On Being Intellectual

The whole concept of intellectual has been a mainstay of my life since at least my sophomore year in college. Before that, I didn’t really think about it much, caught as I was in the tug-of-war between being popular and being smart. In high school, I abandoned my studies to drink and date, but while I was drinking, I engaged in the kinds of conversations one could only characterize as intellectual. The meaning of life and the existence of God were common topics. It wasn’t until college, however, that the concept began to take on real meaning for me. I began to believe that I didn’t measure up to true intellectuals. I wasn’t smart enough, serious enough or deeply thoughtful enough to really be intellectual. Sadly, there were people in my life who told me these things. I have no idea which came first.

In the last couples of weeks, the concept of “public intellectual” has been raised a number of times. First, Anne Dalke brought this up in her discussion about why she uses public blogs in her courses. At Faculty Academy this past week, the concept became something of a theme, weaving its way through many panels and discussions. Finally, in catching up on blogs over the weekend, I ran into this article, mentioned by Tim Burke, where the author entreats academics to get involved with the “real world.” For me, the quote that really hit home was this:

To become university-based public scholars, young people may well have to put their ambition into cold storage for a decade and a half. Go to graduate school, write a conventional dissertation, get a tenure-track job, publish in academic journals and in university presses, give papers at professional conferences to small groups of fellow specialists, and comply with all the requirements of deference, conformity, and hoop-jumping that narrow the road to tenure while also narrowing the travelers on that road. Then, once tenured, you can take up the applied work that appealed to you in the first place.

There are two issues that this raises for me, one is that it implies (perhaps correctly) that the only space for an intellectual to truly work is in a university as a faculty member. There’s no space outside of that realm. The second is the whole tenure process. Why, oh why does this process essentially keep people from doing important work until they’re through the process. It’s what has always scared me away from pursuing this career track.

Wikipedia actually has a decent article on the intellectual. It provides this initial definition: “An intellectual is one who tries to use his or her intellect to work, study, reflect, speculate, or ask and answer questions about a wide variety of different ideas.” According to this definition, there’s certainly room for someone outside of academe to be intellectual. The problem is that outside of academe, intellectualism isn’t much valued. (I’m sure there are exceptions to this, by the way.)

So, here’s the thing. Anne and other faculty who are using blogs and other social tools to teach are trying to create the next generation of intellectuals within or without academe. And those of us out here blogging, I think, are trying to be public intellectuals of a sort. The problem is, we need to work to change the institutions that we work in and we need to work to create a more intellectual environment for everyone. I think people really are tired of the media glossing over everything or turning everything into a shouting match. But they don’t know how to work their way out of it. People assume that the other path is dense, jargon-filled prose, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be a rich conversation that allows everyone a way in. Increasingly, I feel that this is my role, to bridge the gap between the public and academe. And I guess that makes me an intellectual after all.

Priorities, academics and administration

I have some random thoughts I want to capture here that I’ve been thinking about over the last few days. I haven’t exactly figured out how this all ties together or exactly what I think, but I’m putting it out there anyway. I’ve written before about the ways in which administrative work is intellectual work and that administrators are often thoughtful about their work in part because they still have ties to the academic side of the house. I’ve been tying this idea in my mind to the mantra of many liberal arts colleges and other teaching-oriented schools that a faculty member’s research informs their teaching (and sometimes vice versa) rather than research being the be-all end-all of a faculty member’s work as it might be at an R1. So imagine the same is true for an administrator–that any research-related activities inform their work as administrators and in fact makes them better administrators. That’s the theory with research for teaching-oriented schools.

Unfortunately, as many of you know, a lot of administrators don’t do research. Some never did. This is especially true of the middle area of administrators who serve in roles similar to mine in support of the academic mission of the college. In theory, I think, those in these roles would be better at their administrative jobs if they had a related research agenda. For me, as I said in the post referred to above, that means writing and presenting in areas related to technology and education. I can imagine other positions that might benefit from delving into research–deans of various kinds, program coordinators, writing center directors (many in this role do research already), student life directors, librarians. There are probably more. It’s not a lack of desire or intellectual ability that keeps people from doing research, but has more to do with what work get priority. And often that prioritizing is imposed on people rather than people deciding what to prioritize.

