Reflections on Joel Jonientz

It’s been four years since Joel Jonientz died. This is a long time under any circumstances, but these days four years ago feels like a completely different world to me. Maybe some of this has to do with the “sold” sign on the Jonientz house down the street. Maybe some of this has to do with just getting older. Maybe some of this reflects the relentless pace of change that even encroaches on my little corner of North Dakotaland.

Punka cover 1

Recently, I’ve been thinking about collaboration and work at the University of North Dakota, and these are things that Joel and I talked about regularly. I was particularly interested in understand what a university could do (and should do) to cultivate a spirit of collaboration among its faculty. Joel was a veteran collaborator across UND’s campus who was part of the Working Group in Digital and New Media, co-organized the UND Arts and Culture Conference, worked with the UND Writers Conference to design their posters and to moderate panels, applied (and won) collaborative grants to animate Maya poetry, and who helped me co-found The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

There were particular circumstances that allowed for the emergence of collaborative culture on UND’s campus in those days. First, there was relative stability on campus which gave faculty the confidence that collaborative initiatives would have the time and space to develop. Second, there were resources earmarked for grassroots collaborative ventures that authorized faculty led initiatives. Finally, there was a spirit of collegiality among faculty that softened our competitive instincts. In other words, there were institutional, financial, and social conditions that encouraged the development of collaboration.  

Despite the opportunities to collaborate, I remained a bit more tentative in my approach to on-campus partnerships. I had long-justified my reluctance to embrace collaboration fully as having a rather specialized set of research interests and also being relatively slow to pivot from one area of interest to the next. Joel in contrast, always demonstrated a kind of dynamism that allowed up to cultivate multiple niches from video game designer to poster maker, painter, time-based media artist, and publisher. These skills, which derive – as he used to put it – from being a “Master of FINE Arts” gave him a tool set that was both in demand and well-suited for collaboration.

(In hindsight, I probably didn’t quite understand how to collaborate on campus and how to listen as much as I spoke. I probably don’t quite have the balance for that down yet, but I’m working on it.)

One of the key things that got me thinking about Joel’s attitudes toward collaboration and the conditions that allowed collaboration to flourish among my group of colleagues is a recent post from a colleague that said, in effect, “no one should be allowed to work for free.” It echoed a quip I once heard from a faculty member in engineering. He said that over the summer, “I don’t work because I don’t get paid.” 

This struck me as a bit odd. After all, most academics work for free over the course of their careers. In fact, the entire pay structure of academia, in which some faculty make more than others for doing essentially the same job, dictates that one persons work is worth more (and worse less) than another’s. So as long as I do the same job as my better compensated colleagues, I am, in effect, doing work for free in the hope that my efforts will be recognized and, at some future time, compensated.

Joel tended to insist that he be compensated for his work, except when he didn’t. For example, he did most of the design and layout work for my Punk Archaeology project for free. I never really understood how he determined what he expected to be paid for and what he’d do because it was fun, and what he considered contract work and what he considered collaboration. I’m sure the line was blurry, but I also suspect – in hindsight – that it had something to do with how he valued the work.

Collaboration, it seems to me, involves both parties valuing the work more or less equally. It is possible, then, to “work for free” because the work itself has value outside of or beyond compensation. For this kind of system to function, there needs to be a tremendous amount of trust between collaborators as well as the practical recognition that the project will benefit all parties. This kind of trust develops most fully in stable environments, where access to resources softens the edge of competition that so much of academia cultivates. 

I’m still working on collaborative projects. Eric Burin and I work together to publish timely works at The Digital Press. Paul Worley and I have been working with a group of editors to keep North Dakota Quarterly thriving. I work with David Pettegrew, Scott Moore, Amy PapalexandrouDimitri Nakassis, Sarah James, and others every summer on archaeological projects. I’m enjoying tremendously the collaboration with students and colleagues on the Wesley College Documentation Project. My work with Richard Rothaus and Bret Weber on the North Dakota Man Camp Project is a source of constant excitement.

