GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘change’

(Role) Modeling Gender Gaps

In Guest Blogger on 2011/05/17 at 02:29

Monica Jacobe, writing from Princeton, New Jersey in the USA. 

At one of my first gatherings as a new faculty member at my current institution, I sat around a table of men and women from different campus units to discuss a common concern—communicating with students. I was stunned to note the mostly silent women—even high-ranking university administrators—among men of lower rank and less experience who spoke often and forcefully. These men often said quite smart and interesting things, agreeing with each other on many issues. When the women did speak, they often did so meekly, almost apologetically—and were often ignored. When I spoke to debate or counter what one of the men had said, it seemed to shock most of the table.

I wouldn’t have guessed it then, but I had come to a university, like many these days, that was concerned about gender representation in certain disciplines, in leadership roles, etc. Just recently, a committee on campus finished its report on this issue, finding that undergraduate women lagged behind their males colleagues in many benchmarks for leadership. Many were surprised, but I wasn’t, given that early meeting experience. How is it that girls and young women learn to lead?

Example, of course, is part. Many women faculty don’t advance to full professorship. The vast majority of contingent (non-tenurable) faculty positions across the US are held by women. And most women in academic departments do the majority of the service work required to run the university—whether they have tenure or not. So, certainly, on university campuses where few women are in leadership roles, their students won’t see any value or need in taking them on or—worse—will feel that such positions aren’t appropriate for them.

These positions—or lack thereof—are part of the social cues any of us picks up from role models, whether we want to or not. But the actions and attitudes of the women working in higher education must also impact students. As a Catholic school girl, I was taught by nuns who wouldn’t say “He” for “God,” and on game days, I wore my basketball jersey while the cheerleaders wore their skirts and sweaters, with all of us recognized as athletes. Female voices were often the most confident ones in those rooms, with the boys somehow quieter or less sure. It is this sense of education I carried into my academic career, where I was often lucky enough to run into women faculty and staff who created an equal playing field for themselves and, as a result, me. I always spoke up, took on important jobs, and got things done— just as they did.

So, with women in fewer leadership roles, female students have one half of a problem, one created on an institutional level, but the other half of the problem can be countered by individuals. Every time I walk into my classes now and into meetings where younger colleagues or students will be, I am aware of how my actions and attitudes could be read, not just for the construction of my own ethos, but as a woman who is communicating social cues, as a potential role model. Do I take myself seriously? Am I hiding my own accomplishments in some way? Do I take them seriously? Do I give my students space to speak around their sometimes more vocal male classmates? Do I engage with the ideas presented by other women in the room? It goes all the way down to posture and tenor of voice sometimes, with me becoming hyperaware of my presence in a room. Honestly, I hadn’t thought of my place in higher education in these ways before, though I had always observed and paid attention to my own female role models in these scenarios.

That report on gender and leadership didn’t call on university women to do this, but it could have—perhaps should have. It called for many other valuable things, like identifying and mentoring more young women toward graduate study. However, it also noted behaviors and conceptions of self among undergraduate women that were just like the ones I observed in that early gathering of faculty and administrators—quiet, self-deprecating when speaking, being ignored in larger groups. And how can any real change be made in the society if the social cues don’t change?

Monica F. Jacobe is a postdoctoral lecturer at Princeton University where she teaches in the writing program. Her literary research focuses on issues of identity in contemporary American literature, but a large part of her research agenda deals with academic labor and the state of humanities education. She currently serves as co-chair for the Modern Language Association’s Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession as well as Communications Editor for Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, & Pedagogy. She can be reached at

The Four Seasons

In Uncategorized on 2011/05/04 at 22:07

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, writing from Evanston, Illinois in the USA

I work at a university on the quarter system. Complaint about quarters makes for constant campus conversation, but I remain strangely fond of the system. Their alignment with the seasons permits an academic poetry of which I approve.

Autumn bursts into color as bright new minds pop up all over campus and my fellowship applicants bring to fruition four years of intellectual growth. Winter gives us time sit in front of the fire, read, write, and refine our thoughts as we share experience across departments and generations. Spring brings new applicants to bud, whom I nurture from a distance through the Summer quarter’s perilous balance of nutritive and stifling heat.

