Monthly Archives: May 2012

ef-fron-ter-y

[ihfruhn-tuh-ree]
noun, plural ef-fron-ter-ies.

1.  shameless or impudent boldness; barefaced audacity: She had the effrontery to ask for two free samples.

2. an act or instance of this.

Origin:

1705-15; < French effronterie, equivalent to Old French esfront shameless (es-exfront brow; see front) + -erie -ery

Synonyms
1. impertinence, impudence, cheek.

* * *

Many of us will be familiar, and indeed may be mulling over this word or its comrade-in-arms synonyms during this hectic time of calculation and notation. This morning, I awoke to a cheeky communiqué from a student exemplifying the meaning of this word. I have decided to reproduce the thrust of the message without its form, much like a translation. It should not take me aback, as they say. But as the dictionary confirms, the absolute  barefaced audacity threw me through a loop.

Hello title, 

This morning I looked at my grades and I see that I have a grade in subject. As of today, my cumulative GPA is number-point-numbers. I want to be on the Generic Honor Group and I would need a higher-number-than-I-have. Can you raise my grade to include decimal point-difference-number? 

Sincerely, me. 
sent from my ipad.

* * *

Well shoot, I was really, really hoping that you were insincere on this one. In fact, I was banking that you were facetious. I confess. I blinked a few times. I pet the cat. I went back to the kitchen to pour some coffee. Clearly, I was not expecting this. But, what was it precisely that I was not expecting? I’d like to think that I am not a rube. Students will always try to negotiate their grades – I don’t see this changing in the future, ever. Still…something about this message struck me. This message was different than the other messages I have received over the years.  What was it that marked this message as not belonging to the group? Ah, well, that would be the effrontery.  I would say most students have some sense of propriety, even if they often seem audacious by our standards. Usually, there is a negotiation involved in grade lamentation, non?  Something to the effect of:

Dear Herr God Doctor Professor, I saw my grade and I [woe-inspired appeal to your pity]. Is there any way I can [random request to produce more work after the semester ends] so that you can [give me an unfair advantage over my cohorts]?  [Shameless, desperate closing].  

I’m used to this type of request – I think it is safe to say we’re all used to this type of request. And, of course, circumstances mitigate our responses. Was there a traumatic event we’re aware of? Does this student deserve the benefit of the doubt? Sometimes, the answer is yes and we arrange for something, change the grading scale, remove assignments, add assignments. This is usually to keep the student from failing when life got in the way but they really did do their best to overcome it.

This instance is akin to elective surgery; to vanity purchases. This isn’t a matter of life or death, that is, of failing. This is an appeal to make one’s self look better. I was honestly embarrassed when reading. Not because a student shamelessly begged (though, there was no actual begging here, hence the label of effrontery). But because it was a baldfaced request to give me what I want.

No justification. No reasoning. No offering. Simply, give me what I want.

What disturbs me most? The seeming unawareness of the impropriety of the request – no indication that the student understands that such a request is 1) absolutely out of the question, and 2) brazenly inappropriate. How did I respond? I wanted to write an impassioned, three page letter about responsibility, obligation, results, behavior, rigor and the future. Instead, I wrote two emotionless lines:
Your grade is a product of the work produced and not something assigned. I cannot give you any grade but what you earned.

Students wanting better grades than what they earn is not new, not interesting, and in no way unique. What simultaneously disturbs me and makes me very tired is the lack of effort in the appeal itself.

I begin each semester with a talk about how a grade is calculated, preciesly what the weights are with a caveat that only the student can determine her or his final outcome. Apparently, this is not clear enough. What can we possibly do to curb this type of behavior? Do any of you have a fool-proof technique?

For now, I will be writing dictionary.com to ask for an example change in the definition.

1.  shameless or impudent boldness; barefaced audacity: She had the effrontery to ask for a grade she did not earn.


Sacred Cows

…and other reductive conclusions.

