Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Archive for the category “academia”

Choosing a College

By the way, a great measure of whether a school (or a department) is worth attending is what happens after graduation. If professors just forget about their students’ existence two minutes after the graduation ceremony, make no effort to place them in jobs, don’t forward information on employment opportunities, don’t speak to local employers about the graduates, etc. – that’s not a good school.

Our graduation ceremony took place in early May, and since then, I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of work. Everybody should try to locate a recent graduate of their department (this is super easy to do through LinkedIn) before choosing a college to attend and ask how often the school has been in touch for anything other than requests for money.


Who Needs to Get Rid of Older Academics?

Each day brings yet another completely bizarre and profoundly idiotic solution to the non-existent “crisis” in higher education. Instead of straining their brains and realizing that the calls for profound changes in our system of higher education are part of the anti-intellectual trend of peddlers of stupidity as a life goal, my fellow academics show just how servile they can be by inventing ridiculous self-castrating methods of pruning everything that’s of value on American campuses.

See, for example, the following disturbing article published at Inside Higher Ed. This online resource (which is supposed to be written for academics by academics) has turned into one of the biggest academia-bashers in existence. It is now proposing that colleges should get rid of scholars over the age of 65 because they cost too much and can easily be replaced with new PhDs:

First, these individuals are expensive. They are generally tenured, often hold endowed chairs, and are at the top of the faculty compensation scale. While they might be great teachers and/or researchers, they can often be replaced by a young faculty member at less than half the cost.

Most of us leading colleges and universities must consider the expense of those who continue to want to be employed after age 65 because of the national attention on the cost of higher education and faculty compensation is often the largest slice of that cost.

I have go to wonder whether the person who wrote this is simply dishonest or painfully stupid. This national obsession with the supposedly sky-high salaries of college professors is based on a myth that people like the author of this piece promote. Compared to the huge amounts of money wasted on college athletics, remuneration of useless overpaid administrators and the maintenance of silly fraternities and sororities, the salaries of experienced academics are a drop in the bucket. The benefits of having people with decades of experience in teaching and research on campus, however, are enormous. I have two 60+-year-old colleagues whose assistance in navigating the academia in general and my institution in particular has been incredibly helpful. A university simply cannot function without  constant interactions and exchanges of knowledge and experience between academics who are at the very beginning of their journey as scholars and more experienced, seasoned academics.

The reason why this completely fictitious concern over “hugely expensive” older scholars is being manufactured is simply that older tenured scholars fight for the rights of academics and students very effectively. At my university, I have witnessed several highly effective campaigns in defense of the rights of college professors spearheaded by 60+-year-old scholars whose decades of experience in conducting (and winning!) such fights were both helpful and inspiring.

The author of the article (who, as you might have guessed already, is a college administrator) makes the following suggestions aimed at squeezing mature academics out of their universities:

  • Give up tenure at age 65 — a move that ensures younger superstar faculty will have an opportunity to stay at the institution.
  • Relinquish endowed chairs or professorships. In this case, time is not on a younger professor’s side. If they cannot see a path to promotion they will go elsewhere.
  • Take a reduced salary based on a pay scale similar to incoming faculty. Yes, when you play with salary questions, you’re playing with fire, but in most cases living expenses go down as we educate our kids and pay off homes. And Mick Jagger solo makes less than the Stones. Much less.

The fake concern over the younger faculty members is especially offensive to me. Surely, this administrator is aware that what destroys tenure positions is not the existence of older academics but the creeping adjunctification of American campuses. Transform all adjunct positions into tenure-tracks and you don’t have to push out older scholars by humiliating them.

Americo Castro, one of the greatest scholars of Spanish history and literature, wrote his The Structure of Spanish History at the age of 69 and his Out of the State of Conflict at the age of 76. Benedict Anderson, one of my favorite historians, published Debating World Literature at 68. Fernando Lázaro Carreter, a great linguist, published his hugely popular defense of the Spanish language against those who torture it at the age of 74.

