Are Scholarly Conferences Accessible to Non-Academic Employers?

Conference

Ben Dumbauld, director of content at the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, does not think so.  I think his recent piece at The Chronicle of the Higher Education is worth considering.  Here is a taste:

I work for a nonprofit organization that produces curricular materials for K-12 teachers. I started there as a writer shortly before completing my dissertation and stayed on while I applied for faculty positions. In contrast with the quickly diminishing returns from my academic search, I flourished in my nonprofit job. I became a lead editor, and we soon determined that we needed to hire additional writers. We were looking for candidates who excelled at research skills, who could self-manage, and most important, who had the ability to see the academic potential of popular music and culture.

In other words, we wanted someone with graduate-level training in the humanities. I was certain that a scholarly conference would be a good place to look.

Doubt began creeping in, however, soon after the conference schedule was posted online. Scanning panel after panel of immensely specific, jargon-filled paper presentations, it suddenly dawned on me: I had no way to gauge where to begin looking for Ph.D.s who might fit our organization. In imagining my ideal candidate, I’d omitted a crucial quality: We needed someone who could translate research for a wide range of readers — and not just their fellow academics — in understandable and engaging ways.

Scholars are quite capable of doing that; they are teachers, after all. But reading the meeting’s agenda, I realized — embarrassingly, for the first time — that the quality we most needed was not one regularly prioritized at scholarly conferences.

It was too late to back out now. I had already bought my plane tickets and registered for the conference. So I packed my bags and highlighted the relatively few panels that focused on professional development and teaching, figuring that they would be the best places to find people curious about careers outside of academe.

Read the entire piece here.

A Historian Writes a Savage Obituary for Another Historian

Evans

Richard J. Evans authored Norman Stone’s obituary

Historian Norman Stone died on June 19, 2019.

Apparently, obituary-writer and fellow historian Richard J. Evans was no fan of Stone.  Here are few excerpts from Evans’s obituary in The Guardian:

The obit begins:

One of the specialities of the historian Norman Stone, who has died aged 78, was character assassination. As a judge of the Fraenkel prize in contemporary history some years ago, he told the astonished members of the jury that they should not award the prize to a historian of Germany whose politics he disliked because she was an East German agent – an allegation that was enough to rule her out of contention even though it was absolutely baseless and undoubtedly defamatory.

Shortly after the death in 1982 of his patron and mentor in Cambridge, EH Carr, the author of a multivolume History of Soviet Russia and influential works on historiography and international relations, Stone published a lengthy assault on his reputation, which included lurid details of his three marriages. When a colleague criticised this “outrageous” diatribe to his face, telling him that Carr “always said you were amoral”, Stone responded: “And he always said you were a bore” (probably an invention, though one cannot know for sure).

At a time when malice and rudeness were highly prized by some rightwing Cambridge dons, Stone outdid them all in the abuse he hurled at anyone he disapproved of, including feminists (“rancid”), Oxford dons (“a dreadful collection of deadbeats, dead wood and has-beens”), students (“smelly and inattentive”), David Cameron and John Major (“transitional nobodies”), Edward Heath (“a flabby-faced coward”) and many more.

And there is this:

During his researches in Vienna, he had met Nicole Aubrey, the niece of the brutal and corrupt Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s finance minister: they married in 1966 and had two sons. By the time The Eastern Front was published, the marriage was breaking down, and they divorced in 1977.

The resulting financial strain led him to start writing quick potboilers, beginning with a short life of Hitler (1980), a superficial and poorly researched work justly savaged by reviewers, notably Tim Mason, whose exposure of its weaknesses upset Stone considerably despite his own record of rubbishing other historians’ achievements.

There followed Europe Transformed 1878-1919 (1983), a short volume in the Fontana History of Europe, one of the weakest in an uneven series. His second marriage, to Christine Booker (nee Verity), came in 1982. They had a son, and she died in 2016.

As a teacher Stone could be inspiring, often winning over his pupils with his charm, which on occasion could be quite considerable, but he became increasingly undisciplined, neglecting his duties, and spending increasing amounts of time playing poker and drinking himself into oblivion in Soho.

I am not familiar with the academic politics in England, nor do I know anything about German historiography.  Perhaps someone can explain what is going on here.

HT: Rob Townsend via Twitter.

Tweet of the Day

I need to work on this.

I would add one more to Tommy’s list:

“Am I asking this question to show how smart I am?”  If I am, I can almost guarantee that few in the room will be impressed.

Exiles from Eden

chapelinterior

The Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University

Due to a few things going on in my life right now, I have been thinking again about Mark Schwehn‘s book Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.  This book has been very influential in the way I have understood my academic life.  I return to it often.

When I read the preface of Exiles from Eden in 1999 I was hooked.  Here is Schwehn:

On a spring evening in 1982, I sat in a circle of my colleagues from the University of Chicago and from other institutions of higher learning in the Chicago area.  We were meeting together  as the Chicago Group on the History of the Social Sciences, convened by Professor George Stocking of the Anthropology Department.  We had all read a paper prepared by one of the members of the group, and roughly eight of the twelve or so of us had arrived to discuss it.  The paper, like most of those presented to the group, examined some aspect of the professionalization of the social sciences.  I remember little else about the setting that evening, except that I was was sitting directly to the right of Professor Stocking.

While we were waiting for the remainder of the expected participants  to straggle into our midst, someone (I think it was Peter Novick, but I cannot be sure) made the following proposal: “We’ve just recently filed our income tax forms; let’s move around the circle from left to right and indicate what each of us wrote under the heading ‘occupation'”  This simple exercise was thought to have potentially profound and self-revealing implications.  And so it proved.