Now that the better part of a week has passed since the Chronicle of Higher Education made the decision to discontinue Naomi Schaefer Riley’s blog pieces, I decided to do a quick web survey to see what was being generated surrounding the issue. Several key terms have appeared in conjunction with the brouhaha.

I have several personal favorites:

  • Witch hunt
  • Mob
  • Sacred Cow

The general gist of the criticism is that the editorial staff of the CHE capitulated to a bunch of incensed scholars who cried foul and pointed the clichéd finger of racism accusations because we disagreed with Ms. Riley.  Before moving on, I think it is important to first tentatively affirm that indeed – we screamed loudly and demanded that her time at the Chronicle come to an end. Yet, what I find most common is the misrepresentation of the reason we so vociferously demanded that her column  be guillotined.

The readership was angered by multiple things. Chief among the grievances, I think, is her manner of making her point: her opinion is largely uninformed. I have noticed that the vast majority of NSR’s work (I could not avoid reading her work and listening to her interviews) is actually comprised of hasty conclusions based in imprecise and elusive information gathering. (For an example see this  interview on CSPAN in which she discusses one of her books and the “problems” with the higher education system). I have noticed that like the great temptation, she couches her more biased attacks in legitimate criticism. Many of the points she makes about the problems within higher education are indeed largely recognized by the masses – yet, Riley derails when she begins to draw her conclusions for reform. Her main claim to argumentative probity? My father is a professor.  I will admit, I am personally split on the issue of research and tenure. In the humanities, I know I do not stand alone when I assert that we often have researched ourselves into obscure, often unpublishable, corners. Tenure becomes more rare; book publications harder to achieve. Do we need to rethink the model? Absolutely. Do we need to drop tenure? I’d be hard pressed to agree here. Should we stop researching highly specialized things? Absolutely not.

The point she seems to return to is that our research is “obscurantist.”  (A poor choice of words – what are we hiding? in the Derrida-Foucault bickering, Foucault accuses Derrida of this as a means of saying that the argument is so obscure so as to hide its failings, allowing the author to call the opponent an idiot for not understanding) Yet, how is this a problem? I think we can all agree that our research is to further the conversation, to challenge and push how and what we think, to promote further examination and analysis. This has nothing and everything to do with undergraduate education. The extreme focus of our doctoral education and research is a proving ground for original scholarship. Do we write for our peers and not our students? Yes. Yet, in deepening our knowledge, the goal, as I practice it, is to reduce these topics down to broad swaths (some more specific than others) for our undergraduates. We stay current in the field, its advances and its setbacks. The more we continuously learn, the more we continuously can bring to the classroom.

Several bloggers, academics, and “news” sources falling on the other side of the equation have accused the readership of the Chronicle of over reacting when one of its “sacred cows” was attacked (I highly encourage all readers to google NSRs name with “fired” after it). The majority of negative criticism has proven to be as reductive as Riley’s own reasoning. This reader did not protest because she attacked Black Studies. As far as I am concerned, the entirety of the academy is open to criticism (our own system of checks and balances, no?) It was the blatantly offensive manner in which she chose to make her argument. She is a hostile blogger in a sea of those she wishes to provoke. For my paltry subscription fee as a graduate student, I demand that what I read is of a certain standard, that when an argument is presented it is informed. What Riley offered was not up to the standards of the audience she writes for. If there is a sacred cow being defended here, it is not an area study. Rather, it is the practice and method we keep.

I invite you, if you have not yet done so, to read her eye-witness response in the Wall Street Journal, in which she defends herself against accusations of being uninformed:

I have been a journalist writing about higher education for close to 15 years now, having visited dozens of colleges and universities and interviewed hundreds of faculty, students and administrators. My work has been published in every major newspaper in the country, most often this one, and I have written two widely reviewed books on higher education as well.

Though it should be self-evident, none of this means that Riley is 1) actually a scholar, 2) conversant in the field of Black Studies 3) well-researched. She leaves out the telling information! Two widely reviewed books..by whom?  I’ve already started reading them – they don’t pass muster.

