August 15, 2014

A Note on Manipulated Link Sharing

Filed under: facebook,writing — jrice @ 8:37 am

There is a general fear about Facebook’s algorithm. I know. My Facebook newsfeed – an algorithm – of my Facebook friends’ status updates shows me their links daily to stories about the algorithm. Generally, this fear is about manipulation. Users of Facebook are worried that either their emotions or their consumption habits or possibly even their access to news is being manipulated. They are probably right. The algorithm manipulates data appearance based on a tricky combination of association and prediction. A mention of something can trigger an association and a news item or product in one’s feed. I guess that is some form of manipulation (though not too far off from other forms such as a history of catalog association/manipulation based on purchasing). Upset with this, many users want to write about how they manipulated the manipulator.  In doing so, they prove that manipulation, as some sort of cultural force, is causing us to think in certain ways or not think at all. Very cultural studies in approach.

But what I find to be more of a form of manipulation than a Facebook algorithm is the shared link. The shared link is not an algorithm (unless you count your ability to see a shared link as being algorithmic). The shared link is what you see when a Facebook friend feels an issue or idea is important, funny, worth reading, reflective of a belief and so on. Not all shared links are manipulative, of course. But some, particularly those based in politics, very much are. The poster of the link wants to manipulate a general consensus of either rage or apathy or some other feeling in order to gather attention. I have done it many times, though, mostly with Chronicle of Higher Education pieces that I think are not accurate. Since the Humanities have long paid attention to issues of race, gender, class, ethnicity, it is no surprise that Humanities Facebook users would want to share links that reflect these aggregated positions (as forms of disciplinary interpellation) to remind or cajole a professional audience to not lose site of such concerns (and thus be manipulated in the way, I supposed, I am being manipulated to like Toyota because Friend X likes Toyota).

No place is this more clear than in two recent issues: Israel’s war with Hamas and the recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri. These two incidents have been very much present in my Facebook newsfeed over the last few weeks. They are obviously not the only global conflict/wars occurring or incidents of police senselessly killing or assaulting African American women or men. But they are the majority if not the only links I see these days reflecting such issues. And that is important. It is important because it reflects how link manipulation focuses attention in odd ways based on aggregated feelings, emotions, positions, beliefs, etc. No doubt, for a certain audience, Ferguson draws on already aggregated frustrations and anger over a man being killed in a chokehold by a police officer or a professor being assaulted by a police officer for crossing in the middle of the street. And more. Aggregations are networks of belief. That was my argument about John Pike.

Whatever one thinks about either issue is not relevant to me here. Instead, I’m interested in link sharing as the building of manipulated discourse via a sense of aggregation. The Facebook newsfeed aggregates. It assembles positions and ideas within one’s Facebook space via a series of patterns and associations.  Links are very similar. They are shared as headlines (one does not have to click through to get the gist of the link’s impact as Buzzfeed and other sites show us). As merely a link, these shared headlines confirm McLuhan’s notion of cool media. I read the headline, I fill in the gaps, I draw a conclusion – thus, in McLuhan fashion, I am involved and engaged (which differs from other types of involvement and engagements). That filling in, though, often is a confirmation of my belief system as it has been aggregated over some period of time (lifetime, weeks, days, etc) based on the images and headlines I’ve already internalized as some sense of reality. I wrote about this process in my College English piece via Flusser’s concept of the technical image. The technical image, we can also say, is not even an image at times. At least not a material image. In other words, it is an image because I have an image of what something is (injustice, war crime, abuse, outrage, etc.). I don’t have to click through or even put the link into any other context (what we often call “critical thinking”) because I fill in the details with my past aggregations. In some cases, this is also what I call non referential critique.

I recall one recent incident where a noted scholar posted a link whose headline said something to the effect of “Israel admits Hamas did not kidnap teens.” If one clicked through, one would see that no Israeli officials were cited in the article nor any proof offered beyond hearsay. And, in fact, that statement has proven to be false as a recent arrest confirms that the murders were Hamas. But…if one followed the comments after the link was shared, one sees the effect of cool media as commenters fill in in the gaps with: “I knew it.” “It was all a ploy.” “See?” These comments reflect an already aggregated position that there must be a Jewish conspiracy here (following the long tradition of so called Jewish control and plots). “I knew it” means “how could it have been any other way? Those Zionists did it again!” These comments reflect an already aggregated racism, further triggered or even manipulated by the shared link.

I write this partially for myself and my attempt again this semester to teach a large core course on Facebook in some kind of interesting way. I write this not to say: stop posting links. That sounds silly. I write this instead as a short note to reflect that what one audience constantly thinks is “manipulative” (Facebook algorithms) is not really as manipulative nor is not really outside of the network of other forms of manipulation, such as the shared (and often political) Facebook link.

June 24, 2014

MLA or no MLA? Who Gives a Shit?

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 11:54 am

I am not in the MLA. I will never join the MLA again. Still, it’s difficult to be an academic in the humanities and not notice the folly of responses to the MLA over the past year or less. Responses such as:

  • The MLA can solve the labor problem in academia (it cannot)
  • The salary of the MLA’s director should be reduced to better support adjunct labor (there is no relationship)
  • The MLA should be a better public advocate for labor because public advocacy will solve the issue of labor

This last position is partly expressed in an InsideHigherEd piece today by a group of scholars. These individuals are responding to a previous MLA report (and what do umbrella organizations do if they do not issue reports) on graduate education. The number one recommendation in the group’s response is “public advocacy.”

