Higher Ed Reformism: The View from the SLACs

Hey, look! It’s another sloppy, vague op-ed on how to “fix” higher education. It must be a day ending in “y!”

POdBaboon

This time, it’s Steven Pearlstein, writing in the Washington Post to tell us how universities can do some “tough things…to rein in costs.” And the usual suspects are all here: administrative costs, “cheaper, better general education,” and–of course–getting those slacker faculty members to give up their summers off (HA), their esoteric research (HA HA), and light teaching loads (HA HA HA). Pearlstein’s essay is a mess, and it richly deserves the criticisms it’s already getting (Matt Reed’s Inside Higher Ed rebuttal is excellent). But lost amidst the admonitions to toughen up and work harder and cheaper is the same element that plagues so many of the lazy prescriptions recently on offer from various Dons who know exactly how to fix us: They do not know who we are.

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An Argument for Continental History

If you watch sports regularly, you’re probably familiar with the concept of “East Coast Bias.” Teams from places New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, can seem to dominate the coverage among sports media outlets, while West Coast teams, because their games are on so damn late for east-coasters, play second fiddle. The phenomenon was more pronounced before our internet-saturated age, back when we depended upon newspapers for the box scores and west coast games always finished after the papers went to press. But the bias lingers. This past season, ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball featured the Yankees and Red Sox approximately 6,325 times–which was odd, given that the old and overpaid Red Sox stunk on ice, the staid Yankees were where fun goes to die, and the games were a 4+ hour death march through innumerable pitching changes and play stoppages. Yet, we are told, ratings dictated the matchup. These two sports markets love their teams, which to the rest of us seems like an incredibly sad cry for help. Continue reading “An Argument for Continental History”

There Are No Independent Variables: Pedagogy and the Dismantling of Structures

When I took the research and methods seminar in my undergraduate History major, one of our texts was E.H. Carr’s What Is History?, a profoundly important and trenchant work, but also one I was nowhere near intellectually mature enough to appreciate. In subsequent years, I’ve circled back to Carr when I’ve taught my own methods and historiography seminars as well as in my own epistemological knocking around in the corners of our discipline. In addition to being a historiography geek of the highest order (I read it for fun, y’all!), I’m also drawn to the ways in which a deeper connection with historiography and, more essentially, the theory and philosophy of History, intersect with pedagogy and student learning. In this vein,Carr’s arguments have been on my mind lately, as I’ve been working on several projects that touch on historical issues that still echo urgently today. Carr’s book isn’t perfect, but as a gateway drug to thinking about history, the historian, and their deeply vital interconnections, it remains an essential read. History, for Carr, is “a continuous conversation between the historian and his [or her] facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present” (p. 30). In other words, the stuff that happened in the past isn’t by itself history. History is when that stuff–which is promoted to the level of “historical facts” by the historian–gets processed and interpreted. The stuff that happened, yet didn’t make this cut, remains in the ephemeral realm of just plain old “facts.” A pithy example used by Carr nicely illustrates this distinction. Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon: THIS IS IMPORTANT. Julius Agricolus the small-time farmer crosses the Rubicon: who gives a shit? (I took some liberties with Carr’s phrasing.)

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Guest Appearance on The Junto Blog

In case you missed it, or aren’t immersed in the community of historians on Twitter and other online spaces, Sean Wilentz wrote an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday that many of us found…problematic. The good folks over at The Junto kindly offered me some space to collect what had been a furious stream of tweets into a more coherent reply. It went live this morning, so if you’re interested, head over and check it out:

http://earlyamericanists.com/2015/09/17/constitution-slavery-and-the-problem-of-agency/#more-12501

And while you’re at it, bookmark The Junto and follow them on Twitter (@thejuntoblog); it’s one of the best history blogs out there, and has a tremendous group of scholars writing for it.

Let Them Eat (Unbundled) Cake!

As the cost-funding-value-sustainability debates careen along their courses in higher education, those of us in the academy who are actually:

a. trying to follow these debates, and

b. invested in the ways in which all this impacts student learning first and foremost,

are being bombarded by confusing claims and counterclaims. Technology will save us, but it will ruin us. It will fix costs and increase them. Students know how to use these tools and they don’t. Faculty are overpaid and underpaid. There is too much focus on rock-star professors and a fixation on adjunct labor. The end is nigh!, we hear. DISRUPTION DISRUPTION DISRUPTION DISRUPTION–this trendy yet ultimately vapid injunction hurls itself at us like a cloud of mosquitoes: individually, not so bad, but collectively, it’s a giant pain in the ass. And amidst all the sound and fury, we stand more confused and frustrated than ever. What amazes me about this swirling ether of reformist, buzzword-saturated discourse is that student learning–THE BEDROCK MISSION OF THIS ENTIRE DAMN ENTERPRISE–has been shuffled to the background, relegated to an implied concern at best, an extraneous complicating factor at worst. Continue reading “Let Them Eat (Unbundled) Cake!”

Reclaiming Our Turf with Assessment (Really!)

This summer, I’ve spent a good amount of time grappling with the issues that are so significantly reshaping the landscape of higher education. I’ve used this space to share some of my preliminary thoughts in the wake of the governance, tenure, and funding debacle in Wisconsin; and one of the points I seized on there has continued to work its way around in my head, prompting both frustration and reflection. In criticizing what I see as the neoliberal assault on US higher education, I concluded that we in the academic community may be able to temporarily defend ourselves, but cannot ultimately prevail, if we accept the neoliberals’ terms of debate, and accede to their methods of measuring efficacy. The problem I ran into was in defining an alternative–how do we in academe push back against the narratives of crisis, disruption, inefficiency, and the imperative for “reform” that have come to characterize higher education in our public discourse?
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