I am among those who read only printed books. E-Books are as lost to me as glyphs on Mayan stelae. I don’t care what Radiant Snake Jaguar I was doing September 18, 524 AD, although it is nice to know that, after centuries of effort, archaeologists and linguists have figured out how to read the inscriptions.
Kindles are definitely more convenient than stone stelae, but they have other drawbacks. Among these is their facelessness. A book has a cover, and even if we are enjoined not to judge all that lies within by its exterior, we get familiar with a book first by looking at it. Moreover, most books look back. This one glares, “You’ve been meaning to read me for years. Here I am.” Another mopes, “You used to love me.” Still another glances away, “I am not for you.”
E-books, by contrast, are like Model T Fords, whose maker in 1909 remarked that a “customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”
Laura W. Perna, ed. Taking It to the Streets: The Role of Scholarship in Advocacy and Advocacy in Scholarship. 2018. Johns Hopkins University Press.
The National Association of Scholars is an advocacy organization. We plainly do not think that advocacy and scholarship are utterly foreign to one another. But what is their right relationship? Ant to anteater? Chisel to stone? Noonday sun to bald head?
Taking It to the Streets: The Role of Scholarship in Advocacy and Advocacy in Scholarship, edited by Laura Perna, offers seventeen views of how these two should dance. The main title gives away the general answer. Perna, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and founding Executive Director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (AHEAD), is a champion of political activism by faculty and students. Her edited volume is rooted in the perspective that “there are deep and persisting inequities within our nation’s educational systems and structures,” and scholars should do something about this. We are still on the first page of the introduction when she marks out the territory by mentioning Betsy DeVos, the travel ban, “restrictions on free speech” and “elimination of protections for transgender students” as targets for “strong opposition.”
We are still on the first page when Perna invokes “research with the goal of advancing equity, inclusiveness, and social change in higher education.” But by page 2 complications set in. Using academic freedom to pursue the research is one thing, “But is there a difference between being a researcher and being an advocate?”
I have an answer from an NAS perspective: Yes, a profound difference. The “researcher” who aspires to scholarly seriousness must be committed to the search for truth. This entails asking questions in a manner that doesn’t presuppose the answers, and taking care to follow where the evidence leads. If the research is experimental, the experiment must be replicable. If a scholar finds support for a hypothesis, he must still consider alternative explanations. Honest scholarship must submit itself to these and many other rules intended to guard against intellectual favor. The safeguards vary a bit from discipline to discipline, but the general point is to prevent the distortions that advocacy almost always introduces. An advocate advances a cause; a scholar advances the search for genuine understanding.
Perna and her colleagues don’t see it that way. The “invited authors” are, she says, each to be relied on to bring “great passion and deep commitment to advancing equity, inclusiveness, and social change in higher education.”
This raises at least one key question. What happens if the researcher/scholar comes across facts that impede the advancement of equity, inclusiveness or social change as the researcher/scholar defines these things? What if scholarship gets in the way of advocacy?
The contributors to Taking It to the Streets never weigh this possibility, possibly because they have never experienced it. In their lives, research and advocacy flow together like sugar dissolved in tea. Perna does distinguish between one contributor who urges “patience,” and others who prefer a “scholar-activist” model to “more proactively advance policy change.”
The essays that follow are true to the mandate. Most of the essays are autobiographical, in that “advocacy” turns out to involve a lot of “personal experience.” Research outside the mode of advocacy can often bear the objective voice. In these essays at least, the social reformer is an “I,” but not always a self-aware one. James Minor, for example, focuses on “degree completion” for low income students. Because he advocates for that goal, his “research” never comes near the question of whether degree-seeking is the most constructive path for low income students.
In another essay, Christina A. Stanley explains that her focus on “how faculty of color experience predominantly White institutional spaces” helps her in “rectifying many of the social and economic disparities and injustices that plague our society and the world.” It is difficult to tell what Professor Stanley’s actual research is, except that it “demonstrates that faculty who are made to feel marginalized […] experience educational institutions in multiple, nuanced, and complex ways, as compared to faculty that identify as members of the dominant White majority.” The claim seems so vaporous as to be beyond anything resembling actual “research,” but there is no doubting the spirit of advocacy in Professor Stanley’s work.
