Monday, May 28, 2012

Antioch U: where "flexible" and "individualized" mean cynical and exploitative

Over the weekend I got an astonishing request: a student at Antioch University* emailed me to ask whether I'd be willing to adapt one of my existing courses to a distance-learning format and allow her to take it for credit toward an M.A. degree at Antioch.

It's not the student's email that astonished me; she was polite and professional and obviously following the guidelines given her by the university itself. It's Antioch's educational model--if you can call it that!--that blew my mind. They're a low-residency, mostly online program, with five campuses and apparently only a few faculty employed full-time. Most of the courses are taught by faculty found by the students themselves and paid $125 per credit hour. The payment is officially designated as an "honorarium," I presume to skirt any rules the faculty member's home institution might have against moonlighting. Here, read the full instructor guidelines for yourself.

Nice racket, huh? Antioch is fully accredited and its tuition even seems pretty reasonable--until you compare it, credit hour for credit hour, with the price at a state institution: Antioch students pay $331 per undergraduate credit hour and $497 per graduate credit hour. By contrast, in-state students at RU pay between $146 and $220 per undergraduate credit hour and between $295 and $370 per graduate credit hour (the higher price is for part-time students; the lower price is for full-time students who are taking the maximum course load).

So Antioch students are paying more and getting a vastly lower-quality education, cobbled together on their own, by trial and error--and presumably taught either by desperate adjuncts or by cynical tenure-line faculty based elsewhere who are willing to make a few extra bucks now and again.

Yeah, sure: it's a free country and students can choose to enroll anywhere. But that doesn't make Antioch's educational model anything but a scandal. (Which is what I told the woman who emailed me--albeit rather more nicely and with a few words of encouragement about her intended area of study.)

Shame on you, Antioch.


*The complicated relationship between Antioch University and Antioch College is partly unraveled here, here, and here. I'm not an expert on this history, and would welcome more information.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Multi-tasking, obviously, is not my thing

My intensive two-week Shakespeare class has just ended. And like last year, I'm torn between thinking that this is the wost schedule EVAH--four hours a day! five days a week! A new play virtually every day!--and thinking that, just maybe, this is how college should be: just twelve to fifteen students, all taking only one class at a time, with a professor teaching only one class at a time. The schedule is simultaneously brutal and leisurely, and while I dislike the brutality for obvious reasons, the leisure (four to six hours of class time on every play is a real gift, when you're used to barely three) and the focus that comes from that leisure is delightful.

So I'd get rid of the every-day part. But if all college classes met for four hours a day, two days a week, and each class lasted for five or six weeks--and we kept the small class size and the one-class-at-a-time thing for both students and instructors? That might just be heaven.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pseudonymity and its discontents

So it looks like I have tenure: I returned from a quick weekend trip to NYC to find a letter from RU's prez stating as much--and outlining such things as the effective date, the amount of my raise, and so forth. I'm not sure I'll truly believe it until I get the letter from the chancellor and/or see the raise reflected in my take-home pay, but since I was never really worried about getting tenure I'm not really worried now; I'm just waiting to feel different, I guess.

This month also marks my seven-year blogiversary: I started blogging as I was wrapping up my dissertation and preparing for my first full-time teaching job; a year later, after being offered my current job, I moved to this site. And here I am still.

I've never actually grown bored with blogging, though I've often figured that I would, someday: surely I'd eventually run out of things to say, or my audience would drift away, or I'd find a newer and more satisfying form of navel-gazing. None of that has happened yet, though it still might. I might also start blogging differently, or about different things, though I have no specific plans to do so.

The one change that I do expect to make in the near future is to link my blog identity more closely to my real-life one. That doesn't have to do with tenure, though getting tenure is a nice symbolic point at which to make this shift; it's been at least five years since I wrote anything in the expectation that my pseudonymity was secure or anything that I'd be uncomfortable having linked to the real me. I assume that anyone who doesn't already know who I am--but who wants to--could pull up most of my biography in 15 minutes on Google.

And many people have: I've made numerous professional connections through this blog over the years, and my blog has also helped to strengthen many pre-existing real-world friendships; some readers became friends and some friends became readers. (Hell, I even got to know my eventual spouse better as a result of this blog). But when I started blogging, all the academic bloggers I read were pseudonymous. For a very junior academic, pseudonymity was thus both personally comfortable and socially normative.

