Archive for category Higher Ed
2016 Call for Papers
Northeast Modern Language Association
47th Annual Convention
March 17-20, 2016
Hosted by the University of Connecticut
Abstract Deadline: September 30, 2015
Hartford features some of the most significant historic and cultural sites in New England: the adjacent and interconnected Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe Houses; the artistic and cultural collections at the Wadsworth Atheneum; classic and contemporary performances at the Hartford Stage, Theater Works, and the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts; archives and research opportunities at the Connecticut Historical Society and Connecticut State Library and State Archives; unique and offbeat museums for kids and families such as the Connecticut Science Center and the CRRA Trash Museum; and much more. Both Adriaen’s Landing (the newly completed area around the convention center) and the historic downtown feature a variety of restaurants, shops, and parks.
Please join us for this convention, which will feature approximately 400 sessions, dynamic speakers and cultural events. Interested participants may submit abstracts to more than one NeMLA session; however, panelists can only present one paper (panel or seminar). Convention participants may present a paper at a panel and also present at a creative session or participate in a roundtable.
Full information regarding the 2016 Call for Papers may be found on our website:
Here on the UIC campus it’s now week two and I’m already starting to fall behind. I’m sure that many of you reading this post can relate. Navigating my course schedule for the new semester, attending committee meetings, working on various writing projects, the to do list goes on. With a few spare moments in the schedule, I wanted to continue my conversation with you (the NEMLA membership) on issues relating to the research and teaching of American Literature. This month I’d like to consider what connection (if any) our research has on what takes place inside the classroom.
To start this discussion, I’ll share a bit of my own experience. My position at UIC is classified as teaching intensive. As a full time non-tenure eligible “Lecturer,” I teach a 3-3 course load on a one year contract. Of course, this year’s unexpectedly large enrollment of first year students means that most Lecturers in my department are actually teaching 4 courses with the additional class considered an “over-comp” (i.e. pay in addition to faculty base salary).
Evaluation of Lecturers is based solely on teaching and teaching related activities. What this means in practice is that student evaluations, syllabi, and faculty observations (by both TT and NTT colleagues) serve as the basis for hiring, retention, and promotion to Senior Lecturer. Research (unless it relates directly to teaching) is not considered relevant in the assessment of UIC’s fairly sizable teaching intensive faculty pool.
Course assignments for Lecturers in the UIC English Department are determined primarily by the needs of its First Year Writing Program. Nearly all of our department’s Lecturers can expect to each at least one first year writing course in a semester. On occasion, as enrollment allows, NTT faculty in the department might also be assigned to teach General Education or introductory level courses for the English Major. Some of our NTT faculty in Creative Writing also teach upper level writing workshops.
You might very well ask yourself at this point why I’m focusing on what might properly be considered “human resources” issues. These issues, however, are at the heart of the question of how research relates to teaching in my department. For Tenure Track faculty, research is the main focus of their job description with teaching assumed to follow in a holistic way from that research. NTT Lecturers, hired solely on the basis of their teaching ability, face a different situation with research considered an outside interest that runs parallel to their duties for the university. In essence, for a Lecturer at UIC, there is not (in most cases) a connection between their research and teaching, nor does the university expect such a connection to exist.
That said, many of my NTT colleagues persist in conducting research in a wide variety of fields and find ways to “smuggle” their interests into first year writing and general education literature courses. This might include course readings that either analyze an area of research interest for faculty or represent a concept crucial to their studies as scholars. Our first year writing program also encourages faculty to have topics for their courses, and a casual glance at those topics will quickly give an outsider a sense of what the research interests are of Lecturers in the UIC English Department.
So far so good, but what about my research interests? If you’ve taken a chance to read through my CV and skim through some of the writing samples on my website, you can see that my central research interest is in veterans of the United States Civil War and the cultural legacy associated with them in the late nineteenth-century. How exactly that might be turned into a first year writing course still escapes me, so I haven’t tried to create one with that as its course topic (yet). Nor have I had a chance to shape a lower level literature course to fit that topic since I haven’t (Oprah moment here) taught a literature course since 2011 (Introduction to American Literature and Culture).