For a round-up of many specific ways in which conflating scholarship and advocacy can send a professor on a wrong turn, Taking It to the Streets is concise and useful.
Kim Trolley, ed. Professors in the Gig Economy: Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America. 2018. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Kim Trolley’s edited volume, Professors in the Gig Economy: Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America, offers a bit of activist wish-fulfillment right in the title. The “professors” in the gig economy aren’t professors in the usual sense, but as the sub-title specifies, adjunct faculty members. Most would like to be professors, and a great many have the combination of talent at teaching, creative scholarship, and energy that would amply qualify them for careers as professors. But something hasn’t worked out. Partly this is a matter of gross over supply—of too many qualified individuals seeking the same jobs. Partly it is a matter of “adjunctification,” whereby colleges and universities swap out more highly paid full-time positions for less costly part-time instructors. Partly it is the terrible self-destruction of the humanities in which vitally important courses that once drew substantial enrollments have been cashiered in favor of trivial courses that draw meagre enrollments. And partly it is a matter of universities retreating from the hard work of educating students in favor of merely training them.
Hardly anyone thinks that courses manned by armies of adjuncts are the best way to foster a rich intellectual community capable of kindling educational excellence. But somehow we find ourselves with many colleges and universities in which adjunct faculty do much of the teaching.
The teachers unions naturally see this as an opportunity. Is unionization of adjunct faculty a good idea? Would it improve matters? Or make them worse?
Trolley’s book is not the place to look for a careful assessment of those questions. She is a professor of education at Notre Dame de Namur University, and she is solidly committed to unionization. The situation looks ripe for it. As Trolley observes in the preface, “In 1969, 78.3 percent of the instructional staff in in American colleges and universities were tenured or in tenure-track positions. By 2009, the numbers had flipped: the proportion of tenured or tenure-track faculty had fallen to just over a third, and the proportion of adjunct faculty had risen to 66.5 percent.” If graduate student instructors are added, the “contingent” staff comprise 76 percent of the whole.
One question is why do so many intelligent people let themselves be exploited by universities that pay them derisory wages for such hard work? Surely many of them could find better employment outside the higher education sector. The answer is mainly psychological. The world of adjuncts is made up of people who love their fields of study, who hope against hope that their peripheral employment opportunities will somehow lead to a full-time position, and who often feel they wouldn’t fit in any work outside higher education.
The eleven essays in Professors in the Gig Economy document the transformation of American higher ed. into the functional equivalent of Airbnb and Uber on-demand employment. It is a bleak story, saturated in nostalgia for the brief period (roughly from 1945 to 1970 in which careers in college teaching jobs could be plucked like ripe peaches from a overladen tree. Imagining that “the Golden Era,” as one contributor calls it, can be restored by collective bargaining, however, is mere wishfulness. The built-up resentments and deprivations experienced by adjuncts, of course, make unions appealing. Moreover, bargaining units probably can, here and there, squeeze out concessions from corporate-style universities. Trolley’s book serves as a sort of pep rally for those who ascribe to the small consolations of that approach. As another one of the contributors puts it, “I believe in unions because we are better together.” In other words, adjunct unionizing is a therapeutic response to a psychological impasse, not much of an answer to the real problems besetting American higher education or those who would pursue careers in academia.
The Sardonic Smile
Leonard Cassuto. The Graduate School Mess: What Caused it and How We Can Fix It. 2015. Harvard University Press.
“We can advocate better for our vocation if humanists work throughout society, not just in the universities,” coaxes Leonard Cassuto in the last paragraph of his 2015 book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused it and How We Can Fix It. Cassuto’s book preceded Taking It to the Streets and Professors in the Gig Economy by three years but we inexcusably overlooked it in Academic Questions. The title points to the problems that lie upstream from armies of underemployed adjuncts and professors who mistake street protests for scholarship. Graduate schools burgeon with students who imagine they will, in due course, hold positions just like the tenured professors who teach them. Hardly any will achieve this exalted status. But the big wheels keep on turning, and the graduate students keep on churning. Or as Cassuto puts it, “Thousands of professors are currently in the business of preparing thousands of graduate students for jobs that don’t exist.” Partly this is a matter of creating false motivations. Those graduate students are “taught to want” the non-existent jobs, and thus “foreclose the prospects that actually exist for them.”
