See Ya, Academia. Wouldn’t Wanna Be Ya.

In April 2014, I ended my career in academia — though calling it a “career” may be overstating the case. I had two months left in my fifth year of an English Ph.D. program. My wife was pregnant with our son. For the first time, I saw my professional future clearly.

It would probably take another year to finish my dissertation. With a hodgepodge of hard-won fellowships and teaching assignments, I had added three quarters to my original five years of funding. That money would support me through next winter. Then… what? Another teaching gig? One of those secret research fellowships that my department occasionally, according to mysterious criteria, handed out to advanced graduate students?

If everything went smoothly, I would defend my dissertation in the spring or summer, get a one-year VAP at my university, and go on the job market. Ah yes, the famous market for humanities professorships. Where colleges line up and throw cash at you.

I would have had as fair a shot at an academic job as any other graduate student in my field. I had worked my ass off in a name-brand program. I had presented and published research. I had assembled a credible teaching portfolio. But I, like the legions of other apprentice scholars who show up at MLA every year with the same qualifications, still faced long odds.

I don’t need to repeat the stats. We are all aware of those.


The Grammar Girl on Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” Video

I wasn’t surprised to discover today that the venerable Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. the “Grammar Girl,” beat me to the presses by a few days with her take on “Weird Al” Yankovich’s linguistic prescriptivism. “The bottom line is that I don’t believe in word crimes,” she writes, “and I don’t believe in encouraging people to think about language that way.” Co-signed.

At the very least, Fogarty’s critique of Weird Al’s “call to feel superior” should give pause to those of us who teach reading and writing, and more generally to those of us who love language not as an ideal form, but as a dynamic, imperfect, human practice.

Hey, Weird Al: Congratulations on Not Having a Language Disorder!

Oh boy. It’s no fun to be The Guy Who Takes Umbrage at a Novelty Song. So let me start by saying that, all things considered, I couldn’t be happier about “Weird Al” Yankovic’s recent viral resurgence. “Tacky,” his upgrade of Pharrell’s cloying “Happy,” is blue-chip parody pop: lively, goofy, subtly acerbic. (Subtext: you know what’s really tacky? Songs like “Happy.”)

But among my language-wonk friends–i.e., most of my friends–one song has risen to the top of this week’s Weird Al heap. “Word Crimes,” a spoof of “Blurred Lines” that decries common language abuses, has been shared on my Facebook feed, Tweeted at me, praised all over the Internet, and forwarded to me by elderly family members. “You’re an English teacher! You’ll love this!” And I almost did love it. Whoops.


The Problem with Competency-Based Education

Time + co-presence = community.

An oversimplification, sure. But this equation captures a trait of classroom learning that I find essential, and that I fear is being overlooked in the chatter about “competency-based education.”

(A précis of the chatter: Department of Education, neoliberal as ever under the leadership of President Obama’s pick-up basketball partner Arne Duncan, has been pushing post-secondary institutions to adopt competency-based strategies. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has devoted $2.3 million to the cause. Southern New Hampshire University has been hawking its College for America, which features no faculty and no courses and yet awards degrees to students who demonstrate mastery of certain competencies. Politicians are stoked. Administrators are stoked. Businesspeople are stoked. You know who isn’t stoked? I’ll give you one guess.)

My objection is simple. Education, especially but not only in the humanities, is about more than the accumulation of standardized competencies. It’s about more than the attainment of “learning outcomes.”


A Mook Takes a MOOC

I have opinions about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), but I haven’t actually taken one. Whoops. Well, today that will change when I “attend” the first day of “class” for Cathy N. Davidson’s “meta”-MOOC, “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.”

Davidson is a professor of English at Duke University, one of the schools that has allowed Coursera to license its MOOCs to Antioch University. But she is also one of my intellectual idols, and has generally said all the right things about labor inequality in academia.

So I was surprised that she hitched her wagon to Coursera’s star, and I told her so on Twitter:

View my story “Cathy N. Davidson, Coursera, and Little Old Me” on Storify.

My thanks to Professor Davidson for engaging with me, and for clarifying that she will not permit Coursera to farm her MOOC out to poorer universities. She is refusing to abdicate responsibility for how her educational materials are used. Let’s hope other “superprofessors,” including her Duke colleagues Roger Barr and Mohamed A. Noor, follow her lead.

