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Future People: Make Postdigital Literacy the Cornerstone of Post-COVID-19 Higher Education

 On April 1, 2020, mere weeks into our shared “COVID spring,” The New York Times opined that the COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest challenge the United States has faced since World War II. Projections at the time showed anywhere from 100,000 to over 240,000 deaths in the US alone (“Coronavirus”). Our optimism has been bested. As of this writing, we have shattered the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths; 600,000 deaths now seem possible, depending on how well the Biden administration can roll out the vaccine in the coming weeks and months (“Cases”). In the midst of all this human and economic devastation, faculty across the country, many of whom are themselves struggling with illness, death, and despair, have been furiously revising their own course offerings and adapting to the realities of higher education during an uneven pandemic lockdown. Some of us are fully online, some are teaching in person, and some a curious amalgam of the two. For better or worse, this is where we stand.

There are precious few silver linings to be found in this viral outbreak, but the history of the university as both a social institution and capstone achievement of post-Enlightenment modernity holds several valuable lessons about how we might capitalize on the present crisis to transform the future of higher education. What might it mean to rethink the university “from scratch”? The pandemic presents us with the chance to do just that. Just as COVID-19 has illuminated racial and economic inequalities in our healthcare and K-12 educational systems (Chotiner), so too has it trained a spotlight on several key features of the university that, though identified by thinkers like Jean-Francois Lyotard and Bill Readings decades ago, have lately become unavoidable in their implications. Colleges and universities, arguably among modernity’s most durable epistemological features, are no longer at the center of society’s information flows and credentialing apparatuses. Another way of saying this is that learning, education, and schooling are no longer the sole provinces or products of the university, whereas at one point in the not-too-distant past they were.

Two features associated with learning during the pandemic make this quite clear. First, we can no longer take for granted the physical classroom meeting space as the default scene of teaching and learning in a post-pandemic university (Kroger); and yet, the spate of lawsuits over “Zoom U” and the loss of an on-campus experience suggests that the public might not yet be ready to jettison the traditional vestiges of college life and learning (Keshner; Kamenetz). This will prompt us to continue to ask challenging questions about our pedagogy that get at the heart of what we do and how we see ourselves as educators.

Second, as a result of what higher education futurist Bryan Alexander calls “information plenitude” (3) and media theorist Jay David Bolter dubs “digital plenitude” (25-26), faculty can no longer afford to view themselves as “masters of content,” to use Richard E. Miller’s provocative phrasing (155). Instead, faculty must learn to be “masters of resourcefulness” (Miller 155). That is, what we can do in this new reality is to “model how to think in the face of an endless torrent of information” (Miller 155). A new kind of critical media literacy is needed—what I am calling postdigital literacy—and fast.

In his recent book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, media theorist, technologist, and digital futurist James Bridle points to what this new postdigital literacy—or whatever we decide to call it—might look like:

If we do not understand how complex technologies function, how systems of technologies interconnect, and how systems of systems interact, then we are powerless within them, and their potential is more easily captured by selfish elites and inhuman corporations. Precisely because these technologies interact with one another in unexpected and often-strange ways, and because we are completely entangled with them, this understanding cannot be limited to the practicalities of how things work: it must be extended to how things came to be, and how they continue to function in the world in ways that are often invisible and interwoven. What is required is not understanding, but literacy. (2-3; emphasis added)

As scholars, theorists, and futurists of the university, our next step is to review our history with an eye towards how the post-COVID-19 era will not only open up new possibilities for teaching and collaboration across fields and institutions, but also require us to make the case that advanced postdigital literacy must become a cornerstone of all higher education and effective digital citizenship.

Postdigital literacies of the kind I have in mind will involve understanding not only texts themselves (i.e., close reading, critical thinking) but also systems of texts—their production, verification, and circulation—and how arguments and policy platforms are built and enacted. For example, in the realm of scientific knowledge and public health, students need to know the difference between a pre-print on a popular website that goes viral on Twitter and research findings presented in a peer-reviewed scientific journal that have been thoroughly vetted by other expert researchers. In politics and media literacy more broadly, this means teaching students how to recognize deep fakes and doctored photos, as well as the conditions of possibility that enable their circulation. Students will also need to explore how trust is built and deployed in spaces both online and IRL (“in real life”).

