Commonplace
-

Publick Occurrences 2.0

July 22, 2012

The Bonds of Scholarly Affection

Filed under: Academia,Ben Carp's Posts,Conferences,Historians — Benjamin Carp @ 4:49 pm

Conferences are places of love.

The 34th annual meeting (pdf) of SHEAR (the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic) was held this past weekend in Baltimore. The last time SHEAR met at Baltimore was 2001, which was the summer I attended (and presented at) my first two academic conferences.

The first was at the Institute for Historical Research in London. I remember thinking that if I was going to make mistakes, at least I’d be doing it thousands of miles away from anyone I knew. The conference (theme: “The Sea”) stuck all of the graduate student presenters onto one panel, even though none of our papers were related to one another. This struck me at the time as a pretty bad method, and I don’t think I got many questions from the audience. But what I really remember is that a senior scholar, who I’d first met earlier at the conference, made a point of staying for my paper and then discreetly slipping out. Later that day, we sat together on a stoop outside and he spent fifteen or twenty minutes giving me a full critique of my arguments. So my first introduction to an academic conference was a display of almost unbelievable generosity from a scholar I deeply respected.

My second conference was soon afterwards, when SHEAR last held its annual meeting in Baltimore. I wasn’t a great fit for SHEAR, since I was studying pre-revolutionary history, but the loose, friendly atmosphere hooked me, and it keeps drawing me back. My fondest memory from this conference was playing hooky with four youngish scholars (all more senior than me) to grab a delicious lunch and then check out the wondrous American Visionary Art Museum. Just as I was trying to learn the conventions of conference attendance, a few historians showed me that sometimes you had to break the rules to have an even more meaningful experience.

Now I can look around the room at a SHEAR conference and see former mentors and colleagues, co-bloggers, editors, friends I met at previous conferences and in the archives, graduate students I’ve encouraged, and dozens of people pursuing exciting projects of all kinds. So, as I said, conferences are places of love.

It’s true that too much love can be a bad thing: the bonds of scholarly affection can encourage logrolling, backscratching, insularity, and groupthink. Indeed, scholars are often encouraged to throw open their doors a bit more widely, to reach out to the general public and have a broader conversation. In an ideal world, these members of the public would find our shared enthusiasm for history irresistible, and go home to tell their state representatives to pour more money into higher education. On the other hand, some specialized discussion is inevitable (and essential) at a subfield conference like SHEAR, and this can quickly alienate nonprofessionals. (At the plenary session, I heard a lay audience member ask his companion, “What’s a maroon?” which instantly conjured up Bugs Bunny.)

Still, for professionals, a great conference is not just an opportunity for fantastic panels and enlightened discussion, for cutting-edge research and spirited debate–a conference is also an opportunity for sociability and socialization, for the formation of a community of scholars. It’s a cause for celebration, a working vacation from department committees, grade complaints, and hermetic writing sessions. For scholars who will never register for another class in their lives, it’s a great few days of offline learning.* Our universities should do all they can to support conference attendance, for professors as well as students.

*Meanwhile, for those who want to follow along online, here’s the archive of tweets from the conference.

Share

July 11, 2012

Reading and Revolutions, or, What’s the Matter with Google Books?

Michael Witmore and Robin Valenza have a fascinating post up this morning  at Wine Dark Sea asking, “What Do People Read During a Revolution?” They ran a visualization based on Google Books’ massive database (as of 2010) categorized through Library of Congress subject headings and found that there were massive spikes in the publication of histories during the 1640s/1650s and the last quarter of the eighteenth century — or, as you might otherwise know those periods, during the English Civil War and the American and French Revolutions.  Smaller spikes occur during the years around the European upheavals of 1848 and 1914. Based on that, they posit a suggestion:

What are people reading during a revolution? Poetry? Books on military technology? Theology? No. If we take the first spike, the years leading up to the English Revolution, the answer in the years leading up to the 1642 regicide seems to be “Old World History.” The second chronological peak—in the decades around the American (1776) and French (1789) Revolutions—shows the same pattern. In periods that historians would link to major political upheaval, the world of print shows similar disruptions: publishers are offering more history for readers who, perhaps, think of themselves as living through important historical changes.

As a scholar of publishing and (the American) Revolution, I found such a conclusion troublesome, for reasons I’ll elucidate below. Having read the post over again after my initial concerns, I want to emphasize that Witmore and Valenza were careful to add several contextualizing questions that need further exploration:

We should be precise: these data don’t indicate that more people are reading history, but that a higher proportion of books published by presses can be classed by cataloguers as history. There are many follow up questions one might ask here. Does publication tie strongly to actual reading, or are these only loosely connected? Are publishers reducing the number of books in other subject areas because of scarcity of resources or some other factor, which would again lead to the proportional spikes seen above? Are the cataloguing definitions of what counts as Old World History or history in general themselves modeled on the books published during the spike years?

