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Jul 27, 2007

Churchill and tenure

Professor Ward Churchill was just dismissed from UC Boulder for plagiarism and fabrications. He claims the accusations are false, and he is really being fired for his 9/11 essay. Of course, people started digging in his research after the controversial essay have been publicized, but this unfortunate fact does not negate the strong evidence of actual plagiarism and other misconduct, including fabrications. Interestingly, the Committee charged with investigation questions the timing and the motives of the University’s investigation, but cannot ignore the evidence. Churchill did cut a lot of corners to inflate his academic standing. He actually hurt the cause of the freedom of speech, because of the unrelated transgressions. Now people may be threatened to speak, seeing what happened to him. Thanks, Dr. Churchill, thanks a lot. Everyone by now knows the story; I just want to comment on academic tenure and its uses.

Does a professor have the right to say controversial, offensive, stupid things? Yes, of course, because academic freedom is a special, especially protected form of freedom of speech, and it serves an important social function. This is why the institution of tenure was created in the first place. It cannot, of course, shield from plagiarism and other misconduct. It is in the interest of university faculty to make sure tenure is used for its intended purposes. Let’s imagine for a second that tenure will be widely abused: instead of protecting academic freedom, it will be used to protect lack of effort and leisurely life styles. It is very likely that wide-spread abuse will result in a public backlash, especially in state schools supported by taxpayers. Such privileges are always conditional, given by someone for a reason, and should never be treated as unalienable rights. Everyone has the freedom of speech, or freedom of associations, but the privilege of having permanent employment is not such a right; it is a privilege granted to university faculty on certain conditions, in exchange for a specific public benefit.

Generally, anyone given special privileges – either political power, or wealth, or immunity from prosecution, or perks – should make sure these privileges are used properly, or they will be taken away. The basic human and civil rights should be guarded against governments, the conditional privileges must be self-policed. The Bush administration clearly abuses the executive privilege and thus jeopardizes having such privilege for all future presidents. So, this is not about this or that person, but about institutions, their long-term survival and efficiency.

And as an administrator, I see this as my primary concern. When I see someone abusing the privileges of tenure, I worry about other faculty, the overwhelming majority, who do not. For example, our university signs a 15-credit contract with faculty, which typically includes 9 credits of teaching, 3 credits of research and 3 credits of service. Roughly, that means that each faculty member must spend about one full day a week doing research, and another full day providing service to the institution and to the community. So, 38 or so weeks of the 9-month contract should result in some 300 hours of research activities and the same amount of service. It’s 38 full days of work for each research and service. What if someone does research for, say, only 50 hours a year? That, of course, constitutes fraud, because the person in question have signed a contract (promised to the University) to do research for 3 credits. Let’s assume a faculty member clearly cannot account f for all 15 credits of contractual work load, and can really show for, oh, just 12, or 80%. This amounts to stealing 20% of the salary; or if you earn $70,000, a $14,000 a year theft. Now, if I, the School Director, saw someone actually stealing 14 K in cash from the University coffers, I would, of course raise alarm, and try to stop this. Now what’s the difference with salaries? What if I cannot, in good conscience, account for the 15 contractual credits actually being performed? I cannot hide this, and moreover, there are other people, who are not necessarily friends of higher education, who can do the simple math. So, they will go ahead and cut our budgets, because they conclude, justifiably, that we might be inefficient in use of our current budgets.

Of course, we make it only because other faculty, both pre-tenure and tenured, put in 50, 60 and 70 hours a week to keep the things going. They do it because they care about the world, and about their profession. And many of those do not mind tolerating a 30-hour a week colleague, because of the sense of solidarity. But we cannot afford to do this anymore, because the whole institution is in jeopardy. If we continue to be too nice to each other, our tenure will follow the path of the labor unions, into the sunset. And with that, the true purpose of academic freedom will disappear also. The society as a whole will become more efficient, but less dynamic, and less free.

Jul 20, 2007

Freud for teachers, amended

It’s been very hot in Northern Colorado, and air-conditioning was, of course, scheduled to be repaired exactly at the same time. Not in March, not in October, when the weather is mild, but in the dead of the summer, in July. I could have done most of the work at home, but solidarity with our classified staff prevented me from going home. Here we are, sitting in our hot offices, trying to concentrate on work. We could not rent or buy window AC units, because we have no windows, and according to the laws of physics, to cool something, you must first heat something. The laws of thermodynamics apply to human relationships: we take in before we can disperse. Our good emotions and bad emotions need to go somewhere, and other people are most readily available conduits (although there are others like art, religion, etc.).

