Shooting fish in a barrel

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Just as the middle class is always rising, the masses are always revolting, and the evil claws of the patriarchy will get you too, my pretties, so we have another column by a tenured professor at an elite institution who argues that we must “End the University as We Know It” (h/t to Hotshot Harry who sent the link on to me.  Congrats on the new job, Harry!)  Stanley Fish has the week off, so they found another member of the guild to beat up on professors.  Riddle me this, friends:  which members of other professions write columns in the New York Times about how their jobs are misconceived and/or useless?  Do physicians write columns about how pointless their work is?  Do the clergy opine about their irrelevance in our times?  This time, it’s Professor Mark C. Taylor’s turn to argue that the “mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization.” 

((Yawn.))  I’m all for reforming “the university” (as if such a standardized, uniform creature exists.)  Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:  “as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less.”  Taylor makes some good points about the exploitation of graduate and adjunct labor, but instead of demanding that universities invest in their faculty and create more full-time positions, he says that universities should “impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure.”  That’s right–the problem isn’t that the people who have all of the money and decision-making power at universities have decided to cheap out when it comes to faculty development and their instructional budgets–the problem is all of those old farts who won’t get out of the way! 

Taylor sure sounds like a department chair bucking for dean:  most of his suggestions will cost universities almost nothing because they depend mostly on–wait for it!–volunteer faculty laborWho else is going to “restructure the curriculum,” “increase collaboration among institutions,” “transform the traditional dissertation,” and “expand the range of professional options for graduate students?”  Good luck getting faculty to do that after you abolish tenure–most of us are going to be sure to look out for Number One when that happens, so you can kiss all of our committee work good-bye!  (Won’t you miss all of those senior faculty then?  “Old farts” with tenure sure are useful for lots and lots of committee work.)  But, whoever does the work, Taylor’s suggestions are just collections of fashionable buzzwords about “the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches,” and preparing students “to adapt to a constantly changing world.”  Here’s my favorite road to nowhere:

Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

drwhoUhhh…those “zones of inquiry” sound awfully familiar.  Oh, yeah!  I think that’s because they’re called the Philosophy, Anatomy/Zoology, Law (School), Communication, Computer Science, English and Foreign Languages, Geography, History, Journalism, Economics, and Biology departments at most universities.  (And here at Baa Ram U., we already have a water program–betcha your school can’t say that!)  Great idea, Professor!  You won’t sound at all foolish identifying yourself as a member of the Mind Zone of Inquiry, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d much prefer to remain in a History Department rather than affiliate with a  Time Zone of Inquiry.  Who here thinks that talking like we’re stuck in a 35 year-old Dr. Who episode will make our work seem more “problem-focused?”

If we have to pick a 1970s TV show to structure our work lives, can it be Land of the Lost, please?  If anyone is up for a “routine expedition” this afternoon, let me know!

UPDATE, later this morning:  Dr. Crazy has a roundup of other blog posts singing the same tune as this one (different verses, though.)

0 thoughts on “Shooting fish in a barrel

  1. With you on this one, Historiann. My typist spent much of the day yesterday trying to concoct a funny response to Taylor’s column (you know — some hilarious MLA scenario involving a search committee interviewing lit critters for a position in, um, Water), but she kept getting so ticked off that we just decided to toss up another post about Bea Arthur’s passing. Now there’s a dame who could’ve spearheaded some serious higher ed reform. Program in Tough Broads With Voices Like Gravel, anyone?


  2. Our state’s myriad social studies ed. alphabet soup accreditation agencies (SSEASAAs) seem to want to call us something like the Department of Space and Time, Change and Continuity. And, of course, we really really need to implement these mandates. Or maybe that was the name of a Country Joe and the Fish album that I was YouTubing last night, who knows?