Even allowing for those additional questions, however, I have two sets of concerns with the correlations that the graphs imply, and thus want to argue that the graphs are not nearly as illustrative or helpful as they at first seem.

First, I’ll simply repeat the hesitation that others have discussed more eloquently (most notably Ben Schmidt at Sapping Attention) about the limitations of the Google Books database as a representative set of literature. In this particular case, the most pressing limitation is that I’m not sure of the national origins of the set used in the graph, which is labeled as “all books published.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but does it include publications in English as well as other languages? If only English, both British and American? How about Ireland? Without knowing even the language of the corpus, it’s difficult to project, for example, the significance of the spike around the French Revolution, the 1848 European revolutions, or the outbreak of World War I (and subsequent Russian Revolution).

Second, I’m concerned at the use of book publication by itself as the unit of measurement. For one thing, giving each publication equal weight elides the importance of popularity. It’s all well and good if there were ten unique titles published in runs of 200 each that discussed the natural history of the South Seas, for example, but it’s less significant if in the same year (say in the 1760s) one publisher put out an edition of several thousand copies of Pamela. While this is a hypothetical (I don’t have British numbers handy), the example is certainly plausible given the appeal of history and fiction as genres for sale, and the ways in which they were frequently published in terms of size and quality of editions. Furthermore, as William St. Clair has argued [PDF], readers didn’t read in order of publication. So even as new histories were published in the 1770s and 1780s, more distantly published works remained popular. (One presumes that this last would be accounted for by unique entries for each edition, but I’m not sure whether each is entered separately.)

Third, one more comment about the books themselves. The graph appears very suggestive of the correlation between history publishing and revolution, but there’s another possible interpretation. That’s because the historical periods that the graphs identify (the mid-seventeenth century and the late eighteenth century in particular) also coincide with periods when the publication of travel and exploration narratives flourished. So did the publication of books about history spike in the 1770s because of the American Revolution, or because Captain Cook was in the midst of his voyages to the Pacific? The granular approach offered in the graphs doesn’t allow for that kind of analysis.

Fourth (and here I’m finally getting to my real area of expertise), using books as the unit of measurement seriously underestimates the importance of all other kinds of publishing and reading from these periods. For each of the historical upheavals that see a spike, it was in non-book publications—pamphlets, newspapers, almanacs, broadsides, ephemera—that much of the intellectual and political work occurred. As it happens, it appears that at least a few editions of, for example, Common Sense and Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania appear in the Google Books database, but again, there’s no allowance for popularity. Furthermore, because of the way in which GB assigns a publication date, both of those publications appear as frequently as twentieth and twenty-first century editions as they do during the period they initially appeared. More importantly, there’s no way to account for newspaper publication of the Farmer’s Letters or excerpts of Common Sense, or of the hundreds of other essays working out political questions during the American Revolution. Both during and after the Revolution, magazines were also important sites for the publication of politics, science, and yes, history, but they aren’t catalogued that way by the Library of Congress. Other scholars have done great work examining the impact of such publications in England during the Civil War (see here and here) and France (see here and here) during its Revolution, just to start.

Last, it’s important to remember that the American colonies during the era of the American Revolution were not saturated with books, by a long stretch. It’s a bit of a simplification, but few books were published in North America because of the expense, and not that many were imported, again because of the expense. So even histories published in Britain that circulated to North America did not do so in great numbers—except, perhaps, in excerpted form in British magazines or American newspapers.

These are some initial thoughts, but I make them to suggest that I find the graphs, attractive as they are, far more problematic than suggestive in what they can show us about reading, publishing, and revolutions.

Share

July 6, 2012

Fox News: An American Tradition

Filed under: Jeff Pasley's Writings,Journalism history,Newspapers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:33 pm

Not necessarily in a good way!

A few weeks ago, we had a discussion here about where the new partisan media of recent times (Fox News and the blogosphere, especially) fit into the history of American journalism. I had forgotten until the following popped on YouTube that I had addressed this very issue in an interview with C-SPAN at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Milwaukee last April.  A typically slick and polished presentation by yours truly (ahem), but it has been suggested that I post it here, so here you go, Joe. Apologies to the gods of television, plus all of the Facebook people and John Fea readers who have already seen this. Send in your video rebuttals!

