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Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education

1 rating: 1.0
A book by Cary Nelson

How would you define academic freedom? Do you know the true meaning of faculty or sexual harassment? These are three of 47 words and phrases explained in this unusual work. Nelson (English, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Manifesto of a Tenured … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Cary Nelson
Publisher: Routledge
1 review about Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary...

Handbook for Inmates & Wardens at Panopticon U.

  • Feb 28, 2007
I agree with both the positive and the mixed reviews for this compendium. Having read (and reviewed on Amazon) Nelson & Watt's essay collection "Office Hours," among other critiques of the corporatized, "quality-driven" competitive bean-counting mentality that's overtaken higher education today in America, I found predictable repetition about unionization, the research vs. teaching mentality, and the plight of part-time and non-tenured full-time faculty. I also found wit, insight and verve in their style, familiar since I have read Nelson's and Michael Berube's earlier critiques.

I cannot be entirely objective, however. As a full-time instructor at a for-profit but legitimate university, and as a graduate from one of the nation's top research universities (the department from where I earned my PhD in the 90s is now ranked #10) who had a diss. advisor among the "superstars," there was much of interest in these pages. That interest sparked my resentment, admittedly, as well as my sympathy.

The defense of many of the research university's more arcane pursuits, however laudable in the liberal arts and (when the spirit moves them) the sciences, does appear rather idealized given today's budget pressures. I would like more classics and Sanskrit and art history, too. But students under enormous financial debt, often where I teach (if not at Indiana or Illinois U.) older men and women who are supporting families and working at full-time jobs, do not look so often for enlightenment. The university for them and for those of us who must teach under such constraints is not the place where Nelson & Watt thrive. I wish it was different, sure.

While I lament this attitude and try to counter the nature of undergrads to demand credentialing rather than enriching inspiration from their instructors and peers, I also realize how soaring tuition and debt from student loans can push grads away from the more arcane or rarified fields of scholarship. The degree represents practical knowledge in most B.A. and M.A.-granting programs. Or else, students will not pay exorbitant fees.

Countering this market mentality at the university that does not fit into the old-fashioned charming college town-and-gown vision needs more conviction than the recommendation to agitate. We have no protection, no unions. At many colleges in cities today, an appeal to Joe Hill for faculty not to get angry but to organize seems quaint. My idealism clashes with my need for a regular income as a college instructor. No 2/0 teaching load for me and thousands of my peers, no sabbatical or pension. What do Nelson & Watt counsel? More tenure positions will mean, as they note, fewer opportunities for PhDs as a cohort to teach, given supply oustrips demand. Programs are admitting fewer candidates than when I attended grad school, but still the appeal of the classroom endures for many of us. Alas, I doubt if the Teamsters these days would be welcomed at most campuses to help us line-level workers campaign for tenure, in the thousands of campuses where the bottom-line mentality has already triumphed.

I commend Nelson & Watt for their continued advocacy for the rest of us, especially in the liberal arts, who labor as field hands and migrant workers in the knowledge industry. But being tenured and privileged even as they gaze out of their elevated perch at the newer batch of PhDs toiling below at piecework pay (1500-2000 papers can be graded a year by a composition instructor; college teaching at this level can be "America's lowest paid legal job.") does distance their advocacy for the rest of us. We have little hope of entering their ivory tower. And yes, we knew what we were getting into in the average of 8-10 years it took to earn our doctorates.

Engels was a factory owner even as he agitated for the proles, so I suppose it makes sense that Marxian critics like Nelson take up the cause. This compares favorably with the disdain of the MLA and AHA and vast cadres of their colleagues with tenure, as far as can be judged from their public attitudes. Drawing attention to inequalities on campus and not only on some benighted tropical plantation or crowded favela is an imperative. Nelson & Watt correctly urge this be done by teachers for students.

From my position, on the other hand, pressuring for job security and basic health care seems quixotic for those under "at will employment" and short-term contracts. Benefits have been eroded from non-academic labor in America, so it is hardly likely that Nelson & Watt's prescriptions for organized dissent and sustained protest will succeed on many campuses. Especially when so many under- and unemployed PhDs, not to mention grad students and TAs, wait to fill the ranks of our underfunded, somewhat despised, but still intellectually attractive (if only in our dreams much of the time) careers.

I wish that Nelson & Watt had delved deeper into conditions at non-research institutions. At Indiana's and Illinois' massive main campuses, they seem to forget about community colleges, proprietary colleges, distance learning, and hybrid college programs now competing with the old ivy-walled Gothic-spired quads that the authors surely stroll with pleasure. Many tenured faculty dismiss the plaints of the rest of the academic laborers as sour grapes from the unworthy.

Nelson & Watt document how much competition exists for so few positions, how retiring faculty are not being replaced by tenure-line hires, and how rationalization, commodification, and assembly-line production turn our campuses today into Taylorized models of efficiency. This tendency to regard teaching as only a commodity to be measured for "outcomes" in standards in the 00s has only increased. Platforms bought by universities require instructors to place course content on-line. Benefits accrue for faculty and students--these by the way are overlooked in Nelson & Watt. But, dangers await. Course content when uploaded opens to administrative scrutiny of the instructor's levels of "production" to meet student demand. Academic freedom vs. fulfillment of what a student expects for their tuition appear on a collision course, given the supervision that electronics allows for those higher placed to observe faculty 24/7.

My hope is that Nelson & Watt and their younger followers attend to the situation outside the ivory tower more, in these electronic classrooms turned sweatshops. These colleges characterize "non-traditional" models that provide a student with many more options than strolling to a pleasant seminar room in Bloomington or Champaign-Urbana. I type this from a site that's freeway close, in a corporate park, but it's an accredited university granted status under the same licensing agencies that monitor Indiana's and Illinois' campuses.

The condition of college teaching a generation or so after Nelson & Watt earned tenure speaks volumes. This volume's a start, but much more damage to the integrity of the scholarly world of publishing, tenure, merit, and intellectual wisdom has been made since this book came out in 1999. It needs updating. Unfortunately, a sequel may reveal little progress has been made, if any. After reading Academic Keywords, the momentum for the bottom-line university that accelerated over the 90s-- I realize in 2007--has gained speed, force, and heft.

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