Humanities in the Age of Austerity: A CFP

While I wasn’t afforded a photo-op and ceremonial signing moment in the North Dakota Quarterly office, this call-for-papers is among my first acts as the new editor of NDQ:

As readers of the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, you guys always get the drop:

Humanities in the Age of Austerity

In 2016, the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Dakota made the decision to cut support to the nationally-recognized and century-old public humanities journal, North Dakota Quarterly. This included defunding the position of our long-timer managing editor and support for our office assistant who was reassigned elsewhere on campus. These cuts were part of series of large budget cuts at the state level which impacted all state institutions including colleges and universities. The way in which the cuts happened spawned both outrage and critical reflection on the priorities, organization, and leadership present at the state and university levels. While the impact of the UND budget cuts were distinctly local, their significance resonate around the world as education, culture, and the humanities face the growing challenge of fiscal austerity.

As part of the transformation of North Dakota Quarterly, we are excited to announce a call for papers dealing with the humanities in the age of austerity. We invite contributors to consider how the humanities can and should understand and respond to austerity both in the context of higher education and in the public sphere. References to UND and the situation with NDQ are encouraged only in as much as they make a larger point concerning the humanities, and we are seeking national and even global perspectives on this pressing issue.

The plan is to publish the contributions in an edited, digital volume in the spring of 2018 and then as part of an annual paper volume of North Dakota Quarterly in the fall of 2018. Contributions of any length and in any genre are welcome. Deadline is February 15 or earlier. Please send contributions to billcaraher[at]gmail[dot]com with the word “Austerity” in the subject line.

Humanities in the Age of Austerity

As readers of this blog might already suspect, there are some exciting changes afoot over at North Dakota Quarterly. Part of these changes in a little volume dedicated to understanding the role and future of the humanities in the age of austerity. This reflects a long-term and rather circuitous project of my own that tries to understand the history of the American university system and what I perceive to be a series of recent changes and challenges to traditional work in the humanities.

I’m going to secretly post the call for papers here tomorrow morning, and the post the official call for papers on the North Dakota Quarterly website on Thursday. 

The challenge now is to weave together my ideas into a coherent essay that actually says something about the contemporary humanities project.

I have four basic tenets that I want to develop in this essay (and all of these things have been mentioned in my blog over the past couple of years). They are less distinct ideas and more a garbled mass of interrelated concepts reduced to simple statements. Some of these statements work better than others. 

1.Humanities and Audit Culture. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been intrigued by the expansion of audit culture (also know as the assessocracy) in the American university. My recent reading in higher education policy and criticism, particularly Gary Hall’s almost apocalyptic Uberfication of the University and Christopher Newfield’s more sober, The Great Mistake, have reinforced the pernicious nature of “data driven decision making.” In short, they point out that universities tend to only produce one kind of data that is comparable across the entire campus: money. As a result, most performance indicators – from teaching effectiveness to research impact – tend to ultimately devolve into efficiency indicators which then shape the distribution of funding. Fields with great capacity for efficient transfer of knowledge (or with traditions of practice in knowledge transfer that allow for a wider range of effectiveness) tend to be rewarded within audit cultures whereas fields with less efficient models – such as languages or even law, where success on the bar exam presents an externally imposed indicator of success – tend to struggle. Audit culture and accounting ultimately push the university toward fields where efficiency, or even the greatest return on their investment can be realized.    

This approach to learning is consistent with the origins of the modern university in the crucible of industrial revolution and nationalism. The dominant model for modern higher education remains the assembly line and this presupposes a kind of Taylorism in how it is administered.  

2. Humanities as Craft. The unfortunately reality for the humanities within audit culture is that most humanistic disciplines do not fit comfortably within the Taylorist assembly line model of higher education. While the humanities as disciplines emerged within this model, they are not “of this model.” In other words, when we sit down to “do history” or “do literature” or “make poems” or whatever, we don’t privilege efficiency and outcomes as much as process and understanding.

[As an aside, one of the things that the recent conversation about digital humanities and digital archaeology has demonstrated is that efforts to make our fields more efficient or to streamline the hard, often-slow work of the humanities are not universally embraced as “good.” While most of us act in certain ways to make our research more efficient, we tend to resist efficiency as an explicit goal.]

I’ve blogged pretty extensively in the past about history as craft, but as I’ve talked more and more with folks who do public history and public humanities, I’ve come to realize the powerful pull of sensationalist, results-driven public statements from folks working in the humanities. This privileging of results over process invites scholars in the humanities to view the process as something that is secondary to the product. But, most of us know that the process – like the recent trend toward craft – is far more important that the shortest route to a desired outcome (and see my point 1 for the clearest definition of a desirable outcome in American higher education). 

3. Humanities and Competition. Ultimately the emphasis on outcomes and efficiencies contributes significantly to a view of higher education that privileges competition over cooperation. Whether this is competition between scholars for grants, programs for students and funding, or universities for reputation, the model of competition driving excellence has been lifted from the handbook of neoliberalism and projected with wild abandon across campus. 

Of course, the goal of advocating competition is not to allow the cream to rise to the top, but to reinforce the position of the cream AT the top. In other words, advocating competition reinforces the status of the “winners” who largely achieved their place on campus on the basis of non-competitive processes. In short, most claims to competition work to assert the moral or practical superiority of the winner and the inferiority of the loser who then become deserving of treatment that limits in fundamental ways their ability to compete.