The most amusing part of the fallout is the demonstrations of ad hominem attacks the commentators resort to: “flowery academics,” “whining scholars,” “witch hunting on behalf of our sacred cows,” among others. I’d invite any readers to submit all of the fallacious attacks they find.

For now, I’m going to print out what I find, including her articles, as teaching tools for my students on how not to make a point.


Insufficient comedy, low test score.

Or, sometimes we just need to whine.

Please note: there is nothing enlightened here. Well, perhaps there are a few worthy ideas. In the main, this is what I have opted for instead of reaching for the tequila.  

That’s right, the hell-bent race track to final grade submission. And so, not even a quarter of the way through the 900 + pages of final grading that I have on my desk. My spirits are dipping lower and lower.

I have just pre-heard the collective groan, just by mentioning the dirty “G” word. We’re all in this moment right now, or soon will be, or have just finished it.

Why? Accountability. I’ve heard a lot of

__________________________

The rest of the post has been redacted. The poster took a walk, bought some junk food, got over his it’s-humid-and-I-hate-grading woes, and generally saw la vie en rose.  

 


Spread of Doom

Students, grad students, junior faculty – I think we’re all known to have absurd eating habits. Some of us eat nothing but crap, some of us eat once a day. We justify this to ourselves by maintaining that we have no time, we have no money. We eat and live hand to mouth. Hey, I tow the party line. There is a new item on my shelf that I found at the store that fits right into the category of grad student crap.

Biscoff Spread.  First, you may find Biscoff cookies familiar if you’ve taken an airplane in the last five years. They go pretty well with airline coffee.  So, seeing this name in the store, I bought this jar of peanut-butter-looking spread and took it home. I set it on the table and stared at it for a little while, which of course then fascinated my cat, so he stared for a while too (perhaps I was expecting it to sing, or reveal its mysteries to me).

Having read the jar, Biscoff is a Belgian product. Now, I begin to think about non-American spreads.  Nutella – rocked my world when I was 16 and en France for the first time.  Marmite rocked something and it wasn’t my taste buds.

Finally, I twist the thing open and get a spoon. Viscous crack, the spread has the consistency of peanut butter (capriciously advertised so for Americans), tastes exactly like the airline cookie and is apparently made of the cookies.  Now, the logic game begins. Well, it looks like peanut butter. “They” say peanut butter is somewhat healthy – protein or something. This will not, then, instantly turn my ass into a helipad.  Run, don’t walk, out today and get yours.

** Trader Joe’s has made a rival spread – apparently made of the more sugar-filled American variety of cookie, crumbs present and all.  Aren’t we so industrious.


Riley fired, POST apologetics

Ding dong the witch is dead? Not in this fairy tale. In this one, the name of the game is hydra. Chop off one head, another racist is born.

As was hoped, Naomi Schaefer Riley was dismissed from her engagement with the Chronicle of Higher Education due to all of the reasons mentioned in my previous post and the outpouring of reader response to the editors, on the boards and their individual blogs on the CHE website. Victory for an active readership.

In her response, Liz McMillen tells us:

We’ve heard you, and we have taken to heart what you said.

We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog.

Whew! She goes further, responding directly to one of our chief complaints:

In addition, my Editor’s Note last week inviting you to debate the posting also seemed to elevate it to the level of informed opinion, which it was not. I also realize that, as the controversy unfolded last week, our response on Twitter did not accurately convey The Chronicle’s message.

Though, this sort of stinks of saying that we gave the CHE too much bad publicity  with our loud, insistent complaints and not an admission of bad decision making. I’ll take what I can get, though.  NSR will no longer write for the paper and I’m sure this will work out for her, too. I suspect there is a blog or commentator position for her in the very near future. One in which she will be free to express as many unsubstantiated opinions as she sees fit without the onus of proof, logic or reasoning.