Let me use myself as an example. Today serves as a good example of the variety of work I do and the difficulty someone in a support role might have in determining what to do next. I started my morning with a meeting with a research group. We talked about network systems, social networking, social contagion theory, etc. I’m presenting to this group next week. After this meeting, I came in and started reading a couple of articles for said presentation. Then I met with a student to talk about having her help with some web support. I then spent a little over an hour dealing with what we call “tickets.” These are help requests that are tracked in a centralized system. These issues included requests for Blackboard courses to be set up, investigating enrollment issues in Blackboard, restoring course materials in Blackboard, DMCA violations, and more. Then there were conversations about the college web site, our WordPress MU installation, negotiating who is supporting what and more. Open in my browser are the following tabs: Google reader (to read IT blogs), Gmail (both mail and my RTM to-do list), a wiki on Moodle integration with ePortfolios, Blackboard*, the new Research Blogging icon, an article about risks by IT managers (found via my del.icio.us network), a Google spreadsheet that is collecting data via a form for a workshop I’m planning, Amazon, NITLE, the two aforementioned articles, the Anarchist Librarian web site, blogs.brynmawr.edu, a registration page for a project management workshop, a podcast featuring yours truly (as yet unlistened to) Google calendar, this window, and Geeky Mom. If your head is spinning, imagine what mine’s doing. And this is a low tab day.

The thing is, stuff has to get done. The “tickets” need to get processed, the calls have to get taken, emails answered. And most of that is what counts as “work” for people like me. But that other stuff, much of what’s open in my browser–reading material, keeping up with trends, investigating what other schools are doing–is also important, and I would argue more important than the other “work.” Because the other stuff–research, reading, etc.–might actually inform the way the other work gets managed. It might help find more efficient ways of doing things. It might help implement new software, hire new people with different skills. It might improve the institution. My thought is that as long as people remain mired in the grunt work, they’re never going to see the big picture.

I think I have more thoughts, but my email icon is bouncing . . .

*I was interrupted by a phone call asking if Blackboard was down or “messed up” because “someone can’t do what they need to do” with no explanation of what that thing they were doing was. Sigh. FYI, troubleshooting is difficult without specific information.

Administrative work is intellectual work

I’ve had this post brewing for a while, but New Kid’s recent post where she contemplates leaving academe prompted me to actually write it. The dilemma faced by many faculty thinking of leaving is wondering whether work outside of academe will offer intellectual challenges and rewards or if it will turn them into mindless corporate or administrative drones. While I’m sure there are jobs that would not be intellectually fulfilling, a lot of jobs become what you make them. Academic administration, to me, offers the best possibility of having intellectual fulfillment. Anyone who reads Dean Dad regularly should see that there’s a lot of intellectual work going into making decisions related to running an institution. I’ve been thinking about what makes these jobs hard brain work as opposed to simply pencil pushing.*

  • First, some administrators, perhaps not at the highest levels, are able to maintain a research agenda in their area of research. I still do research and write papers and give presentations. And I’m able to pursue whatever interests I have since I’m not bound to covering certain areas. I feel that I can pursue research related to my work while I’m at work. If I veered too far from that, I’d probably pursue that outside of work.
  • There are always problems to solve. They may not be the same kind of problems a researcher works on, but they still require a lot of thought–and often some research. These often require critical thinking skills from a very different perspective than when doing academic research, but it’s still quite challenging.
  • Textual analysis. In its simplest form, this can be reading between the lines of memos and emails. But it can also be about analyzing legal documents and contracts or proposals for grants or projects.
  • Writing. My god, the writing. I write more now than I ever did, and the writing needs to be carefully crafted and thought out. I have to attend to audience in a way I never did before–multiple audiences at once! I’ve written all kinds of documents since I’ve been on the administrative side: daily email, proposals, evaluations (both of me and others), documentation, web content, pr material. I like the variety. Because academe is a very text-driven environment, good writing skills are not only appreciated, they’re crucial to getting real work done.
  • Teaching. In my line of work, there’s a lot of teaching. I work with both faculty and students. I’ve done individual tutorials and workshops. I’ve created materials for workshops and I’ve created materials for the “self-taught.” I’ve also had the opportunity to teach courses in the college curriculum. Many places will offer this as an opportunity if you have the experience and the desire (and time!) to teach. So teaching can be a part of an administrative job. But also, there’s a lot of teaching that goes on in trying to articulate institutional goals, in showing how decisions were made and how they affect individuals, really in almost every conversation you have.

