Monday, March 24, 2008
Linguistics for Administrators
crossposted from howtheuniversityworks.com
I completed my app. with style and perfection
Now I wonder how long before you make your selection
I hope you don’t mind that I’m being persistent
But, I really want to be your teaching assistant
--"JD," March 13, 2008, applying for a “HotForWords” position
When you teach for love, how do you pay your teaching assistants?
I left off last week with a note on Youtube phenom HotForWords as an exemplar of what’s produced at the shabby intersection of driving the humanities into the cellar of “teaching for love” and the “market-driven” and “metric-accessible” administrator notions of educational quality.
There were a bunch of interesting reactions. At The Valve ("A Literary Organ"), the responses trended toward the hormonally clever: “By and large I prefer the natural linguistics teachers to the silicone kind,” notes John Emerson.
At Brainstorm, the ever-trenchant Richard Tabor Greene tested the videos on his students (I’m sure violating the guidelines of his institutional review board for human-subjects research in the process):
Now, evaluating this audio track—she chose to explicate word histories and does a simple competent job, if not an extraordinary job. Indeed, if you close your eyes and ignore her bulging breasts, the impression of stupidity from her goes completely away. I tested this on students the other day, giving them the audio and giving a control group the video versions, and asking ratings of 50 randomly combined dimensions. A cropped video version without her breasts upped her non-stupidity score, nearly doubling it.
I should be clear that I didn’t suggest that Marina was “stupid,” nor do I hold that opinion. I think she’s obviously extremely intelligent and ambitious, and I think she has a genuine passion for philology.
In fact, I think Marina herself had the most intelligent response to the post, understanding clearly my intention, which was to feature Michelle Masse’s observation about the reason
highly-paid hypocrites administrators are always pimping engaging in organizational myth-making by promoting the racist and sexist quality-improvement notion of “teaching for love” to other people, especially to those sectors of the campus where women work: “What Michelle says makes sense.. that if one does their work for the love of it.. they are easily exploited with low wages and extreme hours! So true!”
Among the respondents, Marina herself best understood that what is questionable (and stupid and wrong, and racist, and sexist, and unjust, and a freaking social crime) is the system that defines the passion for philology as something that should be “done for love,” ie, like other “women’s work,” on a highly discounted basis out of noneconomic rewards by persons who don’t need or want a wage.
With the profoundly socially unjust result that persons who can’t afford to discount their wage can’t do that kind of work. (Wealth gap!)
It also means that pursuing non-market passions can mean implicating the pursuer in markets of specious relevance: ie, doing “history” can mean entering the entertainment market and doing crap about guns and war for the Hitler channel, and following the market for anthropologists means working for the clowns who sponsored a “creation science” museum in Kentucky, or being a philologist means pandering to college boys on Youtube. As Marina defines her own teaching strategy: she is, as she sees it, “’exploiting’ the YouTube crowd by enticing them into clicking on a cute picture of a girl only to be (pleasantly) surprised by finding themselves unexpectedly learning a little etymology for the day!”
Marina also grasps that under academic capitalism doing good (like women’s studies programs or the teaching of writing) implicates the do-gooder in exploitative schemes of academic employment, such as the perma-temping of academic labor. In order for Marina to serve her 50,000 Youtube “students” and to continue racking up the great metrics she’s had so far, she clearly needs teaching assistance.
Marina’s application for teaching assistants is both a marketing ploy and in fact a challenging questionnaire--some of them more difficult than the questions usually posed to most students applying to many disciplines of graduate study.
There are 17 questions on the application, requiring the applicant to provide an etymology of their own surname, to distinguish between phobia and philia, and to demonstrate command of--or willingness to research--terms like sesquipedalian and palindrome. (To view the questionnaire yourself, you have to click “yes,” you’re a subscriber, but you don’t actually have to be oone.)
The principle of encouraging others to work for the pleasure of hanging out with Marina and/or the love of linguistics is essentially identical to the principle employed by universities in getting teaching assistants and contingent faculty to work for wages and benefits worse than those offered by Wal-mart.
What this suggests is that Marina may or may not be qualified to do advanced linguistics, but she certainly has all the knowledge necessary to be a university president or a trustee.
Surely these issues can be discussed without resorting to this kind of voyeuristic sensationalism. Let’s leave the frat boy stuff to ‘the YouTube’ crowd.
I’ve been thinking about what is work and what do we expect to get from it ever since some comments over at Confessions of a CC Dean about the age-old question “should you apply to grad school in the humanities?”
I’m still unable to come up with what’s troubling me, but I was really struck by one participant’s statement:
“I want to do something I love that other people do not value.*”
My pappy called that a “Hobby.”
*yes, yes a rough paraphrase but accurate on the essentials; “will not pay me for = do not value” in a properly run economy.
There seems to be ... some sort of weird disconnect between what some of us want to do and what we can get paid to do and what we can get out of a job --- a paycheck, security ... satisfaction? pleasure? intellectual growth? excitement? --- and in what types of jobs we assume we will find those things (ie only academia).
