GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

I Didn’t Expect to Make Friends

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2011/03/29 at 05:52

Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

I’m currently in a class entitled Children, Desire and Fear; this is in addition to my Erotica Special Studies course. The two frequently overlap, and as the year has progressed, the entire cohort now knows that erotica is one of my research passions. I no longer hide behind the much safer interest in “cultural inscriptions on the body as text,” a la Susan Bordo.

I also created a Facebook group for the cohort so we wouldn’t have to bore our non-academic friends with constant class discussions on our walls. This has turned out to be one of the best things I did for myself this year, and I didn’t even realize its benefits at the time. Not only has it allowed me to actually embrace the group and interact with them on a more social level, but it has also given me a space to see what they’re thinking and feeling.

For both courses I’ve been assigned films to watch – if you’re interested: Chloe for the porn class and The Good Son for the other. As I’m sure you all know, after endlessly staring at the same piece of writing for hours, days, weeks (months?) on end, it is easy to lose perspective on whether it makes any sense. I lamented something like this to the group and found that not only were they willing to read over my paper, but they were genuinely interested in doing so.

I had distanced myself from the group to such an extent that I had forgotten the basic fact that people are developing relationships during this time. This is an amazing group of individuals who share similar research interests, and not only might they find it interesting to read someone else’s work, it may also be useful to see how someone else puts together a project that they themselves have to do.

What a delightful revelation. And what fantastic feedback: from “uh Deanna – where’s yourthesis for this paper?” (Oops!) to “you may want to consider looking at Chloe’s hair, and what that represents…” Absolutely. Not only can I envy that hair – I could write about it too!

And then personal trauma and the inevitable (according to my advisor) fear of failure and the accompanying melt-down occurred. I’d convinced myself that I’d made a mistake, I couldn’t handle this degree. I used to have a life. And friends. And no back pain. And TV! I miss TV. And why am I so obsessed with porn anyhow?

This week I didn’t go to class. I met with my advisor to discuss The Delta of Venus and The Bloody Chamber then begged to go home. She gave me leave to eat chicken soup, watch girly movies and relax. I went home and I cried. And tried to figure out what I was doing with my life. I read a bit of The Lost Girls and cried some more. And I ate cake.

But what actually made me pick myself up and realize that I wanted to carry on? I received an unexpected visit from three of the women in my class yesterday. They showed up in my office ostensibly with additions to their travel grant applications – but also because they were concerned. I tried dodging the question when they asked how I was, but I failed. They are intelligent and perceptive. Dodging didn’t work. They insisted that I attend the party being thrown that night and would take no other answer – they would pick me up and that’s all there was to it. One of them rubbed my back and hugged me while the others closed my office door and let me cry a bit more.

I didn’t expect to make friends in this program. I thought I had to distance myself from everything in the spirit of avoiding conflicts of interest. I’m glad that it didn’t work out that way.

Academia’s 3Ms (Merit, Money, Marriage)

In Uncategorized on 2011/01/11 at 05:47

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

The Economist’s 16 December issue opened its article on why doctoral degrees waste 21st century students’ time and money with a vignette about Martin Luther. The Economist longed for the days when theses were short, sweet, and revolutionary. I began my own academic life as a historian of Lutheran education and could not avoid seeing the deeper parallels between 16th century and 21st century crises in education.

At the moment, the Brits – most strikingly the shocked Duchess of Cornwall – find themselves at the epicenter of higher education’s socio-economic storm. Cries of ‘Tory scum’ and ‘off with their heads’ reportedly assaulted the Duchess’ and the Prince of Wales’ ears while their limo received an unwanted coat of paint. Those throwing insults at these icons of social hierarchy fear that money, not merit, will determine access to higher education under the Cameron government’s new scheme.