Even if we allow that competition can promote excellent projects, work, or programs, it does so at the expense of tremendous inefficiencies as programs and projects buy into competitive models of funding under which they are unlikely to find success for structural reasons. Fortunately, most of us in the humanities understand this, but fewer of us work together to create productive collaborations than I’d like to see. Working together to find ways to advance our collective work in the humanities – through, say, collaborative or cooperative publishing models – is a much wiser approach than struggling with one another to escape from the same crab pot. 

4. Humanities as a Brand. Over the past year, I’ve thought a good bit about this probably flawed juxtaposition: the university as a billboard versus the university as factory. The latter draws upon the history of higher education as the product of our Industrial Age and recognizes what we do as producing well-rounded, thoughtful, educated, and critical students. The former is advertising what it is that we imagine the public wants us to be doing and will support.

In many cases across campus the need or desire to produce a flashy billboard actually subverts the goals of the factory. In some cases ,the factory is seen as more or less obsolete. I developed these ideas based on an experience that in conversations surrounding a new institute for autonomous vehicles and drones. The idea behind this institute, as far as I could tell, was the promote research on autonomous vehicles and drones rather than actually to support this research on campus. On the one hand, this could be seen as a version of the “fake it until you make it” strategy which seeks to attract partners, grants, and other revenue to build something based on demonstrating a good idea or the strong potential for success. On the other hand, the making of the institute itself was a gamble that actually drew resources away from the work that was actually ongoing at the university.

Good work in the humanities is rarely flashy and rarely “brand worthy,” because it’s steeped in process, gradualist, and almost always provisional. Efforts to draw scholars of the humanities into billboard worthy research can run counter to the good, but plodding work that makes the humanities valuable. To use a painful metaphor, mass producing Rolls Royces not only undermines the craft values that make them special, but almost invariably undermines the purpose of having or making a Rolls Royce motorcar. 

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As you can tell, these ideas are probably too expansive for a short, focused essay. Maybe they’re too diffuse. Maybe they’re simply not that good. But they’re what I got right now, and I’m going to work on them over the next couple of months until I feel like I have something to say. 

Stay tuned.

Higher Education: As Simple as Possible, but No Simpler

I think it was Einstein who said “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Books on higher education have struggled with this sage advice over the past decade or so. The temptation to simplify complicated problems has led to either simplistic solutions (administrative bloat, “neoliberalism” and coddled students, et c.) or hopelessly complicated “word salads” where causality frequently takes a backseat to politically expedient rhetoric.

Not only are recent books on higher education a complicated and uneven mess of arguments, assertions, data, and policy, but they are proliferating at a remarkable rate. Over the past two years alone, dozens of books have appeared with optimistic profiles, evocative names (The New Education, The Graduate School Mess, For the Common Good, The Great Mistake et c.), and exuberant blurbs that prey upon the desperation of faculty and administrators alike to make sense of the changing campus landscape. (And they join a substantial bookshelf of “classics” that manage to feel hackneyed and naive at the same time.)

Preparing a syllabus for my spring course on the University of North Dakota Budget Crisis has proven particularly challenging. I’d like my students both to understand the main contours of recent higher education rhetoric and to gain a grounding in the complexities of data, policies, and attitudes that underlie this rhetoric. For every book like Newfield’s detailed analysis of university funding, there’s seems to be a few books like Cathy Davidson’s disappointing and largely derivative, The New Education. The cynic (and publisher) in me sees many of these books as efforts by publishers to leverage faculty discontent and cash in on the feeling of crisis in higher education.  

William G. Bowen’s and Michael S. McPherson’s Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education (2016) is among the more successful efforts to make things as simple as possible. It sets out the problems with higher education in the 21st century that is both grounded in a realistic understanding of the American political landscape and higher education and frank in its evaluation of the data upon which so many policy assessments are based. My favorite thing about the book and perhaps its saving grace is that it’s short.

In less than 200 pages, Bowen and McPherson offer a blunt assessment of higher education in the context of a the national conversation. They highlight the need for higher levels of educational attainment, higher completion rates and faster time to degree, disparities among students from disadvantaged groups economically, socially, ethnically, or racially, affordability, and the challenges of developing strong leaders in higher education. In general, they avoid offering simple solutions to complex problems. They do this, by both staying out of the weeds of the history of higher education in the U.S., which is a complex and diverse snare always ready to entrap the inexperienced scholar, and offering particularly blunt assessments of current affairs.

For example, $30,000 worth of debt for a college degree is not oppressive when set against the significant increase in future earnings that this degree will offer. In fact, compared to the average value of a car loan (which is about the same), most student loans are reasonable investments. They do, of course, note that loans taken out by vulnerable students to attend for-profit colleges with abysmal completion rates are no good investments. This perspective on higher education as an investment in future earnings reflects their realization that to remain dynamic higher education in the U.S. should rely on a combination of student, state, private, and federal funding sources. Loans reflect on methods that current earners, by repaying their loans, invest in future earners within the American economy. 

They recognize the disparity between the performance of students who come from disadvantaged economic or social groups, while also realizing that these students benefit the most from investments in their educational outcomes. Our current system tends to reward students from more privileged backgrounds with further investments while systematically underfunding institutions that cater to students most in need. This situation misses an opportunity to fulfill higher education’s potential as a way to give more students access to the upward mobility offered by a college education. In response, they call for more need based aid and less merit based aid. 