Honestly, a lot of these jobs are what you make them. If you want to treat it like a mindless job, then it will be. But if you bring all your intellectual skills to bear, that approach will be appreciated and will make the job more fulfilling. There are a lot of differences between these jobs that are worth noting.

  • Institutional perspective. I’m still surprised by how many faculty, despite the fact that they run the place don’t have an institutional perspective. They still think only of their little corner of the world, their own pet peeves. As an administrator, you have to think more broadly, even at the lowest levels sometimes, you have to do this. You have to think about what’s best for the institution and not about what’s best for a particular department or particular faculty member. Balancing individual and institutional needs is a real challenge, one that requires a lot of thought.
  • Working in groups. Unless you’re in the sciences where collaboration is common, most faculty moving out of academe will struggle with the idea of relying on others to do parts of their work for them. Also, you have to think about forming appropriate teams to get work done and to participate in teams in an effective way. This requires a great deal of cooperation and diplomacy. It can get frustrating when you’re used to just doing everything yourself, but in the end, it’s important to include a lot of people.
  • Lack of prestige and respect. The upper administration is almost universally reviled by faculty and there’s very little love for the support staff either. That’s something to get used to. I still struggle with it a little, but I’ve also learned that your actions can earn you a lot of respect. It just takes a very long time.

I’m sure I’ve left things out on both lists. Maybe other administrators out there will chime in.

*I’ve always thought it was funny to call administrators in academe pencil pushers, when the real pencil pushers are the faculty. Outside the classroom, there’s all that grading and writing, not a lot of action.

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Electronic Communications

An article in the Chronicle this morning is very apropos to something that I’ve been witnessing a lot of lately. This semester, my colleagues and I have been the recipients of very uncollegial communications. These have come from primarily faculty and students (at least what I’ve seen) and not staff. It’s difficult to respond to these kinds of messages, riddled as they are with exclamation points and ALL CAPS!!! Part of me wants to start off the response with, “Hello? Do you realize what a jerk you sound like? Maybe you’d like to read this out loud before you hit the send button.” But I usually never point out that their message was perceived as condescending or insulting or just plain mean. But perhaps I should. Or maybe I should pick up the phone and say, “Hey I’m responding to your email message. Did you realize that the tone was harsh? It seemed like you were yelling at me. Did you mean for it to sound that way?”

My rule about electronic communications is to act as if you’re speaking to the person face-to-face. If you put something in an email, blog post, blog comment, or discussion forum, it should be something you’d also say in a face-to-face conversation.

My favorite part of the Chronicle article is the following scenario:

What’s more, people don’t seem to consider the consequences of their
bad behavior. I know of a small group of faculty members who waged a
vicious attack on their chairwoman over a decision she made affecting
their area of study. Two weeks later, the group’s ring leader
petitioned the chairwoman for her “moral and financial support” of a
new project he wanted to start on the campus.

“I thought I’d entered the twilight zone,” she told me. “He acted as
if the attack of a few weeks earlier had never happened and now we were
supposed to become bosom buddies.”

I can’t tell you how often that’s happened to me. I don’t feel particularly generous toward someone who yelled at me last week. I’m okay with disagreement and constructive criticism as long as it’s done in a civil manner.

I don’t necessarily think world civility is at all-time low, but I do think that most people don’t take communication skills–spoken, written, or electronic–very seriously. I think electronic mediums actually offer us the opportunity to work on communication skills more carefully–if we don’t dismiss those communication media out of hand. What do you all think of the state of communication in academia? How can so many smart people be so bad at this?

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Life-long employment

Dean Dad has written a couple of posts recently that take on the sacred cow of tenure. It’s a theme that comes up again and again in the academic blogosphere. I think Dean Dad, New Kid, Dr. Crazy, and others have done an excellent job of covering several different perspectives on the issue. I have two perspectives to offer: faculty spouse and non-administrative staff.