 

Share

July 2, 2012

Picking America’s Most Influential Books

Last week, the Library of Congress posted a list of eighty-eight “Books That Shaped America” as part of an exhibition of the same name at the Library. The list includes a disclaimer from Librarian of Congress James H. Billington:

“This list is a starting point,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”

As an early Americanist, the first thing I did was to sort the list by date published, just to see how many early American books made the cut. The verdict: nine from before 1800 (none earlier than 1751) and sixteen from 1850 and earlier (which cuts off the list just before the publication of Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom’s Cabin). On a certain level, that’s fair enough: considerably more books have been published since 1850 than before. In addition, the Library has insisted that the list is a starting point, not the definitive list, and has invited comments and suggestions from the public. (The press release also notes that some books were cut because of limits on the exhibition space.)

I was also curious about the inclusion of Common Sense, for two reasons. First of all, it’s rarely classified as a “book,” but rather a pamphlet. Now, I consider my work to have implications on the field of the “history of the book,” and most of my material comes from newspapers, so I’m certainly open to a broad definition of the book. As I’ll discuss below, opening up the field that way leaves room for some other possible inclusions. Second, Billington notes in the comment above that these were books “written by Americans.” That makes it somewhat odd for Thomas Paine to be on the list. He arrived in Philadelphia from his native England barely eighteen months before the first publication of Common Sense. While the text was written and published first in North America, making it a decidedly American creation, it seems a rather loose definition to call Paine an “American.” The same goes, it was pointed out, for Jacob Riis, native of Denmark. That complication—what to do with immigrants?—bears particular resonance for asking the question of what early American books should be included on the list.

Via Library of Congress Exhibit on American Treasures

Which brings me to the question: what else should be included in the list from the early period? My answer comes from two places. One is simply my research and reading in the field. The other is that I’m thinking about what texts to assign as I put together a U.S. survey syllabus for the fall (though please note that not everything I discuss below would necessarily make sense in toto for an introductory course). To start with, there are a number of ways to judge whether a book “shaped” America. Is it based on readership? Long-term popularity? Sales? Editions? We can discuss those, but since this is a blog post, I’m going with the Potter Stewart approach and justifying choices however necessary.

[NB: I also want to refer everyone to the special issue of Common-place on "Who Reads an Early American Book?"]

First off, if we eliminate the restriction on books written by Americans, by far and away the most important book in early American was the Bible. It was the most widely owned and most widely read book in British North America; it was certainly (and remains to this day, in many respects) a “Book That Shaped America.” Actually, I’m sort of curious what the Library would do with that suggestion, and how to visually display it: the first American Bible in English wasn’t printed until the 1790s, so examples would have to be of European extraction.

Religion is one area that the Library’s list seems to underemphasize. Based simply on reading the list, one would never know about the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. I’m less of an expert in religious history, but I would suggest as at least representative of that era the collected sermons of George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards. For the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it would make sense to include Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), on the divine history of the Puritans in New England.

We also ought to consider works that discuss the massive influence of the cultural encounters between Europeans and natives. Perhaps we could include John Eliot’s Bible translated into Algonquian (and already profiled as an American Treasure by the Library of Congress). Or Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, which was first published in 1682 and went through dozens of editions right up to the Revolution. (It also, of course, is a deeply religious text.)

See Lisa M. Gordis, “None Need Think Their Sympathy Wasted,” Common-place, v. 9, no. 3

I would be remiss if I didn’t add at least one title in the political realm. Common Sense was by far the most important publication of the revolutionary period (on which I refer you to Pauline Maier’s fantastic book, American Scripture). Other authors (and publishers) did significant work elsewhere, such as in the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. The letters, penned by John Dickinson, were first circulated in newspapers in 1767 and 1768 during the protests over the Townshend Acts and later repackaged as pamphlets in eleven editions from 1768 to 1774. Benjamin Franklin found Dickinson’s arguments against British taxation so well distilled that he arranged for a London edition (to which he could not resist adding his own preface).

Last, it seems important to more closely reflect the urgent importance of the novel in early Republic reading culture. For example, consider Charlotte Temple, written and first published in Britain by Susannah Rowson (another immigrant: she later moved to the United States). The book was the most popular novel of the 1790s, so much so, in fact, that people visited the “grave” of Charlotte Temple in the Trinity Church yard in lower Manhattan. To a lesser extent, the same is true for The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster, which was also popular at the time and has become a popular text in English and history courses.

These are just some first thoughts, of course, and I would never claim that my suggestions are the only ones possible or even that they are the last word. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions in the comments, and by all means please do respond to the Library’s call if you feel so inclined.

