Random Thoughts on Publishing and The Digital Press

Over the next month or so, I’m going to roll out a new little imprint at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. It’ll be called, The Student Press, and it’ll to focus on student work or class projects that deserve a wider audience. 

The first two volumes that will appear in this series are the small book produced by my graduate seminar last year titled The Graduates’ Manifesto: Defending History. The second volume will come from a class that I’m teaching this semester on the the University of North Dakota budget and be called A Students Guide to the UND Budget

For some reason, I want to create a kind of thematic consistency in the book covers and draw on design cues used in 1960s-1970s book covers. Maybe it’s because these covers evoke my student days. 

I also have this not-so-great idea to publish a series of letters from the Wesley College archive as part of the Wesley College Documentation Project. In the 1930s, Wesley College was in dire financial shape. The regular flow of income from traditional donors, like Frank Lynch and A.J. Sayre, had suffered from the Great Depression and the the drought of the 1920s. Wesley College was in debt and was struggling to pay its bills. In 1931, Charles Wallace took the helm of the struggling institution replacing the first president, Edward Robertson. Roberston was a very hands-on president and have close personal relationships with both donors and creditors. As a result, he took the lead in negotiating forbearance for debts and balancing the generosity of donors with the understanding desire of creditors to be paid in full. 

The idea would be to produce a little book of these letters with a short introduction and to call it something like “A Study in Austerity: Donors and Debt in a Small College.”

Finally, how great are these cover sheets from the one-line drawings of buildings on UND’s campus?  

Buildings and Grounds  Floor Plans  Robertson Sayre Hall  NO 57  dragged

UA75 3 19 19  dragged

Teaching Thursday: Using a Building for Unstructured Teaching

This semester I’m teaching two very different classes to a similar (and somewhat overlapping) group of students. The student response to the two different classes is pretty different and I think I have a grasp as to why (although one can never entirely isolate the variables!) and I’m not sure that it’s entirely “fixable,” but it is at least intriguing enough to me to warrant a little blog post.

As a bit of preface, I have always benefited from structure. When structure is absent, I tend to create it. I’m a creature of routines, self-imposed deadlines, and arbitrary, but deeply held goals. Academically, I always sought out structured educational environments and gravitated toward languages which required daily discipline and history which conducted a syncopated rhythm of writing and reading. I have generally tried to bring this sense of structure to my classes, but over the past decade or so of teaching, I’ve found that, in some cases, my love of structure has produced a kind of compliance culture among students who see the structure less as an opportunity to systematically explore a topic and more as a series of tasks to be completed for points and, ultimately, a grade. As a result, I’ve gradually backed off from some of the more structured aspects of classes and now even build open days into my classes so that we have more flexibility to approach a challenging concept or skill or just get a breather. 

This semester, I’m teaching a three-credit honors class on the UND budget and guiding students through the complexities of a large institution with a large budget to get them to understand where various decisions and structures impact their lives. I’ve tried to balance the need for structure and the need for more conversational and exploratory time in the class. Over the semester, though, I’ve probably tipped the balance more toward structure lately. The results have been a bit predictable as the class has slowly slid into a kind of sleepy malaise as the students look to me to frame the next challenge. This isn’t bad, but as we have six weeks left to the semester and the larger project of completing a small book on the budget for students is going to require creativity, energy, and independence. I hope I haven’t stifled that.

Some of the same students are taking another, one-credit, class focused on documenting two buildings associated with Wesley College on UND’s campus and what we’ve called the “Wesley College Documentation Project.” This class is completely unstructured. Aside from causing me some late-night anxiety and following a loose set of practices – for example, we’re systematic in how we document the modern spaces and objects left behind in the building – but the goals of the activity remain pretty open ended. What’s remarkable is that the students are more engaged and enthusiastic.

Of course, the class isn’t even bound by the structure of the classroom, much less the tyranny of the contractual syllabus or a set of well (and narrowly) defined education outcomes. In fact, the class is much more like play than my typical classes. The time in the abandoned buildings is filled with music, laughter, as well as pondering, serious conversations, and unanswered questions. While this isn’t a profound observation, I wonder whether students don’t actually get more out of such an open-ended, play-oriented class.  