This could include speaking about these issues in classes, in meetings, in public forums; writing op-eds; insisting that senior administrators consistently justify the hiring practices of the university, not only in terms of faculty hiring, but also of administrative and professional staff. Of particular importance would be to obtain and circulate the Adjunct/Tenure faculty ratio in departments and at universities.

There is one issue here. That issue is the who gives a shit dilemma. The who gives a shit dilemma goes something like this:

  • We have an educational problem.
  • We will take our problem to the public – that part of the public whose tax dollars somewhat support higher education, whose income pays for tuition, whose children are enrolled in the universities and colleges where we work, and that public, in turn, will be outraged.
  • Their outrage will force a change in public policy.
  • Conditions will change (i.e., the problem of adjunct labor will vanish).
  • The infrastructure, which has supported this problem in the first place, of course, will remain largely in place. Public opinion will be the force of change.

That, of course, does not occur.

Since some of us are in the business of rhetoric, some of us should believe in the power of language delivered publicly to change opinion. In some cases, along with  infrastructure shifts, that does occur. The humanities, where this InsideHigherEd response emerges from, though, often leaves aside the changes – what is a major, the value of specific types of study, the role and shape of graduate education, the need to study literature, how general education demands create this labor problem as well, and so on – in order to focus on the public. And one narrative often goes: if only the public knew that its children were being taught by instructors making $2500 a course with no benefits, it would demand a change. Yes, it might. But that change would likely be: “I want the tenure line instructors, instead, teaching my children.That’s what I pay for.”

Here’s another idea about the power of rhetoric: sometimes the public does not give a shit. Sometimes, the public cares more about insignificant issues such as whether or not two people can marry or whether someone from another country can pick vegetables or work in a chicken factory without a visa, than more serious concerns such as education. Maybe, in the case of education, argument has little to no effect. Maybe, no one gives a shit.

An example from our neck of the woods: It used to be (and maybe still is, but I am no longer subscribing to many listservs) that my field’s main listserv would be hit with periodic requests regarding the cap on first year courses. A barrage of emails listing cap sizes would follow, and the original poster would, supposedly, now have the information to make an argument regarding the efficacy of low caps on first year courses. As if. As if someone gives a shit.

As if some person in power (dean, provost, chair) does not already know that a lower student to teacher ratio means more attention to student work and, thus, better student performance. Of course they know this. What is the power of an argument when the other side says: “Yes, I know. You are right.” And then goes on to relate the available funds for hiring, for student instruction, etc. generated by an infrastructure problem. The power of the rhetorical situation is: who gives a shit.

I know why this is what it is.

I don’t give a shit.

Who gives a shit does not necessarily equate apathy or lack of concern. It might, instead, suggest another type of response which may deal with value priority (some people, for whatever reason, think marriage is more important than education), other concerns (such as, for instance, eliminating or reducing Gen Ed requirements or graduate programs), helplessness (no money, no money), shifting language (maybe replace the pejorative “vocational” with a word like “responsibility” or “career preparation”), or some other force that requires the original call for public advocacy to change its current order of business in the first place. Change is not, as the InsideHigherEd authors claim, necessarily “capitulation.” It may, indeed, be the real step toward countering the public response of: who gives a shit?

Who gives a shit?

The public does not give a shit about the MLA’s recommendations. The academic public does not give a shit either. The graduate students, who sign up every year for 4-6 years of study in areas where there are likely no employment prospects in academia upon graduation and thus become adjuncts, don’t give a shit either (if they did, they wouldn’t start this trek in the first place). The faculty, who prefer to teach graduate courses over first year courses, who encourage students to study esoteric material that they wouldn’t find compelling in a job search, don’t give a shit either.

They don’t, that is, when they are not writing passionate pleas in InsideHigherEd for public advocacy.

Hear my roar. Wait. What? I don’t give a shit.

May 29, 2014

The Food Network Restaurant at the Atlanta Airport: What’s it Like?

Filed under: food,writing — jrice @ 8:44 am

 I had just spent four days disgusted with the franchise atmosphere of the Riverwalk in San Antonio when I found myself staring into the Food Network restaurant at the Atlanta airport.

My first thought was: Of course. How could the Food Network not have a restaurant in an airport when every other chain and franchise – from Burger King to PF Chang’s –  does? At some point, I imagined, a Food Network executive must have looked up in a meeting about target audiences and packaged image and thought: “Holy Shit. We’ve made a big mistake.” And thus, the airport restaurant was created.

It’s not everyday that one has a chance to dine in a Food Network restaurant in the airport.  Even as all of its franchised chefs establish restaurants or chains of restaurants and products that spread across the country, bookstores, and gift shops, the Food Network hasn’t had one of its own restaurants. Until, at least, now.

My impulse when I saw the Food Network restaurant was to think “The end is near” and walk away. Is this what franchising has come to? The channel that began the emergence of national interest in food has finally succumbed to the franchise mode once and for all – after all the books, celebrity aprons, cooking contest shows, and so on – now it has a restaurant in one of the largest airports in the world. The end is near. It’s all over. The end days are upon us.