The newer generation of Early Modern bloggers and tweeters, however, mostly write under their own names. I have no intention of making this a specifically Early Modern blog, but I'd like to be more active in those conversations elsewhere on the internet and have my peers know who I am. Moreover, while my blog was once my primary link to my larger professional community--the place where I'd ask for advice, share conference gossip, and that sort of thing--I now use Facebook or Twitter for most such crowdsourcing and professional chit-chat. But my Facebook account is under my real name. And my Twitter account is under this name.

I haven't figured out exactly how I'm going to fuse my identities; maybe I'll just put up a link to my department profile on the sidebar and call it a day. But at this point, the pretense of pseudonymity feels like more trouble than it's worth.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Oh those girls and their books!

This New York Times article from a few days ago has been making the rounds on my social media sites: lowly book technician discovers an engraving by Paul Revere! And, yeah, the part about making an unusual find is nice (the engraving isn't the first known copy of the image, though it's very rare). But the article itself is stupendously bad, written in a voice of sentimental condescension. Here are some early paragraphs:

Day after day, a tall, shy woman weaves her way unnoticed through the earnest and learned campus swirl of Brown University. She enters the hush of a library, then promptly vanishes from sight.

[. . . . ]

Ms. Malchodi is more spiritually attuned to books than her Orwellian job title might suggest. She came to Brown as an undergraduate in the early 1980s, but life wound up demanding her study. Soon she was working in a College Hill bookstore rather than reading in a college library, and making cabinets rather than writing papers about her beloved Romantics.

One day she saw an advertisement for a bookbinding and conservation job at the university. She has been here ever since--though mostly underground--inspecting old books, submitting to their long-ago stories and vanishing to where now is then and then is now.

In the ensuing 20 years, gray has come to her hair and a husband and twin girls have come to her life, yet wasn't it all just yesterday? When Wordsworth thrilled her heart? When Wordsworth lived?

So okay, that's some bad prose right there, and it's on the writer, not the subject. But I wonder whether the two aren't related, for this is the way that lots of educated people talk about old books: in terms of rapturous sentimentality. Books are precious things! Oh, the dust of ages! Oh, the tooled bindings! They connect us to the past! Why, who knows who leafed these pages before us?

It's also worth noting the way that book-loving is so often feminized. It's a charming, quirky, unpractical, feminine habit, this ability to get lost in books and to have a passionate emotional relationship with them as objects. It's not that there aren't male book-lovers in the world or in popular culture, but as I noted some while back, the relationship that gets drawn between men and books tends to emphasize their deep thoughts and their pursuit of knowledge. Male book-lovers are writers and scholars. Female book-lovers may occasionally be imagined as writers and scholars, but more often they're simply readers--and the kind of readers who go into misty raptures over that old-book smell, and touching the past, and all that shit. Their thoughts about books don't matter; it's their relationship with books. They're books' most most devoted acolytes, and perhaps by extension the devoted acolytes of (mostly male) writers.

Don't get me wrong: I love books, too. And I own a couple from the seventeenth-century and get a little thrill from them. But I wish female book-lovers weren't so often portrayed as passive daydreamers, for whom books are just another form of daydreaming.

(This portrayal is rather better.)

Friday, May 04, 2012

The arm bone's connected to the shoulder bone

I think one of the reasons my colleague's departure has me feeling so shaken has to do with the way that networks of affinity work within academic departments. Even in happy and collegial places, like my own, not everyone is equally close--and in fact "closeness" isn't even the issue, if by that we mean social and emotional intimacy. We all, I think, have our own private and not necessarily conscious sense of who makes the department for us: those people whose values or commitments most line up with our preferred vision of the place. Sometimes those people are bona fide friends, but they needn't be. If I were a theorist, for example, my most theoretical colleagues--those who incorporated theory into their classes most energetically and whose writing reflected their own engagements--would likely be crucial to the department I believed in and wished to preserve.