NDQuesday: Three Thoughts on a Tuesday Morning

Today is one of those super hectic days that’ll run from before 7 am until after 8 pm with barely time for quick bites to eat and think between obligations. These obligations are almost all good and fun, but “wowf” will today be full.

There are three things on my mind about NDQ this week, though, and I present them here.

The First Thing

I worked this weekend on trimming and streamlining my contribution to the NDQ special issue on Humanities in the Age of Austerity. I did four things. First, I tried to make it all a bit more direct a bit less like an academic paper. Whenever I try to write for a public audience, I find myself being dragged back into academic writing. So I cut out the most egregious examples of academic writing (including the more or less dreadful bibliographic paragraphs). This helped focus my article on NDQ as an example of the situation in the humanities on a national level. Third, I tried to develop my concept of the billboard and the factory a bit more clearly. To my mind, this is really the heart of the paper and whatever its flaws, I think it offers a genuine perspective on my view of higher education. In a sentence: we’re are too interested in demonstrating the efficiency of our methods (this is the billboard which is constantly telling our stakeholders that we’re efficient, careful with public funds, and open to private partnerships) and not interested enough in selling the product (which is education, research, and various non-market advantages to society). Maybe the metaphor is a bit weak or tortured, but I’m sticking with it. Finally, the original version of the paper ended in a depressing way. While I still feel pessimistic about the future of the current version of higher education in the face of the long trajectory of American (and, really, global) political culture.

If you’re interested in how the sausage is made, check out the newest version of my paper here.

The Second Thing

In my class on the UND Budget (Cuts), I’ve become pretty interested in the idea of privatization and value. Christopher Newfield has argued that privatization has cost public higher education dearly in that most ploys to privatize aspects of university life has lead to greater costs for students, fewer resources for faculty and teaching, less efficiency and fewer opportunities for innovation. In other words, privatization is more about transferring public wealth to the private sphere and less about any real benefits for higher education.

UND is poised to see several major private initiatives on campus in the coming months. Like most public universities we have already enjoyed some of the opportunities from public/private partnerships and seen privatization nibble along the edges of university life with private dorm-style apartments ringing campus, private vendors leasing spaces in the student union, private companies handling key function like email, course management software, and the technology help desk. In many of these cases, the private sector has leveraged economies of scale and experience to provide a superior solution than could be achieved in house (but at an obvious cost). At the same time, each contract has eroded some of the university’s autonomy to function and made it a partner both in generating wealth for shareholders who have no real interest in the mission of the university and in producing the next generation of students as consumers. In particular, privatization reinforces the idea that the market is the main measure of value.

This of course, leads me to the terrifying topic of value. For most of my academic career, I’ve looked at the concept of value with fear and admiration. On the one hand, the folks who speak most fluently on value are clearly steeped in Marx and Das Kapital and The Poverty of Philosophy (and elsewhere). It’s complicated and to acquire even a basic familiarity with the ideas requires sustained commitment to a dense body of literature.

Despite these challenges, it seems essential to understand value in the context of higher education. What is higher education worth and how do we measure it?

Where do I start?

The Third Thing

This is still a bit of a secret, but only a little bit of a secret. Next week at the Associate of Writers and Writing Programs, the University of Nebraska Press will announce that they have reached a verbal agreement to become the publishing partner with North Dakota Quarterly. This will be a big step for NDQ which has since 1911 been published in house at UND.

Part of me is happy and relieved that Nebraska will take on NDQ and help us expand our reader and subscriber base, to manage subscriptions and distribution, and to help with production.

Part of my is a bit bummed, though, as it makes the end of an era of independent publishing of NDQ on our campus and it feels a bit like we’re selling out. Of course, selling out is, as always, relative. UNP is a non-profit, academic press, so it’s not like we’ve sold to Pearson or some profit-driven publisher. And while we will, inevitably, lose some autonomy and independence, our editorial independence will be maintained. And, we’ll have a partner to help us expand our reach and our impact.

After all, the goal of NDQ isn’t just produce a journal, but to produce a journal that matters.

Teaching Thursday: Two Classes and a Textbook

I haven’t written a Teaching Thursday for a while, and this semester, my teaching has been particularly invigorating (aside from having to fix a million broken links in an online class!). 

Teaching the Controversy: The UND Budget

First, my class on the University of North Dakota’s budget cuts has been a joy to teach. (Here is my syllabus). In fact, I’m doing far less teaching and mostly working hard to stay out of the way as the students explore the complexities of higher education. They’ve already wrestled with the big picture issues related to state-supported higher education as a “public good” and the small scale complexities of the methods used to distribute funds on campus. They chatted with our budget gurus, a dean, and, this week, with UND’s Provost. Next week, we welcome a vice chancellor, the following, an important legislator, and then the VP of Research and the Dean of the Graduate School at UND. We’re working our way through Christopher Newfield’s book, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Johns Hopkins 2016). As we gain momentum in the next six weeks, I’ll post some more substantial information here.

Abandoned Campus Buildings as Laboratory Classrooms

Second, because I just can’t leave well enough alone, I decided to teach a one-credit (well, this is pending our ability to create a class at his point in the semester and allow students to enroll!) class on two buildings on the UND campus slated to be destroyed this year. The buildings are hybrid structures and twins with the original buildings dating to the first decade of the 20th century and additions dating to the 1920s. They were originally part of Wesley College, a Methodist institution that from its early days was associated with the University of North Dakota and offered classes in arts, music, and religion. They are beaux arts classical in design. A. Wallace McCrea was the architect of at least Sayre and Corwin halls, if not the entire complex. They form the east and west sides of a lovely quad that opens onto University Drive and stand as a orderly counterparts to the college gothic of most of the UND campus. They’ll be missed! 

My plan to document these buildings currently involves three phases. First, we make sure that the architecture of the buildings is thoroughly documented – including plans, 3D scans, and photographs – and the location of the buildings and the surrounding space and situation is documented as carefully as possible. Second, we need to do some archives work and sift through the relatively extensive records on the history of Wesley College and these two hybrid-buildings. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, I’m going to put together a team to comb through the buildings looking for the traces of their past lives in both the building fabric and the things left behind. In short, the last intervention in the life of these buildings will be an archaeological one. 

Open Education Textbooks

The last week or so, I’ve been working my way through a pretty complete draft of an open access textbook on Late Antiquity. The book offers a compelling political and ecclesiastical framework for the Late Antique world. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that some of the author’s discussions of the religious controversies in Late Antiquity are among the clearest that I’ve ever encountered. 

What is intriguing to me is that Late Antiquity, despite being defined by political events and institutions (whether the fall of Rome or the reign of Diocletian, Constantine, Justinian, or Heraclius), has become increasingly described as a series of cultural phenomena ranging from the rise of Christian practices (and various forms of syncretism) to architectural forms, decorative practices (like spoliation), urban transformation, tastes in movable goods, literature, art, and even ritual practice. A political narrative is not necessarily outside the realm of culture, of course, but for Late Antiquity, the long shadow of Peter Brown and his amazing lineage of students has ensured that cultural issues have eclipsed political ones. The concept of the “long late antiquity” is almost always a culture one which argues that despite political and religious differences, certain aspects of the Late Antique world persist into the 7th, 8th, or 9th century. While this sometimes harkens to Pirenne’s old argument that the end of the ancient world occurred when the caliphate moved its capital to Bagdad and the Mediterranean moved from the front yard of both Western Europe and the Early Islamic world to their collective backyard, it also embraced similarities and connection around the Mediterranean that produces common cultural affinities. 

In the next month or so, I’ll be returning to this project and asking for folks to help me navigate this unique open educational resource into the public realm! Stay tuned!  

 

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.

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity, Part 3

Two 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 here, and you can find the second part here

I’ve argued over the last two weeks and austerity and neoliberalism have pushed universities to present themselves fiscally and operationally as market driven enterprises. This follows an assumption that public institutions with state funding become, over time, morally compromised because state funding insulates them from the purifying fire of market competition. As a result, universities have started to privatize core functions in order to demonstrate a willingness to optimize their operations and to promote their operational model as one that rewards competitive, efficient, and socially responsible (at least within a neoliberal model of society that views with a jaundiced eye all state sponsored activities). The efforts to promote the internal working of the university as efficient and competitive creates a situation where the university is more of a billboard for external stakeholders than a factory for knowledge production and education. 