As a younger professor in whose name this administrator claims to speak, I can assure everybody that the last thing I need to happen for my career advancement is the massive removal of older academics from the campus. There are some dead-weights in academia, for sure, but I have never seen any connection whatsoever between being a dead-weight and being of a certain age.

Academic Job Search: How to Write a Cover Letter?

I know that this post is not appearing in a very timely manner since people normally go on the job market in the Fall or, at the very latest, in winter. But I think it’s still a good idea to make this information available to those who are preparing to start looking for a job in academia in the near (or not so near) future. The post will be long and since it is hardly of much interest to people who are not on the academic job market, I will put half of it under the fold. (There are funny stories under the fold, though.)

Now that I am “a real professor”, I have started working on search committees that evaluate candidates for academic positions. This has been an eye-opening experience for me. If only I had understood how the academic job search works from the inside (i.e. from the perspective of the employers), my own job search would have been completely different. Of course, I ended up with the job of my dreams, but that was sheer luck. As I’m working on my search committees, I’m realizing how horribly and frequently I screwed up during my time on the market.

In this series of posts, I want to share the insights that I have gleaned into the academic job search process with my readers. To begin with, I will discuss how one should write a cover letter. What you need to remember is that the market is over-saturated and search committees have to sift through hundreds of portfolios (or dozens if the search is extremely specific, say a Chair search.) This is why it is not a good idea to write a 6-page-long description of your intellectual journey. This is what I did and only now have I started to realize what an irredeemable idiot I was. That cover letter would have made an excellent blog post but, in its capacity as a cover letter, it sucked something fierce.

A cover letter should be tailored very specifically to each job announcement you are responding to. I know it’s an incredible drag but that’s the only way. Remember that members of a search committee have a list of requirements for their position, and as they sift through 300 portfolios, they tick off boxes on that list. You win if you make that process as easy as possible for them. This will allow you to make the short list of people who will be interviewed by phone (Skype, at the MLA, etc.)

So how do you tailor your cover letter in practice? Here is a sample job announcement that I have created:

Assistant Professor, tenure-track. A PhD in hand or an ABD near completion. The Department of Modern Languages and Literature at Illinois State University in Alton is looking for a specialist in French Literature with a specialization in the History and Culture of Quebec and a demonstrable capacity to teach courses in Advanced French Grammar and Conversation. An active research agenda is a must. Native or near-native command of French. An experience supervising language instructors is highly desired. Needs to be familiar with ACTFL and NCATE guidelines for proficiency testing.

You need to pick this job announcement apart and make a list of criteria this department is looking for in a candidate. Then, you address each criteria in your cover letter. If you can address them in the order in which they appear in the announcement, that’s even better.

Read more…

The Innovative University by Christensen and Eyring: A Review

There is a lot of talk nowadays about the purported crisis within the system of higher education in North America. Every Tom, Dick and Henrietta think they have a recipe that will immediately cure the academia of all its ills. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out by Christensen and Eyring is one of such attempts to offer a recipe for a cure. In reality, however, the book is more of a symptom of what is wrong with the system than anything else.

Altogether, the book offers a lot of long-winded sentences that state not just the obvious but the painfully obvious. It is, however, very short on substance. The only practical suggestions it makes for the improvement of the higher education system are extremely trivial and well-known to anybody. Moreover, the absolute majority of universities that I am familiar with have been putting these suggestions in practice for a while.

A significant chunk of the book (about 150 pages)is taken up by a very detailed recounting of the history of Harvard University. Since the history of Harvard can be found in a variety of other sources, I felt that its role in THE INNOVATIVE UNIVERSITY was that of padding. Overall, the original content of the book could be summarized in 3 or 4 sentences. The rest is just repetitive, tedious padding.

The things I mentioned, however, are not the worst part of the book. What is really annoying about it is the attempt to analyze the university as if it were a business. Students are referred to as student-customers. Christensen directly compares selling education to selling a box of cereal. And he pushes this “idea” as insistently as he does every other inane observation he makes. With a naivete that makes one feel vicarious embarrassment for him, this author almost exclaims on a variety of occasions, “This strategy works if you want to sell cereal. So it has to work when applied to the system of higher ed, too!”

