationary service, and between five and ten years at the associate ranks. And, although this is the salary that is cited over and over, the fact is that the vast number of full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty make well below 100K. Gaps at rank at the same institution, and even within the same department, can be enormous. On what basis would our salaries be decided? That isn’t clear. And why should education professionals at the peak of their career be working at a wage that might otherwise be earned by a social worker, priest or Teach for America trainee?

Scholarly research is unnecessary. Hence, sabbatical and research funding is unnecessary (the sarcastic crack about spending a year that the bulk of us spend writing and doing research in Tuscany “recharging” was just nasty.) Where advanced knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is supposed to come from, who will support it if universities don’t, or what we will actually have to teach undergraduates twenty years from now if everyone with a Ph.D. stops doing research and writing, is not clear. The vast majority of us can’t get a commercial publisher to give us the time of day, so big advances like Higher Education got are out as a source of funding. Dreifus and Hacker’s suggestion -- that people interested in research should be at think tanks instead of teaching in a university, or that they can use their “three-day weekends” for their scholarship is, frankly, just thoughtless.

Faculties neglect the teaching of basic knowledge, teaching specialized courses out of their research so that they won’t have to work hard. It is simply not a fact that a departmental curriculum that offers numerous specialized courses is invariably neglecting its responsibility to core knowledges, offering students a variety of trivia instead that give them no clear view of the field. The authors do not even come close to proving that it is, or that students find this to be a problem. Two of the oddest critiques in this vein were the assertion that in an introductory English class students ought not to be asked to read a little Foucault (theory, in general, is perceived here as extraneous to the needs of an undergraduate); and the assertion that if one Chemistry class is required of an undergraduate, it should be a survey of the field – not the introduction that might lead students into the major.

I found these strange because both are highly arguable and other points of view are not articulated. Like him or not, Foucault changed the field of literature, and learning to read theory is a skill, just as calculus is, that is useful to pursuing a variety of majors. And as for Chemistry – most of us non-scientists would say just the opposite: make students take a real science course that does what other introductory courses are supposed to do, which is give a student entrée to a major. Don’t have them take one of those B$ “science for poets” courses that they know perfectly well is to “satisfy a requirement” and “make them well-rounded” – not to challenge or stimulate them. Students can see through this kind of curricular window-dressing in a second.

Because the book is so broad brush, the question Dreifus and Hacker never ask is: what would be a fundamental set of values to re-organize higher education around? How can we make it affordable? How can we restore the "public" in public education? Why does it matter to have private and religious schools in the mix, and what are we willing to do as a society to support that? What are curricular models that students and faculty, together, find powerful – and why? Why have the choices in higher education narrowed so dramatically in the past twenty years, and why have so many progressive colleges become so conventional?

And what would a greater national commitment to higher education look like that actually put the interests of students first?

*This riffs off of a famous, and probably apocryphal, exchange that is said to have occurred between between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein on Stein's deathbed in 1946.