So What Would You Suggest, Genius?

I have been sharply critical of the corporatizing of universities, and I realize that my attitude verges on gloom-and-doom handwringing that might reflect the utterer’s cynicism more than the objective situation. I stress that UTA is not as corporatized as some schools, that lots of good things happen here, and that the problems I cite in my imaginary dialogues are general national trends, not specific grievances.

Yet they are real enough. If you teach English, you face intractably deteriorating conditions. More students in your classes, fewer tenured positions to aspire to. More outcomes measures imposed from above, that relate little to what you value, or indeed with reality itself. Less autonomy in the classroom; more top-down dictation of what one learns and how one learns it. Less confidence in or deference to your hard-won professional ethos. More assessment via the quantity of throughput instead of the quality of the academic experience. More decisions made remotely by people who have no idea what you do. Above all, a steady dwindling of the “liberal” element in liberal arts. Instead of taking time out from making a living to read Montaigne or George Eliot or Kenneth Burke and share ideas about them, you seem doomed to grade routine assignments on rubrics dictated by corporate culture.

So what’s a liberal artist to do? How should one cope with this global and local nonsense? Oughtn’t I to suggest some positive solutions occasionally, instead of just slinging the snark? Forthwith!

  1. Pretend it isn’t happening. And I don’t mean that in the ostrich sense. If theory has taught me anything, it’s come from the works of writers like Michel de Certeau, who argue that resistance to oppression isn’t only, or always, or most effectively carried out by linking arms at the barricades and reappropriating the means of production. Instead, by taking local paths of desire, people redraw the maps of their habitats. Besieged by demands for measurable outcomes, facing more work and less time to do it in, baffled by institutional goals that seem to be changing every fifteen minutes, and contradicting themselves as they do? OK. That “signature assignment” must be rendered unto Caesar. But for the 50 minutes you’re in class, or the afternoon you spend reading, or the happy hour over refreshments with your colleagues, pretend it doesn’t exist. Actively. Pretend you are someone who is free from institutional constraints, who works for more important things. Start a side conversation. Investigate some issue you just learned about. Connect something you’ve encountered in this atomized classroom to something across campus. And speaking of the big guy,
  2. Render less unto Caesar. If given more work, fit it into the hours you have. Find shortcuts, jettison busywork, keep your eye on what’s valuable to you. Comply with “Compliance,” mind you: I’m not suggesting unprofessional slacking. But I am suggesting professionalized slacking, which is another definition for the Liberal Arts, and is at the core of the historical tradition of the university. Limit yourself austerely to a fixed amount of time for grading and data entry, and carve out some time for why you entered the business to begin with. Do not overprepare for class; leave some room for something unpredictable to happen. Can’t fit all your work at all the places you teach into 40 hours? Maybe that’s a sign that your employers can’t, in fact don’t, really expect that level of detail work. (Work you’ll notice they never reward, anyway.) Do the minimum, promise your students less but do it as promised: then read that extra essay or short story you’ve been wanting to, watch that movie or read that comic book, and draw some new connections in class tomorrow, instead of devoting ten minutes to how to master the latest library database or drill students on where the semi-colons go in MLA style: ’cause they’re gonna change MLA style and the library databases again in another year or two, too.
  3. Reclaim your intellectual life. As I always say, there are only 168 hours in every week. Work your 40 and then knock off, but actively. Listen to language around you and wonder how and why people use it. Critique the implicit ideologies of that video game you’re playing. Chart the plot arcs of that TV episode. Reflect on how sports announcers narratize the games they call. Yes, yes, I know, there’s a lot of work in an academic week, and you need downtime to post photos of your cat, use recreational substances, and stare languidly into space. But hello, this is the only intellectual life we have. You didn’t come to the university to be a mindless drone in a hive; you could have done that in the commercial world. Unfortunately, the commercial world outflanked you, and you are now a mindless drone in an academic hive. Pretend you aren’t. Shut your mind off while complying with routine work demands, and then re-open it when you hit the pavement at night – not the other way around. One burnout risk in our profession comes from believing that our time “in the office” is sacred, serious, and at the heart of our intellectual and spiritual being. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just another office job. Don’t let it get to the point where you gave your all on assignments nobody will read closely or collect after you’ve read them closely, and then have no energy left to think with after you reach the parking lot. Make being an intellectual your hobby. As long as nobody values your professional contributions, feel free to be a dilettante on your own time. And insist on more of your own time.
  4. Get out more. There are constantly outstanding lectures, shows, programs, screenings, presentations, and concerts, by and large free, at UTA, in downtown Arlington, at the Public Library and Museum of Art, let alone across the Metroplex. Academic conferences swing by locally pretty often. We’ve had great poetry and fiction readings this past year, and will again next year: didn’t you become an English major because you liked poetry and fiction? Go out and hear things you didn’t know you were interested in. Teachers rarely take advantage of these “extras,” because there’s always some pressing task, always the inertial exhaustion, always the excuse that the topic is not “in our field.” But the people who remake fields know that they need to explore beyond the boundaries of those fields.

    I attended an interdisciplinary colloquium earlier this summer in France. (Paid for by moi and the University of Limoges, I will add; didn’t use a dime of good Texas taxpayer money on such frivolity.) It was the usual thing, lots of people showing up for a few of the talks, some people solely for their own, which was all that was going to appear on their resumé anyway. Two people – the first speaker of the colloque and the last – stayed for absolutely every moment of every talk. They were also the two most senior distinguished scholars in attendance. They were precisely the two who didn’t have to listen to everybody else. But it occurred to me that listening to everybody else was how they got to be senior and distinguished.
  5. Ignore strategic development, institutional planning, and departmental politics. This is probably good advice whatever your profession, unless of course your job is “strategic developer,” “institutional planner,” or “politician.” The strategic direction will reverse itself three years from now. The institutional plan will be obsolete even sooner. Departmental politics are fantastically boring. “Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out” may sound intriguing, but remember that that’s what King Lear proposed he and Cordelia should pay attention to in order to pass time while in prison. Don’t even plan your own career all that much; life will happen while you are making other plans, as it always does. Stop thinking in “meta” terms about the stuff you will do once you finally be where you want to be – teaching job, next graduate degree, tenure. Do that stuff now, while you are young and lucid. As a character in Henry James once put it, “Live.” Which I wouldn’t know except that when I was an adjunct, I spent a year reading Henry James when it was of no professional advantage to me whatsoever.

In short, the situation will not improve. Think of your intellectual being as a garden. “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” as someone else in a book once said: “we must work our garden.” You can wait till you have more money or a bigger lot or till the plant sale; you can put it off till it rains, which it won’t. But if you don’t just dig in, soon you’ll have no garden at all.

Published in:Tim Morris |on August 11th, 2014 |4 Comments »

You’ve Tried the Rest

So the phone rings, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s Lars Abraham, Past Professor Plenipotentiary at Seattle State University.

“How now, Lars?” say I.

“Things are not so good, Tim,” says Lars.

“Raining in Seattle again?” I ask. “C’mon, Lars, the bluest skies I’ve ever seen are in Seattle.”

“What? No, it is not the rain. It is the new Chancellor of our University. He has announced a sweeping new strategic plan that involves rebranding and an upgrade to the DNA of Seattle State.”

“That’s great, Lars, you’ll all get new stationery and new lapel buttons and new gimme caps.”

