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Monday, October 8, 2018

Monday, October 8, 2018
Many people are worried about the damage the Kavanaugh appointment will do to the Supreme Court and to American politics.  I'm worried about the new damage it did to the public understanding of academic knowledge.   Brett Kavanaugh (left, in my one personal photo of the hearings, taken September 27th) and other Republicans attacked the equivalent of basic research-- an unrestricted FBI investigation-- as nothing more than a political hit, while generating fake academic knowledge to exonerate him.  

This reduction of knowledge to partisan politics was supposedly a left postmodernist position, but it has in fact been a right culture-wars argument about the nonsense of academic research.  It has hurt academia of course, but has also torn the intellectual fabric of society.  It weakens public resistance to the political dismissal of validated knowledge about everything from the effects of sexual trauma to Trump family tax evasion to climate change.  Political dismissal supports a he said/she said deadlock on any issue, making Americans even more fatalistic about resolving differences with force instead of knowledge.

Academic knowledge rests on a few basics that we don't make explicit enough.  People may not ever expect politics to follow academic standards of evidence and argument, but they should be able to  tell them apart--and also to recognize the superiority of academic standards for knowledge to political ones. This is particularly important when politicians claim valid knowledge to justify political decisions.

As I go through these standards, I will omit breaches that come from within academia itself.  I am aware of them.  For example, the dependence of research on private money presents opportunities for bias, corruption, and neglect of the public interest.   But breaches are no reason not to compare public debate to the knowledge standards that academics struggle to adhere to--and that produce much better arguments and conclusions than what we've been hearing in U.S. public debates about pretty much everything. 

The first of these standards is that academic research cannot be coerced, predetermined or discredited in advance by direct or indirect authority.  Academic freedom includes the freedom of an inquiry from being steered or suppresed by bullying, intimidation, slander, and blanket accusations of bias and political motives. In contrast, discrediting the allegations against Kavanaugh was a key Republican strategy, and doing it with white male anger was a calculated strategy.  Here's Kavanaugh:
When I did at least OK enough at the hearings that it looked like I might actually get confirmed, a new tactic was needed.
Some of you were lying in wait and had it ready. This first allegation was held in secret for weeks by a Democratic member of this committee, and by staff. It would be needed only if you couldn’t take me out on the merits.
When it was needed, this allegation was unleashed and publicly deployed over Dr. Ford’s wishes. And then — and then as no doubt was expected — if not planned — came a long series of false last-minute smears designed to scare me and drive me out of the process before any hearing occurred.
Crazy stuff. Gangs, illegitimate children, fights on boats in Rhode Island. All nonsense, reported breathlessly and often uncritically by the media.
This has destroyed my family and my good name. A good name built up through decades of very hard work and public service at the highest levels of the American government.
This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election. Fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record. Revenge on behalf of the Clintons. and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.
This is a circus. The consequences will extend long past my nomination. The consequences will be with us for decades. This grotesque and coordinated character assassination will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions, from serving our country.
And as we all know, in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around.
Kavanaugh was marshalling the essential claim of the culture war on academia--the pretended pursuit of truth is a cover for the politically-motivated destruction of respectable people and their values--to discredit the entire second round of research.  Having refused Sen. Dick Durbin (D-WI)'s request that he call for a full investigation of the charges against him, Kavanaugh then helped convert the FBI's supplemental background check from a required to an offensive act.

The second feature of academic knowledge is that it has to be impartial. This doesn't mean that the researcher's procedure is value-free.  It does mean that the researcher may not let self-interest control the research design, such that it leads to an answer that is more likely to benefit her, her team, or her institution. Researchers control self-interest with various well-known modes of self-reflexivity.

Thanks to reporting by Peter Baker, Nicolas Fandos and others, we know that this principle was violated when the FBI's supplemental background check was structured through a series of political negotiations.
When Mr. Durbin [D-WI] asked Judge Kavanaugh to turn around and ask [White House counsel] Mr. McGahn to request an F.B.I. investigation into the charges against him, Mr. Graham erupted in a ferocious, finger-wagging lecture. Other Republican senators began channeling their inner Trump and lashing out on Judge Kavanaugh’s behalf as well.
Republican senators met that night just off the Capitol Rotunda. Ms. Collins said she would find it hard to vote yes without a sworn statement from Judge Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge denying that he saw what Dr. Blasey described. Aides to Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary chairman, got a fresh statement from Mr. Judge within three hours to satisfy her.
Mr. Graham went to dinner that night at Cafe Berlin with Ms. Collins and two other undecided Republicans, Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. They discussed whether a limited F.B.I. investigation might assuage them.
The next morning, Mr. Flake announced that he would vote for Judge Kavanaugh in committee, only to change course after being confronted on an elevator by women who told him they were victims of sexual assault. Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski were already talking by phone when Mr. Flake called them from a committee anteroom asking if they would back him in demanding a one-week F.B.I. inquiry.
Later that day, the three joined other Republican senators in Mr. McConnell’s office to discuss what the F.B.I. investigation should look like. The three undecided Republicans settled on four people they wanted to hear from: Ms. Ramirez, Mr. Judge and two others identified by Dr. Blasey as being elsewhere in the house at the time she was allegedly assaulted.
Republicans organized the investigation to get the right answers for their remaining fence-sitters.

The investigation violated academic standards in a third way.  Academic research must respond to new information or anomalies, which are facts that don't fit the guiding hypothesis. The research needs to be open to its own enlargement, complication, or refutation at each and every point.

Instead, the Republicans set aside the major new anomaly in their theory of Kavanaugh's victimized goodness by declaring that Julie Swetnick's claims were "too over the top" to be considered.  They asked rhetorical questions whose answer was predetermined, like "Why would [Swetnick] as a college student repeatedly go to high school parties where young women were gang raped?" Of course academic researchers don't have the time or money to investigate everything, but they can't rule out possible holes in their theory with one-line objections or ad hominem attacks.

Fourth, academic research has to show its data and results to the whole knowledge community. It can't give selected results to just a few people under predetermined conditions.  In the Kavanaugh case, the FBI sent one copy of their report to the Senate, which senators could view only in a secure room without the ability to copy or to take notes.  The report was not released to the full Senate to say nothing of the public.  This of course eliminates the possibility of an impartial evaluation of scope, quality, and results performed by people other than the interested parties.