Cassuto focuses on the humanities. He is a professor of English at Fordham University and speaks with greatest authority on his own and related fields, though he argues that his thesis can be extended to “the entire academic enterprise.” The gist of his argument is that the graduate school enterprise can continue to enroll lots and lots of students provided it gets busy training those students for jobs outside academe. In succeeding chapters, he walks through the usual apparatus of graduate education: classwork, comprehensive exams, advising, and degrees.
Cassuto’s observations are never less than lucid and sometimes Illuminating. I wasn’t aware that “no one has yet written a history of graduate admissions.” I would have thought that the sheer volume of books written about higher education guaranteed that every dusty corner of academe had at least two lengthy books to its credit, whether it were 101 Ideas for Reusing Decommissioned Card Catalogs or Horticultural Design for the Alumni Memorial Garden. I have half a dozen books on undergraduate admissions, including the beautifully titled but haplessly written 1995 volume, Shameful Admissions. But as far as I know, Cassuto is right. Graduate admissions is a lacunae in higher education’s giant atlas of itself. His chapter doesn’t entirely fill the void, but it provides a helpful outline beginning in the 1890s.
In his chapter on coursework, Cassuto observes the widespread habit of graduate departments in the humanities that semester after semester offer courses that “don’t make sense together.” That’s because the course offerings are shaped more by the interests of the faculty than the needs of the students. Graduate faculty rarely collaborate with one another to make sure their courses dovetail. “The results of teacher-centered course offerings disadvantage the students and the professors together.” Cassuto calls instead for a “student-centered learning,” which, while common at other levels of instruction, “has not reached graduate school yet.” Most of The Graduate School Mess consists of a well-reasoned and amply illustrated argument for making this change.
The Crow’s Nest
Warren Treadgold. The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education. 2018. Encounter books.
Warren Treadgold, professor of history at St. Louis University is best known for A History of the Byzantine State and Society (1997). With his new book, The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education, he tackles a different Byzantine Empire, with its own forms of gold enameling.
Professor Treadgold avows in his second chapter that he has been a member of the National Association of Scholars “almost from the start.” But he is not especially kind to NAS which he says “has failed in most of its aims.” We are, in his assessment, “a support group for an oppressed minority who are victims of pervasive discrimination and a hostile work environment.” On the larger scale, NAS’s “worthy efforts have made little progress toward solving the enormous problems it has identified.” Gee, thanks.
I guess this counts as the candor that Treadgold promises in the opening sentence of the book, but I would also count it as a perspective that is at least a decade out of date. NAS does intervene in some cases of sorely put-upon professors, but we are best known these days for reports that have galvanized public controversies and policy proposals that moved federal and state legislators. We are quickening attention to problems that have otherwise gone unnoticed. No one critiqued the campus “sustainability” movement until we pointed out its anti-intellectual authoritarian character. We were first in on the foolish fossil fuel divestment movement, first in on the “new civics” that aims to substitute student activism for learning about American self-government. China’s efforts to purchase major influence on American college campuses went almost unnoticed until our 2017 study, Outsourced to China, and so on.
One thing I take from The University We Need is how hard it is to change even a sympathetic judgment once it has fossilized into place. Fortunately, Treadgold’s book has much to offer in other ways.
Treadgold positions himself among those who believe “higher education has deteriorated so badly that it cannot be expected to reform itself from within.” He turns instead to the hope for “enlightened federal legislation.” Which is to say that he has arrived at many of the same conclusions that NAS itself arrived at some years ago. The progressive left’s domination of higher education through near total capture of academic administrative positions, saturation of faculty hiring, politicization of the curriculum, the creation of a “co-curricular” empire of make-work jobs, and its sway over nearly all the accrediting agencies, government bureaucracies, and higher ed. organizations make “reform from within” a near term impossibility.