Share

June 22, 2012

In Other News

I don’t want to distract from the discussion about UVa that Ben, Jeff, and Morning Chronicler have begun. However, I do want to note several items of interest from around the web this week. Rather than bombard the blog with short posts, I decided instead to collect them here in roundup fashion, something which I cannot promise to do but in an irregular fashion.

  • At The Atlantic, senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates is turning his blog again this summer into a massive discussion group (affectionately titled the Effete Liberal Book Club) for an academic tome. Up this year is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. It seems like a good opportunity to read or re-read a classic text, and along the way to get a sense of how non-historians read and react to academic work.
  • W. Scott Poole offers some thoughts at The Huffington Post on the release of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer into movie theaters across the nation this weekend (a subject which has also come up on this blog). Having used the novel in his college’s undergraduate methodology course, Poole argues that it and other fantastical treatments of American history can be effective tools for teaching that history. First, he writes, he wanted his students “to think about how primary historical sources, the raw material of history, can be repurposed in surprising ways,” and indeed, many of them got turned on to Lincoln’s actual writings as well as the work of historians of the era—Poole notes in particular David Blight. Second, his students helped him to understand the novel’s treatment of darkness and evil in American history as a powerful lens to understand slavery. In other words, he concludes, “America needed a vampire hunter in 1860.” Definitely worth a read.
  • The rash of media coverage for the “discovery” of lost archival items has been nagging at me, largely because, while cool to have, few of them have seemed to change our understanding of the past very much. Suzanne Fischer, curator of technology at The Henry Ford, agrees.  She points out that the recent document unearthed about Lincoln’s assassination, drafted by the first doctor to reach Lincoln after he was shot, was “right where it was supposed to be (emphasis hers)”—that is, filed under the doctor’s name among the correspondence of the Surgeon General. The researcher who revealed the report, Helena Iles Papaioannou, responded that neither she nor anyone else knew of the report, and that even if its existence had been known, its location was not obvious from the cataloguing system. Because of the public fascination with “discoveries,” this issue will likely continue to spark discussion among archivists, librarians, and historians.
  • James Grossman and Allen Mikaelian analyzed the Politifact Truth-o-Meter and the ways in which it has taken advantage of (or not) the expertise of scholars. Not surprisingly, the journalists who interview scholars are more inclined to sift through the nuance and “shades of grey” opinions in favor of blunt, to-the-point assessments. To reduce Grossman and Mikaelian’s argument, the historians provide fascinating answers on the connections between the past and the present on the issue of, for example, whether new restrictions on voting can be described as “Jim Crow laws” … and then the legal scholars hold more sway in the final decision.
  • A teaching post of possible interest: Tona Hangen of Worcester State University writes about including her students in the process of creating the syllabus for her survey course (United States Since Reconstruction). The impetus for her to do so was the constant struggle in the survey course “between ‘sprinting’ and ‘digging down’” as one races through the material of 150 years (those who teach European or world history surveys are politely asked not to snicker). Would it work in the first half? I’m not sure; the topics may be a little too unfamiliar.
  • Last, a fascinating document find that’s attractive to me as someone who works on political history and history of the book: Houghton Library at Harvard owns a copy of a book from George Washington’s library with Washington’s annotations. But it’s not just any book; it’s an excoriation of the Washington administration’s foreign policy by its former ambassador to France, a young, up-and-coming Virginian named James Monroe. Washington, as curator John Overholt explains, was less than thrilled with Monroe’s opinion.

And to get your weekend started off right, I’ll re-post a trailer for a movie trailer from the comments on a previous post about the War of 1812 bicentennial. Enjoy!

 

CollegeHumor’s Favorite Funny Videos

Share

June 20, 2012

The Accelerating Pace of Change for Its Own Sake [UPDATED]

Filed under: Academia,Media,Technology — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:17 pm

Can academia be saved from the corporate death cult?

This is the third post here on this subject, but there is one set of villains or enablers we have not talked much about regarding the University of Virginia coup d’ecole: the middlebrow media who just can’t stop trumpeting the glories of “online learning” and especially the entry of Stanford, Penn, and other elite players into the field. For those just catching up to this story, University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan was forced out by the Board of Visitors partly because she “lacked the mettle” to chop programs that didn’t make money, like classics and German, and refused to have the university jump with both feet into online courses like all the other kids. 1

Actually, UVA was already quite a leader in online teaching, research, publishing, going back to the 1990s. Who put the idea into the Board of Visitors’ big CEO heads that the “rapidly accelerating pace of change” required them to shock and awe the campus into “strategic dynamism”?  The Board of Visitors emails obtained by the Cavalier Daily, UVA’s really impressive student newspaper, reveal that Rector Helen Dragas and her cohorts were directly inspired by gushy articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, all venues where they love to celebrate the smashing of any institution by the Internet as long as it is being done to someone else’s institution. One message that jumped out at me appears at right. Jeffrey Walker, a hedge fund billionaire who sits on the board of Berklee College of Music, forwards Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington a Chronicle article (possibly this one) and suggests they go so deep into their research as to watch a YouTube video about the Stanford online course project. 2