First, I want make a few random comments. A few commenters at Dean Dad’s have said directly or indirectly that “tenure is all we have.” I find that both wrong and sad. I know faculty salaries are often lower than they should be, given the amount of schooling and other preparation the job takes. But there are plenty of other benefits besides tenure that are important: health insurance, child care benefits, tuition remission and benefits for children, generous vacation time (winter and spring breaks, summer) etc. These vary, of course, by institution. Tenure may be an excuse for institutions to not offer better salary and benefits. Instead of saying, “tenure is all we have,” maybe faculty should ask themselves what they really want and then ask their administrators for it. Anyone who’s been in a job outside of academe (with a few exceptions) knows that the benefits at many academic institutions are much better than you can get in the “real world.”

Second random thought. I keep thinking how gendered much of the discussion is. Not only is tenure a “pre-modern” concept, as DD describes it, it relies to a large extent on the “pre-modern” family structure as well, which includes having a wife at home.

Speaking of wives, as a faculty spouse myself, I’ve been through the tenure ringer, not once, but twice. I’ve moved to two different places for my husband’s job. Moving might still be required even without a tenure system, but it might be possible to imagine treating the job as just a job without the tenure system. There were many days over the 10 years that Mr. Geeky was pursuing tenure when he came home for dinner, then went right back to work. I know many other faculty who didn’t even come home for dinner. Besides the physical absence, there was emotional absence as well. Mr. Geeky was pretty good about this, but many aren’t. Although I’m not unhappy with the choices we made as a family, the whole tenure process is extraordinarily hard on families, including living separately to forcing much of the household upkeep to the spouse to not even being able to pursue a family in the first place. The problems of work-life balance are not unique to academe, of course, but it presents problems that are often not found in the “regular” workforce, many tolerated in pursuit of the reward of tenure.

From the perspective of a staff member, tenure can create tensions between faculty and staff. Tenure often gives faculty a sense of entitlement that causes them to behave badly toward the staff. Staff often don’t understand the tenure process and the pressure faculty feel which they may project onto the staff. Most staff think of their jobs as just jobs so they don’t get someone who pursues their job as their life. In turn, faculty can’t understand why someone would leave or not be available on weekends. Staff don’t know how to react to requests that come in at all hours with too little notice. They don’t understand the frustration of faculty when they don’t respond pronto. Interestingly, there’s often not a huge disparity in salary or benefits between faculty and staff, but in privilege. I don’t know that getting rid of the tenure system would alleviate these problems, but it might be a step in the right direction.

I think DD is right. We need to move on.

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Digital Resource Use

Last night, I made my way through this article on the use of digital resources by humanities and social sciences faculty. There was a considerable amount of food for thought, some good, some not so good. I was reading it with an eye toward finding a clue as to how to improve our own services. The study generally asks the question “What do faculty want?”

One finding that bears out my personal experience is the presence of personal collections. Many faculty have a huge collection of slides, digital images, maps, etc. that sit in file cabinets and boxes in their office and which they dig out when working on their classes. Often they add to the collection as they’re working, making it even larger. On the one hand, I totally understand why they have these. They’ve been built over years of teaching. On the other hand, these collections tend to be disorganized, poorly labeled and available only to the one faculty member. There’s likely duplicated effort across the discipline with several faculty at several institutions holding similar (or the same) materials. There’s possibly even such duplicated effort within an institution. It’s not a sustainable model for the faculty member to simply continue developing their own collection, often using resources (such as several staff members) that could be used to develop an institutional collection. There’s no easy solution for this, but this is something I’m really interested in working on and am still looking for possibilities.

The reasons for faculty non-use of digital resources is also interesting. Most cite some form of lack of time and a feeling that using these resources does not fit with their methods of teaching. The time factor I’ve heard over and over again, but no one has fully articulated the idea that digital resources don’t fit with their teaching style though I certainly sense that much of the time. The quotes in this section are interesting, with faculty saying that the Internet is dumbing down our culture, that students need to learn to read books, etc. There is a sense that many feel these resources would substitute rather than supplement or complement text resources. There’s some work to do here, I think, to educate faculty on how such resources can be used to teach the very things they’re afraid they inhibit: critical thinking, argumentation, and reading and writing skills.

Some of the barriers, too, are familiar: lack of access, equipment or software not robust enough to use certain resources, fear of breaking something or something not working in the classroom. I certainly think there’s a role for us to play in helping to provide appropriate resources or find funding to do so. I also think we need to do a better job of providing training and support. Problem is, we have to do so in a way that meets faculty needs and schedules.