But we didn’t walk away. We didn’t walk away even though the Food Network has come to mean the common place and mundane food promotion of Rachel Ray, Bobblehead Giada, and Guy Fieri. After all, is there any site worse in food culture than Guy Fieri frat boy sunglasses on the back of his head shtick praising some mess of Tex Mex in a strip mall restaurant? When I see a Guy Fieri stencil on a restaurant wall – the marker of the shtick’s stopover at said place – I begin to second guess my dining choice.  In four days of downtown San Antonio, I had not seen a Guy Fieri stencil. But I had second guessed almost every dining option I had engaged in as friends refused to leave the downtown area for better gastronomic pleasures to the north of the city. That second guessing reassured everything I knew already about San Antonio Riverwalk Tex Mex. It’s as franchised and bland as a Guy Fieri stencil on a restaurant wall. The food may be the hallmark of typical tourist fare, but in being as such it is also nothing more than a repetition. Walk into any restaurant on the Riverwalk, and find the same repetitive food. Like a Duff brewery pipeline of one beer to a variety of names (Duff Lite, Duff Dry, Duff whatever), Riverwalk and Guy Fieri are the prime examples of America’s love of everything the same. Food Network is no exception. And thus, when I saw the big Food Network sign as we entered terminal D, I thought: “The end is near.”

But we went in anyway. And I bought a breakfast sandwich.

There’s a point where you know you are against everything a meal stands for – franchise, commercialism, style, lack of substance, superficiality – and yet you still feel obligated to try the meal. At these moments, I know that critique has truly run out of steam because whatever critique or observation or sense of disgust I might feel, I still have that feeling of obligation. “What’s it like?” No allegiance to cultural studies or critical thinking will ever save me from the basic question of “what’s it like?” “What’s it like?” suggests that something might be different this time, that a franchise can work, that food mass produced can actually taste good. “What’s it like?” is the foodie equivalent of academic hope in global conflict or race relations. It just might be good, we think. . . .it just might work out. . .

“What’s it like?” is motivated by all kinds of things, from basic curiosity (maybe it’s good) to keywords. The only thing, in that regard, that might differentiate a Food Network breakfast sandwich from a San Antonio Riverwalk restaurant or a Guy Fieri shtick where “What’s it like?” could also arise is that, at the least, in its airport restaurant the Food Network makes claims (however real) to the local. Monday Night Brewing on tap. Local coffee. Cage-free eggs. And for the consumer with expendable income and somewhat liberal values (at least when it comes to food), local is the secret word that opens the closed gate of franchise eating. Local. Suddenly, everything feels different and magical. Local. Like hearing Beetlejuice three times. Or “open sesame.”  What’s it like? It’s local, damnit. Case closed.  Magic has happened. The sign says local.

And Food Network is magic. Or it is magic to people like me, strolling through an airport, thinking that the best I can do is Einstein Bagels when, suddenly, the familiar and exotic (TV network + local) comes into view. We organize experience by lists. Best ofs. Worst ofs. Top tens. Food is no exception. Einstein Bagels? Bottom ten of airport options. A place with local beer and coffee? Top ten. The list, however internalized, makes all eating magical. The menu, too, is nothing more than a list. A series of expectations (or possible disappointments). In airports, we seldom scan the menus of the scattered terminal restaurants situated overhead, opting instead for the familiar (typically the chain) food whose status (from coffee to hamburger) we’ve memorized, or menuized through cultural interpellation. Food Network, though, promotes the menu front and center. And that menu’s expectations are focused on local.

As much as I hate eating in airports, I love menus. Chalkboard menus. Printed menus. Elaborate menus. Menus marked by a few, descriptive words.  Menus that go out of their way to outline the local.

When Grantland ran a recent tribute to the 20th anniversary of The Beastie Boy’s Ill Communication, I was reminded of the menu on the album’s cover.

The flick, from the camera of the one and only Bruce Davidson, was taken at the iconic L.A. drive-in Tiny Naylor’s in 1964. Davidson was on assignment for Esquire, and the cover was part of a set of photos that was never actually published.

I scan the 1964 drive-in menu. It’s a basic meal breakdown.

Salads. Desserts. Beverages. The Tiny Taylor kids’ menu was a bit more complex.


I never ate at Tiny Taylor’s. But I imagine L.A. residents once eating there daily. I imagine L.A. residents wanting Tiny Taylor’s everywhere. One finds food everywhere. On menus. In lists. In airports. In drive-ins. In San Antonio. One finds food throughout Ill Communication.

  • “Cause she’s the cheese and I’m the macaroni”  - “Get on It Together”
  • “I’ve got the brand doo doo guaranteed like Yoo Hoo”  - “Sure Shot”
  • “I’m gonna stick my dick in the mashed potatoes”  - “B Boys Makin’ with the Freak Freak”
  • “Drink a six pack and then you play some ball” – “Heart Attack Man”

We don’t think of the Beasties and food any more than we think of Eminem and food. This is despite “Lose Yourself” beginning with an ode to vomited spaghetti and “The Real Slim Shady” with its threat to “be working in Burger King/spitting on your onion rings.”  Music is food. A drive-in and its iconic photograph is food. Taking the airport train from terminal A to terminal D is food. Sitting in the airport with my wife, waiting to get back to Lexington, is food.  Thus, when I saw that Food Network restaurant, I went in and bought a sandwich. Food is everywhere. And I have to know what it’s like. I am an academic. I am curious. I have to know what everywhere is like.