When Luther posted his theses, he instigated a series of educational reforms – some intended, some not – throughout Reformation Europe. To read the word of God in the vernacular required the ability to read and the teachers to impart the skill. In theory, everyone regardless of gender or station, needed to read the Bible. The drive for literacy guaranteed employment not only for university-educated men never before able to achieve early modern Europe’s closest analogue to tenure – the pastorate – but also for their wives. The spousal hire began with Luther’s creation of a married clergy. Husbands preached and taught boys. Their wives took the girls under wing.

Then, as now, governments wanted schoolmasters to identify the best and the brightest to send them on to university and positions of power. Then, as now, reality refused to conform to theory. Teachers desired salaries beyond what many parents could or would pay. Thus, the sons of those with money to pay or those born into the newly pro-creative clergy climbed the social ladder offered by higher education.

Their daughters and sisters bumped their heads on a lower ceiling. These young men married the girls educated by their mothers, who would in turn train their daughters to be suitable clerics’ wives capable of continuing the tradition.

In 2008, Terry Caesar wrote about the complicated overlapping categories of “faculty wife” and “adjunct instructor” in an essay for Insider Ed entitled “Composition and Cookies.” I will broaden the categories to include life-partners of any ilk and administrators. Every campus has at least one spousal silo of “little jobs” (as I once heard a chaired professor sneer) for PhDs on the tenure side-lines by choice or by necessity.

Whether held by men or women, spouses or alumni, these positions – my own included – tend to be those that nurture. We advise students on tricky decisions and applications; teach students the necessary groundwork for success in laboratories and libraries; and cultivate their spoken and written skills in native and foreign tongues. I often contemplate the similarity to the role my colleagues and I play to the cleric’s wife. No matter our gender, we are Mrs. Chips: the well-loved advisers at the emotional heart but professional periphery of academic life.

The limits of meritocracy struck home last month when the Gates Foundation announced a reduced number of Cambridge scholarships as the British Marshall Scholarship had in November. The opportunity for fully funded graduate study in Britain guaranteed to the top graduates of well-endowed East Coast institutions (Columbia and Williams to name but two) just became an even more ephemeral dream for those from families and undergraduate institutions unable to pay Britain’s high overseas student fees.

Who will retain the upper hand? Those from families like mine whose dinner table conversations resembled the high-octane banter of scholarship interviews (as a faculty brat, I have noted the high number of my own kind among the ranks of British scholarship recipients), and those with the money to pay for their degrees.

Marriage, money, and merit offer enduring if unstable access to academia. Mr Cameron’s Oxbridge government has shifted the balance back towards those like Charles and Camilla whose parents’ marriages and money guaranteed them academic access regardless of merit. The paint may have been an unseemly statement but surely not an unexpected one.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.


I Need a Work Husband

In Information Minoration on 2010/12/21 at 02:21

Heather Alderfer, writing from New Haven, Connecticut in the USA.

I’ve had some great work husbands in my relatively short career, but they can be hard to find. I’m lucky to have a partner who also loves what he does, but when we come home at the end of the day, our work stories are like oil and water. I’d love to regale him with stories of the report I can’t get quite right because of a pesky outer join, but I’m afraid he’d be asleep before I even explained the project. The GQ author gets this: “Telling your real wife that story, or explaining why so much annoyance is embedded in a tiny moment in a meeting, requires such a tremendous amount of back story and preamble and small-beans exposition, it’s futile.”

Work spouses are quick with snarky blackberry comments during meetings, and share inside jokes about failed projects or those quirky, but entertaining, students or faculty. One work husband escaped his office on the excuse my floor had the better tea selection, but those tea breaks allowed us to re-hash a meeting from earlier in the day and share insights we were not comfortable sharing around the conference table with a wider audience.

Read the rest at Inside Higher Ed (link here)


We launched the University of Venus blog in February 2010 and currently have readers from over 125 countries. In October, 2010 the blog was visited by over 26,000 readers.

In July 2010 we partnered with Inside Higher Ed (a large higher ed media publication in the US) as part of a new initiative to support blogs focused on international and global higher ed.

