Sep 16

Eye Rolls, Corporatization, and Wikipedia

I’m once again teaching my first-year composition course about Wikipedia, and so on the lookout for when the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” makes the news. Notable stories in the past couple years include the lamentable scarcity of female editors (and the abuse those few female editors face), manipulation by marketing firms, and grudge-holders seeking revenge. Last week Wikipedia featured, briefly, in the ongoing debate about the corporatization of American universities. The example touches on two lessons I hope my first-year students take away from their composition courses — evaluating sources and the importance of knowing one’s audience — and reveals what I take to be a major disconnect between a corporate ethos and an academic one.

The University of Iowa recently announced that its 21st president will be Bruce Harreld, a former executive at IBM, Kraft, and Boston Market. The choice has been, to put it mildly, unpopular. Inside Higher Ed‘s Kellie Woodhouse notes that fewer than 5% of faculty and students approve Harreld’s appointment, primarily because of his lack of experience in higher education administration, and even Business Insider picked up the story. Cathy Davidson, among others, sees the announcement as further evidence of the corporatization of the public university, a trend has become all to common and was exemplified this summer by Scott Walker’s gutting of the University of Wisconsin system. (As Caroline Levine cogently explains, Walker’s move was political and ideological rather than budgetary).

So how does this connect to Wikipedia? Harreld’s critics point out his performance in a public forum, which began with a presentation that Kembrew McLeod of Slate calls “rambling,” then continued with a Q&A. Here is a video of the forum, queued to the moment that most upset his detractors:

Sara Riley, who identifies herself as an attorney and a second-generation Iowa grad with kids recently graduated and currently enrolled, calls out Harreld for his comment that Iowa should aim to become a “public Ivy”. Riley asserts that Iowa is a public Ivy, and has been since the 1980s, to which Harreld snidely responds, “I’ve seen the website, too.” In answer to Riley’s, “which website?” he replies “Wikipedia.” When Riley says, “I don’t go to Wikipedia, I’m an attorney,” Harreld rolls his eyes, unable to hide his derision. He doubles down on his source a minute later, assuring Riley that he does remember what Wikipedia says about Iowa’s status as a public Ivy. (For the record, Riley cites a better source.)

The exchange, and particularly the eye roll, reveals a lot. The truth is not measured in mass appeal #quote #quality #innovation #inspiration #CSISpadina #torontoThe educational model that colleges and universities promote distinguishes authoritative, trustworthy sources from biased, unrepresentative, or ill-informed ones. (So does Wikipedia, for that matter: and it doesn’t even consider itself reliable). Harreld’s implication that such distinctions are silly, that it doesn’t matter where he gets his information, reveals a fundamental disconnect with the faculty, staff, and students he will lead as president of the university.

But that’s not the biggest issue. If I’m being honest, I use Wikipedia just about every day (Riley probably does to). Not for nothing is it the seventh most visited site: it’s an efficient, accessible resource, and it’s mostly right most of the time. There’s even a case to be made that Wikipedia can help us rethink liberal education in the twenty-first century. Rather, the issue is one of audience. I don’t cite Wikipedia in my scholarship, I don’t prep class based on Wikipedia, and I would certainly never bring it up in a job interview as evidence that I’d researched my prospective employer.

At least in the clip, Harreld seems not to understand why academics might object to such a source, and that misunderstanding, to my mind, gets at one of the fundamental disconnects between the corporate ethos and the academic ethos. For speed and efficiency, Wikipedia is just fine. But for accuracy and rigor, a better source is necessary. Stakeholders in an institution whose mission is to “advance scholarly and creative endeavor through leading-edge research and artistic production” have a right to expect more from their leaders.

Jan 17

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 20: in which students shop for courses

This, the first post of the new semester, will be very brief. But one thing I learned at the MLA a few weeks ago is that people are, in fact, reading this blog, and finding it useful. So I want to make one, important point:

  • If you want to control the enrollment in your courses, then when you get to a new job you should find out how, and do it early.

While working for the Teaching Resource Center at UVA I taught several workshops on “teaching the first day of class.” The first couple days are critical, as they set the tone for the whole semester, and I like to hit the ground running: in addition to important administrative tasks like covering the syllabus and course expectations, we dive into content on the first day. Absent students miss a lot, and will have a lot of work to do to catch up.

Last semester two of my courses were under-enrolled, and the third had no waiting list (either by coincidence, or because I was new and an unknown factor). This semester, though, all my courses are full, with a few people trying to get in. So I face a problem Mark Edmundson cogently summarizes:

Students can also float in and out of classes during the first two weeks of each term without making any commitment. The common name for this time span — shopping period — speaks volumes about the consumer mentality that’s now in play. (Edmundson, Why Read?, Bloomsbury 2004, 19)

I don’t stress about students floating out of my classes: during the “shopping period” some students always enroll but don’t show up, and if they attend but decide not to stay in the class, I don’t take it personally. Ideally I’d like to fill the open spots with students who made the effort to come on the first day. The way the computerized system works, however, if a student drops a spot opens, and is filled by whoever gets there first. The paper course slips I fill out, letting in the students who came, have a time-lag. The result: I have students “floating in” who have missed a full week of class or more.

I knew about this problem from past experience, and it’s a solvable problem. But in the rush of the first week I didn’t think about it. I’ve since had the registrar (who was very nice and very helpful) drop the enrollments to below the current numbers, so a spot won’t open when someone else drops. But I’ve put myself in a position where I’ll probably go over the  cap by one or two students. And more importantly, some students have missed critical information.

Not the end of the world, I know, but a minor frustration. So future VAPs (and new faculty generally) take heed: you should ask this question during orientation, and find out just how much control you have over enrollments during the “shopping period.”

Did you have any similar experiences when you began a new position? Tell me about them in the comments.