In Response to Andrew Seal

On 8 June 2018, Andrew Seal’s “How the University Became Neoliberal” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. Seal opens with a summary of historical critiques of corporatist education, emphasizing Mario Savio’s 1964 speech and its successors. It pivots thence into a treatment of the term “neoliberal” and its derivatives, spending a section on its appropriateness and the development of its concept from such notions as “corporate universities” and “late capitalism.” The emergence of the term in the work of David Harvey and its proliferation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and its ongoing aftereffects also receive attention, with the specific connections to adjunctification and institutional austerity being emphasized before an agreement with Harvey’s assertion that financial crises are inherent, system-desired features of capitalism. Efforts to unify among academics are detailed, demonstrating the idea that the ivory tower is now what the factory floor was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries–an inherently political locus of power that can be seized, control of which exerts outsize influence on current society. The article ends with an affirmation of the university’s pivotal role in struggles to come.

Some points of interest present themselves in the piece. One emerges near the end of the article; Seal writes that “Neoliberal politics aren’t coming from outside the ivory tower: The caller is in the house.” In a short phrase, Seal ties his article–and the phenomenon it describes–to horror film, which is entirely appropriate. While the current state of affairs in academe might well be described as dystopian (and not just from my academic expatriate perspective), any dystopia has at least elements of horror to it; if nothing else, the situations that give rise to dystopias are themselves horrific, not least because they seem to be so easily accomplished and so willingly entered into by the people who let and make them happen. (To follow the implication, though, I have to wonder who or what will be Clover’s final girl; there aren’t any innocents in all this, it seems. And the implied gendering has resonance that I’m not sure I’m qualified to untangle; it could just be my own iteration of internalized patriarchal-hegemonic institutional structures at work.)

Another is the discussion of the Edu-Factory Collective, something with which I had been wholly unfamiliar prior to reading the article (and with which I am still largely unfamiliar-but some understanding is a thing that can be built upon at need or at desire, so there is some improvement). The quote from that group that “We vindicate the university’s destruction…[we are] not merely immune to tears for the past but enemies of such a nostalgic disposition [sic]” rings strangely in my inward ear; that I remain as I do despite my experience suggests that I still see value in institutionalized higher education, that I recognize there are things that universities can do well, if allowed to do so–but I will admit that that may well be my own inherent biases at work, my own internalization of social mores and norms that serve only to restrict me in ways that benefit those in positions of power–not least by ensuring that my own access to power is limited.

It may also be from those biases that I find myself nodding along with Seal’s reminder that the educational enterprise has never not been political. The choice of curriculum is a political act; whether it is to work in a “Great Books” tradition of liberal arts instruction or to work to make every assignment in every course more or less explicit job training, a course of study emerges from and reinscribes an ideology. Even in such “real” and “unbiased” things as math and physics, such is the case–that things are taught as they are taught, whether in terms of  assignment sequence or course division, is always a result of and contributor to such decisions. To assert otherwise is ignorant at best, inaccurate in all cases, bullshit in most, and an outright lie in far too many–and of each, we ought to be wary, though we do less well in that than should be done.

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Class Report: ENGL 062, 12 July 2018

For the first meeting of the July 2018 session, discussion focused on introductions to the class and to its participants. Attention was given to course structure and requirements, including how to access course materials. Basic reading and writing concepts received attention, and some time was afforded to work on student assignments.

Students were reminded of upcoming assignments:

  • Discussions (three posts per graded thread, plus contributions to the Introductions thread), due online before 0059 on 16 July 2018
  • My Reading Lab: Learning Path Diagnostic, due online before 0059 on 16 July 2018
  • My Reading Lab: Active Reading Strategies Topic and Post-Test, due online before 0059 on 16 July 2018

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Room 107 of the San Antonio campus. The class roster listed two students enrolled; one attended, assessed informally. Student participation was good. No students attended the most recent office hour.

In Response to Thomas Cogswell

On 20 May 2018, Thomas Cogswell’s “True Confessions of a Reluctant Administrator” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. In the piece, Cogswell glosses over his early-career experience shirking institutional service in favor of teaching–until he was confronted by an incoming dean who effectively forced him into committee work and assigned him administrative duties afterward. He afterwards comments about faculty governance and its joys before concluding with the note that his own experience has led him to make committee selections.