Things could, however, change, and there are good reasons to think they will: public disaffection, the student debt crisis, waning state subsidies, shifts in employment patterns, and the rise of online credentialing all challenge the Left’s settled monopoly on higher education. The question is whether the proponents of better forms of liberal education and higher education more broadly construed are nimble enough to take advantage of these cracks in the foundation of the current system.
In five of his eight chapters, Treadgold rehearses the diagnoses: the Left’s domination, the combination of dizzyingly high prices and dizzyingly low standards; the faults in teaching, faculty hiring, and scholarship; the rise of leftism and postmodernism, and so on. In his last three chapters, Treadgold sets forth his program of reform. These include some novel approaches that certainly warrant attention. He proposes for example a National Dissertation Review Board and a separate National Academic Honesty Board, the latter “to judge claims of plagiarism or fraud in dissertations and academic publications.” The National Dissertation Review Board would rate dissertations on a 100-point scale for “originality, importance, accuracy, rigor, and clarity.”
One can think of dozens of reasons why these proposals would not work and why the higher educational establishment would move heaven and earth to stop them, or failing that, pervert them. But Treadgold has thought through most of the objections and offers a reasoned if not always compelling defense. The main thing is that he is trying to find a way out of our current situation in which we have a great surfeit of people who have Ph.D.s on the basis of trivial, derivative, and poorly executed dissertations.
Treadgold also devotes a chapter to his idea for a new national university. Again he anticipates many of the objections, but he offers no real attention to the enormous costs or the difficulty of avoiding capture by the Left, both of which I think are serious hurdles.
The Smile of Self-Approbation
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Gerald B. Kauvar, and E. Gordon Gee. Leading Colleges and Universities: Lessons from Higher Education Leaders. 2018. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Speaking of the higher education establishment, along comes Leading Colleges and Universities: Lessons from Higher Education Leaders. How many multi-millionaire university presidents does it take to edit a volume of essays by other college presidents, chancellors, and some of their hangers-on and self-styled “thought leaders?” Trick question. Only two. George Washington’s president emeritus Joel Trachtenberg and West Virginia University’s president (and former president of Ohio State, Brown, Vanderbilt, and Ohio State a second time) E. Gordon Gee. But they have help from a third co-editor, Gerald B, Kauvar, who is a “special assistant to the president emeritus” at George Washington, but not himself a chief executive.
The main lessons to be taken from the 21 essays in this volume are that affability, glad-handing, and humble-brag will take you pretty far in pursuit of higher education’s highest office. The book is also a nice source of management clichés, along the lines of what the president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, has to say, “The longer I am in this position, the more I appreciate the African proverb that says: If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to [go] far, go together.” The bracketed second “go” is because someone was in too much of a hurry and left it out.
The clichés fall as thick as magnolia blossoms after a frost. “I was blessed to be able to develop a wonderful cadre of administrative and academic leadership,” writes one former president. “We all know that predicting the future is at best hazardous,” writes another. “The synergies began to multiply. . .” “Overarching principles emerged . . .” There are “lessons from higher education leaders” in this book on the proper use of the presidential passive voice, which at once claims credit and feigns not to.
Leading Colleges and Universities: Lessons from Higher Education Leaders may have some pragmatic value for individuals intent on climbing the slippery pole to the college presidency, but mostly it provides evidence that the leaders of colleges and universities are rather little to offer either as original thinkers or as masters of written expression. They are first and foremost functionaries, more or less skilled in managing bureaucracies but with little to offer as exemplars of the life of the mind.
The Benevolent Scowl
Stephen B. Presser. Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law. 2017. West Academic Publishing.
Leon Panetta famously criticized his former boss, President Obama, observing “the president relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” Stephen B. Presser, legal historian and professor emeritus at Northwestern University, quotes Panetta’s quip at the beginning of Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law, wondering why a contrast between law professors and leaders struck so many as apt. Presser elaborates the image of the law professor as conceited, smug, and so convinced of his own intellectual importance as never to notice the irrelevance of most of what he says to the practice of law let alone ordinary human affairs.