The main venue through which my research has managed to cross over into my teaching has been in my methodology, which relies upon archival research. Each semester that I’ve taught the research paper course at UIC (ENGL 161), this method has managed to find its way into my syllabus and influences the topics that my students select. It also influenced the way I taught many of the units in my Introduction to Critical Theory and Literary Criticism course (ENGL 240), especially the one on Digital Humanities. Another way that my research has found its way into my teaching is the emphasis that I put on place and community in all my courses. Both of these themes were central to what it meant to be a veteran in the late nineteenth-century United States. Feeling out of place or in the wrong community is a feeling that shows up in many of the narratives examined in my book New Men.
Never in my life have I been good at conclusions. Even though I’m an introvert by nature, I love to talk and talk and talk and talk. Especially if the topic is one in which I have an interest. Yet even a blog post needs an ending and this is where I’d like to leave you all this month. Teaching has become for me a place to test ideas and find new interests that might not develop if I were sitting at home with a stack of books working alone on my next article or book chapter. The constraints of my working conditions also serve a purpose as they teach me that good ideas need skilled pitchmen and women to make their way out into the world. Rhetoric, I have swiftly learned, is not just a departmental staffing need but the mother discipline, especially in these times of budget cuts for the humanities.
In my next blog post, I’d like to share some of your experiences teaching and researching on American Literature. How do you understand the relationship between teaching and research? What types of classes do you tend to teach and how do you find ways to emphasize your interest/understanding of American Literature in those classes? You can send your thoughts on this topic to me directly via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the subject line NEMLA Blog Post #3. I’ll share selections of those emails with you all in my next post.
Until next time…
In what has become something of a yearly ritual, controversy has erupted leading up to the 2014 conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Chicago. This has led to a spike in readership for my sleepy little blog. Specifically the November 21, 2011 Open Letter that I wrote in response to a Twitter argument with the Modern Language Association Executive Director, Rosemary Feal, in regards to the role of a “scholarly/professional” organization such as the MLA.
Being a literary historian by training, I have to admit that I’m addicted to comparisons (then vs. now). So let’s pause for a moment to see what has changed since I penned the most read piece of writing I’ve ever composed (2,221 readers and counting).
I guess the best place to start is with my life and career. For those readers who’ve taken the time to click on my CV link, you’ll see that I was not fired from my job for writing the open letter. Instead I found myself hired as a full-time lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago and then went on to serve as Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies at that same institution. In addition, I have a book manuscript soon to come out based on research from my PhD dissertation and I’m getting married to the love of my life in June. So you see, good things can happen off the tenure track.
None of these personal events, however, negate the systemic problems that remain in Higher Education. Students, crushed by a heavy debt burden, are leaving the humanities in droves for fields of study that appear to promise lucrative employment following graduation. Administrators are using this trend to hire more non-tenure track faculty and consolidate department structures. Back in 2011 it was much easier to find a department of English or French and locate its chair. Try doing that same activity today. You’ll find that many have become programs housed within “schools” of language and literature whose leadership roles are primarily symbolic. Faculty and Staff find themselves squeezed, burdened with extra work, most of it unpaid. This leads to a climate of greater isolation and snarkiness in many instances. An ethos that all too readily migrates to the internet via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Those who should be fighting together are instead (in many cases) fighting against each other.
Frustrated by the circular rhetoric deployed by the MLA leadership, I turned away from pushing the Modern Language Association for change in 2011 and instead turned to a union (the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Association of American University Professors). We’ve accomplished quite a bit on the UIC campus since then. The most astonishing change I’ve seen is a growing solidarity between tenured and non-tenured faculty who don’t need to study “vulnerable times” because they are living them–together.
As I’ve long argued, many of the issues faced by NTT faculty are issues of prestige and recognition. These can be dealt with at the departmental level. One we addressed on our campus was the lack of name placards for NTT faculty on their office doors. We are also working to get biographies of NTT faculty added to the department website to recognize the work done by these hard working teachers and scholars. In addition, our department’s associate head has begun storing NTT faculty CV’s to get a sense of the full range of capabilities possessed by the department’s full faculty (TT and NTT).