  3. “Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs.” *sigh* I’m not even sure what Mechanical Engineering would be classified as — at least Physics falls under “Space, Time”. (Maybe my discipline will become “Money” since I design and manufacture stuff which can be sold?) But hey, obviously Mech.E. is one of those archaic, stolid disciplines that doesn’t evolve. It’s really about time we scrapped all this old-fashioned idea of “materials have certain innate properties and should not be put under more stress than they can handle” — just imagine the cost-savings (and environmental savings!) if we built all our infrastructure out of toothpicks instead of steel. If it collapses, clearly you haven’t applied your Mind skills strongly enough.

    (Oh, and “studying water” is known as “environmental engineering.”)

    Love the Doctor tie-in 🙂


  4. Mechanical Engineering??? What do you think this is, Erica–the twentieth century or something?

    I’m just innately skeptical of arguments against something that hasn’t proved itself fundamentally broken. But even *if* universities are screwed up–is it really faculty research and tenure that have done the job? We haven’t asked for government bailouts (even those of us at so-called “state schools” know we can’t get blood out of a stone), we haven’t brought the worldwide economy to the brink of collapse. But somehow, it’s the comp lit, engineering, and art history proffies who are to blame…for something! Yeah, right.


  5. Loved the part about adjuncts getting ‘as little as 5,000 per course’! I only make (close to) that if I treat my 20% Service commitment as a donation to the University. Maybe I should be working at Columbia!


  6. Yeah, I was pretty amused by the idea that every seven years the entire university should be reorganized, and we faculty drones re-assigned to new Zones of Inquiry. Then it’s chop-chop! Publish in your new ZoI of you’ll get the boot!

    Collaboration across campuses was a good one, too. Why should each institution within a region have a separate French or German department, when we simply can make one poor faculty sod teach everyone who who wants to learn that language for a 300-mile radius?. So efficient! And somehow, that will solve the adjunct labor problem too — cutting positions and maximizing efficiency as if education were a Ford assembly line is bound to lead to the greater good, even if it seems to make no sense now!

    I also was struck by how faculty-centered his analysis is. Where are the students in his model?


  7. Caleb–welcome, and thanks for the link to Printculture.

    Squadrato–I think you and I would do just fine in the absence of tenure, so long as we make a Mutual Assured Destruction pact never to serve on another bloody committee ever again! Leave it up to others to review and reorganize our “Zone of Inquiry” every seven years. (Why 7 years–because it’s a nice, round, Biblical number? Where’s the innovative, cross-disciplinary, international and transinstitutional thinking in that?)

    My thoughts were the same as yours on the language classes: so who’s going to show up and drill students at 8 a.m. 5 days a week in Baby Greek, Latin, German, French, Russian, Italian, and Spanish?


  8. Historiann & Squadrato: Funny you should ask who will be teaching the intro language courses… it appears that at Woebegone State University it will be… nobody. Or if we are lucky, a handful of adjuncts in a bountiful budget year. Our College of Liberal Arts has shut down the German and French majors. After the present, small crop, of seniors and juniors graduate the remaining faculty in the foreign language department will either retire or be absorbed by Global Studies (the interdisciplinary Borg).

    Once upon a time, we had an academic vice president who wanted to dissolve the history department. Although the story may have now entered the realm of urban folklore, he was reported to have said, “History, nobody studies that stuff any more, its dead, like Latin and Greek.” His own PhD was in chemistry or some other ‘hard science.’ He wanted to transfer the history faculty to Global Studies (you will be assimilated).

    I appreciated both the Dr. Who and Land of the Lost references. Fortunately, most of the overtly hostile administrators move about as quickly as the Sleestak.


  9. For once I agree 100%… well… except for the Doctor Who reference. Unlike Taylorville, the “Whoverse” is full of highly technical disciplines: “block transfer equations,” anyone?


  10. Oh, and another thing… Over at Dean Dad’s place, a commentator mentioned that dr. Taylor’s proposal was incredibly ‘faculty oriented’ not student focused at all. And he/she hit the nail on the head…

    During advising, especially with incoming freshmen and their parents, I have students ask me all the time, ‘what kind of job can I get with a history degree?’ – Most students at Woebegone State are looking for a vocational end result from their education.