The first person spoke up at once with a kind of brisk confidence.  “Sociologists,” he said.  And so it continued–“anthropologist,” “historian,” “psychologist,” “historian.”  At about this point (though I have sometimes been slow to catch the drift of things, I did discern this time a clear pattern emerging), I began to  wonder whether or not I had the courage to be honest in the company of so many of my senior colleagues.

Though trained as an intellectual historian, I had never once thought to put such a designation down under “occupation” on my tax form.  When I finally spoke up, I admitted (it certainly felt like an admission) that I had written “college teacher” under the relevant heading.  This disclosure was greeted with what I can only describe (thought it was doubtless a projection even then) as a combination of mild alarm and studied astonishment.  I felt as thought I had suddenly become, however briefly, an informant from another culture.exiles

The present book accordingly begins by unpacking one commonplace of academic life–the mysterious  complaint, “I don’t have enough time to do my own work“–and by engaging one of the most closely argued and most culturally influential accounts of the academic calling ever written, Max Weber “Academics as a Vocation.”  My study of Weber’s account of the academic calling led me to investigate  the larger subject of this book, the relationship between religion and higher education.  The logic of the problem of vocation impelled me in this direction, because Weber, in the course of his statement of the academic calling, self-consciously transmuted a number of terms and ideas that were religion in origin and implication.  Even so, my interest in the relationship  between religion and higher learning was and remains really more of a chronological matter than a strictly logical one.  Indeed, the title of this book Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America, is, as they say, another story.

Later in 1982 I resigned my position at the University of Chicago, after eight years of teaching there, and I accepted an appointment in the honors college of Valparaiso University.  I did this for several reasons, but perhaps the main one of them was that I found that I could pursue my own sense of the academic vocation more fully and responsibly at Valparaiso than I could at Chicago.  Valparaiso is a church-related university, and Chicago is not.  Valparaiso therefore strives to keep certain questions alive, such as questions about the relationship between religious faith and the pursuit of truth, that were then and still are close to the center of my understanding of the meaning of academic life.  In brief, I sought to think through the problem of the academic vocation in part by living through it. 

This story is the stuff of legend at Valparaiso University and, more specifically, in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts housed on its campus.  Schwehn, whose 1978 Stanford dissertation on Henry Adams and William James won the Allen Nevins Prize, spent the rest of his career at Valparaiso and Exiles from Eden became the unofficial mission statement of the Lilly Fellows Program.

The questions Schwehn raised in this book are still alive and continue to shape the careers of young scholars in the humanities and the arts.  Seventeen years after my  Valparaiso sojourn (2000-2002), I continue to try to think through academic vocation “in part by living through it.”

What Makes Your Book Valuable?

Fea books

How do authors measure the success of their books?  Rachel Toor asks this question in a very interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?

“Getting it out there in the world” is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.

It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.

Read the entire piece here.

So how do I measure the success of my books?  It depends on the book:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home:   I wrote this to establish myself as an early American historian.  I thus published it with a respectable university press. I hope it makes some small contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment in America.  In that sense, I think it has been a success.  But, much to my surprise, the story of Philip Vickers Fithian seems to captivate people.  Dozens of people tell me that they cried at the end of the book.  K-12 teachers have pushed me to write a grade-school edition of Fithian’s life.  So, in this case, the book has been successful for reasons I did not expect when I wrote it.

Confessing History:  I edited this book with close friends Jay Green and Eric Miller.  The fact that we were able to work on this book together makes it a success in my mind.  But I also hope the book has established me as a scholar writing out of a particular tradition.  In this sense, it has been successful.  I think we are asking our readers–Christian undergraduates and graduate students, Christian faculty members, and students of historiography–to join us in a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and the historian’s vocation.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:  This book was written for a popular audience. I think it has been successful for two reasons.  First, it has brought historical thinking to a much-politicized debate on American identity.  Second, it has provided college professors who are interested in this debate with a text to assign to their students.

Why Study History?  I measure the success of this book by how often it is assigned in history survey courses, introduction to history courses, and historiography or methods courses.  I am encouraged by how many college and high school history departments are using it.

The Bible Cause:   In terms of sales, this has been my most unsuccessful book. Institutional histories are tough to sell.  The value of the book is its modest contribution to American religious history.  It will sit on library shelves and I hope it will be consulted whenever a scholar’s work intersects with the history of the Bible in America.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:  This book will be successful if it: 1). Gets my fellow evangelicals to think differently about their support for Donald Trump.  2). Helps anti-Trump evangelicals to dialogue with their pro-Trump friends.  3).  Helps the larger community of scholars, journalists, politicos, and pundits understand why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.   So far I think the book has been successful on points 2 and 3.  Has it been successful as it relates to point 1?  Only time will tell.

Darryl Hart Weighs-In on the Thomas Kidd-Jonathan Merritt Debate

Liberty U

In case you haven’t heard, Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd and journalist Jonathan Merritt had a debate.  Read all about it here.  And now Darryl Hart has commented on it.

