Location, Location

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The scarcity of academic jobs nowadays and the difficulties that face the new PhD graduate are common topics of conversation. As more and more people become adjunct or contingent staff, moving from place to place, the dream of landing the ideal job in the ideal place becomes more distant. The reality is that many are forced to rebuild their lives in unfamiliar, and often undesirable, locations.

Not too long ago, Alexandra Lord (the brains behind the incredibly useful Beyond Academe website) wrote an article for The Chronicle, detailing her excruciating experience with working in a part of the US that she disliked. Despite the fact that the job was a perfect fit for Lord, academically speaking, the experience of living in a small town and of having given up her own values led Lord to clinical depression; it was only after she quit the job and moved to a place where she wanted to be that she eventually got her life back on the right track. Lord was also writing in response to David Perlmutter’s earlier column that advised new PhD grads to ’embrace their inner North Dakotan’ and not be ‘elitist’ about non-urban regions. It is indeed wise to be open-minded about job opportunities, and to ‘grow where you are’, as Perlmutter says. Or, as Thomas Benton argues, in ‘Growing Where You Are‘, it is possible to learn to love the community that you had previously disliked.

All these arguments have a point. In the current job market, can we really afford to be picky about location anyways? Besides, the instability and mobility are part of the condition of modern life, and academics are by no means the only ones forced to experience relocation and dislocation. But for all the logic of Perlmutter and Benton’s argument, I’m inclined to side with Lord. Wanting to live in a place that ‘feels like home’ has nothing to do with elitism. If a job leads to depression, then it needs to be re-evaluated rigorously.

I am in a situation that is similar to the one that Lord used to be in. That is, I am incredibly unhappy in a foreign place that is simply not for me; worse still, I am unable to develop my expertise, and need to resort to teaching the most rudimentary grammar (even though I’ve never received formal training in ESL education). For the sake of money, I had compromised everything I valued. That sounds shallow, but unfortunately financial difficulties are very real. Not only do I feel uprooted from a familiar environment that I love (London), I’m faced with a completely different culture, with severe language barriers (not to mention the rampant racism – a topic for another post). In short, I feel like a fish out of water, not something that my colleagues can really understand. It’s not just about the location, but about everything else that comes with it – the culture, personal living circle, the institution itself. So the question of location is not a simple one, because relocating is not just a matter of physical environment. Without friends or family nearby, the sense of dislocation has led to emotional instability; without a proper learning environment (Asian academia does not work in the same way – yet another topic), I also feel intellectually bereft, and my mind is probably regressing rapidly. To paraphrase Larkin, ‘Here an elsewhere underwrites my existence.’

The up side is that I have a decent income, live in a nice flat, and can afford luxuries like a day at the spa. But is it worth it after all? Karen Kelsky, on her website, wrote on this issue as well, and her conclusion was that sometimes a choice needs to be made, and that choice may be to leave the current location (or even the profession). There is nothing unprofessional about that. I have not arrived at the decision yet, because it does take tremendous courage. Would unemployment and continual job-hunting really be preferable? Is financial stability worth more than doing something that’s personally meaningful and living in a place that can be loved? I will come back to this topic later.

On Lecturing

A recent report on the future of universities (aptly entitled ‘An Avalanche is Coming‘), done by the IPPR think tank, brought up the question of the traditional lecture. In the age of OpenCourseWare, MOOCs, and digital resources, it seems that many believe that lectures (and university libraries) no longer have the same relevance that they once had. However, as Mary Beard points out, unlike online resources, lectures are not merely about the transmission of information – for one, the time limits make it very difficult to cover a topic comprehensively.

Lectures are really about a form of interaction and interchange – sure, there will always be students who sleep through the two hours, but there will also be those who ask the right questions, point out mistakes, those whose nods give the lecturer a sense of whether the audience understands the material being delivered. In short, the physical experience of being in a lecture theatre is part of the learning process, and cannot be replaced with a virtual experience. Besides, the presence of peers is another key part of being in a university – my 4 years at college would have been very boring indeed if I only had my computer as a companion. It is all about the community.

The IPPR report suggests that there is something limiting, even isolating, about the closed lecture room doors – perhaps so. But isn’t there something even more closed-off about people glued to the computer screen, and never interacting face-to-face? Can Facebook chat ever replace a conversation over a cup of coffee? Technological aids are great, and institutions can definitely benefit from them, but it would be best if there is a mixture traditional teaching methods and technology, as opposed to a dominance of the latter.

