What I use tenure for; teachers are not retail salespeople

There is a nice piece over the Chronicle about how students need professors with tenure. The US has so undermined its teachers, it is hard to know where to even with this, but it’s not the case that your child will get better teaching if you can pull strings on a teacher and yell “dance, monkey, dance” at him.

I personally have used tenure in three ways, both of which has influenced my teaching for the positive.

1. I’ve used tenure to pursue, new, long-term projects that involve a great deal of data collection and/or new reading and/or new skill acquisition.

That contributes multiple ways in my research and in the classroom. It means that I integrate new ideas into my existing classes, for one, and has given me a means of how to model lifelong learning for my students.

It also means that when I take time to develop a new dataset that students get to use it, too.

2. Second, I use tenure to stand up to students more, ask more of them, and be more generous about my mistakes and with theirs.

I am a much better instructor now than I was before tenure. Before tenure, any miffed student who marched off in a huff to my higher ups was a threat, and I either went easy on students all the time, placating them, or I undermined disgruntled students right back. Your job is at stake–the stakes are high for you, and they think the consequences are low for them. It isn’t. Having teachers that only pass you along and praise you for being a special snowflake is like a diet of Frosted Flakes and candy bars. It feels good for a bit, but it’s empty, and it’s not particularly good for you.

Teachers are not waiters or retail salespeople whose role it is to give you what you order even if it’s not particularly good for you. Imagine a car salesman refusing to sell you are car because he could tell, during the test drive, that you were a lousy driver: “Take the bus.” Teachers are in a different role.

Now when a student is mad at me, I let them be mad for awhile, and I try to figure it out. Maybe they are struggling with something I can help them with. Maybe I made a mistake I need to rectify. A mistake in the classroom should not have people calling for your head all the time, nor should it be something that causes a student to feel like they are going to get trounced, either, in the professional networks of a university. If you aren’t a little experimental, then you get to join the ranks of boring, stiff-as-a-board appropriate-bots that line our corporate world like drones. Who needs that in a classroom? I swear it’s everywhere else.

What if the mistake in the classroom is a big one? Shouldn’t we be able to fire you over that? It’s possible to get rid of instructors who do malfeasance. Don’t believe the blah-blah heads over at FoxNews on this one: it’s possible to make a tenured professor miserable if an administrator wants to, and it’s possible to dismiss them if the behavior is egregious. If administrators are tolerating egregious classroom behavior from somebody, chances are, that person isn’t being protected by tenure. He is most likely a research bigwig or prestige-networked in some other way, and tenured, and tenure is what people hide behind there when they don’t want to tangle with him. A bad instructor who isn’t adding much value to anything in the place, those can and do go. It takes effort, but it does happen.

But displeasing a student is not egregious.

3. I have used tenure to try to stand up for what is right and echo and amplify the ideas of people who do not have the institutional security to say to people “This is wrong.”

I’ve obviously been speaking my mind about the changes in transit, walking, and biking subsidies at USC. I’ve also made statements about campus policing. I’ve spoken up for my colleagues who have needed support.

I don’t do this enough because on today’s campus, it’s exhausting. I’m very tired after spending this week screaming and yelling about the transit subsidy. My dean has been supportive, and for that I am so grateful, but so far, I am the only policy faculty who has stuck her neck out. Now, we have a Center for Sustainable Ciites. And we have people who have titles with “Sustainable” in them. And when I yell and scream and wave my hands, lots of faculty blink at me like, what do you want from me? What can I possibly do.I’m terribly busy doing things for me.

That obsession with self-branding and self-building in the academy, which is a definite by-product of the star economy, strikes me as far worse for students than tenure might be. It rewards “I, me, mine” over and over to the point that people just can’t see anything else. So tangling with students or making things hard on them? Why would I do that? They just get mad. If we make everything light and frothy, I get to stay a star and they get to stay comfortable and I get to go back to my research.

Now, it’s entirely possible to use star status in important ways. But what, exactly, is the point of collecting social and political capital if you never use it? Or if you only use it to feather your own nest?