What are the systems that validate and authenticate information online and how do they function? Postdigital literacy will train students to recognize the fluctuating nature of expertise as it shifts in and out of different disciplinary, practical, and policy contexts: who is in a position to know or to have verifiable expertise on the efficacy of mask-wearing to prevent the spread of disease? What are the mechanisms and power relations through which such expertise is constructed? What does it mean for a source to be politically biased? To what extent is bias constructed via complex systems of meaning or inherent to all meaning in fundamental ways? In some fields, this could mean attenuating the tight grip that disciplinary ways of knowing have had on the discovery of new knowledge for a century or more.

The good news—to the extent that we can call it “good,” given the deadly circumstances—is that we have been here before. Sort of. The university, in its six-hundred-plus-year history, has had its share of transformative moments already: chronologically, (1) the invention of the printing press, and the subsequent availability of (and need for) print media of all kinds, which led to a print-dominant culture that would span centuries (indeed we are still recovering from the hangover produced by print-dominant reading strategies); (2) the transition from the largely oral classical college of the nineteenth century to the German-inspired, technocratic research institutions of the twentieth, in which writing, original research, and verification-via-publication became of supreme importance; (3) the unprecedented investment in US higher education represented by the GI Bill and the accompanying economic expansion that followed in the post-WWII era; and (4) the opening up of the web in the early 1990s and the subsequent explosion in digital media, online learning, and the changing social nature of information and media in what I am pointedly calling the “postdigital” era (Cramer).

We must take seriously the notion that the COVID-19 pandemic, far from being just another hiccup or one crisis among others, represents a transformative moment in the university’s long history as a social institution. Both students and people in all walks of life and every occupation will need to be sufficiently schooled in the workings of digital technology; they will need to be able to parse out the subtle distinctions between misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, etc.; and they will need to be trained in basic meditative mindfulness in order to deal with the disorienting effects of both information overabundance and lives lived increasingly online.

By Paul Cook
Associate Professor of English
Indiana University Kokomo

Alexander, Bryan Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education. Johns Hopkins UP, 2020

Bolter, Jay David The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of the New Media MIT, 2019.

Bridle, James. New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future Verso, 2018.

“Cases and Deaths in the US.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. https//:www.cdc.coronavirus2019-ncov/us-cases-deaths.html. Accessed 16 Mar.2021.

Chotiner, Isaac. “The Interwoven Threads of Inequality and Health.” The New Yorker, 14 Apr. 2020, www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-coronavirus-and-the-interwoven-threads-of-inequality-and-health. Accessed 17 Mar. 2021.

“Coronavirus Live Updates: Amid Growing Financial Fears, Washington Weighs a Jobs Program.” NYTimes.com, 1 Apr. 2020. htpps://www.nytimes.com2020/04/01/coronavirus-live-news-updates.html. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020

Cramer, Florian. “What is ‘Post-Digital’?” Postdigital Aesthetics: Computation, Art, and Design. Eds. David M. Berry and Michael Dieter. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Kamenetz, Anya.“Colleges Face Student Lawsuits Seeking Refunds after Coronavirus Closures.” NPR.org, Nationa; Public Radio, 26 May 2020, https://www.npr.orf/2020/05/29/863804342/colleges-face-student-lawsuits-sekking-refunds-after-coronovirus-closures. Accesses 22 Jan 2021

Keshner, Andrew.“At Least 100 Lawsuits have been Filed by Students Seeking College Refunds-And They Open Some Thorny Questions.”Marketwatch.com, 22 May 2020, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/unprecedented-lawsuits-from-students-suing-colleges-amid-the-coronovirus-outbreak-raise-3-thorny-questions-for-higher-education-2020-05-21. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021

Kroger, John. “10 Predictions for Higher Education’s Future.” Inside Higher Ed, 26 May 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/leadership-higher-education/10-predictions-higher-education. Accessed 19 Jan 2021.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1979. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Miller, Richard “On Digital Reading.” Pedagogy, 2016 no. 1, pp. 153-64.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Harvard UP, 1996.

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Campuses as Models of Democracy

The 2020 presidential election has put into sharp relief not only the political polarization of the American people but also the widespread confusion and skepticism among the citizenry about democratic practices. While this confusion and skepticism threaten our electoral politics (look no further than the messy aftermath of the 2020 election), our problems run much deeper. At the core of the democratic ideal is the vision of citizens coming together to address our most pressing challenges. Today, however, we are increasingly unable to trust and work with one another on problems and projects that can advance the public good.