On a superficial level, this is not entirely objectionable. After all, creating a compelling billboard for the activities at a university whether through intercollegiate sports, slick marketing material, or a commitment to external relations, celebrates the impact and significance of faculty, students, and staff, builds a sense of community and pride, and attracts resources to university from a range of sources including alumni, prospective students, and legislators.

At the same time, the view of the university as a billboard can spill over into the internal workings of the university as a factory. On the simplest level, a billboard promotes a product whose manufacturing process is only relevant inasmuch the produce fulfills consumer expectations. Because state university receive funding from a range of sources including state legislators, alumni, students, and granting agencies, there is an interest in the process that creates the well-educated student or faculty research. In other words, the billboard needs to represent both the successful outcome of a university education or faculty work as well as the efficiency of the processes that produced these outcomes. Within a society increasingly dominated by a kind of neoliberal hegemony, the state-funded university almost always presents an essential opportunity for rooting out complacency by subjecting individual, programs, and processes to competition and market forces. The university as billboard, then, extends from celebrating the success of students and faculty to demonstrating that this success represents the latest in market-hardened educational and research efficiency.

In this context, a public humanities journal like North Dakota Quarterly must has a sustainable business model or be consigned to the ranks of inefficient and complacent university functions best optimized by forcing the journal to engage in the market by applying fiscal austerity. A sustainable business model that included state funding were mutually exclusive because the latter created conditions that made the former impossible or at least very unlikely. Successful competition within the crucible of the market represented the only way in which a journal like North Dakota Quarterly could be a successful to the university billboard. 

The problem with the university as a billboard is that whatever the advantages of promoting the university are, the message of the billboard too often spills over into the inner workings of the university. While, I’m hesitant to suggest that universities currently function at optimal efficiency – any complex institution has areas where optimization is possible and desirable and areas where it is not, promoting competition across campus is as likely to produce inefficiencies as to streamline university functions. For example, the long-standing model of higher education that models student learning an assembly line where each program, department, and class imparts a particular set of concepts, methods, and content requires coordination and collaboration across campus. It may be possible to imagine an optimized process where each class contributes the exactly the same energy into the educational process, but such Taylorist fantasies are probably misguided, if not delusional. Students aren’t uniform blanks when they arrive at the university, previous education, aptitude, and commitment levels vary widely and, whether we will admit it or not, certain subjects have higher threshold levels than others in our current educational environment and require a greater investment of energy from both students and faculty. In other words, the assembly line approach to higher education rewards cooperation among various parts of the process and accepting that some parts of the system are less efficient than others.

As faculty, administrators, and staff internalize the message of the billboard on campus, the spirit of competition is as likely to produce inefficiencies as to streamline processes. Competition for students tends to lead to duplication of marketing and outreach efforts. Funding models that seek to recognize research or teaching excellence or even rein in wasteful competition between programs or departments become systems to be gamed. The long-standing and historical divisions on campus, whether colleges or departments that serve to protect academic and intellectual freedom and distinct disciplinary traditions become barriers to cooperation and collaboration rather than efficient incubators of distinctive methods, practices, and approaches to problems. As a number of recent commentators have noticed, by projecting the billboard internally and promoting the appearance of competition, we distill the dynamism and diversity of higher education (or as David Labaree calls it the “perfect mess”) down to two closely related metrics: dollars and enrollments (which are really just another measure of dollars). As Gary Hall has recently considered in his work on the “uberficiation” of the university, the growing ability to trace precisely the flow of capital – whether its student tuition or faculty labor – has created a system that is pennywise and pound foolish. Our ability to use dollars and enrollments to recognize efficiencies at the individual and department level has superceeded the messier project of attempting to understand the product of the higher education factory whether that be new ideas or high quality students and graduates. 

