A Modest Proposal for Saving Graduate Higher Education in the U.S.
Every Christmas while I was growing up, my dad had a gift giving ritual with his parents. They gave each other cash. I became convinced that this was often the same amount. From meager means Grandma and Grandpa scraped together a modest living punctuated by moments of extravagance, like their trips to Vegas. The cash swap was a form of empowerment: here is some money that you didn’t have to spend on whatever you want. It was a symbol of financial freedom. But, in terms of the actual balance sheets, it changed nothing.
I am not an accountant. I do not purport to understand most of the details of the tax plan that Congress has in the works. I do understand how it would make tuition stipends taxable, devastating the overwhelming majority of Ph.D. programs, as well as many M.A. programs. The humanities and social sciences would be hit hardest. Whether as the direct or indirect result of impoverishing their graduate students more so than they already are (this is a thing), many graduate programs would close. (M.D., J.D., M.B.A., and other professional programs would be generally unaffected.)
The trouble is that, at present, programs charge students tuition (on paper) and then offer them a soon-to-be-taxed tuition waiver (often on the same piece of paper). Instead, affected graduate programs should reduce the tuition charged to students to zero—not net zero but actual zero—so that tuition waivers and taxes on them would be similarly non-existent. This would, of course, involve finding new ways of doing internal accounting for program costs and perhaps making admissions policies even more selective, but this could be done. Otherwise, it’s like Peter robbing Peter to pay Peter. Couldn’t he just leave his money where it is?
Engaging Diversity in the Humanities Classroom
What does it mean to truly know something? And how can we humanities educators help our undergraduate students grow in their knowledge of themselves, others, and life? Many of us face classrooms embodying a wide range of backgrounds. This is true both in terms of students’ demographics and in terms of their levels of educational preparation. In some fields, the latter might be a liability, but in ours it is a potential asset, due to the nature of knowledge and the power of diversity. Our challenge is to harness that potential.
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What College Rankings Actually Do
American colleges and universities rise and fall based on their rising and falling in a handful of rankings. This is true to a significant extent in terms of their finances, reputations, and general welfare. Up and up or down and down, as goes its rank, so goes the university. U.S. News and World Report’s is the most influential. Forbes, The Princeton Review, and others offer alternatives with slightly different methodologies and surprisingly similar results. All purport to demonstrate which colleges and universities have the best academic programs. All of them fail to do so. By virtue of measuring many things unrelated to quality of education, they incentivize the diverting of resources away from educating students.
The established rankings show institutional wealth, both directly and indirectly. They also show an institution’s popularity, both among prospective students, enrolled students, and faculty at peer institutions. Many also emphasize how well their incoming students performed in high school, shown by grades and standardized test scores. The rankings show little else. But by providing the illusion of demonstrating educational quality, the rankings incentivize many things but not support for the actual quality of education at any given institution.
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The Shaping of Three Generations of Students’ Expectations Through Fiction
Every fall semester since I began teaching college full-time, I have been struck by how freshmen’s expectations have the potential to set them up for success or failure. In particular, I have seen how students’ understanding of what college can and should be has been defined by the fictional campuses they have encountered in film and television. We children of the 1980s have different expectations than Millenials. Whatever generation comes after them will be equally defined by the presence or absence of engaging fictional places of learning.
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Remembering to Stay Human and Stay Sane
I recently had a former student approach me for advice about applying to doctoral programs in the humanities. What follows is an expansion of that advice (apart from warning about the job market) for a general audience. If you come to me, asking about grad school, these are the core essentials of what I would say. This is what you need to know up front.
Doctoral studies will instigate a personal crisis. This is inevitable. This is especially true of the writing of your dissertation. Nearly half of all doctoral students in the humanities never complete their degrees and the dissertation is the usual reason why. Only rarely would coursework pose a hurdle because, frankly, courses are what you’re good at; otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Hopefully you have already overcome a significant personal crisis. It is not that I hope you have suffered; but we must all face our own struggles and my hope is that you have already developed the habits necessary to overcome one crisis. If not, the dissertation will be a crisis indeed.
