University administrators sweating under Zoom’s unforgiving eye

As a number of the symbolic trappings of higher education have come to a screeching halt — including convocations and graduation ceremonies — the value of many high-level administrators is increasingly unclear. With ivory towers and ivy-covered walls long out of reach for many students in any case, universities are now being confirmed as symbols not only of contagion, but of excess and elitism. In some cases, the move to virtual communication has breathed new life into a question that’s been smoldering for years: How many of the expensive administrators populating our campuses are actually necessary? Though they may be taking great pains to continue to publicly perform their roles, so-called virtual dialogues — “town halls,” “forums,” and the like — place them under the microscope of traumatized constituents who also happen to be visually savvy consumers. Not surprisingly, faculty, staff, and students are demanding much more from these astonishingly well-paid leaders than the usual feel-good claptrap.

In the past, presidents, provosts and deans (together with their “vice,” “assistant,” and “associate” versions) have often served as a reassuring presence on campus, especially in difficult times, even if we didn’t always know how they could possibly be earning their exorbitant keep. When we see them up close through webcams, though, in these volatile times, struggling to stay on script in a format that invites and demands authenticity and responsiveness, some are revealed to be poorly performing politicians rather than competent leaders. These glimpses of our elite administrators — some of whom, like Nixon in 1960, seem to be shifting and fidgeting before the camera’s gaze — help peel away remaining illusions about the glory of public higher education. Campus talking points are revealed not just to be idealistic, but, in some respects, a downright lie, especially with respect to fundamental values such as “we’re all in this together.” Assured that the royal “we” will permanently be transformed by the COVID catastrophe, the actual “we” bearing most of the suffering reflects racial and gender inequity, and a basic lack of parity across employee groups.

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Many have been aware of the astonishing gap between rhetoric and action on the part of university officials for years. There is, for example, the shameful open secret of many universities’ failure to attract and retain faculty and staff of color (in direct contrast to their high flown, self-congratulatory diversity rhetoric). There are the entrenched patterns of salary inequities between women and men, as well as between supposedly “masculine” and “feminine” academic disciplines. There are the whole segments of poorly paid gendered staff labor according to which women may be treated as disposable. There are the appalling labor conditions imposed upon legions of adjunct instructors on whom most universities have long been dependent. At the same time, there has been the creation of an elite administrative class of variously titled (e.g., vice, associate, assistant) deans, provosts, presidents and the like with salaries that have come to rival those of greedy corporate fat cats. The hype about universities as hotbeds of liberalism or radicalism notwithstanding, most campuses have been quite content to mirror the stunning inequities of the corporate world.

The pandemic crisis is not itself responsible for shattering the support beams of our public universities. It is, rather, laying bare some fundamental rottenness, and some of this is occurring before the watchful eye of our teeny tiny computer cameras. To take just one example, high level administrators at my university recently participated in an eight-person panel discussion on diversity that appears to have included only one non-white participant. Even though the national call for Black voices, and the outcry against white obliviousness, has perhaps never been louder, it appears not to have occurred to these white administrators to have raised their privileged voices to help proactively create a genuinely multicultural, inclusive event. Though these administrators were almost certainly well-meaning, a resulting impression is that they care more about performing their own racial virtuousness than about facilitating an authentically self-reflective moment for themselves and for higher education. Would such a colossal miscalculation of racial optics have occurred if the event had been of the usual face-to-face variety? Would it have been as visible to so many people?

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As I watch some of these “televised” appearances of university spokespersons desperate to manage the growing discontent of faculty and staff, I am reminded of a caricature of the most decadent years of the French monarchy. Here, nobles attempt to make good will gestures towards the starving masses but end up inadvertently flaunting their privilege and aloofness instead. They aim to appease the masses in the usual ways, but woefully underestimate the discontent, and also fail to appreciate how closely they are being watched. Of course, the populist uprisings that marked the end of this system were, literally, revolutionary, with global reverberations. There is, it seems, only so much people will tolerate once they’ve become hungry enough, and glaring inequalities and obliviousness have been revealed to their frustrated eyes. How might things have played out if French peasants had been able to scrutinize kings and courtiers up close through their own personal webcams, capable of seeing each nuanced facial gesture and of hearing every word of rationalization and excuse?