If anything will end up destroying the American system of higher education – which, in my opinion, is without a doubt the best system of higher education in the world – it is this kind of attitude. Universities are not businesses. Their goal is not to sell the product at all costs. The university’s role in society is completely different. It makes no sense to try to run a business as if it were, say, a charitable organization. Or a household. Or a college. In the same way, it makes no sense to impose on the system of higher education rules and procedures that are alien to it. A much better title for this book would have been How to Destroy a University in Ten Months Or Less because this is precisely what will happen if the ridiculous suggestions of its authors are put into practice.

I’ve been working in the system of North American higher education for a little over ten years now. Every day, I see professors, lecturers, instructors, administrators and students who come together for the purposes of sharing, cultivating and advancing knowledge. And there is nothing more beautiful than a bunch of people brought together by their love of learning and their desire to disseminate their knowledge. However, some colleges have adopted the pernicious practice of bringing in very highly paid business managers to manage campuses. These people are often brilliant business leaders who are, at the same time, absolutely clueless about how to run a university. They begin to apply their knowledge of how to run a business to an environment that is completely different. The results are always disastrous. Even if such administrators manage to raise enrollments by moving most of the courses online and destroying the emphasis on research (which are Christensen’s and Eyring’s main suggestions in this book), the university soon ends up losing all prestige and starts being referred to both at home and abroad as a “diploma mill.”

In the opinion of these authors, it wouldn’t be a problem if most of our universities turned into places that churn out useless online courses and produce no research whatsoever. As long as the “student-customers” are happy with being able to buy a diploma while investing very little intellectual effort into acquiring it, everybody will be happy. As for research, we always have Harvard.

For those of us who believe that our students and our American scholarship deserves better, this is not a valid path.

A Video on Antonio Calvo’s Death

A Spanish TV channel has aired a program on the suicide of Dr. Calvo who had taken his life after being thrown out of Princeton in mysterious circumstances.

You can find the program here.

The video is in Spanish, so, unfortunately, only the Spanish-speakers will be able to understand it. However, even if you have no Spanish, I still want to call your attention specifically to the segment where the Chair of Dr. Calvo’s Department, Dr. Gabriela Nouzeilles is being asked a question about what happened. You don’t need to understand the words because the Chair’s demeanor is very self-explanatory. The episode in question is located at 02:05 of Segment 1 and in greater detail at 02:04 of Segment 5. Watch it, people, the segment really speaks for itself.

Dr. Nouzeilles is the person who handed Antonio a letter of termination stating that there had been many complaints about him and that he was “problematic.” The letter offered absolutely no specific information as to what exactly Antonio had done wrong. On that day, Antonio was escorted out of his office by the security. Four days later, he killed himself by stabbing himself in the arms and the neck.

It is suggested in the program that people who smeared Antonio and managed to get him kicked out of Princeton used the fact that he was openly gay to present the Spanish expression he once used in an email to a grad student (“Deja de tocarte los huevos” – Stop being lazy, or, literally, stop touching your balls) as in instance of sexual harassment.

Apparently, Antonio named people he considered guilty in his suicide note. These names are not mentioned in the program, but the following part of it is quoted [translation is mine]:

Alone, faced with abuse and injustice, I prefer to leave everything than to continue down the road that leads to greater suffering and to being treated as if I were guilty of some crime.

Princeton has not contacted Dr. Calvo’s family in any way to offer condolences, let alone to explain anything.

In the program, Piglia and Vargas Llosa also refuse to comment.

The saddest part of the video is the contrast between the wall of silence that Princeton has created around Dr. Calvo’s death and the hand-written note saying “WE WON’T FORGET” on the door of his office.

My sincere gratitude to Spanish prof who provided a link to this video and who has been keeping the story alive with her insightful posts on the subject.