As is usually the case, Darryl manages to throw everyone under the bus in one way or another, but the crux of his piece is a criticism of Merritt.  Here is a taste:

Where does this leave us? More people read Jonathan Merritt than Tommie Kidd and more editors and journalists read Merritt than Kidd, and this despite the fact that Kidd is one of the most productive evangelical historians who writes for first rate university and trade presses. What impresses Americans, despite our high rates of college education, is a presence in the media (from podcasts and cable news to Twitter). And yet, if Jonathan Merritt hadn’t had a father who went to seminary to study with professors who read some of Kidd’s book, and if Merritt himself had not gone to a college that only hires and grants tenure to professors with Kidd’s kind of accomplishments, he wouldn’t have a job as a writer.

At some point, journalists might want to pay it backward a little to the teachers who educated them (even indirectly).

Read the entire post at Hart’s Patheos blog.   The only real issue I have with the excerpt above is this line: “if Merritt himself had not gone to a college that only hires and grants tenure to professors with Kidd’s kind of accomplishments…”  Actually, Merritt is a 2004 graduate of Liberty University.  As far as I know Liberty does not have any historians of Kidd’s caliber (it is primarily a teaching university and most faculty don’t publish books with Yale, Princeton, Oxford, and Basic) and the college does not grant tenure.

The President of the Master’s University and Seminary Speaks About His Poor Accreditation Report

Master's

Earlier today I called your attention to a Chronicle of Higher Education piece on the WASC Senior College and University Commission accreditation report on The Master’s College and Seminary, an evangelical institution run by megachurch pastor John MacArthur.  Read it here.

After a three-day study of MacArthur’s school, the reviewers hired by the accrediting agency concluded that Master’s has “a pervasive climate of fear, intimidation, bullying and uncertainty.”  Their report noted that “reports of lack of leadership ethics and accountability” were “unmatched for members of this review team.”

MacArthur responded to this negative report in an August 2018 speech to the students enrolled in the Master’s Seminary.  The Chronicle of Higher Education obtained a copy of the speech. (It is currently behind the paywall).  Here are some of themes:

  • He tells first-year students that they have arrived at The Master’s Seminary at the “best time ever.”
  • MacArthur calls this an “apostolic moment” for him and compares himself to the Apostle Paul.  He tells the student body that the attacks on him and his ministry (and by implication his university and seminary) are similar to the kind of attacks that these future ministers will face in their churches and ministries one day.
  • He takes a shot at Fuller Theological Seminary for not upholding a belief in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.  (Read about this history here).  I am not sure why this is important in this context, but he takes the shot nonetheless.
  • MacArthur says that the chair of the accreditation review committee told him a week before the team’s visit that he expected everything would go well.
  • After the visit, the chair of the committee came into MacArthur’s office and told him, “you are under attack.”
  • When the report said that Master’s had a climate of bullying, intimidation, and fear, MacArthur said he was “puzzled” by this.
  • The attacks, MacArthur claimed, were “on me personally, not the seminary.”
  • MacArthur claims that the attacks came from people “outside the university and seminary” who the committee spoke with during their study of the campus.
  • MacArthur implies that some of the people from outside the university and seminary who spoke negatively about him to the accreditation committee were former disgruntled employees.  (He also seems to say that there are disgruntled current employees as well, but I can’t make out that part of the recording).
  • There was much in the accreditation report that was untruthful and “completely unrelated to reality.”
  • MacArthur said the Master’s University and Seminary has responded to the negative assessment with a “full report.”  The accrediting agency eventually “praised” this report.  MacArthur is confident that Master’s will not lose their accreditation.
  • He compares disgruntled employees at Master’s to NFL players kneeling before the National Anthem.  Both, he says, are disrespecting their employers.
  • MacArthur says that the college needs to do more “spiritual shepherding” to get disgruntled employees in line.
  • MacArthur alludes to the possibility of a “coup” going on at Master’s.  It is led by people “with ambition.”
  • MacArthur then moves into his ongoing critique of “social justice.”
  • MacArthur does not believe that WASC is “adversarial” to Master’s.  The review committee just responded to the things they were told during their visit to campus.  MacArthur believes these things were untrue.

What is Going on at The Master’s University and Seminary?

MacArthur

John MacArthur, president of The Master’s University and Seminary

The Chronicle of Higher Education is calling the WASC Senior College and University Commission’s report on The Masters University and Seminary, a conservative evangelical Christian institution in Santa Clarita, California, “one of the most scathing accreditation reports in recent memory.”  As some of you know, the founder and president of the school is evangelical clergyman John MacArthur.  Here is a taste of the piece at The Chronicle:

Over the summer, students at Master’s University and Seminary found out their institution had been placed on probation by its accreditor. To quell the controversy, the college’s president did what he does best. He preached to them.

During an hourlong address, the Rev. John F. MacArthur warned seminarians that the accreditor’s action was the result of an attack “orchestrated, if not by any humans, by Satan himself.” The Chronicle has obtained a recording of the speech, which was delivered in late August.

MacArthur downplayed accreditors’ concerns and alluded to unnamed enemies who coveted his authority. “If somebody wants your position, somebody wants to make the decisions that you’re making, it’s not the ground troops that start those things,” he said. “It’s people with ambition.”

As he spoke, he railed against social justice and compared those who complained about the university to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. And he told students that the accreditor, the WASC Senior College and University Commission, didn’t understand places like Master’s.

Plenty of small private colleges have religious affiliations, usually through a Christian denomination. Those colleges can present a particular challenge for accrediting agencies, which must apply a broad set of secular standards to the institutions while respecting their religious missions. That challenge is raised to a whole new level at Master’s. The college is linked to a single, independent church and its pastor, MacArthur, whose strong personality and influence have benefited the college — but have now put it at risk.

