Saturday Blogging Notes: The Radical Responds To Her Mail

December 4, 2010, 6:44 pm

I imagine that many bloggers find themselves getting stuck reading the comments sections of past posts when there are other things to do:  mothers to call, articles to revise, papers to grade, and whatnot.  I’ve been resisting this distraction.  On the other hand, it is the case that a comment, or set of comments, can inspire me to thoughts that I can’t help but write up.  So here goes.

Re. My Recent Post On Skype interviews: Susan points to the advantages of the phone interview over the vagaries of Skype, and noting that each mode calls for equal focus (she also offers several good reasons to wear pants while Skyping.) I agree that focus is required for each, but that phone has its own challenges.  Interviewing committees need to remember that the candidate has no way of recognizing individual voices on a conference call, so that each person who speaks must say:  “This is Tenured Radical,” or “This is GayProf,” or whatever, so that the candidate knows to whom s/he is talking. The candidate, in turn, needs to find a frakkin’ land line!  This can be tricky, since many people under the age of thirty only have a cell phone.  But some of my most aggravating phone interviews have been with candidates who had a difficult mobile connection.  Oh, yeah — also, try to be where you say you will be when you say you will be there.  In one recent search, we called three separate numbers, and were forwarded from non-English speaking friend to non-English speaking friend in a Scandinavian country, until we located the candidate.  Leslie M-B points to the ease with which she set up professional video conferencing, u-to-u, and this is great, but I’m guessing it’s the exception rather than the rule.  My experiences with video conferencing are that marrying two university systems can be a crap shoot.  That said, this is something that research universities could invest in to help their grads, particularly since (thanks to Interfolio) they no longer have to devote administrative time to copying and sending out job files.  Every vita could include the name and number of a tech contact to help set up the interview.  In lieu of this, Job Mouseketeers, establish a Skype account now and list it along with your other contact information:  this might give an older, less tech-savvy, search committee the idea that they could add you to the semi-finalist list because they can interview you at no cost to themselves.

Re. My Views On Being Groped By The TSA:  Clarissa was “shocked” that I “support these intrusive and humiliating TSA procedures.”  At no point in the post did I say that I supported them, although I am not freaked out by them, it’s true.  If you find that shocking, it may be time to recalibrate your shock-o-meter.  That said, for good reasons, Clarissa and a number of other readers are freaked out by body searches and scans, viewing them as yet another erosion of our right to privacy.  These are points that cannot be emphasized enough, but the post was about homophobia and the outrage of privileged straight people when they are forced to inhabit psychic spaces that they imagine as gay.  Furthermore, I suspect that for many people who are hyper-sensitive to scrutiny, there are no security procedures that are non-invasive, although this is something that could be different if — as several readers point out — the TSA were actually trained to deal sympathetically with the diversity that constitutes human life.  This is clearly worth talking about, but not a reason — in a moment in history where the United States seems intent on dropping bombs on the heads of innocent people — not to have security procedures.  Why is it so difficult for Americans to understand that these dangers have been produced by American foreign policy professionals and their corporate handlers?  That’s whose ass needs to be kicked, not a bunch of people in fake cop suits who would otherwise be working at the Stop N’ Shop with no health insurance.

But I do think one thing that needs to be emphasized is that we all have privileges in systems of state scrutiny, and those privileges call on homophobia, racism and xenophobia for their force.  Let me recount for you a travel moment fifteen months prior to 9/11.  I was returning from an extended stay in Mexico with Mrs. Radical, who was temporarily confined to a wheelchair because of a dog bite. Our flight from Mexico City to Chicago was delayed, and because of our difficulties, the airlines helped us meet our connecting flight.  They did this by whisking our bags off the plane, and hustling us through a series of unlocked back passages where we arrived on time for our plane without having gone through customs at all.  I recall both being shocked at this (I had visions of the lost opportunity to have become drug mules) and embarrassed, because it was clear to me at the time that had we been Mexican, or Mexican-descended citizens of the United States, we would still be waiting in line to have our belongings strewn about the customs area as our plane for Shoreline taxied down the runway.

Here, being white and in the company of a respectable white lady in a wheelchair, set several assumptions in motion that allowed me to activate a set of privileges and evade scrutiny. Conversely, in the years following 9/11, because of my mannish demeanor I could expect to be pulled from security lines for invasive searches 100% of the time. TSA officials seemed to particularly like finding personal items related to my sex life and gender identity, which seemed to cause all kinds of hilarity.  How do I know this was related to my confusingly gendered self?  Because on one trip, when I thought I was going to snap and end up in jail if I had to go through another one of these experiences, I asked my young niece if she would hold my hand in the security line and presto! I zipped right through because now I was perceived as: a parent!