Covering the Zola-esque débacle, Abby Schachter of the Post (always a supremely trusted news source around the world), writes not one, but two reductive articles on the event.   I’d quote her directly, but it is entirely too painful, much like a hastily written composition 101 paper (and that’s about how we should treat these things). So, I’ll summarize that in article one, she accuses us of silencing legitimate criticism in the holy wrapper of racism accusations. In article two, she asserts that NSR was engaged in serious debate and the result was the journal firing her. She says: “And this is supposed to be the premier journal on higher education in America? What a joke. ”   Oh,  it’s not quite Bovary level irony, but it’ll do.

So, Ms Schachter, I assign your paper a C-, both versions. Praise: You’ve done well in choosing a currently trending topic that has links to a ‘bigger picture’.  Problem: You’ve left out all of the salient details from one side of the argument in favor of an apology of racist journalism.  Solution: By structuring your argument with a basic thesis/antithesis, you will surely have a stronger case to make.


Well, that’s just Religulous…

Ok, I’ll admit it.  Sometimes, I’m a bit too similar to those past professors I swore I’d never become. You know them, we all know them, you might even be them. Which, you ask? Oh, you know them. Here’s an example of a conversation:

Gun-shy graduate student (attempting to curry favor):  So, did you see on TV last night where [some random event  that might be applicable to what we’re studying] happened?

Professor: …What?

Gun-Shy Grad: (Stammering) Oh, well, you know.. on this show.. and this came up.. and Heidegger..[downward glance]

Professor:  I haven’t owned a television since 1975. I’d rather read Joyce. [Cat-like flouncing exit]

In my defense, I own a television, I have cable. I love netflix and Dancing with the Stars is like American Gladiators with sequins. All this to say: yah, Religulous is from 2008. I just watched it this morning with coffee, cat, and pre-final giving glee.

Bill Maher amuses me…usually. He’s witty, he’s snarky.  So, I though I’d stream the mockumentary. I liked Jesus Camp from (what seems like) eons ago.  I don’t have the answers (I honestly don’t care). Religion, its history, or rather the course it took throughout history, doesn’t seem so mysterious or special to me. It seems obvious, mostly. Faith is different, I think.  Faith, like Truth (with that annoying capital T) is a personal thing – neither of which I have significantly deep thoughts on (the Philosophy department is down the hall). Having been raised both Italian and Catholic (oh, the guilt!), I’ve settled into one of those post-faithful loves of the kitsch bi-product.

Now, I’m skirting the liberal-ivory-elite-tower-of-doom label here in writing about the great Taboo (look, another captial T). Experience has shown that the zealous rarely argue on academic terms. Likewise, we’re (usually) professional, refereed debaters. It’s two separate conversations, isn’t it?

Maher is not part of the club, either club, as it were. He’s no rube, but is educated enough to use it as a weapon. This is where I had my problem. On his television show, he stacks the deck in one direction or another, throws some juicy meat on the table and lets the teeth-gnashing wonks off the leash to verbally eviscerate each other in prime time. Good fun. They opted into this. In his film, he takes on a U.S. senator, Mark Pryor. Fair game, as far as I’m concerned. I snickered delightfully at his question to Pryor, “Can you think of anything else that we cleave to from the Bronze Age?”  More good fun.  Where I grew uncomfortable was with the non high profile people – those who were not sect leaders, not public officials, not scholars, not Vatican uppers. He uses his knowledge as a weapon, and not in the good way. The exchanges come off as little more than a condescending, demeaning one-sided fight. In this period of anti-bullying conscience, is he any better?

Don’t get me wrong. These men may have very well been on record with hateful agendas or any number of reasons to attract Maher’s attention (Though, I suspect it had more to do with making a chapel out of a semi truck trailer). But, they weren’t framed that way. At least not in what I saw. What I saw was a stereo-typically(not mine, Maher’s) southern congregation, blue collar group of men from the Trucker Chapel. Is it fighting fair to show up with cameras, an expensive suit, book learnin’ and make them look like idiots? Does that really serve the end-goal (which I presume to be a revolution of consciousness in some HBO sponsored Neo-Enlightenment? Sign me up if it ever happens.)

