Monthly Archives: June 2012

rector dragas consults with her pr firm about the future of higher education . . . .

You know, she has a surprisingly deep voice in this video.



introduction to doctoral studies bleg?

BLEG: (Internet slang) To create an entry in a blog requesting information or contributions.

I’m hoping to get some guidance from the readers of this blog.

I’ve just learned that I’ll be teaching our department’s Introduction to Doctoral Studies class for newly admitted PhDs in the Fall. This is a course in which the overall set of topics is established by an Instructor/Facilitator, so that other faculty can come in to discuss their particular research specialties with the students. This kind of class seems to be fairly standard, at least among American PhD programs, for the first-year of graduate school.

In our department, one of the biggest challenges will be that literary scholars, creative writers, rhet/comp scholars, and possibly even linguists will be represented, both in terms of the students and the specialties.

So here’s my question:

If you’ve taken or taught such a course, would you be willing to share what you liked, disliked, or would have changed in your course? Any and all suggestions for readings would be appreciated.

And if you’ve taken such a course, I’m particularly interested in hearing about the specific readings or topics that you found useful for your long-term development as a professional scholar and teacher, for whatever reason.

Many thanks in advance,


asecs 2013 cfp: religious toleration

After the exchanges we had last spring about alternative formats for ASECS presentations, I was pleased to see this CFP by Laura Stevens and Patrick Mello for their proposed Religious Toleration panel at ASECS 2013:

The panel topic is “Religious Toleration,” (#216 on the CFP) and we are structuring it as a “closed colloquium.” Basically, instead of having a few scholars present their work to an audience, we want to gather a group of 10-12 scholars working on this topic to have a highly focused conversation, perhaps leading to collaborative projects and ongoing dialogue. Participants will submit short position papers about three weeks before the conference and arrive having read each other’s papers. There probably will also be some preliminary communications over email before the conference.

This is a format that other academic societies such as the Modernist Studies Association have been using for a while, and we thought we would try it out for ASECS. If it worked well for ASECS, our hope was that other members might propose occasional colloquia on other topics in future years. The consensus in these other organizations seems to be that the conversational dynamic of these sessions becomes disrupted when there are more than a very few non-participant observers. We therefore are closing this session to those who are not participating in it and have not done all the reading beforehand. We can include up to two observers (if, for example, there are ASECS members who would like to see how the format works), but we ask that you contact us about this before the conference. Observers also are required to stay for the entire session, so that their arrival and departure don’t disrupt the discussion.

I’m interested to see how this works, because I’ve seen more and more workshop-style formats at other conferences, and I think this could be hugely beneficial for those doing research in this area.  It could become a kind of conference-within-a-conference, or what in pedagogy we call a “fishbowl.”  This has the potential to open up new and unaccustomed forms of dialogue and collaboration in a conference setting.  I certainly hope that Stevens and Mello will find others intrigued by this possibility.

And now, here’s the CFP itself:

216. ―Religious Toleration Colloquium (Closed Colloquium) Patrick Mello AND Laura Stevens, English Dept., U. of Tulsa, 800 S. Tucker Dr. Tulsa, OK 74104; Tel: (918) 631-2859; Fax: (918) 631-3033; E-mail: and

The inscription of toleration into English law in 1689 has long been hailed by scholars of eighteenth-century history, politics, and culture as fundamental to the rise of mercantilism, the development of Enlightenment thought, the formation of the United Kingdom, and the foundation of the United States. In recent years, however, the inadequacy of such a Whig narrative has become increasingly apparent for the study of toleration within Britain. Moreover, work on this topic has been flourishing in several disciplines and areas both outside and across the Anglophone world.

This colloquium is intended to foster a rigorous and long-lasting critical dialogue among scholars interested in reexamining the significance of toleration and religious difference in the eighteenth century from a variety of perspectives. Rather than featuring the results of individual research, this format will encourage scholars already working in this area to

undertake a collective assessment of the state of the field. Our central goal is to map religious toleration as a concept and as a category of analysis in the eighteenth century as well as in contemporary scholarship. Key questions to be addressed will include the following:

What counted as religious toleration in the eighteenth century? How did this term alter with its deployment across context and region, and with its attachment to different religious groups? How did debates over toleration inflect or intensify discussions of topics such as statecraft, class, colonialism, economy, gender and war?

When and how did cultural climates and individual attitudes of toleration exceed or fall short of codified forms of protection for religious freedom and diversity?

How has the study of religious toleration moved forward in various disciplines and in different geographical arenas of study? Where and how are we hindered or helped by interdisciplinary, transnational, or comparative approaches to this topic? What are the most important, fruitful, and challenging areas for future study?

Prospective participants are invited to submit 100-200 word statements describing their past or current work on this topic and outlining the central questions, issues, or concerns they wish to address in the colloquium.

Any other ASECS CFPs catching your eye?


extraction economy

[aerial image of wastes from Moncks, S.C. coal power plant, 2009, from J. Henry Fair, Industrial Scars; for more info, visit]

As I was reading about the UVA debacle over President Teresa Sullivan’s firing, which apparently involved a “hostile takeover” of the university by its business school, its Board, and Goldman Sachs, I kept thinking that we are reaching (have reached?) the limits of the one-time alliance between financial elites and public universities.