    Right now I can hem and haw about the value of a liberal arts education and point to our alumni who go on to careers in teaching, hospital administration, law, politics, business etc. What the heck am I supposed to tell a student who majors in ‘Bodies’ or ‘Water’?


  11. I hate to keep griping about the engineering side of things, but the article thoroughly ignores that portion of the academic world — for example, engineering schools already send most of their advanced degree students into the Real World, and we’ve managed to do that without needing to fire our professors every seven years.

    Also, engineering-school ethics are pretty strongly developed, and so while it would be nice to chat about the societal implications and how important it is for water solutions to be created — it will get done with or without the philosophy department’s active collaboration.


  12. Yes, and what I love about these regular moans is that they are by (men) at elite institutions. This one teaches religion. Somehow he is not engaged with people in other fields? It’s the department’s fault?

    I’m torn about whether to take this seriously, but the epistemological problem once you abolish departments is huge. Anyone who has done serious interdisciplinary work knows that different fields have very different criteria for judging evidence, deciding what’s important, and even what evidence matters. Even when Renaissance lit scholars and I read the same documents, we have fundamentally different questions. So even if we are both interested in women, or more specifically wife beating, we go at the question in totally different ways.

    Oh, gosh. We’ve spent too much time thinking about this idiocy.


  13. That’s all right, Susan–that’s why I’m loaning you all my six-shooter. We’re just taking potshots here. It’s kind of like my motto for marking student papers: don’t spend more time evaluating it than the student spent writing it. It wasn’t a serious column–although why the NYT lurves them some self-hating proffies, I’ll never understand. (I wonder if it has something to do with envy. A lot of journalists envy the stability and authority of academia, I’ve noticed, which may be why they like to publish so much specious crap urging universities to adopt market values.)

    I like Matt’s question: “What the heck am I supposed to tell [the parents of] a student who majors in ‘Bodies’ or ‘Water’?” Well, I suppose it depends on if they’re majoring in human bodies (biology, medicine), animal bodies (veternary science/animal studies), or heavenly bodies (astronomy, physics). Like I said, how is this somehow less flaky and more serious than just calling it “liberal arts?”


  14. These prescriptive pieces always have lots of little tell-tale indications that they’re being cobbled together from cliches and edu-crat boilerplate. $100,000 in loans being taken on by unemployable Ph.Ds with dissertations on the embod/i/ment[s] of sentimentality? Pretty doubtful. Faculty training clones of their microcosmic sub-sub-fields? A useful trope if used with analytic caution, but more problematic as a fieldwork descriptor. Dissertations with “more footnotes than text?” Not the ones I’ve seen lately; maybe at Columbia. Train students for “fields other than higher education?” Sure, but recycled rhetoric from at least the early 1970s. Mandatory retirement? Why not, even though Congress explicitly forbade it. Universities can just write their own law. How “medieval” is that? But maybe we could push the envelope on this and take the concept to even higher levels. The Big Ten and the Great Lakes Colleges Association could mutually put themselves out of business and fold all of their resources into a mega-regional, “Bodies of Water” certificate of recognition program. Graduates with those credentials are going to be gobbled up when the shoreline rises another couple of hundred feet!


  15. I wonder if he’s considered the logistic of what happens when they phase out a zone or inquiry. (After all, they’re not supposed to be permanent.) Every professor who can’t find a place in a new, seemingly more relevant zone gets the sack? (And sent out in the world after having built up their skills in a field that is no longer deemed relevant?) This is surely a system that will attract the best people into higher education.


  16. What–you don’t think that a generation of “Professor Harold Hills” sounds like a great idea?

    OK, everyone: let’s use the “think method: Everyone think about the Minuet in G: Da de da de da de dum, da de dum, da de dum…” Now you can all play band instruments!

