Category Archives: Movement

On teaching college composition

“The common use of the argumentative essay in US schooling dates back to unprecedented growth in higher education and a literate middle class in the early 20th Century. College was no longer the purview of an elite group from similar backgrounds, and more students meant two things: an insufficient number of teachers trained in writing instruction and a more diverse student body, less likely to share knowledge of the same philosophical or literary texts to write about.”

Read the whole thing.


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On academic freedom, again

I hope people actually respond to this. I had a huge argument today with some people in the adjunct movement, about this. They are convinced I do not understand that they are in poverty and I do not think their position is actually very well thought out. They have massive amounts of documentation of poor salaries, high teaching loads and poor working conditions. I don’t see how a move to 100% contract faculty with slightly better than adjunct pay would alleviate this. I also don’t see how nominally writing academic freedom into these contracts would really preserve academic freedom in all its aspects.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty and the professional organizations have failed to stem the overuse and exploitation of contract faculty, they say, and it is out of bad faith. We do well because they do poorly.  Neoliberalism has won, they say, the Humboldtian university is long gone, and they want decent jobs in the corporate one. I, wanting to push back and get more tenure lines while also getting good contracts for those who seriously do not want tenure lines, am not living in the real world. (This is, of course, what the adminstration says as well.) Also, it is meritocratic of me to say the Ph.D. has value or that having a research program does, and it means I do not value teaching.

Here is what I think, a grandes rasgos. 1. Without academic freedom you do not have a university, and tenure is what guarantees academic freedom. 2. Without academic freedom and tenure you weaken shared governance. 3. Universities are nonetheless very hierarchical and the faculty, without a union, do not have enough power to end the inappropriate overuse of contract positions completely. 4. It is not a question of NTT versus T faculty. Better pay for contract faculty means they are not less expensive, so there is less motivation to cut T lines. 5. And more T lines means better market. So you need  unions, and you need the professional organizations. (The NFM says the professional organizations have failed them and exists in part because of this, but without union-like action and follow-through can they do better? Does any advocacy organization have the power to remedy, by moral suasion, the economy and the kinds of business practices universities have now adopted?)

Where do the objections to my views 1-5 (above) lie, beyond the fact that people do not think I am talking about a currently existing university stucture and mission (they think the university I speak of is long dead)? What are the answers to the following anti-tenure, and sometimes anti-research line questions?: 1. “I have been a VAP in this line for 5 years and if it turns TT there will be a search and I will not be selected. I prefer it to be turned into a more permanent contract line for me.” 2. “I am an M.A. and cannot get onto the TT. I want more contract lines and also more power for people like me. The presence of Ph.D. and TT/T faculty limits my career.” 3. “All TT lines go to very new Ph.Ds. My Ph.D. is three years old, so I have more chances at NTT than TT jobs. I would therefore like the numbers of the former increased.”

Aren’t these questions all about how tenure is (mis)used, not about tenure, academic freedom and shared governance themselves? One of my objections to the project of making everyone contingent is that I do want faculty who are current in field, and I don’t see moving to an all-contingent faculty as a road to getting that at all–especially not in right-to-work states. I do think that in the context of the bad job market the search for tenure-track work and the traditional insistence that only that is viable has ravaged many people, including myself. But I also think it is very short-sighted to say the solution is to get rid of it.

I also know that at good schools, there are Ph.D. VAPs who deserve tenure-track jobs, and M.A.s with valuable experience and current expertise. But for us, here, if we cannot offer a T job, we are then reduced to searching for M.A.s living locally. This is not easy. With the tenure track, we get applications from people with a lot of skills. I don’t know how we could get comparable people on a contingent basis without offering a great deal more money. So with the tenure track, we can afford them, and we can also offer them something tangible, and we have the prospect of actually building faculty and program.

As I write this I am trying to envision more clearly an all-contingent world. There are places like that–Evergreen College. You have a lot of people there who are as good as tenured, just as our contingent faculty is (ours are effectively permanent as soon as they are hired). So people do get some form of permanence, and I doubt the anti-tenurists’ fantasy of “flushing out the bad” and opening up more jobs for the truly deserving is realized. But how real are academic freedom and shared governance there–or how real would they be if the place were bigger? What if large community colleges like Miami-Dade eliminated the tenure track–would there be academic freedom then? (Shared governance is no longer very real where I am, I must say, but does that mean we should renounce the idea of it?)

