Sunday, October 25, 2015

writing and "teaching" writing

I have believed for several years now that I should not be teaching writing in my classes, because it's not my job. I teach philosophy, not writing, except to the extent that students need guidance in explaining philosophical ideas in writing.

I'm uncertain I still believe that it's not my job to teach writing. For one thing, I've accepted at last that the implicit form-content dualism of that belief is untenable. Writing is not a container, and ideas are not pre-existing stuff to fill it.

On Thursday, I went on a bike ride after finishing grading 108 student papers, and thought about how to begin teaching something about writing to my students. I began by telling them that reading student papers causes me great pain, because I empathize with the pain I can see in their writing.

I then asked about their pain and anxiety about writing, and when I asked them what they do in response, the first answer in each class was, of course, procrastinate. They listed a number of other responses: they stress-eat, lose sleep, plagiarize, rush through, or give up. I asked how well those strategies work out.

It's hard for me to understand this, because I write all the time. I love constructing sentences and paragraphs. I delight in playing around with words. It's easy. It's easier for me to write than not to write. I struggle to refrain from writing. (That's not entirely true. Some days I can't write easily or well. I just don't have any words. When that happens, I don't push it. The next day, it's back.)

It's also perplexing because I believe most people I come across who have to write as part of what they're doing dislike or even dread writing. How--or more to the point, why--anyone who hates writing becomes a successful academic is beyond my comprehension.

If I state everything I know about good writing, the dilemma of teaching writing is clear. What I know about writing is that good writers learn by copying good writing. Duh. You fall in love with a writer, read everything you can find by that writer, and attempt to write in that writer's style. Then you fall in love with another, and repeat. After 7 or 13 repetitions, your own writing has become a bad pastiche of these styles, and with any luck, someone tells you this or you notice it, and start taking out all the obvious thefts you can identify. You continue this, and add new stolen pieces and removing them, until you die. 

I have my students for a 15-week semester. I can tell them what good writing takes, but they typically lack even the basis of reading and mimicking good writing for years. This extends to fundamentals. Even correcting punctuation and usage on five-page papers is meaningless, if my students lack the habit and the models of conventional style.  

Thursday, October 15, 2015

contingent faculty activism, part 1

The usual approach to contingent faculty* activism is to drive for inclusion, recognition, and security within our institutions. Contingent faculty are underpaid, usually ineligible for benefits, have little or no job security, are relegated to marginal positions as “adjuncts” (as non-faculty), and systematically barred from participating in shared governance over their own work. These have appeared to be the natural targets for activism. In unfortunately many cases, the targets also include faculty leadership and faculty unions, who often mirror their institutions in marginalizing and discarding contingent faculty.

This seems like a contradiction, to some of us. The tenure-track faculty surely ought to be our natural allies. We do the same work, in the same institutions, with the same students. We share commitments to our fields of knowledge and to the social good of higher education.

Obviously, tenure-track faculty are benefited by the current institutional system. For many in the tenure-track, the current arrangement appears to be merit-based, rewarding the deserving and leaving the undeserving to their fate. I am not interested in that here, so I will simply assert that it is untrue, and that the faculty who believe this are wrong about their own merit, their merit relative to the contingent faculty, and the notion that the current system is merit-based.

It is more interesting to consider the tenure-track faculty who acknowledge that the current system is unfair to contingent faculty, is arbitrary to some degree in its distribution of rewards, and yet do not support contingent faculty activism or the usual institutional reforms contingent faculty advocate. I sometimes imagine that they view us as the monstrous creatures of evil genius, or as ghosts haunting them as a reminder of how fickle even their fates are. Few tenure-track faculty quietists would recognize themselves in my gothic fancies, I’m sure. They would explain their inaction with a wan smile and the admission that they are too busy with their own work and their own institutional struggles.

In fact, whether or not I’ve diagnosed their unconscious motivations, they typically are too busy. Most of the contingent faculty are too busy, as well—though more often with driving to another campus to teach two more classes, or to another job, to make ends meet.