I have to know what life is like, too. “Sure Shot” must have played a million times in my house when my son was one year’s old. The sound of the flute calmed him down when he would get upset and nothing else would work. As a parent, I continuously try to figure out what my kids are like.  Parenting books don’t tell me what “Sure Shot” told me. A flute and rap can calm my son down. My son is a terrible eater. He went through a rice stage. He’s stuck on a pasta stage. Meat? It’s your guess as well as mine if he’ll eat it on a given night. He ate some tuna last night with pasta. He’s three years old. If there is one question he does not have it is: What’s it like? He could care less what food is like at this point in his life. He doesn’t think of food the way I do. Any trip – academic or otherwise – that does not include at least one important food moment is a failed trip for me. Despite my disappointment with San Antonio and its downtown cliches and commonplace eating establishments, one afternoon, along with some friends, I did manage a short mile walk to Tito’s for some fairly decent tacos. As we ate, we looked out the window and noticed a smoker across the street at B&D Ice. Like the word “local,” a smoker is a magical item that sparks the “What’s it like?” thoughts going. When we finished eating, we crossed the street and had some brisket. A bang bang. The bang bang showed me something about what that day in San Antonio was like. It showed me something about what San Antonio is like that the Riverwalk could not.


I thought about a bang bang when I finished my breakfast sandwich at The Food Network restaurant. It was too early for the other airport gem in Atlanta, Varasano’s. And it wasn’t worth it to have another breakfast sandwich. Instead, we sat at our gate and waited for our plane. No airport bang bang.  What’s it like to do an airport bang bang? I still don’t know. Maybe that will be my goal the next time I’m in the Atlanta airport or some other airport where a Food Network restaurant or its equivalent can be found. And maybe my kids will be with me then, as well, to figure out what’s it like.

May 12, 2014

Public Image Number. . . .Not Number 1.

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 9:54 am

This Chronicle report on a recent Humanities gathering shows how difficult a public image is, or at least, how difficult it is to imagine one’s public image when one is supposed to be good at things like ideas, language, and representation.

In the specific case of the Humanities, this problem partly stems from defining one’s self or profession or area of study by negating some imagined other (other profession, area of study, political body, etc.). It’s very common for us to dismiss or critique another as explanation of why we are good. The tradition can be found in the graduate seminars we teach (which often begin with the declaration of some writer being wrong). But it can also be found in our own narratives about what it means to be in the Humanities and why it is supposedly good to be in the Humanities. Simply put: that reason is  ”we’re the best.” With this recent gathering, I see a couple of places the reporting claims this occurred:

In her talk, Ms. Lepore said she found “tremendously inspiring” the case W.E.B. Du Bois made in the early 20th century for scholarship: “Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?”


Mr. Appiah responded that “we can’t expect that when we tell [the public] the best current understanding, they’ll like what we say. The nation organizes itself around untruths. They want you to reconfirm what they think.”

In these two reported moments, the Humanities “tells the truth” or can organize the nation around “truths.” The Humanities grants itself, in a way, superpowers. Or, the Humanities grants itself enlightenment. The rhetoric is of superiority.

Of course, all disciplines or modes of thought believe that they speak the “truth.” So, making the claim for the truth is an empty gesture. But it is also a gesture that defines by claiming the other side (whatever other side there might be) is only about the “untruth.” In this narrative (and the piece goes on to make the claim for promoting storytelling as central to the Humanities – something we already see the Humanities do, as I am about to say), the Humanities has the secret. The secret is stored in our study of literature, language, history, etc. Once you find the secret (by reading), you know the truth. Our story is revealing secrets. We hold the oracle.  We know better.

Not a very novel idea. In fact, it’s almost the same idea that everyone else has (from the Tea Party to professional schools of education to those who want to privatize education, etc.). Who doesn’t think they know the truth?

We see this same mode of thought in our college or in our newly born department (coming this Fall!). We often define ourselves by showing the other side as weak, incompetent (a term I’ve heard), lacking critical thinking, inferior, not as good as us, etc. It’s a bizarre argument to make when this imagined other side is doing better than we are doing. If indeed the Humanities has a public image problem, as this event seems to suggest as its reason for gathering, why does it think it’s superior to the groups who have a better public image? Maybe some self-critique is needed. When you are down in the polls, you don’t declare: we’re winning.

At UK, I have heard over and over again how a certain department is so much worse than we are….yet they took half of our first year sections. That sounds like a success. Not a failure. We lost half of our enrollments to another department – in a period where enrollments determine budgets. Sounds like we are the failures.

There are, at least, three key issues with the negative definition strategy:

  • Fake superiority. If one – Humanities, department, college – is making the claim of superiority as a defense, that means the claim is fake. “We’re behind. We’re losing.” That’s not superior. We wouldn’t need special gatherings to prove value if we’re better.
  • Lack of language. For people who are supposedly skilled at language, we lack that terms to define ourselves outside of negative binaries. Thus, we resort to attacks on others as worse than us, rather than define ourselves differently.
  • Inferiority complex. Maybe a stretch here, but it seems that all this image building without substance (worrying over whether we should use the word “wisdom” instead of “truth” in the Chronicle piece, for instance) reflects some real inferiority feelings.