When we think about higher education’s role in our democracy, we often think of students as future citizens who need to learn particular academic content in order to take their rightful place in the citizenry. For example, perhaps they need to take a course in American government or political philosophy. More broadly, we might imagine that a course in sociology or even literature (studying the poetry of Walt Whitman, for example) could nurture civic virtues. We also might have students engage in various forms of experiential learning—service learning, community-based research, or even particular travel experiences.

While all of the above strategies undoubtedly can contribute to cultivating good citizens and thus strengthening our democracy, they might not be enough to facilitate the kind of democracy we so desperately need. Perhaps one way to advance towards a more robust democracy is to think of our campuses as laboratories of democracy. Perhaps what we need today are radically democratized campuses that allow students to see democratic practices in action and to participate in those practices.

Certainly, the academy prides itself on the practice of shared governance, but often that is merely a form of consultation. While the faculty might be given control over curricula as well as tenure and promotion decisions, that control is limited and therefore not fully democratic. Faculty members might also participate on many committees throughout their organizations, even on top-level boards, but this is often token, not effective, participation. Staff also might have some shared-governance role, but it is generally even less significant than that of the faculty. Students rarely if ever observe the shared governance on their campuses—so they never see these (albeit limited) democratic practices. And certainly, students have little power or say in the administration of institutions.

What if the administration of our academic institutions were radically different? What if students could regularly see democratic practices among the various campus constituencies and even participate in various democratic practices? For example:

  • Instead of a staff council or faculty senate that operates in isolation with relatively little institutional power, what if all the constituencies (including students) were part of one deliberative body and process? What if such a body were given the power to make decisions that traditionally have been the reserve of upper administration?
  • What if students joined with faculty in determining curricula? At the course level, perhaps students could help determine topics or readings. At the broader curricular level, perhaps they could help determine what kinds of courses should be scheduled. Obviously, some disciplines have accreditation constraints that limit curricular diversity, but most disciplines have significant flexibility.
  • What if we mapped power relations and decision processes and sought to analyze how to democratize that power and those processes? With such maps, we might find many places where students can be legitimate partners in the decision-making process.
  • What if we sought ways to give the broader citizenry a greater say in the direction of the academic institutions that are in their communities? Many of these institutions are public, and their missions are to serve their communities and regions. Shouldn’t community representatives have some say in how these institutions operate? Imagine how powerful the experience would be for students to work closely with community members in this regard.
  • What if we abandoned traditional elections on our campuses and took the “democratic lottery” approach instead? This approach allows all qualified and interested candidates to “throw their hats into the ring” and, through simply a drawing, one of them is selected to serve. Such an approach has been proven to increase participation and get a richer diversity of voices into campus conversations. Democracy should be something other than a popularity contest—and that goes for elections to faculty senates and committees as much as for elections to student governments.

These are just a few ideas for democratizing campuses. Efforts in these directions would allow faculty and staff to truly engage in shared governance and enjoy the empowerment of democratic practices. They would also show students what genuine democratic practices look like, while at the same time bringing them into those practices and thus cultivating civic skills and capacities. In the end, our campuses could become true laboratories where students not only learn about democracy and civic virtues but also live democracy and practice civic virtues. As educators who proclaim the democratic purposes of higher education, we then would be practicing what we preach.

An earlier version of this article was presented as part of a panel presentation at the 2020 Annual Meeting of the Society for Values in Higher Education.

By Eric Bain-Selbo
Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indiana University Kokomo

Additional Reading

Bain-Selbo, Eric and Paul Markham. “Did I Teach Them That? The Implicit Power of Democratic Education.” eJournal of Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 2, 2012, ejournal.missouristate.edu. Accessed 12 July 2020.

Bain-Selbo, Eric and Paul Markham. “To Practice What One Preaches: Deepening Civic Education.” Journal of College and Character, vol. 13, no. 4, 2012.