In June, GlobalHigherEd and The World View launched with IHE. GlobalHigherEd is headed up by Kris Olds (professor at UWisconsin-Madison) and Susan Robertson (professor at UBristol, UK). The World View is a blogging venture coming from Philip Altbach’s team at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

Beginning July 12, we started blogging at University of Venus @ Inside Higher Ed. Check out our new home and join the conversation (link here)


My Love Affair With Academia

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2010/11/15 at 23:33

Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

I bookmarked before noon my first day of work at the University. This wasn’t merely because of the impressive language being thrown at me by the staff and faculty, I understand English pretty well and all – and if that were the only issue, I wouldn’t have been nearly as concerned. However one of my first tasks was to go through the files of Graduate Studies Officers past and I found myself under attack by Latin. Latin. A so-called “dead” language that seemed determined to haunt me: ex officio, ipso facto, mea culpa. All part of everyday conversation for me now, but at the time, the potential for future dialogues in a language that I had thought was only used in medical schools caused me a bit of panic. I had always wanted to take Greek and Latin – maybe that can be the next project I tackle once I’ve completed this Master’s degree. Or not.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago to me proudly attending the convocation for the first graduating class of our new master’s programs. This was the reason I was hired in my position – that initial cohort was finally on their way. I felt like a parent – I couldn’t have been more pleased with the collective efforts of the students, my department and everyone involved with the individual programs. As I waited for the ceremony to begin, I found myself mesmerized by more Latin in the form of our University crest and motto: Lux et veritas floreant. Let truth and light flourish. I found it an almost impossible task to resist the urge to blackberry other university mottoes on the spot (there are some dull moments during convocation after all). I raced home to google and was delighted with what a fascinating exercise it was. Latin, Middle English, Gaelic, Italian, Greek, all reflective of each institution’s history and values.

Read the rest at Inside Higher Ed (link here)


University of Venus was launched in February 2010 and has had over 29,000 visits from over 125 countries.

In July 2010 we partnered with Inside Higher Ed (a large higher ed media publication in the US) as part of a new initiative to support blogs focused on international and global higher ed.

In June, GlobalHigherEd and The World View launched with IHE. GlobalHigherEd is headed up by Kris Olds (professor at UWisconsin-Madison) and Susan Robertson (professor at UBristol, UK). The World View is a blogging venture coming from Philip Altbach’s team at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

Beginning July 12, we started blogging at University of Venus @ Inside Higher Ed. Check out our new home and join the conversation (link here)


An Unspoken Threat

In Guest Blogger on 2010/10/23 at 00:04

I am not the kind of person who feels uncomfortable about confrontations. I don’t go looking for them, but I don’t shrink from them either. When students inappropriately challenge me in class I usually deal with them without too much of a hassle. Yes, I feel annoyed when it happens. And my first thought usually is, would he (it is most often a male student) be doing this or saying this if I were a white man? But then things settle down and I can almost forget that I am a young female faculty of color. Almost.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how my experiences in the classroom differ from a male professor’s. I’ve spent a lot of time discussing it with other academics, with friends, and with my husband, at home. I’ve talked about students’ reluctance to see me as an authority figure in the classroom, or in my fields of expertise. I’ve discussed students’ apparent need to see me as “nice” and maternal. What I hadn’t given too much thought to until recently was the body – my body. In retrospect, it seems odd that I neglected to think as deeply about this as I am forced to do now.

I am forced to do so now because of a recent experience. I was teaching one of my mid-level courses last semester. The first assignment for the class was a reflection paper on students’ socialization experiences within their own families. Usually students write about unsurprising things: the toys they played with, the clothes they wore, the sports and extra-curricular activities they took part in, etc. But last semester, one of my male students turned in a paper which read like a trashy memoir of sexual exploits. The inappropriateness of the paper’s content was matched only by the crudeness of its language. When I confronted him, he refused to acknowledge any wrong-doing and insisted instead on questioning his grade on that paper for the rest of the semester, over the summer, and now in the fall. He spent most of the rest of our class meetings last semester with his arms crossed and eyes locked on me. Sometimes he would stay back in his seat, still with his arms crossed, eyes still fixed on me, while the classroom emptied and I packed up my things. The fact that he is a lacrosse player is a significant detail. On my campus (and apparently some others too according to they are known as “lax bros”- and they engage in behavior that epitomizes college life for at least some male athletes – partying hard, drinking, and acting aggressively.