Our quarter system emerged from engineering and journalism students’ need for time in the private sector to learn the ropes that aid and constrain great minds in their fields. Those taking and teaching other types of study grouse over the difficulty of covering their material with adequate depth, of leaping from one test to another without pause, and of matching their calendars to summer and study abroad opportunities.

The problem arises because continental European Universities and their American imitations like semesters. They run August to December and February to June with a bit of variation to balance the breaks. This calendar follows the seasons in an alternative manner and avoids dragging students to class in the depths of winter or in the heat of summer.

Oxbridge’s dreaming spires have stood firm against the switch to semesters for centuries and seem likely to maintain their stance for centuries more. Appropriately, given my task to dispatch our students across the pond upon Oxbridge’s scholarly shores, these ancient academies keep to their ‘terms,’ which happen to make perfect matches with our quarters.

Oxford’s Michaelmas, Hilary, Trinity and Cambridge’s Michaelmas, Lent, Easter trimesters follow a medieval Christian calendar matched to an ancient seasonal calendar. They omit the summer during which scholars were meant to supervise or join the toil in their fathers’ fields.

At Northwestern, we have a summer quarter during which the staff toils and the faculty goes to “the field” for research and resuscitation. As I have written here before, some students take advantage of this time to grow free from the restraint of endless evaluation. Some continue coursework in an environment made more comfortable by the summer sun. Others try to cut off the burden of student debt with capital acquired at a green summer pass.

Since our alumni ensconced in Oxbridge rarely have parental fields to plow, they travel further afield for research or return home to write during their summer respite. During my own stint in Cambridge, I spent my first summer in German archives, and my second summer marching down the aisle, off on my honeymoon, then back to a tiny apartment in order to edit my dissertation for submission. When Michaelmas term began with a flourish of color, I defended my dissertation and commenced my next degree within the same academic season. I simultaneously survived the experiences I advise and divide between seniors and freshman each September.

I suspect that my all-too-frequent attempts to do too much make me such a strong proponent of a seasonal system of instruction, which allows us to focus with a comforting rhythm. US instructors on the quarter system complain that they must skim over subjects too quickly that semesters would permit them to probe in depth. However, in Oxbridge, tutorials give faculty and students the freedom to dig deep into questions without the US need to assign a grade to every utterance. As a result, they cover more subjects in more depth and in equal time to their sisters sitting through long lectures on semesters.

Pete Seeger adapted a bit of biblical wisdom and wrote his own soothing embrace of the seasons, which I think we would all do well to remember:

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)

There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)

And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

More lyrics

Listserv Tattletale

In Guest Blogger on 2011/05/02 at 11:02

Guest blogger, Bonnie Kaserman.

“For openers, I don’t think you understand the difference between descriptive and normative statements, and you’ve obviously got a chip on your shoulder about male and female, and who knows what else. Your take on the article is simplistic, and trivial… As it stands, all I hear from you is angry woman in academia who’s mighty self-righteous… Maybe we’ll get lucky and others will say something worth paying attention to.”

A female graduate student contributed to a listserv thread regarding an article published in popular media. Her anti-racist critique didn’t have the nuance of professors with decades of experience, but she made sincere, solid points. The above quote was the response of a tenured faculty member. When she posted a response clarifying her argument, she was met with more vitriol. A few listserv members responded to defend her. The listserv moderators responded with a statement about listserv protocol. Almost unbelievably, the faculty member continued his diatribe.

I subscribe to several listservs: departmental, disciplinary and inter-disciplinary. At each scale of listserv coverage, there are important announcements, calls for papers and opportunities for insightful conversations. However, there have also been disturbing exchanges. I have witnessed threats, derision, and blatant racism, including cad remarks about someone’s presumably non-white last name. The opening example was an exchange between people I’ve never met. Witnessing it made me sad and angry. I can only imagine the personal hurt and public shame that the grad student (may have) felt as well as the impact on listserv members who remained silent.

