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Newsletter AF: Volume 1 - Issue 2

October 29, 2018


The second newsletter from the Aydelotte Foundation at Swarthmore College.

Inside: AF welcomes our new advisory board and steering committee; VOTE; upcoming public writing workshops with Aaron Bady and Lili Loofbourow; VOTE PLZ;  Gritty; enrollment shifts data + briefing book; Paul Quinn’s expansion; neural network course titles; VOTE ON NOVEMBER 6TH; MIT’s new interdisciplinary AI college; and more.

Connect with us: Stop by the office to chat or grab one of our first two AF posters; both beautiful and educational, they make excellent décor for the office or dormitory. AF drop-in office hours this semester will be Mondays 1-3.


New and upcoming at AF

We are delighted to introduce our exciting new AF Advisory Board, including Chris Dowdy (Vice President of Academic Affairs, Paul Quinn College), L. Joy Gates Black (President, Delaware County Community College), Laura Heffernan (Associate Professor of English at the University of North Florida), Cheryl Jones-Walker (Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at University of San Francisco, School of Education), Jim Lovelace (Senior Vice President and portfolio counselor of Capital Research Global Investors), Laura McGrane (Director of Visual Culture Arts and Media and Associate Professor of English, Haverford College), Ravi S. Rajan (President, California Institute of the Arts), David Schaberg (Dean of Humanities and Professor in Asian Languages & Cultures at UCLA), Cosma Shalizi (Associate Professor of Statistics and Data Science at Carnegie Mellon University), and Chad Wellmon ( Professor of German Studies, University of Virginia). Along with our excellent  2018-2019 Faculty Steering Committee, they will be helping us think about our current initiatives and our future plans.

We’ve sent out a “briefing book” to faculty that we hope will be useful as a reference in ongoing conversations about shifting enrollments within higher education. It’s available now to anyone interested in it, along with some data about majors at a fairly arbitrarily-selected group of smaller colleges drawn from the Common Data Set. Suggestions, additions, and critiques welcome!

Next month we will announce dates for a new series of workshops for faculty, staff, and students by New Inquiry and Popula editor Aaron Bady and Slate’s Lili Loofbourow on how to write and pitch longer-form features.  Stay tuned for additional public writing workshop news.

Global Swarthmore is the Aydelotte’s Second Tuesday Café theme this year; on October 9th conveners Ayse Kaya and Carina Yervasi continued their curation of the series with a talk from Christopher Fraga and Tristan Smith.


On Our Minds

We don’t think liberal arts is dead - but if it is, we have our doubts about Andrew Taggart’s solution to the murder mystery. It’s not “Professor Plum with the pipe in the kitchen”. Instead, he offers the fairly familiar view that once upon a time the liberal arts was about the cultivation of human potential with no specific address to preparation for work and that at some point in the last two decades, it has become entirely about preparation for work. Taggart points out that even relatively abstract ideas like “critical thinking” are now increasingly defined in relationship to how well they prepare students for future employment. If we’re skeptical about the story Taggart lays out, it’s because after a year of looking into the history of liberal education, we think the orthodox story about Cardinal Newman’s anti-vocationalism being the reigning spirit of the liberal arts until very recent times doesn’t hold water at all. It was more complicated back then and it’s more complicated now. Many liberal arts curricula throughout the twentieth century have included professional or vocational components, and higher education in any institution for the last two centuries - not decades - has always had ties to work.