Bowen and McPherson understand many of the challenges facing higher to require strong, independent leadership, but that the current system in which university leaders are under unprecedented scrutiny from donors, boards, legislators, faculty, and alumni often stifles the development of innovative solutions. The tendency for university leaders to be risk averse and to follow well-trod paths under pressures to chase rankings, to pursue short-term opportunities at the expense of long-term change, and to ignore problems that require challenging, systemic solutions.

Bowen and McPherson do stumble, of course, as they seek to balance the need for sometimes painful changes against potential solutions. For example, they paradoxically call for shorter time to completion for Ph.D. programs while at the same time recognizing the overproduction of Ph.Ds. It seems to me that a longer time to completion for Ph.D.s would slow production by serving as a disincentive to some from the start, by increasing drop out rates, and by throttling the number of Ph.D.s produced by keeping programs filled to capacity for longer. This is not an appealing or socially sensitive response to the problem, but it is clear that calling for shorter time to completion in Ph.D. programs will only increase the glut of potential faculty on the market.

Despite this little slip ups, Lesson Plan is a short, incisive, and appealing little book that establishes the problems and offers some responses without making the complex challenges facing higher education any more simple than they need to be.

What’s the Matter with Digital Humanities?

Last week an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Timothy Brennan created a good bit of buzz in my social media world. The author declares, after a bit of muddled argument, that digital humanities is largely bust after carefully setting aside certain common digital tools like the “Moodles” and podcasts. In short, he suggests that DH has not lived up to the hype or realized the promised revolution, instead producing works that are more overstatement than substance.  

Whatever the merits of Brennan’s article, it suffers from a rather narrow reading of digital humanities (in which it recognizes “the Moddles” and not, say, Wikipedia, and lots of digital text projects and not as much attention to the use of digital tools in spatial analysis, “maker culture,” history, or archaeology) and probably a less than critical understanding of certain generic conventions in DH texts, like a penchant for overstatement, that the author should have recognized as part of a both historical and transdisciplinary trends in how we talk about technology. In other words, Brennan’s article is both overly narrow and not particularly deep in its reading of DH. 

At the same time, I did feel like the article did reflect a certain anxiety among people like me who hang around at the fringes of the DH movement, and I found some of the push back against it disconcerting. Brennan’s article is flawed, to be sure, but understand why this kind of article (and I’d group it with the better argued, but no less controversial article last year in the LARB) appears from time to time. I think there are five or six things.

1. DH and Analogue H. For the last 15 years or so, there has been a kind of rhetorical tension between DH and Analogue humanities. While both sides will agree that their larger goals are the same as are their methods, DH practice remains distinctive and it is often presented as the cutting edge alternative to the tired tradition of analogue or conventional humanities. Some of this comes from university administrators eager to demonstrate that even the hide-bound humanities have embraced technologies, and some of it comes from the humanities itself when DH projects have sought to distinguish their practices from convention in order to attract funding. Of course, it’s easy for those of us in the murky marshes between the digital and analogue conventions in our field to dismiss those inclined to divide the humanities into two types. This tendency from DH to take on the mantle of innovators and for this to divide digital from conventional humanities practices is a source of anxiety.

2. Institutional Narratives. At least some of this divisiveness derives from institutional narratives that seek to promote digital humanities as a high-tech alternative to traditional methods and humanities. This is tied to an effort to promote institutions as hotbeds of innovation and to celebrate breakthrough discoveries as evidence for their place on the cutting edge. In this way, it coincides with large trends in how the media, higher education, and national agencies have positioned cutting-edge humanities research as exciting, revolutionary, and oriented toward results rather than practices. Embodied in TED talks, idea summits, and various other high-profile gatherings or celebrations of the humanities elite, this result-oriented view of the humanities tends to run counter to the slow, incremental, process oriented slogging that makes up much humanities work. For every sensational TED-style presentation and discovery touting new technology, there are hundreds of hours and thousands of researchers slowly reading, thinking, teaching, and writing in traditional ways that are overlooked in the rush to the next idea festival or DH sensation. While a generous reading of this celebration of innovation imagines that it’ll raise all ships in the humanities, the reality is that the academy is an increasingly competitive place which competition for ever scarcer resources and support defining the relationship between and within units. When DH “wins” because it fits into the kind of sensational narratives promoted by universities, conventional humanities are positioned as losers, whether this is true or not.

3. The Rise of Technological Solutionism. I think some of the tension between DH approaches and conventional humanities comes from a tendency to conflate the practices of the traditional humanities with problems to be solved. Again, I’m not saying that this is a real tendency among digital humanities who obviously recognize the value of, say, slow reading of a body of text or the walking of the landscape, but the time consuming nature of these conventional practices tend to stand out in a world that celebrates speed, efficiency, and acceleration. Technology is frequently the solution to the problem of slow and deliberate research, just as “big data” has become “the solution” to narrow academic specialization It is easy enough to dismiss this kind of academic Taylorism as a red herring for the value of DH just as advocates of BIG DATA have stressed that our ability to process massive and complex datasets does not necessitate their creation. At the same time, there is a tendency to speed as solution to the “problem” of deliberate thinking with an eye toward break throughs and results that overshadow the value of process. This fits into institutional narratives of continuous improvement with speed being an easy to grasp and useful measure of success and reinforces the caricature of the plodding humanist toiling of his or her “life’s work.”