It wouldn’t hurt, though, to simply define one’s self by one’s abilities or how one fits within a larger network of work: disciplinary, collegial, educational, etc. I.e., we’re a piece of a larger puzzle. We’re an important piece. But so, too, are the other pieces. To figure out how we fit, or to make clear how we fit in this puzzle, we have a lot of work to do that is not negative.  In the last few weeks, I sat through a few meetings where the talk was purely negative attacks on some other force, yet there was no recognition of internal need to reflect, redo, refocus, rework.

If the Humanities needs a better image, it, too, might need more than Earl Lewis’ declaration: “We need to craft a narrative that is consistent, with a clear thesis that everyone can understand.”

Instead, it might refocus. Rework. Reflect. We are the champions is hardly the best narrative to project – internal or external – when you don’t really think you are the champion. You know you are down. Time to do things anew.

April 15, 2014

Judas Priest Sucks!

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 3:24 pm

 I can’t remember the name of the kid in 9th grade who I told on the bus one day: “Judas Priest sucks.” He wanted to kick my ass for that comment. He let me know everyday that he wanted to kick my ass. I told him to bring it on. We never fought, though. But if we had, we would have fought over whether or not Judas Priest sucked. And I didn’t even care if Judas Priest sucked when I made the remark. I just told him that the band sucked. I’m not sure why I said so.

I heard “Living After Midnight” on the drive home from work today. I have one major road – Broadway (which becomes Harrodsburg) to drive home. Most times I’m driving home, I’m thinking back on the class I taught, a lecture course on Facebook. I make mental notes of all the things I wish I had done better – from the beginning of the semester until now – and I make mental notes of all the things I believe the students have done wrong – from the beginning of the semester until now. When I form these narratives in my head, I, no doubt, believe that they are original stories of pedagogical frustration. This is my struggle with a class that did not go right. But I know that the stories I tell myself on the drive home are not unique to me. Whatever issues or problems I experienced in the first large, lecture course I’ve taught in almost 20 years of teaching, these issues or problems are not novel. Others have experienced the same issue for some time now.

Thinking Judas Priest sucks is not a unique thought to me now or to me in the 9th grade. I am not the first nor the last person to say Judas Priest sucks. Most critical commentary is posed as if it were a unique thought. Charles Simic calls the generation that I meet twice a week in a lecture course “the age of ignorance.”  He leads off this claim with the hyperbolic declaration that “Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal.” Students – in a large, lecture course or elsewhere – are an easy target for such critiques. Simic’s observations, though, don’t ring false. People don’t know much. I was surprised that the class did not recognize the iconic Kent State national guard shooting photograph when I showed it in class. I was surprised that they had not seen the South Park episode on Facebook. Despite Vannevar Bush’s wet dream of a system of interconnected information basically realized today, people don’t know. But not just students. Academics, despite their claims to the contrary, don’t know either. Judith Butler doesn’t know. Bruce Robbins doesn’t know. The entire MLA body doesn’t know. They think they know (about politics, geopolitical conflict, ethnic tensions, economics), but only because they spend much time lecturing to students who don’t know and convincing themselves that superficial readings of headlines, romantic visions of David and Goliath, and epideictic performance (in text and elsewhere) offer up some “true” sense of the world where injustice is easily identified as what they already think injustice is. They repeat narratives as unique thought, often without any more research or knowledge than the typical Fox News target of The Daily Show. But, of course, they are academic stars. Not undergraduates. They, by their very title and place in the culture, are supposed to know. It would be much more difficult to call them the products of an age of ignorance than the students who have been told as such before. Tom Wolfe called youth the Me generation in the mid-70s and Time magazine did the same a few years back. Calling kids ignorant or superficial is not new. The unique thought is not that unique.

It was, of course, ignorant of me in the 9th grade to say for no reason: Judas Priest sucks. We are all ignorant of many things, but the narratives we circulate about our most intense concerns never seem to include any aspect or claim of ignorance. The narratives always assume the hermetic seal of knowing. The subject need not be political – though many humanities folks have positioned themselves as experts on the political for some reason (the famous gender expert now knows everything about the Middle East, for instance). When I watched the very well made short film Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor, I was left with that feeling of a narrative that sees no cracks in the story it wants to tell. The narrative is all knowing. Con Job’s story is easily summed up as: universities hire people at unfair wages to teach writing/these people are often forced to go through extreme situations because of their exploitation.

Not that there isn’t any accuracy in the statement. There is. The narrative is true. And because the goal of the narrative is to convince a supposedly unaware, ignorant, or not yet sympathetic audience to believe in the adjunct situation, there is no reason to show the cracks in the story of contingent labor not shown in the film. Yet, not showing the cracks, for me, weakens the story overall. The story comes off as too pure, too right, too sure of its tale of injustice. Should the story also tell the story of literature graduate students dismissing advice regarding the future of tenure line employment (then regretting that rejection later)? Should the story tell the story of literature graduate students dismissive of writing instruction until its the only job that they can find, even if part time? Should the story tell the story of a national dependence on the idea of general education when general education is being used to just fill seats for budget fulfillment? Or what about the story of trying to secure full time employment with only a master’s degree (when the rest of us have PhDs, publications, service records, networking)? Can the story be told of the graduate student who is too busy grading papers to go see a guest speaker on campus (and thus learn how research is presented professionally, meet someone in the field, make a connection, be professional, etc) but who ends up jobless later in life?  Or what about the story regarding what would happen if no one took contingent jobs anymore? Can Con Job tell that story?