I like to think that these collaboration share Joel’s spirit in some ways, but I also can’t help but wonder whether there would be more or different opportunities if Joel was still around. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Letters of Edward P. Roberston of Wesley College

This semester, I’ve been working with a remarkable group of students on the Wesley College Documentation Project. The goal of this project is to document the four buildings on campus associated with Wesley College, a unique co-institutional college that worked alongside UND to provide music, religious education, and housing for students enrolled in both UND and Wesley College. As part of that project, I’ve spent a good bit of time with the Wesley College papers and have become transfixed by the work and personality of the College’s first president, Edward P. Robertson. I thought I might share some of his personality with a wider audience by putting together a dossier of his letters from 1935, five years after he had retired as president of Wesley College. The letters were written during the Great Depression when the fate of Wesley College was anything but certain. Robertson’s dedication, persistence, and charm comes through in these letters composed during these difficult times. 

Here’s the link. This is just a first draft of this work. Here’s my temporary cover with the preface below: 

LettersRobertsonCover6 01

The Letters of Edward Robertson, President Emeritus, Wesley College, from 1935

Preface

This collection of letters by Dr. Edward P. Robertson is the first draft of a hazy idea that I’ll attempt to explain in this short preface.

Dr. Edward Peter Robertson was the first president of Wesley College in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He was hired by the board of trustees of Red River Valley University in Whapeton, North Dakota in 1899. After a few years in Whapeton, he and the board decided that Grand Forks, North Dakota offered better opportunities for an institution of higher learning, and he successfully oversaw the moving of Red River Valley University from Whapeton to Grand Forks, where he rechristened it, Wesley College, in 1905. The reasons for this move are both complex and simple. Robertson felt that there was a better chance for the college to attract students and raise the necessary funds to operate if it were closer to the center of the state’s population which was largely concentrated in the Red River valley. From early on, Roberston recognized the importance of raising money from donors for Wesley College to succeed, and this understanding would shape his presidency and legacy.

This is not to suggest that he neglected the intellectual and spiritual aspects of running a Methodist College. In fact, the other reason that he founded Wesley College in Grand Forks was because of a remarkable arrangement he struck with the President of the University of North Dakota, Webster Merrifield. Merrifield and Robertson agreed that Wesley College would offer housing and courses for University of North Dakota students in religion, music, and elocution and expression and that these courses would count for credit at UND.

In 1908, 1909, and 1910, the first of three buildings at Wesley College opened, Sayre Hall, Larimore Hall, and Corwin Hall. The first two were men’s and women’s dormitories respectively and the third offered space for the music program and university offices. It is no exaggeration to say that in its first two decades, Wesley College moved from strength to strength with programs regularly enrolling as many as 400 students at various levels. They also maintained the attention of loyal and generous donors who ensured that the College had more than tuition and housing fees alone could provide.

The 1920s and early-1930s, however, were more difficult times. The agricultural crisis of the 1920s was bad for North Dakota, Wesley College students, and local donors. This did not discourage Robertson from securing funding from John Milton Hancock for the construction of what would become Robertson Hall which opened in 1930 and which completed a plan for the Wesley College first conceived in 1905.

The same year also saw Robertson’s retirement from the office of President of Wesley College, but the onset of the Great Depression and the worsening of the College’s financial situation, meant that his services were more needed than ever. Almost as soon as he had retired, the 70-year-old Robertson began to canvass his long-time donors for the increasingly urgent needs of the College. Unfortunately, many of these families suffered from the same economic woes as so many Americans and could no longer afford the same generosity that they had shown in the past. More troubling still is that some of the long-time supporters of the College had begun to question whether this undertaking would survive.

Frank Lynch, one of the more devoted supporters of Wesley College, withdrew his support and then agreed to donate more only if Wesley College could raise some funds first. Unfortunately, the details of this agreement remain a bit obscure (although some or another document may well emerge from the archives illuminating the agreement in detail). It appears as though Lynch offered Wesley College $150,000 in his will for an endowment in addition to $25,000 which he would make available immediately if College’s could manage to raise the necessary funds to pay its debt of $60,000 and to cover operating expenses. Using this offer, Robertson began a letter writing campaign to raise the needed funds.

