Gospels and Jeremiads

On Tuesday, September 29, I will be presenting the fall all-faculty address. As a result of a quirk in the academic calendar, this Tuesday is a Monday in terms of class schedules, so much of the audience who would normally not have classes for Common Hour will have classes–so attendance may be limited (but there will still be lots of food!)

In this address I will get to celebrate tenure decisions and promotions, and welcome new faculty (who, after almost a month now, probably have some of the “new” gleam worn away, to be replaced by good, hard working exteriors). As expected in these types of addresses, I also will talk about the good and the not so good that is facing all of us at William Paterson (and most of us in public higher education).

This is where I hit a block, at times.

As I’ve noted before, my academic background is Rhetoric. I study language. And while there are many variations of what people do when they study rhetoric, there is (almost) one constant. Rhetoricians generally look at language as interpreting the world, not objectively reporting the world. To rhetoricians, the language we use–the words, the gestures, even the settings in which communication takes place–is a way to try to shape reality, not just describe it. Rhetoricians, then, approach almost all communication with the attitude of the critic/skeptic–we look for how language is being used to shape perception.

Now, I’ll have to admit, by nature I seem to have a bit of a critical (even skeptical) bent–and spending years studying and teaching about how language shapes perception has done nothing to lessen that critical approach. Offer me a proposition or a statement, and I’ll have a counter. Looking for someone to be a devil’s advocate to help sharpen your argument? Look me up. As a debater, I preferred the negative to the affirmative–easier to tear down than to build up.

So the dilemma: An all-faculty address is an occasion to spread the good news and to inspire and motivate–to tell the gospel. And so I shall, because there is plenty of good news to tell. But I keep being drawn to the opposite. In rhetoric, the opposite of the gospel is the jeremiad–dark, prophetic utterances–“Woe unto you Jerusalem,” and so on.

As a rhetorician (and just because of who I am), I can’t just tell the good news–I have to mix in prophecies of the potential of dark times. When I hear and read speeches that tell only of the good, I wonder what is not being said–and I begin to question the veracity of the speaker.

Yet too much bad can shape how we act and respond–if we think the world is a dark and terrible place, we generally find support for that view and begin to act in such a way as to make sure that darkness happens.

A balance is needed–we have good news to share; we have continuing difficulties ahead of us.

Strangely enough, even as a critic/skeptic/rhetorician, I’m still an optimist. I do think the good outweighs the bad, that we can overcome our troubles, and we will succeed in doing what needs to be done.

So we balance the gospel and the jeremiad, and we fight on.



Not one of the guys who use to have tigers in Las Vegas (Siegfried and Roy)

Not Johnny’s partner on Emergency (way back in the 70s–but that was Roy as well)


Return on Investment.

To many of us in higher education, this is a very prevalent and difficult phrase. What do we mean by return on investment? This week, the US Government released the new College Scorecard. This reporting tool has some very specific examples of what ROI can mean. There are other tools out there, such as PayScale, which also have a definite (and limited) presentation of ROI.

So why is ROI such a troublesome phrase in higher education? Well, as we can see in the examples above, ROI lends itself to some easy reductionist thinking–ROI is simply about money. Income after graduation less tuition and fees=ROI.

Now–nothing necessarily wrong with our students making a living when they graduate–and nothing really wrong with them making a decent living–you need at least a decent living to get by out here. This is important information to students (especially the cost part, at least so says a small group of potential college students featured in a CHE article (behind a paywall possibly).

But ROI should be more. We just celebrated Convocation this week, and at Convocation we heard from two speakers–our current SGA President Esaul Helena, and 2011 alum Raissa Lynn Sanchez. Raissa has a job–a very good one that pays well. Esaul interned for JP Morgan Chase this summer (and will return next summer)–he has good earning potential lined up.

Money was not what they talked about, though, What they talked about was making a difference, making connections, creating change. They talked about how their education has given them the skills and confidence to (yes, make money) be a part of their communities. Esaul is here on campus to serve the entire WPU student body. Raissa is a youth representative for healthcare to the United Nations.

They can both make a living and make a difference.

So if we must live with ROI (and we must–universities cost a lot of money), let’s work to make sure that ROI really talks about returns and investments. When a student invests in an education at William Paterson, our graduates return to their communities as more than just employees. They return as citizens, as family members, and as leaders.

That’s a good return on investment any day.

The (current) never-ending story in Higher Ed–Why College?

It’s a kind of addiction–perhaps a required addiction given what I do for a living. But still, like all addictions there is pain and dependency.

