Monday, July 26, 2004

Why Postmodernists Make Lousy Speechwriters

On the eve of the Democratic convention, I started to wonder what would happen if Kerry hired some of my old professors as speechwriters…

My fellow Americans, in simply addressing you that way, “hailing” you in the Althusserian sense, I am reinscribing the normative masculine trope of ‘fellow’ while ironically appropriating the discourse of fellow-ship in a frankly hegemonic context; yet still acknowledging the rhetorical power of the nation-state even as attempting to recast it, despite its always-already being implicated in relations of power and domination, as a liberatory force on behalf of those subaltern who bother to vote, ‘voting’ itself as the performance of an idea of ‘citizenship’ built on the denial of same to those ‘others’ who are not hailed in my introduction...

Friday, July 23, 2004

So much for the 'calmer baby' theory...

The Girl decided last night to really stretch out her lungs.  She started fussing around 7:00, picked up steam around 9:00, and did a full-on banshee wail from 10:00 to about midnight.

The good news is her lungs are obviously strong.  And it could have been worse – the cycle could have started at midnight. 

Still, in just the few years since The Boy was born, I’d forgotten just how draining those screaming fits can be.  It’s sort of like forgetting pain.  Today The Wife and I are pretty zombified, and we’re both dreading tonight’s performance. 

Miraculously, The Boy managed to sleep through it. 

It isn’t just the noise that drains you.  It’s the not knowing – not knowing how long it will go, what’s bothering her, or what to do about it.  We did all the obvious things – feeding, swaying, singing, swaddling, etc. – to no effect.  The Girl isn’t fooled by pacifiers, usually spitting them out within seconds.  (“This one’s defective.  No milk!”)  When I hold her with her head on my shoulder, she can push her head off, but she can’t support it, so it’s anybody’s guess which way it will loll.  The only way to prevent that is a sort of knuckleball grip, but that isn’t so good, either.

It’s hard, too, to stay sane and patient with The Boy when The Girl rubs your nerves raw.  He has been great, but an active three-year old boy is a handful in the best of circumstances, let alone when you’re already drained. 

After a few hours, you start to think about alternatives.  Would a doghouse in the backyard really be so bad?  It’s the summer, and it’s not like we have dingoes running around the neighborhood…

But nooooo. 

Idea for birth control: film a two-hour infant banshee wail, and show the film, in real time, to teenagers.  Keep the sound up good and high.  Nobody leaves the auditorium.  Attendance at the screening (say, a midnight show on a Tuesday) is mandatory.  Amnesty International might object, but I bet it would work…

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

collaborative management?

I’ve just returned from a brief paternity leave, tired, pale, and happy.  The Girl is a much mellower baby than her brother was, for which we are already grateful.
My employer has recently engaged in a search for a high-level administrator, and I’ve been in on some of the interviews.  Without giving anything away about anyone, I was struck by the applicant etiquette that seems to have emerged.
Everybody has a collaborative management style, whatever that means.  (From what I can see, it means whatever the applicant says it means.)  Everybody is committed to diversity, which, in my mind, is sort of like being committed to gravity.  Everybody is committed to exploiting the opportunities made available by technology, whether through online courses, online courses, or online courses.  Everybody avoids micromanagement, consults with relevant stakeholders, gets involved with the community, eats their vegetables, flosses daily, and helps old ladies across the street.
Of course, the sameness of each of these categories renders them useless as screening mechanisms.
The most annoying repetition, though, is that everybody has the same new brilliant idea.  “Let’s be proactive in forming partnerships with private industry.” 
Well, let’s just stop and think about that.
The surface-level appeal is obvious.  As the bank robber Willie Sutton put it, “that’s where the money is.”  As decades of Republican rule have hollowed out the great mid-century achievements of the public sector, any public institution will be chronically starved for resources.  Higher ed takes it especially hard, since most voters seem okay with the idea that tuition should be proportionately higher than it was when they were students, and because education is, by definition, labor-intensive (and therefore uniquely impervious to productivity gains).  Since loose money is to be found only in the corporate world, strapped institutions should look there.
Or not.  In my time in the for-profit sector of higher ed, where the corporate ethos was accepted without question, I noticed some real shortcomings of the “let’s ask employers what they want” school of curriculum development.
The first, and most obvious, is that most employers have absolutely no idea what they want.  Five years ago, most of the private sector would have been happy to see every college in America convert to a computer training school.  Now, IT workers are a dime a dozen, and many of the employers my old school used to ask for advice no longer even exist.  Corporations have extremely short time-horizons, and, when asked, they reflect that. 
More significantly, a company that may be very good at designing buildings, or making cars, or bundling mutual funds isn’t necessarily very good at designing curricula.  Education is not simply a matter of presenting information; anyone who has taught can testify that what you say and what students hear can be vastly different.  Figuring out how to reach students is a skill in itself. (This is why I regard most efforts at “character education” as simply embarrassing.  They tend to adopt a Platonist pedagogy – to know the good is to do the good.  That Socrates got himself condemned to death by an angry city suggests limits to this strategy.  Socrates was a legendary teacher, foundational to Western thought, and even he had to drink the Kool-Aid.)
Most importantly, though, the interests of the employers are not the interests of the students.  Employers want more students in high-demand fields so they can lower the salaries.  By expanding whatever program tickles the Fortune 500’s fancy that year, we are complicit in watering down the life prospects of the more dedicated students.
A firm wants inputs it can use.  It doesn’t give two hoots about inputs that other firms can use, except in the very broadest (read: irrelevant) sense.  Hamburger University, at McDonald’s is built on this model – it generates managers for McDonald’s.  McDonald’s has no interest in employees’ portability to other firms, and rightly so.  When we track students into narrow, career-specific fields, we make them more vulnerable to the vagaries of a given industry (and, sometimes, a given company).  Employers like that, and they should.  Educators shouldn’t.
If we truly care about educating our students, we should give them the tools to, at the very least, chart their own paths.  That is not necessarily an argument for all philosophy, all the time – too much abstraction is as bad as too little – but it is an argument for maintaining a robust distinction between education (which we do) and training (which employers do).  Only by building the ability to compare, critically, different kinds of industries, companies, cultures, and the like, can students hope to be the ‘self-managers’ who can actually do well in a mercenary economy. 
And that’s only the economic argument.  Add the broader political argument – one of the purposes of higher education is to produce citizens capable of participating in a functioning democracy.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but workplaces (with rare exceptions) aren’t democracies.  Knowing how to take orders, shmooze bosses, and the rest is all fine and good, but at some point, today’s students will be tomorrow’s voters (or not, which may be even worse).  Employers, again, don’t give two hoots about this, and there’s no reason they should, but we should.  If that means including some history or politics in a program of study, rather than the umpteenth course on business communications, so be it.
Someone with political literacy might look at the “let’s beg for corporate money” model as a Trojan horse – the more money public colleges can raise from the private sector, the easier it is for legislatures to simply cut our appropriations.  Those cuts can fund tax cuts for corporations, from whom we can beg for some back, if we remake ourselves in their image.  It’s a losing strategy, long-term.  Better to stake a stronger public claim, to assert our own, independent mission, and to negotiate, when at all, from strength.
I don’t know if that counts as “collaborative,” or even “new,” but I think it’s right. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The Girl is Here!