The letters published here come from the Wesley College Papers (UA63, Box 1) currently housed in UND’s Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collection’s University Archives. They all date from the year 1935 and document Robertson’s efforts to raise money on the basis of the Frank Lynch offers and to manage or eliminate the College’s debt. They reflect both Roberston’s determination and passion for Wesley College as well as a kind of congenial and person style of writing. The letters reveal the economic challenges of the time, extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion, and even some of the mundane obstacles that face anyone attempting to do good. They also lay bare Robertson’s occasional frustrations, disappointments, and genuine concern surrounding the fate of the institution to which he devoted his life.

More than that, they’re touching to read.

This publication is part of the Wesley College Documentation Project which is a multidisciplinary project to celebrate both the history of Wesley College and its unique place in the history of the University of North Dakota. In June of this year, the four major buildings of Wesley College are slated for demolition, but it is our hope that documenting these buildings and the Wesley College story will keep the College’s memory alive.

As I noted in the onset of this document, this is a draft publication which will hopefully develop over time and be joined by other works that tell the story of Wesley College. We hope the story of this college and the characters who shared its vision offers enduring perspectives that continue to have meaning today.  

Special thanks goes to the ten students who have worked with me on this project and the staff of UND’s Special Collections and UND’s Facilities Department who have facilitated our research throughout.

William Caraher

Associate Professor
Department of History
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

How to Rate Research: A Strange Little Proposal

This weekend, I got to thinking about how scholars in the humanities might rate their research productivity and quality. This line of thinking was prompted by both a new university mandate that scholars in the humanities and social sciences figure out how to rank or evaluate our publications and a reading of I. Stengers’s Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science (2018)

The problem is a long-standing one. First, as scholars a pecking order already exists, largely in our own minds, for what constitutes a good publication and what may not be. In general, this follows the basic contours of journal and publisher quality but also is riddled with meaningful exceptions and ambiguities that are significant when evaluating research for a relatively small sample like a department. Over time, I think most of us would agree that top tier journals (e.g. the American Historical Review or American Journal of Archaeology) generally publish better articles, especially over time, but this does not exclude the possibility of good articles appearing in less well regarded journals. The latter becomes particularly important when, say, reviewing the research of a smaller department, like ours, whose annual output might not map neatly onto long-standing patterns of quality. Moreover, having a nuanced system that goes beyond the typical lists of journal rating makes it possible to rate  the quality of highly specialized work that might not fit into the broad purview of many top tier journals, but is nevertheless significant. Decisions to publish specialized work destined for specialized audiences are often shaped by considerations of “fit” rather than overall ratings of journal quality. (And this will likely better accommodate the growing mandate to shift our research focus to so-called “Grand Challenges” which may reward more specialized foci that are different from larger trends in our specific disciplines.) Finally, in a small department with a rather irregular output, an ideal system will allow for the occasional misfired article or publication that has higher quality than the ranking of a publication. Over time, such exceptions will become outliers as most of the best article appear in most of the best journals, but with an annual review based on a small sample, these exceptions might have a meaningful impact on efforts to evaluate a department.

Here’s my proposal.

Each publication receives five scores provided by the scholar (who, in a department like ours, is the only person really able to judge the character of the field).

1. Rank. 25 points. This is the most standard evaluation of publication quality. Better quality journals and publishing houses get higher scores with the standard gaggle of top tier journals and publishing houses (Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard, et c.) scoring in the top quintile and so on. This should be most susceptible to the “smell test;” that is we should be able to smell an overrated or underrated journal or publishing outfit.

2. Type. 25 points. Generally speaking the gold standard in my corner of the humanities are peer-reviewed books and articles as a result these would occupy the top quintile here. The next quintile would be peer reviewed book chapters or edited peer-reviewed works, with the third quartile representing book chapters and other solicited articles. I would rank review essays, non-peer reviewed popular pieces or editorials, next and then book reviews and shorter conference proceedings in the bottom quintile. By allowing for some wiggle room in each quintile, we can distinguish between, say, a peer review in a top tier journal and one in a small regional outfit. We can also allow for various exceptions. Obviously, a 6,000 review essay in a top tier journal might be more significant and impactful than a short review essay for an online publisher. Again, most of this should follow the smell test.  

