College and Industry

LMS tech support, freelance construction contractor, camp counselor, grocery store cashier/stocker, quick service restaurant manager, QSR assistant manager, history/classics/political science tutor, adjunct instructor, teaching assistant, research assistant/editorial work, furniture mover, visiting assistant professor.

I think that is every job I’ve held since I was 18. Going back further, I could add data entry, housekeeping at a resort, and some other odds and ends. This is something that some people on academic Twitter have been posting in response to this Times Higher Education opinion piece. In short, the author declares that “Too many academics have spent most, if not all, their professional lives within universities,” and therefore:

  1. all potential professors should be required to undergo a year-long internship before they begin teaching.
  2. And all academics should be required to return to work in industry every three to five years as part of their professional development and career advancement.

My Twitter feed was abuzz with outrage at this article, I think for good reason. Scholars in the humanities reacted to the article online responded by pointing to their work experience and then, in so many words, asking what industry the author propose they take their rotations in. That said, I wanted to unpack some assumptions about higher education, because I also don’t disagree with the top level idea: that it is necessary to find ways to support and improve college education.

First, there are a set of assumptions in contemporary discourse about college, if not the article explicitly, about how being a professor is not “real work,” which encompasses several broad categories that all come back to the cult of amateurism surrounding college. I am obviously poaching my core idea here from the issue of whether college athletes ought to receive greater compensation for their labor, but this cult extends beyond NCAA rules about amateurism. There is a perpetual cycle of hand-wringing about how college students are spoiled and insulated from the “real world” that they will face after graduation, whether in the service of lamenting “kids these days” or the failures of higher education. And if college is not the “real world” for students who are set adrift in their “Odyssey Years” (as David Brooks called it in 2007), then it cannot be the “real world” for their professors, either.

About those professors. There is a persistent myth of overpaid and unfireable professors who are detached from the goings on of that mythical real world. Compounding this problem is that many, if not most, people with advanced degrees have made sacrifices for their field by spending years on meager stipends in graduate school. A common explanation for this is that their research amounts to a passion project. Even glossing over the fact that most professors, myself included, are contingent employees with limited benefits, most tenured professors are not overpaid, either for their level of education or their time. Professors are expected to be experts in their field, prepare, teach, and grade for classes, mentor students, perform world-class research in their field, develop outreach programs, and serve on institutional and professional committees, just as a baseline.

And yet there is also a bias that underlies this op-ed, namely that there is a distinction between “doers” and “teachers.” In the 2000 film “Finding Forrester” featuring Busta Rhymes, a gifted young writer (Rob Brown) is persecuted by his teacher (F. Murray Abraham) and is accused a plagiarizing the work of William Forrester (Sean Connery) until it is revealed that the teacher is a bigger failure as a writer. The argument, then, is that teachers are people who couldn’t hack it in their particular field. (The film makes no concession to the fact that most authors have a day job that may or may not involve writing.)

The author doesn’t go so far as to call professors failures, but she strongly suggests that there there is industry on the one hand and higher education on the other. “Professor” should not be a career, but a position that needs to be cycled through because it results in the professors being out of the loop. This model might be viable for some positions in some fields that rely on industry connections, but, at the same time, universities and colleges often work in tandem with industry in those fields already, with the schools providing cheap labor and resources. Where the model doesn’t work at all is in the humanities, where so much of the research is performed by scholars in higher education. In these cases, mandatory years off not only don’t improve the student education, but actively hurt it.

Higher education is an industry. It employs all sorts of people from maintenance staff to food service professionals to fundraisers and secretaries, but there are two groups without which it cannot exist: students and professors. Work as a professor is not manual labor and has its own schedule, but it is a form of modern white-collar employment.

Of course, the valorization of “real work” cuts both ways. There are plenty of examples of academics who simultaneously look down upon and feel nostalgia for labor that they would never do.

While we’re here, many students are employed, either by the university in the vicinity, and juggle those responsibilities alongside their coursework and professional development opportunities. College has its own set of rules and expectations, but thinking about it as something other than “the real world” is a lazy trope long past its expiration date.

Finally, a word about the point of education. The author concedes that “higher education is not all about career advancement,” but her basic thrust is nevertheless that disrupting the status quo for professors is the only way to ensure students “find their professional niche, alongside the robots.” Humanities and a liberal arts education that teach citizenship are given barely a sentence in the conclusion, without any recognition that these are disciplines that teach the sorts of analytical thinking and communication skills that perhaps most correlate to coexistence with an increasingly automated economy.

By all means, increase resources and opportunities for pedagogical training alongside research support, and find ways to ensure professors stay abreast of the latest developments in their field. As for the internship, there are already years of graduate school, so finding a way to work more pedagogical training into the curriculum ought to be doable. We should not excuse those professors who are oblivious to the difficulties facing students, but the rest of this proposal is a one-size-fits-all solution that frames the virtues of the liberal arts as incidental and therein lies the bigger problem.