Academics are no strangers to the conservative media attention we get. For all-certain news-affiliate viewers know, we are Commies ready to collapse the capitalist system in the U.S., make their kids gay with our liberal ways and our logic, and burn all the [insert faith tome here]. Do we really need any  more effigies burned?

I think what this serpentine reflection is (poorly) attempting to get at is this: fight fair. I’m no stranger to a good debate. I’ll bring it, yo. But, I don’t want to debate someone who isn’t coming armed with the same type of weapons.  ‘Sporting’ would seem to be a good word here. I can’t debate personal Faith or Truth, that’s not sporting – or fruitful, for that matter. Maher was shooting at unmoving targets from a duck-blind. That’s not funny. That’s embarrassing.

Don’t do us any favors, Bill.


Black Studies, NSR opines and the trolls flock

Some may not be up to date on Naomi Schaefer Reily’s incendiary Chronicle of Higher Education post, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just read the Dissertations.”  

In short, she has unleashed a firestorm of academic fury, the Chronicle being the trade paper for higher education professionals. What does this mean, precisely? Readers of the Chronicle have come to expect (though not always have delivered):

  • Cogent arguments
  • Informed opinions
  • A degree of academic professionalism (and integrity)

I’ve been reading the CHE for years and though some articles have been debatable, they generally respect the conventions of academia. In fact, this entire firestorm comes down to this point: debatable.  NSR fails to provide any  type of researched opinion in what many have lampooned as a viciously racist attack on the field of Black Studies.  In response to the immediate and critical reception her first article engendered, she replies:

Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I’ll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. I read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery.

And she completely reinforces the readership’s outcry: she is irresponsible, sloppy, and a dilettante in things academic.  Indeed, we should like to think that in the academy we attempt to hold criticism, and especially the scathing variety, to a more rigorous argumentative standard. The outcry is not for her questioning of an academic field of study – questioning a field is part of the process. Rather, it is for the hateful, inappropriate, and unsubstantiated way in which she strikes forth. Many have called for an end to her tenure at the CHE, myself included.

In a response, editor Liz McMillen responds to the outcry, asking for participation in the debate:

Many of you have asked The Chronicle to take down Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent posting, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity—to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit.

The problem? There is nothing in NSR’s article to debate – nothing of substance that is. One writer for the CHE responds to NSR and McMillen with both parody and substantive criticism.  To boil down his response: 1) NSR’s post is a product of our mediatized culture: incendiary fire starting with no substantive basis, 2) The dissertations she attacks are actually interesting pieces of scholarship (which she didn’t bother to learn) and 3) The editor’s response is shameful.

I was personally aghast to read her article and her followup. The CHE is a trade paper and Reily is not a member of the trade – nor is she qualified to opine in the fashion that she does.  We are not angry, or at least this reader is not angry, that Reily wants to express a polemic opinion (whether or not it’s a popular one). The issue is that it was in no way substantive and is unabashedly racist. If you’re going to eliminate or label as irrelevant an entire field of studies, especially one as well-researched, proven, and critical as Black Studies or African American Studies, you need to actually have a valid, cogent point to make.  I fear this is yet another example, as Kelman asserts, of our mediatized culture. NSR comes off no differently than some person in the check-out aisle screaming into a cell phone spectacularly.  Indeed, her “articles” feel more like an episode of Jerry Springer (since he’s about as qualified as she is to express the opinions).

And now the threads have attracted the attention of the internet trolls who flock to controversy without knowing the issue in order to fan the flames. The supporters of NSR’s writing are about as logical as she is, and that’s not saying much.

In fairness, the CHE was trying to balance out articles in the publication, trying to represent conservative opinions. Their error? They critically misjudged the effect NSR would have and have grievously erred in defending the article. They may have many thousands  more page hits for this, but ultimately, they will lose readership, subscriptions and credibility  from among their client base.