academia: September 2008 Archives

And so it begins...

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Whatever else we may want to say about the financial crisis, and our leaders' ability to respond to it, I suspect that we'll be feeling the repercussions on the ground, so to speak, for years to come.

It's already begun in subtle ways here at Syracuse. Yeah, we're a private university, and so aren't subject to the whims of state legislatures, but the health of our endowment is entwined with that of the stock market, as you might imagine. We're hiring this year (I'll post the ad here soon, once it's approved), a replacement for one of my colleagues who's retiring, but at least one more will be leaving soon, and I'm not especially confident that even replacement hires will be authorized without a fight. At a time when our department is growing in terms of its leadership needs and administrative workload, that's a concern, needless to say. And in a year where I'm doing a little more travel than normal, college support--available to us in the past--has dried up, meaning that most of it will be out-of-pocket for me. I suspect that this is only the first sign of cuts to come.

I'm thinking of all this because I meant to point to Tim Burke's discussion of the need for higher ed to works towards economic sustainability, rather than relying on unchecked growth, as its baseline position. Fortunately, IHE picked up his column, making my paltry link unnecessary-ish. I think his analysis is really smart--it deserves a wider audience:

I think the most important but subtle thing that has to happen is just that every stakeholder in academia is going to have to develop new mental habits, to stop assuming or believing that growth is the default. At least at selective institutions, I find that in everyday conversation about curricular questions, administrative choices, and so on, the assumption of growth or plenitude is deeply ingrained.

Check it out.

If I ruled the world...

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Wrote this a few days ago, as some of the posts I link to below were just breaking--there are good conversations circulating about them at each site...cgb


There's a little extra transparency afforded to us by the Interwebs, such that when panels like those of Chris, Debbie, and Becky are rejected by our flagship conference, it doesn't simply happen behind the scenes, as it used to. I'm sure that there are lots of other good proposals that didn't make it; I'm likewise confident that there are a number of proposals that were accepted for papers that will be written days (if not hours) before their actual presentation. I've attended some of those panels, and complained bitterly about them to anyone who will listen. Many of us are lucky enough to receive travel support from our schools to attend CCCC, but it took me a year where I footed the bill on my own to realize that I owed it to my audience to put together the best presentation that I could.

Let me be clear, however, and say that there are also certainly numerous proposals that both were accepted and worthy of acceptance. That's not a question for me. But there are also a lot of good proposals that are annually rejected. Here are a couple of reasons why.

First, our conference leadership has in recent years been preoccupied with making the event more inclusive. By this I don't mean making presentations accessible (which is good), providing child care (which is good), subsidizing under-represented populations (which is good), or any other attempt to meet the needs of conference-goers. I'm talking about the measures that have been taken to bring in first-timers, and in particular, the flattening out of the proposal process to such a degree that one need barely know anything about the field to write a successful proposal.

And perhaps I will be accused of being less than democratic here. So be it. I've never seen the longitudinal demographics on conference attendees, nor do I even know if such data exist, but I do know that the conference is about as big as it can get. (I've heard a lot of people complain in recent years about it being too big--anyone who's ever had to present or attend a talk in a curtained off corner of the exhibit hall would probably agree.) I'd be interested in hearing if our push to "grow" the conference has resulted in increased subscription rates for the journal, memberships in the organization, or any such long-term benefit for those of us who are already committed to the organization and the conference. Perhaps it has, but that data would be have to be qualified with information about the growth of tenure-track positions and programs in the field. I'd be surprised if that information has been gathered in a systematic way, but I'm prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

As the number of proposals has increased, the amount of space devoted to describing the actual projects has shrunk, and that is a trend that privileges the pithy, speculative kind of prose that is its own genre, and which requires far less disciplinary expertise than one might imagine. Again, this makes the process more inclusive, but it does so at the expense of thoughtful research that actually exists. It privileges light, buzzwordy, trendy proposal writing, the kind of writing that gets more difficult to produce once one actually undertakes research and gets into the nuances and complications involved. As Becky notes, "I could have taken a half hour to write a snappy little proposal for an opinion piece about plagiarism, with a little media analysis folded in, and it would have been on the program in a heartbeat." The fact is that our current proposal system privileges this, partly in the interests of making the program as inclusive as possible.

Second, our program is done by percentage, meaning that if technology proposals are 10% of the total, then 10% of the program will be technology panels. The number of proposals in a given area determine the percentage of panels on the program. Democratic, yes? Well, the problem here is that not all areas are created equally. It's no accident that two of the rejections above are for data-driven studies, and another is for historical work. Those are areas where (a) pithy, trendy accounts are not as possible, but more importantly, they are areas where (b) you can't simply read a couple of articles and be prepared to present research. Both historical and qualitative work require a great deal of experience and research, and are likely to have higher percentages of more experienced researchers among their proposals. The Area Clusters are not "equal" so asserting equality among them will often have the opposite effect when it comes to quality.

This would be one way of testing this. Take one year's proposals, and have them rated without reference to Area Cluster (an individual AC reader is going to feel pressure to produce a range of scores--I know because I did when I read one year). Then separate them into Area Clusters and see what the mean scores are. My guess is that we would find that more specialized areas have a higher percentage of strong scores, and that our current system actually penalizes researchers doing more specialized (and potentially more advanced) work. My guess is that there's a much broader range of quality in the catch-all areas.

But that has to be a guess, because we're not allowed to use proposals for research purposes (as of the mid80s, I think). It's why I still hand out that chapter from Berkenkotter and Huckin on CCCC proposals--it's the most recent study possible of this stuff.

I do know that recent attempts to study the field by reference to CCCC Programs (and there are several) are deeply flawed, because they don't allow for the vagaries of the process. We persist in the belief that the annual convention somehow represents our field in a given year, but the fact is that nothing could be further from the truth. It represents the version of our field represented by a flawed process, a version that discourages many who do and prefer certain kinds of work, and the result of a process that I continue to be critical of. That process has seeped deep into the bureaucratic structure of our field, such that we can make small changes around the edges, but I honestly doubt that any sort of sweeping change is possible. And honestly, I don't know that there are that many people who would agree with me--I've believed for some time that our conference is much less than it could be, that it's broken in important ways.

Like Debbie suggests may happen for her this year, I hesitate every year before I send in my membership dues, wary of the degree to which my membership constitutes a vote, however small, for a status quo I find deeply problematic.

Three final notes. As bitter as this may sound, it's not anywhere close to the bitterest version of this entry. Believe me. I still believe that it would be possible to have a better conference, one that I could look forward to attending for more than the opportunity to see my friends.

And second, I have no axe to grind this year, as I didn't send in a proposal. Like Becky, I've been accepted almost every year I've proposed, because I learned early to write pithy, acceptable proposals. I like to think that I use this power for the forces of good, but it took me a few years longer than it should have to arrive at that point.

Three: again, I'm not criticizing those who do get accepted. I myself have had great luck proposing to CCCC, and I don't doubt that the conference will always be a mixed bag. My point, though, is that different areas of the field have different thresholds for entry, and the process itself ignores that fact.

I'm fully willing to admit that I may be wrong about some of this, but I've tried to be fairly careful here. The fact of the matter is that there's way too much of this process that's hidden behind bureaucratic opacity, and I have my suspicions about why that is. Even the tiny amount that's visible, though, is enough to persuade me that it would be worth our collective time to think about why our conference is alienating to its core audience and about what we might do to change that.

That's all.



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This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from September 2008.

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