4. Technology and Corporate Influence. The landscape of corporate interest in Digital Humanities is difficult to parse and confusing. On the one hand, many of us cringe at the idea that we’re preparing our students in the humanities for lucrative middle-management careers using their digital skills in the corporate world. At the same time, it is hard to understate the importance of employment for students students who have taken on massive loans to pursue higher education and who fear that that their passion for texts and humanistic inquiry will lead them to life of penury. Digital humanities appears to some as the best of both worlds (or a problematic compromise) between skill-based education and practices of humanistic inquiry that seek to cultivate the whole person for a lifetime.

On the other hand, digital humanities has long been tangled with corporate interests that extends from support from digital giants like Google to the use of social networks for community building and the wide-spread adoption of for-profit technology in our daily work. In some ways, of course, this is unaided in the contemporary world and we can thank thoughtful DH scholars for pointing out the inconsistencies in our attitudes and practices. These inconsistencies, however, do lead to confusion and compromise that can produce a palpable frustration among scholars who look to DH practitioners for guidance in the murky world of technology and corporate/college interaction.

5. Uneven distribution of DH rewards. I think some of the anxiety felt by non-DH scholars is that many of us WANT to be more deeply involved in the digital humanities, but the promise of more egalitarian and even distributed of DH technologies, appears to be oversold. The difference between access to support and technology at well-heeled liberal arts colleges and major state universities and smaller and less wealthy second and third tier schools is more dramatic than many DH practitioners suspect. While this unevenness can easily be dismissed as no more dramatic than the unevenness of other resources and exceptions abound, I’d contend that the division between lower-tier universities as consumers of open digital humanities projects and higher-tier schools as producers will only become more dramatic despite the institutional rhetoric that celebrates innovation. This irony probably accounts for some of the most palpable frustration at the most elaborate pronouncements of DH utopianism. 

The point of this rather lengthy response is not to give Brennan too much credit for his somewhat muddled article, to blame DH for current in higher education that are far beyond the control of a relatively small group of scholars or to take any credit away from scholars who have done meaningful and in some cases sensational research using digital tools. Instead, I am trying to articulate my own frustration as an outsider to many of the cutting-edge digital practices in the fields of history and archaeology and trying to anchor it in certain discursive trends rather than the complicated realities of humanities research and their significance and impacts. For a more thoughtful critique of Brennan’s article, do check out Sarah Bond’s response

Math Labs and Jotted Scribblings

The ground floor of O’Kelly Hall on the lovely campus of the University of North Dakota is getting a well deserved upgrade. For those unfamiliar with this building, it was originally built as the medical sciences building as part of the medical school on campus (and to this day the west entrance to the building is inscribed with the words “Science Building”). It’s one of the Wells and Denbrook buildings on campus (for a nice survey of Wells and Denbrook’s contribution to North Dakota architecture, check this out) and shares the ambivalent (and perhaps even ironic) modernity of contemporary College Gothic design. The western part of the building dates to 1947 and the eastern part to a half-decade later.

The second floor of the building is where the department of history currently lives, and the ground floor  houses, among other things, the university’s relatively new Scale-Up classroom and the brand new “Meth” (actually Math) Lab. The space around these rooms is still being tidied up after some much-needed upgrades the building. Amid the almost-finished student study spaces and standing less than 20 feet from the Math Lab door is an unfinished cement pillar scrawled with measurements and arithmetic performed by workers remodeling the building. When the refit is completed the math on the cement pillar will be covered, but, for now, it provides a little practical motivation for students trudging toward the math lab each day.

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This is probably some kind of metaphor for higher education these days. Or maybe neoliberalism. Or something. It might be ironic.

What Counts in Academia

As readers of my blog know, I’ve had a recent interest in the concept of craft and the slow movement. Part of that interests appears as a critique of academia. While I probably don’t buy the entire “slow academia” philosophy (at least as it has been articulated in some recent works), I have begun to see many of the problems in modern academic life and culture as problems in professionalization. Last week, I participated a bit in a conversation on Facebook spurred by a post from a very well regarded colleague that centered, in part, on what counts in one’s academic career. The specifics of the post are less important, than thinking about the language of “counting” in academia and its relationship the the larger professionalization project in American academic life. 

First, a requisite “checking of privilege”: I recognize that I can openly discuss what counts in academia because I am a white, male, tenured, professor in the humanities. I have a privileged position from which to judge a professional system that despite my own professional mediocrity, has benefited my own place within academia. I recognize that my critiques will ring hollow especially when directed at individuals for whom the the last 70 years of professionalization has benefited directly. At the same time, my right to critique the system is profoundly compromised because whatever its flaws, I am both within the system and as a white, middle aged, affluent, “classically educated” male, I am one of the architects of the current system. There is nothing to say that my criticism of the system will do anything more than change the finish line or adjust the boundary markers without changing the fundamental assumptions that allow the system to persist. As a result, I’m in a Catch-22. My position is sufficiently compromised that my critiques are not to be trusted, but at the same time, I’m in a position to produce what I perceive to be meaningful changes to the system. I’m going to try to articulate some things in this post that will invariably offend people. 