Presser does not appeal this verdict. Rather, he sets out in Law Professors to trace the descent of the profession of teaching law from the eighteenth century to the present. “How did we Americans reach the point where there is a public perception that law professors may be habitually deluding themselves, or indeed, the point where it can be argued that that is what law professors do?”
Would that law professors deluded only themselves. A page later, Presser claims that law professors have little “influence on the judges who administer the law itself,” and he quotes no less an authority than Chief Justice John Roberts: Pick up a copy of any law review that you see and the first article is likely to be, you know, the influence of Immanuel Kant on evidentiary approaches in 18th century Bulgaria, or something, which I’m sure was of great interest to the academic who wrote it, but isn’t of much help to the bar.
Pick up a copy of any law review that you see and the first article is likely to be, you know, the influence of Immanuel Kant on evidentiary approaches in 18th century Bulgaria, or something, which I’m sure was of great interest to the academic who wrote it, but isn’t of much help to the bar.
I don’t know how these views of the irrelevance of law professors’ ponderings reconcile with the invention of all sorts of new “rights” and the twisting of all sorts of laws in directions that originated with the speculative theorizing of law professors. Be that as it may, Presser sees a “crisis in legal education” that is also a “crisis in the law itself,” that has led to “mistrust of those administering the law.” He offers as a step towards resolving the crisis his book-length reminder of the work of law professors past that, if “remembered and resurrected,” would help us address “the shortcomings of our politics” and perhaps our culture.
What follows is a sort of Plutarch’s Lives of great law professors: Presser specifically invokes Plutarch. We are then off to Sir William Blackstone, as one of two dozen singled out for the Plutarchian brief-lives treatment. Some of the leading figures are more familiar than others: Joseph Story, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Roscoe Pound, Felix Frankfurter, Ronald Dworkin, and Richard Posner are here. Some of the figures are not whom one might expect in a volume aimed at courting more respect for the law. Presser gives the feminist radical Catherine MacKinnon respectful treatment: “But if some of MacKinnon’s thought is problematic, much is not, and there is still blazing insight that she displays.”
Patricia J. Williams, the doyen of “critical race theory” also merits a chapter, though not so laudatory as the one on MacKinnon. Of Williams, presser observes: Here, then, is something different for a law professor—overt loathing of the law, and a narrative approach that is undeniably powerful, but often obscure—as complex and contradictory, perhaps as the variety of human existence itself.
Here, then, is something different for a law professor—overt loathing of the law, and a narrative approach that is undeniably powerful, but often obscure—as complex and contradictory, perhaps as the variety of human existence itself.
In his last chapter, Presser returns to his opening quote from Leon Panetta to offer an assessment of Barack Obama. Presser gives each chapter a descriptive title, and the Obama chapter is presented as “The Law Professor as President.” Presser appears temperamentally calm and even-handed, and he goes out of his way to find positive things to say about law professors whose views he disagrees with. His Obama chapter is likewise restrained but Presser allows himself to express harsher verdicts than he does anywhere else in the book. Obama, under the influence of critical race theorists, took a “relatively radical view of the law,” that consisted of selective enforcement, “suspending deadlines or exempting particular businesses or persons from general rules,” and “bypassing Congress,” among many other ways of putting himself above the rule of law. Presser adds: Those who know Barack Obama best do not appear to question his sincerity or his good faith, but what if the President’s perspective was formed by a legal culture that believes that all law is politics?
Those who know Barack Obama best do not appear to question his sincerity or his good faith, but what if the President’s perspective was formed by a legal culture that believes that all law is politics?
Presser leaves it to others, by way of quotations, to frame more damning conclusions, most notably Judge Arthur Schwab striking down as unconstitutional Obama’s executive grant of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Schwab found that the President acted outside his executive authority by taking “unilateral legislative action [that] violates the separation of powers.” This came after the thirteen occasions on which the law professor president had been overruled unanimously by the U.S. Supreme Court for misreading the law and misunderstanding “basic constitutional concepts” as Charles Hurt (quoted by Presser) put it.
Presser’s book thus spills beyond an account of the glories and imperfections of pontificating by law professors. But for those interested in this rich corner of the academy, Law Professors is an excellent, companionable, and richly told compendium of stories. Plutarch would approve.
