Monday, May 11, 2015

The New York Times Confirms Academic Stereotypes: Two months of opinion essays on higher education.

Having encountered yet another elite R1 professor telling us what we, professors in general, are doing wrong, I thought I'd take a few moments and survey the NYT Opinion Page on Higher Education. I may write something longer and more formal on what I found.

I have to tell you that I'm angry, and I'm angry in an unproductive way, making it hard for me to hear people praising these essays without snapping at them rudely. I do not feel at all civil. I'll work on reclaiming my usual measured pace.

Over the past two months, there have been nine opinion essays published by the Times directly on Higher Ed that I've seen. A few Room for Debates have addressed higher-ed issues, and of course lots and lots of professors have written opinion essays during that time. I made a quick skim of two months of all the opinion essays with the word "professor" in them. I saw zero by community college or lower-status teaching school profs, zero by branch campus public profs, and a handful by top liberal arts schools (Smith, Dickinson) or lower-tier R1 publics (Colorado State, South Carolina). A friend (here's the tweet with the data, with permission) found about 300 mentions of community colleges to 12000 for just Harvard alone. It's a problem.

Here are the nine essays with a few links and comments. More to come on this I suspect. This is just our sample to consider.
  1. "What's the Point of a Professor" - Big Sunday OpEd In which Emory professor Mark Bauerlein blames kids these days and professors for having surrendered moral authority, and suggests things like harder grading and more intense meeting with each student on a regular basis. My critique - think about the way that 90% of all faculty and most students are so heavily pressured by outside forces. For more on Bauerlein, read this first.
  2. "The Big Problem with the New SAT" - By U-Cal President Emeritus and a Berkeley Researcher. "The revised SAT takes promising steps away from its provenance as a test of general ability or aptitude — a job it never did well — and toward a test of what students are expected to learn in school. But the College Board should abandon the design that holds it back from fulfilling that promise."
  3. "How To Attract Female Engineers." - By Berkeley "Innovation Director" - Lina Nilsson. "It shows that the key to increasing the number of female engineers may not just be mentorship programs or child care centers, although those are important. It may be about reframing the goals of engineering research and curriculums to be more relevant to societal needs. It is not just about gender equity — it is about doing better engineering for us all."
  4. "The Conference Manifesto." Princeton Professor Christy Wampole. I said a lot about it here. Big Sunday OpEd.
  5. "Philosophy Returns to the Real World." Dickinson College professor Crispin Saltwell. This is a major exception to the overall trend of what academics get to publish at NYT, whether about higher ed or not. "For me, a large part of the motivation was simply to find a way to keep on writing and doing philosophy. I ran out of interest in my own consciousness around 1990, but there’s no reason ever to run out of interest in the world. The intellectual generation that came after pomo had to find a way to keep going after the period after the end. The period after the period after the end is the popomo era. But the “post” was always itself a symptom of a sense of decline and ending, and I do hope and think that our period of inquiry doesn’t just come after something, but that it is itself something, and that it comes before something."
  6. "The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much." Paul Campos, professor at Colorado - Boulder. Here's a critique of why this was so wrong. He said it was administrative bloat. He's wrong, not that there aren't problems with staffing organization worth considering. Big Sunday OpEd.
Non-academics on Higher Ed
  1. Judith Shulevitz re-ignited the whole trigger warnings debate. Students, you are cowards, she says, in a piece full of scorn. Shulevitz  is not an academic, but is a well-known writer who frequently writes for the Times.
  2.  Joe Nocera gave Kevin Carey's The End of College a glowing write-up.
  3. And Nick Kristof said nice things about the humanities. He talked to one professor at Harvard. As a reminder, when he said, "Professors, we need you," he talked only to profs at Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.
Campos, Wampole, and Bauerlein stand out to me. Big Sunday pieces with huge flaws. Wampole and Bauerlein have a kind of ignorance, perhaps a performative one, in their pieces, of the world outside of their privileged bubble. Campos gets facts simply wrong.

Note that these three pieces confirm the worst stereotypes about students, professors, and administrators, all on the widely-read op-ed page of the paper of record.

New Mantra: If an Elite R1 prof wants to take to the NYT to tell other elite R1 profs that they should concentrate more on teaching, please proceed. If you feel like writing an essay that punches down at the rest of us in any way, or worst doesn't seem to recognize that the rest of us even exist, that there's any kind of academic experience outside your own, just keep it to yourself.