These stories, too, belong int he larger story. And yet they are absent. They don’t conform to the already known, already told, already circulated story that we feel makes us smarter, not ignorant. The adjunct fight is the fight that most people commit to in one oral/textual manner or another (support, empathy, dissent) but that they really don’t fight over. It’s not really even a fight. Some blog posts. A short film. Discontent. Chronicle of Higher Education first person narratives. Tweets. Some inaccurate coverage in Slate. None of this makes for a fight.These are disconnected and scattered declarations that something sucks. That’s all they are.

I never fought that kid in 9th grade. I can’t say I regret not fighting him. I have no idea if I would have won or lost that fight. He seemed pretty committed, though, to the idea of Judas Priest. He seemed committed, but he never went through with the fight over Judas Priest. That’s likely the real sign of an age of ignorance. The issue regarding ignorance ,as Simic and others claim, is not factual knowledge (though, in my own pedagogical struggles, I often come back to E.D. Hirsch with a fondness I never felt previously). The issue is likely the real fight. You fight when you think you know. But you have to fight to show that you think you know. A conference resolution. A short film. A blog post. Are these fights? Are these real fights?.  That kid should have fought me for saying Judas Priest sucks. But he didn’t. So, I don’t really believe his commitment to Judas Priest.  And most people, ignorant or not, don’t really fight either.

March 30, 2014

Writing Crisis

Filed under: as if,writing — jrice @ 8:05 am

At 44, I might have considered a mid-life crisis. My age suggests as such. My two young kids, though, suggest that I am hardly near that crisis.  My bank account suggests that I have nothing to splurge on (like the typical mid-life crisis narrative’s focus on a sports car or other extravagant item). At only 12 years removed from the PhD, and now a full, tenured professor, I seem too young for a professional crisis. My rank suggests long term veteran status, but my life span of full time professorship suggests otherwise. A crisis after 12 years suggests a hyperbolic narrative.

If there is such a thing as a mid-life professional crisis, it might occur when one completely changes direction and begins to pursue something outside of initial interests. In academia, that might mean a shift in disciplinary direction. Or it might mean a shift to administration and abandonment of one’s initial scholarly pursuits.

I still write about the same things I began writing about when I started to think like a professional.

Whatever it is I feel today about academia – and I have no shortage of thoughts – whatever it is I am experiencing today is not a mid life academic crisis. I am not in a crisis. But I recognize shifts. I’ll start that observation with a brief statement:

It’s been a long time since I cared about fiction.

This is hardly a novel sentence until placed within a specific context: My PhD is in English. I have been a faculty member of four English departments. To study English or to be associated with the study of English means liking to read fiction. I don’t.

I remember a class I took as an undergraduate at Indiana University, and Kathryn Flannery began by asking us: what is the purpose of fiction? I answered: to entertain.

I was in Half Price Books yesterday, shopping for marked down books for my kids: Junie B Jones, Jules Feiffer, Oliver Jeffers. I glanced down the fiction aisle. Glance. I’m bored by merely the suggestion that I might buy a half priced novel for casual reading. No matter how much I try to muster the desire (“look, I have a plane trip coming up, I need something to read on the flight”), I cannot imagine that the novel will entertain me.

When I enrolled in the University of Florida in the summer of 1987, I was asked two questions by my academic advisor: Was I going to take first year writing (I said, “no”) and what did I want to major in (I said “English”)?  I spent the next few years – after I dropped out of college in 1989 – wondering what the alternate narrative might have been. What if I had said Spanish? What if I had said Anthropology? What if I had said History? When I want back to school, I went back to English. After years away, when I went back for the PhD, I applied to an English department.

About a month ago, the Faculty Senate approved our new department and major in Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies. This means that, beginning Fall 2015, I will no longer be an English professor. One might look at such an “important” moment and think: this is the stuff of what crisis narratives are made of. A pivotal moment. A change. A refocus.

The one photograph in Barthes’ Roland Barthes book that stands out for me is the one of the academic panel. Barthes’ comment is something about “being bored” on an academic panel (the photograph features him on the panel). When we finished our panel a week or so ago at our national conference, one attendee thanked us for “being performative.” A reoccurring crisis in our field (or maybe academia in general) is the lack of performance. That is, presentations are mere readings of papers. There is, of course, performance. Most of it is stuck in a few performative gestures: cultural critique (let me show you what is wrong with the world) or the value of fiction (stories make us better people). If Barthes was commenting on one aspect of the boredom associated with academic work, I like to imagine that he was commenting on these two features.

At some point not long into my academic career I made a scholarly crisis shift: I stopped admonishing the movement known as expressivism for being too focused on the personal story (among other things) and started writing more personal academic pieces. These pieces were always tied up with other issues (pedagogy, digital writing, food), but they were personal. The former editor of a major journal rejected one such piece (later published in Composition Studies), claiming that the journal never published writing that also included the personal (which was not true). This particular piece, as part of the point I wanted to make about digital writing and place, included photographs of my daughter eating at various places in St. Louis.