In a report to the accrediting agency, a group of reviewers acknowledged that Master’s is doing some important things right. Under MacArthur, they said, the institution has engendered deep loyalty from faculty, students, and donors. At the same time, the report depicted Master’s as an accreditor’s nightmare: an insular and oppressive institution where loyalty to the president and his church has sometimes trumped both academic and financial concerns.

Officials at the accrediting agency declined to comment. But using the kind of blunt language rarely found in an accreditation report, the reviewers wrote that Master’s has “a pervasive climate of fear, intimidation, bullying and uncertainty.”

“The related reports of lack of leadership ethics and accountability that emerged was unmatched for members of this review team,” the report said. “It seems this has been part of the operation for so long that it is practiced without question.”

Master’s is unlikely to lose its accreditation, which it must maintain to be eligible for federal financial aid dollars. Very few colleges do. But the situation is an uncommonly acute test for both the accreditor and the college. How far can the accreditor push a singular college to change to meet its standards? And how much will that college be willing to change?

Read the entire piece here.

Do Students Give Better Evaluations to Faculty Who Grade More Generously?

College-classroom

Nancy Bunge thinks so:

Research on student evaluations of teaching suggests that the gender and age bias most colleges pride themselves on avoiding contaminate those evaluations, along with other nonacademic factors — like “sexiness.” Since many institutions of higher learning use these surveys to determine whether faculty keep their jobs or get raises, their unreliability matters. But the impact these student reviews have on the quality of education raises even more troubling issues: Students give better evaluations to people who grade them more generously.

Instructors who figure this out could give higher grades to secure tenure or a bigger raise. Grade inflation offers persuasive evidence that some faculty members have succumbed to this temptation. In other words, standards decline, so students learn less as the cost of their education rises. Ironically, this happens because students are now considered customers, so colleges want to keep them happy.

Read the rest at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

Should a Premillennial Dispensational View of the Bible Disqualify a Person from a Teaching Job at a University?

Ribuffo

Leo Ribuffo, RIP

I was sad to hear of the death of Leo Ribuffo.  In 1991 or 1992 I wrote him a letter to ask him he was taking graduate students at George Washington University.  He never wrote me back, but I was accepted to the Ph.D program at George Washington University and, if I remember correctly, Ribuffo was assigned as my adviser.  Unfortunately, the offer did not come with any funding.  I turned it down, accepted an offer with funding from SUNY-Stony Brook, and began my training as an early American historian.

I first learned about Ribuffo’s work when I was writing my M.A. thesis on separatist fundamentalism.  I devoured his Merle Curti Prize-winning book The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War.  I loved his  Journal of American History review essay “God and Contemporary Politics” and his 1994 American Historical Review piece “Why Is There So Much Conservatism in the United States and Why Do So Few Historians Know Anything About it?”  Ribuffo seemed to understand things about the evangelical experience in recent America that other historians at that time did not.

Over at his Patheos blog, Darryl Hart writes:

I will miss, in particular, Leo’s uncanny ability to capture the oddity of aspects of American religion and politics that we generally take for granted. One example comes from a review he wrote of George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and the difficult questions that surround discerning secular prejudice against religion along with what counts as normal in secular scholarship:

Suppose that a candidate for a professorship in European diplomatic history volunteers that he is a “fairly traditional Protestant of the Reformed theological heritage,” as Marsden describes himself (p. 7). That phrase is sufficiently vague to cover not only Marsden, but also the Niebuhrian Baptist Jimmy Carter, the fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, and the Pentecostal Pat Robertson. Could prospective employers probe further without violating federal law? If so, they might want to know whether “traditional Protestantism” in this instance includes the theory of premillennial dispensationalism, and specifically, whether the job applicant agrees with many other dispensationalists that the Common Market was predicted in the Bible and now signals the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Do affirmative answers automatically bar the candidate from further consideration?

This is not a rhetorical question. The premillennialist job seeker might also be the foremost expert on the economics of the Common Market and a great teacher willing to entertain secular perspectives in the classroom. My own view is that a dispensationalist reading of the Bible, which resembles deconstructionist literary criticism rather than private revelation, should not automatically disqualify a job candidate. After all, I coexist in the academy with men and women whose methodological premises I dispute, including economists who reduce human motives to rational expectations, political scientists who formulate grand theories of the presidency without examining the private papers of any president, and cultural critics who think Jean Baudrillard understands the United States better than C. Wright Mills. And recent American intellectual life would have been poorer without the Hegelian social critic Herbert Marcuse and the Freudian metahistorian Norman 0. Brown, both of whom teetered on the verge of supernaturalism.Nonetheless, a dispensationalist diplomatic historian would be a tough sell in most history departments. Indeed, Marsden probably would be more wary of our hypothetical job seeker than I am. An evangelical Protestant himself, he has a vested interest in the right kind of theological conservative, and he clearly regards populist fundamentalists who indulge in Bible prophecy as the wrong kind. Whatever the outcome, the resulting department meeting would illustrate some of the prosaic, nonintellectual reasons why the acad- emy came to exclude normative religious teachings.

That is vintage Ribuffo — a lapsed Roman Catholic in background and a political liberal who knows more Protestant theology that many evangelicals and also understands that the theories that animate contemporary politics and scholarship are no less arcane (and contested) than the teachings found in the Scofield Reference Bible.