At some point the media, and especially the NYT and Chronicle, needs to own up to the role its hyping of online courses and other shiny technological objects has played in poisoning the minds of the business people who sit on governing boards all over academia. So let me address the media for a moment. Reporters and editors covering higher education, it matters what you constantly tout. The busy executives who control our lives in their spare time are much more likely to read your little trend pieces and op-ed columns than they are to sit through a college class or talk to a working professor or read one of our books. Please think through the desirability and plausibility of the higher education apocalypse you are getting the suits so wound up about. Online and hybrid courses will have their place in certain subjects for certain audiences, especially at the introductory level, but until the day that major corporations and elite universities start very publicly recruiting and hiring holders of online degrees for their top positions, brick-and-mortar universities are here to stay. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation may find it groovy to put money into the University of the People (sort of a Wikipedia U., apparently, with courses taught by volunteers), but I am guessing it will be quite a while longer before U of the P alums fill the executive suites at Microsoft, or edit the Chronicle and NYT (Ivy League bastions in my journalism days).  Like most types of “education reform,”  online learning is something that traditionally-educated elites do to others.

At the same time, it is never clear exactly what the process would be by which the “Online Course Tsunami” will destroy conventional academia, unless it is by various Boards of Visitors, Curators, and Regents proactively sacrificing real academics to the the gods of change and “strategic dynamism.” 3 Students enjoy not coming to class, sure, but right now public universities are seeing record enrollments, and the competition for students is based on academic reputation, facilities, and cost, not buzz on the op-ed pages and Chronicle tech columns. (The competition for research money really only turns on the first of those.) Online education might reduce the need for classroom buildings, but I predict that a reputation for herding tuition-paying freshmen into online courses will not turn out to be a very healthy one for a major university to have. (Look for “no online courses” to become a SLAC selling point just like “no classes taught by TAs.) The damage to a sterling academic brand like UVA would be inconceivable, not to mention completely counter-productive. If these board members actually spent much time on campuses outside of meetings they might more easily grasp that students and their parents want the college experience (with the beer, parties, and extracurricular activities) and a prestigious credential, not the pleasure of accessing a shiny new web site.  Board members and administrations clearly think that somehow throwing money at online learning will save them money, against all evidence, but online learning is not the inevitable, annihilating  future of all higher education. It is a current craze that they are rushing to join because they are more familiar with computers and smartphones than scholarship and teaching.

What’s striking to me about the UVA situation, and reminds me of what has happened on my campus with the closing of University of Missouri Press, is that in neither case was there an immediate crisis or catalyst for the sudden, precipitous strike against the core academic values of a great public university. There were ongoing funding issues and new technological challenges to be sure, but nothing that demanded such immediate, self-damaging action. Instead, what we are dealing with is a kind of corporate death cult that worships Change for its sake and does not feel right until some blood is spilled. 4

P.S. “Death cult” is trifle exaggerated, I admit, but here is the excellent song that inspired it, T-Bone Burnett’s “Madison Avenue.” Listen all the way until the end.

P.P.S. Check it out: footnotes!

Show 4 footnotes

  1. The Chronicle of Higher Education had devoted so much space to ballyhooing online courses that Sullivan’s go-slow policy became itself a story, for them, back in April.
  2. I notice as I post this that an excellent article by George Washington University’s David Karpf called attention to the same email.
  3. I started writing this “death cult” post independently, but by the end of the day I was borrowing the cult and sacrifice metaphor from Barbara Fister’s wonderful essay, “UVa, the Cult of Change, and the Uses of Fear“, at Inside Higher Education. So goes the Internet.
  4. Alternate edgy title for this post: “Bring Me the Head of the German Department!”
Share

June 19, 2012

The Weakness of Being a Herd of Cats

Power grabs are nasty, brutish, and quick.

They’re intended to overwhelm and surprise the victims. To cause confusion. To frustrate your enemies’ abilities to mount counterattacks.

What we’ve been watching unfold at the University of Virginia during the last two weeks is a nothing less than a coup, carefully planned and staged when nobody was in town and when nobody was watching.

I have no original reporting to add, and I think Timothy Burke nailed it in his post about the incredible ham-handedness of the Board of Visitors as a horde of micro-managers who are either treating UVA in a way they’d never treat their own private businesses, or who are so inept that they’re walking proof that wealth is mainly based on luck in marriage and genetics.