Despite the new democratizing power and pressure of webcams, the wealthiest and most privileged universities will, of course, continue to be able to hold out, resisting the inexorable forces that are ravaging and rewriting the rest of higher ed. We might recall how some social elites in England continued to enjoy the anachronistic comforts of the Victorian era well into the 20th century. They did not regard them as luxuries, of course, but as utterly necessary to the natural order of things. This is very much to the point as we consider the leveling forces that will continue to sweep through higher ed as the national political tide turns (please!), as demands for racial justice remain urgent, and as more of “university life” is pushed online, much of it permanently. The elite administrative cadres that have come to operate at some universities like aristocrats, strolling across campus in a perfumed cloud of noblesse oblige, are suddenly revealed as obsolete. Exposed before a merciless camera in virtual “forums” that reveal them dancing from one trusty cliche to another, whatever mystique they once projected is being unceremoniously stripped away.

Claiming the right to make beauty: Inspiration, motivation, and basic worthiness

Like lots of the kids around me in my humble Midwestern elementary school, I started playing a band instrument just because. Because the instruments were shiny and mysterious and because it meant being singled out as special three days a week to converge in the lunchroom for a cacophonous 45 minutes. I chose the trumpet because it seemed a magnificent luxury, like something from Cinderella, and because my brother had started playing one a few years before, so I figured my parents had to say yes to me too.

Just to be perfectly clear, I chose neither band nor this particular instrument because I loved music or the sound of brass. In fact, all the way through high school, I continued to plug diffidently away at the trumpet as if it were any other task, like making my bed or mowing the lawn. At no point — neither in practice at home nor public concerts— do I ever recall being moved by the actual experience of making music. Instead, I played out of habit and because it was something I’d agreed to do, giving it just enough time and energy to avoid totally embarrassing myself.

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I ponder this now, because here in the throes of middle age, I have picked up the trumpet once again. It’s a used student model, very much like the one I had decades ago, cold heavy brass that is both strange and familiar in my adult hands. The scent of valve oil and the chill circle of the mouthpiece against my (still) slightly crooked front teeth propel me backwards in time, reminding me that I am both the same and different from the kid who once ran the chromatic scale with such habitual mediocrity.

Shockingly, after just a few months, I find that, in one important sense, I’m already playing better than I ever did as a distracted kid. Adult-me, it seems, is motivated by an actual desire to make actual music. Though I rarely have an audience, I find myself making an effort to play with heart, drawn to the promise of making beauty with my mouth, breath and hands. The irony is that, having fully embraced the low stakes amateurism of playing the trumpet late in life, I am actually getting good at it, at least by my admittedly low standards. And I know this is because playing has become more about creating meaning than about merely mastering a skill set in order to operate a shiny machine.

My childhood failure to connect to the music-making aspect of playing the trumpet was, no doubt, due partly to a relative lack of cultural or artistic appreciation in my working class home. Like most of the kids around me, I grew up almost completely incapable of taking my creative potential seriously. It pretty much never occurred to me that I might be able to make beautiful music or art, because I simply could not fathom being special or worthy enough to approach these rarified realms. Journalism? Maybe. Poetry? Never. Why open myself to ridicule, then, by exerting steady and sincere effort to achieve something so impossibly far out of reach?

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I am left now with an incisive pedagogical lesson that I suspect most everyone else already knew: In many subject areas, especially those associated however obliquely with high culture, U.S. working class kids may never make it out of the starting gate. After all, admission price for even the bare possibility of genuine learning is a basic sense of one’s own belonging in the grand humanistic scheme of things. And how can those who cannot take themselves seriously as potential cultural creators ever embrace the requisite vulnerability? We must feel sure enough that we belong to throw ourselves into it again and again, failing spectacularly, without being overwhelmed by imposter syndrome or falling into what Tara Brach calls the “trance of unworthiness.”

