Tuesday, August 27, 2013

faculty moral responsibility for education fraud

Between 1999 and 2011, student loan debt increased 511%. College graduate unemployment is a little under 9%. The largest single employment sector in the US economy is retail sales. The largest sector of employment growth in the last two years is in temporary, low-skilled work.

The knowledge-based and expertise-based legitimations of college education are long dead. College degrees as credentials for entry into information-processing jobs are nearly dead. There is some reason to think college education provides relevant training that can be useful in various careers -- largely indirectly, through the development of "hidden curriculum" skills and attributes like perseverance, rule-following, mastering encrypted forms of communication like academic prose, etc. But these careers have lost a lot of their prestige and power, and are losing stability and security rapidly.

Under these conditions, getting a college education has to appear much less like a shrewd investment, and more like an expensive gamble. The basic economic function of colleges and universities -- non-profit and "public" as well as private and for-profit -- is to transfer wealth from poor laboring classes to rich capitalists who leech from the system at every pore. (Contemporary capitalism is called by several colorful names: disaster capitalism, predatory capitalism, casino capitalism. I think I like parasite capitalism.)

At some point, I imagine, the economic behavior of people will change to reflect this, and people will stop going to college. I fantasize how people might hold higher education to account for this economic arrangement, and for what could be called fraud.

What is my moral responsibility for this, as a college faculty member, given that I benefit (though modestly, especially compared to parasite capitalists)? Should I discourage people from going to college, despite the potential ramifications to my gainful employment? Should I try to show this perspective to current students, despite the potential ramifications to the teacher-student relationship? Can I "teach" a class, without excessive irony, after I have exposed this arrangement?

Let's see.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

what legitimates shared governance?

In most colleges and universities there is a structure called shared governance. Through this structure, the institution sets policy and makes certain decisions about academic programs, personnel, and other closely related matters. Beyond that very general overview, really nothing can be said about shared governance that applies to all colleges and universities. Shared governance apparatus and the capacity of those apparatus to foster genuinely shared genuine governance range widely.

From the perspective of faculty, shared governance ought to serve the faculty in shaping and recommending policy to the administration. Many statements about shared governance emphasize this by saying that the administration should follow policy recommendations duly approved by academic senates, and give compelling reasons when they do not.

Why should faculty have this authority? One answer, with a long tradition, is that faculty are experts in their fields, and therefore have the legitimate claim over directing the academic policies of their institutions. This is a claim about professional knowledge, judgment, and status, and is a common feature of every profession's assertion of self-regulatory authority. Since only medical doctors can make knowledgeable judgments of the work of medical doctors, medical doctors should have that authority; since only chemists can determine whether chemists are doing their work properly, chemists should regulate their own work.

Over the last 40 years or so, this authority has eroded, for every profession, as corporatization, privatization, and bureaucratization have taken over in formerly public-serving fields. Shared governance is a slow process; predatory capitalism can't abide this.*

The question is, what would make it seem reasonable to deny that doctors should have the authority and responsibility to determine what doctors should do? Why on earth would the regulation of doctors fall to people with financial spreadsheets? Similarly, why would the determination of academic policy fall to such people, many of whom are absolutely unable to talk about academic policy in any terms other than cash?

I am certain this is partly the result of the delegitimation of claims to expert knowledge. The authority of doctors, chemists, philosophers, or anyone else have become suspect. Expertise is now the function of computer programs, and the reduction of all values to money is an unquestionable ideology.

Under those real conditions, what could legitimate shared governance? My answer comes from the underclass of the academic profession, the permanently temporary, "contingent," or, as I prefer, the tenuous-track faculty. This super-majority of faculty (more than 75% of all college and university faculty) have been excluded from shared governance all along, and are only now getting some voice.§ The tenuous-track faculty's claim to a part of shared governance does not primarily rely on expert knowledge, in my opinion. Our expertise is doubted by many faculty, and almost all administrators, so such a claim would fail. Instead, we rely on a simpler, earthier, and more fundamental set of claims.

1. Labor. Tenuous-track faculty do the majority -- the vast majority -- of teaching work; therefore, tenuous-track faculty deserve a share in governance. The principle of justice here is a kind of proportionality: those who do most work have most at stake.

2. Civil and human rights. Tenuous-track faculty are people, actual real human beings, and as people deserve a share in governance. This is a liberal-democratic claim, that individual human beings have the right to self-determination and participation in social institutions.

3. Expertise. And by the way, yes, we are experts, thank you. We may lack full credentials in some cases, and we lack privilege and prestige, but we still have expert knowledge. There is a subtext to this: if shared governance is denied to those who do the work that recognized experts do, then the institutional power of recognized experts looks much more like mere privilege.