A Weird Article on College Education in the New York Times

While I agree that trying to impose the business model on academia is wrong and that high standards of education should be maintained at all costs, I am often baffled by how people go about defending these useful ideas. Take, for example, the recent article in The New York Times titled “Your So-Called Education.” After reading it, I realized that, according to the article’s authors, the greatest problem in higher ed is me. Let’s look at some of the points the article makes.

The quality of college education is slipping because:

1. “In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week.”

I must be a real underachiever because in my undergraduate courses, I never assign more that 30 pages of reading a week in any given course. I teach literature and culture, so reading is pretty much all we do. However, my goal is not to get the students to skim through as many pages as possible. I want them to read critically, to engage with the text, to try to go through it slowly. If you read 3 pages a week but manage to come up with some analysis of it, it’s a lot more useful than gulping down 100 pages of a text just to fulfill some silly requirement.

2. “50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester.”

In my trademark course on Hispanic Civilization, students write several short essays that come up to less than 20 pages per semester. The writing component is crucial to that course. (Because I decided that it should be.) However, I don’t see how it helps anybody to get the students to hand in reams of poorly written garbage. If a student manages to produce a single beautifully written page at the end of the semester, I will believe that my goal in the course has been accomplished. Students come to this Freshman course with no understanding of what distinguishes good and bad writing. Giving them humongous writing assignments will only lead them to reproduce the same horrible writing techniques they brought to college from their high schools.

3. “The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying.”

I wonder if anybody has counted how many of those hours a student in the 1960 spent hunting for information and doing manually all those things that today are simplified to an incredible degree by the Internet and text processing. If we take into account how much faster the writing becomes thanks to text editors, I’m sure we will arrive at a conclusion that today students work more.  

4. “Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.

I must have poor critical thinking skills myself because I truly fail to understand how critical thinking and complex reasoning can be measured on “a traditional 0-to-100 point range.” The authors of this article bemoan the fact that the business model has been imposed on academia, but they fail to notice to what incredible degree they have been infected by this very model. Good reading and good writing for them are about a number of pages. Complex reasoning is about a number of points. In short, numbers rule supreme.

5. “Expanded privacy protections have created obstacles for colleges in providing information on student performance to parents, undercutting a traditional check on student lassitude.”

The idea that educators would somehow benefit from having even more helicopter parents buzzing around them is bizarre. Has anybody ever developed their critical thinking skills because they were afraid their parents might scold them in case they didn’t? 

6. “Too many institutions, for instance, rely primarily on student course evaluations to assess teaching. This creates perverse incentives for professors to demand little and give out good grades.

The idea that professors who demand little and hand out easy grades are the ones who get good student evaluations is completely misguided. If I told you what percentage of students I fail each semester, I think you’d agree that I’m anything but an easy grader. My evaluations, though, have always been fantastic. Students actually don’t like professors who ask too little of them. In my teaching experience, the only way to get students to evaluate you highly is to demonstrate that your knowledge of the subject matter is profound.

7. “And the Department of Education could make available nationally representative longitudinal data on undergraduate learning outcomes for research purposes, as it has been doing for decades for primary and secondary education.”

Given that primary and secondary education in this country have gone completely to the dogs in the past couple of decades, this suggestion really mystified me. “Longitudinal data on learning outcomes” is the bureaucracy-speak version of teaching to the test. This model inflicted untold damage on our secondary education on a daily basis, but now we are to inflict it on higher education as well.

In short, even when The New York Times is trying to do something good, it ends up  producing the exact opposite.