Read the entire piece here.  And yes, we have done two Darryl Hart posts in one day!  🙂

The Forgotten Virtue of Gratitude

Turkey Hill Road

I grew up in this North Jersey house.  My parents will move out today after 50 years

Our annual Thanksgiving tradition here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.   I wrote this Inside Higher Ed piece on gratitude in November 2008.  Hard to believe that was ten years ago. Today I republish it on the same day that my parents move out of the house in which they have lived for the past fifty years.  –JF

It was a typical 1970s weekday evening. The sky was growing dark and I, an elementary school student, was sitting at the kitchen table of a modest North Jersey cape cod putting the finishing touches on the day’s homework. The back door opened — a telltale sign that my father was home from work. As he did every day, Dad stopped in the laundry room to take off his muddied work boots. As usual, he was tired. He could have been covered with any number of substances, from dirt to paint to dried spackle. His hands were rough and gnarled. I kissed him hello, he went to the bathroom to “wash up,” and my family sat down to eat dinner.

I always knew how hard my father worked each day in his job as a general contractor. When I got older I spent summers working with him. I learned the virtues of this kind of working class life, but I also experienced the drudgery that came with laying concrete footings or loading a dumpster with refuse. I worked enough with my father to know that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. Though he never told me so, I am sure that Dad probably didn’t want that for me, either.

I eventually became only the second person in my extended family to receive a college degree. I went on to earn a Ph.D. (a “post-hole digger” to my relatives) in history and settled into an academic life. As I enter my post-tenure years, I am grateful for what I learned from my upbringing and for the academic vocation I now pursue. My gratitude inevitably stems from my life story. The lives that my parents and brothers (one is a general contractor and the other is a plumber) lead are daily reminders of my roots.

It is not easy being a college professor from a working-class family. Over the years I have had to explain the geographic mobility that comes with an academic life. I have had to invent creative ways to make my research understandable to aunts and uncles. My parents read my scholarly articles, but rarely finish them. My father is amazed that some semesters I go into the office only three days a week. As I write this I am coming off of my first sabbatical from teaching. My family never quite fathomed what I possibly did with so much time off. (My father made sense of it all by offering to help me remodel my home office, for which I am thankful!) “You have the life,” my brother tells me. How can I disagree with him?

Gratitude is a virtue that is hard to find in the modern academy, even at Thanksgiving time. In my field of American history, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to set the record straight, usually in op-ed pieces, about what really happened in autumn 1621. (I know because I have done it myself!). Granted, as public intellectuals we do have a responsibility to debunk the popular myths that often pass for history, but I wonder why we can’t also use the holiday, as contrived and invented and nostalgic and misunderstood as it is, to stop and be grateful for the academic lives we get to lead.

Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to do this. We get a Thursday off from work to take a few moments to reflect on our lives. And since so many academics despise the shopping orgy known as “Black Friday,” the day following Thanksgiving presents a wonderful opportunity to not only reject consumer self-gratification, but practice a virtue that requires us to forget ourselves.

I am not sure why we are such an unthankful bunch. When we stop and think about it we enjoy a very good life. I can reference the usual perks of the job — summer vacation, the freedom to make one’s own schedule, a relatively small amount of teaching (even those with the dreaded 4-4 load are in the classroom less than the normal high school teacher). Though we complain about students, we often fail to remember that our teaching, when we do it well, makes a contribution to society that usually extends far beyond the dozens of people who have read our recent monograph. And speaking of scholarship, academics get paid to spend a good portion of their time devoted to the world of ideas. No gnarled hands here.

Inside Higher Ed recently reported that seventy-eight percent of all American professors express “overall job satisfaction.” Yet we remain cranky. As Immanuel Kant put it, “ingratitude is the essence of vileness.” I cannot tell you how many times I have wandered into a colleague’s office to whine about all the work my college expects of me.

Most college and university professors live in a constant state of discontentment, looking for the fast track to a better job and making excuses as to why they have not landed one yet. Academia can be a cutthroat and shallow place to spend one’s life. We are too often judged by what is written on our conference name badges. We say things about people behind their backs that we would never say to their faces. We become masters of self-promotion. To exhibit gratefulness in this kind of a world is countercultural.

The practice of gratitude may not change our professional guilds, but it will certainly relieve us of our narcissism long enough to realize that all of us are dependent people. Our scholarship rests upon the work of those scholars that we hope to expand upon or dismantle. Our careers are made by the generosity of article and book referees, grant reviewers, search committees, and tenure committees. We can all name teachers and mentors who took the time to encourage us, offer advice, and write us letters. Gratitude may even do wonders for our mental health. Studies have shown that grateful people are usually less stressed, anxious, and depressed.

This Thanksgiving take some time to express gratitude. In a recent study the Harvard University sociologist Neil Gross concluded that more college and university professors believe in God than most academics ever realized. If this is true, then for some of us gratitude might come in the form of a prayer. For others it may be a handwritten note of appreciation to a senior scholar whom we normally contact only when we need a letter of recommendation. Or, as the semester closes, it might be a kind word to a student whose academic performance and earnest pursuit of the subject at hand has enriched our classroom or our intellectual life. Or perhaps a word of thanks to the secretary or assistant who makes our academic life a whole lot easier.

As the German theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, “gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”

 

Lepore: “Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass”

These TruthsEvan Goldstein of The Chronicle of Higher Education recently interviewed Jill Lepore about her new book, the academy, identity politics, and writing.

Here is a taste:

Q. How is the academy implicated in or imperiled by this moment of epistemological crisis?

A. The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

Q. The university has been convulsed by debates around identity politics. You point out that identity politics, by other names, has always played a role in American life.

A. It’s impossible to talk about without pissing off a whole bunch of people no matter what you say, which is a flag that something is terribly wrong about the framing of the conversation.