The faculty member’s posts, seemingly akin to that of Internet trolls, might go as far as violating the sexual discrimination policy of the university server hosting the listserv. There are also (a lack of) political implications. Audrey Kobayashi states “such personal attacks serve absolutely no purpose toward effecting social change. Rather than target a society in which (presumably) we all have an interest in effecting change and improvement, they attack individual people, as though … by undermining the moral qualities of those individuals we also undermine their intellectual position…”

Deborah Tannen suggests that agonistic modes of attack are the prominent route of academic critique. If we look closely at how students engage in the classroom, most are simplifying the points that they or others are making. Class debate and larger academic discourse becomes about tearing down others’ arguments, and it’s a lot easier to tear down than to explore arguments and find nuance. It seems the strategies deployed on the listserv in abusive posts hold similarities to less contentious exchanges. I wonder if agonism is amplified on listservs, where maybe it’s easy to forget that we are speaking to real people?

Research has demonstrated the impact of contention on online group dynamics. Forexample, “women-centered groups whose moderators place restrictions on the number or nature of messages that can be posted, particularly when contentious (challenging, insulting, etc.) messages are discouraged, tend to flourish, with large, active memberships and widespread participation.” Who is less likely to engage from listserv discussion because of contentious or violent exchanges? Those who have been traditionally excluded from the academy?

On several occasions, I’ve read responses to abusive discourse that ask that the conversation take place off the listserv: to send private emails rather than listserv posts. Is it because those comments are seen as unnecessarily clogging up inboxes? Because contention is uncomfortable? Because it’s easier not to know about it? Do these individuals think that all speech is covered by the terms of academic freedom? Do we assume the right to say whatever we want?

My worry: To suggest private exchange as a solution is to propose that abuse is appropriate as long as no one knows about it.

Imagine receiving those emails without witnesses, without a community that will (hopefully) support you. And hierarchies online do matter. If you are a grad student, having a faculty member advocate for you, be in solidarity with you… well, it’s key. I don’t like an inbox full of invective, but I wouldn’t mind an inbox full of messages of support and productive engagement. Doesn’t support and productivity aid in nourishing academic community?

I wonder how these interactions influence how people interact off the listserv. Is this how we are being taught to interact in our departments? To interact with each other in private conversations? If these listserv interactions are partially constitutive of today’s academic freedom, then what does that say about our present state of academic responsibility?

Bonnie Kaserman is a writer, researcher and artist raised in North Carolina. Her blog “(un)becoming academic” is featured on the website for the Canadian higher education publication Academic Matters. In both Canada and the United States, she has been dedicated to Supporting Women in Geography, an organization enhancing the participation of women in the discipline.

It’s the Hard That Makes it Great

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2011/04/27 at 12:21

Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

My job didn’t exist three years ago. My institution is relatively new to offering free-standing master’s programs. Until recently we merely offered them jointly with another institution, and offered a few more out of the Faculty of Theology. In 2008 we launched 3 new master’s programs, followed by a fourth in 2009 and we’ve been steadily growing ever since, offering new streams as well as another one or two new programs to come within the next couple years. Doctoral programs will no doubt soon follow.

It’s an exciting time to be there, and I’m happy to have arrived at the “ground level” of a growing foundation. However it hasn’t been without its growing pains. There are so many details to be considered when launching graduate programs that it’s impossible to anticipate them all, and of course as soon as one issue is resolved, several more crop up. But through the hard work of so many talented people on campus, we’re getting our heads above water and are finally beginning to offer the level of service that our students deserve.

However those initial growing pains had jaded me a bit. Whenever a student would come to my door I would cringe. Since we were so early in our development I felt that I was constantly sending them away with half answers and a vague “we’re still working on that” leaving both of us frustrated and unsatisfied. These experiences, unfortunately, made me resent the very students that I was working so hard for.

And then the other day, as I was preparing for our “Third Annual Graduate Student’s Research Colloquium” I realized again that it was truly the highlight of my job. The best parts of what I do are those tasks that actually offer opportunities for students and make their campus and degree experiences easier and richer. I love organizing and running Orientation, same for the Colloquium, and reviewing scholarship applications – heavenly! I love ordering merchandise and refurbishing the student lounge and creating opportunities like travel grants and assistantships. I see now that it’s not the students that I resent, it’s the administrative challenges, the bureaucracy and the inability to help them when they need it.