In short, it’s pretty clear that great pedagogical potential is unleashed when we plug into our own sense of cultural self worth. Though the energy that flows from such cultivated aesthetic self-regard may be no more magical or mysterious than electricity, it can be just as transformative. It can mean the difference between a lifetime of stepping self-consciously and disjointedly from one note to another and one spent making bonafide music. Permission to take oneself seriously as a human creator, then, can nudge the sidelined outsider into the heart of the ballroom, into the chaotic dance with the muses that has long nourished the human soul.

Let’s take those anti-college Republicans at their word

Maverick educator though he was, Plato’s Socrates fretted about a new fangled technology known as writing. Relying on quill and papyrus, he worried, could wreck men’s memories and send his beloved Athens into a spiral of dull-witted decline. His concerns seem quaint, even silly, until we consider the recent Pew Center Report suggesting that most Republicans now think that college is bad for society. Certainly, it captures something about the red-blue divide since, at the same time, 70ish percent of “liberals” still think higher ed is pretty nifty.

On the one hand, there’s nothing to see here. Conservatives, especially religious fundamentalists, have long made a hobby of vilifying education, aware enough of its radicalizing potential to pursue radical means to control it. After all, Socrates died for his supposed heresies, to say nothing of poor Tycho Brahe, the long house arrest of Galileo, and the beatings inflicted on enslaved Africans learning to read. There are, unfortunately, endless examples of outraged conservatives silencing intellectuals and creatives in the name of God and country. The current anti-intellectualism in the U.S. too is grounded in a values divide with unbearably high stakes, including attitudes and policies about climate change, the rights of people of color, women, and immigrants, and what it means to be a free citizen.

If this weighs especially heavy on my mind, it is partly because I am a professor from a red town in a red state in a flamingly red region. I am, ostensibly, a veritable case study of the kid who went off to college and emerged unrepentantly and permanently dangerous to society. For anyone who thought I should have married a local boy, become a P.E. teacher (my mother’s early vision for me), and raised a few blond kids, college did, in fact wreck me. From the moment I arrived on campus — supported and encouraged by my father and step mother — worlds opened, intellectually, creatively and socially. Although I avoided the freshman weight gain, college helped me expand in every other respect. New paths led to new roads of experience and perspective that made me and my hometown ever stranger to one another. There was never much chance I would return to it or that it would welcome me if I did.

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The narrative of the Republican far right — with much help from the kajillionairre Koch brothers and their ilk — is that colleges are left-wing cults, inculcating young people into extreme political liberalism and libertine lifestyles. And I guess the supposed divide between the values of small town America and the dangerous “college type” is perfectly realized in me, a lesbian in a Subaru who eats organic, reads a ton — I am a philosopher — and hasn’t set foot in a church since MC Hammer rocked those iconic pants. As a professor who teaches such “politically charged” courses as LGBT Studies and Queer Theory, I am the poster child of what conservatives object to about higher ed today, a threat to their very way of life.

Except that, as an independent-minded critic of unearned social and economic privilege, my hard working father helped radicalize me long before I went off to college. And my uneducated mother’s eclectic and open-minded approach to friends, food and books set me up to embrace the ideological and aesthetic challenges I encountered on campus. Anyone who blames college for ruining me has no idea how annoyingly philosophical and incipiently political I already was before college had its way with me. It’s probably just as fair to say that college made me a more mature version of myself than that it fundamentally changed me. I suspect this is true for most college students though, of course, I can’t say. But it does seem that those extreme, anti-college Republicans both underestimate and overestimate the influence that the experience has on actual young people.

Anyone truly surprised by this “new” anti-college stance underestimates the power and tenacity of America’s grand tradition of anti-intellectualism, its ties to religious fundamentalism, and the impact of economic disparity and the public disinvestment in higher ed (which is, of course, partly a product of anti-intellectualism). When one adds in the concerted anti-college media campaigns of college-educated fat cats, it is a miracle that all of red America is not disgusted by professors like me. And, no surprise, it turns out that it’s mostly the non-college educated Republicans who are so vehemently against it, like those home-bound Americans who insist with great authority that Europe is overrated. The way to get more popular support for college, as for most worthwhile experiences, is almost certainly to make it more available which is, perhaps, partly why so many Republican fundamentalists fight to make it inaccessible.