I’ve often wondered: why are we so bored by our own lives? That is, why do we, as academics, reject our lives as subject for writing? I’ve wanted to host a podcast where I interview fellow academics about anything that is not academic: What did you have for breakfast? Let’s talk about the weird things our kids do. Do you watch Adventure Time? I hate the Frozen soundtrack. What did you eat for dinner?

At 44, and 12 years since the PhD about to begin in a department outside of English, I might have considered for myself a writing crisis. By that, I mean a moment where one awakens to some imagined reality and realizes that everything prior to this moment has not been satisfying. In this reawakening narrative, one discovers a more true self or moment. I walked away from fiction. I am no longer an English professor.

But it’s not really a crisis moment for me. Whatever it isI claim for now has long been the moment for my trajectory. The moment is merely a long fictional account of value. When Fredric Jameson came to our seminar in grad school that focused on his work and spoke about all kinds of things, including, I think, about the superiority of the typewriter, I knew the crisis was already there, in that moment, in that academic apprenticeship called the PhD program, in criticism, in the text, in the profession. If everything is allegorical, as Jameson often contends about popular culture narratives, then I can treat this moment, too, as allegory: the allegory of the crisis of boredom. He bored me. But he did not just bore me as a star academic appearing in person in our seminar, he bored me at the allegorical level, the constant same old same old critique of life where all of our narratives cover or hide the real narratives of oppression, capitalism, racism, sexism, this ism and that ism, so that what we really are saying is: academics are people in never ending crisis.  Our lives are crisis. Our entertainment narratives are crisis narratives. Our professional narratives are crisis narratives. And in this never ending tale of crisis, the real fiction occurs, the pretend world of imaginary this ism and that ism where the scholar fights the good fight to enlighten the world. It is the hero narrative, one of the most popular of all entertainment fictions.

And I’m bored by that narrative.

There is a crisis occurring as I write this. My three year old is screaming that his potty was cleaned out too quickly. Crying. Screaming. Over nothing consequential beyond the three year old’s view of the world: I pee peed. You dumped the potty before I was done.

And yet, despite its frustration and oddness (someday we’ll look back on this, and it will all seem funny…..but it’s not funny right now), I am not bored with this story. I am, oddly enough, entertained.

February 26, 2014

Circular Writing Logic: Or, Here’s Why You Feel You Have No Time

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 8:46 am

Here is the scenario:

The university decides – by a committee – that all students must have a writing requirement. We call it GCCR, a requirement that must be completed for graduation.

Every department must offer one course that meets the requirement’s criteria: 15 pages of writing, feedback, etc. The concept behind the requirement is writing in the disciplines.

Some departments don’t feel completely comfortable with the requirement. We have no WAC/WID program here for faculty development, so many faculty wonder where they are going to learn how to teach writing in the disciplines.

Some of these departments turn to us because we are the writing people.

We’ll teach the specialized writing courses for them. This is good for us. Why? Because the university rewards each unit based on enrollments. Since we are young and still don’t have a major, it is difficult for us to fill undergraduate courses. With these specialized courses and set, almost guaranteed enrollments, we can maintain our so called revenue line. Our revenue is tied to enrollment even though the overall enrollment at the university is the same no matter how many students we teach.

Granted, whether the students take courses with us or with any other department, they will still take, more or less, the same number of credit hours over their four years at UK.  That means, of course, that whether the students take courses with us or with any other department, they still pay the university the same tuition. It doesn’t really matter where they take courses. 25,000 students is still 25,000 students.

Still, this is the system. We have to teach the specialized courses if we know what is good for us.And anyway, we don’t object. We enjoy teaching writing of all kinds.  But the thing is, we’re only 15 people total. There is no way we can suddenly all teach half a dozen or likely more specialized professional writing courses, particularly when only a few of us are even comfortable teaching a form of professional writing, and doubtful anyone wants to do two professional writing service courses a semester from now until whenever.

What’s the answer?

Adjuncts. And graduate students.

Right here is where the record comes to a full tilt scratch.

Or you say: What the what?

Isn’t this GCCR thing supposed to be really important? Shouldn’t it be handled in a way that allows students the opportunity to learn writing by those who are the most experienced? So we offer courses by the least experienced. Why, then, the requirement?

To project the image of general education.

To project the image of providing adequate instruction and a complete education.

To project an image.

But beyond this superficial image, think of all the work that has gone into this project until now. And the work is still ongoing. Committees. Meetings. Drafts. Reports. Circulated forms (and you should see the mess of a form the committee settled on), memorandum of understandings between departments, more meetings, approvals. All of this – who knows how many hours – so that we can settle on the one simple reality check when this is all said and done:

The majority-  if not all of the courses-  in question will be taught by non-professionals,  many of whom are teaching by grabbing whatever course is offered to them.

That’s inefficient. Not to go all Fredrick Taylor here, but what we talk about when we talk about “time” in the university is often this: circular logic that wastes our time.

The instruction will not be professional. And the money, in the end, is the same money because students take a set amount of credit hours no matter what.

Busy? Here’s one reason why.