What’s striking to me is how familiar this should be to historians. We’ve seen appointments of ‘midnight judges,’ a Saturday night massacre, a night of the long knives. We’ve seen Bush-Gore, Hayes-Tilden, Adams-Jefferson.

When he learned that UVA Rector Helen Dragas – a real estate executive – had gone to UVA’s President Teresa Sullivan on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend to tell her that 8 of the 15 members of the university’s board were prepared to demand her resignation, a friend of mine thought it couldn’t have been true. Eight of fifteen was “bare majority” and “nobody” would run a university like that. It was too divisive. It flew in the face of everything a liberal education was supposed to stand for at Thomas Jefferson’s school.

Yet some people do operate that way; some just did.

We’re not used to thinking that the bare-knuckle power plays which are routine in politics, corporate boardrooms, and statecraft could be so portable. It’s shocking to think that one rector, weeks before the expiration of her term, would do something like this. Sullivan was in her second year, and by press accounts, Dragas and several members of the university’s business school community began working on what they called the “project” to have her fired. Who knows if Sullivan suspected that Dragas was telephoning board members individually, holding meetings to dodge open records laws and evade other board members who would expose her sleazy m.o. Dragas timed the meeting with Sullivan to coincide with the holiday weekend, after students had left town, when many faculty were away and several big money donors on the board were either overseas or – in one case – recuperating from surgery. To this day, she has offered no clear account of why Sullivan was removed. No specific complaints, no particular flaws or faults. Nothing.

There was a protest on the university’s famed Lawn yesterday. The faculty senate had a meeting with Dragas at which she gave no clear explanation for Sullivan’s removal. They held an overwhelming ‘no confidence’ vote in Dragas soon after.

What’s interesting to me is that Dragas doesn’t care. Just look at this portion of the statement she issued late in the day yesterday:

We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University. For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you – our U.VA. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.

In case you’re not fluent in Bullshit, that statement is what it looks like when you extend your middle digit in the direction of your iPhone and ask Siri to transcribe it. Dragas has no intention of explaining her reasons. It doesn’t matter to her whether we, or the students, or the faculty, or the alums, or the other members of the Board don’t know why this was hatched.

We’ve been lulled into thinking that a university operates on a consensus model, and maybe we’re about to witness why it should. But my hunch is that trustees will learn from this. Dragas acts like this because she can, and as long as she can, she will. It doesn’t matter to her whether the faculty senate is upset, because right now the faculty senate seems to have no legal standing to do much of anything except pass resolutions with no binding authority or quit their posts.

We like to think that we can rely on the good intentions of board members whose ostensible and historical role has been to serve as caretakers. But we are ill-equipped to deal with a board that goes rogue. By some media accounts, Dragas and her cabal want UVA to start closing departments and to begin shifting 1st- and 2nd-year instruction to an online format. Why? Because several of her conspirators are invested in an online education provider and want that company to be given a preferential role in transforming UVA’s curriculum.

If you wanted to have a discussion about the goals of online ed or the structure of departments, you’d have that conversation with people who work in academia. But if you wanted to just grab some revenue streams for your pals, this is how you’d do it, because at the end of the day you don’t really care about the content or the consequence for the faculty, students, or university – you only care about the money pipeline.

I keep hoping that some rich member of the UVA Board of Visitors is going to step forward and publicly call for Dragas to resign and for Sullivan to be reinstated.

But that hasn’t happened, and even if it did, it would only paper over the enormous problem that’s been exposed during the last two weeks:

Faculty governance institutions, as they are currently constituted, are far too weak to stand up to board members who see the university as an oil deposit or a copper vein. I suspect that Dragas’ enemies on the board know they’ve been beaten. I hope that the smarter ones among them are taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the university’s rulebooks and the Virginia statutes concerning higher ed. I hope the Faculty Senate is lawyering up for a fight.

Remember how we used to wonder how we were going to answer the argument that the university should be run like a corporation?

It turns out that you can just skip over the conversation part.

If this can happen at UVA – and, let’s just say it – IT DID – we should all feel the fierce urgency of now. We’re not used to thinking of ourselves collectively – in practice, many of us are Mugwumps and anti-Federalists – but we’d better start.

The people coming after our institutions, our students, and our jobs are organized, committed, and highly motivated. The rules matter, and if we’re going to survive as a profession, we’d better learn how to play hardball and start figuring out ways to make it impossible for future Helen Dragases to unravel 200 years of traditions in service of a crassly self-interested self-enrichment scheme.