Corruption in the Higher Education System in Spain

A professor in Murcia is claiming that he is persecuted for writing a book about how corrupt the system of higher education is in Spain:

A Spanish university has denied that disciplinary proceedings against one of its professors are a response to a book he wrote alleging corruption at the institution. José Penalva, professor of education at the University of Murcia, has been accused of absenteeism and could face dismissal. He told Times Higher Education that he believed the real reason for the action was a book, published last month, in which he claimed that political influence and nepotism were rife in Spanish universities. Corrupción en la Universidad (Corruption in the University) describes what Professor Penalva sees as the incestuous relationship between Spanish universities and local politics, which he believes is a major factor in the “mediocrity” of the country’s higher education institutions. “The rector always is a person who has a lot of power in the local community, and is always supported by a bunch of deans and politicians who scratch each other’s backs,” Professor Penalva told THE. “This explains why Spanish universities are at the bottom of the international rankings: there is no accountability, so the quality of research is very low,” he said. . . Professor Penalva said Spanish universities were legally obliged to advertise academic positions, but that the majority of the members of the selection panels were appointed by the university’s rector and the dean of the department in question. “This explains why 98 per cent of lecturers and professors in Spanish universities are ‘local candidates’ who have already worked in the department and have a ‘godfather’ there,” he said.
I have no idea whether Dr. Penalva is, in fact, guilty of absenteeism, but I do know that he is absolutely right in his charges against the higher education system in Spain. I love Spain and have dedicated my life to the study, teaching and promotion of its culture. However, I have to agree that Spanish higher education is for shit.

When I first started out as a student in Hispanic Studies, my dream was to do my PhD in Spain. Then, gradually, I began noticing certain things that made me reconsider this plan. All of the brightest Hispanists I knew were doing all they could to leave Spain. When I asked them why they didn’t want to look for a professorial position or a grad school program in their country, they would tell me that they didn’t have the kind of connections it took to be successful in Spanish academia. The quality of courses in the Humanities is, more often than not, abysmal. Sexual harassment, nepotism and exploitation of graduate students are rife. As a result, scholars who want to do actual research and advance on their merits and not on the number of anuses they have been able to wipe clean with their tongues abandon the country.

It is not humanly possible to dedicate enough energy and time to research while simultaneously trying to cultivate connections with everybody who might be remotely “useful.” Of course, I have seen academics here in the US who choose ass-licking (and I don’t mean in a good, sexually fulfilling kind of way) over doing scholarship. Eventually, however, brown-nosers realize that this is a losing strategy and nobody in the academic community respects them. In Spain, it is just the opposite. As a result, students end up receiving sub-standard education and the prestige of Spanish college diplomas evaporates.   

P. S. If anybody knows where I can get the book in question, I will be very grateful. This is a book I would love to read and review. (Ordering online from Spanish bookstores is a humongous waste of time, as anybody who has ever tried it will know.)

>The Ultimate Career Goal


I think it really helps to know what it is you ultimately want to accomplish in your career. Unless you have a very concrete vision of your ultimate destination, it is hard to avoid making false moves and wasting time and energy on moving in a direction that will ultimately prove to be a dead-end.
I do have a vision of where I want to get in my career. I don’t think that something like tenure can be the ultimate goal. For me, tenure is a means to an end. Of course, I will be very happy and celebrate massively when / if I get it. However, that will only be one of the sine qua non conditions that will help me get closer to my goal. There are academics who never look beyond tenure while on the tenure-track. The tenure process is such a time-consuming, complex and often daunting proposition that it often tends to obscure the fact that one will spend many more years in academia after one gets tenure than on the actual tenure-track (which normally takes between 5 and 7 years.) I know several people who experienced a major letdown and a couple who got seriously depressed after getting tenure. For years, the list of tenure requirements was the organizing principle of their lives. Once it was gone, they had no coherent vision of why it made sense to do research and publish any more. (I felt something very similar after I passed my doctoral comprehensives and was left without a reading list that would organize my existence.)
My ultimate goal (and if you want to make fun of its sheer grandiosity, feel free) is to become a female and non-Marxist Terry Eagleton. What I mean by this is that I want to arrive at a point where I will write books on scholarly subjects that interest me (ideology, identity, feminism) for wider audiences. I chose Eagleton as my model because he manages to write in a way that is accessible to any reasonably educated person who is not a literary critic. He does so, however, without compromising the quality of his ideas. Eagleton doesn’t dumb down or simplify. Rather, he uses his incomparable writing style to explain even the most complex matters in a way that makes them easier to understand.
Most people believe that academics live in a world apart, that they condescend to those who are less educated, that they can only speak in jargon that nobody other than them can decipher. I can’t say that these opinions are completely misguided. The image of the academia as an Ivory Tower is more relevant today than it has ever been. As I said many times before, I am not a Marxist. I don’t believe that economic interests guide people’s actions and form the basis of everything that happens in society. History has demonstrated time and again that economic interests are nothing compared to the power of ideas. By locking ourselves in our Ivory Towers and excluding everybody not versed in our jargon from gaining access to ideas, we end up creating a society that will eventually expel academia altogether. We are seeing the beginnings of this process already in a slow erosion of tenure and closures of so many programs on the Humanities. 
Yes, politicians do damage to academia and so do anti-intellectual corporate administrators. I love ranting against them as much as the next person. (Read the archives of this blog if you don’t believe me.) However, we are to blame, too. There needs to be a greater effort made to bring our ideas to a wider audience. And this is precisely what I want to end up doing.