Assorted Links

  1. Why the GOP Should Fear a Romney Presidency– A story on the Atlantic that speculates about the next four years should Romney win. The argument is based on the work of Stephen Skowronek, particularly in regard to political legitimacy and cycles in presidential legitimacy. The author speculates that should Romney be elected, he would, through no fault of his own, be the next Jimmy Carter by causing the dissolution of the Reagan coalition. By and large, I agree with his argument, though he does not really speculate on the deep partisan divides between Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps it is time for a third party.
  2. The Liberal Arts, Economic Value, and Leisure: Don’t make an economic case for liberal arts– An article on Inside Higher Ed that tries to make a case that the value of liberal arts is to produce good citizens and tries to refute the notion that the liberal arts should, or could, be designed to create entrepreneurs. He notes “if our only god is money, we live in a sad society,” and tries to prove that a narrow focus on marginal economic products is not the purpose of a collegiate education. While I agree with the sentiment presented, Timothy Burke does is also quite right that the article is self serving and, in the current economic climate comits”rhetorical self-immolation.” I think the arts are important and cannot be done away with, but in large part because I question the value of skill specific education for the current workforce. It is better to learn transferable skills–critical thinking, writing, argumentation, etc. There is also a misnomer here that somehow the liberal arts is something that exists in college, rather than something that college can encourage, but that really exists in wider society.
  3. -Mali: no rhythm or reason as militants declare war on music– In Mali there is a crackdown on traditional tribal music by the Islamic militants there.
  4. New York strip club loses bid to have lap dances legally defined as art– The New York court of appeals decided a case over back taxes owed by a strip club in Albany. The club tried to claim tax exemption based on the dances being art. The court disagreed, saying that not everything that could be called as a dance should be defined as art.
  5. The Narrowing of the American Mind– An article on the Chronicle that suggests that job preparation programs are inherently limiting, since the job candidates claim to make all decisions based on money and serve as well-trained parrots, rather than rounded and adaptable thinkers. This is a somewhat better reason to make it possible for students to study things that interest them–and preferably study as widely as possible–while in college than the defense of liberal arts given in Inside Higher Ed above.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Romney’s America Doesn’t Need Public Colleges– A discussion in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the place of colleges in the Romney economic model, which encourages elite, privately funded universities and the import of other highly educated people such that other countries pay for the education, while Americans fall further and further behind. The essayist seems to take an extreme stance on this, but the point is not without merit.
  2. Pop Culture Has Turned Against the Liberal Arts – An article in the Atlantic about the fact that thirty years ago an archeology professor was an action hero. It focuses on the new Josh Radnor tv show Liberal Arts, which it suggests that it denigrates people who go in to the Liberal Arts and instead focuses on all the stereotypes. At the same time it was suggested to me that perhaps it is the talking heads that play down the Liberal Arts.
  3. Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama– An essay in the Atlantic about not voting for Obama because he has crossed several lines and the author cannot morally justify continuing his support, even if he likes Obama better than he likes Romney. I am very sympathetic to this argument and have thought much the same way recently, though I am worried enough about the alternative that I might vote for Obama anyway.
  4. Great Writing Comes out of Great Ideas– An article in the Atlantic about the pedagogical debate surrounding how to teach writing. The author suggests (rightly, I think) that in addition to teaching the basics and fundamentals of writing, educators need to allow students freedom to pursue novel projects, think for themselves, and use (and develop) their own voice. Nonetheless, writing needs to be approached from a much younger age, but once–and in tandem with–learning the fundamentals, they need to be able to make their own way. Regimented writing assignments just teach regimented prose.
  5. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism-A piece run in the Guardian about how food and water shortages as the human population grows and environment becomes more volatile, people will have to drastically reduce the amount of animal products they consume (20% down to 5%, according the article).
  2. “We’re Not Going to Let Our Campaign Be Dictated by Fact-Checkers”-A story in the Atlantic that builds on a quote given by one of Romney’s political aids about facts, the media and politics. The articles concludes that the press (who he seems to think should be able “to stand above the fray”) is becoming bogged down in politics and the truth is reduced to something debatable. The gist of the argument I agree with, but the particulars I do not. Sometimes the truth is based on our own point of view, and the press is not a neutral arbiter.
  3. Bomb from World War II Detonated in MunichFrom Spiegel, a bomb from World War Two that authorities were unable to disarm was detonated in Munich.
  4. Self-published authors react with anger to ‘laziness’ charge-Sue Grafton described self-published authors as “too lazy to do the hard work” in an interview with her local newspaper. Independent publishers are less than pleased, and have responded to her charges that most of their work is amateurish.
  5. How Fighting Fantasy beat traditional games-A story in the Guardian that talks about Fighting Fantasy, role-playing games, and how the book market is increasingly responding to a cultural desire for competition and games.
  6. Mitt Romney, Business Thinking, and the Failure of Civilization– An excellent blog post about humanities and business, and why the liberal arts matter for a civilization. Hint: the author claims that it is because civilization can’t exist without the liberal arts, which constitute the defining elements of the culture and how it perceives itself.
  7. The Destruction of Krak des Chevaliers-Some embedded videos of the damage to Krak des Chevaliers, the crusader fortress in Syria. The fortress has been damaged in the fighting. For what it is worth, the blurb for the Wikipedia page calls it “one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world.”
  8. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Some thoughts on Liberal Arts