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Feminar 103: Notes on Teaching about Women, Gender, and Sexuality

In my Feminar 102 column, I argued that Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2018) deserved our immediate attention. Manne’s latest book—Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women—has just now been released by Crown Publishers, a popular press. It emphasizes to all of us, not just academics, the urgency of investigating the consequences of our complicity in maintaining “misogynistic social structures” (10). Here she interrogates in particular men’s perceived entitlement “to a woman’s sexual, material, reproductive, and emotional labor” (19). She also details men’s perceived entitlement to knowledge, what countless feminist scholars have defined as the belief in man’s authority as the knower and the positioning of women, at best, as the known or as the mirror to man’s superior nature and privilege. Entitled is, like her first book, a depressing but nevertheless enlightening read, especially coming at this time of rampant dismissal of women’s right to a voice and the loss of one of the great advocates of gender equality and equal rights, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Certain works of literature also address both the costs of misogyny and thus demonstrate the deep value of humanistic inquiry into issues of ethical behavior and moral responsibility. Susan Glaspell’s 1917 short story “A Jury of Her Peers” (or its dramatic version, the 1916 one-act play Trifles) is routinely included in anthologies of American literature, women writers, mystery, drama, and theatre. The story has also been discussed extensively in legal studies; taught in law, religious studies, and theology classes; employed in leadership training sessions; analyzed by sociologists and cultural historians; and cited as an exemplary text with which to teach ethics to nursing, medical, and law students. You can find articles detailing those investigations and usages in the extensive bibliography available on the International Susan Glaspell Society’s blog.

It is a simple story about the murder of a husband by his wife. Its focus is not on who did it but why and who bears responsibility for the chain of events leading to his murder. It takes place in a dingy kitchen. Three men come to investigate in order to nail down a motive to ensure conviction of the murderer. Two of the men bring along their wives to pick up some clothes for the jailed wife. You see gender dynamics come into play from the outset when the men first take possession of the kitchen space, then make caustic remarks about the jailed woman’s poor housekeeping skills, and later make fun of the other women’s concerns, all of which they consider “trifles.” The men—a farmer, the sheriff, and a county attorney—assume that the women will in no way further or hinder the investigation but nevertheless caution the women that, should they find anything that might be construed as evidence, they should immediately turn it over to the men. The county attorney goes so far as to state that, since one of the women is the sheriff’s wife, she is therefore married to the law: thus she is a mirror to man’s adjudication of women’s acts. The title of the story makes clear that Minnie Wright will be judged only according to those terms. The majority of the story then dramatizes what would happen if her case were heard by a jury of her peers.

As the men investigate in every room but the kitchen, the women piece together what they believe occurred. The bleak setting immediately indicates how Mr. Wright has, despite his material wealth, needlessly impoverished, isolated, and silenced his wife. Not only is the kitchen badly furnished, but Minnie’s clothes are shoddy and her access to communication with others nonexistent. The “clues” the women discover are related specifically to the domestic sphere and therefore something only a woman would see and understand. More alarming to the women is their finding disturbing signs of possible violence expressed toward the wife through the killing of her pet. As the women uncover signs of Minnie’s escalating agitation and despair, the sheriff’s wife recalls a similar act of violence she witnessed and another profound loss that scarred her. Martha Hale, the farmer’s wife, in turn admits her shame over letting a situation she knew was bad to become horrific. As Martha says, “We live close together, and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing!” They then decide to hide the evidence from the men. The story by no means exonerates the wife/murderer, and we know that hiding the evidence will not make a difference in the ruination of Minnie’s life. It instead asks what could have been done and interrogates what was done. While the story emphasizes the necessity of fostering empathy and a sense of communal obligation, it also questions how effective empathy is if it is not coupled with timely action to prevent both quotidian and monumental wrongdoing and injustice.

I urge you to read the story yourself and then share it and discuss it with your partners, your reading groups, a handful of your friends. Analyzing and appreciating this story with others will, I assure you, lead to a rich and revealing discussion, as it has the many times I have taught the text in a variety of classes. You will see not only the banality of misogyny at work but also the tremendous price both women and men pay for social practices that enable both moral complacency and the disturbing lack of empathy so many today feel toward their neighbors, members of their community, and citizens of their nation state.

By Mary Papke
Professor of English
University of Tennessee Knoxville
Kate Manne. Down Girl:The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford University Press,2018.
Kate Manne. Entitled:How Male Privilege Hurts Women. Oxford University Press,2018.
Susan Glaspell."A Jury of Her Peers." 1917.
Full text widely available under its story title.
For further essays on "A Jury of Her Peers," see the International Susan Glaspell Society's online bibliography here.