Academic research is conducted by regular humans who bring their preferences, identities, hopes and fears to work, which is why a fifth feature is so important. Once findings are released, they have to achieve a decent general agreement before they are passed on to be applied in the wider world.  When they are disputed, they are re-tested, reanalyzed, and revised until most if not all researchers in the relevant fields can at least provisionally accept them.  Think climate change modeling as an example, which has over the years gathered near unanimity about the main points even as details remain disputed and methods continue to change.  Good researchers don't pitch research results to policymakers before they have won general consent. Exactly the opposite happened in this inquiry.  Nearly half the Senate rejected the validity of the FBI's findings, with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) calling it a "bullshit investigation."

Because none of these five academic standards were followed, the pivotal moment of Republican knowledge production--Susan Collins' brief for Kavanaugh--amounts to an apology for a political position that was decided in advance.   It takes the politically-framed investigation at face value, asserting non-confirmation of Blasey Ford's story even though the FBI was in no position to confirm it because they were not allowed to interview the many people who claimed to have information. Collins wrongly treats the cherry-picked interview list as dispositive.

Collins also considers no evidence contrary to her "yes" position.  She does not separate the textual evidence of Kavanaugh's (also cherry-picked) opinions from Kavanaugh's claims about himself in interviews with her.  Collins then claims, while offering no evidence at all, that Ford was deluded about her attack: "she is a survivor of sexual assault," Collins writes, but just not the one by Kavanaugh about which Ford claimed 100% certainty. 

Perhaps worst of all, Collins reintroduces a genteel version of Lindsey Graham's and Kavanaugh's smear of the inquiry itself as nothing more than a Democratic hit.
Some of the allegations levied against Judge Kavanaugh illustrate why the presumption of innocence is so important. I am thinking in particular not [of] the allegations raised by professor Ford, but of the allegations that when he was a teenager Judge Kavanaugh drugged multiple girls and used their weakened state to facility gang rape.
This outlandish allegation was put forth without any credible supporting evidence and simply parroted public statements of others. That’s such an allegation can find its way into the Supreme Court confirmation process is a stark reminder about why the presumption of innocence is so ingrained in our a American consciousness.
Collins doesn't actually know that the allegation is outlandish because her party blocked its investigation.  Rather than data she gives us a milder form of the male rage that had disparaged the investigation the week before.  Her tacit claim is that a full FBI investigation would be the tool of a Democrat political conspiracy that runs roughshod over the core American value of presumed innocence.  Then she concludes,
my fervent hope is that Brett Kavanaugh will work to lessen the divisions in the Supreme Court so that we have far fewer 5 to 4 decisions and so that public confidence in our judiciary and our highest court is restored.
Once you take leave of argument and evidence, its hard to return to your senses.

Kavanaugh's confirmation showed the extent to which power politics depends on invoking academic-style knowledge, even as it violates academic standards.  The default scenario for the next year is a continuation of culture war gridlock. Journalists and social media will continued to investigate Kavanaugh. The White House will denounce any new evidence as a politically-motivated lie.   Fewer and fewer people will see the Supreme Court as politically neutral, even as bad evidence for its neutrality will be advanced.  In the deepening cynicism about knowledge itself, universities will continued to be viewed as the Democrat's propaganda arm, their pale imitation of Fox News.

Why can't universities do a much better job of explaining standards of academic knowledge?   The country that isn't sure what real knowledge is, is doomed not to have it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Wednesday, September 26, 2018
The answer should be an obvious no, but UCOP prepared a document for the UC Regents meetings this week that points UC in that direction.

The document is background for a preliminary discussion of the UC budget for next year (2019-2020). It advocates another multi-year agreement with state government about general funding. The immediate context is Jerry Brown cutting this year's agreed increment from four to three percent (less than that net for various reasons), as well as the overall sub-par condition of the University, again facing a series of underfunded costs summarized on page 1.  New regents will not understand the regular state breaching of compacts with UC and CSU or overall state funding declines from this document. Our overview here would be more help.

The larger context is that UCOP has never found a storyline that has attracted the state's politicians into real reinvestment.  UC's general fund has been going up at about the rate of consumer inflation (which is generally below higher education inflation).  In recent years, the state has grossly underfunded new enrollments, as the budget document points out (3).  The de facto state theory has two parts: (1) UCOP cost claims are not credible enough to address; (2) UC undergraduates can be taught for an amount similar to that of community college students.

What narrative could dislodge this second assumption?  Facts on the ground suggest it can't be.  Cal State's Board of Trustees have discussed becoming an "all-transfer" university, on the theory that their state funding doesn't allow a full-scale lower-division program. UCOP took the deal of $5000 per new resident undergrad, and as far as the state knows nothing bad has happened.  In order to keep its nonresident tuition at current levels, UCOP also accepted the pressure to increase transfer students until they are one-third of new admits, and has been making progress.  This ratio has always been a Master Plan obligation, and in my long experience, transfer students are comparable to students who started at UCSB.  But assumption (2) remains: UC lower division education is about the same as community college, and additional money put into it is probably waste.

The narrative that could justify more enrollment funding is that UC undergraduates need more, better learning than they are now getting, and will need further upgrades in the near future. Better learning produces both pecuniary and nonpecuniary benefits.  As I noted last time, the value of universities is disproportionately nonpecuniary, so stressing only wage and workforce effects guarantees underfunding.  UC, Cal State, and the community college system all generate intellectual and sociocultural capabilities that help wage gains and job growth indirectly, but can't be measured in those monetary forms.

Unfortunately, the UCOP budget document ties future budget increases to the University's ability to support the workforce with bachelor's degrees.  The goal is "Investment to Improve Graduation Rates, Reduce Time-to-Degree, and increase degree production" (5-6).  The target is set by the shortage of 1.1 million B.A. degrees that the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has projected for 2030 (UC's share would be 251,000 additional degrees). This commits UC to producing more degrees through faster and shorter UC learning.  