Share

June 18, 2012

We’re a Funny Board, Sully — That’s Why We’re Going to Fire You Last

Filed under: Academia,Ben Carp's Posts,Founders — Benjamin Carp @ 10:26 pm

No doubt you’ve heard about the uproar at the University of Virginia over the sudden ouster of Teresa Sullivan from the presidency.  I left the University years ago, and I don’t regularly follow the news there, so I have no unique insight into the situation.  But I trust Siva Vaidhyanathan’s assessment of her reputation, and his breakdown of how this all went down.  Many people have pointed out the irony that the Board of Visitors may have wanted Sullivan to trim the study of classics and German, when the university’s illustrious founder himself was well versed in languages ancient and modern.

Timothy Burke of Swarthmore is disgustedly dismissive, writing that the UVA decision is “about nothing more than mismanagement and malfeasance” on the part of the Board and the captains of industry that appear to have dominated the decision-making.  ”Doctor Cleveland” sees darker portents at work, which made me wonder why Burke was reluctant to link to his earlier worries about academic meddling:

They already came for the doctors and the psychiatrists. They already came for the lawyers. They already came for the accountants and auditors. They already came for all the professions. Professors are the last to be broken on the wheel, the last to be put at their station in the new assembly lines of the 21st Century Service Economy.

The early Industrial Revolution, in the first decades of the 19th Century, was not focused on the giant factories and mass economies that were characteristic of its later height: it was about replacing artisanal and household production through relatively small efficiencies and reorganizations of labor and property. This is what’s happening now to the professions. The professions were the great engines of bourgeois culture in mass society. They were provided human capital by the massification of education but they also provided services to much of society that couldn’t be duplicated or replaced by industrial capital, services that were seen as public goods in newly democratizing societies.

In the early 20th Century, most of the professions came to see autonomy and self-governance as the precondition of providing high-value artisanal service to both elite and mass clientele. The relations the professions created to clients were simultaneously intimate and impersonal. Patients sought doctors they could personally trust but that trust was a product of the doctor’s calling to a vocation with values and obligations bigger than his own interests. Businesses and governments looked for auditors who were independent but also had a skilled and sympathetic understanding of fiduciary workings. And students looked for teachers who were committed to an educational mission bigger than themselves but who also taught out of a fiercely independent and individualized vision of craft. Think of the exalted archetypes of teaching in 20th Century fiction for examples, like Mr. Chips or David Powlett-Jones.

The post-industrial service and knowledge-based economies of the last thirty years have relentlessly chipped away at the autonomy of the professions, because professions are service. They could no more be allowed a semi-monopolistic right to set their own value than artisans and guilds could be allowed to continue to set the value of clothing or printing in the face of early industrialization.

Burke was initially discussing outsider complaints about the workload of college professor; but it seems to me his words might just as easily apply to college administrators–in the absence of government funding (or any ethos at all of education as a common good), their claims to autonomy and their expectations of patience are doomed to be subject to the whims of big donors and their friends among the trustees.

So of course, everyone who cares about higher education and “contemplative spaces” (Vaidhyanathan) gets nervous when politicians, trustees, donors, and administrators throw their weight around in this way (see Jeff’s earlier post about the University of Missouri Press).  Faculty members much prefer a president who cares about the academic mission and raises boatloads of money, but doesn’t gore anyone’s oxen.  But given the economic climate, it’s not clear we’ll get to keep having such presidents.  One story down in Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik is touting the story of humanist David Dudley at Georgia Southern University, who lamented (in an open letter to colleagues) the revolving door of administrators out to make their names, caring little for the long-suffering faculty, who are “at the point where they say ‘just leave us alone.’”  In years when most faculty salaries have failed to keep pace with inflation, many administrators (and wealthy donors, and random packs of consultants) become particular objects of resentment, as their executive pay packages grow to ever greater heights.  Whatever the outcome for Sullivan, her reputation and financial health should emerge relatively unscathed.  The same can’t be said for the University of Virginia, which is sad for those of us who bear degrees and fond memories from the place.

Share

The Bicentennial is Upon Us

Filed under: Early Republic,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 8:05 am

Well, here we are. The waiting is over. Today marks the 200th anniversary of the declaration of war against the United Kingdom that started the War of 1812. Over the next two and a half years, fighting occurred along the US-Canada border, at sea, and most famously, in the mid-Atlantic, before concluding with the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814 … and the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. And today’s bicentennial is rather momentous in at least one respect: it’s the first time that Congress exercised its Constitutional power to declare war.

