Category Archives: Commentary

“Jack-o’-lanterns, revolutionaries, restless chaps, or clever, unscrupulous fellows”

File under “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.” From Galsworthy’s The White Monkey (1924).

It was all of a piece with the modern state of things. Hand to mouth, and the steady men pushed to the wall. The men to whom a pound was a pound, and not a mess of chance and paper. The men who knew that the good of the country was the strict, straight conduct of their own affairs. They were not wanted. One by one, they would get the go-by–as he had got it–in favour of Jack-o’-lanterns, revolutionaries, restless chaps, or clever, unscrupulous fellows…. It was in the air. No amount of eating your cake and wanting to have it could take the place of common honesty.

I have preserved gender anachronisms and maintained British spelling in the interest of faithfulness to the text, though it’s pretty clear that it generalizes, except that women probably don’t even “get the go-by”–since they haven’t had enough opportunities for leadership in government and finance to think of them in terms of a golden age, in which they were trusted and valued, now over.

College without pedagogy

I once worried about the importance of student evaluations of my teaching for my job prospects in academia. How could students evaluate the effectivness of their instructors? Isn’t it the instructor who evaluates the effectiveness of his or her teaching, at least in part, by the performance of students on graded work? At present, everyone takes a nuanced view. The evaluations are at best a measure of a student’s satisfaction with the course, which is distinguished from teaching effectiveness. Unfortunately, we have escaped the frying pan only to land in the fire. The student evaluations by themselves no longer pose a direct threat to the integrity of college pedagogy—but the institution as a whole appears to be trading its integrity away by adopting the student evaluation as a model for describing success. Towards understanding the state of the institution of college at present, I share a few observations from personal experience.

  1. Colleges are under threat in several quarters. The already absurd cost of college is increasing. Students and their parents view college as probably necessary for securing a white-collar job, but would gladly avoid it altogether if there were an alternative that offered better dollar return on investment.
  2. There is a specter haunting higher education—the specter of the Internet. No one can quite see how it will happen, but everyone feels anxiety and excitement about the prospect of free online courses that can be substituted for college credit, or, what is worse from the college’s point of view, certification obviating college courses altogether. That these concerns are so strong reflects essential aspects of the environment. College is understood primarily as a means to economic security and advancement.
  3. “Online course” has slipped into our vocabulary, although there are few courses online. Mostly, there are materials for courses, such as lecture notes, taped presentations by an instructor, problem sets, essay questions, and course texts. A college course, unless “course” is simply to be redefined, requires a group of students who interact, whether in person or online, and an instructor, who is a leader and facilitator. The success of a course depends on more than acquisition of information or skills. A class is a social entity. Success requires direct engagement with others taking the class at the same time. The “content” for these “courses” is in general created by college faculty, although college faculty are not needed to “teach” them.
  4. Because there are so many colleges, and because so many of them can barely be distinguished from any of the others, colleges compete intensely for the limited pool of students. Tuition funds the college. There is no way of demonstrating that a college provides better pedagogy than others, so this has largely ceased to figure into relative assessment of one college over another. Faculty are encouraged to attend conferences about pedagogy and publish articles in journals about teaching in their discipline as a way of creating evidence that teaching is valued at the college.
  5. As a result of the intense competition, colleges have invested in the students’ quality of life and experience. This does not include pedagogy. Improvements such as new dorms, athletic facilities, better cafeteria food, and new technology are more easily recognized by potential students and their parents. Successful athletic teams, and their mascots, also differentiate colleges from one another.
  6. There is significant investment in advertising (“branding”) and Internet presence. Slogans, mottoes, and the college’s emblem are refined and widely distributed. The college’s image is the subject of retreats, town hall meetings, and committees, guided by a professional public relations firm. The college’s image need not be tied to its history or previous mission; indeed, any such connections are a part of the college’s image itself. If it is not seen as essential to the attracting students, a college will not promote its culture of teaching and faculty-student relationships.
  7. Student success is measured in part by how many of its students win academic awards or publish and present research or creative works. The success of faculty is judged by how many of their students succeed by these measures. Events such as an undergraduate research day are created so that students are guaranteed a venue for presenting their work.
  8. Much like in primary and secondary schools, new regimes of quantitative assessment are being put in place. “Learning goals” are articulated, and students are rated by how well they have met the standards. This is so that academic departments and deans can claim that the students are being taught effectively. Courses are designed for the purpose of satisfying the learning goals and meeting the standards for success. The goals and standards are created internally and are not subject to external review. None of the measures are validated as legitimate measures of student abilities; data are not audited for quality; and data sets are not evaluated by statistical measures of robustness, significance, or reliability.
  9. Because pedagogy is effectively invisible, there is no incentive to invest in pedagogically useful resources for faculty and students. Class sizes are as large as possible so that enrollment can be maximized. There is no reason to promote faculty members’ careers as teachers or scholars. Adjuncts teach courses when the number of course sections is too large to be covered by full-time faculty. Teaching loads are heavy.

Scholarly independence?

I am no longer on the faculty of the college at which I taught for almost a decade, or on any college or university faculty, which makes me an “independent scholar.” Well, I’m not independent, in the sense of unaffiliated, because I have several affiliations that have always been far more important, and longer-lasting, than my association with my former place of employment. I am still just as much a part of a broad set of research communities: historian-philosophers of science and the burgeoning digital HPS community; librarians; philosophers of science; scientists at AMNH and elsewhere; the cadre of professional philosophers taken as a whole. Free Open Source Software developers. The diversity of these affiliations reflects the state of the art in the humanities and sciences: hybrid vigor.

For many people, as it was for me, teaching at the college level is a form of intellectual enslavement. The 4-4 load is the most persistent and debilitating shackle. The provost grants especially well-liked junior faculty a one-course reduction, for one semester, once only. Maybe the deans owe the department chair a favor. Asking for more than this is a form of insubordination. Lack of office space and money for research multiply the detrimental effects of the 4-4 load. Senior faculty positions are sinecures. Most senior faculty settled into their jobs years before I went to graduate school, and books like The Structure of Scientific Revolutions or Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language are known by myth or rumor. These same faculty are leaders of tenure and promotion committees. No one should be surprised to learn that despite a deep field of candidates across all the areas of specialization, new hires are mediocre. The deans and provosts are drawn more and more from a class of career administrators, having less and less experience teaching and little or no commitment to the values informed by the liberal arts. The Athletic Department is pleased to receive special treatment. When an athlete on a team especially important to the school cheats or plagiarizes, the coaches step in, and the dean suggests a “compromise.” It’s agreed that the student did something wrong; some mitigating circumstance is invented. For instance, it’s found that there is some ambiguity about whether the student’s activities fall far enough outside the norms of academic integrity to constitute much more than a misunderstanding on the student’s part, or there is some vagueness in the assignment’s instructions, and it is deemed that the student might have reasonably believed him- or herself permitted to cut and paste a Wikipedia article into his or her essay. The paper or exam is to be “re-graded,” the ill-gotten portions understood as integral to the student’s work. Indeed, this special treatment can be extended to any student who complains loudly enough. Stating such facts as those I have reviewed in this paragraph is usually attributed to sour grapes. No one wants to hear someone complain, and no one likes a sore loser. Notwithstanding being a sore loser or motivated by sour grapes, all I have done is state facts that apply generally, and they seem to me to be relevant. I take this as a corollary to “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