Cogswell’s piece reads as an attempt at humor, invoking long-known and well-worn tropes of 12-step programs (explicitly: the piece opens with an injunction to “Imagine this is a 12-step program and that I am standing before you, tearfully confessing my transgressions”). And there is some sense to framing a joke in such a way; life in academe, generally, has properties that are not unlike addiction. It starts out innocently enough, with people lured in through often-false promises of esoteric pleasures, and it quickly becomes compulsive, with people scrambling to put together larger sums of money than they can afford to continue to indulge it. Exit is difficult, occasioning no few psychological changes, as any amount of quit lit can attest. Too, as has been mentioned in connection with certain scholarly gatherings, there is a strong correlation of scholarly gatherings and heavy drinking–which has occasioned events designed to give those in recovery, who probably ought to be in recovery, and who simply want to spare their livers so much trauma places to gather.

That said, the joke falls flat for me. As I’ve noted on more than one occasion, I work for a substance abuse treatment facility, one that makes use of 12-step methodologies and which treats clients who are engaged in 12-step programs. They are not among the most privileged people; of those who have entered the facility’s outpatient treatment this calendar year, only nine percent have not been economically disadvantaged, and all are struggling to achieve and maintain sobriety, whether from marijuana (which remains illegal where I am), alcohol, methamphetamine, or some other substance. They are in pain, in trouble with the law, and, in many cases, struggling to keep their families intact. The joke Cogswell seems to be trying to make seems to be made at the expense of my facility’s clients and people like them–and that seems to me to be punching more than a bit down. And I would expect better from someone who would present himself as a fellow-sufferer.

Any help for my facility will be greatly appreciated. Please give.

In Response to Tove Danovich

On 14 June 2018, Tove Danovich’s “Despite a Revamped Focus on real-Life Skills, ‘Home Ec’ Classes Fade Away” appeared on NPR.org. The article opens with a quotation regarding the current state of instruction in what was once taught as home economics and is not taught as family and consumer sciences (FCS) in the United States. It moves on to note that FCS classes are not swelling as might be expected in a period of increased attention to food, but that they are instead dwindling–by more than a third from 2002 to 2012–likely in response to the prevailing testing culture at work in public schooling. Danovich moves on to gloss the history of FCS classes and their socially problematic nature before moving into description of current FCS course content. Schools’ requirements for such coursework receive some attention before the article cites a dearth of FCS teachers as a major obstacle. The article concludes with an assertion of FCS courses’ relevance in students’ lives; their utility is usually swiftly evident.

A couple points emerge as of peculiar interest for me. One of them is in the quoted comments by Montana’s Megan Vincent: “In the good old days you got that at home[sic]” and “But now you have two working parents…these courses fill the gaps for what parents can no longer do.” The former rankles a bit, since the “good old days” were hardly good for a great many people–and the litanies of ways in which and the people for whom they were not needs more rehearsal than can be given it here. Related is the latter; the comments assume that parents could ever do what the class does. While in some, perhaps many, cases such a thing was true, it was never so universally the case as the comment–indeed, the kind of comment–comes off as assuming was. How many jokes, after all, center on parental ineptitude? And how can a joke enjoy currency if it does not speak to something easily seen in people’s lives? A look at the tables and pantries and lives of a great many people, across generations, suggests that they were not and are not the best informed about how to cook and eat well–and a thing not known cannot be taught, not reliably.

Another point of interest, although one that does not irk, is the later-reported comment from Carol Werhan that “FCS classes make for ‘a well-rounded, world-literate human being, which makes a great workforce and a great community.'” It reads as much the same kind of thing that is typically deployed to justify humanities coursework and programs to increasingly corporatized higher education and its “consumers.” I do not think it will be as ineffective for FCS as it has been for, say, French, because I do agree with the comment about the field’s obvious utility–but I have not seen such rhetoric work well often or at all.