I have to admit to being a bit depressed by the discussion of what counted. I get, of course, that academic culture is increasingly dominated by an assessocracy whose primary goal is to produce comparable measures of performance across campus. In many ways, this is a noble goal and in keeping with the late-19th century trend toward professionalization. We can thank this process for making academic positions part of the middle class, for example, by recognizing that the university faculty who were preparing their students for professional careers where themselves professionals. Professionalization also contributed to academic protections around research, academic freedom, and the development of tenure, and these shaped the contours of academic publishing ranging from footnotes to plagiarism rules, academic societies and conferences, peer review standards, and even the prominence of the mighty monograph. These professional standards undermined the “old boys club” and opened the university to students and faculty on the basis of academic accomplishment rather than patronage or wealth. This, in turn, held forth the prospect of transforming faculty ranks by making academia more welcoming to women, immigrant groups, and minorities. Within the university, professionalization refined university curricula to keep it abreast of changing professional expectations, developed accreditation standards, and attempted to level the campus playing field between traditional humanities departments and new professional and vocational disciplines. In short, the modern university is the product of professionalization of academia.

Counting was a key element in the process of professionalization. In my discipline, history, one of the earliest conversations held among members of our newly christened professional organization, the American Historical Association, was whether to include avocational historians. The issue revolved around whether their work counted as professional history (despite the towering figure of George Bancroft and his New England compatriots whose vision continues to shape our views of the American past even today). Professional standards like citation and formal attribution practices seem readymade for counting and a created a basis to judge the significance of a work within the field and the skill of the scholar by a standard at least theoretically independent of their identity. At the same time, this approach formed a foundation for impact factors and other methods of citation counting used (and derided) today.

The industrial model of the university that sought to recognize both disciplinary authority in their given fields while also streamlining and standardizing university education for a generation of students coming of age in the professional and industrial era reinforced professionalizing trends in academic culture by promoting a model that sought to use professional standards as way to find new institutional efficiencies. It is hardly a surprise today that university administrators seeking to streamline the industrial education machine look to ways to compare departments from a wide range of disciplines across campus. Counting is fundamental to these efforts and whatever reductionist tendencies we see in these approaches to understanding the (in)efficiencies in university structure, we can also understand the historical roots of these models.

The question of what counts is almost always framed by what counts for tenure or promotion, and these metrics, at their best, reinforce professional standards in a discipline, work to mitigate personal (or disciplinary) biases at the university, and help scholars focus their energies as much toward institutional as individual goals. At their worst, however, we find ourselves pinched between overly rigid (or overly vague) guidelines, our own professional aspirations, and the changing professional expectations of our disciplines. 

The examples of these pressures are legion. My colleague Eric Kansa has regularly inveighed against the pressures of academic culture that work against the systematic and consistent publication of useful archaeological data. Publishing data just doesn’t fit into the our standard models of evaluation (yet) and so often doesn’t count. The respondents on the Facebook thread bemoaned that even high impact publications for a non-academic audience do not regularly count toward tenure and promotion. The dull and dirty work of service to professional organizations often falls to the edge of how we’re evaluated for institutional service and is unevenly valued across our disciplines. Other forms of outreach, like blogging, social media rabble rousing, and even mentoring peers, directing an archaeological project, or running for public office, require commitments of time and energy, but do not fit within established or easily quantifiable standards of professional accomplishments.

In my own experience, this very blog has never “counted” toward my tenure or promotion, my work with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota does not fit in a category on my contract or evaluation form, and my off campus service is “valued,” but never really counted. The irony is, of course, that my blog is a vital part of my academic reputation and it almost always features prominently in any professional introduction to my work. My publications at The Digital Press are some of my best work as a scholar and on level with my years directing my own archaeological project, cited regularly, and meaningful contributions, but they aren’t easily categorized or counted. 

The reasons for this are clear, of course. The counting culture has given rise to a gaggle of disreputable, open access, publishing ventures that prey upon faculty needs to boost various impact scores, produce publications quickly, and do work that’s counted. Creating a press to publish marginal work is fun in a “punk rock” or DIY kind of way, but it falls to the troubled margins of good academic practice. At the same time, most academics recognize that the pressures to publish in countable ways has even tarnished the gold monograph standard by flooding the market with works of questionable significance and value. Counting culture has winnowed the pool of scholars interested in collaborating (at least in the humanities) when solo publication carry more value than collaborative ventures, pre-tenure scholars willing to contribute their insights to professional organizations, and, some would argue, the instinct to pursue innovative career trajectories both in graduate school and in early career. At my most cynical moments, I wonder whether counting culture on campus has undone a bit of what tenure offers to senior scholars, the freedom to innovate, take risks, and explore new approaches to knowledge making. With merit raises tied to performance based formulae, doing work that might not count has direct financial consequences and, as a result, many of the most innovative scholarly moves are coming from individuals who are financially well-off, outside academia, or who just don’t care. This is hardly a diverse cross section of academia and seems to subvert both the intellectual freedom of tenure and ostensible goal of democratized professionalism. Moreover (and I’ll admit this is tinged with as much paranoia as jealousy), I wonder whether our scramble to do what counts, particularly in an era of increased competition and economic austerity, has intensified the value of informal professional networks that provide connections for publication, research, presentation, grants, and other perks that allow high performing academics to skirt both the risk of DIY and the stench of more marginal publication and professional practices.  