I can't delve into each of the problems with this position, but will list the main ones:
  1. workforce development has always been a formal UC goal, and has not stopped state disinvestment. (See this consultant report from 2003, which in spite of its subtitle is only about economics and health).
  2. UCOP encourages the nonmonetary effects of university education to remain "dark matter," even though nonmonetary benefits explains the cost differences between universities and job training centers.  These start with new knowledge through research--obviously a core mission of research universities--and include doctoral education and the formation of non-routine cognitive skills in undergraduates.  Both of these are slow and hard. 
  3. the means UCOP proposes to get the additional quarter-million B.A.s--faster- and horter degrees--slights UC's already very good graduation rates among public universities, and downplays previous progress towards shorter degree times and higher graduation rates.
  4. It also ignores the possibility that further rate increases will be much harder and more expensive. They will often involve fixing social and economic problems, such as excessive student work hours to cover basic expenses like food and rent.  UCOP is effectively putting UC on the hook for the state's high poverty rates and very high income inequality, which it lacks the means to solve.
  5. The normal way to increase quantity is to cut corners and lower quality.  Campus administrations already pushed departments to minimize degree requirements after the 2008 financial crisis. In addition, many have or are moving to increasing units for a standard quarter course from 4 to 5 but without increasing instruction, so students can graduate with fewer courses.   More undergrad education will have to be done by the youngest and least experienced instructors, primarily graduate students and adjuncts.
  6. Paradoxically, promising to improve graduation rates will increase the chances of sub-par funding.  That's because permanent austerity has already forced the kinds of academic shortcuts that have pushed students through more quickly. The lesson the state has drawn is that less money for UC means more UC degrees.  
  7. UCOP is avoiding discussion of B.A. degree content even in the context of a narrow, monetary, human capital model of the degree.  PPIC's calculations use wage premiums to identify "college" jobs (they are these where the employer is willing to pay more to get bachelors' degrees) . They do not do content analysis of future skills (See Technical Appendix C, p 15).  Jobs in 2030 are likely to require better BAs, not just more of them.  UC could be caught far behind the quality curve.
Since UCOP isn't explaining what is really special about UC upper and lower division education, it is putting the University into price competition with the CCCs. They are cheap because they are underfunded, lack research faculty, and over-use contingent faculty.  UC can't come close to CCC cost targets, but straight workforce preparation calls are asking for UC to be compared to them.  (Workforce prep also undermines the documents other goals, like well-paid high-status research faculty.)

The quality of the education UCOP gives the regents is especially important now.  California gets a new governor next year. UC got four new regents in August, none with evident educational experience.  They need reasons to see the ideal UC as something other than an inexpensive provider of middle-skill workforce growth. This document doesn't give them any.

On the other hand, a faculty group, either the Senate or CUCFA, could write a better storyline, one that includes workforce data while going well beyond it.  Why don't we do that?

Update: Cloudminder recounts the lack of meaningful review of Jerry Brown's four August appointments to the Board of Regents, with clips.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Thursday, September 13, 2018
I don't see how we're going to survive the 21st century without much better human relations.  I do see ideas about better human relations as depending on humanities expertise.  Silicon Valley and Wall Street don't agree with me, and put their faith in programming.  Yuvai Harari, the historian of all human history, doesn't agree either.  He was on KQED's Forum talking about his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.  There was really only one lesson in his radio answers: the rise of artificial intelligence (AI).

It was odd because Harari has a real historian's sense of specificity, which helped him reject callers' claims for trends that will be uniform across the planet.  For example, he said that guaranteed minimum income might address jobs lost to robots in Germany and Japan but not in Bangladesh and Honduras.  I waited for a reference to building global planning agencies through upgraded capacities to do trans-cultural cooperation. It didn't come.

Again and again, Harari placed whatever hope he had in "hacking the human."  Code had to overwrite human factors.  Algorithmic progress was inevitable and AI was here to accelerate it.  He knew that only a minority of the world population would benefit, but he said nothing about how to solve the political and cultural problems so tech could help overcome inequality rather than making it worse.

I was listening to him while reading Facebook posts about the new MLA Job List.  One friend counted a total of 16 tenure-track jobs in African American literature-- for a country with 7000 colleges. The survival of much if not all of the humanities is at risk.  But in Harari's model, that wouldn't slow down progress.

This KQED Harari is wrong-- the world absolutely needs what humanities scholars know--about languages, the history of cultural conflicts, the communal effects of every kind of identity in their startling fluidity, the psycho-cultural impacts of economic inequality, for starters. So what can we do, besides what we've been doing, which is accepting austerity?

Here are two things.  

The first is confronting the Great Mistake from within humanities-based theory.  That mistake was to retreat from defining academic knowledge as a public good and restructuring it for market forces.   Economists generally define public goods too narrowly, as non-excludable and non-rivalrous.  We got confused about higher ed because we exclude people from higher education all the time and make them rivals to get for the really good versions of it, so maybe it was an individual private good, which is what colleges say to prospective students when they recruit them. 

In reality, about half of the total value of college is nonmarket, indirect, and/or social-- according to the one guy who heroically tried to add it up.   This is what the idea of public goods expresses.  All sorts of educational effects are what economists call "nonpecuniary." They have a value that is greater than what individuals receive as a private return, and often don't have any equivalent monetary quantity.  (See Stage 1 of TGM for more on this -- now in paper!)  

These effects are well known, and everybody from students to business executives call for basic ones like critical thinking, problem solving, oral communication skills, or a capacity for lifetime learning.  And yet by measuring their value as a pecuniary return like an increased salary, we systematically neglect the nonpecuniary effects. We underinvest in them, or in other words subject them to market failure, with some fairly obvious social results.

Many other nonpecuniary effects are equally important.  In lit crit we roll our eyes when a radio show host talks about how reading novels teaches empathy.  Yet it is broadly true.  It is also true that empathy is a public good that can change the world.  It's hard to imagine international political progress without a very big increase in cross-religious empathy, and on a global scale. 

The troubles of the humanities flow inevitably from the decline cycle that this retreat from public goods set up.  That retreat induces not only the bad accounting I just mentioned but also a shift to the relentless pursuit of non-state funds, nearly all of which is returns-tested, meaning it's not allowed just to benefit people and society generally.  The veneration of revenues with calculable returns discourages universities from having enough internal, institutional funds to support their noncommercial research (TGM Stage 2).  That includes all the research that cannot be justified with claims to future revenues through the sale of a license or product or service.   "Small science" doesn't get properly funded. And the humanities fields are barely funded at all.  All sorts of research outputs simply never exist.  The same is true for the nonpecuniary / social benefits they might have produced. 