Over the past few months, Publick Occurrences 2.0 has been following some of the debates about the war’s commemoration. As with much other news in the United States these days, the media seem more concerned with the process story—are we commemorating as much as Canada? Why not?—than with the substance of the war or its significance. And indeed, most of the time all we remember about the War of 1812 is that it gave us a postwar construction boom in Washington, DC, a poem that was rather catchy when set to a British drinking song, and Andrew Jackson.

Nonetheless, with the anniversary today, it seems like a good time to provide some links and resources about the war and its bicentennial.

  • Last fall, PBS aired a two-hour documentary on the war as a “strange and awkward conflict that shaped the destiny of a continent.”
  • A Guide to the War of 1812 from the Library of Congress.
  • The American History Guys at BackStory featured an insightful discussion about the War of 1812 for their weekly radio show.
  • And, in case you’re catching up, we’ve had discussions about the war here, here, and a Twitter discussion here. And yes, part of that discussion was about whether the War of 1812 was worth commemorating.

On the other hand, Troy Bickham points out at the Oxford University Press blog that the way we remember the war elides all opinions about it other than its triumphs and heroisms:

The truth is that the War of 1812 was a conflict that few wanted. Not a single member of the Federalist party in Congress voted for a declaration of war. Governors and legislatures of New England states, where the Federalists were strong and anti-war sentiment even stronger, announced statewide days of fasting and prayer in mourning. In a public address sent to Congress in the response to the declaration of war, the Massachusetts House of Representatives declared that: “An offensive war against Great Britain, under the present circumstances of this country, would be in the highest degree, impolitic, unnecessary, and ruinous.” New England clergymen used their pulpits to rail against the war and discourage young men from service, with such ministers as Nathan Beman of Portland describing the army camps as “the head quarters of Satan.”

In other words, we’re unlikely to see a re-enactment of the Hartford Convention, as riveting as that might be.

Share

June 11, 2012

Thurlow Weed and William Randolph Hearst were Unavailable for Comment

Yesterday the New York Times ran a piece about the U-T San Diego (formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune), the southern California daily owned by hotel magnate Douglas Manchester.* The paper, according to media reporter David Carr, may be part of a “future” in which “moneyed interests buy papers and use them to prosecute a political and commercial agenda. ” The piece led me to two thoughts, one  on the history and one on the future.

The history is easy: Manchester’s move to simply take over a journalistic enterprise to promote his commercial and political interests is classic nineteenth-century journalism. In fact, as most journalism historians would argue (I think, anyway), the ideal of “objectivity” has a much shorter lived history in journalism than does the partisan nature of the press. It’s how Weed and Hearst made their money, how Andrew Jackson controlled the narrative of his Presidency, and the reason why there are two sets of “official” transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

That’s not to say that during this period no one claimed to be impartial. On the contrary. In my own work [ed.: shameless plug alert!] I’m trying to show that paeans to impartiality were a self-negating means of producing politically pointed news. Or to put it another way, and to paraphrase the movie musical 1776 (itself ripping off Franklin): impartiality is only visible in the first person: I’m impartial!, and partiality only in the third: he’s biased!

That media analysts like Carr fail to acknowledge this history in writing the narrative of the changes in journalism over the past few years is disappointing. Instead we get treated to Golden Age pablum:

Many of us grew up in towns where the daily paper was in bed with civic leaders, but the shared interest was generally expressed on the editorial page. Occasionally, appropriate lines of inquiry would be suspiciously ignored in coverage, but the news pages were just that, news.

I’ll take my bias the old-fashioned way, thank you very much.

As for the future, I must admit that I’m still trying to sort out how to interpret this through a historical lens. In many regards, I want to be cautious. The nineteenth century was a Golden Age for partisan journalism (whether party- or business-based), but an awful lot has happened since then. We live now in a cultural milieu that seeks unbiased news, whatever that means, and a move towards more partisan-oriented journalism has consequences.

On the other hand, as media critic Jay Rosen has argued for several years, the “View from Nowhere” no longer serves even the function it once purported to serve. Saying where one stands as a journalist may eventually prove far more effective at communicating information and the contours of a debate than the weak-kneed “he said, she said” journalism we’re frequently presented today. But doing so means that Manchester gets to own a newspaper that proclaims a viewpoint, and if he’s going to do those things, it’s to the good that he say so, as Rosen noted on Twitter.

In any case, combined with last week’s discussion of movie mash-ups involving Lincoln and vigilante freedmen and the news that gonorrhea is making an antibiotic-resistant comeback, the nineteenth century is having quite a run.

* If his name sounds familiar to the historians out there, Manchester was locked in a labor dispute with several unions at hotels that were used for the 2010 AHA convention.

Share
« Previous PageNext Page »

Copyright © Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved
Powered by WordPress