The ‘Relatable’ Fallacy

I think I first heard a student declare a book “not relatable” about five years ago. I got the gist, but the word struck me as strange, clumsy. Before long, though, it had become a regular part of student vernacular, and I started to see it even in the The New York Times. Students use this word to express their sense that a text can be related to, that it is accessible to them. Unsurprisingly, contemporary pop culture is by and large relatable. Daniel Defoe? Not relatable. There’s a kind of po…


In Defense of ‘Expressionist Crap’

Personal writing is frivolous, something best left to those students with the poor judgment to actually major in creative writing. This was essentially the opinion I heard expressed in an English-faculty meeting last fall. We should be teaching our first-year, general-education students to write for their intended professions, my colleague said; teaching “expressionist crap” is a pointless diversion, a waste of our students’ time and ours.

I have been on the fringes of higher education, as an ad…


They’re Colleges, Not the Minor Leagues

If colleges follow Bill Bowen’s advice and “untie the knot” between athletics and big-time commercial entertainment, they will also be untying, or at least loosening, the knot that binds colleges to the NFL, the NBA, and the WNBA. Today colleges have a near-monopoly on American students’ access to those leagues, a fact we are reminded of every autumn Sunday, when NFL starters introduce themselves on TV by calling out their college connections (including, of course, THE Ohio State University).



This Is What Racial Inequality Looks Like

Recently two black male high-school students made news when they each earned impressive numbers of acceptances to Ivy League Universities. Kwasi Enin is a first-generation American from Long Island, whose parents, who are nurses, emigrated from Ghana. He was accepted into all eight Ivy League colleges: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Penn.

The other student, Avery Coffey, from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, grew up in the impoverished 8th Ward of Washi…


Good News for Low-Income Students

Opponents of affirmative action have leveled a new three-pronged attack on affirmative action in higher education that could significantly change admissions at selective universities and colleges for the better.

The Project on Fair Representation, which was behind the recent Supreme Court litigation in Fisher v. University of Texas, has launched websites soliciting white and Asian plaintiffs who believe they were discriminated against by racial-preference policies at three institutions: Harvard …


Embracing the Unexplained, Part 2

It was an odd but invigorating media cycle for me last week.

The week began with The Chronicle’s publication of my essay on why the “impossible” experiences of precognition, clairvoyance, and mystical experience may well be keys to unlocking the nature of consciousness and the mind-brain relationship and why the sciences and the humanities need one another to address those questions.

The piece quickly became the object of a materialist screed in The New Republic by Jerry A. Coyne entitled “Sci…


Untie the Knot Binding College Sports and Educational Values

As most of us are well aware, important challenges to today’s existing order in athletics are under way, from the court system and through the widely discussed National Labor Relations Board ruling that Northwestern football players are employees of the university and have the right to unionize. Regardless of their final outcomes, these challenges are long overdue. I believe they represent an inevitable recognition that the oft-acclaimed “amateur” status of big-time college sports is a sham.

We …


For the Persistent Ph.D. Impulse, Gentle Dissuasion

I teach in an M.A. program in history at a small liberal-arts college. We have a strong track record of placing our students in good doctoral programs. Because we do not offer a Ph.D., however, we are also free to be candid about why going on to a doctorate might not make much sense in financial and career terms.

Five years ago, we starting giving our students William Pannapacker’s essay “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go.” Some cohorts heard this earnest advice on as many as si…


Unsentimental Education

“So, do the characters in Flaubert’s novel act in accordance with Kant’s categorical imperative?” I looked around the classroom of my freshman composition students and was greeted with blank stares.

“Who actually read up to page 306?” Two hands went up, one only halfway. Others confessed that they had read only to page 147, or page 20, 72, 3. Some hadn’t even opened Sentimental Education. Why hadn’t they done the assigned reading?

“It’s too long and complicated.”

“There are too many characters…


A Plan for the Modern College

As is commonly known, American higher education depends for its existence on the cheap labor of adjunct faculty members. According to recent reports, adjuncts make up as much as 70 percent of college instructors. The average yearly salary for those adjuncts is around $25,000, just above the poverty rate for a family of four, so these members of the professoriate, having put in their years working on advanced degrees while providing cheap labor as graduate students, have learned very well what t…