The decline cycle also routinizes "limited learning."   It's really hard to grasp something like the big picture of a culture's history by grasping the main lines of hundreds of years of literary output. It also takes a long time.  Maybe it takes 10,000 hours, but we teach literary history and everything else in 40 hour chunks, giving in a 10-week term as much direct intellectual contact as some college sports require over 10 days.  Private return-on-investment calculations will always underfund real learning, leading us to replace mastery as a B.A goal with something like mechanical competence in written communication for most students (TGM Stage 6).  MOOCs and other short-cuts fill the gap.  Since we haven't detailed the nonpecuniary benefits, politicians want professors to teach twice as many students for today's workplace tasks.  But deep learning probably means teaching half as much, more intensely, with more than twice as many professors.  The point here is not a particular number, but that the private-good model keeps us from even admitting the losses to both individuals and society of limited learning, to say nothing of doing something about it.

The second issue is why Theory (our HT from last time) hasn't done much with institutional and economic value.  I remember, around 25 years ago, when the Village Voice was really a thing, that the critic Scott Malcomson asked why Derridean theorists weren't also critiquing the premises of finance capital.  We never did answer that question, or just actually do it.  Now the answer seems to me to be a lack of intellectual confidence.

The Ronell case has produced some examples.  In a fairly nasty piece, the eminent modernist Marjorie Perloff spent much of her commentary saying how worthless Ronell's kind of theory is.  She didn't say Ronell argued A and B on topic C when a good HT person would have argued X and Y on topic Z.  She made the whole field seem empty.  

To make matters worse, she concluded, "the focus . . . should shift, as it has at many institutions, to undergraduate education, for it is the undergraduates who will determine the future course of a discipline like Comp Lit."  It's completely true that the drop in major numbers does need to be reversed with better undergrad curriculae.  But Perloff's message is that lit crit doesn't produce the kind of worldly knowledge that requires doctoral training and tenure-track jobs.  Backing away from humanities doctoral education will make the whole situation worse.  

Equally senior Germanist Bernd did the same thing in a belated score-settler with Ronell (see the Salon translation of the original German): he produced such a wall-to-wall trashing of Ronell's legacy as authoritarian in thought and deed that he trashed the entire field. 

I thought this might just the the message from people who had already hated HT in the 1980s. But then there's this passage from NYU grad student Andrea Chu's powerful piece, which got relayed enough times for me to ponder it carefully.
Structural problems are problems because real people hurt real people. You cannot have a cycle of abuse without actually existing abusers. That sounds simple, which is why so many academics hate it. When scholars defend Avital — or “complicate the narrative,” as we like to say — in part this is because we cannot stand believing what most people believe. The need to feel smarter is deep. Intelligence is a hungry god. 
In this way, Avital’s case has become a strange referendum on literary study. Generations of scholars have been suckled at the teat of interpretation: We spend our days parsing commas and decoding metaphors. We get high on finding meaning others can’t. We hoard it, like dragons. We would be intellectually humiliated to learn that the truth was plain: that Avital quite simply sexually harassed her student, just as described. Sometimes analysis is simply denial with more words. Sometimes, as a frustrated student in a first-year literature course always mutters, the text just means what it says it means.
I'm horrified that any graduate student would have this experience of PhD-level literary study, in which it is nothing more than belabored overcomplexity yielding errors to be used in power shows.

We have to fix the second problem before we can address the first. We can't just say that Chu's description isn't typical.  Folks in HT, lit crit, cultural studies, will need to be relentless and systematic in saying what our research programs are.  We need to explain why we pursue them the way we do.  

Above all, we now have to spell out the humanities' nonpecuniary benefits.  Theorize this.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Tuesday, August 28, 2018
As part of their negotiations with the university, UC librarians requested that the University formally acknowledge their claim to academic freedom.  UC-AFT reports that UC refused, indicating that "Academic freedom is not a good fit for your unit."  They furthermore report that the university negotiators claimed that the right was tied to the instructor of record for faculty and for students when they were in the classroom. I have been told that the University has also indicated that they had conferred with both senate faculty and the AAUP about their position.  I haven't been able to find any indication that there was formal Academic Senate discussion of this issue and both CUCFA and CA-AAUP have explicitly rejected the University's position in a joint statement.

The University negotiators' position is foolish at best and absurd at worst.  The AAUP and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (to which all UC campuses aside from UCSF belong) have explicitly stated that librarians are entitled to academic freedom.  As the "Joint Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians" (2013) puts it:
College and university librarians share the professional concerns of faculty members. Academic freedom is indispensable to librarians in their roles as teachers and researchers. Critically, they are trustees of knowledge with the responsibility of ensuring the intellectual freedom of the academic community through the availability of information and ideas, no matter how controversial, so that teachers may freely teach and students may freely learn. Moreover, as members of the academic community, librarians should have latitude in the exercise of their professional judgment within the library, a share in shaping policy within the institution, and adequate opportunities for professional development and appropriate reward.
Now it is true that at UC most librarians do not have formal faculty status.  But as the Association of College and Research Libraries argues, even librarians without faculty status are entitled to academic freedom.

If you think about it there are many reasons why librarians should hold academic freedom.  For one thing, university librarians are research professionals often engaged in their own research.  This research can take many forms--from more conventional academic work, to understanding both the trends in library science, onto the latest issues in digital technology.  Beyond that, librarians are constantly engaged in precisely the sort of academic and intellectual judgment about which materials to purchase for libraries, how they should be organized and presented, developing and organizing exhibits and conferences that pull them into precisely the sort of controversial decisions that academic freedom is designed to make possible.   Moreover, between digitalization and efforts by faculty to increase opportunities for students to participate in research based inquiry, librarians have become even more central to the basic educational mission of the university as key mediators of resources and knowledge to students and faculty.

Finally, I probably don't need to mention that in our age of increased surveillance librarians have been at the forefront of protecting the privacy rights of borrowers.  Or that in the age of social media we would want our librarians to have universities recognize the academic freedom rights of librarians as the very act of choosing which books to purchase and recommend can lead you into controversy.