One of the benefits of my position is that I receive rafts of unsolicited books. Some of them are so far off topic that I wonder whether a publisher has mistaken NAS for the National Audubon Society. Others are copies of self-published works by authors hoping to find some sympathetic recognition. For this column in Academic Questions, I try to find space each time to mention one or two of these. This time I offer a nod of recognition to Yes Virginia, Quantum Mechanics Can be Understood by John P. and Michael J. Wallace.
The Wallaces were apparently moved by the publication of NAS’s report, The Irreproducibility Crisis of the Sciences, issued in April, to send an inscribed copy of their handsome volume to NAS’s director of communication. The inside front cover displays the “Principal Equations of Quantum Mechanics” and inside back cover and facing page an explanation of “Fermion Charge Quantization.” One would have to have studied a fair amount of university physics merely to read these opening and closing displays. Yet the volume is framed as though it were an explanation that any child or child-like layman could comprehend. The full title on the title page explains: YES VIRGINIA, QUANTUM MECHANICS CAN BE UNDERSTOOD the title taken from a quote by the well know [sic] turf expert and sometimes field theorist Bertram W. Wooster A tale of how Bertie backed into Einstein’s idea of a unified field theory.
YES VIRGINIA, QUANTUM MECHANICS CAN
the title taken from a quote by the well know [sic] turf expert and
sometimes field theorist
Bertram W. Wooster
A tale of how Bertie backed into Einstein’s idea of a unified
The homage to P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster’s stories is a daring way to begin a 370 page treatise on quantum mechanics, but the Wallaces are just getting started. Their thesis is that quantum mechanics has a “foundation” that can be derived from “three experimental problems.” Their explanation, however, “petrifies physicists because of the loss of some of their favorite mathematical illusions.” This sounds like the usual rhetoric of conspiracy theorists, but it is presented with an eccentric turn: “Physics should be done lightly, much like a Woodhouse novel, because it is a subtle business with a labyrinth of unexpected connections that are rarely visible.”
I stand in no position to judge whether any of the physics in Yes Virginia makes sense. Possibly this is a work of scientific genius, though I wouldn’t bet my subway fare on the likelihood of that. But Yes Virginia is quite plainly a work of creative frenzy. The Wallaces—I guess them to be father and son—have indeed cast their theory into the form of a novel, in which a young woman named Virginia studies physics and makes astonishing discoveries. But the “novel” drops away after a page or two and the book becomes an exposition of the history of modern physics—until Virginia and other Woodhouse characters wander back in.
The book is illustrated with reproductions, many in full color, of antique postcards, including Un salute da Trieste, showing some two-and three-masted ships in harbor. Another is captioned “Postcard from Berlin mailed in 1900 showing the mechanization of Alexander Platz. This is the place where Max Planck was forced to use the idea of the Quanta because of the pressure of industrial activity.”
The Wallaces are the authors of three other volumes on quantum mechanics that I have not had the pleasure of seeing, and acquaintance does not come cheaply. Yes Virginia and The Principles of Matter: Amending Quantum Mechanics can be purchased together for $200, a price that will deter all but the most intrepid seekers of quantum truth.
The late Sam McCracken, assistant to President John Silber at Boston University, once told me, “A gentleman does not use a thesaurus.” This set the high bar for gentlemanliness (courtesy, putting others at ease, a ready smile, good taste, self-restraint) beyond my aspirations. Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869) benefited untold generations of writers struggling for the right word when he published his Thesaurus in April 1852. True, Shakespeare did without one as did Milton and myriad others, but the yeoman writer is sometimes halted (frustrated, foiled, stymied, stalled) in his progress by the not-quite-right locution. Roget, like a fresh ox to the plow, breaks the impasse.
In my time, I have worn to ungentlemanly stubble (orts, butt ends, clinkers) several thesauruses, but I especially prize my original Roget’s International Thesaurus: Fifth Edition. Today, of course, the old-fashioned thesaurus is disappearing in favor of the online lists of synonyms that pop up on the screen at the touch of a key. But in my view a gentleman does not use an online list of synonyms.