Facing an Avalanche: Weekly Varia, 12/3/22

The fall semester is rapidly drawing to a close and, despite some effort this semester to change the schedule on which students submit their assignments, I am finding myself staring down an avalanche of grading. Under the best of conditions I am deeply ambivalent about this time of year because it generally does not allow students to do their best work, and, this year, I already feel worn down from a semester that has been nothing but an endless cycle of grading.

There will be time for a semester debrief once it has ended. Not for the first time I have been reflecting this week on how much time it takes to grade the way I think grading ought to be done. There are, of course, grading systems that take little or no time on the part of the professor, but these are generally a concession to volume in large classes for what I am teaching rather than an ideal substitute for more labor intensive pedagogies. However, this also means that I have had less time to write, to say nothing to the knock-on effects of this grading like the reading and types of writing I do to find my writing voice again after reading student writing and the time it takes to switch modes. Some days recently I just haven’t had the brain space to make that transition and only one of these activities pays my bills.

This also means that I have a backlog of things I want to write about. Setting aside my academic writing, to which this also applies, I started writing a post about phantom time conspiracies this week, have been compiling my thoughts about both Andor and Rings of Power, and intend to write about at least three books I finished this semester and the one I am currently reading. Then there is a recap of #AcWriMo and a semester reflection. By a quick count, that is nine posts without including weekly varia, my annual end of year series, or any topics that might move me to write before the end of the year. Now, I wouldn’t expect to publish all of these posts before the end of the year even without the avalanche of grading, but simply having these things on the docket means that I feel the lack of time all the more acutely.

This week’s varia:

  • In September James Sweet, the president of AHA, published “Is History History?,” in the professional organization’s Perspectives magazine. The essay prompted an enormous amount of push-back online, leading David Frum to write favorably about Sweet’s position in The Atlantic. This week, Jonathan Wilson published a sensitive rebuttal to both in Clio and the Contemporary.
  • The Bryn Mawr Classical Review is the preeminent book review outfit for Classics, both for good and for ill. It is open-access and prestigious, but the place it holds in these systems also leads to controversy over its impact, what styles it allows (and who gets to write in what register), and editorial choices. I have volunteered to review books a half dozen or so times over the years and been turned down every time, but I nevertheless found of interest Clifford Ando’s reflection on process.
  • There is apparently a deal in the works to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece (BBC). These are friezes taken from Greece in the 19th century and Britain has refused to return them for decades on a variety of excuses and their return would be a welcome development.
  • Paul Campos at LGM Blog responds to the president of the United States asserting on Twitter that the Holocaust happened, as though this were legitimately in question. One critical point he makes: the problem with Hitler is not that he was possessed by demonic powers, which simultaneously makes him remarkable and takes him off the hook for his crimes. The Holocaust is what happens when the worst impulses and desires of people are heightened, enabled, and then realized.
  • A Florida school district tried to block a parent from doing a presentation to her child’s class about Channukah on the basis of the new Parent’s Bill of Rights, but they relented when the parent threatened to make an issue out of the school claiming that Christmas decorations were generically “holiday-themed” rather than an endorsement of Christmas.
  • Related, Paul Bowers writes in “Notes from a School Board Takeover” about how national rhetoric plays out in local communities when conservatives seize control of a school board and warp policy to reflect their political agenda. One of his most important observations: the people enacting these policies are immune to shame and don’t care about lost teachers. This is about the exercise of power.
  • San Francisco’s board of supervisors gave permission for police to arm potentially-lethal robots. Police assure the public that they have no plans to put guns on the robots, just explosives, as though that is much better.
  • A Qatari official put the body count of workers killed in stadium construction (ESPN) between 400 and 500, which is significantly higher than the official line of three dead in work related incidents and 37 others outside of the job.
  • College football is a deeply corrupt sport. All aspects of this corruption is currently on display at Auburn University, which just hired Hugh Freeze as its head coach. Freeze was fired from his job at Mississippi amid scandal and hasn’t done much better at Liberty. He also has a history of harassing critics and worse, while hiding behind bible verses, as Jason Kirk details in his latest newsletter. The latest Split Zone Duo podcast (with host Steven Godfrey who created the Foul Play docuseries about Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss) had, I thought, a compelling discussion of how sports media is allowing Auburn to rehabilitate Freeze’s image.

Album of the Week: Trampled by Turtles, “Alpenglow”

Currently Reading: Sequoia Nagamatsu, How High We Go in the Dark; Emma Dench, Empire and Political Cultures in the Roman World

Exploitation in the academy

A few months ago news broke that Jehuda Reinharz, the former president of Brandeis University, would receive millions of dollars in continued salary and benefits, including some 800,000 dollars in unused sabbatical leave and millions in what amount to consulting fees to assist the new president. The issue was raised again last month when Brandeis announced that they were giving him a 4.9 million dollar lump-sum payment. In the initial report, Reinharz (known as “Jehuda” around campus, at least when I was there) said that “this is what happens in America,” framing it that he had worked hard while professor and President and that he was just receiving what was owed him. In a more cynical light, however, his comments could be construed to mean that what happens in America is that a few people are put in a position to reap massive rewards that the vast majority of people cannot get.