Making political claims that are based on identity is what white supremacy is. To the degree that we can find that in the early decades of the country, it’s the position taken by, say, John C. Calhoun or Stephen Douglas arguing against Abraham Lincoln. The whole Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 comes down to Douglas saying, Our forefathers founded this country for white men and their posterity forever. And Lincoln, following on the writings of black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and David Walker and Maria Stewart, says, No, that’s just not true! Lincoln read in the founding documents a universal claim of political equality and natural rights, the universality of the sovereignty of the people, not the particularity. Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass.

Q. You get asked about your productivity a lot. I gather it’s a question you don’t like.

A. I sometimes say to people — this is like a 1930s thing to say, you can picture Barbara Stanwyck saying it in a noir film — it’s like complimenting a girl on her personality. It’s not about “You do good work,” it’s about “You do a lot of work.”

For a lot of people writing is an agony; it’s a part of what we do as scholars that they least enjoy. For me writing is a complete and total joy, and if I’m not writing I’m miserable. I have always written a lot. For years, before I wrote for The New Yorker, I wrote an op-ed every day as practice and shoved it in a drawer. It’s not about being published, it’s about the desire to constantly be writing. It’s such a strongly felt need that if it was something socially maladaptive it would be considered a vice.

Read the entire interview here.

Is Academia a Cult?

 

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Andrew Marzoni thinks so.  He compares his experience in academia with his experience in a cultic religious community.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Washington Post:

Cults are systems of social control. They are insular but often evangelical organizations whose aims (be they money, power, sex or something else) are rooted in submission to a dogma manifested by an authority figure: a charismatic preacher or, say, a tenured professor. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is couched in unwavering commitment to a supposedly noble, transcendent cause. For the Living Word Fellowship, that meant “the Lordship of Jesus Christ”; for academia, “the production of knowledge.” In both cases, though, faith ultimately amounts to mastering the rules of the leaders, whose infallibility — whether by divine right or endowed chair — excuses all else.

Looking back, the evidence was everywhere: I’d seen needless tears in the eyes of classmates, harangued in office hours for having the gall to request a letter of recommendation from an adviser. Others’ lives were put on hold for months or sometimes years by dissertation committee members’ refusal to schedule an exam or respond to an email. I met the wives and girlfriends of senior faculty members, often former and sometimes current advisees, and heard rumors of famed scholars whisked abroad to sister institutions in the wake of grad student affairs gone awry. I’d first come in contact with such unchecked power dynamics as a child, in the context of church. In adulthood, as both a student and an employee of a university, I found myself subject to them once again.

One department chair, who had trained as a community organizer in the 1960s, threatened to use the Freedom of Information Act to read graduate students’ emails; she could have, too, since we were technically employees of the state. Elsewhere, a senior colleague propositioned my friend for a sex act I cannot name in this newspaper before the first semester at her new job had even begun; after she complained to her boss, she was removed from her position under other pretenses. I’ve seen grad students expected to put $16 whiskeys for their advisers on nearly maxed-out credit cards at the hotel bar of an academic conference. It’s not unusual for academic job seekers to spend 10 percent of their annual income — the amount of a tithe — attending a single conference for an interview (including airfare, lodging, registration fees and incidentals). A peer of mine was even directed by her adviser to write a doctoral dissertation renouncing the subject of her master’s thesis, a philosopher whose views do not align with the adviser’s own. It should come as no surprise that the professor who made that demand is a white male alumnus of the Ivy League, and the student an immigrant from a working-class background.

Read the rest here.

My only encounter with secular academia came during my doctoral work at a large state university in New York.  I can honestly say that I did not experience anything close to what Marzoni experienced.  Having said that, I do not want to discredit his piece.  I have heard these kinds of stories (at other institutions).  Like all professions, academia is filled with good people and jerks.

Frankly, when I read the title of Marzoni’s article–“Academia is a cult”–and read the first paragraph or two, I thought it was going in another direction.  While not all academic institutions and departments are alike, many of them may be described as “cult-like” in the sense that they allow for very little intellectual diversity.

A Different Kind of August

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On Saturday I cleaned the office.  It looks much better now than in this photo

I returned to the office today.  The summer seemed longer than usual.  This is probably because Messiah College starts classes a week later this year.  (The first day of class is next Tuesday).  It also seems longer because I am no longer chair of the Messiah College History Department.  Some of you may recall that I wrote a bit about this back in February.

For the last eight years, August was filled with anxiety and stress about the start of the new year.  Was I fair in the distribution of new advisees to the faculty?  Will everything go well with the opening ice-cream social and the department picnic?  What kind of new administrative paperwork will emerge after our first big department meeting?  And the list goes on.

When I posted about leaving the department chair back in February I wrote:

I am not sure what role I will play going forward at Messiah College.  At small colleges like Messiah, administration is really the only way to advance one’s career within the institution.  So I will return to life as an ordinary faculty member.  I will be in the classroom a bit more and will have more time for thinking about my teaching and writing.   We will see how it goes.

This year I plan to teach and serve the department and Messiah College the best I can.  I  will also be on the road a lot.  I hope to continue to say something to the larger culture and Christian community about evangelicals and Donald Trump.  I also hope to enjoy my daughter Caroline’s senior year before Joy and I head-off into the empty-nester stage of life.  In the Fall, I will be watching a lot of Calvin College volleyball.  And, at 52-years-old, I want to take stock of what the last pre-retirement chapter of my life might look like.