“That is not all we will get. The Chancellor has also announced that we will get ten additional students in each freshman writing section.”

“I suppose they’ll pay you more and reduce the number of sections you teach, Lars.”

“You suppose wrong. No raises or courseload reductions. The Chancellor believes that writing sections cost too much, even though their instructors typically earn less than a tenth of the tuition dollars from them as it is.”

“That’s too bad, Lars. Quality will just go down then, but if you can’t afford good education in this budget climate, so be it.”

“Our Chancellor says that quality will go up, because it does not matter how large the student-to-faculty ratio is. According to him, the high quality of small classes is a myth.”

“It’s a myth that has made Stanford and Rice and Reed College very wealthy institutions.”

“But our Chancellor says that a large urban state college like Seattle cannot afford to compare itself to such top-tier private schools.”

“True dat.”

“Are you becoming aphasic, Tim? No, our Chancellor says that we must grow to twice our present enrollment.”

“No time for research, then. You’d better give up plans to finish that book you’ve had up on blocks for the past fifteen years.”

“On the contrary. The Chancellor has also announced that faculty will be expected to publish 33% more peer-reviewed research results every year.”

“That’ll be easy for you, Lars. 33 percent of nothing is nothing.”

“Always the comedian. No, our Chancellor says that by rebranding we will transcend all the selective private colleges and flagship public schools to become the best university in the Universe.”

“Might as well aim high.”

“And our new tagline is,” said Lars, “YOU’VE TRIED THE REST, NOW TRY THE BEST OF THE BEST.”

“Catchy. But, Lars …”

“Yes?”

“Is that strictly accurate? Have students actually tried the rest?”

“I do not understand, Tim.”

“Well, y’know, sometimes students transfer in. Or sometimes they stop out of some other school and enroll at yours a couple years later.”

“So?”

“Well, that means they might have tried one or two other colleges. Three tops. But it’s unlikely that any undergraduate would have tried all the rest of the possible colleges. I mean, there must be fifty universities in Washington State alone, right?”

“Tim, you dodo, it is a figure of speech.”

“Well, figurative or literal, it’s an awesome moment for you. Without spending any more money, you will vastly improve both teaching and research while serving twice as many students. I can’t find a downside here.”

“That is unsurprising, Tim, because you could not find your tochus with a GPS machine. Tim, have you ever heard of the Engineer’s Triangle?”

“Yeah, I had one of those in drafting class in highschool. It’s a little clear acrylic thing, you put it on your T-square and you can draw angles and stuff.”

“Tim, your ignorance is fathomless. The Engineer’s Triangle is another metaphor. It consists of Quality, Time, and Cost. The Triangle says that for any project, one can improve two of those elements, but only by expending the third. Make something faster and better, it will cost more. Make something cheaper and better, it will take longer. Make something cheaper and faster, it will be shoddy.”

“I don’t believe that, Lars. Continuous quality improvement is always possible in every human endeavor. Our limitations are limitless.”

“Tim, you perhaps also do not believe in the laws of Gravity and Thermodynamics. The Engineer’s Triangle is similarly immutable. And our Chancellor, he is an engineer, one would think he would have heard of this principle. It seems not.”

“Sounds like a can of worms, Lars. I’m so thankful we don’t face any of these problems at UTA. We are exempt from triangles and squares and pentagrams and we just get better every day in every way.”

“Alas, that is not so on Puget Sound, Tim.”

“But look at it this way, Lars. Legal weed is on its way.”

Published in:Tim Morris |on August 8th, 2014 |No Comments »

Doing the Math

A recent article by Rachel Riederer, “Teaching Class,”, has been making the rounds of social media, posted by many of my alert friends in the teaching profession. Riederer makes a point that is seeping slowly into general awareness: college teaching is a working-class occupation. As Riederer puts it:

A professor belongs to the professional class, a professor earns a salary and owns a home, probably with a leafy yard, and has good health insurance and a retirement account. In the American imagination, a professor is perhaps disheveled, but as a product of brainy eccentricity, not of penury. In the American university, this is not the case.

“At the City University of New York, an adjunct teaching full time—four courses per semester—receives a starting annual income of $24,644,” according to Riederer, who knows whereof: she is a writing-center tutor in the City University system. And that’s in New York, where Riederer notes it’s less than half the median household income.

In D/FW, adjuncts do a bit better, factoring in cost of living. A Lecturer in English at UTA, with a PhD and ten years’ teaching experience, makes $25,000 a year and gets free health insurance. Many, many, people live on less in Texas. It’s safe and physically unstrenuous work; some status and respect attach to it. People call you “Professor.” They call you other things too, but rarely to your face. And as Philip Larkin once remarked, “nobody actually starves.”

Of course, “nobody actually starves” is not exactly a great recruiting slogan for a profession. But as Riederer points out, the job market for English teachers is so bad that not starving is frequently held up to adjunct instructors as something they should feel blessed for after every microwave burrito. An administrator I know once memorably rebuked Senior Lecturers who observed that they earned less than entry-level kindergarten teachers. “Be grateful you have a job at all.” And so I am, believe me.

English and other humanities subjects, we’re often told, are simply drugs on the market, so teachers can’t be paid higher than lower-working class wages. (That $25,000 I mentioned above is about the median for the hundred or so instructors who teach for us every semester – most of them by the semester and by the course, without tenure or promotion possibilities.)

So I thought I’d do some math. UTA students pay in-state tuition of $4,439 per semester for 15 credit hours. That’s a flat rate – some take fewer hours, and some who take less than 12 hours pay more per credit hour. But at a conservative estimate, the typical UTA student pays about $888 for a three-credit course. Which is a heck of a lot less than they’d pay at Stanford or Rice.

Our typical $25,000 adjunct teaches five courses a semester, which can range between 20 and 40 students; let’s say 30 as a middle ground. Some teach more, some less; some make less money, few make more. 150 students a semester times $888 – I’m bad at calculation but own a calculator – that’s $133,200 in tuition generated by a typical Lecturer in a typical semester. The Lecturer receives $12,500 of it.

I honestly didn’t think it had gotten that bad. When I started work at UTA in 1988, I made $25K, and taught about 100 students per semester. Each of them paid about $100 per course, so I generated $10K in tuition per semester and was paid $12.5K. UTA didn’t go bankrupt because, then as now, it also received “formula funding” per credit hour from the state, a miserably small contribution but enough to top off my salary and pay for my “free” health insurance, and for overhead like power, IT, building maintenance, and supplies. And of course a university gets some other income from rentals and grants and donations and endowment income (though little of the latter, in Texas, goes toward personnel costs).

As my salary went up over the years, tuition went up too, but I continued to imagine that I was probably continuing to be a money sink overall, and that was true the last time I looked, an unvigilant ten years ago. But in the fall of 2014, I will teach sixty undergraduates who’ll pay around $888 a head. $53,280 in tuition alone, before formula funding: and I will see $38,000 of it. And I am one of the highest-paid, most senior professors in the College of Liberal Arts.

Where does all that profit go? I’d been so used to being told I was unprofitable that I didn’t realize there was any, but there is, and it’s especially drastic as one moves down the instructor ranks. Some goes toward the dreaded administrative bloat, of course: though I hasten to say that UTA is not as bloated as some campuses, and has actually consolidated some functions and eliminated some administrative positions of late; and our higher-ups are not paid very much by national standards.