There really are no good principled reasons for university negotiators to deny that academic freedom applies to professional librarians. In fact, it is difficult to understand how university negotiators could think that librarians should not possess academic freedom.  After mulling this issue over for a while I have come up with a few possibilities:

1) This is simply another example of a problem that Chris and I have noted repeatedly over the years: the gap between what high-level management (especially at UCOP) thinks and what front line people actually do.  I suppose it is possible that whoever made the decision to declare that academic freedom wasn't a "good fit" for librarians simply doesn't know what librarians actually do in the university.  In some ways, this supposition would be the most positive spin one could make.

2) This is an effort on the part of the University to deny or diminish the professional status of the system's librarians.  In fact, the previous MOU already acknowledged that librarians are "academic employees" (1) and that librarians should be credited for their research activity:
Research by practicing librarians has a growing importance as library, bibliographic, and information management activities become more demanding and complex. Librarian engagement in academic research enhances their ability to relate their functions to the more general goals of the university. It is therefore appropriate to take research into account in measuring a librarian’s professional development. The evaluation of such research or other creative activity should be qualitative and not merely quantitative and should be made in comparison with the activity and quality appropriate to the candidate’s areas of expertise. Note should be taken of continued and effective endeavor. This may include authoring, editing, reviewing or compiling books, articles, reports, handbooks, manuals, and/or similar products which are submitted or published during the period under review. (3

The University may be attempting to restrict the professional claims and status of librarians in order to gain greater control over their activities.

3) The University may think that it can use the recognition of librarian's academic freedom as a bargaining chip.  If this is the case then OP should be ashamed of themselves.  Academic Freedom is a fundamental aspect of the modern university and one that UC insists that it believes in deeply.  To treat it as a bargaining chip in negotiations debases its meaning at the same time as it diminishes the academic work of the university's librarians. I hope that this is not the case.  UC could affirm its principles by correcting its negotiating position quickly.

The UC-AFT has asked that people who support their case for Academic Freedom sign their petition.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Monday, August 27, 2018
I yearn to return to my beloved topic of truth and fantasy in university budgeting.  But last week it was impossible to avoid the Ronell affair.  There's all sorts of good (and terrible) stuff out there.  The Daily Mail?  Et tu New Zealand? (photo credit).  More links below--though I won't link to the trolling of Ronell's non-condemners, some of which sounds like it was written by a GRU cyberwarfare unit.  

The Ronell case has become for me a case study of the interaction between perm-austerity in the academic humanities and graduate student mental health.  It questions the existence of graduate student academic freedom.  It also shows a systemic failure of faculty governance that, in spite of everybody's pessimism, needs to be fixed.

For anyone just back from deep vacation (or not in the humanities): Avital Ronell is a prominent professor of German and Comparative Literature at NYU.  One of her former graduate students, Nimrod Reitman, filed a complaint with the University charging her with sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other misconduct. An 11-month NYU investigation found Ronell to have committed sexual harassment (but not the other charges); the University has suspended her for a full academic year without pay.  It confirmed that her behavior was "sufficiently pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of Mr. Reitman’s learning environment.”  Case closed?-- investigation conducted, individual offender identified and punished, behavior  sanctioned as violating professional standards.  Message received by that university community and others. In fact not-- the public case was just getting started.

The turning point was a New York Times story on August 13th that refocused the issue around the superficial contradiction between being a harasser and being a lesbian and/or queer woman and/or feminist: "What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist is the Accused?"  The article also focused on a letter of support for Ronell sent privately on May 13th to the NYU administration.  Signed by an all-star roster of senior faculty in or near Ronell's discipline, it has been widely viewed as demanding leniency for Ronell's conduct on grounds of her elite status, and following an old-school patriarchal practice of casting the complainant into disrepute. Although the signers moved too quickly because they were apparently afraid NYU planned to fire Ronell, they seemed to let their own authority outweigh their lack of knowledge about the case.

The literal answer to the NYT title question is straightforward: nothing happens to #MeToo.  Of course women can harass, queer women can harass, and lesbians can harass--although mountains of international data show that they do it much less frequently than do men.  Ronell's harassment of Reitman (a gay man) doesn't say anything literal about the #MeToo movement except what we already knew: gay men can be in it, women can be at odds with it, and no social movement requires uniformity or purity of victimhood. In a lucid piece, Nisha Bolsey concluded, "The approach of feminists should be clear: to believe Reitman. To attempt to discredit him in the name of feminism is not only wrongheaded, it undermines the cause of feminism."

Such statements weren't enough to resolve anything, once the group letter of support for Ronell went viral.  The philosopher Judith Butler's apology for key elements in the original letter wasn't enough.  Complex analyses on the widely-read queer site Bully Bloggers by Ronell non-condemners Lisa Duggan and Jack Halberstam were definitely not enough.  The reason was that the letter disparaged the graduate student while defining Ronell's mentorship of students as"no less than remarkable over many years." If these fifty prominent senior faculty would take no action against one of their own in this kind of case, then by extension graduate students in general could expect faculty toleration for harassment.   

I was struck by the high proportion of academics who seem to agree, as one FB comment put it, that "harassment of students has always been the norm and MANY students are harassed every day by ordinary, non-star faculty."  Many were worried that fixating on Ronell would encourage the profession to "overlook all of the ORDINARY ways in which predominantly straight white men have been sexually intimidating their students, in milder and more violent fashion, ALL of the time, before and after and regardless of theory and its present standing."  Harassment is a kind of general condition of grad life because the faculty who don't do it themselves don't get involved in stopping it.

This crew was self-selecting so I don't know how representative the sample is. But the logic needs to be taken seriously, and it goes like this:
  1. Ronell is not the exception but the norm 
  2. Ronell is the norm not because most advisors of doctoral students are sexual or nonsexual harassers but because
  3. Structural inequalities of power not only condition but control all advising relationships
  4. Such that (all) graduate students live in a state of permanent quasi-subjugation or, at the very least
  5. A permanent fear of retaliation
  6. Which means graduate students have no functional academic freedom
  7. Nor do they have creative intellectual latitude of the kind that enables original thought and the value of the humanities
  8. And because the faculty are the problem not the solution, this is not going to change.