Right after my confrontation with this student about his first paper, I shot my usual line to my husband, who is also an academic: “this would never happen to you!” And then I realized there were other things that were happening that I doubt happen to him or other male faculty. Based on the content of the student’s paper, and his behavior towards me, it was very clear that he saw me not as a professor but as a sexualized, “exotic” woman. I became acutely aware of my body language and my clothes. I found myself often quickly checking the buttons on my shirt during class to make sure they were all buttoned. I felt awkward turning around to write something at length on the board. I found myself limiting my physicality in other ways, like not sitting on top of the desk as I often do during discussion sessions. I started scheduling students back to back during office hours, if he wanted to meet with me, just so there would be a crowd of students outside my door when he was inside my office. And I made sure that I wasn’t the last person to leave the classroom. I understand that male professors are sometimes viewed sexually by their students. But I think the consequences of that are very different. I wonder if male professors have to worry about being the last person to leave the classroom, if they wonder what kind of predicament the next bad grade they give out is going to land them in.

And so here’s the enduring difference between the experience of a male professor and a female professor: our bodies. Some of my male students will always see me as “just” a woman and treat me accordingly. And for the first time since I started teaching, I shudder at the thought of what that could potentially mean.

Editors Note: The author of this post wished to remain anonymous. She will be reading your comments and if you would like to contact her by e-mail, you can write to us at and we will make sure your e-mail gets to her. – Mary Churchill and Meg Palladino, editors of University of Venus.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.


Community Means Us

In Guest Blogger on 2010/10/08 at 15:31

Guest blogger, Casey Brienza, writing from Cambridge, England in the United Kingdom

The latest critique of American higher education, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, has been getting quite a bit of buzz lately, and it’s the buzz, not the thesis of the book proper, that I wish to discuss. But in case you haven’t heard: The authors excoriate American higher education for no longer prioritizing the teaching of undergraduates and suggest a number of remedies. They also name the names of a handful of colleges that they think do their job well. The choices were, well, idiosyncratic, and not everybody appreciated the advice.

A typical reaction can be found on The Chronicle of Higher Education website’s online forum. The pseudonymous poster “collegekidsmom” writes:

It was so annoying. It was saying that you could get a great education at Ole Miss or Evergreen State College or Raritan Valley Community College. Does she think we (parents, students, readers) are all stupid? I don’t really think that there is much overlap between the Harvard applicant pool and the colleges the author finds a better value.

I must admit that I bristled when I read that. In the mid-2000s, I attended Raritan Valley Community College, or RVCC as it is known locally in northern New Jersey, as a non-degree student. Although I already had a bachelor’s degree, I enrolled there at the last-minute because, alas, I desperately needed the health insurance coverage that having a full-time credit load would qualify me for. In that way, RVCC saved me.
RVCC also changed me. Although I had other than strictly intellectual reasons for being there, I signed up for courses that interested me: Feminist Philosophy, Women in Literature, and Introductory Sociology. I did the same for two subsequent semesters, takings courses on science fiction, film studies, minority relations, deviance, and so forth. The classes were as good as what I’d taken as a “proper” college student, and the new ideas challenged my ways of thinking about the world. I’d like to believe they made me a better person. It was also my first encounter with sociology. I mention sociology in particular since I am now a sociology PhD student at a university in England some would say is the best in the world, and I certainly would not have gotten there had it not been for my experiences at RVCC.