This was a much-needed revelation for me. It reminded me again just how much I love what I do, and why I wanted to work in this institution to begin with. I wanted so much to be a part of something bigger than myself – something that offered eager minds the opportunity to contribute to the world in a better way than simply making money. The pursuit of knowledge can be selfish and glory-seeking, but I don’t think most people enter into it that way. I truly believe that most students want to add something to the ever-expanding pool of scholarship, further enriching the lives of other interested academics. That’s why I do it anyways, and I don’t think I am unique in this.

During Orientation I give impassioned speeches to students about getting involved – about joining the Student’s Association and participating in the Colloquium and enjoying their time on campus. I genuinely mean it – I am so excited about this time in our lives, graduate school is a rare opportunity to be cherished. Being immersed in Academia makes many of us forget just how few people have the chance to be involved in such an exciting and stimulating experience. I know as well as anyone how exhausting and crazy-making it can be (both job-wise and degree-wise), but I have to confess, at times like this, I think about Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own saying “if it wasn’t hard, then everyone would do it, it’s the hard that makes it great” and I absolutely agree.

Snitches Get Stitches

In Uncategorized on 2011/04/20 at 11:19

Afshan Jafar, writing from Connecticut in the USA.

My older daughter, who is in kindergarten, is one of the gentlest souls I know. She goes around our house picking lady bugs off the floor and putting them on window sills so that we don’t crush them when we walk. A few days ago, while in the girls’ bathroom at school, she was kicked by another girl, between her legs. As soon as it happened, my daughter went screaming to the teacher and told her what had happened. Thankfully my daughter was fine, after a visit to the nurse’s office and an ice pack.

I contrast her behavior with that of college students, who often deal with much worse – hazing (and not just in fraternities and sororities, but also in athletics, theater, and even a capella groups!), ridicule, binge drinking, drug abuse, depression, assault, rape. The only difference is that college students suffer in silence, most of the time. It is a sad irony of our educational system, that as our kids go through it, they learn to be silent instead of outspoken, they learn to look away instead of blowing the whistle. One of my students recently gave me the following example from her elementary school years. During “circle time” the children in her school could either report something good that another student had done, or report something bad that another student had done, with one small difference: when reporting a good deed they could state the person’s name but when reporting a bad deed they were not allowed to mention anybody by name. My daughter and her friends, similarly, are learning, from their teachers, that “tattling” on other kids is a bad thing, unless the other kid does something “really, really, bad”. But how can kids make the distinction between what is “really, really, bad” and what isn’t? Given the right conditions, even adults can’t make the distinction – from lay people willing to administer electric shock to strangers, to soldiers willing to torture and abuse prisoners. But perhaps the problem isn’t so much that we can’t make the distinction between good and bad, but that we have many reasons to stay silent. As one of my students recently told me, “Snitches get stitches”. But a five or six year old in kindergarten hasn’t learnt yet that in order to keep her friends she should cover-up their bad behavior. But kids learn quickly.

In a recent lecture at my college, Michael Kimmel, author of “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” pointed out that precisely at the moments that our students need some adult intervention in their lives, we, as coaches, administrators, and professors tend to disappear. Think about the coach, for instance, who tells his/her team regarding “initiation rituals”: “Don’t discuss this in front of me. I can’t know anything about this.” The message from adults is clear. Be silent—at least in front of us. That a five year old has a louder voice and is willing to use it much more readily than an 18 year old, should be of concern to us. And we should ask ourselves: What can we do to change this culture of silence? What is our responsibility as educators when it comes to teaching students to use their voices, to speak up, to refuse to suffer in silence?

I’m not saying that we all need to become intimately involved in our students’ lives and try to change them. But those of us in the social sciences and humanities at least, know that the subject matter we deal with is intimately connected to the lives of our students. The method and message of our teaching can be potentially transformative. Engaging students in the kind of education where their experiences and perspectives matter, and where they are encouraged to speak, question, participate, argue, disagree is one small way of encouraging a new identity in our students: one that is not based in silence, conformity, or passivity.