This is not to say that TAs aren’t exploited or indeed that all wage labor isn’t alienating, but that there seems to be more to develop about what we do for “love” or “pleasure” and what we do for money. Maybe we should work to keep these categories more separate than they currently are --- leaving a space outside the money system where linguistics fans could take pleasure in their etymologies and somehow teaching new graduates that one’s job does not have to satisfy, or define, them.
Hmmm yeah, I still can’t articulate my impressions here.
But kudos to Scott for inviting you to post here! ‘Bout time they got some real class on this site. ;)
Now, if we could only get someone to regularly write about, say, women authors, or African American writers, or ... grumble grumble ... I better not get started.
I called up my friend and asked him to meet me for a drink. Asking him to walk all the way to the bar for the pleasure of hanging out with me and the love of beer is also essentially identical to the principle employed by universities in getting teaching assistants and contingent faculty to work for wages and benefits worse than those offered by Wal-mart.
The relationship is complex, but the demotion, degradation, and feminization (in the invidious sense) of college teaching is by far strongest in the humanities. It coincides with the demotion of the humanities themselves, and humanities ways of thinking, and began with the virtual elimination of the classics.
150 years ago, anywhere in Europe or America (or China, as far as that goes) a moderately competent classicist could do various sorts of jobs—schoolteaching, public administration, journalism, etc. These were not necessarily wonderful jobs and the impoverished scholar was a stock comic figure in those days, but there were niches for them.
75 years or so ago in the US, a moderately competent college graduate in History or English, (without much classics) could get this type of job too.
The democratization of education means that this is no longer true—a BS and especially a BA degree (30%+ of the population) no longer selects effectively. And at the same time, non-humanist tech-style credentialization programs have been devised for most of the jobs that standard average English majors used to get.
As a result, an English or History BA is intrinsically not worth a whole lot more than HS certification. A good self-promoter can use a degree as part of his resume as he rises in various uncredentialized fields, but the certificate itself opens few or no doors (except perhaps if it’s from one of the most elite schools.) As far as that goes, English and History PhDs are often white elephants in the job market. So you get the liberal arts bum, overqualifiedwith a bad attitude.
Along with this comes the demotion of humanities ways of thinking. Imagine a room full of people making big decisions. What kind of people will be in the room? Men, and mostly white men, of course, but these men will be engineers, economists, people in finance, lawyers, big businessmen of various backgrounds, politicians of various backgrounds, and sometimes military men. If the decision needs to be sold to the public, the humanities will be represented in the form of media, PR, marketing, and a carefully-selected minister of the gospel. It is possible that no one in the group will have any humanities background at all beyond a few undergrad “liberal arts BS” classes that they hated.
A friend has pointed out that the humanities era was also male dominated, and dominated by aristocrats into the bargain. On the other hand, the egalitarianism and gender-blindness of our present more meritocratic system is rather restricted.
Yes, let us imagine that “room full of people making big decisions” and then let us ask first of all, which humanities PhD programs in this nation have any formal interest in that room.
By formal interest I mean an interest that would actually bring the issues of that room into the humanities classroom in some way.
Initially, the issues in that room would likely demand that the idea of a classroom itself be put into question so that it morphs into something far more elastic than is generally the norm in a doctoral program.
And that room, in the past, was indeed populated by more humanists. And they were humanists like the French playwright Jean Giraudoux who could work for the government and write “The Trojan War Will Not Take Place”—an allegory of France and Germany on the eve of WWII—or Wallace Stevens who ran an insurance company by day and was one of our major poets by night (so to speak).
Humanities programs are their own worst enemies. In general, they have insisted on replicating the model of teaching and learning and structure and hierarchy of an age long past—and in the face of the realities of the dominant corporate university which supports their solipsistic ethos. They have resisted even the lessons of the writers and the texts that they profess to ponder and to adore.
“The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.”
I mostly disagree. The humanities became feminized, privatized, subjectified, etc. only after they had been excluded from the halls of power by policy studies of a quasi-scientific tech sort. The peculiar traits of today’s academic humanities world are a response to exclusion, not a cause. The U.S. was already less receptive to the arts and letters, and after WWII it became much less so under the influence of technical and positivist ways of thinking which seemed more powerful. And the humanities either accepted their marginalization and tried to make it seem like a good thing, or else mimicked the tech methods and tried to become scientific.
One man who has tried to work at the interface of philosophy and everyday life is Stephen Toulmin. Another was Ernest Gellner. Neither of them was well-received by their profession—most philosophers don’t even know that Gellner was a philosopher by training.
On a companion CHE “Brainstorm” blog, it was noted that for the last thirty years or more, the CEOs of major corporations have indicated that they prefer the liberal arts students—who have writing and thinking and analyzing skills (http://chronicle.com/review/brainstorm/bauerlein/surprising-respect-for-the-liberal-arts).
Addressing the issue of humanities scholars who have not conformed to the solipsism of their fields, the previous commentator writes: “Neither of them was well-received by their profession...”
I rest my case.
I suspect that the preference for humanities students is weak and limited, though.
What I’ve heard, and it’s been the experience of people I’ve known, is that of two technically-qualified people, the one with a liberal arts background, too, will do better. Partly because of general background, but also because a classics major, etc., usually works harder and is smarter than a pre-law major.