Some examples: Masha Gessen's perceptive overview in The New Yorker highlights what we might call the tyranny of the faculty member's own vulnerability, and ends citing Derrida on the impossibility of justice. Corey Robin, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, concludes, "For all the revelations of sexual harassment within academe that we’ve seen in the past few years, we continue to leave that imbalance of power to graduate students, as individuals, to figure out" -- which of course they can't. Also in the Chronicle, Lee
The shame-harassment spectrum will endure as long as capitalist austerity does.

On Facebook, my quanty self tried to specify just how many Ronells people think there really are--one per department? 25 percent of each  department? We seemed to converge around two per department, but many made the point that the actual number doesn't matter: it's the possibility, the fear, and the near-certainty that if something does happen, nobody short of a Title IX officer is going to do anything.  And that cure can be worse than the disease (see Laura Kipnis in The Guardian). Back to the 1 through 8 cascade. 

Facebook discussions also turned up a strong sense that public universities are more egalitarian and offer less latitude to despotism.  One person, who went from an elite private doctoral program to tenure at a large public research university, wrote   
Untie funding from individuals— ours teach their way through and advisors have no input on funding. Democratize decision-making about funding for [all departmental programs].  Lastly, on the national front, abolish recommendation letters.
All of which got many cheers.

These would help.  But also: could we not think much more about how faculty can improve graduate mental health and academic freedom by working harder to end austerity in graduate education? 

Drew Daniel and everyone else are right that the root cause is competition under austerity, and yet most tenured humanities are fine with perpetuating it by shrinking their graduate programs.  The humble project of cooperative downsizing has been going on for nearly four decades--and here we are, weaker than ever, and expecting more weakness to come. If you are not entirely sure why austerity always does this, Mark Blyth or Richard Seymour can help.   

The alternative is to increase demand for our students. That will involve increasing undergraduate enrollments, intensifying undergrad education, and enlarging and explaining the humanities research agenda. We need non tenure track positions to be converted into tenure track positions.  Obviously this cuts against current trends, but current trends will bring more of the rot we're here to discuss.

To grow the humanities and Theory, we need to wrestle with the Theory legacy.  First, most of the modern version takes the university for granted.  A great exception was Jacques Derrida.  Another has been Judith Butler: in addition to her institutional work, she has also theorized the university as a condition of critique and as one important source of social justice: this Critical Inquiry essay (2009) offers a good overview.  The university needs its own ethics of care.

Second, we need to be clear that this Ronell case (leaving her scholarship aside) should have zero impact on its future.  Research universities fund disciplines based on the intellectual value of their research topics and programs.  They fund theory across the board, in engineering and economics and art history and philosophy, because theory is about getting at invisible forces that shape or control the empirical world.  Theory is also about refining methods of study so that our study is less rather than more distorting of what we study.  This turns out to be very hard to do--in chemistry as well as philosophy.  Theory is thus the condition of all intellectual progress and also of disciplinarity--not to mention rigor and validity.  So nothing Ronell did can embarrass the intellectual project.  The point is obvious if we glance at another field: no one said the disgrace of astronomer superstar Geoff Marcy might tarnish the search for exoplanets.  The same is true of critical theory in German or in any other language and culture.  Theory's issues are quite unexhausted, even as the material conditions of their study have been slashed.  We need to hold universities accountable to their intellectual mission and not let them use marketing, liability, or financial issues to advance the under-study of core issues.

What about this term that came back from the dead last week: High Theory (HT).  It is associated with French deconstruction and poststructuralism as it crystallized in the 1960s and 1970s and migrated to American humanities departments.  Ronell is a Germanist, so closer to those complex literary and philosophical cultures that were also taken up by the original French poststructuralists.  I got my PhD in a time and place where HT was going from insurgent to hegemonic, though it didn't keep me from turning into someone who studies the university's plumbing. I offer three quick points about it.

The good: as I already noted, theory studies foundational issues and HT got literary criticism past its Cold War positivism into new depths.  HT works on the relations between language, reason, consciousness, affect, the unconscious, objects, other people's subjectivity, and various related factors. It is preoccupied with invisible causes of visible things, and with their intractability.  It attracts the kind of people who, if they were in physics, might study the evidence for the possibility that our curved universe, the brane, sits in a bulk of multiple higher dimensions.   I've had a debate with some university studies scholars about whether intellectual Bildung is really compatible with democracy.  I think it is: difficulty is the lesson of theory for democracy.  Ronell by all accounts has among other things tried to disrupt linear narratives and common sense. Intellectual conventions do need to be tested and violated, or else nothing new ever happens. This not too sympathetic Martin Jay review of Ronell's Fighting Theory is a good reminder of disruption's positive side (h/t Helen).

The bad: in my experience, HT never figured out how to teach the full background you needed to understand the immediate ideas and texts.  Some people didn't really try.  But most did, with mixed success.  If you are in a course on Wordsworth and post-structuralist theory, how do you read enough Derrida to understand the professor and your classmates while also covering the Wordsworth carefully along with canonical Wordsworth criticism?  If you are in a seminar on Derrida and poststructuralism, how do you learn enough linguistics to understand his critique of Saussure, and enough Husserl to understand his critique of phenomenology, or enough Levi-Strauss . . . you get the idea.   Maybe 10-20% of the grad students were solid enough in three background areas to scramble to master the fourth or fifth that you needed to understand one of the major authors in your course.  My cohort did okay because of nearly-ideal funding conditions, but to my knowledge HT overall never solved the basic curriculum problem.  And here's my real point: because HT never faced the curriculum problem, it never faced the resources problem--more time, more collaboration, more archives, better searching, more depth.  The political economy of research has been put of until tomorrow, for decades.

The ugly. The gaps in student attainment were filled by a status Darwinism.  There were the truly smart who could follow the masters and the not smart enough who couldn't.  The New York Times piece reported, "Maybe, Professor Ronell suggested, [Reitman] was frustrated because he just wasn’t smart enough." This essentialism has again become a major grievance, and it has been hurting HT's reputation and dampened interest in learning it for going on 40 years.  

In reality, the source of different levels of performance is different levels of education. Ronell would naturally try to recruit graduate students with B.A.s from Yale rather than Oberlin or Cal State Fullerton--not because  all the smart people are at Yale but because Yale's philosophy, German, French, and other departments offer years of intensive training in seminar conditions in her exact tradition.  HT never denaturalized the foolish discourse of smartness, and in addition to wreaking psychic violence it has kept tenured faculty from pushing relentlessly for the economics that can fund the difficulty. 