3. Fit. 25 points. One issue with the general journal rankings is that they tend to be biased toward traditional fields of study and research accessible to a large audience (and therefore sweeping and generalizable). In some ways, this is a good thing, but it also tends to overlook the daily grind of folks working to produce significant specialized knowledge, to explore overlooked periods and places in the past (cough… North Dakota or Cyprus), to chart new subfields (archaeology of the contemporary world, for example, or UAS), and to develop methods or theory of most use to specialists. A fit score allows us to reward articles that appear in places where they are likely to find a receptive audience rather than simply appearing in the “to ranked” journals. Again, for a small department like ours, this rewards on an annual basis work that might not find a home in a top tier journal but has an obvious and interested audience. This would reward, say, an article in an edited volume dedicated to a narrow topic, specialized research that tends to appear in less prestigious regional or specialist journals, or even books that appear in a series developed by a regional press.  

4. Quality. 25 points. This will likely be the most controversial category in my ranking system, but I contend that most of us can be honest about the quality of our own work. In other words, we know when we write a good piece or a mediocre one, but we also know that there are times when an article or chapter simply isn’t as good as we wanted it to be (but still good enough for publication). This self-awareness also serves as the counter-balance to poor fit. For example, one of my favorite and best articles ever appeared in rather obscure Hesperia Supplement. While my fit score would be pretty low and the type and ranking of the publication, for example, would be middling, the quality of the article is high. The same could be said for my “Slow Archaeology” article in North Dakota Quarterly. Some other articles of mine trend the other way, of course, and represent rather low quality offerings in very good journals.

5. Other Considerations. 10 points. Like any system, there needs to be some flexibility to take into account considerations that the existing publishing and academic system does not cover. For example, a book that makes innovative use of published data, an open access publication, or even a more conventional work, like the publication of a series of lectures, that might not correlate neatly with our established categories. It would also allow for us to mark particular involved pieces of research or to denote research that has won awards or other distinctions. The considerations will have to be spelled out.

~

To be honest, I’m not sure that a system like this will satisfy my colleagues or the powers that have requested this kind of ranking, but to my mind, this kind of system, that takes into account rankings, types of scholarly output, fit, and quality. It allows for nuance, while at the same time offers an easy to read “quantitative” score that fits the limited attention span of the assessocracy. Finally, including “fit” and “quality” responds to some fo the factors that people like Stengers or Gary Hall’s Uberfication of the University. (2016), which critique our tendency to conform to rankings systems imposed on us from outside of our programs, disciplines, and departments. It seems to be, at least, that a system like this that is both reflective of our own values (as individual scholars) and larger trends in academia (which despite what we say, do matter) offers another path toward understanding what makes us good scholars.

NDQuesday: The Humanities in Age of Austerity: A Case Study from the University of North Dakota (Complete Draft)

Four weeks ago,  I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it hereyou can find the second part here, the third part here, and the fourth part hereLast Tuesday, I had hoped to have these combined into a single document by around noon. Let’s say that I’m around 130 hours late (I hope you’ll still accept my work!).

This morning I put together the introduction.

So, you can go and read the introduction below or go and read the entire paper here. If you’re feeling generous, I’d love some comments. Here’s a link to the document in Hypothes.is allowing for annotations.

If you’ve been just reading along over the last few weeks and down really want to see how this train wreck of an essay turned out, but are a bit of a completist, you can just read the introduction below:

Introduction

In January 2018, I took the helm of North Dakota Quarterly, a public humanities journal housed at the University of North Dakota. In the previous year or so, we had seen our budget eliminated including the funding for our long-serving managing editor and our subscription manager. This occurred amid a series of budget cuts across the university, a change in university leadership, and a new budget model backed by a new strategic plan and a newly clarified set of institutional priorities.