Now let me see if I can recapitulate this. The primary goals of mainstream contingent faculty activists are to gain very much or all of what tenure-track faculty currently have in compensation, job security, and self-determination and professional status. What protects those privileges of tenure-track faculty right now? If I’m not mistaken, it is the current institutional system of power and distribution—the very same system of power and distribution to which mainstream contingent faculty activists want access. If this system is what guarantees unfairness, why should the goal be inclusion in it?

So it goes in reformism. (Cf. the same-sex marriage “rights” “victory” that has provided same-sex couples access to the discriminatory institution of state-sanctioned marriage. If marriage were not used as a way to discriminate regarding access to healthcare, survivor’s benefits, and access to other social goods—that is, if marriage were not an administrative means for allocating social goods to certain categories of approved-of lives—this would be a completely empty “victory.” As it stands, it’s certainly Pyrrhic.)

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* "Contingent faculty" is a misnomer, one of many, for the faculty who work off the tenure track. It delights me that there is no proper name for us. "Contingent" is technically untrue in my case, under our Collective Bargaining Agreement, and is also vague. "Adjunct" is inappropriate and derogatory: non-tenure-track faculty are around 75% of college faculty in the US, and more than 50% are part-time employees at one or more institutions, so there is nothing "adjunct" (ancillary, additive, inessential) about our work. "Precarious" (a term more often used in Mexico and Qu├ębec) is nice. I like the little bit of homophony of "tenuous track," which I claim to have coined in around 2008 or so. My three-year appointments all contain the word "terminal," so we could be called the "terminal faculty."

In any case, although it is not a proper name for us, it is in common usage as an alternative to the obnoxious term "adjunct," so I'll adopt it here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

then it's war!

The "War on Terror" doesn't seem to have gone so well, after all. Whodathunkit?

No doubt, it's the wrong target. No, I don't mean that the US has bombed the wrong brown people, although in large part that's true. And I don't meant that bombing brown people isn't solving the problem, although that's true too. I also don't mean that there's no moral justification for the policy, although that's abundantly clear.

I mean "Terror." Maybe we can't really commit war against "Terror." Plus, I don't know, but isn't war itself kind of terrifying? It's certainly terrible.

Terror is paralyzing. So - follow me here - it's not the people in terror who are turning into terrorists. It's more like people who have something wrong with their lives, and they can think of no other way to solve it but to lash out violently against the supposed perpetrators, in an atavistic and doomed attempt to kill their way out of their problems.

To target the right affect, what we need, I've realized at last, is this: a War on Malaise.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

university education and opportunities to do stuff on campus

This is the text of something I posted for my students to read. It's related to class discussions in my Philosophy and Education class (aka Phil and Ed, nice guys, really), and starting Lani Guinier's Tyranny of the Meritocracy, and other stuff goin' on.

Last Thursday was the Academic Freedom Forum that I organized. One of the primary goals of the event was to contribute to the intellectual life of the university at large, and to invite all members of the university to take part. By my count, 8 of my 108 students attended. I expect there are basically three reasons more of my students didn’t attend: because they weren’t interested, because they had a schedule conflict, or because they didn’t feel comfortable going.

Those who were uninterested may not have understood what the event was about, or why it would be relevant to their lives. They might also have not cared about the issue. I expect that some didn’t care because they don’t consider education to be about doing anything except attending classes and fulfilling requirements for graduation. What is the purpose of university education? How does that purpose relate to fulfilling graduation requirements? Is that purpose related to doing anything outside of fulfilling graduation requirements?

Those who had schedule conflicts may have had a class at the time of the event, but many had work or family obligations. It’s obviously impossible to schedule anything such that no one has any conflicting events. But scheduling is made more difficult by the many obligations most of our students confront daily. Many of those obligations should take precedence over engaging in the intellectual life of the university. What is the relative value of engaging in that intellectual life of the university compared to these other obligations?