In short, the billboard approach to higher education promotes efficiency and competition at the expense of learning and discovery. And, as much as competition evokes long-standing fantasies of the academic meritocracy and satisfies the hegemonic attitudes that equate all waste with indolence and sloth, it rarely corresponds neatly with the actual work of students and faculty at a university. For many stakeholders, however, the product of the university as factory is only as important as the revenue it can generate.

For others, however, the promotion of the university as the product of market competition offers both a useful cover and a historical model to justify the expansion of certain programs and the contraction of others. The disconnect between the external promotion of evident efficiency fortified by competition and the difficulties associated with judging the final product of higher education, student learning and discovery, provides a space for administrators and faculty to advance values closely tied to reinforcing the dominance of the market in wider society. This means articulating the value of higher education in economic terms which tends to be most crudely presented as “workforce development.” Despite persistent efforts to calculate the economic value of a degree in the humanities, in most cases such efforts are incompatible with the goals of a humanities education. Whether this correlates to the efficiency of teaching and research the humanities within the university or even its non-market value to society at large is irrelevant. The billboard that promotes the work of the university to its stakeholders must be made to represent outcomes consistent with the neoliberal expectation that structure the billboard itself.  

If efficiencies resulting from competition optimize the structure the university in the age of austerity, then graduates and research at the university should likewise feed this world view as well. 

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity, Part 2

Last week, 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 here.

In short, I make the uncontroversial argument that the most recent round of budget cuts reflects a kind of local level implementation of the neoliberal policy of austerity. Austerity reflects certain moral and economic attitudes that see the state as both morally corrupting, as tending to limit freedom, and as stifling to economic growth which is best achieved by allowing market forces to play out in an unconstrained way. This has negative implications for state universities which are reasonably seen as an extension of the state and as intrinsically inefficient. Moreover, these institutions reproduce a kind of complacency that undermines the competitive function of markets, which are seen as the primary engines for economy growth. Cutting higher education budgets, then, pushes these institutions to exist in a market driven world, should improve efficiency by fostering competition for resources, and ensures that capital doesn’t get bottled up supporting institutions that reflect values that run counter to the market ethos.

The internal response to these policies was dramatic as the University of North Dakota not only implemented a “new budget model” based on the competitive allocation of resources across campus, but also, when faced with the immediate pressures of budget cuts, implemented austerity measures that adversely impacted the humanities and arts. As I noted in the first part of this article, North Dakota Quarterly lost all of its funding after being told that we had not produced a sustainable business model. In the second part of this paper, I want to suggest that most of these changes at UND (and I would suggest nationally) amount to a kind of theater designed to align the appearance of competition and market driven policies with a series of outcomes deemed desirable by local stakeholders. 

To be clear, higher education has always cultivated this kind of theater. Whether it was the historical privileging of white, upper and middle class, males, or the tendency to see traditional liberal arts and humanities degrees as superior in content and rigor, the American university system has long attempted to normalize the ascendency of certain groups and outcomes as a kind of natural result of broader social competition. Recently, David Labaree has summarized a particularly obvious expression of this kind of competitive theater in the long-term persistence of the academic hierarchy among colleges and universities in the U.S. A relatively small number of schools and scholars tend to dominate the intellectual landscape of American higher education. Not only do top tier schools hire faculty from other top tier schools, but lower tier schools also tend to hire a disproportionate number of faculty with degrees from traditionally elite institutions. Lower tier schools see this as a way of imitating the practices of more elite institutions and moving up. In reality, it tends to reinforce the difference between the top tier schools and their lower tier numbers as faculty from elite schools tend to privilege their own even over students that they produce at lower tier institutions. This bias toward the traditional centers of higher education in the U.S. reproduces itself in competition for grants, fellowships, and even in peer review despite historical efforts to present these competitions as meritocratic.     

More recently, critics of higher education have argued that systemic liberal biases within the American university system has promoted certain political and social agendas and suppressed others. Academics have tended to brush off these critiques and point to the rigor of peer review, the competitive nature of grant and hiring processes, and the pressures of historic and global traditions of academic discourse that tend to complicate the alignment of proximate political positions and scholarly outputs. The long tradition of a kind of theater of competition in higher education produced a culture that is particular susceptible to kinds of dissimulation at the core of neoliberal thinking.