I have spent a few hours grading my students’ educational autobiographies, the first set of papers from this graduate class. It is actually a pleasure to read these: most of our students are very good writers, they are intelligent, and experienced. I feel good about our graduate programs. Of course, most are still lacking the powers of analysis and conceptualization, but hey, this is what graduate school is for, and I am certain we will make significant progress by the end of the semester. What strikes me though is how vivid, how sometimes painful the memory of early schooling are for most people. Those successful, and those deeply wounded, the A student and the special education students – all have a story to tell; all remember particular events rather well. All seem to link their present selves with those distant school children from many years ago.

Freud was right that the experiences of childhood determine who we are as adults. He was wrong, however, to concentrate on the early, pre-linguistic stages of human development. IN Freud’s view, it is precisely because we cannot directly access many of early memories, they become untamed, unprocessed, and perhaps more traumatic. This is all true, but early schooling can be as significant, and as traumatic, because we allow ourselves to remember only certain parts of it, and in the context f a specific discourse. For example, most people believe that since they are successful now, and since success can be attributed to learning (and schooling in particular), then whatever pain and humiliation they have experienced was ultimately good for them. It’s the same reasoning as in “My dad used to beat me up, and now I am OK, therefore beating children is OK.” Now, people do not make such conclusions because their power of reasoning is weak; rather, there is an active suppression of memory that is going on. Childhood is supposed to be a happy, care-free time; kids are not supposed to understand what is good for them; it was all worth it; schooling is child’s happiness, while manual labor is a curse – these are the boundaries of our predominant ideology of childhood. We do not dare to question those assumptions; thinking otherwise is unacceptable. (A well-informed reader may notice influence of Valentin Vološinov’s take on Freud here).

Raising your own children is an unending, continuous dialogue with your own parents. Similarly, teaching is always a dialogue with your own teachers. Teaching is impossible without some grasp of one’s own educational path, without making peace with your teachers, your parents, and your own earlier self. What is it that I have done? What was done to me? Why am I the way I am now? In psychiatry, the focus is, understandably on understanding one’s fears, frustrations, and other things that make us suffer. However, teachers must also understand the sources of their own compassion, empathy, and desire to do and be good. Otherwise, this desire to help can be tragically misplaced, when doing good takes precedence over those for whom the good is intended. Teachers must know not only the dark corners f their souls (which everyone has), but also the brightly lit corners. In what I am doing, how much is what have been done to me?

Jul 15, 2007

Weddings, rituals, and memories

OK, these are the threads I need to tie together: being back from vacation, my daughter’s wedding, and one year on this job. Too much for one blog isn’t it?

OK, here are some wedding pictures. My son Gleb made an entire DVD with movies and slide shows, if anyone cares to see it. It was actually a lot of fun, mainly because Maria and Alexander did not want it to be too formal, and too planned ahead (smart kids). They held their expectations open and vague, so there was no disappointment, but a lot of improvisation. We were incredibly lucky with the capricious Seattle weather. Weddings are just so hopeful and so optimistic; they charge up everyone involved, and help renew people’s relationships.

We form major memories by coding them with emotion. Those events without an emotional coloring quickly fade away, reduce to a bare minimum or to nothing. This is how we keep the storage capacity of our brains available for new memories. However, memories colored by strong emotions tend to stay much longer, and thus become significant in helping to explain the stories of our lives. Rituals such as weddings are simply cultural methods of infusing memories with emotion. We make ourselves remember certain events and give them more significance. A good ritual is an emotional one, hence the songs, the readings, and processions. Then, of course, every culture has a way of periodical recalls of significant events, when people activate their memories and verify them against each other’s.

In reflecting my one year on the job, I see the same pattern: many events I cannot recall at all, others are reduced to a stub of a memory. Sometimes, inconveniently, the important decisions and agreements cannot be recalled at all, so I need to search Outlook. Thanks god for e-mail that remembers all the boring stuff. However, other memories are right here, available for recollection on demand, with vivid details and attendant feelings; I will have them many years from now. In sum, the year’s memories add up to something very good for me. I have met and got to know many wonderful people, managed to get a few things done, had a lot of fun, and many opportunities to think and be creative. Isn’t that what life is all about? Among regrets, I have not been writing much of anything besides these blogs, and made a few mistakes on the job. Let’s not get into details here, OK? So, it is great to be back, even though there is always catching up to do.