What is lost in all this is that most of us entered academia not to do things that count, but to do work that matters. As I read more and more on academic culture, I wonder whether the larger professionalization project hasn’t failed in some profound ways. The idea of counting to produce a level playing field in academia has, instead, created a culture where we reserve innovation to finding ways to put the round pegs of our varied professional lives into the square holes of institutional expectations, diversify our portfolios in the name of impact factors and risk aversion, and still lean heavily on non-professional relationships, the “old boys club,” or other shadow networks to advance our professional goals. I hope we still do privilege in our race to be counted things that matter.

Teaching Tuesday: The Great Mistake and Higher Education Budgets

Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2017) should be required reading for anyone who is interested (or contractually obligated to be interested) in the University of North Dakota budget debate. Newfield served on various campus and system wide committees at UCSB and in the University of California System during several rounds of drastic budget cuts in the early 21st century. His experiences collaborating with his colleagues, pouring over the budgets, and interacting with regents, administrators and the public have imparted his scholarship with a hard-won practical edge that both makes it more immediate in impact (this is not a theoretical book), but also demonstrates the conceptual fractures that exist throughout the current conversation about higher education.

Newfield centers his argument on the broad concept of “privatization” which he used to describe the process whereby public universities turn to private capital, services, and institutions to support their public mission. He explains the process through a six step chart where each step inform the next. It begins with the university retreating from public goods which results in the need to seek outside sponsors and regular tuition hikes. These provide a reason for public funding to be cut, especially during economic downturns, and not restored, increasingly amounts of this deficit shifted to student debts, the growing use of private venders in a quest to do more with less, uneven backfilling across systems where students who would benefit the most from high levels of investment receive the least funding, and a growing maze of arguments based upon “post-productivity capitalism” where credentialing a workforce matters more than training the next generation of leaders.

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Newfield claims his book is meant for parents and even students who are struggling to understand why higher education appears to struggle to fulfill its promises, but the book actually speaks to a much wider audience and brings together a much confusing and complicated set of discourses that have all claimed particular insights into recent changes in higher education.

For example, “privatization” serves as a useful way to understand how universities have explicitly retreated from working toward the public good. As Charles Dorn’s recent book has attempted to show, universities have shifted their attention more and more to engaging with the market in ways that range from their emphasis on “work force development” to public-private partnerships seeking to monetize university research. Newfeild add nuance to this kind of privatization, by seeing it as both a cause for the fiscal (and cultural crisis) at the university as well as a result of this crisis and the shift toward a viewing the market as the ultimate arbiter of public good.

Elsewhere in his book, Newfield discuss the breakdown between the desperate need for universities, their administrators, and their supporters in the legislature to make they case to the general public for universities as a public good. He demonstrates the complicated political and cultural context for – to use Stefan Collini’s term – “speaking of universities” in the public sphere. In part, university administrators are stuck between the eroding confidence in public institutions (despite their quiet ubiquity in our everyday life) and growing confidence in “free market” technological solutionism, the potential of commercialization, longstanding (if mostly quietly held) belief that the poor are morally or intellectual deficient, and persistent, misplaced faith in the rising economic tide lifting all ships. These are powerful currents in the public discourse that both shape the views of university administrators (and faculty) as well as the views of the general public to whom any appeal to the public good must be made. 

Newfield even engages the conclusions reached by Arum and Roska in their widely read and cited Academically Adrift which argues that in many cases, universities fail to improve fundamental student skills. Newfield shifts the responsibility for these failings from faculty, institutions, or even students to the existing funding models of higher education which tend to support students at private schools or upper tier public institutions with higher levels of funding per student which allows for more intensive teaching practices that emphasize writing, reading, and one-on-one . At UND, for example, funding cuts will lead to larger classes, less teaching support from graduate assistants, and increasing reliance on digitally mediated approaches to instruction and evaluation. While digital tools may serve to bridge in part, Newfield emphasized that, in general, digital solutions have not yet delivered on their promise to make conventional teaching practices obsolete. There will be risks and these risks will both cost money and impact student learning.

Finally, Newfield does take the reader into the weeds of higher education finance with a brilliant little discussion of how sponsored research (predominantly grants) impact the bottom line at universities. Generally speaking, in contemporary academic culture, grants are seen as an important source of income for universities. Despite this, it is well known among administrators, at least, that grants often cost the university money despite the fact that most grants bring with them funds for the indirect cost designed to support the cost of administering the grant, the ongoing investments in research infrastructure, and the longterm cost of the grant in depreciation of equipment and maintenance. In general, Newfield demonstrates, the cost of research exceeds the funds provided by most major federal grants and this gap is covered by other funds. This is intentional as the federal government, in particular, hoped that by limiting the funds not directly focused on research, they will force universities to be more efficient. Instead, it has pushed universities to do research at a loss and continue to go after grants – year after year with growing intensity – to feed the research beast and like a Ponzi scheme director who is increasingly worried about investors making a call, universities must continue to push for grants or, more frequently, seek to privatize support for public research through partnerships with companies, moving tuition dollars to cover research losses, and endowments. These moves, in turn, compromise research for the public good by making it increasingly beholden to private interests (via corporate partnerships and fund raising).