    Maybe that’s how Professor Taylor is going to cover all of those French and German sections, with the “think method” of pretending that one knows how to speak another language.


  17. He also seems to have overlooked the fact that current academic disciplines did not emerge as theoretical entities (in contrast to what he proposes). Instead, they evolved based on a combination of content and research methodology. While the first of these may shift from one discipline to another, different disciplines have discrete, sometimes wildly different, research methods. He seems to think these are transient.

    I did, however, like his suggestion that smaller colleges/universities look to “team up” and offer complementary, rather than competitive, programs (minus the on-line portion).

    Thanks for the congrats, Historiann. Having won the job lottery, I now need to win the real estate lottery as well….


  18. Yes, I wonder what it would be like if there were departments composed of people with PhDs from multiple disciplines, building undergraduate majors that took an multidisciplinary look at a common topic…oh wait! I know! That might look a whole lot like Taylor’s Religion department, which includes people with PhDs in Religion, History, Literature, and possibly others. (I didn’t scan through the entire list of faculty–I only got to “Balmer, Randall” to find three PhDs in three different disciplines.)

    If Taylor is concerned that International Relations scholars aren’t talking enough with people in religion departments, maybe he could try to push his own dept to hire someone with a PhD in IR or Political Science. If only he had some position of influence…like if he were chair of his department…oh wait–he is!

    There are programs and departments that bring people together from history, philosophy, religion, art history, etc. to study the common topic of religion in human experience. They’re called Religious Studies departments. (Hint: most departments with “Studies” in their name are already doing what Taylor thinks we need more of.)

    I do take his point that universities rely far too heavily on underpaid graduate labor to fulfill their core mission. But I would take the Occam’s Razor approach here. Wouldn’t it be easier to deal with the problem by trying to get departments to restrict their graduate admissions to those students they can fund? At my PhD institution they only admitted students they could promise full funding for (which meant small cohorts in some years); we do the same at my current institution, which also has led to ups and downs in admissions. Until the California budget situation improves our PhD program is just going to shrink. Such a move would be very difficult to enforce–but no more difficult, I think, than encouraging universities to give up tenure and enforce mandatory retirement.

    I found this column very bizarre. But be careful, Historiann–Doctor Who is *much* better written and thought out than this Op-Ed piece. Criticize my chosen profession all you wish, but please leave the Doctor out of it.


  19. Thanks, Susan–I was just thinking how it would feel to be that graduate student in Religion at Columbia whose dissertation topic was just mocked in the pages of the New York Times, and Bell talks about that in his article. (I would never mock a graduate student in my department on my blog–let alone in the New York Times! It’s a public forum, I’m not anonymous, so therefore it’s not appropriate to air absolutely every gripe I might have about students or colleagues.)

    John S.–sorry to sound like I was mocking Dr. Who. I never really watched the show–it seemed too geeky for me!


  20. In order to participate in “interdisciplinary studies,” you have to have a starting discipline. Otherwise, it’s all smoke and mirrors, er, coordinating and cooperating across boundaries.

    No foundation, no building.



  21. I like the Bell piece. The other flaw in what he calls the “argumentum ad Duns Scotus” is the way these complaints about over-specialization often conflate research and teaching. The buried premise is that a scholar of the way Duns Scotus used citations (which actually sounds really interesting to me) must only teach on such specialized subjects. If your primary complaint is about the service Universities are providing to students, then bringing up a dissertation topic is just a slick way to change the subject right at the very moment when hard evidence is required.

    It also frustrates me that the self-hating profs the NYT seems to lurve are usually humanities professors, as in this article, where the expert du jour on the decline of the liberal arts also happens to be at Columbia. Numerous comments on the Taylor editorial follow the basic formula, “Only a humanities professor could complain about irrelevance; we in the [fill in the blank with the department whose practical worth is supposedly unquestioned] never have to worry about this.” Why would a high-profile humanities professor like Taylor use such a golden platform essentially to do nothing more than confirm this disparaging view of the humanities in particular, instead of making an argument for the practical utility of the humanities or (better yet) a defense of the humanities in terms that don’t just reduce their value to the instrumental and commercial uses to which they can be put.