But right now, I need to finish a syllabus for “Colonial America” and my U.S. Survey to 1865 course.

Consider Placing This Language in Your Syllabus

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Source

Commitment to Viewpoint Diversity, Mutual Understanding, and Constructive Disagreement

In order to create a classroom environment that supports respectful, critical inquiry through the free exchange of ideas, the following principles will guide our work:

  • Treat every member of the class with respect, even if you disagree with their opinion;
  • Bring light, not heat;
  • Reasonable minds can differ on any number of perspectives, opinions, and conclusions;
  • Because constructive disagreement sharpens thinking, deepens understanding, and reveals novel insights, it is not just encouraged, it is expected;
  • All viewpoints are welcome;
  • No ideas are immune from scrutiny and debate;
  • You will not be graded on your opinions.

What do you think?

“Critical Thinking” and the University

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Over at his blog Blue Book Diaries, Jonathan Wilson reminds us that the teaching of “critical thinking” skills is not the primary purpose of a college education. (Neither is job training). Here is a taste of his piece “The Most Understood Purpose of Higher Ed.”

Let’s be realistic. Most of the time, in most institutions, both the notion that the academy is a free-for-all of critical thinking and the notion that it’s a re-education camp for the politically incorrect are myths. This is not to deny that ideological abuses of power do happen, nor that many students have rational awakenings in college, but neither is a realistic description of most people’s experiences in practice. And I don’t think they’re good descriptions of the academy’s behavior in theory either.

So what kind of thinking does the academy promote when it’s doing its job especially well? (For simplicity, let’s stick close to undergraduate applications.)

The key to provisional collective best thinking practices is that knowledge means something special to scholars, including successful college students. For scholarly purposes—and I believe this is true across disciplines—professional knowledge consists not simply of true beliefs, but of true beliefs reached in a valid way. And validity is judged not by the individual, but by a community of scholars in an ongoing conversation.

Here’s where things get truly scary: For rigorous scholarly purposes, knowledge includes in its implicit definition the possibility that it might ultimately be proven false. That’s the “ongoing conversation” part. The only thing that scholars, as such, know for sure (however certain they may feel) is that their knowledge hasn’t been discredited by valid scholarship yet.

Wilson argues that colleges and universities do not teach “that certain ideas are ‘true’ in an academic sense–as far as we know, according to the best available evidence so far–because we have worked them out in a collective process of examination.”  He adds,  “We teach truths that are provisional but have been reached through the collective best thinking.”

Amen.  This is a great argument for the communal nature of higher education.  Wilson concludes: “…the mark of truly well-educated (as opposed to well-trained or well-spoken) people is their grasp of the way knowledge is collectively created….”

Two quick responses from where I sit, as a history professor at a private liberal arts college:

First, this is yet another argument for why the liberal arts classroom must not be a place of indoctrination.  Our job is not to tell students what to believe, but to teach them how knowledge is created so that they can make their own decisions about what to believe.  This is something that those on the Left and the Right must understand, but in the context of academia it is something that is more pertinent to the Left.  The classroom is not a place for preaching.

Second, Wilson seems to be making an indirect argument for the disciplines.  Each liberal arts discipline offers a different way of examining the world and the human experience.  Each discipline provides a different set of skills and thinking habits for arriving at knowledge.  This is what makes me nervous about introducing “interdisciplinary” learning to college students so early in their college and university experience.  How does one learn to think in an “interdisciplinary” fashion without first learning the thinking skills and practices associated with the individual disciplines?

Gutting Academic Books

99bbc-academic2bbooksDouglas Hunter has published a really interesting piece at Slate about the practice, common among graduate students in history, of understanding the argument of a book without really reading it.  This process is often described as “gutting.”   Hunter explores the implications of this practice.  Here is a taste of “Book Breaking and Book Mending“:

I wonder how many books on reading lists are ever read in depth, for pleasure, by people who have to study them. I had several hundred books on my course lists. My dissertation’s bibliography ran to 37 manuscript pages. I can only name a handful of titles that I ever read enjoyably, cover to cover. There was no time to do so, and for seven years, first as a doctoral candidate and then as a postdoctoral fellow, I read almost nothing outside my studies for pleasure. The process very nearly killed my love of reading.

The consequences of academic books being fundamentally written not to be read in full, even by an academic audience, are troubling not only for academia but for society as a whole. Society suffers when the ideas of academics are trapped inside the feedback loop of academia; academia suffers because society considers its output irrelevant. In my own work, I have probed the history of theories on human migration and race. I have shown how archaeology, scientific racism, and American manifest destiny have had a horrendous impact on indigenous people, and how corrosive, racist ideas persist in pseudohistory. I think these are important subjects, and I hope that my academic colleagues pay attention to my work, but I am also persuaded that society would be a better place if more people understood, for example, why pseudohistorical notions that ancient white people colonized America before indigenous people are popular with white supremacists. This is true of other scholars as well; we’ve seen the damage done, for example, when researchers in climate science, women’s history, and African American studies can’t get their findings into the wider world. Many scholars have been trying, in every way possible, but academic books are still striving for general accessibility.

Read the entire piece here.

Historian Nathan Hatch is the Highest Paid College President in the U.S.

f53b9-hatchWhat can you do with a history major?  Earn $4 million a year as a college president.

Many readers of this blog know Nathan Hatch for his award-winning The Democratization of American Christianity.  But did you know that he was pulling in $4,004,617 as president of Wake Forest University? Wow!

Learn more here.