There are more consequences of star economy. If get to be a star writing about how “X causes Y” then the incentive is there to beat that drum again and again and again. Over and over. It provides me with an incentive to diddle the data until my next four projects say the exact same thing as my “golly, it made me a star!” project. You also have an incentive to kill off junior scholars who have findings that disagree with yours.

So having won an award on a paper on social media, that’s all anybody wants me to do now. Sorry, folks. That is not happening.

“USC is a commuter school, anyway.” WHAT?

As regular readers will know, I’m having a (righteous) tantrum because USC has eliminated its transit subsidy program for its faculty and staff. This is bad policy move for both obvious and nonobvious reasons.

Most people in the sustainability and public policy world think it’s an embarrassingly bad corporate move, but I do have a couple students in the business school who think I’m crazy for caring, but for reasons that took my breath away. One, in particular, is a bare-knuckles, salty sort of business guy.

When I told him the story, he just said, and I quote: ” So what? USC is just commuter school anyway.”

Me: What do you mean by that?

Him: It’s a commuter school for kids from Orange County. That’s always what it’s been. So everybody drives to campus anyway.”

WHAT? No it hasn’t! HAVE YOU NOT BEEN PAYING ATTENTION? We are moving up the rankings, investing in buildings and faculty and running a $6bn campaign (which, btw, looks even more unseemly when you set it beside the fact that we are eliminating benefits for transit dependent employees. Ish).

I laid the argument that every other major urban university encourages transit use.

He shakes his head at me. “USC has more in common with UC Riverside than it does with MIT or NYU. It’s just that the students at USC are richer than the ones at Riverside.”


(That’s not true, is it?)

The corporate takeover of the University of Iowa seems to have gone smoothly

So here’s what I don’t understand about all of Terry Branstead’s cronies and their crappy little power play that put a business consultant in the presidency of the University of Iowa:

Universities have people in them that are both worshippers of Mammon and who have higher education experience. They are called business professors.

They have, at least done a job in higher education, though the life of a business professor is hardly that of the average adjunct. But at least B-school deans have done the job for a bit and have a passing interest in education.

I get that this business consultant is a buddy of the guy who pours money into Terry Branstead’s coffers. But surely, there was some other big business apologist within a med school (big pharma) or a b-school who had been a dean or provost somewhere that they could have elevated to the purple.

A short reading list for Kim Davis; understanding law, justice, and religious liberty

By now the internet has had quite a time discussing Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. I always feel sorry for the people who wind up in Kim Davis’s position, though I am sure part of her probably enjoys the attention for what she perceives to be a heroic stance against what she considers to be an immoral law.

This question–should you obey laws that you don’t agree with–is an oldie and a goodie in political theory and philosophy, where people make a distinction between law and justice for good reasons. What is lawful may not be just, and what is just may not, currently, be lawful. But the absence of any sense of justice in the law robs the law of its moral legitimacy, or why people will go along with the laws in the first place.

I’ve always maintained that the point of theory is to help people empathize with different ways of thinking about the world, particularly ways that differ quite a bit from their own. Towards that end, I put together a little reading list for students who want to think about Ms. Davis and her problem, which is: she believes same-sex marriage violates natural (divine) law (physis), but her professional legal role in enforcing man’s law (nomos). (My computer seems to want to insist on turning nomos to gnomes. What the actual hell? Does the word gnomes come up more often than the concept of nomos? Really??)

Laws and Justice, on the duty to obey laws, or not, and sublimation of the self to political community in classical studies:

Plato: Apology
Plato: Crito
Plato: Phaedo
Cicero: On Duties
Augustine: City of God
Aquinas: Selections from the Summa–get a reader that curates for you
Areopagitica by John Milton
Machiavelli: The Prince; The Discourses
Hobbes, Leviathan
Locke, First Treatise of Civil Government
Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
Bentham, Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation
Burke, Empire, Liberty, and Reform
Marx, On the Jewish Question (this one right here, if you can read no other; this is why conservatives should read Marx).
Mill, On Liberty
Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil

I’ve got to run off to class but I will come back later in the week with some contemporary writers and thinkers who have been riffing off the concepts from the classics, but you can’t actually get at an answer for any of this without Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Antonio Gramsci, and some of the writings of Mahatma Gandhi.