Maybe this is less true in larger departments, but most of the people I know in mid-sized ones (say, fifteen to thirty tenure-line faculty) feel similarly. I've had friends at other schools say things like "I like my job, but if X and Y left? I'd probably leave, too." My departing colleague isn't my closest friend in the department, but if a successful workplace is like a toy building made of blocks, then s/he's a pretty strategically located one. Lose a second block nearby, and others start tumbling, too. Few blocks are so important that their removal affects the whole structure--but any one can weaken some part of it.

There are two things to note about this. First, these networks of dependence and self-definition aren't necessarily obvious (in fact, if they ARE obvious, it's usually because they've taken the more or less destructive form of cliques or factions). I can only guess who the triggering figures would be for some of my colleagues, but I'm sure they have them, as I have mine. This means we may be slow to recognize how weakened another area of our shared structure has become, or how unhappy or alienated a colleague we value might feel. We don't actually all live in the same department, even when we think we do.

Second, academia strikes me as unusual in the degree to which bonds of affinity among coworkers affect not just day-to-day happiness, but the actual mission and identity of a place. Sure, co-workers are key to almost everyone's job satisfaction, no matter the industry, and it's common to hear remarks like, "the best thing about this place is its people." But because academic departments are relatively autonomous, and because they're also pretty egalitarian--everything is done by committee--the things your coworkers want and believe in become what the department does and who it is. When my department overhauled its curriculum and the shape of its major, we did it ourselves, over nearly three years and lots and lots of conversations. We looked at many other models and the whole thing had to be approved at the college level, but it wasn't imposed by anyone in a "leadership" role. It was shaped by us, collaboratively, junior as well as senior faculty.

This is an excellent thing. It's wonderful to have control over the specifics of one's job and it's wonderful to have colleagues one likes and believes in. But to the extent that the values and goals of our workplace are determined by our colleagues and our specific networks of allegiance and affinity, the structure is also very fragile.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Decline and fall

One of my colleagues is leaving RU. This isn't actually the first of my tenure-line colleagues to take a job elsewhere, but it feels like it: the others were people I wasn't close to, and they weren't here long, and neither their presence nor their absence materially affected my sense of my department's identity.

This colleague, on the other hand, turns out to have been pretty integral to my sense of my department's identity, which is maybe a way of saying integral to my own sense of identity. We were hired at more or less the same time, we have similar training and research ambitions, our teaching interests overlap, and s/he has been an admirably dedicated member of the department. We're also personal friends.

And though we are friends and though it's normal to regret the loss of any cherished coworker, I'm surprised at how shaken this colleague's departure has left me and how much it's destablized my feelings about my department.

There's no reasonable reason for this: my colleague is moving in order to be close to family--not because of any dissatisfaction with our department--and we're almost certain to get a replacement hire. Indeed, I've argued before that it's actually a sign of health for a department occasionally to lose a talented person. It means we're hiring well, that we provide our faculty with opportunities for growth, and that we're remaining competitive. Obviously no department wants to be a revolving door, but a limited amount of turnover is to be expected.

So why has this felt, at occasional moments since I got the news, like it might be The End of Everything?

Well, the thing about hiring talented people is that they can leave. And I look around my department, and it seems possible that, if the stars aligned in just the right awful combination, we could lose three or four people in a two-year period. Those of us with seemingly intractable two-body problems are likelier to leave than others, but who's to say? Any one of us could leave even if most of us aren't planning to.

And the prolonged jobs crisis means that even those of us who have been spared haven't been spared. My department has hired something like fifteen tenure-line faculty in ten years, many of them for entirely new positions. Even in the depths of the recession we've had continuous cost-of-living raises, as well as a pool of competitive merit raises. And our institution's financial picture is only improving.

But it still feels precarious, probably because it is precarious. We're okay now, but for how long? We might stop getting replacement lines, nevermind new ones. We might lose the upper-administrator who has been most enthusiastic about promoting the humanities. And as education jobs dry up in this state, we might lose English majors (since a great many of our majors are also pursuing their teaching certification). And then what?

Losing this particular colleague may not be a tipping point--in fact, it almost certainly isn't. But it's made me feel anxious and vulnerable, reminding me that nothing is forever and that bad news is more likely than good in higher education.

I'll get over it. But it's hard to believe that things are getting better at one's own institution when they're getting so much worse elsewhere.