The changes at the University of North Dakota were both predictable and shocking. On the one hand, the cuts to North Dakota Quarterly were not a surprise. We had been operating on borrowed time for at least a few years and had struggled to adapt our venerable publication to the changing landscape of publishing and higher education. On the other hand, the increased scrutiny of the budget across campus, academic programs, and the work rhythms of faculty and staff were unsettling and threw the largely peaceful culture of university life into tumult. As someone who had worked at UND for almost 15 years, I can honestly say that nothing prepared me for how quickly campus culture changed.

I was not prepared to compete with my colleagues in other colleges for resources and students. The sudden attention to such minutia as the percentages in faculty contracts, enrollment numbers in upper level classes, and the square footage of offices seemed misplaced and distrustful. The growing use of digital tools to measure and document faculty productivity and student progress seemed intrusive and, at best, redundant with longstanding practices and, at worst, reductionist or crassly corporate. It felt like certain members of the administration had committed to stifling the longstanding North Dakota practice of doing more with less, by insisting instead that we do what the administration expected with less. Whatever collective spirit and camaraderie that the former developed, the latter undermined. In just under two years, the university culture seemed to shift from one of creativity and collaboration to one of compliance and coercion.   

Like many of my colleagues, I looked both locally and nationally to understand the context for these changes. I read widely in both the latest and classic books on higher education policy, criticism, and history. I even agreed to teach a class on the budget cuts and to serve as chair of the Graduate Committee and to represent the Graduate School on the Senate Budget Committee. My hope is that engaging the budget cuts as a intellectual problem, I could come to understand the shifting culture at UND and nationally and find ways to turn the soured campus culture into the refreshing lemonade of field study.

The following essay is my first effort to understand systematically the changes at UND within the wider context of reform in the academy. The essay is grounded in three approaches. First, I was guided by the work of Christopher Newfield in the higher education budgeting and finance (Newfield 2016); Louis Menand (2010), David Labaree (2017), and Stefan Collini (2017) on university policy and rhetoric; and John Thelin (2010), Laurence Veysey (1965), Charles Dorn (2016) on the history of higher education. Next, David Harvey (2005), David Graeber (2015), and James C. Scott (2009; 2012) have helped me to grasp the interaction of neoliberalism, bureaucracy, and the creative freedoms of anarchy. The various critiques of Taylorism and in the market offered by these scholars resonated with my experiences studying the Bakken oil patch (Caraher and Weber 2017; Caraher et al. 2017), critiques of technology (Morozov 2013; Kansa 2016; Caraher 2016), and general despair for life in a modern world wracked by eviction (Desmond  2016; Bruder 2017), expulsions (Sassen 2014), and borders and refugees (Jones 2016; Andersson 2014). Two works in particular motivated me to think harder. Mark Fleming’s critique of neoliberal time discipline among mass transit workers in San Francisco (Fleming 2016) and Gary Hall’s book on the “uberfication” of the university (Hall 2016). These two works helped crystalize in my mind the complex intersection of rhetoric, neoliberal practice, and the deeply entrenched commitment to see the world (as well as the university) in terms of winners and losers. 

My essay is a product of this motley reading list, my experiences as a spectator and participant in the recent changes at the University of North Dakota, and conversations with students, colleagues and administrators. My hope is that even if I’m wrong in my reading of our current situation at UND, my essay will still do good.

Teaching Thursday: The Syllabus for a Class on the UND Budget Cuts

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had a growing interest in higher education policy and history. Most of this stems from my close attention to a series of budget cuts here at the University of North Dakota and my general dissatisfaction with the deluge of publications on the history and policy in higher education. Most of these seem to be either technocratic or variations on the jeremiad which presupposes a crisis in order to hand-wring (at worst) or to justify radical or reactionary changes in the practice and policies in higher education.   

While I was fretting about this, I decided to offer a “pop up class” in our honors program on the UND budget with the idea that it would be useful to learn how students view both higher education, in general, and UND in particular. It would also give me a chance to “think out loud” about the constant state of flux at UND and the prevailing sense of crisis. Some of those “out loud” thoughts have become part of an essay that I’m writing for a special issue of North Dakota Quarterly (part 1, part 2, part 3).