Okay, maybe “collegekidsmom” is right. The RVCC and Harvard applicant pools don’t overlap that much, and I’m no exception. I did not bother applying to Harvard when I was in high school because I had this vague, ill-formed notion that if I went there I wouldn’t be educated by the really famous scholars, anyway. (Probably true, but of course, there is a lot more to Harvard than what happens in the classroom, and it undoubtedly has much to recommend for it.)

Nor do I imply that everyone who attends RVCC is going to have my life, either. It’s been a long and circuitous journey, and those community college classes were only the beginning.

would argue, however, that we ought not be too quick to judge. Any school that throws open its gates–as community colleges do–does not necessarily know precisely who will walk on through and what they will become after they are gone. That’s precisely the point. At RVCC, there were recent high school graduates, mature students, parents, political activists, nurses-in-training, recovering anorexics. Some were driven and super-smart; others struggled with the five-paragraph essay. Most, including myself, also had jobs. Everyone had different reasons for being there and something different to take away.

If a great education is what we’re after, it indeed can be found in many places. Education is a social good, not just a private one, and for this reason I firmly believe that anybody who wants an education should be allowed to have it. It infuriates me whenever I hear the arch assertion–and I hear it a lot in England–that not everybody “needs” a college education anyway. How does one define “to need” in a way that does not presume to know better about other people’s life chances than those people themselves? In this context especially the long-term public divestment in higher education troubles me, and I can’t help but wonder if a small part of the reason its happening is because those with privilege in the United States have forgotten that “Ole Miss or Evergreen State College or Raritan Valley Community College” might not be just a great education for “them” but also for us.

Comment if you’ve seen an Ivy Leaguer taking classes at a community college. ‘Cause I have, and I can’t be the only one.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Regarded as one of the top manga experts in the United States, she has lectured and published extensively on the American manga publishing industry in both academic and journalistic contexts. She can be reached through her website.

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.

Academic Identity Crises: Who is a Professor? What is an Administrator?

In Uncategorized on 2010/10/04 at 22:46

Regular contributor, Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, writing from Evanston, Illinois in the USA.

The two most misused nouns in the American academy are “Professor” and “administration.” In a recent New York Times piece, “The Case of the Vanishing Full-Time Professor,” Samantha Stainburn wrote of the disappointment parents feel upon discovering that their child’s “Professor” is an adjunct, which means in most cases the instructor is NOT a Professor at all. Just as the American academy suffers from perpetual grade inflation, we suffer from title inflation. Things are simpler in Europe where only very senior faculty – equivalent to endowed chairs here – call themselves Professors. In the US, students miss out on a critical opportunity to gather knowledge and therefore power – what sociologists would term “cultural capital” – about the institution in which they are ensconced. Divisions of labor and hierarchies of power get lost in translation when everyone from graduate assistants to the university president carries the same prefix, “Prof.” Students get to know the people who stand in their classrooms and teach, but these people are rarely those who hold the power and influence to help them launch careers.

I work with my university’s very best and brightest students as they apply for the most competitive international awards. They suffer from two sustaining delusions: that all their instructors are Professors and that the “administration” is somehow constituted of a different life form from their oft-mislabelled “Professors.” The confusion hurts the students in their quest for funding and the academy as a whole in our desire to be understood beyond ivy-covered walls.

These students only learn when they assemble letters of recommendation that many and sometimes all of their most ardent faculty supporters bear titles of lecturer or adjunct. Selectors want to see the names of full professors with endowed chairs. Not even a rapidly-rising, tenure-line, assistant professor can compete with the academic elite’s ability to write that a student is the smartest s/he has taught in three decades on the international circuit.

The confusion stems from the misuse of the appellation. I correct my advisees and my students when they call me “Professor” Pardoe. I was “Professor” Pardoe once, but I am “Dr.” Pardoe now. Nonetheless, I have colleagues from across the university, who in a good-hearted effort to show respect, introduce me as “Professor” to their pupils. I find it embarrassing to correct them, but I frequently do. Explaining that Mr/s. or Dr. so and so, whom I deeply respect, is NOT a tenure-line “Professor” causes yet more discomfiture on my part.