In general, I found this report enlightening and hope to use it to help me think about ways to provide resources and support for faculty. One section of the conclusion, however, rubbed me the wrong way, perhaps because it painted us techies with the same broad brush the authors had accused us of painting faculty with:

The fact that the most-cited reason for not using digital resources was that they simply do not mesh with faculty members’ pedagogies is an important finding that has implications for those who want to increase technology adoption in the academy. Should faculty—who we can assume know more about teaching their subject than nonspecialists—shoehorn their approaches into a technical developer’s ideas of what is valuable or what is the correct pedagogical approach?

That last question is a doozy. On the one hand, yes, faculty know more about their subject area than we techies. On the other hand, they may not know much about pedagogy. Sure, they may have developed through trial and error, workshops and their own reading, good pedagogical skills. But most faculty are not trained in pedagogy. They’ve picked it up along the way. Many technologists are trained in pedagogy, and keep up with current research. I don’t like the idea of shoehorning either. It’s why I don’t like course management systems, which tend to shoehorn. Most good technologists don’t apply a one-size-fits-all approach. I’m a little taken aback that the researchers would make the assumption that they do. And I think that most try to help faculty in whatever way they can, but often faculty don’t take advantage of the support and resources that are available to them. As I said above, perhaps we need to rethink how we provide that support, but faculty need to meet us halfway. It’s a challenging problem and one I’m happy to be wrestling with.

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The DMCA and The New HEA

I am feeling a bit like New Kid today–pretty cranky–and I was going to write something random, but I wanted to comment a bit more on the proposed House legislation that would require colleges and universities to provide legal options for downloading music and require them to have a plan to prevent illegal downloading. Dean Dad already expresses some good reasons why the bill is a bad idea. His commenters, however, don’t seem to completely understand the law nor how networks work enough to know how crazy this really is.

One commenter notes that higher ed moves too slowly for this to get implemented. By the time it gets out of committee, they suggest, the provision will be dead. Unfortunately, at many institutions, technology decisions such as these don’t go through faculty committee. Software and hardware purchases (big ones) are made all the time without any faculty input. Sometimes the IT department may try to get input and the faculty say, whatever, we don’t understand what you’re saying so just do what you need to do. This varies by school, obviously, but I’m in touch with enough schools to know it’s not unusual.

Another commenter suggests that students should get the music from the library. If they rip that music and make a copy for themselves, that’s illegal. At least as I interpret the law. I also feel that copying a whole book for yourself would be illegal.

Another commenter says “If somebody is breaking the law, call the police. Throw the book at them. If they’re not, get the hell out and leave them alone.” This is more complicated than it might seem. When someone’s “caught” “downloading,” they’re actually not caught downloading at all. They’re caught sharing their music. Most p2p programs having a shared folder which is “on” by default. Some programs ask where your music is stored and share that instead or in addition to the folder where the downloads go. It’s possible to have not downloaded anything, in fact, and be sharing your whole music collection for others to download. And that is illegal. Secondly, when someone is caught sharing, all the RIAA or other agent has is an ip address and a time-date stamp for when the activity allegedly took place. They need the colleges to provide them with identifying information in order to “call the police.” Right now, the DMCA protects all isps from being liable for illegal activity on their network as long as they forward any notices about the activity to the user associated with the ip address. This is why as the commenter says, “it seems to be the college’s responsibility to do something about it.” The way the law is written and interpreted now, if we don’t, they will come sue us. This has not been really tested yet, so no one knows for sure if that’s what would happen, but that’s the assumption. One way this could work is for the RIAA to be required to submit subpoenas for every violation. That’s a much more time-consuming and costly process for them, so they’re not inclined to do that. From our perspective the work load is the same whether we get a subpoena or not.

Who knows what they mean by providing legal alternatives for downloading. It could very well mean providing access to iTunes by just installing it on the public machines. Or it could mean requiring a subscription service. Preventing illegal downloading would be difficult and costly. Dean Dad’s right, both of these would be onerous in some places. Maybe some of the richer schools would be able to do this but many schools couldn’t afford it. I concur with Dean Dad: “I’d rather spend public aid to higher education on scientific research and faculty and libraries and tutoring and daycare and textbooks than on Napster.”