I argue that the conventional theater of competition in academia (if no less problematic) conflates in some ways with what David Harvey recognizes as the internalization of certain aspect of neoliberalism in contemporary society and particular among faculty and administrators (in a way that suggests Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony). The most visible expression of this is “zero sum” thinking that organizes campus priorities into winners and losers. Winners get funding (because they’ve won) and losers lose funding with the result that the winning ways of the winners will, over time, come to dominate the losing ways of the losers. 

Of course, as I’ve pointed out, there already were winners and losers in higher education produced by generations of historical forces which are not necessarily unproblematic or somehow ideally suited (by dint of their co-evolution with market, social, and cultural forces) for efficient education, new knowledge production or social good. Neoliberal priorities, at least to those viewing higher education from the perspective of an external stakeholder, require a kind of change that reflects the conspicuous pivoting of higher education toward both market needs and toward the methods of the market. In other words, whatever the processes that were that created the current landscape of higher education, we need to align ourselves more clearly with methods and outcomes that reflect contemporary political and economic priorities and, perhaps more importantly, expectation. 

The language of these priorities and expectations are well known. Many in the public sphere view the humanities and arts as inefficient, antiquated, or a luxury, despite the emergence of a somewhat disappointing (and perhaps ineffectual) counter-discourse that argues for the economic importance of the humanities. The argument follows that STEM fields with their sometimes overtly vocational goals represent a more efficient way to address the economic needs of our communities and, as a result, a better use for limited public funds. Moreover, public support for these fields should represents an investment in the future as an emphasis on STEM fields parallels student interest in these economically productive disciplines (and students and tuition dollars will follow), the emphasis on STEM should also attract support from the private sector and federal grants.

A secondary challenge, and on that is of more interest to me, is to make the rise of STEM in higher education appear to be the result of market competition within the institution. This allows administrators to tout and stakeholders to recognize the synchronization between market efficiencies within and outside of these institutions. The rise of STEM fields, for example, allows higher education administrators to point to the efficiency of their institutions because ultimately the same results suggest the same internal mechanisms. This involves a certain, and conspicuous amount of dissimulation, particularly as universities attempt the dual move of shifting to support fields that the public expects to be market driven priorities and demonstrating that market priorities and methods produced these results internally. The former ensures stakeholders – particularly in the legislatures – that universities are responding to external market forces and doing so in a way that also embodies internal market efficiencies. 

Elsewhere I’ve called this move replacing the university as a knowledge factory – based on the historical affinities between university curricula and the assembly line (well described by Louis Menand) – to the university as billboard. The university as billboard represents the growing desire to demonstrate to the public that universities are responsive institutions to market forces and have internalized the values of the marketplace. The university as billboard reassures an anxious public (or at least a certain sector of stakeholders) both that the university is an efficient institution deserving of the continued investment of resources and that public resources will attract outside investment through tuition, grants, and private donor contributions. 

In this context, there is little room for a public humanities quarterly because it does little to reinforce public view of higher education which expects it to align with their own understanding of market forces shaping public (and private) institutions. If the university is a billboard, then, something like North Dakota Quarterly is a distraction. The priority both internally and externally is to stay on message and on strategy, and if we take the logic of the market to its natural conclusion, the risk of straying from the message is existential. 

In my next installment I hope to focus on two further implications of the creation of higher education as billboard. First, the tensions between the university as factory, the university as billboard, and the university as marketplace confounds the efficient operation of a university. This, then, confirms the  perception that the public sector is intrinsically less efficient than the private sector. Next, and perhaps more controversially, the privileging of the market as the model for higher education effectively undermines the potential for a genuinely meritocratic kind of competition – a marketplace of ideas – with a crasser, less productive, but far more public, race to the bottom. The challenge of neoliberalism is not so much that it subjects everyone and every institution to the unrelenting pressures of market competition, but that it projects backward in time, the free play of market forces as the dominant form power in society. As a result, it presupposes the emergence of the neoliberal world order as the victory of market forces against those who sought to suppress them. Those in power now are in power because they won. 