While the department works to change the attitudes of TT and NTT faculty, union leaders are currently struggling to work on issues of appointment and compensation. Even though state law requires NTT and TT faculty to have separate contracts, we are one bargaining team and one union fighting to save the university as we understand it. Our union, UIC United Faculty, voted in the fall to authorize a strike. We hope it doesn’t come to that, but we are willing to put our beliefs to the test. Now is the time to fight not form a committee to study the subject of resource allocation in higher ed.
Has the MLA done the same? Have they finally realized that we’re at war with a Neoliberal system that wants to return to higher ed as it was in the Gilded Age (a handful of prestige institutions such as Harvard and Yale surrounded by an ocean of trade-specific academies)?
Yes and No.
Since 2011, the MLA has made significant gains in changing the leadership roles for NTT and Alt-Ac members. It has also worked to update the conference format and encourage graduate students and graduate programs to look at alternate career paths for PhDs.
What remains unaddressed, however, is the need for activism. The MLA still sees a “scholarly/professional” organization as a neutral body. Neutrality was a farce in 2011. It remains so today.
If I’ve been silent on these issues for so long on the internet, it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because I’ve been active taking part in the creation of the kind of educational system I want to see in place for my children. The time for words is over. We’ve spent a lifetime studying “vulnerable times.” Let’s start doing something about it.
Our examination in class of the Digital Humanities has shown the difference between visions of what this movement might mean to the Discipline of English. The makers of digital tools, the old guard of Humanities Computing, still provide a compelling case for the need to actually create something in order to consider yourself a Digital Humanist. Users of existing digital tools show how reading and scholarship are rapidly shifting due to technological advances. And Critics, well, they are struggling to catch up. What would a critical theory of the Digital Humanities look like and is it needed?
Although there are many objections to the Digital Humanities as a field of study, I think one major point of contention is the rapidity with which digital projects come and go. To the less technically inclined this seems a waste of scarce resources of both time and money. Why go to such great…
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As Stanley Fish discovered more than a year ago, it’s hard to call a trend based simply on the number of sessions listed in the program of an academic conference. That’s why I’m hesitant to call what I observed at NEMLA 2013 a trend just yet. It is worth noting, however, that a shift seems to be occurring among a sizable number of literary scholars and that shift could prove comforting to the technophobes among us who shudder every time they hear the phrase “digital humanities.”
What I observed in panels such as “Teaching the History of the Book to Undergraduates” and “Teaching How We Read Now” was the already well-documented movement away from post-structuralism and identity-based theories in favor of textual analysis. Yet this is far from the old-fashioned textual analysis practiced by literary scholars since the days when Greek and Latin authors constituted literary study on United States college campuses.
QR codes are now embedded in Medieval manuscripts that reveal how Old English in Chaucer should sound. Hyperlinks allow multiple editions of a text to be read simultaneously and compared. Computer algorithms allow for the analysis of an author’s use of language to determine who wrote an anonymous work of fiction. Data mining techniques help scholars to create word clouds and thought maps to dramatically visualize the zeitgeist of an era or show the evolution of language in graphic terms.
The techniques are new and in some cases require more advanced technical knowledge than the average humanities scholar might possess. But the newness of the techniques with all their bells and whistles hide the reality that philologists (in the guise of DH gurus) are cool again.
Where this turn in literary scholarship will eventually lead is anyone’s guess. I for one am glad to read something for a change that isn’t Foucault.
Mid-terms have come and gone at the University where I teach and work as an administrator. With their passing, students are left to ponder just what it will take to get them through the rest of the semester. Some will take advantage of the services available to assist them as they try not to buckle under the growing burdens of their blended school work, jobs, and social life. An even larger number, however, will fall by the wayside and drop out of their classes.
This is especially true of the First Year students I teach. ACT statistics from 2012 show a first to second year retention rate at all of the United States’s colleges and universities they surveyed of approximately 67%. Even if the financial burden of going to college were not as bad as it is today, this rate is still alarming. It is indicative of an educational system that is good at persuading students to enroll, but not as good at ushering them towards the completion of their degree.