Fund the difficulty!  When will humanities faculty address the basic political economy of their fields? TT faculty teach twice as many courses as their counterparts in the sciences, and have grads who do still more teaching while trying to learn research.  Hum faculty mostly mentor grads as an overload.  Extramurally-funded science labs give their doctoral students systematic training and experience in research and not just teaching (though they have problems of their own). The humanities have no equivalent: their grads operate in a semi-DIY environment in which it's easy to think, "my diss project has no structure because I am not smart enough."  I think that more structured and intensive research training would help grad mental health--and help re-professionalize some regressed faculty-student relationships. The economics will take some time to solve, but we'll never get started if we don't want it on academic grounds. 

This gets us to faculty self-governance.  My sense is that the helplessness of tenured faculty towards academic financing has been leaking for years into their relations to the departmental structures they actually do control.  In the Ronell case, there seems to be general agreement that she long felt entitled to evade professional standards.   Where was the DGS, the department chair, the other faculty?  Apparently not creating a support structure that grads felt could protect them from tyranny and retaliation.  

I don't mean that funding shortages are ever an excuse for tenured faculty inaction, especially at NYU where comparatively speaking there aren't any.  But faculty not confronting political economy is part and parcel of not confronting abuses of power, which are paired traits of neoliberal subjects. Writing in punctum,
I agree: and this "dynamic administration" of the "container" of doctoral programs is entirely in the hands of faculty and students, starting very much with tenured faculty.

I would very much like us--again, especially the tenured--to focus simultaneously and persistently on fixing the psychological and financial conditions of the humanities' theory projects in all their forms. That will mean growth and depth of graduate programs, i.e. anti-austerity.

for them:
I'm happy to help with the plumbing.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Monday, August 20, 2018
August 19, 2018

I can only speak for myself since the signatories of the letter addressed to the NYU administration regarding the sexual harassment charges brought against Avital Ronell are not a group with a single view, and different authors helped to craft the draft version of the letter that appeared online without our consent. When the signatories learned that termination of employment for Ronell was under consideration by NYU, we were bewildered by the severity of this possible sanction.  We understood she was accused of conducting a “romantic friendship” and that her emails had been scrutinized for evidence of a sexual relationship.   Our aim was not to defend her actions – we did not have the case in hand – but to oppose the termination of her employment as a punishment. Such a punishment seemed unfair given the findings as we understood them.  In hindsight, those of us who sought to defend Ronell against termination surely ought to have been more fully informed of the situation if we were going to make an intervention.

Moreover, the letter was written in haste and the following are my current regrets about it.  First, we ought not to have attributed motives to the complainant, even though some signatories had strong views on this matter.  The claims of sexual harassment have too often been dismissed by discrediting the complainant, and that nefarious tactic has stopped legitimate claims from going forward and exacerbated the injustice. When and where such a claim proves to be illegitimate, it should be demonstrated on the basis of the evidence alone.

Second, we should not have used language that implied that Ronell's status and reputation earn her differential treatment of any kind.  Status ought to have no bearing on the adjudication of sexual harassment.   All faculty should be treated the same under Title IX protocols, that is, subject to the same rules and, where justified, sanctions. 

Immediately after the confidential draft letter was published online, I was in direct communication with the MLA officers (the Executive Director, the President and the First Vice-President) to apologize for the listing of my position within the organization after my name.  I acknowledged that I should not have allowed the MLA affiliation to go forward with my name.   I expressed regret to the MLA officers and staff, and my colleagues accepted my apology.  I extend that same apology to MLA members.

We all make errors in life and in work.  The task is to acknowledge them, as I hope I have, and to see what they can teach us as we move forward.

This spring and summer, the Chronicle Review has published a series of faculty essays that agonize over the fate of the university in general and of the humanities in particular.  

In itself, this is a good thing.  The university does need to redefine its destiny, and yet the policy world is doing this without faculty voices.  But our work needs to be better.  Last week's entry is a case in point. 

I mean a piece by Adam Daniel and Chad Weldon called "The University Must Be Defended." It's a retort to responses to the authors' initial essay at the end of July, "The University Run Amok!"  

In that first piece the authors have an important core point:
The university is what it is today, in part, because of the atrophy of other public institutions, which has left universities to fill a widening void. Higher education is in a precarious position; so too is the American republic. In order not just to save themselves but to fulfill their social role, universities need a more refined understanding of their responsibilities to the public — and of how to meet them in ways that are consistent with their own animating purpose.
All true.  So what do the authors say should be the more focused public missions of the university core of teaching and research?  I couldn't tell you.  From here the piece goes sideways until it concludes like this:
Democracy does not need a prophet; it needs a public. And universities can help sustain, nurture, and establish that public by bringing knowledge out into the world and defending it as a common good. The history of American universities and that of the American republic are interwoven, and so too are their futures. It is not enough to save the university; we must redeem American public life.
Sounds like Daniel and Wellmon want the university to reverse mission creep and return to the core functions of teaching and research.  At the same time, they want it to do even more.  They call on the university not just to offer health education or STEM degrees to the public but to "sustain, nurture, and establish" the public and also to "redeem American public life."   Introducing knowledge to society and then defending it--through high-cost research, permanent PR campaigns, continuous donor solicitation, political lobbying, and advanced community services--is what got us where we are in the first place.  Daniel and Wellmon end their piece by calling for more of what they oppose.

What went wrong here?  Three things.  I bring them up not because this piece is bad but because it has features shared by most of today's academic jeremiads. (I should add that I admired Wellmon's co-authored review of The Great Mistake and his own book on the earlier history of research universities.)


1. Idealized causality.  Daniel and Wellmon spend much of the piece in a recital of intellectual touchstones of university history--presidential views in California, Wisconsin, Chicago, the passage of the GI Bill, etc.  They omit institutional analysis, even in the form of one case study.  They mention several candidates. Take Shanghai-based "UVA Global Llc": they note its existence, but what does it mean?  Does it spread the university core (teaching and research) to a new international public, making it good?  Is it a branding exercise offering substandard courses taught by exploited adjuncts, making it bad? What process produced it? Was it driven by board members with business interests in Asia? Was it invited by Shanghai officials concerned about limited access to higher education for local students?  We don't know--it's status here is as another thing UVa does.