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to write an article in a series of installments on my blog for the spring, digital, issue of North Dakota Quarterly dedicated to the Humanities in the Age of Austerity. I’m calling them, for fun, NDQuesday, and I hope this becomes a regular feature on my blog as I work with a remarkable group of people to figure out how to keep NDQ thriving in a new era of funding. 

For my contribution today,I am worried that my argument will be complex and will probably reveal the limits of how I understand both the world of ideas that are shaping our society and higher education and the way in which higher education works “on the ground.” My hope is that people feel free to offer my feedback on my work here. 

To start, I’m going to dive into the meat of my article, which explores the unusual way in which neoliberal ideas play out across state university campuses. I’ll do little to hide my indebtedness to Mark Blyth’s work on austerity, David Harvey’s on neoliberalism, and Christopher Newfield’s on higher education, but I’ll try to bring my own distinct perspective and experiences to the conversation. In particular, I want to focus on certain performative aspects of the neoliberal position that shape how universities present themselves and individual actors behave. In this area, I suspect you’ll see the influence of folks like Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities although I take my critique in a different direction.   

To start, I probably need to try to untangle the connection between austerity and neoliberalism at last in the context of higher education (and here I need to digest more fully the work of Fabricant and Brier).

For the purposes of my article, austerity is really short-hand for a larger neoliberal package of ideas that actively privileges the market as the dominant force in shaping society. It initially developed at a macro-economic scale in the immediate post-war period as a challenge to Keynesianism and as a critique of mid-century views of statist projects in both the Soviet Union and in the aftermath of Nazism. It became a cornerstone of Thatcher’s and Reagan’s re-imagining both of the national and then the global economy. In this context, neoliberal thinkers and politicians argued that state institutions were impediments to person economic (and even social) freedom which ultimately undermined the potential for innovation and entrepreneurship. The economic authority of the state expressed in the control over resources and the bureaucratized rule of regulation stifled individual creativity and competition while also  insulating certain sectors of the economy into complacency. These social attitudes offered a moral framework for an economic view that saw the flow of state funds into the economy as encouraging inflationary conditions which dampened markets, weakened the private sector, and impaired economic growth. Austerity represented a strategy to pull back the economic influence of the state in the economy, to forestall inflation, and to allow for markets and the private sector to produce growth. Whatever the economic merits of this approach (and recent work has cast significant doubts on whether austerity does stimulate growth), there is no doubt that these policies have weakened the social safety net created during the Great Depression, turned massive quantities of assets over to an increasingly wealthy super elite, and transformed the global political and economic landscape. My interest is largely in the social and political transformations wrought by neoliberalism. My article will look at three in particular: (1)  the belief that markets and competition represent individual freedom, (2) the success in market competition reflect both the personal and public good, and (3) that market competition produces efficiencies by undermining the complacency of publicly-funded entrenched interests. 

The impact of these three attitudes on higher education in the U.S. has been dramatic. This is partly because neoliberal faith in market competition shares certain parallels with the long-standing belief in intellectual and academic competition in academia. In recent times, however, the emphasis in neoliberal rhetoric on the moral good of market competition and equation of markets with freedom has converted this confidence in the meritocracy to the space of the market. Individuals within and outside of the academic, in the administration and in the trenches, have seen market forces as beneficial agents of change and as justification for whole-sale revisions in curricula and educational policies. These attitudes reflect what David Harvey has recognized as the hegemonic power of neoliberal thinking that makes it very hard for us to imagine alternative ways of doing things.

These forces played out in the recent history of North Dakota Quarterly in a number of intriguing and informative ways. As readers of this blog and NDQ know, the Quarterly lost its funding in 2016 amid a series of rather dramatic budget cuts at the state level. These budget cuts reflect both the changing economic fortunes of the state and, more directly, the price of oil, as well as a reluctance by legislators to raise taxes to fund public enterprises and services. For many in the legislature, the desire to keep the state friendly to business by cutting taxes and regulation (and allowing market forces to generate growth rather than legislative programs) coupled with a tendency to see public, higher education as too long insulated from market forces and therefore inefficient (by definition). Raising taxes too support state programs, then, would have made the state less friendly to business and limited the freedom of individuals to use their funds to pursue whatever education they desired. 