Part of the problem is the message that parents, educators, and public figures such as President Obama send to prospective students. First they tell them that college is a surefire ticket to a better life. And then they convince prospective students that any college and degree program will do. All the would be students need concern themselves with is that they hurry up and get a BA before its too late.
A major problem with this message is that the first assertion is a selective interpretation of the truth. Statistics show that “on average” college graduates have greater earning power than those with only a high school degree. The reality, however, is much cloudier. Earning power depends largely on the degree earned and the school granting the degree. As more Americans have Bachelor’s degrees, employers can be more selective. This makes the subject studied and the network of potential recommenders that a well-known school can provide more important than ever. Also, it is worth noting that the only reason college earnings have remained higher than the take home pay of non-college graduates is that the average wage of high school educated employees has plummeted since the 1980s.
Armed with this faulty information, students are then fed the equally faulty perspective that all institutions of higher education are essentially alike. How many students do you know of who are savvy enough to parse the distinction between a college and a university? How many faculty can do this for that matter? What does a community college really offer? How about for profits? Students are left with the impression that college is vital to their future, but then are left essentially adrift to figure out where they should go on their own. Is it any wonder that undergraduates are often better at comparison shopping for a smartphone than they are at picking out a college?
One way to alleviate this problem is to be honest with would be students. Don’t discourage them from going to college, but explain that, depending on what career path they are intent on pursuing, a college degree might not be necessary. There are numerous certificate programs and high school vocational programs that can place students in satisfying careers that pay a living wage. Additionally, there are two-year colleges that can either serve as a place for would be students to discover what they are interested in studying or provide them a skill that is immediately applicable to the workforce.
Making these career track options more visible and more viable will then enable colleges and universities in the United States to stop marketing themselves as job training centers. Four year institutions of higher learning should busy themselves imagining the jobs of tomorrow rather than placing its students in the popular fields of today.
Much of the research on the “digital divide” focuses on individual users and demographic groups that have traditionally had limited access to technology. A recent study by the Pew Research Center continues this trend. Their findings indicate that thanks to mobile technology, specifically the smart phone, internet use among all social groups is increasing. Fear of technology is also fading as once excluded groups learn digital literacy.
Although these studies are heartening to read, indicating gradual progress towards greater access to technology for all citizens, they fail to take into account the digital divide that exists within educational institutions. While television, radio, and internet news providers have been busy bashing the teacher’s unions and tearing apart the educational policies of “No Child Left Behind,” precious little has been said about the uneven technological infrastructure of our nation’s schools.
For every school with access to i Pads and state of the art computer labs, there are hundreds with only a handful of aging computers (usually in the library) that are available on a first come first served basis for internet research and word processing. This problem is endemic throughout the current educational system, reaching as far as the ranks of higher education.
Right now I am writing this blog post at home on my personal laptop. Partially this decision was made voluntarily, as I wanted to write during the evening in the comfort of my home and not use work resources for non-work related activities. Even if I had wanted to write this post earlier at work, however, I could not.
I share an office at my institution with four other Non-Tenure Track Faculty (NTT as we’re calling them these days). At one point, we had a desktop computer that was five years old. Not surprisingly given the CPU intensive nature of WEB 2.0, this machine died during the summer semester.
In its place, next to the CRT monitor (i.e. the kind that looks like an old TV), mouse, and keyboard of the old computer, sits a seven-year old laptop–a PowerBook G4. This machine was wrangled from the department after over a month of hectoring our IT guy. I had never even heard of this particular brand of Apple laptop so I took the time to search for information about the system on Wikipedia. It turns out that the “new” computer in my office is the precursor to the now ubiquitous Mac Book.
With its limited CPU power and an outdated browser, the most I can do with this laptop is check my email and read websites that aren’t overly graphics heavy or interactive. On most days I go upstairs to the computer lab and wait to use one of the three computers in our departmental computer lab. I also have the option (unlike most of my colleagues) of using the computer in my other office where I serve as an undergraduate studies program assistant.
Added to these frustrations is the lack of wireless internet access in either of my offices, which prohibits me from bringing my personal i Pad to work and getting around the technological limitations of my work space. At one point, I was able to “hack” my way into the network by plugging the internet cable in my teaching office into my own laptop, but as of today our internet connection there is down. This also makes it impossible to use the telephone in that room as my institution switched a few years ago from regular phone service to VOIP (voice over internet protocol).