As at any university, quite a bit of our non-profit “profit” is circulated back into financial aid, so that some students don’t pay that $888 (or the somewhat higher graduate-school tuition) in full. As many news items in the past couple of years have noted, though, that’s more than a bit of a bubble. If you’re offering a class for $888 and paying the instructor $83 of that, you might be able to save everybody some money by cutting tuition while raising teacher pay. But that would reduce the total amount of money in the system, and eliminate chances for it to stick on the fingers of outsourcees, vendors, lenders, cut-outs, and consultants as it makes its way through.

And of course universities have more expenses than they used to. Everybody knows that. Teaching is a smaller and smaller part of what we do at a large university, and despite what seems like a considerable ROI to me, it’s increasingly a “cost center” for the suits, as Riederer also notes. You can’t maintain a gym and a stadium and extensive programming and new dorms and apartments, and research promotion and development offices to secure more development funds, marketing ventures and branding and strategic planning and real-estate schemes, without some sort of revenue enhancement. You can apparently maintain it without chalk, because I’ve had to buy my own for years. I also bought my own computer and my own toner and my own textbooks, and I pay for research costs and travel and UTA parking – as do many of the people who make a third of what I make. IOW not much of that overhead goes back into faculty perks. But I’m not really complaining about perklessness.

I’m not really complaining, and I am open to correction. I am braced for an eloquent rejoinder from an administrator who will tell me I have no idea what it takes to keep a university functioning these days – in fact, how they’ve saved the institution from collapse because of their adroit financial brinksmanship, while I, the naïve Liberal Artist, dream on in my tenured cocoon. As they say, I’m just saying. I am just noticing that paying teachers a middle-class wage – paying them more than a tiny fraction of the tuition their students pay to be taught – is not among the things it takes to keep a university functioning.

Published in:Tim Morris |on July 29th, 2014 |No Comments »

Where Do I Commence

So my phone rings, and it’s my old mentor Lars Abraham, Professor Semi-Emeritus at Seattle State University.

“How’s it shaking, Lars?” say I.

“Not so good,” says Lars.

“I had a premonition you would say that.”

“Tim, morale at Seattle State is at a new low in the 53 years I have taught here.”

“And knowing you, that’s pretty low, Lars.”

“Tim, we have a new Chancellor. And his first order of business has been to order every faculty member to attend both Commencement ceremonies every year, fall and spring.”

“Wow, that’s a big imposition, Lars. You might have to get out of bed and show up for work like millions of regular people.”

“Spare me your sarcasm, Tim. Faculty have genuine grievances here. Many of them will have to spend this year’s miserable raise on buying caps and gowns.”

“Shouldn’t bother you, Lars, you own a gown, right?”

“I own a Harvard Crimson gown,” says Lars.

“I’ve seen that gown. Harvard Rust would be more like it.”

“But that is not the only imposition, Tim. There are also many faculty who have small children and need extra weekend childcare at additional expense.”

“Surely your great-granddaughters are already cared for, though.”

“Watch your mouth. There is also the problem, Tim, that this edict came down from the Chancellor without consultation with the faculty. And it is expressed as an order. We must arrive at the basketball stadium at a certain time, in full regalia, specified down to the tassel. A tassel, Tim. I lost my tassel in 1979. Our names will be on a clip board. We must show state-issued photo identification before our names will be checked off this list. And if we do not get a check mark, then awful things have been threatened. Our Chancellor said that he will punish the instructors who do not attend. He will do such things – what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”

“That’s a bit florid for an interoffice memo, Lars.”

“That is Shakespeare, you nitwit.”

“Well, what’s wrong with that policy?” I ask. “You have to show photo ID everywhere nowadays. Vote, fly, go to a Taylor Swift concert. It’s for security reasons, Lars.”

“It is not for security reasons. It is so I do not pay some undergraduate fifty dollars to wear my robe and go to Commencement instead of me. Seriously, Tim, in the middle of the basketball stadium who is to know that it is Lars Abraham in the crimson robe or Clem Kadiddlehopper? But the Chancellor is taking names, so Lars Abraham it will be.”

“Lars, if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re whining more than usual this morning. What’s wrong with showing up in regalia and letting the students know you care? What’s wrong with showing that you’ve got that Seattle State Selkie Spirit?”

“There is nothing wrong with that, Tim. I have gone to more Commencements here than I can remember. I have shaken hands and read names and handed out diplomas. But the new Chancellor does not know that. He assumes that if I am asked to volunteer, I will weasel out. He assumes I must be ticked off a roll like a buck private before I will consent to do anything.”

“Like most faculty.”

“Tim, the central principle of life is that people will gladly volunteer to do things that they will resist doing if forced.”

“I guess you’re right, Lars. Commencement doesn’t work that way at UTA. I mean, we all go every semester, but that’s because we’ve all arrived freely at the independent decision that we should. We’re Mavericks, Lars. We push our limits where there are none. We’re at the corner of Fast and Rising.”

“What?”

“But Lars, doesn’t it amount to the same thing? It’s nice to go to Commencement, you usually go, and now you’ll be going. What exactly is your problem?”

“Well, with all of us going, the ceremonies are getting larger and longer. They are between two and three hours now, Tim. There is my bladder to consider. And it is one more day I do not get to work on my book …”

“… that you’ve been writing since the turn of the century. It’s always the same with you, Lars, you procrastinate till somebody wants you to actually do some work, and then it’s ‘Oh no, my precious writing time’.”

“Nevertheless, Tim, that time is real. Two extra days of work for five hundred extra faculty every year. A thousand days of research that could go toward achieving Tier One status. Instead it will be spent suffocating in a hot robe in an earsplitting stadium listening to somebody read to us from Oh The Places You’ll Go.”

“So you’re saying that Seattle State values the compulsion of empty attendance at meaningless meetings over actual work on its professional mission?”

“At last you show a glimmer of comprehension, Tim.”

“Well, Lars, at least they’re running your school like a corporation.”

Published in:Tim Morris |on March 7th, 2014 |No Comments »

10 Things I Like about U(TA)

Pretty much on a daily basis, UTA faculty get a memo from the administration that makes life a little bit worse. I don’t mean to single out UTA, mind you. Pretty much every employee of every organization gets a daily “things will get harder” memo from the higher-ups. More compliance, more assessment, more hoops to jump through, more meetings, more meaningless attendance commanded, less support. Welcome to the world of Continuous Quality Improvement, where things continuously disimprove.

I don’t want to turn into a bitter old man. Readers of this blog may be of the opinion that that boat has left the landing. But there’s always time to head back. So I thought I would write a post without snark or backbiting, and talk about ten things that I truly and unreservedly like about my job, my workplace, and my fellow Mavericks. I know, I know, we’ll see how long I can keep that up. But cross my heart, I like working here, and I ought to take at least every dozenth blog post to list some reasons why.