>Words of Wisdom from a Senior Colleague


A senior colleague in a field closely related to mine is about to retire. Here are some excerpts from a personal email I received from this scholar*:
As I look back on my career in academia, the greatest regret I have is that I didn’t prioritize my research as much as I could have. I know that I could have done a lot more, made a greater contribution to my field, published more consistently. The world of academia offers so many activities and imposes so many obligations that seem designed to entice us away from our desks, from our unfinished manuscripts, from that eternally terrifying blank page it is our calling and our duty to fill. It is never too hard to find convincing, seemingly valid reasons why this difficult and often painful work needs to be postponed. “Just one moment more, executioner, just one little moment more,” we plead in the style of Madame du Barry faced with the guillotine whenever we find ourselves in front of that blank page. This, however, is the greatest mistake made by so many scholars. . . Your are still very young, and your life as a scholar is just beginning. Since you asked for advice, here is the best suggestion I can offer: do everything in your power to make a name for yourself as a specialist in your field. Your record of publications will be the bulwark that will protect you in times of strife and uncertainty, give you security, respect, and ultimately, yes, power. There are institutional humiliations that become harder to accept as you age. . . The only way you can prevent the work of a lifetime from being undermined by these kinds of pressures is by ensuring that your name carries enough weight to shield you.
*Of course, I requested and received permission to publish this text anonymously on my blog. I translated it into English, so all verbal infelicites should be attributed only to me.

>Who Matters More, Educators or Administrators?


Educators are being constantly admonishes to cut costs. Funding for conferences is almost impossible to obtain. Library collections don’t get updated for years. Some universities remove telephones from professor’s offices. In many colleges, teaching faculty have to purchase class supplies with their own money. Many academics buy into this narrative of scarcity and accede to measures that are supposed to save their institutions by cutting corners on vital things. This, of course, is completely silly because all that money we save by depriving our students, ourselves and our universities from crucial education-related materials only goes to feed a growing army of bureaucrats:

 Even at nonprofit schools, top-level administrators and financial managers pull down six- and seven-figure salaries, more on par with their industry counterparts than with their fellow faculty members. And while the proportion of tenure-track teaching faculty has dwindled, the number of managers has skyrocketed in both relative and absolute terms. If current trends continue, the Department of Education estimates that by 2014 there will be more administrators than instructors at American four-year nonprofit colleges. A bigger administration also consumes a larger portion of available funds, so it’s unsurprising that budget shares for instruction and student services have dipped over the past fifteen years.

This is worth being repeated because of how shocking it is: by 2014 there will be more administrators than educators at our nonprofit institutions of higher education. On what planet can this possibly make sense, people? How can we allow even our non-profit universities to become places where a bunch of useless bureaucrats proliferates parasitically by feeding off the hard work of students and teachers? Why are we letting this happen? Why do we sit there like patient dummies while some semi-literate idiot du jour explains to us that we need to drop everything that we are doing and fill out yet another bunch of ridiculous paperwork? Why are we letting these bureaucrats squeeze us out of academia? 

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: