Empty Academics Insult My Intelligence

This week, college football fans were shocked to learn that UNC-Chapel Hill’s football players had access to sham courses so that they could remain academically eligible to  wear tight pants and throw themselves on top of unwilling victims.

Who says that athletes have nothing in common with the pleasant law-abiding citizens of fraternity row?

This was supposed to be the publicly recognized scene of the crime.  (Photo credit: yeungb)

This was supposed to be the publicly recognized scene of the crime. (Photo credit: yeungb)

This was done to help the athletes and not the school, right?  It’s not like alumni donations rise and fall with the football team’s win percentage, right?

I’m looking forward to the players’ lawsuits on this one.  They have no right to complain but I’m sure they will anyway even though they were the prime beneficiary of the university’s generosity.  What might a lawsuit look like?

“Your Honor,

I choosed Chapel Hill because they had done promised me good edjamacation. I trusted them. All they gave me is empty grades. I can’t get my edjamacation time back. I gots to learn to do a job. They stoled that from me because I play football.

Please give me ten million dollars for my brain damage.”

Unfortunately, the concussions and/or lack of education will prevent any UNC football players from trying this gambit. Too bad…

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Talking About Communism Insults My Intelligence

I love politics as much as I love academe and clogged toilets.  It all smells like crap.  Nevertheless, I’ve decided to teach you about some especially stenchful crap today.

Specifically, “communism.”

Ah yes, that oh so loaded word that everyone loves to throw around whenever it suits their purposes.  Depending on who you ask, it’s the scourge of civilization or an ideal to be emulated.

And since I love politics so much, I’m not letting anyone off the hook here.  Readers of all political persuasions (in the U.S.) will be forced to suffer today.  I even brought the necessary torture devices…

This Karl Marx memorial still stands in the former Karl Marx Stadt (now called Chemnitz) in Germany.  (Photo credit: André Karwath)

This Karl Marx memorial still stands in the former Karl Marx Stadt (now called Chemnitz) in Germany. (Photo credit: André Karwath)

 

I’ll start with conservatives, those elephants who never forget the mass murders and gulags, plus the economic destruction Communism wrought in so much of Eastern Europe.  Communism opposed us in the Cold War and, as such, it became an easy and convenient label one could use to destroy any unappealing legislation.  Fairly or not.

For example, enter Obamacare or whatever Orwellian name the current administration has given the law.  I’m no fan of Obamacare and I’ve written a few posts about it (here and here and here) but I’m always taken aback when critics call it “communist.”

Let’s start with a simple definition.  Communism means public ownership of the means of production.  (“Means of production” are factories, mines, restaurants, and anything else that is used to create goods and services.)  In pure Marxist philosophy, “public” does not mean “big government;” instead, the state was supposed to wither away and leave everything behind for the public as a whole.  Big-government communism was a 20th century political invention.

You read that correctly.  Karl Marx belongs in the Tea Party.  Not that they’d take him…

And so Obamacare creates public ownership of what, exactly?  Not the hospitals, not the insurance companies, and not the viruses.

Too bad, though.  I hear viruses are a growth industry…

And then the far Left (often humanities professors) reads and rereads the philosophy and writes theoretical tract after theoretical tract (which gets boring and boring and boring) but this group conveniently forgets that reality exists… and has existed for quite a while now.  Or they just want it to go away.   The gulags can be forgotten because they make communism look bad and academic “research” has to make the politics look good.

Sadly, I’m not joking.  Peruse any literary theory textbook and you’ll find entry after entry that proclaims the importance of putting political aims (always of the Left) ahead of any attempts to perform unbiased scholarship.  Of course, they’ve conveniently declared “unbiased scholarship” impossible.

Remember how Bush and Cheney were accused of “encouraging” intelligence researchers to produce reports that would justify a war in Iraq?  Same thing, different politics.

But back to communism.

With faculty like this, the curriculum ends up as propaganda because you can’t criticize the politics; it’s considered anti-intellectual to do so.  Funny thing is, these professors conveniently don’t remember that the philosophy wasn’t reflected in the overbearing government entities that committed so many atrocities.  Marxism, at its root, was a small-government philosophy like the one the Tea Party supports.  And the far Left can’t allow its opponents to gain an advantage…

And that, my friends, is what you’ll learn if you choose to spend $100,000 to $200,000 of your parents’ money on a college education in the wrong major.  You could learn just as much by attending a Tea Party rally or watching your dog drink from the toilet.

In the meantime, just rest comfortably with the knowledge that the Tea Party is a bunch of communists who want to destroy America.

The University Industry Insults My Intelligence

I was lucky.  One year after I finished my undergraduate degree in Subject With Declining Enrollments, Professor X had his career chopped off.  He didn’t even make it to a tenure review hearing; several years separated his departure and what he hoped might have been.  When I visited campus shortly after his firing, Dr. Y recalled with horror that he hadn’t published a word during his several years at the university.

Fair enough.  If your contract requires you to publish, you need to publish or face the consequences.  Pesky little legal issue, I know…

She also told me that Professor X was “scaring away students.”  Being a naive early-20-something, I couldn’t comprehend what she meant.  Dr. X was the friendliest member of the department, a fact that even Dr. Y recognized.  On the other hand, lots of students considered Dr. Y to be profoundly disturbing to their psychological health.  (I liked Dr. Y, but my regular readers already know how weird I am.)  How was he scaring away students while she wasn’t?

I should note that Dr. X’s job description also contained one unusual detail.  He provided pedagogical training to the new graduate students who staffed the introductory and mid-level courses.  He mentored them, observed their teaching, and designed the curriculum.  The homework load didn’t block my social life while the textbook, though being of a halloweenish orange color, could hardly count as ferocious unless the teacher decided to throw a copy at your head.  Damn hardbacks.

So how could this friendly little fellow scare away students?

I eventually went to graduate school and had the pleasure of partaking in an initial teacher preparation seminar; in that course, I learned that Dr. X’s instructional methods had become outdated.  Big time.  That’s not to say I didn’t learn from them.  I consider myself fortunate to have gone through the undergraduate system while he was in charge, before the department was overhauled to teach Rocksforjocks instead.

I hope this picture of "Rocks for Jocks" won't offend the distinguished geologists among you.  (Photo credit: somewheregladlybeyond at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ecb/136287275/)

I hope this picture of “Rocks for Jocks” won’t offend the distinguished geologists among you. (Photo credit: somewheregladlybeyond at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ecb/136287275/)

Are the new methods worse?  Not necessarily.

However…

Let the words of Dr. Y echo through your head: “He was scaring away the students.”  The new methods entertain the students much more (which, in itself, is not a bad thing) and that encourages students to take more courses in the subject.  That also helps the professors keep their jobs.  Few methods exist for firing a tenured professor, but eliminating a department is one of them.  So of course it didn’t seem to matter so much to Dr. Y that Dr. X’s syllabi didn’t meet departmental or university expectations for maintaining up-to-date instructional practices.  Suffice it to say that his classes probably inspired much gratitude from local espresso merchants but it’s the academic merchants who are trying to sell their wares.

So, out with the old!

The new methods, despite some legitimate educational advantages and antidepressant side effects, have also helped permit the major to become significantly more fluffy.  People graduating with that major today do not possess sufficient skills to tell a prospective employer that they can be of use in the workforce.  However, an easy A will attract students to any course and that’s why families sacrifice so much to pay for college.  That, and beer pong.

And then you’ll discover a few nefarious aspects.  (Yeah… I started with the kid-friendly version.)  In a major publication of the American Association for Rocksforjocks Education, a prominent teaching specialist encouraged college Rocksforjocks faculty to make convenient use of placement exams.  “Convenient” means letting students skip over as many of the boring introductory courses as possible so that they can get to the interesting stuff, making them more likely to select Rocksforjocks as a major which in turn maintains desirable levels of Rocksforjocks funding as well as (once again) the faculty’s jobs.

And make no mistake about it: students don’t complain about this arrangement.  If you inflate their grades in the advanced courses, they’ll never know how unprepared they were.  At least while they’re still at the university plunking down all those tuition dollars…

Similarly, the faculty would judge teaching methods based on students’ enjoyment and appreciation of them, not on whether learning actually transpires.  Some of the new methods created astoundingly positive effects but they were chosen for the wrong reasons.

But let’s fast forward a little, shall we?

Now that I have finished my education and have been unemployed for a while, I can only growl at what education in my former field has become.  Although my skills are up to snuff, employers surely look at my resume and assume the opposite.  The new grads can’t cut it, so why would I be able to?

And then I apply for teaching jobs at the high school level.  I’m competent to teach more than that one subject but I’m constantly asked about the one I majored in.  Even if a school isn’t seeking a teacher for that subject.  Today, a job applicant is believed to only be capable of doing what he majored in… even if the resume indicates otherwise.  But in my old field, applicants are now assumed to be incapable of performing within the major, for obvious reasons.

Needless to say, I am never going back to teaching Rocksforjocks.  Some people get desperate when they’re unemployed and they take any available position.  I’m desperate to not inflict the same fate I’ve experienced on any future students.  A few would surely benefit from the legitimate information that Rocksforjocks provides but it’s not worth the collateral damage.

Let’s leave the jock’s rocks at the docks.  They’re a crock.

I also know from observation that Rocksforjocks teachers in high school and college spend considerable effort recruiting students into their courses.  To anyone preparing for college entrance, I’d suggest never enrolling in a course that the faculty is actively advertising.  Professors have their own agendas and the associated needs do not always coincide with what will benefit you most as a student.  You don’t get to see the behind-the-scenes pressures that school administrations place on your teachers.  You should not assume that they are your benevolent advisers, although you will find some who will behave honestly and honorably towards you.

Just like banks and credit card companies, colleges are businesses and you are their customer.  If they make you feel happy with their product, they have achieved their goal.  Just be sure to maintain that idiotic grin as you’re being ripped off.

Ingratitude Insults My Intelligence

A Thanksgiving survivor

Some turkeys build their own cages. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thanksgiving is here and it’s time to talk about turkeys.  By turkeys, I mean professors.

Before I do, I’d like to share a tale of gratitude.

Once upon a time in a kingdom far far away there lived a person who could be described as me.  However, I had come from the kingdom commonly known as Here.  In the far away kingdom, college students normally went to Home every weekend, which never proved difficult because few attended school too far from Home.   Having remembered all the fun I’d had on weekends away from (lowercase) home at the University of Here, I couldn’t possibly imagine what could be so enjoyable.  At some level, I still can’t, at least for people that age, but I can appreciate what was going on.

And then I went to graduate school and some of my turkeys, er, I mean professors, had been born and raised in the kingdom of Home.  In spite of that, they migrated Here for graduate school and never went back.  I know of one turkey who reportedly yearned to fly the coop and go back Home (though he never did), while another seemed genuinely depressed to have been working obsessively as her parents sickened and passed from life not too far from Here.  A few others had originated from far flung pastures in lands commonly known as Here, although the cultures in their part of “Here” were a lot different.  I suspect that few of those turkeys would have chosen the Graduate University of Here’s location if they’d had any choice.  (Most turkeys, unlike regular people, can expect to remain trapped in their coop until they die.  Spiritual death doesn’t count.)

And these were the fat and happy turkeys, in theory at least.  Many turkeys end up on food stamps even if they manage to gobble up a college teaching position.  (Here’s a second article.)  Whether they’re fat or malnourished, they spend an exorbitant amount of time on their work separated from friends and family.  And then the women, well, many of them can forget about having children if they’re interested in protecting their often precarious professional existence; at schools in rural Here, these are almost the only women who the tom turkeys get to choose from… so it’s a losing situation for everyone who wants kids and it’s especially unfair to the women.

Of course, those are the lucky couples.  If two prospective turkeys are married before applying for jobs, they can expect to spend years apart until they realize that the desired miracle (the ability to live in the same city and have both partners remain in the profession) will not happen.  I’ve also seen divorces filed because the turkey in the relationship was married to the job and not to the non-turkey spouse.  I doubt it’s all too uncommon.

Needless to say, a lot of these turkeys may not be roasting a turkey on Thanksgiving.  While some can’t afford it and others will find the cannibalism too distasteful, many will be working through the holiday.  As usual.  These turkeys work hours a day at home after business hours and don’t stop when vacation comes.  You’re not done working until you’ve finished reading the whole library and publishing your opinions on each shelf and volume and, by the way, you’re on duty 24/7/365.  It’s like being the president but without the fame, chauffeured car, fancy house, power, money, sense of importance, sense of accomplishment, and horny admirers.  Unless you’re working on a cure for cancer or something useful like that…

El Rastro. Flea market. Gijón. Asturias. Spain...

A sad turkey (Photo credit: Tomás Fano)

But then there’s the payoff.  In some fields (like mine), the turkey’s long hours accomplish little more than producing books and articles to be read only by a few specialists and then buried in a tomb, er, I mean library, hopefully to be discovered by a student writing a research paper for class.  The occasional book or article might be taught as a required course reading.  Perhaps.  But then, some researchers are lucky if their publications still resemble their ideas once they’ve passed through their editors.  Conformity is key, which is why so many people want to become turkeys.  If you value maintaining some creative freedom, join the military instead.

I’m not joking.

There’s another thing I almost forgot.  As you can surely imagine, many turkeys would take great joy in spending their entire waking hours with solitary reading and writing.  Unfortunately for them, that’s not how their lives work.  You see, Farmer Bob (the guy in the sky who invented the turkey coops) had a revelation: we’ll take these cloistered souls and put them in charge of teaching the young adults.  Outstanding!  These professionals can stand or sit in front of the classroom or hide in the corner and rubber stamp a pile of educational credentials.  Their teaching performance won’t influence whether they get to keep their jobs in many cases, so it doesn’t matter what kind of people become “educators.”

One day, I’ll write a post explaining why I put “educators” in scare quotes.  I understand that it’s unfair to the turkeys who really teach and who properly train their graduate students to teach.  I was lucky to find myself under the wing of turkeys like that.

These turkeys are our intellectual leaders and they are living their dream, and they remain convinced of that no matter how miserable they become.    As you can probably tell, I didn’t stick around after completing the Ph.D. and, every Thanksgiving since then, I’ve been incredibly thankful for that decision.  The turkeys can’t understand it but then again domesticated turkeys aren’t that bright.

Of course, finding a different job hasn’t worked out yet.  I nevertheless have food, a roof over my head, opportunities to improve my resume, and the chance to avoid Siberia or other impossible living environments.  My writing has improved now that I’m not burdened with bottomless research requirements and my eyes no longer glaze over at the thought of reading for pleasure.  And, perhaps not so surprisingly, unemployment is less stressful than graduate school, which isn’t to say I’m not eager for work or money.  I’m ready to move forward but I can’t complain about where I’m at; there’s hope for the future and that’s already more than what so many turkeys have (even though they have jobs).

And so this Thanksgiving I think of the people I know who are divorcing, or are sick or dying, or are trapped in a Siberian turkey coop, or are unemployed with children to feed, and so on.  My life is comparatively easy and that’s something to be thankful for.