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Feminar 102: Notes on Teaching about Women, Gender, and Sexuality

In a speech in the House of Commons on 11 March 1873, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli proclaimed that “a university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.” Those of us in the humanities have seen our programs repeatedly attacked as meritless in terms of consumer profitability and, according to some, pernicious in their liberal persuasion.  We wish more people would believe in Disraeli’s aspirational statement rather than place faith in the profit models that currently drive too many university investments and curriculum choices. As I hope to demonstrate, the humanities offer more than a chance to discuss old books and therefore matter to every program within a university—if our goal is the making of a better, more just world for all.

I regularly teach an undergraduate class titled “Women in American Literature.”  The course was added to the curriculum decades ago in order to address the inadequacy of a predominantly white masculinist canon of literature to represent the cultural production of Americans, and it reflected the then dominant feminist critical practice of examining images of women.  The canon exploded in the 1980s through radical inclusion; as a result, literature anthologies now routinely offer writing by authors of all races, genders, classes, ethnicities, and sexual persuasions.  Nevertheless, what can be taught is not necessarily what is being taught.

As I tell my students at our first class meeting, I used to include male writers in my course since the only available anthologies then did so.  But, times have changed, and we need no longer relegate women to the status of spoken about rather than speaker.  These days I choose to focus solely on American literature by women writers.  Many students mention in their first reflection papers that they hadn’t expected the focus on women writers, but my introduction to the class made them realize they hadn’t actually read, or even knew of, many American women writers.  We then move on to read together and analyze gender, class, race, and sex representation in the works, along with the aesthetic qualities of each piece.

Some instructors of the same course still include, and sometimes focus upon, male writers’ creation of women characters, and that is their right, though I consider that decision a bit myopic given the rich tradition of women writers now readily accessible to all.  Much more troubling are those instructors who continue to disparage “women’s” literature as strictly a special interest.  One wonders how anyone can simply dismiss the work of half the population as a “special interest.”

The explanation can be found, in part, in recent studies of misogyny, the perceived entitlement that those who promote heteropatriarchal standards consider the norm, and because of which any form of identity politics or political correctness is too often marked as a dangerous challenge to those who hold power in politics, education, religion, law, and other ideological state apparatuses.  I’ve been working through Kate Manne’s Down Girl:  The Logic of Misogyny, a challenging philosophical investigation of what too many people simply dismiss as individual irrational behavior or psychological aberration.  Manne argues that misogyny is, instead, a political phenomenon, and we must address it as such.  As Manne documents through extensive examination of quotidian as well as catastrophic instances of misogynistic acts, we still live in a white heteropatriarchal society in which sexism is “the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order” and in which misogyny is “the system that polices and enforces its governing norms and expectations” (20), rewarding only those who perform their cisgender designated roles as they have been traditionally inscribed.  While misogyny can involve hatred of women, more importantly, Manne argues, it has a specific social function as a “system of domination” similar to “racisms, xenophobia, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on” (13).  Misogyny is designed to keep women in their place—inferior to, beholden to, and complicit in male supremacist ideology that acknowledges women have value only if they never step over the line into the space belonging to men.

Manne focuses on both infamous acts of violence and everyday micro-aggressions against women in both the United States and Australia (the country of her birth), analyzing, for instance, the Isla Vista sorority killings, Trump’s never-ending assaults on Hillary Clinton, and Rush Limbaugh’s demand that male taxpayers should be able to witness the sex acts of those women who want health insurance to cover the cost of their birth control pills.  She also draws our attention to the particularly virulent form of misogyny, what Moya Bailey calls misogynoir, experienced by black women.

Manne’s book has received extensive laudatory reviews in leading critical journals even as, not surprisingly, it has been summarily dismissed on bookseller sites as liberal feminist ranting by anonymous readers, several of whom make clear that they have read only the first few pages.  The book demands a close reading of and commitment to taking seriously Manne’s meticulous investigation into misogyny’s history, social function, virulence, and effect.  You should read it, and you should also read and promote study of literature by women.

Analyzing literary works offers us the opportunity to interrogate the social practices and cultural narratives we have inherited, to question the values being passed down to us.  Education in the humanities—in philosophy, literature, religious studies, cultural history, foreign languages, classics—is key in helping us fight against the many systems of domination that still poison our lives today. Today, more than ever, we must work to ensure that the university is a place of light, learning, and liberty for all.