Apparently there is the need to have little boxes for one another: adjunct, full-time faculty, associate professor, “independent scholar.” When I register with the APA, or subscribe to a journal, there is a box for “institutional affiliation.” David Chalmers sent a letter to everyone on the PhilPapers mailing list suggesting that each of us urge our institutions to pay the subscription fee. Apparently studying philosophy is only done in colleges and universities. I have the impression that the institution one is associated with, if there is one at all, is used to assess the quality and relevance of a person’s work. That’s the worst kind of ad hominem assessment. I was sometimes asked, while I was finishing my PhD, what I was up to, besides writing; if I responded with “teaching,” the response to this was often something like, “but not full-time, right?” or “it’s an adjunct position, right?” as if a course taught by an adjunct is less worthwhile than the same course taught by an assistant professor, or as a way of condescending to me—surely I cannot have found a tenure-track position! The narrative takes the shape of a Thomas Hardy novel. The fellowship graduate student from a well-known institution who ends up driving a taxi. He had so much promise! What happened? The landed gentry have tenure-track jobs at Ivy League schools, Big 10 schools, or other prestigious institutions; faculty in the rest of academia are serfs. People qualified enough for a faculty position, but who end up in administration, directing an honors program or advising undergraduates, are negligible. Serfs need servants too. They are certainly not faculty, as genuine faculty and PhD students will readily acknowledge, and I can’t see how such positions advance anyone’s interests in scholarship. Do they come with the library privileges granted to faculty? Access to the same computing resources? Is research taken into account in re-hiring or advancement decisions? Teaching is sometimes included in the job, but this is never a central purpose. The view that a librarian is a “failed academic” is frequently voiced by faculty members, most never having thought of systems for organizing information as anything more than what results when people who don’t understand alphabetical order are given the job.

Even so, these positions are generally viewed favorably relative to jobs outside of the college and university, the domain of the independent scholar, a classless individual, pitiable, fortunate enough to be granted admission to conferences or have their work published. These people have failed. I have absorbed the values at large in academia, and it’s hard for me not see it that way. Even at unremarkable colleges at which excellence is not valued, tenured and tenure-track faculty strut around as though they deserve recognition of a special distinction, just for having a faculty position. After all, academia is of special importance, because a college degree still carries social prestige, and is still viewed as a ticket to the white-collar work force; and academia is the sector of society responsible for generating knowledge and protecting the knowledge we have from bias and perversion. The latter opinion is probably a creation of the faculty themselves. Even though it’s not so unreasonable, if a little narrow, faculty people are generally more motivated to believe it by an independent sense of their own importance than by a genuine understanding of how or why they serve this purpose. This explains why so many faculty people insist on talking about politics as though from a position of objectivity, as opposed to talking about the subject in which they were trained, and which, presumably, they really can speak about with authority. Part-time faculty and full-time faculty not on the tenure track provide a service to the college, teaching, but that is all. It is a mercenary service. It’s uncomfortable to be around them because, not having been admitted to the Ivory Tower, but not having disassociated themselves from it, one senses desperation. The pay is so low, it’s for dilettantes who don’t require an income, such as women who don’t need to work because their husbands make enough money for the family, or else adjuncts who won’t give up on finding a tenure track job, and who make ends meet by living with their parents, building up credit card debt, or maintaining a standard of living they would have laughed at as college students. Some of them remain, holding out for a full-time position in the department. Department chairs are happy to allow adjuncts to persist in the belief that a position will open up, and that the department would want him or her for the job. Like all other non-tenure track faculty, as do those denied tenure, they eventually leave. Fortunately, there is no need to worry about them once they’re gone. “Oh, you say he took up investment banking or went to law school? Probably a better choice for him anyhow.” Feigning knowledge of these worldly professions is evidence to a professor of his or her own sense that he or she is not cut off from the life of those “outside the academy,” while at the same time retrenching the secure privilege believed to be accorded only to those inside it. The ethos is precisely contrary to what is expressed by soldiers by “leave no one behind.”

Almost everyone I know who has left academia, whether as a graduate student or faculty member, tenure-track or not—tenured or not—is happier, indeed, genuinely happy. This should not come as a surprise, given even the weakest views about rationality and a person’s capacity for action. If staying in academia would have made them happy, they would have stayed; and in many cases, those who stay do so because it makes them happier. It’s an obvious consequence of a policy of maximizing one’s marginal utility. I find the utility function for people who stay in academia eminently curious. There are so many drawbacks to the job that I can’t help but think that it’s the special feeling of distinction they prize the most. I wonder if my problem is that I was not motivated strongly enough by a prior sense of entitlement and distinction that, on finding out that this is the central payoff of the job, it ceased to appeal to me. I learned the hard way what is more important to me: independence.