Once we acknowledge that we as educators have an immense responsibility on our shoulders, to listen to our students, to not treat them as another face in the crowd, to not make them into passive beings, we make the move from education that merely results in a degree to an education that is personal, transformative and meaningful. The kind of education where “life” becomes part of the subject of teaching and teaching becomes a part of “life”. Perhaps this is how we teach our students to regain their voices that we as educators encouraged them to silence a long, long time ago.

Connecticut in the USA

Afshan Jafar is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women’s movements. Her forthcoming book, Women’s NGOs in Pakistan, uncovers the overwhelming challenges facing women’s NGOs and examines the strategies used by them to ensure not just their survival but an acceptance of their messages by the larger public. She can be reached at

Fear and Loathing in Academia

In Liminal Thinking on 2011/04/11 at 11:02

Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the USA.

This month’s question regarding life balance—how we deal with writer’s block—started me thinking about how I feel about writing. It’s always been an important part of my life, but in my career as an academic, writing has become my biggest source of anxiety.

I wrote my first short story in a writing class in the third grade. I loved creating that story. From then on I wrote short stories constantly, on every subject I could imagine. I sent them to teen magazines in the hopes they’d be published (my first taste of publishing rejection). At fourteen, I spent the summer vacation writing a novel. It was overly serious, trite in some ways, and full of inaccuracies (having set it in place I’d never been, in circumstances I’d never actually encountered). But I loved every minute of sitting down and thinking about the story, no matter how fanciful. It was a joyful experience.

College saw me writing still, although mainly deep, reflective journal writings. I wrote about the Gulf War, my love affairs, my professors…volumes of stuff.

So when did my love affair with writing end? When did it become an insurmountable peak rather than an enjoyable journey?

Graduate school.

Graduate school does two things: it prepares you for your professional life in the discipline. And it disciplines you. It tells you what’s appropriate and what’s not. It tells you, this far in your thinking is acceptable, and no more. I remember thinking that I would revel in pushing the boundaries of the discipline through my writing.

But time and again, I was told differently; indeed, a well-known political theorist once told me, in response to an essay I had written on Burke, “Ms. Horn, graduate school is not the time to be creative.” I believed him. I was disciplined into fearing my writing rather than loving it. I feared that I would write something that would be unacceptable to the “gatekeepers:” my professors, my peers and others out there who would judge me.

And that fear continues, although it’s getting better. It’s the constant judgment—whether real or imaginary– that makes it so terrifying, of course. It’s the fear of writing the wrong thing, the bad thing, the thing that is not well considered, the thing that doesn’t meet academic standards, the thing that will never be taken seriously. It’s the fear of failing to express ideas that are important. It’s also the fear of never writing enough when you are too afraid to write at all.


Drill, Baby, Drill?

In Uncategorized on 2011/03/21 at 21:47

Afshan Jafar, writing from Connecticut in the USA

I like tigers. The animal, that is, not the human variety that has cropped up lately. Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” has gotten a lot of attention in the press for the shocking admissions of her parenting style. I won’t discuss her parenting here. But since she is a professor at Yale Law School, her book made me wonder: what is she like in the classroom? As a mother who demanded nothing less than A’s from her children and did not balk at calling them “garbage”, or “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic”, who barred them from being in school plays and insisted on them learning to play the piano and violin (no other instruments were allowed), how does she approach her students? Is there such a creature as a “tiger professor”?

I know the tiger professor exists. I’ve had some of them. They believe in “drilling”, and rote learning (as does Chua), and not tolerating any deviance from their idea of perfection. I don’t want to dismiss the value of repetition in learning to do a task well. I still remember my multiplication tables from second grade and it’s a skill that comes in handy. And I am appalled when my students misspell common words that I learnt in first grade. But I also know that some of my most satisfying moments in my educational career have been when I’ve been able to figure out (or been given the liberty to pursue) the whys, when I was allowed to bend the rules of drawing and painting, when I wrote a paper that I really enjoyed, and not the one that would necessarily get me an “A”.

I have to admit, as a young student I was that person who didn’t really “get” Mathematics. Yet I was able to get good grades not because I understood it necessarily, but because I was able to follow the specific steps required to get to the correct answers as I was expected to. But I have a sister whose Math abilities amaze me. She “gets it”. She can see the logic and the process behind the calculations, while I never could. She spent many hours trying to get me to see the connections between the various steps involved in a formula. Yet, I was the one who got better grades – I was good at producing the desired answers in the limited time frame allotted for tests and exams.