The Girl was born on Sunday! She checked in at 8 pounds even,
and she's absolutely beautiful. The Wife is doing well; The
Boy is even being a good sport.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Viewpoint Diversity

Conservatives have taken up the slogan of ‘viewpoint diversity’ to force colleges to hire more politically-conservative faculty. David Horowitz has gone so far as to draw up an “Academic Bill of Rights” guaranteeing students the right to be free from political indoctrination in higher education, and mandating exposure to diverse points of view.
One member of Congress, whose name escapes me, just drew up a “sense of the Congress” resolution to give this idea the blessing of the government.

I admit that my first response involved an unattractive combination of gagging and giggling. But, upon sober reflection, I realized that the idea has considerable merit. It just needs to be more fully fleshed out. As a public service, I’ve taken the task upon myself…

Start with the religious colleges. Their faculty are disproportionately religious! How can students possibly expect to be exposed to differing points of view? I’m pleased to hear the Republicans in Congress urge Lynchburg College to hire more Jews, liberals, and homosexuals. Catholic colleges and universities tend to have disproportionately-Catholic faculties; this too must stop! How can anyone fully embrace a faith until exploring the alternatives? I join the Republicans in calling upon every Catholic college in the U.S. to start a stepped-up hiring program for secular liberals immediately.

Some of the displaced Catholic faculty could find work at, say, Brandeis…

And what about the military colleges? The faculty at West Point could use some openly gay, vegetarian pacifists. The women’s studies department at the Army War College could use some beefing up…

Too many History departments teach World War II from an anti-Nazi point of view.

Business schools are vastly overrun with Republicans. Obviously, a purge is in order. To make sure all points of view are represented, we could mandate that every other hire come from, say, the leadership of a labor union. One for business, one for labor. That’s fair!

What about the proprietary sector? Since the very nature of proprietary schools is capitalist, they need a counterbalancing faction of socialist faculty. After all, students mustn’t be indoctrinated. Dispatch the University of Phoenix to the MLA, stat!

In fact, why should we limit viewpoint diversity to colleges? Why not other important public institutions?

Over half of Congress is comprised of millionaires. That’s not representative! Let’s get a representative sample of Wal-Mart workers in there. Let them vote on tax policy. For that matter, let’s get the median income of Congress down to the national average. That might have some interesting effects on the laws about parental leave, health care, tax distributions…

And what about the judiciary? Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas – outta there! 7 out of the 9 current members of the Supreme Court were appointed by Republicans – no wonder they threw the election to Bush! Make it an even split – hell, while we’re at it, let’s extend the income-diversity rule there, too. Let’s see what someone making $25k has to say about equal protection of the laws…


Apparently, affirmative action is only okay when it benefits conservatives.