My thinking over the past year or so has shaped the course’s four goals:

  1. To become more familiar with the complexities of the modern university and UND, in particular. 
  2. To encourage critical thinking about the institutional structure of higher education in the U.S. in a historical context and local context.
  3. To understand the relationship between the institutional organization and the purpose of the university. 
  4. To produce a short guide to the UND budget for students that allows them to be more critical consumers and participants in university life.

The main books that I’m using are Christopher Newfields, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2016), which I blogged about here, and David Labaree’s A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (2017) which I’ve blogged about here.

I’ll do my best to keep folks up dated on my class. In the meantime, do check out my syllabus which I’ve posted here.

Markets, Billboards, and Higher Education: David Labaree’s A Perfect Mess

However liberal academics tend to be in their politics and intellectual life, we tend to be conservative about our views of our institutions. In fact, our view of university life is more then just conservative; it’s down right nostalgic. Our image of the American university tends to celebrate a fair narrow period in its history dating from the mid-1950s (post-McCarthy) to the mid-1960s (pre-Vietnam era protests). This period saw the rapid expansion of the university system, heightened commitments to faculty freedom and governance, and a substantial influx of federal research dollars (and a concomitant commitment to research). At the same time, faculty leadership drew from the interwar generation who continued to reflect the early-20th century biases in higher education: they were largely white, upper and middle class, and male. Thus, there was continuity and some consensus in terms of values and authority. At the same time, higher education leadership and administration had not yet professionalized and exerted a relative weak counter weight to assertions of faculty governance.    

Over the last week, I read David Labaree’s new book, A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (Chicago 2017). Labaree makes the important observation that higher education in America has always been, in part, market driven. The diversity of funding sources – student tuition, grants, private donors, and direct support of state and federal government – and correspondingly wide range of stakeholders (alumni, faculty, communities, students, legislators, et c.) forced the American system of higher education to respond continuously to market forces.   

For Labaree, the market is what allowed the American system of higher education to thrive because it forced higher education to respond to a range of developing needs. In contrast to European system of higher education where state funding dominates research and teaching at the university level and mediates between market (and democratic) forces and higher education, the American system has direct contact with markets as students vote with their feet, donor vote with their wallets, and the legislation shapes the direction and character of academic life. 

This being said, Labaree does recognize certain counter currents that subvert various stakeholder pressures in higher education as well. For example, he notes that pressures to accommodate professional and even vocation training within higher education are consistently subverted by the long-standing tendency for universities and colleges to imitate higher raking (and usually wealthier and older) institutions. These institutions, rather more insulated by dint of large endowments and long-standing traditions and expectations among large and influential alumni, tend to embrace the traditional liberal arts and curriculum with an emphasis on broad, general education. This tendency combines with pressures from employers and even students to provide broad rather than focused training and pulls professional and vocation programs into becoming always more academic (despite billboards presenting their narrower emphasis on job training and direct applicability on the job market). 

Of course, this pressure for lower tier universities to imitate their higher ranking peers, never really succeeds. Labaree points out that every ceiling for schools and their graduates is really another schools floor. The value of degrees from elite institutions always carry more weight than less well-established newcomers irrespective of architectural, academic, or curricular imitation. Thus, like so many aspects of American higher education, the appearance of competition and the appearance of the open market does more to shape institutions than any real opportunities for advancement by either students or institutions. Moving up through the ranks of universities rarely happens and even the best students from lower tier schools can’t compete on a level playing field with students from elite universities (with a handful of well-known exceptions).

In this regard, Labaree’s book offers another – smarter and more subtle take – on my billboard versus factory analogy that I have developed over a series of posts (here, here, and here). Moreover, I wonder how Labaree’s conceptualization of higher education shapes universities enduring the most recent wave of austerity which is coupled with the acceleration of market forces. The conservative brakes on higher education both within and without, dig in all the more heavily as markets change and capital all the more quickly in the 21st century. 

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.

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.

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.