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At any rate, this current flare of anti-intellectualist religious fundamentalism does us professors and society great harm. It can result in our being harassed, fired, and much, much worse. But what it cannot do is compel us to reason with it, or, in hand-wringing fashion, to psychologize it in some pseudo compassionate attempt to understand those benighted red-staters. We need not debase ourselves or our critics by second guessing or applying deeper motives to such proud ignorance. There is nothing shameful about ignorance, of course, but I can say with perfect ease that the proudly ignorant should damn well be ashamed of themselves. Though I can strive to understand the climate deniers, conspiracy theorists, and the new crop of flat-earthers as a sort of sociologist or anthropologist might, it is not as one citizen respectfully engaging with another in healthy, authentic dialogue.

The fundamentalists burned Tycho Brahe at the stake, but they could not compel him to make apologies for their murderous behavior. If the Republican fundamentalists wish to scapegoat higher ed, then let’s college types respect them enough to take them at their word. We do them no favors by talking about them or to them as if they were children or fools to be placated. Such pious “understanding,” of course, is the very bleeding heart liberal strategy that they despise. Instead of trying to argue with them about how awesome we are, we should continue to do our jobs well and focus on higher ed accessibility. Those who go to college may not fall in love with the ivory towers and ivy-covered walls, but very few will leave concluding it is professors, or knowledge itself, that is responsible for the rising tide of greed, nastiness and national insecurity.

The online teacher as Wizard of Oz: embodiment and social justice

Women have fought hard to get their corporeal lives recognized in the workplace. Whether it’s been about maternity leave, decent bathrooms, or breastfeeding rooms, progress has been frustratingly slow and limited. It’s a sad irony, then, that so many feminists now find ourselves working in the virtual realm. Where do questions about women’s embodied realities go when workers may only rarely visit the institutions that employ them? And what about the other implications of disembodied teaching? Are online teachers exempt from the usual varieties of bias — e.g., racism and sexism — given that students and colleagues may never even see them? Is there a place in online ed for instructors who care about their corporeal identities and responsibilities?

Sure, there all sorts of little ways to inject a semblance of physical presence into online classes, for example, video material and still images of instructors and students. And we can assign work that requires real life engagement so that students must brush up against other bodies and objects at museums, lectures, or one-on-one interviews. Such fixes may soften the edge of unreality that online classes can have. But disembodiment in online ed is, nonetheless, a real and incalculable loss for individuals and institutions, as it is with online shopping and dating. It’s part of the very steep price we pay for this convenient modality.

Isn’t it a shame, for example, that workplaces may be feeling less pressure to increase equity in physical surroundings when there is still so much work to be done? When I helped create a gender neutral bathroom in a science building, I got a clear view of the barriers to basic access that still exist. With students and teachers increasingly shifting to online, will institutions feel such pressure ease? If I didn’t spend lots of time at my university, how quickly would I forget the disparity in facilities across disciplines and colleges — luxury on one side and crumbling stairways on the other? Is the much vaunted universal access provided by online ed to be coupled with less attention to access and equity on our physical campuses?

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And what about the impact our mundane physical presence has on one another? As the only woman professor in my department in the mid 90s, I viscerally understood that the sheer fact of my being there affected students, colleagues and the institution’s ethical self-perception. Of course this proximity wasn’t an unmitigated love fest — there were predictable slights and struggles that left scars — but what if I’d been teaching invisibly?

Of course, in the online realm some symptoms of racism, sexism, xenophobia can be mitigated. Without casual hallway conversations, one is less likely to be looked up and down by a student and told “you’re smarter than you look,” or to be asked for a date by a senior colleague who will oversee one’s tenure case. On the other hand, when one appears only in the virtual world, casual prejudice need not be reckoned with either, not by our colleagues, our institutions or ourselves.

But how disembodied are we really, even in the virtual classroom? Do students do much reading between the lines based on our pictures, language use, and even the disciplines we represent? What assumptions do they make about their teachers’ race, sex, age, nationality, etc., when such characteristics are not obvious? How do students interpret teachers’ embodiment clues in the online environment? How do they fill in the yawning embodiment gaps left by our constructed online presence?