The idiocy of the law is even deeper than it looks. Leave aside the question of higher-ed exceptionalism; what’s even more disturbing is the idea that everybody’s political thinking has to fit cleanly in certain boxes. If I’m hired to be the token liberal, and my thought evolves, I could lose my job! If I stitch positions together in ways that don’t reflect the approved categories (say, a Daniel Bell type – socially conservative, but left on economics), I don’t count, so I can’t get hired. Best to avoid thinking anything new.

For the idea of ‘viewpoint diversity’ to make any sense, we have to assume that all possible viewpoints are already known, as is the proper numerical distribution of viewpoints. We also have to assume that all of the interesting questions have already been asked, all answers to all questions coalesce into only two or three possible constellations, that political preference colors all knowledge (“Democrats argue that the atomic number for hydrogen is 1, but Republicans…”), and that students are perfect sponges for what their professors tell them. In other words, we have to be morons.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

"Use It or Lose It" and Risk Aversion

When a tenure-based institution needs to cut costs, the easiest way to achieve significant savings is through reduction by attrition – just don’t replace people when they leave. It prevents layoffs, it prevents difficult decisions about existing programs, it forestalls difficult questions about why some departments get to grow while others get cut, and it saves search costs. The short-term appeal is clear.

If the cost-cutting environment lasts too long, though, it starts to create some perverse incentives. Departments who don’t tenure an assistant professor figure out that they may not get another shot with someone else – if they don’t tenure the mediocre assistant professor, they will lose the position (or “line”) altogether. Tenure-track assistant professors, who had to surmount insane odds to get the position in the first place, ironically face a much easier tenure hurdle, since the choice between Smith and nobody is much easier than a choice between Smith and Jones.

Once that mindset takes hold, the implications for the future searches that do happen are dangerous. If a line is a terrible thing to waste, and it is, departments will become almost pathologically risk-averse in their hiring. Better to hire the clean, non-threatening fit than to take a chance on somebody in a more exciting, but harder to pin down, area. Nobody has ever been denied tenure, to my knowledge, for fitting in too well.

Candidates who stick to safe, mainstream topics, and who manage to get along with everybody, are strongly favored in this environment. Candidates who take intellectual risks, who experiment in the classroom, or who have strong (or interesting) personalities are strongly disfavored. When a department has hundreds of applicants for a single tenure-track position, it faces the contradictory challenge of finding the standout who least stands out. Someone outstandingly average. No wonder searches are so hard!

Interestingly, the opposite dynamic can hold at elite institutions, since departments there can be assured that if Smith doesn’t work out, they can try again later with Jones. Affluence allows the luxury to experiment.

A colleague of mine from graduate school is an outstanding researcher and teacher, but his work straddles subfields that aren’t usually straddled. He has attracted strong interest at elite institutions, but has received the brush-off at third- and fourth-tier institutions. He’s good enough for Elite New England College, but not quite up to South Carolina Ag and Tech College standards.

On any straightforward scale of merit, that’s absurd. But it makes sense, sort of, when the department at South Carolina has to consider the possibility of forever losing a line if his higher-risk projects don’t work out.

Why does this matter? It matters for graduate students, because their choice of subfield and dissertation topic can pre-select the type of institution that will take their candidacy seriously. It matters for departments, because how do you defend a discrimination lawsuit when ‘merit’ wasn’t really a criterion? It matters for higher education generally, since one of the major reasons we exist is to generate new knowledge. The whole point of sponsoring bright minds outside of private industry to do self-directed research is to cover those areas of inquiry that private industry is less likely to get around to, either because the risk is too high, or the profits too hard to confine to one firm, or the market simply too small. We exist, in part, to compensate for a market failure. When we start punishing higher-risk research and rewarding simple replication of what has been done before, we defeat our own purpose.

For colleges to be able to maintain high levels of teaching, departments need to be able to roll the dice on potentially high-payoff hires. For groundbreaking research, this is even more true. The alternative is to widen the gap between the few, elite institutions who can afford to gamble, and the rest, who can’t. To maintain quality, colleges below the elite level have to be able to commit to given staffing levels, and to hold to those commitments. Departments need to know that they can try again.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Sappy Dad Moment

Last night The Wife and I raided the attic to retrieve the bassinet, in preparation for The Girl. (She’s due any time now.) We assembled it, and it’s sitting in what will be The Girl’s room.

Okay, I admit it. It’s hard not to get a little weepy seeing the bassinet again.

This morning, as I was trying to herd The Boy out the door, The Wife decided to show him the bassinet, and to put a teddy bear in it. The Boy made the requisite “aww…” sounds, but it was all I could do to stay composed.

He’s taller than the basket now. I remember when he looked so small inside it.

I’m inordinately proud of The Boy, and take delight in each new step forward (last night he “read” books to us! He memorized the words, and even threw in commentary, pointing at pictures!), but something about going back to the beginning like that just puts a lump in my throat. It’s hard to believe he was ever that small.

Sorry. I just couldn’t focus on much else today.