  1. Lectures! I am a lecture junkie to begin with. But we truly have a rich culture at UTA of live speakers who address timely topics and give excellent readings. Over the past few years, I’ve heard terrific talks by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Jeffrey Toobin … Even Ken Burns! I don’t understand why Ken Burns dyes his hair or keeps it cut like a 1970s pop star, but it was fun to hear what he had to say. Nearer to my own “field,” I’ve gotten to hear Ramón Saldívar, Tim Johnston, Allison Hunter, Dagoberto Gilb, Davy & Peter Rothbart, Darra Goldstein, and many others. But lectures aren’t really about one’s own field; they’re about getting out and finding new fields. And I’m grateful to many, many UTAers who have organized these talks and helped me expand mine.
  2. The Honors College. I can’t imagine people more committed to the ideals of both individual and community undergraduate learning. Our Honors College fosters the liberal arts for students of all majors, and supports the kind of intensive learning experience where faculty know students’ names – and vice versa. One of UTA’s “competitors” is running a World Series TV ad with the catchphrase “101 should be a course number, not a class size.” At our Honors College, they walk the walk. Cheers (as he always puts it) to Dean Karl Petruso and his team.
  3. The Office for Students with Disabilities. Consistently one of the best-run services anywhere. The OSD accommodates students fairly, holds them to high academic standards, and issues crystal-clear guidelines to faculty. I trade a lot of paper and e-mail with the OSD, and they are always happy, helpful, and encouraging. It is marvelous to work with people who demand something from you, and have the legal authority to do so, but who treat you positively at every turn without scolding or chiding, or the assumption that you will naturally resist their efforts. We really do live up to ideals in the matter of accommodations for disabled learners.
  4. The Star-Telegram. It’s free. It’s paper. It’s seven days a week (in term-time). You can get it at the UC, the Planetarium, the Fine Arts Building. It has coupons. It has sports. It has Dear Abby.
  5. The UTA Gallery. Director Benito Huerta and his team present an ever challenging and absorbing series of exhibitions, by top-line professionals and UTA students alike. To stay in touch with contemporary art, you could travel the major cities, or you could simply walk across Cooper Street. And they have vernissages with cheese and crackers. And wine.
  6. Getting Physical Books from InterLibrary Loan. I’m no Luddite. I’m writing a blog post, after all. But I felt like someone from the Stone Age when, earlier this year, my requests for InterLibrary Loans began to be filled with helpful notes from the UTA Library that they’d bought a given book for me … in e-book form! I could sort of read these “books” on my laptop, though not very well, and anyway my laptop weighs about seven pounds and you can’t use it in the bathtub. Not that I would ever read an InterLibrary Loan book in the bathtub. Not me. Where was I? Oh, you should have seen my despair: here were books I couldn’t afford to buy, and couldn’t get from our library, and couldn’t really read on line, and now I would never get them, because since we technically “own” them, they would never borrow them for me. I wept for a while and then sent a note of complaint to the UTA Library, complete with plaintive violin score, oh woe is me. And then they bought all the books I’d ordered in physical print form, and said no problem, we’ll buy or borrow anything you want in future in paper, just let us know. At last, that elusive memo where something got better.
  7. The campus architecture. Well, some of it. But I have resolved not to tell you about what I don’t like at UTA. And anyway, there’s a lot to like. It’s unadorned orange brick instead of ivy and marble, and it’s better that way. We have a style, and we have form meeting function, and it’s a gorgeous color against that blue Texas sky. They’re not old-style college buildings, but they’re livable and classy. My favorites: the UC, the Planetarium, the new(ish) “ERB,” the Spaniolo/Pecan developments (plus their eco-smart landscaping), Nedderman Hall, the tennis center and surrounding apartments, and Architecture itself, with its inviting recessed garden.
  8. And speaking of Architecture, its Branch Library. Now, nothing against our Central Library, which is functional and sturdy, or Science/Engineering, another of my hangouts. But the Art/Architecture Library features an incisive and growing collection, lots of audio and video, a vibrant New Books shelf that’s constantly updated, and an inviting setting for research. I’ve learned more from regular stops there in the past few years than from any other campus resource.
  9. The UTA Theater Program. Well, I’ll admit, over the years, sometimes I have sneaked out at halftime, or whatever they call it when they bring the house lights up and you are allowed to move around for a bit. But I have also seen shows at UTA that I would never have known about, from a wide range of genres, and in a wide range of styles. They’re a teaching department in the best sense of the term: no UTA Theater major graduates without knowing something about the eclectic history of the stage, and knowing it in practice. I’ll single out the marvelous productions in recent years from director Andrew Gaupp, who has shown how farce is the public face of the postmodern: Noises Off, The Mousetrap, and The Government Inspector.
  10. Student Organizations. I’ve advised several over the years, including Sigma Tau Delta (the English Honor Society) and Lyric Expression (a spoken-word and slam poetry club). This fall, I’ve started to advise two more: or rather, to sit back and watch students pour critical energy and joy into them: the Comic Book Club and Food Fight –the organization for healthy cooking and sustainable sourcing. (Or rather, Dr. Joanna Johnson advises Food Fight; I just teach knife skills).

That’s ten: and I didn’t have to think very hard. Some things do go right around here.

Published in:Tim Morris |on October 30th, 2013 |3 Comments »

Numbed by Numbers

I thought of making this post a satiric dialogue. But the topic is not very funny, and there’s the danger that satire will miss its mark. So, for once, an academic-life post in all seriousness.

UTA, perhaps like many other universities, has started to evaluate teachers largely on the basis of numbers: scores derived from surveys that students fill out at the end of each semester. Here’s how it works. Students go online and respond to statements about the course they’ve just taken, statements like “The instructor used teaching methods that helped me learn” and “The instructor was well prepared for each class meeting.” The allowed responses range from 1 for “strongly disagree” through 5 for “strongly agree.” We’ve all done surveys like that, though they’re usually about dish detergent or the newest Iron Man movie.

The scores that these surveys generate appear in reports to UTA administrators and state-level officials. One standard method of reporting survey data is a table where each course has a separate row, and the score for each question is listed in a separate column.

Here’s how I did, for instance, in one of my World Literature courses in Spring 2013:

4.3 4.3 4.4 4.7 4.6 4.2 4.8 3.6 4.1 4.2 3.9 4.2 3.9

Pretty good, huh? Or pretty bad. Or who knows? “Who knows” will be the theme of much of this blog post.

I’m about to complain about being evaluated by numbers. The great danger of an English professor complaining about numerical evaluations is that I’ll be perceived as some touchy-feely poet who can’t bear the cold light of hard data. I’ll just have to run that risk. I have no ethos here. Pathos will get me nowhere. The following critique will be logos all the way.

Why is the line of numbers I gave above a weak way of evaluating History of World Literature I? Where do I begin?