Anyway. Consider me ready to (attempt to) learn.

For MLK Day, a Teachable Text

Every MLK Day, as a semi-religious ritual, I reread King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” A response to criticism from eight white Alabama clergymen, this open letter, written on scraps of paper while King served time for taking part in a protest, outlines a rationale for civil disobedience of Jim Crow laws and customs. It is an astonishing document. One can sense King’s body in every wretched, joyous word. And the King that emerges is not the benign and fatherly King who sells you cars and burgers on TV. This King is confrontational, ferociously learned, full of disdain for white moderates, an American preacher in the Jonathan Edwards tradition. That’s why I read the “Letter” annually; for me, it brings to life a man, not an image.

Credit: The King Center Archive
Credit: The King Center Archive

But “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is not just an historical artifact of enduring moral and emotional value; it’s also an ingenious piece of rhetoric. I know of no better text for teaching the principles of audience, argument, imagery, and persuasion.


My Top 15 Songs of 2013

When I need a break from thinking about things like the neoliberal annihilation of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, I often slap on a pair of headphones and start streaming or downloading new music THROUGH COMPLETELY LEGAL CHANNELS, I ASSURE YOU.

Ahem. So here are some songs I thought were worthwhile in 2013.

Four not released as singles and/or not readily available on the web:

  • Autre Ne Veut, “A Lie”
  • CHVRCHES, “We Sink”
  • Kanye West, “Blood on the Leaves” (Yes, the narcissistic appropriation of “Strange Fruit” pisses me off, too. But there’s no denying the force of this track.)
  • Yo La Tengo, “Well You Better”

One that I forgot about until just before publishing: Foxygen, “No Destruction.”

And my top 15:


Richard Moser Lights 21st-Century Higher Ed on Fire

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education, an explanation of how the new academic labor system corrodes learning, teaching, and research in American universities. Much of what Richard Moser says here has been said before, but rarely so lucidly and succinctly.

Badass extract #1: “The search for truth, critical thinking, intellectual creativity, academic standards, scientific invention, and the ideals of citizenship have been discounted in favor of maximizing profits, vocational training, career success, applied research, and bottom-line considerations.”

Badass extract #2: “What lessons are being taught to aspiring young academics when they realize that all of their foundational courses are being delivered by people who earn what they did at their summer jobs? What values are being learned when those who teach and research – who esteem the intellect and hold high the values of citizenship – are apparently held in low regard by society and by the university community itself?”

Shoulder Devil / Shoulder Angel

How appropriate that these two articles were published on the same day:

  1. The Amazon of Higher Education: How Tiny, Struggling Southern New Hampshire University Has Become a Behemoth,” Slate (January 2, 2014)
  2. Full-Time, Structured Program at CUNY Yields More Community-College Grads,” Chronicle of Higher Education (January 2, 2014)

Once a small liberal arts school, Southern New Hampshire University recently found success by expanding and corporatizing its online division, and by taking advantage of its non-profit status to undercut for-profit degree mills like the University of Phoenix.

The focus is on graduating students, not on educating them. Instruction is carried out by what Slate calls “a small army of adjuncts hired for as little as $2,200 a class.” These adjuncts aren’t expected to facilitate learning, to shepherd their students toward knowledge of self and other. No, their main task is to “swoop in” when SNHU’s digital watchdog pings them and reports that one of their charges hasn’t logged in lately. “The instructor is just there to deliver the content,” explained the head of the online division to Slate. He apparently did not go on to say, “I know that’s messed up.”


“In [Ralph] Ellison’s America…”

In [Ralph] Ellison‘s America, the central challenge for the ‘inner eye’ was that of race, a stigmatized position almost impossible for the conventional white reader to inhabit. For [Rabindranath] Tagore…, a particular cultural blind spot was the agency and intelligence of women, and he ingeniously devised ways to promote a fuller curiosity and respect between the sexes. Both writers claim that information about social stigma and inequality will not convey the full understanding a democratic citizen needs without a participatory experience of the stigmatized position, which theater and literature both enable. The reflections of Tagore and Ellison suggest that schools that omit the arts omit essential occasions for democratic understanding.

~ Martha Nussbaum, in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanitiesmaking the case that arts education and the democratic imagination go hand in hand