The ironic flip-side of students’ ignorance manifests in their misuse of “administration.” My first year at my current university, I participated in a discussion among student-leaders about how to improve relationships with “the administration.” It came to them as a shock that university presidents and provosts inevitably rose from faculty ranks. These icons of administrative authority could only ascend to their positions of power after years in the tweedy pedagogical trenches. Admittedly, their managerial and money-making prowess may have weighed more heavily in their ascent than their Mr. Chips classroom manner, but one must teach to attain the tenure required to sit atop the ivory tower.

President Obama has further complicated the issue. Endlessly referred to as a Constitutional law “professor,” the critical distinction gets lost between those who hold tenure-line professorships at law, medical, and business schools as opposed to the hoards of clinical and adjunct professors, lecturers, and instructors. Too often, when someone calls Obama, “Professor,” they intend it as a slur. Professor means disengaged, egghead, academic, incapable of the macho decision-making the speaker thinks the presidency demands. They miss that The University of Chicago hired Obama as a senior lecturer (NOT a Professor) precisely to share his ‘real world’ experience just as the irate undergraduates fail to grasp the academic roots of university administrators.

As someone on the tenure side-lines, I understand and struggle with the desire to claim the additional respect and evocative imagery of the professoriate. Then I think of the shell-shocked students who suddenly realize they have no one of the stature needed to write on their behalf as well as those staging sit-ins before administrators’ doors assuming that corporate automatons not chemists ponder policy within. For them, I insist that my students and advisees use the “Dr.” I earned rather than the “Professor”or “Mrs. Administrator” they suppose me to be.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Where the Students Aren’t

In Happy Mondays on 2010/09/27 at 11:39

Mary Churchill, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the USA.

The dean’s office. The provost’s office. The president’s office.

I have found that one of the most difficult aspects of academic administration is the lack of meaningful, day-to-day contact with students. Sure, you see students – at commencement, banquets, receptions, and every other meet-and-greet event that you are expected to attend. You meet with students who are lodging formal complaints about their programs, professors, and fellow students. And you see students who are in trouble and need your help: those who have been caught cheating, who have threatened professors or have been threatened by other students.

However, unless you are teaching in addition to your 60+hour administrative position, you rarely see students in the teaching/learning nexus – what I consider to be the core mission of higher education. A good friend of mine who is a provost at a large public college makes it a practice to meet with students on a regular basis, a habit I have long admired. Too often we feel that our work as deans is to empower and motivate our faculty to do the good work in the classroom. I feel it is equally important for administrators to maintain regular contact with students. They are more than half of the classroom equation and they are often the gauge of what is working and not working at your institution.

When I implement new policies or overhaul programs for improved student outcomes, I hope that I am making changes that help hundreds if not thousands of students. When I meet with students and talk to them about these changes, I develop a necessary feedback loop that lets me know if I need to tweak a policy or scrap it altogether.

When Meg and I developed an academic pathways program for international graduate students, I insisted that we include a course that taught students to write a 20-page research paper. Many of the students had completed theses in their home countries and had written 75+ page papers in their native languages. This requirement was met with amazing resistance – not so much from the students as from the ESL teachers. I later learned that most of our ESL teachers had been trained to teach advanced ESL students to write a 5-paragraph essay. The gap between the 20-page paper and the 5-paragraph essay seemed insurmountable.

The solution was not to eliminate the requirement but to bring ESL teachers and PhD students from the English department together to create and teach the course. When we were in the middle of coming to this solution, by chance, a group of graduating students contacted me. They were finishing up their graduate degrees and wanted to interview me about the pathways program. I took this opportunity to use them as an impromptu focus group. After they had asked most of their questions and as we were wrapping up, I looked at the three young women from China and asked them about the research papers they had had to write in their pathways program: had the class been valuable? Had it been worth it?

