Month: January 2015
Note: a big thanks to Vimala Pasupathi for the constructive conversations that culminated in this post.
If you are a college-level educator, you have most likely experienced the following scenario: a once-promising student stops attending class or turning in her assignments. You know this student, her work ethic and temperament, and thus, her uncharacteristic behavior concerns you. You send the student several email inquiries — gentle nudges about upcoming assignments, reminders that her grade is free-falling, offers to chat during your office hours. Finally, the student shows up in your office looking wan and shaken. She tells you she’s been having trouble getting up in the morning. The thought of leaving her bed exhausts her. She has no energy. She can’t concentrate. She is missing all of her classes, not just yours. She is in danger of failing the entire semester and losing her financial aid and if she loses her financial aid, she tells you, she’ll have nowhere to live. She looks at you, with tears in her eyes, grateful to finally have someone to talk to. It’s clear that this is the first time she’s articulated these spiraling fears to anyone out loud. “What should I do?” she asks you, and she means it. She wants you to tell her what she should do.
According to a 2012 survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of students polled said they dropped out of college for a mental-health related reason. A 2013 poll conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found that the top mental health concern among college students was anxiety (41.6%), followed by depression (36.4 percent) and relationship problems (35.8 percent). These numbers, apparently, have been on the rise since the mid-1990s, and Psychology Today’s Gregg Henriques believes it has become a full-scale crisis: the College Student Mental Health Crisis (CSMHC). These claims are not news to those of us who work with college students every day. Every year more and more students miss classes, entire semesters and even drop out of school due to mental health issues. And those are just the students who openly discuss their mental health struggles. Many more remain silent and thus, undiagnosed and therefore, untreated.
These statistics are certainly troubling for professors who work with these students on a daily basis. But, perhaps, just as troubling are the increased responsibilities piled on to the already overburdened instructor, a responsibility which no one is talking about. At the same time that universities are asking more and more of faculty in terms of assessment, recruitment and program development (on top of teaching, service and gasp! research), professors are now increasingly finding themselves in the position of playing armchair psychologist to their students. For those of us who work at universities catering to low-income, first-generation, or non-white college students, the odds that these students will have undiagnosed mental health struggles is even greater. Yet most faculty working today are not provided with the resources (in terms of training, time or, most importantly, financial compensation) to competently deal with this crisis in student mental health. And make no mistake: this has, for better or worse, become our responsibility. Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, believes:
Higher education institutions need to ensure not just that services are in place to support mental wellbeing, but that they proactively create a culture of openness where students feel able to talk about their mental health and are aware of the support that’s available.
Yes, today the college instructor frequently finds herself in the difficult position of having to simultaneously play the role of psychiatrist, family counselor, financial advisor, and life coach, all while having to make very real, very difficult decisions about the student’s academic future. The standard advice from the university is to send the student to their mental health services, but these campus centers often have very long waits and/or find themselves underfunded and understaffed. As Arielle Eiser reports:
College counseling centers are frequently forced to devise creative ways to manage their growing caseloads. For example, 76.6 percent of college counseling directors reported that they had to reduce the number of visits for non-crisis patients to cope with the increasing overall number of clients.
More often than not, recommending that the student head to a campus counseling center means simply passing the buck. In my personal experiences at least, that student will disappear from campus, becoming one of the 64% who leave college due to mental health issues.
As an academic advisor my job is to shepherd a group of students through their English major — they must meet with me each semester to discuss their schedule, their progress towards graduation, and their academic standing. Each semester I get a list of student names, along with their registration code for the next semester (a process which ensures that students must meet with me prior to registering for classes). It always breaks my heart when I look at that list of advisees and see the ones with no registration code next to their names. These are the students who have not re-enrolled for the semester. These are the students I have lost.