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I’ve considered adding more still images of and details about myself to provide a greater sense of physical presence, but I’ve got mixed feelings. Students would, I guess, develop a clearer picture of me as (probably) a white, cisgender, middle-aged, able-bodied female. But while this might deepen the connection some students feel to me, it is complicated. Wouldn’t I, for example, be capitalizing on an implicit bond with white students? I don’t want to unwittingly reproduce white privilege, but I don’t want to misrepresent myself either, or leave my students utterly at sea about who I am.

The insidiousness of this is brought home to me when I pay attention to the assumptions I make about others’ embodied existence. I’ve been surprised more than once, for example, — and startled by the fact of my surprise — when a student’s apparently white face did not match what I had interpreted to be a black-sounding name. And I was recently jarred to see a Japanese-American face on a podcaster I’ve listened to for years. Only the mismatch I felt at seeing his face forced me to acknowledge my initial expectation that he was a white Californian.

In short, this erosion of embodied presence has consequences for social justice, as well as for individual experiences of difference, prejudice and privilege. This loss is a really big deal that mustn’t be prettied up and glossed over. But nor should we imagine the online environment as totally beyond the usual influences of embodiment. Even if a teacher were to aim for a purely disembodied persona — and what a bad idea! — would students just fill in the blanks with stereotypes? Could it be that, paradoxically, we bloodless online teachers are at an even greater risk of tolerating or reinforcing such pernicious biases?

Re(learning) as a way of connecting with forgotten selves

My connection to my former selves is sometimes so tenuous that I feel compelled to reach across the years. I inspect old photos and journals, and even conduct tests, eager to discover if the me that I seem to be now can still do what previous versions of me learned to do. As a youngster, I played sports, and the trumpet. I wrote short stories, explored old libraries, and shot black and white film. Where did that person go? 

My first bout with this cheap, new-used trumpet, just a few months ago, was a little rough. I sputtered and panted, and my tone was so poor I wondered if the instrument was stuffed with spiders’ eggs. Even so, I was surprised to find that my lips and fingers slipped automatically into the chromatic scale. I moved up and down the rickety steps with difficulty, as if I’d just had a knee replacement, but I moved. And my improvement has been rapid. In fact, I think I’m already better than I was as a diffident junior high school band kid. 

On the one hand, there is nothing interesting about this. It’s just muscle memory and motivation, a simple case of never-forgetting-how-to-ride-a-bike. But my deeper question is still tangled up in there. How can it possibly be that this fifty-something version of me is still the same person that I used to call me? Back then I was, or so I now recall, intense, cynical, and more than a little nihilistic. I was also angry, arrogant, and injured. Today I am hopeful, energized, and as imbued with meaning as a poem spilling from the page. I simply do not feel like the young me who pushed through the world like a dull razor, constantly sorting, assessing, and finding lack.

So, yes, it is shocking to find out what these hands, wrapped around this cold brass instrument, can do. I study them with interest: an arthritic finger that I broke playing basketball, a barely concealed map of veins, and incipient age spots that I should probably just start calling “age spots.” Rarely out of my view, these hands are evidence of continuity between me and that young person from long ago, the one who peers at me from photographs. She who is innocent of all she will face and inflict in the decades to come, ignorant of the fact that one day she will turn out to be me.

My fingers, lungs, and lips are here to tell me what my eyes and intellect cannot always fully accept: “You are still her.” And in the wake of this announcement, the bleat of my humble trumpet seems suddenly appropriate. Because though I can sometimes accept that I am her, I refuse to fully do so, and the result feels delightfully queer. I can acknowledge that, in one sense, I am the baby in those pictures, but I was not born as the person who writes these words. She who sits here now is a practiced achievement and an accident, not fully comprehensible by the “nature/nurture” binary or by the stories I, and others, tell about who I am and have been. 

If I were more like my students and young friends, then, and more inclined to resist “labels” or claim “fluidity,” it would be because of the delightfully weird distance and proximity of who I am to who I’ve been, and the wide open window of who I might still practice becoming in middle age, in old age, and beyond. There is a thread connecting me back to who I was then, but it is like a line of musical notes on a page, merely the result of some dead composer’s whims, subject to revision and improvisation. 