January 27, 2014

Adjunct Narratives

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 3:51 pm

First person narratives about the adjunct experience in academia are being published – it seems – daily. Today, I came across a link from a Facebook friend about a Fairbanks, Alaska adjunct on food stamps.  A link to a story about motherhood and adjuncting was also shared with me today. The Chronicle of Higher Education has become the mouthpiece for such narratives, all of which are anti-tenure track faculty and all of which believe in the great injustice that has been done within higher education. I read this narratives almost every day. I’m interested in the rhetoric of narrative, so whatever I feel about the adjunct experience, I am interested in how adjuncts are telling their story.

Why now? Why the sudden proliferation of adjunct narratives, a frenzy of pieces that rival the popularity of online essays regarding MOOCs a year ago. During that period, one couldn’t avoid either a hyperbolic praising of MOOCs or a dismissal of MOOCs in any given business or education online outlet. That frenzy is now a trickle of updates. It has died down.

Why are news outlets giving so much room to the adjunct narrative all of a sudden? The adjunct problem has long been with us. Exploitation of teaching in the university is hardly new. Have publications merely woken up to this sleeping audience of readers, as Slate seems to have done with some hyperbolic and uniformed pieces? And what are these narratives trying to achieve as they tell their stories of failed expectation, financial struggle, food stamp dependence, and feelings of disenfranchisement?

  • Sympathy. A readership, it seems, will sympathize with the adjunct plight once the readership understands or learns about how awful things really are. I’m not really sure, though, that the strategy works. Within academia, adjunct exploitation is not a new problem. Within the general public, the issue doesn’t seem to raise much thought or action. Few people vote for their state representatives (who control university allocations) based on education issues.  Have any pieces swayed a popular uprising against how students are being taught? I’ve always felt, as well, that this strategy can backfire. If the general public sees (as if they don’t know ) that their children are being taught by underpaid instructors with – at times – minimal degree qualifications, will the public demand higher salaries and benefits for those instructors, or will the public demand that their tuition dollars go instead to having their children study with the tenured faculty, who the public, the narrative claims, think their students study with in the first place?
  • Discredit. When a narrative is published that says: I have an MFA in Creative Writing or an MA in Literature or a PhD in Literature and the only job I got was $2,000 a course with no benefits, doesn’t this merely confirm a belief that the graduate degree in question has no value? The more these narratives are promoted, aren’t they discrediting the various departments – often in the humanities – already under fire for a graduate degree often deemed unneeded? Again, it seems the strategy backfires. What this strategy seems to say is: The degree is worthless. If I ran an English department, for instance, I’d be very upset over this part of the narrative.
  • Attack. Administration bloat is often the focus of the attack; a well circulated narrative is something along the lines of “Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent.” Or this statistic: “between 1985 and 2005 administrative spending increased by 85%, while administrative support staff increased by a dramatic 240%. Meanwhile spending on faculty increased by only around 50%.” All likely true. But what does all that administration do? Does any of it have value? What if it were all removed? What would be the result? I don’t know. But neither do the critics since they haven’t pushed the attack into a real argument yet by citing specific positions and their value/lack of value to a given university or college. Tenure line faculty are also the other side of the attack. This part of the narrative says that we are all subsidized by adjunct labor or that we purposely keep adjunct labor in its place. I’m not aware of any of this being true, and I doubt any of us object to adjuncts moving out of the exploitive realm. We don’t set salaries or lines, after all.
  • Everyone is equal. The basis of all the narratives seems to ride on this vital point. Person x without a tenure line position is equal to person Y who has one. There is no shortage of qualified people who could, in many universities/colleges, be hired on the tenure line. Why such people are not, though, is based on all kinds of variables, from the well circulated trope of “unfair” to the less understandable reality of “fit.” But the reality to this narrative is that all academics in a given field are not equal. The MFA in Literature or Creative Writing is not necessarily equal to whoever is on faculty in that given department. It’s difficult to know, of course, because that means fleshing out details, fleshing out how such details work in a given local situation, saying things about another’s career that may not be pleasant to say nor hear (i.e., you do indeed have a published book or some publications, but we don’t find that topic of interest to the work we do in this department). Even among tenure line faculty, however, we are not equal.
  • Money. The overall narrative is that there is plenty of money. There is money in many cases. Often, even in a financial crisis, money is found for all kinds of projects. The suggestion, it seems, is that provosts and deans have the money to pay everyone at a certain level, but for greedy reasons don’t. This suggestion confuses me greatly. What is in it for a dean or provost to not pay if he/she can? Where is all this money when every year state allocations are reduced? We just found out about a 2.5% cut to UK’s budget. That doesn’t mean more money. That means less. The issue may not be money as much as priority. As long as we structure General Education in a certain way or “core” courses such as first year writing as massive undertakings that could never be taught by only tenure line faculty, we are looking at a situation where there is not enough money to pay all instructors fairly. But if we cut something, we are destroying higher education. And if we did such cuts, most of the adjunct positions would vanish, and be replaced with nothing.

So what do these narratives accomplish? These are some tropes I pick out and respond to. I don’t respond because I’m against adjuncts or don’t understand the situation. I very much understand the situation. But that is not my purpose here. My interest is in how the story is framed, and why this way as opposed to some other strategy? Most of the stories, after all, are similar and repetitive. Repetition can be highly effective. Is it in this case? I don’t think so.

Next Page »