They also mention UVa's 67-member police force.  What about it? Does it drain money from the classroom? Is there something about a university police force that is likely to intensify racist campus incidents or white supremacist marches, or to de-escalate them? Do the authors think universities should return to their core (and save money) by eliminating campus police departments?  Or are campus cops a sign of democracy (the institution could control its own police) or of its failure?  The essay doesn't discuss what the effects are of such units of the university, whether they are bad or good, or what their causes are such that they could be reversed.  

2. Sealed budget envelope. Daniel and Weldon don't have a budget analysis. The first paragraph lists a few top-line numbers, but these don't mean anything in themselves. Is the University of Virginia's $3.2 billion operating budget big or small?  Does it mean efficiency or inefficiency?  Is the medical school draining the campus or bringing it new net revenues?  Does managing so many units distract from academic development,or enhance it? 

The same questions arise for UVa's investment company: it is good, partly because it avoids paying management fees to commercial providers, or bad because its overhead is high?   How about buses?  Big campuses run bus systems for lots of reasons: to keep parking lots to a minimum, keep student cars off campus, keep student and employee cars off city streets, increase campus unity, reduce their carbon footprint, etc.  Is this bad for the instructional and research budgets, or good? Is it bad for the "common good," or good?  We can't tell from this piece.  

One author, Adam Daniel, is "senior associate dean for administration and planning." He presumably has data that could answer such questions.  He doesn't bring these to the table.  In general, we can't address issues of scale and impact without data analysis that uses net budget figures, broken down by relevant units, seen in cash-flow relation to others- for starters.

3. Unspecified social concepts and agents.  What do "democratic," "common," and "public" mean here? In the final paragraph that I quoted, these terms are more or less interchangeably good.  Elsewhere, public is bad, as in this passage that I found especially captivating.
The fate of American universities over the course of the 20th and now 21st centuries has been inextricable from the fate of American society more broadly. How can they fulfill their democratic responsibilities but avoid the endless accretion of functions that risks undermining them? How can universities adjudicate among their proliferating purposes? 
Scholars such as Christopher Newfield have consistently called for universities to recover a "public good conception" to overcome their capture by private interests. But it is precisely such a vague public commitment that makes the contemporary university’s situation untenable. The conflicting interests of the public, the systematic and long-term disinvestment in public institutions more broadly, the amalgamation of public and private interests — all of these make any return to an unalloyed commitment to an idealized "public" difficult and ill-advised. The university’s democratic commitments have become too centrifugal, pulling apart its interests, energies, and purposes. To save itself and to better serve its democratic purpose, the university needs to be not more but less reactive to public demands. (emphasis added)
One consequence of the ascendance of the "American" model is that it forced universities to justify themselves in public terms. But today the only widely shared moral language, the only commonly accepted way to talk and think about ideals and purposes, is the rubric of economic utility. 
Here the public hurts the democratic university by forcing it to meet too many demands.  But which public? The university hasn't kowtowed to poor students or immigrants or Native Americans or working-class students or students with 1050 on their SATs.  It hasn't bent to the will of transgender activists or anti-student debt advocates or non-Christians (in spite of the claims of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions).  Nor have most universities bowed to the employability agenda and purged their liberal arts and sciences.  Daniel and Wellmon don't specify the public agents that they think have been pushing the university around.

I have the same problem with their claim that the university has been hurt not by private interests but by the critique of them--that is, by the work of a "vague" "public good conception" of the university that they attribute to me.   

In The Great Mistake (just released in paperback!) I expend 10,000 words on this public good conception. Perhaps all of them are vague. But my two-sentence definition has been (1) negative, as not the reduction of the total effects of higher education to the private pecuniary good of a higher salary (a defining feature of neoliberalism in universities); and (2) positive, as "a good whose benefit continues to increase as it approaches universal access" (New Stage 1).  The first of these is in fact similar to where Daniel and Wellmon end up in their zig-zag towards a concern with the dominance of economic utility.  The second overlaps with well-established theories of network effects, social goods, and common wealth while also rejecting human capital theory (see Wendy Brown, Simon Marginson, Susan Robertson, et al.)

There are many weaknesses in terms like "public" and "social"--see Jason E. Smith's valuable critique of David Graeber's term "positive social value" in Bullshit Jobs.  But Daniel and Weldon don't define their concepts so that they could show how "public" has hurt universities more than or instead of "private."  The effect of the passage I cited is that of two academics seeming to strip "democracy" of "public" in its diversity, rather than beefing up shared governance so universities could better design their (democratic) response.

On to one of the responses: their omission of political forces drove Cathy Davidson understandably crazy.  Her piece is a good resumé of five key features of the last forty years of policy doctrine that Daniel and Wellmon left out.  The first four are businessize (management), privatize (revenue sources), vocationalize (teaching), and austerityize (all public universities).  Only two of those are real words but you get the picture.  It's important to me that we see how they are all based on treating higher education as a private good.

In their reply to Davidson, Daniel and Wellmon note correctly that universities are also perpetrators and not just victims of outside forces.  Davidson seems to have helped them concede that the political world's "private, market-based approaches" did influence the university's loss of educational focus. They don't note the reason for this, which is that much or most of the value of educational effects, the non pecuniary and nonindividual effects, can't be returned to the person who paid for them, which invalidates the market pricing mechanism that is supposed to result.   But their acceptance of the existence of market failure gets us back to the starting gate at least, which leads them again to their call for a "democratic model" without the content to show how it would be different from what universities do now.
As you can tell from this post, I'm increasingly focused on how better methods can help get us out of the blocked debates we're suffering now.  Obviously for me that involves the interdisciplinary field of Critical University Studies.  It is grounded in existing university research across the disciplines. It examines the lived relations of academics to their workplaces (see the recent posts by Elin Danielsen Huckerby and Lizzie Swan).  It helps fix the three problems I've discussed.  It tracks institutional causality and studies resource flows.  It also uses what the philosopher Anna Alexandrova calls "explicit mid-level constructs" to link universities to political discourses, economic forces, and state power.  In any case, we all need to help each other do better.

Other recent pieces: there's Jeff Williams essay on academia's self-promotional imperative (a good example of CUS linking institutional changes to work experience). And Michael says don't miss the comments on this newspeak redefinition of shared governance.