If only I had checked in on that student after our last tearful meeting. If only I taken the time to make sure she was still going to class, turning in her work, registering for her next semester. A single email, hastily written and sent, might have been the difference between staying in or dropping out. These are the kinds of emails my best self sends, the self I wish I were all the time, but which I am only when my deadlines are met, my children are healthy, and I’m caught up on Downton Abbey. These unmade choices torture me because they exist as possibilities, reminding me of everything I might have done and didn’t. My job and salary don’t depend on sending those emails. Therein lies the rub. When students fail and drop out of the system, who is to blame? It’s the student, sure, but it’s also those of us who are tasked with advising them. And it is this unpaid, unmarked labor that becomes “key” to student retention, a job which has, quite suddenly, been shuffled onto my already very full plate.
So much of the labor expected of faculty today, both on and off the tenure track, is unmarked and unpaid. As our salaries stagnate, our job descriptions inflate exponentially. Although middle management, the dreaded Associate Deans, has skyrocketed over the last few years, it’s ironic that faculty are being asked to take on more and more of the management burden. Our department chairs no longer assess our research, service and teaching contributions. Instead, we assess ourselves and turn in those documents in to our chair, who then quickly rifles through our summaries, offering us arbitrary numbers meant to represent our achievements. The university no longer assesses the value of our individual programs. Instead, we assess our programs — through Byzantine rubrics and committees and “objectives” — and then turn these documents in to our middle-management overlords for quick perusals. The university is no longer tasked with recruiting new students to our programs. No, that is now my responsibility, despite the fact that I have no training in marketing or recruitment. I am expected to spend my work hours (the hours for which I pay for childcare) pitching English courses to community college students or thinking of sexier ways to describe my courses to undeclared majors. And then, if my classes don’t fill up? Yeah, that’s my fault. And I’m told I have to tach freshman composition.
Almost every week I receive a new email announcing the formation of yet another subcommittee on which I am supposed to volunteer to serve. I should volunteer, you see, because we all need to pitch in together and help! We’re a team! Almost daily I receive an email inviting me to attend another training workshop that will show me how to better assess my program or better manage the time that is increasingly being taken up with deleting emails inviting me to time management seminars. There is simply not enough time.
So how do I help my anxious, depressed, spiraling-out-of-control students when I don’t even know how to help myself with these problems? If I ignore the students’ cries for help, their mental health is compromised. If I help them, mine is compromised. This zero-sum game involves just me and the students. One of us is going to lose and right now, it’s both of us.
Academic writing has taken quite a bashing since, well, forever, and that’s not entirely undeserved. Academic writing can be pedantic, jargon-y, solipsistic and self-important. There are endless think pieces, editorials and New Yorker cartoons about the impenetrability of academese. In one of those said pieces, “Why Academics Can’t Write,” Michael Billig explains:
Throughout the social sciences, we can find academics parading their big nouns and their noun-stuffed noun-phrases. By giving something an official name, especially a multi-noun name which can be shortened to an acronym, you can present yourself as having discovered something real—something to impress the inspectors from the Research Excellence Framework.
Yes, the implication here is that academics are always trying to make things — a movie, a poem, themselves and their writing — appear more important than they actually are. These pieces also argue that academics dress simple concepts up in big words in order to exclude those who have not had access to the same educational expertise. In “On Writing Well,” Stephen M. Walt argues:
jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack…
This is how we control the perimeters, our critics charge; this is how we guard ourselves from interlopers. But, this explanation seems odd. After all, the point of scholarship — of all those long hours of reading and studying and writing and editing — is to uncover truths, backed by research, and then to educate others. Sometimes we do that in the classroom for our students, of course, but even more significantly, we are supposed to be educating the world with our ideas. That’s especially true of academics (like me) employed by public universities, funded by tax payer dollars. That money, supporting higher education, is to (ideally) allow us to contribute to the world’s knowledge about our specific fields of study.
So if knowledge-sharing is the mission of the scholar, why would so many of us consciously want to create an environment of exclusion around our writing? As Steven Pinker asks in “Why Academics Stink at Writing”
Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?