Newfield’s book is sophisticated, smart, and very readable, and unlike many books that seek to understand and resist the current climate in higher education, Newfield’s book shows all the signs of adding persistent value to the ongoing conversation.  Go and get it. 

Uberfication, Branding, and Competition

For this week’s reading in my graduate seminar on the history of higher education, I asked the students to read Gary Hall’s new book, The Uberfication of the University (2016). It’s sort and it’s thought provoking especially if read alongside work’s like Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas (2010) or Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2017). I’ll admit that the latter has informed my reading of Hall’s work, but even without it, The Uberfication of the University represents a subtle and intriguing take on the role of neoliberal ideas in influencing how universities function.

For Hall, the ride-sharing company Uber is emblematic of late capitalism, and his book looks at the impact of certain trends on the way in which the university functions both now and might function, in the future. Uberfication does not just refer to the hiring of low-cost, temporary, adjunct faculty and practices that allow universities to scale up or ramp down faculty across campus to serve student demands while keeping costs low. Uberficiation describes a larger trend in capitalism that promotes the creation of free-lance, microentreprenuers for whom the surveillance society of late capitalism has enforced a kind of the self-subjectification. This is largely done through the ubiquitous collection of data which has shaped our behaviors through the reinforcement of certain economically productive forms of self-discipline. As Hall notes, building on Foucault, the practices associated with surveillance society are normalized through eduction with has become designed to produce data that allows third parties (university administrators, for example) to assess learning as well as monitor student engagement, faculty performance, and educational efficiency. These practices tend to locate the educational process not at the level of the university, department, or curriculum, but at the level of individual performance. Smart faculty (like smart students) learn to “game” the system in various ways which are largely the intended consequences of the system from the start. The concept of uberfication, then, is as much about the use of data to shape individual behavior as it is the development of a permanently contingent workforce (although this is certainly parti of Hall’s critique).  

As a very simple local example from my institutions, we were recently threatened that instructors whose classes did not make enrollments consistently would be reviewed poorly in their annual reviews exposing them to the possibility of termination. While this outcome seems rather unlikely, the threat itself demonstrates the kind of shift that Hall identified. The use of data – in this case the rather coarse measure of enrollment numbers – to shape individual behaviors. It is difficult to blame individuals in this situation from shaping their courses to fit whatever expectations students (and administrators) have.

Hall’s book speaks to three regular themes in my musings on higher education: the development of personal (or institutional) billboards and brands, the use of data, and competition.

One of the key things that Hall connects to uberfication is the development of personal faculty brands (and I’d suggest, by extension, collective and university branding). Of course, I am familiar with the self branding and self promotion. My blog represents a particular crass example of this and the concept of branding extends to include The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and my brief foray into podcasts, for example. While one could argue (and I have) that these are as much about promoting what I do as promoting myself, it is hard to escape the reality that data – page views, download numbers, even citations – represent a crucial measure for assessing the popularity of my particular view of the world and its wider relevance. I’m beyond checking my stats daily and fussing about why one post or another is more popular, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t generally aware of my own performance as a blogger and the performance of my press, for example. (As I was writing this, I posted to a Facebook page a link to my blog. Always. Be. Closing.)

In some ways, this desire to promote one’s own work extends to the level of the university as well. Recently, on our campus, there has been a spate of “billboard building” which doesn’t really involve the construction of literal billboards, but the desire to aggregate, name, and promote certain features of campus life allows for more granular and targeted monitoring of performance and message. It tends to be superficial, of course, just as personal brands tend to be, and have little to do with the creation of actual value or scholarship or even work at the university. It has everything to do with the promoting the institution as a brand.  

The second key feature of uberfication that I’ve been interested in is the use of data. Years ago, a buddy of mine, Mick Beltz wrote a short piece on the way in which online teaching (and I’d extend this to any number of active teaching classroom environments) promotes a vision of teaching consistent with the Foucauldian panopticon. I then riffed a bit on this in an article that was rejected everywhere I sent it. Our ability to monitor students while they work and learn has created a new level of data that allows a conscientious teacher to evaluate and shape learning as a process.

The same kinds of data, of course, can also shape how we as faculty teach and how our programs are funded on campus. For example, at my university, we are contractually obligated to use a piece of student retention called “Starfish” which allows the university to track students carefully through their careers, but also requires faculty to generate data about students (and in turn condition faculty to see engaging with students as a data producing endeavor). In other words, software like Starfish uses and generates data that supports student retention by mimicking, in some way, the rather more data resistant experience of faculty actually engaging with their students in a genuine and unstructured way.

(Part of this is a long tail, I’d argue, of professionalization that encourages faculty to see what we do as contractual structured engagements with particular kinds of work. As a result, unstructured work like a hallway conversation with a student or reading and thinking about a book fits awkwardly into standards articulated within in contracts.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that professionalization has been a boon to academia by creating a level playing field of expectations for job-applicants, faculty, and students. On the other hand, as we continue to seek fairness in consistently structured data points, we are also moving away from the personal connections that make education (and I’d argue academia) a rewarding place.)    

Hall does not shy away from observing that the core feature of uberfication is the role that competition plays in the the monetization of self. I’ve thought a good bit about how the “marketplace of idea” between and within college campuses has led to increasingly extravagant billboards and increasingly impoverished factories. Uber, itself, is largely a billboard (at best) that collects data (and monetizes it) to position itself more prominently (to collect more data and money). Uber has very little investment in the actual rides that are “shared.”