  • That’s not very many responses, and it’s not many people to begin with. Thirty students took World Literature. Ten of them filled out the survey. If only 10 answer the survey, each response drags the mean (the “average”) number for each response pretty far in one direction or another. A statistician might tell you that a response rate of one-third is an awfully good sample, but even if all 30 answered, just a few really low or really high “outlier” responses can drag the mean down or up in ways that make that mean – 3.5 or 4.5 or whatever it may be – less indicative of the whole (and even the whole 30 isn’t very meaningful). But it gets worse:
  • There’s no context. We don’t know if 3.5 or 4.5 was bad or good in these circumstances. Was ENGL 3361 World Literature hard, easy, required, elective, a “gateway” course, a course self-selected by specialists, a course for majors, minors, merchant chiefs? The line of numbers tells you nothing about this complicated factor, in part because
  • There’s no baseline. Look again at my scores: 4.3 4.3 4.4 4.7 4.6 4.2 4.8 3.6 4.1 4.2 3.9 4.2 3.9. You know that 1 is bad and 5 is good. But that’s all you know. You are given other things like the mode, and standard deviation of the ten responses to every given question, which are next to meaningless if you know the mean (and, in fact, you see all ten individual responses listed in a bar graph, so even the mean is pretty superfluous). But you don’t know what a typical score for UTA looks like. You don’t know what an average score for an average English course looks like. You don’t know what the usual score for a 3000-level course looks like. You don’t know what a typical score for ENGL 3361 History of World Literature I looks like, and in fact in the last of these cases, you can’t know, because I’m the only person who teaches ENGL 3361. There is no way of telling whether the survey is measuring me, or the subject I’m teaching, because those two variables always run together.
  • But you think you do. Come on, be honest. You’re already looking at my line of 4.3 4.3 4.4 4.7 4.6 4.2 4.8 3.6 4.1 4.2 3.9 4.2 3.9 and thinking “well, Dr. Morris is clearly great at whatever 4.7 and 4.8 represent, but he’s pretty lousy at those 3.9 areas, and he really needs an intervention on that 3.6 category.” Now, you may be right about that. But you don’t know, and how could you? Still, you are ready to make all kinds of judgments on how I well I teach a course you’ve never attended, in part because
  • Numbers like these convey a false precision. Look again. You’re pretty happy about my performance on that 4.2 near the end of the list, right? But less so on the 3.9s that surround it. Admit it, that’s what you’re thinking, and thinking it harder the more I argue against it. But remember: those scores are the means of ten responses. One student responded “1″ to each question: the eternal sorehead. One answered “4″ to each; four answered “5.” The rest were split between 3s, 4s, and 5s. Overall, the difference between the 4.2 answer and the 3.9s is a couple of students answering “4″ instead of “3,” on a question they spent about half a second thinking about. Now let’s say you’re comparing me as a teacher to someone else, and I get a 3.9 where they got a 4.2, or vice versa. You see the problem? It’s akin to the illusion that makes you think $29.95 is cheap and $30.15 is expensive. And it sometimes gets worse. I have seen means on these questions, derived from less than 20 student responses, expressed to the second decimal place: i.e. not just 4.2 or 3.9, but 4.27 or 3.96. I stress that that second decimal place cannot have a meaning in any possible mathematical world. Heck, the first decimal place doesn’t have much. And it’s not just a problem in the mathematics,
  • It’s a problem of telemetry. Instead of watching me teach, instead of listening to my thoughts about teaching, instead of asking my colleagues or immediate supervisors about me, instead of really asking my students anything meaningful, you’ve been content to judge me as a teacher (inevitably! you’re still doing it, over my protests!) on the basis of numbers generated by a few staticky sensors attached more or less far from my classroom. And you’re content to do so, because a row of numbers is a lot handier than trying to figure out what goes on in that classroom. And because the evaluation is based on telemetry, is falsely precise, and has no context
  • The reading of such evaluations becomes a WAG. I’ve heard eminent scholars look at a row of numbers like my World Lit scores and opine that someone’s teaching is good, bad, somewhere in between, higher than others they’ve seen, lower, or whatever, based entirely on impressions they’ve accumulated by looking at other rows of such telemetric numbers, similarly without context or baseline. And when I’ve raised objections like those above, they pause, nod, say “of course,” and come back with
  • But administrators (and Regents and Coordinating Boards) like numbers. Which is fine, but if they like arbitrary, meaningless numbers, it doesn’t give me much confidence in administrators or Regents or Coordinating Boards.

Now let’s assume these numbers were sterling numbers, and gave a perfect depiction of what students took away from World Literature I. Let’s even assume that quantifying the quality of a complex humanities subject is a good idea. Those assumptions are false in so very many ways, but let’s make them. Are our problems over?

Perhaps not, because

  • Every instructor does pretty well on the numbers. Or at least, every instructor does about the same on the numbers, whatever that may mean. Granted, that’s my own hazy impression, but I’ve looked at a few rows of these numbers in my time, and they all look very much like the ones I got for World Lit. Even given all the problems with the numbers themselves, do they distinguish usefully among faculty? They actually might, just on the “eyeball” test, if you suddenly saw a row of 1.0s sticking out of other faculty who were at 3.9 and 4.2. But on the whole, the monotonous rows of near-identical numbers hovering around 4.0 don’t tell you anything – yet rankings of faculty for all sorts of purposes are made on the basis of numbers that pretty much represent a collective “that was OK” from the student body. Or I guess, because
  • We don’t really know what the students are saying. They are answering a number of anodyne questions by clicking radio boxes on a web form, an activity we all associate with those on-line quizzes that tell you What Kind of Dinosaur You Really Are or what year you are fixing to die. And what kinds of statements are the students asked to assess?
  • We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. No, seriously. Two of the statements on the survey are “I acquired knowledge that will be useful in my future” and “I acquired skills that will be useful in my future.” Now, think about that for a moment. Those are perhaps admirable course goals – future knowledge and future skills – but the problem is, how the heck does one know, from the perspective of the present, how to respond to those statements about the future? This is not only a silly demand, it’s logically unpossible. Which leads to a larger problem with these surveys:
  • Everybody pretty much does seem to think they’re nonsense. Because if you ask a 21-year-old whether they’ve just learned something that they’re going to find useful at 42, they’re smarter than that. They know they don’t know; or at best, they know they’re being asked for banana oil. So you lose their respect, and they take the whole exercise less seriously. Instructors take it less seriously, administrators take it less seriously, and all the way up and down the line, increasing amounts of time are being wasted by people going through the motions of attending to something that nobody takes seriously. So as a result,
  • There’s not much an instructor can do to do better. I know what I need to do to improve my research: publish more. I know what I need to do to improve my service: attend more meetings. But if my teaching is evaluated by a list of survey numbers, how do I change them? What steps can I possibly take to turn a 3.9 into a 4.2? We’ve seen how whimsical and haphazard these measures are: do I even want to improve on some of this stuff? Should I try to sell my students better on the idea that they will use these “skills” someday? (Is reading Boccaccio a skill?) And the “telemetry problem” means that to “improve,” I have to guess how my actions in the classroom will show up on some fuzzy and indirect indicators: not on how well my students did on an essay exam about Boccaccio, but on how they felt before the exam about whether they’d use their knowledge 20 years from now. It’s like being evaluated on your engineering research on the basis of whether a thermometer in a building across campus rose or fell by a degree or two. And beyond even that,
  • Is the last week of a course ends the best time to ask students what they’ve learned? It is probably a good time to ask them whether their instructor was chronically late, or drunk, or kept hitting on them; or more positively if the instructor dressed well, smiled, or deserved “chili peppers” for hotness that would not stop. But I am not sure it is the best time to ask what World Literature taught them about Homer and Dante and Montaigne. This problem obviously predates web surveys of student satisfaction; it was inherent in older “narrative” student evaluations, too. But it hasn’t been addressed. Oddly enough, the ubiquity of the Web and its attendant social media mean that one could now design longitudinal studies that tracked the influence of college courses across decades of a student’s life. But nah, that would require effort and patience. I snark; but I still hold that college teaching deserves consideration by means of more than an immediate reaction, more than a snap opinion about whether certain skills have been delivered.

    But over and over, faculty and administrators, and English faculty as much as anybody else, still look at those rows of numbers and believe, in their hearts, that they tell a terrible and objective truth. Numbers don’t lie, after all. And I doubt these numbers are lying. They’re just not saying anything at all.

    One should never just complain; one should suggest better alternatives. This post is now too long to do so, but I’ll try to compose a more positive and proactive one soon.