Those who were uncomfortable about attending may feel alienated from the life of the university. That could be because of language or culture gaps: even the notion of “intellectual life” may make someone feel unwanted or uninvited. Others may have a health or mental health related reason. I know I often skip events on campus, even events I am interested in, because of anxiety. I know it’s not avoiding anxious situations is not a very positive response to anxiety, but after a long work day, with my energy reserves low, it’s sometimes too much of a burden to summon the fortitude to tough it out. Whose university is it? Whose intellectual life is it?

This is a complex issue. I usually think about it in simple terms, based on my own experience as an undergraduate student. My life as an undergraduate student was not similar to most here at Stan State. I come from a relatively privileged background, and my parents paid my tuition to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (tuition would have been a bit higher there, in constant dollars, than tuition here at Stan State now). I had a job, 20 hours a week, in the library, to pay for books and other expenses. I lived on campus. In addition to classes and work, I spent hours and hours every week, on campus, talking to my professors in their offices, reading in the library, and just prowling around the academic buildings, seeing what was going on. I went to some kind of university academic-related event about every other week—a public lecture by a visiting scholar, a film screening, a play, an art display, a poetry reading, you name it, I would go, especially if there was free food. None of this was for class, or for graduation requirements, or for credit, but just because I saw there were opportunities to do these things, and I wanted to do them. It mattered to me because I had an actively curious intellect, and because I wanted to be an active member of the university. Not only that, but I felt like the university was mine to explore and even exploit in those ways. My feeling was that faculty in their offices were fair game for me to go talk to, about anything at all; that the library was an open invitation to read anything at all about anything at all; and that the art studios, theaters, and architecture department were there for my own entertainment and stimulation. Nobody told me I wasn’t allowed in.

My way of approaching college life was unusual then, and would be even more unusual now. For one thing, my economic situation was very different from what a larger and larger majority of students face today. A lot has changed about the financing of so-called public higher education: fees are higher, and textbook costs are astronomically higher. A lot has changed about the economic conditions of everyday life, and about public funding for a great many human needs.

I imagine it is also the case that the culturally prevailing ideas about the value of higher education have changed. If it was unusual in my undergrad days for students to think of college as an intentional, transformative set of experiences, I think now it sounds almost goofy to suggest this. The cultural idea we have of higher education now emphasizes job preparation to such an extent, that it’s hard for many people to imagine it can do anything else.

The cultural role of higher education has changed also because the demographics of college student populations have changed. Back when I attended, UNCC had more than the usual number of “non-traditional” students—which means students who are not 18-22 years old, and who did not begin college immediately after high school and expect to complete college in four years. At Stan State today, most of our students are non-traditional students. On top of that, a huge majority are first-generation college students, many are immigrants, many more are the children of immigrants, and many do not primarily speak English (the de facto language of teaching on our campus).

When I take all that into consideration, I realize that my own experience of undergraduate education was incredibly privileged, but also that I took every last advantage of it that I could. That immeasurably enriched my education and my life. Because I know how full, rich, and happy the experience of participation in the intellectual life of the university was for me, I want that for everyone. This also indicates what I think university education is, what it is for, and what value it has.

But who is it for? Remember, I was privileged. I didn’t doubt where my next meal was coming from (not until grad school). I had the resources to take advantage of the university. I didn’t receive the message, not once, never ever ever, that university education was not for me.

What do you value about university education? What are you getting from it? What could you get from it? How?

If you did not attend the Academic Freedom Forum because you couldn’t afford to (i.e., your schedule made it impossible), because you weren’t interested, or because you were uncomfortable about coming, this is not your problem. It is a problem concerning the institution as a whole and all of our relations to it. It is a problem regarding our economic, cultural, and social statuses, and, yes, of classism, racism, sexism, prejudice against different ethnicities, against different linguistic groups. The university is not somehow outside of the society, and the social conflicts and problems in our society are reflected in everything that goes on in the university.

My question is what we can do to make university education as valuable to you as it can be, and as it should be?