Once upon a time, universities could view (or depict) these relationships as at least an exchange in which the legitimacy of cultural capital was bestowed upon donors for their philanthropic, disinterested, financial support.  And to the extent that boards and their members allowed universities, their administrations and faculty, the independence to pursue their mission, this arrangement could work, in many institutions (including my own).

In the wake of continued state and federal disinvestment in public higher ed, however, the smiles and handshakes have faded away at certain schools, and it now seems that at least some of these boards, and some portion of the bankers and businessmen and -women who populate them– consider our public universities their property, or better yet, another group of businesses for them to take over, extract the value, and discard. (And we should not neglect the role of state governors in promoting this kind of cronyism between university boards and the corporate community)

An exasperated UVA professor attempts to spell out the consequences of this university-as-business metaphor:

The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.

One of the details that has slipped out from the post-mortems for Sullivan was that she was unwilling to make certain changes related to online education.  My suspicion, which is echoed by a historian and alumna who has done her own investigations, is that the distance ed issue is not just about eliminating tenure and the normative classroom-based, face to face model for instruction, though those clearly align nicely with other right-wing prescriptions for higher ed.

No, the management jargon of “strategic dynamism” may very well simply describe how private companies (perhaps even Goldman Sachs’ own Education Management Corporation) plan to capture public instructional funds that otherwise would have gone to teachers and students and face to face instruction.  It is just another form of asset-stripping.  This is the beauty of the instructional outsourcing model that many lower-tier schools have already adopted, and which flagship schools like UVA, Berkeley are now getting pressured to adopt.  And this is the Extraction Economy as it works in the field of public higher education.

I’ll leave the final word to blogger Atrios, who introduced me (far too late, I admit) to the very useful concept of the extraction economy a few months ago:

We’re basically in an extraction economy right now, where the real money is in finding points to siphon off all of the income that people generate. Unregulated utility monopolies, rapacious health insurance companies and the medical industry generally, and of course Big Finance, are all devoted to increasing the slice of your life that they can steal from you, fair and square.

So here we are.  What shall we do about it?


[thanks to RS for the links]

UPDATE: The WaPo has published an anonymously sourced piece that explains the rationale used by Rector Dragas to fire Sullivan, which focuses solely on Sullivan’s refusal to eliminate departments like German and the Classics.  This seems farfetched to me, but no matter.  No one who thought this might be a bad idea, or a violation of existing governance or state law, was quoted.

fighting the last war: UPDATED

[image from

The new AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom came out this week, and I was happy to see that David Porter, a Psych professor and former administrator, had responded to the journal’s earlier essays by Powell and Champagne about assessment.

Porter does a pretty good job of countering the caricatured version of assessment found in Powell and Champagne, when he uses his own experience as a faculty member, administrator, and accreditation liaison to argue that

1) assessment is an integral part of learning (and hence education), 2) assessment is a necessary function of effective and adaptive organizations, and 3) involvement in assessment activities is particularly important for the AAUP and its members. Assessment is about creating a culture of evidence that is much more than merely collecting piles of data and accumulating a multitude of meaningless measures . . . (3) [my emphasis]

Porter moves the discussion from Powell and Champagne’s “culture wars,” where the humanities are always besieged, to a “culture of evidence,” in which social scientists bravely, carefully, patiently do battle with a dominant culture’s myopia to correct educational institutions.  This is a smart rhetorical move, since it raises the question of who is truly the insider and who the outsider here, and who is really representing the interests of Truth in these debates.  But is this really a debate worth having?

In some sense, we haven’t really gotten past the problem of mutual disciplinary caricatures and endless reaffirmation of tribal identities, when what we really want to know is why assessment so often fails to attain its stated institutional and educational goals.  Powell and Champagne ignore assessment as it is professionally practiced, in order to affirm the superiority of the humanities over the social sciences (e.g., Powell 12; Champagne 15). Porter, perhaps encouraged by his interlocutors’ crude self-descriptions, does some fingerpainting to dismiss Freud and Marx and their followers as insufficiently “scientific” (where’s the falsifiability?) (or, more tellingly, excessively interested in “conflict”) (18-19).

In neither Porter’s nor the Powell/Champagne approach do I find an acknowledgement that the market forces overtaking the contemporary university are affecting all its component disciplines, or that the reflection, and action consequent on reflection, necessary to contest this problem will probably need to be similarly comprehensive. Why would anyone concerned about a problem of this scale rule out of court potential allies and the kinds of evidence they could bring to the larger debate?

Finally, and this is a point I think I owe to my debates with my rhet/comp colleague JZ in my own department, I think that that much of the anti-assessment discourse in the humanities is indebted to the longstanding left critique of bureaucratic rationality from the ’60s and ’70s.  (And, indeed, much of this critique still holds true, in particular contexts; cf., for example, this).