By Mary Papke
Professor of English
University of Tennessee Knoxville

Kate Manne.  Down Girl:  The Logic of Misogyny.  Oxford University Press, 2018.

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A Market-based Argument for Liberal Arts Degrees

In 2013, Jaison Abel and Richard Deitz of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a study about the extent to which the jobs of Americans with college degrees matched their undergraduate majors.[1] Two of this study’s findings have the potential to reshape both the way Americans understand the value of higher education and how college graduates plan their future careers. First, as has been mentioned elsewhere, there is a significant difference between rural and urban workers in terms of how closely jobs are related to workers’ major field of study: urban workers have better job matching and earn higher wages as individuals.[2] Second, a strong majority of Americans, over 62%, with bachelor’s degrees are working in jobs that do not require a college degree at all. These findings call for a closer look at the efficacy of college degrees, at the growing economic divide between rural and urban America, and at how industries determine minimum hiring requirements.

Another of this study’s findings is especially important for the way Americans can, and should, think about liberal arts degrees: 73% of U.S. college graduates work in jobs completely unrelated to their college major. This finding undermines the positions of people on both sides of an educational divide: those who value liberal arts degrees as intrinsically valuable, and those who want to replace liberal arts programs with majors connected to specific jobs. Consequently, it could also open the way forward to a new and better way of talking about the value of a liberal arts education: its market value.

A useful illustration of the currently polarized discussion of the value of the liberal arts comes from March 2018, when the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point made an audacious announcement.[3] Facing chronic budget shortfalls, and spurred by a desire to address the immediate business needs of the state of Wisconsin and its surrounding region, the university announced that it would cut “programs with lower enrollment, primarily in the traditional humanities and social sciences” and instead invest in majors with “clear career pathways.” The institution proposed dropping thirteen majors, including history, English, philosophy, sociology, and several foreign languages. The plan to cut these liberal arts majors was in ideological alignment with Republican Governor Scott Walker’s failed 2015 attempt to amend the “Wisconsin Idea,” the portion of the state’s code that had previously defined the university system’s goals as teaching students to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition.” Walker sought to replace those goals with the phrase “meet the state’s workforce needs,” implicitly dismissing the intrinsic value of a liberal arts degree.[4]

Public debates over Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s program cuts were similar to those concerning Walker’s proposed changes to the Wisconsin Idea. 2017 Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate Samantha Stein, quoted in the student newspaper The Pointer, lamented her alma mater’s decision to give up “what a college education is all about,” which she defined as “the opening of one’s mind to other cultures, languages, the arts, political science and so much more.”[5] Stein’s insistence on education for its own sake echoes opponents of Walker’s earlier attempt to designate a college degree as a career path; these opponents asserted that creative exploration and individual enlightenment were the bedrocks of higher education. Walker and his allies countered that the high price of tuition necessitated that a college degree lead directly to a job.

Although both points of view are valid to some degree, neither reflects an understanding of the job market and of college education grounded in the economic reality that Abel and Deitz’s study exposes. For Walker and his allies, the study completely upends the idea that there are definite and “clear career pathways” for new college graduates because it demonstrates that direct pathways are not the most common result of college degrees. Students should not choose a major solely to get a specific job, or even enter a specific industry, for three out of four will end up working in an entirely different field—thereby capitalizing on an opportunity for advancement previously unavailable to workers. Furthermore, the idea that a university should create majors to meet immediate “workforce needs” is problematic given the realities of the modern, rapidly changing job market.

Yet Abel and Deitz’s study also has implications for how liberals like Stein talk about, or perhaps should talk about, the value of a liberal arts education. Given that three-fourths of graduates will end up in careers outside their fields of study, students need a foundational, broad-based set of knowledge and—more importantly—transferable skills that enable a worker to move from job to job and field to field. Many humanities and liberal arts programs are ideally suited to teach those skills, such as communication, leadership, and problem solving, that recent studies have demonstrated will have a direct and real bearing on their graduates’ ability to navigate the twenty-first-century job market.[6] Although it might pain liberals to make it, this market-based argument is more likely to persuade critics of higher education than Stein’s insistence that one should study the liberal arts for the sake of the “opening of one’s mind” or to attain the Wisconsin Idea, the Wisconsin university system’s statement of purpose that Walker sought to remove: that higher education is about “improv[ing] the human condition.”[7] Those ideals should not be abandoned. However, asking graduates to embrace the liberal arts for their intrinsic value when they are saddled with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars of debt, is a hard sell. As Abel and Deitz’s study shows, it is also an unnecessary one.