As competition becomes more and more of hallmark of higher education, Hall argues that the quest for data, assessment, billboard making, has fundamentally undermined the viability of higher education. Through time, higher education has changed from a densely integrated and personal experience where students and faculty work closely together to create education to an assembly line of requirements and, now, to a uberfied service that compiles and responds to data in an effort to promote the efficiency of their product. I share Hall’s fear that the uberfication of higher education cares too little of the wellbeing of its students and its workers and too much for demonstrable efficiencies that easily promote its mission to stakeholders and funders. 

Teaching Tuesday: Writing a Course Description for my Class on the UND Budget Cuts

This weekend, I put fingers to keyboard to produce a course description for my honors course in the 2015-2017 University of North Dakota budget cuts.

My course description had to accommodate three basic assumptions. First, students generally are not interested in their universities from an institutional or historical perspective. I once taught a class on the history of the University of North Dakota and most students found it boring in comparison to, say, Nazis or Romans. Second, the course has to have both specific learning goals (i.e. gaining a better understanding of complex institutions and UND in particular) as well as general learning goals (i.e. analyzing a range of documents to produce a narrative and analysis). Finally, it needs to produce something tangible and public. I’m thinking a little book titled A Student’s Guide to the UND Budget with an accompanying website.

So here goes: 

Between 2015 and 2017, the University of North Dakota experienced a series of seemingly unprecedented budget cuts. These results in a flurry of media coverage, cut programs, transformed priorities, and – perhaps most predictably – outrage. Faculty and staff lost jobs, academic, athletic and student programs were cut or modified, and campus life became punctuated with news of the latest cuts, public fora, and discussions.

Budgets are a fundamental aspect of most complex institutions, and in this way UND is no different than a company enduring an economic downturn or any other public institution experiencing retrenchment. The main difference between a university and these other entities, is that the university positions itself – at least for four or five years – as the source for a comprehensive experience that includes both most aspects of daily life (room, board, safety) and a student’s intellectual, social, and cultural life. Budget changes at the university can transform in basic ways a students experience during the fraught transition to adulthood.  

This course will explore the complex series of decisions, assumptions, and expectations that led to the 2015-2017 budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Along the way, we’ll think critically about the history of higher education, the history of UND, and how complex institutions make decisions, execute plans, and respond to crises. We will explore these issues through a wide range of readings, projects that allow us to dig into various sources and data related to the cuts, and guest lectures from various people involved in the cuts.

In the end, we will produce a short guide for your fellow students (and maybe the general public) that explains what happened, how it happened, and why we should all care! (Let’s call it: A Student’s Guide to the UND Budget). The course will be fun.

Teaching Thursday: New Classes, New Methods, New Goals

Yesterday our department had a 3-hour meeting to discuss how we might adjust our curriculum now that our graduate program has been de-funded. The positive side of this is that we will have the ability to offer more classes at the undergraduate level, and this opens the door to developing a more innovative approach to how we teach. At the same time, we also have declining enrollments in our history major, which is more or less a national trend, and this combines with more stringent expectations on enrollments in individual courses, a changing landscape of “essential studies” requirements, a growing emphasis in “high impact practices” in our classroom, a recognition that a number of my colleagues will be retiring in the next 5 years, and a new school in our college (The School of Everything Everywhere Studies). 

It many ways it is an exciting time at the University of North Dakota, but it’s also a bit stressful and confusing time for the Department of History. There are some great opportunities to innovate, but also very real consequences if our innovation is less than successful. If our classes don’t enroll and they get cancelled, this could be read as a lack of demand and the consequences of this could be administrative and impact our resources and opportunities moving forward.  

While I recognize that these pressures are fairly common in academia, they impact me personally right now because I need to revitalize a few long dormant upper level classes. I’ve made it no secret that my preference is to teach big sweeping classes like Western Civilization or The Historians Craft. I like to innovate at scale and iterate in classes taught every semester rather than once every two or three years. It seems unlikely that I’ll have this luxury moving forward.

In fact, I’m going to have to dust off some classes that I last taught in the early 2000s like History of Greece and Roman History. When I taught these courses they were basically lecture and discussion and had a couple papers. They were scaled to work at 40-60 students. With our declining enrollments and the changing educational expectations, I will have to try to adapt these classes to a new educational environment with new methods and new learning goals. I literally have no idea how to do this. Part of my hopes that the department will develop their courses leaving mine to stand as “old school” experiences that evoke an earlier era.

I like to imagine that this earlier era emphasized that doing history was learning history. In other words, the humanities weren’t sensationalized, gamified, TedTalk-ed, revolutionary, or remixed to be made more palatable. The idea that history is craft (and the title of our historical methods course) emphasizes that history teaching is, at its very core, practical, vocational, and experiential. We don’t have to create some kind of student engagement experience to communicate what it is like to be a historian or to do history because students write history from the first paper in their first history class. Students don’t learn in a simulated environment (even the rhythm of the semester is more or less consistent with deadlines) like in more professional programs. Students don’t have internships or residencies because every class is an internship designed to produce historical scholarship that is substantively no different from what professional historians do.

That we struggle to see the work in the humanities classroom in the 21st century as experiential, active, and high impact, is the consequence of our growing immersion in hyperreality and our addiction to the spectacular.