What is this addiction? I am drawn continuously to keep reading (and even seeking out) articles and stories about the role and function of higher education, and one of the current plots of this story (seemingly second only to the “is college worth it?” plot), is the “what is college for?” story line.

Two recent entries–one in a place where I expect to find it (Chronicle of Higher Education–Why College is Not a Commoditymay be paywall protected) and one in a place (not entirely unexpected but still not the norm) that took me a bit by surprise, the latest (well, latest for me–I can never keep up) New Yorker–College Calculus – What’s the Real Value of Higher Education (and at least as of 9/11/15, not paywall protected).

As with many addictions, there is less and less pleasure in indulging in the activity–yet I still do it. That is the case here. Neither of these articles posits anything truly original, but both keep the reader considering the issues that are addressed.

In general, this whole sub-genre of higher ed reporting/opining too often (not always, as I don’t want to commit the same offense of which I accuse others) devolves into a standard either-or structure: Higher Education’s primary (and most important) function is to develop the life of the mind. As opposed to: The primary role of higher education is to prepare students to be prepared for the changing world of work.

Thesis–antithesis–is there a synthesis?

There are many (few suited to short-form and more casual discussion of a blog). But I do want to repeat (and emphasize, because I do think it is important and I do think this statement is essential to our identity) a statement I have made elsewhere on this site. At a regional university such as William Paterson, the answer to the either-or question is: Both. Students come here because a college education is a route to a better economic future (not the only route but still one of the most promising). Students come here, as well, to learn and to live, at least a bit, the life of the mind.

And these are not opposed, at least I don’t believe they are.

We’re educators, and we provide knowledge and skill development–students learn from us. And we also work to make sure that students think critically and understand that there is more to education than a rigid career track.

We do both.

I remember way back in Grad School (so this version of the argument is that old–and go read your Plato to see the real history of this argument) being accused (ah, the simple clarity and certainty of the graduate student) of selling out and staking out the middle, because I argued back then that education could do both–critical thinking and employability are not incompatible. I still believe that, and I still think that is what we can do for our students who seek to be better in both ways.


The Clash of [Academic] Civilizations?

In 1996 Samuel Huntington published “The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking the World Order.” Huntington’s thesis is that in the absence of the old traditional cold war clash of nations, the major conflicts in the world will be cultural–that our identities–ascribed or chosen–will shape how we respond to world events.

Huntington’s argument has been the topic of many critiques–I’m not going to go into the details of his argument or the counter-positions.

But the wording “clash of civilizations” is one of those handy phrases that lends to metaphor, and has been used as shorthand to describe many disagreements, especially those that seem intractable or rooted in identity.

As the semester starts at many colleges and universities, the education press is filled with stories that seem to illustrate a clash of cultures. The University of Iowa (my alma mater Go Hawks!) hired a new President–someone with very limited experience in Higher Education but years of experience in leading major corporations. Faculty (in general) were opposed; the Board of Regents approved the hire unanimously. Clash of Civilizations?

In the last few weeks, Inside Higher Ed has run a couple of viewpoint pieces that describe what many see as a clash of civilizations–faculty and administration. In one article, a former faculty member turned associate dean and then provost (Kellie Bean), lamented the gulf she saw once she moved from faculty to administration, and noted as well the tendency (on the part of both faculty and administration) to stop seeing the person and replace the person with the role–THE faculty; THE administration.

In a second article (same day–must have been a theme day), the author (Matt Reed) seconded some of the concerns, but also noted some of the reasons why this happens. Reed reminded readers of the power of language–in cases where we reduce people to roles, we employ synecdoches (I love it when I can pull in my rhetorical education). THE administration becomes a blanket term for any action by anyone with any relationship to the administration of the university (very much like the powerful “they” phrasing: “well, THEY said”–always be wary of pronouns without antecedents). And THE faculty stands for any action by anyone in any classroom.

Unfortunately, then it is relatively easy to create a clash when we lose the individual and end up with a faceless “they.”

Differences do exist. All of us have our own perspectives. We have access to different sources of information, and we may often have different priorities. In my classes, my priority is simple: Make sure the students are learning what I am teaching–a straightforward focus. When I was a chair, I still had to care about student learning, but I added in a whole department and all the issues that come up with being, at best (as the outgoing chair told me), “first among equals–all the paperwork and none of the fun.” The further away I get from the classroom, the larger the picture gets (and the more important, of course, that pictures include forests and trees).

So the point? Well, you’re all smart enough to get lots of points out of this. My point: Even with different perspectives and different priorities, let’s try to remember to see and think from multiple perspectives–and keep remembering that real people are behind the phrase THE administration and THE faculty.