    Bang, bang! Two more fish in the barrel bite the dust! (Still, it feels good to vent.)


  22. Nice shots, Caleb! See how easy that was? Now, hand over the gun. Why are humanities types so self-hating and so willing to do it in public? You’re right: I haven’t seen too many articles by engineering proffies complaining about their irrelevance to this modern world.

    Welcome, Mark K. and Peanut. Per Peanut’s comments about the importance of disciplines: one shudders to think what it would be like to be a grad student in one of Taylor’s Zones of Inquiry when it was phased out of existence. Having seen what happened when the Penn American Studies department was dismantled, and the panic and mayhem among grad students that ensued, I can only imagine…


  23. I liked that Dr. Who the best.

    And seriously, why does the NYT never ever accept columns by humanities professors who are trying to _defend_ the humanities or their discipline? Surely there must be some out there someplace. I can’t imagine that every single humanities professor that’s tenured out there hates their profession — and if that’s so, get rid of some of them and bring people like me in!


  24. Ironically, American Studies/Civilization dissertations still trickle out at Penn at the rate of maybe three every two years, from what was a perpetually-stocked pipeline, with supervision by departmentally-diasporized faculties from that long disbanded community.

    American Studies, of course, skipped the ZoI stage altogether, and it was or became a true discipline. There will be I expect a ringing defense of the continued legitimacy of American Studies at a conference at Penn in early June in honor of Michael Zuckerman, an undergraduate student of that subject there and then a graduate student at Harvard. (Water, meanwhile, will just have to wait its turn to become one of those one-word thematized annual organizing concepts at the Penn Humanities Forum. It may evaporate while waiting on line. Has anyone claimed “water” yet under the rubric of the “New Commodities History”? See, i.a., Silk, Cinnamon, or “Cedar, the Wood That Changed the World.”


  25. @Caleb — Well, he did say that the humanities ought to be an integral part of solving the world’s problems (e.g. Water); perhaps the only thing he got right! Unfortunately, he also made a radical alteration to academia a prerequisite for cooperation. The funny part is that by proposing an implausible fantasy of his perfect university, Taylor has probably reduced academia’s interest in interdepartmental cooperation. Who wants to collaborate when you risk making your own position irrelevant (or, at best, subordinate to the Water Department)? It REALLY is not that hard to work with professors outside one’s own area of expertise, even under the “divided” system that’s in place.

    One of those ideas that would be disastrous in practice, and is only slightly more attractive in theory (and only then because you don’t have to actually hear the screams of faculty, staff, and students as you gut their department).

    (Criminy, take this gun away from me. Every time I re-read this proposal I get grumpier.)


  26. Others have already observed that Taylor doesn’t see much from the student’s point of view, but let me take a moment to observe some specifics. He thinks we need “a curriculum structured like a web.” Hello, that’s exactly what we have, when you take the student’s POV.

    At Small Urban U., a history major is only 36 hours of the 125 hours required to graduate. Probably an average of 46 hours goes to general education requirements. The rest is electives. As an adviser, I spend a fair amount of time coaching undergraduates on how to turn their elective hours into something that pulls together their interests–something one might call, perhaps, a web. Students may major in history, but they “web” themselves credentials in public administration, film production, or urban studies. Duh. That’s what a college education is.

    I see it happening in my own classes. When I scan the class list, I see students who come from engineering, business administration, and social work–not just the liberal arts disciplines. They are spinning their own webs. I refuse to believe that Columbia University undergrads are dumber than ours at Small Urban U. Maybe it’s just the professors who have no idea how higher education actually works. Or pretend not to, for the NYT.