An increasing number of college students commute to college, work at least part-time, and are raising families while going to classes.[8] Their concerns about the economic payoff of a liberal arts education, for which they are sacrificing a great deal of time, money, and energy, are legitimate. Abel and Deitz have shown that the answer that they get a degree “to get a job” is insufficient, for that job is more likely than not to be unrelated to their major course of study. Conversely, educators’ blithe admonition to students “to expand their minds” often seems an inadequate response to the concrete economic realities facing most college students. Although it certainly will not end debates over the meaning of higher education or the value of liberal arts degrees, Abel and Deitz’s study implies that the more persuasive argument on behalf of a liberal arts degree is also the most accurate. A liberal arts degree will help students gain the diverse set of skills and knowledge they need to compete and thrive in the labor marketplace of the twenty-first century.

However, educators must first accept the realities of the marketplace that students are actually facing. For instance, since today’s job market is constantly changing, the most successful workers long-term will have a set of skills that they can use in multiple careers. This means that liberal arts majors, despite the prevailing discussion over the intrinsic value of their degrees, have even more market value now than they had in the twentieth century. Similarly, although it might seem counterintuitive, the thinner local labor markets in rural areas make such transferable academic skills even more useful than they are in the thicker local labor markets of urban areas. Consequently, students planning to remain in or relocate to rural areas are better served by choosing liberal arts degrees over majors that provide job-specific training. These economic realities not only bolster arguments in favor of liberal arts degrees, but also necessitate deeper discussions about the purpose and efficacy of higher education that go beyond the neat dichotomy that has come to dominate the public conversation.

By Andrew R. Polk
Assistant Professor of History
Middle Tennessee State University

 


[1] Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz, “Agglomeration and Job Matching among College Graduates,” (New York: Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2012, revised 2014), online at https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/media/research/staff_reports/sr587.pdf

[2] Brad Plumer, “Only 27 Percent of College Grads Have a Job Related to Their Major,” Washington Post May 20, 2013, online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/05/20/only-27-percent-of-college-grads-have-a-job-related-to-their-major/?utm_term=.1737fe77e6d2

[3] “UW-Stevens Point Proposes Adding, Cutting Programs to Prepare for Future,” Press Release, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, March 5, 2018, online at https://www.uwsp.edu/ucm/news/Pages/Repositioning18.aspx

[4] Valerie Strauss, “How Gov. Walker Tried to Quietly Change the Mission of the University of Wisconsin,” Washington Post, February 5, 2015, online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/02/05/how-gov-walker-tried-to-quietly-change-the-mission-of-the-university-of-wisconsin/?utm_term=.763e07b492cb

[5] Kathryn Wisniewski, “Campus Responds to Curriculum Restructuring Proposal,” The Pointer, March 14, 2018, online at http://thepointeruwsp.com/2018/03/14/campus-responds-to-curriculum-restructuring-proposal/

[6] Emma Whitford, “Employers Want Liberal Arts Grads,” Inside Higher Ed, November 13, 2018, online at https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/11/13/new-report-shows-colleges-how-bridge-gap-between-liberal-arts-and-work-force and Michelle R. Weise, “Leveraging a New Rosetta Stone: Deciphering Human + Technical Skills to Navigate the Future of Work,” Competency-based Education, 2019;e01186. https://doi.org/10.1002/cbe2.1186

[7] Wisniewski, “Campus Responds” and Valerie Strauss, “A University of Wisconsin Campus Pushes Plan to Drop 13 Majors—including English, history and philosophy,” Washington Post, March 21, 2018, online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2018/03/21/university-of-wisconsin-campus-pushes-plan-to-drop-13-majors-including-english-history-and-philosophy/?utm_term=.84d8536a8ad5

[8]Emily Deruy and National Journal, “At Universities, More Students Are Working Full-Time,” The Atlantic, October 28, 2015, online at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/at-universities-more-students-are-working-full-time/433245/


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Feminar 101: Notes on Teaching about Women, Gender, and Sexuality