On The Definition Of Elite Colleges And The Conditions That Lead to Good Teaching:  I think this post and the comments attached to it offer many promising future posts, but there are a couple of things I would point out now.  First of all, what constitutes an elite college? Our assumptions about this are a real Rorschach test, aren’t they?  One common definition would be that colleges are elite if the
y are highly selective (i.e., “select” a low percentage of applicants.)  This is what Laurie Essig is speaking to in her CHE piece and her comment. She is right to do so, since her college and mine pride themselves on driving up applications so that they can become more selective.  But this doesn’t make them better colleges.  It is a shell game, aimed (as Essig correctly notes) at generating prestige, the value-added that conveys to others the illusion of an excellent education.  Being selective does not guarantee or offer a road map to becoming a well-educated person, and selectivity has nothing to do with what actually happens once you are at college  (Kate Lowe — under what conditions does Reed not count as an elite college?  Enquiring minds want to know.)

An elite school can also be a public university that offers many of the social networking benefits, as well as the academic challenges, of a private university. Of the 7,946 people who applied to the University of Mississippi in 2010, 83.4% were admitted.  Not very selective, eh? (In the same year, U-Cal Berkeley admitted fewer than 26% of applicants; Williams College 20%.)  But if it is selectivity you crave at a public university price, apply to Ole Miss, and then apply to the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, and be one of fewer than 250 students in your class year who have access to all the benefits of a large research university, to small classes taught by dedicated faculty, and to ambitious peers who will push you to achieve intellectually.  Or don’t apply to SMBHC, and take advantage of the Croft Institute for International Studies.  By the way?  If you think going to Ole Miss doesn’t network you, try practicing law in the South and tell me what you think then.

That said, let me underline my point that when we talk about education we don’t talk enough about teaching, or what it would mean for institutions — as opposed to individual pedagogues — to commit to good teaching.  The kind of specialized attention that a student might get on a few community colleges and state schools is not the norm, nor is it the norm that all campuses have fabulous Ivy League grads with the resources and time to give students individual attention.    In a political atmosphere that seems to view access to affordable education as only possible by reducing professorial staff to the educational equivalent of theater ushers, you are going to have trouble getting the kind of teaching that constitutes the “education” part of “elite education” anywhere but at a small, wealthy college that costs a lot to attend.

Good teaching is, of course, not the same as prestige.  This would be as true at Harvard (where “teaching” vast numbers of students via video screens was occurring back in the mid-1970s when the Radical visited as a college senior) as it is at Middlesex Community College.  This is a related, but separate, point from Laurie Essig’s excellent re-comment that the teaching is fabulous at a SLAC but “that’s not why we get more applicants per available spot than a private party in Paris Hilton’s hotel room. It’s because the insecure haute bourgeoisie wishes to transmit capital to their progeny. If only they gave a crap about whether or not the likes of us instill critical thinking in the next generation… then radical democracy really could flourish here.” 

Right on.  But it is also the case that we at SLACs are fighting to hang on to something for all of our students that few faculties at public schools, with their diminished budgets, can provide for virtually any of their students:  small classes taught by full time faculty actively engaged in research and with low teaching loads (3-2 or lower.)  That people come to us for other reasons doesn’t diminish that commitment, in my view.

Many public universities are actually private universities that are still partially supported by the state.  If you took away their substantial endowments, federal grants, corporate grants and partnerships, they would be shells.  The privatization of the public university began decades ago and has accelerated dramatically in the past five years.  This only becomes more graphic when we see news conferences in which two public officials, President Obama and Jill Biden, announced a major community college initiative entirely funded by the private sector, as they did in October.

Public universities and colleges, at this rate, will either become charter schools or they will become the dustbins of education where under-funded, under-resourced students fight grimly for course credits as they are steered towards the credentials that will fit them for employment by public education’s corporate sponsors.  Here, I found Anonymous 7:09′s analogy  (“private liberal arts colleges are only a step away from segregationist academies. They are ‘better’ for students, of course, but they are better because of those they leave out. The segregationist academies left out people of color, and the expensive private liberal arts colleges leave out the poor, regular people who don’t want to take on college student debt”) historically inaccurate and downright offensive.  Don’t try this comment in real life, OK? 

There is, however, a kernel of a thought in this weird comment here that dovetails with Essig’s.   By limiting access to schools with “good” reputations as a society, we are engaging in the social reproduction of class by collapsing attendance at a given school with the value of the person hirself.  In this sense, the aspiration to matriculate at a name school regardless of the financial or psychic cost doesn’t commodify the actual education.  It commodifies the achievement of merely having been admitted to said institution, assuming that the student can maintain the minimum level of brain activity necessary to graduate from any college, elite or not.  We don’t need to trash so-called elite schools to improve education for everyone:  we need many more elite schools, we need to make them more accessible to more people, we need their faculties to be full-time professionals and we need them to be publicly funded.  To achieve this, we need a mass social movement that doesn’t disparage elite education, but that is specifically centered on providing it to all Americans regardless of the ability to pay — which is, ironically, what an elite school can often provide to the poor.

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