Speaking of ties to work, here’s a sentence we thought we would never write: Ben Shapiro has a point. An accidental kind of point that he’s too busy being indiscriminately tendentious to notice, but a point nevertheless. Higher education has been tied to the employment of its graduates for two centuries, yes, but it’s also been used for the last three decades as a neoliberal alibi. Intervening directly in labor markets is now policy anathema for both liberals and conservatives, but so is explaining to voters that unemployment and underemployment are just the way things have to be. Higher education is usually pushed as the only safe way to offer some relief. The thing is, Shapiro does it too, just like other conservatives. He suggests if only more schools offered petrochemical engineering, then our great national crisis in petrochemical engineering would be over. Unfortunately, it turns out petrochemical engineering is just as prone to boom-and-bust cycles in the labor market. It also turns out that a given university or college can’t simply shift to offering petrochemical engineering degrees the moment that the labor market for petrochemical engineering shifts towards boom. To offer the degree takes not only qualified instructors (who are harder to come by when there’s a shortage of petrochemical engineers, quel surprise!) but the infrastructure to teach the field. You can’t just stick students in petrochemical engineering in a lab for electrical engineers unless you want a few more Deepwater Horizons spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. If your citizens feel ill-served by your economy’s employment markets, higher education is not your all-purpose solution. It does make a pretty good whipping boy, though.

Whatever happens to graduates after college or university, it would be nice to think that we know a lot about what happens to them while they’re being educated. Unfortunately, we agree with Jon Marcus’ Hechinger Report overview: we don’t know nearly as much as we should. The jury-rigged, Rube Goldberg machine forms of institutional assessment we’re all saddled with today are a by-product of the back-and-forth history that Marcus recounts. They’re not answering the question of what college students learn, or what their experiences are like. We want to know the answers as much as anyone else, but we suspect that we aren’t making progress because too many different actors have too much at stake in getting the narrowly specific answers they need or want. Lack of curiosity may save a cat, but it kills research stone-dead every time.

We love Janelle Shane’s neural network blog in general, but never more than when she trained them on making course titles. Like Shane, we’d actually like to see someone teach General Almosts of Anthropology and Practicum Geology-Love. Some of us also think the algorithm’s less realistic-sounding titles - Numbing Hiss I, Survivery, The Papering II, The Sciences of Prettyniss, and Geophing and Braining - sound pretty good, too. But courses like Laboration and Market for Plun: Oceanography and Egglish Computational Human Analysis are just silly.

More sensible are the courses and programs that the liberal arts-inspired Paul Quinn College has developed as part of their new formulation of the “work college.” We’re struck that many forms of “community-based learning” in liberal arts college are trying to just stick a toe into the pedagogical space that Paul Quinn and other work colleges fully inhabit, but with the same basic insight: that practicing what you are learning in an environment that has more and different stakes than the typical classroom is a better way to learn.

In other higher education, MIT announced plans to open a new college for artificial intelligence; faculty will come from disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

As many colleges and universities struggle to figure out how to make the study of technology as truly interdisciplinary as we desperately need it to be, MIT continues with an approach that creates institutes and structures that draw on multiple disciplines to explore a shared or intersecting problem, often for a finite span of time. It’s an interesting organizational approach worth considering across higher education.


That’s Education

“Cauliflower is nothing but Cabbage with a college education”. --Mark Twain

“The Gurukulas gave liberal education to its students--truly liberal, in the strict sense of the term. It was not liberal because of the variety of the subjects taught--it was liberal because it instilled among the students a liberal outlook...the purpose of the Gurukula Teacher was to awaken intelligence among his students.”--Rohit Mehta, The Call of the Upanishads, 1970

“If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.” Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements.--Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook



We at AF are getting ready to vote in the November 6th midterm election (and those of us who aren’t eligible to vote are getting ready to make sure our friends have a plan.) Do you have a plan?

One of us was so impressed with the visiting quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, last month, that he’s going to try and make a quilt himself. So far merely getting thread on the bobbin and feeding the upper thread into the sewing machine feel like major triumphs, so this may take a while. In the meantime, here is a review of the Gee’s Bend exhibition now at Swarthmore’s List Gallery

One of us is spending most of their extracurricular energy checking the Gritty Memes for Philly Teens Facebook group and Twitter for new Gritty content and reading the Philadelphia City Council’s formal resolution welcoming Gritty to the world

One of us is reading The Nix by Nathan Hill; it is very long and the middle is better than the beginning or the end. Another of us is reading Crudo by Olivia Laing, which is very short and good all the way through.

At least one of us is sad that the Dodgers lost. (At least two of us don’t care.)

One of has taken up fencing and just returned from the Temple University Open.