They laughed and told me that at the time, they had hated it. They had been terrified to write 20-page papers in English. Once they were in their respective graduate programs, they realized that they had accomplished what had seemed insurmountable and when they received their first 15-page paper assignments, they knew they could do it. In the end, they said, this had been the best class in their program.

Just a few of the reasons why it pays to check in with students, face-to-face:

  1. The rewards of meeting with students – this is the enjoyable part of higher education – it reminds us of why we are here and why we continue to work the crazy hours and put up with the meetings.
  2. Feedback loops, first-hand knowledge – you can see problems brewing before they hit your office as a formal complaint or hit the student newspapers.
  3. Context – when complaints do come your way, you have context, you know what engaged students at your institution look like. Too often senior leaders jump on student complaints, attack faculty members, and play the hero role for the student. The complaining student that makes it to your office may not be representative of the majority of the students on campus and without the context of day-to-day interactions with students, you are left unaware.

If you are an administrator, try to make your office a place where the students are.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.


Symbols in the Classroom

In Anamaria's Posts on 2010/09/15 at 20:39

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden.

Europe has been shaken recently by debates about the presence of religious symbols in schools. In Italy crucifixes now have to be removed from the walls of classrooms in public schools. Since 2004, in France students are not allowed to wear the burka, a veil that completely covers the face of a woman, in the classroom and President Sarkozy would like to extend this law to all public spaces. Besides the obvious political relevance of such debates it is interesting to think about the way in which schools are implicitly perceived as arenas of symbolic communication. Schools, universities, and classrooms of all kinds, are elements in the transmission of a culturally coded message about values, about ideals and about power relations that are yet to be thoroughly analyzed.

One example of such an analysis is the book School, in which Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor discuss how the design of the school building can convey a message about how the students are expected to behave. The architecture of schools has changed with the times, reflecting the preoccupations of each specific period with either gender, class or other politically relevant issue such as religion or the environment. Alison Lurie also takes up the issue of classroom design in her review in the New York Review of Books, pointing out that no teaching milieu is without its message.

Stimulated by such reading, I began to look critically at the rooms in which I teach, trying to decode their symbolic significance. The lecture room I most frequently use is painted white and has a gray floor. There are windows, but not too large, with blue curtains to be drawn when the light is too strong. On the walls there is no decoration; the only things hanging are the white board and the coat hangers. There is a projector and a technical corner with the DVD-player and stereo system, all managed from the instructor’s station, a table with electronic controls in one corner. The students are invited to sit in rows, three tables that accommodate about three students each, all facing the front of the classroom.

How typical this classroom is! I am sure most of the readers here will recognize it from their personal experience: an anonymous place that has to change face and personality with every group of students, with every teacher. Every time I enter into the room, I think that it is in my power to change the room, to give it a new shine, to make it reveal some secret and enticing place where all my students can be transported. But this magic does not always happen. Sometimes the room remains a colorless space where dozens of pairs of eyes are focused on the one person at the front, performing.

There are evident power relations that this classroom conveys: the focus on the “source of knowledge”, the teacher; the hierarchy of the students with the most dedicated (unless most nearsighted) in the front rows and the happy chatters in the back. There is also a certain atmosphere of dreariness, which I blame on the grayness and whiteness of the color scheme.

How can this be different? I remember having the chance to visit one friend who worked for Google, in NYC (see some pictures here). The office space there was quite different from your typical maze of boxes: there were colors not just gray, and Chinese paper lamps, and funny ways to write one’s name on each cubicle. Can this work in the classroom? Can we have a green room with wood floors and flowers in pots at the windows? A Chinese paper lamp hanging from the ceiling? Can we start every lesson with a remodeling of the table/chair disposition so that we form circles or spirals or groups of rectangles or whatever geometrical form we feel like? (I have actually tried this a couple of times, with the result that everyone was exhausted from hauling furniture around.) Or is this version of the classroom conveying a lack of seriousness, a lightness, a jocularity inappropriate for university teaching?