So I must ask: what kinds of tasks can be accomplished by repetition and drilling? What kind of learning takes place? And what kind of appreciation for the subject does it inculcate in the person performing the task?

There is a lot of national unrest and concern about our test-scores, and our failing education system, as there should be. But before we get completely swept up in the discussion of tiger moms (I’m sure tiger teachers and professors are next) as the saviors of nations from mediocrity and self-indulgence, perhaps it makes sense to think about the whys along with the whats of our pedagogical techniques. It is no surprise that Chua’s younger daughter gave up the violin (one of their constant battles). You can teach a person to do certain things by “drilling” them but can you teach them to love it? Can you inspire students to create, to innovate by rote learning?

What if Van Gogh had a tiger mom or a tiger teacher? What about Einstein? Do we inspire people by demanding conventional perfection? Should we drill our children and our students into coloring inside the lines, using “proper” colors, traditional techniques, or let them create something? Do we not turn the piano, violin, math, dance, or any kind of learning, into a mechanical activity when it becomes a task to be accomplished, instead of something we love, understand, and appreciate?

I said earlier that I like tigers. And I do. I would have no objection to espousing a tiger parenting or teaching style, if the label accurately resembled the methods of real tigers. Tigers may be fierce animals, but when it comes to caring for their young, they are also gentle, and nurture them for a long time. They are in no hurry to demand perfection or “appropriate” behavior from them. Have you ever seen how much fun tiger cubs have with each other and their mother as they pounce, flop, and chase their tails around? But don’t let that fool you; amidst all that “unbecoming” and often clumsy behavior, they are actually honing their hunting skills.


On Open University

In Anamaria's Posts on 2011/03/17 at 08:26

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden.

What will the university of the future look like? If we are to believe Bill Gates, it will be open, worldwide, and free. “Five years from now [Aug. 2010] on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.” Are Open Educational Resources (OER) a threat to traditional higher education? Or are they the key to the very survival of universities in the digital era?

According to a report from the Hewlett Foundation, a major sponsor of research in this area, OER are those: “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others.” (p. 4)

OER may be the carriers of a paradigmatic change in the way we approach knowledge.Knowledge is a public good. Access to knowledge should not be restricted as access to clean air and water should not. Knowledge is as necessary to our fulfillment as human beings as water and air are for our physical survival.

Read the rest in Inside Higher Ed.


Is Changing Higher Ed Really Possible?

In Uncategorized on 2011/03/16 at 05:22

Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Kentucky in the USA

For all of my pie-in-the-sky musings about why you should blog, I have become increasingly troubled by a nagging feeling of hopelessness when it comes to the future of higher education. Somehow, we need to change, or it will be forced upon us because what we are doing right now isn’t working for many people. But I really don’t think higher education is able to change. I think much of higher education as we know it will disappear.

But what will be left in its place?

Before I became an academic, I fully intended to join the “real world” and become a…technical writer. Montreal, where I grew up, was fully benefiting from the mid-90s tech bubble: from large companies like Nortel to small tech start-ups; it was an exciting place to be a technical writer who could speak both English and French. And by exciting, I mean, job opportunities that paid a lot of money right away. And this was for an English major; if you had any technical expertise, then you were golden.

I worked for both Nortel and a small start-up while I was doing my BA. What impressed me about thestartup (I was an employee in 1998) was how they were looking to do things differently – not only the type of product they provided (they treated the printer like the mini-computer it is), but they also tried to treat their employees differently, giving us more freedom (but also expecting more independence from us in terms of our work). The founders of the company had been discouraged by their lack of intellectual and creative freedom at their older “corporate” jobs and thus set out to do it themselves. We all worked together quite closely and I did everything from writing manuals to advertising copy to correcting the English in the programming interface.

But I, at heart, was an academic. I was not used to the kind of freedom that the job offered me. I was much more comfortable at Nortel, where I had a clear and defined job description, which was narrow and limiting. But I hated living in a cubicle, writing one kind of document, 9-5, every day. So, yeah, I’ve always been an academic.

