Susan Gubar and the FUBAR American uni: or, the mad bitch in the attic tells all

Good morning, friends.  I got nuthin’ today but a burning desire for a morning run and then a stack of essays and rough drafts of research papers to plow through, so you’re on your own.  May I suggest that you go read Roxie’s World today, where co-blogger Moose has a wonderful valentine called “To Her With Love” to Indiana University English Professor and feminist hero Susan Gubar, and a brilliant meditation on the FUBAR American public university?  (Roxie is of course the author of the “Excellence without Money” series inaugurated in 2008–don’t miss this latest installment!)

Here’s a little flava:

This is partly a story about luck and good timing, but it is also a story about the structural conditions of American public higher education, conditions that have changed significantly since my undergraduate days. I stumbled into Gubar’s class because I needed to pick up a senior seminar after deciding to add English as a second major at the end of my junior year. A friend recommended the course because she’d heard the co-author of a recently published book called The Madwoman in the Attic was a pretty good teacher. The seminar, with the rather dry-sounding title of “Feminist Expository Prose,” didn’t necessarily lead one to expect life-altering encounters with radical texts and ideas. I had never even heard of Mary Wollstonecraft, and Three Guineas, the Virginia Woolf text on the syllabus, was the first Woolf I would ever read. I had never heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman either, but her Women and Economics rocked my young world, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s autobiography Eighty Years and More so fascinated me that I hopped in my car over Thanksgiving break to go read the author’s letters in a library 700 miles away. It was the excitement of that first research trip that propelled me into Susan’s office to announce that I had found my vocation. It’s not immodest to say that Susan took me seriously in part because I so obviously took her and the challenges of her course seriously. She paid attention to me in the office because I was paying attention to her in the classroom. Teaching and learning are all about such moments of recognition and exchange, the meshing of desires, intelligences, imaginations. What do you think about this passage? Lord, I don’t know, but did you happen to notice this one?!?

Why write about this formative experience, though, beyond my desire to pay tribute to a great teacher and a valued friend as she steps away from the classroom? I write about it because I am concerned that the conditions of possibility for such encounters are threatened in the current economic climate of higher education. There will always be great teachers, but I fear that great teaching will be much less likely to occur as we reduce the opportunities for the kind of undergraduate learning experience I was so fortunate to have with Susan back in Bloomington all those years ago.

Wow–an undergrad driving 700 miles to to gread ECS’s papers?  How many of us have had undergraduate students like that?  But more to the point, how many intellectually life-changing experiences are threatened by raising class caps, increasing teaching loads, and relying on ill-paid contingent faculty (who have 4-4 loads, or higher)?  We’ll never know.  Rage on Roxie!  Rage on against the dying of the light!

(Here’s the Historiann oeuvre on “Excellence without Money” responding to Roxie’s posts, in case you missed them.)

0 thoughts on “Susan Gubar and the FUBAR American uni: or, the mad bitch in the attic tells all

  1. I rage therefore I am, girlfriend. Thanks for the shout-out. Hope you had a most excellent run. Sorry about that stack of research papers, but how hard can it be? Don’t you just tell students to download something from Wikipedia that feels more or less accurate??? No more 700-mile drives to the library these days, eh?


  2. yes, damnit, thats right. A great post by Roxie and all too true. At Woebegone State U. all the history majors still have to take senior seminar. But I am sure the administration would be glad to get rid of it.

    Frankly, at a state school, however, I have a hard time blaming administration (completely). At the end of the day, if citizens don’t want to pay taxes, then you have to have to give up services, like college for everyone, roads, bridges, a social safety-net, etc. And not that many people seem willing to pay those kinds of taxes.

    Neither is the state government willing to let us raise standards and kick out slackers to make room for students with better prospects. High standards, High enrollment, or High Retention (pick two).

    Best of luck grading Historiann.


  3. In arguing about FTE allocations, a psychology colleague basically said to me that if historians and lit people wanted to waste their FTEs on small classes, we shouldn’t get additional allocations of faculty….


  4. Susan–that’s such an interesting insight into the (possible) differences between us in the humanities versus people in other fields. I suppose your psychology colleague’s comment makes sense only if you don’t consider what it is exactly we mean to teach, or how effective we might be in our teaching.

    According to hir logic, then, it’s possible to teach an infinitely humongous class with unlimited numbers of students, and that’s just as effective as teaching 20 or 30 students in a class. Wowie.

    (Something tells me your colleague will have a smooth transition to administration!)

    Matt, I take your point about administrators–I’m sure Roxie & Moose might, too. I think you make a great point about the citizenry in general, and their responsibility for our current predicament.


  5. Oooo, what an inspiring and painful story in the link. Thanks for pointing it out to me!

    We’ve changed our degree requirements so that students are no longer required to complete 36 credits of a 120-credit degree in senior seminar or equivalent (i.e. honours thesis) work. They take 18 credits at the senior level or three seminar-equivalents.

    This has allowed us to reduce the size of senior seminars to something manageable (I taught my first-ever seminar with fewer than twenty students this past year!). The kicker is that’s pushed the enrolment elsewhere so that my sophomore-level survey hit 135 before we closed enrolment there. And while we don’t have a lot of adjunct faculty (yet!), students also bleed off into the distance-ed courses which isn’t desirable as a major part of their program.

    With regards to the psychologist that Susan mentions, I’ve heard that attitude before coming from colleagues in other disciplines who don’t understand why we can’t convert more of our courses to huge lecture surveys. These often are the same colleagues who have the gall to complain about how bad their students are at writing when they actually start fielding large amounts of prose at the senior or graduate levels.

    On the other hand, when I look at the numbers (and I do get into the data for the entire institution since I have a login for our IR datamart), I see that we beat these “high-performing” departments hands-down in overall enrolments to course offerings, in FTEs/faculty members and so on. So I’m not too impressed by their posturing and bullying about how they do so much more for the university. Only if you interpret the numbers in their preferred fashion!


  6. @Moose/Roxie, it’s comforting in a way to know that somebody else on this list knows a time when they “never even heard of Mary Wollstonecraft.” Ignorance is/was not bliss in that regard, and I can still recall the moment of my enlightenment–in graduate school, but it at least fuels the drive to play some catch-up.

    On the FTE-spouting colleagues over in Hoodumpler Hall: The war is over when the academics start talking in the tongues of acronymia and other forms of administrivia. Such as “….on the other hand, if we DO do this, maybe we can get a little more ESF money from the UWEC.” The acronym is the trojan horse of the adminisphere, or the neutron bomb. I think Historiann is right when she predicts this former scholar is on the way to the admin-bin. Does anybody remember the “Reagan Pod” episode on Saturday Night Live, c. 1980/1981? Is that on YouTube yet?


  7. You know what’s funny about the mania to cut services because nobody has any money? (Not funny as in “haha.” Funny as in “cry.”)

    Something over a third of the national budget goes to the military. Say 35%. Another 35% to interest on the debt.

    Social Security, Medicare, education, and everything else are supposed to bite chunks out of each other over what’s left.

    Why isn’t the big picture even part of the discussion? Why?

    (I don’t mean on this blog. I mean in kitchens across the country.)


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