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.

Summer’s Labour’s Lost

In Uncategorized on 2010/08/02 at 15:45

Guest blogger, Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, writing from Evanston, Illinois in the USA.

My sons and I hold a recurrent discussion about the reason school lets out in early June and resumes on the cusp of September. They adhere to the notion that a summer vacation came to them as a birthright. I point out the critical difference between the break they receive and the vacation they claim.

“Do you know why you don’t have school? Because when schools first started, children had to help their parents work in the fields during the summer.” The lecture continues: “Do you know that because kids could only go to school in the winter, their parents had to give firewood to the teacher? The teacher would even go around to their houses with a wagon to pick it up.” A few more details about one-room schoolhouses, in which the older kids taught the younger ones (they know about their great-grandma’s), and the complaints about nightly reading die down.

Many undergraduates hang on to the vestiges of my boys’ sense that summer is supposed to mean getting to do exactly what you want to do precisely when you want to do it. For undergraduates, the desire for change frequently manifests in the desire to make money by whatever means and in the highest amount possible. Nirvana equates to a Goldman Sachs internship, which will miraculously produce the six-figure job offer and maximize this goal in the present and the future. Other internships result in less cash up front, but promise golden tickets to elite and lucrative legal or medical careers down the road. Then there are the camp counselors, shop clerks, and burger flippers. They earn a little and learn a little while the sun shines. Another set expends more parental cash to buy extra courses or “voluntourism” packages anticipated to ‘pay off’ in the future with graduate admissions and global influence to make newly-impoverished parents proud.

Any of these options may broaden a students’ minds and give them the ‘experiential learning’ opportunity of which academic administrators speak ad nauseam. However, the student has to conceptualize the opportunity as more than money/career-making in order for it to work. William Deresiewicz’s reflection on Ivy Leaguers’ inability to converse with convenience store clerks ( could be quickly overcome with a summer working in a convenience store, but only if the student forgoes the snobbery of assuming they have nothing to share with their colleagues. If the student comes from a snotty suburb, a job in a low income urban neighborhood offers far more potential for cross-class understanding than one at home. As George H.W. Bush and Barak Obama each learned the hard way, every citizen should know the price of milk (NOT arugula) and its percentage in a minimum-wage worker’s budget. Once you know it, you can talk about it with anyone whether at Harvard or in Harlem.

Summer should be about pushing boundaries, and the best opportunities need not be expensive. That hypothetical convenience store might stand next to a community center. A student could volunteer to work with those in need while earning a little to contribute towards the family bills. The choice between teaching country-club kids tennis for profit or offering underclass children a new definition of fun for free need not be so stark. Time abroad means little if a student leaves feeling like a self-satisfied saviour or never sets forth from the safety of a study-abroad ghetto.

I spent the summer following my freshman year on the Navajo reservation. My parents paid my tuition for the ethnographic field school, but money had no influence as my blond ponytail circulated a Gallup, New Mexico stadium in a sea of shining, coal-black hair during the Intertribal Games. I knew in that moment what it meant to be different. I spent the evening with Native Americans from across the country commenting on having ‘seen’ me, the only melanin-deprived person among the throngs on the field. They had not seen me, of course. They each noted the ponytail bleached to extreme by the southwestern sun. That visceral sense of having my appearance draw everyone’s attention to my outsider status never left me. I made no money, but my summer’s labor was not lost.

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is associate director of the office of fellowships and teaches history and American studies at Northwestern University, from which she earned her B.A. (1992). She earned M.Litt. (1994) and M.Phil. (1995) degrees in European History as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University before completing her Ph.D. at Princeton University (2000). In her so-called spare time, she fights household entropy, gardens, bakes boozy bundts, enjoys breakfast in Bollywood, and writes scholarly papers about funky monks. For more, visit or find Elizabeth on Twitter@ejlp and LinkedIn.

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.