At roughly the same time, the football players at Northwestern have filed to form a union, saying that they are being exploited. This follows in the wake of players from a number of schools this year talking about player solidarity and about refusing to play and a report from a UNC researcher that some athletes are practically illiterate (not that this is the first time such reports have come out). Basically, the athletes say that they produce millions of dollars in revenue for the universities in the form of donations, publicity, and so on in return for which they (many of them, anyway) receive scholarships and medical attention while they are in school, but the total sum of the benefits are a fraction of the value they provide.

The backlash has been extreme, with many people making the argument that the students receive an education and that providing stipends for the athletes would destroy the game. Of course, the scholarships are not guaranteed for four years, and, in a sport like football, there are life-long injury issues. Moreover, many schools invest heavily in and bring in huge amount of money from athletic programs (even if those ledgers do not always balance) and the schools effectively function as minor league programs for sports that do not have official minor leagues. Universities are enormous businesses, and the complaint that educators sometimes make is that their business is athletics, rather than education.

Of course, the exploitation is not limited to athletics. More and more of the teaching is being done by graduate students and adjunct faculty members on contingent contracts. Junior faculty members (and, sure, tenured ones, too) are subject to their own demands. Alumni, from the very wealthy who can underwrite the cost of a building, to the very poor who are buried under loan repayment and possibly unemployed, are called upon to donate, and the students are increasingly exploited for tuition and fees.

Universities employ thousands of people, from educators, to secretaries, to accountants, to janitors, to construction workers. They also require a lot of maintenance and upkeep, pay for a lot of internet, books, and access to journal articles (to name just a few things). This is where a lot of this money goes, but much of it seems to be going to presidents and deans in the universities.

I am sympathetic to the football players and I am a graduate student. The rhetoric that treats these issues as isolated are missing the larger picture. The entire structure of higher education is built on exploitation, with very few people who make exceptional profit off it.

Assorted Links

  1. Jim Delany Wants the Power to Fire Coaches– A story in the Chronicle about how Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big 10 wants the league to give him the power to fire coaches as a fallout from the Penn State debacle. Two comments: 1. There is nothing like a crisis to grant a single executive with undue power; 2. Most likely it is a relatively useless clause since any offense that would warrant Delany firing a coach would result in the university firing the coach (assuming, of course, that the matter became public enough), unless the Commissioner has much more information about the various violations at his universities than is being let on–which would make him somehow culpable in past violations anyway.
  2. Vicar condemns hotel after it replaces Gideon Bible with 50 Shades of Grey-The Damson Dene Hotel in Crosthwaite replaced the Gideon bibles in its rooms with 50 Shades of Grey. The manager of the hotel suggests that “the Bible is also full of references to sex and violence and the best seller is a much easier read.” He also suggests that most people are too ashamed to buy 50 Shades but are curious, and that the Gideon Bible will still be available at the desk. The local Vicar suggested that this is nothing more than a gimmick to cash in on the transient success of 50 Shades of Grey.
  3. Why NHL teams cry poor despite the league’s record growth-An article about the NHL and its current collective bargaining issues. The league is going really well in sum, yet in the current negotiation, the Owners would like to make massive cuts to the percentage of the revenue that the players can bring home. The reason for this discrepancy is that the big revenue teams (Chicago, Detroit, New York, Boston, Toronto, Montreal, etc) are making hand over fist, while the small revenue teams are losing money. This is an attempt by the league to cut money from the players in order to fill the gap and make the low revenue teams profitable because (in this argument) they think it will be easier to take the money from the players than it will be to force the high revenue teams to share more of their money. The real problem here is that there are too many low revenue teams in the NHL and more than any other sport, there is a massive revenue gap between teams in the NHL.
  4. Loch Ness Monster Real in Biology Textbook-this news is a few weeks old, but it is the first I’ve heard of it. Basically, a small christian academy in Louisiana is trying to use vouchers to bring in 135 new students for whom it has no space or resources. In the curriculum at the school is a biology textbook (in use at many christian academies) that teaches that the Loch Ness Monster is a dinosaur, thereby proving evolution false.Despite the peculiarities associated with teaching “Nessie” as a biological fact, the real story here is that a new school voucher system was passed in Louisiana and lawmakers there have determined to oppose any Islamic schools receiving vouchers. One such school that had applied for funding withdrew its request as a result.
  5. How Long Will China Back Assad-A note about why China has vetoed the latest UN resolution about Syria.

As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?