May the devil’s advocate go back to hell: The dangerous appeal of “both sidesyness” in the classroom

For about five minutes in high school, I was on the debate team, having been identified as verbal and assertive by a teacher who urged me to give it a try. I hated it. It wasn’t that I lacked aptitude. The teacher was right: my vocabulary and reasoning skills were decent, and I could stand in front of grown ups and say things without bursting into tears. But I loathed researching issues I hadn’t been drawn to, and could muster no enthusiasm for championing positions I didn’t actually believe in or care about.

It was a disconnect that left me stranded miles away from the smart debate kids whose passion for argument seemed genuine. For me, it felt like being on the school softball and basketball teams all over again. I wanted to win, sure, but unlike my teammates, I wasn’t rendered heartbroken by losses or elated by wins. While I enjoyed athletics for the sheer sake of moving my body and perfecting skill, though, I couldn’t relate to argument as if it were a satisfying sport. This wasn’t, I think, because I undervalued it but because I took moral and political persuasion so seriously. I dismissed the debate ethos as a schtick, as a self righteous preacher scorns ministers she thinks are in it for cynical reasons.

Enter the current crisis of objectivity, what Samantha Bee calls “both sidesyness.” This is the inclination to situate urgently important issues in pro-con terms and draw false equivalences between polarized views about them, regardless of how absurd or disingenuously offered. It’s a pseudo objective posture that grants time and space to positions and players that may have done nothing to earn that privilege. At the same time, it erodes the status of reasonable, well founded views. The best, most dramatic, example may be how climate change science has long been framed as locked in debate with climate change denial. It’s almost as if the most fanatical debate kids grew up and founded news outlets. As if the fate of the planet were not about the urgent truth of the matter, but about performing argument.

To be fair, I’ve probably suffered more than most from “bothsidesyness,” having endured the debate ethos in my philosophy classrooms — and frequently with other philosophers — for decades. This has nearly always been in the form of young white men, some of whom were so enamored of their own argumentative prowess that they threatened to deplete the room’s oxygen. When, instead of sparring, I asked these fellas if they actually believed what they were advocating, or even found it plausible, they tended to look surprised. Didn’t I know that that was beside the point? “I’m just playing devil’s advocate,” they’d tell me, confident I’d never heard of such a thing. Mastering this skill, they painstakingly explained, was what it meant to be a good critical thinker.

Unfortunately, lots of instructors, too, seem to implicitly agree that the capacity to quickly produce well polished arguments and hurl them at one’s opponent is indeed what it means to exhibit higher order thinking skills. Too often, the ego-focused performance of playing the devil’s advocate in a pro-con arena supersedes thoughtful, holistically logical thinking. Students are rewarded for their cleverness, for a facile ability to backfill with rationalizations, rather than for thoughtfulness, empathy, or capacity for nuance. I know first-hand about such rewards because I relied on them during my razor’s edge walk through graduate school in an overwhelmingly male program. Cleverness, counterfactuals, and contrarianism became some of my very best friends.

To be clear, then, I’m aware that sophisticated rhetoric and reasoning skills are important and grant that debate-like expositions may be one effective means of developing them. I benefitted from such training and am among those who believe that the Sophists got a bad rap. And as an analytically trained philosopher, I didn’t just grudgingly learn to dissect arguments, I came to enjoy it. But the inveterate devil’s advocate — that guy (and, yeah, it’s still nearly always a guy) who argues for the sake of argument, has drifted so far from the relevant social and political context, so far from the argument’s existential moorings, that there is often a kind of cruelty to it. If you’re a woman who’s ever faced a devil’s advocate eager to argue with you about rape, you’ll probably know exactly what I mean.

Exacerbating the problem is that we instructors are often so grateful for students who show any inclination whatsoever to give reasons that we may be reluctant to discourage or assertively redirect the cheaply performative devil’s advocate. Sometimes we’re so desperate for students to talk — say anything at all, please! — that we actual welcome his clever repartee. And, besides, even if the performance doesn’t really deepen anyone’s understanding of the issue, it can provide an excuse for showing off our own logical acumen, right? And, as PhDs who have run the full gauntlet of higher education, who is better prepared than we are to defend the devil himself?