If we move from my early twentieth century office into the classrooms where I teach, the situation is only slightly better. In a course I designed to teach digital literacy and multi-modal writing to my students, the most advanced technology in any of my three classrooms is a flat screen monitor with a VGA cable that allows me to plug in my own laptop and display its screen on a 25″ television. Wireless access is available in all three rooms, but that assumes that my students can afford to bring their own technology to class as I have.
“Plug and Play” is better than nothing in a world where technological access is no longer a luxury but a precondition for education to take place. Yet it places the burden of technology’s cost on the students and educators. Not only is this unfair, it also sends a strange message to our students: “You need to be educated for the jobs of the 21st century, but we will not provide the tools.” No wonder self-learning is coming back into fashion. Why pay for school when you can buy a laptop and let the internet teach you the skills needed to survive in a tech-driven world?
Now I should perhaps qualify my statement/rant above by reiterating the fact that I am a NTT faculty member. I’m also an English Professor. Perhaps things are different for the TT faculty in my department or are significantly better in other programs at my institution. My suspicion, however, is that while the technological infrastructure might be less antiquated than what I described above it is still inadequate to meet student needs.
When we talk about the digital divide, we need to remember that surfing the internet is a skill easily learned alone at home. Using the web to your advantage, however, is a skill that should be learned collectively in the classroom. Regrettably, this can’t happen when many educators work in an environment designed to teach Baby Boomers to fight the Red Menace.
In what may qualify as the non-event of the year, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released its report on Adjunct working conditions yesterday. The data paints a picture similar to that of Josh Boldt’s earlier crowdsourced study the Adjunct Project. Non-tenure track faculty are working long hours for little pay, and they would gladly accept a full-time career track position if one were made available. The more interesting statistic from the CAW study that gets lost in the overwhelming focus on pay is that a significant majority of those working off the tenure track are women who teach in humanities disciplines.
Reading through the CAW’s study, I couldn’t help but feel that the time spent on this project would have been better used somewhere else. The trends in Adjunct labor have not dramatically changed since the CAW was founded in 1997. What has changed is that each year conditions in Higher Education have become steadily worse. Studies don’t change society, men and women possessing moral courage who are mobilized for action do. What makes this study even more useless (in my opinion) is the small number of non-academics who will ever see it. They are the ones who need to see the data. I would wager they are the only ones who would be surprised by the content of the CAW’s study.
So it’s official, the dead horse has been beaten once again.
More promising but still cringe-inducing is the plan endorsed by Middle Tennessee State University to create a four phase plan for non-tenure track faculty that would recognize their integral role in departmental life. It would allow those teaching on semester-to-semester contracts (Adjuncts in the truest sense of the word) a path to becoming full-time lecturers and (eventually) senior lecturers.
That path is severely flawed, as the Homeless Adjunct points out. Moreover, it’s not even that inventive. My employer already has such a system in place and has for at least as long as I’ve worked there (2000).
Yet in spite of these flaws, talk of a phased system of Adjunct employment moves us beyond the statistical study of “the Adjunct Question” and the tiresome stories of victimization to actually doing something about the problem. Let’s hope that more talk about solutions comes into vogue so that better plans than Middle Tennessee’s might emerge.
If nothing else, the CAW study and the “four-phase” plan adopted by Middle Tennessee and endorsed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) demonstrates the epistemological gap between the tenure track and the non-tenure track in Higher Education. It also demonstrates that Academic Professional Organizations are paper tigers. I guess that explains why union membership on college campuses is up while professional groups struggle to maintain their ranks.
Tonight I attended a talk by University of Chicago Professor Bernard Harcourt at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago. His talk was part of the Graham School of Continuing Studies Great Conversations seminar series. The subject of his talk was Freedom and Education–the seminar series theme for this quarter–and he took the opportunity to explore more fully several themes in his most recent book The Illusion of Free Markets as he walked the audience through his understanding of what the terms “freedom” and “education” meant to him as well as how they were inter-related.