I fully realize the danger of comparing the university to corporations, and I know that much of what is wrong with universities is due to the increased corporatization of the institution. My current job as an academic more closely resembles my job at Nortel than at the small start-up. But where are the small start-ups in education? So many of us want to go out and do things differently, but we can’t, because of regulation, money, and, let’s face it, fear. Academics are not known for being risk takers. I liked academia because of the clear parameters that were set in front of me, however fictitious they turned out to be. And most of us would admit that that seeming balance between academic freedom and clear directional guidelines is what attracted us to the field.

How do we initiate change, then? How do we create something new and truly disruptive to the status quo? How do we ensure that when the university as we know it is gone that something more meaningful and, dare I say it, valuable remains? How do we do it in a system that discourages unorthodoxy, has no money, and no visible desire to change, outside of a few cosmetic ones around the edges? The reason why adjuncts stay? There really are few alternatives. In any other field, you would start your own business; in higher education, especially in the humanities, profit is a dirty word. We look at innovation in higher education and we immediately recoil at what the for-profit sector has become. But is that the only way?

Adjuncts need to live. Students need an education that they can afford. Our economy and democracy need critical thinkers who are capable and knowledgeable. Some of us want to provide that, know we can provide that. But we are unable to do so.

So I ask again: when the idea of the university as we know it is gone, what will be left in its place? And, what will become of us?

I know there are disruptive alternatives out there; please share the ones you know in the comments.



Our Wise Politicians

In Uncategorized on 2011/03/10 at 04:33

Ana Dinescu, writing from Berlin, Germany

Do we need politicians with a serious academic background to increase the general quality of the public debates? Or, is academia (only) a source of symbolic power and influence for politicians and, in general, public figures, and a step in their career to top positions in the establishment?

The general debate regarding the opportunity of an increased presence of “philosophers” and qualified thinkers in governments crosses the ages, from Plato’s dialogues to the optimism of the Enlightenment that reaches the present time. The manifestations of intellectuals in the public space, sometimes with a publicly assumed political option, is criticized as a possible attempt to upgrade economic status and/or celebrity by some while others consider it as a wise step forward to introducing more noblesse and intellectual accountability into politics. Most probably, neither of those two extremes is right and the situations are as diverse as human nature: some will integrate without any attempt of change, fitting perfectly into the usual ambiance; some will give up; and at best, some will use their knowledge to introduce substantial changes.

My question is coming from another direction: what do you do when the academic qualifications of a public figure turn out to be a matter of public controversy? What is the responsibility of the academic establishment in conferring the titles?

The inspiration for this article was generated by the latest discussions from the German media regarding the availability of the PhD title of the Defense minister, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg [1]. However, he is only one of the world public figures and power-brokers facing accusations of plagiarism[2]. The public perception might differ as well; in Germany, academic qualifications represent a matter of high social status. But the debate in itself, whatever the final decision, is a matter of credibility of the universities through the professors, who bear the sole accountability in promoting and endorsing the intellectual elites. Such an issue is more important than the one concerning the problem of state funding or other possible political support for various academic projects.

A possible answer to the opening question of this article would be: yes, we do need qualified and very qualified politicians, with a solid general culture and academic qualification. But, at the same time, we need to measure their intellectual competence and educational qualities under the same strict criteria. At the end of the day, the academic choice is more than a hobby, but a life-long commitment requiring a significant amount of time for research, lectures, writing – including learning how to avoid plagiarism[3] – and confrontation of sources.

I hope that the discussion, in Germany and elsewhere, is just at the beginning, and the echoes and the articulate answers of the academics will follow intensively in the next months. Because, otherwise, we risk entering a discussion exclusively focused on people instead of looking into standards or the lack thereof.

Note: Germany’s defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned March 1st, following the accusations of plagiarism.

Berlin, GermanyAna Dinescu is a regular contributor to University of Venus and a PhD candidate in history at the Faculty of History, University of Bucharest, with a background in Political Science. She has been a journalist for ten years for Romanian daily newspapers and is currently a communications consultant, living in Berlin.

[1],,14858955,00.html, retrieved February 21, 2011,,1518,745891,00.html, retrieved February 21, 2011

[2], retrieved February 21, 2011