Contrary to popular belief, academics don’t *just* write for other academics (that’s what conference presentations are for!). We write believing that what we’re writing has a point and purpose, that it will educate and edify. I’ve never met an academic who has asked for help with making her essay “more difficult to understand.” Now, of course, some academics do use jargon as subterfuge. Walt continues:
But if your prose is muddy and obscure or your arguments are hedged in every conceivable direction, then readers may not be able to figure out what you’re really saying and you can always dodge criticism by claiming to have been misunderstood…Bad writing thus becomes a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.
Walt, Billig, Pinker and everyone else who has, at one time or another, complained that a passage of academese was needlessly difficult to understand are right to be frustrated. I’ve made the same complaints myself. However, this generalized dismissal of “academese,” of dense, often-jargony prose that is nuanced, reflexive and even self-effacing , is, I’m afraid, just another bullet in the arsenal for those who believe that higher education is populated with up-tight, boring, useless pedants who just talk and write out of some masturbatory infatuation with their own intelligence. The inherent distrust of scholarly language is, at its heart, a dismissal of academia itself.
Now I’ll be the first to agree that higher education is currently crippled by a series of interrelated and devastating problems — the adjunctification and devaluation of teachers, the overproduction of PhDs, tuition hikes, endless assessment bullshit, the inflation of middle-management (aka, the rise of the “ass deans”), MOOCs, racism, sexism, homophobia, ablism, ageism, it’s ALL there people — but academese is the least egregious of these problems, don’t you think? Academese — that slow nuanced ponderous way of seeing the world — we are told, is a symptom of academia’s pretensions. But I think it’s one of our only saving graces.
The work I do is nuanced and specific. It requires hours of reading and thinking before a single word is typed. This work is boring at times — at times even dreadful — but it’s necessary for quality scholarship and sound arguments. Because once you start to research an idea — and I mean really research, beyond the first page of Google search results — you find that the ideas you had, those wonderful, catchy epiphanies that might make for a great headline or tweet, are not nearly as sound as you assumed. And so you go back, armed with the new knowledge you just gleaned, and adjust your original claim. Then you think some more and revise. It is slow work, but it’s necessary work. The fastest work I do is the writing for this blog, which as I see as a space of discovery and intellectual growth. I try not to make grand claims for this blog, mostly for that reason.
The problem then, with academic writing, is that its core — the creation of careful, accurate ideas about the world — are born of research and revision and, most important of all, time. Time is needed. But our world is increasingly regulated by the ethic of the instant. We are losing our patience. We need content that comes quickly and often, content that can be read during a short morning commute or a long dump (sorry for the vulagrity, Ma), content that can be tweeted and retweeted and Tumblred and bit-lyed. And that content is great. It’s filled with interesting and dynamic ideas. But this content cannot replace the deep structures of thought that come from research and revision and time.
Let me show you what I mean by way of example:
Stanley has already taken quite a drubbing for this piece (and deservedly so) so I won’t add to the pile on. But I do want to point out that had this profile been written by someone with a background in race and gender studies, not to mention the history of racial and gendered representation in television, this profile would have turned out very differently. I’m not saying that Stanley needed a PhD to properly write this piece, what I’m saying is: the woman needed to do her research. As Tressie McMillan Cottom explains:
Here’s the thing with using a stereotype to analyze counter hegemonic discourses. If you use the trope to critique race instead of critiquing racism, no matter what you say next the story is about the stereotype. That’s the entire purpose of stereotypes. They are convenient, if lazy, vehicles of communication. The “angry black woman” traffics in a specific history of oppression, violence and erasure just like the “spicy Latina” and “smart Asian”. They are effective because they work. They conjure immediate maps of cognitive interpretation. When you’re pressed for space or time or simply disinclined to engage complexities, stereotypes are hard to resist. They deliver the sensory perception of understanding while obfuscating. That’s their power and, when the stereotype is about you, their peril.
Wanna guess why Cottom’s perspective on this is so nuanced and careful? Because she studies this shit. Imagine that: knowing what you’re talking about before you hit “publish.”
Or how about this recent piece on the “rise” of black British actors in America?