Smoked turkey

It was time to put a fork in it. (Photo credit: J. Yung)

And although Thanksgiving isn’t here yet, I’d like to mention Christmas for a moment; if the malls can get away with it, so can I.  I have two wishes for Christmas that are less realistic than asking Santa for world peace.  First, I wish certain relatives could understand that being a professor is no way to live your life (again, unless you’re working on a cure for cancer or something useful like that) and that, no, I don’t want to reconsider my decision to leave academe in light of being unemployed for so long.  Being a professor isn’t a job; it’s a lifestyle.  Starving to death on the street would be more life-affirming. Besides which, there are ways to contribute to a household besides earning a paycheck.  For starters, ask any stay-at-home parent or caretaker of elderly relatives.  Second, I wish employers understood that refugees from academe had legitimate reasons to leave and that there is no lure of a (ha!) high-paying academic sinecure when we “inevitably” get “bored” with a prospective job.

In closing, I would like to wish my U.S. readers a happy Thanksgiving.  To my non-U.S. readers, I would suggest that turkey is very tasty slathered with gravy and accompanied by a side of pie.  Since this isn’t a porn blog, I mean the birds, not the professors.  Most professors are a little too bitter or stale, at least in my experience.

Self-Proclaimed Intellectuals Insult My Intelligence

I took German in college and one of the first readings in the intermediate course was called “A Table is a Table.”  In the story, an old man becomes bored with his surroundings and renames everything in his house.  Some amount of logic drives this; the names for everything are random conventions and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be called something else.

Deutsch: Rose mit Rauhreif / Eiskristallen

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But this isn’t a story about a rose by any other name.  By the end of the tale, the old man has become unable to communicate with anyone because no one shares his vocabulary.  The title serves as a warning: a table is a table.  Although the name “table” is random, the standardization works best.

I’m not opposing change per se, but I do see this pattern in the academic humanities of the past decade or more.  For instance, an “intellectual” is defined as someone who holds a particular set of political and social beliefs, regardless of whether the methods of acquiring those beliefs would legitimately be described as “intellectual.”  One sees this in politics as well; it’s convenient for some activists to conflate homophobia and religious views on sexuality as a way of winning sympathy.  The activists redefined “identity” as being the person and the sexual behavior, meaning that opposition to the sexual behavior is opposition to a person’s identity.  By that logic, the activist claims that the religious person’s call to “hate the sin but love the sinner” is disingenuous.  This causes conflict where none should exist.  (To be fair, there are quite a few religious folks who forget the love part of that statement.  That must be why Pope Francis’ comments are on the topic were so controversial.)

This points to a greater problem: the larger inability of the two sides to dialogue.  No shared vocabulary means no common ground.

A globe (Globus)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And that brings me to high school English classes in the U.S.  Specifically, world literature classes.  At many schools, “world literature” emphasizes works by Americans and Brits, plus a couple of continental Europeans (usually ancient Greeks) and usually topped off by Chinua Achebe and perhaps Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.

Is part of the world missing here?

Of course it is, unless I add Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.  But then again, Hesse was German/Swiss and only wrote about an Asian topic; that means I can’t count him as the token Asian.

So the world is now defined as white people and people who criticize white people.  (Remember, Hispanics are technically Caucasian.)   Does anyone else see a problem here?

The people who recognize the problem often prescribe a curriculum that replicates their opposition’s shortcomings.  The newly added texts add to the criticism of white people by others while eliminating “dead white males.”  If a text doesn’t follow the political ideals behind this curriculum, it is unacceptable because it reinforces current power structures.  Or something like that.

In the end, both sides have redefined “world” and have no common ground.  Unfortunately, they also can’t talk with the rest of the world  because no one seems to want to teach authentic foreign cultural traditions.  That’s too “subversive” for both sides.

To my non-U.S. readers: If you want to know why so few native-born Americans know anything about you, it’s because 49% define “world” as “Western world” while another 49% only define you as intellectual when you’re criticizing the Western world.  You are no longer a table.

This was my two percent’s worth.