You must face the austere horror of the blank page. You must sit down and create something from nothing; or, at least, you must sit down and fashion something functional and whole from a mass of raw material.
Yes, you must sit down and write. But in order to do so without losing perspective, burning out, and/or freezing in the paralysis that perfectionism can induce, you must achieve a certain balanced discipline.
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When and How (Much)
At the faculty lunch room (which isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, but it’s still pretty nice), years after the fact many of my colleagues continue to talk about what they wish that had done publication-wise after finishing their dissertations.
There are basically two schools of thought:
A. The Piecemeal (a.k.a. Maximum-Quantity-of-Articles) Approach
Publish as many chapters as you can before signing a contract to publish the whole, because you are not allowed to excerpt chapters once the full manuscript is under contract. This has the benefit of maximizing how much you can beef up your C.V. on the basis of that one document. Plus nothing counts toward tenure until you’re hired in a tenure-track job, so if you have confidence that you can get such a position without the full MS being published, then it might make sense to wait.
B. The Giant Step (a.k.a. Book-Sooner-Is-Better) Approach
Assume that this is the MS that will get you the job you want, that you’ll need ample new material to get tenure anyway, and that you will be able to produce such material expeditiously.
I subscribe to the latter. There are a number of reasons for this:
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How to Select a Dissertation Topic in the Humanities
Whether you intend for it to or not, your dissertation will define your public identity as a junior scholar. You will devote at least a few years of your life to researching and writing it. You will become known or remain unknown in large measure by virtue of its quality. No pressure… but you do have a lot riding on that one piece of work. It had better be good. Here are some recommendations for setting yourself up for success by choosing the right topic.
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Helping Students Look Critically Within
This is the Age of the Selfie. We live in an image-obsessed society. A significant slice of the global economy is driven by individuals’ hunger to appear better: better than those around them or at least better than their current selves; better in their own eyes and better in the eyes of others. By definition, “image” and “appearance” are superficial things, as opposed to identity and substance.
Many of my students are rich with self-esteem. They look at themselves. Engaging in this autospection – sorry, nothing to do with looking at cars – and they like what they see. Yet far fewer demonstrate significant evidence of introspection or its fruit, self-knowledge, whether in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of their character or their reasons for believing what they believe about Ultimate Things.
I take for granted that we should work in the classroom to cultivate self-knowledge. No community of faith, liberal arts educational institution, democracy, or marriage can thrive without individuals who understand themselves. This is not the only thing that matters in such contexts. But a reflective attitude towards ourselves is a useful tool and a helpful curb against hubris. True self-knowledge is the antithesis of self-worship, for it imbues its possessors with a keen awareness of their own limitations, including their fragility and fallibility.
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LinkedIn Strategies for Academics
For business professionals, there is one premier place online to post one’s resume and to look for jobs: LinkedIn. Indeed, those are the primary purposes of the professional social networking site. With our lengthy CVs and specialized job listings elsewhere, we academics have no need for such services. Nonetheless, both junior and established scholars have compelling reasons to use LinkedIn.
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How a Year as a Barista Helped – and Hindered – my Teaching
When I feel overwhelmed by a growing pile of papers to grade, I remember once having a growing list of lattes to make, and I smile. It has been nearly six years since I was a barista, but that experience left an indelible impression on me and how I relate to others. I have now spent more time as a college-level educator than I did in the food service industry – but just barely. While wearing a coffee-stained apron, I honed the ability to empathize and listen unjudgmentally; and this has been a priceless asset. But, at the same time, I recognize that the sales tactic of catering to absurd requests does not serve students well.
Few things are more important to teaching than listening. Especially in discussion-based courses, which are all that I currently teach, I know that I must listen and respond thoughtfully to students in order for the conversation to move forward. I have long been frustrated with colleagues who ask an open-ended question and will not accept anything but one particular, narrow answer, for which they have been fishing. By adopting the stance of welcoming any answer as a contribution, no matter how tangentially related to what is correct in the strict sense of the word, I am able to encourage students to participate, even as I engage with them intellectually. Any answer is better than no answer. There is no such thing as a stupid question – and, at least for the purposes of class discussion, I do not believe stupid questions exist.
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