But at this point in US history, after several decades of political reaction to the Great Society, do we really believe that the reason for non-responsive government is that favorite of conservatives and neo-libs: i.e., “bloated bureaucracy”?  Or is it the capture of once-public institutions by unaccountable financial and corporate interests? This is why I think that much of the anti-assessment discourse in Powell/Champagne’s work is a Maginot Line designed to defend us against a political opponent who no longer exists.

If we look at the intertwined history of assessment and accountability from  the vantage-point of post-Occupy American politics, what we would say is that the accountability movement, in its obsession with finding “efficiencies” in public higher ed spending, has used the long-term disinvestment in public institutions by state and federal governments to weaken internal governance and to force universities to partner with corporate interests at every level. In the meantime, neither movement has developed any cogent response to the single biggest threat that I see to the future of higher education in this country, which is the mounting student debt load necessary to attain a college degree.

So public costs are a matter of obsessive public debate, and these debates simply reinforce the drive toward disinvestment. In the meantime, the leaders of our so-called educational establishment have nothing to say about the growing alliance of finance and higher education, or how this privatization is slowly undermining the public credibility of educational institutions.

Apparently, as long as students and families are paying ever-growing amounts to private entities to gain an education, no state legislators or administrators can be bothered to intervene. So how much money would you contribute to a school run by Mark Yudof? Or Linda Katehi?  (And, indeed, no accountability advocate I’ve read seems to worry about how efficiency and privatization might impact US higher ed’s unique ties to philanthropic giving, which is unparalleled in other national systems)

In the context of the incredible debt-load that students now carry, we can now safely assume that the accountability movement has done nothing to reduce costs to students (as opposed to taxpayers), since reducing public investments in higher ed has only driven students and their families into the maw of  the (under-regulated) for-profit schools and the financial industry.

As far as I’m concerned, no savings, no give-backs wrung out of public institutions and their labor force can keep pace with the disinvestment accumulated over 30 years, and now capped off by falling state revenues during our Great Recession.  And as Krugman has pointed out in the context of the Austerity Debates, the rhetoric of controlling costs is not about “debts or deficits at all; it’s about using deficit panic as an excuse to dismantle social programs.”

So what is the way forward with accountability and assessment, under the conditions I’ve just outlined?  I’ve published some thoughts about this before, so I won’t rehash, but I think that any defense of the contemporary research university will have to take in the perspectives of all the disciplines housed inside it, as well as the full range of students we teach, and will have to develop a professional, reflective, publicly accessible view of its teaching activities to be communicated to the multiple publics we address.  Porter’s emphasis on “learning organizations” (11) sounds like a variation on my own proposal of Schon’s “organizational learning” in the university context, but I think it will have to take place in the criss-crossing, sometimes irritating discursive loop-de-loops and cul-de-sacs we are all familiar with in academic life.  In other words, no reason to over-idealize academic debate in the context of our disciplinary “tribes.”

I also think that if Porter wishes for assessment to gain the trust and respect necessary for it to be successfully integrated into our “learning organizations,” the assessment experts will need to take some responsibility for the conditions under which it is imposed.  When he writes,

Rather than building community, the hierarchical imposition of externally generated, but ill-conceived, assessment programs and inadequate protocols fractured academic communities. These initiatives also distracted and frustrated educators throughout the organization. Most of these problems, however, appear to be a consequence of the misuse of assessment principles and processes rather than deficiencies in assessment itself. (21-22)

So what ethical and professional responsibility do assessment experts like Porter take when their processes or results are misused by upper administrators or external stakeholders?  In what ways do they defend the scientific rationality of their enterprise or the deliberative process around the dissemination of its results?  How much do assessment experts attend to the organizational learning of the units whose behavior they analyze?  And how reflectively do they analyze their own role in the inevitable distributions of power and hierarchy throughout educational institutions?

In effect, to call his (and his tribe’s) long-term goal the installation of a “culture of evidence” gives the game away, because it means that the goal is not so much about instilling a respect for universal scientific reason across the university community, but trying to see whether his specific culture’s goals and values might be shared by the others in the university.  And I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t, so long as we felt that they helped to strengthen the university as it pursues its mission.

Trying to defend not just one’s discipline but the contemporary university, as mixed as it is, means making some attempt to understand the other disciplines’ practices and what they are attempting to do; it also means developing a professional and reflective view of one’s own instructional activities and curriculum, so that students can begin to understand your discipline’s knowledge structures; finally, it means having some account of how your discipline and your university are affecting the lives and livelihoods of the people who help to support you.  How unreasonable does that sound?



  • If you want a really enraging example of how privatizing a public good completely distorted it, check out this piece by Andrew Leonard about Sallie Mae’s role in the student loan debacle.
  • According to this piece in College Guide, Iowa is the latest state to devise new budgetary gimmicks to reduce its support of in-state college students.
  • Sherman Dorn offers a much better and more patient demolition of David Brooks (sorry, no link for you, DB) on accountability than I could ever do, and gets into some of the real complexities it poses, especially for accreditation.

If others have additional links or sources they’d like to bring into the discussion, put them into the comments and I’ll put them up here. Thanks, DM