If I were to pick my greatest strength and greatest weakness as a student and an academic, they would be the same: I am utterly self-indulgent when it comes to researching things that interest me and sharing that research with others. This character trait is a strength in that I have diverse interests that only continue to become more diverse as I chase initial questions down rabbit-holes. Sometime during my junior year of undergraduate work, I idly jotted down: “I have more questions now than when I started.” I am curious, so this basic realization is what makes academia fun for me and should serve me well in the long run (I have a notebook that is filling up with ideas for research projects at some point). Unfortunately, I am indulgent enough that when I end up in a class that I do not care about, I have a hard time performing well. I do the work, of course, but the execution and diligence on the papers and the retention of information is something I struggle with.

This confession may be a faux pas, but it is true. I also believe that there is only marginal inherent benefit to the study of history. The main repetition of history is due to human nature, so you will not solve the future by studying the past.1 Frankly, history falls into the same category as literature, art, and most scientific studies that exist to indulge curiosity and make people more well rounded. Sure, people might be better prepared for the workplace if we only taught essential skills,2 but they would also be mindless automatons. How boring would that be?

For those people who require the skills based learning to justify the existence of a field, the liberal arts do teach research, critical thinking, argumentation, and writing. These are widely applicable skills and, frankly, ought to be further emphasized (particularly in large lecture classes there is more emphasis on dumping information on the students and expecting them to regurgitate it rather than any sort of educational process).

Yesterday, I listened to some authors answer questions about how to write interesting characters. One of the main tips they offered was to give the characters interests and hobbies. The same is true for people, I think. The liberal arts ought to help foster interests and curiosities. Most people will not pursue a career in those interests (though perhaps a related field), but the interests and activities will stay with them, resulting in a population that is better informed and more well rounded. Armed with basic skills and rounded interests, discipline specific skills can be learned on the job where the employers will have a chance to fashion the type of worker they need. Unfortunately there has been more of an onus on colleges to teach job skills recently, which I think does a disservice to both colleges and the employers who are going to get a lemming cut from a mold rather than a person they can turn into their own worker.

I believe that being able to hold a conversation and talk about a wide variety of conversations transcends the category of job skills and into the category of life skills. This is the great benefit of the liberal arts, particularly in that it encourages people to research, write, and produce “culture.” Most people won’t have time to write history, but they may well have that interest and want to read about it. These skills and ambitions should be encouraged.

I leave you with three quotes attributed to Mark Twain on the topic:

“The man who does not read books has no advantage over the man that can not read them.”

“We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that a savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.”

“I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

1 I like Orwell’s formulation about history in 1984, but he spoke about control of the past, particularly in the use and abuse of history to make a point (something that I often see in political debates), not the study of it per se. You could make the case that the study of it will prevent this abuse, however.
2 On this point, what are the essential skills they would learn? How quickly are those essential skills changing? I am highly skeptical of the belief that schooling should teach job skills that are going to be highly diverse and changing based on the industry. Moreover, this educational model is highly reactionary.

Great man or Individualistic History

“Let him who cuts individuals out of history but pay close attention and he will perceive that either he has not cut them out at all, as he imagined, or he has cut out with them history itself.” ~Bernadetto Croce (On History 107)

One of the problems with history is that it is fundamentally a study of people, yet historians often try to extricate persons from history. “People”, that amorphous concept which encompasses us all and strata (classes) of society are acceptable, but the person is not. Gone are the days where the history of the world could be defined as the lives of all the great men. No, for it to be politically correct a history of the world needs to be a history of every single person ever to live upon it, and since that is far too impractical we will speak in term of “peoples” and “strata.”

Sterilized history is the result. Sure, the details can get nitty and gritty, especially when examples are made, but to just speak in these terms is sterilized, a-historical history. Instead of an art and an exercise in thought, it is an attempt to make history a science, justifiable in its own right and explanatory. And I find it much duller. Sure, this sterilization can provide trends, themes, explanations and valuable insights into what is going on, but even when this is done, it is through human examples and specific instances that demonstrate the scientific analyses.

What is my point? I am not sure I have one. Just that if the individual examples are going to be used anyway and at a fundamental level history is about humans, why is there a need to invalidate histories of the individual? If well done, the history of the individual will need to account for these other schools too.

History should not have to be valuable in its own right. For as long as there is a government there will be at least some impetus for history, no matter how biased. If that is not a good enough reason, the past has value and the academic historian needs to teach forthcoming generations to think, to write and to have open debate. Despite movements to the contrary,the world still needs the liberal arts; science alone is insufficient.