  • Published in:Tim Morris |on October 19th, 2013 |4 Comments »

    Customer Service

    So the phone rings, and it’s my old friend and mentor Lars Abraham. You remember Lars. He teaches four courses in English per semester at Seattle State University, as a reward for his decades of service.

    “Lars, I can’t talk right now. I’m doing some reading for a big lecture at UTA this week. It lasts for three hours on Thursday morning. We’re hearing from Neal Raisman, an expert on how to provide great academic customer service!”

    “Customer service,” said Lars. “What, do they want fries with their blue books now?”

    “Lars, please go out and tell some kids to get off your lawn. I need to keep up with what it takes to be an effective 21st-century faculty member.”

    “So what pearls of wisdom does this Raisman intend to cast before your swinish self?”

    “Ha ha. Lars, stop channeling John Houseman in The Paper Chase long enough to read Dr. Raisman’s blog post on How to Cope and Overcome Irritated and Irritating Students. ”

    “You should read it to me. My eyes go strabismic trying to read these bog posts or what you may call them.”

    “Fine. Listen to this, Lars. Title:”

    How to Cope and Overcome Irritated and Irritating Students

    “Ah, it has been a long time since I have seen “cope” as a transitive verb. As Iago says to Othello, ‘He hath, and is again to cope your wife.’ Are you sure this Raisman knows what he’s saying, Tim?”

    “Stow the pedantry, Lars. Raisman has dynamic stuff to offer. Listen to this:

    Here are fopur ways guaranteed to help make irritating students less irritated and thus easier to help.

    “What, pray tell, does “fopur” mean?”

    “Maybe it’s a typo for ’super.’”

    “So how do I make the irritating of the world less irritating?”

    “Less irritated, Lars,” I said. “Rule Number One is Smiling but do not overdo it.

    “I parse such sentences at my peril. But presumably I should smile at my students? Tim, I have not smiled since 1962. If I start smiling now, my students will think I need to go into Assisted Living.”

    “You don’t need to go all Vanna White, Lars. A little smile will do the trick. Listen:”

    A smile is correct and called for but it needs to be an empathetic one. A simple, small smile that says “I see you’re upset and I WILL try to help.” The smile you would use with one of your children with a problem. Students are someone’s children and will respond to this smile.

    “I am going to send this Raisman a shipment of commas. In any case, Tim, I should smile at a grown adult as if he or she were a child.”

    “Everybody’s somebody’s baby, Lars.”

    “And if you were my father’s baby, you would have gotten a smile once a year, on Tisha B’Av. So here I am, smiling at my students as if they have just dropped their Popsicle. Then what?”

    “Here’s the second technique:”

    Give and Name- Get a Name This is a technique that asks you to do exactly what it says. You provide an irritated student your name and ask her his or hers. “Hi. I’m ________. And you are?” When you exchange names you create a small community of people who know one another.

    “I know how I will do this. Hello. I am University Distinguished Professor Lars Abraham, PhD. I assume your name is Jessica, everyone’s seems to be these days. That will create a small community of people who acknowledge that I deserve their respectful deference.”

    “If you take that attitude, Lars, you’ll have to go straight to Step Three:”

    Apologize This is a lesson that we learned from people like Captain Kangaroo on TV

    “Tim, Captain Kangaroo spent a significant portion of his time chatting up Mr. Green Jeans and hallucinating about dancing bears. He had a lot to apologize for.”

    “Apologize all the same, Lars. And then proceed to step four, Compliments:”

    If you need to give a fallacious compliment to keep you and the student healthier, do it. Here’s an example. “Hi, I’m _____ Just want to say that I like your tee shirt, blouse, hair, glasses, jeans, backpack…” whatever seems to strike your eye quickly. Say it casually too so it will sound less contrived. Then as the student’s anger is interrupted you can even follow it up with a normal secondary question such as “Where did you get the tee, blouse, glasses….”

    “Excuse me. What if the first thing that strikes my eye is Jessica’s …”

    “Don’t say it, Lars. English Matters is a family weblog.”

    “I was going to say ‘necklace.’ So here I am, an 82-year-old man with cigar breath. I frequently button my shirt unevenly, and eggstains are not unknown thereupon. I see 19-year-old Jessica, and I get close enough to say casually Hi, I’m University Distinguished Professor Lars Abraham, PhD. Just want to say that I like your necklace. Jessica looks around for a campus policeman. While she is distracted, I follow up with Where did you get that stunning necklace, Jessica? Tim, I am too old to deal with restraining orders.”

    “Lars, you’re full of beans today, but the plain fact is that college faculty need to become customer servants if we’re to deal with today’s savvy, entitled consumer. Universities need to be run like businesses, Lars, and that includes creating a satisfying, if fallacious, customer-service environment.”

    “Tim, for once in my life I will not bother to refute the claim that a university should be run like a business.”

    “Great!”

    “Because it is horse manure. But let us accept the premise. Seattle State is a business. And I am the point person for customer relations.”

    “Now you’re seeing the light, Lars!”

    “Now, every year, my salary slips further and further behind inflation. Every year, I get more courses to teach, and the class sizes get larger. Every year, there is more committee work. I spend more and more time performing self-evaluation, and more and more time peer-evaluating colleagues who have already proven their worth over dozens of years in the profession.”

    “Nothing like that happens at UTA, Lars. We’re an emerging Tier One institution!”

    “I spend more and more time filling out compliance forms, and tracking my behavior on websites that ask me to give progress-report grades every four weeks, or simply to note that I have talked with my thesis students. Already this semester, I have wasted six hours in meaningless meetings, four trying to get into classrooms with the wrong electronic-lock PIN number, six listening to presentations by Deans, and another eight trying to encrypt my laptop computer.”

    “Should have thrown it out the window, Lars.”

    “What? Anyway, I am trying to say this, Tim. Many, many service businesses are making working conditions worse for their staff. They are cutting corners, imposing regulations, stifling initiative, dictating every aspect of performance from the corporate office. There are no incentives for good performance, and many threats for bad performance. Service gets worse and worse, and customers are irritated. And what is the most common response from Corporate?”

    “Cash in their stock options and move to the Caymans?”

    “The response from management is: SMILE HARDER. As things are getting worse, pretend they are getting better. Live the brand. Greet each customer as if you were Captain Kangaroo on a tea bender. If you do not, there are a hundred unemployed people in line ready to smile even harder. We call them adjunct faculty.”

    “Lars, you are such a peevish cynic. I don’t know why I called you.”

    “You did not, Tim; I called you.”

    “Yeah, why?”

    I could hear Lars smile. “This is Lars, Tim. I’m sorry if I upset you. You have such a nice telephone voice. Where did you get that beautiful telephone voice?”

    Published in:Tim Morris |on October 1st, 2012 |2 Comments »

    Encryption

    Recently we got a memo from the Provost’s Office insisting that we encrypt our laptop computers with military-grade security software. Since I went to graduate school for English and not computer science, I failed miserably at the task. So I had to call my friend Ken Kleinkram, who was just named Associate Pinch Provost for Informatic Assets at a salary several multiples of my own. Ken came over to my office with a set of tiny screwdrivers and a device that looked like a tricorder.

    “Let’s see if we can’t get you encrypted, Timbo,” said Ken. “First of all: are you connected to the Internet?”