At UND, North Dakota Quarterly saw the direct impact of these cuts in large part because for previous few years, we had been urged to produce a “sustainable business model” for the journal. This overlooked, at least superficially, that the existing model for NDQ which combined funds from UND and the College of Arts and Sciences with income from subscriptions had been sustainable for over 60 years. Its lack of sustainability, at least in the rhetoric of our administrators, reflected an expectation that projects like NDQ should be sustainable with only private funds. In other words, sustainability was something that existed only in the marketplace of the private sector rather than as a shared commitment supported by public and private resources. 

The reasons for de-fundung NDQ, however, go beyond simple issues of fiscal austerity, of course. Our declining number of subscribers, questions about the impact of the publication on the broader UND community and mission, and perhaps even a lack of direction all contributed to a less than charitable viewing of the Quarterly. It is difficult, however, to avoid viewing these critique – offered both tacitly and explicitly – as valuations on the sustainability of the Quarterly in anything other than market terms. The intellectual or humanistic impact of the Quarterly was, as far as I know, never called into question.

Academic administrators have used a similar set of curious arguments to justify cuts to the humanities more generally. Declining enrollments, for example, demonstrate lack of market demand for particular subject and this justifies reduced resources to those programs. The reduction of resources almost always accelerate the decline in enrollments into the future. The justification for this, of course, is largely financial. The university has limited resources and need to support those programs that have the most students. 

At the same time, these arguments also coincide with a rhetorical position that see the arts and humanities at state universities, in particular, as luxuries. The critique of this position is well-know, so I’ll address it here only briefly. Attacks on the humanities and arts by politicians have tended to argue that they are not only useless degrees that produce students who are a burden on society, but also that the character of a humanities education is the deeply suspect hotbed of post-modernism, anti-nationalism, liberalism, and other nefarious positions that undermine the shared values of the community and social cohesion. The merging of moral judgements about the character of humanities program in higher education and the purported lack of viability of humanities graduates in the marketplace is consistent with the larger ideological project of contemporary neoliberalism.

It’s also not strictly speaking true. Humanities graduates tend to earn less than their peers in the STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in the short-term, but over time, earn as much and even more than graduates with more apparently practical degrees. Moreover, companies consistently demand more graduates with the qualifications that humanities graduates possess: the ability to read, to write, to think critically and morally, and to problem solve. Taking nothing away from graduates in other fields at the university, there is no real reason to see that humanities graduates are an less viable in the market-driven workforce than graduates in any other field. The issue appears to be largely a rhetorical one in which the usual line of causality is reversed. The moral economy of neoliberalism has tended to see failure in the market as a moral failing. In the case of the humanities, it sees the critique of the market and neoliberalism (even though the lines between neoliberalism and post-modernism are well-known among scholars) as a moral failing that makes them less likely to be successful in the private sector despite evidence to the contrary. 

As a result, cutting the humanities and focusing energy on the practical and STEM fields is seen as a way to make the university more competitive in the marketplace based on a kind of moral reasoning rather than practical data. That the humanities have seen declining numbers – in part as a result of this inversion of neoliberal logic – has become the evidence that students are “voting with their feet.” Defunding a project like North Dakota Quarterly, then, becomes an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to practical education and short-term workforce development as well as a rejection of the morally suspect fields of in the arts and humanities. The argument that NDQ did not develop a sustainable business model (i.e. a model that relies on the market for sustainability at least in large part) is both true and confirms the larger perspective that the humanities are not viable fields in the contemporary economy and do not deserve continued state funding.  

This is, of course, largely theater, but a particularly pernicious kind of theater (1) that reflects the internalization of certain aspect of neoliberalism among faculty and administrators (in a way that suggests Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony), (2) that confounds the efficient operation of a university (which confirms the argument that the public sector is intrinsically less efficient than the private sector), and (3) replaces the aspirations for a genuinely meritocratic kind of competition – a marketplace of ideas – with a crasser, less productive, but far more public, race to the bottom.

(Stay tuned for part 2 of this essay… but readers of this blog will know that it goes something like this or thisthisthis).

As always, provide feedback! I need to know just how wrong I am!

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. 

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.