* Allegedly because of "competition," but of course the real reason all institutional change has to be rapid and dramatic is to perpetuate crisis, stun people, and create opportunities for seizing still more power).

§ I don't think it's an accident that this comes when shared governance is losing clout.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

the moral dilemma of collecting unemployment

I received my new three-year appointment, and signed and brought it to campus today. (I had requested a bump up to Range C, since I've been in the same salary range for 14 years. As soon as I received an evaluation letter saying they would try to make this happen, I knew it wouldn't. But that's another story.)

In between contracts, for the first time, I collected unemployment, to which I was entitled under California law. I expected to feel funny about that, because I can make ends meet, and there are plenty of people who can't. On the other hand, there's a reason to collect beyond my own condition. Lecturers in the CSU apply for unemployment partly as a political move to raise the cost to the administration of keeping lecturers in precarious employment status -- since the law stipulates we're eligible because we're in temporary employment that ends without any reasonable assurance of future work. My collecting unemployment supposedly has some effect on incrementally pushing for better working conditions for all lecturers.

But that wasn't my moral dilemma at all, as it turned out. It was Optima.

Optima is one of Hermann Zapf's two masterpieces -- the other being Palatino -- and, if not my favorite fonts, certainly one of the five. It's also the font of choice for the California unemployment agency, printed in that displeasing blue government bureaucracies always manage to put on everything, and that somehow always looks faded. All the pamphlets explaining how to be unemployed, how to try to stop being unemployed, and what to do to avoid losing unemployment benefits were covered in it. It's on their envelopes. It's on their logos. In that context, this perfectly weighted, ambiguously quasi-serifed work of art looks like -- well, like something sent to you from the unemployment office.

There's not a lot I can do. I had to change my fonts on this blog. I'm going to have to remove it from the course syllabi for which it is the basis of the style sheet.

So, now what? I already use Palatino for Bioethics. Professional Ethics uses Futura for headings and Goudy Old Style for text -- a devilish combination that works despite itself, and for which I take justifiable pride. The course is already laboring under the unwieldy title "Human Interests and the Power of Information." What am I supposed to do -- Avant Garde Gothic headings? That way lay madness.

Monday, August 05, 2013

philosophical problems

I suppose my post yesterday could have suggested I agree with whoever it was who said that life would never have posed any philosophical problems -- meaning that the tradition of Western philosophy is a history of self-invented puzzles and linguistic foibles. (I think it was G.E. Moore.) I don't think I mean that. It depends.

(1) If we stick to the strict language of philosophical problems, and consider philosophy to be a search for solutions, then I do mean that. Life's problems are not philosophical. I don't think philosophy is a solution-machine, either.

(2) If we broaden the terms, and say ask whether life poses philosophical questions, then I think it does. And I think this is where philosophy is at home, answering, and wondering, in response to questions.

I'll illustrate this with a brief look at a motivating moment in Plato's Republic. The passage I have in mind is when Socrates responds to Thrasymachus' claim that justice is the advantage of the stronger. Thrasymachus is not clear about this, his position ends up being incoherent, but what it amounts to is the view that the best life is one spent using power and wealth to acquire more power and wealth, and to hell with everybody else. Socrates demonstrates many problems with this position (for instance, what happens when another tyrant comes along, or when the people you depend on to produce the wealth you steal become totally corrupt or die out), but Thrasymachus doesn't care. In this, Thrasymachus is consistent. The ethical, political, and practical faults in his position don't matter to him. One imagines that, when these arise, he'll be happy to smash opponents, buy new slaves, build an arsenal of drones, secure his southern border, make war for oil, etc.

Socrates does not effectively refute him, in my view, because the argument doesn't continue. Glaucon and Adeimantus take it up, clarify it and try to make it coherent,1 and demand Socrates to show how it could possibly be better to have the reputation for total vice and be punished and persecuted for it despite being good, than to have the reputation for goodness and be rewarded and praised for it despite being wicked.2

Two ways to look at this. One is as an allegedly philosophical problem: the problem of how to get people to be good, or of how to be good, or of how to have a good life. In my view, Socrates necessarily fails to solve this problem, because it's not a problem that can be solved by philosophy. How do I know? Big hint: Thrasymachus has left the building! Socrates talks up Glaucon and Adeimantus, while the problem, Thrasymachus, is off gleefully beating people up and stealing their money doing high-finance deals beating people up and stealing their money.