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On MOOCs

A recent phenomenon in higher education is the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) wave, with websites like Coursera, edX and Udacity offering courses in a wide range of subjects, delivered by professors in elite universities. The Chronicle conducted a study on the MOOCs, using 103 questionnaires completed by professors who have taught MOOCs. While the majority of professors confirm the value of these online courses, and believe that MOOCs could eventually drive down the cost of college degrees, the picture is far from clear. For one, quality control is difficult – online lectures cannot be assessed in the same way as a traditional class. Second, students do drop out half way, so the statistics (50,000 students registered) is misleading. Third, it’s doubtful whether MOOCs provide the ideal learning environment – aside from the obvious fact that there is no face-to-face interaction, MOOCs also do not have instructors on the side who can guide students through the program.

It is true that one of the benefits of virtual teaching is a kind of democratization of higher education; MOOCs expand college access geographically and economically. However, I wonder if this democratization is counterbalanced by another form of inequality – by offering courses from ‘elite’ universities, websites such as Coursera might be worsening an imbalance in the academic world. As is evident from the Comments section of the aforementioned Chronicle study, this issue of elitism is a real one. Would students still want to hear anyone else talk when they have the opportunity to listen to Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins through a computer screen? Would the mass, global promotion of certain thinkers (and their works and methodologies) lead to a narrowing of certain fields? Is higher education in danger of becoming a spectacle, with a ‘sage on the stage’ delivering a message to the world? And where does that leave ‘the rest of us’? Having been educated at 3 different universities, 2 of which ranked in the top 5 in the world, and 1 of which has consistently ranked in the 30s, I can certainly say that yes, elite universities have erudite ‘star’ scholars AND great teachers, not to mention abundant resources. However, now that I’m teaching at a community college, I also know that colleagues from ‘lesser’ institutions are equally capable of valuable scholarship and effective teaching – the idea that those at elite institutions cannot teach is as invalid as the assertion that those at community college are always great teachers. So, if MOOCs are to be a democratic form of higher education, they need to address this issue of elitism.

NB: I have yet to try out an MOOC for myself – maybe taking one of these courses will shed light on some issues, or change my opinions.

 

Turner on the Seine

The image above is another one of Turner’s lesser-known paintings, Mouth of the Seine, Quille-Boeuf (1833), a distinctively Turnerian picture. Serene upon first glance, the picture actually incorporates violent elemental forces. Near the small French town of Quillebeuf-sur-Seine (which Turner visited), a concentrated narrow channel of the river opens out and meets the full force of the sea, thus rendering the surrounding waters hazardous; tidal variations and shifting sand make is nearly impossible to navigate one’s boat. Quillebeuf is an important place on the Seine, by virtue of its position between two segments of the river – all boats have to break journey in the town in order to sail safely up or down the river. Interestingly, on the right-hand side of the painting, there is concealed amongst the grey-blue waves what appears to be the topmast of a ship, faint but undeniable upon closer inspection. The destructiveness of nature is thus portrayed, complemented by the presence on the left-hand side of the painting of a seagull attacking a fish, another instance of death in nature.

This picture always reminds me of a quote from De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis (1845), about a Jamaican port city, Savannah-la-Mar, that was hit by a tidal wave:

‘God smote Savannah-la-Mar, and in one night, by earthquake, removed her, with all her towers standing and population sleeping […] And God said – “Pompeii did I bury and conceal from men through seventeen centuries: this city I will bury, but not conceal. She shall be a monument to men of my mysterious anger; set in azure light through generations to come: for I will enshrine her in a crystal dome of my tropic seas”‘.

A Note on the Cafe

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I recently came across a superb speech by sociologist Richard Sennett, about the virtues of the open city, and I remembered an earlier book of his that I read a few years ago, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (1996), which included a short note on the history of the Parisian cafe.

Modeled on the coffeehouse of eighteenth-century England, the Parisian cafe was once a place where strangers could converse freely, where gossip flourished, where radicals concocted schemes. The greatest concentration of such cafe-salons was in the Palais Royal. However, an experiment began there that transformed the cafe as a social institution – the experiment involved placing tables outside the wooden galerie du bois that ran the length of the Palais Royal. From that point on, the tables gradually encouraged less revolutionary conspiracies or sociable chitchat, and more casual observation. The cafe-goer was inspired to watch the passing urban scene as he/she withdraws into thought and detachment, to a space of solitude amidst the metropolitan throng. The most urban and urbane of places, the cafe is where one goes to contemplate the city that flows by endlessly.

‘Half an hour spent on the boulevards or on one of the benches in the Tuileries gardens has the effect of an infinitely diverting theatrical performance.’ Augustus Hare

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