Still, looking back–as I do too often, and seldom to my benefit–I 1) do not recall that an FCS class was on offer at my high school (and I attended high school before No Child Left Behind), 2) wish there had been such a class or that I had seen it, and 3) wish I had taken it. While I’ve learned to cook more in the years since (I cook dinner for my family more nights than I don’t, and I make breakfast through the work week), and I do a fair bit of the laundry around my family’s house, it’s taken me those years to learn how to do so with even the modicum of skill I have. (I had various house-cleaning chores as a youth, and I still keep a pretty clean house much of the time.) It would have been a good use of a fourth year of high school to take such classes as FCS, which would have helped prepare me for some parts of my life since with which I’ve had to struggle. Even then, I needed and should have had the sense to take a break not only from the scholastic demands of “regular” classrooms, but also from my life’s overwhelming focus on meeting those demands. Had I done so, I think my being exiled from academe might have been a bit easier to handle than it was–and that would have been decidedly welcome.

Help balance the economics of my home?

A Rumination on Playing Again

I‘ve commented before (here, for example) that I had initially thought to become a band director when I grew up. That I did so emerged in large part from my time in bands from sixth grade through the end of high school. Band was one of the few places where I found any sense of camaraderie at school, although I did not value fellowship then as it deserved, and one of the few places of happiness I could find outside of my broken-in rocking chair and the pages of books already many times read. As might be expected, then, I went into my undergraduate career full of love of the thing and hope that I would be able to do as had been done for me–but, by the end of my sophomore year, I was told that I would not be allowed to proceed in my program, and I gave up on that particular dream, soon taking up another that would ultimately fail to come true.

Since that time, since my sophomore year of college, since 2002, I did not play more than a few idle notes at odd intervals, only occasionally picking up a horn, and then not for long. I entertained no serious thought of playing again, no real notion that I would do anything other than look from time to time at an instrument I had never been worthy to play and barely to touch, and I rebuked myself for ever being so much a fool as to think I could ever really have done so. And seeing my brother do so well as he did–and is still doing!–musically served to remind me that my talents lie elsewhere than in winding a horn, and that I was better served by turning my attentions to other ends. But, again, doing even that and applying myself to the exercise of those talents I flatter myself that I have did not work out as I had hoped, and I drifted from failure to failure to failure, winding up where I am now. And if it is the case that I enjoy some success–because I do–it is still far, far from what I had ever thought I’d have. (Too, as many times as I have faltered, there is a part of me–a large part–that is waiting for me to fail again.)

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The Magic Horn

Recently, though, a non-profit in Kerrville and the head band director at the public high school got together and set up a community jazz band. News of it reached me through the usual channels (thanks, Mom!), and, after consulting with my wife, I decided I’d join if they’d have me. After a couple of phone calls and emails, I found myself retrieving instruments from my parents’ house: a late-1930s King Zephyr alto sax that’s been in my family for generations and a Buescher bari sax my grandfather had owned and which I had inherited.

The alto was long familiar–and it is the instrument of which I am far from worthy. I have heard others wind it as it deserves, and I know I cannot match them; I tend to it, but I dare do no more. But the bari is another matter. It has not the ancientry of the alto, nor has it the mystique; the also is known in the family as “the Magic Horn,” and in the hands of those who actually know what they are doing, it lives up to the name. The bari is not of the same quality; Buescher has not the cachet that King does, and for cause. Nor, if I am being honest, was my grandfather the finest saxophonist–though he was better far than me, as is clear from his having succeeded in his musical goals, while I definitely did not. But when I did play, and when I was commended for playing such that I thought I might reasonably expect to make a life around it, it was a bari sax I played–and I do not devalue the horn that I have now, when I might otherwise have had none.

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Me, in full harness, with the bari; photo by Sonya Elliott

And it felt good to wind it again! Oh, I am aware of how much I have lost of what little I had; I dare not deny it (and I am working to reclaim at least some of it, although I know that the intervening years will have taken more from me than I can ever recover). But when I wrapped my hands around the hollow brass, put my fingers on the keys and the reeded rubber into my mouth again, it felt right. I babbled through the horn, true, my falting utterances showing long disuse, but as I played, my fingers and lips and tongue began to remember what they had known. It was as if rust fell from me in the very act of playing again, and as I moved more, I was able to move more. And sitting in communion with others doing much the same…it was decidedly welcome.

So I shall be going back again, I think. Even if I will never be the sort of person who can make a living at it, I can be the sort who does a bit and enjoys what all is done–and I think that’ll actually be good enough.

Reeds are expensive! Help me buy some more!