Carter’s profile of black British actors in Hollywood does a great job of repeating everything said by her interview subjects but is completely lacking in an analysis of the complicated and fraught history of black American actors in Hollywood. And that perspective is very, very necessary for an essay claiming to be about “The Rise of the Black British Actor in America.” So what is someone like Carter to do? Well, she could start by changing the title of her essay to “Black British Actors Discuss Working in Hollywood.” Don’t make claims that you can’t fulfill. Because you see, in academia, “The Rise of the Black British Actor in America” would actually be a book-length project. It would require months, if not years, of careful research, writing, and revision. One simply cannot write about hard-working black British actors in Hollywood without mentioning the ridiculous dearth of good Hollywood roles for people of color. As Tambay A. Obsenson rightly points out in his response to the piece:
Unless there’s a genuine collective will to get underneath the surface of it all, instead of just bulletin board-style engagement. There’s so much to unpack here, and if a conversation about the so-called “rise in black British actors in America” is to be had, a rather one-sided, short-sighted Buzzfeed piece doesn’t do much to inspire. It only further progresses previous theories that ultimately cause division within the diaspora.
But the internet has created the scholarship of the pastless present, where a subject’s history can be summed up in the last thinkpiece that was published about it, which was last week. And last week is, of course, ancient history. Quick and dirty analyses of entire decades, entire industries, entire races and genders, are generally easy and even enjoyable to read (simplicity is bliss!), and they often contain (some) good information. But many of them make claims they can’t support. They write checks their asses can’t cash. But you know who CAN cash those checks? Academics. In fact, those are some of the only checks we ever get to cash.
Academese can answer those broad questions, with actual facts and research and entire knowledge trajectories. As Obsensen adds:
But the Buzzfeed piece is so bereft of essential data, that it’s tough to take it entirely seriously. If the attempt is to have a conversation about the central matter that the article seems to want to inform its readers on, it fails. There’s a far more comprehensive discussion to be had here.
A far more comprehensive discussion is exactly what academics have been trained to do. We’re good at it! Indeed, Obsensen has yet to write a full response to the Buzzfeed piece because, wait for it, he has to do his research first: “But a black British invasion, there is not. I will take a look at this further, using actual data, after I complete my research of all roles given to black actors in American productions, over the last 5 years.” Now, look, I’m not shitting all over Carter or anyone else who has ever had to publish on a deadline in order to collect a paycheck. I understand that this is how online publishing often works. And Carter did a great job interviewing her subjects. Its a thorough piece that will certainly influence Buzzfeed readers to go see Selma (2015, Ava DuVernay). But it is not about the rise of the black British actor in America. It is an ad for Selma.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling for an end to short, pithy, generalized articles on the internet. I love those spurts of knowledge, bite-sized bits of knowledge. I may be well-versed in film and media (and really then, only my own small corner of it) but the rest of my understanding of what’s happening in the world of war and vaccines and space travel and Kim Kardashian comes from what I can read in 5 minute intervals while waiting for the pharmacist to fill my prescription. My working mom brain, frankly, can’t handle too much more than that. And that is how it should be; none among us can be experts in everything, or even a few things.
But here’s what I’m saying: we need to recognize that there is a difference between a 100,000 word academic book and a 1500 word thinkpiece. They have different purposes and functions and audiences. We need to understand the conditions under which claims can be made and what facts are necessary before assertions can be made. That’s why articles are peer-reviewed and book monographs are carefully vetted before publication. Writers who are not experts can pick up these documents and read them and then…cite them! In academia we call this “scholarship.”
No, academic articles rarely yield snappy titles. They’re hard to summarize. Seriously, the next time you see an academic, corner them and ask them to summarize their latest research project in 140 characters — I dare you. But trust me, people — you don’t want to call for an end to academese. Because without detailed, nuanced, reflexive, overly-cited, and yes, even hedging writing, there can be no progress in thought. There can be no true thinkpieces. Without academese, everything is what the author says it is, an opinion tethered to air, a viral simulacrum of knowledge.