It’s also worth noting that Jerry Falwell Jr. makes $958,021 as president of Liberty University.

Good Advice: A Cover Letter is Not a Vita and a Vita is Not a Cover Letter

Curriculum vitae written on typewriter

Karen Kelsky explains at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Question: I’m preparing my job documents for the fall and looking for ways to economize. Can I just write a really short cover letter since all the information I would put in a letter is already on my CV? The cover letter feels redundant.

NO.

And the reason for that is — they are two different documents. They have different functions and are designed to help the search committee ascertain distinctly different things. Summer is a good time to go over the basics of both documents as candidates prepare for a new academic hiring season.

Read the rest here.

Princeton’s Robert George on Intellectual and Ideological Diversity in the Academy

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While I was visiting a big state university a couple of weeks ago I had a robust, spirited, and civil conversation with the history faculty about how to teach controversial or morally problematic issues.  Many of the history professors in the room said that they use their classrooms to advocate for certain political causes (all on the left) or see no problem giving their personal opinion about a particular issue or idea that arises from the study of the past.

I pushed back. I wondered whether the history classroom was primarily the place where such moral criticism should happen.  Those familiar with my Why Study History?: A Historical Introduction know that I think there is a difference between moral philosophy (ethics) and history.  Though I obviously have my opinions, and many of them are informed by my understanding of the past, I rarely bring those opinions into the classroom.  For example, the only time I talk about Donald Trump in my classroom is when he gets something wrong about history or uses the past irresponsibly to justify this or that policy.   I do the same thing with any public figure who manipulates the past for political gain.

In other words, my blog and other social media feeds are not the best representations of what my classroom looks like.

Robert George of Princeton University is very conservative.  I have seen him defending moral conservatism in public talks, in writing, and on social media.  But if I read his recent interview with Matthew Stein at The College Fix, I don’t think these conservative political and moral convictions dominate his classroom.  George has some very interesting things to say about intellectual and ideological diversity in the classroom. Here is a taste:

The College Fix: In your Open Minds Conference panel, you mentioned that you don’t think professors should “use their classrooms as a soapbox for advocacy,” and that you and professors like Cornel West make your classrooms as intellectually stimulating and valuable as possible by honestly portraying both sides of an argument. This seems to hit on a big issue with the universities today, as many professors of the “progressive orthodoxy” you later mentioned seem to use their positions to influence their students into becoming activists of related social causes. How do you think society can address this issue, particularly given the system of tenure and the sheer magnitude of the problem?

Robert George: Like most of the problems in academia—and society more broadly—today, what is needed above all is courage. We need the courage to speak the truth even when it is uncomfortable, and even when truth-speaking carries risks. Professors who seek to indoctrinate their students are betraying a sacred trust. They are supposed to be educators. If there is an antonym to “educating,” it’s “indoctrinating.” Professors (and other teachers) who engage in indoctrination need to be confronted. Certainly administrators need to do this. Fellow faculty members need to do it. And students themselves need to do it, too.

Is this risky, especially for students? You bet it is. But that’s where the virtue of courage comes in. All of us—including students—need to muster the courage to call out teachers who betray their sacred trust. In addition, professors who understand the importance of truly educating students, and who grasp the fundamental difference between education and indoctrination, need to set an excellent example for their colleagues—especially younger colleagues. Together, we can establish a milieu that powerfully discourages indoctrination.

CF: You also mentioned that you should create an atmosphere of “unsettling” each other in the classroom. Looking at the campus more generally, there are continually accounts of the opposite atmosphere in regards to discussing “unsettling ideas,” whether it be by an outside speaker being shut down or students on campus being afraid to express unpopular viewpoints. How can this negative general atmosphere on campus be improved to encourage students to act out the ideal intellectual atmosphere that you described?

RG: Again, courage is the key. Students must have the courage to express dissent—even if they are alone or in a small minority in the class in holding a particular view. And faculty members need to model courage for their students—and for their colleagues (especially younger colleagues). All of us must overcome the natural fear we feel in oppressive environments of the sort that too often exist today in college, high school, and even middle school classrooms. And when a dissenter does speak up in defiance of a campus dogma, all of us (and not only those who happen to share his or her dissenting opinion) need swiftly to provide that individual with support.

That is how we will establish an environment in which people are free—and feel and know they are free—to speak their minds, thus benefiting the entire community by contributing to robust, civil campus debates.

CF: Identity politics was one issue you touched on in the Q&A, which you said has a negative effect on both college campuses and society at large. Could you speak a little more on how identity politics and student groups organized around group identity has negatively affected the university? Are there any common issues of identity politics amongst the faculty? Has it had any effects on your or other professors’ ability to create the positive intellectual atmosphere you previously mentioned?

RG: Identity politics, and the dogmas of the phenomenon that has come to be known as “intersectionality,” harm learning environments by encouraging groupthink and stigmatizing dissent.

One especially regrettable consequence of the rise of identitarianism is the pressure placed on female and minority students to hold and express opinions that are in line with what women and members of minority groups are “supposed” to think. If you are female, you are “supposed” to hold a certain view on abortion and the status of unborn human life. If you are black, you are “supposed” to express a certain view on the desirability of affirmative action programs of certain sorts. If you are Latino, you are “supposed” to have a certain set of beliefs on immigration policy.

I find this reprehensible. People need to think for themselves. And they need to do that, and need to know that they are entitled to do that, whether they are male or female, black, white, green, blue, or purple.

 

Read the entire interview here.  He also has some interesting things to say about Liberty University.