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Newsletter AF: Volume 1- Issue 6

October 3, 2019

The newsletter of the Aydelotte Foundation at Swarthmore College.

Inside: the defunding of public higher education (again); Jennifer Morton on the ethical costs of upward mobility; public writing; higher education and labor markets; open and closed minds;  and a new faculty pedagogy seminar.

Connect with us: Send us an email, take a look at our (soon to be replaced) website, or stop by the office to chat. 


New and Upcoming

As many of you already know, the AF Second Tuesday Cafe has a Quizzo format this year. On October 8th, join us to learn from Maggie Delano about her Inclusive Engineering Design course. Professor Delano will ask about the role of technology in facilitating (or obstructing) positive social change in the world. She will explore techniques for inclusive design and touch on how technologists benefit from learning in a liberal arts environment.

Excellent higher ed-related talk alert: The Philosophy Department will bring Professor Jennifer Morton to speak about her new book The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility: Moving Up Without Losing Your Way on October 10th. Morton will “suggest that we need to offer students a new ethical narrative of upward mobility that recognizes and acknowledges these ethical costs” and offer “some thoughts on how institutions of higher education might mitigate some of these costs.”

We are pleased to announce that the Aydelotte Foundation will sponsor a Spring 2020 Faculty Seminar on Pedagogy. Anthony Foy (English Literature) and Cat Norris (Psychology) will convene. Application submissions are due on Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019. Application details will be shared shortly. 

We are pleased to announce that the Aydelotte Foundation, in partnership with the Office of the President, plans to bring the Op Ed Public Voices Fellowship to Swarthmore in collaboration with two other institutions. 

On Our Minds 

crumrun, past faculties and administrations, from start of classes to meetings of departments, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Parrish and Environs. 

In other words, we find ourselves in the second month of yet another academic year. Among the things commodiously (even odiously) recirculating as the leaves begin to turn is the question of whether college campuses, cultures or curricula have a political problem of some kind: too narrow, too strong, too active, too vulnerable, too biased, too isolated, too influential, too irrelevant. Evidently being too contradictory is not a concern for those who find academia wanting. Still, let us see what the nets pull in from this crowded current.

For one, we see that the Secretary of Education has targeted a Middle Eastern Studies consortium at Duke and the University of North Carolina for giving insufficient attention and appreciation to Judaism and Christianity. This might seem like it’s simply another example of provocation for the sake of it, like the EPA telling California that it has to improve its air quality but also that it has to stop trying to improve its air quality. It’s also a chance for writers and organizations that pay close attention to speech on campus to shift their attention to the government for once, as some academic critics have suggested they should. But it is also easy to see that this particular attack is less rooted in the general partisanship of the moment and more in the intensity of international struggle over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is in any event a marker of how far the entire idea of Title VI funding has come from its Cold War roots, given that the Department of Education’s complaint barely seems to acknowledge the role of such centers in producing expertise in service to the needs of a national public in a globalized world. 

The reality--and diversity--of the political cultures (decidedly plural) on campuses across the United States doesn’t seem to perturb or weigh on many such debates. Nevertheless, some researchers patiently do their best to study what students, faculty and administrators actually think and do, and some reporters cover the outcomes of that research. “Faculty, students and staff are more open-minded than their critics allege” seems unlikely to be heard over the cavalry bugles, but there it is. Elsewhere, some campus leaders try to thread the needle, as Wesleyan president Michael Roth did in a recent Atlantic essay where he insists that while most criticism is overblown, he agrees that there are some kinds of close-mindedness on many campuses--in his view, for example, towards religious believers. What falls out of this conventional and conventionalizing discussion, even in its more sensitive forms, is the actually situated, felt and practiced political consciousness of many college-age Americans who are enrolled in community colleges, four-year colleges and universities. For at least some of them, their formative ideas and common experiences of being political is vested elsewhere than the public sphere of the print media and Washington officials. That can be a problem or an opportunity. When it’s a case of the toxicity of Gamergate seeping into college life, it’s clearly a problem

Another perennial of the new academic year is the relationship between higher education and the labor markets it actually serves and those it might serve. There are conventional takes on the issue, as always. What’s most valuable? What’s least valuable? But even those take care to underline the finding all of us cite insistently, accurately, appropriately, that liberal arts degrees return on the investment. Some stories insist that this is even more the case when you look at longer time frames than the first few years after graduation: as the NYT suggests, “engineers sprint but English majors endure. Dig a bit deeper and the stories complicate. Do Ph.D programs accurately forecast the job prospects of their students? Maybe, maybe not. Is getting everyone into college the answer to problems of income inequality and structural poverty? Almost certainly not. 

That’s where things get really complicated, even in the annual flow of the commodius vicus. We continue to closely track research and argument about the long arc of meritocratic hierarchy through and within higher education. In the aftermath of the Varsity Blues scandal, all eyes are once again on admissions. A recent NBER study showing that preferences at Harvard for legacy, athletic and children of faculty/staff applicants leads to the admission of disproportionately white matriculants who would otherwise be unlikely to be accepted is very likely applicable at many selective institutions, which is why some advocate the end of legacy admissions altogether. At the least, this data adds urgency to the question of what college admissions officers really want

Discussions of meritocracy’s entanglement with higher education don’t end with the admissions office. They arise around what happens to students while they’re enrolled--particularly for those who can afford to buy the services of expensive ghost writers in order to cheat in their classes, and even more fundamentally about what happens once they graduate. People ask “who gets ahead in higher education?” or more trenchantly whether meritocracy stalls social mobility, rewards the undeserving, and undermines trust in higher education

The question of falling public faith in higher education and higher education’s ability to examine itself skeptically in relation to that trust is the most haunting current in the annual tide of recirculating stories. 

Some of the challenges are specific. Why is higher education struggling to produce more teachers for public schools? What have cities done to reimagine their relationship with higher education? Some questions (17 of them in one case) are more general, and perhaps generic, particularly from the usual suspects out to disrupt or displace brick-and-mortar institutions. 

As faculty, staff and students look inward, they see different problems and possibilities. Some see a university that is dying. Some see the possibility of curricular reform that could make graduates “robot-proof”. Some call out for an abolitionist university (perhaps also a site for fugitive studies). Some faculty write, with well-earned frustration, that the time is coming where administrators are going to have to develop a new and better covenant with faculty, to loosen constraints, rather than simply manage their risks and to continue to indifferently rain down new trainings, protocols, procedures and processes. Others reflect more widely on the planetary future of the university beyond liberalism, into decoloniality, towards our unknowns. Or perhaps all that needs to be said is that academics, like other intellectuals, are simply ordinary

Drifting Along the River

As the river runs through into another academic year, we hear some good tidings from people we know. Nell Bang-Jensen, one of our past Frank 5 Fellows, has been named the Artistic Director of Theatre Horizon in Norristown PA. 

A few of us are teaching the Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by the MacArthur-winning scholar Saidiya Hartman. We highly, highly recommend that you get yourself a copy - if you were not part of the winning Second Tuesday Cafe team who each now have a copy of their own. 

At least one of us has now not only watched other parents move their child into a first-year dormitory but has done that for their own child. One of us is finally, with their collaborator,  putting the finishing touches on a loooong-term book project about the history of teaching literature in the college classroom. Another one of us managed to get the fall off to a great start with a visit to Maine.

Lots of projects and programs await us ahead. We’re especially looking forward to the launch of our new web platform, with which Swarthmore’s ITS department has been heroically helping us. We may even manage to be ultimendly respunchable for a hubbub or two.