Providing the audience a clear outline to his presentation, Professor Harcourt began by outlining three theoretical points that he believed were central to any discussion of freedom and education. The first was that “freedom” as the term is currently used is deliberately ambiguous. This ambiguity allows economists to use the phrase “free market” when (in Harcourt’s view) “in the economic realm freedom has no role.” He argued that in order for freedom to have a meaning the term needed to be replaced by something more precise. His second point involved the term “education,” which he also felt to be hopelessly imprecise in both the academic realm as well as our everyday lives. He contended that “we need to be critical of the claim that education makes us free” as it could and often is used as a tool of oppression. The primary example he provided the audience was an anecdote involving his son’s English assignment to write about a moment where he had “matured” or grown from “idealism” to “reality.” Harcourt saw this is as the first of many attempts by the educational system to circumscribe not simply the content of education but how that very concept was understood (i.e. a reality principle to the unreasonable id of childish creativity). Harcourt’s final theoretical observation involved the phrase “free speech.” In his view “all speech is costly,” at the very least requiring money for a venue or external support from a school or organization to grant it credibility and (thereby) an audience.
Having addressed his theoretical points, Harcourt moved on to examine what he saw as three key historical moments relevant to the topic of freedom and education in the 21st century. The first of these was the “corporatization of Higher Education,” a topic that I have written about on this blog several times, typically in relation to Adjunct Labor. To this phenomenon he linked the expansion of free online courses (referred to now as MOOCS or Massive Online Open Courses), which are increasingly being relied upon by students who could not afford the cost of rising college tuition. The final historical moment he referred to was the emergence of the Occupy movement whose teach-ins and recent Peoples Summit offered another venue for public learning that was dependent neither on the traditional college campus or online course portal.
These events combined with the theoretical issues Harcourt examined at the beginning of his talk all seemed to point (in his view) to a “political reawakening” in the United States and the re-emergence of a truly public sphere. The value of both developments, according to Harcourt, was in their potential to awaken “criticality” in the general populace. What he meant by that term was something analogous to what Liberal Arts scholars have traditionally called “critical thinking.” Namely, the ability to look at things as they are and imagine them in a different way. It also involves in Harcourt’s view the ability to retain a radical openness that seeks to ask the right questions as much find the answers to our current dilemmas.
Harcourt’s talk was cogent and powerfully delivered. The question and answer period, however, showed that the audience was hungry for more direction. We are all peering into the crystal ball that is the future right now and everyone (including Harcourt) is slightly baffled by what they are seeing. Sitting on the edge of action, one can be forgiven for being impatient. I know I am. But the message of the evening seemed to be pay attention and keep an open mind. And make sure to share what’s on your mind with other thinkers in the public square.
If you need a public square to share your thoughts and live in Chicago, there are many places you can occupy your mind. One is at the numerous teach-ins and general assemblies held by Occupy Chicago. Another is the never dull “playground for people who think”–the College of Complexes–at which I am a regular. Stop by at both. All are welcome. Just bring an open mind.
Just when you thought it was over, rejection letter season kicks back into high gear. Or in this case, rejection emails. For those of you who have been on the Academic job market at least once, you know exactly what I am talking about. Those mysterious letters or emails from schools you applied to over six months ago that inform you of your rejection for a job that you long gave up on.
My favorite so far came in yesterday. I’ve pasted the text here with the school and position ID information deleted:
Thank you for your recent application for the Assistant Professor of English with the University of [Blank].
Your application has been carefully examined to evaluate your combination of education and experience in relationship to the specific requirements of this position. After a thorough review of all the applications we have selected another candidate who we feel best meets the needs of both this position and our department.
We appreciate your interest in finding employment with [Blank], and we wish you success in your efforts to find a rewarding position.
Do not reply to this email. This is an automated email account which is not checked. Questions should be directed to the hiring official of English.
Is it just me or does this letter sound like it was generated by a spambot? Come on people. If you’re going to require a writing sample from me, the least you can do is craft a well-written rejection letter. One will do. Then you can cut and paste my name and yours into the template.
Have a good rejection story to share? Feel free to post it as a reply.