Monday, February 24, 2014

the mission of the university

I've written some things about university education that could seem fairly cold-hearted, critical, or even cynical. I have wanted to write a paper to submit to an upcoming conference that would take the form of a prospectus for potential shareholders in a university based on the principles of advertising and information analyzed by Jean Baudrillard. I'm out of time to write it in a way consistent with my long-term health and well-being.

I'm grading papers and attending meetings about curriculum, instead. What I learned from one recent meeting is that, no matter how cynical the tone in my satires, I could never hope to match the cynicism of some actual university administrators. Quoting liberally from their universities' mission statements, some actual university administrators manage to bankrupt all meaning from any concept pertaining to the work universities do, while speaking of the pursuit of various metrics of this same work as the key value universities ought to have. (I should note in passing that interpreting some of what actual university administrators say about university education as cynical ought to strain us, because parsimony demands the simpler explanation that some actual university administrators are unable to comprehend what it is universities do. Calling it cynical suggests that these administrators are people who know that they are paid to say that they care about education.)

Gentle reader, you may be relieved to find that this post is not at all cynical.

Today, after another meeting about curriculum, and after a woman in a red Cadillac tried three times to run into me and my bike at the same intersection on the way home, I was thinking about how something like the university's mission is reflected in my actual, you know, work.

I graded four papers from a class of 30 just before the meeting. One of them was good, followed the prompt, and generally explained the ethical problem and the two articles I asked the class to write about. It was a B. One of them was fair, said what the two articles were about, but didn't really address the prompt or the ethical problem. It was a C. Two of them were basically incomprehensible because of poor English grammar, mechanics, syntax, word choice, and poor comprehension of course material, and failure to follow instructions. The proper score for each of these two papers would be F-. The students in the class are juniors or seniors, meaning they have already supposedly successfully completed two years of college work.

This tells me something about our university's mission. We have students who are functionally illiterate in at least the English language, and we have students who are capable of what I consider college-level work. In most of my classes, the ratio is one student who cannot do college work for every three who can. Our university's mission is to serve these students, all of them, because all of them meet admission standards at this public four-year comprehensive university, being among the top third of their graduating classes or having met admissions requirements for community college transfers.

We most often speak and think about the university's mission in terms of imparting knowledge, preparing students for careers, and for life, but with the narrow and fixated focus on particular outcomes -- graduation being the most important, and most commonly cited. It's a discourse obsessed with winning and losing -- with the university winning and losing -- and each student is one more ball game in the never ending season.

Now, that really is cynical, keeping score by counting students who graduate and "succeed." When I grade papers with a mindset like that, I get more frustrated and angry with every paper that's hopelessly off-topic, ungrammatical, and incoherent, because every paper like that is another loss in my record.

What I think I want to know about the university's mission, and about my students, is what good we can do for these people who come here and take our classes. Win or lose.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

of termites, reputation, and character

We have drywood termites.

We called in the pest company that wrote the certification prior to our buying this house. The inspector came back out, identified the termites, said he was sorry to bear bad news, and that there had been no visible evidence of them during his earlier inspection, so we'd have to pay to fumigate. He offered a deal to us to fumigate at cost.

I said we didn't feel like this was our problem, since we relied on a certification his company wrote. We didn't buy termites. He said that in his opinion, we wouldn't be able to demonstrate in court that there had been evidence that was ignored, and anyway, that it would have made no sense for him to fail to note the termites, since he would make money on reporting them.

We contacted our realtor, who made some inquiries. The next day she called to tell us the seller and the pest inspector would cover the cost of fumigation. She opined that they wanted to protect their very good reputations. Indeed, when my Loveliest reported the termites to some friends, they immediately asked who the inspection company was, and were impressed to hear they had agreed to cover the cost.

The inspector and seller will have thus preserved their reputations. We won't have to pay for fumigation, but we will have to move out for two days, with our cats and turtle, and move all our food out of the house.

I am a suspicious person, so I did not trust anything but the offer of free fumigation (and only really barely trust that, in fact). Knowing the history of philosophy also makes me inclined to focus on the difference between reputation and character. Reading Plato will do that to ya. And I have just been reading the Apology with my intro class.

Around here, in my experience, businesspeople's (well, really, businessmen's) reputations are built on their stated commitment to Christian values. In my experience, too, this is pretty cheap talk -- never mind that a reputation for being a Christian property investor or Christian pest inspector makes as much sense as a reputation for being a Buddhist journalist or Shinto mechanic.

Have either the seller or the inspector demonstrated anything about their characters? This is a basic problem in the way Plato wrote about this issue. Someone concerned entirely about reputation, who does not give a damn in his or her soul of souls, could still be powerfully motivated to do what looks objectively to be the right thing, for reasons having nothing at all to do with ethics.

Don't get me wrong: I'll take the fumigation. I'll even report on service review websites that they provided it. I don't think I'll say anything about their characters.

Friday, February 14, 2014

philosophical habits of mind

A grad school professor of ours used to compare himself to an extraordinarily widely published friend of his, by way of Isaiah Berlin's distinction of intellectual foxes and hedgehogs. "Joe's a fox," he would tell us, "and I'm a hedgehog." The fox had a quick wit, and always seemed to grasp intuitively and immediately the scope and significance of any philosophical discussion. He responded brilliantly to questions. The hedgehog was plodding and specialist in a small area of philosophy to which he devoted years of study, ultimately to formulate one or two nearly dogmatic assertions.

I always thought our professor implied that the more properly philosophical approach was his -- the hedgehog's. What he told me about philosophical study over the years perpetually returned to the theme of focused study on one area, or at most three great philosophers. About these, the hedgehog admonished us to read practically everything published. He was a model of constancy and determination.

But I admired the fox and had a natural affinity for him. (The fox had charm that the hedgehog lacked, and was also nicer.) He seemed to be aware of every trend in academic philosophy, as well as being in the vanguard of a few. He entered any debate with goodwill and heart, and apparently without a shibboleth he felt the need to protect. I have a vague memory of him at an academic conference, mid-debate with an adamant, opposed interlocutor, suddenly shrugging and saying, "oh, yes, you're right, and I'm completely wrong about that."

In fact, I thought that the fox was more truly philosophical. The hedgehog was a scholar, practically a monk. He seemed not only to think more slowly, less broadly, but less freely. This could also make the hedgehog appear less intelligent, certainly less bright.

I know, therefore, that my bias regarding the necessity of philosophical intelligence is that it model the fox's quickness and brightness, rather than the hedgehog's diligence and tenacity.