If you are a teacher, you might recognize the following scenario. It’s the beginning of the academic term, and you’re pulling together syllabi, texts, and notes for your first class meetings. You check your email and find a few messages from new students giving you information they consider crucial. Sometimes it’s the names they go by. I am not talking about nicknames or using middle instead of first names or just the initials of first and middle birth names. These students most decidedly do not want to be deadnamed in class—and that new term signals the importance of this issue to them. Rather, these students have taken up new names reflective of their ongoing self-fashioning, and it is these names they need you to acknowledge and use. Such announcements typically contain in the signature line the student’s preference in pronoun use (masculine, feminine, plural, or newly invented forms such as xe, xem, and xyrs). Now imagine remembering the individual pronoun preferences of a class of, say, thirty students. Of course, the ready solution to constant confusion and possible offense is to learn every student’s name (of choice) and to use it instead of any pronouns beyond “you” (which to me always sounds a bit rude). Less easy to know how to handle are other personal markers students also share in emails: “I am trans*” or “I am nonbinary” or “I am a cis-gender male.” What is each declaration trying to say? What is one supposed to do with this information? Why or how does this matter, one asks oneself, in a course on American realist and naturalist literature?

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Beyond the Bibliography: Academic Style as a Venue for Teaching Values

As evidenced by the infamous “Prof or Hobo?” online quiz,[1] professors are not known for being particularly stylish. Whether due to a sense that matters of style are trivial or a lack of time to plan nice outfits, many professors would likely dismiss fashion as a low-level priority. However, rather than being an indication of merely aesthetic preference, I argue that fashion provides a venue for teaching students about values without ever speaking a word and that this premise suggests that female professors might actually have an advantage over their male counterparts. Continue reading

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Can Personal Identity Survive Personalization?

Algorithms, especially computer algorithms, are playing a larger role in everyday life. Algorithms work well when they serve as filters that limit data overload and increase relevant search results. Facebook’s algorithms, for example, use a ranking system that examines the inventory of all of the possible stories (posts by the user’s friends, posts by companies the user follows), examines signals given by the user (types of stories that the user likes/shares/blocks), predicts which stories the user is likely to enjoy (share/like), and develops a relevancy score (Mosseri 2018). Stories are then posted on the user’s newsfeed based on that score. This process can be useful since it prevents the user from having to sift through many unrelated and unwanted posts.

I contend, however, that there is a fundamental problem with some computer algorithms: the effect they can have on the development of the individual’s I-for-myself. The I-for-myself is an internal self-definition. It is how our lives feel to us, day to day, on the inside. Our conception of the I-for-myself, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, comes from the initial words of the parents that are internalized by the child as self-definition (1984, 1986, 1990, 1993, 2017). As individuals encounter new people and ideas, this inner definition is used to judge new definitions of the individual given by external others. The inner definition is modified as the individual openly interacts with a world of other selves. When those others lose their personhood, when the individual no longer sees others as individuals but as stereotypes, categories, or images, the individual becomes less trusting of the other and less open to change. Algorithms quicken this shift by flipping the normal equation: the individual interacts with programs that create a snapshot of the individual at a given moment. The (artificial) algorithmic image stands in for the authentic other, “helping” the individual develop her “self” by presenting the individual with articles, stories, or search results that “match” her. Because the development of self requires voices that bring novelty, the algorithmic voice, which brings the individual conformity (material she already has affirmed as part of her “self”), shuts the person off from herself and her development.

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Cultivating the Virtue of Immodesty

In June 2018, an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “Women, Own Your ‘Dr.’ Titles” commented on the explosion of the #immodestwoman hashtag following Fern Riddell’s documentation of her experience of adding her title (“Dr.”) to her Twitter handle.[1] The hashtag itself was derived from one of Riddell’s Twitter critics who censured her for being “immodest.” Claiming the criticism as a badge of honor, a host of female Ph.D.’s began to add their titles to their Twitter handles and celebrate this addition under the banner #immodestwoman.

I would like to add my voice to this celebration. Having been raised in a relatively conservative, religious environment, I was taught from a young age about the importance of practicing the virtue of “modesty.” In most cases, this term was used as a synonym for “frumpy clothing for women.” Despite this connection between modesty and clothing, the recent #immodestwoman discussions suggest that modesty in the academic world is likewise disproportionately regarded as a virtue for women to pursue. Drawing on Valerie Saiving’s work on theological articulations of sin, I would argue that virtue should not be defined as abstention from pride but rather that immodesty should be upheld as a virtue for people of all genders.

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