    “Ha ha,” I said, “the old ‘Tim’s an idiot’ assumption. I am certainly connected to the Internet,” I said, “it’s this grey cord that comes out of this socket here.” Which I picked up and pulled out of the various desk spaghetti, to find that the other end was plugged into my printer.

    “That might explain your issues,” said Ken. He plugged something into something else, intoned a few incantations, pressed a few keys, and suddenly some element of my laptop began to rumble away like a reactor preparing for a meltdown.

    “That program will run in the background for 36 hours,” said Ken. “Just don’t turn your computer off in the meantime. And don’t try to log into MyMav or Blackboard while the encryption is running.”

    “That’s OK,” I said. “It’s the first week of the semester, so MyMav and Blackboard are down anyway. But tell me this: why do I need military-grade encryption on my laptop? It already has a password.”

    “But what if somebody stole your laptop, broke it open, and extracted the hard disk? Thieves have procured countless bytes of essential medical-research data from unencrypted university laptops across the nation.”

    “I don’t do medical research, Ken. I teach poetry.”

    Ken thought for a minute. “You’re going to go all snarky on me in a sec, aren’t you?” he said. “Can you shut up for ten minutes while I explain how vital this encryption can be to the University and the State of Texas?”

    I promised to restrain myself.

    “OK, then,” Ken said, clicking on my hard-disk icon. “Let me show you the kinds of problems you’re not anticipating. Look at all this data that would just lie around unencrypted if you didn’t comply. What’s this, for instance?” He clicked on a file, and a checkerboard-like grid came up.

    “That’s the Monday Prize Crossword Puzzle from the Financial Times.”

    “Did you solve it?”

    “I have one word left to get. If I mail in the first randomly drawn correct answer, I win a Collins Gem Dictionary!”

    “And what if somebody from Texas A&M steals the answer and wins the dictionary?”

    “Presumably it would improve spelling in College Station. But I’m starting to see what you mean. This is some serious intellectual property we’re talking about here.”

    “No snark, you promised. What’s this file?”

    “Oh, that’s a spreadsheet. I’m trying to find out how many major-league second basemen have played an entire season while hitting more than 20 doubles and grounding into fewer than 10 double plays. I need to find better data, though. Going through newspapers boxscore by boxscore is slow work.”

    “And what if that research gets pre-empted by our competitors? Suddenly peer-reviewed results will be racked up by other universities, based on your man-hours of research production. What are these?”

    Ken pointed to some dark icons.

    “They’re … um … pictures of Whisper Wilson.”

    “She isn’t some kind of exotic dancer, is she, Tim?”

    “No! Whisper Wilson is my cat.”

    Ken clicked on an icon and whistled.

    “Think about this, Tim. Suppose somebody posted a picture of Whisper on Facebook.” I stared at the ceiling. “This is by conservative estimate the most adorable cat that has ever been photographed. If someone were to disseminate this photo, innumerable working hours would be spent Liking it, causing the world economy to tailspin out of control.”

    I began to feel very glad about encryption.

    “There isn’t much else on this machine,” said Ken. “But I think you can see the dangers of leaving it unprotected. No, wait a second – here’s another 10MB of data I didn’t see before. The folder is called The Girl with the Phoenix Tattoo. What’s that, Tim?”

    “Oh,” I said, “that’s a draft of my novel. It’s a completely original idea. It’s about this English professor named Mitt Sorem, see? He’s 53 years old and irresistible to women. So he has this student who’s 19, she’s got a lot of piercings and wears leather and has a tattoo of a phoenix on her back. They have wild sex and drink lots of coffee. And it turns out she’s a hacker, and she breaks into this computer network where the drug cartel is funneling money through a Swedish furniture store and there are also spies. They beat the cartel with hacking and martial arts and Mitt Sorem gets locked in a serial killer’s basement and the girl frees him by hitting the serial killer with a badminton racket.”

    “A badminton racket?”

    “I may have to think more about that one. But it’s great stuff, it’ll sell mill…”

    And you’re writing this story on a UTA laptop, Tim, which means that it’s an invention and/or concept which belongs to the State of Texas. If it gets stolen by an unscrupulous literary agent, we would not only lose our investment in your intellectual labor, but you yourself would have to reimburse the university for foregone revenue.”

    I grabbed my laptop and threw it out the window.

    “I told you not to disconnect the machine!” screamed Ken.

    “That’s fine, I’ll do without a laptop,” I said. “You’ve convinced me, the risks are just too great.”

    “But you still have the idea for the novel in your head, right?” said Ken.

    “Of course.”

    “Come over here,” said Ken. He inserted a USB drive into my ear. “Hold still for the next 36 hours. We’re going to have to encrypt your brain.”

    Published in:Tim Morris |on September 13th, 2012 |4 Comments »

    The Flow of Research

    The phone rings again, and for the second time this month, it’s my old mentor Lars Abraham, Professor of English Semi-Emeritus, calling from his office at Seattle State.

    “Lars!” I said. “Twice in a row! How are things at Seattle State?”

    “Not so good,” said Lars. Five seconds pass.

    “Do you want to elaborate?”

    “I am going to teach more next fall, Tim – more classes, same pay. But it is my choice.”

    “That’s awful, Lars. I can’t imagine teaching any more than you absolutely have to.”

    “Now you sound like a Dean,” said Lars. “But are you at all interested in my thought process?”

    “Let ‘er rip,” I said.

    “It happened like this. For years I have been teaching three courses in the Fall and two in the Spring. You know that I have a certain standing in my field.”

    Do I ever. Lars Abraham is author of A Pop’rin Pear: Fruit and Sexuality in Shakespeare (1969), Hot i’th’ Mouth: Symbolic Spiciness in Shakespeare (1978), and Vile Jelly: Shakespeare’s Tragic Desserts (1984).

    “Now Seattle State is moving to a differential-teaching-load policy,” said Lars. “They tell us that a 3/2 teaching load has actually been a ‘reduction’ all these years. We have to start proving that we deserve a reduction down to the 60-hour weeks we work now.”

    “Yes, we have that at UTA, too!” I said. “It’s the best way to ensure that research-active faculty can concentrate on production, while others pursue their first love, teaching.”

    “So I understand,” said Lars. “Clearly no one can do both. That is sarcasm, in case your detectors are off, Tim. In any case, to stay on my 3/2 teaching load, I must produce peer-reviewed research at the rate of one major project, two minor projects, or four mini-projects in each four-year span.”

    “That’s great,” I said. “Tier One Universities need a constant flow of research productivity from their core faculty.”

    “A constant flow of something, at any rate,” said Lars. “But I told them no: let me teach 4/3 and the research, forget about it.”

    “But I don’t understand, Lars,” I said. “You are still producing a steady flow. Work is streaming out of you like soft-serve fro-yo. Why, just next month, you’re fixing to present your new conference paper “‘The Wild Thyme Blows’: Inferior-Quality Herbs in Shakespeare’s Festive Comedies.”

    “Wait a minute, all this talk of flow makes me want to visit the little boys’ room.” Five minutes later, Lars picked up the phone again.

    “Tim, are you there?”

    “Hanging on the telephone, Lars.”

    “As I was saying, I am not going to take the ‘research reduction,’ though why they call it that since it is the same teaching load I have had for 16 years, I do not know. And hear me out, Tim. Why do people work in the humanities, do you suppose?”

    “It’s to generate citations! When we produce peer-reviewed results that get cited in our peers’ peer-reviewed results, we’re giving the university bang for its research buck!”