So in any case: how is it that the push to improve conditions for contingent faculty and to win back more tenure lines do not support each other? They do so far as I can tell, and I want as many people as possible on tenure lines. And that is not because of job security, it is because of the role of research in teaching and of tenured faculty in governance. Am I terribly conservative, elitist, out of date? Also, is it that bad to want at least half your faculty to have the terminal degree?



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Back to the prison industrial complex, and back to the border

We had been moving toward decarceration and the limiting or elimination of the death penalty but with the Trump victory the panorama has changed very greatly. I have long sustained that the prison industrial complex was the key to many mysteries and I declare that it must be watched closely now. This article talks about how far it is from being a mere creation of conservatives.

It is also time to return to certain fundamental texts about the border, and see how they look now. And I am thinking of subscribing again to the New Left Review.


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An activist agenda

So, last week was statement signing. If you have not done this yet, now is the time. DONE.

This week:
Paul Ryan re: ACA. DONE.
Making a list of local groups that have organizing resources and workshops. Getting on their mailing lists. Taking a workshop or two. Best if in-person, but online is better than nothing. Figuring out where sanctuary is, who is responsible, and how it’s going to be protected.

Next week: Early holiday giving by donations in everyone you know’s name to organizations that will preserve free speech, monitor and expose corruption, and prosecute hate crimes. Climate stuff, sure. Black Lives Matter, indeed. Whatever matters to you that you always meant to support with more than a blog post. DONE.

Nov. 28- Dec. 16: Make friends in real life! Figure out who in Pantsuit Nation, for example, lives near you. Meet up at your local library or cafe or place of worship. Talk as much about what you do want as what you don’t want. Make a list. Make priorities. Or not. We don’t have to agree on everything, just on enough things to move some forward. Consider who in your local politics — town council, school board, etc. — can help you make it happen. Consider who in your national politics can help you make it happen. Consider any local organizations that you might want to visit with to see how you can help them make it happen. Consider whether any of you want to run for office. Make friends, make plans.

Dec. 16-Jan. 11: Your members of Congress leave Washington and come home! Please make an appointment to see your members of Congress. Take two or three or ten friends, old and new. Let them know the choice facing them is country above party, and that you, the voter, also have a choice, will be watching, and will be going to the polls again real soon. Be as specific about expectations as possible: Bannon, political appointment confirmations, climate change, Russia, business conflicts of interest, DAPL, ACA, DACA, and so on and so forth. Be polite but clear. Take pictures together. Tell everyone what they said.

Jan. 20 forward: Hold everyone accountable for everything, including ourselves.



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Samir Chopra, Timothy Snyder

A serious approach to resisting the Muslim registry, by our colleague Samir Chopra of Brooklyn College.

Also, allegedly by Yale historian and Holocaust expert Timothy Snyder, twenty lessons from the twentieth century.

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.


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Algo está muriendo

Something is dying. What is getting born?

Did something die long ago, and did I simply not recognize it?

Was the thing that died real? I think it was the realest thing that ever happened to me, but was it real? Some say not.

There is something I don’t want to die and don’t want to lose connection with. It may not be my choice and as I say, this may have already happened, I may be the last to know.

I do not want the truth to be as empty as it seems now — and I don’t think it is, actually. I also don’t want it to be past.

Something a fortuneteller said to me, though, was: “Stop knocking on doors and stop slumming. Raise your sights to where ‘things can be served on trays’.”

What do I gain by allowing myself to be overburdened with service to others? Evasion of self, or of my own value, surely.



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Synopsis of Postman, “The end of education”

The “school problem” has two dimensions, as he sees it. One is the engineering aspect: the means by which young people acquire an education. The other is the metaphysical aspect: the underlying purpose or mission — the “end” — of education. Postman believes that the debate over the future of America’s schools focuses too much on engineering concerns — curricula, teaching methods, standardized testing, the role of technology, etc. — while very little attention is paid to the metaphysics of schooling. As the title suggests, he feels that “without a transcendent and honorable purpose schooling must reach its finish, and the sooner we are done with it, the better.” For education to be meaningful, Postman contends, young people, their parents, and their teachers must have a common narrative. Narratives are essential because they provide a sense of personal identity, a sense of community life, a basis for moral conduct, and explanations of that which cannot be known. The idea of public education requires not only shared narratives, but also the absence of narratives that lead to alienation and divisiveness. “What makes public schools public,” writes Postman, “is not so much that the schools have common goals but that the students have common gods.” As Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, John Dewey and other great educators understood, public schools do not serve a public so much as create a public. But in order to do that they depend on the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.


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