  27. You know, the conspiracy theorist in me finds it curious that as women and minorities finally make some inroads into the academy, powerful white men suddenly call for its dismantling…


  28. Good shots, Erica! I keep thinking of that scene in The Jerk: “He hates those cans! We’ve got cans here too!!!”

    Nikki–I’ve had the same thoughts, but I’m sure we’re just being paranoid and bitter! (Somehow, it’s never men in ethnic studies or in newer disciplines who write these screeds against the system that has worked so well for them…)

    Mamie makes some good points about how liberal education works (even for non-lib arts majors). This is my experience, and it always has been. But somehow, the notion that the current structure of universities is fatally flawed is an assumption of this genre of writing, never something that has to be proved.

    And thanks, BSG, but everyone’s taking turns with the gun!


  29. Well, you profs are hidebound fuddie duddies:

    At Cornell University, where 5 of the 10 dining halls have done away with trays since September, the biggest pushback has come from faculty. “They were more boisterous than anyone,” said Gail T. Finan, the university’s director of dining and retail services. “A couple of professors sent me e-mails saying, ‘This is ridiculous.’ ” Skidmore, a pioneer in trayless dining, tried to minimize the jolt by implementing the change between the spring and fall semesters in 2006, when the cafeteria, the Murray-Aikins Dining Hall, underwent a $10 million overhaul.

    You can’t even give up your cafeteria trays to save the environment! (I wonder if this comes under the “Water” discipline?)

    (Really, this is just a joke, and not at your expense.)


  30. Ha! That’s hillarious. You’re right, Emma: we are old fuddy-duddies, but it’s good to see that students have embraced the change. I think it makes complete sense, especially from a “take what you eat and eat what you take” perspective.

    Maybe all of those Cornell proffies like to secret the trays out of the dining hall to go sledding on them? I don’t know whether I should be ashamed or proud of the fact that I still have the tray I purloined junior year in college for that very purpose. (It’s a very handy tray!)


  31. The Times piece on trays in fact ends with the rhetorical note that it’s not clear yet what will replace the tray for impromptu sledding. Saving water and saving planets is all fine, but I’m always irked when corporate entities trumpet “green” while planning to put the actual green saved straight to their bottom lines. The Cornell profs probably got tired of having A-3 sub-deputy administrators address them as just so many additional stakeholders on the premises, which I think is a valid objection.


  32. @Erika–thanks for the kind words. Right now I’m still just lurking around. But I can feel the blogosphere beginning to turn its tractor beam on me again.


  33. Re: the cafeteria trays.

    What happened to all the old trays?

    Landfill, maybe?

    What exactly were the professors’ objections to the loss of the trays?

    “This is ridiculous” makes good copy, but conveys little more than “Professor X is unfair.”

    Did not one of those many complaining professors proffer a compelling argument in their favor? Not one? Really?

    To me, these 2 [related but not really] instances of journalism reveal the state of that profession and its inability to serve the public any longer by its refusal to explore answers to societal concerns instead of cultivating pathos to serve the corporate masters and sate the arena’s bloodlust.


  34. Cassandra–good points. There seems to be an unlimited appetite at the NYT for dissing professors!

    I hope those proffies walked off with some of those trays before they were shipped to landfill, if indeed any of them really cared enough about the issue.


  35. I’m always irked when corporate entities trumpet “green” while planning to put the actual green saved straight to their bottom lines.
    While there is a problem with “oh we’re so green” being more a PR tactic than actual environmentally-friendly changes, savings to corporations are really the strongest motivator to convince them to adopt sustainable practices. Sustainability is best approached as a comprehensive solution — planet gets cleaner, customers/employees are healthier or happier, corporation reduces its expenses.

    Of course, technically you could consider laying off 20,000+ employees to be a “green” move by GM, since those employees won’t be emitting carbon dioxide while they drive to work — it can quickly get ridiculous 🙂


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