    “Your head, I should bang against a drawer, Tim. That is the phoniest nonsense I have heard lately, and I have been reading memos from the Provost’s office all week. Tim, the reason that people do research in the humanities – and not just ‘research,’ as if that were the only thing that matters, but bibliography, criticism, creative writing, book reviewing, even just plain reading and learning – is to establish their ethos as intellectuals. We cultivate our brains, Tim – those of us that have brains, which I am not sure of in your case – so that we can become better teachers and so that the traditions of learning that make life worth living can survive.”

    Oh, great, I thought. There’s nothing like an old liberal turned reactionary humanist. “So why not just do more research and get the lower teaching load?” I asked.

    “Because they will make me show my work. Every year I have to report on my plans and goals, and I have to maintain a rate of flow that … excuse me again … [flushing] … that justifies my research-active course reduction.”

    “And quite right, too, Lars! The state of Washington wants to know that it’s getting steady flow from its taps of research.”

    “If you mention flow one more time I will fly to Texas and pee on your shoes.”

    “Lars, is this one of these ‘Do you know who I am?’ snits that you senior tenured dilettantes like to engage in?”

    “Call it vanity if you will, Tim. I have nothing to prove to anybody. What I do not have to do is to submit my homework to the Assistant Dean for Research Quantification. I am a rather elderly man, as Melville would say.”

    “Who?”

    “Shut up and listen, Tim. I am a very foolish fond old man, and I have worked hard all my life to prove that I know something about literature and language. I do not have to publish an article every four years to prove that I have brains. I have been publishing articles since before there was a Designated Hitter. I have edited a journal, I have read hundreds of manuscripts for journals and unversity presses, I have been on ten dozen thesis committees. Tim, I am peer review. So perhaps I want to learn Estonian next year. Perhaps I want to write my memoirs. Perhaps I want to re-read Henry James. Being pressured to publish some article in some journal is not going to make me a smarter person. And what if I bow to that pressure and my articles are rejected? Then I have experienced all kinds of tsuris and will still be put on a higher teaching load. It is not good for my ulcer.”

    “I don’t know, Lars. If Seattle State wants to reach Tier One, then they need to undam their research fl… I mean, they need to ramp up faculty productivity. And if you’re not producing peer-reviewed results, how do I know you’re current in your field?”

    “What, have I exhibited second childishness and mere oblivion in this conversation? Tim, I am older than soil, but I am still in my perfect mind. And English Literature is not computer science, nor is it this popular music you children listen to, with some new MTV thing every week. Hamlet is still Hamlet, Tim. And from Hamlet, I know.”

    “Well, have it your way, Lars.”

    “My way is about the only thing I have left.”

    Published in:Tim Morris |on June 11th, 2012 |No Comments »

    The University as Crunchyco

    So the phone rings, and it’s my mentor and old friend Lars Abraham, eightysomething Professor of English Semi-Emeritus at Seattle State University.

    “Lars!” I said, feeling bad for not having called him since the late 20th century. “How are you doing? How’s everything at Seattle State these days?”

    “Not so good,” said Lars. “Budget cuts . . . you know, state support for state universities is down everywhere.”

    [Lars didn't actually link to that story as he was talking to me. But I could hear it in his tone of voice.]

    “That’s no problem at UTA,” I said, “we’re Mavericks. We’re an emerging Tier One institution.”

    “We are trying for Tier One, also, but right now we are more like Tier Three-and-a-Half,” said Lars. “Really, ’state’ schools have just become private universities with better parking. We got an e-mail from our Provost saying that the English Department must find some private funding, or we will lose our graduate program and our major, and we will all be reduced to teaching five sections of grammar and composition to freshmen, in which briar patch I was born, so it affrights not me.”

    “Well, you’ve got to get your brand out there, Lars. Like UTA: our brand is UNBRANDED™. Get it? Our identity is that we can’t be pinned down to an identity. That way, everyone knows exactly what to expect from us: the unexpected.”

    “Such postmodernism makes my head spin.”

    “Lars, you see, you’ve got to re-invent English so that you tap into the market. Serve the new generation of tech-savvy visual and virtual learners! Majors will flock to the English department once they see how the communications skills we teach will make them desirable to corporations.”

    “Tim,” growled Lars, “businesses will keep hiring business majors even if English majors learn to stand on their heads and Twitter out of their tuchus.”

    “But, Lars –”

    “And for another thing, I am too old to re-invent English. Do we need more vowels? Am I supposed to add a fifteenth line to the sonnet? English is what it is, as you infants say.”

    “OK, keep teaching sonnets, Lars. But you have to admit, you need to sell sonnets to the discerning student consumer. Studying literature teaches you to learn how to learn, an essential skill for earning a living in today’s business world!”

    “Literature has nothing to do with earning a living. Literature is what makes living worth living. Though with my prostate, I sometimes have doubts.”

    “Well, maybe your administration can raise some money for the humanities.”

    “No, they are leaving it up to the departments to come up with marketing schemes. Universities are like junk-food companies anymore, Tim. Did I tell you about my nephew Sven, who used to work for Crunchyco? They would pit one division against another. Pretzels would fight popcorn for market share. They were told to ‘cannibalize’ the other units’ sales. The suits would go to Sven and say, ‘Sven, potato chips are a drug in the market. If you don’t turn your department around, we’re going to sell you to Frito-Lay.’ That is what liberal-arts departments are told now, Tim.”

    “I’m glad UTA isn’t like that. It does sound bad.”

    “It is worse than it sounds. At least Sven is an MBA, a smart man, my nephew. He knew how to sell potato chips. What our administration is doing is like going down to the floor of the potato-chip plant and saying to the line workers ‘Your chips stink on ice! Design a better chip or you’re all out of a job! And don’t slow down the line, either – in fact, work longer shifts while you’re coming up with these new products!’”

    “But Lars, education really is like marketing. You have to respond to student demand.”

    “Responding to demand is all well and good when we are talking about potato chips. Tim, think of this: if snack foods fight it out for shelf space, what happens to kale and broccoli and cauliflower?”

    “Nobody wants cauliflower, Lars. Bye, bye, cauliflower!”

    “And if departments at a university cannibalize one another for students, what happens to languages and anthropology and philosophy?”

    “Bye, bye – no, wait, I don’t like the way this argument is going.”

    “Tim, a university is not a buffet. At some point, someone has to take the lead and insist that students get good nutrition. And if that means subsidizing cauliflower with the profits from cookies, then so be it.”

    “So you’re saying that central administration needs to attract outside funding, take overhead from those grants and gifts, and apply it strategically to strengthen liberal-arts education.”

    “Outside funding, now that you mention it, they have attracted a lot. Private money is pouring in. And for what? They have built a basketball stadium with it.”

    “March Madness! Go, SSU! Nothing builds a brand like getting that 65th play-in spot. Bracketology!”

    “Tim, you are a nincompoop. Seattle State finished eighth in the Puget Sound Conference last year. They cannot give away tickets. Last winter the cheerleaders outnumbered the fans. Everybody who went to the games got a personal assistant coach to sit beside them and explain the Xs and Os. Which I am happy to say I never will understand. Too much running in basketball. Too much waving your hands in the other man’s face. Give me baseball any day.”

    I remembered that Lars loves baseball.

    “So, how are the Mariners doing?” I asked.

    “Not so good.”

    Published in:Tim Morris |on June 4th, 2012 |3 Comments »