The other way to look at it is as a philosophical question: the question of the meaning of virtue and vice, the meaning of a good life, and of why people like Thrasymachus seem so happy when the rest of us poor slobs aren't. Now we're talking -- literally, since that's exactly what they do. And they have a good time, and they don't hurt anybody while doing it.

Life poses philosophical questions (or perhaps this is better phrased as opportunities for philosophical questioning) all over the place, all the time. The question of the good can pop up with the toast out of the toaster. Which is great for us, because it offers consolation when people like Thrasymachus beat us up and steal our money.


1. Mistake #1. Thrasymachus' position is most accurately put incoherently, because he doesn't give a shit about listening to reason. Having power means you don't have to listen to reason. So, they've distorted his position, and the entire business thereafter is based on the mistaken notion that his position requires a rational defense.

2. Mistake #2. Another distortion of Thrasymachus' position. Having sufficient power means that your reputation doesn't matter. In fact, having a reputation for violence, wickedness, irascibility, and rapaciousness is good for people who have those characteristics because it makes people afraid of them and more compliant. DUH!

Sunday, August 04, 2013

philosophy is unnecessary

We don't need philosophy.*

The American philosopher John Dewey proposed that genuine inquiry could only arise as a result of a real, practical problem, and could only last until some solution to the problem arose. Most of the history of Western philosophy has pursued two kinds of problems: problems about knowing, and problems about doing. Let's call those epistemology and ethics.

In everyday life, in our dealings with the world, in our conduct toward one another, no problems arise that would call for the study of epistemology or ethics. That's not to say we have no problems when it comes to knowing or doing. In fact, we spend a lot of time and resources trying to solve them or dealing with the fallout when, instead of solving them, we act without thinking and create big messes. But the problems are not philosophical. They don't call for a philosophical study of epistemology or ethics.

Here's an example. I recently wrote email to a listserv about the response I got to a paper on faculty ethics and tenuous employment status. The paper was philosophical. It was asking about what ethics could mean, given that the kinds of ethical codes traditionally written and applied to professional work just don't fit tenuous faculty work. I proposed a way to consider the work of ethics, drawing from Michel Foucault, as a way faculty could consider who they themselves are, what kinds of moral subjects they might be or become, and on that basis, make a deliberate choice about the moral regime or code they would follow.

Someone responded by taking exactly the wrong bait (granted, this person never actually read my paper, so she was only taking the wrong bait of the email description of the response I got, and was writing from a position of ignorance). She said, more or less, that the tenure-track faculty should answer for their crimes, and that this, obviously, was what an "ethics" discussion of tenuous faculty would call for.

This illustrates very well the kind of problem people want ethics to solve, and why philosophy is unnecessary. She wanted to blame people, at the very least. She wanted philosophy -- or something -- to provide her a tool or an excuse to blame the people she wanted to blame. But philosophy doesn't do that. It's useless for the kind of moral judging, shaming, persecuting, and executing that people want ethics for. (What she really needed was sophistry or rhetoric.)

Another, much briefer illustration. Every so often, sciences get into tangles about their own basic systems of belief. Laws that had predicted and understood natural phenomena lo these many years sometimes go kaflooey, and then the sciences freak out, because they need a basic system of belief in order to do science work: running experiments, collecting grants, inventing new ways humans can fuck things up, etc. Where do the sciences go when their basic systems of belief go kaflooey? Not to philosophy, and for good reason. Philosophy would start theorizing about concepts like certainty and truth, their connection to perception, the connection between all that and what we mean when we say the world or the universe. That's not the problem of knowledge the sciences undergo.

Where does this leave philosophy? What is it? It looks like an extravagant, excessive, willful diversion from problems.


* This might be my answer to the question I posted in March: How can anyone take philosophy seriously?

Saturday, August 03, 2013

are blogs dead?


I haven't been using mine as intensively as in summers past for thinking my little thoughts. This summer has been different from summers recently past. I've been doing some stuff off-label. I ended up not having a lot to say about Bataille or Bachelard, only a little to say about Husserl, nothing at all about Sloterdijk, and until now nothing to say about Levinas. I don't think I've been as driven, or as narrowly focused, as in recent summers.

Partly, I think I'm still running out the implications of the intensive work I did over two summers ago. That has churned up things to track down and write about embodiment, passivity, erotic experience, normality and abnormality, and now subjectivity and consciousness (that's why I'm reading Levinas). I'm also still writing about faculty subjectivity and ethics in relation to tenuous-track employment status. In short, doing the kind of work that puts things in order, ties up loose ends, and so on, has taken up more time and space, and so I'm reading more broadly and less intensively.

I'll probably write something in this space about Levinas soon. He's starting to bug me.